Archives for category: Life in Edinburgh

Though some things have been more expensive in Scotland than in Canada, we’ve really had our money’s worth on others. Top of the list is the membership in Historic Scotland. With free entry to many historic sites, this is a history geek’s delight! One thing I will do differently next time is to take out membership in the National Trust, too. Not only do members of both organisations get to visit historic sites free and enjoy discounts at the organisations’ shops, there are also discounts on admission to partner organisations’ sites in England.

Historic Scotland also offers short term Explorer Passes for those visiting the country for a shorter period of time, so if you’re only interested in visiting a few sites over a one- or two-week visit, you can opt for a 3-days-in-5 or a 5-days-in-7 pass. January through March, there was a promotion that offered a 30-day membership for £20. I took advantage of that when my daughters visited, as I knew that, even though they were here for only 10 days, we’d be visiting a lot of Historic Scotland sites. When you consider that entry to Edinburgh Castle alone is £14.50, entry fees can add up quite quickly. And even during the high season, if you’re going to be here for longer than a week or two and plan to visit a lot of sites, purchasing a membership might be most cost effective.

There’s another interesting phenomenon here — “gift aid”. As a UK taxpayer, I have the option to “gift aid” my entry fee to some places (Our Dynamic Earth, Holyrood Palace, Rosslyn Chapel) whereby the organisation leverages my entrance fee to get a tax break from the government. In return, the organisation will permit me to visit their site as many times as I want for a year, free of charge. Holyrood gets you to sign your initial visitor ticket, which they then stamp. The next time you want to visit, you produce photo ID to prove that you’re the ticket bearer. In the case of Our Dynamic Earth, they take your photo and produce a plastic card on the spot. For Rosslyn, you fill out an application and return it with a passport photo and they send your membership card in the mail. (And, if you live in the EH25 post code area — that of Rosslyn — the Chapel Trust will give you free admission at any time.)

Scotland is a much more compact country than Canada, so getting around to all the historic sites is somewhat easier than in Canada. And having a transit system that can take you just about anywhere, whether by bus or by train, or a combination of the two, makes places accessible (and cheaper, when you consider that petrol costs just under £1.40/L) in ways that Canada could only ever imagine.

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Although this city offers many fine (and therefore expensive) dining establishments, there are also some very good opportunities for delicious and inexpensive meals. One of our earliest discoveries was the Mosque Kitchen on Nicolson Street at Nicolson Square. One of their signs boasts “Delicious curry in a hurry” — and that’s right on the money! Besides chicken and lamb dishes, there are vegetarian options. Generous portions of chana dal or gobi aloo can be had for £4 each. A popular spot, getting a table might be a challenge at the usual meal times, but take-away is an option. They’re open until 10 p.m. each day, though they close between 1 p.m. and 1:45 p.m. for prayers. And, unless you ask for an ironstone plate and metal cutlery, it will be served on styrofoam plates with plastic cutlery — something to consider before you go to the counter to make your selection. Oh yes — it’s cash only here.

Thanks to our friend, Andrew, we recently discovered Kalpna, a vegetarian Indian restaurant, at St. Patrick Square on St. Patrick Street (which is a continuation of Nicolson Street… which is a continuations of South Bridge… which is a continuation of North Bridge… which originates at Princes Street) that offers an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet for £7 per person. Once you’ve heaped your plate, if you want a drink, you’ll have to go to the bar to place your order, and it will be delivered to your table by one of the friendly people who work there. You can visit the buffet as often as you wish. They’re pleased to see you enjoy the food. During lunch times, however, they accept cash only — no credit or debit cards.

Just down the street, on Nicolson, is Cafe TurQuaz, which offers good food, excellent coffee and more friendly service — all for very reasonable prices.

And then there are the churches, with cafes that offer Fair Trade coffees and teas. Cafe Camino at St. Mary’s Cathedral at the foot of Leith Walk is a great spot for morning coffee, afternoon tea or a light lunch. St. Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile offers delicious food and friendly service. Henderson’s at St. John’s Church on Princes Street has good vegetarian options, and is interesting for the fact that it started as a separate grassroots, back-to-the-land family grocery and cafe operation back in the 70s. It’s now a fixture at St. John’s and, once you’ve satisfied your appetite for food, you can satisfy your appetite for fair trade goods at the One World Shop next door but one.

I decided to take the bus to Kelso yesterday. It’s a two-hour journey over lovely countryside, through the Scottish Borders. I’d gone as far as St. Boswell’s to visit Dryburgh Abbey just over a week before, so was looking forward to seeing some familiar territory. I boarded the bus at 9:10 and settled back to watch the world go by.

Entering Lauder (at about the one hour mark), the bus gave a squeal when we stopped to pick up passengers. The noise continued for a bit, then stopped. All seemed well, until we began to climb the steep hill around Soutra. The bus slowed and a blue haze began to fill the bus, accompanied by a burning smell. Stopping at a lay-by and look-off at the top, the driver assessed the damage and determined a belt had snapped. Another bus would have to be sent for… but he had no mobile reception up there! A passenger offered her phone, and the driver called for assistance. While he was off the bus doing so, one of the passengers grumbled that it was the second time in a week one of the company’s buses had broken down.

When the driver returned the phone to the passenger, she placed a call.

“Hello, Joyce?… I’m afraid I’m going to be delayed. The bus has lost a belt and they’re sending another bus. I’ll call you again when we’re under way.”

This exchange was punctuated by our driver, who was trying to call the office on his cell phone: “Hello?”… “Hello?”… (a few snickers rippled through the passengers)

About a half hour later, our bus driver flagged down the other scheduled bus going from Edinburgh to Jedburgh, and told those of us going to Kelso that we’d have to wait for the next bus at St. Boswell’s.

As we boarded the new bus, the woman who’d called her friend before made another call.

“Hello, Joyce?… We’ve boarded another bus, but I’ll have to get off in St. Boswell’s to wait for the next bus to Kelso, so I’ll be delayed a bit more. I’ll call you when I get there.”

Less than 20 minutes after we’d resumed our journey, we were stopped by a police road block and were informed by an officer that the road was closed because a lorry carrying wood had caught fire. Delay was expected to be 20 to 30 minutes.

“Hello, Joyce?… (peels of laughter from 12 passengers on board the number 51 bus) We’re stopped at — where are we, driver? [Galadean] — Galadean because a lorry’s caught fire in the road. How about I just call you when I’m within sight of Kelso?” (More laughter.)

In the meantime, our new driver was trying to call his office: “Hello?”… “Hello?”… (more peals of laughter from those of us who’d been on the other bus.)

Another woman pulled out a bag of sweets and offered them round. The woman who’d mentioned earlier that this was the second time in a week the bus had broken down, grumbled that all she had to share were canned peas. That cracked me up, but I didn’t dare laugh out loud! You’d have thought we’d just learned we were to be put out in the middle of the wilds to fend for ourselves, without two sticks to make a fire!

When at last we got to St. Boswells, I decided to visit the excellent cafe/bookstore/antique shop that had been recommended to me the last time I was there so, with half an hour to kill, I set off in that direction… only to find that it’s closed on Mondays! So, I stopped in at the Co-op next door to pick up some fruit, and returned to the bus shelter to wait. There, I met up with the woman who’d made several calls to Joyce, and a man who’d had to take the bus to Kelso that day to pick up his car. We had a pleasant chat, and soon the bus arrived.

We continued to talk about the region, its history and people until we arrived in Kelso. As we got off the bus, the fellow pointed ahead and said, “See? There’s the Cross Keys Hotel on the town square. That’s where the drovers used to stay when taking their sheep to market.”

As I looked in the direction of his outstretched hand, I realised where I was — and that I’d been in the town last October! Oh well… the Abbey ruins were worth another visit, and I had a lovely cup of tea and a scone at Caroline’s Coffee House on the Horsemarket. There I read my book until it was time to catch the bus back to Edinburgh.

Walking back to the flat, I saw a notice for a talk at the Broughton History Society for 7:30 that evening. I had a bit of supper, then headed to the Drummond High School over on the next street. There, Professor Charles McKean of the University of Dundee gave a fascinating talk and slide show: “Scotland as a French colony in the 16th century.” Using architecture, he argued that with James V’s marriage to Marie de Guise in 1538 began the process of colonising Scotland. French custom and couture dominated Scottish life, and gradually buildings (new or renovated) began to assume distinctly French features — round towers or turrets. They also began to have defensive walls built around them. This was at the instigation, according to McKean, of Marie’s brother the Cardinal de Lorraine (and a military man — as one would expect a man in his position to be in those days). Until then, Scots had no reason to fortify their houses because they were a peaceful people. (I wonder if Professor McKean meant ALL of Scotland, including the Highland clans? Should have asked.)

With James V’s death, the Queen became Queen Dowager, with lifetime entitlement to properties in Scotland, including Stirling Castle. She remained in Scotland throughout the “Rough Wooing” of Henry VIII, (who was determined to have Mary Queen of Scots become his son, Prince Edward’s wife) though Mary was sent to France. Marie had no desire for her daughter to marry Edward, and instead pledged her daughter to become wife of the young Dauphin, Francois. When Francois ascended the throne, her daughter would be queen of both Scotland and France (though most certainly would never return to Scotland). Of course, that’s not how things turned out in the long run. In the short run, the French influence remained strong on the Scottish court and people — which frequently annoyed many Scots, as they saw key posts at court doled out to Marie’s French compatriots.

According to McKean, after Marie’s death, architecture in Scotland began to assume its own unique design, and Scottish culture asserted itself once more, never to be overshadowed again — not even with the Act of Union in 1707(?).

He’s an entertaining speaker, and certainly leaves his audience with a lot to think about, challenging as he does the textbook stories of Scottish history. Coincidentally, I’d been thinking earlier in the day about an article about General James Wolfe that would cast him in a different light, based on accounts by people he encountered after the Battle of Culloden, which contrast even with the popular story that he risked the Butcher Cumberland’s wrath (and discipline) by refusing Cumberland’s order to kill an unarmed Jacobite soldier (so Cumberland did it himself). I’ll have to think a bit more on that… though McKean has certainly inspired me!

Mona Louise Parsons (1901-1976)

Many who know me are aware of the story of Mona Parsons — the only Canadian female civilian to have been imprisoned by the Nazis for her work in the nascent Dutch underground from May 1940 to September 1941 (married, as she was at the time to a Dutch businessman, and living in Holland). Convicted of treason by a Nazi military tribunal (one of the first, and few women to be tried thus), she was initially condemned to death by firing squad. Her composure and courage so impressed a judge, that she was permitted to appeal her sentence which, in January 1942, was commuted to life at hard labour. She went through many trials and tribulations, humiliations and cruelties, but never lost her nerve or her hope. At age 44, she escaped from the Vechta prison in March 1945 in the company of the indomitable 22-year old Dutch baroness, Wendelien van Boetzelaer.
The book I wrote about Mona Parsons is now, sadly, out of print (even though last December it was approved for the supplemental reading list for the Grade 11 history course in Nova Scotia). The documentary I co-wrote for History Television back in 2000 has also receded into the background. So, I was delighted to learn in the autumn of 2011 that the Women of Wolfville were gathering support to have the new town park in Wolfville — the town where Mona spent her formative years and her final years — named after her. Unfortunately, in Wolfville, there are those who wish Mona to be remembered as an addled alcoholic unworthy of remembrance. Despite passionate support from Wolfville citizens such as Wendy Elliott, Ramona Jennex, Jeremy Novak, Gillian Poulter, Donna Holmes and Emily Levy-Purdy the Town made a decision that is a bland attempt at political correctness, in which it determined that no one was more worthy of such an honour than another. Apparently in the Utopia that is Wolfville, we are every one of us equal. Too bad that sentiment doesn’t get any further than paper. Further, when asked if a simple statue could be erected in her memory in Ye Olde Towne Clocke Parke, the representatives of the Women of Wolfville were told that a policy would need to be drafted about such matters… perhaps February. Well, it’s now halfway through April, and there’s been no movement. In the meantime, however, someone offered a free statue of some Dead White Man to be erected in Ye Olde Towne Waterfronte Parke, and Wolfville Town Council has been honoured to give its approval for such a Worthy Noble to be thus honoured.
Long before last October’s town park naming debate, Robbins Elliott – who knew Mona when he was a boy, and as a young Army officer saw her in the Canadian Field Hospital after her rescue (when she carried a mere 87 lbs on her 5′ 8″ frame and was suffering from septicemia), and was so keen and so instrumental in helping me to bring Mona’s story to light in the 1990s – proposed in 2000 that a street in Wolfville be named after her. The suggestion was ignored, and instead new streets were named after some of the town’s founding “fathers” (more Dead White Men) – including the first chief of police and a real estate developer. Robbins Elliott once told me that, before he left this earth, he wanted to see a book, a documentary and a film about Mona, and a permanent memorial – appropriate to her vivacity and spirit – created for her in Wolfville. Robbins died November 13, 2003, having seen two of his four wishes granted. But his fervent desire for the other two are not forgotten. Back in 2005, there was even discussion at Parks Canada for a permanent memorial for Mona Parsons in one of Canada’s National Parks.
Closer to home, suggestions in 2003 to include her in a proposed display in the Kings County Museum of its leading citizens – among them Gladys Porter, first female mayor in eastern Canada and Nova Scotia’s first female MLA; Alfred Fuller, founder of the Fuller Brush Company; Abraham Gessner, father of the modern petroleum industry; and Walter Ryan, the man who created the permanent lighting of Niagara Falls – met with no enthusiasm. In fact, I was asked to remove Mona Parsons from a talk I gave to community groups about these historical characters. Initial reason given for excluding Mona was that she had done nothing for her community. Annoyed, I asked if the “nothing” she had done could be equated with the “nothing” done by WWII veterans like my father and Robbins Elliott. With the strained patience one shows to a four year old whose only response to every statement is “But why?”, it was explained to me that Mona had left Nova Scotia, married a foreigner, made some sacrifices in a foreign country, returning to her home town only to die. After arguing that every other figure proposed for the permanent display, with the exception of Gladys Porter, had also left their community (all to the United States) and had died elsewhere, another excuse was offered — one I’d not heard before.
I was told she was considered unacceptable by some members of the community — and especially by a couple of key members of the Wolfville Historical Society at the time — because of an alleged drinking problem. Apparently colourful historic anecdotes describing men’s alcohol-induced antics – including Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald being so drunk for an appearance during an election campaign that, while standing on the back of a train, he vomited and proclaimed words to the effect “And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what I think of my opponent” – are considered amusing occurrences and elevated to the status of legend, but in a woman are to be judged as unladylike, and sufficient grounds to deny her recognition in history for whatever heroic actions she may have undertaken. But no such anecdotes exist about Mona. There are only her painful writings of her inability to remember things, or of becoming confused and befuddled, unsteadiness on her feet – all of which can be attributed to the transient ischemic attacks or “mini strokes” she suffered. And besides, after experiencing what she did in Nazi prisons and camps, who could blame her if she had developed a drinking problem? Hundreds of people came through World War Two with scars that could not be seen and which they dulled with alcohol or drugs – conditions we now recognise as Post Traumatic Stress. Would the Self-Appointed Protectors of Wolfville’s Moral Fabric like to review histories of the names of those who appear on the town’s WWI and WWII memorials to determine which of them should be struck from the stone for perceived activities or beliefs deemed inconsistent with those of an upstanding Wolfvillean? What on earth could be done, for example, if one of them was found to be — gasp! — GAY?!
Perhaps someday, when both the self righteous who would condemn her, and Mona’s idealistic promoters who would have us believe she never fell off a virginal pedestal have all gone the way of all flesh, Mona will find some perspective as a human being who had flaws as we all do — even the self righteous and self-declared upright members of the Wolfville community — and who took exceptional risks that few of us are ever called upon to do, to support the freedom she believed in, without ever having carried a gun or having worn a uniform. And it is for those actions alone that she deserves to be remembered long after the rest of us in the ranks of the unremarkable and ordinary have faded from memory.

What is it with political parties once they are in power? We saw it with the Liberals in the “Sponsorship Scandal” over flags. Now, apparently, the Conservatives’ weakness appears to be phones — a “Robocall Scandal”. Little surprise that a party with its roots firmly in the Republican-style Reform Party should resort to dirty tactics that have been honed by the Republican Party in the US to such a degree that they really should carry a little TM symbol! The most cursory review of the election shenanigans south of the 49th illustrates that.

What’s deeply troubling is that, so far, no one seems to be immune from this drift to the Dark Side once they achieve — or, in the case of the Conservatives in the last election, even smell — power. And the longer they’re in power, the less they seem to care about anyone or anything else than maintaining dominance. It’s like watching professional wrestlers, their eyes only on some belt that looks like it was once worn by Wonder Woman, strut their stuff. At least pro wrestlers are honest about their intentions when they say they will stop at nothing to get what they want.

Over the years, Canadians have complained about the lack of decorum in the House of Commons, where it seems that MPs can get away with just about any sort of behaviour except calling another MP a nasty name. You can’t call Stronach a bitch, or Kent a piece of shit — fair enough. But apparently outside those hallowed halls, MPs and their election machines can be involved in questionable behaviour that cannot be debated in said House of Commons because the Prime Minister says so. Frankly, Steve should go fuddle-duddle himself. Hopefully the Speaker of the House has more sense.

But debate in the House of Commons is only the beginning. Let’s see some real democracy at work here. Call by-elections in every one of those ridings and set the dates for, say, 6 months in advance. Then require that every MP and every candidate’s organisers and handlers attend a one-month course on civics, ethics and how to conduct oneself like the sort of human being we would feel proud to have represent us, regardless of political leanings. Then, when we say “May the best person win”, we might actually get what we ask for.

curried fish stew

Ron would be the first to admit that mornings are not his best time. Although I go from sleeping to fully conscious in seconds, I sometimes envy his ability to move from one world to the other gradually, almost intentionally (though to watch the process you might not think intention has much to do with it). We returned from a week’s vacation in Malta early yesterday morning. Today we transition from vacation mode back to daily routine mode. That means I teach tonight, and that he and David will eat long before I get home around 10 p.m. In expectation of that, last night I made Goan — a slightly spicy Indian curried fish stew. Like most stews, it’s better if allowed to sit overnight before being reheated to serve.

Over breakfast, I told Ron that all that needs to be done for their meal tonight is to bring the stew to the bubble, chop up the cilantro and mix most of it into the stew, reserving a bit for the garnish. Most of the fish ingredients — scampi, haddock, squid — were added to the stew last night. We’d also purchased king prawns, which were already cooked, so they couldn’t be added to the stew without them being rendered rubbery. To serve, he’ll have to ladle the stew into bowls, top each with prawns and sprinkle with the remaining cilantro. Pretty straightforward, I thought.

There was a pause when I finished speaking. Ron’s eyelids fluttered, then he said, “I’m sorry… cilantro?” It were as though when he realised the ambient noise in the room (i.e. my talking) ceased, his cognitive centre fired off a message that he might have just missed an important bit of information. Not only that, he needed a strategy that would get him back in the conversation and show that he hadn’t been oblivious to absolutely everything. That he put forth the effort to enter the conversation at this point is of great credit to him. He knew that, normally, if I think he’s not listening, I will lean forward, tug on his earlobe and ask, “Is the record button on?” This time, he didn’t wait, but seized the opportunity, knowing it would probably make me laugh. It did, though he insists he does nothing to ‘make’ me laugh… apparently I’m just entertaining myself. Without him, though, how could I be so entertained so early in the day?

Comedian Danny Bhoy gave a terrific show last night at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre. After learning that some audience members were from the States (he didn’t hear me in the second row, when he asked where people were from, calling out “Canada!”), he incorporated into his routine at several points that words have different meanings depending on the speaker’s nationality. For example, if the Scots make the World Cup in 2022, they will have to travel to Qatar, which will be a hardship because one cannot drink alcohol in Qatar. He imagined the Scots players arriving and being warned by government officials that if they drink, they will be lashed — which in Scots slang means “drunk”.
“Oh aye!” says Bhoy in the scenario. “Just like back home.”
“No!” replies the official. “You don’t understand. You will be beaten in the streets by the police.”
“Oh aye! We’re used to that, too. No worries!”
Pondering words and how we use them has emerged as a bit of a theme for me in the past week. I began reading Simon Winchester’s “The Surgeon of Crowthorne”, one of his excellent books on the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary — an enormous undertaking that involved hundreds of people in the 19th century and an effort whose discipline and coordination would be difficult to duplicate even in this era of the internet. Add to that the fact that one of the major contributors was criminally insane (possibly, it has to be said, because he suffered PTSD during the American Civil War), and you’ve got a story that reads better than most fiction.
Then, still on the subject of words and their meaning, The Independent ran a couple of excellent opinion pieces on Sunday, February 5. The first involved the activities and actions of a government minister, Chris Huhne and the captain of England’s football team, John Terry. Huhne stepped down after it was revealed that he tried to get his ex-wife to accept demerit points for a traffic offense that he had committed, thereby perverting the course of justice. Terry resigned after a public outcry at blatantly racist slurs he screamed at an opponent during a game. The op ed was about the fact that neither of these men did the ‘honourable’ thing by stepping down when the offenses were committed, favouring instead to hope that no one noticed or cared. The public did, and there was an uproar. The writer went on to talk about the recent fall-out from bank executives forfeiting (again, after much public protest) enormous bonuses that were to be paid out as incentives to continue to do their jobs well, rather than understanding that, given the current economic climate, to refuse would be the honourable thing. Public protest arose because no one could prove these folks had done their jobs particularly well — or at least certainly no better than the average grunt who usually doesn’t even get a ‘thank you’, much less a reasonable standard of living that can come close to that of corporate executives. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with incentives and bonuses, but ensuring they are commensurate with the job done, rather than paying out wads of cash and stocks to the folks who worked diligently to line their pockets while putting most of us (and possibly a couple of generations to come) in the hole is only sensible.
The author ruminated on how the word ‘honour’ has been perverted from something that once connoted “duty and loyalty, trust and taking responsibility, standards and self-discipline” and led people to act out of concern for one’s reputation, “rooted in what Dr. Johnson defined as ‘nobility of soul, magnanimity and a scorn of meanness’,” to something degraded. So-called “honour killings”, for example, have less to do with honour than control and chauvinistic face-saving. In the Army, so-called honour “holds sway… where men’s lives depend more upon friendship and bonding than on conscience or law” — and it is this aspect with which “honour” has become construed in most modern societies. So called “Honours Lists” are more about wealth, acquisition and power among in-groups — honour among thieves — than about social justice or philanthropy.
And on this topic of bonuses, another op ed piece wrote of Ed Milliband, who rose in the British House of Commons last week to propose that banks should be required to disclose the names and earnings of all those who are paid more than £1M, and that a shop-floor employee should be on every pay committee. To the first proposal, David Cameron begged that it would have to happen in every country across the European Union in order to be effective. So much for taking the initiative and showing leadership. To the second, Cameron responded that having shop-floor employees on pay committees would break “an important principle of not having people on a remuneration committee who will have their own pay determined.” So much for openness and accountability. The statement makes Mr. Cameron’s earlier protestations that, with regards to the current economic crisis, we are “all in it together” just a tad hypocritical, so it’s particularly gratifying that Mr. Cameron was forced last week to withdraw charges of hypocrisy against Mr. Milliband.
Still, as politicians use words to parry in the House, with reporters or constituents, we must all remember that actions still speak much louder than words — and in that respect, most politicians are pathetically mute when it comes to addressing greed and the gross inequities it creates. Sadly, that’s true both here in the UK and in Canada.