This is what it’s like to be shipwrecked

The UK Government will no longer support search and rescue operations to prevent migrants and refugees drowning in the Mediterranean.

Here is a first hand account of what it is like to be shipwrecked and stranded at sea. It’s old – from January 1916, and it’s long. But it explains what it’s like to walk down the side of a sinking ship into the sea, to swim for half an hour, to be in a lifeboat for two nights, to be ignored by two ships and eventually rescued.

We are condemning people in this stuation to die because of their lack of paperwork.


Letter stamped "Damaged by Immersion in Sea Water"

Letter stamped “Damaged by Immersion in Sea Water”

The sinking of the Persia on 30 December 1915

E R P Berryman

I will try and give you some account of the sinking of the poor old “Persia” while it is still fresh in my memory, though I don’t think I’m likely to forget it in a hurry, much as I should like to.

It was just after one o’clock on Thursday, Dec 30th, and the gong had just sounded for lunch; consequently the majority of passengers were assembled in the saloon and a good many had actually begun lunch. (As this is a personal account, you must excuse the continual occurrence of the personal pronoun “I”, but I’m afraid it is unavoidable). I was a trifle late and strolled in about 5 past, and was just sitting down in my place when there was a muffled “bang”, though it sounded loud and clear enough and one felt the concussion quite distinctly.

Everyone of course knew at once what had happened; we all rose from our seats and begun to file out of the saloon. There was no panic, no rush, it was, as someone described it later “just like going out of church”. I heard only one remark, someone saying “not much doubt about that” otherwise everyone was quite calm and collected, outwardly at any rate. We all went to our cabins and got our life belts and went on deck, and proceeded at once to our boats.

My boat was No 7 on the starboard side, and when I got there the crew were already endeavouring to lower it. This must have been a minute after she was struck, and the “Persia” was already beginning to list to port a bit. Our boats seemed to stick in the davits and refused to be lowered, despite the efforts of the crew and ourselves. The list to port was now becoming very marked, and it soon became quite 45° and one had to hang on the rail to prevent oneself sliding across to the port side, and anyone who was the least bit late in coming on deck had perforce to go to the port side.

It was soon obvious that our boat could never be launched in time, as the old “Persia” was now almost on her side. Someone said “time to go now” so in company with several others, I scrambled over the rail and walked down the side of the slings, which was now of course nearly level, she had heeled right over to port. No 7 boat was still fast in the davits, though a little lower down than before and I thought the best thing to do was to hang on to her as she might still get loose.

However, just then the “Persia” gave a final lurch, and her keel appeared above water, and a huge rush of water from under her caught me fair and square just as I was hanging on to the life-line of No 7 boat, and I was carried right away from the ship.

I then saw it all, the last few seconds of the old barge. She half-righted herself and then sank with appalling rapidity, the last thing I saw being her bows standing right out of the water, about 30 feet of them, and then these slid out of sight silently and suddenly. The sinking slings caused very little suction, but the water all round was of course very much disturbed. The whole tragedy had taken just 5 minutes, from the time the torpedo struck, till the “Persia” disappeared.

The scene that followed was too terrible to describe in any detail, even if I could do so. The sea (which had quite a nasty swell on though not exactly rough) was full of human beings and floating wreckage, chairs, tables, broken pairs of           were everywhere. The air was full of groans and cries, and everywhere one looked it seemed one saw human beings struggling in the water. It was awful. Our lifebelts kept us afloat easily, but we all hung on to wreckage. Each bit I got on to seemed to be chosen by several other people, so I had to change several times, as there were too many on several places to support the weight.

I looked round, a bit dazed of course, and could see four boats some way off, and one upturned one. Obviously the thing to do was to swim for the boats, so, shouting out this to the others I started off. It was difficult work, as the sea was so full of wreckage that one got knocked about a lot and it’s hard work swimming in a lifebelt too. The boats seemed miles off and I seemed to get no nearer.

By now the swell and current had scattered everyone over a very large area, and the boats were packing up as many people as they could. While swimming along I heard groaning and crying close to me and saw a lady lying on her back, apparently utterly exhausted and just drifting helplessly away, supported by her lifebelt. She was delirious I should think, and kept saying she was dead and dying, so I took her in tow though there seemed little chance of our reaching the boats, as I seemed to get no nearer. Fortunately she lay quite still and though my legs kept getting mixed up in her skirts, and she was rather a dead weight, I managed to swim on and at last succeeded in hailing a boat.

They fortunately saw me and waved back; I had already got near one boat but they handed oars out and I was carried away from it again by the sea. How hopeless it all seemed then. After more struggles I at last reached the boat; after three ineffectual grabs at a rescuing hand, I seized it and we were hauled on board.

I was thankful to get in. I must have been in the water half an hour and felt quite done up. I’m afraid anyone who was afloat when she went down and couldn’t swim must have been lost, as the boats soon drifted away from the scene, the swell and current being very strong and I’m afraid, too, many people got injured by the floating wreckage.

The boat I was in contained about 40 people. We got oars out but it was hard to make any headway in that sea and with such amateur oarsmen. We looked around for more survivors but could see none, and except for a few pieces of isolated wreckage which were here and there visible, the rest having been scattered, it was hard to realise that a ship had gone down.

There were now four boats afloat all full, and one upturned one in the far distance with a few people clinging on. Some people swear to having seen a fifth boat full of people but nothing has been heard of this since. The chief officer of the “Persia” (to whom we owe our lives as he cut away 3 boats from the darts with a hatchet, there being no time to launch them; the fourth had been launched somehow or other) was in one of these and he shouted out orders to all keep together in a line. The chief officer then transferred some from his boat (which was only the small “accident boat” for use in case of man overboard) which was carrying about 10-12 more passengers than it could hold, to ours, and the others.

We had now just over 40, including 6 women and 2 children. 1 ship’s officer, 4 male passengers and the rest stewards and native crew of the “Persia”. All our watches had stopped at 1-15 or 1-20, but it must have been 2 o’clock now. We tried to keep our course S.S.E. towards Port Said, so as to fall in with other ships if possible, but it was a difficult job in that sea.

About 4 o’clock I suppose we sighted the masts, funnels and smoke of a ship on the horizon, which cheered us all up and her hull soon appeared. (I must tell you here that there had been no time to send off an S.O.S. signal by Marconi, so no one knew what had happened). Suddenly a huge column of water was seen to shoot up by her, followed by 5 shots from a gun. It seemed she too had been torpedoed or shelled by a submarine, and perhaps was firing at the submarine. In any case she got no nearer to us, although she did not sink at once, she gradually faded away in the gathering darkness.

We now tried to make ourselves comfortable as possible for the night. We were all wet through of course, and it soon got very cold. The four women were very thinly clad but we gave them coats and sail covers and there happened to be a very thin blanket on board. But it was so bitterly cold for them I’m afraid. However they were just splendid, one poor girl had got a nasty cut on her head from a piece of wreckage and fainted, but we made her as comfy as possible. Of course, the boat was crowded and one couldn’t move about at all.

We put out “sea anchors” to keep the boat’s head to the sea, and let ourselves drift. The current taking us in the desired direction, soon after dark the lights of a steamer appeared so we burnt glasses to attract her attention, but she put out all her lights and cleared off; she evidently thought we were a submarine and suspected a trick. (I believe the Admiralty have issued orders accordingly so as ships may not go to any promiscuous lights as the enemy are up to all sorts of dodges).

So two ships had gone by and no rescue. It was rather disheartening, but we were not downhearted yet by any means. I had to lie right up in the bows, looking after the painter which was joining our boat to the next one, as it kept parting and coming undone. It was cold, as I was so wet. I shivered all night and most of next day, even in a hottish sea.

The night dragged itself through. Sleep was out of the question; we made the women as warm as we could and gave them all the coverings in the boat, but I’m afraid they suffered a lot, but bore it like Britons and never complained once. The two kids rescued were both in our boat; one was a French little girl about 6, in the bow with me. Poor kid, I tried to keep her warm, but she kept asking in a plaintive voice “Where is the big boat which was coming to help us”. It was awfully pathetic, as we could only say that it was soon coming now.

Dawn at last came, and we had a dry biscuit and a sip of water each. We had 2 kegs aboard, but the stopper had come off one so only one was filled. The other boats were in an equally bad way for water. Early in the morning we hoisted a sail in our boat and tried to tow the other three along, but it was not much good and we made slow progress. About 9 o’clock, I suppose, we sighted a ship on the horizon, so it was decided that we, having a sail, should go after it alone and try to hail it.

We sailed away and carefully watched at the chance of a rescue, and tried to cut her off. She must have been able to see our sail, but she sheared off eventually and disappeared. Another chance gone, and one or two began to lose heart, though I must confess that all the time I felt confident that something would find us, provided the weather held and we were not swamped.

It consequently turned out that this ship was actually at the time being chased by a submarine, so of course, could give us no attention. We forgave her then, though at the time it was not blessings we called down upon her head.

Heated discussions now took place as to what the best thing to do. Some were in favour of each going our own way and trusting to being picked up and telling the rescuing ship that other boats were still afloat. Others were all for sticking together chiefly because only two boats had sailors in them, the other two only passengers and stewards.

All the sailing about on our own and returning to our comrades after one fruitless mission of course took many hours and the sun was now high in the heavens, 12 o’clock. We all tied together again, lowered our sail and had a rest, just allowing ourselves to drift. The chief officer then said that he was going off in his boat to look for help, and the other 3 were to stay together. So off they went with our blessing and fervent hopes for success, while we stayed on.

Night began to fall and we rearranged our boat and made the ladies more comfortable than they were the previous night. Watches were told off to look for rescuers and look after the boat, and the rest made snug (?) for the night. You must remember that all the time we were filling up odd moments with bailing out water, rowing, and generally trying to keep afloat, so we were all quite tired enough though of course had lots left in us yet. It was now the second night after the tragedy.

I know I was just dozing off, though it was almost impossible to sleep in that crowded boat and of course we were bobbing up and down like a cork the whole time, when someone shouted out ship ahoy.

Imagine it, how we all bucked up once more. It was quite dark and we fervently hoped that this ship would not treat us like our friend of the previous night. She seemed to be making straight for us by her lights, but the thing was to attract her attention. We burnt a red flare in each boat (they are of course kept in water-tight tins in each life-boat) and rowed in her direction.

Great speculations as to what she was, a sailing ship? a cruiser? a liner? Impossible to tell of course. As we got nearer we all gave three yells (we were ahead, the other two boats following some way behind) and burnt more flares.

At last, after about 20 minutes she loomed up out of the darkness. “A destroyer” said some knowall in the boat, and then an unmistakable English voice hailed us from her “Hello you fellows we’ve got the other boat all right, come along the starboard side with you”. And so we were rescued. It was just after 7 o’clock I think, so we had been about 30 hours in boats, not so very long, but quite long enough, so we all thought.

Our rescuers proved to be H.M.S. “Mallow” a mine sweeper. She had heard nothing of the “Persia”, but the chief officer’s quest had been successful, and they had seen his flares and picked them up, and he had of course told them whereabouts we were and they came straight to us.

They were good to us. A good meal for all, clothes and every possible attention; no one could have been kinder. I could have cried with relief; to see those poor women and children looking more or less happy again, at any rate relieved beyond words at being rescued, was a sight for the Gods.

We were soon accommodated in hammocks and got some much needed sleep. They sent wireless messages off at once, and those must have been the first news of the loss of the “Persia”.

The “Mallow” was just out on her own, hunting mines and submarines, so we were lucky indeed as she was keeping no particular course, but wandering about anywhere, and just happened to meet the chief’s boat by a mere chance. We made all speed to Alexandria, a wireless having been sent off there for the despatch of another boat to look for any more possible survivors.

We reached Alexandria at 3 p.m. next day (Jan 1st) and were taken on board H.M.S. “Hannibal” where again they were more than good to us. We must have presented a sorry spectacle; dirty and bruised in many cases, many with cuts and wounds caused by wreckage, looking a trifle worn and haggard I expect, but none the less happy at our rescue. We went ashore and made the more immediate purchases necessary for our comfort and stayed that night aboard the Hannibal, and came ashore next day and put up at the Savoy hotel, where we have been ever since.

We are more or less clothed and in our right minds now and everyone has been more than good, but I fear the mental and physical results of all we have been through are beginning to make themselves felt now, though I think everyone is remarkably fit under the circumstances.

I will continue with a few disjointed remarks on circumstances connected with this awful business.

No one saw the submarine, though the officer on watch on the bridge saw the track of the torpedo for about the last few yards, but she had struck before he could give any orders. She struck almost amidships, just under the funnels, bursting a boiler and killing I’m afraid all the engine room staff who were on duty at the time.

Only one boat was lowered in the orthodox way. The chief cut away 3, and the 2nd officer 2 more. These latter two, however, full of passengers and crew were caught by the davits as the ship heeled over and were swamped.

I’m afraid nearly all the first class passengers (there were only 14  I think saved out of 80, and only one lady first class passenger) were caught up on the port side when she heeled over and were carried down with her.

The behaviour of the ladies was just priceless, they bore their sufferings wonderfully and did all they could to help. There was no panic on board, but the whole thing was over in 5 minutes and gave little time for thought. Some people had marvellous escapes. Two second class passengers, sisters (one married with a little boy) when she was struck went to opposite sides of the ship, all three went down with the ship and came up again side by side in the water, though they were on opposite side of the ship when she sank; they were all three rescued.

As the ship heeled over a huge blast of ashes etc came out of the funnels just as they were level with the water, and several of the rescued were coal black, including the chief officer, who also got a nasty knock on the head from one of the funnels.

All the Christmas mails for India, China, Aden, B.E. Africa and Egypt went down, terrible isn’t it. No one saved a thing except what they stood up in. The sensation of walking solemnly over the side of the ship into the water is indescribable. For myself (and the others tell me the same) I felt no fear, more annoyance than anything else; but I know I shall funk it now. Everybody’s nerves seem to have gone a bit. It seemed so deliberate but was the only thing to do of course. I’m afraid a great many people didn’t leave the ship, or jumped too late and so were drowned.

The engine kept going to the last and when she was lying on her side the propeller was racing round, half out of water and causing a tremendous stir, splashing up the water to a tremendous height.

The chief engineer on hearing the explosion went down to the engine room to turn off the steam and was last seen down there disappearing into a cloud of steam. A very plucky thing to do, but it was hopeless and he was never seen again.

The captain was not rescued. I saw him on deck just before she sank, tying a life-belt on to a lady. He had not got one on himself. He must have gone down with the ship. Fortunately she was an empty boat as regards passengers. Only about 80 first class and not many 2nd. The horrible part is the number of women missing, and children too; but I think that all that was possible to rescue were rescued.

I hope I never go through such a terrible experience again. A pal of mine, one Fisher of the Indian Army, summed it up by saying “It was worse than any attack”, and I think he is right.

I have tried to give you a comprehensive account of this awful business. Please forgive the many literary shortcomings, but it’s a hard thing to write about, but I know you would like to know all about it, as I don’t suppose you’ll get much from the papers.


Links

You can read ERP Berryman’s First World War letters on www.familyletters.co.uk 

Other links about the Persia

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Persia_%281900%29

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Mallow_%281915%29

Ship database entry

http://www.clydesite.co.uk/clydebuilt/viewship.asp?id=15326

BBC Timewatch episode

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0723883/

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Omwueb-mSFg

BBC News video

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/7411582.stm

 

Dark at 9:03am in London – or why I like the clock change

Ok. Stand back. Let me explain. The hour shift only actually makes a difference for eight weeks a year.

What??? You all say.

Let me explain. Be careful now, this will involve science.

In the UK, the times of sunrise and sunset change by about 15 minutes a week or about an hour a month. So though we have a big jump this weekend when the clocks change, all that’s happened is that we’ve shifted Sunrise a month to when it was at the end of September, and shifted Sunset a month to when it would be at the end of November. There’s nothing in the clock change in October that we haven’t already had or wouldn’t have in a month’s time anyway.  It doesn’t make the daylight hours any shorter, though to listen to the grumpiness and ill-informed comments at this time of year, it seems that is what people think.

With me so far?

So the eight weeks which have sunset and sunrise times which we wouldn’t otherwise have are from Nov 22nd to Jan 22nd or so – ie a month either side of the winter solstice.

So here are the sunrise and sunset times and the length of the day for 21st Nov, 21st Dec and 21st Jan for London

Sunrise Sunset Daylight hours
07:29 16:03 08:34
08:03 15:53 07:49
07:53 16:30 08:37

Without the clocks changing, these numbers would be

Sunrise Sunset Daylight hours
08:29 17:03 08:34
09:03 16:53 07:49
08:53 17:30 08:37

I don’t know about you, but 9:03 is pretty late for sunrise and I hate actually going to work in the dark. So to my mind the clock change is worth it for those two months at least.

But guess what – even with the clocks changing, here in Edinburgh I do have to go to work in the dark.

Even though Edinburgh is only about half way up the UK, that is sufficiently further up the planet for those numbers to be inaccurate.  In January and November the daylight hours in Edinburgh are about 40 minutes shorter than daylight hours in London. and by December they’re about 50 minutes shorter. (Though of course, our daylight hours are longer by the same amount in midsummer).

So here are the sunrise and sunset times and the length of the daylight hours for 21st Nov, 21st Dec and 21st Jan for Edinburgh:

Sunrise Sunset Daylight hours
08:02 15:55 07:53
08:42 15:40 06:57
08:25 16:23 07:57

Without the clocks changing, these would be:

Sunrise Sunset Daylight hours
09:02 16:55 07:53
09:42 16:40 06:57
09:25 17:23 07:57

If it sucks when it’s dark at twenty to nine in the morning, it REALLY SUCKS if it’s still dark at twenty to ten! (I spent a couple of winters in Sweden – I know).

As I said, the specific eight week period between 22 Nov and 22 Jan are the only time when the sun rises at times it wouldn’t if we didn’t change the clocks.

I hope this helps explain

  1. why it’s not that much of a deal
  2. why you’d miss it in December if the clocks didn’t change and
  3. why I’d REALLY HATE YOU if they didn’t

V for Vegetarian

“But what do you eat…?”
“…er…. food…?”

In much the same way that there are deaf people with a small d and the Deaf community with a big D, I am beginning to think that there is vegetarian cooking with a small v – which is all about  meat and the lack of it – and Vegetarian cooking with a big V which is about actual Vegetarianism.

It seems to me there are five types of meat-free cooking.

Aphra’s guide to vegetarian food

1 – Something that’s “almost but not quite entirely unlike meat” (with thanks to Douglas Adams)

Expensive factory-made vegetable protein that passes itself off as cheap factory-farmed meat. These are Seitan, Quorn meat-style pieces, Soya mince, and so on. I loathe these on principle but am ok with them in practice. Mr Behn is a vegan and quite likes them

These represent a style of cooking I was never fond of in the first place; I never did use cheap factory-farmed meat for a start (I used cheaper cuts of meat for sure, but went for good meat usually from independent butchers).

But there’s more to my dislike than that.  There’s an element of selling-out here: there is so much more to vegetarian cooking than pretending to be chunks of meat. For me, this is the vegetarian equivalent of the choice I made to become “one of the lads” when faced with sexism in the workplace. It’s like changing your accent to fit in. It’s accepting normative pressure to be or do something you are not, instead of celebrating something real and much richer.

2 – Even better than the real thing, baby (with apologies to U2)

Well -ish.

There’s a category of vegetarian food which copies meat dishes rather than chunks of meat, and some of these are surprisingly good.  Meat eaters (including me) are surprised by how good Linda McCartney’s vegetarian sausages are. They’re no match for artisan-crafted Cumberland sausages made out of Gloucester Old-Spot pork by an independent butcher, but they are better than most cheap sausages.  (Q: Why do butchers put bread in the sausages? A: Because they can’t make both ends meat. Boom-tish.) Likewise McSween’s Vegetarian Haggis and Simon Howie’s Vegetarian Haggis are as good as meat haggis without the apparent ikk factor. (Haggis is one of the few things I miss: I was never frightened by offal).

Not everything is as successful as these; I’ve had vegetarian haggis that’s been little more than mashed beans. But aiming for meat dishes rather than aiming for meat gives the manufacturers more room for maneuver.

3 – Tribute dishes

These are ones prepared in the style of meat dishes, but unashamedly substitute non-meat ingredients. Don’t look for steak or seitan in a mushroom and chestnut suet pudding. My tendency to use lentils instead of mince puts my lasagne and moussaka into this category.

This isn’t always successful: for years mushroom strogonoff was the default vegetarian option on most pub menus, (mushrooms are apparently “meaty”… no I don’t get it either).

This approach still betrays the thinking that goes “start with meat and work out from there”.

4 – If the meat is in teeny tiny pieces, is it necessary at all?

A lot of dishes, especially mess-in-a-bowl ones, really don’t need meat: risotto, jambalaya, many kinds of curry, chowders, and so on. I can get four meals for six  people out of one chicken (roast, pie, risotto, soup) I know damn fine you don’t need chicken to make a good risotto.

I’ll grant you bacon and ham; there’s no real substitute for teeny tiny bits of bacon and ham as in pea and ham soup, though I do sometimes fry sunflower seeds in soy sauce for small crunchy salty bits to sprinkle on things.

5 – Ta dah! – Vegetarian Food!

Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you…. capital V- Vegetarian Food. Food that doesn’t give a toss about meat. Food where meat would be an intrusion. Food that didn’t start in someone’s mind with meat and work out from there. There is so much of it, and it’s so goddam delicious. And that’s what hurts.

There’s starter veggie food that everyone knows about but doesn’t think of as veggie because it’s comfort food: Mac and cheese, Fried egg sandwich, Beans on toast, Bubble and Squeak, Cheese on toast, Eggs Florentine, Baked Potatoes.

Then there’s a whole swathe of Indian, Greek, Moroccan and Lebanese cuisine: Chana Masala (chick-pea curry); Dolmades (rice or aubergine in vine leaves); Hummous (c’mon, you know what hummous is); Baba Ganoush (always sounds like the witch in a Russian fairy story, but it’s an outrageously delicious smoked aubergine dip); and a wide range of beans in every variety of savoury dressing both hot and cold.

The point about all these dishes is that they don’t need meat.  It’s not missing - it’s irrelevant.

I appreciate that meat substitutes have a place – some vegetarians miss meat and others like Mr Behn find they add variety to their diet. But I see no reason to imitate cheap meat badly when you can celebrate the amazing range of Vegetarian food really well.

How to plan a Vegetarian main course

The trick with Vegetarian food is mixing two or more kinds of protein; so rice and pulses (chick-pea curry with rice),  pulses and grain with dairy (lasagne). It’s a knack, it’s easy once you get the hang of it. And it stops you thinking “meat and then what…..?”

Some rants  – Blue Cheese, Goats’ Cheese and Tofu

While I have your attention, let me share the warm hatred I have in my heart for goats’ cheese. This is the mushroom strogonoff of our times and I’ve had enough to last my one and only lifetime.  Goats Cheese Tart,  Salad with Crumbled Goats Cheese, Grilled Goats Cheese on a Red Onion Marmalade are lazy lazy thinking by chefs who think “if it doesn’t have meat it must have cheese”. And I just plain don’t like the flavour of blue cheese in cooked food. Bored, bored, bored of these two.

What not to serve a vegetarian on Christmas Day

Goats cheese on roast veg, with roast veg – how to sadden the heart of a vegetarian on Christmas Day

Finally there’s tofu. Tofu is compressed soya beancurd and varies in texture from cheese-cake to cheese. It’s nothing like cheese in other ways, and saying “tofu is a substitute for meat” is like saying “ferries are a substitute for trains”. They do different things in different circumstances.

But saying you dislike tofu is meaningless. There’s almost nothing there for you to dislike. It’s an ingredient (like flour), by itself it tastes of nothing (like flour),  it gets its flavour from what it’s cooked with (like flour), it works well when it’s marinated (ok, this is where my analogy breaks down) or when it’s smoked. So don’t bung tofu into your recipe instead of meat and then complain about it. Treat it with respect and it’ll treat you.

I am sorry about those rants; I just had to get them off my chest.


About being a Vegetarian

I shouldn’t be irritated when people who eat meat ask what we eat in our largely vegan household. Mr Behn is vegan. Me, I don’t eat chunks of cheese, buy milk or cream, or eat eggs, but I’m a vegetarian not a vegan because I cannot face having to read every single label of every single product forever. Plus I don’t actually like Oreos.

I rather enjoy telling people “Mr Behn’s never eaten meat” because he was raised vegetarian by dippy hippies, but apparently his family weren’t completely vegetarian until he was a toddler. He did try to eat chicken as a training exercise for going to China. (Note the unpleasant use of the word “try”). So the truth is “he’s never consciously digested meat”, but it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

I don’t actually know when I became a vegetarian.

I was raised by women who were adults during the war (both wars, in the case of my grandmother) so I learned to treat meat with respect because you won’t get it at every meal. My grandmother’s macaroni cheese was a wonder to behold, involving soft-boiled eggs and a breadcrumb topping.

They raised me to be fussy carnivore, preferring good meat (free range, from independent butchers) though not necessarily expensive cuts (I can and did stew neck of lamb, casserole rabbits, stuff hearts and cook belly pork with butter beans and apples, as I said offal held no fears for me).

So easing back from meat three times a week, to once a week, to once a fortnight was easy.  I don’t know when I last ate meat.  I do know when I finally identified as ‘a vegetarian’ rather than ‘someone who eats vegetarian food': it was when a cafe gave me bacon with my pancakes and maple syrup and I felt sick at the smell.

The devil I know

I am voting yes tomorrow, and here’s why.

This vote for me has always been about governance, how best to achieve a representative and accountable government for the people of Scotland. Lord knows the Westminster landslides of the last 40 years and the abuses they have enabled have shown that the first past the post system does not give the UK (or Scotland within it) governments that are representative or accountable. And here we have a chance to create a country with a written constitution, proportional representation, no unelected upper chamber; a more accessible and accountable government. Whether or not it will work, it’s a chance I am not willing to let pass by.

My vote is a vote of no confidence in the Westminster system of government.

It is pointless to say “stay and change it”. In the last 40 years Westminster has been getting progressively worse, with landslides that enabled Thatcher to create class warfare that divides the nation even now, with lies that enabled Blair to sex up a dossier and take us into an illegal war with no accountability or consequence and against the will of a million marchers in the street, with corruption which enables MPs to claim expenses and flip houses and avoid jail, with a minority conservative government able to sell off the NHS to themselves and their cronies in an maneuver which was not in their manifesto and which international treaties mean can never be undone.

So, no, I have no desire to stay in the UK and fight to change the system. I am bone tired of fighting to change the system, and there is no-one in the UK left for me to vote for. With turnouts in the 60s it seems most of the UK feels the same way I do. Cameron’s promises of Devo Max are just another example of unmandated maneuvering. Too little too late. The spell is broken, my trust has gone.

How can 8% of the Union end the Union, the English ask now they have had the news sprung upon them by a startled press. Is this fair? No, not really. But that’s another one to lay at Cameron’s door. Sorry.

Here’s the thing: If the referendum was held across the whole of the UK and came out with a majority in Scotland for an independent Scotland would it be right to hold Scotland against its will?

You see, there’s the awkward principle of self-determination. People and newspapers who blithely support people’s right to self-determination when it is far away or long ago and therefore not personal are more squeamish when it’s close to home. My father served in the Indian Army and was a prisoner of war of the Japanese and loathed the break up of the Empire. He used the phrase “when we gave our Empire away”; but I am clear that he was wrong and national self-determination is right. Scotland is not India; it is a partner in a Union of nations not a colony. But it has never been an equal partner. The Scots have a right to self-determination now, as the Irish did a hundred years ago. And I believe – given the venality and corruption of Westminster’s rule – we should be allowed to take it.

Am I afraid? Oh yes. I am very afraid. The currency fluctuations worry me. The market uncertainties. The long-term future of the banks. Mortgages. Jobs. The supermarkets. Of course that worries me. Better Together have done their work. But not better the devil I know. The devil I know sickens me and I cannot bring myself to go into the voting booth tomorrow and vote for Westminster.

Particularly since there seem to be three responses from the English; there’s one that asks how can 8% of the Union break the Union (see above), there’s one that asks “how can you leave us, we love you so much” (oh, diddums, you should have said so sooner then), and there’s one that says “nice country you have here, be a shame if anything were to happen to it” (charming).

I respond very badly to emotional blackmail and always have. So sorry. If you threaten me then my response is to agree with the mannie in the petrol station in Orkney on Sunday who said to me quietly “with any luck, we’ll get away”.

No such thing as “gender neutral” language – Creating safe spaces in Skepticism

Roman Woman in Pompeii

Roman Woman in Pompeii

I was challenged the other day for stipulating that there should be no “ad hominem or ad feminam attacks” in the Skeptics in the Pub UK and Ireland Facebook Forum.

The challenge was a linguistic one, on the entirely accurate basis that:

There is no such thing as ‘Ad feminam’, and its use displays a mis-understanding of basic Latin. ‘Ad hominem’, although grammatically masculine, is actually gender-neutral.

Here is my response.

Skepticism has earned a reputation for being an “unsafe space” for women. I am not going to go into the rights and wrongs of how it earned that reputation here.

The best way to stop Skepticism being an unsafe space is by setting the lead and making it a safe space, and one way to do that is by sending out strong signals and backing them up.

There are many ways of sending out those signals. In Edinburgh Skeptics, for example, we make sure that women members of the committee or women volunteers are active and visible at every event. (This is easy right now because there’s currently only one male committee member, but the numbers ebb and flow). [This paragraph has been edited for clarity].

Another way to do it is with language. Language frames our thinking (a few of us have additional tools such as mathematics and other modelling tools, most of us only have language). So language that silently writes out half of humanity should be resisted by Skeptics whether we are feminists or not if only so we can think accurately about the situations we are in.

You fell for the equivalent trap to “mankind” means all of “humankind” – technically it may do, but it was almost always men who said so. (I read a book in the 70s that explained that babies were weaned too young, and “when the child grew up he became fixated with breasts” as a result…). Gender neutral language can be bad for your thought.

We do not live in ancient Rome; “ad hominem” may have been gender neutral there and then, but here and now it writes out women.

I chose to add in “ad feminam” because it explicitly says “we will not let women be attacked for being women”.

Given that women who speak out online are regularly the subject of rape-threats and death-threats, and given that skepticism has earned a reputation for being full of straight, white cis-men who are members of the academy and who will stay up late arguing because there is Someone Wrong on the Internet, I wanted to signal very explicitly that – in this forum at least – attacking a woman for being a woman is not ok, and I wanted to put men and women on equal terms.

So, I stand by my linguistic error: it helps us think more clearly as Skeptics and it makes it possible to have safer, more inclusive and more diverse spaces for Skepticism.

Plus, as I said in my first post, [I had replied earlier more light-heartedly] it amuses me. Not only, but also. (I am SO over the binary).

Wi’ heart an’ heid – the fire at the Glasgow School of Art

Glasgow School Art ‏@GSofA Photo: The Mackintosh Museum, Winged Victory surveys the intact gallery. pic.twitter.com/KsKTVdATeW

Glasgow School Art ‏@GSofA Photo: The Mackintosh Museum, Winged Victory surveys the intact gallery. pic.twitter.com/KsKTVdATeW

I’ve tried to articulate the difference between Edinburgh and Glasgow for some time now, and the fire in the Glasgow School of Art has brought me closer.

Edinburgh knocks me out with its beauty. When I look at Edinburgh, I see one of those cities like Venice or Florence which is uniquely itself, whereas Glasgow keeps reminding me of other late Victorian Imperial cities like Manchester, Leeds and even parts of Sydney and North Oxford.

Glasgow’s uniqueness is in its people. I lived there for six brief months in 1999 and I miss them and their city in a way that I miss no other city I’ve lived in.

Edinburgh is the wellspring of the Scottish Enlightenment. For all its beauty and architectural follies it was always a city of austere logic. Family legend has it that a forebear was hanged in Edinburgh for stealing a sheep on a Sunday: the capital crime wasn’t the theft, it was breaking the Sabbath. These days Edinburgh isn’t ruled by the kirk, but it is still beautiful and still cerebral attracting some of the world’s brightest and best to an international, intellectual nexus.

However, Glasgow it seems to me mixes passion with its intelligence. Where else, would a fire brigade use the word “cherished” of artworks?

We are of course very conscious the Macintosh is a world renowned building that is a key feature of this great city, and that the artworks it stores are not only valuable but also cherished.
The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service

Cherished? That is not a word used by a Press Officer, or if it is, it’s a Press Officer who has not had their soul sucked out of them.

Then there is this from the GSA itself:

Audacity…? Another word to conjure with.

And here is their audacity:

… the fire services… succeeded in protecting the vast majority of the building, apparently by forming a human wall of fire-fighters up the west end of the main staircase and containing the fire.
Muriel Gray

It’s that eloquent passion I miss, living here on the East coast and working in cool, clever, cerebral Edinburgh.

Dressing down

I had an argument today with a friend of friend about Sarah Millican’s dress.

Some background for you, in case you’ve missed the story.

Sarah Millican is a comedian who was nominated for a Bafta, had a wonderful evening and was eviscerated on Twitter for the temerity of having breasts. She was devastated but responded magnificently and very good for her. Millican was betrayed by her dress which she says looked lovely in the shop but which really didn’t look great in the photographs. This happens, the camera is a bastard at times. As she pointed out she’s a comedian not a model and has never learned to walk or pose in front of cameras.

What was egregious about the response to Millican’s dress was not that it was commented on, but that it was commented on in public.  There is a whole sub-specialty of fashion journalism dedicated to being bitchy about women on the red carpet. And then there is twitter. Oh lord.

I commented in a closed thread on Facebook about other choices Millican could have made and was roundly bollocked for doing so.  But I am English, and was brought up not to be rude to people to their face. Other people think we are a culture of hypocrites because we will comment discretely behind your back. The internet makes this hard, of course. Hence twitter storms.

However, I really felt for Millican. I have more or less the same figure and I never know where to put my tits in a photograph. I end up being so self-conscious when I know there’s a camera around that I always have the shifty look of someone who’s just wet themselves. The only photographs of myself that I like are ones where I didn’t know I was being photographed, or where I’ve given up responding to the camera at all.  So in this thread of doom I was reflecting on my own experience: I too face the difficulty Millican describes of finding clothes that I like and fit.

Two months ago I had my photograph taken for a national paper, one of the ones with a circulation in millions not tens of thousands, and it’s not an experience I enjoyed. I was more resigned than nervous; nervous is for situations where you have some agency. I settled for looking groomed rather than attractive and thought about what to wear for weeks beforehand. I had my hair and nails done,  I wore a highish necked dress and a waterfall cardigan that cut vertically across my boobs. The photographer hated the fact I wore black. If I had known, I’d have worn a different colour. I like to be helpful and he seemed to know his job. the piece has not yet been published, but I will probably ask someone else to read the comments thread for me. The ironic thing is that the story isn’t even about me.  Oh well.

I am so sad that Millican’s bubble was burst after the Baftas. She is a talented person, and deserves so much better.