A Oui Confession

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I stormed down University Avenue, having attended a Q&A about how research might be affected by a Yes vote in the Scottish referendum, hosted by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and featuring Universities Ministers (just) past and present, David Willetts and Greg Clark, feeling about as angry as I felt in a long, long time.  The message provided by the ministers, as I had expected, was decidedly negative.  An independent Scotland would risk losing out on UK and EU funding opportunities, and be left to its own devices.  All that Scottish universities had achieved in recent years would be lost irrevocably.  Doom and gloom, thy name would be Scotland.  The risk of leaving the UK was simply too great.

Indeed, the word ‘risk’ was the keyword extraordinaire in Clark’s speech.  If the RSE had designed a drinking game featuring that word to make his presentation a little more exciting, well, they would have had to wheel everyone out in a flotilla of shopping trolleys.  And yet, I realised halfway through Clark’s talk that if one replaced the word ‘opportunity’ for ‘risk’ (apparently in Mandarin, one word conveys both meanings), a completely different, and much more hopeful, idea would have emerged.  One simple little change that could make all the difference.

When the time came for questions, it became clear that most of my fellow audience members, many of whom were English, were of the No persuasion.  ’Tell us more about how dreadful an independent Scotland would be for research and universities’ was the general gist.  Now, I certainly understand why people – both Scots and particularly left-leaning English folks – are ardent No supporters.  As I’ve discussed in an earlier blog, the process by which I eventually decided to vote Yes was a long and painful one, characterised by much soul-searching and thought.  But the self-serving nature of the questions I heard filled me with dismay.  Here were the leaders of the Scottish universities sector, and yet there was no discussion of PG funding, widening access to higher learning or tuition fees, let alone the purpose of such institutions (they should be places of useful learning, if you were wondering).  No, the questions gravitated towards the specific, that is, how they and their particular research interests would fare in an independent Scotland.

And that, in many ways, is the nub of the problem.  Of course we all want to know an independent Scotland would mean for us.  But it shouldn’t stop there. What would it mean for the less fortunate?  Children?  The environment?  Health?  Sport (hey, the Commonwealth Games have just started)?  Culture?  History?  If you’re not considering these issues as well, well you should.

So, why did I get so angry?  Well, it started with Clark suggesting that Scotland would miss out on research related to defence and the arms industry.  In a week that saw a Malaysian airliner filled with nearly 300 innocent travellers (including 80 children) shot down by Ukrainian separatists using good ol’ sophisticated air defence technology, I couldn’t believe that he didn’t edit this out of his speech.  Then, towards the end of the Q&A, someone finally asked a selfless question: what about all the foreign researchers and students unable to access the UK academic system because of xenophobic immigration policies?  Why wouldn’t foreigners working in Scotland vote Yes in the hope that such policies might change for the better.  To this, no satisfactory answer was provided.  And that got me steaming because, for me, that’s where it was personal; that’s where I became selfish.  Because, after living in the UK for 8 years, my immigration status – and that of my family – is still in limbo.  If I can’t get my visa extended at the end of the summer, that’s me and my family gone from the UK.   I don’t believe this would be the case in an independent Scotland, a land of immigrants and emigrants, a country that understands the ebb and flow of human capital more than most.

But that’s not the only reason I’m voting Yes.  Scotland, for me, is the first place I’ve truly felt at home.  Despite being thousands of miles away from family and friends I care about, it is here that I feel welcome, comfortable in my own skin and optimistic about the future for me, my wife and my kids.  It is a special place, a place about which I feel optimistic, where I feel that opportunity outweighs risk.  A place that could become, like my birth province of Saskatchewan once was, the only English-speaking socialist jurisdiction in the world.   Of course it could all go Loch Long (wee bit of Scottish rhyming slang for you there), but I hope it won’t.

By the time I’d got to Hyndland Station, I had calmed down a bit, but I had also made a decision: I already knew I would vote Yes, but now I would let others know.  Not necessarily to convince anyone to change their mind, but to be honest and forthright about why I had made up mine.

Broken Heart

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Recently my 91-year-old grandmother passed away.  While this shouldn’t have been a tremendous surprise, given her age and health problems, it was a shock, and her funeral in Ottawa was difficult to get through.  Such occasions change the way you think about life and people, and this was no exception.

At the service, my Uncle John did an amazing job of putting the long life of my grandmother, Olga Lentz, in to perspective.  Here was a woman from a poor, mixed-race (Metis) background in PEI with seven siblings and an eighth-grade education.  She married partly out of love, but also to make a better life for herself and to get out of Summerside, its quaint name notwithstanding.  Despite her lack of formal education, she managed to read anything and everything that was put in front of her, loved music, understood Canadian politics intimately (huge fan of Pierre Elliot Trudeau) and had a great social conscience.  She raised four very different, sometimes challenging, children and was the hub of the local community, making friends as easily as scratching her nose.

For many reasons, reasons that I don’t need to go into, Grandma’s life was pretty damned hard.  Her saving grace came in the form of her friends, particularly her best friend, Mrs Crowder.  When Grandma had to go into a nursing home, we thought that being away from her friends, many of whom had died, would be unbearable.  But after a difficult first year, a little miracle happened.  Mrs Crowder moved in right across the hall.  What could have been a very dreary deteriorating demise suddenly got a lot brighter.  The last two times I visited, it was clear to see that Grandma was looking forward to, rather than dreading, the coming days: a very basic, but also highly accurate way of determining whether life is going well or not.

Then, I got the call. Grandma had died of a heart attack.  Two days before, she had been told that Mrs Crowder was going to be placed in a palliative care unit.  This was simply too much.  Mercifully, symmetrically, Mrs Crowder – Ruth – died the very next day.  The professional opinion of my uncle, a pathologist, was that she had died of a broken heart.

We spend a great deal of time fixing the heart with surgery, drugs, exercise, diet, meditation, God knows what else.  But we forget about the most important key to its health: happiness, love, purpose.

1914-2014

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Do dates matter?  I got into a bit of a debate with a colleague about this the other day concerning Canadian history.  I, as a Canuck, was roped into doing some lectures on the topic – despite having little but the most obvious qualification – and, observing that I had gone beyond the period I had promised to cover, I made a throwaway comment about tricking myself into thinking that dates matter.  My colleague, more of a stickler for dates, went into a little rant about how dates did matter and I, arguing silently back, kept thinking that for, at least what I do, dates can be misleading, suggesting beginnings or endings that really aren’t that at all.

Anyway, that was before the crisis in the Ukraine erupted.  I can’t have been the only person to recognise that Russia’s forays into the Crimea are 100 years after the start of another conflict, which began with a squabble over a small(ish) country on the periphery of Europe.  Now, God willing, this won’t amount to that, but the neatness of those 100 years are frightening nonetheless.  Sure, much more terrible things have been going on elsewhere not too much further than Ukraine – Syria, to name the worst calamity – but the stakes in Ukraine are higher, partly because of all the other former Soviet republics that might also look tempting (including ones that are members of NATO), but also because Ukraine is – or, at least, could be – European.  And the two world wars, if anything positive came out of them, was the sense that Europe was past nineteenth-century style wars.  Let’s hope so.

But as much as Putin is behaving irresponsibly in all of this, and possibly forgetting his history (I do hope Russia’s poor performance in the Olympic hockey hasn’t anything to do with it), it does strike me that the two wars that characterised the first ten years of the twenty-first century don’t do much for the West’s (broadly speaking) position when it comes to Ukraine.  It’s all well and good decrying Russia for sabre-rattling and ‘protecting’ its brethren in foreign lands when your conscience is clear; it is quite another thing scarcely a decade after you have invaded two other countries, resulting in wars that have killed tens and tens of thousands of lives.

If anything, the current crisis tells me three things.  First, war remains good for nothing.  Second, this is why we need a strong unified Europe with the UK as a member state (or Scotland and the UK, as the case may be).  And three, self determination, for all its warts, needs to be a democratic possibility for all nations within nations.  If the Crimea wants independence, there should be a way for them to vote for it without having the bully of the neighbourhood weigh in with guns blazing.  In an increasingly interconnected, federalised world, that sort of independence doesn’t cost anyone all that much.  Certainly less than the cost of fighting for it.

Persuasion

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I think I might have been washing dishes when I heard it.  Coming through the radio was something exciting, inspiring, even moving.  And what’s more, it was coming from a politician. The politician in question was Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland, and he was talking independence.

As a Canadian, the very phrase ‘independence movement’ can be chilling.  This is because, as an ardent federalist in the Canadian context, I would absolutely hate to see Quebec become independent.  I remember the 1995 50.5/49.5% referendum vividly and it really was frightening.  I thought (and think) an independent Quebec would be a disaster both for Canada and la Belle Province; as a country, we are much, much greater than the sum of our parts, and, moreover, provide an example to the world of how two distinct societies can work together.  While I understand Quebec nationalism, I don’t grasp Quebec separatism.  I think Canadian nationalism trumps it, especially given our juxtaposition to the US of A.  Equally, though I see the value of giving Quebec powers to keep it happy, I value a strong federal government in Ottawa, although having Tory majority governments in power makes this much less attractive, of course…

One could make the same argument about the UK and Europe, I suppose, but I think the context is completely different.  There are plenty of small, successful countries in Europe (Norway being the one Salmond and the SNP refer to regularly) and the EU is certainly not a unified force in the same way the US is.  More importantly, and this is what really came out in Salmond’s speech, is the cultural and historical argument for independence.  He made a powerful case for Scotland being able to make its own decisions, come what may.  In practical terms, this would boil down to less bellicosity in international affairs (no nuclear deterrent in Scottish waters; no waging wars in Iraq) and more socialism, two things of which I am completely in favour.

Even more important, was what Salmond said about confidence.  Scotland, as many have argued, suffers from a crisis in confidence.  The sick (and fat) man of Europe, crap weather, social inequalities, an often humiliating past: these and many other factors have eroded Scottish self esteem over the years.  Salmond argued, however, that Scotland can transcend such lugubriousness, and that a yes vote in the upcoming referendum is how to do it.

I wasn’t 100% convinced about voting yes prior to hearing Salmond’s speech.  Again, as a Canuck, we take these things seriously.  But he persuaded me.  It was the most effective speech I’ve heard since some of Obama’s in 2008, and I think Salmond betters Obama by a long shot now in that category.  As a historian, I’m also simply curious to see how we get on.  While curiosity might not be the best reason for a divorce, I’m sure it’s been posited plenty of times before.  Perhaps I will be persuaded to change my mind.  But somehow I doubt it.

An Addition

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Summer has whizzed by, a little like Usain Bolt or an Andy Murray backhand.  Unilke 6/7 summers I’ve spent in the UK, this summer has actually been summery.  Well, July at least.  And after 2 weeks in Shanghai, I had my fill of heat anyway.  Now, leading up to the last week in August, there is a chill in the air, the leaves on the trees look spent, and most of the geese in Scotland seem to have left the building, so to speak.

Although I do like summer, it’s not my favourite season, and I’m not usually disappointed when it fades into fall.  This is partly because summer in the UK (refer to sentence number 2) is usually a bust, particularly up here in Scotland.  I prefer spring, in large part because it never disappoints.  The snow eventually melts, the days will get longer and a bit of heat does find its way into the gloomiest vale.  I like autumn for many of the same reasons.  This year I really haven’t minded seeing summer going because once it goes, and autumn follows, we will have a Christmas addition to the family.  If the scans are accurate, she will be a girl.  Which is perfect.  Bring on winter!

 

New Generation Thinker stuff

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This is typical: my time as an AHRC/BBC New Generation Thinker has expired and I forgot to post any of my illustrious exploits on my own darned website.  Doh.  Well, here are a few things anyway.  Better late than never.

Peanut allergy talk (video)

Food allergy talk from Free Thinking Festival in Gateshead (audio)

Dennis the Menace and the history of hyperactivity (you have to get through a lot of Matthew Sweet before you get to me)

Good luck to the 2013 NGTs!

 

Shanghaied

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I have a few excuses for not posting any updates in ten weeks, but probably the best one is that I was Shanghaied.  Literally.  For the last two weeks of June.  It was quite the experience, let me tell ya.

Well, I wasn’t exactly Shanghaied in the traditional sense – no drugs were employed (apart from strong liquor) and I wasn’t forced onto any boats – though I did get on one voluntarily.   What did happen is that I was asked to go to Shanghai for a couple weeks to teach in a summer school there.  It was quite the experience and, once I get my butt in gear, I will be sharing my adventures in true LEJoG de Matt style (which means plenty of long, rambling sentences filled with things that tickle me and probably confuse others – hey ho).  I did think of calling it LEJoG to Shanghai, but I think Shanghaied is probably better and a good deal more self-explanatory.

My primary impulse in writing everything down is partly down to self-indulgence – je me t’amuse – but also to record some thoughts about China, its past, present and future.  I am no expert, that’s for damned sure, but perhaps the musings of a jetlagged, overheated, illiterate layman can shed a wee bit of light on a country that will play a big role in all of our futures.  The first post should be up fairly soon and I hope you like it.

The Irn Lady

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I had an odd Wednesday last week.  I was off to London in my best to participate in an Industry and Parliament Trust dinner entitled ‘Fast Food Nation’, but my primary concern was to sidestep any particularly nasty riots associated with the funeral of Margaret Thatcher.  I got on the train in pouring rain in Glasgow and got off it in sunny, 18 degree London and, like sensible socialists, most potential rioters seemed to be enjoying the lovely weather, rather than making themselves look stupid and, let’s face it, tactless at what ultimately was an old lady’s funeral.

As a Canadian, I couldn’t help remember the death of Pierre Elliot Trudeau in 2000, and the outpouring of grief it released, even in Alberta, where crown corporation PETRO Canada will forever stand for Pierre Elliot Trudeau Rips Off Canada.  As someone who felt that Trudeau was something special even as a kid (he resigned when I was 10 or 11), and who grew to appreciate both the politician and the man evermore as I learned more about him and his Canada (and as a litany of flawed and, worse, bland and ineffectual prime ministers followed), his death, which shortly followed the tragic death of his youngest son in a mountaineering accident, hit hard.  I don’t know if I blubbed like George Osborne as I signed the registry at the Alberta Legislature on a rainy September evening, but I might as well have.  This was the loss off someone who may not have saved Canada (as Maggie’s supporters claimed of Britain) or broken it (as the rest of Britain counter), but who represented it in many ways.  Aristocratic, perhaps, but also intellectual, adventurous, environmentally-minded, multicultural (in both genetics and outlook), tough when necessary, but also willing to change (let’s not forget he started out as a Separatiste) and, to the core, passionate about a country that many take for granted, to me he believed in the sort of Canada of which I could be proud.  Unlike Margaret Thatcher, who most likely died in the numbing haze of dementia, Trudeau died of a broken heart, mourning the most free-spirited of his three sons.  The enduring image of his funeral was his son Justin, weeping openly over his maple-leaf-draped coffin.  Ironically, that same Justin took the leadership of his father’s party a week after Thatcher’s death.

I mentioned the parallels between Trudeau and Thatcher to a few people at the Industry and Parliament Trust dinner, partly because I can’t resist saying what comes into my head, even in the heady environs of House of Commons Dining Room B, but also because the dinner was a rather tense affair.  The IPT events are intended to bridge government and industry (God knows why I was there), building partnerships and fostering cooperation, but this one seemed doomed to failure from the get go.  This was chiefly because it pitted academic nutritionists, who blamed industry for causing the obesity epidemic, against one of their chief targets: Coca Cola.

As luck would have it, I was sat beside one of the Coke guys, a true believer in his corporation and others (MacDonald’s, for instance) who were simply trying to please their loyal customers.  He reminded me somewhat of a scientologist, except it was nutrition science, not psychiatry, with which he had problems.  My efforts to be polite went over pretty well, I think.  My admittance that, although it had been a while since I had a Coca Cola product (a cherry coke when I say Side Effects - see last post), I had enjoyed it went over well; my suggestion that, instead of sponsoring the Olympics they should support physical activity by building bike paths in car-crazy Atlanta didn’t.

By the end of what was a fabulous spread, we had pretty much agreed, without saying as much, to disagree.  Then, just as we were getting up, a forty-something woman with a strong southern-US accent came up.  Sure enough, she was a Coke exec from Georgia, now living in the UK.  She cannily determined that my accent wasn’t ‘from around here’ and I admitted my heritage, explaining that I now lived in Scotland.  ’The only country in the world’, I exclaimed proudly, ‘where Coke isn’t the number one soft drink.  We Scottish prefer Irn Bru.’

The smiles disappeared.  ’I'm afraid you’re mistaken’, the woman said, my dining companion nodding vigorously, ‘they’re close, but we’re number one.’  I proceeded to assert that she was in fact incorrect, but we were soon ushered out; apparently the MPs present had to go and vote for something.

One of the MPs, Mary Glindon from North Tyneside, had said to me that if I wanted a tour of the Palace of Westminster, to wait in the lobby of the House of Commons and that she’d show me around after she voted.  As I waited in what ended up being the wrong place, reading about the history of the Palace, Team Coke walked past, failing to make eye contact.  Fine, I thought, next time I go to a film, I’m smuggling in Irn Bru.  Maggie might not have approved, but I’m damn sure Trudeau would have given me two thumbs up.

Epilogue.  After waiting and waiting for Mary, the MP, she turned up just as I was about to leave.  I was waiting in the wrong place, of course, but I was so glad I waited.  She proceeded to give me a spectacular tour of St Mary’s Chapel Undercroft (where Maggie had been the day before), the Shadow Cabinet room (I sat at the table), Ed Milliband’s office (open for some reason and apparently very unused, though there was the requisite family picture – no David to be found) and many, many other places that gave a colonial commoner such as myself a great thrill.  The highlight was the surreal experience of sneaking into the Gallery of the House to listen to the fag end of a debate, when who was speaking  but my very own MP, Jo Swinson of East Dunbartonshire.  What are the chances?  About 650-1, actually.  I am forever grateful to Mary Glindon for tracking me down and giving me, someone who will never be able to vote for her (well, who knows? I’d live in North Tyneside), a helluva great tour of one of the world’s truly great places.

So, for me, Wednesday the 17th of April, 2013 won’t bring to mind a funeral, but it will remind me that in this world of crass commercialism, greed is good and conviction for conviction’s sake, there is also kindness, generosity, serendipity and magic.  And, yes, there is also Irn Bru.

Side Effects

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I managed to slip the surly bonds of domesticity last night and settle into the 9:10 screening of Side Effects, Steven Soderbergh’s new (and apparently last) film about the psychiatry and the pharmaceutical industry.  I don’t really know why he’s bowing out of the film industry – maybe he needs some Zoloft to cheer him up…

Anyway, Side Effects is definitely a film of two halves.  The first half is part Michael Moore’s Sicko (American health care system bad) and Girl Interrupted (psychiatry and girls don’t mix).  It combines introducing one of the protagonists, a depressed girl searching for the right pill, with intimating that not only do most Americans take psychoactive drugs, but are willing to talk about their prescriptions to complete strangers, much to the glee of psychiatrists and big pharma.

The film then takes a decidedly dark turn, which reminded me of Black Swan, but kind of in reverse – I won’t explain, since I wouldn’t want to spoil anything – in which Jude Law, the other protagonist, a psychiatrist, rails against the pharmacological machine with gusto.  He’s great, actually, a fine and dandy performance, which is part Dr. Frasier Crane and part Dr. Bob Newhart, which can’t be anything but a good thing.

It’s an entertaining film, and one that I’ll use in teaching the history of psychiatry, but it is nowhere as subtle or moving as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which is not only my favourite film of all time (along with It’s a Wonderful Life – don’t know what that says about my own psychology), but a more insightful with respect to both psychiatry and mental illness.  Nevertheless Side Effects will spark some debate about mental illness, drugs and psychiatry and that can’t be anything but a good thing also.  Two thumbs up (and nothing Freudian intended).