Thursday 22 June
Yesterday I was asked to be a late replacement as a speaker at a conference in Edinburgh scheduled for today. At my age, it is encouraging to know that I am still worthy of a place on the substitutes' bench, so I was pleased to accept, especially as the event was on a topic I knew something about (a requirement that I have not always fulfilled in the past).
It necessitated an early start – the 7.06 train from my local railway station on the south side of Glasgow, followed by the 7.45 from Queen Street. I was soon reminded of how uncomfortable daily commuting can be. The train to Edinburgh was packed, with standing room only. Passengers were informed that this was because of an earlier, unspecified technical fault, which meant that there were only three carriages instead of the usual six. I had to stand as far as Polmont, where a seat became vacant. A polite young man, who could easily have nabbed the seat for himself, indicated that I should take it and I was grateful to do so. With the press of bodies, the carriage remained disagreeably warm but at least the train arrived on time at Waverley. A brisk walk took me to the venue, the Royal College of Surgeons on Nicolson Street, with a few minutes to spare.
The conference was of political interest, so two MSPs acted as chairs: James Dornan (SNP), convener of the education and skills committee, and Elizabeth Smith (Conservative), shadow cabinet secretary for education and skills. A large cast of speakers led me to fear that keeping to the timetable might be a problem, but a system of yellow and red cards was used to discourage those who might be inclined to ramble on. My own contribution was soon over, without the audience turning into a lynch mob, and I was able to enjoy the discussion that followed. Later I caught up with a few former colleagues and a couple of gentlemen of the press.
Afterwards, I reflected on the possibility that there might have been another explanation for my invitation. I wondered if it was an example of 'care in the community', with the organisers thinking that I was a poor old soul who needed a day out. There are some things it is best not to dwell on, so I quickly erased that thought from my consciousness.
Friday 23 June
The combination of deafening music, large crowds, recreational drugs and primitive toilet facilities is not appealing, so I shall not be attending the Glastonbury festival. An additional disincentive this year is the risk of bumping into Ed Balls and his wife Yvette Cooper in the queue for the showers (not to mention the resistible prospect of a harangue from Jeremy Corbyn). Mr Balls seems intent on rebranding himself as a 'celebrity' after his plucky performance on last year's 'Strictly Come Dancing'. Whether 'celebrity' is an improvement on 'failed politician' is open to question.
As an alternative to Glastonbury, I could spend a day at Royal Ascot. I have been known to place the occasional bet and I am sure I would enjoy watching the horses being put through their paces. Once again, however, it is the people who would present the main problem. All those plutocrats with their string of thoroughbreds and retinue of toadies would offer a very distasteful spectacle. Then there is the absurd dress code in the royal enclosure, where some of the spectators would look more comfortable in a pair of dungarees mucking out the stables.
On reflection, therefore, I have decided to spend a quiet day at home, with a good book and a nice pot of Assam tea. If I feel particularly self-indulgent, I may allow myself a slice of Victoria sponge. Sometimes there are just no limits to my decadence.
Saturday 24 June
What should count as a 'hate crime'? I ask this question because the current legislation is being reviewed by a senior Scottish judge, Lord Bracadale. At present, hate crimes are defined in terms of an individual's identity and arise when people are targeted because of hostility or prejudice towards one or more of five characteristics: race or ethnicity; religion or belief; sexual orientation; disability; gender identity. The expression of hatred can take a number of forms: assault; name calling; vandalism; online abuse; graffiti.
Amnesty International has urged Lord Bracadale to 'consolidate hate crime legislation to ensure consistency, clarity and equal protection' and to consider adding ageism, sexism and economic status to the categories covered by the law. For example, insulting those who live on the streets might be regarded as a hate crime. Most people would agree that abuse of the poor and homeless is thoroughly reprehensible and constitutes offensive behaviour, but does it qualify as a hate crime in the same way as racial abuse or homophobia? Including economic status might open the way for very rich people to claim that they too sometimes suffer from verbal (and even physical) attacks by those who are envious of their material success. At what point should an expression of disapproval become an offence that deserves not only criminal prosecution but also the additional penalty attracted by hate crimes?
The criterion of 'identity' is potentially problematic. Consider examples of hostility or prejudice directed at particular occupational groups – the police, bankers, lawyers and journalists, for example. It might be argued that membership of a profession constitutes an important aspect of a person's identity and that to be subject to abuse simply because of that association is unjust. But an extension of the law relating to hate crimes to cover such cases would be hard to justify. If I were to say that all bankers are 'greedy spivs' or all lawyers 'unprincipled sharks', that would simply be a wild generalisation. But if I were to direct the comments at specific individuals, they would have the option of pursuing me through the civil courts for defamation. In other words, a legal remedy (albeit civil rather than criminal) already exists.
In reviewing the law on hate crimes, Lord Bracadale will need to balance the protection of groups who may be subject to ignorant attack against the importance of freedom of expression within a democracy.
Monday 26 June
Last Monday, the members of the writers' group I attend had their end-of-session lunch before trying to refresh their creative juices over the summer. Today the committee meets to draw up next session's programme of topics. We try to cater for the wide variety of interests within the group – fiction, non-fiction, drama, poetry. Crime and humour are very popular. We have one member who regularly kills off a character on the first page. And one of our oldest members has often carried off top prizes for comic pieces at the annual conference of the Scottish Association of Writers. But we are expected to tackle subjects beyond our normal comfort zone. For example, I always find it difficult writing for young people. Years of having produced dull academic prose have meant that I lack the lightness of touch that is required: my sentences are too long and my style lacks striking images. Next session I shall try to do better. It will be my small contribution to the government's 'improvement' agenda in Scottish education.