Jun 032011

The Roe Buck – A Short Story By Alan Gatt.

He’d just been congratulating himself – it was quite early in the season to feel as fit as he did.

During the appalling winter, his saddle-fitness had declined, but since the spring had come early and bright he’d managed to improve on that.
Climbing the steepest hill he knew in the town; he’d managed it that day with less distress, in a higher gear, quicker and with better form than he’d done so far that year.

Half way up he’d even felt good enough to kick, to dig down into reserves of strength he didn’t know he had – to spin the pedals faster and actually accelerate up the hill.

That hill at the very edge of the parish boundary of his town – quite rural really – up a forestry trail to a summit with an Ordnance Survey concrete pillar trig-point on top and such a view! The hill that gathers the rain that feeds the springs that become the burn that gave his town its name and gave the town the green estuarine littoral to found itself upon all those centuries ago.

Cresting the summit and now on a plateau the cyclist knuckle-flicks the paddle to slip up a gear and relaxes, pleased with himself. Now travelling at about walking pace on the loose gravel path, heading slightly down and dead straight, increasing speed; faster now – jogging pace, faster now – running speed faster again – faster than a runner –  gravel chips pinging poing, boing from beneath chunky, nobbly tyres.

To think: the loose-ish glacially deposited aggregate sand and gravel of this kame hill were water-borne – carried by that burn water; speck by speck, stone by stone down the valley to form that estuary, now reclaimed beneath shopping mall and car park and railway station and road: a perfect flatland for development alongside the harbour – that harbour itself once the shifting sand estuary of a much mightier-yet watercourse, now granite pier and concrete pile contained, dredger-tamed.

Now speeding about as fast as he’d like to go for comfort and safety on the unmetalled surface – any more and his suspension-forks wouldn’t plushly absorb the bumps of the boulder-studded gravel and sand surface – he realises in the quiet of his outreaching thoughts that he’s not alone – something impinges on his consciousness, matching speed and direction – a flicker in the trees: the path now a fully enclosed avenue high contrast light and shadow strobe pulsing through the tree fronds hiding the sky above. Shafts of coppergold light here briefly blinding him through the slatted louvres of the pines – there illuminating the quiet dust of the still forest, suspended in the air, a moment holding its breath.

That flicker in the trees, it’s real, it’s alive, it’s a deer!

On a parallel route, he can see small antlers – a buck! Matching movement through the forest. But the cyclist is a noisy fuss on a forestry road and the roe buck is effortless amongst moss and fern and boulder and  trees, jinking and sidewinding – maintaining smooth forward momentum, muzzle high on this slender neck and with this jet black moist eye regarding and shadowing the cyclist’s progress, the roe buck stays with him – steady.

And then, the path gradient turns positive again, robbing both of speed, but still they shadow one another slowing to the crest, slowing, slowing together, stopping – stopped.

Unclipping one foot from a pedal, the mountain biker stands as still and quiet as he can on the upward-sloping path, and the roe stops too as if somehow robbed of the impetus which earlier made him run. A living-room’s width away, the deer is just inside the margin of the trees; this body parallel to the path, this head turning to the man. A moment of complete silence. A moment of complete stillness.

compared to the roe buck, he was just a conceited dilettante, with all this weird equipment and preparations

This moment – not enough for the man to see too deeply into these deep moist reflective big black eyes. Not enough to make a true mutual connection, not enough. But enough to for him to see that in these black moist eyes here is no human emotion – no way to ever connect.

And suddenly silently these eyes are away! Turning at right angles, the parallel shadowing over, finished – the buck springs with no noise and these slenderest of neat legs over a stone dyke into a grassy field and away swift and down towards the broad valley of the ancient burn. The two part, their paths brought together by coincidence, by providence, now their routes bifurcated and branching away from each other forever.

Standing now alone, the cyclist felt a little ashamed that he should have thought himself fit, that his meaty-thigh-powered steel and aluminium contrivance should have filled him with self-congratulatory regard. For all he prided himself on being an outdoor type; of connecting with the good earth, of living the life of the world – rather than just inhabiting it; now the man realised that, compared to the roe buck, he was just a conceited dilettante, with all this weird equipment and preparations and clothes and planning. A fussy amateur, only playing at being real – only pretending to be outside.

By contrast the deer was the very essence of a self-contained life without superfluity. Lean, slender, light, swift, efficient. Fit and fitting. Truly free.

For, now freed from his brief alien contact with the man, centred wholly and still within his body’s own movement, the buck’s desire line down into the valley is primordial. He is moving without moving, as water flows within itself; the buck cannot be anything other than what he is; he is integral.

Just as without the water there is no watercourse, the deer is self-contained in his looping graceful curved route down across open fields following a path of least resistance with no artifice, no construction, no meaning, no implication. Nothing is wasted and nothing is superfluous. He has neither capacity for understanding any distinction between himself and the landscape through which he moves, nor way of understanding the passing of one moment to the next. For by his existence that understanding would be redundant: he is that landscape; he is that movement; he is that moment – there can be no distinction for all are one.

as these thoughts wandered across his mind, the cyclist realised that he’d lost sight of the buck

Flashing across the field and vaulting… up, hey! Over another dyke at speed the buck somehow remains that silently moving pool of stillness, motionless in his body; moving without moving – completely fit for his surroundings and fitting them seamlessly and essentially.

Providence he is, and he is subject to providence. Here is no human emotion. Here is only motionless motion.

The cyclist stood watching as the buck receded to a speck, proceeding into the depths of the valley and from this high vantage the man’s eyes flickered to the prominences which he noticed stood, seeming sentinels, either side of the valley as it descended meandering eastwards towards the town’s urban centre.

On a hill to the north of the valley, a civic water supply reservoir. Looking for all the world like a truncated pyramid built by an ancient civilisation, the reservoir’s sepulchral forms devised an appropriate reflection to the modernist-style city crematorium which occupied the mirror-slope hill to the south. To the north, life-giving cool water – to the south, death and disposal in flames.

As he regarded the buildings on these slopes, and as these thoughts wandered across his mind, the cyclist realised that he’d lost sight of the buck. Try as he might, he couldn’t pick him out any more amongst the fields and dykes, hedges and copses as they spread out below him in the valley. He couldn’t see whether the roe buck would travel on the north or the south side. He couldn’t see what choice providence had made for the bifurcating future. On one branch, nurture and a plan for the future – on the other, consuming searing erasure; an end to a future.

He re-clipped his foot into the pedal, sighed deeply and pedalled on.

May 202011

Alan Gatt presents a transcript of a familiar, fictional, factual, farcical meeting which never happened, but might happen, or possibly already has – or may even be in progress at this very moment in time.

Good afternoon everyone.

All cleared print ID? Yes. If you could leave all your mobile gadgets – cameras, body-mounted vid-capture devices, smartcells, enhanced biros etcetera with Judy at the thumb-print-in desk please. And step through the magnetoarch… nobody got an old-fashioned metallic hip replacement – ha ha – no? Good. Thanks.

Everybody through OK? No anomalous readings, Judy? No? Good. If you could all find a seat – is there enough room? The room is quite small, em… sorry about that, but the EM suppression means that it has to be. Everyone got a seat now? Good.

Colleagues, on behalf of us all at the Trans-Conjectural Proposals Instigation Trust thank you for taking the time out of your energetic schedules to attend this brief stakeholder update presentation at this key watershed time for our iconic project. And yes, welcome along today to the splendid white-room facilities of the Querulant Suite at this new Idée Fixe Conference Centre.

We thank our hosts for the provision of these splendid facilities, not only for this windowless and unrecordable environment – just the thing! – but also for their reasonably-priced and exemplary underground car-park with its innovative numberplate and face-recognition technology demonstrator. All got your PINcards? Some of you have the subcutaneous upgrades, eh? Heh-heh. Good. Shouldn’t talk too much about car-parks, though.

To business…

You’ll all be familiar with the surprisingly rapid progress of our most recent Trans-Conjectural Proposal which has advanced in an inspirational and iconic fashion. Now is the time for us to transform this project into what we can now call a Global Trans-Conjectural Context-Framing Opportunity. To deliver this transformative, em, transformation, we have developed a delivery plan which will champion and shepherd this agenda. Stepping up to the plate on an interlinked basis, this plan is assured of delivering the appearance of three-hundred-and-sixty degree participation models within our context.

Our overarching management strategy will be driving forward our key activity delivery and measurement plan. The delivery plan will be in the form of an inspirational yet logical legal-entity action-plan vehicle which progresses up-front objectives emerging through this unique window of opportunity towards the delivery of our most ambitious and foremost logical key priorities. It safeguards the potential for a distinct opinionscaping context-framing outlook and will greenlight fund-channeling linkages into an entirely new dynamic.

A strategically central numbers game will provide a fundamental plank to access innovative fund sources underpinned by this transformational drive to manage ownership and own management of this delivery plan.

In due course, this special purpose vehicle will be enhanced and reinvigorated.

This development strategy is shared by key players and the uplift provided by the delivery plan mechanism is central to its delivery; it will unlock a more attractive, safer and better connected win-win managementscape and target-rich investmentscape for the key stakeholders here today.

And so contracts for community engagement initiatives will soon be in place, delivering on a range of public-relations improvements under the auspices of our best-practice masterplan which we outlined at the last presentation. These new community engagement contracts will provide us with the ideal public-realm participation management solution for the provision of the required consent-manufacturing services via this special purpose vehicle.

In due course, this special purpose vehicle will be enhanced and reinvigorated. This is expected to be fully available and framework-compliant within the context-framing consent-manufacturing mindscape which we have already achieved, all the while maximising shareholder value… Oh! Thank-you, no… em… yes, thank-you. Applause isn’t necessary –  no, ha-ha! Thanks.

…Where was I? Ah yes… The continual securing of this self-referencing self-certified procedural approval feedback mechanism will unlock further yet imaginative, bigger, brighter and iconic leadership obscurantism.

This opportunity to shape the future with self-referencing enriched vitality is truly strategic, truly innovative and the radical transformation will not only provide fascinating narcissistic appeal within our own little circle of friends – ha ha – but also wider heritage compliance lipservice services outwith it. Inspirational inclusion misdirection initiatives when appropriate via incremental rearward-facing commitments once progressed will create the appearance of a real iconic international buzz.

our established undertaking of prioritising strategy themes and status updates will continue towards the feedback-enabled enhancement of project engagement resources

In conclusion, then, when we look back on what has been achieved so far in the shaping of the civic mindscape, the manipulation of the investment opportunityscape and the creation of a public opinionscape which is largely characterised by confusion if not ennui, we can look back on an approach – a resource – which we will continue to leverage towards the achievement of ever more enhanced shareholder value and stakeholder satisfaction.

So long as key deliverables are progressed in accordance with opportunities within the supply chain to anchor our central objectives with respect to this clear strategy, our established undertaking of prioritising strategy themes and status updates will continue towards the feedback-enabled enhancement of project engagement resources. This provides both measurable internal accountability and vital external obfuscation services.

The vision for this exciting journey is an innovative yet highly robust process which every stakeholder here will enjoy participating in. Every stakeholder here today is part of the process. The process is the future and the future is the process. We are the future. This is a very real possibility. It is within our grasp, we are nearly there. With your continued support and with the compliance and consent we have already engineered, rates of return much higher than those available in any other investmentscape will be assured. Thank you all.

…Ha-ha, thanks, yes, thank-you. Too kind… too kind. Thanks.

…Thank you for your time today. Questions will not be necessary. And now I think Judy’s got some special drinks and nibbles ready for us in the Dependency Suite… if you’d like to go through… please… thanks…

Dec 032010

By Alan Gatt.

Last week Aberdeen Voice brought you part 2 of Alan Gatt’s examination of where Aberdeen and Aberdonians are going wrong, and focussed on the Dutch disease, Affluenza and Hyperreality. This week, in part three Alan Takes a look at General Well-being and Reality Distortion Field.

In Powell and Pressberger’s 1945 classic “I Know Where I’m Going”, Wendy Hiller’s stranger-in-a-strange-land banker’s daughter is treated to a lightbulb moment via the indulgence of Roger Livesey’s Hebridean laird:

Hiller: People around here are very poor I suppose.

Livesey: Not poor, they just haven’t got money.

Hiller: It’s the same thing.

Livesey: Oh no, it’s something quite different.

When he was in opposition our new PM David Cameron was keen to promote a similar message. Speaking at the Google Zeitgeist Europe conference in 2006 he said:

Too often in politics today, we behave as if the only thing that matters is the insider stuff that we politicians love to argue about – economic growth, budget deficits and GDP.

GDP. Gross domestic product. Yes it’s vital. It measures the wealth of our society. But it hardly tells the whole story. Wealth is about so much more than pounds, or euros or dollars can ever measure. It’s time we admitted that there’s more to life than money, and it’s time we focused not just on GDP, but on GWB – general well-being. Well-being can’t be measured by money or traded in markets. It can’t be required by law or delivered by government. It’s about the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture, and above all the strength of our relationships.

Improving our society’s sense of well-being is, I believe, the central political challenge of our times. It’s a challenge foreshadowed by one of Britain’s most famous economists – though not someone whose work I usually agree with. Writing in 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that by now, society would have “solved its economic problem” – that is, worked out how to create permanently rising standards of living.

Aspiration is insecurity. So we volunteer to place the shackles around our own ankles

In his essay, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, he argued: “For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”

In that essay of Keynes’ which Cameron mentioned, Keynes suggested that by 2030 we’d be about eight times better off economically than we were in 1930. And that once we’d achieved that level of affluence, we’d only find it necessary to work about 15 hours per week. The rest of the time, we could be humans; free to “do one thing to-day and another to-morrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner” as Marx would have it.

Well, since about 1986 Marx has been unmentionable and in our neocon times (which started in 1979) Keynes is perennially unfashionable, but the fact is that we achieved that ‘eight times better off’ quite some time ago. Of course – Keynes posited – there would still be some individuals who would work harder and for longer hours than others in pursuit of greater monetary wealth, but most wouldn’t – seeing the love of money as “one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities”.

So what’s going on? Why do we feel we must work so hard? It seems that as we aspire to the next level on the upgrade cycle – (best not fall behind our neighbours, colleagues, friends and family!) our anxieties are played upon and our insecurities are exploited, and so we give up our freedom to hours greatly in excess of the working time directive, let alone Keynes’ 15 hours. Aspiration is insecurity. So we volunteer to place the shackles around our own ankles. “Prosperity without freedom is just another form of poverty”.


So, where’s Aberdeen going wrong? Hyperreality? Dutch Disease? Affluenza? Resource Depletion? All of these things are present. But what I percieve in Aberdeen is a sort of un-founded self-belief. A vainglorious boastfulness which ill-serves us when compared with our peers. In “A Big Boy did it and Ran Away” Scottish author Christopher Brookmyre spells it out as the protagonist mulls the Aberdonian condition:

Europe’s Oil Capital. Honestly. The first time he heard the expression, he’d assumed it was a bit of self deprecatory humour. That was before he learned that there was no such thing as self-deprecatory humour in Aberdeen, particularly when it came to the town’s utterly unfounded conceit of itself. It was a provincial fishing port that had struck it astronomically lucky with the discovery of North Sea oil, and the result was comparable to a country bumpkin who had won the lottery, minus the dopey grin and colossal sense of incredulous gratitude. The prevalent local delusion wasn’t that the town had merely been in the right place at the right time, but that it had somehow done something to deserve this massive good fortune, and not before time either.

So even with all these things going wrong all around – the visible decay and the social exclusion; the decline of our elder industries and the planning blight despoiling the town centre – we still think we’re Ertchie! A couple of weeks ago I had an argument with an Aberdeen blogger who claimed that the North East “contributed 24% of all corporation tax to the UK exchequer”. What he’d actually heard at a “business breakfast briefing” was, that, following the recent budget Aberdeen “City and Shire” businesses will be paying UK Corporation tax at the rate of 24%. He grabbed a hold of the wrong end of the stick. And then proceeded to wave it about drawing attention to himself. This sort of thing – this sort of thinking – is typical.

So I think that the biggest thing going wrong in Aberdeen is a sort of self-regarding reality-distortion-field. A shame. Because it is actually a really attractive modestly-sized town that needs no overenthusiastic boosterism. We should recognise and celebrate Aberdeen for what it is; not for what the reality-distortion-field of some has convinced them it should be.

The affluenza-driven self-regard of the pompous reality-distortion-field is trapping us in an illusion of Aberdeen which is compounded by our condition of hyperreality. That vainglorious self-reverence which confuses surface with substance is yet another example of our lack of freedom. Voltaire said something like: “It’s hard to free people from the chains they revere”.

Obama said: “Prosperity without freedom is just another form of poverty”.

Nov 262010

Last week in Aberdeen Voice brought you part one of Alan Gatt’s examination of where Aberdeen and Aberdonians are going wrong, and focussed on flexicurity. This week, in part two Alan looks at how the city may be affected by the Dutch Disease, Affluenza and Hyperreality.

There’s a concept in economics called the Dutch Disease – which explains how the development of a natural resource extraction business sector (like oil and gas) and its associated economic boom can over-balance an economy, causing decline in non-extractive value-adding sectors – particularly the manufacturing sector, but also in agriculture.

The pathology of the Dutch Disease is accompanied by moral decline in the personal sphere – affluenza – and turpitude in the public sector and government as they becomes entangled with big-money business interests. Hmm… sounds familiar.

The term was coined to describe the decline of the manufacturing sector and moral fall-out in the Netherlands in the 1970’s following the discovery and exploitation of the gigantic Groningen gas field. The worlds largest ever public-private-partnership (Gasunie) was formed by Shell, Esso and the Dutch State to exploit this resource. At its height, it was not possible to say where the state ended and Gasunie began. Or vice versa. The question was meaningless.

The mechanism goes something like this…

The booming sector (resource extraction) increases the demand for labour and capital which in turn causes the movement of production away from other sectors (in particular, away from value-creating manufacturing and agriculture).

This is compounded by what some economists call the ‘spending effect’: As personal wealth (for some) increases, it causes an increase in demand for capital and labour to be directed towards the service sectors (including business and personal services, catering, retail and real estate). This, of course, further draws production away from the manufacturing sector and agriculture.

Moreover, this increased demand for service sector goods leads to an increase in prices for these goods and services. The price for the primary resource in the booming resource sector (in our case oil and gas) is set internationally, and so cannot be affected by local economic factors. As price levels for service sector goods and real estate in the local economy boom, this increases the effective exchange rate for individuals and enterprises looking to move into or out of the area. Of course, we are part of the UK and use GB Pounds Sterling as our medium of exchange, it’s just that, in this town your GB Pounds exchange for fewer service-sector goods (from haircuts to pints in the pub to real estate) than they do in most of the rest of Scotland.

The living room was the factory – the product being manufactured was him

It operates like the event horizon of a black hole; there comes a point of no return – a point where it becomes almost impossible to do anything within the local economy which is not in some way dependent upon flows of cash from Oil and Gas. “Prosperity without freedom is just another form of poverty”.


One of the first answers to the question “where is Aberdeen going wrong?” is to question the question itself. Is Aberdeen, indeed, going wrong? Or is there something else? As I type this, I’m looking out of a north-facing window which overlooks the rooftops of Rubislaw, the sun is low and dramatically highlighting the teracotta chimeypots and grey slate roofs and silver-grey gables of the west end. Contrasting with the azure blue sky and puffy white clouds and highlighted by the remaining copper-gold leaves clinging to the serried trees which line the many stately avenues of the Victorian town, nothing much seems very “wrong” with Aberdeen from here. It’s gorgeous.

All very picture-postcard, but a nice view doesn’t mean that all’s well behind closed doors. In new-build housing we see a sort of sickly pastiche of past glories, and so we wonder to ourselves why people find themselves drawn to that style; who controls the message? Let’s consider the life of someone I know (it’s not really anyone in particular, rather it’s a hybrid, a composite – made up of many individuals and actions – some of which are me and mine, from a past life). This is a man who recently bought just such a ‘traditional’ (pastiche) house in one of Aberdeen’s metastasising exurbs. Maybe the question should be not “where is Aberdeen going wrong?”, but rather “where are Aberdonians going wrong?” His is a story which is all about ‘messages’:

The exterior of his new house is a message, his brand new possessions contained within the interior and the fresh interior scheme itself are laden with messages. His car is marque “x” which says “y” about him. He reckons it says “y” about him, ‘cos the advert and the carsalesman (his great annual friend) implied heavily that it would. It also lets everyone know what his paygrade is. That’s very important. By the badges of their cars they keep their scores in the hierarchies.

All these things are signifiers of ‘him’, but, although he exercised the final and one true freedom of consumer choice, he did not truly choose them – rather they were chosen for him; they chose him.Unheedingly he spins the hamsterwheel on the neverending upgrade cycle.Surely the next upgrade/iteration of his chosen phone/car/gamesconsole/kitchen appliance/laptop/holiday package/tv broadcasting standard/whatever will be the one which will make his life complete! He doesn’t care that the upgrade cycle has effectively rendered the ownership of his possessions merely short term leases towards planned obsolescence – that’s OK! The subscription model embraces and guides him towards a future on the upgrade path, the roadmap to forever, the added functionality, the software/hardware nexus. Mobile phone teleco business models lead the way to the free provision of hardware in return for a monthly subscription fee. The more he pays, the quicker he get upgraded to newer more functional flashier hardware which he displays visibly to the chagrin of his inferiors in the lounge bar/restaurant/leisure & retail destination (all are now one and the same).

Does it trouble him that, seen from the other end of the telescope, he is in fact the product which has been manufactured conditioned moulded and finalised by his compliant vacuous consumption of advertising media (the adverts are sometimes better than the programmes!). The living room was the factory – the product being manufactured was him. He has been told what to want, told when to want it, but never told why. A pre-indebted fully conditioned compliant producer-consumer, he is passed around by the corporations like a party whore; his contract is negotiable. He is the ‘installed base’ which the providers want to ‘upsell’ to. His eyes are the eyes delivered to the advertisers by his media provider. His subscription is the unarguably certain future revenue upon which the media providers base their corporate profitability forecasts as they strategise and organise: the world and its minds being theirs to homogenise.

A pre-indebted fully conditioned compliant producer-consumer, he is passed around by the corporations like a party whore

So does it trouble him? No, he’s too tired: crushed by the unhuman commute, enriching far-off faceless investors by his toils. That is when he’s not going through the motions with displacement activity and clock-watching till 5 o’clock and the tea-time pint (or two or three) which he’s convinced himself that he deserves; digging ever deeper into the easy-credit overdraft of ersatz happiness and good cheer from the bank of Boozy Britain. Then an exhausted evening slumped in front of the plasma, ready-meal in one hand, continental lager in the other; conditioned by advertising-funded broadcasting to be a good consumer – a commercial commodity, bought, sold and delivered gift-wrapped to the corporations; endentured, bonded, enslaved by the upgrade cycle. Then the same again tomorrow. Is this man free? No, indeed he is not. “Prosperity without freedom is just another form of poverty”.

But the exterior of his house screams of a “traditional” and pre-consumerism era. It is a hyperreal simulacrum. Aha! Hyperreality can be thought of as a sort of reality by proxy – where the real world or experience has been replaced by a simulation at surface level only: a “real fake” which is “even better than the real thing”. Indeed, the condition of hyperreality which now permeates Aberdeen and Aberdonians is indicated by this confusion between surface and substance. The same condition of hyperreality causes our posited Aberdonian to mistake buying a “lifestyle” for actually living a life. The same confusion is seen over and over throughout Aberdeen, Scotland, the UK and the Anglosphere – we have mistaken affluence for wealth. Some commentators call this affluenza, and we’ve got a bad case of it in Aberdeen.

Nov 192010

By Alan Gatt.

Last week, as a way of remotely pulling the Chinese chain on his way to the G20 in Seoul, American President Barack Obama said to an Indonesian audience “prosperity without freedom is just another form of poverty”.

I have recently been asked to consider just where it is that Aberdeen (the town where I live) is going wrong. This question has been posed to me and others in the context of the visible decay in the urban environment of the town, the deterioration of some aspects of its infrastructure and services and the perception that – in the context of a political sphere which is perceived as weak or incompetent, intransigent or complicit – business interests are poised to mount a putsch on the civic space in favour of their own vested interests.

A common enough phenomenon but one that is novel in living memory in Aberdeen, at least in the shameless, nakedness of its ambition.

These phenomena first started manifesting themselves a couple of years ago. At that time my wife and I decided that we did not much like the way the wind was blowing and we considered leaving. We set about saying goodbye to Aberdeen. We did not know it at the time, but what we embarked upon was a process of psychogeography, which allowed us to uncover more of the truth of the real shape which Aberdeen’s in than the easy-to-level “j’accuse” which so many simply point at Aberdeen City Council.


The Oil and Gas industry makes up almost a quarter of our economy in the North East of Scotland. It employs around a fifth of our workers. According to Aberdeen City Council, at current rates of extraction, the currently proven reserves will be effectively depleted by 2016. We do not need to read far between the lines of the local press to understand that this is a source of palpable insecurity at development agency and Chamber of Commerce level. So what else is there? There are no more primary sector resources to extract. Once we dug value from the igneous stone beneath our feet, at present we sook it from beneath the seabed. These fountainheads of value are now depleting fast if not already depleted.

According to Aberdeen City Council, at current rates of extraction, the currently proven reserves will be effectively depleted by 2016

There is much talk of supporting retail development in Aberdeen – in a sort of  beggar-thy-neighbour attempt to pull demand in from the hinterland and as far away as Dundee and Inverness. But we cannot just hope to continue shopping on tick, unless we simultaneously create value elsewhere in the economy.

Luxe retail being an example of what economists call a ‘sink sector’ (munitions being another) whereby excess value is drained from an economy. That is assuming there is excess value.

I also have a sneaking suspicion that this support for retail (which includes big-ticket city-centre road projects like the Berryden Corridor urban dual carriageway) is beginning to look like a bit of a cargo cult. We are like the Melanesian tribes people   who after the 2nd World War built bamboo control towers and palm-frond landing strips in the hope of attracting down from the heavens their own supernatural Dakota freighter-planes full of goods from the gods. Like the cargo-cultists we ape and adopt the signifiers of economic success and affluence in the hope that that this will make that very economic success somehow arrive. “If you build it they will come…”.   It is putting the cart before the horse. Some of the projects we see being proposed are therefore, in my opinion, wrong-headed as they seek to create the omega-point of wealth creation, without noticing that first there is a whole long process of boot-strapping to be done in adding value before that value can be exploited by luxe retail and leisure. The cliché is “all fur coat and nae knickers”. But if the right conditions are in place to make the engine of capitalism hum, then the potential for wealth creation creates the jobs which will then in turn create and sustain the ‘lifestyle sector’,  which includes luxe retail, catering etc.

It is easy to be cynical, and we should applaud efforts by national and local government along with development agencies and industry bodies to initiate a renewable energy industrial sector in the area. Getting a significant portion of this sector to ‘anchor’ here would be a source of continual endogenous (self-generating) economic growth.

But almost by definition, such an industry will be orders of magnitude less capital intensive than oil and gas. Meantime, we see sink-sector cargo-cult (City Square, Trump Links) projects gaining much more prominence and promotion.

On a larger canvas, we are about to live in a time of transition. The transition away from debt-propelled consumerism is underway and the impact on the UK’s retail sector and its supply chains has already been severe.

However, to concentrate on national performance is a bit of a red herring. It is in the arena of cities and their relative strengths and attractiveness in retaining both finance capital and human/intellectual capital that we will see both the positive and negative effects of the transition which is already underway. We do not need to ask how the UK will compete with India; we need to ask how Aberdeen will compete with York and Lubeck, Cork and Ljubljana.

For cities that have a diverse economic base, a reduction in highly skilled roles will be difficult in the short term, but these highly skilled knowledge workers tend to be flexible and able to seek (or create) employment in other industries – the Work Foundation calls this ‘flexicurity’. For cities that have specialised more heavily, there are dangers that the transition may impact productivity and employment levels significantly without there being alternative industries for those workers to move into. In Aberdeen, we will be hit simultaneously by both resource depletion and wider economic rebalancing.

The question for us should be: “How much flexicurity is there in the Aberdeen economy?” We have become trapped by the easy money from Oil and Gas that has denuded the rest of our economy. Our local economy has lost its diversity and freedom of movement. “Prosperity without freedom is just another form of poverty”.

Next week, in part 2 of Going Wrong, Alan Gatt looks at how Aberdeen may be affected by The Dutch Disease, Affluenza and Hyperreality.