Below the waterline

Having replaced the broken forward transom (bow) of my Mirror dinghy, I now had to deal with the peeling paint, rotten wood and delaminated plywood below the Plimsoll line. I wasn’t looking forward to it. Inching the boat off the trailer was fun – involving two large trailer straps with hooks and ratchets, an empty oil barrel and a conveniently-placed ring on the side of a concrete shed. I could have asked for help but I’m a bit impatient. (Which is what led to all the damage to the bow and the hull in the first place!)

Boat on a barrel
Boat on a barrel with lifting straps

Boat lowered onto the grass and turned over onto planks, I could survey the hull. The sensible long-term solution was to replace the damaged plywood but (as it isn’t part of the hull per se but rather supports running parallel to the keel which seemed principally to bear the load of resting on the trailer, and as I really wanted to get the boat out while there was still some good weather) I decided to remove what I had to and epoxy the rest.

And so it began. Removing the peeling paint was easy enough. It just peeled off. Unfortunately the same was true for much of the first two layers of plywood. Faced with not enough support if I kept removing layers, I decided to only take off what was rotten and stick the rest down. That, at least, was the plan.

Paying attention to what lay beneath the paintwork, I discovered some other areas of the hull (along the keel and mostly on either side of the centreboard slot) that needed attention.

Rotten wood had to be scraped out with a wire brush, and flaking paint and epoxy removed between the keel and its metal strip protector.

Fortunately this repair coincided with a fortnight of fabulous weather, so I could be confident that the exposed wood really dried out. That, however, was the limit of my confidence. If I did all this and the boat didn’t float, Plan B was to sell it, with full disclosure. To cheer myself up, after replacing the bow, I’d decided to put a fresh coat of Bondi Blue topcoat on the topsides and finally affix the name of the boat: Harmony. Henceforth ‘it’ would be known as ‘she’.

Below the waterline, the forward hull wood and paintwork was undamaged but looked more cheerful with another coat and gave me something to do while other places were drying out.

That done and dried, I started sanding the mid and aft hull, especially where the wood was newly exposed.

Finally satisfied that the surfaces were ready, I prepared to apply the marine epoxy and glasscloth as I’d done for the forward transom and gunwales.

This stuff I’d bought from Trident UK and (unlike the Galeforce 1:1 ratio) it needed 1:5 hardener to epoxy so this time I did use the calibrated syringes. I also donned my protective goggles and pulled my neck warmer up over my nose.

I won’t bore you with all the details of the various applications of fibreglass cloth and epoxy but I soon realised that I’d need to get more if I wanted the plywood surface more even.

A mate sold me some polyester resin (with hardener) to save me the trip to the chandler’s – and I soon discovered that everything they say about the fumes from this stuff being noxious is true! And much more than epoxy. Even outside, with a breeze blowing and looking like a Martian, it was making my head spin. So the advice to use a particle mask or respirator – even when just sanding the stuff down – is sound.

As before, the sticky strands of glasscloth drove me crazy when I was trying to get the cloth to stay in place.

Polyester 3
Strands of glasscloth fraying on plywood

You really need to pay attention to the amount of hardener (1-2% only!) and mix mix mix before you apply it – otherwise, as I found out, the 20-30 minute application window shrinks to 5-10! So it was all very tedious but eventually the hull stopped looking like the surface of the moon as layer after layer of cloth and resin approximated the levels of the surface of the hull planks and protective plywood.

It didn’t help that one fine day I was sanding down the surfaces (which I did between each application) and managed to get some hardened resin dust in my eye. That served me right for thinking I could get away with not wearing goggles and put me out of the game for a few days with a painful swollen eye – which I had to bathe every few hours.

Robert M. Pirsig, the “engineer’s philosopher” who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, warns against trying to fix a machine when you’re in a bad mood (cos all you’ll do is damage). A wooden boat, nowadays, maybe doesn’t strike most people as mechanical but it floats because of the physics of opposing forces and I think that’s sound advice. So, even though the sun shone, I resisted the urge to just get it done and instead did some jobs around the house I’d been putting off.

Recovered and refreshed, I did one last lot of sanding down the globs of resin that spattered the hull – despite my best efforts – then wiped down the whole upturned boat with a wet cloth, then a dry one, then wiped the resin with white spirit (to ‘take the bloom off’) dried that and started to paint.

The undercoat covered a multitude of sins, I knew, and I really should have applied another coat, and maybe primer (though I wasn’t sure of the order) but there was either a previous layer of paint or of resin underneath and with midsummer approaching I really wanted this boat on the water. So the Rustic Red went on (and ran over the Bondi Blue in places and had to be sanded off).

Not the prettiest paintjob but Harmony, after weeks out of the water, was finally ready for the big moment: would she float?

And, with the help of a good strong mate, I soon found out. YES!




Trans of the City

Of course I cried at the end of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, a limited series just released on Netflix based on those books of that author. The showrunner Lauren Morelli “cultivated an all-queer writers room”, according to The Hollywood Reporter. And it shows. Out of the eight main characters, three are trans – or are portrayed as such. (But no plot spoilers!)

I’d reread the books, again, after a year spent around San Francisco and Sinaloa (across the water from Baja California). I was living in community in an area of multiple deprivation in Edinburgh, working in a nursing home. I found the former more challenging than the latter and the series was a form of solace. I’d read them in the bath, by candlelight, with incense and essential oils, switching off from my unhygienic passive-aggressive alcoholic flatmate, my actively-aggressive neighbours, and whatever craziness was happening on the racist and drug-ridden housing estate.

Some years later I felt I understood the main character more when I dated a guy who introduced himself as “a female-to-male transsexual”. (Even though Anna’s transition was the reverse.) No-one prompted me with pronouns, in those days, but my guy was ‘he’ to me and that was fine. I’m a bisexual man; nothing about him threatened or repulsed me. We were great in bed; it was just all the other times when his insecurity, selfishness and obsessive personality were so trying.

But, like the Netflix series, we’re all limited – and I’m certainly no saint. The limitations of the series are obvious when you expand the view to the minor characters (especially including the 1960’s vignette). Most of them are under the trans umbrella. Let’s remember that the books were written by a gay man – so he, like me, is not.

It’s no news that trans is the new gay. And, to give the all-queer writers their due, there is some portrayal of the tensions between young intersectional queers and the older White queens; and between individuals who transition and their partners who have a new identity thrust upon them – one that includes them. I wonder how much input Armistead, who “also spent time with the writers”, had.

Director Alan Poul says:

“There were lots of different voices with a lot of different opinions so it was a very vigorous room but[,] at the same time, nobody had to explain queer 101 to other people in the room.”

I welcome this series, despite its limitations. The character of Anna Madrigal (wonderfully portrayed both by Olympia Dukakis and Jen Richards, in her earlier incarnation) may believe in magic and utter the occasional spiritual insight but her appeal is always in her compassionate humanity.

So it’s a pity that, in this very politically correct series, the issues of coercion and ideological purity aren’t addressed. “I know I’m not supposed to feel this but…” says Margo, the partner of Jake, who transitioned and who censors her speech when she says, “I miss when we were lesbians”. And the only mention of the issue of safe female space, based on sex not gender, is a clear invitation to laugh at the dumpy older lady being sarcastic about having to share an open plan unisex bathroom with 15 other people in the intentional living community that Michael is (not) considering joining.

There’s a lack of honesty here. Something that this all-queer writers room didn’t address. And that’s a shame because so many of us, in what could be termed the queer community, have been moved to tears by these books – and also moved to contemplation of ourselves, our lives and our civil situation – and so moved to action.

These are my fears for the future:

  • That we continue to divide into intolerant camps policed by an unordained and unelected priesthood of ideological purists
  • That we refuse to consider each ethical issue separately and continue to lump them all together in an all-or-nothing party politics of right or left
  • That we are so unrestrained in our virulence towards each other that we ignore the backlash that our enmity must certainly cause, as every action provokes a reaction

Here are my hopes:

  • That we each take responsibility for our words and actions, and their lack, and the effect they have on others
  • That we learn to value the truth that someone else expresses, even if it conflicts with our own
  • That we hold each other in a gaze of compassion

Catherine Zeta-Jones, playing Olivia de Havilland, in the memorable TV series Feud: Bette and Joan, said these words:

“Feuds are not about hate, it’s never about hate; feuds are about pain.”

I find I’m a better human when I allow myself to feel my pain, when I’m conscious that I’m not the only one in pain, that it’s an inevitable part of the human condition. Every single character, in all incarnations of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, is in pain. The best ones, in their best moments, temper that pain and even heal some of it when they remember that and reach out in recognition – rather than in rage. Or simply respect that someone else’s pain may be, despite our best intentions, unfathomable.

Armistead and Christopher at the wedding

Photo of Armistead and partner Christopher in cameo shot from Gay Times

When the bow broke

It was all going swimmingly. I’d shipped the oars and the Ship’s Dog and I were floating along the Forth and Clyde canal, watching the reflections ripple across the old stone bank and listening to the birdsong.

Bow and canal
Bow and canal

(Actually the Ship’s Dog was too busy lazing in the stern of my Mirror dinghy to bother about the banks or the birds.)

Ben astern
Ben astern

And then, disaster struck!

Bow broken
Bow broken

I did know that the forward transom (as the rounded triangle at the end of the bow is called) had a line of fracture running along parallel to the deck and up to the top rail. When I’d bought the boat, I’d seen it had been repaired at some point and a mate had just filled in the cracks with some epoxy (very strong glue) and we’d hoped for the best. I remember him saying something about having either some resin or some hardener left over, and me being surprised – as it said to mix them equally on the tin.

Now, the original fracture, resulting rotten wood, the weakness of the epoxy mix (maybe on both occasions) and my impatient hauling on the bow rope to drag the boat onto the trailer (which doubles as a launching trolley) instead of positioning it correctly in the water so it would just float on – all combined disastrously and the bow broke.

I was not happy. Would I have to sell my beloved wee boat, Harmony, after only a few months of ownership – and most of them over the winter? I couldn’t afford a professional, so I emailed a Glasgow charity that specialises in boatbuilding but they failed to reply. I could have phoned them but, at that point, I was getting over the initial shock and decided to take up the challenge myself.

Onto the Trident UK website, where I purchased a forward transom kit.

New forward transom & bow heart
New forward transom and bow heart

Before doing anything, I had to remove the old forward transom. I’d toyed with the idea of leaving the sound bottom part in, but I knew the join had to be sturdy so that the top part didn’t rip off again. Especially, with the mast and sails up, in a strong wind in the middle of Loch Lomond! So, out with the old and in with the new. (I didn’t like the look of the hull, once the old fibreglass sealing tape had come off the inside.)

I’d only be using glass tape from the outside – as I wouldn’t have access inside without removing the deck and I didn’t want to go that far. I hoped the new seal would be watertight! First I had to fit the new bow heart (the darker, thicker small spearhead of wood) to the new forward transom (‘the transom’ usually means the more rectangular one at the stern, not this roughly triangular one at the bow). Then, see how the new forward transom would fit. (The photos are out of proportion but they show the same pieces of wood.)

Now to refit the ring fasteners for the bow rope and the forestay (the front cable that holds up the mast).

Outside of new transom with fittings
Outside of new transom with fittings

Next I had to fit the new top rail. That involved removing all the old copper ‘stitches’ so the new wood could fit. And also removing the rotten wood at both bow ends of the gunwales (the long, narrow, curved pieces of wood running around the top edge of the hull.

Removing the old fibreglass tape uncovered the irregularities of the join. Here’s the starboard side of the hull, with the new forward transom nailed onto the wood running under the deck (perhaps not advisable, as it introduces a breach and the nail can rust, but I’d no other option).

Close up of space between transom and starboard hull
Close up of space between transom and starboard hull

Then the sanding began! Port and starboard sides of the hull, and the bottom. Not forgetting the inside, on and above the deck. This took forever. And the metal tip at the hull bottom broke off.

The insides, above the deck, needed sanded too. Forever, and a day.

Sanded deck
Sanded deck

The rot in both gunwales, hidden under the old epoxy and paint, was more extensive than I’d thought.

Extensive rot on starboard gunwale
Extensive rot on starboard gunwale

I was tempted to ignore it but it would cost more effort eventually and I didn’t want to end up having to replace the gunwales entirely. So out it all had to come – including the nails that had gone through the damaged upper edges of the hull (that metal clip was useless). And all that needed sanding too.

So now it was time for the epoxy. I used the West System.

West system
West system of marine epoxy, brushes, syringes and glasstape on deck

I didn’t use the syringes with these 1:1 tubs of resin and hardener from Gaelforce, or the brushes, because the mix was as thick as peanut butter. I also didn’t need the clamps to keep the inner and outer gunwales together, as replacing the only screw almost at the end, with a slightly longer one, did the trick. I filled the gap with epoxy and strips of glasscloth then more epoxy. Then I had to face doing the same thing, but now further down. Where it would have to cover up a multitude of sins – and, below the waterline, make the difference between being watertight and springing a leak!

The glasscloth was sticky (I troweled the epoxy onto the wood first) and the single strands of the weave got everywhere. Finally, the first process was complete but would need another application to fill in the gaps.

So then came the next coats, using a 1:5 mix (which the syringes came in handy for) from Trident of 105 (resin) and 205 (hardener) epoxy – with some 403 microfibre white filler powder to add to the mix to get it to a thicker consistency. I also filled in the gap between the bow heart and top rail, and coated the nails.

Port and starboard sides, after a lot of sanding, were now looking much better.

Time for the undercoat, with white Pre-Kote International.

At this point, I was beginning to feel hopeful again. It looked good. Would it be watertight? I painted on, with blue Toplac International.

Finally, with all the topsides done, my (fairly bad) paint job was complete!

Would she float? Before I find that out, I need to sort out the warped planking and flaked-off paint underneath the hull. Till next time!

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

Having played one of two or three men dressed in rags chained to the floor for two hours, I know what it’s like to have a lot of lines and few props. Lewis Baird and Abbie McIntosh, bringing life to the lead characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, have a lot of lines with not a lot of sense (in the absurdist tragicomedy at the Turret Theatre this week) so their challenge is even greater. Fortunately they not only have a great memory for them but also the charming youthful bewilderment that aids their delivery in this terribly bewildering play.

My theatre companions loved it but I personally don’t like absurdist drama. I like a play with meaning and I resist the kind of meaningless repetition in Tom Stoppard’s script because I find it excruciating. It makes me feel like all the times I’ve waited for annoying boyfriends to change their annoying behaviour (spoiler alert: they never do) or all the times I’ve cared for people with dementia and had the same conversation over and over again. I just can’t stand it.

And neither can Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (interchangeable in this play). And maybe that’s the point. So I knew what I was letting myself in for; and while I can’t say that I was really into it, I also can’t say that I didn’t get something out of it. But what that is, is anyone’s guess. What I do know is that The Player, Hilary Lynas, as always, shone. And her poor Players, Adam Cooper, Chris Dunn and Patricia Leeson, adapted themselves (indeed contorted themselves) into their sundry situations hilariously.

Claudius, Gertrude and Polonius (Robert Benison, Elaine Martin and Jillian Vincent, respectively) have a difficult role in that their characters lack the comic appeal of the above-mentioned actors and yet must not eclipse the aloof gravity of Hamlet (played magnificently by Andrew Henderson). Theirs is the dialogue that should make most sense but, presented piecemeal, sounds most ridiculous. They all walked this theatrical tightrope very well.

A good stage manager’s work is not only never done but also invisible and such was the case with Gillian Monroe’s, ably co-ordinated with her sound and lighting colleagues, Robbie Soutar (kudos for the unexpected selection) Michael Hand and Ian Atherton. The set, basically a black diorama curtain, was suitably minimal but I did like the chessboard floortiling – foregrounding that it’s all a game (with apparently no rules) as Sheila Todd’s semi-adjustable costuming showed that, dressed in rags or riches, the play’s the thing.

Even if it really doesn’t make any sense.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, at the Turret Theatre, Kirkintilloch, runs till Saturday 4th May 2019. Tickets:

Writing the Uncanny

I saw a ghost, once. A friend in Edinburgh wants me to tell him all about it, but I’m not sure I can. The last time I tried that, talking to other friends in an arty professional flat in Stockbridge, and forgetting to psychologise the psychic, a big black cat jumped through the window and scared the living daylights out of them. I’d presumed the cat was theirs – and I’d forgotten that White British rationalist urbanites don’t believe in ghosts. At least not officially.

I’m White too and, though I prefer more rural locations, I’ve also lived in cities. But I’m allowed to believe in the spectral side of life for two reasons: I’m religious and I’m a writer. The Bruno Benedetti Mysteries make some mention of both monotheist and polytheist faiths and of Buddhism – which, arguably, is neither. But, as well as the relationships and adventures of a group of friends, they mostly dwell on the uncanny.

It’s a difficult subject to write about without being constrained by genre expectations: if you write about vaguely angelic inspiration, it’s Inspirational; if the focus is on getting what you deserve from The Universe, it’s New Age; if evil spirits are involved it’s either Evangelical Christian or Occult (some would say they’re the same thing); if it’s girlpower with candles and pentacles, it’s Wicca; fairies, it’s Folklore; dragons is Fantasy; and teen wizardry is (now) a knock-off of a certain very successful series of books and films.

Andre Norton, usually classified as a Science Fiction & Fantasy writer, has a character with the gift of Unasked Sight. My grandmother’s first language was Scottish Gaelic and I grew up familiar with this kind of (Second) Sight that is a well-known and rarely-mentioned phenomenon in the Gàidhealtach, even in its lowland diaspora. The immediacy, urgency and evidential impossibility of this gift make it a good topic for a storyteller and it continually disrupts the otherwise ordered existence of my protagonist.

But I didn’t want to transport Bruno to another realm. I wasn’t interested in my characters going through some portal (a wardrobe or a wall in a train station) from a presumed central location of unproblematic normality (such as the English shires surrounding London, or the city itself) or inhabiting a place in a parallel universe (such as another Oxford or alternative Southern California) where vampires and werewolves and witches exist among us – unseen by those without the power or the courage to discern their existence.

I’m interested in the uncanny as experienced, today, in Scotland. Rarely-mentioned and well-known. With this, reserved, attitude, the Scottish culture of the uncanny occupies a middle place between the cool Anglo-Saxon scepticism of the English (so, no, I don’t include the Cornish, the Cumbrian or the Manx) and the entertaining self-conscious blarney of the Irish.

Narration in the first person is the literary equivalent of the hand-held camera. There are no panoramic establishing shots, instant cuts to another simultaneous location or smooth travelling transitions but, as well as the already-limited point-of-view of the protagonist, writing (almost exclusively) this way enables me to use the altered perspectives of anxiety, dream, drugs, drunkenness, euphoria, hypnosis, memory, sadness, tiredness, trance and vision. So there are already many explanations of the phenomena experienced by the characters. I feel it’s important not to force the reader into accepting a particular one.

This last point, I will admit, I got from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Always give them the ‘gas leak’ explanation. Otherwise they may either feel manipulated – or simply assume that, whatever world you’re writing about, it isn’t this one. So, when I write about the vibes or astrology or tarot, this form of non-local perception or mnemonic sequencing can be interpreted as coincidence, or an individual’s free-floating anxiety; telekinesis or spectral/ elemental phenomena witnessed by more than one person can similarly be dismissed as mass hysteria – if enough pressure is on the group at that time.

Even if such explanations are too far-fetched, the indulgent rationalist, if suitably entertained rather than preached at, will read the uncanny as magical realism – transported from its presumed home in steamy Latin America (even though the maestra of this genre, Isabel Allende, has written many of her novels while living in the USA) to rainy Scotland. Reading the adventures of Bruno and his friends might not result in seeing fairies at the bottom of the garden (especially if it’s raining) but it might make the reader wonder whether there are more things in heaven and earth than have ever entered into their rationalist religion or philosophy.

Tricks of the Mind, by Alan Ahrens-McManus, is free on Smashwords (where the whole series is available in various eBook formats) and – like The Lovers, Shades of the Sun, Qismet, Tìr nam Bàn and Transits of Terror – is also in print and Kindle on Amazon and other online retailers.  The Marrying Maiden, seventh in the series, should be out in September.

Pixie hat

Photo, Pixie hat in garden, ©Alan McManus, 2019. Use permitted with link to this post.  


‘Sister Act’ at Cumbernauld Theatre

Catherine MacKenzie gave us a wonderfully brassy brunette Deloris Van Cartier in Cumbernauld Musical Theatre’s production of Sister Act this week; she sashayed about the stage and belted out those numbers like a pro. So Julie Cassells had a challenge in playing Mother Superior: too strict and she’d lose the sympathy of the audience; too laid-back and she’d lose her authority over the nuns. It was a challenge she rose to admirably and her compassion, her fear and her vulnerability came through especially as she sung her moving confession: I Haven’t got a Prayer.

‘But to sing is to pray twice’, as St Augustine of Hippo reminds us, and from the moment Iain Fraser the Front of House Manager (presumably) asked us to turn off our mobile phones and added “can I have an AMEN?” we were all down with Jesus – and up on our feet to give a well-deserved standing ovation at the end.

Indeed the singing was wonderful (slightly muffled sometimes by the volume of the music in the first half, it’s true) with the very well-cast holy trio of Srs M. Robert, Patrick & Lazarus (Christine Duncan, Amanda Letarte & Marie Jo McCrossan) in hilarious character counterpoint.

The unholy trio of crooks, Joey, TJ & Pablo (Alan Brown, Christopher Costello & Gerard Kane) had us in stitches with their ‘what women want’ scene as they each in turn tried out the effect of their varied manly attractions on the audience in the fond hope of seducing the Sisters.

Special commendation to Gerard Kane for his word-perfect Spanish which he confessed afterwards he didn’t speak before rehearsals and basically just took at run at it. Similarly to the Sisters for their chanted and sung Latin. My Mum can remember the Latin Mass and we didn’t hear a wrong word.

Yes, on the Catholic side, there were the usual tiny costume errors. Only dedicated followers of Madonna hang rosaries round their necks rather than from their belts (and not from the end of the cord, which should have three knots in it, either) and the priest’s garment over his soutane was more Southern Baptist choir than RC cotta or chasuble. However Jan Letarte’s concept of the colourful cascading scapula for the Sisters was inspired and I liked the kitten heels too – apparently plain black shoes but with that little bit of sass for dancing in.

David Campbell’s Curtis Jackson (erstwhile beau of Dolores) was nicely nasty (and has a great voice) and Andrew Davidson’s Monsignor O’Hara played up the pragmatic priest even more than in the movie – which in these days of failing parishes is very topical – and added more complications to the peace of the convent than those brought by Dolores at the insistence of Lt. Eddie Souther. Keiran Butler brought his handsome burly charm to this part, which was expected from the movie, what took me by surprise was the poignant scene of hopeless homeless people shuffle-dancing around him as he was painfully aware of his inadequacy to help them all.

But help there was aplenty in this production and all the supporting parts did their bit very well indeed – and evidently enjoyed it!

Full marks to Producer Fraser Morrison, Musical Director Ian Monteith-Mathie and Choreographer Amanda Letarte (also onstage) also to the orchestra, and Stage Crew under Frank Kerr. I especially noted the elegance of the Sisters simply processing on and off with benches, and the communal table being left to our imagination. Other points I admired were Kieran Fitzpatrick’s timing of the radio (on and off several times) to the split-second, and Chris Combe’s evocative use of lighting when Dolores is pulled between the siren voices of the goodtime girls and the nun’s chorus. At one point her face turns green (okay I did think of Wicked momentarily) but it made me wonder about envy and the pursuit of happiness.

Last but not least, Front of House staff! My mother is ages with the Queen and I was touched by the kind consideration of the ushers, and being able to pre-order interval drinks was really helpful too. Thank-you Cumbernauld Musical Theatre and thank-you Cumbernauld Theatre for a really enjoyable evening out!


(Image from Cumbernauld Theatre website)


Parents, Protest and the Press

Those naughty Muslims have been at it again – not being nice – not like us Brits! Was basically the message (some of it subliminal) in the online and broadsheet reports about parents in Birmingham protesting outside a school where 98% of the pupils are Muslim and the assistant headmaster has implemented a controversial LGBT education programme. I chose the word ‘education’ because that’s what schools are supposed to be for. Some have called it an ‘inclusion programme’.

As usual with eye-catching headlines, there’s more to this story than meets the eye. Firstly, the assistant headmaster. Billed as ‘a gay man’ (as if sexuality has anything to do with being a good teacher or manager) and therefore, in England, in 2019, supposedly deserving for that reason of our sympathy. Unlike the parents. They’re not gay, they’re just Muslim. You don’t get as many points for that in LGBT stories (unless you’re being supportive of inclusion programmes, in which case you get double). In this story, they don’t get any points at all. Not even for being parents. Especially not for being parents. Parents (that don’t support the programme) in this story, like Muslims, are bad. They get slammed by OFSTED [Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills] says The Birmingham Post. Null points. Not nice! Just not British! (Actually almost everyone gets ‘slammed by OFSTED’ at some point, it seems, as I found when I looked up the story. I really don’t know what else they find time to do!)

Anyway, the assistant headmaster. Who had to leave his last school. Cos of the naughty Muslims. Christians. Parents. Whatever. Not with the programme. Bad people. Cos he was gay. Well, not cos he was gay. Cos he said he was gay. Openly. As opposed to closedly. Well, cos he said it was okay to be gay. Well, cos he pushed the programme. Or another programme. Similar. Along with some of his books. And others. Reports are confused.

Let’s look at some of those books, shall we? The ones in the programme. Lovely, aren’t they? Choice, rainbows, find who you really are, be who you want, yes you can! Dogs can do ballet too! Boys can be princesses. And you can start as young as you like! Nothing wrong with all that, is there?

Of course not. So what are the parents protesting about then? Let’s find out, from the two mothers of schoolkids who are interviewed. In an edited video Fatima Shah explains the protest and (from the same source) here’s Mariam Ahmed:

“Protester Mariam Ahmed, whose four-year-old daughter attends the school, has organised a petition against the No Outsiders project.

She said yesterday: ‘What they are teaching is not right, they are too young. There are nine parts of the Act and they only seem to be focusing on one, homosexuality, and that is wrong. They need to have an ethos which reflects the area.

‘It’s not just because we are Muslims, there are Christians here too. We don’t have a vendetta against homosexuals and we respect the Act. We respect that Mr Moffat is gay and we are happy for him to teach.’

She said she would consider taking her daughter out of school full-time if the lessons continued, claiming children were being affected ’emotionally and psychologically’.”

This report is from The Daily Mail. Not known for its support of Muslims! And if words were edited on the video, clearly to make the interviewee seem less sympathetic, they could also be in print. They may have referred to the signs parents are holding in the photos in the same report: “SAY NO TO SEXUALISING OUR CHILDREN”; “SAY NO TO DISCRIMINATING AGAINST OUR CHILDREN”; “SAY NO TO UNDERMINING PARENTAL RIGHTS & AUTHORITY”; “EDUCATION NOT INDOCTRINATION”; “LET KIDS BE KIDS”; “STOP EXPLOITING CHILDREN’S INNOCENCE”.

Let’s note that this mother correctly pointed out that the Equality Act 2010 covers 9 characteristics – whereas Alston Primary, also in Bimingham, using the No Outsiders programme (explicitly stating that Upper Key Stage 2 (9-11 year-olds) are given books on sexual and gender orientation) gets them wrong: the protected characteristic ‘sex’ is incorrectly listed as ‘gender’ and ‘race’ is listed without ‘colour, ethnicity or nationality’, ‘pregnancy and maternity’ isn’t mentioned and neither is ‘marriage or civil partnership’. So these Muslim mothers have a point.

Let’s just note that Andrew Moffat MBE is doing a Ph.D. ‘on the role of schools in countering terrorism’ and that the headteacher of this school has already reported 3 children to the police under the controversial Government Prevent Agenda that some feel is doing more to alienate British Muslims than prevent their radicalisation. In that vein, The Independent gets in a wee dig with a conspiracy theory about Muslim ‘practices’ (homosexuals used to have ‘practices’ too but this was upgraded to a ‘lifestyle’) maybe taking over schools in the area – but (sadly) Andrew Moffat MBE’s old school isn’t one of them and, presumably, neither is his new one. Oh well. Also, this whole thing is part of a DfE [Department for Education] scheme called ‘Promoting fundamental British values through SMSC [Spiritual, Moral, Social & Cultural development’. So, it’s not just about naughty religious people and a nice gay man, is it? There’s ideological conflict going on and No Outsiders is a powerful weapon: Government-backed propaganda.

To sum up: in the wake of a Government consultation in England and Wales on transgender self-ID that was better advertised than the really sneaky one that happened in Scotland (to which 51% of respondents weren’t from Scotland, some were from Switzerland and there were even some from Brazil – oh fortunate people!) the assistant head of a school in Birmingham overwhelmingly attended by children from one particular faith community failed entirely to consult with the parents or to carry out an Equality Impact Assessment on the other seven protected characteristics apart from the two that he was really interested in. When parents complained about this, his response (with Government backing) was to spin his failure to protect (and be seen to protect) these other characteristics as upholding ‘Fundamental British values’. Meanwhile the press happily linked parents insisting on their kids being taught science, maths and English, to Islamic terrorism.

Here’s my thoughts:

There are already anti-bullying strategies in schools. Perhaps some need to be more specific.

It is not the place of the Government to teach ‘spiritual values’. Britain is fundamentally racist, sexist, homophobic, ageist, unsupportive of women who wish to give birth, unsupportive of stable domestic partnerships, (neo)colonialist, unhealthy, pessimistic, cold-hearted, passive-aggressive, lazy, disorganised, unwashed, hypocritical and inhospitable. If you don’t know these things about Britain, travel. Or just speak to people from somewhere else. There are many things I love about the lands and the people currently designated as ‘Britain’ but I wouldn’t wish our ‘fundamental values’ on anyone.

Ironically, the cultural values of internationalism, religious tolerance, veneration of the old and protection of the young, especial provision for the orphan, the widow and the stranger, health and hygiene, open-hearted friendship and warm hospitality, diplomacy, hard work, order, reverence for scholars and teachers – as well as leading the world in legal recognition of post-operative gender reassignment and (historically) unofficial tolerance of discrete same-sex love – famously belong to countries and communities that are Muslim.

islamic-prayer-silhouette-female Thanks to Mohammed Mahmoud Hassan for releasing his image ‘Islamic, Prayer, Silhouette, Female’ into the public domain.

The Kelpies along the Canal

The Forth and Clyde canal is so named as it connects these two rivers but its eastern end drops into the River Carron which flows down to the Forth. Living in a town right in the middle, I’d walked and cycled to Glasgow and from there cycled to Bowling, at the western end, and I wanted to walk to the other end. There be Kelpies!

These water horses, creatures of Celtic legend, have inspired two sculptures in sheet metal and I’d seen them from afar but never visited the site itself. I suppose I felt that, with all the hype, the reality would be a disappointment. I’d felt like that about the Falkirk Wheel and yet, when I saw it, I could only agree that it was an elegant feat of engineering.

The recent ice had melted on the canal by St Valentine’s Day and I decided to continue my walk the following day. Previously I’d walked as far as Falkirk High train station so I started from there, with my dog Ben, at about ten past two in the afternoon.

Signpost at Falkirk High
Signpost to the Kelpies, outside Falkirk High train station

It was a lot more pleasant to walk along the canal towpath in daylight.

Towpath west from Falkirk High
Footpath winding down to the towpath going west from Falkirk High

The last time I did this it was pitch dark! This time I could see the old stone structure of the Union canal, as I walked west towards the Falkirk Wheel which connects the Union and the Forth and Clyde canals.

Old stone and trees on Union canal
Old stone walling and trees along the Union canal

The towpath to the tunnel and the top lock of the Falkirk Wheel was closed so I took the shortcut over a bridge and popped into the Visitors Centre. There it was strange to see the basin dry and the Wheel itself surrounded by scaffolding, awaiting its reopening in May.

Dry basin at Falkirk Wheel
Dry basin of the Falkirk Wheel marina
Scaffolding around Falkirk Wheel
Scaffolding around the Falkirk Wheel

But the café was open, with its friendly staff, and I picked up some supplies.

“Towpath Talk”, “The Tillergraph” and two bags of crisps on a hexagonal wood and plastic table

A map near the door of the Visitors Centre shows the canals and rivers around Falkirk.

Map of canals and rivers around Falkirk
Map stenciled on three panels of French windows showing the Forth and Clyde, joined by the Union at the Wheel, running northeast to the Kelpies, the Carron and the Forth

I walked across the wooden bridge to the north side of the Forth and Clyde canal.

Canalboats at Falkirk on the Forth and Clyde
Wooden bridge and canalboats along the Forth and Clyde looking east

The canalboats that are usually in the marina, or somewhere along either canal, were now tied along the bank near the entrance to the Wheel.

More canal boats at Falkirk
More canalboats on the Forth and Clyde

By this time, it was almost three o’clock and I thought we would have light enough to reach the Kelpies but I didn’t want to be walking back along the canal in the dark, again! My first idea was to take the train to Camelon, where legend sites the Camelot of King Arthur (the central lowlands of Scotland have a lot of evidence of Brythonic heritage that links to the people now in Cumbria, Cymru and Kernow, so this is not as far-fetched as it sounds) but I couldn’t get a return ticket so then I had the idea of retracing my steps from Falkirk High. But in the light! Present-day Camelon (pronounced ‘Kamelin’) is quite prosaic.

Terraced housing around a park with swings and trees, a hut with WELCOME TO KEMLIN in the foreground

Some of the wildlife, like this magpie who fluttered away through the branches, are quite shy.

Magpie and nest
A magpie hiding near his nest among the branches

Some, like these swans, are more inquisitive.

Swan family
A family of three swans swims towards the bank with a small pretty canalboat in the background

The canal skirts the north of the town and a series of locks provide interest and pretty locations for some canalside cafes and pubs.

Lock 16 to 11 on the Forth and Clyde canal
Lockgates and an information board on a grassy verge of the canal, with trees and houses
Pleasant walking along Forth and Clyde canal
A bridge and lockgates with a mother and child walking in the distance
Pontoon on Forth and Clyde
Ben the dog runs past a pontoon near lockgates, with pubs and factories ahead

The industrial heritage is evident in the factories, such as this one for whisky, along the banks.

Old whisky factory
Three modern steel sculptures of whisky bottles with an old factory on the other side of the canal
Scottish Canals industrial heartland board
Scottish Canals information board explaining how iron, vinegar, rope and chemicals were made and transported along the canal

I also loved the whimsical graffiti of dragonfire and an umbrella-wielding hero, on an old stone lintel set in a wall.

Dragonfire and umbrella grafitti on old stone wall
Bricked up door with funny graffiti above

Further along, the canal seemed more functional than pretty.

Towpath sloping up to road
Ben waiting obediently on the path as it ascends from the canal to a busy road

Heading out of town, to avoid scrambling through a lock-keeper’s garden, we had to climb a steep flight of steps to the road and immediately descend. But the reedbeds further on were unexpected and no doubt a valuable contribution to the local ecology.

Reedbeds across the canal
Reedbeds on the other side of the canal

By now we’d been walking for two hours and I felt there was something familiar about this bridge. Had I seen it in an article about the Kelpies?

Ben waiting under the last bridge
Ben waiting under a bridge

The ducks ahead swam over to investigate us.

Ducks on the canal
A pair of Mallards and a white duck swim towards us

Which was nice but aloud I wondered, “Where are the Kelpies?” And looked around…

First sight of the Kelpies across the fields
First sight of the Kelpies across fields to the left

There, across the fields. We hurried on, with fresh energy. In minutes I was seeing them just across the canal.

Kelpies across the canal
The Kelpies closer now, just across the canal to the right and along the path

Then just at the end of the path!

Kelpies along the path
The Kelpies at the end of the path

Then, of course, I had to get close. Ben went back on the lead and we approached the western waterhorse. Which has been sculpted so expressively.

Beautiful Kelpie up close
The western Kelpie, looking down and to the right, with a beautiful expression

Before approaching the eastern Kelpie, I wanted to walk to the end of the canal. And witness the last few feet of water, pouring down the lockgate and into the River Carron.

Last lock on the Forth and Clyde canal
The Forth and Clyde canal plunges over the last lockgate
Canal ends at the Carron
Below the lockgate, the canal joins the Carron

From there, the river flows under a bridge and down to pass industrial Grangemouth on the Forth.

Canal and the Carron under a bridge
The River Carron flows under a bridge down towards Grangemouth on the Forth

But then we walked back to more legendary beauty.

Kelpie and the moon from base
The head of the eastern Kelpie rearing up towards the moon
The Kelpies up close
The two Kelpies side by side

Technology, wild nature, myth and beauty. I sat at a table in the café. And fell in love.

The Kelpies
The Kelpies at sunset with a pylon tower to their left, trees in the background and water below

[All photos ©Alan McManus 2019. Use permitted with link to this post]

High on Emotion: Films on AIDS

addiction adult capsule capsules
Photo by Pixabay on

Hogmanay, as we call New Year’s Eve in Scotland, may seem an odd time to blog about AIDS. Surely there are more positive subjects, at “That hour, o’ night’s black arch the key-stane” when we hear the bells of midnight and look forward to a new year. Yet, for some, Hogmanay is not a happy hour but rather, as Robert Burns goes on, “That dreary hour”, when thoughts of the year ahead are filled with dread.

Nowadays it is de rigueur to be positive about HIV/AIDS. We know that we’re winning the fight, we know that people are living longer, we know that…we know a lot of things about this specialist topic of retrovirology and epidemiology. We’ve just forgotten how we know them. Recently, reviewing Chicago Tribune writer John Crewdson’s exposé of the machinations of the man credited with the (co)discovery of HIV, it struck me that the stubborn refusal of most people (scientists or not) to review all the evidence, for all this positivity and assumed knowledge, had nothing to do with logic.

Because we know, in fact, that AZT (the first anti-HIV drug) was lethal. We know that people on HAART (combination therapy) aren’t dying so quickly and horrifically as others did on AZT – but are dying of major organ failure caused by these drugs. We know that the HIV/AIDS hypothesis has become so convoluted (in the philosophy of science, such distortions of the original theory to fit the empirical evidence are referred to as ‘epicycles’) that it can be conclusively cut down by Occam’s Razor.

So how do we know what we don’t actually know?

Films, movies if you’re American (and most of them are). That’s how. So I’ve been (re)watching some. Here’s what I discovered:

And The Band Played On and Philadelphia both came out in 1993. On the surface, the latter was the soft-focus, feel-good film for strait (sic, deal with it) White, middle-class Americans to stop treating gay men and people-with-AIDS as social pariahs; with an undercurrent of panic about the blood supply that fed in nicely to pressure on the government to release more funds for research that would ultimately end up in the pockets of huge multinational pharmaceutical companies. It worked. For years afterwards, whenever I said to one of my sisters (the trendy one, not the sensible nurse) ‘I have something to tell you’, she’d put on her Philadelphia face. The former is a more complex film in that it focuses on the urgency of finding a cure (understandably as the director died of AIDS shortly after the release) and can be summed up in one quote:

“When your house is burning, you don’t wait for irrefutable scientific proof – you pour on water!”

Yes. But first you make damn sure that it’s water and not petrol (gasoline). Doing just anything at all, rather than sticking to a policy of ‘wait and see’, isn’t always the wisest choice. Scientifically, it alters the variables under study in an uncontrolled way. Watching this film again, despite Crewdson’s exposé, I had more sympathy for the scientists. Being pressured by an angry mob (with very, very good reason to be angry and scared) to urgently come up with results is no good atmosphere in which to conduct research. This film shows a vital clue being missed, one that even Dr Gallo, the subject of Crewdson’s book, acknowledged as linked with Kaposi’s Sarcoma (the iconic AIDS disease causing the famous lesions in the court scene in Philadelphia). One of the cute, White, young, male doctors of the CDC (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention) says:

“You can forget about poppers. We ran every test there is. The worst that ever happened was two mice dancing with the rubber glove.”        

This is factually wrong. As Professor Duesberg (who convinced Gallo) points out:

“Recognizing the universal popularity of nitrates among homosexual men in 1981, the CDC was forced to consider this drug as one possible explanation of the emerging AIDS epidemic. […] It did not even occur to them that nitrates could be toxic by themselves. Therefore they searched for a contaminated or bad batch of nitrates. […] The CDC also assumed the effects would show immediately after using poppers, not after years of abuse, the way lung cancer and emphysema follow only after years of smoking tobacco. Naturally, no contaminated batch could ever be found, and the CDC dismissed the hypothesis altogether and thereafter focused its search entirely on infectious agents. (Duesberg & Ellison/1996/272, ellipsis mine)”

I’m not going to debate these rival hypotheses here, as I do that in Silence and Dissent: Expert Doubt in the AIDS Debate. I just want to show the effect of these films. The effect of these two was to create demand for AZT.

By 2013, when The Dallas Buyer’s Club came out, the hippy dippy doctor in Mexico (that old ‘White man travels far, seeks exotic wisdom’ plotline) could confidently say: “AZT will kill you” then give a lot of good advice about nutrition – then hand over ddC, a less toxic version of AZT. Less toxic. The subject of the film died in 1992, 7 years after diagnosis, when most people on AZT barely survived 2 years. So the effect of this film was to confirm the (relative) success of combination therapy.

How to Survive a Plague, released in 2012, was to this film what And The Band Played On was to Philadelphia: more detailed, angrier, less soft-soap. Strangely, the same drug, Interferon, that was damned in the 2012 film is hailed in the 2013 one. One might almost believe in pressure from Big Pharma. Yet How to Survive a Plague is all about resistance to corporate and governmental pressure. The film charts the rise of ACT-UP and the painful split in this collective that led to the creation of TAG (the Treatment Action Group) who started working with the government and with Big Pharma. The most poignant scene is when bereaved people, carrying the ashes of their loved ones, converge at the most famous fence in Washington and throw the contents of these urns onto the White House lawn, shouting “WE BRING THE DEAD TO YOUR DOOR!” I cried at this scene. How could I not? Yet, at the end of the film, the TAG spokesman is saying that, finding out that ddI and ddC had the same effectiveness as AZT, he admits “naïveté on our part” for pressuring research priorities. The film ends up pushing combination therapy.

Combination therapy is the topic of Fire in the Blood, also 2103, but set in South Africa. Harrowing is the only word to describe this documentary. Dr Peter Rost, former vice-president of Pfizer is the big bad wolf but he admits very revealing things:

“The [pharmaceutical] companies are running the US government. They’re pulling the strings!” “Drug companies are not there to protect the third world. They’re there to make money.”

It’s hard to see the corporate angle in this documentary. The CEO of the Indian pharmaceutical company CIPLA does seem caring and cuts costs in a way that is apparently compasionate. The political angel is fairly obvious. Bush bad; Clinton good. With funding from the William J. Clinton Foundation. It was the year that Hillary Clinton reversed her opposition to equal marriage, looking to secure the pink vote in the run-up to the 2016 presidential candidate nomination.

The problem with trying to put across the alternative hypotheses for the phenomena of AIDS (drugs, including poppers and anti-HIV medications; foreign proteins in blood transfusions) is that most people aren’t really interested in either science or facts. They want to get high on emotion. That’s why a hard-to-hear podcast like the 2012 interview with Mark Zuhrbriggen, a South African Health Practitioner (on How Positive Are You?) is not likely to move hearts and change minds. Even when he says that combination therapy is causing African babies to be born blind and deformed. And that people are still dying. The Lazarus effect doesn’t last.

It is true that there are informative documentaries on the alternative hypotheses – such as House of Numbers in 2009, Positively False in 2014 and Positive Hell in 2016 – but, whereas the HIV-AIDS hypothesis films need viewers only to emote, these documentaries rely on the willingness of viewers to think. Maybe, if someone makes an emotive film about corporate greed for money and fame, about blinkered scientific research and actually explores the alternative hypotheses, maybe then we might stop people dying and babies being deformed. Meanwhile, all we have are the facts.

(Thanks to Pixabay and Pexels for the photo)


AIDS: Piety and Heresy

Standing at the back of the Cathedral (because the pews are packed) I see speaker after speaker who would not otherwise darken the door of a place of worship – and wholeheartedly despise organised religion – ascend the wooden steps of the high pulpit, and I listen to them recount stories of faith and hope and love to the faithful below. At some point, amid the red balloons and festoons of rainbow tape, below the banners proclaiming WE ARE ALL INNOCENT and THERE IS NO DEATH: THERE IS ONLY LIFE, candles are lit, and held up. And there is a reading of names. Amid the silences that follow, we murmur names of the faithful departed, our beloved dead. Our lovers, our kin, our stars, our friends.

We will remember them, but this is no Remembrance Day Service. Three weeks after the eleventh day of the eleventh month, we gather in the evening to remember the dead who bore no arms except their own, who loved and lost their lives against an implacable and inhuman enemy (despite its name). From the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them. Their absence accompanies us though all our daily rituals and even, especially, on our holidays. There are two lines of separation here: one between the quick and the dead; one between the negative and the positive. No, in this instance, it is preferable to be negative.

This is our faith. This is our practice. This World AIDS Day Service, generously supported by large pharmaceutical companies and attended by people who live their lives in the earnest attempt to be the solution: to be open, to be free, to love spontaneously, to give generously, to care for the Earth and all her peoples, to save the whales and to walk their dogs and to be inspired, in a thoroughly disorganised and understated sort of spirituality, by the wonders of Nature, and by the diversity of humankind and by the small acts of kindness that (despite our systems of structural injustice and personal meanness of character) we persist in committing, daily.

The atmosphere is holy, special, set apart. This is time out, time for reflection. They who have gone before us, wherever they have gone, have run out of time. We have not. So we must use our time to best advantage. Because time flies. And for some of us, perhaps many, in this place tonight, time is fleet-footed indeed. All we can do is cherish each other, for the time we have left together, and work for a solution that will extend that time. Until our inhuman enemy, HIV, the slinking emissary of AIDS, is finally defeated.

If it ever existed in the first place. Or if it were ever harmful. Imagine the rage that would course through the pews like a purifying fire, if such thoughts, such criminal and impious thoughts, were ever voiced aloud in such a setting. Imagine the inundation of indignant words against such thoughtcrime, such insensitivity, that would dare to suggest that all this piety, all the docility of those we love (surrendering their bodies to the side-effects of AZT/ ART/ HAART, succumbing finally to PCP, KS and liver failure) all this was mistaken. There is only one word for such impiety: heresy.

(Silence and Dissent: Expert Doubt in the AIDS Debate)

Candle lit in darkness

Thanks to George Hodan for releasing his image “Candle” into the Public Domain.