Nov 282014

ChristmasBy Bob Smith.

Christmas means a lot o things
Ti some it is present buyin
Ti ither fowk a time o hope
Ti the lonely it can bi tryin

“Gweed King Wenceslas leuk’t oot”
An aa the malls war  heavin
Fowk rinnin aboot like reid ersed bees
Fae bank balances cash wis leavin

Christmas time I like it fine
If aa ignore the retail farce
Fin some drink ower the score
An lan up on their arse

Christmas means bonnie music
Na nae the ringin o the tills
Bit brass bands an joyfu singin
As choirs show aff their skills

On the wireless tunes are played
Ti ma lugs es brings great joy
They bring oot aa the classics
A’ve kent sin a wis a boy

Christmas shud be a time o peace
As wi leuk up ti the stars
If onybody’s up ‘ere leukin doon
Aa they’ll see is bliddy wars

An yet in the midst o the Great War
Ae Christmas ‘ere wis brief respite
Fin Tommies an Jerries played fitba
An baith sides sang “Silent Night”

© Bob Smith “The Poetry Mannie” 2014
Picture Credit: Ian Britton.
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Dec 132013

By Bob Smith.

Winter in Northumberland2, England - Credit Ian Britton 90_07_6_prev

Foo muckle siller wull ye spend
On pressies fer yer freens ?
Or some fer aa the faimily
Be they auld or in their teens
A new name fer Christmas
“The Retail Festival” it is ca’ed
Fin thingies they git oot o han
An aa bugger gyaangs fair mad
Noo a’m nae Scrooge –far fae it
Bit a wid fair draw the line
At gittin awa intae debt
Afore singin “Auld Lang Syne”.
A’m aa fer gien a wee present
Tae faimily or fowk lang kent
Some fowk tho’ dinna hae a clue
Aboot foo muckle they hiv spent
A freen o mine he’s renegin
He says he’s seen the licht
An disna gie twa hoots
If fowk noo think him ticht
He’s nae gien ony mair
Presents he classes “stuff”
He’ll buy a wee bottle o booze
Or maybe a sma plum duff
He says it’s far mair practical
As he kens jist fa likes fit
Instead o maybe hannin ower
Fit fowk micht class as shit
Only costs him haaf the price
O things he wid normally gie
An he winna hae tae worry
Fae debt he wull bide free

©Bob Smith “The Poetry Mannie” 2013
Image credit: Ian Britton –
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Aug 092013

Mike Shepherd examines social and economic changes which can been seen to have a wide reaching environmental impact from the rain forest of Borneo to the toads of Bishops Loch.

In May this year I returned from Borneo after working there for nine months.

I was living in a city slightly larger than Aberdeen, and although located in Malaysia, over half the inhabitants there are ethnic Chinese.

My hotel apartment was in the Chinese district and I found myself one of only a handful of westerners living there.

The Malaysian people pride themselves on their scrupulous racial tolerance and never at any time did I feel uncomfortable living among them.

I soon made several Chinese friends and found myself quickly immersed in their way of life. I’ve been told that the Chinese of Borneo have preserved more of their age-old culture than is the case on the Chinese mainland, where modernisation and globalisation are changing things rapidly.

I felt a lot like a modern age Marco Polo as I learnt with great interest about subjects such as Taoism, Feng Shui and numerology. My Malaysian Chinese friends were pragmatic, extremely business focussed, and yet the most superstitious people I’d ever come across.

One morning in Borneo, I woke up smelling wood smoke. I looked out from the 17th floor of the apartment block where I lived, and saw smoke billowing over the low ridges to the east of the city. Billowing smoke is a common sight in this part of the world, and is the result of scrubland being burnt off in preparation for the laying out of palm oil plantations, or land for crops.

The scrubland is what remains after tropical rain forest has been chopped down. The tropical forest is disappearing in Borneo: one estimate puts the rain forest cover at less than 50%. The tropical hard wood is sold to countries such as India, and it’s a highly profitable business.

The sight and smell of the wood smoke upset me greatly. It’s a sign of how the tropical rain forest is dwindling and it’s also a health hazard. The smoke is carcinogenic, yet none of the authorities would do anything to stop it from drifting over the city. A taxi driver told me that on occasions the smoke in the city would become so dense that it would be almost impossible to drive safely.

Singapore was similarly  affected in June this year.

On the day that I first smelled wood smoke, I mentioned this to my Chinese friends over a beer in the evening. I made some comment about how sad it was that we should have to tolerate the toxic smoke, in the full knowledge of the loss to humanity of such a valuable resource as the tropical rain forest.

Not only were our lungs being assaulted but the “lung” that provided oxygen to the world was being destroyed piecemeal.

The biodiversity catastrophe taking place would impoverish the whole of humanity and not just the people in Borneo.

These comments were received in stunned silence.

Then one of my friends spoke in an angry tone:

“YOU PEOPLE. How can you come here and say things like that?” 

I was immediately alarmed, a subject of extreme sensitivity had clearly been broached. Not only that, the vehemence of the reply was totally out of place in a culture where there is a taboo against displaying strong emotions in public.

What followed was an explanation of what had upset them so much and I write here the gist of what they said to me.

The logging industry and palm oil plantations are major sources of employment in the area, together with the oil industry and a little bit of tourism. There is no manufacturing industry in Borneo; it’s too far off the shipping lanes to have got caught up in the tiger economy of Southeast Asia. Jobs in logging and palm oil provide income for the locals.

The alternative is the poverty that is all too visible in parts of the city. Although Malaysia is relatively prosperous, you can still find illegal shanty towns or ‘kampungs’, which are typically where immigrants from Indonesia and the Philippines live. The week after I arrived, an epidemic of cholera had broken out in a kampung in the neighbouring city; a sign of the very poor sanitary conditions in these places.

My friends had told me on other occasions about poverty in Southeast Asia. For example, the poor of Indonesia sustain themselves with what they call “second-hand rice”. This is boiled rice left over from cafes and restaurants which is treated by being left to dry in the sun. The rice is then broken up and bagged, ready to be sold very cheaply to those who can’t even afford fresh rice.

perhaps both sides of the argument are perfectly reasonable

As we sat drinking Tiger Beer in the local Chinese café, they asked me “Would you want us to be that poor by denying us jobs?” The subject was quickly changed and we found something a lot more jolly to talk about. Social harmony is highly valued in that part of the world.

In the final analysis, most people reading this in Aberdeen, I would guess, will probably agree with me; whereas most people in Borneo would take the opposing view. My take on this is that perhaps both sides of the argument are perfectly reasonable. It’s an example of how you can frame two distinct and opposing statements that are both equally valid and show impeccable internal logic.

I would still strongly concur with what I said, and yet I would also agree with my Chinese friends. I wouldn’t want them to suffer the deprivations of Asian poverty. Not them, not anybody.

How do you solve this dilemma? The region of Borneo I was working in, Sarawak, has a population of only 2.4 million. This is less than half the population of Scotland, yet Sarawak covers a large area. Perhaps it might be possible to achieve a sustainable economy that would provide work for the local population and still preserve what is left of the tropical rain forest?

Alas, this was not a topic for serious conversation in the Chinese café, it was just too naïve a suggestion to make in that part of the world. Rich and powerful people are making big money out of logging and they couldn’t care less about the environment. The mentality of exploiting any resources you can, to make money, is at any rate embedded in the local way of life at all levels, and few see any problem with that.

The threat of ever-present poverty is a big driver for this attitude.  Borneo is a simple case history that shows that without international effort to achieve a sustainable solution for the world’s environmental problems, the situation will only carry on until everything is gone.

What’s happening in Borneo is a story that is being repeated all over the tropics and elsewhere in the world. Let’s not be too smug: closer to home, it’s not too difficult to find similar examples of catastrophic loss of biodiversity.

One example I know about comes from the Bishops Loch in Parkhill near Dyce. Bishops Loch is about 9 acres in area and is named after the now ruined Bishop’s Palace located on the north bank of the loch. The Palace, in reality a small house- sized building, was owned by the medieval Bishop of Aberdeen.

The loch used to be well known for its large population of toads which could be heard croaking on a summer’s evening.  However, the introduction of the oil industry inadvertently wiped out the entire toad population.

The toads would overwinter in Parkhill Wood, a behaviour that involved migrating from the loch and crossing the adjacent B997 road.

This was not that hazardous a trip in the 1960s, but when oil company offices and warehouses opened up in Dyce in the 1970s, the B997 became a much busier road. It was being used as a popular rat run to get from the Bridge of Don to Dyce. The toad population started to plummet as more and more were run over by cars during their winter migration across the road.

A local resident contacted the then Grampian Council at the end of the 1970s and asked for a tunnel to be built under the road as a means of preserving the toad population. This was not taken seriously. No doubt the council officials felt they had better things to spend ratepayers’ money on than an escape route for toads. Economics tends to win out over the environment most of the time.

The world is living an unsustainable ‘jam today, bread tomorrow’ way of life. Our current standard of living is at the expense of an indeterminate future.  Here in Scotland, our municipal authorities have a combined debt of £11 billion and it is increasing fast, year-on-year. Loading debt is the only way they can manage their budget obligations.

It will be an unwelcome legacy to our children and grandchildren, who will just have to cope with it if they can. Likewise, we are unsustainably exploiting the environment and for those of us who don’t eat second-hand rice, we are doing reasonably comfortably out of it so far.

The wild things are going fast, be it in Borneo or Bishops Loch. Academic biologists actively discuss the idea that we are currently heading for a man-made mass extinction event.

There are too many people in the world. Our planet has coped with 7 billion people on the planet so far, and the numbers are increasing fast. Four babies are being born every second: 200,000 additional people are being added to the world’s population every day.

Modern technology and transport have allowed humans to cope with these enormous numbers; they would be impossible otherwise.  As a species we are coping after a fashion, albeit with enormous stress on an environment that hasn’t quite collapsed totally, not yet anyway. However, we are on our way to eating everything that can be eaten and stripping everything else bare too.

The biodiversity catastrophe in the world today is very real and it could easily lead to human catastrophe as well. Without awareness of the issue, and concerted action, we could all share the fate of the toads in Bishops Loch.

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May 022013

By Bob Smith.

We’ve aa hid a  leukie
At plans fer the “Civic Square”
Tae replace St Nicholas Hoose
Eence it’s aa laid bare
Bliddy stracht edged biggins
O the usual gless an steel
Nae flair fae the architects
The concocshuns o some feel
Iss is the wye tae go
We hear the planners bleat
Great innovative designs
As modernity we maun meet
Fit a load o bliddy crap
We hiv the chunce tae hae
A great open green space
Faar fowk can sit or play
Dinna bigg on the foons
O the concrete St Nic’s Hoose
Mak it intae a fine square
Lit yer imaginations loose
Open up the bonnie view
O the hoose o Provost Skene
Wi greenery jist aa aroon
Plunty space tae meet a freen
A place tae sit an see
The grandeur o Marischal College
An myn back tae it’s days
As a placie full o knowledge
Aiberdonians are fair fed up
O biggins nae bricht an jolly
Especially eens fit micht be ca’ed
The future St Nicholas Hoose folly

Bob Smith “The Poetry Mannie” 2013

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Sep 272012

The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) today criticised proposals for court closures.  Lynn Henderson, Scottish Secretary & National Officer for Northern Ireland, Public and Commercial Services Union issued a statement to Aberdeen Voice.

The Scottish Court Service announced today a consultation on Future Court Structures that could lead to centralisation of some functions and cuts in provision and local access, shutting local courts across Scotland.  Staff were informed on Friday 21 September of the process of the consultation.

Immediately following the staff announcement, PCS Scottish Court Service Branch Chair, Brian Carroll, said:

“Our members are clearly concerned. The Union will carefully consider the contents of this consultation and will make a full and detailed response.  Our main concern will be of course to protect the interest of all members affected by these proposals. 

“However it is not just staff who will feel the impact of courts closing. The centralisation of High Court functions and Sheriff and Jury trials, cuts in JP Court provision, and the closure of almost a quarter of the country’s Sheriff Courts will be felt by all those who wish to, or are compelled to, engage with the courts system.”

PCS Scottish Secretary, Lynn Henderson said:

“There can be little doubt that the reasons behind these proposals are part and parcel of the swingeing cuts in public sector budgets which will disproportionately affect the poor and vulnerable of our society. PCS maintains that a properly resourced and funded justice system is a cornerstone of our democracy and that is what the people of Scotland need and deserve.” 

Dec 012011

By Bob Smith.

Here comes the Retail Festival
Cooched in glossy Christmas cheer
Spen spen spen the shops cry oot
Their merchandisin moves up a gear

Maun we owerspen at Christmas
On presents aat leave us skint?
Mony fowk are left in debt
So aat shops can mak a mint

Christmas time itsel a fear
His lost it’s freenly glow
Fowk tryin to see faa can hae
The dearest presents on show

A sma present ti faimly members
There is nae hairm in iss
Bit keepin up wi the Joneses
Is some fowks idea o bliss

Hunners o poonds they are spent
On presents fer aa yer freens
Kids yammerin fer the latest
Toy or game shown on TV screens

Hotels an restaurants filled ti the brim
Yet their prices are ower the tap
Faan wull aa iss madness eyn
An prices wull stairt ti drap

Faimly Christmases used ti be
A time ti visit an hae a blether
Yet ti sit aroon the table
Nooadays fowk they dinna bither

The festivities noo a fear
Hiv naething ti dee wi the 25th
It’s aa ti dee wi consumerism
Spenin dosh on expeensive gifts

In case ye think a’m a scrooge
Tak time ti stop an think
Fit’s the purpose o aa iss spenin
Ither than bringin ye ti debt’s brink

It’s time fer a revolution
A time ti say stuff yer stuff
Resist the aa empowerin persuasion
Pit the retailers in a huff

Celebrate Christmas? Of coorse we shud
Yet think fit shud be deen
Raither than buy a material gift
Jist present yersel as a freen

©Bob Smith “The Poetry Mannie”
Image Credit: © Sergey Sundikov |

Nov 172011

 By Mike Shepherd.

On Tuesday a Council committee voted to defer a decision on a referendum for the City Garden Project to the full Council meeting on the 14th December.

Although an amendment was introduced to propose an opinion poll as an alternative, a vote for a referendum looks more likely.

If such a referendum was to happen it would be held either two months before or two months after the local council elections on May 3rd.

This is one of many setbacks to have affected the City Garden Project (CGP). Here is a summary of the problems facing the scheme:

The City Garden Project is way behind schedule:  It is almost exactly three years since Sir Ian Wood announced his Civic Square proposal at His Majesty’s Theatre on the 11th November 2008. Although we are close to seeing a final design, the project is nowhere near planning submission and funding is very uncertain.

The vote on Tuesday looks to introduce further delays. It also probably shunts the planning decision well into the next Council, when at least one of the proponents of the scheme, John Stewart, will not be on the Council any more, having announced that he will stand down.

The City Garden Project is unpopular: This statement gets vigorously challenged by supporters of the CGP, yet it is clearly the case. The consultation held two years ago saw a ‘no’ vote for the CGP, and various online polls have shown a consistent numerical advantage to those wanting to keep the existing Gardens. The probability is that a referendum would reject the CGP.

The Design Exhibition failed to create any buzz in the city: The Friends of Union Terrace Gardens canvassed opinion outside the exhibition while it lasted. About half of those we talked to were unhappy about the designs. Many spoiled their votes.( by attempting to vote for the non-existent ‘option 7’.) Of those that voted, a common vote was for a design that appeared to preserve the Gardens (it doesn’t), although they reported they did this without much enthusiasm.

The land issue is a headache for the Council lawyers: Union Terrace Gardens lies on Common Good land and any land transaction, i.e. assigning a long term lease to a limited company or trust, would probably require an application to a court of session to apply for a change in status of the property.

The Council lawyers are well aware of the legal pitfalls that could ensue over the details of a property transaction (as witness the pending court case between Aberdeen Council and the Stewart Milne Group).

it involves the allocation of scarce public money using non-economic criteria

Currently,Union Terrace Gardens has negligible value as it is zoned as public open green space in the local plan.  However, should this status change at a later date and the property is re-zoned as commercial space, the land value will be in the tens of millions as prime down-town real estate.

The lawyers will have to be especially careful on this issue, particularly where a long term free-hold lease could potentially be assigned to a limited company.

Funding the City Garden Project is a big problem:  To date only £55M of private money has been pledged for a project nominally costing £140M. The CGP are pushing the Council to underwrite a loan of £70M through Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) to help part fund the scheme.

Aberdeen Council’s business case was so feeble it didn’t even rank in the top six schemes assessed for recommendation by the Scottish Futures Trust. Even so, the Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure and Capital Investment, Alex Neil, has told Aberdeen Council that their TIF application may still be considered. However, the TIF would be awarded on a ‘geographical’ basis rather than an ostensibly ‘economic’ basis.

This can be criticised as very poor Government practice; it involves the allocation of scarce public money using non-economic criteria. It also begs the question that if the business case doesn’t stack up, why is the debt-ridden Aberdeen Council under consideration to be allowed to borrow money for it?

Questions are being asked in Holyrood about Aberdeen’s TIF funding. This is from an article by Steven Vass in last weekend’s Sunday Herald:

“First Minister Alex Salmond’s decision to permit Aberdeen’s £70M borrowing plan for redesigning the city centre will come under renewed fire when he is forced to answer questions in the Scottish Parliament this week.

“Lewis MacDonald, the Aberdeen MSP and long-time opponent of the scheme, said there was a “scandal lurking under the surface” around the permission. He has tabled a series of parliamentary questions demanding answers to speculation the Government’s approval overruled the economic advice of specialists at the Scottish Futures Trust, who were supposed to decide which projects would go ahead.”

Another potential show-stopper is that last year the Council decreed that borrowing money through a TIF scheme must present ‘zero risk’ to the Councils finances.  The only realistic way this could happen is if an organisation or individual was prepared to underwrite the Council loan.

This would be a major commitment to say the least, as it would involve underwriting £70M for a 25 to 30 year period. Perhaps Sir Ian Wood is willing to do this, but even for him or his family trust, it would involve a significant allocation of capital resources over a long term period.

Add to this the question of cost over-run. One architect told me this week that with the massive rock excavation operation involved and the difficulties of building over the railway line, there was no way of this project coming in on budget. Yet, very little has been said about what would happen if the costs do over-run massively.

The problems are stacking up for the City Garden Project and even three years later they are not much closer to being resolved. The patient is looking sickly and the prognosis is not good.

Union Terrace Gardens – Their Use And Value To Aberdeen City

 Aberdeen City, Articles, Community, Featured, Information, Opinion  Comments Off on Union Terrace Gardens – Their Use And Value To Aberdeen City
Feb 252011

By Mick Miller.

Over the months that the debate over the development of Aberdeen city centre has raged, one argument often fielded by those in support of the City Square Project is: “Union Terrace Gardens aren’t used.”
This raises the issue of “use” – what does it mean for a space to be used?

Here are some reflections on this.

Firstly, Union Terrace Gardens (UTG) are used. They are used by people, like most parks and open space, when the weather is good and people have the free time to use them. They are used regularly by people who live in the city and own a dog for example, or who have no garden of their own. They are used by office and shop workers when the weather is good and the need to take lunchtime relaxation is fulfilled by sitting in the sun rather than perhaps a stroll around the art gallery or shops. I know this because when I worked in Aberdeen city centre I used to struggle to get a seat in UTG on a sunny lunchtime!

They provide safe space for families away from traffic concerns. Union Terrace Gardens are used at the weekend by those who live close, and not so close, as recreation and relaxation space. They are used by visitors to the city who value them as part of their visit ‘experience’; that is as a part of what makes Aberdeen distinct as a place to visit. The above photograph  shows quite clearly the gardens in use on a good sunny Saturday.

Of course they are used in many other ways. They act to define the city space, to give a ‘green heart’ to the surrounding city scape. Because they are sunken they give a unique perspective on the city . Looking up from the garden towards His Majesty’s Theatre and St Marks with the Wallace statue in the foreground is one of the defining views of Aberdeen. Like the UTG itself Aberdeen would not be Aberdeen without it.

Ornithologists can spot the peregrines that nest on the ruined steeple of Triple Kirks. Bat lovers can gather at dusk to watch these enchanting mammals flit in and out of the gardens lamp light chasing their prey in a silent whirlwind. It takes a long time for a park space to achieve the diversity and richness that is UTG – destroy it and it would never be recovered.

Just by being there, Union Terrace Gardens are used. This is in common with all city centre garden space. The photograph attached shows Princes Street Garden in Edinburgh.

Not packed – but valueless because of it?

One would hardly think so.

Edinburgh residents would never contemplate decking over this space. The gardens in Edinburgh are as much a part of the City as the Castle.

Of course Edinburgh do utilise the garden space in a far better way than Aberdeen. They are maintained better; at Christmas they are bedecked with lights and an ice rink installed. Aberdeen Council used to do this sort of thing too but over the years have allowed UTG to fall into disrepair. This represents an appalling neglect of a valuable public asset.

UTG is of course not used in a ‘commercial’ way. The commercial interests that would likely dominate any development on the site would doubtless seek to maximise the value of the space primarily in terms of monetary and commercial value. The City Square ultimately must ‘improve’ the space in this regard in order to have any chance of viability.

This discontent with Union Terrace Gardens seems to have some link with the need for Aberdeen to emulate somewhere else. But why?

Sir Ian Wood has argued that he wants to see a combination of a mini – Central Park (as found in New York City) and an Italian piazza. Central Park, co-incidentally, was established in 1873 – just about the same time as Union Terrace Gardens, give or take a few years . It serves a population of some 1.7 million people – and that’s just Manhattan without the other 4 Boroughs that go to make up New York as a whole or the tourists that frequent the city.

It has more in common with Union Terrace Gardens in terms of maturity, make-up and value to the community than anything that the much touted design competition for the city square might come up with. Central Park has history that makes it what it is today.

The piazza concept should give cause for concern. Wikipedia describes it thus:

“In Britain piazza generally refers to a paved open pedestrian space without grass or planting”.

Piazzas work in Italy and other Mediterranean countries because they have long hours of hot sunshine and, more importantly, a historical significance that embeds them in the country’s culture. You can’t import them into a place that has no connection with the way of life that they reflect. Look at the upper deck of the St Nicholas Centre to see how it works in Aberdeen.

This discontent with Union Terrace Gardens seems to have some link with the need for Aberdeen to emulate somewhere else. But why? Where Aberdeen has attempted such an approach the results have been dismal. Go to any of the shopping malls including the horrendous Union Square and you could be anywhere, in any shopping centre, in the UK.

Meanwhile the old E&M premises, an icon of Aberdeen, crumbles its way through another winter. The City Square Project will have the same effect; stripping away yet another facet of Aberdeen that actually makes Aberdeen, well, Aberdeen! As a consequence adding to the catalogue of destruction that has over the years de-valued the city’s architectural significance; eroding that which makes Aberdeen a unique and beautiful city.

Mick Miller, 9 February 2011.