Mar 092012
 

The black calendar of Aberdeen’s civic history has a new entry: 2nd March 2012, the day that its citizens, evident sufferers of apathy and myopia, handed both its natural heritage and its economic future to a cabal of businessmen.  Arthur Taylor writes.

The fight to retain and improve Union Terrace Gardens hit the buffers on that day when the public – or rather 27.5% of them – voted to support the plans to destroy this unique piece of the city’s heritage and replace it with a concrete monstrosity – presumably confused by the smoke and mirrors of the PR campaign which branded it “The Granite Web”.

Whether the battle turns into a war, protracting the debate, and driving further wedges between parties already badly divided, remains to be seen, but it is hard to see a rapid healing of the wounds that this process has created.

It is also difficult to stop the passion that fuelled the Retain campaign from dissipating, before all avenues of challenge are exhausted against a process labelled as democratic – but which in reality has been anything but that.

What is clear is that events from 2008 to now should be reviewed and recorded for posterity, so that future generations when looking back can seek to understand a number of things:

  • why we allowed our heritage to be given away to a clique of egoists and nepotists, who deluded the public and maybe even themselves into believing that they were altruists and philanthropists
  • why the local authority whose primary function is to act in the citizenry’s best interest handed control to an unelected quango, immune from public scrutiny
  • and why we allowed the city’s future to be mortgaged on the most questionable of business cases, flagged up as high risk by Audit Scotland in the final days of the campaign – when most votes were already cast.

Not that this was a revelation: Friends of Union Terrace Gardens had identified the risk months before, but their claims were played down in the media.

The last two months have seen a referendum conducted by a returning officer who sought to have the campaigns run to a fair set of rules.

The dominance of the local print media in forming and steering public opinion, and its incestuous relationship with local business, is deeply concerning.

While it appears that the retain groups stayed within their £8000 budgets, the pro groups – aided and abetted by the collaborators in the local media – spent an estimated £1,000,000 to buy the votes of the people of Aberdeen. Their cynical campaign saw radio adverts dressed as public information broadcasts, and a drip-fed daily editorial in the local press, with each day’s evening paper offering more extravagant promises than the last, as part of a fawning hysterical clamour.

That the retain groups, variously composed primarily of grey-haired men, beardies, tree-huggers and an enthusiastic schoolboy, ran the referendum right to the wire, losing by such a slender margin, is testament to their energy, enthusiasm and resourcefulness. That they did this against a campaign co-ordinated by the BIG Partnership, Scotland’s largest PR agency, is little short of a miracle.

The dominance of the local print media in forming and steering public opinion, and its incestuous relationship with local business, is deeply concerning.

The public need a source of true facts rather than propaganda dressed as objective reporting.

That said, there have been two positives to emerge from the press coverage of the campaign: the amusement derived from watching the Evening Express contorting itself like an India-rubber prostitute in a bid to champion the development, while not entirely abandoning its habitual council-baiting; and the emergence of the STV Local site as a place where all parties can present their voice without editorial bias.

It is hard not to see the future of local journalism as lying in hyper-local online spaces, as counterpoint to the shrinking of print to the point of complete insignificance.

the dead-eyed, gape-mouthed novelty-seekers who lurch zombie-like through the malls

Returning to the proposed development itself, it should be remembered that Union Terrace Gardens is the only part of the city where one can see the original topography of the land on which the city is built.

Sadly the local authority in the last century has allowed almost all traces of the city’s history to be erased like some embarrassing legacy instead of retaining and celebrating its character. Compare this with Edinburgh’s old town or York’s centre.

We are now confronted by the effacement of the final part of our history in order to satisfy the dead-eyed, gape-mouthed novelty-seekers who lurch zombie-like through the malls that have brought about the systematic homogenisation of the city centre and obliterated all individuality and character.

If we do not continue to challenge this proposed act of civic vandalism, by:

  • opposing the planning application,
  • challenging the use of Common Good land,
  • exposing the business case as one which will leave the city bankrupt (as it was last in1817)  when the TIF scheme plays out as feared,

then we should at least ensure that we record for posterity the names of the businessmen who proposed this vanity project; note the politicians and faceless unelected quango-ists who eased its path to realisation; and ponder the many, many idiotic consumers who swallowed the hype, without challenge or analysis.

If we do nothing else, we should record those names on the black calendar’s page for 2nd March 2012.

Nov 102011
 

Books really are the gifts that keep on giving. Have you ever tried turning down the corner of your Kindle to mark where you left off reading? With an eye on the calendar and mindful that Voice readers should be sending letters up the lum shortly, David Innes performs a labour of love in reviewing a seasonal offering from a fitba hero for whom every month was Movember.

Willie Miller is indisputably the greatest-ever Don. The image of him, bristling of moustache, jet black hair matted with Scandinavian May rain, nonchalantly holding aloft in trade mark single-handed triumph the European Cup-Winners’ Cup, is etched indelibly on every Dons fan’s retina.

It’s will be no surprise to learn that this iconic image dominates the front cover of Dream Team, in which Miller evaluates Dons with whom he played, stars who he managed whilst also trawling the Pittodrie archives to give brief pen pictures of legends of yesteryear as he chooses his best side and, unusually, backroom staff.

When football fans, always much more knowledgeable, of course, than those qualified and paid to make selection decisions, cannot even agree who should be in their team this week, selecting an all-time XI from their club’s entire history is guaranteed to cause arguments.

No doubt  Miller’s volume will engender more disputes than it will settle. Such debate is a huge part of football’s attraction to those addicted to it and happy in the knowledge that there is no known cure for this affliction.

Without giving too much away in case a Dream Team-shaped parcel finds its way under your festive tree next month, Miller rules himself out and selects a side in 4-3-3 formation, with seven substitutes. Unsurprisingly, most are his own contemporaries, but given that he played at the top level for 16 years, that gives him a wide constituency from which to choose.

All very interesting, but it is his – or perhaps co-author Robertson’s – research into Wasps and Reds icons of the 70 years of club history before Willie’s own career began that fascinates most. Although previous volumes have covered this before, an appreciation of Dons giants written from a player’s perspective gives occasional new insights to familiar and less-familiar names.

The fact that the terms “we” and “us” are used, even when discussing the author’s distant club forebears, is quite endearing.

What is disappointing is the editing. Occasional errors will slip through, but facts are easily checked. If the text is to be believed, the peerless Eric Black scored on his debut against Dundee United in another dimension, since there is no 31 September on any earthly calendar known to me.

The writing could frequently be sharpened, tightened up and sprinkled with some editorial pixie dust, but football books are rarely contenders for literary awards.

If you love the Dons, you’ll find Dream Team is of considerable interest and worth reading. If you don’t, I want to know why.

Willie Miller’s Aberdeen Dream Team
Willie Miller with Rob Robertson
Black and White Publishing. 236 pp. £10.99