Wednesday 14 December
My window cleaner, Harry, is certainly not a puritan. He enjoys a small refreshment and likes an occasional flutter on the gee-gees. But get him onto the subject of the commercialisation of Christmas and you will find that he has surprisingly strong views. He deplores the pressures on people to spend much more than they can afford. Given the state of the economy, this is now presented as a national obligation to keep retailers in business – never mind the alarming levels of personal debt that it encourages.
Harry also objects to the expectation that children should receive expensive electronic gadgets as presents (which are likely to be obsolete in a few months, thus creating demand for the latest model). Such indulgence, he believes, doesn’t ensure contentment. At this point, he is inclined to drift into nostalgic recollection of his own childhood, in which happiness did not depend on material goods but on fresh air and street games.
Christmas is no longer primarily a religious festival. Even though many folk will attend a carol concert or a nativity play, that is merely a backdrop to the main show – competitive consumerism and worship of mammon. Charitable giving serves to ease our consciences a little, but the major charities now operate in the same way as big business, with many chief executives earning more than £100,000 a year.
Add to that the cloying sentimentality of most television programmes at this time of year, with their plastic presenters and forced jollity, and it is not surprising that lots of people find the 'festive’ season rather depressing. It’s enough to make you want to join Harry in the pub.
Thursday 15 December
It is reported that Russia is seeking a new national ideal to replace the various -isms that inspired the leaders of the former Soviet Union – Bolshevism, Leninism, socialism, communism. Several rather obvious terms have been suggested – nationalism, patriotism, militarism, Putinism. But none of these captures the complex, often contradictory, nature of the changes that have taken place following the break-up of the Soviet bloc. In an afterword to the reissue of his 1989 novel, 'The Russia House’, John le Carre states that one undesirable consequence of Gorbachev’s 'perestrioka’ was 'the scramble for state assets that turned post-communist Russia into a criminalised society’. With this in mind, a more honest term for the dominant ideology – or, at least, a key aspect of it – might be 'gangster capitalism’. Donald Trump’s admiration for Putin begins to make sense.
Friday 16 December
It is pleasing to see that a Scottish project has won the Royal Institute of British Architects House of the Year competition for 2016. The winning entry was designed by the Edinburgh architect Richard Murphy. The house, which he lives in himself, occupies a small plot in the heart of the New Town. It is highly innovative and uses shutters, pulleys and mirrors to reconfigure the interior and create the illusion of space. Murphy’s architectural practice has been responsible for many striking buildings, including the DCA in Dundee, the Maggie’s Centre in Edinburgh and the Eastgate theatre in Peebles.
With this distinguished track record, one might expect Murphy to have a positive view of the current state of architecture in Scotland. Not so. He has been reported as saying that Scotland is one of the 'worst countries in Europe’ for young architects with original ideas and advises them to leave if they want to get on. His main complaint is about restrictive procurement rules which, he argues, favour big commercial companies and squeeze out smaller operations. He says there is little scope for creativity and flair. And he doesn’t stop there in his criticisms: 'there is an enormous hypocrisy in Scotland – you have an architecture policy, an architecture unit [within government], and at the same time a policy which is putting design practices out of business’.
In the past, Scotland has produced acclaimed architects such as Alexander 'Greek’ Thomson and Charles Rennie Macintosh. But it has also been responsible for some appalling planning decisions, leading to the creation of many deeply depressing estates and town centres across the country. For a nation blessed with so much natural beauty, we have been criminally careless in relation to the built environment.
I am not thinking only of shoddily constructed and aesthetically ugly council estates. In my own local authority, East Renfrewshire, the council regularly gives approval for large developments of expensive, high density, private housing, with little regard to the impact on traffic or pressure on local amenities. The houses are easily sold because parents want to ensure that their children can attend high-performing schools. Both the local authority (which gains additional council tax) and the national housebuilders (who can sell their products at premium prices) are quite relaxed about this arrangement and apparently unconcerned about the negative effects on the landscape.
Saturday 17 December
I have received an invitation to speak at a 70th birthday party in late January. Normally this would present me with a dilemma as I am not a party animal, temperamentally preferring a darkened room to a knees-up. In this case, however, the request has come from a dear friend who brings laughter and joy to others wherever she goes, so it would be churlish of me to decline.
She has suggested that my theme should be 'Growing old disgracefully’. Why she should think I am well-qualified to address this subject is a mystery to me. I always think of myself as an innocent in a wicked world rather than a hell-raiser intent on causing chaos. It is true that I am quite prepared to ask awkward questions, challenge various forms of authority and write critical articles about public institutions. This may be a reaction to my childhood and youth when I was naively inclined to believe that those who exercised power could be trusted to behave honourably. But it would, I think, be an exaggeration to say that I am now suffering from late-onset delinquency.
Nevertheless, I shall do my best to fulfil the remit I have been given. If you hear of a disturbance in a certain Ayrshire hotel in late January, I may well bear some responsibility.
Walter Humes's Diary resumes in our first edition of the new year – Wednesday 4 January