A Man of Letters


Posted by in April's Magazine

Not since innocently penning the words ‘Dear Jim, could you please fix it for me to…’ back in 1980, has the act of letter-writing gone so wrong for me. To be fair, unlike other unfortunates, I escaped Savile’s clutches; mainly due to the fact I’d asked him to arrange for me to shadow an undercover child protection unit for the day.

Please don’t write in, by the way. This black quip is in no way intended to belittle the horror of his acts or patronise the suffering of his victims. Although I guess, in some ways, writing in would be quite apt. As would rendering this article in green ink – can you oblige me Mr Editor? Many thanks. I shall write you an IOU note, scented with Irn-Bru. Or Tizer. It’s your shout. (Vimto – Ed)

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Anyway, turning in earnest to the focus of this month’s vitriolic venting, we first have various figures from Scottish officialdom to thank for making it all possible. Step forward, the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon (insert sanctioned/choreographed applause here) and The Edinburgh City Council Transport Department (insert horn-honking and expletives here).

Yes, I, wee Col from East Kilbride, had the audacity to write to wee Nicola from Irvine, up at the Big Hoose behind Calton. I say I wrote to Nicola, but it’s more likely that my impassioned pleas were skimmed by some functionary and précised for her benefit. That’s only understandable I suppose, she’s a busy woman. But the ensuing correspondence left me feeling a bit saddened all the same.

First up, was my letter’s subject. Like a lot of other local residents, I was angered to learn of the fate of Canonmills Bridge. Despite a unanimous Council decision to reject the proposed demolition of said local landmark, the opinion of a single Reporter from the Scottish Government’s planning committee kiboshed that, trumping local democracy. A democratic deficit if you will. Sound familiar?

Yes, yes, yes, it sounds like an item from That’s Life circa, 1984 – but before you start throwing darts at your Esther Rantzen tea towel, hear me out. I didn’t expect the First Minister to overturn the unaccountable farce that is current planning legislation at the drop of a clipboard, but the subsequent response from some bureau-bot explained everything yet told me nothing. It was essentially an idiot’s guide to rules and regulations – a ‘pat on the head’ in prose form.

I didn’t want a primer on planning minutiae. I wanted a human response to an act that seems to bare its arse at Scotland’s egalitarian traditions; the traditions continually cited as guiding inspiration by the honourable members of the Scottish Government. Maybe we should re-designate Canonmills Bridge as a child – it’ll have a state-appointed guardian “protecting it” before a single slate is dislodged.

Incidentally, if any Nats of an aggressive persuasion want to have a go, bring it on. Just because I voted ‘Yes’ in 2014 and subsequently backed the Yellow & Blacks in May 2015, it shouldn’t prevent me from having a pop at them. It’s called pluralism – and it’s about more than nodding along at party conferences and filling a ballot paper.

The whole episode highlighted the fact that autopilot democracy does no one any favours. Something that was then confirmed by the ‘Carry On Correspondence’ that was a lengthy exchange with the Transport Dept at the Cooncil. I won’t bore you to tears with the details. Safe to say that it took all of six…count them…six weeks for some chappy to write a page of A4 in response to a query.

Those six weeks featured a fair bit of ‘bitey’ back and forth with the chief recipient. Our written encounter ended amicably but I came away from it all feeling like accountability was a bit of nuisance for her. As though it were a particularly annoying aunt with bad breath you had to see once every four years. Again, it left me feeling hollow.

The melancholy of a wide-eyed idealist? Perhaps. Democracy is far from perfect of course – despite the valiant efforts of many hard-working local councillors, MSPs and MPs (clearly they’re not all Machiavellian muppets). Yet how you feel about it matters just as much as what you know about it. No, not new age yogic flying ‘feel about it’, I mean the gut sense that it’s true to its core purpose.

HL Mencken famously/infamously believed that, “Democracy is the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage.” But, in contravention of the simian code, I guess it’s only by not taking the easy path towards ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ that we can ensure its continued relevance. Otherwise we’re the monkeys, not them.

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