Roma – a review


Yalitza Aparicio – a gifted amateur without a trace of artifice

Roma is a black and white memory belonging to the distinguished writer-director Alfonso Cuarón’s childhood. It is set in the Mexico City of the tumultuous 1970s. He directs, writes and is also behind the camera framing every shot. There are no studio sets. Everything was shot on location, almost all the actors were people plucked from the location, stall holders, nurses, doctors, street kids. With those credentials the film qualifies as an original work of a genuine auteur.

Does it measure up to a cinematic work of art? It does, and ten times over. It has all the power of the great work of neo-realists and a thousand times the budget.

I came to this film late in the day. I picked it up on a big television courtesy of its financier, Netflix. On the positive side this is a good way of watching a film crammed with insight into human aspiration and behaviour. After a single viewing you can run it a second time to stop and start it in order to contemplate the moments of revelation.

On the other hand, unlike De Sica’s much earlier work Bicycle Thieves (1948), set in Rome at the end of the Second World War, shot on 16mm format with a begged and borrowed budget and also an all-amateur cast, Roma is a widescreen film shot on 35mm. Roma needs a cinema screen to encompass you until you feel part of the furniture for this is a life-enhancing story. It is both personal to Cuarón and universal in application.


Though it takes it own measured pace, high drama propels the story 

You have to sit with it and not let your concentration wander. This has all the detail of a novel but in photographic images and not prose. Like the debut masterwork of Bengali’s great filmmaker Satyajit Ray, Pather Panchali (1955), a similar lengthy film of quiet domesticity, it takes time to unfold. The cynical will wonder where the tension lies, if drama will make an appearance. Unless you have a brick for a heart, you begin to identify with the main protagonist, a house maid and child minder.

I’ve always been suspicious of contemporary filmmakers that choose black and white to  tell a story, a probably sign of the cold stylist rather than a movie maker. For one thing, this story is to a great extent about poverty, poverty at the service of the wealthy and the privileged. Images can be made to look very seductive, and visual seduction can take your mind off content.

While the overall effect is often sheer visual poetry Cuarón makes sure what we see is defiled by the smell of life from the viewpoint of the poor.


The brilliance is in the detail, every shot, every carefully composed image

Roma focuses on the life of a comfortable upper-middle class family, living between 1970 and 1971 in Mexico city, a few years of their existence encompassed by the panorama of changes that Mexican society experienced, particularly the outbreaks of violence that made life in Mexico complicated and fraught with jeopardy.

We see and hear it through the eyes and ears of one of the hardworking maids of this family, Cleo, the centre of the story brought to life by an entrancing, wholly open, honest interpretation by a newcomer to acting, Yalitza Aparicio. 

Wondrously, Aparicio is from a rural area, in Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca, Mexico, much like her character in Roma. Yalitza had been studying to be a teacher, just graduated when the acting opportunity arose and her sister told her to chance her hand as a summer job. She had no acting experience at all when she was given the role.

Anyhow, to the film: Cleo is more than a maid, she is part of the family, but one stepped removed from the family’s private moments. She knows her place. She is an employee. She may go on trips with the family to the shops and to the beach, and she loves the children as if her own, but she also gets rebuked for leaving a light on too late at night wasting electricity.

Cleo is a quiet spoken young woman you know in time will look old beyond her years because of the daily tasks she must do, and repeat day in, day out. She is eager to do a good job, to please, always to be nearby when called upon to answer the main door, get a class of water when nursing the child with a coughing fit, or sweep up dog dirt from the family’s pets. She’s learned to stay out of the way when controversy arrives within the family, especially with the distant, often-absent patriarch.


Each scene was shot in chronological sequence, the day’s script only seen on the day’s shoot

Nothing in life is guaranteed to exist for long, certainly not happiness. Life changes for Cleo after an affair with a cousin of her friend’s boyfriend results in an expected pregnancy – the one predicted aspect but true to the times in which the film is set. Cleo’s employers offer to help their favorite servant with the pregnancy, taking her to the doctor and supporting her with whatever she needs. Of course, that isn’t enough. Her circumstances begin to unravel inexorably as she tries to struggle with unplanned motherhood while the existence of the family she works for falls apart at the same time.

Through her actions, her naivety, we see how her everyday existence is shaped and formed. In the process of observation we learn something of Mexico at that time, and we see how the family she works for survives, though the two classes are as far apart as one can imagine. We see, as Cleo does, how her perception undergoes changes until she understands the world will not stop for her, or indeed, for any of the people she knows. Above all, we see how two women can support each other during the worst of tragedy.

As the fascinating story progresses, the character of Señora Sofía, (Marina de Tavira – one of the few professional actresses in the film) the matriarch of the family of which Cleo is already a part, grows too. Sofía is mother to four children who just about copes with her domestic wife duties so long as she has Cleo to do the washing and cleaning and collect the children from school. Her husband is always travelling, Sofía there when he returns.

By the quarter point into this tale of domesticity we start to see we are watching a film about not one but two women from two entirely separate backgrounds, and how their lives are almost completely moulded by men. I found gratifying not to be watching a crass, artificially constructed Hollywood chick flick full of wise cracks extolling a ‘need’ for a man, but a film about real women and their need for affection and love.

Cuarón positions the camera as if it were an impartial observer, almost like a security camera that moves in a linear fashion, as does the story with a rhythmic movement in which it does not matter that the characters leave the plane momentarily and reappear to move across our gaze in the opposite direction.


Alfonso Cuaron directing Roma’s star, Yalitza Aparizio

Roma is nominated for 10 Oscars. I expect it to win most of them. In 24 hours I’ll be in a position to amend this paragraph with the actual awards written into movie history. Just bad luck for Roma’s excellent competitor for top Oscar, The Favourite, to be released in the same year. Roma will sweep the board, foreign film not withstanding.

I half-knew what to expect because it had already won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. The images and the subdued emotions roll past dreamlike but in real time, each one as if an animated photograph. 

To finish this review, Cuarón himself should explain what motivated him to tell the real incidents from his real maid in his own childhood.

“There are periods in history that scar societies and moments in life that transform us as individuals. Time and space constrain us, but they also define who we are, creating inexplicable bonds with others that flow with us at the same time and through the same places. Roma is an attempt to capture the memory of events that I experienced almost fifty years ago. It is an exploration of Mexico’s social hierarchy, where class and ethnicity have been perversely interwoven to this date and, above all, it’s an intimate portrait of the women who raised me in a recognition of love as a mystery that transcends space, memory and time.”

Throughout Roma, Cuarón personal story uses his mastery of visual language to convey mood and character that burrows into our brain and captures our empathy. There is no film score, and yet we never miss it for Roma is aurally electric, every footfall, every click of a closing door, every child’s laughter, every sigh, largely because of the veracity of Cuarón’s attention to detail. We are witnessing the ghost of the present visiting the past.

Roma is the Spanish word for love, ‘amor’, spelled backwards. I loved every second of it.

  • Star rating: 5 stars plus
  • Cast: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey
  • Director: Alfonso Cuarón
  • Writer: Alfonso Cuarón
  • Cinematographer: Alfonso Cuarón
  • Duration: 2 hours 15 minutes
  • 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?


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Car News: Amazon Goes Leccy

A weekly look at all that sucks in the automotive industry, and some good bits


The Rivian R1S SUV – a five or seven seat go anywhere leviathan

Just as the BBC and UK commercial channels had a convulsion when they heard Amazon and Netflix were moving into the arena of programmes on demand by investing in high quality drama productions and series, conventional car manufacturers must realise the writing for them is also on the wall if they don’t get a move on and develop.

After a welter of propaganda articles spewed out by tame car hacks on how clean is diesel, even a magic part invented from nowhere to clean older diesel engines, and all the major manufacturers having cheated on emission levels, car manufacturers are finally turning to electric cars and hybrid varieties.

Old backs new

Now we have a brand spanking new car company backed by a wealthy conglomerate.  Amazon has taken shared in Rivian. Most know what Amazon does, what of Rivian?

Rivian plans to bring the first electric pick-up truck to market. It announced itself to the world last year but in reality existed developing and producing electric platforms since 2009. The US company is hoping to have the kind of impact Tesla made by shaking up the established automotive set and believes it has found a niche with the creation of go-anywhere electric vehicles.

The online retail giant Amazon has led a successful $700 million (£544m) round of investment in American electric car start-up Rivian. Fledgling Rivian are looking at a start-up fund total Amazon and existing shareholders of around $1.15 billion (£894.5m). The company is in discussions with General Motors (GM) for more investment. If a deal is secured, the company remains independent, so clever has it been sharing the shares.

And whilst you or I might not be interested in Rivian’s barge of an electric people carrier – see photographs – their pick-up will be picked up by UK self-employed builder companies once they calculate the savings in petrol, diesel and service costs. In time, Rivian will produce small vehicles.

For whom the bell tolls

Amazon’s buy-in rings the death knell for car makers who churn out boring tin cans, barely troubling to create radical designs, new propulsion or use environmentally friendly materials, and failing to address modern traffic problems.

You can see the lethargy and arrogance in their television advertising; nothing about the car, just the brand name, some pretty girls hanging around it or in it, and long empty driver-friendly streets and highways. If a down-market brand such as the Dacia Duster you get jokes. (Excuse the snobbishness, but who tells friends they own a ‘Duster’?)

When Amazon and Netflix see a good thing you just know it must be a good thing, after all, they won’t squander their unpaid taxes. They will invest what they keep and then submit the acquisition as a tax benefit.


SUV and pick-up share the same cabin

The technical bits simplified

The R1T pick-up and R1S seven-seat SUV, the first and second in a series of models eventually planned, are built on a bespoke electric ‘skateboard’ chassis that is modular and can be used on all different types and sizes of vehicles.

The initial pair are closely related, the chief difference being a slightly shorter wheelbase in the R1S. The R1S is 5040mm long, making it Range Rover-sized, while the 5465mm-long R1T is … even bigger.

In both cars, the lithium ion battery pack is mounted in the floor. The R1T is good for a 230-mile range in its standard 105 kWh capacity, a 300-mile range with a 135 kWh battery pack, or up to 400 miles with a 180 kWh ‘mega-pack’. In the R1S, the same battery packs are offered with ranges of of 240, 310 and 420 miles respectively.

The two models have four electric motors, one for each wheel, giving them four-wheel drive. It’s claimed both vehicles can crack 0-60 mph in just 3.0 sec and 0-100 mph in less than 7.0 sec in the 135 kWh versions. Your gravel delivered at the speed of light.

Rivian claims the electric drivetrain and chassis set-up allows for both impressive on-road performance and handling and precise off-road control that surpasses any existing mechanical solutions.

The flat floor is reinforced with carbon-fibre and Kevlar to protect the battery pack, while both models get five-star crash test safety ratings in the US.


Rear of the Rivian pick-up. The spare wheel is under the deck. What if there’s a full load?

Design wise – it’s all about street cred

A distinctive stacked headlights front-end design is common to both vehicles. The spacious interiors get durable materials easy to clean in keeping with the cars’ off-road lifestyle. Two screens feature inside, running Rivian’s own software graphics.

Reading from the Press Pack: “There are packs of novel hidden features and clever solutions in both models, including a 330-litre front storage under the nose. The pick-up has a full-width storage compartment between the rear doors and rear wheels that’s good for housing golf clubs.”

The company is also backed by investors from the Middle East, (who else?) and employs some 750 people worldwide. Its design and engineering centre is based in Plymouth, Michigan, and other key sites include a battery development facility in Irvine, California.

Will it come to the UK? It has opened an advanced engineering centre in Chertsey, Surrey. Mene mene tekel upharsin. (Daniel 5:25).



Ford considering leaving UK

Ford has warned that as many as 7,000 jobs in the UK could be under threat as a result of Brexit. Automotive News Europe reports that the European arm of the American automotive giant has said that a no-deal Brexit could bring ‘dire consequences’ for its UK engine manufacturing plant. Ford’s statement comes after the Times newspaper said that the car maker had reached out directly to Prime Minister Theresa May to reveal that it was looking at options with regards to moving its production out of the UK. If it remains in Britain after a hard Brexit, it could cost the company around £800 million. “This isn’t about contingencies any more – we are taking steps because of the uncertainty. It’s real.”

Honda Closes UK factory

Those politicians who said car companies would never leave the UK lied. Justin Tomlinson Tory MP for Swinden canvassed on a card of Leave. 55% of the town backed Leave. Tomlinson says Honda’s plant closure has nothing to do with Brexit, as that makes everything hunky dory. Honda, diplomatic as ever, (Japanese culture shies from discussing decisions or insulting their host) wants to go electric but see the UK tardy on installing chargers. Like other makers they get delivery of parts from Europe. Imposing tariffs on low volume sales is the last straw. What do the workers think? They express their anger and fears for the future blaming Brexit for a loss that they said would send shock waves through the town. “Tomlinson wanted Brexit – he gets to carry the can. If he’s not unseated by a massive majority at the next election then this town gets what it deserves,” said one worker who refused to give me his name. Honda plans to close its factory in Swindon in 2021. It employs 3,500 people. To that number you can add over 7,000 supply films relying on Honda, including haulers and day couriers. Swindon is about to become the proverbial ghost town. I confidently predict Mazda will be next, another small and precarious car maker.

Buying a pre-registered car

Young friend asked my advice about buying a pre-registered car. “What does ‘pre-registered’ mean? Those are cars a dealer has bought from the manufacturer in bulk. A bulk deal cuts prices. It also gives the impression they have met monthly sale’s targets. But if you buy a pre-registered car remember it’s been owned already by the dealer, and you can’t specify what additions you’d like added to the order. Nevertheless, an average discount of £2,000 is very tempting.




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No Libel Without Reprisal


No sensible person wants dispute to reach court; but some folk think a lie is the truth

First, a heartfelt thanks to all who have contributed to the fund so far to beat an apology out of the politicians and Daily Record for publishing or mouthing outrageous pulp fiction. You have my gratitude. Your support strengthens my resolve to bite back at falsehood and smear and leave a permanent mark.

Nemo me impune lacessit – reads the legend under the Scottish Law Court’s heraldry – ‘no one provokes me with impunity’. And so it should be for the poor as well as the rich.

For good or ill

Opening your purse or pocket and making the effort to donate should only be done if you are not sacrificing the money for critical things, such as food.

Though the fund is open-ended because no one knows what the ultimate costs will be and when, the initial charges sent to the malignant and the wilfully malicious are costly.

Naming names

My main tormentors are: the Daily Record, a Tory politician, a Labour politician, and a GMB official, all of whom I fully expect to puff up their arrogance to Hindenberg proportions and deny they defamed anybody. (I hope to name them soon.)

The dissembling sods will have my litigation document against their name in the same way that I am forced to come across a handful of manic sociopaths on a social website defame my reputation for sound integrity. No use suing them. The closet psychos desperately seeking vain-glorious praise for being upright citizens don’t have a penny.

It requires legal expertise to compose letters of claim, and not an angry rebuff from me. In these instances, few if any legal expert will work pro-bono, or go to court on the basis of no win – no fee. That one is for accident insurance claims where the solicitor feels confident it’s a slam dunk.

How much?

I still need to reach £5,000 for me to feel confident I won’t have to sell my shirt or my last pair of jeans. This then is a second push for donations. The opponents of constitutional progress rely on their targets being unable to strike back legally because of the financial cost, and indeed that attitude works most times.

What we want to do in this case is two-fold: make the guilty understand they cannot libel without fear of reprisal, and second, have them resort to costly lawyers defending themselves from the truth and fairness they failed miserably to respect.

Where to donate

If you can help me reach the desired £5,000 – an initial sum to cover litigation letters – please donate by name or anonymously. And thank you for taking the time to read this.

Click this for donation site:


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David Douglas

An occasional series about eminent Scots unjustly forgotten or ignored


It has not occurred to me to write about plant hunter David Douglas because I’d already written about another plantsman who lived closer to our age, the redoubtable George Forrest, [see NOTES below] and anyhow, I was in the middle of writing an essay on a female Scottish medical pioneer. What caught my attention was a glowing reference to him by a none-too bright Oxbridge professor describing him as English. I’ll not name the absent-minded academic to avoid embarrassing him:

“The adventures of an ardent plant lover/collector during the 1820s and 1830s. David Douglas was a great English plant hunter. He documented, collected, and returned to England over 200 new species of plants commonly found in contemporary gardens.”

That sort of wildly inaccurate factoid is what one expected to read in early editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica, where entries were written by out of work newspaper hacks keen to make a few shillings an entry.


Common or garden Lupins, Lupinus Polyphyllus, discovered by Douglas

Douglas did send plants back to England’s Kew Gardens as well as to Scotland, but he was born in Scone, Perthshire. Once you’ve bumped into his best known discovery, a Douglas Fir, the second largest growing tree on the planet, told it’s a Douglas Fir, not a spruce or a pine, you will identify it again using both names, and assume, rightly, the discoverer of it was a Scot.

The Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii – Pinus douglasii), is the Oregon state tree. In that wilderness did Douglas make his name. There are now thousands planted in Scotland, a great timber for all sorts of things from furniture to boats.

From humble beginnings and through fortunate circumstance, Douglas became a highly regarded collector of Pacific Northwest plants and animals, which he sent to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London, England, during the years before his death in 1834.

Born in the village of Scone on June 25, 1799, just north of Perth, Scotland, Douglas was the son of stonemason John Douglas and Jean Drummond. He attended local schools, and by the time he was eleven, he was working as a gardener for local landowners, the Earl of Mansfield and Sir Robert Preston. As the saying goes, getting up and on in the world depends a lot on who you know. Douglas’s associates were the best kind.

While working at the Botanical Garden in Glasgow, he became acquainted with the garden’s curator, Stewart Murray, and British botanist Sir William Jackson Hooker. Douglas attended Hooker’s lectures and had access to private libraries. Hooker later described him as a person of “great activity, singular abstemiousness, and energetic zeal.” Not being an unreliable boozer is a valued quality when a person is entrusted with collecting plants and bringing them home.


Looking up at a stand of Douglas Fir

In 1823, on Hooker’s recommendation, the Royal Horticultural Society chose Douglas as a botanical collector. The Society intended to send Douglas to China, but arrangements fell through so he ended up going to eastern North America. And exactly like the great cartographer Dr John Rae, Douglas joined the Hudson’s Bay company which took him to North America and the beginnings of his explorations.

In 1824, he found passage on a Hudson’s Bay Company vessel, the William and Ann, and arrived in Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River on April 7, 1825. Among his duties were keeping a journal of his activities and collecting seeds and plant specimens that might be useful as horticultural plants in England.

Here is an extract from one of his journals, a good example of the wonders he came upon, and the hardships he endured to collect new species:

“June 1st. 1827. The day began with a goodly collection of plants: Ribes; flowers faint yellow, in large racemes; abundant on the outskirts of woods; a fine plant, 5 feet high. Found Phlox Hoodii in flower, or rather I might say declining. Returned well pleased ; supped earlier than usual.

A party of hunters went out at daylight after the herd of animals seen last night. Most willingly I followed them, not for the purpose of hunting but gathering plants. and again disembarked. Accompanied by Mr. F. McDonald, they readily were guided to their companions by calls, and found Mr. Harriott and Ermatinger pursuing a bull that had been wounded, in which he joined.

The animal, which had suffered less injury than was expected, turned and gave chase to Mr. McDonald and overtook him. His case being dreadful coming in contact with such a formidable animal and exasperated, seeing that it was utterly impossible to escape, he had presence of mind to throw himself on his belly flat on the ground, but this did not save him. He received the first stroke on the back of the right thigh, and pitched in the air several yards. The wound sustained was a dreadful laceration literally laying open the whole back part of the thigh to the bone; received five more blows, at each of which he went senseless.

Perceiving the beast preparing to strike him a seventh, he laid hold of his wig (his own words) and hung on; man and bull sank the same instant. His companions had the melancholy sensation of standing to witness their companion mangled and could give no assistance all their ball being fired.

Being under cloud of night, and from what had taken place, his life could not be expected. One returned and acquainted the camp, when each with his gun went off to the spot. On arriving some of the half-breed hunters were in a body to discharge their guns at him, when I called out to Mr. Harriott not to allow them to fire all together; that one well-directed shot was enough and by firing more Mr. McDonald if alive might fall by one, being close if not under the bull. He agreed to it, but while giving orders to some that he depended on, a shot went off by accident without doing any injury to anyone, and had the unexpected good fortune to raise the bull, first sniffing his victim, turning Kim gently over, and walking off.

I went up to him and found life still apparent, but quite senseless. He had sustained most injury from a blow on the left side, and had it not been for a strong double sealskin shot-pouch, with ball, shot, wadding, &c., which shielded the stroke, unquestionably he must by that alone have been deprived of life.”

In addition to showing how Douglas had acquired the scientist’s skill of noting the smallest detail mixed with a novelist’s ability to recreate the scene and story, the incident is highly significant in the manner of Douglas’s own death, which I’ll recount shortly.


The base of a 500 year-old Douglas Fir, 235 feet tall 

Douglas visited North America three times, twice to the Pacific Northwest and California to look for plants, particularly fruit trees, forest trees, and oaks. On his 1826 trip to present-day Oregon, Douglas took careful notes on the local vegetation as he travelled up the Willamette Valley. On September 30, he recorded one of the earliest descriptions of the Indian use of fire:

“Most parts of the country burned; only on little patches in the valleys and on the flats near low hills that verdure is to be seen. Some of the natives tell me it is done for the purpose of urging the deer to frequent certain parts, to feed, which they leave unburned, and of course they are easily killed. Others say it is done in order that they might the better find wild honey and grasshoppers, which both serve as articles of winter food.”

In October, he traveled farther south to near present-day to the Umpqua River, primarily to collect the cones of the sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana). On October 26, he described an encounter with a local man who led him to the “long-wished-for pines.” While shooting the cones out of a tall tree, which Douglas described as hanging at the tips of branches “like small sugar-loaves in a grocer’s shop,” he attracted several natives who seemed “anything but friendly.” After a tense standoff, one man indicated that they wanted tobacco. Douglas responded that he would oblige them if they brought him more cones. The men went in one direction, Douglas high-tailed it in the other.

Douglas was interested in all aspects of the landscape, including animals. Those named in his honor range from the pigmy short-horned lizard (Phrynosoma douglasii) to the Douglas squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii).


Iris Douglasiana. “I love these flowers, they way the just appear in Spring”

In 1827, Douglas traveled through the Northern Rockies and then to York Factory on Hudson Bay before returning to London to work on his collections. He was back on the California coast in 1831-1832, collecting plants and animals and making geographic observations. In 1832, on his return to the Columbia River, he made his first visit to the Hawaiian Islands. He planned a return to London and then to his homeland and Scone.

Unable to get prompt transportation to England, he met his untimely death. He was killed by a bull while climbing Mauna Kea in Hawaii in 1834. The story goes that he stumbled into a bull trap and was crushed by a bull that fell into the same trap. There’s a cloud over his death. He was last seen talking to Englishman Edward “Ned” Gurney, a bullock hunter and escaped convict. When Douglas was found by Gurney the money Gurney turned into the local authorities was less than Douglas has set out with.


Douglas – one of only a few known portraits

Douglas was at one with the plant kingdom, a natural environmentalist when no such category existed. He understood trees of the same species don’t like encroaching upon each other, they keep their canopies separate, ‘crown shyness’ it’s called. They don’t cramp each other’s style or fight for light. He never discovered how sensitive their roots are, that trees share water, sugars and other nutrients, and pass chemical and electrical messages to one another, facts discovered by today’s scientists.

Douglas is recorded as walking over 10,000 miles in search of plants. He was a natural historian whose name is honoured in more than eighty species of plants and animals. If ever a film producer is looking for a great adventure story, Douglas is the perfect choice. At Scone Castle, near Douglas’s birthplace, stands a magnificent Douglas-fir, grown from seed that he sent back from western North America in 1826. His introduction of Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) to Scotland forms the basis of our country’s conifer forestry.

Douglas is still a hero among botanists, just a shame so many Scots have never heard of him yet know of his fir tree, the top of which we decorate every Christmas festival.


  • Finding David Douglas (film). Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission.
  • David Douglas:Explorer and Botanist. Mitchell,  Ann Lindsay, and Syd House. London: Asurum Press,1999.
  • The Collector: David Douglas and the Natural History of the Pacific Northwest.  Nisbet, Jack.  Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2009.
  • David Douglas: A Naturalist at Work. An Illustrated Exploration Across Two Centuries in th Pacific Nothwest. Nisbet, Jack. Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2012.
  • David Douglas journal – Travels in North America, 1823-1827. Published under the direction of the Royal Horticultural Society. New York: Antiquarian Press, 1959.
  • Indiana Forrest, the Life of George Forrest:




Posted in Great Scots | 8 Comments

Car News: Vanity Plates

A weekly look at all that sucks in the automotive industry, and some good bits


The rich and vain wasting money like this ought to be jailed. Plate: £1.25 million

If I was a dictator I’d close down the Driver Vehicle Licensing Agency. (DVLA.)

Recently I’ve had two spats with the agency that saw me lose both and fork out £250. The agency sent letters to the wrong address, all without signature or name attached, never took the blame for anything, and beat me with its phone answering service that makes the maze of the human brain seem like a simple journey in an elevator.

When you finally manage to get a human at the other end of line, having given up three times and redialled, you meet a lovely Welsh accent – Swansea based – who listens to your woes and gently directs you to register with their website to process your problem there. If the British state ever decided to block the Internet, society will grind to a halt.

It was Thatcher who demanded that the DVLA paid for itself, whereupon it altered from a public-owned service into a hard-nosed commercial company. Later, David Cameron spotted Scotland had its own version and promptly closed it down. Removal of important institutions is the colonial invader’s classic method of undermining independence.

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity

For all his loaded opinion, automobile hack Jeremy Clarkson coined one good phrase: “Show me the man who paid to own a vanity plate, and I’ll show you a fool”.

Vanity plates are one of the DVLA’s biggest earners. The most sought after are sold at auction. K1 NGS  going for tens of thousands. I knew the woman owner of S1, the singular plate attached many years to both ends of a modest VW Golf, a plate handed down through generations of her family. She eventually gave in to temptation and sold it for over £100,000. Had she held onto it until now, the auction value will start at £500,000.

F1 or FU?

When people have too much money they squander it on stupid things. The number plate “F1” was bought for an astonishing £10 million – six years after it was bought for a mere £440,000. Trading plates is now hyper-big business. The seller was a Yorkshire-based car-tuning tycoon Afzal Kahn, who had it registered on his Bugatti Veyron hypercar, worth around £1 million on its own, a car he cannot drive on any road at its full 250mph top speed in Britain because of the 70mph limit.

In California you can buy a vanity plate from the DMV for $100, or make-up your own so long as no one else has the same configuration. I see a lot of variation on the MUMS CAR theme. The wittiest seen was HUBRIS on an Aston Martin.

Adam Griffiths, personalised registrations manager for the DVLA, says: ‘A lot of people contact us hoping to buy an old plate that was once used on a family car many years ago – but unfortunately even if the vehicle has been scrapped the plate number cannot be reissued. We only sell plates never issued before.” Ah, exclusivity.

Admission time, I own two vanity plates, bought for bottom dollar. Stultus sum. I have no capacity to memorise registration numbers, same as telephone numbers; the brain will not compute. Both plates cost small change but I can reel off numbers and letters when asked. And I should get the same price if I ever sell them.

Plates you will never see

The DVLA keeps a beady eye on potentially insulting and offensive number plates, but has the good humour to release a list of the plates it deems too rude for our amusement. BE19 END, BU19 GER and DO19 POO – are all censored, banned. So too are BL68 JOB, BA68 TRD, OR19 ASM, EA19 DKS and AS19 OL, so don’t go looking for them.

Banned number plates are nothing new, the DVLA has used its red pen since alphanumeric plates became mandatory in 1903. Below are some other previously banned plates that remain unfit for use on UK cars. Cover your eyes, readers!

***2 LUT DO67 SHT PR15 SON
FU2 PEW NA12 ZEE FA61 ***
AS62 OLE PE12 VRT NO13 ***

A DVLA spokesperson – yes, the DVLA is so much of a predatory capitalist agency it has its own spokesperson – explained that “the vast majority of registration numbers are made available”, but that “any combinations that may cause offence, embarrassment or are in poor taste” are not for sale. Well, somebody was taking a toilet break when plate VA61 ANA slipped through the net. It’s out there somewhere.

50 million remain available to purchase, from as little as £250. For the past dozen years the DVLA has made over £160 million from vanity plates alone. A nice wee earner if you can do it officially. I wonder where the money goes – not to fill in pot holes, that’s certain.


Wasting time in traffic 

UK drivers lost £7.9 billion because of traffic jams in 2018. Top of the list is as you’d expect, motorists in London. They lost 227 hours to congestion over the course of the year. Glaswegians lost 99 hours. My home city, Edinburgh, the city that hates cars, was second with 130 hours of life lost fuming at the driver seven cars in front at the lights who takes off too slowly, that’s £1,219 of earning vanished. Traffic jams cost UK motorists £7.9 billion last year – an average of £1,317 per driver. Analysis comes from the traffic boffins at Inrix, who calculated time lost in congestion by employing peak, off-peak and free flow data from different times of day. Edinburgh vies with London as the slowest city for traffic in the UK. We travel in both places at an average of 7mph. [Inrix uses technical innovation to understand the movement of people and help make urban mobility more intelligent.]

Look, no hands

Nearly half a million motorists were observed using a mobile phone without a hands-free device in 2017, a 0.5 per cent decline over the previous three years, according to new Government figures. However, there’s concern that the declining figures don’t reflect what law-abiding motorists “see on a daily basis”. In fact, there’s been a steep rise in accidents caused by drivers fiddling with in-car electronics. This calls into question the use of computer screens as sole driver aid. You have to take one hand off the steering wheel to work the thing, and both eyes off the road ahead to see what is on the screen. Motorists aged between 17 and 29-years-old were the worst offenders, male and female equally, caught using a phone. My pet hate is the driver texting as he waits at the lights and doesn’t see they’ve turned green.

Cheaper by the dozen  

Electric cars are already cheaper to own and run than petrol or diesel alternatives in five European countries. Those are the countries the UK is leaving. Phew, cheap to run cars, what a nightmare. A study examined the purchase, fuel and tax costs of Europe’s bestselling car, the VW golf, in its battery electric, hybrid, petrol and diesel versions. Over four years, the pure electric version was the cheapest in all places – UK, Germany, France, Netherlands and Norway. The reason? – a combination of lower taxes, fuel costs and subsidies on the purchase price. Come on, Scotland, get yer charging points out.



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Harvesting Scotland

How the Highlands and Lowlands were exploited to make rich men richer and Scotland subservient


It is remarkable how land described as impoverished and infertile happens to hold vast riches for the few when it is freed of the many who thought it their own.

One myth of the Clearances is the one about landowners doing cotters, crofters farmers and fishermen a favour by goading them into the modern age. ‘Goading’ is my term. They talk of ushering. The Clearances it is argued, saw progress, from a clan system to a civilised, well organised society.

I see the term a lot in half-baked captions attached to photographs of abandoned villages in tourist journals, trotted out by unionists and anglophiles in debates, so goes the justification for what amounts to theft by stealth and a disregard for human life akin to ethnic cleansing.

Had they not been forced off their small holdings many might have died of starvation. There is some truth in that, but it’s self-serving truth from those who excuse barbarity and cruelty and call it progress. The logic of what they are saying is obvious. Had Scots not been sent away to die on the journey, or on over-stuffed immigration ships, or early deaths in Glasgow hovels, they would have died left on the land.

In reality, many European states and small provinces existed as rural societies, often relying on bartering in order for people to gain the things they could not fashion or grow for themselves. In time, without any intrusion from another nation, they moved to a capitalist system of purchase while retaining a farming or socialist system to feed the nation and share its wealth. The capitalist aspect allowed the governing body to buy and import food stocks, or indeed, sell surplus to a neighboring nation.

A harvest blighted

For those living off the land in Scotland, if the crop yield was low you could trade some of your cattle for grain to see you through the winter. What a cow was worth depended on the market value and the health of the beast. Cattle prices were not yours to control.

If you had no cattle you could offer your labour, or borrow from a friendly neighbour, assuming they had surplus to give. And if you had nothing of value to trade you could subdivide your land and trade that. This must have affected mothers with children whose men were off fighting in long wars for England’s glory, or who were widowed.

Back in the 1830’s and 40’s I can see why landlords were at first against subdivision of small holdings. It may be trite, but it’s reasonable to compare that transaction to renting an apartment which the tenant sub-lets without approval so he can pay the rent.

Then again, proprietors were onto a good thing; the more subdivision that went on, the more labour you had at your disposal. Harvesting industries such as peat, wheat and kelp were labour intensive. That’s how it must have seemed to land owners in Skye, Barra, and Loch Broom where kelping demanded a lot of labour, a strip of land and a but ‘n ben, the trade for your work. However, this underhand policy has an accumulative counter effect which I’ll come to shortly.

Life lived on the edge

As a tenant your security was in permanent jeopardy. The more you gave away, the less you had to barter. No one paid you wages in money or grain.

In a previous essay on the Act of Union I mentioned two bad harvests that most likely weakened the populace’s resolve to withstand endless and sustained economic attacks from England. The English parliament exploited the situation. It needed to subdue Scotland to concentrate on war with France.

In 1836 there was a similar fall in crop yield, potato and oats. The deficiency in crops was under half the expected yield. Now, this is where we have to remember Scotland was ruled from Westminster, and in Victorian times. England was the most powerful nation on Earth, unaccountably wealthy. Just like today, in almost every political issue you can think of, Scotland had too few MPs to win a vote that could direct finance to help Highland and Lowland crofters.

When English nationalists tell how we ‘prospered’ from the British Empire they omit detail. Enlighten the willfully ill-informed and they reply that we had representation, we cannot claim to be taxed without representation. That the dice was loaded, and loaded still, is not a reason to dissolve the  exploitative relationship, so goes Unionist thinking.

Send a scout

The British parliament has a method of ameliorating genuine public concerns. It sets up a commission to ‘look into the matter’. With starvation rife, the time it takes to gather evidence and report back takes no account of the suffering happening in that duration.

Westminster decided to show how much it cared by sending an emissary to the western Highlands, Robert Grahame, an advocate of social medicine. Social medicine is distinct from the prescriptive service a general practitioner dispenses. It aims to assess a group’s environmental circumstances and any barriers to healthy living by seeking out what is causing the hardship, suggesting ways to remodel habits. (There is a Robert Graham Policy Centre – spelled without the ‘e’ – near Chicago dedicated to this sort of study.)

Off went Grahame to the Highlands in carriage and on horseback to study the locals at close quarter and report back to the Treasury, bound journal, ink and quill in his leather pouch. According to records, he calculated there was just over 100,000 people subsisting in the worst poverty-stricken areas at risk of starvation. The Outer Hebrides and Skye were hit the worst, Ross-shire and Sutherland less so. Cottars (farm laborers) appeared to be the most vulnerable, but so too were many tenant farmers.

What Grahame reported was something of a surprise. Though crop failure was a factor in the deprivation he encountered, the biggest agent of suffering and death was too many people sharing too small areas of arable land.

“The population of this part of the country [he meant Britain not Scotland] has been allowed to increase in much greater ratio than the means of subsistence which it affords.” [Note use of ‘allowed’.]

The dissipation of the clan system

The answer was simple. Offer token help and move people off the land. The clan system was falling apart yet the majority held onto the land they and their forefathers had tilled rather than flee to the unknown. And why not? They were Gaels or Scots and had put their backs into it. Every rock they had moved to drill a straight furrow carried with it the scent of ancestors and toil.

No matter what it is you did for work, tilling, planting, tending and harvesting potatoes, oats, turnips, or tarring boats for fishing, life is precarious if you cannot manage savings for the bad times.

When things are bad you do not have the purchasing power to bring in food and supplies from better off areas. There are no shops down in the village, and even if there was a trading post, you had no money. You had nothing to sell. Malnutrition stares you in the face. The Irish know how the rest of that story goes.

The poor are poor because they are poor

If things are beginning to sound familiar, they should do. Outside charities, you were on your own. It was stay and possibly starve or emigrate. And if you were too underfed to work, the landlords would repossess your strip of ground and the house you lived in.  The wealthiest nation in the world could not and did not arrest the decay of the Highlands. It let them rot, punishment for being poor.

Of course, there is always a silver lining to mass poverty. War is the answer, and indeed, that’s exactly what England embarked upon for the next decade and more, strong men and boys rounded up, you might say ‘harvested’, Highland soldiers the first to be sent into battle, Lowlanders to follow. There was an empire to subjugate.

A kind of living

That way lies a kind of employment. At least you get to hold down a square meal if you manage to avoid a bayonet in the belly. And if you have an education you could always take on the role of a subaltern of one kind or another on behalf of England’s territorial ambitions. You might get to like the life if it pays well, a medal yours or celebrity if made an honorary Englishman, nothing if you remained in your homeland to make it a better place. Pick up that Union Jack, sir, your loyalty is to the Crown.

And as over exploitation goes for one thing it does for another. Soon there were no more men to recruit into England’s imperial army. The harvest of menfolk yielded so few that the after the Battle of Waterloo the remnants of regiments were stripped of their kilts and tartan badges because they could not be filled by true men of Scotland.

A kind of dying

Meanwhile, back home your wife and children were cleared off the land to make way for the profitability of sheep, husbands too far away to intervene. Disaster capitalists ready to exploit and grab for personal gain didn’t only appear in the late twentieth century. They have always existed.

The protection of the clan system gone, families split up, roof over one’s head, protection from deprivation and all dignity, lost. Told immigration is a good thing, they were given a few bawbees to help them on their way.

There’s a fearful repetition to history when you’re not in control of your own country.



Posted in Scottish Politics | 12 Comments

Car News: Giving Up Your Car

A weekly look at all that sucks in the car industry, and some good bits


Over years of car ownership I’ve rarely hankered for the new, preferring instead to buy used and keep what I have in good order for as long as financially viable. Car makers don’t like that. They want us to buy new, trade our car for the latest model regularly.

Cars are built in the manner of a Windows computer system. You think that is all you will ever need but as time goes by facilities in your system begin to disappear. Bill Gate’s empire is telling you, gently forcing you, to dump what you have and buy the latest version of the system. You can’t add or augment the system you have for a few pounds, you have to buy the whole package at the full price. The joys of built in obsolescence.

The old 3-door RAV I use as everyday transport is so shiny and pimped – years of steady improvements as and when afforded – pedestrians check it out, nose against the tinted glass to see inside. A few ask where they can buy one, disappointed when I tell them the car is 22 years old, no longer available.

Car be gone!

According to new research almost one in ten folk don’t want the expense of buying new equipment. They think they don’t need a car at all. The findings from automotive data HPI show 9 percent of motorists aged between 45 and 54 believe that they no longer need a car, and that was one of they key reasons why they were selling their cars.

There were any number of reasons given for the radical change in attitude; upkeep of cars too costly, car taxes onerous, traffic congestion – hours wasted sitting in traffic queues, city transportation improving, people choosing bicycles and electric two-wheeler, (cycle sales have flattened), and one reason from left field – boredom.  A lot of cars are boring, boring to sit in, boring to drive, boring to look at. More than half of drivers aged 18-24 said that they had sold their cars because of mechanical issues.

The survey said nothing about the newly car-less standing in freezing bus shelters in dark hours – if lucky to have what passes as a shelter near their home or work.

Flavour of the month

Over seventy percent of folk consulted in the 45-54 age range said they’d sell up in favour of owning a newer and better car. A fifth of young motorists also said they sold their cars because of high running costs. In fact, the youngest age range express the greatest anxiety about car ownership.

18-24-year-old owners are the most concerned with keeping track of the value of their cars. The rest of us don’t much care until we come to sell, and which stage we adopt an attitude of over-valuing it. The time to sell is when it’s running well, serviced, and in good nick, not when it’s blowing blue smoke and rattling.

More predictions

Car manufacturers spend a lot of money checking on what buyers will expect in the short-to-medium term. Current predictions for 10 years hence are:

  • We will move from car ownership to ‘usership’ with traditional dealers offering leasing and subscription services.
  • Internet will be standard in all vehicles in the next 5-10 years meaning connectivity to mobiles, work and  home appliances will be commonplace.
  • Virtual co-pilots will control driving enabling automatic lane changes and parking. Instead of pulling over for a snooze, we can sleep while on the move.
  • This one I like: there’ll be more focus on the interior of the car with touch screens, entertainment, refreshments and comfort all incorporated within the design.
  • The next five years will see motorists increasingly buying personalised cars online with virtual test drives and home delivery.

He says, I say

Fernando Garcia, HPI consumer director, says, “There’s been a staggering amount of change in the industry, how people buy and sell cars, but nothing compared to how things will evolve as technology advances and attitudes change. We’re seeing cars upgraded every few years like mobile phones, a frequency likely to increase.”

I’d like to think dealerships are wise to a growing public mood, an environmentally friendly attitude, that dislikes throwaway possessions as if plastic bags. People are opting to take bus, taxi or train, or if car happy like me, upgrade old parts exchanged for the latest. Cars should be manufactured with a minimum life of 20 years, all parts in it, dash equipment too, designed for upgrades. Just saying.


Best and worst

There’s an after market insurance company called Warranty Wise. It specialises in covering  the bits of your car that are liable to need replacing once the dealer warranty has finished. Warranty Wise keeps note of which cars fall apart quickly and which rarely make claims. It calculates that by age. Results can be surprising, cheap models lasting better than luxury models. Owners of a VW Polo, Ford Fiesta, Audi A3, BMW 3 Series, and the Nissan Qashqui don’t activate the warranty until well beyond 9 years. Honda, Toyota, Skoda, Mazda brands score well. Brands that make most claims are Land Rover (infamous in the industry), Jaguar, Volvo, BMW, and Vauxhall. The most common faults are shared among the brands: suspension, alternators, steering, and a myriad of electrical glitches. Top of the list for poor durability – the £90,000 Range Rover Sport.

Nissan says No Brexit

Nissan confirms what this column predicted weeks ago, that it will build its new XTrail SUV outside the UK, the first indication car makers have lost confidence in Merry May’s promise of no tariffs. Readers will sense we are seeing the tip of the iceberg. The company blames Brexit. Another cat out of the bag is the alleged £80 million offered to Nissan to hang fire. People are screaming ‘corruption’ as if a car company has never received state aid before. May promised to subsidise tariffs after Brexit – well, now we know how much she thought she’d have to pay. What I find odd are English folk who write angrily denying Nissan’s decision has anything to do with Brexit. Some of those who write are Nissan workers living in Leaveland, otherwise known as Sunderland. Nissan assembles cars in the UK from parts imported from the EU to sell in the UK and the EU. Did Nissan workers really assume a Japanese employer is not Onion Johnny?

Workplace parking levy

This arrived in my in-try from Adam McVey the SNP council leader of Edinburgh Council. Any reader got the skinny on it? “The Scottish Government’s indication of acceptance of the Green amendment to the Transport Bill will also allow us to explore further the introduction of a ‘Workplace Parking Levy’, which could provide much-needed revenue to invest in public transport, active travel and other key public services while tackling congestion.” I stand to be corrected, but is this not a Tory idea mooted some years back?



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