Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Final 50

Last night I finished my thirtieth book of the year, which takes me to halfway through my planned reading for the year. Perhaps more significantly, the novel that I finished, "She's Come Undone" (good book, by the way), was a book from The List, taking me down to a total of 50 books remaining. (Technically, it's actually 49, as the List contains both "The Complete Works of Shakespeare" and "Hamlet". But let's not dwell on that.)

That means that, at the current rate, I should finish up the list in July of 2021.

As I've mentioned before, The List is actually made up of a merge of two other lists, one British and one American. Of the books that remain, 6 appear on both of these lists, 11 only appear on the British list, while 33 only appear on the American one. (My suspicion is that many of the books that remain earned their place by being recommended by either Oprah or Richard & Judy for their respective book clubs. I'm not sure whether I find that amusing or sad, though in fairness many of the recommendations are pretty decent.)

My inclination for the next couple of years is to fucs quite heavily on the books that appear in the British list, finish that, and then turn my attention to the American version. Whether that actually happens or not will remain to be seen, of course.

In case you are particularly interested, the full listing of the final 50 is below. (Fair warning: If you're not interested, that's the end of the post!)

  1. Anne of Green Gables (LM Montgomery)
  2. A Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry)
  3. Complete Works of Shakespeare
  4. Fall on Your Knees (Ann-Marie MacDonald)
  5. The Stand (Stephen King)
  6. Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy)
  7. The Notebook (Nicholas Sparks)
  8. Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand)
  9. The Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradley)
  10. The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett)
  11. The Power of One (Bryce Courtenay)
  12. I Know This Much is True (Wally Lamb)
  13. The Red Tent (Anita Diamant)
  14. The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho)
  15. The Clan of the Cave Bear (Jean M Auel)
  16. The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas)
  17. The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)
  18. A Suitable Boy (Vikram Seth)
  19. The Stone Angel (Margaret Laurence)
  20. The Thorn Birds (Colleen McCullough)
  21. Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov)
  22. The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand)
  23. Fifth Business (Robertson Davis)
  24. On The Road (Jack Kerouac)
  25. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (Ann Brashares)
  26. Midnight's Children (Salman Rushdie)
  27. Moby Dick (Herman Melville)
  28. Shogun (James Clavell)
  29. The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett)
  30. Ulysses (James Joyce)
  31. The Summer Tree (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  32. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith)
  33. Swallows and Amazons (Arthur Ransome)
  34. Germinal (Emile Zola)
  35. The Diviners (Margaret Laurence)
  36. Not Wanted On The Voyage (Timothy Findley)
  37. Madame Bovary (Gustave Flaubert)
  38. The Stone Diaries (Carol Shields)
  39. Blindness (Jose Saramago)
  40. Kane and Abel (Jeffrey Archer)
  41. The Faraway Tree Collection (Enid Blyton)
  42. In The Skin Of A Lion (Ondaatje)
  43. The Good Earth (Pearl S Buck)
  44. The Secret Life of Bees (Sue Monk Kidd)
  45. The Bourne Identity (Robert Ludlum)
  46. The Outsiders (SE Hinton)
  47. White Oleander (Janet Fitch)
  48. A Woman of Substance (Barbara Taylor Bradford)
  49. Hamlet (William Shakespeare)
  50. The Celestine Prophecy (James Redfield)

#30: "She's Come Undone", by Wally Lamb (a book from The List)

Monday, June 26, 2017

The European Pipe Band Championships 2017

This weekend was the last of a run of four heavy weekends with the band, as the competition season reaches its mid-point, and also reaches the point where it takes a break for a while. It was also the second of four major tournaments of the year.

Following the exhaustion of last year, this year we took the approach of travelling up to Inverness on the Friday, spending the night in a Premier Inn, attending the competition on the Saturday, and then returning on the Sunday. I do think this was the better approach - although it meant taking a day off work, and also spending a considerable more on hotel rooms, food, etc, it was much less tiring than the equivalent last year. (I think the band will be reverting to the previous model of travelling up on the Saturday next year... but that's not my problem.)

The journey up was surprisingly quiet. The bus was only half-full, and seemed even less full than that. I buried myself in a decent book, emerging only during the stop, and then again when we arrived.

The plan had been to take a practice shortly after arriving on the Friday night. Once we got there, the decision was taken not to bother, as we were four pipers down. In hindsight, I suspect this was a mistake, though I wasn't too unhappy about it at the time. Less pleasantly, it was decided that we would be leaving the hotel at 7:45 on the Saturday, which left little time for breakfast.

(The Premier Inn, incidentally, was pretty much like all the others I've been to. It was fine - nice and clean, a comfy bed, and a good breakfast. Though they didn't seem to have the promised grilled tomatoes. But they did give us free Irn Bru, which made up for it somewhat.)

On Satuday, we travelled over to the competition in good spirits, arriving in good time. (I finished my book during this journey, and started straight in on the next one.) We had a short break, put up the dread gazebo, and then gathered together at 9:30 to start our preparations in earnest.

Alas, it was not to be our day - nothing seemed to go right from then on. The drones just refused to settle, possibly due to the wind, or perhaps because most of the band hadn't blown their pipes on Friday (the cane drone reeds we're now using need played every day, and seem to be utterly unforgiving about that). The focus in the practices just didn't seem to be what it had been on Thursday, the playing just wasn't as good. And then a second mistake was made - we moved over to final tuning late, meaning we had only moments at that final staging area. (Though, honestly, I'm not sure that really matters.)

At that last moment, one of our younger players had a problem with a drone, and it was put off. This is always a risk - putting a drone off increases the pressure in the rest of the pipes, and so if you're not careful there's a risk of the chanter coming in when it shouldn't, causing an "early E". But that risk is better than going on knowing a drone is acting up...

The performance was not good. There was an early E (I don't know if it was that same player or not - better not to know, I think), it was all too fast, and it was generally very ragged. As we came off, we knew the pipe major was raging, and he didn't disappoint.

We didn't qualify. In fact, out of 11 in our qualifying group, we were 10th - 10th and 11th for piping, 3rd for drumming, and 11th for ensemble (not surprising - if one half is poor, the ensemble can't be good).

Not surprisingly, our drummers took that particularly hard. After all, they'd done their bit and been let down by the pipers, again. It was even harder to take when we heard the final - not only should we have qualified, if we'd played the way we did on Thursday we could well have won.

There was one piece of good news. Our young drum major was also competing, and she came fourth - winning her first prize in a championship. Obviously, that's a fantastic result.

Alas, worse was to come. As soon as we learned we weren't in the final, much of the band decamped to the pub. Cue the drunken antics of a load of people who really should have known better.

My personal favourite bit of the weekend came in the early evening, when one of our members tried to persuade me that I shouldn't leave the band once I've moved, because Livingston isn't all that far... Unfortunately, he was doing so while thoroughly drunk, and thus serving as a prime example of why I'm not fighting particularly hard to stay.

Once we got back to the hotel, I had a quick dinner and then bed. So much for that day.

On Sunday morning, the bus driver made a complaint about the state of the bus. In addition to the usual low-level mess that you always get from a group of people (which is largely unavoidable, and generally accepted), there had been a whole load of biscuits ground up and thrown around the place - in a manner that simply doesn't happen by accident. So I apologised profusely, and made a note to address the subject at the practice tonight.

The journey home was largely uneventful, due to a combination of hangovers and sleeping. Thank goodness.

But it doesn't end there! Because when we got home the driver complained about the state of the bus again. He'd mopped it out just before we left, so it was almost immaculate at that time, but just a few hours later it was again a state of discarded wrappers, bottles, and other assorted litter. He, at least, was mollified by the efforts of the committee to gather and clean up that mess. I wasn't.

The outcome of all of this is desperately disappointing. It's bad enough that we didn't qualify, and worse that we didn't perform at all well. But everything else that has happened has just sickened me on the whole experience again - I don't put in this sort of effort to the band just to spend my time clearing up other people's garbage.


I'm still going to see out the rest of the season. But I'll definitely be leaving at the AGM in September - any prospect that I might change my mind on that point is now over. What's also over is the hope that I might see the band promoted as I depart - that was already a long-shot after the British Championships, but is now definitively over. I will also be avoiding the buses at the World Championships and at Innerleithen (the last competition of the season) - the other events should be okay, but those two will see a repeat of the same antics as this weekend, and I'm done with that.

#29: "Look to Windward", by Iain M. Banks

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Branch Locator

In banking, the concept of the local branch is a slightly tricky one - for a great many people, it's like a safety net: almost everything is now done online or at an ATM, and you hope not to actually have to go to a branch, but when you do need to go there tends to be no substitute.

Unfortunately, this puts the banks in a tricky spot, because providing local branches is very costly, especially as they are used less and less - you have to pay staff whether they're doing anything or not, so the goal should be to try to minimise that "dead time". And it's not as if there are many efficiency savings to be met; a branch needs a minimum staff presence to be able to securely deal with the monies involved.

The consequence of this is that banks have, quite naturally, encouraged people to move to digital and direct banking as much as possible (because it's much cheaper), and have cut down on the number of branches. (I would presume that the next step will be to cut down on the opening hours for the branches that remain. If they're wise, this will also be matched by a shift to branches being closed during business hours in the week, and open more often in evenings, at weekends, and, ironically, on bank holidays - the times when people are actually able to go. Of course, it won't happen like that.)


A few times a year, I find myself in possession of a cheque or two that need to be deposited into the bank - that being the main source of my having to actually go to a bank. And, naturally, the branch local to the flat is only open during business hours during the week, which means I either have to go late on a Friday or early on a Saturday.

Or, crazy as the notion is, I could always go to another branch. Which seems like a good idea - the website has a useful "branch locator" gadget, and my hours at work are flexible, so...

And so, for my latest scheme I plugged in my postcode at work, and discovered that there's a branch a scant 2 miles from the office. Huzzah!

Alas, my celebration was short-lived, because when I drove over to said branch, I discovered that, far from being open from 9am to 5pm (with an hour closed for lunch), it was in fact shut. Permanently. Indeed, it had been shut for months, boarded up, with all the signage removed (to the extent that I actually drove past it before realising what it was).

I guess it's my own fault really. I should probably have located the secret "find a branch that's actually open" button on the gadget. Silly me, assuming that such a thing should be implied.

(In other news, the competing bank where the band do their banking have also recently closed the branch closest to the office. So it's not like any of them are really that much better.)

Monday, June 19, 2017

Edinburgh Pipe Band Championships 2017

It's been a busy weekend, with all sorts of stuff going on. The band were out both days - on Saturday we attended both the Linlithgow and Grangemouth gala days. (While getting ready, I looked out the window and thought, "well, I might get soaked, but at least I won't need sunblock." I therefore got badly sunburnt, which isn't good.) Then we went to the Edinburgh Pipe Band Championships yesterday, where we played twice.

(I should perhaps note that while this event is called a championship, it is in fact just a 'regular' competition - not one of the five actual championships. Though I daresay Edinburgh city council would be very keen to get their hands on one of the big five.)

Actually, it was a really good day - hot and sunny, with a really good venue and a good feeling about the place. Definitely my favourite competition of the season thus far.

In our grade, we came 2nd overall, out of nine bands. That is 3rd and 3nd for piping, 3rd for drumming, and 2nd for ensemble. So, a really good result, and one that stands us in good stead for the next championship, at Forres next weekend.

In Grade 4A things were rather less rosy - we came last out of seven bands, being 7th and 5th for piping, 4th for drumming, and 7th for ensemble. So, not so good. The only slight mitigation to that is that at least we knew we hadn't done well, and that we knew also we could do a lot better (indeed, we had done, immediately before going on - bottled it again). Also, the Grade 4A contests are all about gaining experience - it's the Grade 4B ones that matter. This year.

So, all in all a decent day. The main thing is that we had a successful run-out prior to Forres next week, which is going to be the big one. And then we get a much-needed break, filled with moving house and other shenanigans.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Tim Farron

Once upon a time, I was actually a Lib Dem voter. As I said shortly after he died, Charles Kennedy was probably as close to my own political stance as any mainstream politician has come in my lifetime.

But they left me a long time ago, pretty much as a direct consequence of ousting CK. I initially thought Ming Campbell might be a good substitute, but he singularly failed to impress, and I never had much time for Nick Clegg even before the coalition. (That said, the coalition would have been forgivable but for two things. Firstly, the delivery of voting reform, not just a referendum on a crap compromise, should have been an absolute red line. Secondly, having signed personal pledges on the issue, the Lib Dem MPs absolutely had to vote against rises to tuition fees - that shouldn't even have been a discussion.)

As for Tim... well. They had to have someone, and there weren't a lot of choices, so I guess he did the job. He always seemed a bit useless, even at the best of times. For the most part, my reaction to his resignation is a resounding "meh".


From a Lib Dem perspective, my over-riding memory of the election campaign was from the first week, in which Tim Farron found himself caught up in a 'scandal' because of his views on homosexuality. With Tim being openly Christian, and despite his voting record of the topic, he had this perceived weakness, and the media were not quick to exploit it - what exactly were his views on gay sex? And so, just when he most wanted to be talking about Brexit (aka the most important issue in UK politics right now, by at least an order of magnitude) found himself embroiled in a media-confected controversy.

Of course, it's not hard to see why the right-wing media took this approach. It's certainly not as if the Sun and the Daily Mail had suddenly converted to become great champions of gay people! But Tim headed the only major Britain-wide party to stand against Brexit, and so posed at least some threat (no matter how small).

And, unfortunately, those on the left are disastrously fragmented. Seriously, we see it all the time - you either have to completely ideologically pure, or you are the very devil. (Which is made extra tricky since different factions within the left have different stances, some of them mutually exclusive.) Which is why the right almost always wins - "well, I like almost everything they stand for, but I couldn't possibly vote for someone who..."

Poor Tim never really stood a chance.

What was very interesting, though, is that Theresa May is also openly a practicing Christian, and has a far more patchy voting record on LBGTI rights than Tim Farron and yet, somehow, Robert Peston neglected to ask her about the same topic. Despite, incidentally, promising to do exactly that when he appeared on "Have I Got News For You". She did get asked the question, by Andrew Marr, but only a week later, after she'd had plenty of time to be well briefed on how to answer. And she most certainly didn't face the same hounding on the subject.

The reality is that most of the media don't give a damn about Tim Farron's (or Theresa May's) Christian beliefs, or indeed his beliefs as regards LBGTI rights. They're interested in the rest of their politics, and will use anything and everything to discredit their opponents. I suppose all's fair in love and war...

Except that that has a really horrible implication. If that is indeed the case, then that means that the 'ideal' politician is a vacuous amoral psychopath, who will adopt whatever position it takes to win and only those positions required to win, and who will studiously avoid any underlying beliefs or principles because they might be used against them.

If there's a lesson to be learned from Tim Farron it's this: we get the politicians that we deserve.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Strathmore Highland Games 2017

The band are busy every Saturday and every Sunday in June. Last weekend was the Mariner's Day parade in Camelon (our local gala day), and then the Strathmore Highland Games at Glamis Castle on the Sunday. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to attend Mariner's Day - we had a meeting to set up our new mortgage.

The Strathmore Highland Games can either be really good or really bad, depending on the weather - Glamis Castle makes for a wonderful backdrop, but it really can get boggy. Fortunately, this year was one for nice weather.

We competed twice. Initially, we were entered in Grade 4B, but one arrival we registered to also play up at Grade 4e. Entering late like this means that you have to play first, which is not ideal but does have the advantage that you don't have so much waiting.

The Grade 4B contest went well. I thought we played the tunes about as well as we had ever done. Alas, we didn't replicate this in Grade 4A - we started well, but it very quickly fell apart. And it didn't help that my hands decided to cramp up by the third part of the first tune. Disaster!

Or maybe not, because the results were just weird. In Grade 4B we came fourth, narrowly missing out on a prize (we were 4th in piping and 1st! in drumming), and in Grade 4A we were second (2nd in piping and 1st! in drumming). So, another prize, albeit not in the 'important' competition. But it was strange to see the judges' opinions differ from our own so sharply. Oh well.

The coming weekend is going to be another very hard one - we have both the Linlithgow and Grangemouth gala days on the Saturday (which is extremely hard work, but makes a lot of money for the band all at once), and then the Edinburgh Championship on the Sunday. As this is our last run-out before the European Championships in Forres, there's quite some pressure to make it a good one.

There are now ten events in all remaining in our season (counting the two gala days from Saturday as one), and twelve and a half weeks to go. It's going to be really hard going attending all these events, especially while also moving home. However, since our move-in date is the weekend of the third major (the Scottish Championships), I'm going to try not to miss any - though I think Dumbarton will be a case of driving over, playing the event, and then leaving right away.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Counting the Days

As I mentioned in my most recent update on goals, we've had some significant movement on the house move in the last few weeks. It has been something of a roller-coaster, with things going really well one day only to crash back down the next, but there's now the makings of a timetable in place, so I thought I'd risk an update...

On the sale front, our buyer has now finally completed her sale and has issued a revised offer on the flat. We've had the Home Report refreshed (which was really just a technicality), and things seem to be going okay. We've not yet concluded missives, so nothing is quite certain yet, but the provisional date of entry is the 4th of July. This means we'll be moving out of the flat on the weekend of the 1st of July.

(This is, of course, just when all of our helpers become unavailable for a month. For that and various other reasons, we're planning to get in a removals company to box everything up for us, put it all in storage, and deliver it when needed.)

On the purchase front, things are (for now) likewise quite positive. We've been lucky enough to secure the same house we were looking at originally. We've had to apply for a new mortgage, as our previous offer expired, but I'm hopeful that that will be fine. With a bit of luck, we'll be able to conclude the missives there in the near future, too. Our provisional date of entry, and therefore our move-in date, is the 28th of July.

It of course remains to be seen whether it will actually play out this way, or if it's yet another false dawn. But right now it looks good, and if we're very lucky, this might finally mean that in 45 days the ordeal will be over.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Markinch Highland Games 2017

I've just realised I didn't give an update from last week's competition. Oops.

There's not a lot to say about the day, so I'll just give the results: in Grade 4B (our grade), we came 3rd out of six, being third in piping and third in drumming. A good result. In Grade 4A, we were 7 of 9, being seventh in piping and fourth in drumming.

All in all, not a bad day's work.

#28: "The Gypsy Morph", by Terry Brooks

Friday, June 09, 2017

Covfefe and Mugwumps

Politics, eh? Bloody hell!

I stayed up last night to watch the exit poll, had a good laugh, and then went to bed. Then I got up bright and early, discovered that the exit poll was pretty much spot on, had another good laugh, and came to work.

It really is a mess.

As far as I can tell, what will happen now is that the Tories will activate their traditional alliance with the DUP, and thus form a minority government. It's very likely that Theresa May will be ousted (she's said she has no intention of resigning because the country needs strong and stable leadership... which probably means she'll resign within the hour).

But the big wrinkle in that is English Votes for English Laws - 13 of the Tories' MPs are from Scotland, and the 10 from the DUP are of course from Northern Ireland, and so won't be able to vote on large chunks of the government's programme. So it's even more of a mess than it might already appear. (Of course, they could undo EVEL just as easily as they brought it in - it's just a statuatory instrument rather than a law, so easy to remove.)

Edit: Having checked the result in more detail, the Tories have a fairly large majority in England, so EVEL is less of a wrinkle than I'd originally thought. But I was right about the alliance with the DUP.

My strong suspicion, though, is that we're heading for another election in the short term, because this isn't a workable outcome. Unless Tim Farron can be persuaded to throw his Lib Dems under the bus again... and surely to goodness he's learned the folly of that course?

(As regards Jeremy Corbyn: he did well, and a lot better than expected. He's almost certainly safe from any challenges now. Unfortunately, though, my feeling is that he's probably done as well as it is possible for him to do, and I'm not at all sure that a solid second is really worth anything in a winner-takes-all contest.)

In Scotland, I'm fairly horrified by the result. I'm not shocked, or particularly bothered that the SNP lost a significant number of seats, or that the Labour party or the Lib Dems have come back. But I'm horrified that there are now 13 Tory MPs for Scotland - that means either that a lot of people looked at the rape clause, food banks, a hard Brexit, and the proposed bonfire of human rights and thought to themselves, "I've got to get me some of this!", or is means that they were so determined to get rid of the SNP that they were willing to burn the country down to get it. I'm really not sure which possibility is worse. But what is true is that those 13 Tory MPs are the difference between a Tory minority government and a Labour one, so if it was Unionist tactical voting that's caused it then those otherwise-Labour voters get the great pleasure of having just lost their party the election.

(Also, I suspect this result means a stay of execution for Kezia Dugdale. And while I can't say that the likely successor, Anas Sarwar, fills me with any confidence, neither does Kezia.)

In terms of the independence question, there's now no good way forward. The Scottish Parliament has already passed the legislation asking for a second referendum, so either Nicola Sturgeon has to go ahead with this or she has to go back to parliament to call it off. But I can't now see a push for independence succeeding, while if she calls it off then the media will never let her hear the end of it. Disaster either way.

Finally, I would like to congratulate the big winner from last night. Once the dust settles, it's extremely likely that we'll have a new Prime Minister, someone who a little while ago looked dead in the water, with no hope of getting the big job but who, against all the odds is now the favourite.

I refer, of course, to Boris Johnson. Somehow, it seems fitting that in a contest between the accidental King and the tyrant Queen, the big winner turns out to be the Joker.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

A Cautionary Tale

This is what happens when supposedly-intelligent people don't bother to go out and vote:

For the first time in a long time, it's very clear that they're not all the same. And it does matter - six weeks ago, I really didn't think it would, but things have changed remarkably since then. So please, go and make a decision, whatever that decision might be.

And that's all I have to say about that, until tomorrow. See you on the flip side!

#27: "The Flame Bearer", by Bernard Cornwell

Friday, June 02, 2017


Just as you're consoling yourself that a Trump presidency isn't the end of the world...

Thursday, June 01, 2017

The End of May

I've been rather enjoying this election campaign - watching the Tories implode under the slightest of pressure, coupled with Theresa May's impression of a broken robot has been great fun. And watching the polls tighten ever further has been great. There's just the tiniest smidgeon of hope...

But not really. Even the most favourable polls have suggested we're heading for a hung parliament with the Tories by far the largest party, and easily able to form a minority government with the help of the Unionists in Northern Ireland (certainly the DUP, and perhaps the UUP)... and if it came to it, the Lib Dems would support them in the interests of allowing the country to have at least some sort of a government.

So I can't see there being anything other than a Tory government after the election.

However, what will be really interesting is that, if there is a hung parliament it will be almost impossible for Theresa May to remain in her position - she'll have been shown to be a liability, and the Tory party is quite ruthless at ditching weak leaders.

The reason that's interesting is that there have been two key threads in the Tory campaign: firstly, the focus on Theresa May asking for a personal mandate to negotiate Brexit (going so far as the Tories campaigning as "Theresa May's team"); and secondly the mantra of it being a "strong and stable" government.

But if the Tories promptly remove Theresa, the most likely candidate to take over is, once again, Boris (yay?). In which case, it's hard to see how they can claim to have any sort of a mandate - they'll no longer be "Theresa May's team", and the notion of such a government being "strong and stable" is laughable.

So does that mean we'll need another election, in order for Boris to get his personal mandate to negotiate Brexit? And what happens if he fails to secure that mandate and has to be replaced.

(And, incidentally, this is why it's a really bad idea to try to turn a parliamentary election into a faux-presidential one. We should be voting for our local candidates, or at the very least for parties, not for individual leaders. Or, if we're going to be forced to vote for leaders, as the nature of television probably requires, maybe we should shift to a formal presidential system, with the Prime Minister being directly elected and then allowed to form the government around them. (In this system we'd still elect MPs. Basically, we'd have two votes - one for a local MP and a separate one for the top job.))

#26: "Pathfinder: Assault on Longshadow", by Benjamin Bruck and Thurston Hillman