Like so many other things in the Anglo-Saxon world recently, the First World War and the way we remember it seem to have been subsumed into a culture war between left and right.  Therefore, if you decide not to wear a poppy, or decide to wear a white one rather than a red one, or voice distaste for the masses of poppy-related tat on sale in late October and early November – like a 75cm x 50cm poppy tea towel (“handy in any kitchen, as well as looking gorgeous”), or a giant glass poppy-shaped bird-feeder, or a cotton / polyester poppy onesie – or even question the political decisions that sent so many young men marching off to their deaths between 1914 and 1918, you risk having a baying mob chase you on social media and accuse you of being an unpatriotic, nay traitorous, dis-respecter of the fallen.  See the abuse that Kevin Maguire, the Daily Mirror’s associate editor, has received on Twitter today for pointing out the uncomfortable fact that half the men serving in the British Army during World War One weren’t actually allowed to vote.


Well, with today the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War on November 11th, 1918, it’s time for me to stick my head above the parapet and say that I’ve felt uneasy about the more ostentatious ways that the war’s centenary has been marked in the UK these last four years: starting in 2014 with Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, which saw a huge crimson torrent of nearly 900,000 poppies (each representing a fallen soldier from Britain and its then-colonies) filling the moat at the Tower of London; and ending now with the Shrouds of the Somme, whereby 72,000 shrouded figurines (symbolising the soldiers from Britain and the colonies who died at the Battle of the Somme and were never given a proper burial) have been laid out at London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.  Both displays seem to turn commemoration of the war into something that’s part massive art installation and part transitory tourist attraction; which, despite the best intentions in the world, doesn’t convey what was surely its most important feature for the people involved in it, its absolute bloody hellishness.  I wonder what World War One veterans themselves would have made of these showy centennial commemorations – but of course, we can’t know that because the very last of them passed away in 2011.


Indeed, a few days ago, the journalist Ian Jack wrote a thoughtful piece for the Guardian entitled Conceptual Art Can Never Capture the Tragedy of the Great War, which mirrors my feelings.  The comments thread below the online version of the feature predictably has Jack being berated by a baying mob for his lack of patriotism, for treading “a fine line between risible and insulting” and being a “privileged liberal smughole.”  But Jack simply observes that he finds the old, traditional means of remembering the fallen — the monuments, statues, plaques, services and ceremonies that were established after World War One — more moving and more informative.


I agree.  At least those things were largely erected or initiated by the generation who’d been there.  No doubt there was a fair amount of spin added by the establishment, mindful of what’d happened in Russia in 1917, worried about the thousands of demobilised soldiers who’d come back expecting but not finding the ‘land fit for heroes’ promised by Lloyd George, and desperate to channel those men’s energies towards something patriotic and away from something revolutionary.  But still, for me, those monuments and rituals have always had a sad, sombre authenticity that strikes an appropriate chord.


When I was a kid, I had a paradoxical relationship with the First World War.  On one hand, I was born into a Protestant community in Northern Ireland, over whose shared sense of heritage the Great War and especially the Battle of the Somme loomed incredibly large.  (During the first day of the Somme, the 36th Ulster Division was the only UK division to achieve its objectives, overcoming a sizable chunk of the German line; but by the end of its second day, 5500 men in the division were dead, injured or missing.)  Yet despite the yearly gathering on Remembrance Sunday at the big commemorative plaque in the local church, and like a lot of a little boys in the 1970s, it was actually World War Two that filled my imagination, thanks to the countless movies and series about it shown on TV and the slew of World War Two-themed comics on sale every week at the newsagent’s.


I only properly became acquainted with World War One in the mid-1970s when the BBC repeated its legendary 26-episode documentary The Great War (originally made in 1964, the fiftieth anniversary of the war’s start), narrated by Michael Redgrave and with music by Wilfred Josephs.  The BBC aired it on Sunday afternoons.  As a result, staid, God-fearing, not-much-happening Northern Irish Sundays got indelibly linked in my mind with melancholy, black-and-white film footage of the trenches.


It wasn’t until much later that I realised how the war’s tragic influence had seeped across the decades into, or almost into, my own memories.  For instance, a few old spinsters, well into their 70s by then, lived in lonely seclusion around our village, and only years after did it occur to me that they’d never married because the war had culled so many young men from their generation that there’d been nobody left for them to marry.  Meanwhile, my Dad would recall how, up till the 1960s, there’d been a World War One veteran living in the village who’d been shell-shocked and had never recovered from it.  The village still had a functioning railway station then and, supposedly, every morning the poor man would visit it, march along the platform and salute the guards on the trains – believing from their uniforms that they were army officers.


And it wasn’t until 2008 that I went back to Ireland with my Dad and finally visited Ballyconnell Parish Church in County Cavan, on whose wall is a Roll of Honour commemorating the local men who served in uniform during the two world wars.  The names of two of my great-uncles, Alfred and Walter, are recorded there for World War One.  Both of them survived it.



In 1977, my family moved from Northern Ireland to Scotland, where World War One was less loaded with historical significance on a collective level; but was still remembered poignantly on a local level because it’d reaped a dreadful harvest among the populations of Scotland’s cities, towns and villages.  Peebles, the town nearest our new home, had an impressive cenotaph commemorating the fallen, which had been unveiled in a ceremony in 1922 by none other than Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the 1st Earl Haig and commander of the British Expeditionary Force during the latter three years of the war.


(The Edinburgh-born Haig was massively popular at the time and his funeral in 1928 was marked by a day of national mourning.  Which seems hard to credit now, given that historical revisionism in the form of, say, Alan Clark’s 1961 historical volume The Donkeys, Richard Attenborough’s 1969 film Oh, What a Lovely War! and the 1989 TV series Blackadder Goes Forth has made us less inclined to see him as a national hero and more inclined to see him as a deluded mass-murdering incompetent with such posthumous nicknames as ‘Butcher Haig’ and ‘the Butcher of the Somme’.  As Rowan Atkinson remarked in one episode of Blackadder, “Haig is about to make yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin.”)


Less fancy than the cenotaph in Peebles was the small statue of a soldier, head bowed in remembrance, that’d served as the war memorial in the nearby village of Walkerburn since 1920.  The statue made the news in 1998 when it went missing, presumably stolen to be melted down for its metal.  As a result, Peebles’ Beltane Studios were commissioned to make a similar (but bigger) statue as a replacement.  Then, after the new statue had been installed, the old one was retrieved by the police, still intact, and returned to Walkerburn – so that now it has two war memorials.  The original was placed in a different location, opposite the town’s old mill building.  During World War One, Walkerburn lost a higher percentage of its men on the battlefield than any other settlement in Scotland.  So it certainly deserves its two war memorials.


My favourite memorial, however, is the one pictured at the top of this entry: the one commemorating the men of the picturesque Slitrig Valley a few miles south of the Borders town of Hawick, which also stands near the entrance of a former military camp.  It indicates how even the remotest, most tranquil-looking communities couldn’t escape the baleful reach of the war.  And for me that still has more impact than floods of ceramic poppies or plains of shrouded figurines.


Let’s get (more expensively) pished!


© TriStar Pictures


Anyone who knew me in my youth, or indeed in my middle youth, or even in my later youth, will testify that I was commonly fond of a pint of beer.  Or two.  Or three.  And those were often washed down with a wee whisky chaser.  Or two.  Or three.


It was even observed of me once or twice that I was “the worse for drink.”  To this I would retort, “No, I’m very much the better for it.”


Anyway, if you’re an acquaintance who knew me back in my hellraising days, brace yourself.  I’m about to make a statement that will shock you.  I actually agree with the new alcohol minimum-pricing law introduced yesterday in Scotland. 


The new Scottish legislation means the cost of alcoholic beverages will now be determined by their strength, i.e. every unit of alcohol they contain will automatically add at least 50 pence onto their price-tag.  Thus, a two-litre bottle of super-strong cider (containing more than your medically recommended alcohol intake for an entire week), which was previously available for as little as £2.50, will now cost at least £7.50.


The intention is to reduce the physical, social and financial carnage wreaked in Scotland by alcohol abuse.  Statistics include 1,265 alcohol-related deaths in 2016; 36,325 alcohol-related hospital stays in 2016-17; 42% of offenders in violent crimes being under the influence of alcohol in 2016-2017; and alcohol’s cost to the public purse in terms of health and social care, policing, lost working hours, etc, being an estimated £3.6 billion in 2007.


Personally, I doubt if upping prices and doing away with bargain-basement booze is likely to stop your average, hardened, russet-faced, Godzilla-breathed, middle-aged jakey seeking his or her daily alcohol fix.  But I suspect it will cause a gradual improvement, in that more young people – a section of the population that’s increasingly strapped for cash these days – will be dissuaded from acquiring holocaustic drinking habits.  Mind you, that seems to be the trend now among young folk in the UK anyway.




My own reason for supporting minimum pricing isn’t to do with public health.  I just think it might reduce, ever so slightly, the competition that Scotland’s hard-pressed pubs have faced from the supermarkets, whose shelves until yesterday were usually a blizzard of cheap-drink offers.  Now that the gulf between pub prices (which are too high to be affected by the new legislation) and supermarket prices is fractionally less wide, a few people might be encouraged to visit their neighbourhood public houses more often – which might in turn save one or two pubs from going to the wall.


In recent years, the UK has experienced a virtual bar-mageddon.  According to figures from CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, an average of 18 British pubs go out of business every week.  The ridiculously low price of alcohol in the supermarkets is one of the causes of this, though there are other factors too, including the smoking ban, stricter alcohol limits for drivers and changing social habits generally.   And let’s not forget the sorry situation in London, where many beautiful old pubs have lately been destroyed by the rapaciousness of wankerish property developers.


Meanwhile, pubs that have survived in downtown areas of British cities have often been disfigured by proprietors desperate to lure in the Friday and Saturday night crowds: office workers, students, start-of-the-evening clubbers, hen and stag parties.  This means tearing out alcoves and seating areas (making more room for standing-up punters) and blighting the premises with deafening music, giant TV screens, zinging games machines and karaoke, none of which are conducive to meaningful human conversation and communication.  The result is pubs that aren’t so much social venues as standing-room-only drinking stations.


Personally, the main reason why I enjoy alcohol is because I enjoy being in pubs – proper pubs.  I’d much rather take a drink in a lively social environment than take it on my lonesome at home, even if that seems to be the default setting for many drinkers nowadays.  And a good pub has so many things going for it.  Firstly, now that most other venues for community interaction have disappeared from modern Britain, such as the corner shop, the little neighbourhood post office and the old-style gents’ barber, the pub is about the only place left where you can meet your neighbours and catch up on the local news and gossip.


There’s also the heritage factor.  In terms of interior décor and, sometimes, external architecture, British pubs can be treasure troves.  I’m thinking of such gorgeous bars as the Café Royal in Edinburgh, the Gatehouse in Norwich and the Crown Posada in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.


And I love the idea that you can walk into a pub and never know who you’ll end up talking to: folk from all walks of life, strangers with interesting, occasionally fascinating stories to tell.  All human life is potentially there, human life that you have no chance of encountering if you’re sitting on the sofa at home quaffing a £3.19 bottle of Rich and Ripe red wine from Asda (now bumped up to £4.88 in Scotland).


For that reason, when I reminisce about the different places I’ve lived, half the time I find myself thinking about pubs associated with those places: the Machar Bar in Aberdeen, the Hebrides Bar in Edinburgh, the Honjin Murakame in the Japanese town of Takikawa, the misleadingly-named Tadessa’s Grocery in the Ethiopian town of Debre Birhan, and so on.  No doubt in years to come, when I think back to the time I spent in Colombo, many of my memories will centre on the dear old Vespa Sports Club on Sea Avenue.  It seems to me that a town without a good pub is a town without a soul.


Although many towns have lost a depressingly high number of pubs in the last few years, my hometown of Peebles in the Scottish Borders has got off relatively lightly.  The last time I was back, eight months ago, I counted a total of 18 pubs, hotel bars, club bars and wine bars still on the go there, which for a town of 8,376 people (2011 census) works out at one pub per 465 inhabitants.  Not that this seems to have negatively impacted on the health of the population.  On the contrary, the average Peeblean has a life expectancy slightly higher than that of the average Borderer and a couple of years higher than that of the average Scot.  Maybe it’s all the hurrying from pub to pub, from the Neidpath to the Trust to the Crown to the Central – it helps to burn off the calories.


© Desilu Productions / Paramount Television


All over bar the scouting



Illustrating this post are pictures of what, for me, seems like the most ancient structure in my hometown of Peebles in the Scottish Borders – the Scout Hut, headquarters for as long as anyone can remember of the 1st Peeblesshire Scout Troop.  And that really is for as long as anyone can remember, because I read somewhere lately that it was built more than a century ago.


The green corrugated-iron hut, containing a hall with two adjacent rows of rooms along its front end and rear wall – the Scoutmaster’s office, the Venture Scouts’ room, the toilets and several storerooms stuffed with tents, canoes, wooden benches and tables, paraffin stoves, lamps, tools and other outdoor and sports paraphernalia – already looked ramshackle when I first set foot in it as a novice boy scout in 1977.  It blows my mind to think that for decades afterwards it continued to serve as a base for subsequent generations of scouts.  Indeed, just a few years ago, I was astonished to learn that one of my little nieces was attending a playgroup held in the hut.  By this time, it looked in a state of severe disrepair and its back half seemed ready to be swallowed by a jungle.



Still, despite its decrepitude, seeing the old place again always brought back fond memories.  I’d recall games of indoor football played there before and after the scout meetings (which were held every Friday evening), conducted with the recklessness and abandon of a rollerball derby, with little scouts getting heeled off the ball by bigger scouts and frequently sent flying into walls, doors, doorframes, window-ledges and various other hard surfaces, corners and edges.


And I’d recall doing outdoor activities on the steep slopes of Venlaw Hill overlooking the hut.  The best one I remember was when each scout patrol was told to rig together a makeshift stretcher and use it to carry one patrol-member from the top of the hill to the bottom, in a race to see who could get their man down first.  This was great fun, except for the poor bastard on the stretcher, who must have found the experience akin to being on, but not strapped into, a hurtling and disintegrating bobsleigh steered by half-a-dozen mad idiots.


What else?  I’d recall treasure-hunt sessions spent running around the streets of Peebles, and canoeing on the River Tweed next to Hay Lodge Park, and games of British Bulldog – the least health-and-safety conscious activity in the history of children’s recreation – back in the hut.  (With so much thumping and crashing going on inside, no wonder the place was falling apart.)


Every July, just after the start of the summer holidays, the troop would go on its annual week-long camp, which for a couple of years was at a site a few miles south of the Borders town of Hawick.  I remember those camps as being an odd mixture of the miserable – stepping in cowpats, being nibbled incessantly by midges, getting pushed into the latrine pit*, enduring the potato-peeling, stew-stirring, sandwich-making drudgery of the day when your patrol was the duty one – and the wonderful.  One day, we went on a four-hour hike around the surrounding hills and for the first time I realized what truly wild and beautiful and inspiring landscapes the Borders region possessed.  I became a keen hillwalker after that.


Also memorable were the campfires, around which we would gather after dark and try to freak each other out by telling the scariest ghost stories and most horrific horror stories our imaginations could summon.  Needless to say, I was pretty good at that.  I remember my patrol really freaking out a few hours after one such campfire session.  We were asleep inside our tent when suddenly, in the pitch blackness, a mole surfaced and crawled over someone’s face.


© John Baker


On the last full day of the camp, we’d get to go into Hawick, which I remember then as a solid, prosperous country town.  We’d trail around the shops and stuff ourselves with ice cream and cake in the cafes and then, in the evening, go to watch a movie in the little Hawick cinema – I remember seeing there 1977’s Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, which elicited big cheers when Sinbad managed to spear the giant saber-toothed tiger at the end.  I didn’t return to Hawick until 35 years later, when I went on a cycling trip around the Borders, and I was upset to see how much it’d changed since my scouting days.  The high street was run-down and infested with derelict properties, which was no doubt due to the usual culprits – Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s, Lidl – opening their doors in the town and sucking all the retailing life out of it.


I find it ironic that the Boy Scouts of America have recently been embroiled in political controversy after a lad got thrown out of his local cub scout association for asking a Republican senator, who was meeting a group of them, some awkward questions about her attitudes towards gun control and African Americans.  When I was in the Peebles troop, I knew at least two kids – all of 12 or 13 years old – who declared themselves proud communists.  Imagine the awkward questions they’d have asked Margaret Thatcher if she’d come to talk to us.   There was also muttering about why we had to salute the Union Jack when it got unfurled at the beginning of each scout meeting and a few souls were constantly threatening to sneakily and subversively replace the furled British flag with a furled Scottish Saltire beforehand.  But they never did.


Looking back, I have to admit I was a pretty crap scout.  I did just enough camping, hiking, cycling, canoeing and knot-tying to earn the basic Scout’s Standard badge, but that was it.  I never bothered to get any of the available proficiency badges.  Mind you, the Scoutmaster did once tell my parents that I was the best storyteller the troop had had for years, so if there’d been a proficiency badge for storytelling, I suppose I would have got that.


For the first year or two, I was blissfully happy being an ordinary scout.  I also enjoyed it when I became an assistant patrol leader, serving under a patrol leader called John Ogilivie, who later went to Sandhurst and became an army officer – I imagine him doing well in that career.  But I enjoyed it less when I became a patrol leader myself, because there were a couple of lads in the patrol whom I didn’t particularly see eye-to-eye with and to get my way I became bossy and ended up throwing my weight around too much.  Many years later, when I started to supervise people as part of my work, I underwent enough management courses to know all about such important leadership techniques as going for a win-win solution in confrontational situations and dealing with people assertively, rather than passively or aggressively.  If only I’d known back then what I know now…


Later still, I became a Venture Scout, which was okay, but by then I was experiencing the siren call of other things – girls, parties, rock ‘n’ roll, underage boozing, the social scene at the local rugby club.  I’d hung up my scout neckerchief, lanyard and toggle by the time I was 16.


© Weidenfeld & Nicolson


Still, I always feel a surge of nostalgia and kinship when I’m in a foreign country and stumble across traces of indigenous scouting activity – for example, one afternoon when I was strolling along the seafront at Algiers and discovered the office and shop of the Boy Scouts of Algeria, or the day I went exploring the east coast of Mauritius and encountered a camp set up by a Mauritian scout troop.  And I was pleased to find out that Keith Richards, one of the coolest – if gnarliest – organisms on the planet, was once in the 7th Dartford Scout Troop.  According to his 2010 autobiography Life, he rose through its ranks and became leader of its Beaver Patrol.  He was obviously a better scout than I was: “I had badges all over the place, unbelievable!  I don’t know where my scout shirt is now, but it’s adorned, stripes and strings and badges all over the place.  Looked like I was into bondage.”  I’d like to think that from his experiences of running Beaver Patrol, old Keith got a handle on how to run the Rolling Stones later on; and particularly, he learned how to keep Mick Jagger in line.


Anyway, I was inspired to write this blog entry because, a few weeks ago, I was back in Peebles for a short visit; and when I wandered past the site of the old scout hut, I discovered it was gone!  It seems that the Peebles scouts have finally managed to find the funds to replace it with a new building, a fragrant, varnished-timber, IKEA-looking effort.  If it can withstand half as much punishment as its predecessor did – a century of wear and tear, plus countless hell-for-leather games of indoor football and British Bulldog – it’ll do well.



* I should point out that the camp latrine pit was a pit with stones lining its bottom that people peed into.  There was a chemical toilet-tent if you wanted to release anything solid.  So when you were pushed into the latrine pit, you dropped a couple of feet and landed on a bed of small stones.  You weren’t soiled when you climbed out, but you might smell slightly of wee.


Out with the old, in with the corporate new



Over Christmas and New Year I was back in Peebles, my hometown in Scotland.  I was pleased to see that two of the town’s landmark buildings that in recent years had been derelict – and had become depressingly rundown – now have new occupants and are looking spruce again.  Well, I was sort of pleased.  It’s great that both buildings are up and running again, but I have mixed feelings about the new businesses operating in them.


Firstly, someone has at last done something with the corner house at the junction of Northgate and the High Street.  For more than a century this building was home to the outfitters Veitch’s, which according to my well-thumbed copy of History of Peebles 1850–1990 was “started in 1884 by Robert Veitch and his wife, Helen Binnie Peden” and run by four generations of the same family after that.  Although the store finally closed in 2007, its distinctive logo – originally designed, it’s said, on the back of an envelope by a mate of its second-generation proprietor, Robert Bishop Veitch, while the pair of them were serving in the trenches of World War I – still hangs proudly between the building’s first and second floors on its High Street and Northgate sides.  But during the last eight years it’s been dispiriting to see the old place empty and getting progressively scruffier.


In recent weeks the ground floor of the building has been bustling again because it now contains a coffee shop.  This isn’t any old coffee shop, however.  It’s one of the 3080 outlets run by the world’s second-largest coffee-house chain, Costa.



It’s highly debatable whether Peebles needs another venue selling coffee.  A while back, I heard that when you counted all the coffee shops, cafés, restaurants, hotels and pubs in the town where you could buy a cup of the stuff, the total number was somewhere in the forties.  And the arrival of a giant chain like Costa hardly bodes well for the fortunes of the smaller, privately owned cafés.  Plus, as Peebles has been bragging lately about it having the highest proportion of independent retailers of any town in Scotland, it seems a bit disingenuous to suddenly welcome in a big corporate player onto its high street.  What next?  McDonalds, Subway and KFC?


Then again, the existing coffee shops all seem to close down at the end of the afternoon.  Come five o’clock or five-thirty, if you fancy a caffeine fix, you have to enter a pub or hotel – not quite the right environment for doing other coffee-shop things like reading a book, using a laptop or munching a chocolate-chip cookie.  The new Costa, open until seven most evenings, will at least fill that gap in the market.


Incidentally, Costa’s arrival in the town was unfortunately timed.  Just as it was bringing Veitch’s corner house back to life, three other premises closed down nearby – two shops on the corner facing it and a charity shop on its other side.  So the derelict Veitch’s building is no longer an eyesore; but the junction of the High Street and Northgate is still an eyesore, alas.


Furthermore, its opening coincided with the publication of a survey by the campaign group Action on Sugar, which identified the unhealthiest drinks on sale in Britain’s coffee chains.  Costa wasn’t the worst offender – Starbucks had that (dis)honour – but its chai latte was still slammed for containing the equivalent of 20 teaspoons of sugar.  So if you’re a Peebles man / woman who fancies trying the new local Costa but doesn’t want to develop type 2 diabetes, give that chai latte a wide berth.


Meanwhile, a minute’s walk along the Northgate, the Cross Keys Hotel – a former coaching inn that dates back to the 17th century – has been doing business again for the past year.  This follows a long period of closure during which the building became alarmingly dilapidated.  The pub chain JD Wetherspoon acquired it in 2013 and spent three million pounds on its refurbishment.



Oldsters like me will remember the hotel’s big L-shaped ground-floor room as having pool tables at one end, a bar-counter near the central corner and a space at the other end where bands and singers (including the Enid, Budgie, the Groundhogs and the late, legendary John Martyn) performed at weekends.  Now the whole room is a seating-and-eating area.  To get served, you go to a counter that’s located in what had previously been the King’s Orchard Restaurant next door – the wall between them has been removed.  I’ve written about the Cross Keys and the coming of JD Wetherspoon before, here:


Like most people who enjoy pubs and who enjoy having an alcoholic beverage or two (or ten), I have conflicting emotions about JD Wetherspoon.  On one hand, I appreciate the fact that, big chain though it is, it sells a variety of real ales and ciders that you often don’t find in the brewery-owned pubs.  Its prices are affordable and its new Peebles operation deserves credit for maintaining the Cross Keys as a hotel – there are seven rooms available upstairs – when they could easily just have turned the building into a giant pub.


On the other hand, I don’t like JD Wetherspoon’s business-ὔberalles mentality, which has its bar-staff serving at all times and not yakking to the customers, so that its bar areas are banter-free zones and its pubs generally are devoid of atmosphere.  Then again, this policy will probably ensure that Peebles’ traditional pubs, like the Crown, Trust, Green Tree, Neidpath and Central, won’t haemorrhage too many customers to it.  Their regular clientele go to them more for the craic than for the bevy (though I’m sure they all like the bevy too).  And craic is something they won’t get at the new corporate hostelry on the Northgate.  In fact, I suspect the existing pub that will suffer most is the one that’s closest in style to JD Wetherspoon already, the big Belhaven-owned County Inn on the High Street.


I’m still also sore at JD Wetherspoon for taking over the old HMV Picture House on Lothian Road in Edinburgh, thus depriving the centre of that city of its only medium-sized live music venue.  What are they doing with that place by the way?  They closed it down at the end of 2013 and it still hasn’t reopened, as a pub or as anything else.


Anyway, I can’t say the new, corporate Cross Keys is much cop as a pub – a pub as I’d define one, at least.  My problem with it is that, most times I’ve been in, lots of families have been eating pub-meals and their noisy little kids have been using the floor as a playground or athletics track or wrestling ring.


Not the sort of place I’d pop into for a quiet, meditative pint, in other words.  And I doubt if the ghost of John Martyn would approve, either.



Peebles pummelled by Frank


After encounters in November and December with Abigail, Barney, Clodagh, Desmond and Eva, Scotland got a drubbing on the second-last day of the year from Frank.  I’m talking about storms – for this season the UK Met Office and Ireland’s Met Éireann have decided to give these ‘severe weather’ events names.


Storm Frank began to assail these islands on December 28th and two days later he – it – made life a misery for people in my home town of Peebles in the Scottish Borders.


The Met had posted a flooding warning for the Eddleston Water, the stream flowing through my family’s farm on the north side of Peebles, where I’ve been spending Christmas and New Year.  But for the duration of Storm Frank the stream was reasonably well-behaved.  It’d actually been worse on Boxing Day, when it’d been swollen with melting snow and had flooded a few adjacent fields.


I assumed from the state of the Eddleston Water that Storm Frank hadn’t been as bad as people feared and on December 30th I walked into Peebles with the intention of visiting my Dad, who these days stays in Peebles Nursing Home.  The home is located at the edge of Tweed Green, beside the River Tweed, which bisects the town as it flows from west to east.  I should mention that the Eddleston Water rises between the Pentland and Moorfoot Hills to the north, where the rain hadn’t been quite so heavy.  Whereas the Tweed emerges from the Moffat Hills to the southeast of Peebles, which had received a drenching.


I arrived on Peebles High Street, noticed a crowd of people standing on Tweed Bridge and gazing down over its sides, and went to investigate.  Looking eastwards from the bridge, I was greeted by this sight:



The river had expanded to four or five times its normal width, swallowing Tweed Green and the children’s playground on either side and leaving the rows of trees growing along them up to their waists in raging brown floodwater.  On my immediate left, the water had filled the arches below Port Brae, which descends to the green from the bridge.  Only the roof of the nearby wishing well was still visible.  And a little further along, a woman could be seen up to her knees in water, looking forlornly at a wall of sandbags that were fighting a losing battle at the front of her Tweed Green-facing house.



On the bridge’s other side, meanwhile, I saw that Peebles Swimming Pool now occupied the centre of a much bigger pool.



I left the bridge – wondering if it might collapse into the torrent under the weight of people who were taking selfies on it – and started walking up the town’s High Street.  Halfway along, an alleyway called School Brae sprouts from its side and leads down to Tweed Green.  I followed the brae and discovered that its bottom end vanished into a mire of water and gunge that contained, among other things, a trio of capsized wheelie bins.  While I was taking photographs here, a gust of wind suddenly rushed across the green and nearly knocked me onto my back.



My next port-of-call was St Andrews Leckie Parish Church at the High Street’s east end.  Its grounds look over the eastern part of Tweed Green, where Peebles Nursing Home is situated.  From there I could see that there was no way I would make it to the home and visit my Dad that day.  The flood had reached the top of the wall running along the building’s front yard and, worryingly, water had already penetrated the wall and was filling the yard itself.  At least the sandbags massed against the front door were still in view, suggesting the building itself hadn’t been breached – yet.



Water was also lapping about the gates of the steps below Leckie Church, which give church-goers access to Tweed Green.  The water was topped with a layer of muck, scum and garbage.  Lumbering through this floating midden was a TV cameraman – I later learned he worked for Sky News – who was togged out in chest waders.  I remember thinking at the time that he seemed as happy as the proverbial ‘pig in shit’.  Well, he captured some dramatic-looking footage of the flood, so no doubt he was happy.


I heard that several hours later, after dark, a decision was made to evacuate the nursing home.  By this time my father and the other residents had been moved up to its first floor.  They were never in any danger – there were policemen, paramedics, the local mountain rescue team and about a dozen fire-engines’ worth of firemen on hand to move them at a moment’s notice – but several of them, including my Dad, had their rooms on the ground floor.  These ended up knee-deep in water and some valuable possessions were destroyed.  I heard, for instance, about one poor old lady losing a lifetime’s worth of photographs in an album.  My Dad, though, was lucky enough to suffer nothing more than some soaked clothes and sodden Christmas cards.


Meanwhile, behind the home, the engorged river managed to flood streets like Tweed Avenue and Walker’s Haugh.  On the TV that evening I watched news reports about people there being taken from their homes in inflatable dinghies.  Further along, the green of the town’s bowling club was submerged, as was the main pitch for Peebles Rugby Club.  The water moved with enough force to mangle the fencing around the rugby pitch and someone told me a couple of mysterious picnic tables, presumably from some scenic spot upstream, were dumped unceremoniously on its turf.  And in neighbouring Whitestone Park, which descends to the river from the Innerleithen Road, the flood marked its highest level by leaving a giant scummy ‘tide-mark’ near the top of the slope, not far short of the gates opening onto the road.


One disorientating thing was how fast the Tweed’s level seemed to go down again.  A day later, its waters were back within their banks and people were able to get to work cleaning up the affected areas.  The next day also happened to be December 31st, Hogmanay, and the town’s main event for that – a torch-lit procession in the early evening, which had the torch-bearers crossing Tweed Green – went ahead as planned.  I’m glad that it did, actually.  It symbolised the return of some degree of normalcy.



My Dad and his fellow-residents at the Peebles Nursing Home have now been transferred to a facility in the town of Galashiels, 18 miles down the road.  Physically, they’re unscathed.  But suddenly getting uprooted from an environment where they felt comfortable and at ease with the surroundings, faces and routine can’t have been good for their sense of well-being.


Anyway.  Global warming, climate change, El Nino, the jet stream…  No doubt there’ll be debate about what has given rise to Storm Frank and this wildly unpredictable winter weather, which has just resulted in Britain having its warmest and wettest December since 1910.  But whatever the cause of it, my town and family certainly felt its effect last week.


Tweed Valley cycling



A while ago I sang the praises of the former railway track running west from my hometown of Peebles – the old Caledonian line that once connected Peebles with Biggar and Symington but was phased out in the 1950s.  Part of this is now a scenic walking path and I’ve regularly gone jogging along it.


Currently, I’m back in Peebles.  But I’ve suffered a slight sprain to my ankle and jogging isn’t an option at the moment.  For exercise, I have to rely on riding my bicycle.


Fortunately, since August 2013, a new tarmacked path for cycling, walking and horse-riding has been in existence along another former railway line running east from Peebles.  This was once part of the old North British Railway line that connected Edinburgh with Peebles and, 18 miles southeast of Peebles, Galashiels – a line that saw its final passenger service in 1962.  This new path runs along the River Tweed for half-a-dozen miles to the next settlement of any size, the village of Innerleithen.



It starts on the eastern side of the grounds of Peebles’ most striking landmark, the Hydro Hotel, and for a distance skirts the southern edge of Glentress Forest, overlooking the A72 road that links Peebles and Innerleithen.  Then the path dips through an old railway tunnel below the A72 and emerges onto the floor of the Tweed Valley.  This is initially less picturesque that it sounds, for where the path emerges the town’s old gasworks (now a recycling plant) are on one side and the town’s sewage-works are on the other.  But then, as the fields open out north of it and the river glides along south of it, the path becomes rather gorgeous.  The jagged remains of Nether Horsburgh Castle (in reality a ruined tower house) standing on a rise in the valley floor add a historical flavour to the scene.



Along the way there are reminders that trains once rattled up and down this route – a railway bridge whose low metal sides are now bolstered by railings, for instance, or an old railway building at the little village of Cardrona that now houses a store and café.



Which brings me to the contentious subject of Cardrona.  Built in the late 1990s, slap-bang in the middle of the Tweed Valley between Peebles and Innerleithen, Cardrona was designed as the site of an 18-hole championship golf course, a 99-room hotel, leisure centre and spa and a ‘master planned new village’ (to quote Borders Regional Council).  I remember some rancorous arguments about it taking place in Peebles at the time.  Folk who objected to the development on the grounds that it’d be an eyesore in one of the loveliest river valleys in Scotland were often shouted down by other folk who thought that passing on the opportunities the development would bring was economic madness.  Cardrona’s supporters argued that its new golfing wonderland would boost our tourist industry, introduce local businesses to a host of new, wealthy customers and generally save the district from economic stagnation.


Well, the Cardrona golf course, hotel and village have been in existence for a decade and a half now.  During their construction, they obviously gave impetus to the local building trade (my brother worked there for a while as a site manager) but now that they’re open for business I can’t see how they’ve done much for the town and the other, older villages in the area.  Peebles’ picturesque high street is still disfigured by a handful of derelict premises, hardly an indication that the town is booming.  On the eastern side of Cardrona, meanwhile, Innerleithen seems to have re-invented itself as a cultural centre, with antique shops, bookshops and an annual folk-music festival, but that’s hardly a consequence of the nearby golf development.  And two miles further east of Innerleithen, former mill-village Walkerburn looks hard-pressed, to say the least.


The cycling path stops being a path at Cardrona and you have to scoot along several streets in the village until the path reappears on its other side.  I have to say that the new village doesn’t look as dire as its strongest opponents have assured me it is – one person told me a while back that “a third of the houses there are up for sale”, which is more than a slight exaggeration – but it has a blandness and boringness that put it at odds with the beauty of its surroundings.  In this photograph I tried to make the place look exotic by snapping it through a billowing mass of reeds on its eastern edge, but it still seemed a bit like the banal town of Stepford, populated by banal robot housewives, in Ira Levin’s novel The Stepford Wives.



One thing that does suck about the development is the Cardrona Hotel, the uncharismatic hulk of a building that stands on the far side of the valley from the village and spoils the scenery as you approach Peebles from the east.  As well as being a landscape-blot, the hotel is bloody expensive.  Big, strong local men have been reduced to quivering jellies by a glimpse at the prices on the place’s drinks menu.  (I know – I’m one of them.)



Beyond Cardrona, the path crosses a new footpath and continues for two more miles to Innerleithen.   The hills close in and the valley narrows.  The day that I took my camera along with me, the weather seemed to close in too and during the last leg of my journey, from Cardrona to Innerleithen, I was blitzed by a range of precipitation-types: sleet, rain and finally a hailstorm that felt like it was flaying me alive.  However, a sliver of sunshine did pierce through the grey clouds at one point and provided me with this final image – the River Tweed being momentarily illuminated just short of Innerleithen.



Time waits for no tree



I don’t know how long exactly this oak tree has been growing at the corner of my Dad’s lawn – which before he built a bungalow in the vicinity was actually his farm’s front paddock.  I seem to remember him telling me he reckoned it was 300 years old at least and it certainly figures in paintings of the farm that were done several generations ago.


Alas, just as time and tide wait for no man, they don’t wait for any tree.  Someone noticed a little while ago that a huge crack had appeared down its trunk and when my brother invited a tree surgeon to have a look at it, he declared that he’d never seen an oak in such a bad – and dangerous – condition before.



So for safety reasons this poor old tree will have to be chopped down before it falls down.  And if this coming winter is as stormy as the previous one was, the falling-down scenario might be only a couple of months away.


Battered by nature, ravaged by builders


The British have a reputation for devoting much of their conversation to the topic of the weather.  However, during the past two months, any foreigner tuning into a British satellite news outlet like Sky or the BBC must have wondered if this weather obsession had completely taken over every human brain on the island of Britain.


Forget Syria, forget Egypt, forget Ukraine, forget Venezuela – all the British media seems to have talked about lately are these fronts of bad weather that have spiralled relentlessly into the country from the southwest, bringing endless rain and gale-force winds, cutting Cornwall off from England (or as one patriotic Cornishman wrote in the Guardian, cutting England off from Cornwall) and making places like the Somerset Levels resemble the set of Kevin Costner’s Waterworld.


Meanwhile, a procession of British politicians like David Cameron, Ed Milliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farrage have donned wellies and barber jackets and helicoptered into the flood-stricken areas of the country, where they’ve talked in concerned tones to the TV cameras whilst watery expanses that were once fields and gardens ripple in the wind behind them.  (Any local people wanting to grab these politicians and hold their heads under the water until they stop struggling have been kept back, discreetly, out of view of the cameras.)


On my Dad’s farm, where I’ve spent the past couple of months, flooding hasn’t been so much of a problem but the wind has caused great damage.  Before last weekend, it’d blown down four trees on the farm, including two in the farmstead’s shelter belt, which, sporting a few bald spots now, is beginning to look rather ravaged.  Then on Sunday morning, yet another gale brought down a humongous trebled-trunked beech tree growing on the edge of a burn.  It crashed across the neighbouring road – cutting us off for much of the day from the local town, Peebles – with its mass of branches ending up in the garden of a cottage on the road’s far side.



The field behind the burn, which once belonged to the local council and was then sold to another party, is currently being dug up in preparation for the building of ‘an exclusive development of three-to-five bedroomed homes’.  Graciously, my Dad declined to blame the builders for cutting through the tree’s root system on the other side of the fence, de-anchoring it and causing it to topple in the strong wind.  He’s of the opinion, instead, that the bank it was growing in had become so soggy with incessant rain that the roots could no long hold the soil firmly.


Mind you, those builders have caused plenty of havoc elsewhere.  The surfacing of grey grit and gravel that’s been laid down across the site gets carried out onto the road on the wheels of vehicles, where it’s slathered all over the tarmac.  As a result, there are times when that road looks like a medieval cart-track.



Meanwhile, the road is being pounded by the big trucks that remove excavated soil from the site.  There’s a stretch of it that’s become a common passing place for incoming and outgoing trucks, and the vehicles are wrecking the ditches there as they crush in against the road-edges.  On one side, in fact, the ditch and fence is in the middle of collapsing into one of my Dad’s fields.



It’s a shame because the road is popular with a lot of local people and visitors – dog-walkers, joggers, ramblers, horse-riders and cyclists.  But somebody’s making money out of the project.  So that must make it okay, then.



The more things change, the more I want them to stay the same



Here are two old pictures of something that is currently being excavated out of existence.  They show the ‘council field’ that lies between the southern edge of my Dad’s farm and the northern edge of the town of Peebles, in the Scottish Borders.  One photo was taken during wintertime, looking southwards, with the field forming the snow-covered background.  The other photo was taken late in a rainy summer, looking northwards – the warm, damp weather seemed conducive for the growth of dandelions and the field had become a yellow-splattered mass.  Although people still call it the council field, it actually stopped being municipal property and passed into private ownership in the 1980s.  Since then, there has been much manoeuvring and politicking to gain permission to build a housing estate on it.


Just before Christmas 2013, the first JCB entered the field and started the preliminary construction work.  The place is now a mess of scoured-away tracts of earth, mounds of soil, steel containers and perimeter fences made out of bound-together mesh-wire gates.  To give the ground solidity for the heavy construction traffic that will come in 2014, a grey surface composed of gravel and grit is being spread over the ground.  You sometimes see the pheasants that only a few weeks ago had the field to themselves wandering about the excavations like shell-shocked World War I soldiers roaming the trenches.


So at the moment the field is an eyesore, but my main worry is about the narrow country road that passes the field and allows access between my Dad’s farm and the town.  The road is also popular among dog-walkers, ramblers, joggers, cyclists and horse-riders.  Now it has begun to be pounded by lorries removing the excavated soil (presumably to be used as landfill at a building site elsewhere) and the number of construction vehicles using it is only going to increase.  And later still, God knows what it will be like when the residents of the 40-odd new houses are all driving along it.  At a nearby bend in the road, part of the ditch is starting to subside into a field, unable to support the lorries’ wheels when they pull in against it to let oncoming vehicles pass.  My Dad is concerned too about how the small, centuries-old stone bridge half-a-mile further along will bear the strain.


One thing’s for sure.  Considering the amount of water that during the recent, extremely wet weather leaked down the neighbouring slopes and ended up in the south-western corner of that field, I hope the people who move into the houses that one day will stand there remember to pack their wellies.


Tweed Valley jogging



It’s hard to believe that a couple of months ago, when I still lived in Tunisia, going jogging meant having to negotiate broken and uneven pavement-stones, bags of rubbish dumped on and spilling over those pavements, huddles of old men sitting outside sipping coffee and smoking shishas, tribes of scavenging feral cats and lots of badly-driven, smelly and noisy cars.  Even when I reached a comparatively empty and quiet area to run in – Belvedere Park, whose lower slopes extended into my neighbourhood – I often had to jog around packs of stray dogs, past armoured vehicles loaded with suspicious-eyed cops and through the fog of musty animal smells that swirled out of Belvedere Zoo.


It was a great contrast, then, to my current jogging route.  When the weather permits, I run from my Dad’s house to Hay Lodge Park at the western end of Peebles, and from there along the valley of the River Tweed.  A path takes me by Neidpath Castle, up a flight of steps at the side of a disused viaduct and onto a former railway line, which I can follow to Lyne Station a couple of miles further west.  Along the way I get to see some gorgeous scenery, so I’ve posted here a few photographs I took whilst jogging recently on a cold and frosty morning.  Refreshingly, there isn’t a dodgy pavement, a rubbish-bag or an old bloke with a coffee and a shisha in sight.  At worst, you may encounter a townsperson out for a walk or a flock of sheep.



I did, however, see a cat the other morning – a black one skulking on the former railway track about ten yards ahead of me.  The moment it became aware of me, the cat vanished among the trees lining the track’s sides.  I have to say this cat seemed inordinately big.  Indeed, it almost looked panther-like.  I wonder if I was actually witness to one of those ‘big cat’ sightings that are reported occasionally in the British media and that inspire crypto-zoologists to go combing the British countryside for roving pumas, leopards and jaguars.


It could, of course, have been a trick of the light – the stripes of sunshine falling between the path-side trees could have made what was a common household cat look bigger than it was.  Or it could actually have been a black dog – though its long tail didn’t look very dog-like.  Or maybe it was a hallucination induced by the medication I’m currently taking, which consists of four to five large drams of White and Mackay Scotch whisky every evening, prescribed by my Dad as protection against the onset of arthritis, hair loss, tooth decay and senility.