Monday, 26 May 2014

a parcel of rogues

On 18th September this year, voters in Scotland will get to decide whether their country becomes independent from the rest of the United Kingdom. There can be no doubt that there is a groundswell of animosity in the country towards the ‘auld enemy’, England in other words; since Bannockburn in 1314—Scotland’s last major military success against the English—the Scots have had plenty to feel aggrieved about.

Much of this resentment focuses on the failure of the Darien scheme, an ambitious plan by the Scots in the late 1690s to establish an entrepĂ´t on the isthmus of Panama to facilitate trade between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It was a scheme that looked good on paper, and it was widely supported initially by Dutch and English investors, but the East India Company, fearing the loss of its trading monopoly, objected. As a result, the English Parliament withdrew its support for the scheme, which forced the scheme’s English and Dutch investors to pull out.

However, there was no shortage of investors in Scotland—half of the capital available in the country was sunk in the scheme—and the first five ships set sail from Leith in July 1698 on a huge tide of what turned out to be misplaced optimism. It is obvious that none of the would-be colonists had any idea what they were letting themselves in for: yellow fever, malaria and marauding Spanish galleons were just three of the hazards waiting for them in their new home.

It was a scheme that was destined to fail, but what has fuelled Scottish resentment ever since is the decree by the English king (William III) that Royal Navy ships were not to help the Scots colonists in their difficulties with the Spanish (England had been fighting France at the time and didn’t want to pick a fight with another European power).

Within seven months of arriving in what they had optimistically renamed ‘Caledonia’, one-third of the 1,200 original colonists were dead, and the remainder were emaciated and so racked with fever that they decided to abandon the settlement. Unfortunately, no one seems to have sent word back to Scotland, because a further six ships had set sail for Caledonia in November 1699, with a third flotilla of five ships a short while later. Only one of the sixteen ships returned, and the final death toll was more than 2,000. Scotland was almost bankrupted by the total loss of the £500,000 investment.

It may be a coincidence but probably isn’t, but within eight years of this unmitigated disaster, the Scottish Parliament had been dissolved and the Act of Union, cementing Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom, had been passed by the English Parliament with the connivance of leading figures in Scotland, who had been quietly compensated for their losses in the Darien scheme. Eighty-four years later, Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, wrote a poem about this skullduggery:
What force or guile could not subdue
Through many warlike ages
Is wrought now by a coward few
For hireling traitor’s wages
The English steel we could disdain
Secure in valour’s station
But English gold has been our bane:
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

I would, or I had seen the day
That treason thus could sell us
My auld gray head had lain in clay
Wi’ Bruce and loyal Wallace!
But pith and power, till my last hour
I’ll make this declaration
We were bought and sold for English gold:
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

Robert Burns, Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation.
Although this poem is now more than 200 years old, it continues to encapsulate the nationalistic feelings of many people in Scotland, with its invocation of the ghosts of two of the country’s great historical heroes, Robert the Bruce and William Wallace, even though both had been dead for 500 years when the poem was written.

In fact, the vision of an independent Scotland that is being promoted by the Scottish National Party (SNP) has much in common with the era when Burns wrote his poem: the beginnings of the Romantic movement in art and music. Whether such a vision is justified is not for me to decide, but it is interesting to note who does and who does not get to decide.

For a start, people who were born in Scotland but who now live and work in England don’t get a vote. I wonder if that has anything to do with the increased likelihood that such people would vote to retain the union. Meanwhile, English people who now live and work in Scotland will have a vote, possibly in anticipation of increased sympathy for the independence cause among such immigrants, who may have more romantic views of their adopted country than the natives, although when I worked in Scotland, more than 40 years ago, the SNP was a fringe party, and the independence question simply never came up.

The eligibility criteria may have been well publicized, but if my speculations on the likely voting behaviour of Scottish and English expatriates is correct, then what we are seeing is blatant gerrymandering by the SNP, who will have had a big say in setting these criteria, in order to secure its desired outcome in the referendum. Such a parcel of rogues in a nation.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

acute difficulty, right?

I will be heading off to the UK tomorrow night, and I won’t be online again until Tuesday, so here is a little puzzle to amuse you in the meantime. What connects these three pieces of music?




I think that this is an easy one, but then I would, wouldn’t I?

spoiler alert
Correct solution submitted below.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

a baker’s dozen

I will soon be going to the UK for the summer, and I thought that posting some of the thousand or so photographs that I’ve taken in Hong Kong since last October would be a worthwhile exercise. The original intention had been to select ten photos, but I couldn’t decide which three of the thirteen photos below I should leave out. I’ve already posted some photos taken during this period to illustrate other articles, but the images below are unconnected to anything posted during the period in question.

All these images have been enhanced in some way, by cropping, increasing the contrast, boosting the colour saturation and/or changing the tonal balance, and each block of text below refers to the immediately preceding photograph.


Wayside shrines are a common sight in the Hong Kong countryside, but most are more substantially built than this one, which does seem temporary. It is located opposite the road junction shown in the fourth photograph in Journey to the West: Part 3. I cannot name any of the figures.


Herons and egrets on the Kam Tin River. I deliberately tried to make this photo look like an ‘artist’s impression’ of an upmarket housing development. The low buildings closest to the opposite bank would be the most expensive, followed by the mid-rise buildings immediately behind (note the penthouse apartments). Those proles who have been persuaded that home ownership is a good idea live in the high-rise blocks to the right of the photo.


A decent sunset is a rarity in Hong Kong nowadays. The sun usually disappears into the murk 30–60 minutes before it is due to set. This photo was taken from the roof of my house, which is located a short distance to the east of Fanling.

update: 13/05/14
Torrential rain isn’t always an entirely negative event, although driving on the expressway was a nightmare earlier today. However, the rain also washed the accumulated filth from the atmosphere, resulting in a much more spectacular sunset than the one I originally posted:



This photo shows mainly lesser egrets on the bank of Beas River (there are two grey herons and one greater egret towards the left of the lineup).


I spotted this caterpillar on a concrete post behind the Tang Chung Ling Ancestral Hall. If anyone can identify the species, I would appreciate their feedback.


A bronze dragon and phoenix on the top of a joss stick holder in front of the Tin Hau temple in Sai Kung. In this arrangement, the dragon represents the male principle and the phoenix the female.


This picture, taken on the Kam Tin River, shows five black-winged stilts, but the bird on the left appears to be a different species. However, if it really is a different species, why are the other five birds standing with their backs to the interloper?


I’ve found cycling along ‘the frontier road’ to be quite a surreal experience this winter, with almost unspoiled signs of nature in the foreground and a wall of modern buildings in the middle distance along the entire length of the road (this is Shenzhen, on the other side of the frontier). I had always thought that herons were solitary birds, but there are thirteen in this picture in close proximity to each other.


This is the descent from the footbridge leading to the snake path (Journey to the West: Part 4). It could also be a gateway to another dimension.


Question: are these cattle, oxen, or buffaloes? There is one that Paula and I always look out for at the head of the Shum Chun River as we cycle home. It appears to have been left to its own devices, and although plenty of grazing is available, we more often see it wallowing in the mud in the river. Anyway, We started referring to it as a buffalo, and that’s what we still call it.

We encountered this pair mooching about in the undergrowth on the side of a relatively quiet road during the Kam Tin section of one of our ‘journeys to the west’. Initially, I assumed that they must have strayed from unfenced land behind them, but note the wall. These guys must have reached their photographed positions along the road. I’d love to have been there to see how they handled the ensuing traffic chaos. They do look friendly though.


Chinese New Year. The big bang at the top of a string of firecrackers. Say no more.


I take no credit for this one. I must have ridden past this graffito, on the side of the brick wall surrounding a Drainage Services pumping station at the confluence of the Kam Tin River with one of its main tributaries, dozens of times, admiring its simplicity but not stopping. Until I did, it had never occurred to me that it had all been done with a spray-can. I thought the anonymous artist deserved a wider audience. I wonder why he did it here though. We routinely ignore the sign that says ‘private road’, because it provides the best view down the estuary, and there is often something to photograph, but not that many people pass this way. Most use the road that bypasses the pumping station, a choice that the ‘private road’ sign obviously encourages.


This is another one from ‘the frontier road’, a large fishpond with Shenzhen looming in the background. If you look closely, you might just be able to make out the head of a cormorant (more obvious if you click the picture to enlarge it). Unlike ducks and swans, cormorants don’t sit on the water. The only parts that stick out are the head and neck, so it takes a lot more effort to get airborne, because cormorants are big birds. There were a lot around this year, both along the frontier and in the Kam Tin River. Because they have to propel such a large body out of the water and into the air, their wings slap the surface of the water up to ten times before they become fully airborne, so even one taking off is a spectacular sight. We sometimes set off several at the same time, not intentionally of course, but cormorants are so easily spooked that merely cycling past them in the water is a signal to switch on the afterburners.

That’s why I stopped to take this picture. I’d spotted it from a distance and had sneaked up on it, camera at the ready, and I thought that once it was aware of my presence, it would quickly take off, and I might get a good picture. It ignored me.