Stick a brew on, Calvin

Aha – the postie just brought some great news: Bottoms Up IPA, along with a side order of Dilly Dally English Pale Ale, courtesy of the good folks from Kirkcaldy at Brew Craft Beer and a product of a Twitter advertising campaign from the company which cropped up on my feed earlier this year (these things do work: and it’s a bit scary that it does!).

IMG_6442 (Custom)It’s a kit, of course, and a real one involving proper malt, yeat and hops – no chemical flavourings – as well as a need to understand the intricacies of the wash, sparge and boil stages of making good beer. Bottoms Up IPA promises me ‘floral and tropical aromas … bursts of fruity, citrus hoppiness with grapefruit and orange bitterness … and a sweet biscuity maltiness’ while Dilly-Dally is a ‘bright, coppery English Pale Ale, [with] a maltier base [than its American cousin], with a touch of caramel, as well as a gentle woody, floral aroma.

The kits don’t come cheap – at £12 for enough ingredients to make 4 litres of beer, that works out at about £1.70/pint. Plus delivery plus equipment plus time (and plenty of the latter, by the looks of it). Nevertheless, any attempt to become my generation’s Logan Plant has to start somewhere.

I will be blogging some more about this once I get up and running with it. Or, if it doesn’t quite work out, look out for a few tweets instead.

Just need the time to get the kettle on, now. In the meantime, I have instructions to study… and, I suspect, to learn by heart if I’m not to be juggling saucepans, thermometers, very hot water and pieces of paper with writing on it.

Book Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

I picked this up in an airport bookshop fairly recently, and for the first time. It seems that it has been given a new lease of life as a result, most likely, of the re-release of the 1975 Oscar-winning film by Milos Forman. My Penguin Classics copy was printed in 2005, and contains a new introduction written in 2002 – in the book’s 40th anniversary year – but with the new edition sparked by Kesey’s death from liver cancer (in 2001).

The novel remains an excoriating drawing of the life and treatment of the residents of a hospital mental health ward, for which Kesey’s research is legendary: a night shift worker at the Menlo Park Veterans’ Hospital, he volunteered for government-sponsored research (actually: CIA) into the effects of psychoactive drugs. His research bears strong fruit in the book in terms of the processes, the approaches to treatment and the effects of institutionalisation on the residents of the ward, and it makes some dramatic points about the brutalising impact of the remorseless, ratchet-like regime of ‘Big Nurse’, the female figure in charge of the ward. As the story cranks up towards its tragic, inescapable conclusion, the end does not leave the reader without hope and it is a continuing reminder of how thin the line is which divides clarity (and sanity) from confusion (and clinical madness); and not only when clinical madness may be being faked.

The allegorical aspects of the work, with the galvanising effects of McMurphy (the Jack Nicholson character in the film) on the atomised, isolated residents of the ward, speaks clearly of the importance of working together, as a collective, and of the vulnerability of people who only learn both that, and the power of the collective, unevenly and over time. At the same time, the costs of leadership, of bringing people together to challenge the authority to which they are subject, are made clear. The story is told through the eyes of ‘Chief’ Bromden, a man of native American descent, and whose previous encounters with authority give him insight into the powers of ‘the Combine’ which he understands as the power behind the organisation of wider society replicated within the power structures of the ward.

And yet some aspects of the book have survived very, very poorly. There are (very minor) references to under-age sex within McMurphy’s backstory. More overtly, there is an astonishing amount of casual racism in the novel: Bromden himself is the stereotypical dignified Indian, apparently a mute with a deeply-buried story to tell; the African-American aides in the novel – frequently un-named and in many ways Nurse Ratched’s dogsbodies – are lazy, speak in a stylised way, like basketball and are fond of a joint. And the language in which they are addressed is frequently that of Mark Twain, although my concern here is less the choice of language in a modern-day setting than the manner of their depiction and their witless insertion as black men into low-lying roles within the prevailing power structure as servants of it.

But my biggest criticism is of the levels of sexism within the novel in which the only female characters are, with just the one exception, either mothers or sex objects; while Nurse Ratched herself is frequently depicted either in an amorphous, asexual way or, alternatively, as the target for the most appalling fantasies, including in her humiliation at the novel’s conclusion. This is not to feel pity for Ratched, which would be difficult given the brutal nature of her role in charge of the ward and in the psychological aspects of the central part she plays in its tragic conclusion, but I am seeking to highlight the shockingly sexist manner of her portrayal, as well as of that of the other female characters, throughout the novel. It would be stretching the point beyond snapping to argue that Ratched is as much a victim of the Combine as the residents – there is absolutely no evidence for this – but we do need to be aware of the misogyny which underpins the ways she is depicted and the way she is viewed by the residents. Given the theme of male panic over emasculation which is also a feature of the novel – an odd theme even now in a society which remains patriarchal – Kesey was certainly aware of some aspects of how he approached his theme.

In both its racism and sexism, the book is thus of its time, although this by itself should not excuse it. We have, thankfully, come a long way in race and gender politics since the early 1960s (as well as having still a long way to go, as Andy Murray demonstrated only this week). However, in terms of criticism, this makes the novel less of a ‘roar of protest against middlebrow society’s Rules and the Rulers who enforce them’ (in Time‘s review quoted proudly on the back cover of my copy). The role that sexism and racism play within middlebrow society’s Rules (and power structures) means that no such roar can take place within the confines of a novel unless that novel consciously seeks to overthrow them – and so much less so when it incorporates them as an integral part of its telling, as this one does. (A telling which is, extremely disappointingly, echoed within the 2002 Introduction, by the way.)

To the modern reader, then, this is a novel with sizable structural weaknesses – which, incidentally, an aware editor could address, and reasonably simply. This is a great shame since, at its best, it has a powerful story to tell and does so, in other respects than these, with great skill and realism. But, these are weaknesses that are too great to overcome when they play such a central role in how that story is told. Whatever tripping that Kesey and his Merry Prankster mates were doing on the road, this might well have inhibited an awareness of the problems of patriarchalism which, thereafter, took at least another decade to emerge.

Knowing which way the wind is blowing

There was some interesting news on electric cars this week with Volvo announcing that all its new cars will be at least partially battery-powered from 2019; and France announcing, one day later, that it will ban the sale of cars with an internal combustion engine by 2040. There’s a plethora of links in these two articles – on a side note, blogs seem to have become media articles these days while media articles seem to have become blogs – which are well worth exploring, too.

On top of this, the Queen’s Speech promised legislation to ‘ensure the United Kingdom remains a world leader in new industries, including electric cars‘, with the accompanying notes referring to an Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill whose purpose would be – among others – to improve the national charging infrastructure. With the government being supported by the DUP, whose own green credentials leave something to be desired and whose programme features a strong element of climate change scepticism, this is an interesting inclusion in a Queen’s Speech which doesn’t otherwise feature a lot else of substance, Brexit apart.

Volvo will, of course, still be producing existing models with internal combustion engines after 2019; and it will continue to produce a range of hybrids (cars with some level of electric/battery input alongside an internal combustion engine, which can be as minimal as simply managing fuel efficiency); while a policy announcement that takes full effect in 23 years time is, perhaps, little more than virtue signalling given shortening policy timescales. We were all, after all, an awful lot younger in 1994.

Nevertheless, the direction that the wind is taking is clear and it is, on the whole, a good one in terms of reducing carbon emissions. It is worth pointing out that international agreements on carbon reduction have provided an important impetus to the development of the electric vehicles market, not least in the light of the role in total carbon emissions played by aircraft travel and the more readily available technology that battery-powered cars provide in terms of achieving the necessary reductions targets.

Much remains to be done, however: globally, sales of electric cars total no more than 2m, about 30% in China and Japan and a further 25% in the US. Within Europe, the Netherlands and Norway look to me be leading the way. In the light of this, it it no wonder that progress is slow, and incremental. It does need a bit of a kick and the toes being dipped in the water by Volvo and the French government simply aren’t sufficient. Better instead, to do more in the way of encouraging manufacturers to bring end prices down.

Drivers of electric cars are likely to continue to be worried about the availability of charging stations – especially, for longer journeys, the availability of rapid chargers which allow the current generation of electric cars to be fully charged in about 45 mins (30 mins to about 80%). The focus of the UK government’s initiative on electric vehicles – that petrol re-fuelling stations would be compelled to offer electric charging points – is thus an interesting one. The Bill will indeed require the installation of charge points for electric vehicles at motorway service areas and large fuel retailers, and on the basis of a common set of technical and operational standards.

Precisely what will be required, and where, and the cost regime that is envisaged along with any subsidies on offer, remains to be seen. If electric cars do take off, then petrol stations would need to change their business model anyway and, while it is easy to see a conversion of some facilities to coffee shops (and hopefully something more welcoming than just the coffee areas to the side of existing facilities that is currently substantially the provision), it is a lot harder to see the profit in selling two or three cups of coffee and possibly a cake or two while people wait for their cars to charge against a £30 fuel sale (by the end, a full tank on our BMW was costing £70). We might see this as the government providing a bit of a nudge to service station providers ahead of the deluge that will otherwise befall them, but the better option, if the government wants to get involved, would be to facilitate the provision of charging points away from petrol stations but put them in car parks, park and ride facilities. The smart move, if we’re talking about town centre regeneration, would be to put a mass of charging points in, or very close to, town centres, too. There’s absolutely a role there for councils and it would be good to see the government working closely with local councils instead rather than nudging petrol stations to do what the market will force them to do anyway.

The other major issue of course here is, as with anything else, Brexit. Renault-Nissan has a 20%+ market share of 2m electric car market (and hence the Macron government’s lead on this); and the UK claims to be the largest market for electric vehicles in the EU (though the Netherlands looks larger), while one in five electric cars sold in the EU in 2016 were made in the UK. Nissan does, of course, have a plant in Sunderland – our new Leaf was made there, and on the basis of an internal competition within Nissan to be a site featuring production lines for the higher-output models. The leading role of Nissan-Renault in the global electric car market – on the back of the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement announced this week – will clearly be a major feature in the Brexit negotiations. Precisely what Carlos Ghosn (who has now moved on from Nissan) got out of Theresa May when they met last October – a discussion that we know encompassed electric cars (Q112-Q115) – continues to be a highly-relevant point for discussion. It is to be hoped that the new Chair of the Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, when elected this coming week, will see it as a priority not only to pick up the threads of its inquiry into the electric car market but also to recall its earlier desire to get to the bottom of that infamous letter.

[18 July edit: a letter has also been sent in highly similar circumstances to Toyota. The Committee – with Labour MP Rachel Reeves in the chair – has an urgent task in keeping the activities of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy under review as Brexit talks get underway.]

[18 July update 2: it’s actually the Treasury Committee which is taking charge here and, by the look of it, it is on the case.]

Brexit and EU citizens: A practical note

The UK government’s announcement yesterday of its plans for EU citizens in the UK post-Brexit contained one or two nasty surprises, not least among them that EU citizens will be forced to hold some sort of documentation proving the right to stay and work in the UK after 2018 – a prima facie case of discrimination vis-a-vis UK citizens who do not – and should not – have to carry any such documentation.

Aside of the understandable outrage here, and here, that May should consider such discrimination to be ‘fair’, and that many EU citizens have already gone through a lengthy process of securing permanent residence documents only for these now to be useless, as well as that this is not a situation of fact, simply an opening ‘offer’ in the Article 50 negotiations process, one of the interesting issues around this reference is the practical logistics around documenting 3m people in the time available. Those who have gone to the trouble of securing permanent residence rights, via the infamous 85-page form, are promised a ‘streamlined’ and ‘user-friendly’ application process but there are clearly doubts about the ability of the appropriate government departments to be able to deliver on that, not least stemming from the bureaucratic delays that as few as 150,000 people experienced in applying for PR to government departments that were simply overwhelmed. Let alone 3m (+).

There is little detail on the document as to what the government means by ‘streamlined’, although there are vague (and inevitable) references to it being ‘digital’ and the days of the 85-page form seem to be numbered.

However, there are doubts about the ability of the UK to deliver on this score, too. Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office, publishes a continually-updated scorecard on the digital single market – which, of course, we are leaving – called the ‘DESI composite‘ (this is the Digital Economy and Society Index, not this one). Overall, across the five components of the index, the UK is above average – it’s actually in seventh place among the EU-28. However, one of the constituent components is ‘digital public services’, which measures a country’s ability to deliver e-Government services, including the provision of pre-filled forms and online service completion. Here, it might not be a surprise to learn, the UK is doing rather less well – not only is it below the average for the EU-28, it’s actually fallen as far as 18th place.

(As an aside, I can recall a previous government vowing that the UK would have the best superfast broadband in the EU by 2015: we don’t – on the DESI composite’s ‘Connectivity’ sub-index, we are sixth, rising above only Finland among the other nations above us on the overall list – which are Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden. We were sixth in 2015, too.)

So, there are some quite deep-rooted capacity issues which need to be resolved. We can well imagine that these ought to have been resolved before the UK government could even make such an offer – since it is not doing so from a position of strength – and certainly by the time any agreement may be implemented. Perhaps the UK government might look to other EU governments for advice on how to deliver the sort of ‘streamlined’ digital public service that would be required to document 3m EU nationals in the way this proposal envisages – perhaps from other countries which are higher up the DESI list than the UK. Perhaps we might ask Poland, for example.

Book review: Nutshell

It is quickly apparent that Nutshell, Ian McEwan’s 17th novel, is a re-working of the tale of Hamlet, Shakespeare’s tragedy about usurpation and revenge, extending from plot to characters to themes – but with the critical twist that the Prince of Denmark is replaced here by an unborn child, critically observing events from inside the womb. Here, the narrator, un-named and of non-determined gender, is indeed ‘bound in a nutshell’ and yet ‘king of infinite space’. As such, the child – with thought processes, critical faculties and tastes which are fully developed, informed trough the consumption and habits of Trudy, the mother – is able to observe and comment on the surrounding universe. Yet, in contrast to Hamlet, whose flaw of inaction underpins his personal tragedy, the baby is able to seek to be active and influential in the world, including via well-timed kicks and sometimes quite shocking extensions of the narrative.

McEwan’s conceit is quite remarkable – imagine the (eventual) frustrations of a baby with fully developed thought processes but unaware in the womb that s/he is unable to speak – and in our unborn narrator we have another in the author’s long line of memorable characters. The prose, as we might expect, flows freely and apparently effortlessly; the handling of plot and theme is confident and assured; and there is wit and humour in the telling as well as in the conceit. The narration itself is informed, eloquent and ultimately reliable – indeed, how could it be anything other?

Excess alcohol consumption – in Hamlet’s view, the cause of the ruination of the nation – is worked in by the continual appearance and consumption of bottles of wine (although, amusingly, the plot hinges on a juice bar’s smoothie); the portentousness of the moments in which people’s futures are shaped and directed by the sometimes hasty decisions they make is, again – this being a regular theme in McEwan’s books – stunningly realised; and the resolution is thoughtfully and aptly described.

Of course, something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark – not, in this context, in the womb of the mother but in the dilapidated state of the decaying, crumbling house in the midst of the heat of a London summer in which she lives and which is visually well-captured by McEwan. The metaphor is clear – and yet the platform it provides for well-chosen observations about the state of the world around us, akin to Hamlet’s own soliloquies, is something that McEwan doesn’t effectively take up. It is not that there are currently no targets to pick – and McEwan has done so in the past: notably, global warming in Solar; and the state of international relations in the context of the ‘war on terror’ in Saturday. Here, however, the discourse on the targets he picks – chiefly, the human condition leading to it being ‘dusk in the Age of Reason’; the struggle to escape poverty; identity politics – is lazy, occasionally somewhat illiberal and actually rather peevish. It’s not the result of having an unborn child as narrator – this is a middle-class sophisticate, advanced and articulate in thought. Perhaps it is the essential brevity of the exposition – this is a short novel and these are indeed mere soliloquies – that make it seem so. Perhaps he thinks he’s done it all before. But McEwan is of course capable of better than that; and, in these times, we do need the poets (as well as the novelists) down here to write something (at all) to help prompt us into action.

Nevertheless, the central challenge – that we all ‘do something’, whatever we can, to change the fate of the world around us – is, if it is one that may even be taken up by an unborn child, one that can also be picked up by others seemingly otherwise better placed. The conveyance, perhaps implicit, of that ultimate message is McEwan’s biggest contribution in Nutshell – and it does, of course, remain a fundamentally important one.

Midsummer sun

I was hoping to see at least one end of the summer solstice in style. Not being by any means an early riser, this was always going to be this end of the day rather than the other. But, unfortunately, the damp mists of early evening around the bay have given way to a blanket of grey cloud without so much of a hint of a dying ray of light – though, conversely, this morning’s sunrise was, apparently, rather good.

So, here’s one from last night’s sunset, instead: the sun not quite sinking into the sea – a smudge of cloud on the horizon preventing that – and actually taken a good hour after sunset (timed at 22:31) – but with the Monach Islands showing rather well as a series of low-lying lumps on the horizon:

IMG_6191 (Custom)

So, at more or less midsummer, the sun was setting at round about 320 degrees – that’s past north-west and well on the road to north-west by north (no – not that one: Ed) on the 32-point compass. And quite a change from midwinter, when the compass point at sunset was more or less 230 degrees and getting on for south-west: almost exactly a quarter swing in the point of sunset by virtue of the angle of the earth’s tilt.

Not enough light to read a book outside at midsummer (and somewhat too cool, regardless of the heatwave which is gently cooking the southern half of England), but with plenty of light in the northern sky. Here’s the long view about an hour later – half past midnight (and towards the end of an hour-long power cut here on South Uist: somewhat frustrating for those of us on Economy 10 tariffs when the power comes back on just as the cheap hours disappear…). Here, we’re looking broadly north-east (NE is actually a bit to the right of centre) and from where, if my guesswork is right, the sun would have been rising a few minutes less than three hours later (at 04:31):

IMG_6196 (Custom)

Good luck and have a great gig to all those heading to Pilton this weekend – or, alternatively, to Eriskay On The Rocks!

Islands (Scotland) Bill published

Just catching up with the news that the Scottish Government published its Islands Bill last Friday. This was probably a good day to bury bad news, given that much of the political establishment was focused elsewhere at the time, although there is no suggestion that the Islands Bill is is bad news. But the timing of its publication was awful.

The Bill is expressly the governmental response to the Our Islands Our Future campaign launched by the island councils elected by Shetland, Orkneys and Western Isles voters to establish a clearer constitutional recognition of the needs and status of island areas. The Bill – which builds on top of a consultation exercise undertaken in the last quarter of 2015 – will need to be carefully scrutinised as regards the extent to which it matches up to the aims of Our Islands Our Future as well as in terms of what it envisages actually happening in practice. At the headline level, it seeks to do the following:

– a duty on Scottish Ministers to publish a ‘National Islands Plan’ with a view to improving outcomes for island communities, alongside an annually-published Progress Report

– a duty on Scottish Ministers expressly to have regard to island communities in exercising their functions, including via an island communities impact assessment as a means of ‘island-proofing’ initiatives such that islanders are not disadvantaged as a result of their location

– protection for the Na h-Eileanan an Iar Scottish parliamentary constitutency akin to that already provided to the Shetlands and Orkneys constituencies such that the boundaries cannot be changed without primary legislation

– greater flexibility around councillor representation within island communities

– provision for all island authorities to have more control in the development of the seas around their communities via a marine licensing scheme for development activities.

Island communities continue to face major problems as regards – among many others – de-population, and the associated, but qualitatively different, problem of dealing with the needs, not least health, of an ageing society; the provision of affordable and suitable housing; and digital connectivity. Some of these issues are being taken forward, at least to some degree, such as the Scottish Government’s Digital Scotland initative, although improvements can always be made to any governmental programme both as regards provision and as regards pace.

The Islands Bill is not inherently a development-based one, but a policy and access one. Consequently, the solution to many of the development problems facing the islands – of jobs, incomes and sustainability – need to be tackled in other forums and by other initiatives, although I would have liked to see express recognition of the need to engage and work with community landlords – such as Storas Uibhist on South Uist, Benbecula and Eriskay, which has just celebrated ten years of community ownership of these islands – included formally in the Bill. Whether the Islands Bill turns out to make a difference to islanders’ lives in practice of course remains to be seen, but a legislative start has been made on creating greater voice and access for the islands to policy, and in red-circling that for the future. To the extent that this represents at least a signal of a reversal of the recent policy trend towards greater centralisation in the Scottish Government, the Bill is welcome. Practice needs to follow.