Tag Archives: economics

The Train that I Ride – –

Jack is jumping in here so Wendy can write something else –

I had the great pleasure of visiting with Wendy up in Fayetteville WV a few days ago and found it to be a charming place, about the same size as Big Stone Gap. The biggest difference was the group of writers and artists I met who are re-inventing the place and promoting it as a welcoming haven for such folk (but that’s for another blog post).

On Thursday we drove out into the surrounding area and explored out of the way places. We stumbled on the most amazing thing. We had heard there was an old abandoned coal-town that you could wander round called Thurmond. My goodness!

We traveled along a narrow winding road and came to what might have been the place, but there wasn’t much to see. So we carried on just out of curiosity to see where we’d end up. A few miles further on we came to a scary narrow bridge and essayed across gingerly and found ourselves at an abandoned railroad station with a sign saying Thurmond. The depot had been restored as a visitor center by the National Park Service and there was a street of empty impressive looking buildings. The buildings had big posters mounted inside explaining their history and that of the town.

thurmond 3

As we wandered round we stumbled across a very modern Amtrack signboard and discovered to our amazement that the station was on the main line from New York to Chicago and a train stopped once a day in each direction.

thurmond 4

It turned out that the nearby New River Gorge area is a big tourist destination in Summer, so we suppose that people come there by train then, although how they get any further can only be on foot as I doubt there’s any bus or taxi service.

 

That said, it is a destination worth getting to, especially for outdoorsy types into hiking, biking, and kayaking. Wendy and I can watch people like that for hours.

While we were there, a train came through, hauling empty coal cars. The L&M may not stop there anymore, but at least in the summer, people do.

 

 

 

thurmond 5

thurmond 1

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Up, Up and Away – – –

Jack’s Wednesday guest post sets a new record for lateness –

So, we’re beginning to get fairly close to election time here in Virginia – it’s November 7th just in case anyone has forgotten!

To be a wee bit more specific – I am one of three candidates for the position of County Supervisor in district 3 of Wise County.

While up in the dizzy heights of the State level campaigns party allegiance may be an important consideration, I don’t believe that’s greatly significant at county level. In fact I’m certain that all three of us standing here have a good understanding of the issues facing this part of the Commonwealth and would be conscientious in addressing them.

At this point, for my many Scottish friends who read this blog, I should do a quick translation. County Supervisor would be the equivalent of a regional councillor in Scotland and a district would be the same as a ward.

Now, why should my neighbors vote for me? Well, probably there are three very big and interlinked issues facing Wise County right now. The first is a declining working population, partly because of increasing unemployment in the coal industry and partly because young people ‘get the h**ll out of Dodge’ at the first opportunity. The second is an economy that for too long has been over-dependent on the aforementioned coal industry and needs to urgently diversify. The third is a very significant problem with drugs – particularly prescribed opioid pain medications.

Regular readers will know that Wendy and I lost a friend recently, who took his own life, and there’s no doubt in my mind that the intersection of these three issues had a bearing on what he did.

So let’s look up instead of down and try to chart a way forward. We should no longer be sitting back and waiting for someone else, somewhere else to solve our problems. We need to give ourselves a good shake and then – –

Wendy attended a rural health conference recently where one of the presenters spoke about ‘Bright Sparks’ around the country; places that were doing much better than all the evidence suggested they should. Why was that? It seemed to bear out what we had observed a few years ago as we did our trip through the backroads of nine rural states around here. Some towns were obviously doing well while others were nothing more than ghost-towns. The secret seemed to be one of two things – either a respected locally born individual or community group that just ‘did it’ instead of waiting for others to do it for them!

I might be standing for office, but I’m very clear that office holders, at town, county or state level can’t do this. Not at all! What they can do, though, is smooth the way for the individuals and groups that can just ‘do it’. Over the last 12 years Wendy and I, along with like-minded friends, have fought our way through interminable minefields of policy documents, vested interests and many folk who just want things to roll along as they are. First was the bookstore, then the farmers’ market and then the Celtic festival. It’s easy to just roll over and give in – but each time we found that it was possible with like-minded locals to create a buzz and get things done.

That’s what I want to do – help get things done!

A final note – Virginia is actually a Commonwealth. That translates in various ways – common wealth; common wellbeing; common good (in Scotland – commonweal). That suggests to me that the rural areas of the State should share equally in the benefits that are enjoyed by the urban north. Even better – let’s help the rural south west become a bright spark!

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The War is Aimed the Wrong Way!

Jack’s Wednesday guest post –

There’s something really shocking and sad when someone you know takes his own life.

JB was a laid back friendly guy who was always ready to do a favor for anyone. The outpouring of messages about him on FaceBook all testify to that. Actually, around the time he took his life, he was meant to be meeting with us to discuss work he was going to do on our front yard. Only a few weeks ago he power-washed our front porch.

We did know something about the particular struggle he was waging–not an unusual one around here, either. It has been described as an epidemic and involves prescription drugs – opioids.

Just a few weeks ago Wendy’s annual medical conference focused on that very epidemic and the need for medical professionals to be much more aware of alternatives to highly addictive pain-killers. But there’s a very active economy around all this, and many people making a lucrative living from other folks’ misery.

I had a friend in Scotland many years ago who went to some considerable lengths to end his life because he decided his family would be better off without him. He was wrong about that, but I also believe it must have felt a courageous act from his point of view. I feel exactly the same way about JB – he felt he had slipped again and couldn’t in the moment of despair see any other way to free his family to get on with their lives.

What I can’t see is why the “War on drugs” is aimed at the wrong end of the telescope. Where is the accountability for the over-prescribing done in America, the pills that flow free and easy and the lack of accountability for the producers who marketed them, even tested them in some cases, on a population that tended to do hard labor jobs. Why is it now simpler to get pain meds than a job in this part of the world? And why is the War on Drugs blaming people like JB for being “losers” rather than the pharma executives who took advantage of us and then walked away, unaccountable?

Today is Mental Health Day and, clearly, anyone driven to suicide by a habit should have received more support by professionals, community and friends. Addiction is an illness, not something shameful and certainly not a crime. JB deserved better. The outpouring from his friends in this community stand as a living testament to how far his life reached.

Rest in peace Jessee; the rest of us will see that the people who did this to you, don’t.

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Jack of All Trades and – – –

Jack just scrapes in under the wire – –

I’m sure I’ve posted about this before, so here goes again, Probably – –

Not too long before I retired from a twenty-year career in the community college in my home town I was ‘persuaded’ by my Principal (Chancellor) at the third time of asking, to embark on a MBA. I had been teaching management programs and so I suppose that made sense. I had free choice about which program and didn’t know that there was a ‘pecking order’ out there in terms of difficulty and/or credibility in the wider world. So, I opted for Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. I chose it simply because of proximity and the flexibility of the timetable. I didn’t know it was notoriously rigorous, difficult and high in the pecking order!

I quickly found that there two clearly different groups of subjects – half were ‘soft skills’ – team dynamics, leadership, marketing – that sort of thing. I loved that, understood it and found it very self-affirming. Then there were the math focused ones – finance, statistics etc. I hated them because I’m completely useless at math. But I struggled through and finally got there!

What on earth has this to do with a bookstore in a small Southern town?

One of the things I clearly remember from my studies and research was this. The most loyal customers any business can have are the ones that have a problem that you manage to fix.

Yesterday morning a young lady came into our store to see if a book she had ordered had arrived. I didn’t recognize her and asked if I’d done the ordering. “No” she said – I think it was your wife and it was a couple of weeks ago. I searched through all the email confirmations of the orders we’d done and there was no trace of it. As panic set in I phoned Wendy.

It turned out that she had made the order at the exact moment that E-Bay shut down their Half Dot Com subsidiary. She honestly thought she’d ordered the book but it hadn’t gone through. I’m absolutely certain we aren’t the only ones to have gotten caught by this.

The customer was most understanding when I explained what had happened, but she needed it for a class starting on Monday and needed to read it before then. I immediately went to an alternative site and found a seller that could get it to me overnight.

It came in today, I phoned her and she got it with four days to spare. It cost her just the $6 she’d paid when ordered and us another $6 to get it for her, so we made nothing – but – I’m completely certain that she will sing our praises much, much more than if it had just come when it was expected.

The lesson?

You don’t need an MBA to make a customer happy – – –

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Ho Hum – –

Jack just managed to get in under the wire this week for his Wednesday guest post –

 

Some days are just ‘normal’ – here’s one – –

Start with a run to the grocery store for the makings of shepherd’s pie (supper with our good friends Beth and Brandon tonight – plus a guitar lesson with Brandon).

Medicate the dogs and feed the three garage cats.

Clean out the cat litter trays.

Another good friend Teri arrives and hangs out until the shop opens.

Order six new Celtic flags for our annual festival coming up in a month’s time.

Tidy the bookstore kitchen and mop the floor.

Get the festival banners out of the shed and paint out the ‘4’ in the date ready to be re-painted as ‘3’.

A couple arrive to collect their winnings in the bookstore auction of surplus stuff.

Two elderly and very frail ladies arrive with a bag of Christian romances to exchange for more of the same. But they also spend some money on more books – they are lovely and we chat at length.

A young woman arrives for more (bulky and heavy) auction items. She is carrying an infant and is on her own. The items are upstairs.

A regular and very interesting customer comes in and browses and spends money on lots of books.

Start making the afore-mentioned shepherd’s pie.

Two folk who’ve never been before arrive and I give them a quick tour – they buy some books and come back to get Wendy’s ‘Little Bookstore’ book after they go for money. (We do take cards, btw.)

Continue preparing the shepherd’s pie.

A lady from a not-so-very-close book-club that read ‘Little Bookstore’ phones to arrange a visit next week. Sadly, on a day when Wendy will be out of town, but they will be happy to see me!

Package a book we had sold on-line and Wendy gets it over to the post office.

Get a message asking if I can guest lecture to a class at UVA Wise on Scottish-Appalachian connections in a couple of weeks’ time.

We can’t find two small hand-carved statuettes that were sold in the auction. They were hiding in Science Fiction!

Finish the shepherd’s pie.

Another couple arrive to collect auction items – from upstairs. We carry down the desk, avoiding kittens.

Medicate kittens.

Friends arriving for dinner at 6:30 to eat the shepherd’s pie.

Guitar lesson with one of the friends.

Pick apples from our apple tree so Wendy can freeze them.

Drink heavily.

Sleep.

 

 

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Socializing with Friends – – –

Jack’s guest Wednesday post –

There’s a favorite Scottish saying that goes – “we’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns” (which roughly translates as “all human beings are part of the same big family of mankind”). When laid alongside Robert Burns’ famous song “A Man’s a Man for a’ That” it pretty much sums up my political views. I would therefore describe myself as a European style social democrat.

Scotland is an odd place in terms of its mix of entrepreneurship, inventiveness, canny financial acumen and sense of shared community. That last one perhaps stems from the highland clan system – the idea of extended family. Which neatly brings us back to Jock Tamson’s bairns.

I believe that there are certain things that any civilized community should provide to its members. That would include those that have health issues or just struggle to maintain an acceptable standard of living. That shouldn’t depend on the vagaries of charitable giving, but be organized, planned and paid for through progressive taxation. Of course this requires a healthy economy that can pay people sufficient to generate the tax income to pay for it. As a Quaker I have to also say that I believe far too much tax income is spent on making war!

Just twelve miles from my hometown is the one where Adam Smith, the father of economic theory was born. His famous book “The Wealth of Nations” is popular with lots of Neo-Liberal conservatives, however they always ignore the part where he says that market forces have to work alongside a safety net to protect the most vulnerable members of society. So even good old Adam was a social democrat at heart! Of course he was part of the European Enlightenment of the early 19th century and Edinburgh was an important part of that through medical research, philosophy and political theory.

In case this sounds like an advertizing feature for the Scottish tourist industry, I should perhaps remind you that Jock Tamson’s Bairns are all of humanity – black, white and every color in between – all religions and none – – –

So there you have it. I guess some of my American friends will have had their worst fears confirmed now. I’m the socialist their parents warned them about!

Duck and cover – – –

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Who knows where the time goes –

Once again Jack misses his deadline and the Wednesday guest post appears on Thursday –

This is the title of a great song by Sandy Denny, who died far too young after falling down stairs once too often.

I find myself humming it over and over, here in Edinburgh once again, at the age of 75, after not falling down stairs very much at all—or at least not hurting myself when I did.

Edinburgh gives me a funny feeling, one I imagine must be felt by anyone of advancing years who experiences a less and less familiar place over a lifetime.

edinburgh

I first came here as a teenager to attend a jazz club on Tuesday nights–a 30-minute train journey on a pal’s “borrowed” student pass. It was glamorous and hippy. Outside of the August arts festival the place was mostly gloomy back in the Fifties, and if you missed the last train back you were stuck. Later I could borrow my dad’s car and the road bridge over the Forth opened – much more convenient and by then the folk scene had started. Gloom moved from buildings to music, one might say.

howff

The entrance to the jazz club is still the same (later the Howff folk-club)

The weird mix of nostalgia and alienation are exacerbated because Wendy and I are staying with my old singing partner of that folk scene. Barbara Dickson and I are both originally from Dunfermline, on the other side of the river Forth. We traveled that road to the big city morning, noon, and night to do gigs of every description, and every time I cross it, I remember something else from those fun, silly, earnest times.

And yet, as I return each year now leading a Scottish tour, the place seems more and more alien. The traffic is terrible, the good shops have gone, ghost tours and pub crawls advertised everywhere, every tiny corner has been turned into yet another marketing opportunity. Not that I can complain about marketing leading a tour, but a part of me longs to show Americans the way it was when it was a proud city bent on being rather than selling itself.

For all the tartan tat, Edinburgh manages to retain a certain grandeur – I’m really not sure how it does it. The 16th Century John Knox’s house in the old High Street is surrounded by awful opportunistic chain outlets – ‘kilt outfits for 100 pounds’ etc. (I wouldn’t advise buying one, or washing it if you do). That ancient house seems to just draw in its skirts and shrug them off, like many other historic buildings in the area.

Maybe we’re all destined to become curmudgeons as we age, lauding a golden past that never was. Or perhaps we all understand that commerce is driving the world now, not history, culture, tradition. Not that those ever did. If people remembered history we wouldn’t keep circling in the same paths.

So despite my curmudgeonly misgivings, Edinburgh retains a dignity and an allure beneath the shouts of tour leaders and vendors. There is more to Scotland than buying a plush Nessie in the High Street. Always has been, always will be.

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