Sunday, 28 January 2007

Another day, another slaughter. Welcome to the stupid country.

Another Saturday goes by in Scotland (population around 5 million), and with it the usual pile-up of deaths through car crashes. Thankfully non in the Outer Hebrides, but that's small consolation. In Perth, 5 dead in a two-car collision. Another dead near Loch Ness. A pedestrian killed in Glasgow. And three other accidents, just in the north-east, killed another four. That batch from a cursory look at the BBC news Scotland website, so there'll be more.

Am I the only person in the entire country who finds this ... odd?

If there was such a frequency of fatalities on any other mode of transport, then there would be uproar, disruption, changes. The Potters Bar rail crash killed seven people in 2002. Following this, there was widespread disruption to train travel as lines and points were checked. On the rare occasions there is a plane crash, there's always a very detailed examination of what went wrong, with a view to trying to make the problem - be it mechanical or human - not repeat itself.

But take a car crash where several lives are wiped out. And the effects of the crash go far beyond those killed, to their families, relatives, close friends, the places where they worked, their communities and so on. I mentioned 11 deaths in the first paragraph - how many people does that directly impact? How many people, while you read this, are going through hell, and numbly preparing for funerals?

So what's the net result. Nothing. People tut, shrug shoulders. Then see the next news item and forget about it - unless you are the partner of one of those killed, and you won't be forgetting about it today, tomorrow, or any other day. Your life has just been ruined.

This generic, collective, national attitude is bizarre and retarded. I've only seen it in one other country (the US), whereas colleagues in European countries seem to take a different slant (more on that in a moment). If you die in a car crash in the UK, whatever your age or health, and whatever the reason for the crash, it seems to be a socially acceptable way to die. In any other form of transport there would be inquests, news reports, MPs lobbying for tighter measures, and so forth. You'd still be reading about it tomorrow, and the day after, and in a weeks time.

Perhaps part of this attitude (or "blind spot") may be linked to the personal consequences of causing the death of another. If you ran a company that had dangerous work practices and an employee subsequently died, you could go to jail for corporate manslaughter. Accidentally shoot someone, out of carelessness, and jail is likely. Cause a fire that endangers lives - even if no-one gets killed - and it's a trip to jail.

However, be reckless and careless when driving (you are steering over a ton of metal at speeds) and kill people, and it's more likely to be a fine and a slap on the wrist. Imagine how you'd feel if you were the relatives of her, or these people. The cost of the funeral alone is probably bigger than the fines handed out in court. And you'd see the same people, back behind the wheel, probably driving carelessly again, a few months later.

So we live in a country where it's now quite possible to receive a larger fine for putting rubbish in the wrong recycle bin than it is for killing someone through carelessness. It's almost like a religious cult; nothing shalt hinder a persons right to drive whatever, wherever. Another case in point: there's a problem in Scotland with fast drivers slamming into deers. Similar problems exist in most Nordic countries, with elks and the like. But only in Scotland is the call not for better driving and more sensible speeds - but to shoot all the deer.

Welcome, indeed, to the stupid country. Just look both ways before crossing the road, and don't be surprised if some motoring group suggests that pedestrians should be shot.

Mine is probably a very minority view. I don't own a car; I've never had the inclination as I've lived close to where I work previously, and I'm now self-employed and working from home. There's a common sentiment in the UK that not owning a car is a bit "odd" or "wierd", possibly even mentally subnormal. A lot of people think there must be some dodgy, or pitiful reason, why an adult doesn't drive. An irritating nearby resident every few months says "So you'll be finally getting a car soon", like it is some kind of essential item and without it I am deficient in some way. Perhaps she is insecure (likely, for other reasons) and needs reassurance that someone else worships the same "God" as her; perhaps she is offended by my car-aetheism. But that says more about her - last year, that same resident drove less than 100 metres from her house to a meeting, where she then spoke about how we must all do more to save the environment. Aye, right.

I'm not anti-car or anti-car driver. And I'm certainly not a luddite eco-warrior who never showers. If I get offered a lift, I'll often take it (car sharing being better environmentally anyway), and either split the petrol cost or help out in some other way e.g. computer advice. And it would be occasionally useful to have one, when the cats are ill and they need to take the long trip to the vet (unsurprisingly, asking others if they'll help drive a cat that is projectile vomiting 40 miles does not always meet with enthusiasm). It would also mean that I could have more choice about when I shop, though at the moment the shop bus (door to door) is cheap and efficient.

However, with that freedom comes fiscal horrors. Every few years I fire up a spreadsheet and work out the true cost of owning and running a car; the depreciation, petrol, MOT, insurance, tax, likely repairs. It is utterly absurd. I could get a taxi to replace every car and bus trip I take and it would still work out much cheaper overall, which is plain madness. Plus with a taxi I'm just in and out; I don't have to wash it, polish it, admire it, pray to the damned thing.

Hmmm; having a car may give you more "freedom". But, you need to have a much greater income in order to afford a car - which means either a different job, or more hours spent earning money. Less spare time = freedom? I think not. And the freedom to die with most of your life ahead of you, if some careless driver smashes head-on into you (no freedom of choice there)? No thanks.

This sneaking suspicion that the freedom element is an illusion is bolstered further by the "worship" aspect. In the last place I lived, we had a panoramic view of the other men of the street washing their cars, fixing their cars, maintaining their cars, comparing their cars and so on, for several hours a week. It took the appearance, again, of a religious cult; instead of church service, car service. Instead of communion, a sponge-over and hosedown. For several hours, every sunday, rain or shine. When the women of the small street went of to church, the men stepped outside and worshipped their alternative shiny metal Gods. Here in Berneray I see the same (except that some of the men wouldn't dare wash their cars on a Sunday when traffic is going to and from church).

It's also obvious that the car is an essential, not optional, thing for many UK residents to get to work. This is primarily due to the general crapness of public transport in the UK, especially compared to, um, everywhere else. Whether it is the decline in public transport that has led to the rise of the car as work-necessity, or the other way around, isn't clear. What is clear is that, compared to more progressive countries (read: all of Scandinavia and a lot of western Europe), the UK has gone steadily backwards in this respect.

I've been to most countries in Europe now, and in every one the public transport has been better in several ways. In most, cheaper. In most, more frequent. In many, it makes the car inessential. Holland is a good case in point. Last year I was there for a conference, and took a fast train across the country from Amsterdam to Tilburg. Cost: 11 pounds. In the UK this would have:

  • cost several times more

  • been slower

  • been a less frequent service

  • been a less reliable service

  • been subject to a lack of connecting services

(And on a related point: the UK is not a geographically huge country. Is it not, therefore, a sign of how profoundly messed-up our transport system is that it is both much cheaper and quicker to fly internally in this relatively small country than to take the train?)

Back in Tilburg, the conference organiser explained how her family didn't have or need a car. They'd considered it, but instead choose to move to a nice part of town and bike it or bus it into work. The money they could have spent on a car, went into their house and into extra education for their children. And she was right - the public transport was so good. When I stayed in Delft I got a tram all the way to the seaside. And a train to Rotterdam. And trains connected; every time I had to make a connection, the next train turned up a comfortable few minutes after the one I had stepped off.

Seems smart. The nation provides decent, frequent and cheap public transport; the citizens make a wiser choice for themselves and their families. And one other thing that possibly illustrates the difference in attitude between Holland and the UK is that on a walk through Tilburg on a bright Sunday morning, I didn't see one person obsessively washing their car. Different priorities, different Gods.

Saturday, 20 January 2007

Nearby Lochmaddy

Lochmaddy, in North Uist, is 10 miles away by road. That makes it the nearest "town" to Berneray.

Lochmaddy is a major ferry port for the Outer Hebrides, but is perhaps not as bustling with amenities as you'd think. There are various hotels and guest houses, plus a museum (containing the post office and a very good cafe), a gift shop, a small food/newspaper/hardware shop and a bank. That's pretty much it. Though unlike Balivanich in Benbecula, there are at least places in Lochmaddy where you can get a decent cup of coffee.

Here's some pictures from Flickr contributers. First up, some fishing boats (there's also a boat-building yard there) from Jaydee:


A picture by Lightboxuk of the late, lamented chip van that sometimes (erratically) would make the visit to Berneray:


Finally, Auldhippo brings us a seaplane dropping in from central Scotland (arriving in style):


Tuesday, 16 January 2007

Three views of Berneray

Three pictures on Flickr, from different photographers, of the island that is currently my home.

First, a seal. There's many seals in the bay here. Kinda odd, but for the first few days here, like many tourists, I'd stop and look at the seals and go "oooh" and "aaaah". Now they are like part of the natural scenery; whether that means that people gradually take things for granted, I don't know. Picture by Photozone72:


The mail and passenger boat coming into the harbour in 1989. That's my wee hoose, on the far right of the picture and partially chopped off. Picture by Erik D:


And to finish, some sun rays from behind a cloud beyond a grassy rise on Berneray. Picture by Rob Wakefield:


Thursday, 11 January 2007

Calm before the storm

See my previous posting of less than 7 hours ago.

Just now, I've been out to bring in the rest of the washing off the line. To discover that it wasn't there - a gust of wind had ripped off the duvet cover (held on with 6 pegs). Ah well, I never liked it anyway.

While looking for it with the torch, I got flattened by a gust of wind. Storm on the way. And yes, the Met Office forecast for here says for tonight:

Southerly winds will increase to gale force 8 to storm force 10, perhaps violent storm force 11, veering westerly overnight.

Never a dull moment here :-)

Wednesday, 10 January 2007

Bright, sunshiny day

It's on days like this when I remember why I moved here. Two views from my "office", taken around midday today. (My office is basically one of the 5 bedrooms in the house, hooked up to broadband so I can work from home):


The picture above is across Bays Loch to the now-closed primary school. Behind that are some South Harris hills. They had a light smattering of snow on them this morning, but it's burning off in the sun rapidly. The picture below is of the north-east part of Berneray, which is to the left of the picture above. Darn, I need to get a wide-angle lens for this camera.


So that's the weather today in Berneray, here in mid-January.

Friday, 5 January 2007

Another lone tree on Lewis

Yet another cracking picture from Flickr user Bluewave:


Emergence into 2007

It's now the evening of the 4th of January, and for the first time I feel normal this year.

The reason why? First footing. This is a tradition where people visit each others houses after the "bells" have been rung to celebrate the new year. Traditionally, I think you were supposed to take a lump of coal or peat. Women were supposed to enter a visitors house after the man, as it was bad luck for a woman to go in first, or something.

Here, mucho merriment with food and drink awaits first footers on Berneray. And it's a tradition that can go on for a long time; I've done it for the past three years, and always ended up home after dawn. However - something to remember here is the generosity of spirit measures. Shortly after moving here, a local dropped in. Being willing to show social generosity, I offered him a dram; he accepted and I poured what would have been considered a generous double in a pub.

A look of disappointment and disgust flickered across the face of my guest. Something was possibly muttered in Gaelic.

When you go first footing, you realise why. If you accept a dram (does anyone dare refuse?), you end up being poured something more akin to a quart. And that's how I ended up drinking, in total, a large quantity of whisky during the first 8 hours of 2007. Which on it's own wouldn't have been too bad - but it was complemented by several cans of beer. Oh, and before leaving the house, I was already fuelled up with several mugs of mulled wine and a few gin and tonics. Ach, that must have been some battle in my stomach; certainly felt like it the next day.

January 1st is a public holiday in many countries. However, January 2nd is, unusually, also a public holiday in Scotland. There's a good reason for that. It's to recover from Hogmanay. I needed the 1st, 2nd and 3rd to get over the effects of the self-inflicted condition. I'll never drink again. Till the next time.