An escape to Poland’s borderlands

It’s been a little-more-than-usually quiet on the blog these last few weeks as we’ve been away and, well, a holiday deserves to be a holiday.

Covid-19 and foreign travel

Our plane tickets were booked some time ago but it was a bit of a late decision actually to use them, amidst rising CV-19 cases ahead of the UK’s ‘unlocking’ on 19 July and eventually secured not least as a result of Bulgaria’s decision to close its borders (again) to UK citizens from the same date, it surely not being long before the rest of the EU was likely to follow suit (well, I would, in their shoes). This didn’t happen, as it turned out, but it was a key factor prompting us to take the chance – if borders had been closed again, it might have been some time before we got back to Europe proper.

Getting into Poland was not onerous: a downloadable certificate demonstrating our double-jabbed status; and a passenger locator form in the shape of an A4 pro forma issued and filled in on the plane, and collected by flight staff; if they even passed it to the Polish border guards, I suspect it wasn’t long before it duly found its way into the big round A-Z file. After a steep rise in the spring, CV-19 cases in Poland have fallen dramatically now representing, according to this interactive chart on the Pink ‘Un (set up to show comparative cases/100,000 population in Poland and in the UK), a tiny fraction of those in the UK: given the bureaucracy (and the expense) associated with getting back into the UK from a visit to a country which remains, still, ‘amber list’, things really ought to be the other way around.

Face coverings remain formally mandatory in inside, unventilated places and, while this was usually respected at the start of the trip, the sheer absence of cases and a vaccination programme which has seen substantial progress among the over-18s saw non-observance noticeably rise during the course of our stay. As we’ve seen from the UK this week, however, large proportions of vaccinated people do not mean that cases cannot rise, or restrictions be again under contemplation – other factors are also at work and, in Poland. a fourth wave is indeed predicted for the autumn.

Introduction

2021 also sees the 10th anniversary of my first visit to Poland (a latecomer on my travels around central and eastern Europe).

Anyway, our trip took us initially to Wrocław and then anti-clockwise around the borders of modern-day Poland with the Czech Republic (via the spa towns of Świeradów-Zdrój; and Kudowa-Zdrój) to the very south-east corner in the Bieszczady Mountains, bordered on three sides by Ukraine and where Poland also borders Slovakia via the Carpathians, and then slightly north to the major city of Rzeszów. Thus, the more progressive, developed and investment-heavy west and the more socially conservative, less developed investment-poor east. The nature of the locations prompted quite a few thoughts about borders, migration and the importance of symbols and language, and I’ve attached these in an extended longform essay below, along with some of the on-theme photos filtered out from the 1,400+ I took during the three weeks, interleaving these observations with a few diary entries documenting where we visited.

We travelled by train and bus wherever possible; planning each stage (travel and accommodation) one in advance. This gave us some flexibility although we were able to retain a broad direction in mind.

Some relatively modern history about borders

I suspect like many others in the UK, I was ignorant until quite recently about the fact that Poland was shifted physically westwards as a result of World War II. Despite being on the winning side, as well as being the casus belli between the UK and Nazi Germany, Poland lost extensive amounts of territory to the east (along the so-called Curzon line which meant the loss of then Lwów, now Lviv and previously part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), to newly-independent Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania as Stalin sought to push his ‘security zone’ as far west as he could (modern geopolitical history continues to see this frontier very much as contested territory); but gaining the ‘Recovered Territories’ from Germany in the north (Gdańsk and eastwards) and in the west (along the Oder-Neisse line and including Silesia (Wrocław) and up to Szczecin, the latter actually west of the Oder). Modern-day Poland was essentially re-established on the basis of the realm of the medieval Piast dynasty. From being pretty central, even slightly west, of the longitudinal centre of Poland, Warsaw found itself quite firmly in its east; and, while Poland certainly lost territory overall, in terms of hectares (it ended up at about 80 per cent of its pre-war size), this was, at least to some degree although this is inevitably controversial, compensated by the Recovered Territories being more highly developed than the areas conceded in the east. The Poland that emerged was more compact than before, and with two quite distinct halves, and the fault lines that resulted from this continue to affect Poland and Polish society today. Polish agreement to this reduction in its size and influence was only achieved by intense wartime diplomatic pressure as well as, rather belatedly, a recognition of the geopolitical realities.

As we might imagine, the cost in human terms of all this border-shifting was immense as people were forcibly moved, on the basis in some cases of an ‘exchange of populations’, as the Polish nation state sought to reconstitute itself as a homogeneous entity and find room in the Recovered Territories for people leaving lands lost to the east, while itself deporting non-Poles to the east. Ordinary German people lost their homes in lands in which many had been settled for some time to the new Polish nation, being forcibly moved to within the borders of how Germany was now constituted. It is hard to disagree with Norman Davies‘s simple conclusion that:

Inimitably, frontiers were to have priority over mere people.

‘God’s Playground’ p. 379, 2005 edition (re-printed in 2013)

Politicians debating over where lines should be drawn on a map can have no other outcome.

The sheer effort involved is hard to imagine: it consumed much of the next three years and, in terms of German expellees from Poland, totalled no fewer than five million people held and then transferred in conditions which may have been familiar to the Nazis but much less so to ordinary Germans caught up in the war but living lives outside of the Nazi machine. On top of the number of Poles moved internally, and into Poland from beyond its new borders, this was indeed one of the ‘greatest demographic upheavals in European history’ (Davies, p. 422, p. 423) – and it happened within the living memory of many of us. It’s a shame that, collectively, we don’t know, or appreciate, these key events better.

Świeradów-Zdrój

After a night in Wrocław (formerly Breslau), a two-hour bus trip took us back west and a bit south to Świeradów-Zdrój (Bad Flinsberg), for some acclimatisation, cake and a delightful, charming family reunion. Świeradów-Zdrój is a rather genteel spa town, notable otherwise for being high enough above sea level to sustain a winter sports industry in the harsh months of the Polish winter – the highest peak is Stog Izerski, served by a cable car, and, despite being 1107m above sea level (that’s 3,360 feet; for comparison, Mount Snowdon/Yr Wyddfa is 1085m above sea level), it’s still substantially below the tree line (largely spruce, and substantially regenerated since thousands of hectares were lost to pollution and insect infestation in the late 1980s). Finding a view from the top, other than of trees, rocks and blueberry bushes, is a bit difficult other than at the summit restaurant.

It’s also a short, tree-lined walk from the top into the Czech Republic, across a border marked simply by a boardwalk and a few signposts, to the neighbouring (and slightly higher) peak of Smrk (1124m) which has a newly-(re-)constructed viewing tower that does take you above the tree line to views over Poland and the Czech Republic. We repeated this bureaucracy-free border-crossing experience some days later.

Świeradów-Zdrój also has a quite astonishing church which, as you progress down the nave towards an apparently oddly offset centrepiece, the presence of a second, modern nave (added in the 1970s at an angle of around 45 degrees to the nave in the ‘old’ part of the church) slowly becomes evident. Poland is, now, overwhelmingly Roman Catholic (see also below, churches being one of the themes of this trip) but thoughts abounded as to how a dual nave church might be used in multi-denominational Christian countries.

Around the town, English language skills were rarer, though growing, and German was more common. Adjacent to our dinner table at a neighbouring 4* hotel (built in 1907) one evening was a party of elderly, and rather sombre, German men and women, clearly lead by a tour guide, likely to be representing one of a number of associations whose aim is to facilitate visits to the patrimony of German people expelled in the immediate post-War period – i.e. where they, or their parents, grew up. That this is these days relatively uncontroversial – that there are few, or no, evident claims to property restitution – is due no doubt to many things (and things were not always so comfortable in the post-War period) but including among them the peaceful integrationist aims of the EU, and the affirmation in 1990 by newly-unified Germany, within that perspective provided by the EU, of the post-war border between Poland and Germany. The flag display outside that same hotel is a symbolic, and incredibly powerful, representation of what that message of unity between European people actually means and the key role played by the EU in that process:

Additionally, Świeradów-Zdrój offers forest walks and the broad walkways and gently rising elevations of the new Sky Walk tower – a terrifically relaxing place to step into the holiday.

Kudowa-Zdrój

Heading south-east from Świeradów-Zdrój by taxi and then train, our next destination was the border town of Kudowa-Zdrój (Bad Kudowa). Today a youthful and quite lively resort, though replete with the panoply of the formal things that spa towns have to offer, but less influenced by the pull and the wealth of Wrocław, the predominant linguistic note in Kudowa-Zdrój is not German but Czech. This is no surprise since the town is surrounded on three sides by the Czech Republic while the E67, the European motorway stretching from the Czech Republic to Finland, goes more or less through the town, splitting the train station firstly from the lower and then the upper parts of the town. Adding to the Czech notes, there was also a ‘cross-border’ Czech-Polish cultural festival going on, funded by the EU’s Interreg programme.

The attraction here was not so much the spa water as two things: firstly, the opportunity to experience a border not influenced by the natural divides raised by mountain ranges; and secondly the Góry Stołowe (Table Mountains) whose highest peak, Szczeliniec Wielki (919m) is a short bus ride away.

Cieszyn, further to the south-east, might be better known – the border here is a small river brutally splitting the town into two parts in different countries, reflecting a sad history – but the divide in Kudowa-Zdrój splits Mała Czermna (Little Czermna, in the Polish) from the district of Czermna, lying on the north-west outskirts of the spa itself. It’s a short walk to the border point and, while there was formal crossing infrastructure in place in the past, Poland and the Czech Republic are now members of the EU’s Schengen Area and achieving the ‘crossing’ is a simple barrier-free stroll down the road. The Czech police apparently take a dim view of undocumented Poles traversing their territory so what they would have made of an undocumented Schengen-less Brit is anyone’s guess (under CV-19 rules, travel into the Czech Republic for UK citizens is barred other than for essential reasons), though the question didn’t actually arise at any point on our bike trip for a late lunch into the neighbouring, and comparatively rather sleepy, Czech town of Nachod. Essential travel, surely.

Here is the border point, familiar elsewhere on both these early legs of the trip from mountain crossing points; ‘P’ on the one side (for Poland); ‘C’ on the other. Note, however, that this is a re-purposed stone, clearly dating from before 1945:

On another occasion, I re-crossed the border (yes, a repeat offender) to spend some of my remaining Czech crowns in one of the not one, not two, but three pubs that lie immediately across the border, wherein I noted that it was still possible, in one corner of the EU in 2021, to buy a pint for a pound (500ml of beer for 30 crowns; the official exchange rate on the day being 29.9 crowns to the pound). It was the type of continental lager best described as cold and wet – much better (and more pricey) was had from a variety of the craft breweries that now inhabit even the remotest corners of Poland – but, nevertheless, this has its place in some contexts. The cost of food and drink was certainly lower in this part of the Czech Republic than in this part of Poland so, unless there is some sort of currency thing going on, Interreg has some work to do in terms of a number of its core aims.

The other attraction was another mountain to climb. In typically Polish hill-walking style, Szczeliniec Wielki offers steps which, in this case, go all the way to the top (actually dating back to the beginning of the 19th century, when the mountain was part of Prussia) and, frequently, a handrail which, in other than Covid-19 terms, might often have been quite a useful thing. Additionally, signs attached to the trees every hundred metres or so mean that you can rarely lose your way (unless you’re really not paying attention) – all very different from our climb this time last year of South Uist’s Beinn Mhor.

The precise number of steps up Szczeliniec Wielki varies according to what you count, but the common assumption is that there are ‘around 700’; the definitive answer, however, is that there are actually 722 taking you to a summit restaurant, of course, as well as breathtaking views of the countryside and the rest of the Sudetes mountains. The key feature of Szczeliniec Wielki, however, is its monolithics – huge lumps of sandstone carved by erosion and weathering into a variety of interesting shapes and also into rock labyrinths (additionally at the nearby site of Błędny Skały, which we also visited the same day in a monumental day of walking). You get to visit this bit of the mountain after paying the appropriate national park fee – taking you to a few more steps up (and then down). Some of the names of the formations leave a little to the imagination and some are best left undescribed for reasons of not spoiling the (frequently breathtaking) surprise, but here’s my version of probably the most photographed one – a rock formation that could barely better resemble a mountain gorilla had it been deliberately sculpted:

Quite soon, though, someone’s going to need to tackle that birch stubbornly clinging to the gorilla’s shoulder…

Sanok

On next to the Carpathians and a first, short-stay base in Sanok – a day’s journey from Kudowa of more than 500km involving a taxi, a train and finally a bus. Sanok is a large town through which flows the River San whose upper reaches form the modern boundary between Ukraine and Poland at the eastern edge of the Bieszczady Mountains and which also featured in the call of Ukraine nineteenth century nationalists for a Ukraine ‘from the San to the Don’ (Davies, p. 115). Sanok has a number of attractions but the biggest is the skansen – a large open air folk museum akin to St. Fagans in Cardiff but covering 38 hectares and featuring some 180 original wooden buildings from the 17th to the 20th century re-constructed faithfully on site (and labelled with basic information in Polish and English). The aim is to provide a sympathetic consideration of what life was like for the peoples of the Polish Carpathians, including both Boykos and Łemkos, long-established Rusyn minorities typically inhabiting the villages of the Bieszczady and the lands adjacent to the west, respectively, and both essentially ethnic Ukraines. The confession of both is Greek Catholic – accepting the authority of the Pope but adhering to an Eastern Christian rite – and the skansen features a number of astonishing wooden churches (cerkiew, in Polish; tserkvas in UNESCO language, as they are internationally recognised as having global heritage) in the different styles of both Boykos and Łemkos.

Both groups suffered hugely in the aftermath of World War II despite a tradition of living peaceably alongside their Polish ‘brothers’ and with some degree of intermarriage. Military activities in the Bieszczady in 1945-1947 by units of the fascist-led Ukraine Insurgent Army (UPA) in support of an updated claim for a Greater Ukraine led to Boykos and Łemkos being regarded as sympathisers and to decisive military action (Akcja Wisła) being taken against them by the new Soviet-backed government. Whole villages in the Bieszczady were cleared, with a total of 140,000 inhabitants repatriated to the ‘Recovered Territories’, and buildings systematically razed to the ground. Many were left as ghost towns for decades and, in some still, orchards with no farmstead and overgrown foundations remain a symbol of the tragedy that arises when nationalism turns people against each other and when people are forced to pick sides.

Cisna

Cisna, our base for most of a six-night stay in the Bieszczady, was one such clearance village although Cisna has been repopulated from the 1970s onwards as the government sought to open up the tourism potential of the Mountains. The village, which occupies a key strategic position in the geography of the area, retains a Communist-era monument to the outcomes of Akcja Wisła on a small rise in the centre of the village but, although it was cleaned up in 2017 and a new memorial tablet inscribed, parts of it remain in a poor state. The new stone commemorates the ‘Defenders of Cisna and the surrounding area in 1944-47 against the Ukrainian Insurgent Army’ and at least this has stopped the graffiti which overlay the original tablet’s commemoration of the ‘Fallen in the fights to consolidate people’s power in Cisna’ although a little has been lost as a result. The frieze, showing soldiers in action in the battles of the time, appears to remain although the open air sections are blackened and indistinct. A new information board at the site tells the story of the actions in Cisna and provides some thoughtful contextual comments, while the main events are also usefully re-told, with photographs, in other places online (Polish language required; or at least access to a translator).

Rain and damp, muddy ground interfered somewhat with our trip here – it is the mountains, after all – but we did manage a couple of small local hills (Jeleni Skok, 777m above sea level; and Hon, 663m – both well below the tree line although the former at least has a viewing platform allowing a perspective on the Carpathians) as well as the main objective – walking the połoniny, Poland’s mountainous wild meadows free of grazing sheep (though neither bears not wolves). We chose the higher for our trip – Połonina Caryńska (1297m) – although most of the mountains hereabout top out at roughly the same level. After some uncertainty as to where to get off the bus, we managed to start the walk in the right place and, while full of gratitude for the stone steps, handrails and clear signs on display throughout, I do have a little beef with the officially-produced tourist leaflets and brochures which promise a walk up of 70 minutes and up to two hours down (to a different destination). These are not times achievable by 50-something occasional, albeit enthusiastic, walkers or indeed by people with babies and young families and there is of course a serious point that mountains need to be respected and, with that in mind, people need not to be encouraged to over-reach themselves in conditions where their own safety – and that of others – may be endangered. It took us, including stops for photos, water and rest, two hours to reach the top and two and three-quarter hours to get down, the last eighty minutes of which was a relentless and frequently steep slog downhill through the forest, often with some quite challenging underfoot conditions as a result of the rain. The walk up Caryńska from where we finished is advertised as two hours – it would have taken us considerably more, even had we started our day there, not least when this is the view after the forest, but uphill, as you eventually break through the tree line:

And that’s not the real top of Caryńska. Of course, we didn’t say that to people on their way up, some already apparently exhausted from that slog uphill.

Nevertheless, the views all around, across Poland and to the Carpathians border with Slovakia and down into Ukraine, were magnificent and the wild flowers, while clearly past their collective best in early August, were nevertheless still showing very well individually. And the top, while crowded (hiking is very popular in Poland) not least with a party of scouts, was not as crowded as some: either in the UK or, notably, at some famous spots further west in the Polish Carpathians.

Having seen some examples of cerkiew in the Boyko and Łemkov styles in the skansen at Sanok, we were keen to see some more examples located within the communities they serve and, aided by a day when we re-located a little out of Cisna, and with the aid of a hire of electric bikes from Robert at Agroturystyka Wojtasiówka and some information from the Icon Trail, now in the process of being renewed, we ventured out. Having travelled across the River Osława, formerly marking the traditional boundary between Boykos and Łemkos, what we found was in the Łemkov style; and we explored no fewer than six (well, it was a Sunday): one in Radoszyce, now re-purposed and re-dedicated as a Roman Catholic church (and only a couple of kilometres up the road from the Slovak border although there’s absolutely nothing there other than expanses of concrete and a picnic table and so we resisted the opportunity to step into Slovakia); two in Komancza; and then the jewels in the crown – one at Rzepedź; one at Szczawne; and then finally the one at Turzańsk which is one of the 16 tserkvas formally on the UNESCO list (the numbers of which are evenly divided between Poland and Ukraine) but which currently has the builders in until next month (the main building, though not the separate belfry, was surrounded by scaffolding when we visited). Most are still in use, all have been renovated (or even rebuilt, in one case) in some way and serving what are quite small, though clearly devout, Uniate communities most of which are likely to have returned to the area once people felt themselves more free to be themselves again following the tragedy (described as such in a commemorative sign in the cerkiew at Rzepedź) of the clearances.

Most of the cerkiew were closed (keys are often available) but the one at Szczawne was open, with a retired geography teacher acting as curator. She was certainly aware of where the Outer Hebrides were, but made it quite clear that she looked only east: apart from Polish she spoke Russian, Ukrainian and Łemko. Her children, nevertheless, had looked west, with three living in the UK (two in Hereford and one in Southampton) and the pain that migration frequently presents – the absence of children and, perhaps, grandchildren – to those left behind not least in the circumstances represented by their own history, was clearly heartfelt. For Europeans, at least, migration is a choice and, while recognising that economic and social circumstances also present something of a compelling force for some people, at least migration is no longer something that comes at the end of a gun. Progress, of sorts. Here, and offered with respect, is the belfry of her church, built in 1889 and renovated in 1973 (bullet holes, remnants of both world wars remain), with the core design broadly reflecting that of the church itself:

Rzeszów

An early start for our next move, north to the city of Rzeszów, and two two-hour bus trips with a connection time of eight minutes (successfully made) meant we were there in time for brunch. The day could scarcely have got any better when we picked on an upstairs cafe on the main square where one of the duties of the waiting staff was to flip the record over to play the other side; and when the staff’s choice of vinyl for the day was THIS.

Eventually tearing ourselves away for a tour of the city’s major sights, and after a brief, but comic, interlude one of us enjoyed with the local police (what goes on in Rzeszów stays in Rzeszów), we started off at the ‘Revolutionary Act Monument’ dedicated, it says here, to the ‘fights for freedom that took place in the Rzeszów area’. Built in 1974, and currently rather well-maintained, despite the attention of a glut of pigeons, its location opposite what was clearly CP HQ, which now houses the provincial administration for the Podkarpackie region of Poland (the more things change…), gives the game away that its correct name probably runs something like ‘Workers and soldiers joined in the ultimate and inevitable victory of Socialism’. While we’ve had our own debates in the UK in recent years about the messages that statues send and their continued relevance in different times, there is a clear argument for explaining and re-contextualising the history. Rzeszów city council deserves a bit of credit for not simply pulling the monument down, as has evidently happened in other places – though it has to be said it does also occupy a major space within the city. However, something a bit less mealy-mouthed on the tourism brochures would also help the impression of a confident city which is at ease with itself and with its recent history.

We used Rzeszów largely as a base for day trips out to places which give readers decent experience of the breadth of the Polish alphabet – to Łańcut; Przemyśl; and to Sandomierz – before ensuring that we had enough time to spare to get the UK Covid-19 bureaucracy in place before our return (tests, both taken and booked (and in both cases paid for); and online forms completed. All the trips – respectively by bus/train, train and then bus again – had their merits. Presenting here just a couple of highlights: Łańcut offered baronial splendour alongside a completely renovated synagogue (in its original building) now in use as a museum (as well as being the home of the best beer sampled this trip); Sandomierz a series of 18th century oil paintings depicting – in a cathedral – people meeting their deaths in a variety of bloodthirsty ways, and including, separately, one depicting the blood libel which frequently features in anti-Semitic discourse (well examined and contextualised here in a piece from 2014 looking expressly at Sandomierz).

The pick of these three trips for me, however, was the mystically-unpronounceable Przemyśl – a city of spires, southern Poland’s second oldest city and an important trading post in the Austro-Hungarian Empire – where the renovated station building, built 1859-1860, offers Baroque style and a station buffet with drapes, plush chairs and fine dining, damask table cloths and all. The city lies close to the border with Ukraine – Ukraine nationalists laid claim to it as part of Greater Ukraine – and the River San flows through it before its eventual confluence with the Wisła a short way north-west of Sandomierz.

The city is multi-confessional and, to some degree, this has been a little fluid: in 1991 the Roman Catholics moved out of one of their two centres of worship – a monumental building whose frontage towers over the street outside, built originally in the 17th century by the Jesuits – to make way for the Uniate community, who had been worshipping in the Carmelite cathedral until that Order wanted it back in the immediate post-Socialist period. The more interesting thing, however, at least in contemporary terms, was this window display in a private apartment immediately opposite the church’s main entrance:

Gusts of wind coming from the wrong direction made the red flag stubbornly refuse to stay the right way out for the camera, but – as might be clear from the logo – it reads ‘Strajk Kobiet‘ (women’s strike) and refers to the mass grassroots protests by women taking place on Polish streets in 2020-21, the largest protests in Poland’s modern history, whose sparking point was a new abortion law but which also, in some contexts, can be seen as mounting an effective opposition to Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS – Law and Justice), the right-wing national-conservative ruling party whose MEPs are now the largest group in the Eurosceptic ECR group (set up by David Cameron) in the European Parliament. The story is not over yet – the leader of Strajk Kobiet has been charged with offences in connection with the protests – but the encounter here this afternoon in Przemyśl was made even more interesting when the young woman who lived in the apartment came down the street behind us as we were taking our photographs and, with a broad smile, asked us if we liked her flags. After assuring her that we did (these things can be misinterpreted), we congratulated her on her placement not least given her location (churches being one of the flash points between Strajk Kobiet and the government, with protesters angry at the Church’s role in the new law -and its powerful role in society more generally – and with leading PiS representatives calling on party members and supporters to ‘take part in the defence of the church’. The language is familiar from our own debates about statues; and, it will not be a surprise to learn, the outcomes of the use of such language were also shared: populists learn very quickly from each other in a globalising world).

It was impossible not to share the woman’s joy in her celebration of her gesture – the rainbow flag was, she said, a replacement for one that had got a bit tatty and had been unfurled only that morning (hence the packaging lines) – nor to escape the massive symbolism of what was going on: here was a woman in the south-east corner of Poland making a dramatic gesture at the surrounding forces of conservatism, symbolised by a church serving the eastwards-facing Uniate community, and turning herself to face very deliberately west in doing so.

The rainbow flag is of course the international symbol of LGBT rights and units of local government in south-east Poland have been at the forefront of the adoption of statements of ‘LGBT-free zones’ or ‘pro family’ charters (including the province of Podkarpackie, whose seat is at Rzeszów, but not Przemyśl as a ‘city powiat‘ within Podkarpackie). Walking around Rzeszów it was impossible not to notice rainbow colours in use on logos and infrastructure and, as it seems, there is a unifying symbol of opposition to the government contained within it, too: it was present, alongside other symbols, in an opposition party protest (actually also sporting flags for a centre-right party which indicates how far right PiS has positioned itself) about media freedom taking place in Wrocław when we returned there before our flight home:

Note also the Covid-19 mask, being worn fashionably as a chin-strap. Other, less common, public usages spotted this trip were as an elbow pad and as a bracelet.

Conclusion

My theme in this post has been borders, language and symbols and the Polish locations we visited on this trip provided plenty of opportunity to consider what these things mean in a modern country located within the EU – and highly secure within its own borders, however much blood and suffering had been spent in the the fight to secure them – and able to participate in a border-free Europe which encompasses not just goods and services but citizens, too.

Below the surface, however, there are difficulties. Poland provides an external border for the EU and, currently, is open to criticism for its policy towards refugees on the border with Belarus – a border it would not have recognised before 1945. Many of these are Afghans – and there is a sizable community of Muslims around Białystok, further north than we went on this trip, hence why the Belarus route has proven attractive – and the position may well deteriorate substantially in the autumn as a result of the current situation in Afghanistan. Elsewhere, it was clearer than ever that freedom of movement is reserved for those who are already in the EU – those on the outside face, in sharp contrast to borderless Europe, fences that are being re-doubled both in their size and in their intent to keep people, however, desperate out.

Aside of its fresh attractiveness to asylum seekers, and evidently in sharp contrast to the will of PiS, Poland is also a country of immigration – there are, for example, 1.5m Ukrainians now living and working in Poland (many of the young men and women serving us in restaurants across the country were likely to have been Ukrainian); these may be the ‘brothers’, but that is rather old language these days and, in a conservative country, while their immediate labour market rights may well be fully protected, their long-term presence is likely to change the country in ways for which it may not be prepared. As will, of course, asylum seekers for whose ‘brotherhood’ people need to look a little deeper than perhaps a country homogeneous by choice for the last seventy five years has been used to.

PiS is able to dominate party politics in the face of a fractured opposition, but the new politics does not take place in the Sejm and there is plenty for people to be angry about, including women’s rights, LGBT rights and media laws as well as public sector pensions, among others, to say nothing of a rights-based clash with the EU (though cynics may be right to point out that, not least with the EU’s requirement for unanimity, little will come of that). Poland is a free country – but it is not yet a society in which all people can feel free to be themselves and the dividing lines, both socio-cultural and geographical, are beginning to show.

Furthermore, much more needs to be done also to deliver growth across Poland on a more even basis – the fissures and fault lines based on development are also clear – and while a ‘Polexit’ might well be extremely unlikely, regardless of the current points of confrontation with the EU, as with Brexit the wider debate about the EU will be won and lost among those that feel they have been left behind and those for whom party politics provides no opportunity to have their voices heard. As we’ve seen in the UK, continual sniping and playing up the confrontation is no solution.

My final photo in this essay comes from the wall of the rebuilt synagogue in Rzeszów, now serving as an archive. On the edge of a public park named in honour of the victims of the ghetto – and which lay within the area of the ghetto itself – the synagogue commemorates in Polish, Hebrew and English those murdered and the whole is a moving, and still, place.

And yet, in a country which has spent so much in trying to get the international community to get the language around the death camps right, and which is so sensitive when it comes to language around the Church, the language here is wrong. Ordinary Germans were also victims of the war, and of Hitler, both at home in Germany and beyond what are now modern Germany’s borders; and were as much liberated by the end of the war from Nazi tyranny as the rest of Europe which had been occupied by the Nazi machine. The language around ‘German occupiers’ and, far worse, ‘German genociders’ (reading the Polish, the problem is not one of translation) is entirely misplaced at this point in a unified Europe which encompasses both Poland and Germany as sovereign, independent and, crucially, equal states. Continuing to cite ‘the Germans’ not only does little for present-day relations between the two countries but will also play a role in perpetuating suspicions and indeed hatreds. ‘Nazi’ is surely the preferred term here, providing both contemporary contextualisation and explanation. A country which celebrates the Polish and the German flags alongside each other in its western borderlands – and which, in Rzeszów itself, is clearly aware of how language changes and the sensitives that are involved in how it is used – needs to make stronger efforts to get the language right in its south-eastern third, too.

TotW: funk’n’soul from unexpected places

It’s been a wee while since my last Track of the Week, so here’s a bonus edition with two tracks sharing a common theme, both of which need a little bit of YouTube love.

First up – and straight outta Nashville – is DeRobert and the Half-Truths. DeRobert Adams has been around for a decade or more although the second of his two full albums was as far back as 2013. Nashville is the home of country music (and an echo here back to my first Track of the Week) – but DeRobert and his band are less stetson hats and denim jackets and boots with tassels as committed funkateers. Here, a pulsing bass line, chanking guitars and insistent horns lay down the hooks for DeRobert’s warm, soulful voice to warn of the dangers of too close an association with people living somewhat on the edge and who may put good things at risk. While setting the casual listener rather out of their comfort zone resulting from a simple word association with Nashville, Tennessee’s state capital is far more these days than Music City alone and seems to have accommodated a few tips and tricks from its sister down Route 40 to the south-west. Written and produced by the splendidly on-message Nick DeVan, the Half-Truther who also plays drums and keys on ‘Thievin’ & Robbin”, this is a slice of funk’n’soul so timeless you’ll swear you’ve heard it once before somewhere, probably on that old LW radio, while nevertheless retaining a modern appeal.

DeRobert’s Bandcamp, when you’ve pumped up the YT plays enough, is right here although access to the track, released on 11 June, is via the label’s own page. DeRobert and the Half-Truths’ 100 Yard Dash – a seven-track LP which doesn’t feature ‘Thievin’ & Robbin” – was released a week earlier on 4 June.

And if the sound itself is not enough of an apparent fish out of water, the label which has licensed the track, Golden Rules, is straight outta Leipzig. Yes, Leipzig. Meanwhile Golden Rules – Bringing Soul Back to the People – has been releasing a regular, bi-weekly stream of contemporary, yet retro, tracks from the funk’n’soul scene, including from Hamburg’s Mighty Mocambos, ahead of a summer release pulling together the choicest bits. Well worth keeping an eye on.

Turning next a little further to the north-east, the Amazin’ Five are a youthful music collective straight outta Moscow. With roles in other bands and as DJs, the Amazin’ Five (who may not actually be five in number) seem to be a bit of a pick-up band for when live dates come a-calling and they don’t even have their own webpage – they do have FB and IG pages – but you can find a tiny bit more about them via the band’s page on the WillWork4Funk agency website. The band members’ love of retro soul with a contemporary feel – as well as, apparently, jazz, reggae, hip hop and blues – is undeniable, even if none of them look as though they were born much before the turn of the century, and in vocalist Olesia they have a hard-working, vibrant focal point who commands your attention.

Only With You‘ couldn’t any more be the sound of summer if it slipped a long, tall colourful drink into your hand while sitting you down by the sea in front of a setting sun casting golden light all around while whispering promises into your ear about the evening to come. Gently chiming guitars, bongos, laid-back stabs of horns, strings straight from the Al Green songbook and a dreamy Fender Rhodes solo, are topped off by Olesia’s confident, yet non-assertive, assuring vocal. Drifting skywards straight into that warm glow, ‘Only With You’ also has an English language vocal set against the same music track, but I’m linking here to ‘Gotova vzletet’/’готова взлетет’, the original language version. You’ll believe that Russian can be the language of love.

‘Only With You’ was released on 25 June and, while the Amazin’ Five have no Bandcamp of their own, you can pick it up via Tramp Records’s page. The English language version is the B-side. Or the AA-side. Either way you know what to do, people. Keep the faith.

Both tracks, by the way, were heard recently on DJ Ritu’s A World in London; new shows released every Wednesday right the way through lockdown (and beyond).

Book Review: The Accident on the A35

This, the third novel by Graeme Macrae Burnet, shows the author setting himself up as a unique and original voice in Scottish crime writing. I’ve read and reviewed both the earlier novels (The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau and His Bloody Project) and this addition, published in 2017, adds further layer and texture to his career ahead of a new publication (Case Study) this coming autumn.

Here, we have middle-aged forty something Saint-Louis Chief of Police Georges Gorski, who becomes one of the two main characters in Adele Bedeau about one-third of the way through, again featuring as one of the two central characters alongside 17-year-old Raymond Barthelme, the Sartre-reading son of a leading lawyer in the provincial town of Saint-Louis and whose father is the subject of the eponymous accident. Both are, in line with the novel’s Sartre epigraph, ‘seekers after truth’: Gorski, aware and worldly-wise as well as world-weary, pursuing a line of police enquiry following the accident; Raymond, inquiring but vulnerable, after discovering a mysterious address written in a female hand on a scrap of paper in the foreign territory of a drawer of his father’s desk.

Burnet’s plot – as with Adele Bedeau – is slight and the novel is brief enough, at less than 260 pages: the accident itself, right there on p. 1, seems on the face of it to be just that but there are disquieting elements including some unexplained scratches on the car; while there is also doubt, expressed by Barthelme’s widow, the unfulfilled Lucette, as to why the car should have been on the A35 at all: her husband had long dined every Tuesday at the best restaurant in the town with his ‘club’ of friends. As both Gorski and Raymond pursue their own interests in the accident, each taking successive chapters, the voice changes while the issues that they are each grappling with (separation, bereavement, attraction, sexual fumblings, drinking and bars, relations with parents, existentialism and what being free truly means) become entwined as the novel builds towards its conclusion and as Burnet continues to evolve his two main characters.

The plot is slight, and largely very slow burning, although – in a slight criticism of the author’s judge of pace – the closing chapters explode into fire-crackers in which the characters (and the writing) evoke, in turn, emotional cruelty, sadness, humour, acute self-awareness, forgiveness and genuine pathos.

In a novel such as this, the emphasis falls very much on characterisation – something which Burnet has spoken about in a podcast for Scots Whay Hae! – and on the author’s ability to evoke people and their actions and the times and places in which they live – here, Saint-Louis, a real French town, at some point in its recent past. Despite being young in his writing career, Burnet is accomplished at this (at least, and this is a criticism, he is so (up to now) as far as the male characters of his novels are concerned): partly this is a question of having lived enough life to draw such characters with depth and maturity; and partly it’s a question of research: of reading – Burnet is a fan of Georges Simenon’s detective Inspector Maigret (though there are important differences as well as evident similarities between Maigret and Gorski), having been writing a blog on Simenon’s books; and of knowing enough about the places you’re writing about to ensure the characters can properly inhabit where they live (here, the product of a research grant to re-visit Saint-Louis). As Burnet’s afterword concludes – in what may partly be an attempt to deflect criticism about the slightness of his plot:

The real measure of ‘truth’ in any novel is not whether the characters, places and events portrayed exist beyond the pages of the book, but, rather, whether they seem authentic to us as readers… A novel is, in Sartre’s phrase, ‘neither true nor false’; but it must feel real.

p. 255 Saraband hardback edition

This is not a contemporary crime novel, nor a police procedural, in which the plot twists and turns as evidence comes to light or which leaves the reader struggling to catch up with the mental gymnastics as the plots thicken; and fans of crime fiction may end up disappointed with the plot’s lack of complexity. The book does, however, encompass elements of both those things although it is, largely, a novel of mystery and the core of its undoubted appeal is its evocation of people and places, and their intertwining in a difficult interaction in which the character of the town and of its inhabitants come to reflect each other. Saint-Louis may not be as unfortunate (at least, in relative terms) as described (as Burnet writes in his afterword), although it appears he has done so authentically (that Scots Whay Hae! podcast), but the author’s capturing of its essential spirit reflects well the disappointment, snide cynicism and indeed anger with which those who choose to inhabit left-behind, somewhat historical backwaters frequently experience what life has to offer them.

Burnet’s other demonstration of his authorial skills lies in the extraordinary devices on which each of his novels hinges – here, that Accident purports to be Macrae’s translation (from the French) of a cult novel drawn from the pen of Raymond Brunet (‘author’ also of Adele Bedeau), whose work appears at least partly autobiographical. Here, some odd word choices and slightly awkward phrasing echoes well the linguistic framing of a novel that has gone through translation – posing an interesting conundrum for the French translators (Adele Bedeau already having been translated into French and this being surely destined to follow). The book’s foreword and afterword – in which Burnet sets out the novel’s influences in an unconventional, but appealing, way – are very much required reading.

This device hints at a further novel in this series and Macrae spoke – that SWH! podcast again – of this set of homages to Georges Simenon being a trilogy (but no more). It seems, from Case Study‘s page on Macrae’s website, that the forthcoming novel (which also features his familiar structural device) is not the closing part of this trilogy and this, which features a female central character, is likely to be a clear landmark in Macrae’s confidence in his ability to write female characters that have as much depth as his male ones. At the close of Accident, there are enough loose ends in the lives of the characters who so successfully bring its pages to life, and in Saint-Louis itself, that Macrae is surely far from being done with them when the third part of his French trilogy (eventually) appears. Both are keenly awaited.

Working time: yet another study says…

There has been a lot of coverage on the BBC yesterday and today, both via the website and on the news bulletins, of the publication of the results of the shorter working hours trial in Iceland. Judging by the number of comments – upwards of 2,500 at the time of writing – there is a fair amount of UK interest in this (I did break a rule and peek below the line) and, while some comments are clearly misanthropic in tone, there is also a fair amount of genuine objective curiosity. The existence of the trial has been well-publicised and its results have been keenly awaited.

There is, of course, no reason why such an experiment should not work in the UK; and neither is there much to be lost by at least instituting a trial to see what lessons can be learned about the application of shorter hours in this country.

The Iceland trials (there were actually two) come on top of several others worldwide in recent times: a pilot project in Microsoft found that going to a four-day workweek (not necessarily associated with a reduction in working time) in 2019 in Japan boosted productivity by 40 per cent; Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand trust management company, introduced in 2018 a successful trial of a four-day, 32-hour, working week, later made permanent for all staff, which saw sizable increases in productivity and in worker well-being; while TalkTalk found last year that ‘five days work could be done in four’ (actually a quote from the Chief Executive rather than a quantified research result) as a result of productivity gains reported by a clear majority of workers working from home during the pandemic (NB TalkTalk and Microsoft do have products to sell you as a way of working differently).

Some of the UK interest will have been sparked by the involvement in a joint analysis of the trial by a UK organisation, Autonomy, geared towards analysing the future of work not least in the area of working time. This might give it an specific interest in a successful outcome of the trial but Autonomy has, by the look of its funders, some interesting connections, including on this specific project and incorporating the past and present trade union movement, and therefore what it has to say is of interest. Autonomy’s partner in the analysis is the Icelandic organisation, ALDA (Association for Sustainability and Democracy), a think tank also engaged in analysis of the changing reality of work which openly advocates cuts in working hours. Shorter working hours with no loss of pay also of course featured in the 2019 Labour Party election manifesto, whose section on work included a whole sub-section on working time; and influenced quite heavily by the New Economics Foundation’s identification of the decoupling between leisure time and increases in productivity. Party policy here was driven by the Communication Workers Union, behind one of the major union campaigns to reduce working time in recent years (in the Royal Mail), and itself a backer of Autonomy.

What the trials (firstly in Reykjavík City Council between 2014 and 2019; and secondly in the Icelandic Government between 2017 and 2021 – together entailing nearly 3,000 workers out of a working population of around 200,000) concluded was that a drop in weekly working hours from 40 to 35 or 36 hours per week, with no loss of pay, resulted in productivity and service provision remaining the same or improving across the majority of trial workplaces (a substantial number were involved both in trials as well as in acting as control groups in which there had been no changes); while worker well-being dramatically increased including in terms of perceptions of stress and burn-out, and in health and work-life balance. Furthermore, the trials also remained revenue neutral for both the Reykjavík City Council and the government. While underway, the trials’ evident effects led either to collective agreements being signed between 2019 and 2021 for permanent reductions in working time or for the right to negotiate shorter hours covering a total of some 86 per cent of the country’s working population.

The trials were established following concerns that Iceland’s low productivity, long working hours, poor work-life balance and poor well-being – items which have no little connection with the UK – could be addressed by shorter working time on the basis of the correlation between shorter working hours and increased productivity both in wealthy nations and in individual workplaces. Indeed, the trials were set up to explore the veracity of these links within Iceland. This might be thought to give the trials something of a head-start since there is a degree of vested interest in their success: the trials were set up to prove on the ground something thought of as likely. However, this does not negate the full data gathering exercises, both qualitative and quantitative, that accompanied the trials – and we should also not forget that the trials were lengthy enough for workers to have established and embedded new routines by the end of them. We should also not forget that the trials did not just drop working hours – the intention to retain service provision levels required the trials to set about the reduction intelligently, by re-thinking some tasks and working practices while dropping others to re-organise work around the most efficient activities. As with Microsoft in Japan, this frequently entailed cuts in meetings.

Working hours of full-time workers in the UK are lower than in Iceland – 39 is the average (according to the 2019 Annual Survey on Hours and Earnings, picked deliberately to omit the effects of Covid-19 on the 2020 provisional ASHE data), and this has inched incrementally downwards from 40 in 1997. The equivalent in the UK of the Icelandic trials would thus be not to move to a four-day week, as much of the debate has recently envisaged, but to a lunchtime finish on Fridays. Thus, the Iceland trials were actually quite relatively conservative in their ambitions (and in this respect we should also note that the trials were, at the same time, also more radical in terms of the hours cuts than the agreements which have subsequently introduced shorter working time in Iceland which are, for the most part, considerably more modest).

More does indeed need to be done in this direction but, as a trial, the Iceland experiment successfully points to the direction of change; with lessons that are common to both the public and the private sectors. And there is plenty of arguments as to why shorter working time needs to happen, including the slowing down of the historic trend towards reductions in working time which would see workers in the UK on target for a 30-hour week by 2040 had pre-1980 trends continued; automation and the difficulties with implementing a robot tax; the failure of the share of national income going to workers to keep pace with productivity improvements across Europe (and the US and Japan) in recent decades; and the need to ‘build back better’, in the workplace as much as elsewhere, after the pandemic. It’s not as though workers are looking for something for nothing in this area as survey evidence, such as from Kronos Incorporated, has noted: there is real appetite among workers across the globe for a four-day week in which good employers will be ahead of the curve.

The main lessons from Iceland would seem to be these:

  • the requirement for revenue neutrality is not essential, but it was an important component in these particular trials. In some places – either on a country-wide basis or in individual workplaces – there might be a desire to invest in reducing working hours, recognising the disconnect between productivity and working time to which the NEF has pointed, and redressing the existing imbalance between productivity and the labour share
  • there is, otherwise, indeed a link between reducing working hours and productivity increases where the attempt is made strategically to re-design or re-organise work around the more productive activities
  • working time reductions need to be actively introduced if there is to be radical, rather than incremental, change in working time in the future
  • staff need to be actively engaged in the design of the programmes to achieve the aims of retaining service provision; and monitoring committees need to encompass trade unions not least from the perspective that organisational changes may have a damaging effect on some staff even where working time is less. Organisational change, even when implemented to achieve reductions in working time, is rarely a painless experience
  • a replacement of meetings with e-mails may well be a productivity solution which has a somewhat slimmer chance of working in the UK than it apparently did in Iceland – hence the importance of locally-negotiated solutions in which staff are engaged in identifying what will work best
  • take-up of options across a range of negotiated settings may well vary from sector to sector, recognising different job loading and peak gearings
  • managers need be involved in the programme too, not least in terms of setting examples to and acting as role models for those they manage. This means, in the UK, addressing unpaid overtime activities – and it also means active policy engagement with the ‘right to disconnect’ for which Prospect is currently campaigning: the same tools that facilitate improvements can also be used to depreciate working conditions and we need specifically to ensure that workers’ own practices start from a protected right to switch off.

As the UK’s Covid-19 lockdowns ease and calls are made from the usual Luddites for a return to an office-based way of working, either as a result of a desire for managerial control or else to ‘stop the city from crumbling‘, and as concerns rise over the climate impact of travel costs and interest grows in shorter working hours in this domain, too,* the publication of the Iceland trial data is a timely reminder that, not least under this current UK government, whose concern over working time is a well-established point of debate, a post-pandemic future that is not ‘the same as before’ won’t just fall into our laps: it has to be won, which means articulating it and organising around it.

As always: your quickest and best route to getting organised is to join a union.

* A report also funded by Alex Ferry Foundation while Autonomy is a supporter of the 4 Day Week campaign which produced it.

‘Big Tech’-ville: Corporate domination in the 21st century

This is the text of my spring 2021 column for Stage, Screen & Radio – the quarterly magazine for members of BECTU, the media and entertainment union and a part of Prospect. The text has been slightly extended and links added.

‘Big Tech’ – the data-based platforms which control vast swathes of our online lives – has swallowed whole the grand gesture that the free gift of the internet was intended to be.

Such companies as Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon, and increasingly Netflix, are generating vast amounts of data about what we do online, with whom, and why. Capturing, analysing and then selling information based on the data trails we leave behind us as we go about our lives online is one thing; but it is their ability to analyse and aggregate that individual data which is key to the financial success of their model.

Now, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, on whose information management system the world wide web is based – and who tweeted ‘This is for everyone’ from the stage of the London Olympics in 2012 – has got on board with a start-up called Inrupt. Inrupt’s aim is to re-establish individual ownership of our data, thereby putting the web back under individual control and killing the data surveillance model on which the platforms are based.

Pods

The concept that Inrupt is seeking to develop is ‘pods’ – personal online data stores – effectively a vault for our own data to which we alone hold the keys. We could give big tech companies the right to access that data to sell us services but, critically, they would not have the right to extract it or sell it on.

Whether Inrupt will be successful is an open question. But undermining established models based on what we give away will not be easy because it means confronting powerful interests. We ourselves have invested a lot of time and effort in building profiles in the process of which we have been careless about the value of our data. And our own data has little value unless and until it is aggregated.

If these are already big questions, there are even bigger ones about how such companies are coming to dominate our lives. The US state of Nevada is developing legislation for ‘Innovation Zones’, where tech companies would be allowed the right to impose taxes, create schools and courts, and deliver government services in return for their investment. (Freeports – cited as a benefit of Brexit – and the first bids for which closed in early February, might well end up working in a similar way.)

Amazon has set up a pop-up Covid-19 vaccination hub in its Seattle headquarters, with the aim of offering vaccinations to 2,000 local residents on the first day.

And the same company is to spend $2bn on building affordable new homes for its workers in the three US cities where its major employment hubs are located.

State failure

Amazon’s are not the altruistic gestures a first glance provides: few of its own staff are likely to be among vaccine priority groups; while its major employment hubs have been responsible for inflating local land prices as workers have arrived.

We have seen these things before, with philanthropists making money from industry and then using it to build homes and schools for workers. Some turned out better than others: the New Lanark founded by utopian socialist and co-operative movement pioneer Robert Owen, for instance.

That we seem to be returning to such a model is, nevertheless, a damning indictment of state failure and, indeed, of state capture by big tech. That Google’s workers are coming together to unionise is a welcome sign of a fightback at that level. All of us choosing to regain control of our data is a next, vital, step in building the fight against a return to pre-welfare state capitalism.

News flash: calm weather in Uist

Uist fishing boats in rare dialogue about the wind direction

We don’t usually have to wonder too much about the wind direction – the Dark Island turbine and the fishing boats, when in the bay, give us all that without us even having to step outside. Consequently it’s a rare day when the wind is so still that the boats point in different directions (even if the above photo, taken yesterday afternoon, was taken just about an hour after low tide with the boats being still somewhat stuck in the sand). Today, again, there’s barely a breath of wind.

To tell the truth, the weather has been extremely poor in June, with cold grey skies, plenty of rain and strong winds for much of the month until its last few days: a clutch of tourists arrived at our door on Wednesday last week, in search of a neighbour’s B&B, clad in shorts and light summer jackets; a few hours later they were spotted on the way back from the beach in heavier coats, long trousers and holding to each other for warmth. Our fisher folk have indeed rarely ventured out – not so much the weather in June itself as the lingering effects of our long, cold winter on the size of the shellfish, typically lobsters, that they usually catch: shellfish are simply too small to warrant the effort, and the dangers, of going out and bringing them ashore.

I alluded to this below in the late return of the corncrakes, given the lack of cover provided by the nettles and yellow flag iris – one male was still calling yesterday afternoon, somewhat forlornly, although most females will be on a second brood by now so there’s little for the males to make much of a song about. There is now, at least, plenty of cover for them on the land: June’s rains have seen the nettles and the iris spring to life and it’s likely that their nests – the second ones – will have remained well hidden. Worse effects seem to be on the birds which can be predated upon and whose nests are more in the open: there is so little seafood to go around that the gulls – not so much the ravens this year, which are remarkable absent from our headland – have turned to the bird populations instead, and with catastrophic effects: a pair of shelduck popped up one day last week with a brood of 8-10 ducklings but I caught sight of a pair, probably the parents, on Saturday evening, just drifting on the tide, distanced but sorrowfully together, and entirely duckling-less, before taking off together toward the setting sun. There is no eider nursery that I’ve seen: parent birds, now moulting and looking in pretty poor condition, but entirely duckling-free. And a lapwing nest on a neighbouring croft was taken by gulls over two days last week: on the first day the parents were mostly successful in driving the gulls off but a determined one returned to polish off what was likely to be a solitary remaining chick the following day. Again, the parents – after making a quick, but vain, attempt at defence, swooping fast from the air at the gull(s) on the ground – flew high up, parted and then away separately into the skies.

The fishing season will pick up, even if the autumn gales ensure that it finishes more or less at the same time as usual, leaving (probably) a much truncated season behind; but it is too late for those breeding birds whose clutches are solitary and whose breeding window, in many cases, is brief enough. Despite the effects of our own activity, nature is largely balanced and self-regulating: a poor season one year is still likely to be followed by a good one the next. In the long-term, however, a repetition of long cold winters as a result of climate change will spell trouble: as resistant to long-term change as we humans can be, we tend nevertheless to greater adaptability in the short-term in the face of the havoc we are causing. There will be other jobs on the crofts, with crofters tending each to have three or four jobs anyway. But, while the survival urge will prompt its own changes in response among wildlife populations, unless they are also able to do so in the same short time frame, devastation will be the result. This tension between long-term and short-term adaptability, between humans and wildlife, lies at the crux of the problems being wrought by climate change.

Book Review: Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race

It’s never a bad time to read a book- and it’s never a bad time to read this book. Arising out of Reni Eddo-Lodge’s 2014 blog post of the same title, and published originally in 2017 (this (expanded) edition in 2018), it received a second life rising to the top of best-selling book charts this time in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. In 2021, it was certainly interesting to be reading it in the aftermath of the backdrop of the government’s Sewell Report, and when England footballers continue (with official support) to take the knee in solidarity with those experiencing racism; and to be writing it when an England cricketer is – rightly, pace today’s political pronunciations – suspended pending an investigation into racist (and sexist) tweets written a while ago, when he might well have been in a different place but while an adult and certainly old enough to vote, and when the dance group Diversity have just picked up a BAFTA for a routine inspired by #BlackLivesMatter.

In 2021 as in each of those earlier years in this book’s life. And in the many decades and centuries before it, too. This is a recurring theme.

Make no mistake: Eddo-Lodge’s title is not an attempt to shut down conversation or to be racist in itself and neither is it an attempt at justifying isolation. As Eddo-Lodge herself points out early on, she has actually done little else but talk to white people about race since the publication of her book while ‘Aftermath’, a brief addendum added to cover events around the time of publication, and since, is not without hope that the conversation can be – and indeed is being – changed. The entire purpose of the book is to have that conversation about race.

It’s particularly interesting to be reviewing the book in the prism of current events in sport. Sportsmen and women are predominantly young people, some better placed than others to be at the forefront of a national debate but all blameless, albeit highly visible, players in it. Eddo-Lodge’s approach and style of writing is very much to see things in ‘black and white’; there are some grey areas in this debate but very few and none of them at the forefront of it. You are either booing the players (from your own team) or generally feeling uncomfortable about their actions in taking the knee; or else you are applauding them in solidarity with their own efforts to show solidarity with others. We are all on one side or the other in this and, I suspect, a lot can be understood about where we stand on the issues raised generally by race identity by where we stand on the players’ actions on the football field (and also their suspension from the cricket field).

Eddo-Lodge’s essential starting point is that (at least in the Global North, and there may be some caveats which need to be inserted in that respect), there is a link between skin colour and privilege and that, where you are white, you start off with an in-built advantage which few white people ever actually recognise or are forced to confront. For people of colour, in contrast, doing so is a regular, daily occurrence. Setting out the facts about the disadvantage and the prejudice leads Eddo-Lodge to her preferred theory of structural racism in which such disadvantage is a part of the system; and this is of course the issue which is the dividing point. For too many people, racism is in the face, and in the fists and boots, of hard core far-right fascist sympathisers without recognising that this is the easy bit – that the more uncomfortable truths lie in the systemic issues which disadvantage people and which moderates are less likely to see as actionable. A lengthy quote from Dr. Martin Luther King – no militant, he – proves the point (p. 101). Objects like bananas and darts, as reported by Mark Walters after signing for Rangers in 1987, being thrown is something that will not have been experienced by white footballers in this country on the grounds solely of their skin colour. That they are no longer experienced by black players represents progress (of sorts) – but it is not a sign that equality has been reached: not the least, as Walters’s insightful, well-put together, touching and educational programme underlines, because black people were being written out of histories long before the abuse started (and because that abuse is still being levelled, now verbally, at black players). Particularly in one interview towards the end (and with full credit to Graeme Souness), Walters’s film (for BBC Scotland) brilliantly makes Eddo-Lodge’s case about white privilege. Furthermore the desire not to see racism other than in the identity of a shaven-haired street-fighting thug spewing abusive language means refusing to see the wider battles which are having to be fought and which are occasioned by a white-dominant world view in which toleration and ‘colour blindness’ imply no presence of disadvantage as long as people passively ‘know their place’ and do not challenge too strongly.

In elaborating her theme, she moves through the modern histories of black people in Britain and their experiences at the hands of organisations meant to serve the community through to privilege, the ‘fear of a black planet’ and which touches on ‘Great Replacement Theory’, conservatism within the white feminist movement and the links between race and class which also feature in the Sewell Report and which led those authors to a disappointingly different analysis and set of conclusions. Institutional – or structural – racism does exist. In so doing she makes some particularly interesting points around the need for better education on British history (not, for example, seeing civil rights uniquely through an American lens), since the history of black people in the UK did not start with the Windrush but stems from colonialism, and she raises the fundamental question of why white people don’t recognise that they have a racial identity – a ground which the usual suspects from the commentariat are now, inevitably, trying to dominate.

Sometimes Eddo-Lodge’s examples are episodic, even anecdotal, in character which lends a rather personal, blog-style atmosphere to the work, and the interview with Nick Griffin is shallow and rather poorly-judged – but the facts are always on her side. Ultimately, this is an approachable and highly readable account which hits its targets, uncovering as it does not only the extent of the prejudice which exists against people of colour, which may be evident to people who have been paying any sort of attention, but, more importantly, to the unifying force which lies behind them. It may be light on action, but that is not the purpose of the book which is to change the conversation and that is a difficult enough thing to do when, as other footballers have also recently pointed out, there are many competing things in our lives which distract us from having the hard conversations that we need to have. The goal of equality is, it seems, a long-term one and it will not be won as a result of winning a single game and certainly not from scoring a single goal within a single game. The issues remain complex – Diversity’s award was won on the strength of a public vote, while the sound of booing of players taking the knee has, this last week, been drowned out by applause. Here, there are some good signs and more of the applause, please, at Euro2020. Nevertheless that goal does come a little closer each time an open, respectful conversation, which proceeds honestly from the inequality that one side experiences by virtue of their skin colour, is had. If you haven’t yet had that conversation – Eddo-Lodge is a good person with whom to start, even vicariously.

A few thoughts on optimism

Much excitement locally last night and this morning as broods of twitchers arrive, binoculars and tripods much in evidence, following sightings not of our corncrake but of what Outer Hebrides Birds tell me is a (red-spotted) bluethroat – a bird scarcer round these parts than even the mighty ‘crake though nothing like as rare, globally.

Causing quite a bit of traffic chaos, too, as you can see, despite there still not being a lot of tourists around. A bluethroat is a migratory bird which spends its winters in north Africa and its breeding summers in Scandinavia. In the UK, it’s a passage bird – i.e. not a resident – and seen only around the eastern and southern coasts and on the northern islands of Orkney and Shetland during migration. So, right over here on the west, not only is it a bit late right here at the back end of May, it’s quite a way off-track. The lateness might well be explained by the northerlies we’ve been having recently, which are likely to have held it up; while the easterlies which we had earlier in the month might help account for why it’s been blown a bit off course. It needs to find its north-east bearings pretty quick, however: unless it’s heading for the Faeroes – and the lack of sightings here otherwise suggests that that’s not a common route – its prospects are pretty bleak: if its course has been generally northerly, there’s not a lot left after the Faeroes.

Today’s OHB update tells me that it was still around this morning, even after an early morning tide that was the highest of the month, so the twitchers’ chances were not zero. Nevertheless, you have to admire the dedication and the optimism which leads them to turn out here in numbers, to the precise spot where the bird was last seen, to try and catch a glimpse of a small bird that’s on its way from north Africa to Scandinavia. And which, by the way, ought to be seizing its chances, late as it is, as today’s wind has switched to the south and even, for the rest of the time before lunch, slightly to the south-west.

Me – I’ve only seen starlings, sparrows and wheatears this morning. Those, and one of our increasingly resident colony of young rabbits. Though let’s not go there…

There’s a twitcher present in a lot of us, too. I don’t mean the birding aspects, so much, but the optimism. It is this same eternal optimism which accounts for people driving miles in the hope of catching sight, and a photo, of a small bird that is also driving the ‘opinion poll bounce’ which is currently benefiting the party in government. It is because people are, substantially, optimists that, in the immediate wake of the pandemic – and case numbers are rising again, let’s not forget – a government whose approach has not only been hopelessly inadequate but also substantially corrupt is still ‘popular’. A government which ought to be dead in the water after the last fifteen months still commands strong, even rising, support in the opinion polls and Johnson commands significant personal support not because people like him so much as that they want, and need, him and his government to do well given the lack of any practical alternative. Thus, in these extraordinary times, people are prepared to overlook, it seems, pretty much anything, at least until all this is over. Our own essential optimism, in combination with the success of the NHS’s vaccination programme, is easily transferred to a belief in and support for the government of the day at a time when death is an ever-present fear.

Rasputin’s testimony yesterday, as extraordinary as it was, will change little of this in the short-term although, of course, ‘when all this is over’ is very much the operative phrase: yesterday had us watching – again – the Tory Party engage once again in internecine warfare, Cummings being allied with Michael Gove and thus with much to gain whenever the Tory Party, or its backers in the media or elsewhere, decide they have had enough of Johnson. The Tories’ post-Brexit truce with themselves seems to be coming to an end. Publicly sticking the knife in Johnson, with a media which is in absolute thrall to the whole circus, is simply preparing the way for Gove to become prime minister once that ‘opinion poll bounce’ is over – and when the optimists among us are likely, on the strength of the evidence of the last fifteen months, to think that ‘the new guy’ deserves a chance, too.

Tough times for all of us who are sick of all this. The answer of course is to do what we’ve always done – agitate, educate and organise. These times will end but making sure we’re in a good position to take advantage of them when they do means continuing to hoe those hard rows in the meantime.

Now: where were we?

Twitter brought me the very welcome news last week that Andy Kershaw is making a return to music broadcasting, via a fortnightly podcast series – ‘AK Plays Some Bloody Great Records’ – produced in conjunction with ‘Songlines’ magazine as media partner and released to his website as well as, soon, at all the usual podcast sources. Following Nos. 3 and 4 in ‘The Kershaw Tapes’ in Radio 3’s ‘Sunday Feature’ series, showcasing Kershaw’s legendary field recordings, and broadcast earlier this month, this is AK not just dipping his toe back in the broadcasting water but making quite a bit of a splash in it.

Kershaw’s programmes on Radio 1 in the 1980s and 1990s did more to shape my musical tastes, and purchases, and gig attendances, than probably any other DJ. I heard his first show, a one-hour slot early one Saturday evening in 1985, when I knew him as Billy Bragg’s driver/tour manager/roadie and whose programmes were, by association therefore, likely to be well worth a listen. Apart from a fascination with Paisley Underground psychedelia in the early days – there was a time when Rain Parade and Green on Red seemed to be on every week – he’s never let me down whether it be with sparkling African guitars and rhythms, downhome Cajun stompers, soul-searching alt country, traditional Celtic and Anglo folkies or slices of long-buried US southern soul. His weekly programmes were required listening and I rarely missed a single one over the following years without having a grump about it. A glance at his wiki and at the live guests on his radio shows at the time is like a tour through my record and, ahem, cassette collection. He’s even a Springsteen fan, too. It’s truly great to see him back and re-enthused about music. One Easter Sunday at the back end of March in 2013, I went to one of his gigs promoting No Off Switch, his autobiography detailing his life up to the loss of his first radio career, and the saddest response of the night, before I wended my way back north by train to Perth via a 45 minute change of trains at Croy, in the snow, was when a questioner asked him what he was listening to on the drive to Edinburgh. ‘Nothing,’ came the ever-honest and somewhat apologetic reply, ‘I was enjoying some silence and a bit of my own company.’ Well, given where he’d been to, getting back on the rails again can take a bit of time and, I suspect, enjoying your own company occupies a key role in that, too.

A two-fer of Little Richard and the Mighty Grynner kicks us off with a statement of rockin’n’rollin’ Calypsonian intent and the programme blends a never-flagging two-hour-plus path through old and new: African horns and guitars, blues and country, acoustic and toasting reggae, the Staples Singers, a bit of Dylan in celebration of today’s landmark birthday and some new folk. There’s even a live session socially-distance recorded in his Todmorden kitchen, re-creating the best bits of his halcyon days when touring Americans and Africans would stop off on his Crouch End porch, sample some food and drink, feel absolutely at home and record a few gloriously settled, authentic tunes while they were at it. Sprinkling a mixture of tunes and enlivening the bits in between with reminiscences, solid information and humorous, self-deprecating observation, delivered in his forthright, matter-of-fact manner and with apparently-rejuvenated enthusiasm as well as an interview technique that continues to be gently under-stated – informed and focused questions, but determined to let the subject speak – this is a right proper radio show perhaps only missing a bit of audience interaction. He’s on fairly familiar musical ground throughout, perhaps, but his one man war on musical mediocrity is off to a sound start and I’m looking forward to more of his broadcasting mission – you never quite know what’s coming next – in future episodes. And, as the best African bandleaders always knew – if something worked well the first time around, it’s likely to work just as well the second time, too.

It’s a bit too early, of course, but, should he ever fancy the gig, there’s a vacancy for A Kershaw in the 6Music schedules these days and, if ‘Radio John Peel’ wants a living connection with the man himself, what better choice than he who shared a room in Broadcasting House, and a producer, and several musical genres, with Peel?

Whatever the future might hold is irrelevant, however. And flights of such fancy may play no part in it. And that’s fine, too: the broadcast world is now much, much wider than formal homes-of-music alone, and professionally-produced podcasts can build a sizable following and generate their own momentum. For now, the podcast is a sure sign that AK’s got his mojo back. Next episode is out on 31 May and you could do a lot worse than spend two hours of your bank holiday in his company to soundtrack your BBQ. A hearty welcome home, Andy.

Corncrakes ahoy

One of the rites of spring is the arrival home of corncrakes, a migratory bird which, despite not looking as though it has the strength to fly from one side of the road to the other, and which seems to prefer running around to flying, actually spends its winters 2,500 miles away on African savannahs.

They’ve been back on the islands for a while, but none had made it out as far west as here until last week when I managed to photograph one seeking a bit of cover among the daffodils – mostly the remains, although some were still not out last Friday. I say ‘back’, but the migration takes a huge toll with only one in five thought to complete the return journey so the ones now here are more than likely to be the offspring of last year’s broods, obeying the mystical call of nature to return ‘home’. I tweeted this out at the time, remarking that a period of ten minutes from first hearing him to seeing him is some sort of record, but, for those who didn’t see it, here he is:

I say ‘he’ though it’s a bit hard to tell. Only the males make the tell-tale rasping noise – like a couple of sharp twists of a nylon pepper grinder which gives the bird its Latin name (‘crex crex’) – although females in captivity have been reported to make a similar sound. The female is, it seems, a bit less grey than the male although when you tend only to see one bird at a time – and that’s if you’re lucky, as they are notoriously secretive – that’s quite a tough call to make.

With the winter being long, and quite harsh, the nettle beds and the marsh iris which give appropriate amounts of cover to a bird that much prefers to skulk around than to show off publicly are very late, although an amount of sunshine and rain in the past week, as May’s daylight hours begin to stretch out noticeably, has improved the picture somewhat. Faced with little cover, the birds have had little chance to do much else than disport themselves in a most uncorncrake-like manner and it was amusing to watch two chase each other around the garden, from daffodil clump to daffodil clump, soon after arriving – whether two males indulging in a bit of territorial debate or an elaborate courtship ritual I can’t say. A neighbour has a wonderful picture of one actually sat on a window ledge looking in, with all the appearance of a bird more than ready to audition for a remake of Chicken Run.

Late this morning, however, I did catch two making their way furtively along the fence line and, by the time I managed to grab the camera, they’d made it to the corner of our stone byre, heading for a gap underneath the fence. The pictures aren’t great – they’re taken through a window, for a start, but they do look like a pair to me either heading off to an assignation or, perhaps, otherwise to a nest site. If the male is ‘a bit more grey’, and indeed a bit larger, then that looks like the male to the left (see pic 1) the browner (and better exposed), and slightly smaller female leading the way (see pic 2). The relatively unhurried, even stately, progress tells me that it’s not two males not quite yet sure about the rules of territorial defence.

To see one is rare but two together is highly unusual – so, not for the first time, I count myself to be very lucky about where I live. That spring 2021, with lockdowns only now starting to be lifted, is – as a result of the absence of cover which nature is now very quickly correcting – among the better ones to be able to see corncrakes is a great shame for the tourists who aren’t (yet) here.