1. The most memorable moment of 2018 was taking the decision to give up journalism and political commentary after two (almost entirely) happy decades. I did so fearing that I'd regret it within a few months but, happily, I quickly realised my move to the House of Commons Library (where I'm a constitutional specialist) was a good one. I'm still allowed to write, just sans opinions, which is strangely liberating.
2. On a professional level, I expect Brexit (with all its potential ramifications) will keep me and my Library colleagues busy, while personally I have some travelling lined up, mainly to new destinations but also some return visits.
I don't go to concerts very often these days, but I managed two this year. They were very different. The first was the Rolling Stones at Murrayfield – God, they were good. Better, really, than they had any right to be. Mick was an authentic figure from history; Charlie Watts had the face of an old man – he is
an old man – but a child's smile. From where I was standing, I could see Keith Richards smoking behind the drums when he wasn't needed on stage and thought that was about as rock-and-roll as rock-and-roll gets these days. The second concert was Teenage Fanclub at the Barrowlands on the first of the three nights they played in late October. This was a farewell of sorts because Gerry Love – writer of the band's best songs – was leaving soon after. Beforehand, it felt like factors were coming together to make this a very Scottish type of night – and I don't usually go in for that sort of thing – but the magic was a thing of its own. I don't know if I'll see either band again but I least I saw them both once.
I hope 2019 glows with victories for progressive forces. That is, I hope Brexit is defeated comprehensively and Rangers win the league. Brexit should be tossed in a 50-feet hole dug in the nearest piece of derelict land to Westminster, or unceremoniously thrown into the Thames, there to interest not even hungry gulls. Ideally, it should be weighed down with the careers of almost every major figure in the Conservative party. I don't have a preference as to the approach taken, so long as the banishment is final.
I was born just a month after Graeme Souness made Rangers champions of Scotland for the first time in nine years. If Steven Gerrard were to repeat the triumph, it would be the club's first title since 2011 and, more to the point, since the unpleasantness. My own children were all born after 2011 and I'm starting to worry that this barren spell might be undermining their life chances in ways that can barely be understood. They don't (yet) care about what's going on at Ibrox, but their dad is wishing Mr Gerrard the very best. Maybe it would help if he grew a rugged moustache during the Christmas holidays?
I wish I could describe a happy, most memorable event, but for me it was being prepared to leave my current job because of a stupid and insensitive proposed project by my employer, which I can't describe even now as it would fall foul of their 'whistleblowing procedure.' Thankfully, the press got hold of their idea and they had to back down and withdraw it, so I am still employed, although increasingly depressed by the abysmal standards of management in all sectors. At least we still have some campaigning journalists of Kenneth Roy's standard who are prepared to expose injustice and sharp practice – long may SR continue his work. We need more campaigning journalism in his mould, and we all need to support those who take it forward.
In spite of everything, I am an optimist, so I'd rather say what I hope for. Another referendum on Brexit based on the fact that the last one was probably illegal and at least based on false information, and another indyref leading this time to independence. I'm not starry-eyed about what the independent Scotland would look like, but I sincerely hope its decision-makers will be a cut above what we have got used to. Can we please replace stupid, arrogant and self-serving 'management' with individuals who genuinely regard themselves as public servants and are modest, thoughtful and committed to fair play?
When asked to choose something memorable from this year's harvest of disaster, it was difficult to separate the tweets from the daft. Although, to be fair (to myself), reading the electronic runes from dafties at home and abroad helped provide a modest crop for a reformed pensioner gamely avoiding the lure of another foodbank. But now, as the world goes into reverse spin, it's time to go all-in with another round of 'middle-class betting.' Across the counter, the smiling lady said, 'sorry, we don't have any more 50s' – then resumed her sums with working-class 20s. Risk-taking is an option for people seeking a gestalt by taking a less crazy path through cheeky times. Reducing the general to the particular and openly profiteering from the end of the world makes one feel almost middle-class – like a banker.
Since March, odds have shortened (from 7/4) on Individual-1 serving a full, first term, and drop to 4/5 for impeachment when Democrats take over Congress in 2019. At home, a second referendum (5/1) is the only sane exit for lying, incompetent UK politicians floundering mid-channel or paddling in tributaries of the Boyne. English-tweeting people on both sides of the Atlantic, it seems, are in thrall to an orange man-baby trapped in the 1970s and (for a brief spell) 10 bowler-hats stuck in the 17th century. Time they all disappeared.
All the above may come across as somewhat discursive – fair enough – but when dumb politicians live in your head for two years, it's more than fair that a bookie pays the rent. And more than just head-rent. 'Can I order chips from room service grandpa George?' called a voice. 'Of course adopted grandaughter, anything you want.' She emerged from an echoing bathroom swathed in a snowdrift of towels, exhausted after an 'awesome' time marvelling at Edinburgh's festive offerings. Her disappointment at Greyfriars Bobby was off-set by everything else around and reliving her first train journey. Most things were 'awesome' apart from her bed; propped-up on an Everest of pillows, this articulate 10-year-old, called it 'luxurious luxury – there's free combs and everything.' At breakfast, she collected small jars of jam and honey to go with others she'd secreted from last night's eye-popping reveal by the room service waiter. 'Can we stay here again next year?' she asked. If there is
a next year, I don't see why not. There's time to cash-in on incompetence. Odds are 2/1 on a general election next year. Failing that, I seem to have cornered the market in small jars, combs and hugs. Happy holidays.
1. This July, after years of planning, I got my distillery opened. Now, when I go to the local Co-op to get milk, I am not rugby-tackled by people asking what the hold up is, and I can happily say it's all up and running. Weirdly, life now feels more normal as I'm no longer in this grey area of start-up. I feel like I've always had the distillery, and life without it suddenly feels distant. Growing up, I couldn't see how I would ever stay in Pitlochry – career options seem limited when you live in a field. This distillery has allowed me to do what I love and stay in a place I love. I'm really amazed at how unexpected life can be. Highlights have included my involvement with a new documentary team, hiring my mum, and getting a tip-top distillery cat.
2. However, despite the success of 2018, there has been so much stress. 2018 has been a time of transition, and a turbulent time for almost everybody I know. In the pub with my friends last week, we took the opportunity to look at our lives and see how sustainable they were – can we always be working, and working, and working? It was then we promised that 2019 would be a year in which we focused on forming some semblance of a work-life balance. It's something that makes me slightly uneasy considering my commitments next year, exciting contracts and consultancy work. It's easy to throw myself into work when work is so invigorating, but I hope I will be able to reach a sense of calm in what I know will be a very challenging, yet fulfilling year.
Alistair R Brownlie:
I confess that I have never been fond of the expression – it is too 'kitchenny', too B&Q, too sleekit. I would never use it – or so I thought, until a few months ago when I chanced to come across a book devoted to all that is terminal. My extramural interests on leaving university had been the study of the life-blood of humans, and the crying need for our law to recognise and benefit from the emerging discoveries of science. These matters gave me an insight into the rather gruesome world of forensic pathology. I came in contact with many of the experts in the generation following the unhappy death of Spilsbury, their pontifex maximus. Towards the end of the war and in the post-war years the names of Keith Simpson, Donald Teare, Francis Camps and others became familiar to the public from their involvement in notorious murder cases which demonstrated how forensic pathology could throw light on the circumstances that led to and surrounded such tragic events. In Scotland the Glaisters and Sydney Smith had rather earlier performed a similar service when fruitful examination of body parts arriving in the Devil's Beef Tub, and the investigation of poisonous beverages in otherwise amorous engagements, made exciting news. All of this was interesting, innovative and increasingly helpful to the delivery of justice, but students of violated bodies and dismembered limbs were often regarded as odd or queer for dabbling in such frightening or revolting scenarios.
Then came the book by Sue Black, a child of a Protestant Inverness family who had spent five teenage years working in a farm butchers shop happily cutting and chopping the animal carcasses, and all the while mastering the anatomy of the beasts. So it was but a short step to progress to university in Aberdeen where she was allocated a human body preserved in Formalin to dissect. Having mastered this course, she moved to Dundee University where as professor she led the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, and with very extensive experience is one of the world's leading anatomists and forensic anthropologists, though now officially retired. But this – remarkable as it is – is nowhere near the whole story. Her book reviews the way that death is regarded in present day society, arguing that death is as natural as birth and should be embraced and understood. Her international travels included Kosovo and Thailand for purposes you can imagine. Her extensive narrative is comforting, human and tender, informed by her international experiences. Yet, delightfully, she has a phobia of rats. Her book has knocked me for six. Reading this work by Professor Dame Sue Black has been for me – I just can not avoid the hated expression – a light-bulb experience.
Will all these pills cure my itchy pen?
We have to talk about alcohol. It has blighted many Scottish lives, including at times mine, and those of people I love dearly.My family and close friends have been generally aware, often more aware than I, of these periods. I am better sober – I even quite like myself when I am sober. Alcohol is an industry worth some £50bn, not counting the advertising. The introduction of a minimum price is good start. Yet it is but a small start.
I grew up with the image of alcoholics being mainly working-class men who slept on the street, accepting whatever was offered in small change which, it was said, they would probably spend on drink. If that were ever the case it is not today's key issue. Lifelong abusers of alcohol, in which I include myself, have been able to lead relatively successful lives. At times I have described alcohol abuse as a form of slow suicide. And there is some truth in that. My views now are that alcoholism is a disease, with no cure. I expect to live and die with this disease. My disability is that I cannot drink alcohol without restraint. Accepting that disability is the tricky bit. I have lived and worked constructively, at times creatively, but no, I have not made the best use of all my talents. My relationship with alcohol has crippled my life at times.
My question for 2019 is: 'Can we talk better about alcohol and its functions and roles in our society?' These are global issues. My, rather amateur estimate is that global companies make some £50bn or more on products that pivot on a small genetic matter, which is not exclusively Scottish. Changing a £50bn industry takes some thought, attention, effort and hope. Be ourselves, not subjects of global companies. A Scottish rebellion against exploitation of alcohol could work. My hope for 2019 is that it may be the time when that thought, attention, and hope is renewed. It will take a decade. A decade to make real progress towards a society in which alcohol is managed sensibly by industry, politics, public services and each of us. But let me end with this. Young people are more than up for it – they may set a fast pace.
Congratulations to Professor Duncan Macmillan on his careful scholarship. He has recognised that one of the engravings in 'den Skip' – a three-masted warship in full sail passing the Bass Rock, which Francis Huys engraved after Peter Bruegel's 1551 journey to Scotland – marks a notable shift from allegorical/legendary models to realistic ships and their behaviour in different seas and off different coasts: not just works of art but fine examples for further technical development. I have since then come across engravings of the land-sea battle of Pinkie, by Musselburgh, a disastrous Scots defeat of 1547, where early eye-witness drawings were given the Bruegel-Huys treatment some time after its occurrence and were quite recently rediscovered by the late Dr Marcus Merriman. This may increase the possibility of disentangling the riddle of 'The Fall of Icarus,' now beyond price, but actually sold for £100 by Francis Rothschild in 1913 to the Royal Galleries in Brussels. It was also attributed to Bruegel, but is usually described as one of two copies. Generally regarded these days as one of the world's most complex paintings, its estuary bears a remarkable resemblance to the Forth from the hills between Aberdour and Bo'ness.
To recuperate from melancholy, work to a landscape. Like Thomas Hardy, but in my case the Cambrian Coast railway to Shrewsbury, or Tweedbank to Edinburgh, winding through Fife to the Tay Valley and Perth. So much of the Scottish railway system perished in the 1960s as the result of car consumerism and government racketeering, that cars changed from fun to fate. Transport on fund-starved Amtrak still manages to make an older America 'great again.' No notion of who you'll meet in the dome lounges: in 2011 for Alison and I on the 'Californian Zephyr': first republican Thatcherite Colorados, then a troop of Amish off to a convention – everywhere great booming-voiced sleeping-car-stewards – a Viennese lady who hadn't seen the city since 1938, and two Frisco students who tipped Alison off about chansonnier Josh Brolin and a gig that evening. The chief plonker in the White House wants them off the tracks. Ol' Tennessee won't have trams infringing its 'driving freedom.' In Scotland, new transport entrant Talgo will have its work cut out, but it offers the most interesting jobs in decades.
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