Tuesday, 26 January 2010

When is a newspaper not a newspaper?


A new Scottish newspaper? Well, for one it is online only, so the absence of paper means it is a Scottish news website, not a newspaper...
Moreover, content wise, on day two the first week it is still looking more like a blog than news website. But then they aren't promising rolling news but indepth reporting. Hmm.
I wish the guys well who are behind it. I wouldn't be averse to writing for it either, though if it is for free, I'd rather limit my comments to my own blog, thanks very much.
If its going to succeed I suspect the editorial mix needs to be strong - stronger than they have shown so far. Holyrood sketch writing is a niche area, it will have its followers, but they'll be relatively few in number, I suspect. As for the odd box stories... maybe I'm too old.
It sounds cheesy to end on a 'good luck' message, but good luck to them anyway. It would be great if it did work out, if the journos were paid for their time and the founders made a profit. I hope that does happen, it will show the rest of us it can be done.
We'll see...

Monday, 25 January 2010

The Book Club

HAVE you seen C4's The Book Club yet? I'm sorry, but if this doesn't halt the progress of book groups across the country nothing will. I saw it with a friend of mine who commented five minutes in: 'Oh I get it now, it's Late Review for idiots.'
OK, a bit harsh, maybe, but I can't help but think Sarah Waters is feeling pretty peeved this week. Her The Little Stranger was meant to be the focus of the prog, but was the subject of a very poor, quite inane discussion that barely lasted longer than five minutes.

Interesting review of an intriguing book.The issue of reintroducing wild animals, predators, to areas dominated by man won't go away. In Scotland there are still rumblings about bringing back wolves.In most cases - well certainly in the case of wolves in the Highlands - I can see more problems than benefits.But you can't argue against the destruction of wild habitat on the one hand and campaign against rewilding on the other.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Rhino poaching


It is incredible to think that this is still going on.
Another year, another dozen or so endangered
rhinos have been slaughtered for the horn on
the end of their nose.
This situation will continue for as long as there are
people willing to buy these horns as trophies, daggers or medicine.
Instead of tackling the impoverished folks who
do the killing, surely 'the authorities' should be
addressing the cultural forces that drive them.

Friday, 22 January 2010


There have been several books recently, for children and grown ups, which have looked at WW2 from a new angles.
The Book Thief. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
Auslander, by Paul Dowswell, is about a Polish boy of German origins who is repatriated to Berlin after his parents are killed, to live with a Nazi family.
He is recruited by the Hitler Youth movement and told that Jews and Ostlanders are sub-human, but never believes it. When he meets a free thinking, liberally minded family he falls into helping Jewish families hiding from the Gestapo. Eventually he comes under threat himself and has to escape.
I interviewed Paul for the Big Issue. Unfortunately I hadn't read the entire book at the time, though I dont think the piece I've reproduced below would have changed much. At times I felt his style a little lacking in verve: there was a lot of history there, but I could have done with another story strand. Still, there's no doubt that the finale had me gripped, and some of that detail was extraordinary.
The piece appeared a couple of weeks ago in the Big Issue magazine. the magazine is sold by homeless people, the vendors, who are able to take home half the cover price. You should all try to buy a copy every week. Its a great cause and a far better read than you might expect.

Interview with Paul Dowswell

There were many Nazi atrocities during World War Two, but one of the lesser known, in Britain at least, was their treatment of ‘ordinary’, in other words non-Jewish, Poles, and the enforced Germanisation of thousands of Polish children.

Heinrich Himmler’s SS executed the policy of selecting Nordic-looking – blond, blue-eyed – Aryans and having them adopted by ‘good’ German families. Many of these children were taken from orphanages, though there is evidence that some were snatched from the street against their will.

Author Paul Dowswell took this as his starting point for Auslander, a WW2 thriller set not just behind enemy lines but in their living rooms.

It follows ‘Piotr’, a Polish boy from a German stock who is repatriated to the 3rd Reich in 1941 following the death of his parents. His fair hair and good looks sets him apart and he is adopted by a prominent Nazi. However, Peter, as he becomes known, is deeply troubled by the Nazi way of life and befriends a German family working against the regime.

“World War Two was without a doubt the most catastrophic event of the 20th Century – 50 million killed,” says Dowswell.

“I think for that reason alone it will always seem fascinating to us. But I think it was also one war where there was a clear sense that it was a battle between good and evil, that it was a war that had to be fought.

“Hitler’s was probably the vilest regime in history – followed closely by Stalin’s. Other wars since then haven’t been as clear cut – you are often left wondering who was in the right and who was in the wrong.”

Dowswell, who gained a degree in history before pursuing a career in publishing as an editor, took considerable care over researching the book.

“I think the point of a historical fiction is that it be entirely accurate, otherwise it is just fantasy,” he argues.

“I wanted everything in the book to be true so that no one could turn around and highlight anything that hadn’t happened and undermine the story as a whole.”

The details he throws up as a result are fascinating as well as grotesque: from the farmyard style measurement of the children to assess their racial purity to the plastic swastika shaped decorations hanging on the Christmas tree.

In the opening chapters, Peter is plucked from a life of despair and malnourishment and granted a new start with a wealthy family in Berlin. Dowswell artfully gets across his dilemma: he doesn’t like the Germans, but they are granting him a better life.

“I do a lot of talks in schools and I’ve always been surprised at just how interested young children still are in World War Two,” the author says. “It is a period that teaches us different things: what it is like to live in a society where you can’t think for yourself. Its about what happens when you put too much faith in one leader or philosophy. And it is about peer pressure, which is something all children can understand.”

Auslander (Bloomsbury) is out now in paperback, £6.99

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Smile or Die

I interviewed Barbara Ehrenreich last week for the Big Issue Scotland magazine. Really impressive writer, journalist, activist. At the age of 68 she has produced a sharp, well researched and well written book analysing positive thinking and its downside: Smile or Die.
The book traces the history of positive thinking and builds an argument as to how it has come to permeate all levels of American society: from corporate culture to the White House.
Ehrenreich is an old fashioned...well if she was British she would be a socialist. In America she probably would still call herself that but I doubt she'd have agreed with Tony Benn on everything. Her view is that the positive thinking, if you believe you can succeed mantra, is another tool for the wealthy and powerful to keep the little guy in his place.
If you want to read the article go to: www.bigissuescotland.com
Incidentally, i thought it would be interesting to hear Carol Craig's take on the subject. She runs Scotland's Centre for Confidence, a government funded organisation promoting a positive attitude north of the border (yes really). Carol had some interesting observations and agreed with Ehrenreich more than I thought she would. However, she fell short of saying she no longer had any confidence in her Centre for Confidence. Indeed, she felt positive psychology could still teach a negative nation like Scotland a lot.
I know. She would say that. But I have a good friend who is a psychiatrist who agrees with her. And I do think there is something in the fact that so many Scots are incredibly down on themselves, their children, their prospects. (There's a widespread theory that this wasn't always the case, but that all the positive people moved to America.)
So I wouldn't dismiss Craig's point of view entirely. You can check her blog out at www.centreforconfidence.co.uk/carolsblog.php - she has two entries on Smile or Die (or Bright-Sided as it is known in US)

Monday, 18 January 2010

Did Dumbledore create his own horcrux?

I'm a huge JK Rowling fan, which is good because my children are obsessed with Harry Potter. We've just worked our way through the Half Blood Prince on audio (a great way of keeping everyone distracted on even short car rides).
I've read the book already, of course, and seen the rather disappointing film version (how did they get it so-o-o wrong?). But listening to Stephen Fry's narration got me thinking: did Albus Dumbledore create his own version of a horcrux in order to keep up the good fight after his death?
Horcruxes were Voldemort's dastardly plan to live forever. A slither of his soul is sliced off and kept in an artefact, for revival at a later date. To kill Voldemort, Harry has to first destroy all the horcruxes. In the end he doesn't destroy any of them, but his friends do. It's a great yarn.
In the last book, Dumbledore is dead. But we discover late on in the story that Snape truly is Dumbledore's man. Snape's posthumous memories include him plotting with Dumbledore's portrait on how and where to leave Harry the Gryffindor sword.
Later still, when the war is won, Harry speaks to the Dumbledore portrait. My feeling about both these scenes is that Dumbledore's image goes way beyond any other magical portrait. You sense it is more than just an impression of the living man. you sense that it is Dumbledore.
If that is the case, does Dumbledore live on in his portrait? Is it in some sense a horcrux? And if it is, did big D have to kill anyone to make it?

Sunday, 17 January 2010

The Kingpin by Bryan Christy, National Geographic, Jan. 2010

The Kingpin by Bryan Christy, National Geographic, Jan. 2010

If you haven't seen this article yet I suggest you go out and buy a copy of National Geographic now. Bryan Christy has made a special case of investigating the activities of Anson Wong... possibly one of the largest illegal wildlife traders in the world today.
Christy believes rare animal trading is more profitable than the drug trade. Rare animals - and tigers are just one, high profile example - are being captured in the wild and sold into captivity every day of the week. Otherwise they are being killed and their remains exploited: for their skins, for their bones, as in Chinese medicine, or simply as trophies.
The particularly repulsive photograph by Mark Leong I've reproduced here is of a bear, still alive, having its bile removed.
Bear bile is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and must be extracted from a live animal. So the bears are held captive, in terrible conditions, and 'milked' in this horrendous, invasive manner.
Yes, laws exist against this. However, the enforcement of these laws is patchy at best. Wong has reportedly been able to subvert them by widescale bribery coupled with apathy in his home country. Ominously, the next business he is said to be interested in is tiger farming...

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Ten to watch in 2010 | WWF news | WWF UK

Ten to watch in 2010 WWF news WWF UK

This is the Chinese year of the Tiger.
In the wild, tigers are, as everyone knows, under serious threat. Everyone knows this, but their habitat keeps shrinking, their numbers keep dropping. There are some interesting things happening, people trying to stop this, to arrest the process. But it isn't happening enough. Of course, there will always be tigers in captivity. But somehow, that just isnt the same.