July 9, 2016

Keir Bloomer, Doctor of the University


"Keir Bloomer is one of the leading authorities in Scottish educational policy and practice"

Thus began Mark Laing's laudation yesterday, in the ceremony at the Usher Hall that gave Keir the degree of Doctor of the University, honoris causaThe award was "for services to Scottish education and for his significant contribution to the strategic development of Queen Margaret University".

For nine years he has served the University Court, from 2011-16 as its Chair. In his acceptance speech, he admitted to having put in many more hours than for his first degree. Mark, who is Vice-Chair of the Court, commented particularly upon Keir's "incisive and self-deprecating sense of humour ... [and how he] somehow managed to leave everyone feeling that their view had carried the day".


Here is Petra Wend, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, making her thoughtful address to all the graduands. She congratulated them and their families gracefully, and also emphasised the importance of personal qualities, not merely academic achievement. She stressed the importance of self-confidence and adaptability, and of being able to admit calmly when you don't know. She didn't refer explicitly to impostor syndrome, but this article has good advice on how to handle it. It is more prevalent than you think.

If Keir was suffering from impostor syndrome, he didn't reveal it. It was an unreservedly happy occasion, enhanced by having daughter and sister-in-law, Lindsay, present. Here he is afterwards in our garden, with Helen:


June 16, 2016

Kraków: a quintessentially European city

Kraków is a quintessentially European city. Firmly in eastern Europe, in latitude about halfway between Warsaw and Budapest, it reminded me of Europe's turbulent 20th century history at every street corner. I hadn't been there since 1970, when it was challenging to reach, closely controlled from Moscow by the Soviet regime. But even so, we managed somehow to see Da Vinci's "Lady with an ermine", the most important painting in Poland, and a potent symbol of Renaissance Europe.


I returned to Kraków this week, flying easily from Edinburgh by easyJet, to see printers whose 4 million-euro printing presses sounded suited to Rucksack Readers' needs. Capitalism is alive and well in Poland, with retail parks, shopping malls and global brands. The contrast from 46 years ago was remarkable.

Traditional and modern jostle in stark contrast. Touts try to tempt you to sightseeing rides in Krakow's old town in white coach-and-pairs pulled by richly decorated horses - failing which, how about a Segway? Its transport stops feature LED information boards that accurately predict ancient trams with welcome low fares (from about 80p). But Kraków still has the largest market square in all Europe, with its medieval Cloth Hall and an hourly bugle call from St Mary's Basilica - from the higher of its two towers, below left:


Inside St Mary's is an extraordinarily colourful interior, and its colossal altar is by Veit Stoss, constructed between 1477 and 1489, made of painted oak and linden wood and undergoing painstaking refurbishment.


Tourism is everywhere in the centre, but some destinations are sombre reminders of the Holocaust: Schindler's factory, the Jewish Ghetto and Auschwitz-Birkenau.  But Poland is an EU member, German is widely spoken and Poland is Germany's most important trading partner. As a country, it has turned its face decisively towards Germany and the West, away from Russia.

The colleague I went to meet is Polish by nationality, but he has strong family connections to Austria. He is just old enough to remember how, as a child, visa requests to Austria had had to be made six months ahead, and the journey took several days because of delays at both borders. Nowadays, such visits can be made impromptu, and the journey takes him less than four hours.

After finishing my business, I visited Wawel Royal Castle where for centuries Polish kings were crowned. I went around the Wawel cathedral with the Chopin medallion in its crypt and statues of local hero and saint, John Paul II. Most satisfyingly, I managed to revisit the Da Vinci portrait - one of very few surviving oil paintings. The Duke of Milan commissioned it in 1490 as an allegory of his love of his young mistress, Cecilia Galleriani. The portrait still has great freshness and its realistic lighting seems to illuminate its attractive 17-year old subject in three dimensions.

And after a dinner that compensated for having missed lunch, I still had time for the Chopin concert, in Legendary Wierzynek on the Market Square. Performed by graduates of Kraków and Katowice Music Acadamies, these recitals are given daily. Agnieszka Kawula looked young enough to be my grandchild, but she gave a spectacular performance, technically brilliant but musically mature.

And if I hadn't already felt strongly that the UK should remain in Europe, my visit to Kraków would have left me in no doubt.

May 26, 2016

Delighted damp dog


This is two-year-old Toby, the epitome of joy. Here is the extreme, exuberant delight of a damp dog who has just been swimming in the Clyde. His afternoon pack walk included a couple of Newfies, his pals Penny and Luka, and half a dozen other dogs. His swim took him out of his depths for the first time ever, and he is very pleased with himself.

Blithely carefree and happy-go-lucky to a fault, he makes us laugh and gets us out of doors to walk and talk. What more can you want of a dog?

Profound thanks to Cowal Canine Services, who not only provided the dog care and the photo, but also thus allowed me to go sailing on the Holy Loch with my friends on a sunny afternoon.



February 21, 2016

Ethan, echolocation and exceptional talent


Ethan, aged 10, lives in Glasgow and has exceptional musical talent, memorising a Beethoven piano sonata movement before he was 4 years old - although his hands were then too small to play the octaves, his mother explained. Now he plays Rachmaninov preludes, and his own compositions - listen here (all photos courtesy of BBC Radio 4's Seriously documentaries). So when he won a place at St Mary's Music School in Edinburgh against stiff competition, he faced a challenging daily journey from home in Glasgow, by train across central Scotland to Haymarket station, finally to the school at Coates Hall. In today's world, many 10-year-olds would find that challenging. And Ethan had been home schooled all his life, because Ethan has been blind since birth.


This colossal challenge meant that Ethan needed help. Enter Daniel Kish, an American adult who has been blind since birth. He has developed an extraordinary form of echolocation using tongue-clicks, which he teaches to other blind people to help them to navigate the unseen world. He uses subtle variations in the click-echoes to detect the shapes and locations of obstacles. Watch him in action, identifying playground equipment, distant buildings and a tall tree here. It's uncanny - as if he has learned to see through his ears.

The story of how Daniel taught Ethan to navigate through the external world and around St Mary's was told on radio last Sunday in the Seriously series: listen here to the full story of Batman and Ethan. Daniel's teaching of Ethan includes a challenging climb of Dumyat (a 418-m peak in the Ochils), and promotes enormous independence and self-confidence. It culminates with his solo performance at the school concert. The whole programme was written, produced and presented by my talented niece Helena Merriman.

October 13, 2015



The singular title is a clue: this film is the story of one woman, not of the fragmented, divisive factions that comprised the suffragette movement. Maud Potts was a poor working woman, lacking any of the resources of the affluent Pankhurst family. Played persuasively by Carey Mulligan (above, courtesy of Allstar/Focus Features), she worked in a Bethnal Green laundry in punishing conditions. The photography of early 20th century London scenes is credible and compelling, and it makes a thought-provoking evening viewing, albeit with some violence that is uncomfortable to watch. But it happened.

The film is splendidly crafted, with great supporting actors including Meryl Streep, Anne-Marie Duff and Helena Bonham-Carter. The screenplay, production and direction seem to be all-female but this is not a strident film, it is sober, factual, some might say almost "masculine" in its approach.

The film charts Maud's somewhat haphazard recruitment into the women's movement and how she is radicalised by brutal treatment in that male-dominated world. Her transformation from downtrodden wife and worker to effective campaigner exacts a terrible price, which she pays through her husband's savage reaction, the removal of her son, her imprisonment and violent force-feeding.

The film culminates with Maud as a witness to Emily Davison's still-controversial death in a last-minute decision at the 1913 Derby. Although this attracted worldwide press attention, arguably it wasn't until women had worked so hard in World War 1 that male political opinon started to shift. In 1918, a minority of women were given votes, but it wasn't until 1928 that British women gained suffrage on equal terms with men.

In a world that has now largely accepted women not only as voters, but also as political leaders, movie-goers may be baffled to learn that male prejudice was so deeply entrenched, so recently.  But countries such as Switzerland and Portugal caught up with equal suffrage only in the 1970s, and in South Africa black women (along with black men) were enfranchised only in 1994. In Saudi Arabia, the first women registered to vote in August 2015.

If you are female and haven't always used your vote, please watch this film. If you are male, please watch it whether you vote or not. It tells a very important story that deserves to be remembered.

September 12, 2015

Ingliston Revival: Sandy Bloomer on radio and TV


Yesterday began by listening to son Sandy on Good Morning Scotland, speaking about the Ingliston Revival that he and his team organised for this weekend. The track opened 50 years ago and became Scotland's main centre for motor racing. It hosted many powerful cars and famous drivers, including Jackie Stewart and the late Jim Clark, before it closed in 1994.

The weekend is not about racing, however, but more a festival to celebrate motor sport and Ingliston's history. The public will be able to drive on this newly renovated track in a choice of cars. Sandy's interview will be on iPlayer for the next 28 days here: scroll along to 1 hour 56 minutes and catch the next four minutes.

Later he was on STV's Fountainbridge Show: there is footage of his interview and of the cars in action from about minute 5 to minute 7, but available for only a few more days.


The day ended with a spectacular dinner, with speeches by Lee McKenzie (BBC's Formula One reporter) and Ben Collins (Top Gear's original Stig) who arrived in style by helicopter. We were lucky enough to have the wonderful racing driver Tom Brown on our table, with his daughter Fiona who runs Cambuslang Karting. The auction raised thousands of pounds for the Jim Clark Trust, and this event looks set to be an annual success.


September 2, 2015

The grandest mass of all


Of all the requiems in the classical repertoire, Berlioz's is the grandest. Entitled Grand Messe des Morts, it was composed for performance in 1837 in the huge church of Les Invalides (photograph courtesy of Victor Grigas). It demands resources on a enormous scale and, as a result, it is seldom performed. It is scored for a full orchestra (including four sets of timpani) and enhanced by four off-stage brass bands, a full chorus and solo tenor. We know this music well from listening to the LSO recording on CD, and were intrigued to know how the live performance would differ (Usher Hall, 22 August). The answer is night and day.

We were lucky enough to be sitting in the Grand Circle, where three of the four brass bands (trumpets, trombones and a tuba) were stationed in the aisles, the fourth aloft in the organ gallery. The effect of the brass ensembles in the Dies Irae and Rex tremendae was electrifying. No recording can convey the spine-tingling excitement of these relays of fanfares which build the sense of drama, doom and torment.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra with precision and economy, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus celebrated their 50 years by singing their hearts out and the tenor soloist Lawrence Brownlee was splendid. How terrifying it must be to sit waiting for so long for the Sanctus before starting to sing. Berlioz' orchestration is wonderfully varied and this music has been ringing in my ears ever since.

The evening led to reflections of a different kind, about how delicate the Festival organisers' financial balancing act must be. Even if you discount the excellent vounteers of the Festival Chorus, the number of professional musicians in the Berlioz is daunting: conductor, tenor soloist, chorus master and an orchestra of 120 musicians. Yet the Festival has to sell this concert at the same ticket prices as the previous evening, when pianist Lang Lang filled the Usher Hall: number of professional musicians just one!

August 21, 2015

Closing the gap in Scottish education: is it possible?


Gary Robertson (photo courtesy of the BBC) interviewed Keir on Good Morning Scotland yesterdayday, shortly after he talked to Larry Flanagan (EIS) and before Iain Gray (Labour Party spokesman for education). Now that Nicola Sturgeon has proposed that her government be judged by its success in "closing the gap", there has been a flurry of interest in Keir's comments on this issue. On yesterday's phone-in with Kaye Adams, there was also plenty of confusion about what it actually means.

He is talking about the attainment gap between pupils from areas of deprivation and poverty compared with those from affluent areas. The easiest way to do it, wholly unacceptably of course, would be to dumb down or hold back pupils with greater educational success. To some extent the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence and limitation of the number of Highers has already done this, albeit by accident. The hardest time to close the gap is when you are already committed to improving the attainment of all pupils. As Keir pointed out, abolishing the gap (the First Minister's declared goal) would means improving the performance of the weakest pupils at an astonishingly fast rate.

He reminds us that children from poorer areas are already a full year behind the more favoured pupils before they even start school. Given the failure of various honest attempts to "close the gap" in Scottish education over the past 70-odd years, Nicola Sturgeon has certainly taken on a massive challenge. The programme is available via iPlayer here and Keir's interview  lasts for five minutes, starting after about 1 hour and 37 minutes.

August 20, 2015

Seven: music, movement and Mahler


Seven was a brilliant combination: the RSNO playing Mahler's 7th symphony and the extraordinary Ballett am Rhein performing modern dance, on occasion ensemble but mostly a series of vignettes, in close and poignant sympathy with the music. Some episodes were ardently romantic, others violent and disturbing, all beautifully danced by this wonderfully talented corps. Their footwear ranged from barefoot to en pointe to (surprlsingly) leather-booted. Enjoy a sample of this tour de force on YouTube.

Martin Schläpfer, when he took over Ballett am Rhein in 2009, abolished the traditional hierarchy within a dance corps: all 47 dancers are treated and paid equally, and this was manifest in the distribution of roles and curtain calls. The dancers were full of grace and virtuosity, and the unbroken 90-minute performance was enthralling. Schläpfer was inspired by World War 2 and referred to Jewishness and exclusion in his interview, but says "in order not to become pretentious, you have to stay abstract". 

Judith Mackrell (The Guardian) was patronising in her praise:

Schläpfer choreographs in blunt emphatic bursts that illuminate the surface of the score but not its architecture. As a result, Seven doesn't add up to a truly compelling interpretation. I sometimes wished the music, played with brio by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, could be left to do the storytelling on its own.

I find that a very pretentious criticism: she wants choreography that "illuminates the architecture of the score" and if she doesn't realise that her metaphor mixes media as well as meanings, she should perhaps just have closed her eyes and enjoyed the RSNO's performance. We kept our eyes open and found the synergy superlative.

Postscript: I am pleased to see that the Scotsman's Kelly Apter is much more generous here.

August 18, 2015

Festival Figaro


A few days ago we caught the opening night of Figaro in which Ivan Fischer conducted the Budapest Festival Orchestra and directed a fine cast of singers: we were expecting a concert performance but actually this was an innovative "staged concert", with playful comedy and intelligent supra-titles. Hugh Canning (Sunday Times) was later very dismissive of the "rudimentary production" and "ugly costumes" but I disagree with him. Fischer placed the orchestra on-stage, instead of in a pit. By involving himself and the instrumentalists in the action, he fused music with drama. As he said "Mozart's music is extremely theatrical and his theatre is extremely musical"

The plot of Figaro is full of mutations (gender, countess to maid, boy to soldier) and implausible changes of costume and identity. Mozart operas are normally played po-faced, but this was a brilliant reminder that "opera buffa" is meant to be funny. I don't remember audience laughter-out-loud in any previous Figaro, and this production felt authentic. The orchestra and singers were splendid, with a specially memorable countess in Miah Persson (photo courtesy of www.wsj.com).

And tonight we have just enjoyed the Budapest Festival Orchestra again playing Mozart's Requiem. Miah Persson starred again as the soprano soloist and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus were magnificent. The range of styles in his final masterpiece is extraordinary, ranging from old-school vocal counterpoint and fugue (Kyrie eleison) to the more operatic treatment of Dies irae and the lyrical Benedictus. It was a convincing demonstration that this orchestra does serious Mozart extremely well, too.

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