Archive for August, 2011

Many years ago, as a young man,  on my very first foreign trip, in the beautiful city of Bologna, a place I will some day revisit, I enjoyed a meal courtesy of our hosts. At the end of that meal, we were invited to sign the guest book and my senior colleagues signed the book ‘Here’s tae us. Wha’s like us? Damn few, and they’re a’ deid. Mairs the pity.’ As they did, I wondered how arrogant that entry must seem to, not only, the restaurant owner but, to others following in our steps in this beautiful eatery. That memory came back this past week as a result of two different but, I believe related events, and a comment made by one of our contentious sports journalists on the exceptionally poor performance of Scottish football teams in Europe this week. His, the journalist’s, argument was that we, Scottish Football, hadn’t embraced change due to our own arrogance; for some reason the comment resonated.

Much has been written, in Scotland and possibly beyond, our arrogance is such that we believe that we are still of sufficient importance for others to be interested, this week about the problems in Scottish Football as all our teams crashed out of Europe.  Excuses have been proffered, ranging from lack of resources, facilities, money etc, yet, teams and countries with fewer resources do better. We apparently have one of the best coaching teaching set ups in the world which doesn’t translate to success either. Why, then is our national game in such a mess? Is it our psyche? Are we afraid of the hard work, dedication, commitment and graft to make it to the top?  Does the problem then lie with our youngsters, as some would suggest.

Alongside this footballing debate, but receiving far fewer column inches in Scotland was Eric Schmidt’s , Google’s chairman,  statement that ’education in Britain is holding back the country’s chances of success in the digital media economy.’  The speech was delivered in Scotland, it is no leap of the mind to say that the statement was if not targeted at Scotland certainly included Scotland. Once upon a time, we could state without fear of contradiction that Scottish Education was among the best in the world, I’m no longer certain, despite pockets of excellence among a few of our Universities, that the statement holds any longer. The comments, anecdotal stories, observations and employer statements that suggest a decline in our education standards are in many ways not too dissimilar to the type of comments about Scottish football made a few years back.

The warning signs for our education systen are there but,  like our football there appears a reluctance to acknowledge the decline and a temptation to hark back to a past where the mantra of Scotland having one of the best educational systems in the world is constantly repeated. If we repeat it often enough it must be, a bit like the constant claim that Glasgow Rangers v Glasgow Celtic being greatest club derby in the world.  Perhaps, the slide is masked by how we measure and perceive our game, how else can we reconcile more and more youngsters achieving examination success with a decline in standards. It doesn’t add up, or does it?

It may be that it doesn’t add up because we are no longer teaching the things that matter, like our football we measure and teach for our own backyard not for the bigger stage. If we want to play on the big playing fields, we need to change. Our education system may not be at the same low point as our football, but if we don’t take appropriate steps we may well reach that point. We need to change; one of the biggest barriers to change in Scottish football to date it is argued has been arrogance of people, structures and systems, however, last  week’s embarrassing results may be the shock required to force that change. It’s difficult to think of a shock to the education system in the same vein; more likely will be a continuing decline in meaningful work opportunities and a brain drain as our brightest leave for greener pastures. An article printed today suggests that unless Scotland changes it will be a third world country by 2030, an extreme claim, maybe. The case for change is strong, part of that change must be that we teach the things that matter.  Schmidt, I believe is right we do need to bring ‘art and science back together’ and ‘reignite the passion of children for sciences and technology.’ You never know, in doing so we may be able to reinforce the disciplines of hard work, dedication and commitment that are required for all works of life including a decent football team.

What about the cat, I hear you cry. For those who expected cat pics I would hate to disappoint, there is no other link.




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Chapter 1 : Mrs Johnstone






The door thundered on its hinges and the windows, the pictures on the entrance hallway wall, and even the small china cat which sat on the wooden telephone table reverberated with the noise. The hammering of fists on the red front door echoed both inside and outside the terraced house. The thumping was like no other that Jack would hear ever again, it was official, urgent and panic stricken all rolled into one.

Jack stopped, rooted to the spot. He had been running up the stairs to his bedroom when his world crashed around him. He looked down from the sixth step of the steep staircase to see his mum charge through from the living room, the room door smashed against the living room wall as she did so and she flung the front door open. There stood two people; Jack could only see one, but he could hear the voices of two. As strange as it sounds Jack’s life was flashing by as if in slow motion. This was a day that he would never ever forget.

‘Come! Come quickly!’

It was a man’s voice.

 Jack could also hear the sound of a woman’s voice, but he couldn’t make out what she was saying. He did hear his younger brother’s name being mentioned followed by the hysterical shrieks of his mother as she ran down the garden path. She staggered down the steps at the foot of the garden supported by the woman that had been at the door, which was now wide open to the world.

Jack stood, numb, still on that sixth stair. Something serious had happened; his mum had gone with the two people who arrived at the door, his dad was at work and he was on his own.

Jack could hear more voices outside. He edged his way down the stairs to the open front door to see what was going on. First his right foot, then a pause, then his left foot, yet, another pause and so on. Each of the six steps was deliberately and slowly negotiated and his ears strained to pick up any sounds that would give a clue to the cause of the commotion outside. After what seemed a lifetime, it only took five minutes, he reached the bottom stair and started to walk across the hall to the open front door.

‘Hi! It’s Jack, isn’t it?’

As Jack had stepped across the hall way a young police officer appeared in the entranceway. Jack stopped.

‘It is Jack?’

Jack nodded.

‘My name is Kim’.

He glanced up at the police officer; she wasn’t wearing her hat. Why he had noticed that she had no hat on, he wasn’t sure. It seemed to make her more approachable; she seemed nice and she looked pretty, but why was she here, he wasn’t in any trouble; he hadn’t done anything wrong.

‘What’s happened? Where’s my mum?’

Even though it was clear that something was troubling the police officer, she kept cool and smiled softly. She spoke gently to the ten year old boy whose life was entering a period of turmoil that would stay with him for the rest of his days.

‘Your mum will be back later. Let’s go into the living room. Shall we?’

Jack led the police officer through to the living room. A pile of un-ironed clothes lay at one end of the black leather sofa, at the other end was a neat pile of ironed clothes and a half ironed shirt was draped on the ironing table. Despite the suddenness of events Jack’s mum had had the presence of my mind to switch the iron off and place it in the cradle on the ironing board. Jack sat down on one of the four dining room chairs at the table at the end of the room. Kim sat on one of the two black leather chairs and nodded to Jack to come and sit with her. Jack walked over and sat down on the chair which faced the large TV in the corner; it was his dad’s chair. Jack and his younger brother, Jason, would sit with his dad on Sundays and watch the football.

‘What about Jason? He’ll be worried if he gets home to find it’s only me in the house.

‘Don’t you worry about that,’ replied Kim.

Kim and Jack talked about all sorts of things over the next 30 minutes or so. They talked about school, who his friends were, what he had been doing over the autumn break, what is hobbies were and what computer and DS games he liked. Kim shared Jack’s interest in computer games; he thought that it was strange that an adult, and a police officer, knew so much about computer games. He liked her, she seemed interested in him, but he was still unsure why she was in his house.

The front door opened. Jack jumped up from his chair.

‘Mum! Mum!’

A face peered round the living room door. Jack’s heart sank when he realised it wasn’t his mum. He was puzzled, it was Mrs Johnstone, Zander’s mum, who lived a few streets away. Mrs Johnstone looked very pale; she looked as if she had been crying. Normally a very well dressed and presented woman Mrs Johnstone looked a bit disheveled, her blouse was heavily creased and her hair looked as if it hadn’t been brushed or combed at all today. She had obviously left her own house in a hurry. What worried Jack more was that Mrs Johnstone had another police officer with her. He was a tall young man and he too spoke gently.

‘Kim, can we have a quite word?’

The two police officers went through to the hall. Jack could hear their hushed voices but not well enough to make out what they were saying.

‘How are you?’ asked Mrs Johnstone.

‘I’m Ok. What has happened?’ Jack asked

‘I’ll explain later. Would you like to come and sleep over at our place tonight? Zander would love you to come and stay over.’

‘I’ll need to ask to my mum,’ he replied.

‘I spoke to her earlier. It’s Ok. Let’s go upstairs and grab a few bits and pieces, your pyjamas and toothbrush.’

Jack nodded. Something was wrong. Why was this happening?

The two police officers smiled as Jack and Mrs Johnstone passed them in the hall and climbed the stairs to his bedroom. Once in the room he pulled his old sports bag from under his bed, placed it on the bed and unzipped the bag. Inside the bag was a dirty pair of socks, the gym kit that he wore before mid-term break and his training shoes. The bag was slightly smelly.

‘What will I do with the dirty stuff ?’ he asked.

‘Just put it on the chair in the corner and we can sort it later,’ replied Mrs Johnstone.

‘Where are your clean clothes?’

Jack pointed to the chest of drawers against the wall. Jack opened the top drawer and took out a pair of pants and a pair of socks.

‘Why don’t you take a couple of pairs with you? Just in case.’

Jack turned around.

‘Mrs Johnstone, has something bad happened?’

Mrs Johnstone smiled and avoided answering the question.

‘Come on. Let’s hurry we might get a lift in the police car if we are quick,’ she said

Jack finished packing his bag. He collected his toothbrush from the bathroom and he descended the stairs behind Mrs Johnstone. Kim and the young policeman were waiting at the foot of the stairs.

‘Kim. Do you think we should give this young man a lift in the police car?’ said the policeman.

 Kim smiled. ‘Yes, Scott. I think we can do it on this occasion.’

The police man opened the front door; he and Mrs Johnstone were followed out by Kim and Jack and they walked down the garden path in pairs. At the bottom of the garden, stood some neighbours, a few of the women were in tears. As Jack approached them not a word was spoken and everybody bowed their head. Along, the street, maybe 100 yards or so, Jack could see the flashing lights of a police car, police van, an ambulance and a fire engines.

‘What’s happened?’ asked Jack.

‘It’s Ok. Let’s get in the car,’ said Mrs Johnstone .

The two police officers waited until Jack and Mrs Johnstone had fastened their seatbelts in the back of the car before they climbed in. The two police officers jumped in the front. Scott, the policeman was driving, while Kim turned and spoke to Jack trying to reassure him that he would be Ok. Jack now knew that there was a problem, he still hadn’t worked out what it was but whatever it was it was bad and it had something to do with him or his family. He started to cry, Mrs Johnstone hugged and hugged him; she didn’t know what else to do. It wasn’t her job to tell him that his little brother had been killed in a hit and run accident that should be the job of his mum and dad. Her thoughts turned to Jack’s mum ‘poor woman, she must be going through hell.’

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As many will know we have 10 cats. They are all British Shorthairs, among the ten are three toms, one despite his large size is a little cowardly but the other two are large, confident, bold and personable cats.

Leo in hiding

Being cats they know how to manipulate their humans in order to gain food, attention and by and large anything else they want. All cats have these innate skills and have reached their position of power in households across the world by deploying these skills with great mental acuity. Numerous sayings have developed over the years from ‘Dogs have masters, cats have staff’ , “You can keep a dog; but it is the cat who keeps people, because cats find humans useful domestic animals,’ to Churchill’s famous ‘I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.’ But the coolness, control, superiority and decorum of our cats was visibly shattered this week. Other cat lovers confirm our findings that the cool, elegant and at times imperious nature of these creatures disappears when confronted by small humans.

This week we had two of our grandkids over, two children, one aged 16 mths and the other 5 yrs of age who proved to be too much for ten cats. Within five minutes not a cat was to be found, a whole battalion of mice could have wandered through the house, followed by flocks of budgerigars, sparrows and finches, flights of butterflies and flutters of moths. The offer of such bounty would not have brought the cats out of their various hidey-holes so long as the little people were present. Large male cats, even our overweight female queen ignored the whisker test and squeezed their bodies into holes that even the mice would have given some thought to before crawling through.

Cleanest, but maybe not the cleverest hiding spot

The stand down was maintained for a couple of hours; one cat thinking that the grandkids had left, carried out a brief scouting mission only to realise that the kids were in the back garden. He quickly turned about lowered his chest and stomach to the floor, halving his height, and skulked at pace back from whence he came.

Eventually, the kids went home and one by one the cats started to reappear and assert their authority once again. Order was once again restored and the cries for food, attention and anything else they wanted resumed as if nothing had happened.

Yes, the cat may well be superior to us, but perhaps only when we are at a stage where our minds have developed sufficiently for the cat to exercise control. Mini-people represent a challenge best left for mum. If mum, and it is a debatable point, can knock off the rough edges and provide the basic skillls the cat can then work on the rest. Until then, I’m afraid the little terrors (oops children) hold the upper hand.


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