Monday, 30 March 2009

Pooh's a wee bitty glaikit ...

Peering over his coffee cup, James Robertson is talking in a strange, slow voice. He sounds something like Eeyore might sound, if only Eeyore was from the West of Scotland and not the Hundred Acre Wood. And not called Eeyore at all but Heehaw.

“Heehaw has a dour, preachy voice, like Private Fraser from Dad's Army,” Robertson chuckles. “He says: ‘Guid mornin', Pooh Bear ... If it is a guid mornin' ... And I hae ma doots.'”

This strange and wonderful Eeyore is being conjured up in an Edinburgh café because Robertson has made it his business to translate the works of A.A. Milne into Scots. If it seems an unlikely task for an author whose most recent work - the darkly comic The Testament of Gideon Mack - was longlisted for the Booker Prize, he believes that his output in Scots is just as important as his writing in English.

Robertson wants to make reading more appealing to children whose everyday language - or dialect if you will - is Scots rather than English and seven years ago, with Matthew Fitt, he founded Itchy Coo press to do just that. At first they commissioned original titles, but more recently they have turned to translations of popular authors as their means of reaching the widest audience.

Combining the original illustrations with warm, comical texts, books such as The Eejits - Fitt's version of Roald Dahl's The Twits - have been an instant hit in Scotland. “Doing it in Scots gave it a new dimension. People said, ‘This is funny; we feel this is closer to us than the original',” Robertson says.

When, two years ago, someone suggested translating Winnie-the-Pooh he sensed a challenge. Was it possible to take a book that he knew and admired as “quintessentially southern English”, transform it and give it more meaning to a child on a council estate in Aberdeen?

He found the answer to the question when he started on the first chapter: “Yon's Edward Bear, comin doon the stair noo, dunch, dunch, dunch on the back o his heid ...”

The work developed as a kind of homage to Milne, but inevitably Robertson produced a different book. “Scots slants the story in a different direction. As soon as you make a movement in the language, you also shift the tone and register of the narrative,” he says.

Sometimes the translator has to take liberties. Pooh's song Cottleston Pie becomes “Bannocks and Bridies and Buttery Bree”. Completely different, Robertson admits, but “it is a translation of the mood, of the sense of the book, not to be literally correct but to my mind it is an accurate, creative translation.”

Inspiration comes from the characters' voices, which Robertson delights in saying out loud. Pooh sounds slow and “a wee bitty glaikit”, a bear of very little brain in any language. Robertson calls Piglet Wee Grumphie (“grumphie” is pig in Scots) and he remains squeaky and excitable; Owl - Hoolet - sounds like “a professor of some esoteric subject” who would lecture his students in English but subside into a kind of posh Scots in his Morningside flat.

Kanga and Roo were difficult. Robertson thought of writing in a weird Australian-Scots, but decided “that was pushing the boundaries a bit too far” and stuck to plain Scots for Kanga. For the most part Roo just squeaks, which “works just fine”.

Even the unseen characters have an identity in Scots. Woozles remain woozles because “they seemed Scottish enough” but Heffalumps transform into huffalamps, because “lamp” in Scots means “to stride”, and the new word made a kind of sense.

Subtle changes such as this work brilliantly on the page. In the English edition Piglet wonders why a Heffalump would fall into Pooh's trap. In Scots, Pooh tells him: “... the Huffalamp micht be lampin alang, bummin awa at a wee sang tae himsel, and keekin up at the sky, wunnerin if it wis gonnae rain, and sae he widna see the Awfie Deep Pit, tae he wis haufwey doon it ...”

The sequel is published next year, The Hoose at Pooh's Neuk. It will introduce Tigger, who, in Milne's words, does bounce, however much you like him. “Teeger?” Robertson says. “He's a breengin bampot.” Which sounds about right.

Winnie-the-Pooh in Scots by A. A. Milne, translated by James Robertson, Itchy Coo, £6.99

Read the story online in Saturday's paper: Pooh in Scots. And buy the book - it's fantastic - at Itchy Coo.

Proof of ghosts or dust on the lens?

A courtly figure dressed in a ruff and staring from a castle window would not be particularly unusual if he appeared in a period painting. But this image was captured on a digital camera some 500 years after the Elizabethan era and has for thousands of people around the world become the ultimate proof that ghosts exist.

The photograph, taken at Tantallon Castle near Edinburgh last May, was released yesterday by Professor Richard Wiseman, a psychologist, who “just for fun” embarked three weeks ago on an online research project, inviting websurfers to send him their photos of ghosts.

The response, he said, was “beyond all expectation”. Hundreds of images were sent his way, from as far afield as Mexico and Japan. Then, after 50 of the best images were placed online, some 250,000 people voted for the most convincing.

The array of smudged photographs and crazy fakes that caught the interest of this huge audience may do little to prove the existence of ghosts, but it indisputably proves a human need to believe in them, said Professor Wiseman, of the University of Hertfordshire. “That belief is everywhere, across countries and cultures. It plays on much bigger ideas about life and death, and there's no doubt that, for many of the people who contacted me, there is comfort in the notion that people who have been harmed in life might be able to come back and wreak their revenge.”

In Britain around a third of people say that they believe in ghosts and one in ten claims to have seen one. Proof, however, remains elusive.

One explanation put forward by ghost hunters and some physicists is that in some environments low frequency sound waves - infrasound — vibrate the body, and lead to strange sensations. While Professor Wiseman does not rule that out, he believes that psychology may have a better answer, particularly in oppressive and frightening surroundings such as a ruined castle.

“In the hypervigilance model, as you become scared, you become more on edge. You begin to monitor you own environment and your own physiology,” he said. “In those circumstances, if you hear a sound like a creaking door, it only heightens your own sense of vigilance. The spiral goes on and you might easily have a panic attack.

“From an evolutionary perspective, all this is sensible, because it is comparable to a situation in the "normal world" where you might come under attack. But in these oppressive surroundings, the seemingly inexplicable becomes very worrying and you begin to look for other explanations.”

Read the full story here at the ghost link

The Tantallon ghost ran in the national edition of the Times and for 24 hours it was the most popular stoy in the online edition, followed-up all over the world.

Brave bomb disposal expert deserves VC

The Times, 5 March 2008

Friends of an army bomb disposal expert whose extraordinary courage saved dozens of lives in Afghanistan and Iraq are campaigning for him to be awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.

Warrant Officer Class 2 Gary O'Donnell, 40, was killed in Helmand province last September while attempting to disarm an improvised explosive device (IED). Yesterday he was awarded a second George Medal, or Bar, the first presentation of its type for 26 years, in recognition of two incidents in May and July, when “he placed himself in immense personal danger in order to protect his comrades”.

James Boyle, a former controller of BBC Radio 4 and a family friend of Warrant Officer O'Donnell, said that everyone who had known the soldier felt a deep pride in his life and achievements. But, Mr Boyle added, many of these same friends “knew Gary deserved the highest military honour - the VC”.

The Ministry of Defence said that the VC was presented “for valour and self sacrifice ... in the presence of the enemy”. Mr Boyle said that no soldier who had worked in bomb disposal had won the medal, because they were not seen as combat troops. “Bomb disposal personnel simply cannot get the highest award because for all their humbling bravery, their work isn't seen to fit the description. Gary was constantly putting his life on the line and on one occasion, when he was defusing a bomb, he detected a guy trying to detonate the thing by using his mobile phone. That is how close he was to the presence of the enemy,” Mr Boyle said.

In that incident Warrant Officer O'Donnell had gone in to inspect and defuse a bomb, after a robotic reconnaissance device had failed in the searing heat, Mr Boyle said. He became aware that an attempt was being made to trigger the device by a terrorist, who was in a nearby crowd, being held back by troops. Lead screens around the device are thought to have deflected the signal.

On another occasion, Warrant Officer O'Donnell prevented an explosion that would have killed him, by jamming his fingers into a closing clothes peg, designed to detonate a landmine.

Warrant Officer O'Donnell's Bar follows the medal he won for disposing of a highly complex, innovative IED in Iraq while working with the Joint Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group in 2006.

A senior army officer said: “What he used to do was ridiculously brave. He went far beyond the call of duty.”

Although field commanders make recommendations for awards, they do not have the final say. An MoD spokesman said: “These are then screened at various levels in the military chain of command and passed to a committee comprised of the most senior military chiefs with operational experience, who decide the appropriate awards.”

Campaigners may face a long fight. The VC is the highest military award in the armed services for gallantry under fire, and an equivalent medal, the George Cross, is made to both military personnel and civilians who have shown great courage in highly dangerous situations.

The George Cross was inaugurated by George VI, who was moved by the courage of civilians during the Blitz of 1940. Subsequently, 105 of 156 George Crosses have been awarded to military personnel.

Mr Boyle said that it was time for this military tradition to be overturned. Shortly after Warrant Officer O'Donnell's death last September, he wrote to Des Browne, then Secretary of State for Defence, and to the military authorities to make the case.

Mr Boyle wrote: “May I ask directly if you will consider awarding a posthumous VC to Warrant Officer O'Donnell? This highest of medals is for valour. I cannot think of any case I have ever read about where such sustained valour has been surpassed.”

Warrant Officer O'Donnell was from Edinburgh and lived in Leamington Spa with his wife, Toni, and four children. The MoD said that he had been recommended for the Bar in “recognition of his remarkable actions in two separate incidents. On both occasions Warrant Officer O'Donnell, who during his last tour in Afghanistan disposed of more than 50 IEDs, placed himself in immense personal danger in order to protect his comrades.”

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Gates funds intelligent aid to farmers

A donation of £17 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will enable an Edinburgh-based charity to set out this year to halt the spread of some of the most virulent livestock diseases in the developing world, armed with a war chest of vaccines and medicines.

In Galvmed's sights are 13 feared killers, including avian influenza, swine fever and Rift Valley fever, which in 2007 claimed 325 human lives in Kenya, Tanzania and Somalia, along with the deaths of tens of thousand of animals.

The charity's first campaign, which is already underway, is aimed at East Coast Fever a disease endemic in 11 African countries, and responsible for the deaths of 1.1 million cattle every year. The combined value of this devastation is estimated at $168 million, a loss carried by many inhabitants of some of the poorest nations on Earth.

Conditions could be undeniably difficult, said Hameed Nuru, a Botswanan vet who is the charity's director of policy and external affairs. Even in war-zones it was important that livestock was protected to ensure that many farmers were not thrown even deeper into poverty.

“We have to include livestock issues in the aid package, and look at how to give people a start, to rebuild. This is a difference between what we are doing and the aid which is given because people have to eat, because it is emergency. We see it in holistic terms: give a man a fish, he eats for one meal, teach him how to fish and he eats for his lifetime.” said Dr Nuru.

The full story is here: Galvmed

I haven't posted here for a couple of weeks but over that time, one or two vaguely amusing stories have made into the paper. The argument over parking charges in Tobermory, for example.

If you're only on this site because you're a spaced-out PR executive from Seattle, you possibly won't know that Tobermory is the principal 'town' (population 700) on a Scottish island called Mull, beautiful, calm, peaceful, the kind of place where traffic policemen and parking attendants are unknown and unnecessary. Until some bureaucrat in a faraway office decides: "What they need is a parking attendant..."

More here: Tobermory.

In the next story I get to sit in a very fast car while it is driven very fast around a test track. It's a very fuel efficent vehicle and could yet save the planet, but I can exclusively reveal that it doesn't provide a cure for motion sickness. Here it is: Hybrid.