ToTW: I Wanna Be Vaccinated

Vaccines much in the news today again (no, not The Vaccines – Ed; though it seems they are having a bit of a re-launch, I suspect at the timely instigation of their record company) with a government consultation underway about whether workers in care homes in England (health otherwise being a devolved matter) need to have had a vaccine in order to keep their job; Denmark abandoning its roll-out programme of the AZ vaccine; while a certain publicity-shy London mayoral candidate was touting his fear of needles while nevertheless having visible tattoos (I’m not bothering to link).

The best vaccine news of the day – heard over the live! Marc Riley show on 6Music tonight (even the pre-recorded and well-used jingles sound fresher and more exuberant) – was that Jeffrey Lewis has finally got around to putting a video together for ‘I Wanna Be Vaccinated’. I blogged about the lyrics on this a while ago and it’s great to see him get around to it. Now featuring drums, bass and b-vox as well as electricity – all additions to the demo (radio) version which was just him and his guitar – as well as a somewhat slower pace of attack which lets him fit the words in even better (yes, I misheard one of the lyrics earlier), the video has little of real-life Jeffrey himself other than his hand-drawn cartoons illustrating the lyrics and delightfully capturing both the Ramones and Jeffrey himself in hand-drawn form. He’s an extremely talented man is Mr. Lewis and the cartoons – which pass inevitably quickly on first viewing – have lots of features which reveal themselves the more you view it and including, in this blogger’s view, a pretty faithful rendition of himself at the end in the style of Woody Guthrie’s own ‘Bound for Glory’ self-drawing.

Anyway, without further ado, here it is:

Still no sign of a paid-for version on Bandcamp, though if you’re quick you’ll definitely be in the first 500 viewers on YT – it was only released today! Track of the week this week, for sure.

I’m not so sure about care home workers but I reckon mayoral candidates definitely ought to have proof of vaccine before being able to stand (or going out campaigning and mixing it with the public) …

GET YOUR SHOTS!

Dear BBC…

… Well, this has all got a bit much now, hasn’t it?

Regular readers will know I’m not much* of a TV watcher so the loss of ‘Stenders or MasterChef – in respect of which the BBC set up, and then removed (it seems on the grounds of the record number received), a specific complaints page – didn’t make an awfully big dent in my life; but I am a regular, committed radio listener and the disruption to the 6Music schedules – which is still going on – does have quite a bit more of an impact on me personally. It seems to be the DJs whose presentation style is more exuberant (Craig Charles), or whose programmes are sonically different (= ‘gnarly’) (Iggy Pop, Marc Riley), who have lost their shows over the weekend and into this week, replaced by DJs whose presentational style is a little softer and, on Friday itself, by the music of modern composers (Philip Glass). While it is right to show respect – a death is always a sad occasion – I find this resort to dark, sombre tones too much. Like many others, it seems, I simply switched off.

6Music is, quite famously, ‘Radio John Peel’ with just about every programme championing some aspect of musical genres that Peel also supported. One wonders, had Peel still been alive and broadcasting (though at 81 this is perhaps a little unlikely), whether his own programme would have survived this sort of cull. Certainly in his later years the presenter of Home Front was something of a republican so the question is not entirely random. 6Music caters to a particular demographic (those less interested in mainstream music) and it’s not obvious that its regular listeners would have taken much more than a passing interest in the death of Prince Philip. Furthermore, had it wanted to do so, this demographic is also more than capable of finding appropriate sources, whether broadcast or online, from which to satisfy that interest and to pay private respect. We might wonder about the role of a rolling news channel if the scheduling of a large number of other channels is to be disrupted in the way that BBC has seen fit these last few days.

‘Damned because it did; and damned if it hadn’t’ is, I suspect, a phrase we might get to hear more often this week in relation to the BBC’s actions and certainly past next Saturday. In the midst of the culture war, and when ‘flag shagging’ has entered the popular vocabulary and sizable pictures of the Queen have started appearing on the walls of government ministers’ home broadcasts, the BBC was always going to be under a certain pressure when this sort of story occurs and it was always likely to succumb.

But there are issues here which it needs to look at. Partly, this reflects the role of TV and radio broadcasts in keeping people going in the middle of a pandemic – especially those who live alone – at a time when death has been an omnipresent concern amidst the trauma of lockdowns; and for whom this sort of disruption is an unwelcome loss of stability and important colour. It’s also, however, a question of the BBC’s obligations to its own staff. Presenters – with some historic exceptions – tend to be an uncomplaining bunch; but 6Music had, just one week before, shuffled its Saturday schedule to accommodate new young presenters who, one programme later, were experiencing either the loss of their programmes (the Blessed Madonna) or else a shifted (and extended) timeslot (Jamz Supernova). Gideon Coe, a seasoned presenter and whose programmes I enjoy, found himself in Craig Charles’s Saturday evening slot: the irony of this being his first live programme for a year (the rest – four, three-hour programmes a week – having been faithfully pre-recorded in his garden shed) could not have been lost on anyone. Tonight, he finds himself with a four-hour slot in partial replacement of Marc Riley (whose programmes are all currently pre-recorded one week in advance from his bedroom). The Covid-19 pandemic has, for radio presenters too, caused issues and difficulties amongst which the loss of live programming, when modern radio DJing is about in the moment interaction with the audience and with live acts, is clearly a painful one. Presenters – and the production teams behind them – deserve to be treated better than having their programmes junked at a moment’s notice in favour of music aimed at creating a mood. 6Music needs little encouragement to go the way of mindfulness as it is.

The other side of all this is of course the role of the public broadcaster which the BBC has in ‘bringing the nation together’. It is a mark both of the culture war in which have now been embroiled as well as the many, and very evident, fissures that the UK is now experiencing that a divided nation actually proves itself impossible to bring together over the death of a senior royal. BBC channels lost market share on Friday night while the news that Gogglebox – as I understand it, an already popular TV programme which watches people watching the telly; a sort of live action version of The Royle Family – was Friday night’s most-watched programme does not surprise: people are just not engaged by this wall-to-wall coverage. In the modern, connected world, they know where to find that content if they want it. They look to their broadcast content instead as giving them a release.

We are no longer (even if we once were) the people who can be brought together by the death of a member of the royal family and the BBC has simply got things wrong: in cancelling programmes and disrupting schedules, it seems that it is actually not so much reflecting the public mood as trying to lead it in a particular direction. Radio listeners tend to be a loyal bunch so ratings and (likely) market share losses are unlikely to last – but that’s not the point. A nation that has lost much of its deference – though we still have a long way to go with that – is no longer the nation of the forelock-tugging 1950s, however much this Brexiteer ‘Global Britain’ parliament wants it to be. I write as a parliamentary motion is just getting underway on the death of Prince Philip giving parliamentarians the opportunity to lead tributes on behalf of their mourning constituents. Despite everything else that is going on, in political as well as social life, it is the only business of the day. Looking around, I don’t actually see a nation in mourning – but I do see one whose major institutions want to portray it thus. In allowing the death of Prince Philip to dominate its scheduling, the BBC is allowing itself to be used to promote an image of a country that no longer exists and whose time is anyway long past. As someone once sang, there is no future in England’s dreaming: a long-lost (and increasingly contested) past cannot be recreated in service of a nation’s future.

All of this is, of course, likely to be being used as a dry run rehearsal for ‘the big one’. In which case, I can only wish Herself, aged 94, a (continuing) long life. Indeed, God save.

[Edited later on 12/4 to include the reference on line 3 to the story in The Guardian on the number of complaints made using the BBC form.]

Rights at work in the platform economy

Readers will know that I have been writing a regular column for Stage, Screen & Radio, the quarterly magazine of BECTU, the digital, media and entertainment arm of Prospect, for a couple of years – all the columns are linked via the specific page on this site which you can find over there on the left. I am paid for this work and the money to do that comes from the monthly subs provided by BECTU members, so I prefer to keep the columns privileged for members of the union for a while, posting them publicly up here only once the new issue of the magazine lands on members’ doormats.

That’s therefore a quarter behind and, editorial and production deadlines being quite understandably what they are, it’s usually a fair bit longer than that. That occasionally means that the column, when put up here, has been a bit caught up by events. This, dear reader, is the case with this particular one, which looks at whether platform workers are employees or contractors. This was originally written in early November last year (the US elections referenced at the outset were taking place at the time) but has now been caught up by events, firstly in the US by a lawsuit filed to overturn the Prop 22 ballot result mentioned in the article’s Intro; and secondly in the UK by the Supreme Court decision in the middle of February in the case of Uber, the driver hire business. You can read plenty more about the Supreme Court decision elsewhere, and not least in my post on the issue below; but I thought I’d post the original column in the usual way; and, for those who saw the original, this time slightly extended and with a few additional links.

What hasn’t changed is the reference to unions keeping a close eye on the situation as it continues to evolve. That remains as true this side of the Supreme Court decision as it did back then. Further, reading the text back again now, I’m also struck by the relevance of the article’s closing paragraph which hints at the importance of seeing, and using, law-provided rights as a starting point on which to build and not seeing them as in some way tradeable. Sweetheart deals – no thanks!

_____________________________________________________________________________

Whether platform workers – those who sign up to deliver services digitally, or work for delivery companies – are employees or contractors is a distinction likely to become increasingly important, not least in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

As voters cast their ballots in the US elections, in several states they were also put a series of other propositions applying to laws within their state. The US political system incorporates elements of direct democracy in which, in some states, legal initiatives can be put straight to voters.

California is one such state, with Proposition No. 22 asking whether voters wanted to support a minimal package of employment rights for those working for platform companies. The story here is complicated, but Proposition 22 essentially prevents such workers, who are not regarded as employees, from accessing a much larger range of employment rights they would otherwise have.

Regretfully, Proposition 22 – supported in a hugely expensive campaign by the big companies, like Uber – was passed by California voters.

Persuasion

Here in the UK, back in the summer before politicians started to talk once more about lockdowns, there was a concerted attempt to persuade people working from home to go back to the office. This had a number of facets. Perhaps the most interesting was the view that working from home drew attention to the notion that working in this way could subject the worker to competition from anywhere across the globe.

A large number of digital platforms offer the opportunity to work digitally – online platforms are not only for delivery, whether that be a person or a meal, but also facilitate a variety of services. Work on these platforms tends to be broken down into micro elements with workers asked to tender for each element. We are witnessing a new approach to Taylorism – the management system designed to increase efficiency by evaluating every step in a production process, breaking work down into simple microtasks – this time not on the production floor for the office. This is sometimes called ‘crowdwork’ or, more frequently, and in an unthinking corruption of the complex jobs done by BECTU members in the entertainment industry, the ‘gig economy’.

Most Prospect and BECTU members who are able to work from home are not in a situation in which their job can be – or will be – broken down into micro elements. That’s trade unionism in action, in no small part.

However, not least under Covid-19, with the gaps in government support programmes being particularly visible in our sector, the temptation clearly rises to look to such platforms as a means of ensuring continuing income during shutdowns where workers have been entirely inadequately supported.

What employment rights might you find when you get there? Well, the line in the sand for platforms seems to be that their workers are not employees, but contractors, where a lower set of rights prevails.

A question was recently put in parliament by Derek Twigg, Labour MP for Halton, whether the government would assess ‘the potential merits of providing greater protections for online platform workers using crowd work platforms.’

The answer came in a two-part way.

New protections

Firstly, a forthcoming (and long-awaited) Employment Bill (intended to set new employment rights in the post-Brexit era) would include a consideration of the options for ‘new protections’ for those in the ‘gig economy’; and, secondly, that the current strategy of the Director of Labour Market Enforcement had already recommended the government examine the threat to compliance posed by online and app-based businesses.

The Director of Labour Market Enforcement is substantially concerned with the informal economy. This actually says quite a bit about what the government thinks of people working for online platforms.

It is, however, actually quite encouraging that employment rights in the platform economy will soon be on the consultative agenda. However, we will need to watch that the big operators in the sector don’t try any California-style ‘sweetheart deals’ over here.

TotW: Jessie Buckley – Country Girl

‘Country girl / Take my hand / Lead me through / This diseased land / I am tired, I am weak, I am worn’

A song for our times – or, perhaps, for the times still yet to come; for the post-pandemic. 2021 has seen a few good tunes so far, but I heard this cover of the Primal Scream original on the joyfully-bearded Huw Stephens show, stepping in these last two weeks for the holidaying Marc Riley’s evening slot on 6Music (@11:20). It crouched, but gathered, and then just leapt at me across the airwaves accompanied by an ecstatic, celebratory, life-affirming roar.

Recovering, I dived straight for Jessie’s Bandcamp to grab a copy; but there was no artist page, so I turned next to Wikipedia which told me she’s not actually ‘a singer’ at all (which would explain the lack of a Bandcamp…), rather an actress (and with a fair amount of pedigree in TV roles) who also sings quite a bit in her acting roles. Anyway, enough of the labelling. Buckley took the title role in 2019’s BAFTA-nominated Wild Rose, from where ‘Country Girl’ comes, which is something of a paean to Glasgow and in which she plays the role of Rose-Lynne Harlan (a country name if ever I heard one), a young, somewhat troubled, working class woman trying to get to Nashville to pursue her singing dreams. Not being much* of a TV viewer and without regular access to cinema (pace the Screen Machine), the film (like the rest of Buckley’s substantial credits) has rather passed me by up to this point (though I will try and see Wild Rose now, in some sort of format, it not yet being available on the Screen Machine’s small screen offer). It was well-reviewed and there was a good amount of noise about Buckley herself in the film’s release publicity rounds, but I did take an even stronger interest when I read the plot on the Wikipedia page on the film, which includes a description of our Rose-Lynn going to Nashville where she sneaks on stage at the historic Ryman Auditorium during a backstage tour.

(Dear Reader: now, that struck something of a recollection in me since I also did exactly this (in my younger days, obvs). Only I sneaked into the Ryman building, in May 1989, underneath some scaffolding and through an open backstage door, very early on in some substantial reconstruction works going on there ahead of it becoming again a venue, which would take five years to complete, before hitching myself to what I fortuitously quickly realised was some sort of guided tour already going on right there in front of me and which included ascending up there, on that famous, enormous arc of a stage. Unlike Rose-Lynn, I didn’t sing (well, it wasn’t empty). I just looked out at those seats – the same view that Hank Williams would have had – took in the completely dishevelled and inevitably dusty atmosphere, wondered about how easily it would have legendarily reached 120F up there on the stage when it was packed on a hot summer’s night in the South, and posed a wee bit. And imagined. God, yes! Can’t say that I met Hank himself, though.)

Back to the present day, and here is Jessie Buckley with ‘Country Girl’, as seen on Wild Rose:

It’s great to see a woman sing this song, which gives the lyrics an extra dimension, and also reclaim aspects of the video filmed for the original, which left me uncomfortable (while at the same time also paying a kind of homage to it). It’s also worth checking out some of Jessie’s other songs from the film, such as ‘Born To Run‘ (no, not that one – Ed.) – she has a belter of a voice both for stompers like ‘Country Girl’ and crooners alike. And it looks as though they had great fun filming it, which is also likely to help the dynamism of any film in which you have to believe the essential realism of the world the characters inhabit.

Jessie’s backing band features Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham, also of this parish, as well as Neil MacColl, and you have to have a fair amount of chops yourself to be fronting up a band with them supplying the backing. Better still, it puts the mandolin – one of the best things about the original – closer to the front and adds some down-home fiddle. The layering and increasing stridency as the song builds its power, highlighting in the film the singer’s consideration and then definitive rejection of the internal doubts running through her (a crisis of self-doubt being something all too familiar to working class women), is a sign of great confidence not only in the material but also in the singer’s own abilities. And, if all that’s indeed your thing, and so it oughta be, I think, the Wild Rose soundtrack is out on Island Records.

TotW – Track of the Week. Likely to be an irregular, and probably not at all weekly, series of posts about new (or new to me) songs that have left me all shook up. Uh-huh-huh.

Book Review: Summer

Ali Smith’s Summer – the last in her quartet of seasonal novels – was published in August 2020. Autumn, the first, emerged in October 2016 which means that, within the life of this blog, whose first post was also October 2016, she has published four bestselling, critically-acclaimed novels. I have read – and reviewed – them all (Autumn, Winter and Spring). Smith’s is a phenomenal achievement whose origins might owe something to a long-rooted desire to produce a series of connected novels about the seasons but more so to a piece of personal misfortune – she was a year late with her manuscript for 2014’s How To Be Both, but the publisher still managed, somewhat heroically, to get the book out more or less on time. Among other things, this demonstrates something very interesting about Smith’s own writing process, of which more in a bit.

Summer, recently shortlisted for the 2020 Highland Book Prize, ties up some though by no means all the loose ends established in the earlier novels. For those with an interest in these things, others have exhaustively and painstakingly drawn the myriad links which Smith has made, connecting characters, motifs and figures in the art world, in the course of these four novels.

This one starts, however, with new characters Grace Greenlaw, recently divorced from a husband who now lives next door (interesting, but entirely coincidental, thematic echoes here of Our House which I read just previously), together with her daughter and son, Sacha (16) and Robert (13). In terms of the narrative arc, there is an entirely chance meeting with Art and Charlotte, who we met in 2017’s Winter (though this time it’s the real Charlotte), who are on a mission to reunite Daniel, the old man we met in Autumn, with something which Sophie, Art’s mother, wanted returned to him after her death. This they do. In the course of the journey, Grace and Daniel both revisit their youths, summer being a time for warm, even dreamy, recollection, her at the end of the 1980s, him in the 1940s, while the tale is spiced with latter-day notes prompted by the activism of Sacha, who is concerned not only with environmental issues but also with the fate of refugees in immigration removal centres whose story was central to 2019’s Spring. The item is returned and the tale reaches a surprisingly romantic (and, perhaps, a rather cliched) conclusion as a vehicle for Smith to relate her significant optimism and hopefulness for our future on this planet, born from the warmth of our essential humanity and the timeless things that endure about the human spirit.

The narrative arc is thus slight but, as in all the novels in this series, the point is indeed the journey not the culmination of the tale, just as summer is neither the end of the chronological year nor, indeed, is the end of the year ‘the end’ as the seasons continue rhythmically to roll around. The book, and thus the series, does have a conventional end – it would have detracted from the work had it not – but, in pointing us back towards autumn, we are reminded both of those seasonal rhythms, that eternal regeneration and the continuing evolution of the human story.

This evolution is naturally picked up via Smith’s literary reference points throughout the quartet to Shakespeare (in Summer, overtly, to The Winter’s Tale); and to Dickens (in terms of narrative genius as well as Dickens’s own writing of some of his stories, including Oliver Twist, serially for regularly published journals). Both would recognise Smith’s characters in their own times and their own tales feature recurrent human tragedies and heroism (and with a strong eye on the singular rather than the grandiose).

Smith started writing Summer at the end of January, when the Australian wildfires which wrought such devastating environmental effects were much in the news, and just as stories were coming to the attention of the western media about Covid-19, with the narrative mostly taking place in March – Summer is not set in summer, but in late spring – handing in the final manuscript as Black Lives Matters protests took to the streets (there is an understandably brief reference to the murder of George Floyd, which took place at the end of May 2020). Thus it was written entirely during the early phases of Covid-19 and there are references to the ‘sickness’ – which is unnamed – in the novel both thematically as well as in terms of the events described, both Daniel and Charlotte experiencing their own lockdown imprisonments, both physical and mental. Six weeks from manuscript to finished product, in the middle of a pandemic, is indeed another heroic achievement by Smith’s publishing team.

Writing in this highly contemporary fashion allows Smith to use literature to shine a light on our own times as well as to draw illuminating connections with events in our shared history. This not only allows her to explore the circularity of events within the human condition, but also lends a considerable topicality to her work – Daniel’s (very real) recollection of the 1940s is as the son of an unnaturalised German living in the UK, and thus interned for a period on the Isle of Man (while his beloved sister Hannah is fighting the Nazis in occupied France): events called to mind later in 2020, and which have re-surfaced recently, as the Tories have openly considered sending asylum seekers to places such as Gibraltar and, indeed, the Isle of Man for the processing of their asylum applications (an idea immediately rejected by both). Lorenza Mazetti, related to Einstein and the artist whose spirit informs this part of the quartet, and who died only as Smith was getting underway with Summer, was herself an ‘undesirable alien’ in 1950s London. More humourously, the disagreement about sourcing a Hannah Arendt quote from the internet, the subject of a debate at the start of the novel between Sacha and her mother, crossed my Twitter feed on only Wednesday this week as Deutsche Welle wondered why so many famous quotes – many of them from Einstein – are fake.

As with the rest of her novels, Smith glories in language, both verbal and non-verbal, and in playing around with words and Summer is no different – I love, for example, the fun she has here with Einstein and ein stein; while here, the opening monologue takes on, and challenges, the simple word ‘so’, in the first place as an expression of jaded, shoulder-shrugging, care-free indifference and in the second as a word as resolute, determined, programmatic and as focused on action as any verb. This love of language dominates her work and its expression here – never forced, never apparently hard work – seems to come entirely naturally to her. The revelation that she suffered during the writing of Spring from a loss of faith in what she calls ‘dialogue with the form’ – the conversation between author and novel in progress – is thus a surprising one, Spring representing for me a return to form from what I saw as an over-hasty realisation of Winter.

All artists suffer at some times from a form of “writers’ block” – that crisis of confidence in which you read, or hear, or see only the weaknesses in your work accompanied by a stymieing inability to recognise that what makes something great can also be its weakness, whether you’re a late-20s New Jerseyan taking months to get right not just the sound but the opening sound on what will turn out to be your most famous record; or a member of a production crew walking around Los Angeles at more or less the same time wearing T-shirts carrying the legend ‘Stevie’s nearly ready’. It is therefore a sign of great confidence in her own abilities that Smith took on the task of producing such a masterwork in this timeframe, as well as in bringing it to its conclusion. Artists of all kinds have to have the confidence, but also the courage, to ‘let it go’ – to let things out in the wild despite what may be imperfections and such that they stand or fall as products of their time. Smith makes such a connection between art and literature in this series; I draw a similar connection between literature and music in the same way – not that literature needs to be the rock’n’roll more than anything else does (rock’n’roll being some way from falling on its back). But, a novel is much like an album: you let it go and it may turn out to be ‘long grass by the wayside’ in ten years’ time (as Smith herself self-deprecatingly thinks likely about these volumes) or your songs may still be being sung 120 years in the future (see Nanci Griffiths’s introduction before playing track ten).

It’s partly confidence but it’s also about process. Smith is able to get novels out in this short timeframe because she re-drafts and edits as she goes. Consequently, there is no lengthy period of to-and-fro between writer and production house: what the production house gets as a final manuscript is – give or take a bit of subsequent judicious editorial intervention – what the reader holds in their hand. This ‘dialogue with the form’ is the key: books don’t ‘write themselves’, but they do go down their own roads in the process of being written, sometimes in ways that surprise their authors the most successful of whom have that confidence in the natural evolution of what they are writing. Writing is, ultimately, about your own reading.

Summer starts out as a book about forgiveness, perhaps as befits a novel whose purpose, at least in part, is to bring about some form of closure to the series. But with the pandemic raging against the background of a government whose multiple failures, weak preparation and incompetent handling, alongside PPE debacles and cronyism, allied to its catastrophic trust in a murderous herd immunity strategy, this was clearly no time for a message of ‘forgiveness’. In lesser hands, this turn of events might have implied disaster to a novel written for the here and now but Smith has skilfully turned the book into an extended consideration of the collective implications of the occurrence of a national sickness.

Far, therefore, from Summer being ‘derailed’ by the pandemic, as some readers have alleged, it is in fact made by it. This is the case not only in that the pandemic forms the essential background to the novel – which would have been written to the same timeframe whether it had happened or not – but which also provides the key hook for the key message which she allows to evolve from it – that, given Smith’s ability to juxtapose opposites and enjoy doing so: a Winter’s Tale toured in summer; lightness in the middle of darkness; happiness in the midst of sadness; protests in the face of implacable opposition; hope for the possibility of another world when this one seems to be at its worst; health (and healing) coming after sickness – we may still, despite all the signs of loss of the times in which we live, find the hope of a healing which will resolve the fractures and the fractiousness of the years in which this series of novels has been set. That we cannot truly experience joy unless we have always seen despair – that, in terms of the theatre, we carry two masks: one for comedy and one for tragedy. There is, at least, hope and, indeed, times pass as time passes. Til then, our pandemic-influenced position is, as it is for Leontes in The Winter’s Tale which Grace interprets for her colleagues in the repertory company as follows:

A blight comes down on him, on his country, from nowhere. It’s irrational, It has no source. It just happens. Like things do. They suddenly change, and it’s to teach us that everything is fragile and that what happiness we think we’ve got and imagine will be forever ours can be taken away from us in the blink of an eye. (pp. 282-3)

Smith is not for everyone – those who prefer a more linear narrative arc will find the novel’s extended flashbacks and playing around with the time sequence confusing and disorienting. Others of a less liberal mindset will find much that they will despise. Purists will hate the lack of quotation marks when characters are in dialogue. But, if you love words and enjoy the thought of watching a master writer at work, able to tell a story about the way we live in our times and, in doing so, relate much about the creative process that authors and editors experience, do engage with this: Summer, both in its own right as well as the summation and realisation of an immense literary ambition, deserves all the awards that ought to be coming its way.

Fogbow at low tide

I proudly tweeted yesterday a picture of a fogbow and people were kind enough to like it, so I thought I’d re-post it here for the non-Twitterers who read my stuff.

Here it is, taken at ten to three and just less than half an hour ahead of low tide. I’ve condensed the picture slightly by removing some unnecessary foreground scrubland and compensated by removing some area above the fogbow – with the effect of emphasising it better (and also using the fence better as a pointer). Otherwise, no other editing!

This was the culmination of several days of foggy, misty weather held tight us over locally by the relative lack of wind – today the wind is a little stronger and has shifted everything out. Or, rather, up – it remains overcast, with occasional warm glimpses of shadow.

A fogbow is formed like a rainbow, with the sun interacting with water droplets in the air which, in fog, are much smaller than when falling as rain. This small size means that, when sunlight is defracted, the colours are leached out leaving only a reddish tinge to the outer edge of the ‘bow and a bluish tinge to the inner one. The Met Office website inevitably explains it a lot better than me.

Rainbows we see a lot out here, but fogbows are a little rarer – this was actually the first I’m conscious of seeing in the wild. When they do appear, there is quite a bit of interest in them – the Western Isles Weather website has a collection of brilliant photos. Note in particular the one by Mike at An Solas Oir, which is more or less the same one as mine but from the other side, looking towards the sun whereas the sun is directly behind me in this photo.

As with the Aurora, even cheap cameras like mine can improve the image significantly compared to what the human eye sees. In real life, this wasn’t as obvious as in the photo: my eye was caught by something at first glance and it was only when looking harder (and slightly away) did the shape come together out of the fog and take on a bit of solidity. A few minutes later and the sun had dispelled some of the fog, creating stronger sunlight, a hint of blue sky above and, thus, the opportunity for a photo. Even then, it was impossible to see an image on the camera’s LCD screen – it was somewhat ‘point and hope’, lining up just enough of the headland on the left to ensure some sort of ‘fit’. And – fingers crossed!

Elsewhere, there are signs of spring and of hope, not least with the timetable to Scotland, and these islands, emerging from lockdown becoming a little clearer; and, with no new cases anywhere now for ten days, and the vaccination programme extended now to those aged 40+ likely taking us, on the basis of average age, to a figure of over half the population having at least one jab, a collective sigh of relief, a release of long-held breath, is beginning to become evident. Nature, ever good at supplying symbols – or perhaps it’s just us who are ever good at re-interpreting them – supplied us with the first open daffodil today; the rest remain a breath of spring – but they’re coming. Prospective gale force winds or not.

Book Review: Our House

Our House, the twelfth book by Louise Candlish, was published in 2018 and was well-garlanded following publication, not least being selected as the British Book Award’s 2019 Crime and Thriller Book of the Year.

Set in the fictional London district of Alder Rise, which may or may not be the Herne Hill of the author’s own residence, or perhaps somewhere just a little further south-east, it features Fi and Bram Lawson, a forty-somethings husband and wife with two young children living in upwardly-mobile suburbia whose outward appearances, as is well established in literature, are not as they seem (and which is very well-captured on the hardback cover of the UK version). The house of the title is the source of the couple’s invisible wealth but visible relationship stresses, as well as the device around which the plot revolves: we learn in the first few pages that the house has been sold without Fi’s knowledge with the guilty party apparently her husband; the questions that remain are to do with the whats and the whys which are successively peeled back in the novel’s pages as the two relate their post-event stories of their rapidly-evolving relationship in the first place via a podcast called ‘The Victim’ and secondly via a Word document which, we quickly learn, is a self-confessed suicide note. These are interspersed with brief, in the moment, accounts of Fi’s developing horror as what has happened to her becomes evident, alongside comments from the Twitterati listening along to her podcast.

Now, I don’t read a lot of crime stuff but this looks to me to be well set-up as a highly plausible cautionary tale about property and aspiration as well as being probably somewhat unusual in the genre in that the thriller aspects lie not in uncovering the identities of victim and perpetrator but in the explanations of their behaviour. It’s certainly a page-turner and this is a tribute to the gripping descriptions of the initial set-up as well as the step-by-step reveals of how the main characters have got to this point. The ending, containing also a moral message albeit somewhat confused in a contemporary setting, is quite breathtaking and which will leave the reader with a strong sense of melancholy. Ultimately, this is a novel about how little we too often know about those with whom we set up our lives, not least in the light of the ‘laws’ of attraction between people, where Candlish has some interesting things to say; and it provides some interesting contrasts between our tendency to share so much of our lives online, increasing our own vulnerabilities, and the ease with which fraud can take place both in the property sense and in terms of the ease with which men and women can choose to cheat each other.

There are, however, several difficulties, betraying the period of writing coinciding while the author was partially out of contract and, perhaps, with her mind on other issues. The book is under development for a four-part TV series now in production for ITV and due to be filmed this summer; and it will be interesting to see how the scriptwriter resolves these for TV.

Leaving aside some of the plot twists, which owe a remarkable amount to chance, this ought, firstly, to be a character study. Our sympathies may – and indeed should – shift as the accounts slowly reveal motivations and explanations; voice and the reliability of witness are important elements of a good crime novel. However, the characters are not only shallow in their obsessions but also rather shallowly drawn to the point where the reader realises that they actually care rather too little about either one. This makes it impossible for those sympathies to develop, or to shift. That’s not to say, however, that there aren’t occasional elements of real pathos affecting not least Bram, or sadness about poor choices affecting not least Fi, or a sense of bewilderment about their inabilities to communicate with each other. Secondly, the set-up of the novel ought to see it evolve as a psychological thriller; certainly it has some psychological elements but it contains too little in the way of the sustained sense of threat which would contribute to our growing understanding of why they act as they do (and which underpins the YouTube video made in support of the publication). This is partly a function of the author’s rather weak characterisation – had these been drawn deeper, psychological terror could have take a stronger root – but it also reflects the manner of the telling of the tale: step-by-step reveals told in reflective flashback do miss the terror of the motivations for actions as described in the moment.

The structure of the tale is somewhat odd. It’s not that the book is, at 435 pages, too long – although that is one criticism that has been levelled at it but which I suspect stems more from fans of a genre in which pace and mystery is key. Fi’s ‘The Victim’ podcast, however, stretches out over three hours. Now, I absolutely defy anyone to listen to a three-hour podcast – I top out at about an hour and it takes a lot for interest to be sustained over much more than about forty minutes. However ‘interesting’ other people’s ‘true-life’ stories are to fans of this sort of thing, I simply don’t believe that Fi’s podcast would still have listeners at the two-hour mark, let alone three. Bram’s Word document, we learn towards the end, has been written over a period of six weeks surely qualifying it, at least in literary terms, as the longest suicide note in history. The problem is not that these as vehicles for a tale are poor in themselves – they demonstrate an eye for a structural hook – but they are clearly inappropriate vehicles for the amount of detail the author wishes to convey. Additionally, at key points in the text, Twitter threads developed from the listeners’ comments could have acted as a kind of Greek Chorus, prompting deeper reflections in the reader, but they are used more to generate light relief and, while the author might have had a bit of fun with them, they turn out to be rather tiresome, adding simply too little.

Additionally, the essential set-up for the novel’s denouement also contains weaknesses – it’s not actually clear why Bram chooses ultimately to go through with his scheme – while the key event in the middle of the novel is poorly described and, as a result, somewhat hard to visualise. These are rather basic plot development faults which an author of this experience ought to have ironed out by now.

We are left with a well-conceived tale which has an interesting twist in its conclusion and which spirals outwards from a very well-conceived, imaginative starting point. The middle of the journey – the story’s engine room – is, unfortunately, not as well captured as it ought to have been and this leaves it with an absence at its core which is as full of emptiness as the couple’s obsession with property rather than with each other. As much as concern about property ownership might have lain at the heart of Candlish’s purpose in developing and writing the work, the nature of the development between the praiseworthy start and end points leaves the reader with a sense of disappointment.

A song of our times

I tweeted earlier this week, after Dolly Parton received the Modena jab that she had also helped to fund, that Jeffrey Lewis, the New York artist, had covered and updated The Ramones, ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ for our times (and shortened it – at least in terms of time: Jeffrey does have the ability to spit out lyrics in very short order while playing a guitar – an immense skill for someone like me who can (only) do one thing at once). Faced with being awake at an entirely atypically early hour, and in honour of it being a ‘Bandcamp Friday‘, I thought I’d spend the time scribbling out his lyrics. So, here they are:

I Wanna Be Vaccinated

I’m making an appointment for the Covid drug

I wanna be vaccinated

It’s been a year since I gave my friends a hug

I wanna be vaccinated

Living in dystopia is losing all its charm

I’m sick of rising numbers, paranoia and alarm

So hurry, hurry, hurry and just stick it in my arm

Oh Oh Oh Oh – Oh Oh

I never see my family or attend a movie theatre

I wanna be vaccinated

But that now all seems normal and that makes it even weirder

I wanna be vaccinated

Let seniors and essential workers get it in advance

Then although I’m scared of needles, man, just give me half a chance

I’ll be rolling up both shirt sleeves and be pulling down my pants

Oh Oh Oh Oh – Oh Oh

Bah bah bah bah bah – Bah Bah Bah Bah

I wanna be vaccinated

<key change>

Bah bah bah bah bah – Bah Bah Bah Bah

I wanna be vaccinated

I wanna stand around with friends and look like a Ramone

I wanna be vaccinated

If you’re an anti-vaxxer, Cool! you can stay at home

I wanna be vaccinated

Science is the coolest thing about the human race

So let’s keep spreading the safety and keep picking up the pace

‘Cos I miss having a life and I miss having a face

Oh Oh Oh Oh – Oh Oh

Bah bah bah bah bah – Bah Bah Bah Bah

I wanna be vaccin-a-ted

That line about anti-vaxxers just makes me smile! A somewhat better effort, I think, than Dolly’s ‘Don’t be such a chicken squat. Get out there and get your shot’ (from The Guardian article in the first link). Though full applause for Dolly, all the same.

If you can’t pick up the tune, it is, of course, to this absolute and indeed now visionary classic:

Jeffrey’s version, recorded in his ‘Pandemos’ series, is still not out yet (hurry, hurry, hurry!) but you can pick up a copy of ‘Keep It Chill (In the East Vill.)’ – an earlier lockdown special and with *a lot* more lyrics- at his bandcamp. So do stop by and at least hear Jeffrey’s style.

Like all net-based platforms, Bandcamp is not immune from criticism but, in music industry terms, its fair trade music policy does mean much more of what you pay them for your music goes direct to the artists – typically 80-85 per cent. On ‘Bandcamp Fridays’ – like today – that share rises to 100 per cent. So go on – give it a go. You can try (sometimes selected songs, sometimes the whole work) before you buy, so you have nothing to lose – and struggling artists have everything to gain.

Right. Now off to make a mug of coffee. And then brew some beer.

Spring at low tide

Here we are already – the last day of February. It’s been a fairly tough month with consistent high winds, including a couple of storms that have seen winds of 80+mph here on the Range, with an impact including the destruction of the roof of a neighbour’s polytunnel (pic may be to follow) as well as large amounts of rainfall that have left the ground saturated and animals struggling – though the regular deliveries of hay to the neighbour’s sheep seem to have provided ample compensation for grass that is still brown and lacking in nutrition.

It can’t have been pleasant to be out in, though – and hats off to all the crofters in Iochdar that are out in all weathers, checking on and feeding animals. I don’t have animals (even if we do seem currently to be minding a couple of woolly escapees from a neighbour) so, with lockdown on top, I’ve anyway been staying in – although the lack of posts this month perhaps points to a volume of work (and I have indeed also been busy).

Yesterday and today, though, you could have been forgiven for thinking it was the first day of spring, with a warmth to the sun, the sky a healthy tint of blue and the wind dropping below 15mph. Yesterday lunchtime was a low tide – not quite at its lowest but pretty much so ahead of what will be spring tides tomorrow and Tuesday, and it gave us a good chance to get out and blow a few of winter’s cobwebs away. Here’s a selection of snaps taken just about half an hour to an hour after low tide and when we could walk out a long way before hitting the water, where the soft sands of Mol Mòr give way to a more clay-like texture and to limpet-covered rocks that probably don’t get their share of Vitamin D.

Paired-up Herring Gulls (still on the lookout, just in case)

Sanderling in flight

Hollows in the sand, sculpted by the waves

A natural reflecting pool

Surf crashing on the rocks off Rubha Hornais

And back home where Spring is, well, springing

Plenty of time for more bad weather yet – no chickens being counted here and, if it’s true that March comes in like a lamb but out like a lion, there’ll be plenty more to keep the crofters occupied and their minds on their animals.

Uber is, after all – and as we know – an employer

This morning’s Supreme Court judgment that workers employed by Uber are, in fact, workers rather than people operating on an entirely bogus self-employed basis is welcome. Uber has been getting away with this kind of regulatory arbitrage for too long and the unions – both mainstream (GMB) and grassroots (the app drivers union) – as well as the officers and representatives, and members, responsible for bringing it to the very top of the UK court system deserve praise and congratulations.

The simple lesson is that unions work – do join one.

The Supreme Court ruled that Uber drivers are workers because:

  • Uber sets the fares and the drivers have no say
  • the contractual terms under which they work are dictated by Uber
  • while drivers are free to log in and out of the app as they choose, their choice of whether to accept rides is constrained by Uber
  • Uber exercises a significant degree of control over how drivers offer their services via specifying age, colour and condition of their car; as well as the route they need to take to carry the passenger. The approval ratings system also has something to say here, too
  • Uber restricts communication between passenger and driver to the minimum necessary to perform the trip; Uber handles all the co-ordination between driver and passenger.

As a consequence of these facts, the Supreme Court agreed with the conclusion of the original employment tribunal that Uber drivers were ‘workers’. The Supreme Court also ruled that Uber drivers were working whenever they were logged in not, as Uber had argued, whenever they accepted a trip request. This important finding in relation to the operation of the working time regulations means that Uber drivers are entitled to the minimum wage in respect of periods when they are logged-in to the app but not engaged on trips. Uber, while now licking its wounds, is clearly thinking about what to do next.

The UK court decision came shortly after a Dutch court decision ruling earlier this week (in Dutch) that employees there of Deliveroo, the courier-based food delivery operator, were also employees on the grounds of the control to which they were subject while at work administered through the (in)famous company algorithm which allocates tasks and which controls ‘the line’ between the production of food and the couriers bringing it to customers’ front doors.

It’s also an important tribute to the work of the UK court system – the lower level specialist courts (the employment tribunal and the Employment Appeal Tribunal) got this decision entirely right, as did the Court of Appeal. Uber has lost at each of the four stages of the UK court system, and all three of the appeals (on how each lower court had applied the law) that it was permitted to make. The decision of the UK court system is, as a result, entirely clear – and this will be important in the future.

This is indeed welcome news for a Friday – but, on Saturday, the hard work comes.

Firstly, the UK court decision is that Uber drivers are ‘workers’ – a slightly strange ‘halfway house’ in UK law which distinguishes between employees on the one hand and self-employed people on the other and, in the middle, the self-employed who are offering their services as part of a business carried on by others. The ACAS website has a helpful summary of the differences between the different classes but, essentially, while ‘workers’ are entitled to some rights of employment, they are not entitled to all and, importantly, they are excluded from unfair dismissal laws, from protection against redundancy and from paid sick leave and parental leave. Furthermore, those employed on zero hours contracts, working ‘as and when’, are frequently classed as ‘workers’. Those gaps (still) need closing.

Secondly, as my colleague Steve Jary, National Secretary for aviation and defence for Prospect, tweeted this morning: the absence of the long-awaited Employment Bill on workers’ rights after Brexit may now be shortened and may well include a clause reversing this judgment. Court decisions are an important source of protection when it comes to rights – but they are only ever interpretations: statute law always comes first and will set aside court judgments. We know that the Director of Labour Market Enforcement Strategy – a government office in charge of investigating compliance with labour market laws, chiefly in connection with the informal economy – is already suggesting action on app-based businesses, which gives a direct feed into whatever the government intends to do about this. We can expect the government to be taking an interest not least because one of the stated reasons for Brexit is that the EU’s regulatory approach is ‘too precautionary’ (£) and that, not least in new economy sectors, businesses need to be ‘set free’ from regulation to innovate further. This is where the clarity of the Supreme Court judgment is really important – there is no ‘confusion’ here for which legislation is necessary in order ‘to clarify’.

Furthermore, Prop 22, a pro-platform ‘gig economy’ law which was consulted on in California in last November’s US elections was passed with support from Uber, Lyft and other platforms in a campaign costing them collectively north of $200m. The venture capitalists funding these platforms – which are perennial eaters of money – have deep pockets in pursuit of monopoly rents and we can now expect similarly intensive, and expensive, lobbying efforts to be made here too to ensure the Employment Bill reverses the decision. Uber will come out of this fighting – and the other platforms will join it.

Thirdly, platform companies are at the forefront of a ‘new world of work’ in which their workers are the guinea pigs. What working conditions are ‘enjoyed’ by platform workers today will, over time, become the new standard for workers in conventional companies elsewhere. This is not only a question of legislation but active defence and pushback in practice. Aspects of working life through the pandemic – with greater use of surveillance software on computers to check what workers are doing while working at home – is one aspect of this while another is to ensure that there is a ‘right to disconnect’ – a right to downtime and non-work time. This is crucially important as the pandemic has trapped us into an existence in which we not only live at home but work from there and, indeed, get our meals delivered there, too.

Finally, there is also a warning for trade unions here, too. It’s not enough to win court judgments – active mobilisation of the workers involved is also extremely important: indeed, the two must go hand-in-hand. This goes well beyond exhortations to join a union and traditional organising efforts. These are fundamental – but, to coin a phrase, they are only ever the basis of trade unionism and they are not enough by themselves. This is about hearts and minds and engagement around actually doing something. It’s quite painful for some of us to realise that the logic of collective action (Colin Crouch) is not all about orienting people towards ‘the agreement’ (Hugh Clegg) but, actually, about the logic of mobilising workers to strive for something; nevertheless, this is an important realisation which must be made. Mobilising is about workers getting out and doing something together, not about joining a union with the promise that something might happen (tomorrow, later) to improve your terms and conditions if more of you join. Gains won in courts, and in agreements, must not only be defended but advanced and ‘staircase’ agreements (reached with a view to establishing an agreement in an employer with a view to improving it) will not function unless workers are not only organised but mobilised; not just collectivised by being brought into the union but actively engaged in entrenching gains and then extending them. Mobilisation is where grassroots unions score heavily – though it is clear also that winning Supreme Court cases is likely to require the support, not to say advice, of a mainstream union.

In short, this is a great win – but it is absolutely not the beginning of the end. The hard work must start now.

EDIT 22/2/21 to put right the previous version’s incorrect inference about drivers’ entitlement to the minimum wage; and to correct the name and affiliation of the grassroots union involved in bringing the action.