Just a Wee Blether…

About Starbucks move on to ‘res land’

An interesting little nugget of news slipped under the radar this week in Arizona. The Navajo Indian Reservation, the largest in the United States, and part of the tribal lands that help protect and enshrine the cultures of the Native American way of life, has given permission for the opening of a Starbucks.

On the face of it, it seems like the old world and the new colliding. We tend to imagine the reservations as places where traditional Indian customs, crafts, cooking, and even worship are upheld. A Starbucks coffee shop is like an intrusion; it doesn’t feel as though it belongs there.

There were objections from Navajo Nation tribal members on the 27,500-sq. mile reservation. Not because the coffee shop was out of place, but on the grounds that it would encourage obesity, an epidemic that has plagued Indians of all ages for generations.

The Navajo reservation is huge, roughly the same size as the state of West Virginia. The land, mostly in Arizona but extending into Utah and New Mexico, was granted to the Navajo in the late 1800s. The terrible treatment of the Indians – culminating in the ‘Trail of Tears’ that forced them off their lands – has been well documented. The creation of reservations was part of a Peace Policy in the 1860s.

Arizona is very much Wild West, Cowboy and Indian land. There are many large areas of what locals call ‘res land’. As well as the Navajo tribe, this was Apache country. The great Apache leader Geronimo, was active in southern Arizona; so too was the Apache warrior chief Cochise.

Smaller tribes like Hopi, Pima, Yavapai, and Tohono O’odham all have their reservations around the cities of Phoenix and Tucson. They are governed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Indian Health Service. The reservations have their own police forces and systems of justice and are, in effect, independent states within the USA.

The tribes nowadays have plenty money. Under a plethora of complex agreements, the US government pays benefits to the nations for, among other things, the extraction of natural resources such as oil and gas, and the fulfilment of treaty obligations. Casinos have been built on the res land, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars for the tribes. Much of that cash is distributed on a per capita basis among the tribe members. However, the poverty rate on reservations is more than 28% – and 46% on the Navajo land.

But you would never think when driving through a reservation that the people there are wealthy. We often drive through the Pima-Maricopa reservation because it contains several main roads and, to be honest, it resembles a Third World country.

Around 85% of the houses look dilapidated. The rundown homes have broken windows and unkempt yards; there are dozens of abandoned cars, and scores of mangy dogs everywhere. It appears very few people have any pride in their surroundings. The res is a miserable, desolate place.

Life expectancy is poor. A friend of mine in her 30s went to school with six Native Americans. Five had died before they were out of their 20s, one from suicide, others from gang-related deaths. Alcoholism and drug abuse is rife. The Pima Indians of Arizona are the fattest population group on earth, and suffer the highest prevalence of diabetes.

Among non-Natives, there is little sympathy for the plight of the Indians on the reservation. Most shrug their shoulders and argue that, with so much money slushing around, they could improve their lifestyle. Others are angry that, apart from the main roads, reservations are strictly no-go areas. Trespassing on a reserve is not recommended here.

The only serious incident of public drunkenness I’ve come across in Arizona was when a group of Native Americans staggered on to a light railway carriage in Central Phoenix. One of the guys sat beside me and was quite pleasant – but it is unusual to see that level of drunkenness out here.

Most of the Indians here don’t live on the reserve, they stay in big cities like Phoenix, Los Angeles, Tucson etc. Whether Starbucks will prove a welcome addition to the Navajo reservation, who knows?

Whatever the rights and wrongs, I feel a certain sadness when I see how the Indians live and how they are still treated as outsiders by American society.


Just a Wee Blether…

About 120 degrees – and no air con

Warnings have been issued in Phoenix for more than a week now. The city is in the middle of its annual heat wave, but the temperatures this week are expected to break all records. The high on Tuesday is forecast to be at least 120F – possibly as much as 122. That’s 50 degrees Celsius.

I’ve never had to endure temperatures like that – even in the two very hot summers I’ve lived here.  Last year, on Father’s Day, the mercury reached 118F. That will pale into insignificance compared with the next few days. An excessive heat warning is in place and people are being urged to stay indoors.

Four days ago, just as the Lundy household was preparing to deal with this, the unthinkable happened. With perfect timing, the air conditioning unit that keeps the house cool in the summer conked out.

We had noticed for a couple of days that something was not right. Then it stopped altogether. The a/c unit is covered by homeowner’s insurance so we called our landlord to get it fixed. He arranged for an engineer, who in turn diagnosed a leak of Freon, the refrigerant that acts as a cooling agent in the aircon system.

The work will take until the middle of this week but, in the meantime, the house is too hot to live in. The landlord, as he is legally obliged to, offered to provide us with alternative accommodation in a nearby hotel for the duration. However, we opted to stay with one of several relatives who have plenty of spare room, and who live nearby.

We are lucky in the sense that this will not cause us major hardship. But the extreme seriousness of this situation cannot be over-estimated. Living in this part of the American south-west is only possible with air-conditioning – in homes, cars, shops, and work places. If it breaks down in a shop or office, that business must close until the problem is rectified.

A broken a/c unit is classed as a major emergency at this time of year. In some cases, it can, quite honestly, be a matter of life and death.

I’ve gone back to my house to write this blog. I have ceiling fans on in four rooms, and two floor fans blasting cool air at me. Nevertheless, the inside temperature is just over 95F. For certain people – the frail and elderly, young children, and people with medical conditions – that is potentially fatal.

On the hottest days of a Scottish summer, you could open the windows and let some fresh air inside. Here there is no fresh air. If I opened the window, I would only feel the ‘wall of heat’ from outside – like a baker’s oven.

In common with all big cities, Phoenix has a large population of homeless. Emergency shelters have been set up in the past couple of weeks to give these people somewhere to go out of the glare of the relentless sun. It won’t work in all cases; many unfortunates will die on the streets of Phoenix over the next couple of weeks as the heat becomes unbearable. Approximately 120 people die in Arizona every year purely because of the heat

Meteorologists have described this week’s weather as ‘dangerous’ and ’deadly’. Tuesday is the first day of summer, and the longest day of the year, meaning the sun will be at its highest point in the sky. I can’t say I’m looking forward to it.

I suppose this has been something of a salutary lesson. Not that we had any control over things. Over here, we take air conditioning for granted. Why did it have to happen at the height of summer?

There is a jokey saying out here which has a ring of truth to it, and attributed to a ‘sad Arizonan’. “I wish it would rain. Not for me because I’ve seen it – but for my seven-year-old.”

Just a Wee Blether…

About Tories win in heartland. Well, well

Well, the UK General Election didn’t turn out as planned on a number of fronts. There was plenty to keep the headline writers busy – shock losses for Tories; shock gains for Labour; shock losses for Scottish Nationalists.

Not to mention the short Prime Ministerial reign of the disastrous Theresa May undoubtedly coming to a premature end. It will need a miracle for her to survive in the post. She has never looked comfortable in the job. She’ll be remembered for her permanent terrified expression, and her ‘running through the wheat field’ revelation.

In a news room, there is nothing better than the buzz of an exciting, shock-filled election. Thursday night was exciting all right and on Friday morning, the Scottish Press, television, radio, and every conceivable social media outlet was yelling, “Scottish electorate…how could you?” Vote for the Conservative Party, that is.

But some so-called shocks aren’t what they seem. To those of us who can cast our minds back to a pre-millennium political landscape, there was nothing shocking about Scots voting Tory.

In fact, my headline last week might well have been, ‘Tories regain Tory heartland – no shock here’.

When I started work in Ayrshire in 1974, the local MP was a Conservative called John Corrie. He was in his late 30s, from farming stock, tall, and good looking. The party – especially the older ladies – loved him. He didn’t do much as an MP, but he was a thoroughly affable and decent chap.

I moved to Aberdeen shortly after the 1979 election that propelled Margaret Thatcher to power and wiped out all but two of the SNP’s Westminster contingent of the 70s. It was in Aberdeenshire that I was exposed to what now seems like old-fashioned, traditional Scottish Conservatism.

People often think of Scotland in those days as a Labour Party stronghold and nothing else. Not true. As recently as the early 80s there were huge swathes of Tory blue on the electoral map. Go to Perthshire or Royal Deeside – towns such as Pitlochry and Ballater – and the residents there bleed Conservative blue. They have never had anything in common with the Glasgow working man.

The Tory MPS I used to deal with back then were a mixture of polite, landed gentry toffs such as Alick Buchanan-Smith; and businessmen like the very approachable Russell Fairgrieve. (pictured) There were flamboyant characters such as the ‘Buchan Bulldog’ Albert McQuarrie and the madcap lawyer Nicholas Fairbairn; and the ambitious types like the Aberdeen South MP Iain Sproat.

The harshness of Thatcherism was in its infancy and not all these guys were comfortable with it. I remember chatting with Alick Buchanan-Smith, a charming man, at an event in Stonehaven one evening. I brought up the subject of Thatcher and I remember he said nothing, just shook his head and furrowed his brow. Her brand of Conservatism was clearly not his.

Except for one seat in Aberdeen City, the whole of Aberdeenshire, Perthshire, and Angus had elected Tory MPs in 1979. As well as the ones I’ve mentioned, there was Bill Walker in Perthshire, Peter Fraser in Angus, and Alex Pollock in Moray and Nairn. Further north, Ross and Cromarty had Hamish Gray; and schoolteacher John MacKay represented Argyll.

Then there was the old Banffshire seat. It was held by a chap called David Myles, another old Tory farmer. Myles was perfectly polite, but let’s say he wasn’t the most dynamic. In fact, the poor guy was so dull and uninteresting that he earned the nickname ‘Mogadon Myles’.

Even Fife – an area we don’t readily associate with Conservatism nowadays – had Tory MP Barry Henderson, and Glasgow boasted its own West End Tory MP Tam Galbraith.

Back then, we journalists had free access to these people. They weren’t protected by spin doctors and teams of press officers. I still have a list of every MP in Scotland complete with home and office phone numbers from my 1980 contacts book.

Many of the Tories of that era could be insufferably snobbish but they didn’t mince their words, and their quotes made wonderful newspaper fodder. My favourite came not from a Scot, but an MP from north-west England called Michael Jopling. When asked about the up-and-coming whippersnapper Michael Heseltine, Jopling commented, “The trouble with Michael is that he had to buy all his furniture.”

Mind you, Paisley Labour MP Allen Adams perhaps eclipsed Jopling when he said that Margaret Thatcher had behaved towards Scotland ‘with all the sensitivity of a sex-starved boa constrictor’.

Scotland’s Tory MPs of the 80s were swept away by Thatcherism, which was largely rejected north of the border. They didn’t all agree with her policies but they paid the penalty.

The SNP benefitted from their demise – bigly as they say over here. But political success and failure is cyclical, and it should have come as no surprise to see the Conservatives regain a foothold in their traditional rural heartlands last week.

How long it lasts remains to be seen of course. When will the next election be called? October?

Just a Wee Blether…

About cutlery conundrums in the US

Another American public holiday has come and gone. Last Monday was Memorial Day. It honours members of the armed forces who have died in battle. It also means a day off work, and another American-style family gathering – with food, lots of food.

As most people know, Americans don’t need an excuse to eat, it’s a very big part of the culture. Food is taken very seriously – and there is always plenty of it. And I mean plenty. But it’s not just what you eat in the USA, it’s how you eat, as I discovered very early on.

I well remember my first visit to my soon-to-be American in-laws in Pittsburgh 15 years ago. There was a decent-sized gathering and we all sat down to a delicious home-cooked meal. I started eating, holding the knife in my right hand and the fork in my left – the way we are taught to do it back in Scotland, after all.

After about five minutes, I became aware that most other people at the table had stopped eating. I looked up and there were at least six pairs of eyes – wide eyes – staring at me.

‘What are you doing?”, someone asked.

Even at the age of 46, I was still a little nervous. This was the first time I’d met the ‘family’.

“Well, I’m eating”, I replied.

A couple of younger members of the new family tried unsuccessfully to stifle laughter. What was the problem here, what the hell was wrong with the way I was eating?

It didn’t take too long to work it out. As I looked round the table, it was obvious that no-one else was holding a knife and fork. Every other diner had laid the knife to one side, and was using a right-handed fork method to get food from plate to mouth.

I was the only one following what I’d always been led to believe was table etiquette – yet I was the odd one out.

Let’s be honest, there’s a certain stupidity involved in piling mince and tattles, or chili on to the back of a fork only to see it slip through the tines. And counting how many balanced peas make it to the mouth can be hilarious, especially if a couple of glasses of dinner wine have been taken.

But using a knife and fork to eat is very much the done thing for us Brits. I remember spending what seemed like long fruitless hours trying to teach my son proper table manners. Members of the US military are routinely taught ‘European eating’ before being posted there.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, the meal consists of steak, potatoes and veg. In Scotland, we would spear the meat with the fork, cut it with the knife, then slide a portion of potatoes and veg on to the back of the fork. How much of it falls off is a matter of luck.

Over here, most diners cut the steak into bite-sized chunks. With the fork in their right hands, they take a piece of meat and put it in their mouths. Then they collect veg and potatoes on the ‘hollow’ side of the fork, and eat it.

It is a simple and more efficient eating method than the ‘proper’ way. And at many meals, knives are 100% redundant.

To traditionalists and purists, it lacks elegance and class. For a start, is chopping up a chef’s beautifully-prepared work into grotesque little pieces not a form of culinary sacrilege? And what do you plan to do with that spare left hand? Hide it under the table? Isn’t it good etiquette to show your hands while eating?

I have no idea why people in the USA do it differently – or if it really matters. But to stop the funny looks, I now use the American method. It goes against everything I was taught growing up, but using a fork and no knife does seem to make a lot of sense.

The downside is that inviting me to a posh dinner party risks more potential embarrassment than usual.