Just a Wee Blether…

About those damn nostalgic yearnings

Nostalgia is a great thing. We all look back at our childhood days and remember, for the most part, a time that was happier and more innocent. Of course, very often, we are guilty of looking back in time through rose-coloured spectacles. But as we get older, that yearning for nostalgia can sometimes kick us in the teeth.

The dilapidated little red brick cottage in the picture is where I spent the first three years of my life. It is a lodge at the south gate of a small estate called Ashcraig, roughly halfway between Largs and Skelmorlie on Scotland’s Clyde Coast. From the garden, you can look directly across the water to Rothesay Bay, watch the paddle steamer Waverley sailing past, and take in all the amazing scenery and the maritime activity.

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When we moved to a house in Largs, my grandparents moved there from the north lodge a quarter of a mile away. My grandfather, an Irishman called James Lundy, was the estate’s head gardener so the front lawn and back garden were always perfectly manicured.

As a family we visited the cottage every week. Sometimes I spent the entire summer holidays there. My memories of the place are incredibly happy. When I stopped to take some photographs shortly before I moved to America last year, I was heartbroken to see the state of the house. It was just an unloved empty shell.

Another of my old houses, where I spent most of my teenage years, has been demolished. That’s the trouble with nostalgia. We expect to return to the scenes of our childhood and find them exactly as we remember them. Strangely, when we’re in our 20s, 30s and 40s and making our way in the world, it doesn’t seem to matter so much. Now it does.

Take a trip through the Highlands of Scotland and you’ll pass dozens of ramshackle old farm cottages that have lain empty for decades. Some of them have only two or three walls left standing. In America they call them ‘fixer-uppers’ and I always think, as with my old cottage at Ashcraig, that with a bit of money and imagination they could be made habitable again. Not everyone wants a ‘cookie-cutter’ house after all.

My wife was brought up in Pittsburgh, in western Pennsylvania. She often reminisces with great fondness about a small house (fondly referred to as ‘camp) that belonged to her grandparents in a place called Cook Forest. There was the house, a swimming pool, a tree-house, and extensive grounds. Now the house is unused, the pool has been filled in, and the area is in a state of disrepair.

Childhood memories are not limited to buildings and places. I grew up in late 50s and early 60s when not everyone had television. From the age of three or four I was lucky. My parents had a small TV set – Pam was the brand name – and I was transfixed by Watch With Mother. If you don’t remember, Picture Book was on a Monday, followed by Andy Pandy; Bill and Ben; Rag, Tag and Bobtail; and The Woodentops.

Our neighbours used to come to the house to watch shows such as Dr Kildare, Perry Mason and The Lucy Show. My father watched The Fugitive, Gunsmoke, and Wagon Train. I wasn’t exposed to 50s and early 60s rock music, my parents had an old Dansette record player and we were brought up on a diet of Scottish music by the likes of Robert Wilson, Calum Kennedy, Andy Stewart and the Joe Gordon Folk Four.

As for sport, all I can say is that in 1967 it cost me 6d in old money – that’s 2.5 pence sterling today – to watch Celtic, who were then European champions. Last season Liverpool were charging fans £77 for a meaningless English league fixture against Sunderland.

Maybe we should all put the past out of our minds, and just move forward as though it doesn’t matter. That would save any disappointments. But it’s impossible. Everything is wrapped up in nostalgic memories, from Hillman Imps, 5 Boys chocolate bars, and Television Top of the Form to Mr Pastry, penny dainties, and Capstan cigarettes. In the States they get misty-eyed over the children’s game KerPlunk, the Andy Griffith Show, and the Howard Johnson’s (or HoJo’s) motorway restaurant chain.

When I saw my old house practically falling to bits I wished I had the wherewithal to buy it and make it into a home again. All I can do is hope that it somehow won’t be allowed to become another part of my childhood that disappears off the face of the earth.

Just a Wee Blether…

About America’s unpopularity contest

This time last year very few people took seriously the prospect of the Brexit movement succeeding, and the UK chortled at the thought that Boris Johnson might hold one of the country’s great offices of state. At the same time Donald Trump’s chances of ascending to the US Presidency were put at 1%. Now he has a 50/50 chance, only Hillary Clinton stands in his way.

Forget Game of Thrones. If you thought the Battle of the Bastards ended when Jon Snow defeated the forces of Ramsay Bolton, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Trump and Clinton are two of the most despised figures in the US, yet one of them is going to become President – what Americans like to call the Leader of the Free World.

We should be under no illusions that what has happened here over the past 12 months has been nothing short of a political revolution. I have been fascinated by American politics for a long time and have watched ‘alternative’ candidates come and go. Trump, love him or hate him, has achieved the unthinkable.

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The two-party system of American politics is so corrupt it stinks to high heaven. That system has been torn to shreds. The Republican Party might not admit it, but there is in effect no Republican candidate this time around. Sure, Trump has been endorsed but he is no Republican, he has hijacked the party and he could easily have done exactly the same with the Democrats. In all honesty he is leading the Trump Party.

So traditional Republican supporters who normally vote the party line will have to think twice this election. Trump has proved himself a great opportunist. Republican candidates of recent years – McCain, Palin, Romney – have been dire. Not one of the plethora of candidates that announced their intentions for the 2016 election looked worthy of the job. Trump saw an opening, took a chance, and won the day.

And let’s not run away with the idea that his calls for a wall on the Mexican border, a ban on Muslim immigrants, a trade war with China, are the rantings of a madman. Trump knew precisely what he was doing. He was tapping into a deep well of anti-establishment frustration, fuelled by the belief that the politicians in Washington had deserted the man in the street. The people were lost and he was their saviour.

To an extent he was right, politicians of both parties have been lining their pockets for decades at the expense of the taxpayer and an overhaul of the system is long overdue. But Trump has also whipped up a climate of fear and paranoia, a feeling that the world is against America, and that ‘anti-Americans’ in society are threatening the nation’s traditional values and way of life. Of course he means members of ‘other’ races and it all sits well with a large section of society.

The former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke announced on Friday that he was to run for a Senate seat in Louisiana, declaring, “I’m overjoyed to see Donald Trump and most Americans embrace most of the issues that I’ve championed for years.”

In recent months America seems to have been consumed by one of its sporadic spasms of violence and unrest. At the heart of it, as always, are the issues of race and the gung-ho forces of law and order. During the same period, I have heard the N-word and other racial slurs, normally restricted nowadays to behind-closed door settings, used more commonly and with more confidence.

Trumpism has achieved what wannabe Presidential candidates such as Ross Perot and, further back in time, William Randolph Hearst and Henry Ford failed to do. The man is one good campaign away from the White House.

So how have the Democrats responded to this outpouring of anti-establishment sentiment? In typical arrogant fashion, they have all but ignored it and carried on as if nothing has happened. It’s like the political equivalent of Dumb and Dumber. While Americans have been railing against the Washington political elite, the Democrats have smoothed the path of a candidate who is not just part of the establishment, but a member of an establishment dynasty – and a deeply unpopular one at that.

Hillary Clinton has made history by becoming the first female Presidential candidate and for that she should be praised. But she comes with a terrific amount of negative baggage, and lacks the undoubted charisma of her husband. One commentator remarked this week that Clinton compared with Trump was like ‘watching the television test page’.

Last year the Republicans were pushing Jeb Bush as the anointed candidate. No-one wanted another Bush in the White House and it remains to be seen how many are keen on another Clinton.

Trump may be an egomaniac in every sense of the word but he is in a very strong position. His promises at the Republican Convention that he would bring back jobs to depressed cities such as Detroit and Cleveland were nonsense – but the people loved hearing them.

A few short weeks ago the British people fell for the spin of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage and voted to leave the EU. It has turned the established political class on its head. So will the US continue where Britain left off? Don’t bet against it.

Just a Wee Blether…

About having plenty history here thanks

For eleven years, Americans came to visit us in Scotland. They brought ‘bucket lists’ with them, places they wanted to visit, food they wanted to eat; experiences they had read about, regarded as uniquely Scottish, and wanted to sample.

In no particular order they included whisky distilleries (complete with a dram or two of real Scotch whisky), castles and palaces, standing stones, anything Braveheart or Harry Potter-related, scenery, train journeys (most visitors had never been on one), hillwalking or hiking – and of course, if they dared to taste it, haggis.

Some wanted a little bit of golf memorabilia, others wanted to sample beer from a Scottish micro-brewery. Some even wanted to go to England, and we were able to accommodate them. The fact there was an overnight sleeper from Glasgow to London – with a bar – was an eye-opener.

Without exception, every visitor from the States loved Scotland. We took photographs of them at Stirling Castle, Linlithgow Palace, the Swilken Bridge at St Andrews golf course, Rosslyn Chapel, Glengoyne Distillery in Stirlingshire, hillwalking in the Cairngorms, on the Harry Potter train crossing Glenfinnan Viaduct, cycling round Cumbrae, and many more places.

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In most cases, we made a point of taking people to the Highlands – Aviemore, Fort William and Oban were our go-to spots. Family members were introduced to the game of shinty, taken up the gondolas at Aonach Mor, and sailed over the sea to Mull. Even old graveyards – the ones in Scotland are really old in American terms – were a great source of interest.

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Showing off your own country to others is a lot of fun, as well as a source of pride. Our American friends and family were always appreciative, they still talk about their memories of the places they visited and the characters they encountered on their Scottish travels.

The greatest sense of wonder was that our history stretched back so far. People would say America is still a “young” country and the old buildings, the ancient history and culture that we take for granted in Scotland simply don’t exist there.

I don’t subscribe to that for a second. Obviously there are centuries of Native American tradition but, apart from that, it is wrong to suggest that the United States somehow “lacks” history. On the contrary I find the culture and history that has evolved here rich and varied, even if it is all relatively recent compared with Scotland.

A few weeks ago we took a day-long drive, part of which involved a visit to a national monument called Tuzigoot, an old Native American pueblo near the Arizona town of Clarkdale. Indian tribes started building the community around the year 1125. If that’s not ancient history I don’t know what is.

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On the same trip we stopped in the city of Prescott. It is Wild West to the core. The Palace Bar on historic Whiskey Row was the haunt of Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp and Virgil Earp. It was used for the filming of the Western movie Junior Bonner starring Steve McQueen, and it contains an ornately carved wooden bar on which bartenders would slide glasses of beer down to waiting patrons.

We also visited Jerome, an old mining town where some of the richest copper deposits in America were discovered and where thousands of people, including many Scots, made a small fortune; we passed through the town of Payson where the author Zane Grey wrote many of his Western books; and we checked out the oldest schoolhouse left standing in Arizona, in the village of Strawberry.

That was a fair amount of history and culture for one short day trip and it gives the lie to the theory that there is no history in America. It’s very easy to bash the US and say it’s a ‘mongrel’ civilisation made up of a hodge-podge of immigrants. But the country is old enough now to have a history of its own – no-one else can claim the Wild West after all.

I will forever cherish Scotland, its people, history and culture as the greatest on earth. And don’t worry, I’ll still regale them with Tam O’Shanter on Burns Night. But I love everything about the often chequered history of my adopted land. It’s fascinating beyond belief.

  • The pics show Rosslyn Chapel, Stirling Castle, and the Tuzigoot National Monument

Just a Wee Blether…

About America’s bogus ‘world capitals’

I’m convinced that, one day, I’m going to pick up a newspaper (yes I still read them) to discover that Portland, Maine, or some such place, is the official Haggis Making Capital of the World.  Or that they hold an annual mince and tatties ceremony in Omaha, Nebraska.

So-called ‘world capitals’ are everywhere in the United States. Even in the sporting world the American Football team that wins the Super Bowl is crowned World Champions, and the final games of the baseball season are known as the World Series. The fact no other countries take part seems to make no difference.

It is a bit like saying that Lovat, Newtonmore, Kingussie, and Kyles Athletic have been shinty world champions because they have won the last four Camanachd Cup finals.

So where is the Golfing Capital of the World? It can only be St Andrews, Scotland, right? Wrong. Even though American golfers go all misty-eyed at the prospect of playing on Scotland’s hallowed links, the country holds up Naples, Florida, as the world’s golf capital. The area may have 90 golf courses but only 30 are public. You may also have seen news stories about a giant alligator that roams the fairways – give me the midges at St Andrews or Royal Troon any day.

A few years ago a friend of my wife left Arizona to live in a small town in Arkansas called Alma. It’s a nondescript place – a podunk town as they say here – but in the town centre stands a huge bronze statue of Popeye on top of a fountain holding a can of spinach. Alma had a spinach canning plant that canned more than half the spinach in the US so it became the Spinach Capital of the World.

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Bizarrely, Crystal City, Texas, made the same claim. But even more bizarrely both claims are utter nonsense. The US produces only 1.4% of the world’s spinach. China produces more than 90% so there are most likely umpteen Chinese communities that could justifiably lay claim to the ‘world capital’ title.

Ashburn, Georgia, claims to be the Peanut Capital of the World; so does Smithfield, Virginia; and Suffolk, Virginia; and Sylvester, Georgia, and at least three other towns and cities in the US. At least America is the world’s leading peanut producer. For some reason the village of Galilee, Rhode Island, is labelled the Tuna Capital of the World. Try telling that to the people of the Philippines and elsewhere and you would be laughed out of court.

Some of the nicknames derive from flowers or trees that are locally abundant; others from food or clothing factories the towns were once known for. Most are simply bogus. Sheboygan, Wisconsin, is well known for its large German immigrant population but how can it possibly be the Bratwurst Capital of the World? It’s like saying Chicago is the world’s Guinness Capital because it is heavily populated by expat Irish.

Huntsville, Texas, is known cheerfully as the Execution Capital of the World, or Death Penalty City. It may be the place to die in Texas but it has a long way to go to catch up with the execution centres in Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and a few other countries. As for the claim by Fallbrook, California, to be the Avocado Capital of the World – complete baloney. The US is light years behind Mexico and a couple of other nations in avocado production.

So why do American towns and cities do this? It’s difficult to argue that the American people have an inferiority complex. Quite the opposite. Perhaps it’s a sense of insularity – so if it’s the biggest in America, it must be the biggest in the world?

But at least one town has kept its long-held claim to fame, years after the closure of the factories that gave rise to it – if you’ll pardon the pun. Dothan, Alabama, revels in the title of the Condom Capital of the World because of the presence of the Durex and Ansell rubber factories which turned out millions of protective sheaths every week. Now there’s something the town can justifiably blow its trumpet about.