Nearly a decade beyond a dignified retirement age, I seem to still have a working life. A second series of 'Fleabag', a clutch of radio plays and a feature film shot entirely in a record 10 days, are some of the things that got me out of the house this year, but the real highlight for Hildegard and me was our son's marriage in June. Of Scottish and German heritage, he married into a warm and vivacious North London Jewish family. The emotional centrepiece of the celebrations was the first private meeting of those Jewish and German in-laws. Hildegard's brother and I share something. We were both born into the tumultuous year of 1945. He in Stuttgart, me in Glasgow. His father a survivor of the savagery of the Russian front, my father just demobbed from the Royal Artillery. Over the years we've found much in common, particularly in the wines of Baden Wurttemberg, but like Basil Fawlty, we've tended not to mention the war. It hung like a stained backdrop over both our childhoods, and it couldn't help being in our garden on that blazing hot day in June this year. The terrible rending of their tribes meant that only one in 10 Jews in Stuttgart had survived the war. Would history stain that prenuptial gathering? How, perhaps, could it not?
In the end, I needn't have worried. The two families bonded over the mutual joy of a young couple in love setting out on life together. The German family brought a wonderful personalised book for the couple: 'Stuttgart Your Other Home.' The laughter and talk carried round the sultry streets for hours and plans were made to share London, Stuttgart, and Scotland over the years to come. That happy day was exactly two years after the date of the EU referendum – the day when our daughter crossed London in an apocalyptic rainstorm to make her vote in Islington North. She was one of the nearly 80% in our constituency who wanted their future to continue inside a union that had played its part in giving peace to our complex continent.
The MP for Islington North is a Mr Corbyn, and my hope for 2019 is that long before 29 March he will arise from his slumber and accept the call of his constituents for a people's vote. Not because the 'people got it wrong' last time, but because it was the politicians who did that and presented a corrupt, utterly unrealistic, and in Mr Corbyn's case, unconvincing choice. At the time of writing, he can't even muster enthusiasm for a vote of confidence that could bring down this appalling government. A people's vote may be a kind of penalty shootout but, whatever the result, I promise I'll accept it happily and spend 2019 a more contented man. Hopefully still working.
I find myself in the unusual position of applauding the Scottish government for its enlightened education policy. Its decision to end the charitable status of private schools (by 2020) is, for me, the best public event of the year. Ending tax relief (amounting to an 80% reduction in the rate paid) will bring to an end the absurd situation whereby state schools, which pay business tax rates, are actually subsidising private schools, which pay tax at a rate designed for genuine charities. Are parents who send their children to state schools subsidising parents who send their children to private schools? If parents can afford the fees to these charity schools then the bill should include their tax burden too.
When a petition was lodged in October 2014 urging the Scottish government to remove charitable status from private schools, Fettes College, a selective private school, was quoted as having had its tax liability reduced from £209,139 to £41,828 – a taxpayer subsidy of £167,311. The same year, Wester Hailes school, where 40% of pupils are eligible for free school meals, paid its full tax liability of £261,873. Charitable status allows Scotland's privileged private schools, which serve only 4% of pupils (in Edinburgh, around 16%), an 80% tax discount, whilst financially-strapped state schools, which serve 96% of pupils, pay the full sum. Recent revelations that 12 schools in the UK send as many pupils to a select few top universities as do all the rest taken together, should make even the most dedicated lobbyist for 'choice' think again. 'The public schools were founded to educate the poor and ended up serving the interests of the rich,' says Robert Verkaik in 'Posh Boys' (2017).
I am looking forward very much to visiting Iceland in 2019, for the first time – and by boat. I hate flying and although most places in Europe are relatively easy to reach by train – a mode of travel that I love, especially in Europe – Iceland is not. So, despite much scoffing about the many river and other cruises advertised endlessly on ITV2 and ITV3 for the demographic that loves old series of 'Morse', 'Lewis' and 'Poirot', I have signed up early so as to secure a 'two-for-the-price-of-one' two-week cruise to Iceland. We travel in October 2019, taking in Orkney and the Faroes. We may well see the northern lights at that time of year. The boat is the Marco Polo, a Russian icebreaker, built in the mid-1960s at the height of the Cold War. It looks lovely, not at all like the massive hulks glowering over places like Lerwick or Stromness. As a working ship during the Cold War, it must have an interesting history. I hope a D-notice hasn't been slapped upon it since becoming a British possession. I'll find out more about this soon, I hope, because this weekend there is a taster night on the boat, which is anchored at Tilbury, near London. We'll have dinner, enjoy the cabaret and sleep in the very cabin booked for the actual voyage. I can't wait. And yes, it is the same ship that carried the couple in their 70s who were recently arrested at Lisbon on charges of drug smuggling.
Early summer in the West Highlands can be heaven. No midgies and almost tropical weather combined with a landscape that never ceases to surprise. My outstanding memory of 2018 is a few days snatched at Eigg on my small yacht, anchored in the gloriously located Poll nam Partan. More vivid Gauguin than Alison Watt's gentle shades of liquid light on the distant mainland. Fife may be Little Scotland, but Eigg is almost Scotland in microcosm. The island has a miniature mountain, foothills, cliffs, moor and bog, lochs, woodland and good pasture with some arable land. It doesn't share a direct post industrial heritage, but perhaps unlike mainland Scotland, is post-feudal, at least as far as land ownership goes. They do tend to like a drink there too though.
As far as it can be, Eigg is a self-help society, revelling in its independence, enterprise and initiative, but reaching out to the world and the opposite of isolationist. Perhaps inevitably, they have to regard themselves as slightly special, which they are inasmuch as the harsh and frequently dispiriting winter weather conditions require a certain capacity for endurance and turning night into day. Perhaps like a sub-tropical Shetland at times, but without the money. Not an island paradise, but with a strong identity and good community spirit.
Chiaroscuro might best describe the harsh end of 2018, but my year was mostly shades of grey rather than of sharply contrasting darkness and light. When things get tough you find out what folk are made of. Does the UK still retain a Dunkirk spirit that regarded evacuating an expelled expeditionary force as a triumph rather than just a modestly successful rearguard action? The balance of resources in Scotland between public and private sectors may need some kind of shock to engender a realignment. Scots employees are best protected from exploitative multinationals by developing our own, rooted in our kailyard. We need a more symbiotic relationship to encourage enterprise and initiative, which a complacent public sector, mired in inertia, can only prevent. This is the real class divide in Scotland.
I remain optimistic about 2019. Britain is multicultural throughout, and that is a good thing. People should first challenge themselves rather than challenge others, and Christmas is an opportunity for reflection, and I don't mean looking at yourself on an electronic screen. Roll on social and economic emancipation, national, regional, community and personal...isn't that what the digital revolution is all about? We need to change.
My over-riding impression of 2018 has been not so much memorable as stressful: a multitude of evolutionary and revolutionary forces feel as if they are engulfing us tsunami-like. On this stormy sea a single imperative emerges: to retain the equilibrium of the frail vessel, both personal and societal, no matter the length of the voyage. In March, we witnessed the spectacle of American schoolchildren politically organising and marching to assert their right to attend school without needing to be protected from mad gunmen. Children – so young, so healthy, so well-educated – surmounted the lower reaches of Capitol Hill and, in tones redolent of a young Kennedy, claimed their rights. But my tiger-mother imagination drifts away from the Ivy League campaigners to the shopping malls and inner cities. Those places where army recruiters lurk in search of young men who have no option but to march. Or my mind drifts to the policeman intoning 'I feared for my life, sir. That's why I fired.' It feels like childhood itself is being offered at the altar as some perverse Abrahamic sacrifice by venal and cowardly politicians who will not stand up for what ought to be done.
In 2019, I anticipate a much more full-throttled public debate concerning the dangers to democracy arising from our ageing population and the consequent political injustice visited on the young. Low youth turnout at elections is not merely an aspect of youth's failure to get out of bed and find the polling booth, but also proof of pragmatic intelligence and the 'smarts'. Youth knows it is outnumbered. The old will always win in a democracy.
We currently witness an expensively educated imbecile in the White House who astutely proclaims his love for the uneducated. The very sinews of democracy groan on the rack. Plato's theoretical backstop provisions designed to defend democracy against the intrusion of the stupid and uneducated, principally the young, appear in need of a re-think. Can youth forgo the traditional rite of passage of radical and anarchic solutions to political dilemmas? Instead of banging on about the NHS, as if death were merely optional, can the older generation put their political shoulder to prioritising the needs of the young for a much higher-level education? A particular challenge for Scotland would be to provide a graduate-quality education to the non-university, entrepreneurial class, the plumbers, the B&B and café owners, the joiners and car mechanics. Germany achieves this. Why don't we? These are the people who may yet disprove Plato.
1. I went to Sutherland in mid-March, with a bitterly cold easterly wind blowing, and the warmth of the welcome made it a joy to be there. Several of us were on the road to give talks to remote communities and the response was tremendous, with many people driving through the storm and the darkness to be there. We spoke on archaeology in Stoer, with the broch of Clachtoll on the beach nearby, a ruined Iron Age tower from which a light may once have blazed to sea. The community have formed a charity, Historic Assynt, to study and conserve this and other ancient sites. At the Rock Stop at Unapool we saw displays of the terrain of the North West Highlands Geopark – its three billion-year-old Lewisian gneiss forms the oldest rocks in Europe – and we discussed traditional Highland medicine and modern scientific insights. In Tongue, the subject was Scotland and space, near a site where rockets might in future take satellites into orbit to monitor the landscape below. We went north to Melness and south to Lairg and Bonar Bridge, and with land on such a spectacular scale, Scotland must be the richest country in the world.
2. The medieval Italian philosopher Pico della Mirandola said that humans are positioned between two worlds. We can sink into the depths – or rise to join the angels. That heady vision of the skies stimulated the glories of Renaissance culture at a quarrelsome and unsettled time. Our own world may be coming to a choice of two paths. One path follows a growing climate of anger and conflict, an increasing scale of environmental damage, a dangerously unstable global economy. But this year has also seen amazing discoveries to revolutionise our picture of life. It's turned out that the depths of the Earth have so much life in them – remarkably tough micro-organisms – that they outweigh the amount of life up here on the surface. If life is so widespread in the harsh dark and deep, it is hard to believe it only exists in the neighbourhood of this one star amongst the galaxy's 100 billion, in a universe of 10 billion galaxies. It's much more likely that it is everywhere. Could 2019 bring us more discoveries, to turn our thoughts to the stars?
Probably my most treasured experience so far in 2018 was a study trip to China which I undertook as UK representative for a collaborative knowledge exchange and capacity building programme for young agricultural professionals from China and the EU. The core topics evolved around how to feed a growing world population whilst achieving sustainable agriculture as well as how we can encourage the next generation into such a challenging industry. Having participated in the first study tour organised through this fantastic programme in 2017, this second trip included a conference with various politicians, government representatives, ambassadors and other stakeholders, to discuss the conclusions from the programme and benefits to date, and how the programme could be continued.
The conference was followed by a visit to Shanxi province where we were welcomed by the local farmers with a hospitality that I have never before experienced. We were greeted like old friends, treated like family, and the genuine joy and happiness about our interest in Chinese farming was simply overwhelming. We discussed how to tackle common challenges through collaboration with each other, have set-up discussion groups to share ideas and experiences, and are now thinking about taking things to the next level by setting up a Young Farmers' Federation between Europe and China. To know that there is so much passion, drive and motivation, amongst the next generation of those who produce our daily food is a very comforting thought.
I think 2019 will be a very exciting and interesting year and I am looking forward to it. Brexit will have come and gone in the first half of the year and business will hopefully be able to return back to some sort of normality once everything has settled into the new situation. And who knows what opportunities Brexit may bring? I am also looking forward to see the fruits of this year's work on the farm. We have made a few changes this year and the next spring and summer season will show whether these adjustments have worked or not, and I am particularly looking forward to the lambing season. I will also be doing some more travelling in 2019 to learn about new cultures, see beautiful places and become more aware of the world around me, and I feel very privileged and excited – almost impatient – to be able to do this. And who knows, maybe there will be another trip back to China to see how the setting up of the Young Farmers' Federation is progressing?
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