I’ve been learning Gaelic on Duolingo…but should I?

We are regular visitors to the Highlands of Scotland. After one recent trip, my eldest child expressed an interest in learning Gaelic. It turns out that Duolingo is fairly popular among her schoolfriends, so she asked if she could give it a try. This particular child gives lots of things a try and either gives up very quickly or gets very, very, extremely interested in the subject. It turned out that learning Gaelic on Duolingo was one that stuck. She practiced diligently every night, loudly and repeatedly. I had fun guessing what she was saying. Some I guessed from context, some are similar to Scots, some similar to Swedish. At first she got annoyed at me, this was her thing. Then she decided it would be good to have someone to practice with, so I was challenged to stop guessing and start learning.

Like many people living in Scotland, I’d picked up a bit of Gaelic over the years. My dad is a big Runrig fan so we spent many a car journey listening to songs in Gaelic. I could reel them off phonetically but had little idea of their meanings. We did attempt to learn when I was younger, we got some tapes and videos of the BBC series “Can Seo”. We didn’t last long, and if you watch the videos, you’ll see why…. Later there was an STV series “Speaking Our Language”. I think we tried to follow that too but with limited success. Some of those clips have been incorporated into the website for the current initiative “Learn Gaelic”. At some point in the 1990s a 5 minute news segment in Gaelic was tacked on after the main Scottish tv news, so we all learned the words for “Good afternoon” and “good evening” and “today” but not much else.

I love language and learning languages. Over the years I’ve done a bit of French, Spanish, Japanese, Swedish and British Sign Language – I now work as a BSL/English Interpreter. I suppose if I was going to learn another language it should be Gaelic, being a language native to my country. However I’ve never really felt that Gaelic was rightfully “my” language. I grew up in Dundee, in the north east of Scotland. If Gaelic was ever spoken in the region it was a very long time ago indeed. My heritage is firmly rooted in that area, none of my ancestors hailing from much further afield than Perthshire or Fife. Gaelic was never part of my background or culture, it was a Highland/north-west Scotland thing but not a Dundonian thing.

It is, of course, a Scottish thing though and the Scottish Government have been making efforts in recent years to revive and revitalise the language across the whole country. Child1 and I are not alone in our learning – recently Duolingo clocked up over 1 million users on their Scots Gaelic course, although most live in North America there are a good portion of learners here in Scotland and the rest of the UK.

Is it any good though? If anyone were to tell me they were learning British Sign Language from an app or a website I would vigorously recommend that they get themselves along to a class lead by a qualified Deaf Tutor. An app or online course, no matter how well designed, can’t give anywhere near the same experience as learning in person from a native speaker, especially one who can teach about the culture and usage of the language as well as the vocabulary and grammar.

Duolingo rather notoriously teaches using weird and wonderful phrases – some excellent examples can be found here and here . All 1 million of us going through the course are learning the same phrases in the same order, and can therefore only converse about certain limited topics. If we were to find ourselves in the Highlands or Islands among actual Gaelic speakers I suspect we wouldn’t get very far and they would be somewhat concerned with our preoccupation with pigs and Irn Bru. Despite my many highland travels, I’ve only come across real Gaelic spoken by real Gaelic speakers “in the wild” once – about 25 years ago on a holiday to the Outer Hebrides. I’m certain very few of us 1 million would understand a word any locals might utter.

It all reminds me of the brilliant Eddie Izzard sketch about learning French – please do yourself a favour and watch it here, I’ll wait. I fear my only hope of practicing my new found skills would be to travel to Stornoway with a frog, 9 kittens, some herring, a bonnet and and an unfortunate friend named Iain. I may not be able to hold a conversation with locals but any fellow app users and I can all collectively give thanks that Una is wearing underpants.

It is entirely possible to go through the course without uttering a single word in the language you are learning. You are encouraged to speak along and repeat but there is no voice detection part of the process that has you say the phrases to check if you are picking them up correctly. If you are physically able to, speaking the words and forming the new sounds yourself allows you to really pick up on the difference between “an” and “ann”, to feel how accented vowels are different from unaccented and to wonder how on earth “ard” requires you to produce a “sh” and a “t” sound. You also get the great pleasure of saying the beautifully rhythmic first long phrase learned – “Cò ris a tha an t-side coltach an-diugh?” (What is the weather like today) which my daughter askes me with great relish at every opportunity. We try out phrases with each other and on the rare occasion where a phrase we have learned actually fits an everyday situation we take advantage. We got a few strange looks at the local farm when we both yelled, “Tha mi a’ cluinntinn gobhar!” (I am hearing a goat). Anyone learning via the app alone may not have that opportunity to practice with others. Why do we learn languages if not to communicate with others? There needs to be a communal, social, shared experience aspect to language learning and practice. If immersion isn’t possible then real world interaction should be sought out. Will I ever get the chance to converse with a native Gaelic speaker? Who knows. Will they be interested in yet another person blethering on about how many kittens they have or whether or not Morag has a jacket on? Unlikely.

Despite these shortcomings, credit has to be given to Duolingo for making language learning fun. The gamification of the process does add to the appeal. My daughter loves looking at her stats and charting her progress, earning the gems and trophies for various milestones. There is a sense of achievement in getting these rewards and it undoubtedly spurs you on to unlock the next topic or complete the month’s challenge.

So whilst I may not hail from a Gaelic-speaking area I do think there is merit in Scots from all places having some knowledge of Gaelic. It is a challenging but interesting language to learn and I would hate to see it further decline in Scotland or only be continued by the enthusiasm of the diaspora. Duolingo and the like aren’t ideal conduits for teaching language but it is the only method so far that has engaged me to any extent and surely some of the 1 million online users will decide to pursue their studies more formally and find a place within the Gaelic community. I’m not sure how long my daughter and I will stick at it, but for now we are having fun and learning something new and that is never a bad thing.

I’m not going to patronise you all…

Earlier this week one of my favourite bands, The Airborne Toxic Event, announced they were launching a new platform on a subscription basis to allow fans special access to some of their output. For a monthly fee, members get unreleased tracks, members-only shows, VIP access to gigs, videos of concerts, contact with the band etc. Lead singer Mikel Jollett put out a video explaining their reasoning behind the move. In it, he makes a lot of very valid and persuasive points, delivered eloquently and passionately, about how the music industry is changing, the importance of the band’s relationship with its fans and their search for new ways to connect with us.

Aside from logistical questions about how access to in-person shows would work for those of us not US-based and the practicalities of livestreams scheduled for 5pm PST, which is 1am UK time, I’m struggling with the whole concept of payment for access.

I have no problem with the general idea of crowdfunding, or the Patreon type model. I know it can work well for creatives and fans alike. Spotify notoriously pay artists shockingly little for streaming their music, and other platforms aren’t much better. I pay for a Spotify account but I always try to support bands I listen to on there in other ways, especially if they are smaller or newish and haven’t got a massive record deal. I personally have signed up to Patreon and support a couple of smaller-scale musicians and have subscribed to a podcast to get extra content. I’m also a subscriber to Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women project which I strongly believe in. Today, on International Women’s Day, that kind of action is more meaningful and productive than posting some soon-forgotten social media meme. I also like the Bandcamp model of accessing music, where you can buy direct from the artists who get to keep more of the funds for themselves. Some have a “pay what you can” arrangement which allows fans to contribute according to their means. I like that there are these new and innovative ways to access and own content that artists produce that are less reliant on big corporations and offer more control to those who create the work.

The Airborne Toxic Event have been a firm favourite of mine for over 10 years, and exactly as Mikel says in his video, from the first time I heard them, I felt an instant connection to the music, the lyrics, the storytelling and the *vibe* of the band in general that ran deep. I absolutely understand why a band, especially a band like this would opt for such a venture. My instinct was to say yes, sign me up! And yet…I have reservations about the whole idea.

I’ve never had a large amount of disposable income. I put myself through 4 years of university then a Masters. In London. I worked in the voluntary sector for years, then in education. I gave up my salaried job to go freelance in a new career then 6 months later the pandemic hit. I have 2 kids and have been a single parent for the last 7 years. I’ve worked hard my whole life but have never had much spare cash at the end of the month. I don’t go out much, don’t drink or smoke or get frequent take-aways. I’m pretty frugal but the one thing I would happily spend any spare money on is music, whether that be buying albums, concert tickets or merchandise. But these are one-off expenses and if I was a bit skint I would buy the album but not the ticket, or the ticket but not a t-shirt. When you have limited funds you make judgments about which albums or gig tickets to buy. This can be more frequent in good times and something you sacrifice in hard times. The subscription model asks for a regular monthly payment, or an annual fee (often discounted compared to monthly but obviously a significantly larger amount in one go). This is quite a commitment. Each individual band might only ask for ~£10. Ok, so I’m a fan of TATE so I hand over my £10. But what if other bands I like adopt similar models? Then it’s another £10, then another £10 and before I know it there’s a financial commitment of £50 to £100 a month, which is just not feasible on my budget and nowhere near what I would have spent on music related things before. Does that mean I’m any less of a fan of those bands that I can’t afford to patronise? Not at all. Any less committed to supporting the band? Absolutely not. But it does mean that I’ve been priced out of offering my support and have become a 2nd class fan, while only those with the financial means get the privilege of higher-status super-fan.

It’s this idea of there being segregation among fans that doesn’t sit right with me. Those who can afford it get top tier access while those who can’t, miss out. The one good thing about going to gigs was that we were all in it together. Fans from all backgrounds could come together, put differences aside and enjoy the collective experience of being fans of the same band. Now with VIP access, early access, special areas, backstage passes etc for the select few, a 2-tier fandom has been created for the haves and the have-nots, separated by disposable income levels and not according to loyalty or enthusiasm.

Covid hit us all hard, and as we were locked down, staying at home and wanting to be entertained, most musicians and other performers were unable to make any kind of living. Furlough schemes often didn’t apply to them and as venues shut down, some of them for good, those in the creative industries were left without a living or a lifeline. Understandably, many have looked to these alternative means to earn an income. However, at a time when food prices are rising, energy prices are rising at an alarming rate, covid is still having an effect and we still don’t know the economic impact of the war between Russia and Ukraine, we are living in very uncertain times. Asking fans to make a regular commitment is, I think, asking too much.

So how do we square this? Musicians, bands and artists need to make a living in difficult times. They want to keep creating and sharing their work with fans. But if playing live, touring and international travel is going to continue to be affected by covid and/or war (ffs this is seriously a thing) in the coming months and years, they need to find a way to get that connection with fans back, as Mikel said. Fans want that connection too. We want to see our favourite bands perform, either live or recorded. We want them to create new music and be creatively fulfilled. We want them to continue to earn a living from their craft and we want to support them. I’m sure no band sets up such a subscription scheme with the aim of excluding a portion of their fandom, but they inevitably will. I’m sure they think that as long as some of their output is available in the traditional way that fans are still being served. However it really feels to me as though this is only going to create a system that is inherently unequal and unfair. The best music, live experiences and access to bands will end up behind a paywall and that is a very sad prospect indeed.

And don’t get me started on NFTs…

Strictly Come Dancing Live Tour, Glasgow Hydro, 6th February 2022

In the never ending hellstorm that is living in the UK at the moment, we all need moments of levity and escape. For us, on Sunday afternoon that took the shape of the Strictly Come Dancing live tour.

A quick wikipedia search suggests that the first series I properly watched was in 2012, meaning there’s been a good 10 years of Strictly in my life. My eldest child was very into it from a young age, and just as their interest waned the younger one became a fan – such is the life when your kids have a 4 year age gap. Even so, we continued to watch it as a family every year. Some series and contestants/pairings have been more memorable than others. The most recent series was a particularly good one, which prompted me to buy tickets for the tour for the first time. Both my kids and myself were drawn into the stories, the highs and lows, the drama and the glamour. It is good old-fashioned family entertainment. We don’t tend to watch things like that, we’ve never as a family watched Britain’s Got Talent or I’m a Celebrity or anything starring Ant & Dec. When the kids can agree to watch the same thing, they prefer movies or David Attenborough type programmes but generally have very different tastes. Even if we don’t always get to watch Strictly live, because they spend every 2nd weekend with their dad, there’s still something nice and wholesome about sitting down each week to watch something that’s full of joy, positivity and about trying your best at something and having fun, even if you’ve never done it before and you have 2 left feet. Or only 1 foot. Who cares, get all dressed up and shimmy your troubles away.

These past 2 years have robbed us of any feelings of excited anticipation. We haven’t been able to look forward to anything due to the constant threat of more restrictions, positive tests, cancellations. Every time I made tentative plans with my kids I always had to give them the speech about nothing being certain, things might change, we just don’t know. It was the same for this. I told them about the Strictly show just a few weeks ago and it was sad to see them stifle any excitement they would normally have displayed. When Omicron reared its head I expected this tour to be postponed but restrictions on indoor gatherings were lifted here recently. We took the recommended precautions, of course. I was pleased to see the vast majority of people also wearing masks and the venue had the air conditioning turned up to the max, to the point where I thought the air flow might blow me down on to the dance floor.

As usual when kids are involved, we were running a bit late, but made it to the Hydro just in time, only to find that doors hadn’t actually opened an hour before as planned and everyone was waiting in massive queues in the freezing cold outside. We joined the back of one line and thankfully things soon got moving. We found our seats just as the lights went down and the iconic music struck up. 

The Strictly dance floor in full swing

The set featured many, many glitterballs, the familiar curving stairs rising up either side with the 3 judges chairs in the middle. We had Shirley, Craig in a kilt, the return of Bruno. Sadly no Anton or Motsi. Janette Manrara was the host in a series of increasingly sparkly outfits. The format was similar to the tv series, with couples taking turns to perform dances, short chats with Janette afterwards, then judges comments. There were some group dances interspersed throughout. I for one could have done without the interviews after every dance. They all said pretty much the same thing – it’s great to be in Glasgow (cue cheers), I love dancing with my partner, it’s great to be on the tour etc etc. There were, however, some very funny moments and exchanges between Janette, the dancers and the judges. I’m not sure to what extent they were scripted and thus same for every show, but they were funny nevertheless.

At one point during the 2nd half the judges had us up on our feet and tried, with varying success, to get us all to follow them in a wee routine. The less said about our shimmies the better I think…

We got to vote for our favourites via text (up to 10 times at 25p a go) and a winner was declared at the end, although I think we all knew who it would be before anyone even stepped foot on the dance floor.

Rose Ayling-Ellis was the stand-out star of Strictly last year and the first deaf celebrity to take part. Strictly has always been ahead of the curve in terms of diversity. Jonnie Peacock was the first celebrity with a disability to join in 2017, followed by several other Paralympians and JJ Chalmers who was injured in Afghanistan. A professionals dance featured 2 male leads in 2019 and in 2020 the first same-sex female couple competed, although their stint was short-lived due to covid. The latest series had the first same-sex male partnership who made it all the way to the final. I knew of Rose from a couple of things she’s acted in but don’t watch Eastenders. Due to my job (I’m a sign language interpreter) I had a special interest in Rose’s participation and how Strictly would adapt to having a deaf competitor. The answer is they adapted very well indeed. There were sign language interpreters with Rose in training and on show nights, deaf awareness and BSL lessons were given to the cast and crew. Rose’s professional partner Giovanni obviously played a huge part in their success. Giovanni was the perfect pick for Rose, I remember when he was paired with Debbie McGee and rather than treating her like a novelty act he showed her nothing but respect and devised beautiful choreography that played to her strengths. with Debbie he often stepped back and let her dance alone, out front, be the focus (yeah I may have gone into a youtube wormhole, all in the name of research, obviously…) With Rose it was all about communicating through touch and body language, they became one unit. There’s a good article here on how he and Rose worked together. Rose is funny, warm and charming, Giovanni seemed to genuinely grow and learn from her and we all fell in love with them both. Their partnership and friendship was beautiful to watch, if you didn’t see their instagram videos you missed a treat, they were hilarious and I hope they manage to keep dancing together after the tour ends.

On the tour they performed their “couple’s choice” dance with it’s famous silent section and I held my breath throughout, as did most of the audience it seemed. Not a sound was heard from anyone in the near-capacity Hydro on that Sunday matinee which included a lot of children. We also saw their Tango, which in its own way I found just as moving. Intense, thoughtful and engaging, I could have watched them all day. Keeping with the theme of accessibility and inclusion, the tour had BSL interpreters at every single performance, rather than the usual 1 or 2, hopefully this is something they will continue after Rose’s involvement and other productions will learn from.   

Rose & Giovanni chatting with Janette after their tango, with BSL interpreter on the big screen

Unfortunately one of our favourite contestants from this year, John Whaite wasn’t performing that day due to illness and AJ was still suffering the effects of an injury picked up during the series so we were treated to seeing Maisie Smith from last year join with Kai. They were great but I was sad that Maisie wasn’t with her partner Gorka, but really only cos Gorka is one of my favourites.

A special mention has to be made of the live band and singers who were very impressive. Unlike on the telly, the singers came out on to the dance floor, became part of the performance, doing their own dance moves alongside the other performers. Particular credit to the drummer who had his moment of glory during a dance to “In the air tonight” and the singer who somehow managed to perform a flawless Kate Bush number while flat on her back on the floor.

There was Strictly merch on sale! Of course. J wanted to check it out and I was prepared for long queues and/or extortionate prices, but happily we found neither. Tshirts and hoodies were on sale at about the same rate you’d expect at a gig. J opted for a rainbow Strictly mug, S wasn’t interested, I think she was feeling a bit overwhelmed by this point and just wanted to get out.

Rainbow coloured Strictly Live mug

Unfortunately we weren’t to have a quick getaway, having parked in the notorious Hydro multistory car park, it took us over an hour of queueing to get out of the place. Thankfully it didn’t put a dampner on the afternoon, although the promise of a delivery from our favouite local pizza restaurant did help.

Both kids loved it, J immediately asked if we can go again next year. It is quite expensive, but if you are a Strictly fan it is definitely worth the money. You get to see your favourites (most of them) in action, they put on a proper show – with all the razzmatazz of the lights, flamethrower things and bucketloads of glitter and sparkles.

The whole Strictly Come Dancing operation is something to be treasured. At a time when the continued existence of the BBC is being threatened, it’s important to remember that, merch and 25p text votes aside, a programme full of uplifting positivity, inclusivity and representation and free from commercial interests and advertising could only be made by the BBC. They have created something magical, appealing to people of all ages that deliver important messages, open minds and be highly entertaining all at the same time. And if a deaf actor can discover a talent for dancing and lift a glitterball trophy, then who knows what the rest of us could achieve if only we take the chance to try.

A gig! A weird, emotional, awesome gig.

We Are Scientists, St Luke’s Glasgow, 1st December 2021

I went to a gig! An actual real life, in-person, proper gig! I cried a bit, took stock and had some self-realisations and saw things through new eyes. It was quite an evening.

This was my first gig since I saw Editors in March 2020 (yep, just squeezed one in there before it all went down!) First post-covid, wait, now there’s Omicron, first post-lockdown hmm let’s not be too hasty….first for a long time! My first gig should really have been Self Esteem aka Rebecca Taylor, ex Slow Club. I had a ticket but somehow hadn’t put it in my diary, so the gig came and went without me. I was disappointed, by all accounts she’s been storming this tour and puts on a great show, but was still covid-wary so thought maybe it was for the best. Then the date for We Are Scientists drew nearer and nearer. I’m still super covid-wary, I’ve been doing indoor stuff only when strictly necessary for work, I went to a restaurant for the first time just last week and we all had an LFT pact prior to meeting up. But it’s We Are Scientists!!! I don’t need to tell you how much I love this band. If I do, just search for previous posts and you’ll quickly get the idea. Even still, I swithered up to the last minute then decided to go for it, thinking I would most definitely regret it if I didn’t.

St Luke’s is a beautiful venue, a converted old church. The last time I was there was a very different affair, an all-seated show featuring Nerija as part of the Glasgow Jazz Festival. Unfortunately this time I arrived too late to catch all of support band Coach Party, I only heard their last couple of songs but they were really good and worth checking out if you haven’t heard of them. Once in, I initially lingered near the back thinking I would hang there, near the well ventilated door with the other masked people. I was there solo due to my usual gig buddies having other commitments or being not quite ready to delve back into gigs yet, so I felt a bit awkward at the back on my own. Then the Tall People made an appearance and I remembered why I usually go down the front. I didn’t want to spend my first gig in almost 2 years looking at the back of people’s heads. Or shoulders to be more accurate. I carefully crept forward wondering how far I would go, loitering here and there until a spot opened up on the barrier and I unashamedly grabbed it. Oh well, back in familiar territory!

I got speaking to 2 girls next to me, who were at their very first We Are Scientists gig. They were only 18 years old and had recently discovered the band. I thought that was incredible and was delighted for them. They thought it was incredible that I’d seen WAS 15 times over 10 years. (edit – it’s actually more like 18 times over 13 years. Yikes.) We agreed that new album Huffy is one of their best and they couldn’t wait to hear the songs. I promised them they’d sound even better live.

It was weird being in among a crowd of people again. My natural unsociability plus covid has meant that I’ve been even more solitary than usual of late, apart from my 2 kids. Sometimes that’s an active preference that I’m fine with, but sometimes I realise that it’s doing me more harm than good. I wrote a bit about this last year. Even those of us who aren’t gregarious or touchy-feely need some human contact. I hate crowds in any other place but am quite happy being squished on 3 sides by fellow gig-goers. It was nice to hear the chatter all around me of what gigs people had coming up, how they hated LFTs but would suffer the discomfort if it meant getting out again, how bloody freezing it was and can you believe it’s December already?

When the band came on the roar of the small crowd was better than music to my ears. Until the actual music started of course. They jumped straight into Huffy with “You’ve Lost Your Shit” and the girls I’d been speaking to lost their shit. I loved their reaction and enthusiasm. As the elderly veteran that I am, I forgot what it’s like to be new to the We Are Scientists experience. I’m always asking them to play more new stuff and ditch the older tunes (It’s a Hit can be canned first IMO) although I realise that they are likely wedded to playing Nobody Move and Great Escape at every show for all eternity. After 18 (19?) times I’m ready for the new songs, but seeing these girls utterly ecstatic at hearing the classics for the first time reminded me not to be so selfish and let the crowd enjoy the experience they came for. It was infectious and after scolding myself I sang along with the rest of them. It was enlightening and refreshing to witness the show through their eyes. And of course they agreed with me that the songs sounds even better live.

We got a good sampling of Huffy, some good old classics – Scene should be spared the oldies cull and in fact should be played at every gig – as well as some surprises in the form of KIT and Lousy Reputation. KIT was gorgeous and I’m glad it got an airing. They played Five Leaves and I almost lost it at that point, but managed to hold it together, just. The encore brought us the absolute delight that is Bought Myself a Grave. Honestly, if WAS decide to move entirely to country-rock ballads I’ll be there for it. Chris on vocals was awesome, for some reason Keith was cracking himself up laughing through the backing vocals towards the end, I’ve no idea why but it just made my grin even wider.

The crowd got quite lively as the gig went on, apparently there were shirts being removed behind me but I decided I could do without witnessing that spectacle. I loved how everyone sang along to all the Huffy songs, and my new friends gave it laldy singing the guitar parts too which amused me greatly.

It’s obvious to say that the last almost 2 years have been hard on everyone. We’ve all got our personal troubles and challenges and no-one knows what anyone else is really going through. While the lockdowns and restrictions etc have had their upsides – I’ve had some fantastic quality time with my kids – but I’m a single parent and one of my kids is going through a whole heap of things just now that makes it extra challenging for all 3 of us. Most of my time and energy is spent dealing with that and I’m exhausted and mentally drained all the time. The kids go to their dad’s every 2nd weekend and that used to be my “me” time, well after the housework and my coursework etc etc….but I used to go for cycles, play drums, meet friends, do projects around the house or garden. A few weeks ago I had a “free” weekend and realised that I couldn’t focus on anything, had no interest in anything and was just zoned out and disconnected from everything I used to enjoy doing. I made a decision to try to turn things around before I really spiralled out of control. I made some plans with friends, arranged to borrow a dog for the afternoon to go for a walk and started planning out my time to incorporate actual rests and time to recharge.

I’m not going to get back to my old self overnight, but small steps are important and going to this gig was a pretty massive step. I felt at home, I felt relaxed and for the first time in ages I could switch off from the worry and the to-do list and the frustration and just enjoy myself in the moment. I needed that so badly. And it had to be this band. This band who are so familiar, who always come through, who can make me laugh and cry and want to throw my arms in the air like I’m also 18, not 42. Immediately after the show, the reality of what I’d just experienced hit me. I couldn’t help but get a bit tearful. It’s a good job I was driving home, having to keep a clear head and eyes to focus on the road. If I’d been on the train I’m sure I would have been a blubbering mess.

Before I left I stopped by the merch stand and bought some We Are Scientists socks. Well, obviously I need them to go with my We Are Scientists underpants.

Does anyone talk about acid rain these days? Reflections on COP26 in Glasgow.

Well the circus has left town and things are getting back to normal in Glasgow. I couldn’t let COP26 happen on my doorstep and not write a few words about it.

I was lucky enough to attend the rally in Glasgow Green and some of the allied events organised under the banner of the “people’s summit” that brought community, interest and activist groups together in spaces all over the city to discuss different aspects of the climate crisis. It wasn’t the main event in the guarded Zones, I wasn’t rubbing shoulders with Prime Ministers or Presidents but it was a fascinating experience nonetheless.

It was great to be back in amongst campaigners. I used to be heavily involved in Amnesty International and took part in many efforts to raise awareness, change policies and protest injustices. I recognised the type of people involved and felt not only a solidarity with them, but a familiarity. Whilst the majority were young people, I was glad to see some older hands there and was pleased when one panellist called on these campaign veterans to share their expertise. Older women who fought against sex discrimination, against nuclear weapons, against apartheid whose values have never wavered despite struggle after struggle and who have a wealth of experience in community organising. Older men whose outer frailness belies the strength of their determination to fight for workers’ rights, for a fair and free society, who have picketed and striked more often than they care to remember but still they turn up and hold a banner and stand for that which they believe is just.

Rally in Glasgow Green

I met people from Lithuania, Portugal, Laos, indigenous people from the Americas and activists from Nigeria. Speakers and panellists from all over the world spoke passionately, eloquently and persuasively about aspects of climate change that meant the most to them. They lead us in chants, they lead us in song, they encouraged, inspired and uplifted. They begged and they pleaded. Their stories were complex but their solutions are simple. Consume less, burn less, destroy less. Consider others. Put people before profit.

I heard a lot of talk about young people. Listen to young people. Think of young people. Young people are the future. All that is good and true, but the issues at stake aren’t new. When I was a child in the 80s we were very aware of environmental issues. We campaigned to save the whales. We learned that an area of the Amazon the size of Wales was being destroyed every year. Pesticides and other chemicals were being banned and deemed harmful to the ecosystem. We were obsessed with acid rain and the Ozone layer. Chernobyl happened. We were aware. We spoke up. We wrote letters and made posters and joined Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth. We were aware. The politicians in charge today, the company bosses and financiers, they were most likely children in the 80s. They are aware. They have been aware their whole lives.

I saw a clip on Twitter from George Monbiot which pretty much summed it up. The excerpt is here:

“There is no economic barrier standing in the way, there is no technological barrier standing in the way, the only thing which stops them from doing what they need to do is the lack of political will.”

We can gather, we can march, protest, chant, sing, shout as much as we want but it will make very little difference. Joining groups which share your values is a good step. You feel less alone, like you are actually doing something. But that isn’t enough. We have to consume less and consume smarter. Support local and ethical and sustainable companies. Educate ourselves. Vote for politicians who share your values and continue to put pressure on those who don’t.

I said that we’ve been aware of the issues longer than I’ve been alive, but when I was a child everyone smoked and nobody ever drank water. Now we agree that smoking is pretty much the worst thing you can do to your body and kids are sent to school with water bottles to help them study. We have learned to take better care of our bodies, hopefully we can now take care of our planet.

COP26 was the biggest event to happen in this city since the Commonwealth Games in 2014. Whilst there was the same air of hospitality, celebration and energy as 7 years ago, there were also questions as to whether Glasgow is really equipped to cope with such a huge international event. Many local people only saw inconvenience. Road closures, transport disruptions, streets barricaded, shops, restaurants and venues off-limits and a massive police and security presence the likes of which I’m sure has never been seen here before.

Some said it was a waste of time. Why can’t they do it virtually? I certainly understand the concerns about holding a mass event in on ongoing pandemic (yes, it is still ongoing) but these talks do have to be done in person, in real life. The speeches from stages, platforms and podiums inside the main arena aren’t what shapes the ultimate decisions or agreements. These are negotiated by people running from room to room in the back corridors and small meeting rooms. Delegations rely on a quiet word and exchange here, a chance encounter and hastily seized opportunity there to develop the plans, bargains and language that goes into the drafts that are produced. That kind of thing can’t happen remotely in a virtual space.

Why Glasgow? I have no idea. The cynic in me suggests it’s a Tory unionist ploy. See, stay part of the UK and we’ll give you all these big shiny things! Either way, I think it’s a good thing that these events don’t always happen in London. The decentralising of power is generally to be welcomed. Saying that, I live near Glasgow Airport and there were so many wee aeroplanes and helicopters buzzing about our skies for the whole 2 weeks that it seemed entirely counter-productive to the whole theme of the affair.

When Glasgow hosted the Commonwealth Games it came along with various associated sporting and active lifestyle initiatives, anniversary events etc. I hope the same happens after COP26. There’s certainly been more attention given to it here because it has been on our doorstep – my older child’s school did a whole theme day on the first Friday for example, and it’s been headline news every single day which most certainly doesn’t happen when COPs are hosted elsewhere. I’m not sure if there are plans for COP26 legacy events but I sincerely hope so.

My take-away? I have more questions now than answers. I leaned that much that seems good is actually harmful. Initiatives that plant trees? Not if they are the wrong type of tree. Protecting animals in reserves? Not if people can’t get access to their traditional lands. Hydro-electric dams as an alternative to fossil fuels? Not if they cause rivers to stagnate depriving local people of traditional fishing and travel and result in algae which releases methane. So I need to learn more. More about “greenwashing” and the multi-faceted nature of all these issues. I need to learn more about not only what I as an individual in the UK can do (a little more about that can be found here), but how I can support those in other countries. I need to learn more about the various campaign and activist groups and support them either through work or volunteering.  

They say “Glasgow” means “Dear Green Place”. I hope history will be kind to the Glasgow COP, both in terms of any progress made worldwide as a result of the agreements and in how our city and Scotland as a whole takes this as a jumping off point to do better, go further, be Greener than ever before.

March nearing Glasgow Green