Election 2019

This has certainly been one of the more interesting election campaigns in recent memory. By turns chaotic and mendacious, but nevertheless enthralling, I’m looking forward to an outcome on Friday morning which proves it (as well as to enjoying plenty of Portillo moments).

The last 24 hours has perhaps seen the worst of things as regards the dark arts with the beginning of the Tory advertising blitz via Facebook, coinciding with the re-generation of sock puppet accounts as a diversionary tactic to the horror of a boy lying on a hospital floor as there was no bed for him, and in the face of Johnson’s own dissembling and point blank refusal to look at the image when faced with it (now with 11m views…), coupled with a non-story about an adviser being punched.

From a policy point of view, there are two issues that need to be addressed here: firstly, the willing take-up of Dominic Cummings’s rouble-sourced bait by journalists who ought to know better; and secondly the dominance of the social media platforms, especially Facebook but also, albeit to a lesser extent, Twitter, in terms of the news we see and what, in a time-pressed world, we come to regard as truth.

Robert Peston and Laura Kuenssberg ought to know better, but rather than pin the blame on them in a conspiracy theory about the modern state of the BBC in the clutches of a vile government, I think the main problem lies with the failures of journalism under pressure of a 24-hour news cycle. Before t’internet came along, the time pressures where a journalist had a story to break would be somewhat less and publishing timetables tended to lend more time for fact checking in advance of publication or broadcast. Nowadays, journalists making their living in the field, and who have a story but fear being scooped, tend to report everything and then – occasionally – backtrack when proved wrong. Evidently, that’s often too late once tweets and posts have been shared and then amplified via individual networks.

Journalists need to be less afraid of being scooped and to take greater time to establish the facts before engaging with their social media accounts – or at least to qualify their messages with an acknowledgment that the situation is still being checked. I for one am quite happy if the news comes to me fact-checked and accurate, if a little slower; although I acknowledge that this understates the adrenaline rush realised by those among us who are the ‘first’ to tell us something. We also need to break the consensus that people spreading such stories are not ‘sources’ in the accepted journalistic sense and can be identified in the public interest. That might, however, need a little more solidarity between journalists if the cosy relationship between spinners and relayers is to be broken.

Secondly, James Mitchinson, Editor of the Yorkshire Post, got it spot-on yesterday in his response to one reader who took issue with his paper’s coverage of the story of what happened at Leeds General Infirmary. In a discombobulating world, when we do not know who to trust and when we have been led actively to distrust those institutions to which we formerly looked for honesty, it is very easy to be led astray. This is of course where Facebook – particularly – comes in since it has scooped up much of the local advertising revenues on which local journalism used to rely and whose loss has starved local papers of resources and journalists. The dispute over job cuts at the Herald has much to comment on this, also.

The genie can’t be put back in the bottle, but the unchecked abuse of its powers out in the wild can and should be better controlled, not least in terms of the potential for the manipulation of opinions during an election, as well as in terms of the stealing of identities and their use by/sale to hackers. When Facebook has such control but so little interest in exercising it responsibly – sock puppet accounts are as good as any other when it comes to the numbers proving continued growth to the investors – the only answer can be better regulation. Clearly it’s own – largely algorithm-based – actions to remove false accounts are not working and neither, does it seems, are its fraud reporting mechanisms (while Twitter’s are scarcely any better) while certainly it needs to have something in place which stops people impersonating and misrepresenting others and stealing data. This means that Facebook itself also has to put more of those advertising revenues into human intervention to ensure its user accounts are genuine.

(And the government needs to publish that Intelligence and Security Committee report into meddling in UK referendums and elections – it’s clearly already too late for this election, but there are lessons to be learned in respect of future ones.)

The Western Isles electoral seat – Scotland’s smallest, and a protected constituency under the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 – was held in the last parliament by the SNP, with a majority of about 1,000 votes over Labour in second (and the rest nowhere). In Alison MacCorquodale, we have a good candidate from North Uist (and an active trade unionist, to boot) highly capable of building on the efforts of Ealasaid MacDonald in 2017 in making this a two-way, non-Tory marginal. Touring this southern end of the constituency at the weekend, the equal matching of red and yellow lamp-post favours was highly encouraging. All of which means I can vote Labour with both my heart and my head. Only Labour has the manifesto committed to ending austerity, re-building the NHS (and keeping Trump’s hands off it) and achieving real change for people.

Other people don’t have that luxury where a Labour candidate is neither the sitting MP nor the nearest challenger. If that’s you, and especially in those narrow marginals which will make a substantial difference to the outcome on Thursday, do vote for the candidate best placed to eject the Tory. There is a plethora of tactical voting websites to help you make your mind up, the latest addition being the @ledbydonkeys campaign to GetJohnsonGone. Others include Best for Britain’s tactical voting site Get Voting.

Do consult at least one of them and, even if you do, for one reason or another, have to hold your nose while putting your ‘x’ in that box, ensure that we wake up on Friday morning with a series of ‘Were you up when…?’ exits, Johnson gone, advisers with egg all over their faces and a future awaiting us in which we can together start to put right the things that have gone so wrong in the last nine years. Vote for hope.

Book Review: Cartes Postales from Greece

I dug out Victoria Hislop’s 2016 collection of short stories from my unread bookshelf to take on our recent trip to Crete. Popularly described as one of the UK’s most ardent philhellenes, and these days at least a part-time resident of Crete, Hislop is a well-qualified companion with whom to discuss – over the written page – modern Greece and its tragedies, as well as its heroism, its lyricism and its love of songs and stories.

The stories in Cartes Postales – quite simply, postcards – were mostly written while Hislop was travelling in Greece, alongside Alexandros, a photographer whose images lavish the pages. They were not taken to illustrate, but to act as a prompt with Hislop tending to spin her stories out of the things that they both saw on the journey. Some of the latter are new, some are modern twists on old stories (the Venus di Milo makes an appearance as does, from a Cretan perspective, Icarus and Daedalus), others are founded in the continuousness of the search for meaning in natural signs with which to prompt human decisions at various crossroads (such as at the Oracle at Delphi). As such, most of the stories have a timeless appeal, even if imbued through a modern lens, not to say a glass of wine.

As in any short story collection, some of them work (Je Reviens being a particularly good example, twisting the fortunes of the people who inhabit modern Greece with the threads of its recent past; while Et In Arcadio Ego is menacing and disturbing), while others do not (Air on a G String is filled with the dreadful romanticism that Hislop seems to have rescued from the floor of Richard Curtis‘s writing room). We encompass otherwise the macabre (Honeymoon), the elegiac (Man On A Mountaintop) and the dramatic (The Boy In The Silvery Suit).

The difference to most normal collections are that the short stories are all linked, all being tales told to a traveller in tavernas, guest houses and in town squares. The traveller in question is not Hislop, except perhaps by some kind of displacement, but Anthony, a man on the run from a failed relationship but whose process of letting go entails the sending of a series of postcards, and finally a notebook, from each stopping point to the address of his lost lover, who has since moved away. There, they are received instead by Ellie, a young woman at something of a crossroads herself; and, intrigued, she decides to head for Greece. After that, well, Richard Curtis may yet be on the phone.

So here we have the first problem: the conceit of the structural idea is bold, but its execution in practice is breathlessly, remorselessly romantic in tone. The contrast between this and many of the stories is sharp, but the effect is not interesting since the romanticism of what is essentially the plot – and a rather thin one, at that – both undermines and subtracts from the stories themselves.

The second problem is a minor, practical one: Anthony is on the run but spends the year finishing writing a book on the sculptures of the Cyclades which, as it transpires, actually plays little role in his re-building of his sense of self. The difficulty is, he spends no time in the Cyclades on his journey, which is based virtually entirely on the mainland, and precious little of that in Athens – and, even there, he doesn’t appear to go to the museum where Cycladic art has been stolen re-located. Perhaps his research notes were all complete but, if it was me, I’d be wanting to visit one, probably both, and regularly, as I was finalising my work. Consequently, the threading of the stories relies on a hook which is both extremely insecure and which, ultimately, actually has little meaning.

Thirdly, the ageless appearance of the stories is fine at a superficial level, but it leaves the characters on the page inhabiting a yesterday world. This affects particularly the women characters who are disappointingly realised, being usually young girls, femme fatales or old crones (while the men are, although not as ubiquitously, portrayed either as weak-minded old fools or young, strong and silent types). There is nothing new about such an objectification of women (and, indeed, men) in literature, although I choose to read modern women writers to escape that sort of thing. It’s not as though Greece – and specifically Crete – has no examples of strong women, both in revolution and in modern times, on which Hislop could draw but the collection here ignores those in favour of sexist stereotypes. Easier, for sure, but ultimately a lot less challenging. I would have liked to see Hislop go a lot further in the direction where Et In Arcadio Ego seemed to be taking her.

In this yesterday world, modern Greece does appear, but only in the linking sections between the stories whereas a collection which really wanted to tell a story of the modern realities of the country would have made the old stories resonate in a more contemporary fashion with some of the photographs. All we are left with, therefore, is a flavour, a taste of the Greece of kafenion and zacharoplasteion – but one drawn more from the Greece of the travel pages than the reality of the modern stories told, to take just one example, by the graffiti-laden walls which we could see even in downtown, and somewhat sleepy, Rethymnon on our visit. The impression is thus of a throwback; of a recall of, and desire for, happier times; and, ultimately, of somewhat middle-class concerns and mores and standards.

Even for holiday reading, I’m looking for a bit more than that.

So, as this is also a bit of a postcard, as well as a review, here’s some graffiti on a bit of shabby house. I’m a little nervous about capturing graffiti in a foreign language because impressions can mislead and my Greek is, well, holiday Greek. Here, however, I think the loose translation would be ‘Under Heavy Manners’. And absolutely right, too.

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Death in the morning

A little after eight this morning. I pad through, dressed, to the kitchen where the sun, already two-thirds of the way across its path between the turbines and the low hills to the south, is already fully up above the horizon. It’s one of the last times I see this before the hills obscure the sunrise until much later in the day, and I rejoice in the scene and its warmth. Slightly further north and east, a small rain shower casts down in long, thin, smears of dark grey as the sun, a full disc but nevertheless hazy, casts its warm glow into the kitchen, illuminating with a timeless orange light the surfaces and the walls. There is little wind and the rain, a brief interlude in what will be a warm, almost cloudless, balmy day, is soon gone.

Overhead, one of the headland’s flock of ravens floats down towards the bay, feet dangling below, but held so, in a straight line from which, given the lack of wind, it barely deviates. I imagine it, a few seconds ahead, landing on one of the rocks exposed by the retreating tide, to bask in the sun and, maybe, plan its day just as I am doing. Though it does, already, appear a little more purposeful.

It lands. Not on a rock, though. It has already planned its day and breakfast is its next item. It lands on top of something on the sand and immediately jabs downwards. Its target moves. It’s not dead. Shocked out of my slumber by the violence of the thrust and by the – clearly erroneous – belief that ravens prefer their food already matured as opposed to fresh, I grab my binoculars from the lounge window shelf. Its prey continues to struggle as its adversary continues its stabbing motions, irregularly and infrequently, long moments between, like each one was already the last.

The prey continues to move. It’s a bird, of some kind – though I can’t make out what, even with the binoculars. It staggers about in its own defence, under the weight of the raven on its back, looking like a young, unfledged chick, though it surely can’t be, not at this time of year. Then the raven flies off, landing ten yards or so to the left, its back turned nonchalantly on its prey, bored with the struggle or else regaining strength before returning to the affray. The target vainly continues to flap its wings, ineffectively, seeking to make progress in any direction and I’m reminded somehow of the lumbering efforts on land of a penguin. It seeks, slowly, to raise itself to a height, to convince its attackers that it is not injured, that it is proud and able to defend itself, and capable of doing so.

It does not convince, or make progress. For whatever reason (an earlier assault, most likely), it cannot fly away. A second raven joins the fight – except that this already uneven contest is not a fair fight. The two are not evenly matched in a struggle for supremacy, with death the honourable outcome for the loser. If it’s a murder of crows, then what is it of ravens, joining up in a tag team against something already weak and virtually defenceless?

The ravens do not compete. They work together. The second one also stabs away at the prey, infrequently and irregularly, surprised at having to make another attempt to subdue, until the first attacker rejoins it. They stand side-by-side, momentarily in converse about what to do next. It cannot get away. It will not. The second raven, too, flies away a short distance before the original bird resumes the attack. Steady, not frenzied. Determined and resolute, not panicky. Remorseless, and not giving up.

The prey continues to struggle, long wings flapping, lurching about, trying to martial something, anything, with which to respond to the onslaught it is under, the raven’s beak continuing, repeatedly but oddly irregularly, its stabbing motions, interspersed with periods of rest, as a fighter in between rounds. Gulls circle overhead – but they do not join in. A flock of fifteen or so dunlin edge closer across the sand in wedge formation, interested onlookers to the scene before them but perhaps, mostly, glad it’s not them. The prey is significantly larger than them and, as it moves, I see a longer bill and am reminded of a cormorant.

The bird spins, facing its attacker and, for a moment, I imagine that this is its best chance, to use its own bill in its own defence. Inwardly, I cheer it. Except that it has not spun round; it has been spun. And its beak is no match for that of a raven which, eventually, delivers some sort of coup de grace before, again, flying away some short distance to recuperate, to distance itself from the murder it has had to commit, to quieten its senses.

Called briefly away from the scene, I return some time later. The prey is now headless, its neck a bloody stump, its body slumped behind like the contents of a small sack. The ravens are long gone. With a white chest and black body, I think, after all, it was probably a guillemot. I’m reminded of how defenceless it appeared and cannot escape the thought that it was a chick. It would not be the first time this year that I have watched a predation, but this one has left me oddly and disturbingly moved. Most likely, the bird was already injured – in some way – and the ravens, opportunistic scavengers, have moved in to finish the job and, perhaps, have been surprised by how long it took them.

A surround of white feathers on the sand, lying so many and motionless in the lack of wind, bears testimony to its plucking and appear, in some way, in small tribute to its last stand. Not the white feathers of cowardice, these. Meanwhile, the gulls continue to fly overhead, not interested in the murder committed on the sands below them, or apparently in its product, before the rising tide eventually sweeps away the body, and the evidence, and the feathery tributes, out to sea and into the wider food chain, and all returns to peaceful normality.

Cretan Hop

(No, not that one – Ed). A title I’ve had which has been in search of a post since, well, ages.

One of my blogs below referenced thinking about warmer climes – and we have just come back from two weeks in Crete with temperatures in the mid to high 20Cs (that’s 70-80F if you like old money). Indeed, it was a bit of a chilly and cold-inducing shock coming back to a Scotland with clear skies (though with someone having stolen all our wind – for three days now!) and icing sugar snow dusting the mountain tops of most things north of Ben Lomond.

So, Crete: my second visit, but this time to the west near the historic city of Rethymno, having spent one week out to the east at Elounda in 2005. This time, e-bike cycling tours; walking; gorges; mountain villages; olive groves; more (rebuilt) monasteries and churches than you can shake a stick at; history (and yet more history); elliniki kafe sketo; learning a bit of Greek; history; 800 photographs (give or take); a beach or two; olive groves; ouzo and raki; lighting candles; the holy trinity of church, taverna and kafenion; mantinades (a form of Cretan rap music) and a bit of Cretan folkloric dancing; wonderful food; wars and liberations; and olive groves. Oh, and some history – wrapped not least around some more monasteries. Here’s a side door to one of them – evidently still in use and looking out towards the monastery’s inevitable olive groves.

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Further photos may follow, once I’ve sorted them out a bit.

But for now, on the beer front, it was a little disappointing to see that the craft beer revolution largely continues to pass Greece by (this being my first visit to any of the Greek islands since 2008); Greek breweries – even local ones on Crete – continuing to churn out the sorts of lager which has the merit in a hot country of being cold and wet – though that’s about the limits of it. There was rumours on some restaurant menus of a locally-brewed dark (‘red’) beer but no actual sign of it, at least not this late in the year. A few hops are always welcome and, on return to Glasgow, I enjoyed a taste of what a few hops can do for a lager with Drygate Breweries Bear Face, available on draught even at the airport.

It was also somewhat disappointing to discover that the Greek government apparently has financial schemes to assist with renovating village houses in the Venetian style [NB no actual links to anything have yet been found after my return for the purposes of this post] – a noticeable bit of revisionism which ignores both the centuries-longer Ottoman period as well as that the Venetians were also occupiers, albeit apparently somewhat more enlightened as well as less repressive. Of course, to take such a view clearly understates the sensitivities concerning the role played by the Ottomans in recent Cretan history and around the key events in its liberation struggle – and, as it seems, not only then. Back to the future, then (’twas ever thus). The key is no doubt the physical association of Crete with Europe and European values which, some 120 years after Crete gained its independence, and only after a bloody and lengthy struggle, is still regarded, taking the long-term view of history, as something which needs to be asserted.

There may also have been some dancing (happy 60th birthday, Seema!). After all, what’s a holiday without a hop or two? I don’t think there’ll be photos of that, though.

Mobile phones and the FUD factor

The second of my columns for Stage, Screen and Radio, the quarterly journal of BECTU, the union for creative ambition, appeared in the Summer 2019 issue. Now the Autumn  issue is out, I thought it was about time to re-publish the text, here with added links but without the Tony Kelly cartoon and without the wonderful production values that BECTU members have come to expect as standard.

Stories have again recently [i.e. in May 2019] been appearing in the papers about the health and social impacts of our mobile phones.

We have had Madonna worrying about her older children and whether her giving them a mobile phone at 13 had ‘ended their relationship’ with her.

Last year, a paper was published by the researchers at Imperial College engaged in the important and wide-ranging SCAMP study on sleep deprivation among teenagers resulting from their night-time use of mobiles. There has also been a separate Oxford University study which concluded that social media use has only a ‘trivial’ effect on teenagers’ happiness.

And there have even been stories from the perspective of whether our digital lives and the handiness of our mobile devices are leading adults to have less sex.

Some of these stories have been rather sensationalised. But similar stories about mobile phones and various aspects of health have been appearing now for decades.

There are some aspects of mobile phone use which do give cause for concern. The SCAMP study is drawn from the lack of certainty among scientists about the impact of the radio frequency waves emitted by devices on children’s developing brains, and whether they are more vulnerable than the adults about whom the World Health Organization dismissed such concerns some time ago. The peer pressure on teenagers to send intimate photos of themselves – so-called ‘sexting’ – should also not be under-estimated (one reason why the Oxford University might well have understated the likely impact of mobiles on teenagers’ happiness).

It’s right that we are as convinced as we can be about the safety of our devices; and clearly we also need to talk to our children more about theirs and what they do with them. Whether mobiles result in impaired relationships with us: well, if teenagers are more interested in their mobiles than us, we need to find something more interesting to say to them. They said the same about television; and no doubt they said the same about The Dandy before that, too.

Stories of the ‘always-on’ worker, whether they stem from a reluctance to carry around two devices – a personal one and a work one – or from the need for freelancers and ‘gig’ economy workers not to miss a call or a text, are one of the reasons why we look to trade unions to protect us. In the latter case, current research shows us that they provide workers with a strong reason to unionise.

Furthermore, concerns about the ‘spy in our pockets’, given some aspects of our social media use and our apparent inability properly to investigate, and change, the defaults on the apps we download, may also be nagging away at the way we think. (And rightly so.)

More generally, though, I wonder whether it is the FUD factor (fear, uncertainty and doubt) that explains why these sorts of stories keep coming around. Perhaps the continuing concerns about the impact of mobiles, doing the rounds for thirty years now, reflect the uncertainty in our own lives and particularly our uncertainty about the changing shape of the world around us. Given the individualised, atomised circles in which we move and think, and when so much of the outside world, and indeed the environment, lies beyond our control, it seems only natural that we transfer that uncertainty to the device that almost all of us carry around with us permanently, and which may have come to symbolise that absence of control.

Or, better said, the appearance of that absence of control, since where uncertainty is the driver, we do have the answers when we analyse what brings us together. The answer is plain to all of us as trade unionists – we organise. And, about the issues we cannot individually control – then we collectivise them. When we realise that power, we can deal with most things.

Late September sunset

Just time left in September to drop in with a new sunset picture, taken tonight some fifteen minutes after sunset which tonight was at 1908.

September sunset

Here, we’re looking over the croft land neighbouring where we live and, given the time of year, more or less due west, instead of the north-west which marked sunset at the height of summer, and with few sheep still left around Ardivachar after the sales of the last few weeks. With a fairly stiff easterly/north-easterly breeze, and a forecast temperature dropping below ten degrees, it’ll feel about half that overnight and, with the generally clear skies, sunny in the daytime, there’s even a few reports of potential ground frosts across the highlands and islands.

It’s enough to turn a few thoughts towards warmer climes!

Gig review: Aly and Phil in our village

It must be a bit odd for musicians to come to a gig and find the dressing room/green room absolutely front of house and on open display as the punters arrive to take their seats. Nevertheless, this was no ordinary gig as Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham, legends on the international traditional music scene for generations and with musical palmares the length of not just one arm but both outstretched, and uncrooked as a musician’s would usually be, arrive in Iochdar village hall, down at the end of my road, to play my birthday gig as part of their 2019 Scottish tour.*

They were here last year, too, although for one reason or another I missed it then (I do have a regular complaint that events on these islands tend not to be advertised well here unless you’re on that bookface thing). I had wondered why such stars – musical heroes of mine since the traditional scene exploded into my musical education in the 1980s – would play precisely here, and not least (still) without a new record to promote: partly for the reasons of time and effort involved in getting here and in making it pay (I guess it doesn’t – but that’s probably beside the point), but more importantly because we don’t have a strong fiddle tradition on the islands (though we do of course have a box one). (Today, down in Am Politician on Eirisgeidh for a birthday dinner, it appeared from talking to the publican that Phil had turned up last year, box in hand, for an inpromptu evening session: learning new tunes is, naturally, the lifeblood of any new musician.) There is, however, a sort of family connection with Uist and Benbecula for Phil, and both people who had maintained the connection were of course in the audience and got a shout out as well as a dedication from the stage. It was indeed that sort of gig.

Aly and Phil have been playing together for 33 years and with a background in music stretching back for fifteen years before that: Aly in Boys of the Lough and Phil in Silly Wizard. Both have the sort of status that entails writing tunes for commissions, both for paid jobs in TV productions and for other famous musicians, and having tunes written for them, but they still both enjoy each other’s company as well as have a key role in providing the active emotional support for each other that we all need.

With a musical heritage this long, picking a list of the sets of tunes you want to play is both tough and easy – tough because selecting any one track leaves a load of other similar-sounding combinations behind; easy because, with an appreciative not to say reverential crowd, you know that any selection you can make will go down well. So, the tunes have to fit and to deliver coherent sets which does the job of a tune-playing band but, not least, to the satisfaction of the musos themselves: stirring people in some way, playing on their heartstrings and chiming with their emotions. Here, we had the hits – Fairy Dance to close (from which the picture below is taken © Ella Wronecka – thank you!), with Hangman’s Reel (the theme tune from the BBC’s ‘Down Home‘ series, which properly introduced me to Aly Bain) and Jean’s Reel (likewise for Phil Cunningham, and fondly remembered by Andy Kershaw as the track he’d seen Cunningham absolutely shred after sinking about six pints; and the tune he’s apparently played at every one of his gigs ever).

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With Aly seriously ill in hospital earlier this year ahead of a triple heart bypass, and with a consequent warm-hearted expression of appreciation for our NHS, the first half – while mixed in with faster-paced sets – took on an elegiac tone, with ‘So Long, Liam’ an absolute stand-out. Other airs were similarly beautifully and breath-takingly sustained, drawing out the audience’s emotion right to the length of the bow, and for a brief second beyond. The second set, with the feature songs mentioned above, tended to be faster but still interleaved the more complex rhythms of the boys’ connection with Swedish musicians with airs and waltzes and, in some sets, bravely transitioning from waltzes to reels within the same set. Just the two of them on the stage but, with a bit of skullduggery, and no little skill, this was a whole band of fired-up musicians up there. All interspersed with lengthy introductions to the tunes which served to get the breath back, led largely by Phil, featuring humour (including a wonderful tale about playing for the Queen at Balmoral (here, for a wee flavour) which might well explain why the honours are still lost in the post, boys), shaggy dog stories, a fair amount of sly self-references, technical notes about the music and rhythms, and anecdotes drawn from their astonishing yet very human musical trajectories and careers, this was a right proper ceilidh.

Which brings me to the one slightly downwards note: the gig was wonderfully organised by Mary and the Ceòlas team, with the aid of the Talla an Iochdar committee volunteers, but it was disappointing to see the hall laid out for a fully sit-down gig. Now, traditional music isn’t only for the old’uns and it was great to see some junior enthusiasts too, and people who are, well, (still) older than me were the core of the audience so we need some chairs. But this music is made for dancing and some audience participation via a bit of an opportunity to get up offa that thing and show a few moves might well have improved the night even more by dint of giving a bit more feedback to the musicians. Foot-tapping and sincere, warm and grateful applause gets you so far but nothing tugs a musician’s sensibility more, or drives them further and faster, than people moving and grooving to the music they’re creating right there, right then.

There’s still some gigs left on the Scottish tour before it winds up in a homecoming gig at the Queen’s Hall in Scotland’s other (east coast) capital at the end of the month so, if they’re coming anywhere near you, go and see them. Not only have they absolutely still got it but they’ll send you out into the night aglow and warmed and inspired in the way that only traditional music, connecting souls and spirits and different understandings to the universal themes that bind us all, can properly do.

*  Might not have been strictly true.

Book Review: Early Riser

After the heft of Ali Smith’s Spring, I turned for a bit of light relief to the sizable wit and immense imagination, not to say comic realisation, of Jasper Fforde, whose 14th novel, Early Riser, was published in the UK last year.

Early Riser is set in an alternative universe Wales, around Talgarth in fact, in which climate change has rendered the winters so cold that most – though crucially not all – humans have evolved to hibernate in vast dormitoria, the UK has collapsed, society is divided into haves and have nots and is based on the exploitation of a slave class, and in which the rule of the gun, and nature’s own cruelty, dispenses summary justice.

I’m not joking.

Emerging from a two-year creative hiatus – his period of scribernation – stemming from an extended period of writer’s ‘textual jam’, this is an entirely stand-alone (almost post-Ffordist) novel but one whose themes and styles will be familiar to those used to Fforde’s style and approach. Thus, there are extended use of humorous footnotes and brief paragraphs quoting from established – but entirely fictitious – reference ‘texts’; the website and the novel’s endpages feature additional material designed to entrench the reality of world which Fforde is creating; there are in-jokes, including a self-deprecatory one referencing his own writer’s block; there is curiously odd, stilted dialogue in which the characters visually look askance at one another as well as dialogue which creates deliberate pathos in service of the characterisation; there are deus ex machinae galore; the patriarchal world is turned upside down with strong women characters and references to a feminised society; the world turned upside down encompasses the advised, and government-backed, requirement for people to lay down fat reserves before falling asleep in hibernation; and there is a certain, and clearly intended, mystery about the gender identity of the lead character. The whole is written with such wit and such panache that the reader can’t help but be caught up in the self-conscious creation of an alternative universe, clearly to be held up as a mirror against our own, to which Fforde is absolutely committed.

At the same time, we have many evident contemporary socio-political references on top of a timecale that is, deliberately and joyously, both imprecise and of all time: the Wales in which the characters move features (unseen) mammoths and sabre-tooth tigers; it neighbours an ‘Albion’ of dubious cultural value and contribution; transport is by train on pre-Beeching routes; there are feared ‘villains’ drawn humorously from English Edwardian upper-classes; and there are frequent references to sweet treats of the 1970s and 1980s. Yet, there are numerous contemporary references: the monetary currency in Wales is the euro; the UK has clearly dissolved into an independent Wales (in which everyone speaks Welsh), a loosely-formed ‘Albion’ and references to a Northern Fed which may or may not encompass an independent Scotland; there is sly commentary on shadowy ‘big pharma’ and the control exercised by faceless corporates determined to push the boundaries of ethics as far as and until they are found out; there is a sub-text of exploitation closely referencing modern debates on the terms and conditions of employment of peripheral workers; and the dreamscape on which the novel centres closely embodies ‘the internet’, somehow ahead of and yet behind the characters’ level of understanding, as well as the control which numerous, but hidden, others may exercise over our movements in that world. The central notion that here is a world in which its characters are, blindly and unwittingly, and apparently care-free, sleeping through a large part of their existence, and in which those ordinary people who are asleep as well as the tiny minority of those who, extraordinarily, spend their winters awoke are largely accepting of the ethos of the world they inhabit, will not be lost on contemporary readers. And, on top of all that, there is the novel’s underpinning of a weak, wholly inadequate and pathetic response to climate change in which the redundant coalfields of Wales have been set alight as a means of dealing with the catastrophe of climate change.

This is a joyful, rumbunctious allegory of a dystopian society which is barely able to acknowledge that it has gone somehow, disastrously, wrong but in which the seeds of hope and of youthful endeavour (à la Greta Thunberg) may yet be able to save the day where we are able to overcome the limits of imagination we impose on ourselves. This is not unfamiliar Ffordian territory, but the theme here is darker, bleaker and more desperately non-human than the worlds he has created in his novels hitherto. The body count is high, weapons are high-tech and absolutely terminal, and there is a disregard for human life symptomatic of a society which has inflated corporate values and sloganeering, and the winner-take-all mentality, over social cohesion, consensus and solidarity between people. The ride is somewhat rough, and there may be question marks over the exactitudes of the plot and the motivations of the characters, but those need to be put aside in a novel whose celebratory style of writing betrays precious little of the effort which authors put in to realise their own objectives. Thank goodness, instead of laborious written accounts, for verbal podcasts and interviews – the one referenced above as well as others featured on Fforde’s own Twitter.

Observers of Westminster not least this week, and of the post-Brexit world we are now starting to (re-)create, will easily recognise the world which Fforde describes. The solution to the dystopian world into which we are now falling – in working the hard yards of building solidarity between people and collective identity afresh – are less easily recognised in a plot resolution which owes a little more to fantasy and to individual chance than I might have preferred; but this is a novel in which the identification of the clear avenues which have led a society into a disastrous situation is a more important process than the telling of a Tressellian tale about what needs to be done in response. That fight, instead, is up to us inhabitants of that contemporary world.

And, in the meantime, of course: #StopTheCoup