Brexit and government (in)competence

While we wait for the ‘will it, won’t it’ Cabinet to get the final details of the draft agreement still being hammered out in Brussels – the latest being that Wednesday night is the latest possible date to convene a November summit at EU level – I continue to be astonished by the admission of Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab, last week that he ‘hadn’t quite understood‘ the importance of the Dover-Calais route for the trade of goods between the UK and Continental Europe. Not only the words of the admission, but also the style of it – Raab shows himself quite clearly to be a man scrabbling about in the dark for the words to describe something that he thinks may be Really Quite Important – is frankly astounding regardless of any consideration of his job as a minister.

It clearly ought to come as no surprise that the most important trade route is actually the shortest – and it takes neither professorial expertise in particle physics to work that out nor even a rudimentary understanding of the importance both to manufacturing companies and food freshness and quality of just-in-time deliveries. But the issue is really one of the extent to which Raab – another committed Brexiteer – has got to grips with his brief. Whatever the political involvement of ministers in the discussions – and I suspect it’s not a lot since the civil service sherpas will be doing most of the spadework – had he really missed his own Prime Minister asking people not to be alarmed about government plans for food and medicines stockpiling? (Don’t panic! Don’t panic!)? Simply failed to spot the import of the physical practicalities of trade links in his own post-lunch/graveyard slot appearance before the Exiting the EU Select Committee when he spoke about stockpiling? Simply missed out on the controversy about turning the M26 into a lorry park? Not in the office that day when his own Department published its technical notices? Or had he simply bought into John Redwood’s (extraordinary) explanation that it would be alright on the night since everything could come through Rotterdam to avoid those pesky French (of course, it can’t since Rotterdam is also in the single market).

It is a cause for worry when the minister with political responsibility and accountability for the state of negotiations is apparently so out of sorts with a geographical map. As well as for the effectiveness of that ‘meaningful vote’ in parliament when MPs will have increasingly little time to digest the content of the withdrawal agreement – clearly part of the government’s strategy to persuade parliament to back a deal (any deal) rather than engage in the chaos of withdrawal with none.

The discussions on avoiding a post-Brexit hard border in Northern Ireland continue to confound everyone (here’s a clue: it can’t be done while keeping both the 10 DUP MPs (hard Brexiteers in their own right – remember that covertly-funded Metro ad?) and the 50 or so extremists in the ERG happy about the terms of the withdrawal – even if the text of the agreement is now ‘almost ready‘ (this might or might not indicate that is is now more than 95% done). Andrea Leadsom was entirely wrong to talk at the weekend about the need to ‘hold our nerve‘ – this is not a case of taking a negotiation to the brink since this is not a normal negotiation: there are red lines, and implications of red lines, that can point only to one end – and that is a deal that Theresa May cannot sell to her own base. These are not problems of the EU’s making – they are entirely domestic in origin and stem completely from UK government failure to recognise the flaws in its own strategy. Ultimately, this point of reckoning has been coming ever since Theresa May chose to ally with the DUP to save her political skin.

The response to a Brexit deal that cannot pass through parliament – presuming that all Labour MPs hold their nerve on this – has to be a general election. This will have evident consequences for the due date of withdrawal. Keeping the UK at least aligned to the customs union and the EU single market (NB: I would absolutely prefer to remain in the EU) is the only way of preventing extremist Brexiteers from achieving their goal of a deregulated economy based on competition and with clear consequences for public services (much less, in a much-shrunken state with much greater financial implications for the individual) and the NHS (conceded completely to the market) – to say nothing of workers’ rights being swept away. Whatever the confusion over what people did vote for back in 2016, I’d be pretty sure this was not it.

Meanwhile, was it not a complete surprise that the UK was so noticeably absent from the Paris commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Armistice? More than sixty heads of state and government – and, wearing shirt no. 12, er, David Lidington. The choice to make a biblical reading at Westminster Abbey rather than attend the commemoration in Paris sent a very clear, and absolutely shameful, signal. Nevertheless, in reminding everyone that a post-Brexit UK would really rather stay at home it was, instead, a strong pointer to what a travesty ‘Global Britain’ actually is.

Truly, this has been a government of all the talents.

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Book Review: So Much Life Left Over

This, the second in Louis de Bernières‘s trilogy of historical novels dealing with England in the first half of the twentieth century, is a difficult book to review. It follows Daniel and Rosie Pitt from the conclusion of The Dust That Falls From Dreams on their short sojourn in pre-independence Sri Lanka at the end of the Great War, and it ends as World War II gets underway. Given both the status of So Much Life Left Over as the ‘difficult middle book’ and the historical era that is its focus, this is thus a little like reviewing the middle pages in a novel – you know where it’s been and you know further tragedy lies ahead but, for the most part, you’re in a waiting room, pulled towards a destiny which is clear but whose journey is proving long and somewhat difficult.

Indeed, given what follows in this review, it might be better to see the whole trilogy as a single work. In this sense, I do wonder whether future editions might usefully combine all three works into a single volume: depending, of course, both on the content and the precise length of the – as yet unpublished and perhaps still unwritten (M. de Bernières’s website needs a little updating) – third volume.

The essential premise of the novel is a simple one: what do combatants who survive a war (and without having expected to – though that really goes without saying), and who therefore have ‘so much life left over’, do once the peace comes? This is the question facing Daniel, a man of considerable abilities as well as uncertainties, prone to emotionalism but yet with a substantial appetite for life, and whose story and perspective fills the overwhelming majority of the book. He seeks to resolve this question with his wife and new daughter in the Sri Lanka of colonial times, but an unresolved, and partially unexplained, tragedy sees them make an early return to the UK where Daniel, a reluctant leaver from Sri Lanka, feels increasingly frozen out of family life.

Structurally, this looks very much what we have come to expect from a de Bernières novel: short, episodic chapters told from a single perspective which both pull the story along and which develop the characterisation. There is humour here, and pathos, and genuine sadness, too – although the work of the author as puppet master is occasionally all too visible. The major trouble is, however, that this is all about Daniel and, without consistent and characterisation, such episodes increasingly resemble vignettes – engaging but uninvolving. Of Rosie, whose perspectives dominated the first novel, there is – inexplicably, given the plot – next to nothing (to do this is barely excusable other than in the ‘middle pages’ scenario that I referred to). This is unsatisfactory not least from a feminist perspective – and there are other characters in the novel whose pre-feminism would serve the telling of a much more rounded story. Meanwhile, other characters feature to some degree before being dropped almost completely and whose role is almost exclusively only in support of the development of the character of Daniel. This includes Archie, an older brother whose war trauma leaves him to live in a one-room hovel – somewhat oddly, we might have thought, for a man whose extended family are of considerable means.

The other difficulty with the story here is that an historical novel ought to reflect something of modern times if it is to have continuing resonance. A ‘between these wars’ novel about a family (actually, families, given the one reference to the origins of Gaskell’s wealth) of some means might, for example, have usefully referenced the fatal attraction that the English upper classes had for the growth of fascism and, while this might not necessarily have broken new literary ground, it would have provided an alternative anchor for the story as well as providing an interesting take on current-day events. The rise of fascism in Germany is referenced (Daniel also has a sojourn in Germany) but there are no references in a UK context. Clearly we shouldn’t review a book on the basis of what content we think the author should have put in it – yet, without something like this and a stronger role for more of the characters who pass through the story, what we are left with is an Upstairs, Downstairs sort of kitchen sink drama in which the older members are straight from central Edwardian eccentric casting while the women are either gushing or cold, and the representatives of the working class are largely salt-of-the-earth types. All of course, absolute caricatures but this is what happens in a book where the characterisation is, additionally, somewhat sentimental and where the characters themselves are differentially developed.

de Bernières is a much better, and much cleverer, author than this. His Birds Without Wings – set in Turkey interestingly in the same historical period and which provided a prequel to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – remains one of my favourite novels. What alleviates the picture here is both de Bernières’s palmarès and the awareness that this is, simply, the middle book in a trilogy. We should also carefully note that, while it is not autobiographical, the plot lines of both the first two novels in the trilogy have been drawn out from major developments within de Bernières’s own family. There is enough here, and there are sufficient little bombs which have been carefully planted in the text, for the third volume to provide an explosive end to the story and to lift this second volume out of the doldrums – provided that the third volume indeed allows those little bombs to do their work.

Ultimately, as a stand-alone novel, this is a rather unsatisfactory work but we need to make some allowances in view of its positional status and we should, therefore, perhaps hold back on making too harsh a judgment on it – at least, until we have the chance to review it in retrospect.

Pay, productivity and high performance: time to get a MAC?

I’ve resisted blogging about Brexit for quite some time, largely because the amount of lunacy out there is simply astonishing. Brexit remains, in my view, a policy outcome intended in the first place to settle internecine war within the Tory Party but which it is clearly failing to do – and, indeed, which it is turning out to be completely ill-equipped to do.

In such circumstances, while there remains an awful lot of stuff going on that policy needs to settle, there’s little for policy-makers to do but watch on in horror as this the Brexit sh*t show meanders to a conclusion. I’ve watched on in horror as public positions have solidified around the hardest of Brexits in the attempt to appease the Tory Party’s Brexiteers and as the policy debate has shifted further rightwards to the point where Brexit has not become a far-right project – it was always this, from the days before the referendum was called – but an excuse for the public outbursts (and worse) of illiberal, angry boors.

The UK leaving the EU is still the most likely conclusion – though you never know, and that’s no reason not to try – but making sense of what things will be like afterwards is an essential task facing policy-makers. (Were our public debate to mend itself more meaningfully to actual debate rather than false slogans on buses, this is of course the sort of thing that would have happened prior to the referendum. Nevertheless.)

One of the policy organisations trying to get on with life after likely Brexit is the Migration Advisory Committee, the government’s advisory body on issues – largely but not exclusively to do with the labour market – concerning the impact of migration. The MAC has been charged recently with coming up with a report on what effects migration has had on the UK’s economy and society, which it did last month in the background of a focus on its (almost certainly false) equation of wages with skill levels, and its recommendation to impose a £30,000 minimum salary requirement on labour immigration visas.

Last week, Professor Alan Manning, Chair of the MAC, appeared before the House of Lords Home Affairs sub-committee to discuss the findings. One of the issues raised was the (very) lukewarm recommendation to engage with a seasonal workers’ scheme for agriculture – though not for care – on the grounds that the sector was absolutely dependent on EU workers and there were no prospects of what we might call ‘domestic re-supply’ taking their place (I’m deliberately avoiding repeating the nauseating terminology of ‘settled workers’). You can watch the appearance here (relevant bit at c. 11:15.50) or else read the BBC’s report which contains a full quote of the statement behind this post.

The reason for the lukewarm nature of the recommendation is the low levels of productivity (stemming from low wages) in the agriculture sector, against the background of the government’s desire (in its ‘Plan for Britain’) to turn the UK (I think this is what it means) into a high productivity, high wage economy; and the view expressed by Professor Manning in his appearance, but which isn’t at all a conclusion of the report, that low-skilled migration has been ‘fiscally negative’. (Indeed, the report specifically says that there is no evidence that low-skilled migration has any negative impact on productivity, innovation or training – though it does say that high-skilled migration is (entirely unsurprisingly) ‘better’ in all these areas.)

Now, I’m very much in favour of the principle of a high wage, high productivity economy – except in that, like a lot of things this government does, having a plan is all very well but what is also required is that someone must actually do something to achieve it (it’s not going to be happen by wishing on a unicorn). Furthermore, an essential part of any plan must be the proper taking care of the local economic, employment and social impacts none of which can be left to the market, and this is somewhat missing from recent government pronouncements. (Had we taken greater care over the last forty years of those things that cannot be left to the market, we might well not be in this mess.)

Startlingly, Professor Manning said in his appearance that the loss of seasonal produce markets ‘wouldn’t be the end of the earth for the country as a whole’ and that giving agriculture ‘privileged access to labour’ wasn’t a way to achieve a high-productivity economy. I think this is both arrant and shockingly complacent:

1. agriculture is a market that is rigged by the big retailers. The demand for lower prices by the big supermarkets, the natural effect of the cut-throat competition facing them, is what will continue to keep wages in the sector down. At the same time, falling prices won’t provide the conditions for farmers to invest in automation to raise productivity, even if the incentive might be there to do so. The same rigged market is, by the way, also present in the care sector: it’s called austerity and the resultant cash strapping of the local authorities who fund care. The government can end austerity – but, in the context of agriculture, it also needs to do something to tackle the power of big retailers to force farm prices downwards

2. it is ridiculous to suggest that the appropriate policy response to the loss of soft fruits and asparagus is to import them instead. There is the issue of quality, with large areas of Scotland, e.g. The Carse stretching along the side of Tay from Perth to Dundee, having natural advantages for the growing of premium quality soft fruits. More than that, however, one of the focuses of the environmental debate is, quite rightly, reducing the food miles involved in the transport of our food from source to plate. It makes no environmental sense to import soft fruits that can be grown, and successfully, in the UK – and there is the issue of the use of preservatives to extend lifetimes, too. Yet, green issues and concerns are apparently absent from considerations in this debate

3. agriculture constitutes less than 1% of UK GDP. It is extremely facile to think that low productivity in agriculture is somehow holding the UK back from becoming a high productivity economy. Even more so when we are specifically speaking about low productivity in one tiny (see Table 2.2 under previous link) sector within the agriculture industry

4. Brexit is already likely to lead to up to 25% of farms in England going to the wall – and probably more in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland if there is knock-on effect on budget subsidies to the devolved administrations. If this was an EU country, there would be consultation, a social plan and a desire to provide re-training programmes to provide a degree of support and re-orientation for those involved. But, this is the UK, and a country which is heading out of the EU

5. MAC suggests a (higher) minimum wage in agriculture will be required to provide upwards pressure on wages in the event that a seasonal workers’ scheme is introduced so as to raise productivity and in view of this ‘privileged access to labour’. I’m in favour of a higher living wage across the UK but I’m not sure that a minimum wage in the already distorted agriculture market, in isolation from a higher living wage particularly elsewhere in the food supply chain, will act in the way it thinks

6. to gain a high productivity economy, we would need, firstly, a more advanced manufacturing industry as a launchpad for a high skills, high technology revolution. However, Professor Minford, the economist that Brexiteers most like to listen to, was already prior to the referendum predicting (and indeed welcoming) the elimination of what little manufacturing industry we have left; although his post-referendum analysis is somewhat less apocalyptic predicting UK manufacturing profits ‘possibly higher than pre-Brexit levels’. (He’ll probably be right about something one day, at least on an infinite monkey basis.) Secondly, all workplaces, regardless of industry sector, need to be adopting much more of the sorts of high performance practices that create productivity and to which trade union general secretaries, for example, have pointed, and repeatedly. But, as EEF’s budget submission this week highlighted, there is precious little evidence of that. (The EEF submission also highlights that foreign-owned workplaces are more productive than ‘domestic’ ones. Funny that.)

Ultimately, if we’re to have a high productivity economy, we need our policy-makers to pay less attention to what is happening in agriculture and more to proselytising about high performance workplaces and putting clear incentives in place to encourage the adoption of high performance practices. Meanwhile, we know that a lot of people in primary industry areas such as agriculture voted for Brexit. But, funnily enough, I never saw ‘Vote Brexit: lose primary sector jobs and pay higher food prices’ on the side of a bus, either.

Runrig: A Sasannach* appreciation

I missed out on Runrig in my earlier days, so they have indeed been something of a foreign territory. Coming first to national prominence in the late 70s, but on radio shows and TV that, living in England, I wouldn’t have seen, I was certainly aware of them from 1987, with the release of The Cutter and The Clan, their breakthrough, fifth, LP. By then, though, the only guitars I really wanted to hear were African, and specifically Congolese (out of Paris), while I really wanted to hear west African koras and, as for accordions – well, they were fine as long as they were in the vallenato style or otherwise played by Flaco Jimenez; and, if Andy Kershaw or, to a lesser extent, John Peel never played it, I never heard it. And I certainly missed their, surely unlikely, appearance in the 1990s on Top of the Pops, singing An Ubhal As Airde, their rather lovely song in memory of Calum and Rory’s father, and introduced by a young woman presenter who’d clearly been taken lessons from one of the band on how to say Gàidhlig properly (and very nearly making it, too).

What I didn’t do was make the connections between traditional music from elsewhere and that coming from ‘home’: the one should have led me back to the other.

So, for ages just about the only Runrig song I actually knew was An Toll Dubh, and that on a compilation CD which had been lent to me (thanks JB!). And, even then, I wasn’t quite sure how much was Runrig and how much was Paul Mounsey (the producer/re-arranger). Until this summer, that is, when my regular stint volunteering up at the museum in North Uist brought me into regular contact since, in advance of The Last Dance, and given that the museum holds the Runrig archive, part of the display was a Gold Disc (for Searchlight) and a series of well-chosen TV and other video clips from throughout the band’s history (including the aforementioned TOTP appearance) showing on a continual loop. Slowly, gently over the weeks, the songs got into my head, so I went out and bought 50 Great Songs, a 3-CD compilation (two in English and one in Gàidhlig) as well as a DVD. The CDs feature a number of studio and live recordings, mostly from the Bruce Guthro era, plus unusually, but typically generously, an allocation of space to a handful of other musicians singing Runrig songs (and including the stand-out track in this collection). One of these is Dick Gaughan, last heard by me in a session for Kershaw singing – among others – Amandla! a ahout-out for Umkhonto we Sizwe in the last days of apartheid which continues to be both chilling and inspiring.

You don’t have to live on Uist to appreciate Runrig’s worth: apart from elsewhere on these islands, and on the mainland, the band is also highly successful in Germany and in Scandinavia and, famously but tragically, in North America, too. But it does help, I think – and I don’t mean the obvious appeal of references to the Uists and in lyrics such as that in The Message:

Gonna take the last flight home to Balivanich/In the month of June/Go racing up the South Ford…’

[in a car, obviously: no-one goes racing up South Ford on a bike].

What Runrig does very well is to capture the spirit of Uist in a way that not only pulls on the heartstrings of emigrés but also pays tribute to the courage of those who took the decision to stay – the product of a lack of opportunity in some cases, sure, but in many others one of a conscious desire to build on traditions, to pay tribute to the efforts of those who went before and to sustain communities – choices which, once made, frequently carry a heavy toll on those who make them. Runrig does this both in the lyrics (although the lyrics tend more towards moments in and out of consciousness, lines of inspired poetry, and emotional references and pulls, in songs that may not necessarily otherwise tell a linear story) but perhaps more particularly, as I’ve hinted already, in the music – but, in truth, the magic lies in the combination of both. Other than in echoing the luadh (waulking), as famously in An Toll Dubh but also in other songs in the collection, the melody lines are strong and with solid hooks, and the band well know the little tricks of making keyboards and guitars sound like falling rain, bass lines that pulse like gusts of mighty gales, rolling drums that echo the pounding ocean, and the whole coming together in a sound that forms a subliminal, aural recognition of the wild-at-heart soundscape underneath the big, wide-open skies of the Uists.

Of course, the short answer is that, wherever they’re actually from, like all live bands who’ve spent a lifetime gigging and spending a life on the road, the secret to Runrig is that the band are really good at giving a live audience what they want: passion, intensity, rousing choruses and the chance to jump up and down a bit. In that, they’re not so different to any other band, including that E Street one (with which there are some melodic similarities here): it’s all rock’n’roll, whether its inspiration is rooted in Celtic mysticism, American blues and gospel or British beat.

For an introduction into the sound of Runrig (at least, in its post-1997 second coming), this isn’t a bad place to start. That and Flowers of the West, which tells the story behind some of the songs and including some marvellous anecdotes and tall stories, including one of the TOTP appearances and a certain Diana Ross (sadly out of print, it seems, but perhaps available at a library, or indeed museum, near you).

That stand-out song? The version of Chi Mi ‘n Geamhradh (deliberately loose translation: Winter is Coming) by Catherine-Ann McPhee, a woman from Barra now living in Canada (a path familiar to many emigrés from the Western Isles) – and a reversal of the one undertaken by Guthro. Accompanied by the clarsach, and then by the violin, this is a vocal of extraordinary, spine-tingling power – confident, assertive and self-determining – set in the most lovely of arrangements. It is a thing of rare and lovely beauty: do check it out.

* Check the earlier discussion here.

Book review: The Underground Railroad

It was Black Man that first introduced me to the notion of the underground railroad, and of the work of Harriet Tubman. Utterly compelling from the first line of the vocal, Black Man, co-written by Stevie Wonder and Gary Byrd (who seems to get a writer’s credit, these days) was one of the stand-out songs on Songs in The Key of Life (coincidentally released 42 years ago this weekend) – a major credit in a very crowded field – and it identifies Harriet Tubman as a black woman who lead countless slaves to freedom via the underground railroad.

A film is being made, with shooting starting next month, of Harriet Tubman’s life and, probably more than Stevie Wonder, it is Colson Whitehead‘s 2017 novel which is the sparking point not least because – while his novel is emphatically not about Harriet Tubman – there are certain parallels between her early life and that of Cora, his heroine.

The star of the work, though, is the underground railroad itself. Given here a physical form (it was not, in reality, an actual railway but a network of sympathisers, determined people and incredibly brave, and frequently terrified, risk-takers), Whitehead uses the physicality of the railroad to pinpoint allegorical lessons about the un-noticed and unheralded contributions of slaves to the growth of the US. In taking such an approach, he is also able to pay tribute to those ‘station masters, conductors and sympathizers’ who built the railroad and whose pride in doing so thereby restored their humanity:

The ones who excavated a million tonnes, of rock and dirt, toiled in the belly of the earth for the deliverance of slaves like her. Who stood with all those other souls who took runaways into their homes, fed them, carried them north on their backs, died for them… Who are you after finishing something this magnificent – in constructing it, you have also journeyed through it, to the other side… The up-top world must be so ordinary compared to the miracle beneath, the miracle you made with your own sweat and blood. The secret triumph you keep in your heart.

To achieve the centrality of the point Whitehead is trying to put across, especially in what is not a long novel, the characterisation of the people he chooses to populate it must almost, by definition, take a back seat – as indeed must the casual mistreatment of slaves which, although very present in the novel, is dispensed with fairly quickly and in a matter-of-fact way unlike, for instance, the physicality of the approach to the experience of being a slave taken by Yaa Gyasi in Homegoing. This is quite clearly a risky strategy since it risks trivialising slaves’ experience of their treatment, but it pays off as long as the reader is aware of the author’s approach to what is he trying to achieve. The effect in making such experiences ordinary, everyday and, in that context, quite literally unremarkable may lie in dehumanising those subject to it but in circumstances in which the human miracle of those building, operating and maintaining the railroad is thereby made sharper, more real.

The major contribution which authors – as all artists – have an obligation to make is to use their work to pinpoint the injustices present in contemporary society. In spite of the Underground Railroad being a historical work, and a novel, it contains evident lessons not just in why the US has a Black Lives Matter movement (and why there is one in the UK, too) but in the ease with which ordinary men and women can be whipped up by demagogues into hatreds the like of which they wouldn’t otherwise recognise in themselves. We saw this with Hitler’s rallies; we saw it in the ease with which Milošević was able to turn workers bussed into rallies in Belgrade into Serbs; we saw it in many of Trump’s pre-election rallies; and we see aspects of it in live audience talent shows, too. And certainly we see it in the ease with which hate speakers and other divisive figures are able to gain access to (social) media.

A good artist is able to draw attention to such contemporary developments in the pictures they paint for us, even where they have a historical setting – and here Whitehead has done so too in the horrific Friday night ‘pageants’ which he has Cora witness from her North Carolina garret. Indeed, the contemporary lessons are made all the more pointed when we can witness their historical precedents (even in a work of fiction). We are all dehumanised when we allow any of ourselves to have our humanity taken away from us by a focus on others as ‘the other’, and the end-point is clear in a toxification of the public policy arena and in such a deterioration in the quality of public debate.

Similar to those facing the decision to construct the underground railroad out of a situation of horror, and to give hope to all those who are involved with it or who engage with it, or even who simply only hear about it, all of us have a responsibility to engage in the essential (re-)building process of our own humanity. We are indeed yet, as someone once sang, between the wars, and it is not yet too late for our efforts to have an effect.

Solidarity forever

We’re just back from spending a week in Gdańsk, having travelled to attend a friend’s wedding. With an unexpected spare day to myself as wedding preparations continued, I had a daunder up Góra Gradowa, the low hill overlooking Gdańsk’s main train and bus stations. This houses Napoleonic era fortifications, in the brick-built, grass-topped bunker style that you can also see elsewhere in modern-day Poland for example at Modlin and in Giżycko (Polish required); as well as a science museum devoted to the Polish-born astronomer Jan Heweliusz. Once you get above the tree line, as I knew, Gradowa affords a fine view over Gdańsk’s (inevitably rebuilt) old town to the south-east – but with my eye drawn, as it always is, to the north-east, to the cranes of Gdansk’s extensive shipyard Formerly Known As The Lenin Shipyard.

With the day fair, I left Gradowa in the direction of the shipyard, walking past the shipyard train station and the bits of the yard that are still working (with the approval of the EU’s state aid authorities, I might note), past the slightly edgy clubs set up amidst the abandoned bits and in old shipping containers (for those that like their dance culture to be intermingled with the smell of industrial paints) and back towards the town via the famous Gate No. 2. It was here that the 21 demands of the August 1980 inter-enterprise strike committee, written out on boards of plywood, were attached to the Gate (the boards once again present in situ – though surely a facsimile – which wasn’t the case on my first visit here back in 2012).

These days, the Gate (still emblazoned with Solidarność favours) is emblematic rather than functional and the immediate contextual setting for the European Solidarity Centre aiming to provide a museum for the role played by the wider Solidarity movement (and of which NSZZ Solidarność, the trade union, is listed as a founder). I wandered in, and then back out again, slightly deterred by the (albeit very modest) admittance fee (20zl; £4) but attracted back more by the Memorial to the Fallen Shipyard Workers which stands adjacent to the Gate.

The establishment of such a Memorial was one of the demands of the 1980 shipyard strikers. It doesn’t feature as one of the inter-enterprise strike committee’s 21 demands, which, drawing on strikes elsewhere in Poland, had moved on substantially from the bread and butter trade union issues which had sparked the strike in Gdańsk towards mounting a political challenge. The demands in Gdańsk included the re-instatement of Anna Walentynowicz, the crane driver and independent union activist whose dismissal five months before retirement had sparked the strike there (and in tribute to whom there is currently a series of information boards around the Memorial), as well as that of Lech Wałęsa (sacked from the shipyard in 1976) himself (and with whom Walentynowicz clearly had major disagreements). These were issues that had been settled within Gdańsk itself, with the Memorial arising out of the subsequent Gdańsk Agreement (interestingly, not only are the originals of the Agreement missing; no links are immediately available online either).

Regardless, the Memorial (unveiled within just a few months of the Agreement being signed) is dedicated to those killed in the 1970 riots across northern Poland over price rises and whose three crosses, topped with ship anchors, were inspired by the first three workers from the shipyard to have been killed. What I hadn’t noticed previously about this substantial memorial, at 42m standing almost as high as Gradowa, was that the ship anchors are ‘crucified’ with metal nails and ropes to the tops of the crosses – thus underlining in one stroke the commemoration of the fallen workers as martyrs and the significant role the Church played in the activities of August 1980. The tribute slabs at the front carry – in Polish, German, English, French and Russian – the message:

A token of everlasting remembrance of the slaughter victims.

A warning to rulers that no social conflict in our country can be resolved by force.

A sign of hope for fellow-citizens that evil need not prevail.

Other critical messages are included in the design of the Memorial itself and, along with Wałęsa’s own comment about this being a harpoon in the body of the whale, it is impossible to see the authorities within Gdańsk as having failed to recognise the significance of that to which they had agreed in establishing the Memorial.

IMG_9673 (2) (Custom)

Whatever the subsequent failures of the Solidarity movement in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the trade union-driven aspects of the inter-enterprise committee’s 21 demands, including the right to establish independent trade unions, with acceptance of the right to strike and with protection for strikers, continue to have resonance, as the TUC debated earlier this month. So indeed does the demand for (effectively) shorter working time and for improved workplace rights for parents. Getting all these back on the agenda, in the era of applications of artificial intelligence and post-Brexit, continues to be a challenge for real trade unions whether in Poland or in the UK; as much as in today’s ‘gig economy’ as in 1980s shipyards.

It’s also a useful reminder that much trade union activity, and regardless of its industrial origin or context, has a profoundly political character. Introducing change in the workplace, and change within the societies within which workplaces function, continues to be a political act.

Facial recognition technology: a personal story

A quick check to the photo on the left would confirm – were it to be required – that I have spectacles. I’ve worn glasses since I was about seven years old when my class teacher, (a Mrs Whitehead, I believe, though I might be wrong about that) quite astutely realised that I couldn’t see the blackboard, and told my Mum. (With nothing to compare it with, how was I to know that not being able to see the board wasn’t the default position for everyone?)

So, I’ve worn glasses for nigh-on fifty years, and they are a part of me. ‘Twas not always thus: the silent movies of Harold Lloyd (motto: A pair of glasses and a smile) did much to habilitate me to the things in front of my face. These days, not only do they frame my face, they also frame a major part of my identity: I look in the mirror and I see me, in glasses (I am unable to see me, without!); furthermore, I am who I am in no small measure because I wear glasses: when I was young, a fear of breaking them, and shards going into my eye, or my parents having to contribute some of their very hard-earned cash to replace broken ones (most NHS specs were not free, even in those days), which happened on more than one occasion, were quite a major part of my growing up in some of my very formative years.

Without my glasses, I don’t see very well, being acutely short-sighted and with age yet to do its thing and start correcting it. Consequently, in front of strangers, even ones who mean no harm, I do feel vulnerable. It doesn’t help that my house was once, a long time ago, broken into and my glasses taken off my face and broken by the intruders. My glasses are me and I’d be no more without glasses in front of strangers than I would any other item of clothing.

This is not a post about my passport photo which, taken in the last few years, shows me without glasses on the grounds that glasses were not ‘approved’ (Ali Smith has a funny, and all too familiar, extemporisation on this theme in ‘Autumn‘). But it is linked.

The introduction of new technology in airports takes on a number of guises, one of which is the automation of security control barriers. Here, you are supposed to stand (absolutely squarely) on rough outlines of feet on the floor and stare at a post which takes your picture. Aside of the intrusive aspect of this, and those which raise all kinds of data protection and civil liberties issues, it doesn’t work for people who wear glasses: light flashing off the glass, apparently, confuses the technology (quite why, when cameras, including on mobile phones, are quite used to dealing with this, is a different matter).

‘Take your glasses off, sir,’ is the call when red lights flash and I have to seek assistance at the gate into security.

‘I can’t,’ say I, by now quite practised at this charade and also quite genuine in my objections. ‘You need technology that works and, if I have to deny my identity, your technology doesn’t work.’

This time, just yesterday, having this debate with the officer on duty, at a major airport in the London area, who manually checked my documents and waved me through. The added twist this time was the expressed thought that glasses – and, by implication, my own – could be used to disguise identities.

Coming eventually to the gate for my domestic flight to Edinburgh, I find similar technology and, putting my bar code face down on the glass, I am confronted again with red lights and a familiar, and growing, sense of helplessness. I again have the conversation with the airline staff at the gate about the vagaries of their applications of technology and that, no, I am not taking my glasses off.

Checking my details takes some time and everyone else has gone through by the time the gate staff tell me that the person they have a photo of on their screen isn’t me.

Bidden, I take a look. The horrendous head and shoulders caricature I see on the screen before me in a peculiarly detailed black and white x-ray style photo, distorted and twisted, with my head apparently bigger than my body, arms flowing from shoulders in an oddly-shaped way, and bearing more than a passing resemblance to Nosferatu, even I don’t recognise as me.

‘We can’t let you board the flight, sir’,’ say the gate staff, ‘ Your biometrics don’t match up with our records.’

And indeed they don’t let me on. Amidst the course of several conversations about the whys and wherefores of this, the security implications for those on my flight as well as another, unknown, one on which this apparent stranger is booked, and not least the implications for my later flight out of Edinburgh to Gdansk, my plane is backed away from the stand. It appears to all, including myself, that someone else’s picture has become associated on their systems with my boarding pass. I have been denied boarding, and through absolutely no fault of my own.

Resolution appears in the form of senior staff, who have the ability to call up what seems to be a higher resolution, albeit still peculiarly negative, photo. ‘That is him,’ says one, to the doubts of others. ‘Sir, is this you?’

A second, more sustained look at this second photo gives me pause for thought. It does seem to be me – the coat (critically by now in my carry-on bag) but framing me in the photo is the same and I have a button-through shirt, although I don’t appear to be wearing my glasses. Nosferatu has, however, been replaced by a figure a little closer to something I would recognise as myself. ‘Yes,’ I think out loud, ‘It might well be me.’ Too late, of course: my flight has long gone.

Photo retaken, manually, glasses still on, by one of the senior staff and I’m free to go away and stress with others about my chances of catching the next flight and whether it gets me there in time to catch my connection. (A side note: even these new photos still don’t trigger the gate barriers when I try and use them to board the next flight.)

As to where this earlier photo came from – who knows? Ignoring conspiracy theories, it can only have come from photos that were taken at the gate into security but which, however, were for some reason insufficient to let me pass through.

Ostensibly, of course, the photo is there to capture an image of people so that boarding cards can’t be swapped once people are air-side, although it seems to me that a stage is being jumped and that some form of retina recognition is already being implemented. This raises a few other issues, including that this – if true – is not being as widely publicised as civil liberties indicates it ought. More generally, however:

1. A technology that requires people not to be wearing glasses is not a functional one. There are quite a lot of us who wear glasses. Most people might be comfortable doing as instructed and taking off their glasses; unfortunately, I’m really not one of them.

2. To be useable, a technology has to do the job required of it. A technology which seems to be capable only of producing such a poor quality image, and which is dubious even at higher resolution, is simply not doing the job required when, at least on the surface, much better and more useable technologies are available.

3. And it has to be easy to use. A photo that even the subject himself can not recognise, still less hard-pressed gate staff with a really important, front-line job to do in the security of all of us, and with only seconds or less to spare per passenger, is not useable. People with glasses frequently look a lot different without them.

Time for a re-think, HAA?

Test your STEM credentials here

This is one of my favourite roadside signs, advertising what is an ‘architecturally distinguished and well-appointed‘ hotel, a stop on the West Highland line and also on the route of the West Highland Way (although it’s not one of the recognised overnight points). There’s two of these signs in place (this actually being the one on the southbound carriageway of the A82); the northern-bound one, just following a recharging stop for our electric car in Crianlarich or Tyndrum, is placed just after one welcoming you to the Gàidhealtachd and before the road winds up over the Water of Tulla and on into the peatbog wilds of Rannoch Moor and the awe-inspiring grandeur of Glencoe; the place that, among other things, has launched a million Christmas shortbread tins and, these days, a million Skyfall selfies, whether Aston Martin or Nissan Leaf.

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Snapped last weekend here through the windscreen of a car moving at speed, this has long been a signpost for me, heralding far more than just locational positioning but representing a physical divide between lowlands and highlands, and (going north) a mental one between the old and the new, and particularly a point in response to the islands’ beckoning call.

But, about checking for those STEM credentials: looking at the sign, and amidst its gentle advertisement for a dimly-lit cosy bar, basking in the warm glow of a log fire, bare boards on the floor and a pint of the landlord’s finest on the table in front of you, what was your initial reaction?

1. Hmm. Bridge. Wonder if I can get a game?

2. Bridge, eh: do they still play that thing? Maybe I can watch for a bit and see how they do it…

3. Bridge. Yes, but beam, arch or suspension? (The answer is here.)

If you first thought (1) or (2), then possibly a career in STEM is not for you; if (3), your country and, of course, your union, absolutely needs you. Sign up as quick as you can.

The Free Church roots of American gospel

‘Never read the comments’ is long-standing advice for people on the net (aside of this very blog, of course, where there is a very interesting discussion going on right now about Celtic linguistic references to ‘the English’). But, sometimes it does pay off – and one of the recent obituaries to the sadly-departed Aretha Franklin in The Guardian provides one such example where one fairly prolific commentator on the site – a ‘Mrs. Vanderbilt’ – argued in the comments that:

‘Franklin was the supreme representative of a tradition that brought together European (Scottish) call and response church worship with African tribal chant. As such, she was the legitimate voice of a United States that was founded on both of those diverse cultures.’

Well, that was news to this reader, for whom Aretha’s voice and stance represented probably the apotheosis of the spine-chilling call both to the church as well as to civil and women’s rights. Challenged to come up with some evidence for this, ‘Mrs. Vanderbilt’ produced two sources: a YouTube video introduced by Phil Cunningham, the well-known accordeon player, and Calum Martin (who also features in this slightly longer, separate video); and a piece in The Independent which identified that there is academic support for such a view from one Professor Ruff, a musician and professor at Yale University. Given the history also of the involvement in the slave trade of representatives of the Scottish wealth and land-owning classes, which is well documented and which also features in Andrea Levy’s The Long Song, for example, there may well be substantive merit in what Ruff says. We should ignore the more hyperbolic and less well-researched aspects of his reported comments, while observing the notion that maverick academics are not an entirely unknown quantity. I’m not at all well placed to comment on aspects of the black experience, and I can only imagine the reaction among the black community to the view that gospel singing stems, in part, from the singing and oral traditions of a section of their oppressors. (Interestingly, The Independent piece has no comments.) However, the video is well worth a look for those who haven’t yet come across the tradition of Gàidhlig psalm singing: it’s both emotional and quite beautiful; and also contributes to an understanding of some of the traditions of some contemporary singers and musicians from the Western Isles.

There are some clear similarities in the styles, at least at the superficial level, but I’m not sure that I’m particularly convinced that there is that much in the way of actual influence from one to the other. Clearly, even traditions which do share some commonalities in their roots are likely to diverge over the centuries and over the thousands of miles which separate modern day experiences from the ones which came to form them. With this in mind, we should perhaps not be troubled too much by the gap created by the incongruity between a white (and apparently largely older male) congregation, sitting down and singing from hymn books, and a black, mixed and substantially much more mobile and youthful one.

There is, however, at least one aspect of commonality which is worth considering. We know that working class highland communities have suffered much as a result of the Clearances (and then the potato famines) with large, but unknown numbers probably counting in the several tens of thousands of able-bodied men and women evicted from the Highlands, their homes and belongings burned in an act of ‘wreckless terrorism’, and forced into exile in Canada, in the Carolinas of the US and in Australia, with devastating impacts on those cleared as well as on the old and the very young who were left behind to fend for themselves. I should be clear that I’m not equating the destinies of those subject to the Clearances with those sold (also from substantially agrarian societies, by the way) into the slave trade, the conditions of the migration and the method of transportation being cruel, inhuman and deathly on the one hand but brutal, dehumanising and murderous on the other. Nevertheless, the pain and suffering caused by rupture, both on those forced to leave and also on those left behind, is perhaps one thing which might well be held in common between Free Chuch congregations and those of the US gospel south and which might well contribute some of any similiarities between the styles of singing.

Peter Alan Ross, in his beautiful elegy on the occasion of Runrig’s Last Dance, a band for whose songwriters, coming as they do from North Uist, Gàidhlig psalm singing was also a part of their traditions and upbringing, notes that Bruce Guthro, when he joined the band, was a Novia Scotian. His approach to singing reflected the themes of emigration and loss about which the MacDonalds were writing and that his joining the band, at least to some degree, represented a taking back of one of our own. If there are similarities between gospel traditions and the approach of Gàidhlig psalm singers, it must surely be in the pain and sorrow of communities ruptured by external forces and from economic systems that saw people either as a source of profit or otherwise as a barrier to it.

The Legendary Park Bar

In Glasgow at the weekend and, following a walk along the River Kelvin and through the grounds and museum at Kelvingrove – still no pub called The Kelvin, I note, dammit, anywhere in the area – we wound up for a few whiskies and a bit of entertainment at the legendary Park Bar, just a few hundred yards from the museum. Star of novels and radio productions (forthcoming), The Park Bar is a bit of a legend amongst Uibhisteach and western isles folk more generally – and with very good reason as it is something of a home-from-home down there in Baile Mòr offering traditional music, good food and drink, some familiar faces, experiences and points of reference and a bit of a chat (not least when Runrig are also playing The Last Dance, and the islands have therefore emptied).

Satisfying myself with a few Schiehallions before switching to a Bruichladdich (or two), and enjoying Scott Harvey‘s slimmed-down trio of keyboard, accordion and drums, I couldn’t help a wry smile at this sign posted to the wall just to the right of the wee stage and warning of the Park Bar’s zero tolerance policy:

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An image which is somewhat shaky (and therefore reduced in size here as full scale really does appear like the lens has been smeared with vaseline), not as a result of the Bruichladdich(s), I swear, but genuinely as a result of being bumped by dancers doing their best to throw a few Highland shapes in a bar that was *absolutely mobbed*. That’s the story I’m sticking to, anyway.

Yep, it was a great night!