Resolutions and Such

It's that time of year when all Bloggers are obliged to write a post about their New Year's Resolutions and I don't feel able to buck that trend.

Resolutions are strange things. The very word, "resolution", somehow seems to invite failure. At what other time of the year do we set ourselves impossible goals, possibly compiling a formal list, in the expectation that failure will have utterly engulfed them within hours?

Realistically, what we are talking about could more properly be styled "goals", "aims", "aspirations", or "hopes". If you have been trying to lose weight for the last twenty years, it seems somehow unlikely that resolving to do it at the end of December is going to have more effect this year than it did in either of the last two decades. Better to take the view that you hope to lose weight, than to burden yourself with all that unnecessary resolving. Either that, or get a gastric band.

So, what are my hopes for the forthcoming twelve months?

When I rhetorically pose that question, I am clearly setting aside my desires for weight loss, dancing ability and wealth beyond imagination. This is a blog. Blog related resolutions are the utterly unsalacious limits of my pondering.

What I would like to do over the year is to get a handle on the various aspects of the technology which is at my disposal in a more consistent manner. When I started Aiblins up again, it was with the assistance of Posterous - a remarkable and remarkably straightforward blogging platform. Through its easy systems everything from the most simplistic blog (just take a look around you) to podcasting, via clipping and sharing becomes incredibly easy. As a result, I actually have a suite of sites including Aiblins itself, a link sharing site, The Aiblins Pulse and now a sort of email list site, The Aiblins Connection.  My aspiration for 2011 is therefore to try to bring some sort of order to my digital life and to use my (limited) powers only for good. There is a lot of technology out there and I have spectacularly failed to use it properly. The couple of regular readers will recall that I threatened to start an Ulster-Scots podcast last year and it never quite happened. I'm not promising that it will make the cut this year, but who knows.

The problem with all of this stuff - and with resolutions in general - is time.

There just don't seem to be enough hours in the day. I can't quite understand how that could possibly be the case. As the years have gone by and our houses have become ever more crammed with labour saving technology and gadgetry, we have all seemingly become "time poor". Perhaps we are now spending much more time reading instruction manuals.

When growing up I clearly recall my mother holding down a demanding job, dealing with my brother and me (and my father, of course) and running the household pretty much single-handed. This was in the days when the height of domestic labour saving was the twin tub which has long since passed into history. If she could manage, how can our generation possibly be giving off about being rushed off our feet?

And yet we do.

So is formed the secondary resolution.

Stop moaning about being really busy and try to remember that, recession permitting, things really aren't so bad.

If that one lasts past week one, I'll be surprised. And my wife will be delighted.

So, dear reader, Happy New Year to you and your family. May 2011 bring you all that you hope for, within the confines of that which is both legal and moral.

A Day at the Beach

On one of the coldest and most un-road-friendly days of the year, the obvious thing to do was to take a road trip with my brother to the North Coast.

The reasons for this act of supreme foolishness are too mundane to repeat but it did give us the opportunity to catch up over a cuppa in 55 North and gave me a chance to frustrate yet another family member by (as he observed) "stopping every 10 paces to take another picture".

I think they turned out nicely though.

Just Desserts

They say we get the politicians we deserve.

They are probably right. Indeed, there is fair chance that an awful lot of what we get is precisely what we deserve.

The human condition seems to involve a lot of whinging about things which are substantially our own stupid fault. That includes everything from hitting your thumb with a hammer and blaming Ikea, to watching your culture flounder and blaming Republicans.

Don't get me wrong. I'm happy to blame Republicans for quite a lot of things. It is also entirely correct to say that the ranks of nationalists, republicans, unionist apologists and culture snobs have massively held back development of all things Ulster-Scots, but sometimes we need to look a little closer to home when we are dishing out criticism.

It used to be said that in the Maze Prison, on the Republican wings, there was an atmosphere of studious intensity as inmates quietly flicked through books and took Open University Courses. On the Loyalist wings, flutes and drums were fashioned out of anything handy and parades were organised. The Republicans steeped themselves in their history and emerged as advocates for their cause. Loyalists painted murals on the Block walls.

Don't get me wrong, This is not some sneering rant against loyalists, loyalism or prisoners on any side. The problem isn't peculiar to the prisons or to the working classes. No. This problem seems to extend through every aspect of unionist society.

We lack a strategy. We don't see the big picture.

In my earlier post on a similar theme, I discussed what was the best way to spend money in a tightening economy. Scarce resources mean hard choices. Sometimes I wonder if we are fit to make those choices.

The picture for Ulster-Scots has improved massively over the past decade. For many years, with little or no thanks, a dedicated group of enthusiasts slaved away to secure recognition for the language which was finally achieved under the auspices of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In tandem with that effort, funding was secured for all manner of worthy Ulster-Scots projects, including the various schemes for marching band support and publication of some entirely worthy tomes.

The development was sometimes slow, sometimes rapid and mostly chaotic.

There was a strong sense that there was a massive "catch up" to be done and strategic thinking was often forsaken, in favour of a reactive approach. When an opportunity arose, it was grabbed with both hands and projects which were already on the go were set aside, to be resumed "when things quieten down".

But they never really did.

Although the funding would dry up from time to time and the media kept up a fairly constant attack on the community, there was always another battle to fight, another storm to weather.

So the culture has developed in "pockets". In some geographical areas is has been massively strengthened, in others it remains a private past-time. Some bands and musical groups have flourished, others have folded. The funding has been higgledy-piggeldy at best. It has not been underpinned by any philosophy or agenda. Rather, it has been seen that securing money for your local band ought to be its own reward.

I'm not suggesting for one minute that there is no merit in the funding of the bands. To do so would be exceptionally hypocritical. Nor am I even hinting at the notion that a huge deal of greatly worthwhile work has not been done.

The issue is that it can be very hard to discern the underlying ideology. The lack of that sense of direction makes us easier to distract. When we are distracted, we end up with Fitba days and Santa Hats.

We need a clear agenda. We need a strategy. A clear ideology. Every project then needs to be tested against the strategy. If it fits, it flies. If not, it dies. Simple as that.

This is where the "poliiticians we deserve" remark hopefully starts to make sense. Our fate lies in our own hands. We are going to have hard choices to make and must make sure that we have the right people in place to take those decisions. It is our responsibility to select the right people - if we don't, we can't blame "the others" when it all collapses around us.

The press has, in recent times, carried many stories about a high profile sporting organisation which has been criticised roundly for the behaviour of its committee and office bearers. Whether rightly or wrongly, the allegation seems to be of people being elevated to office through long service or popularity rather than ability or aptitude. I'm in no position to judge whether any of those allegations are well-founded.

However, I have certainly been in many organisations where that would be the norm. Actually, in most circumstances it makes little odds. If your Band has a clampet for a Chairman, an able Secretary can usually hold the unit together. If your rugby club committee can neither read nor write, a couple of ex-players with time on their hands can deal with the fixture list and keep things ticking over.

Fifteen years ago, the Ulster-Scots community, unfunded and unloved could get away with that model too. No longer.

What we need now is professionalism. We must make sure that our organisations and structures are professional in their outlook and in every decision they take. That is not to say that the answer is to have committees full of lawyers, doctors and architects. It doesn't take a professional to act professionally - and merely a degree or qualification is no guarantee of good sense.

So, the picture I think we need to see is a professional movement, implementing a clear strategy. If we can't deliver that, then no amount of money or government support can save us. In fact, if we can't deliver that, I'm not sure we deserve to be saved.

Down at the 'Dee

A Bank Holiday.

A rare creature. It is to be cherished and nurtured. They come along infrequently and must be treated with loving care - certainly not wasted.

As a result, today we went to Starbucks and then to Donaghadee for a Poke.

No-one would ever claim that our August Bank Holiday was wasted when confronted with such a sparkling itinerary.

Donaghadee was full to bursting and the play park was getting thoroughly used by locals and visitors alike. Mostly children. Spoilsports.

The summer pastime beloved of children - which seems to involving hurling oneself from the edge of the harbour towards the murky and litter-laden waters - was in evidence here, as it had been in Portrush last weekend. However, when some massive jellyfish were spotted lying in wait, discretion became the better part of valour and a strategic retreat was called in the diirection of the Chippy. This was a very great pity, as I was bare to the waist at the time and Mrs Ulsterscot was liberally applying goosefat to my pasty pelt. Maybe next time.

It was good to see Donaghadee so busy - a combination of the stunningly pleasant weather and the Bank Holiday, no doubt.

However, it did put me in mind of a proposal I heard some time ago for the etching of the names of those early Scottish pioneers into the harbour wall which was quickly frustrated by the listing status of the seafront. I have never been able to fully resolve in my own mind whether I come down in favour of the project or the preservation on that one - but I do think that there is room for some significant marking of the link with Scotland (which can be seen clearly in some of the photos).

Once you have inhaled your ice-cream and marvelled at the jellyfish, a bit of culture might be nice...

The Pipe Band Vault

At the outset, I have to accept that my timing really couldn't be worse.

It is the end of Pipe Band Competition season and most pipers and drummers are looking forward to a bit of a break in the schedule before having to think about sets for next year. The frantic pace of transfers in the off-season also means that you can pretty much guarantee that at least three or four of the bands you were following last year won't exist next year and the players will turn up unexpectedly in the ranks of their sworn enemies by Easter time.

There will be rumours of drums corps walking out. There will be tales of bust-ups amongst the pipers. There will be one improbable story about a Bass Dummer, a tenor drummer and a trip to Casualty.

Anyway, the rumours do not concern me.

What has been piquing my curiosity is the vast number of people at contests with Digital cameras - both still picture and video varieties.

There must be a huge amount of, for want of a better description, "media" out there which is never really seeing the light of day. There is a fairly healthy amount of footage posted on YouTube but the still pictures seem to go nowhere - with the occasional exception of Flickr.

So, what I have done is to start a site called The Pipe Band Vault. The notion is to try to collect together pictures (and possibly a bit of video) of the bands and to allow anyone and everyone to use the pictures as they see fit. The Posterous system allows for galleries to be downloaded with the minimum of fuss, so if you can see youself in a picture and you fancy adorning the wall with your image, go ahead. If you want to use it on a website, feel free (attribution would be polite, but we'll not fall out). The one proviso would be that commercial use of any images wouldn't be permitted without the passing of a hefty bag of monies - but I think we can safely cross that bridge when we come to it.

This season has been a bit of a disaster for me, with the crippling nonsense that is BPPV to contend with - but next should be better. I would hope to have my own camera out with me and to start to populate the site a little. In the meantime, there must be some people out there with images languishing on memory cards or hard drives. Why not give them a home? If you have any interest, leave a comment and I'll sort out the practicalities of how it might all function over the next few weeks.

The Colours of Disappointment

Unusually, I took a notion today and decided to go out to take a picture that I knew I had seen whilst driving about earlier in the week. This erratic behaviour was duly rewarded with not being able to find where I had seen it - and I ended up with these efforts, all of which I regard as unsatisfactory for various reasons.

However, undaunted by this failure, I post these snaphots and caution all readers to TAKE THE PICTURE WHEN YOU SEE IT - you may never see it again....

Orange Sky at Night....

....means Black Saturday in the morning. I'm pretty sure that's how the saying goes.

This isn't the most wonderful photo I've ever taken. It's not even the best one taken with the phone camera. What it does do is remind me that I keep meaning to take a few more pictures of the general world around me. I have spotted a few really lovely views on the way home from work, but I consistently fail to commit them to pixels.

Well, no more. From now on I'm resolving to try to capture a bit more of Ulster in the vain hope that the odd person might see the images and realise that this isn't such a bad old spot.

Even Australians.

Follow the Money

We live in difficult times. Money is short. If you are lucky enough to have any cash in the Bank, it isn't earning any interest and that portfolio of unique fixer-upper properties you bought on the advice of Sarah Beeny is starting to look like a real mistake.

The Coalition (that seems to be its official title now) has decreed that belts will be tightened, waste will be eliminated and efficiencies will be ruthlessly pursued.

In many ways, it is hard to argue with any of that. Indeed, questions should probably be asked as to why we were happy enough previously to quite so wasteful and profligate. There's another example there -  "wasteful and profligate" - when either "wasteful" or "profligate" alone would have sufficed. Such laxity of grammar will not be tolerated under the new regime.

Where then for an Ulster-Scot?

Clearly, there is a rich (no pun intended) vein of humour to be exploited - something to do with Ballymena and so on - but I'm passing that opportunity by and trying to look a little more carefully at the serious issue. I'll trust you to make up your own jokes, at which you may giggle on your own time.

My concern is that Ulster-Scots as a movement is very much in its infancy. It remains many years, or even decades behind the Irish cultural movement and has historically received little attention or, crucially, funding. A lot has changed in recent times. The advent of the Ulster Scots Agency provided a mechanism for funding and many groups certainly derive benefit from its existence.

However, the Minister (rightly, in my view) declared the organisation "unfit for purpose" and instituted a programme to try to remedy its many defects. As that laudable work was in progress, the general election was called and the imperative to rein in government spending followed. Only a fool would imagine that the new-look Agency will not find itself with a tighter budget in the future and one can imagine that alternative sources of state funding will be similarly limited.

So, what can we do? Do we just rail against the inevitable, giving off that Irish is still way ahead financially and imagining that money will be found to redress that inequality? Hmm. That's certainly tempting but it seems to rather fly in the face of reality.

Do we seek to commercially exploit Ulster-Scots to make it self-funding and self-sustaining? We're not there yet. I'm convinced that there are commercial aspects of "Ulster" and of Ulster-Scots which remain to be exploited - all you have to do is look at the "Oirish" tat in the gift shop at the International Airport and you can see that we are mssing a trick - but the movement isn't at that level of development jhust now.

What then?

The place to start to answer that question has to be with an examination of what we need money for and what we have been doing with money we have received thus far.

As an avowed contrarian, I'll start with the latter of those suggestions.

What are we doing with our money?

Not that easy a question to answer, actually. Funding in Ulster-Scots has been the very definition of a scatter-gun approach. We had a brief period when every Church Hall seemed to have an Ulster-Scots night every third Saturday in the month. They followed a formula. A Pipe Band, some kids doing Highland Dance, a few pensioners performing Country Dance, some bloke singing, a little Burns poetry and a cup of tea and a sandwich. Not that I'm knocking that, you understand. Many a night I spent in just such halls. I tapped my foot along and applauded at the appropriate points. A grand time was had by all. The organisers got a few quid which they passed on to the artists and everyone went home happy.

Then they did it all again in three weeks time.

And so it continued.

Small amounts of money were being spent on Ulster-Scots. Meanwhile, there were some unfortunate and well-documented incidents regarding money being spent on taxi fares and the like, which we'll draw a veil over.

As time passed, so things started to change. Positively, the Agency produced fantastic resources in terms of booklets on Hamilton & Montgomery and the Covenanters, amongst others. Promotion started to go slightly awry with events such as the David Healy Fitba Day and the Santa Hats to Ravenhill (totally inexplicable - don't ask) but in the meantime, groups were receiving funding for workers and there was even the suggestion of a Tourist Board type shop at Agency premises. The mild resurgence in tourism had sparked more interest in genealogy which meant that the culture was gaining more acceptance amongst many Americans who were realising that their roots were Ulster-Scots and not Irish.

But all the time, the BBC was still mocking us. The Museums remained green-hued and the middle-classes remained reluctant to engage with their own heritage.

On other fronts, things were brighter.

I have always been of the view that the Pipe Bands are the obvious shop window for Ulster-Scots in Northern Ireland. We have more of them than Scotland at competition level and a healthy smattering of World Champions in any given year. I have my own views (another post there, methinks) on the health of the local Branch of the RSPBA, but the Bands were continuing to develop and money was being channeled through the Arts Council and Lottery to allow bands to buy new instruments and help with tuition.

Dance was breaking into the schools and money was being found for tuition there as well. More children were engaging and there seemed to be a reluctant acceptance that Ulster-Scots deserved some recognition in the curriculum. Stranmillis had a project underway which was admittedly plagued with problems, but at least they were doing something.

So, what was the money going on? Bits and pieces of promotion; useful resources in terms of promotion and education; event sponsorship (variable quality and questionable worth); funding of groups for projects; support of dance and music; a tiny bit of spending on the language.

Actually, when you look at it, that all seems laudable enough, if sometimes misguided and ill-advised in its implementation.

And so it is/was. However, things will change. As the belts tighten, so we must prioritise. That's where the other limb of the examination comes in.

What do we need money for?

Some things that Ulster-Scots do can be very expensive. We obviously have a marching band culture and the figures when you look at running a pipe band (I declare an interest here) are terrifying. It is the general estimate that a member of a band will cost an average of £1000 to "put on the road". That would cover a modest uniform and either a set of pipes or drum. Uniforms need replaced and instruments become outdated or simply wear out. That money has to come from somewhere. Consequently, a lot of bands have become reliant on Arts Council or similar funding. The picture for Accordion bands is likely similar and is slightly less daunting for the typical (not competition) flute band - simply because the cost of a 5 key flute is much lower than of a set of pipes.

The Language has been neglected for decades and serious work needs to be done on archives and a dictionary project. The troubled Academy may deal with some of those issues but suffice to say, it will be expensive and is time-sensitive as the spoken language is inclined to dwindle. Expertise is required and that costs money to procure. The job is simply too big and too urgent to be left with unfunded enthusiasts.

Resourcing generally is another big issue. By that I mean the provision of "stuff". It can be hard to find Ulster-Scots "stuff". Whether it is for help with tracing your family tree or researching your local history, you can be hard pressed to find the necessary bits and pieces. We don't have enough guide books and pamphlets and we need to have the people to write them. Those people need to eat and feed their families - thus they need paid. More money in the expenditure column there.

That is only scratching the surface - we need dance and music teachers, for example, but I think the point that I am moving towards is to say that we need to examine carefully what we regard to be "core" to our activities. The Fitba Day? Nope. The Santa Hats? Nope again.

More controversially - should we prioritise workers (mostly administrators) for our local groups? Probably nope also.

I have heard it said by more than one individual that the day a group receives core funding and appoints a worker is the day that group begins to wither. The work which was done by a team of volunteers is suddenly dumped on the worker and the volunteers then lose interest as they are not properly engaged any more. The worker becomes inclined to concentrate on the reporting requirements to satisfy the funder amd the impetus for the group's endeavour is lost.

I have always suspected that one of the reasons that we have focussed to such an extent on seeking core funding of groups in the past is that we have confused the notion of Ulster-Scots groups with the more generic "community groups". Certainly, the unionist/pro-British/Protestant/primarily Ulster-Scots side of the house lacks the community structure we can observe elsewhere. There is therefore an understandable urge to redress that imbalance and to fund will-nilly until the community sector appears to have a greater sense of equality.

A problem with that approach is that, in many of those areas where there is lack of a community sector, it seems to be due to apathy on the part of the community itself. There is no community group because the community doesn't want one. Thus, funding a group is wasted money and the new organisation quickly atrophies.

It seems that in many of the areas where Ulster-Scots is likely to receive the warmest welcome, there is no appetite for groups - be they community or cultural. The people are independent and not inclined to want to gather together to navel gaze about who and what they are. Rather, they desire a recognition of their identity, respect for that identity (no more "hoots mon" on the BBC would be a good start) and appreciate the notion that, should they want to explore their history from time to time, there would be a way to do it and a place to go to do it. That comes back to the notion of the need for more "stuff" - the nuts and bolts that make the culture accessible and available.

Looking at it a slightly different way, if you had a thousand pounds to spend on Ulster-Scots - and a thousand pounds only - where would you spend it?

Would it go on classes for music or dance? Would it go on keyrings, bearing the legend "Ulster-Scot and Proud"? Would you buy a couple of new drums for your local band? Would you place an advert for family history research in the Edinburgh Tattoo Programme? Would you fund a support worker (very briefly) to help local groups with administration?

At the minute, I'm not sure that I know the answer to the questions I pose. I do know that the questions can't be avoided. The recession is seeing to that.

I lean towards the notion that resources which will outlive us all should be the priority at this point. That means work being done on collecting together an Ulster-Scots language resource (part of the Academy project). It means promotion of the family history and local history aspects of Ulster-Scots - books on Genealogy and re-writing some of our local history tomes. It means creating, training and supporting a new generation of musicians and dancers, fluent in the musical tradition of Ulster-Scots.

Unfortunately, it may well be that most of those things lie at the "unsexy" end of Ulster-Scots. The nuts and bolts stuff that creates a resource but isn't nearly as much fun as a nice day out with David Healy. But it needs to be done. If we don't prioritise this stuff now, I fear that it may be too late - and all we'll be left with is a Santa Hat, an autograph from Northern Ireland's top-scorer and a vague memory of who we used to be...

Leaden Skies

I was once again plagued by incredibly bad cell reception yesterday and a further foray into Live Blogging from a contest was thus thwarted. Consequently, the post from yesterday morning has only appeared today - once we had returned home!

For anyone interested, FMMPB took the honours in Grade One, pursued by Ballycoan and Cullybackey, in that order. The rest of the Grades threw up few surprises, although it was interesting to see Seven Towers performing strongly in Grade Two - one to watch in that Grade next year, with Ravara safely out of the way in the Premier Division.

The town was packed to the gills and by noon today, we could still count some 35 or so Camper vans in the Lansdowne Crescent carpark. Proof that at least some of them were bandsmen came in the form of a football shirted youngster diligently practising with his Mace Pole - clearly keen to ensure that he doesn't become ring-rusty over the off-season!

The only contest of note which remains is the Cowal Games in Dunoon - beloved by many bandsmen - by me - not so much. It has always struck me as an excuse to go on the tear for a full weekend when most of the important competition business is out of the way. Alcohol fueled tomfoolery results. Not my kind of thing.

In any event, I took a dander round Portrush with my father this morning and took a few shots of the town and the coast - although the skies were less kind than yesterday, some of the shots still pleased me, so I have uploaded the gallery. Sobering to note that my favourite shot of the weekend was probably the lead picture from the post yesterday - which was again taken on the iPhone! Today's efforts are with the trusty SLR - and I don't see the equal of the phone picture!

There Can be Few More Beautiful Places...

The pipe bands round off the local season with the North West Championships in Portrush today.

I came up here last night and have staked my claim in the completely packed car park good and early. It's as well I did, as the camper van brigade has almost totally commandeered the town! If you are thinking of heading this way, you would need to get a move on!

The weather is beautiful at the moment and the scenery sings out its beauty from even the most casually taken snapshots. What are you waiting for? Come on up!