Book review: Companion piece

Companion Piece, Ali Smith’s novel published earlier this year, does exactly what it says on the tin: it is, in one sense, a companion piece to her 2016-2020 seasonal quartet (all reviewed at various points below) dealing, as it did, with themes of aspects of the appearance of modern Britain (though this is much shorter); it looks and feels similar to that series, with a paper fold around the hardback version conveying a Hockney painting, this time featuring a wood rather than a single tree; and there is a long-lost artist embedded within its pages, too (here: Frances Holmes Boothby – I did indeed do exactly as suggested and googled it, dear reader (p. 13), of course I did – an artist who was ‘part of a small group of artisan jewellers… during the mid-20th century… [whose] designs were characterised by natural forms such as… eccentric-looking birds with long, spindly wire legs‘. On top of all that, with a theme centred on humanity living with Covid-19, which just about crept into Summer as ‘the sickness’, it is about our search to re-learn the tools and techniques of companionability, following isolation and the associated closure of the places in which we socialise and make a ‘happy noise’ (p. 117) together; and the need of many of us to learn how to be together again.

Other than sharing those themes – and like the individual volumes in the seasonal quartet, too – this is otherwise a self-contained novel with a reasonably linear narrative told predominantly from a single voice: Sandy, an artist and seeker after solitude whose oeuvre includes the painting of the lyrics to poems, one on top of another, and sometimes back to front, receives a call from Martina, an old, and barely remembered, college ‘less than acquaintance’ who has a story to tell about her recent trip abroad with the Boothby Lock, a historical artefact and museum piece; with the circumstances of her return leading to her hearing a whispered injunction which appears to be ‘curlew or curfew: you choose’, the mysticism of which has driven her so wild with being unable to find meaning in it that she contacts Sandy – whose skill at deconstructing meaning in poems lay behind what little contact they had in college – for an interpretation, which Sandy provides. Sandy, in return, both grateful for the distraction that the out of the blue call provides as well as intrigued by the possibilities it presented, goes on to spin Martina a story about a recent, and mystical, visitor to her house: a waif, apparently a time traveller, carrying a long-beaked bird, of some type, and who also tells her a story revealing herself in the process to be no stranger to modern vernacular.

Martina’s personal reaction to Sandy’s story, which largely occurs off the page, then involves her 20-something grown-up children, Covid-19 denialists and also both still looking for meaning and their place, as well as being potential carriers of Covid-19, descending regardless on Sandy’s house and privacy, invading both with the language and customs, and the knowledge and expectations, and demands, of youth. Sandy, whose elderly father had been rushed to hospital with heart problems, reacts with patience, wry humour and no little engagement, but also physical distance, seeking to preserve her ability to visit her father, once visiting restrictions are lifted, so as not to bring an illness of another type to him.

A curlew, now much endangered and facing their own curfew (p. 118), but a frequent visitor to the bay, pictured here last month with some small waders for competition companionability

Around this narrative, Smith works her normal magic which will, according to the reader’s tastes, enthrall, frustrate or plainly annoy. There are excursions a-plenty; there are word plays (which Smith sees as both having a ceremonial history as well as being hereditary); there are observations on the way we live our lives and which act as social (and political) commentary; there is meaning that shifts the ground from under the readers’ feet; there is impossibility and imagination and the supernatural rendered real; and there is mischief, with the hand of the author visibly intervening to resolve aspects of the tale which bring the stories together. There are ends left untied – for, as Sandy observes, in the motto which has become that of Companion piece itself, ‘…a story is never an answer. A story is always a question’ (p. 155). Above all, it is endlessly inventive, whether this be in conjuring a history for Frances Holmes Boothby’s designs or in its joy of language and of story-telling. The beauty of Smith’s work is that the reader, journeying through the book, is never quite sure where they are and, on finishing it, not quite sure whether what they’ve read is truly real and, indeed, precisely where they’ve been other than that the journey has been engaging and fantastical and one which, ultimately, may well have revealed to them a truth or two about their own lives.

Sometimes, that truth may be one of the circularity of things: the park where Sandy walks her father’s dog in his absence has been grown over the top of a medieval plague pit; the parents and then the guardians of the waif who visits Sandy had all died of the Black Death, coughing themselves to death. Thus does time collapse (in one place in the novel quite literally), revealing the issues that we are preoccupied with today – such as the health effects of pandemics, women in the workplace and in society – as concerns with which humanity has been confronted before, whether it be several centuries ago or just a few decades. At the same time, however dark the times and however dark the individual circumstances of the artist in question, human creativity still manages to bring us something beautiful: a sign of the hope which is manifest in Smith’s work. Indeed, for her, hope is a ‘tightrope across a ravine’; and one that is, indeed, ‘as sharp as a knife blade’.

The structure of the work is extremely interesting: divided into three parts entitled ‘you choose’, ‘curlew’ and ‘curfew’, Companion piece resembles one of Sandy’s paintings in its layering of meaning out of words, although I wouldn’t agree with some reviewers that it could be read, section by section, back to front (I did so, as a second reading): the linear nature of the core narrative, and Sandy’s father’s illness, makes it a different book when the sections are read in reverse order. At the same time, we owe it to the artist writer to address the book in the order in which she has also chosen to present it.

This might not be, as the reviewer in The Guardian also comments, a work of auto-fiction, with Smith appearing in the novel as Sandy, but there is an early, apparent self-reference (‘I didn’t care what season it was… I even despised myself for that bit of wordplay, though this was uncharacteristic, since all my life I’d loved language, it was my main character, me its eternal sidekick.’) (p. 4/5). There is also a reference to Sandy being intrigued by Martina’s story on the grounds that tick many of the political themes explored in Smith’s seasonal quartet (p. 24); although it is not as though Sandy would be alone in despising the ‘inept and callous’ (p. 30) actions of this government. This might be just about as close as we might get to Smith appearing as herself in her own book – she has said in one interview (from 2021) that ‘very little’ of her fiction is autobiographical, that ‘very rarely’ had she tried to write autobiographically, statements that we should probably take at face value. Apart from this appearance of writer-as-character, if Smith is in here at all, however, I would insist that it is in the abstract personage of the waif – herself a smith – who may well have been the creator and the maker of the Boothby Lock.

Smith’s choice of Hockney paintings for her cover serves her well: the wood in the painting, through which she walks both with her father and in which she gets lost while out taking exercise and thinking about how to react to Martina’s story, serves as metaphor both for the disorientation of ageing as well as providing the verbal context of the progress of her father’s recovery. Like him, we as a nation may not yet be out of the woods but the ending – a gloriously, exquisitely painful one full of bright positivity, suggests Smith’s belief that our essential, enduring character (and the simple word ‘hello’, which echoes through the novel) is one that will, some day, take us there. That there can, and will, indeed be ‘better days, and possibilities of positive change’.

Once, it seems, we ourselves have chosen to remove a government in which we have ceased to trust and the sheer malicious presence of which might well make us wonder whether we had hallucinated it.

Gig review: Aly and Phil not quite in our village this time

The last time I saw these two absolute legends was in our own Talla an Iochdair, in September 2019, not long before lockdown. We had to travel a bit further than the end of our road this time, across as far as Talla Chàirinis in North Uist, which is a whole different island and across two causeways (with thanks to kind neighbours Robert and Isbel for the lift). The event featured as part of this year’s Ceòlas symposium, whose events have, apparently inevitably and like others (like the big cup final between Iochdar Saints and Barra that same afternoon), been somewhat disrupted by current events.

There was no stopping Aly and Phil, though, who had arrived on Uist that afternoon via Stornoway (and a ferry and a causeway) and whose September Hebridean tour seems to be a regular part of the (non-lockdown) calendar – the previous event was September too, and I can recall at least one visit taking place in September (2018, perhaps).

A local tune (‘The Shores of Loch Bi’), together with associated repartee ‘Where is Loch Bi?’ (pause for audience response) ‘I think it’s quite close to Loch A’) set the tone for the evening, being reflective and elegiac, with the first part of the gig taking place against the setting sun, the hall’s location providing a gorgeous view of the sunset over reed-filled lochs. Indeed, Phil was so taken by the scene he had popped out before the gig to take a picture; before spending the whole of the first half scratching bare forearms between numbers (you’ll need to remember the Smidge next time, Phil!).

The boys have a new album – No Rush – to promote, a typically carefully-curated collection featuring tunes from diverse sources and countries and including the pen of Phil himself, whose title references both some of the slower numbers that they play in their sets as well as their own general, and quite astonishing, lack of recordings together.

The album should have been released in 2020 and, well, we all know what happened then – No Rush also calls to mind the delay to releases and promotional tours occasioned by the pandemic. Aly is now 76 (and Phil 62) and, at this stage, and with their own health problems, this two-year delay could have potentially been fatal. We’re lucky to have them as well as other musicians whose life is performing on the stage for an audience. Lockdowns were costly for people whose livelihoods depend on performing but also, in terms of mental health, who love being on stage and in social settings. And for whom DIY failings as a means of filling the time without a gig to go to could have spelled catastrophe!

As always, the banter between the numbers provided highlights as the musicians rested, cracks about Aly’s health (‘on his 76th birthday, all his doctors came out to applaud him’), his recent marriage (where, at 76, he continues to be an inspiration to us all), Phil in the Unst bus shelter and reminiscences about appearing at Balmoral and conversing with Her Majesty about the intricacies (or not…) of playing respectively accordions and fiddles among them. After 36 years of playing together, there is an instinctive feel to their mutual playing which only comes from practice in a live setting – make no mistake, these are not so much recording artists as practising musicians – and around which they have reached an accommodation of each other’s on-stage foibles; but they’re also very comfortable with each other’s presence, gentle pats of each other at the end of each number standing for both re-assurance, thanks and congratulations. You can’t bottle that and put it on a CD.

As well, of course, of an immense repertoire of songs to pick from and to remember how to play. While jigs and reels also featured (recalling the ‘diddly pish’ of one bold Aberdeen taxi driver ferrying Phil to a gig one night), it was the slower numbers that took centre stage, with ‘Song for Liam’, ‘Irish Beauty’,’Lightly Swims The Swan’ and a Strathspey by the famous fiddle player Scott Skinner (may well have been ‘Hector the Hero’, which also features on the album*) being particular stand-outs and which pay tribute to their own advancing years: sombre in tone they might have been, yet never mournful and still capable of absolutely ripping it up. We got ‘Jean’s Reel’, of course, with Phil living up to his promise to play this tune at every gig he plays (not sure he’d get away without it – it would be like Springsteen turning up and failing to play ‘Born To Run’) and while ‘Hangman’s Reel’ was missing this time, Aly more than made up for it, his virtuosity to the fore re-creating on his fiddle the sounds of retreating horses, snorting in panic, on ‘Bonaparte’s Retreat’.

They’re still on tour largely in the north of Scotland for much of the rest of September but, if they’re not coming near you, do yourself a favour, buy the album and share a flavour of performing musicians still at the top of their game and grateful to be out and about again doing what they do best: bringing live music, and memories, and romance, and dreaming, to the people. In that, more power to their elbows.

Oh yes – and Phil is still wearing the same checked shirt.

[EDIT later the same day: having now heard the album, it was.]

A little word-le science

I posted some months ago about my early experiences with Wordle, the word guessing game, and I thought, rather than go outside and enjoy probably the last days of summer, today being the last day of meteorological summer as well as the last forecast day of 18C+ temperatures and wall-to-wall sunshine here on the Range, that I’d do another.

Firstly, I’ve now got 200 attempts under my belt so that’s a database of over 1,000 letters; and, secondly, the game has started asking ‘are you sure you had the best starting word?’ when giving you your results, which piqued a bit of interest.

The distribution of letters in my database now looks like this (in terms of the distribution, it has actually changed hardly at all with the addition of this next 100 words):

I’ve taken the scale off: what is most important is the relationships between the letters (E now has over 100 ‘points’ – i.e. it’s in one in every other Wordle). Indeed, E is in a bit of a class of its own, and there is quite a steep drop to the next group (A, O, R, T and L). Following that, I, S, N, H and C are all reasonably similar (although note that S is not much more than half as common as E) as – and much more so – are P, M, U, Y and G. After that, there are only the ugly letters chief among which, and surprisingly lowly, is D. In my attempts – there are some gaps – J is yet to be seen although the similarly unlikely ones of X, Z and Q have put in appearances.

I maintain this list in order to check whether my own starting word – there is evidence to suggest that some 25% of Wordle players start with the same word – was valid. I started with ‘raise’ (prompted by other lists of most-used letters) before switching, around the time of my post above, to ‘stare’ which appeared to be marginally more likely (in the sense that it scored slightly higher). Actual out-turn experience was that it was considerably worse: my average score for the ‘stare’ attempts 100 was 3.93, a considerable drop on ‘raise’s’ 3.77, aided not least by S appearing only once in the last twenty Wordles I attempted. Indeed, as the chart shows, my 2s and 3s have swapped to 3s and 4s (and the 2s in the ‘stare’ set were all but one in the first ten days), with 4s now, for the first time and to my chagrin, outnumbering 3s:

5s and 6s both scoring the same under both words is, perhaps, a small element of ‘proof’ that Wordle is not becoming harder; what does seem to be the case, however, is that there are more instances of needing to engage in guesswork where there are any number of possible combinations: today’s Wordle (# 438) was a prime example where, with the 3 core letters in place after go 2, I identified no fewer than 7 (actually it was 8…) that could have filled the other two slots. Accepting success after six goes would fit (four remaining goes for two remaining letters) – but the goal is to do it in as few goes as possible and, hence, the prospect of a trade-off between a guaranteed ‘success’ and getting it in four or less.

I usually attempt what is called the ‘hard’ version (i.e. if you have information about a letter, you have to use it in subsequent guesses) but so many options arising from so many letters, and no information about the likely choices and preferences of the word setter (which may be an algorithm and, as such, in this context, has no preferences at all), the only strategy is to abandon this (which would otherwise amount to pure guesswork based on position in the hierarchy) and to waste a couple of goes in trying to narrow the options by submitting attempts based on using as many of those letters as possible. This, I think, explains why I have a lot more 4s on my stats than I used to. Not harder, exactly, but certainly more challenging. Not to say frustrating.

So I clicked on the link prompted by the game’s question, and it took me to the New York Times‘s own bot which – after you’ve completed each attempt – will tell you what you should have done instead. There is, perhaps, some learning points in that although it seems to me that, in the short-run, it’s likely to increase the frustration.

On further investigation, bots to help you with Wordle have, it seems, been around for a while. This one by the NYT, launched on 17 August, is version 2.0 of one the paper originally launched in April (site requires registration; so do have a look at a Tech Radar article on it instead). Others are around too – including this one from January, a little while after I started playing, based on the database of all the Wordles then planned in Josh Wardle’s original version of the game – while there are other bots, on GitHub, in different ‘stores’, with their own Twitter accounts…

It didn’t take committed Wordle players long to realise that the NYT’s revised bot had changed the ‘preferred’ starting word from ‘crane’ to ‘slate’ (and, in the hard version, from ‘dealt’ to ‘least’). This was a little puzzling as ‘crane’ doesn’t appear on my list of most likely starting words (‘slate’ does, though it’s not at the top and, actually, ranks a little lower than ‘stare’) and, with D being so low (currently), I would never have regarded ‘dealt’ as viable (and it also has E in a sub-optimal place). ‘Least’, though, is a goer as far as my database is concerned although it actually ranks a little lower than the new word I’m testing (‘arose’ scores the highest of any word I can find from among these most used letters that doesn’t repeat a letter: ‘rater’/’treat’ and ‘aorta’, however, otherwise all score higher).

Early experience of ‘arose’, however, is not so good – a 5 yesterday and a 6 today is a pretty poor start for a word that out to be better than both ‘raise’ and ‘stare’, although it is perhaps a bit too early to tell. In both cases, I’ve abandoned the ‘hard’ version to explore other letter combinations, sacrificing numbers to minimise the number of failures.

For those who have a two-word starting strategy – i.e. to identify letters in each day’s word from among the most well-used – ‘arose’ followed by ‘glint’ looks to me to be currently the optimal (words have to be in the dictionary; and no blanks are allowed). ‘Plinth’ would be better, as would ‘areole’ but there is an obvious fault with these… [EDIT 1/9/22: NB it let me have ‘clint’ this morning, which scores much better.]

My stats show 74% of (correct) attempts solved in four goes or fewer (I also have five Xs) so I’m not too far off the 80% on Nathan Friend’s bot. I could do with a few more 3s, though, just to restore the balance, so a bit more luck or, otherwise, a bit more application of science would be nice.

Phew! That was close…

… we were in serious danger of summer breaking out on the Range just then. After all, 19C is pretty close to 20C – and so it was indeed a ‘summer’-long high. Here’s the mid-day view, just about half an hour off what was quite a low tide:

And the sunset was pretty good, too, with that bit of cloud in the Met Office record proving useful for the sun to bounce a few rays off. Here’s one taken at 2039, thus just after actual sundown:

And yes – the conditions made standing outside snapping a few photos an absolutely midgetastic experience. Though the martins flying over Ruaridh’s barns earlier in the evening (just off left of the above pic) certainly weren’t complaining: there must have been at least two dozen flying around and filling up (and I can’t recall ever seeing as many here on South Uist). As night falls, and the air remains absolutely still, broken only by the occasional bleats from lambs, which resonate and carry, and then engender responses from lambs on other crofts, the thought remains that, even though the summer bank holiday in Scotland is long gone, there might still be a bit of life in summer yet.

Book review: Harlem Shuffle

‘You move it to the left, yeah / Then you go for yourself / You move it to the right, yeah / If it takes all night’

Bob and Earl’s classic, and still influential, song is contemporary with the latter third of Colston Whitehead’s 2021 novel; and its opening lines stand as something of a watchword for the central figure in the story, Ray Carney, Harlem furniture store owner and upwardly mobile son of Big Mike, a successful crook in his day (and whose no doubt ill-gotten stash of cash is the foundation of Ray’s business). Carney is not only a furniture store owner, but he’s also not averse to shifting on stolen gear which contacts in his network – chiefly Freddie, his hapless cousin – happen to bring his way.

Here in one, we have Colston’s set-up for his story, i.e. that there are three basic lessons in life. Number one: getting on means that engaging in a little hustle is unavoidable (in the words of Hard-Fi’s Cash Machine: ‘I live an honest life / It seems like sometimes / You don’t cross the line, you don’t get / By’ – not as fanciful a link as it seems since Whitehead’s interest in post-punk may indeed have led him to Staines’s finest). Number two: that escaping family traditions can be a little hard. And number three: that, while you can’t escape your skin colour, getting on in life means different things to people and that, sometimes, the games are played out on a whole different level, regardless of how similar the rules may look.

This is my first book review for some time – since 1 February, in fact. I read Colston’s The Underground Railroad and enjoyed it – most of my reviews are of books that I’ve bought or had gifted as presents so not only are they handpicked, there’s also an investment in them being judged to be good. I also like to finish a book before starting a new one – I haven’t failed to finish a book in the last 40 years and I believe that authors take a lot of time to craft an atmosphere and the characters in their story, so it seems to me that taking the time to immerse yourself properly in their milieu and to invest in what they are doing is the reader’s part of the bargain. I found it difficult to get into this one, though ultimately I’m glad I stuck with it.

Akin to The Underground Railroad, Harlem Shuffle features objects that take on a characterisation of their own: in Railroad, this was the railroad itself, which takes on a physical form; here, it is Harlem – the cafes, the stores, the hotels, the trains, the townhouses, the clubs and the flophouses. The blurb even describes the book as ‘ultimately a love letter to Harlem’ so the centrality of the role played by Harlem itself is clear from the outset.

Unlike Railroad, however, which featured stand-out characters (and scenes), the characterisation in Harlem Shuffle seems substantially suppressed. There are dozens, even hundreds, of people that pass through the pages of this novel – and, at 320 pages, it is not so long – but it is only Carney himself, who is centre stage in just about every scene, that is well-drawn. Carney – somewhat naive, rather over-trusting, generous to a fault and as fundamentally honest a man as a criminal can get – is superbly drawn and the duality of his life, as family man and player, is fundamentally believable. The rest of the novel’s humanity are not made of cardboard, but neither are they particularly fleshed out, remaining substantially two-dimensional. What we are left with is a mass of humanity going about their different lives and the sense of everyone being small cogs in a wheel moved frequently by the actions of others – nothing unusual in that, of course – but, because the places that make up Harlem gain their life from the humans that move through them, Harlem itself appears to suffer from that lack of depth of character development.

The second major difficulty is that a lot of the action takes place off the page, being recounted by one or other character either in hindsight or, on occasion, with that reflection even located ahead of the action. A timeline that is volatile and where both the action and the characterisation are under-played is taking quite some risks with reader attention and focus. In particular, advertising what is going to happen, or making the reader wonder what they’ve missed, isn’t a tool with which authors are typically able to keep you wanting to keep turning the page. Frequently I found myself re-reading sections in case I’d missed something and this, when allied to a dialogue that – while sharp, laconic and well-observed and situated for the Harlem of 60 years ago – frequently uses unusual phrasing and wording, is going to leave more than a few floundering by the roadside.

The third difficulty is the deployment of some lengthy digressions as well as some long drawn-out scenes which appear to have little to do with the plot but which carry out a role of marking time either for Carney or for the reader. These are somewhat tiresome and may lead the reader to wonder where the novel is going while, in the case of Elizabeth, Carney’s wife, they raise substantial plot-based question marks over how she knows absolutely nothing of his hustling sideline; or, indeed, why she never seems to ask the important questions that need putting. Partly, this is reflects the failure to sustain any sort of character development other than Carney himself, but it is also a reflection of the book’s structure: three parts – or three acts – taking place with an interval of some years but each essentially the story of a particular heist but which draws Ray on as it draws him further in. That needs to be understood but, clearly, is only apparent in hindsight.

And yet, what rescues the book (and Harlem itself as a character) is Whitehead’s themes and there is plenty here to sustain analysis even if a lot of it only becomes apparent towards the end of the book or only on subsequent reflection. The themes of family relationships, of unswerving loyalty, of struggling to break free from the ties that bind and the long, long impact of turbulent childhoods pose major, time-honoured, questions to which we have not yet found answers; while the issues of the gentrification of poor communities – frequently influenced by the razing of structures by people with money whose source is no less criminal than the actions of people like Ray, but which are far less likely to be seen as such – are likewise not yet bottomed-out. Pepper – one of Ray’s contacts and one of the better-drawn secondary characters – remarks, crucially, ‘Nothing solid in the city but the bedrock’ but, when that is being dug into, broken and removed in the name of (property) development which pays little attention to the protests of people living within the community and making their lives in it, the unmistakeable impression is that nothing at all is solid when it meets a developer’s ambition. Harlem is, literally, groundless and, thereby, its people rootless.

Colston doesn’t shy away from the difficult questions – Carney is the subject of racism within his community, too, as well as of that of white furniture manufacturers’ sales reps – but it is in posing questions as to the circularity of the questions of human existence (here: racism) where the novelist’s role as an artist lies. In Harlem Shuffle, riots (based on the real-life murder of James Powell by a white cop) feature but, equally, ‘… if you choose to write about institutionalised racism and our capacity for evil… you could write about 1850 or 1963 or 2020 and it all applies’ (source: interview with the author in The Guardian). Whitehead’s website mentions that Harlem Shuffle is the first instalment of a trilogy the second part of which – Crook Manifesto – has been finished and is due out in 2023.

Weighty themes, indeed. But the novel is not without good humour and recurring jokes, even in desperate situations. And I know probably more about the furniture of the late 1950s – the product of clear research – than perhaps I thought I would ever need!

Midway through Harlem Shuffle, and unaware of the novel’s place, I wasn’t sure I had the appetite for more but now, having finally finished it, I think I do. I hope it features Carney again – a rich character whose awareness of the several dualities of his existence makes him a true hero for the (recurring) ages. A tribute, it seems, not only to the author as an artist but to the importance of cutting the author some slack, backing your own judgment, or those of others close to you, and sticking with novels until the very end.

What’s in the tech crystal ball?

This post is the text of my spring 2022 column for Stage, Screen & Radio – the quarterly magazine for members of BECTU, the media and entertainment union and a part of Prospect. This issue of the magazine features the plans by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to privatise Channel 4 and abolish the BBC licence fee; and is well worth a read if you’re a member of the union.

My article, which looks at the remarks of Sachin Jogia, Ofcom’s then recently-appointed Chief Technology Officer, about the top trends in technology for 2022 reflects the published version with the addition of some links.

The start of any year is always a good time to plan and do some thinking about what’s lying ahead: in spring, the year remains new enough to allow us at least to think about what we might do to have some influence on the world that we see around us. (Summer, when this column was posted, just ahead of the August summer holiday season, is also not a bad time to get people thinking about the issues while lying on a beach – or, indeed, over a beer or two.)

At the end of January, Sachin Jogia, Ofcom’s Chief Technology Officer since early autumn 2021, looked at the major developments which he saw coming down the line.

His thoughts focused on broadcasting, the online world and our smartphone devices – very much the issues that will be of major concern to BECTU members. As always, however, it’s what he didn’t say that’s also of considerable interest.

But first, what did he see as the major technology issues affecting us?

Broadcasting:

– a range of developments combining recognised platforms and the online world in order to make TV and radio more personalised and capable of delivering a more individual experience. In TV, this includes ‘object-based media’ – the distribution of content via a series of component parts allowing greater personal choice and control

Online:

– more immersive use of alternative and virtual reality hardware achieved via lighter and more powerful headsets

– greater use of synthetic – i.e. fully automated – media by which films can be made without actors being present in a studio and requiring different skillsets for make-up artists, etc.

– regulatory technology which is able to automate compliance with laws such as the forthcoming Online Safety Bill

Smartphones:

– continued roll-out of high-speed networks allowing our devices to make use of superior performance and improving take-up of virtual reality applications while on the move.

Development work on some of these things is already well underway; others, perhaps, look at first sight to be a little longer away from having a direct influence on our lives. And not all will be personally attractive to us.

Either way, these things will start to shape our lives and our work and we do therefore need to be aware of them.

Regulation

For an ex-Amazon employee, who previously oversaw the development of voice-activated services, Jogia’s interview is light on references to Alexa, although there may very likely be a reason or two for that. Nevertheless, he has previously spoken, in an interview with Ofcom on taking the role, on the role of voice-activated software and I would expect that to be very likely both to guide and become the ‘human’ face of how we interact with the virtual reality world which he also anticipates.

Neither did he have much to say about the role of regulation in general. As Chief Technology Officer, that might be understandable in one context – but Ofcom’s purpose is to regulate and I would expect regulation to feature quite strongly in all its pronouncements.

That said, Jogia appears to be on board with the modern approach – to let the market decide and direct developments; and intervene only once something becomes a problem. Hence the arrival of the Online Safety Bill – although I’m not convinced that politicians are particularly better at this than specialist regulators.

Hands-off approach

Furthermore, I’m not at all sure that such a hands-off approach is one that is sustainable. Do we really want to hand control of the development of the virtual reality world to Facebook and Amazon (among others)?

Don’t we already know enough about their approach to data safety and our privacy to be sure that regulators should have a say in what they’re developing before it arrives, fully formed, on our devices?

Greater data literacy might be one thing – and Ofcom has some things to say about this, too, although I do wish they’d choose a new term for it – but data safety and privacy is, fundamentally, a regulatory issue and that, in 2022, is the main area on which I’d like to see technology develop.

Putting us, not the tech giants, in control of our platforms and devices.

Reading FC shows its stripes

Since Reading FC announced its partnership with the University of Reading, centre of the ‘Show Your Stripes’ initiative to help people visualise climate change, in the attempt to improve its sustainability practices (see my post immediately below), rumour has been rife that this season’s kit design would encompass climate stripes in some way.

These things are kept closely under wraps and nothing concrete ever emerged, sparking a few hopeful design contributions, other than a rumour that the partnership might lead to the third kit – worn when there’s a clash between both the ‘home’ kit (traditionally blue and white hoops) and the ‘away’ one (red, sometimes yellow, but also both white, black and, er, African Violet in the past) – might feature the stripes in some way.

The long-awaited kit announcement – there are (seemingly inevitably) supply chain issues involved affecting many clubs launching new kits – was ended yesterday ahead of this season’s opener at Blackpool on Saturday with the club’s announcement that this season’s first team kit – not a third one – would have sleeves documenting climate change stripes. The stripes are apparently for Berkshire itself (according to the Twitter thread of Ed Hawkins, who came up with the idea), data for which is readily available on the #ShowYourStripes website. A separate news release today from the club has a video containing interviews with one player each from the men’s first XI and the women’s, filmed at the club’s swish training ground. The University co-operated here, too.

I shall absolutely be buying one – my first replica kit for some years. Apart from the visuality of the stripes, what really appeals to me is that the shirt is 100% made from recycled plastic bottles – 13 500ml bottles in each one – and that the material retains the essential characteristics of the form of plastic from which it comes, which means that the shirt is, equally, 100% recyclable. What it’s like to wear I don’t know, though I have a few hopes related to the accepted characteristics of plastic bottles in the sun (and when flying through the air). The only question is whether it will be the first team shirt or the away one (as the club’s announcement says: watch this space!).

Readers can make up their own minds as to whether this is an important attempt to open dialogue on the issue of climate change and what football can do about it – the week after historically high temperatures were recorded across the UK, and against the backdrop of a debate about how climate change affects cricket – or whether this is simply virtue signalling by a club far too ‘woke’ for its own good. But it is clear that the launch has sparked a sizable debate across the football community, both in the printed football media and in the TV media, too.

The observant, and perhaps the cynical, might point out that the club’s shirt sponsor is a company whose business lies in leasing cars – roads and driving of course playing a major part in climate change – and that it plays in a stadium named after that same company (we no longer go down the MadStad but down the SCL). Without going into too much esoteric detail (available on request), the club has been a financial basket case for a few years now and, well, frankly beggars can’t be choosers. Here, the notion of the club seeking to improve its sustainability practices is actually a rather amusing one: the club hasn’t been run on a sustainable basis for years now. In short, it needs the money – and at least it’s (no longer) a(nother) betting company on the front of shirts going, in no small measure, to children. More prosaically, the sponsorship deals were signed before the sustainability partnership with the University of Reading came about and these are likely to involve fairly long-term contracts – probably at least one more year, maybe two. One hopes that wiser counsels might prevail when that comes to be renewed – and that a suitable alternative sponsor can be found. In the meantime, a little publicity around the battery electric vehicle options of Select Car Leasing (a Reading company, by the way) – as well as a few players regularly turning up to Bearwood or the SCL in one, wouldn’t go amiss.

But the club has to be applauded for doing something – as it recognises, ‘doing nothing’ is not an option and it – both the club and football more generally – have to start somewhere. Football has arguably never been particularly concerned with its wider social role – some notable initiatives, and players, apart – and, at the start of a season in which the World Cup will be played in stadiums and associated infrastructure built on the back of the deaths of thousands of migrant workers (as far as late 2020), more correctly described as modern slaves until very recently, and with the games potentially being played in hot and humid temperatures sufficient to require additional cooling measures, the importance of that social, and particularly that environmental, message takes on sizable proportions.

Perhaps its just me, but I suspect that whether people (and here I’m really talking about fans of the mighty Reading FC) like the shirt or hate it is likely to bear a fairly close relationship with their view on climate change itself: those who accept the reality of climate change liking the shirt (or, if not a fan, appreciating the endeavour); while those who are denialists are going to hate it.

What I do appreciate, however, is the effort that has gone into explaining what the stripes mean, which can be found in the club’s comms, as reported elsewhere in the media and via various social media accounts both from official sources and ordinary fans. Ed himself, whose Twitter feed confesses to him having never before been excited by the launch of a football kit (he should take a look at the video of our 2016/17 launch although, perhaps on second thoughts, it might be fairer to say we’ve come a long way since then), has been pictured wearing the new shirt and has also contributed his own explanations of what the stripes mean. [EDIT 8/8/22: Ed features in a small segment of this week’s The Tilehurst End podcast, @ 32.45 in.] If that debate is to have any meaning, and to overcome the accusations of ‘wokery’, such that it has a chance of convincing more people that climate change is real, and that, yes, we (and football more widely) can do something about it, it has to be based on explanations that are clear and understandable. Here, awareness raising plays a vital role in what the club is trying to do in, and for, its local community. Being a bit old school, I tend to prefer the triumvirate of educate – agitate – organise to ‘awareness raising’ although it’s perhaps a step too far for the club to be doing more than just the first of those three. The rest, of course, is up to us.

But of course it doesn’t stop here either: the club is serious about the partnership and about sustainability; and the latter is clearly more than just about what it does with its replica kits. Otherwise, it has to affect, materially, what the club does around the ground, on match days and in stadium powering, stewarding, maintenance and cleaning, as well as at Bearwood. It has to be to do with how fans get to the ground for games. Recycling and re-using – not least around its catering offers – has to be a much more visible element of its relationship with us fans, while sustainability seems to point to the use of more local initiatives (ahem: Blue Collar) than the generic contract majors. It’s in its data use and its use of power-hungry technology to analyse our players’ performances so as to improve our chances on the pitch; and it’s about how it powers its social media. It’s about ensuring that as many fans as possible – against the back of a cost of living crisis – get to wear those shirts, as Adam argued on The Tilehurst End this week. And it has to be around workers’ rights, including ensuring that all contractors pay living wages and in terms of the general environment in which employees of the club work.

I’m sure that the Supporters Trust is taking these initatives and a club which, at last, is these days paying much more attention to engagement with the fan base ought to be having a dialogue with STAR about what all this means to us fans, too. Here, it seems a few practical targets off the pitch (other than ‘win next game’ on it) would help enormously.

I’m looking forward to much more of this sort of thing on our journey to being the first ‘woke’ football club; and, meanwhile of course, come on URZZ!

Show Your Stripes

News last week from my football club, to coincide with ‘Show Your Stripes’ Day, that it was launching a ‘progressive partnership’ with the University of Reading to improve its sustainability practices was welcome. What I didn’t know was that my hometown – in addition to giving football the greatest team the world has ever seen (well, the greatest team the Championship has ever seen, indisputably) – has also given the world climate stripes: the barcode-style heat map which demonstrates an easy-to-read visualisation of how the world, or your part of it, is getting hotter is an initiative of the University of Reading’s Ed Hawkins, a Professor in its well-established Meteorology Department. I was aware of climate stripes, of course, and there is a website which makes it relatively easy to show your stripes, but the hometown connection motivated me to dig a little bit deeper and see what I could do to show my own, very local, stripes (Ed – hoops, surely?)

The weather station for the Met Office – until 2003 also headquartered in the Royal(s) County – which is most local to me is South Uist Range. Located about 3km as the corncrake flies across open ground to the south-east of Ardivachar, what weather the Range station records is pretty much what we get. This station has, however, only been in use since July 1996, so its data – while building a dataset which will be comprehensive in the future – is of limited use in modelling the climate stripes for where I stay.

The other Met Office station for the Western Isles is Stornoway with a location which – at least in current terms – is adjacent to the airport. While the Met Office currently calls this location ‘Stornoway Airport’, I’ve no reason to assume it’s ever been located anywhere else than here at this point. Such a location is not untypical of many stations globally – they tend to be located on flat, open ground – and has led many climate change denialists to assume that recordings of termperature rises are associated with rapidly increased numbers of aircraft movements – that such locations thus give rise to false readings. We can, for evident reasons, probably discount such a theory at Stornoway Airport, though.

The station at Stornoway is one of the five oldest in use in the UK, dating back to 1873 and, indeed, the other four read as something like a tribute to the diversity of the UK, being Armagh and Oxford (both 1853), Southampton (1855) and Durham (1880). How such a spread came to be is rather heart-warming in its inclusiveness of the nations and regions of the UK. A graphic showing the climate stripes for these is readily available, with Sheffield substituting for Southampton, but the historic data for each of the Met Office’s ‘historic stations’ (37 in all) is easily found, so I thought I’d come up with my own, singular, version for Stornoway. Here, in a style which observes Hawkins’s commitment to ‘No words. No numbers. No graphs’, it is:

NB This is my own version, using a slightly different colour regime drawn from MS Excel, and is subject to data entry errors.

By way of explanation, the chart shows the mean annual temperature for Stornoway, from 1874 at the left-hand edge to 2021 at the right. Each column on the chart compares the mean temperature for that year with the mean for the twentieth century as a whole (1900-1999): annual temperatures significantly cooler than the C20 mean are shown in dark blue; those significantly warmer in dark red (with other shades indicating annual temperatures which are either cooler or warmer but with lesser significance). The annual means are an arithmetical average of the means for each month, themselves composed of the mean daily maximum temperatures in that month. There are other ways to approach the data – the station also records mean minimum temperatures and it would be possible to construct a figure for monthly mean temperature that way ((max+min)/2) but the outcome is, broadly, the same: Stornoway is clearly getting hotter.

We can see this from the red to the right of the chart; and we can also see it from the progression from the darker blues substantially to the left (the early part of the period), bearing in mind that we are comparing each annual mean to the mean for the C20 as a whole. Thus, the early years at the left (from 1874-1899) are largely cooler than the C20 mean while the later years to the right (2000-2021) are substantially warmer. Indeed, the mean maximum temperature for C20 is 11 degrees Centigrade; for the 26 years of the C19, the mean was 10.6 degrees; while for the 21 years of C21, the mean was 11.6. So, Stornoway has got hotter in the last 150 years by around 1 degree Centigrade – that’s pretty much in line with the average experience globally.

Obviously, annual temperatures fluctuate (as the following charts indicate, the year-to-year changes are volatile, which is why it is the trend that is most important, not what is happening in individual years (this cool summer included!). The pinker colours more or less in the centre of the climate stripes chart were in the later years of the Second World War and in the immediate period subsequently. We have indeed had temperatures that are ‘warmer’ in the past, too, but the years of the twenty-first century have been hotter for what is, in the context of this chart, an unprecedentedly sustained period. We might also record that the weather plunged into the cold in 1979.

I also had a look at the average ‘winter’ temperatures and the average ‘summer’ temperatures on the same basis (‘winter’ being defined as, within each calendar year, the six months from January-March and October-December inclusive while ‘summer’ is April-September inclusive. There are, of course, other ways to approach the data). While both summer and winter temperatures are rising, according to the annual means of the mean monthly maximum temperatures at Stornoway, it is the winter temperatures that are rising more quickly: the summers are getting comparatively warmer, but by less than the degree to which winters are becoming comparatively milder. The following charts compare the deviation for each season in each year from the C20 mean for that season (in Stornoway, 13.7C in ‘summer’; and 8.3C in ‘winter’); trendline added by Excel to demonstrate the comparative difference):

I suspected as much – rising annual rainfall (a measure of climate change also recorded by the Met Office stations), much of which falls in the winter months, speaks to rising winter temperatures. While there are still outliers – the 2010 winter was cooler than the C20 winter average by 0.76 degrees Centigrade – winter snows are, it seems, increasingly less and less likely; and, while the Caribbean may occasionally visit the Hebrides, this is going to be more evident from the photos than the reality for some time. Nevertheless, we are getting warmer.

As always, the essential question regards what is to be done. From an archaeological point of view, rising rainfall presents a particular problem both as regards ongoing digs and as regards the protection of particular established sites of interest. Temperatures becoming warmer also speaks to rises in sea levels which threatens coastal communities and sites of interest. There is only a limited range of effective measures which can be taken within such a field, however. The wider challenge to us all remains how we, as nations, address the rising temperatures that we all face. There are plenty of measures which can be taken about which much is already known, at societal level through decarbonisation, investment in renewable energy and building greater resilience in which biodiversity will flourish; through to individual decisions around transport and diet. Inevitably, there is a wide range of seriousness, a range of comparative priorities and plenty of lip service involved from those at governmental level charged with making policy which reflects these issues.

I’ll let this post bed in for a few days and then I’ll be changing the header picture to show my stripes, as above. It may not actually do anything in itself, but keeping the fundamental importance of the issue in mind, by quite literally nailing my colours to the mast, can never be a bad thing.

Halfway from sunset to sunrise

My timeline yesterday was full of beautiful solstice pictures, taken at either end and full, in the first case, of oranges and then, in the second (and actually a little later than sunset), of lavenders. Regular readers will know that their chances of a sunrise picture on this blog are pretty slim but that sunset ones are more possible. Well, the sun set yesterday here at 2231 but, to get a sunset picture you first need a sun and, at that point, a blanket of thick grey cloud covered the sky to the north-west, following a day of murk and drizzle, and, well, dear reader, it was something of a let-down.

Actually, my idea this year was to capture a shot of what Shetlanders, some degrees to the north of us – call the ‘simmer dim’ (a phrase I can’t hear without a smattering of The Wailers singing about something or other hot): that time between sunset and sunrise at midsummer when, at these latitudes, the sky doesn’t really get dark – especially to the north – but continues with a glow as if from a low wattage bulb from which it is perfectly possible to see; and when you can track the apparent progress of the sun – below the horizon – from broadly west to broadly east and out of which a new day can commence. No wonder that birds migrate to Scotland – the extra light gives many more opportunities for hunting and for feeding growing families.

With sunset at 2231 and sunrise at 0431 (precisely sixteen hours of full daylight) that half-way point is 0131, with an hour or so of twilight after sunset and an hour or so of pre-dawn, that’s in the middle of only four hours of ‘dark’. Given the quality of the light here yesterday at sunset, I quickly gave up on that idea but, in its place, here’s one I prepared a little earlier – on Sunday, to be precise, when there was a sunset and when the ‘simmer dim’ was a little more evident. It’s not quite halfway, being taken at 0100 precisely, so it’s a little under-cooked in terms of the intention but, well, you get the picture:

Here, I’m looking broadly north. The lights on Benbecula: the white one to the right I think is the old HebridesNet repeater station at Torlum; the red and the white ones to the left, this is a little harder to work out, but may be the Caley Timber shed at Griminish or, perhaps, the steadings at Nunton. Either one could also simply be the outside security lighting for someone’s house – a more accurate description is pending better weather.

It’s not been a great summer so far to be honest and, now the days are starting to slip away (via later sunrises; at my end of the day the sun continues to set at precisely 2231 for another week or so yet), it’s impossible to escape the thought that summer is, too. G**gle’s StreetView car – spotted near these parts last week – probably won’t be picking up enough sunshine to be enticing the tourists, as much as some photos (its last visit was 2009) do need updating. This morning was again damp and cool, and, at 12C at 0930 yet ‘feeling like’ something in single figures, there was even a chill in the air ahead of further rain early this afternoon. With the rest of the country – even mainland Scotland – basking/sweltering in temperatures in the mid to high 20s, out here we have yet to see a temperature over 20C and the late spring and early summer, after a very decent April, have been disappointing. There’s a long way to go yet, of course – it’s probably the lack of realisation of that early promise which has made the position seem more gloomy – but the thought of an actual summer seems a long way away.

There may be a further report.

Trade unions the true ‘fix for cost of living crisis’

A busy couple of months has seen my eye somewhat taken off the ball on this blog – this is my first post this month and only my second since the end of March.

Aside of all that, however, I couldn’t help but notice the publication of the Office for National Statistics’s monthly labour market overview last Tuesday and its subsequent weaponisation by the government (a) as an inevitable distraction from its reign of perpetual chaos and omnicrisis; (b) in connection with its refusal to do anything of note about the sharply rising cost of living; and (c) to talk up its own record on the labour market (as if any of this was the result of its own policies). In particular, I did manage to note Boris Johnson’s appearance in the Sundays to link (c) and (b) – to stress ‘work’ as the ‘fix for the cost of living crisis’.

From the ONS’s overview, it’s true that unemployment – at least on this measured definition – is low and declining, and has also dropped beneath pre-pandemic levels. The employment rate – the number of people in work, of some type – is also slightly higher. The number of vacancies in the economy rose sharply and, at 1.295m, is actually higher than the number of the registered unemployed (1.257m); while the number of job movers from one job to another during the first three months of the year – as a result largely of resignations than dismissals – is also high. All this might, at superficial level, be a sign of a labour market that is ‘tight’, or ‘heating up’ – but this is indeed, far from being ‘red hot’ with many of the jobs being poor quality and with a mismatch to skills.

We don’t have to delve too far into the data to find the most obvious sign of why the labour market is not ‘red hot’: wages. In a ‘tight’ labour market, theory would indicate that wages should be rising to compensate for the evident shortages of labour. But, while they are rising, according to the ONS’s data, it is largely because of the contribution being made by bonuses: rises to basic pay are rising much less quickly and, currently, are rising less fast than the cost of living – thus, real wages across the economy are actually declining, despite the headlines in some sectors. Bonuses are short-term, given (and withdrawn) at management discretion; they are confined substantially to the finance and business sectors, which account for 60 per cent of all bonuses; they do not provide proper compensation for workers’ labour; they are outside the purview of collective wage setting; and, quite frequently, they prove to be discriminatory against women, people of colour, disabled people and the young.

Additionally, we know that no less than 41 per cent of universal credit claimants are actually already in a job (formally, in what the DWP’s ‘conditionality regime’ calls ‘working – no requirements’) – i.e. that taxpayers’ money is being used to subsidise wages for workers that are uneconomically low; while 68 per cent of working age adults in poverty live in a household where at least one adult is in work. Government support to subsidise low wages is a major intervention which both undermines the labour market and the incentives for workers to collectivise.

Of course, all this shouldn’t be happening – Brexit, in ending the free movement of labour, was supposed to ensure that ‘reserve army of labour’ arguments no longer applied to this country’s wage setting mechanism. In truth, it might be a little too early even to be thinking of sending the jury out on that one, although the signs are evidently not good. Nevertheless, wage growth in the UK has been poor for more than a decade – since at least the 2007/08 financial crisis, in fact – and, while there is likely to be a lag between a ‘tight’ labour market and the point at which wages start to rise, even if this does kick in at some later point, it is clearly starting from a low, and unstably weak basis. While it has changed little in the last twenty years, the labour share of income is lower than in the 1970s and the last time it rose consistently was in the few years of the first Labour government after 1997. In short, we do not have any evidence that the UK’s wage setting arrangements are currently able to respond appropriately to the signals sent by the labour market.

Consequently, it is more than evident that work is not the route out of poverty – and not only the elderly, those who are economically inactive, for whatever reason, and the ‘in-work’ poor. Everybody in work is poorer off than they should be, with an evident impact on living standards both in the here and now and in the future, in terms of pension saving. The labour market that we have is good at creating jobs but much less so at raising wages. Not for the first time, nor no doubt for the last, it is clear that Johnson does not know what he is talking about.

Chief among the reasons why our wage setting arrangements are not fit for purpose is the 40-year neoliberal attack on our collective labour market institutions – both trade unions and collective bargaining. Trade union density in the UK – the percentage of employees who are members of a trade union – now only reaches 23.7% (fewer than one in four workers); while collective agreements only cover 25.6 per cent of employees (both heavily supported by the public sector): these are official government membership figures drawn from its specific annual statistical bulletin (the 2022 update, containing figures for 2021, is actually due out later this week). The decline in collective agreement coverage is part of a Europe-wide phenomenon (and, likely, for similar reasons of the political shift rightwards); and the signs on trade union membership in the UK are not all bad – there have been rises in each of the last four years; trade union members still number a substantial 6.56m; and there is indeed a lot more ‘buzz’ around the phrase ‘trade unions’ than in many years – decades, even – hitherto.

Economically, trade unions are a good thing: on pay, we know for example that unionised workplaces see wages that are higher, on average by 5 per cent for equivalent workers; and that wages in unionised workplaces are less dispersed, thus helping to reduce wage inequality (both stats from Alex Bryson and John Forth from 2017). Any reduction in inequality in the UK is entirely welcome, not least in view of the UK now, as a result of rising wage disparity, having the highest level of income inequality than anywhere in the EU other than Bulgaria – itself, as an aside, an interesting indicator of the failure of ‘trickle down’ theory. Furthermore, there is significant evidence about the cost of living gap: that it is the poorest who face inflation rates that are much higher than they are for the richest (as a result of a much higher share of income going on the sorts of things where prices are rising quickest: energy and food).

One solution – and possibly the most significant, as far as workers are concerned – to the cost of living crisis is, therefore, a strengthening of our labour market institutions to ensure that workers properly receive the value of their labour, thus allowing workers better to face the cost of living crisis. As we know, the much-promised Employment Bill has again gone AWOL but, should it ever appear, one of the most important things it could do is to take the shackles off trade unions and encourage collective bargaining at industry-sectoral level, ensuring that fair rates of pay are set and which apply across a sector, preventing employers from competing against each other on wages, thus driving wages downwards, and stopping workers being set against each other. Boosting collective bargaining will boost the labour share of income.

I am, of course, not holding my breath; a government which takes its cue from the sorts of newspapers whose headlines today, as Johnson is again pictured with wine at a gathering during lockdown, try to pin the blame on strikes for the problems in the energy and food supply chain is not going to throw the gears into reverse on 40 years of neoliberalism. The TUC argued for a restoration of the role of collective bargaining in its evidence to the Spring Statement, back in March, and there is no evidence that anyone in the government was listening then or, just as importantly, has learned anything since.

But it is precisely this that workers need if we are to be able to deal with the rising cost of living.