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Silver birch, off A830 ‘Road to the Isles’, a little west of Glenfinnan.

So that’s what autumn looks like. Now I remember!

One of the interesting things about island life is that there few trees make it to anything like maturity here. High winds are one evident reason – but sheep are, more prosaically, the more substantial other; new and fragile shoots tending to dislike the tender ministries of either.

Consequently, the usual seasonal markers – leaves turning red, yellow, gold and brown in autumn; and spring green in, well, spring – are absent. (Hallowe’eners, too, probably, although that’s a different story of which depopulation is one aspect; as indeed, and most sadly for me, is likely to be Bonfire Night: fireworks and the prevalence of strong winds doth not a good mix make.) Crofters clearly have plenty of seasonal work which occupies them at different times of the year, and they clearly know when it is spring and when it is autumn. But for us townies, with temperatures running if certainly not at a constant level but otherwise within a fairly small range, it can be a little disorienting – darker in winter, for sure; and definitely lighter, for much longer, in summer; and respectively somewhat colder, and then somewhat warmer (while, moving away from temperatures, the more keen-eyed of us can note changes in the constitution of the bird population) – but otherwise time passes with nature giving the casual observer few of the usual visual cues as to the point each year has reached.

Returning to the mainland for a couple of days at the weekend, I was struck by the autumn colours of Perthshire (and, here, Inverness-shire). (And, by the way, this does look to have been a spectacularly good autumn.) Within the good City of Perth, the North Inch (Why is Perth the smallest city? Because it lies between two Inches.) looked lovely, as indeed did the roads between Perth and Mallaig, from where we caught CalMac’s MV Lord of the Isles yesterday afternoon for a happy, if slightly choppy, return home. And to pretty much the same greens and slightly mucky yellows that we had left behind and which will, presumably, be the same colours for quite a bit longer. They’re welcome too – though I do miss the drama and the beauty of autumn: normally my favourite time of year as nature gets ready for the glories of spring’s new growth by claiming, in an all-consuming bonfire, what has already had its day.

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Book Review: To Be Continued…

Following hot on the heels of The Testament of Gideon Mack, I turned my attention to James Robertson’s current work, To Be Continued… ten days or so in the life of Douglas Findhorn Elder, freelance ex-journalist, wordsmith and a man with a history of serially shying away from life and who may or may not be having a mid-life crisis sparked at least to some degree by the anxious thought that he has no proof of his own existence. The ten days that follow not so much deliver that proof as poke it sharply into him as events – by turns comic, dramatic and incredible – occur as he undertakes a road trip which turns his somewhat directionless life not just back on track but in a sharply different direction.

Oh, and his constant companion during this trip is a talking toad, who (which?) acts as a kind of Greek (solo) chorus. With toads, dating back at least to Shakespeare’s time, thought to have powers to bring the dead back to life, the toad is (in amongst its other roles) clearly a herald of the re-birth of Elder.

Thus Robertson is dealing here with several of the same themes as he did in Gideon Mack: fate; morality; the varying reliability of witnesses (or narrators); and the availability of redemption. Here – as somewhat previously – the resolution seems to focus on engagement: that ‘proof’, here of life, comes from engagement with it rather than even intelligent observation of it; a certain reluctance to suspend disbelief; and an apparent ability simply to go with the flow. On top of this, there is a reminder, partly as evinced through the toad, but slightly awkwardly bolted on to the novel as it ends, both that human existence remains a frail thing and that the development of wisdom stems not only from rational scientific thought but also from an openness to the possibilities of occasional apparent interventions from alternative, super- (or supra-)natural sources to turn things on their head. Or, perhaps, the need to learn and adopt a pragmatic, less cynical response to the romance of events and to chance.

This is actually quite a slight, rather unchallenging tale once we have grasped that our hero – not a particularly likable character, when we first meet him, but who becomes more likable in the course of events – is going to experience a series of coincidences in the service of the tale. Indeed, I can’t quite escape the impression that this is a book aimed at children, in which context the carpe diem message takes on a slightly different relevance and which might, to some extent, account for the deus ex machina approach, particularly in the third and final section. Roberton’s ‘novels are thinly-disguised autobiographies’ theme is probably a red herring, but his dedication, one to a man who died at 42, the other to a new-born girl, render such a message inescapable. This is otherwise, however, a cracking fireside yarn for long winter’s evenings, told with some panache by an author who can – as he did in Gideon Mack – still spin a yarn and do so with humour (including a couple of successful running gags, and the regular appearances of the toad), no little pathos (the scenes between Douglas and his father are quite beautifully done) and a keen eye for turning a phrase. Despite the admonition at the outset – that the geography is not to be trusted – Robertson’s close attention to the sorts of descriptive detail makes the places which are the backdrop to events (if not, sometimes, the events themselves) very real.

That said, two observations, really: firstly, despite the views of Amazon reviewers and book groups up and down the land, not every loose end in a novel has to be pursued and tied off so tightly, particularly when the action takes place over so short a timescale; and, secondly, long live books where communications breakdowns are a key part of the plot – except where this depends on extended technological as opposed to human failures: a fact of life which authors focused on the contemporary are, I suspect, increasingly less likely to be able to get away with convincingly.

img_3827-customLooking, well, towards the sun; at 0816 (actual sunrise, just about centre of the pic (‘x’ doesn’t quite mark the spot), was only a couple of minutes later). The Cuillin Ridge on Skye is just off-frame to the left but also very visible this morning (as indeed is the Monach Isles lighthouse, roughly north-west; and Rum’s mini-Cuillin to the south-east).

The apparent fireball with the child-drawn face (with a hand held up to whisper ‘hush?’) – yes, it really was there. (What is seen can never be unseen.) No wonder our ancestors felt their lives to be controlled in some way from beyond the skies!

Sunsets are usually more my thing (sunrises tending to occur at an hour that is simply too early); but a run of really fine (dry, calm) weather, with officially ‘very good’ visibility, combined with this being the last week before the clocks go back and a desire to try at most costs not to let our wood-burning stove go out, means that sunrise pictures are just about doable. And we’ve had some crackers recently. In a few days, all being well, the earth’s tilt and rotation (yes, I’m more of an artist than a scientist) means that sunrise will be fully behind the wind turbines. Now, that would make quite a statement!

Work :-)

Inbox brings me news that I have some language editing work coming my way (essentially, making sure that the thoughts of writers for whom English is a second (or even third) language are properly expressed, linguistically and grammatically, and with decent syntax). Working with language and with forms of expression is something that I have been doing for over twenty years, not least with the regular, and continuing, issues of the SEER Journal for Labour and Social Affairs in Eastern Europe, and undertaking a course in philology is something I have been considering for quite some time, even prior to my decision to move to Uist.

What’s coming is a quite substantial project (a book of twelve chapters) and it will be my first engagement as a freelancer. After a summer of re-learning long-forgotten DIY skills as regards our new house (which is indeed still standing), it’s exciting to have (paid) work again: but also, after a break of three months away from formal employment, it’s just a little bit daunting, too.

At least the office desk painstakingly brought over from the mainland and carefully erected in our office is going to be used. As indeed is the office itself. I just need to work out how many hours/days it’s going to take me to copy-edit 98,000 words. Now, where’s that piece of string gone?

Note to Lord Jonathan Hill

I was very interested to hear Lord Hill on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning (he was the set-piece political interview, this time with Nick Robinson, about ten past eight). Lord Hill was the member of the Commission nominated by the UK government from 2014, resigning immediately after the referendum vote. He did not immediately impress at his confirmation hearing, although he was well-enough regarded to have earned a standing ovation from MEPs on his departure. (Or maybe it was in sympathy with the honourable position he took in resigning.)

Anyway, and despite his short-term appointment, he is sufficiently well-placed to comment insightfully on Brussels politics.

Three things he said in particular were worth noting, however (aside of the well-quoted ‘stupid’ Brexit or ‘intelligent’ Brexit*). Firstly, he spoke of ‘Europeans’, not including UK citizens, as an apparent race of ‘others’: this is of course a classic mistake (a similar attitude underpinned much of why we did not join the EU at the outset) but it is evidently a revealing one. The UK is a part of Europe; ‘Europeans’ are not a race of ‘other people’ living ‘over there’; and, in this country, we are all Europeans. Well, perhaps we might forgive a slip of the tongue; but, secondly, he referred to the EU as a ‘romantic project’. This is actually a highly patronising comment given the reasons for, and the gains that have been made from, increasing European integration – as if the UK somehow stands aloof on a higher, more realistic plane (and as if it has not also shared in the benefits of peace around the whole continent). The EU is far from  a ‘romantic project’, it is – in sharp contrast – a deeply political one which has been inordinately successful in overcoming the problems which had led to Europe being at war for much of the previous seventy years (and in which this country also lost many men and women), by putting things above the level of the nation state and in establishing a space in which pragmatism might flourish. If we persist with the notion that it is actually something other than this, we will lose.

Perhaps more importantly, however, he also referred to the EU as being oriented towards making deals and that, despite the rhetoric, the EU is, as a result of this history, always likely to end up striking a deal with an exit-bound UK. We frequently hear something similar from Brexiteers, too – that the EU has more to lose (in terms of trade) than the UK and that of course it will end up ‘coming round’ to agreeing a deal which is a ‘good’ one for the UK. (Forgetting, of course, that ‘the EU’ is made up of 27 separate countries all of whom have different levels of trade and greater or lesser amounts to lose from this. The EU might, in terms of cash, have a much higher amount of trade with the UK than the UK does with the EU, but it is a bloc, not a single entity. But I digress.) If this is true, that the EU is, substantially, a deal-maker, this is because EU decision-making is oriented towards consensus politics; moving cautiously, often at the pace of the slowest, but always at a level when there can be a very broad level of agreement about the way forward.

There can, of course, be no consensus within EU member states (and that, at least for the time being, continues to include the UK) around Brexit – consensus is simply not possible when one party wants to go in the reverse direction to the rest. Moving at varying levels of pace has been problematic enough, but at least, formerly, all EU members were moving in roughly the same direction and that made consensus possible. That is clearly no longer true, and I think we need to ensure that we remember that. This process will be difficult for politicians from the rest of the EU, too; but we above all need not to lose sight that the absence of consensus undermines the ability – to say nothing of the willingness – to strike a deal which is in the interests of all. There is no common interest, and thus no consensus, on the UK leaving the EU.

The EU is, substantially, a political construct and politics remains the most important aspect behind what the EU does. In this, it absolutely trumps the economic factors. The political importance invested in the four (not three) freedoms right across the rest of the EU provides the key as to why short-term losses will be tolerated as a means of preserving the political gains. If we fail to understand the importance of this, by misinterpreting the rhetoric as a negotiating position – and especially if we continue to argue that the EU is a ‘romantic project’ – the talks that eventually take place on the UK’s withdrawal can only go as poorly as the rhetoric from leaders in the rest of the EU indicates.

* Just to be clear: in this parish, ‘intelligent Brexit’ is deemed simply as an oxymoron.

IndyRef 2: It’s Back

The Scottish Government has today, and for consultation, published its draft Referendum Bill, in order to protect Scottish interests against the consequences of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. The consultation period runs until January 2017.

I’ll be blogging on this again, no doubt. But, for now, time to nail some colours to the mast. I voted ‘no’ in IndyRef 1 in 2014. I define myself as an internationalist and could never bring myself to vote for any party which defines itself, in contrast, as a national one (leaving aside the obvious -ist, sometimes held by aficionados of that same party, if not centrally); the answers to the problems of today’s world lie not in looking to the national (pun fully intended), but to the international. Given precisely the same circumstances as applied in 2014, I would be voting ‘no’ again: Scotland’s interests were then, and would otherwise be now, much better served by the sharing and pooling of resources within the context of the wider UK.

But, of course, the independence debate is not about voting for one party or another; but for a course for Scotland stretching far into the future, much farther than any (even regularly-renewed) democratic mandate normally allows. And the circumstances that apply now are qualitatively, momentously, different. Not least given the way the UK government has responded to the the vote, but not only in that context, June’s EU referendum, here in 2016, changes everything.

It is impossible to avoid the pitfalls of generalisation, but Scotland – as the independent nation that it continues to be: the (repeated) question proposed in the Bill is somewhat misleading – is substantially different to what the UK has, in voting collectively to pull out of the EU, now become (slightly more accurately, the UK outside the major towns and cities and away from the east coast). Scotland voted heavily to remain (62:38), with majorities for remain in each and every one of its 32 council areas. It is more social democratic in principle, with notions of solidarity between people more deeply entrenched. In the workplace, trade unions are better received and senior union officials are able to take their place more easily and more naturally in public life. Public discourse is (and acknowledging that IndyRef 1 was not always as ‘joyous’ as some claimed) more open, less narrow and more progressive, with the contributions of EU nationals readily embraced. In these areas as in others, Scotland looks instinctively much more ‘European’ in outlook than the UK, currently, appears. In terms of its direct interests, Scotland simply needs more people to deliver goods and public services – and so has a strong interest in ensuring that freedom of movement continues to apply.

The Bill exists to allow a debate on the issue as to how best to protect Scotland’s interests in a UK targeted towards EU exit. Tactically, and leaving aside the debate about independence, this is the right thing to do – most importantly, it keeps the pressure on the UK government to ensure that the post-Brexit landing is as soft as possible (and that it thus takes account of Scottish interests). The implication of the timing of its publication – on the same day that Theresa May attends her first EU Summit as Prime Minister, in a process in which Scotland has no direct voice – is clear. If it keeps the pressure on to the point of success, then it will have done a valuable job (and to the benefit of the rest of the UK, too).

If, on the other hand, push comes to shove, independence may well continue not to be the right answer for Scotland (or indeed the UK), even a UK that seeks to exist outside the EU. (Though it is very tempting to remind Brexiteers that a break-up of the UK was the logical, and heavily trailed, consequence of a vote to leave.) But it is, given the fundamentally-changed circumstances that now apply following the referendum, the right time at least to ask the question of people living in Scotland as to whether this is a process they might support.

Book Review: The Testament of Gideon Mack

I picked this up for the first time a few weeks ago, alongside a hardback copy of James Robertson‘s new work, To Be Continued…

There’s probably not a lot else to be said about this book that hasn’t been said in the ten years since its original publication. Nevertheless, I am pleased to note that it has, in the meantime, taken its place on the school curriculum, for it has a lot to offer in the sense not only of its essential themes (including the nature of belief in a scientific rational age; and about father-son, and indeed familial, relationships) but also in terms of what it says about the varied reliability of witnesses. In this sense, it is a potentially valuable text for young students charged with evaluating the evidence of the  numerous actors in Mack’s story and of their varying motivations.

The Testament of Gideon Mack remains a compelling, fascinating work; brilliantly set-up and organised by Robertson (the ‘testament’, apparently in Gideon Mack’s own hand, is handed to a (fictional) publisher who is initially not quite sure what to do with it and who then, having explained to the reader his decision to publish the work, does so alongside publishing the results of some original research undertaken apparently to test some aspects of the veracity of the tale). The result of this set-up is that there is little in the testament itself which comes as a surprise – the basic facts of the story, and all the substantial plot developments, are all explained in the first few pages of prologue by the publisher. Behold: the Revd. Gideon Mack, Church of Scotland minister in the small north-east coastal town of Monimaskit, but who is actually an agnostic, has an encounter following a fall (actual as well as in the spiritual sense) with a person who he believes to be the devil. Mack, who appears to be a deeply religious man despite his lack of faith, now has the evidence he requires that at least the devil – if not God – exists; but his flock, when he emerges (in an again symbolic three days later), cannot believe his various proofs, thinking instead that a combination of personal circumstances had caused him to run off the rails. When Mack continues to assert his desire to tell what he sees as the truth, official proceedings are started against him, but Mack conjures up his own disappearance only to turn up, dead, some months later.

Ultimately, it is an open question as to whether we believe Mack’s proofs or think him, in his context, a madman, under the influence of drink and/or drugs, a false witness or even a/the devil (all possibilities clearly outlined by Robertson in the course of Mack’s testament). Mack himself observes as such and, in this sense, those who are religious will need to find their own balance between the different scales of faith in their god and any proof they require. The reaction of Mack’s congregation to the testament of their minister is indicative that what amounts to proof for one person is, to another, evidence only of someone needing some form of professional assistance. Here, one person’s search for proof is, to others, likely to prove a waste of time: belief will be, Robertson seems to be saying, always and only a matter for the individual conscience.

We may, alternatively, come to a different impression as regards which of the actors in Mack’s tale, either directly or those involved in bringing the tale to us, we choose to believe.

Given the set-up for the book, what matters most is thus not the facts of the story, the details of the encounter with the devil or the development of the plot (although this contains some hidden surprises, too) but how we get there (and, indeed, how we weight the carefully-expressed evidence of the various actors). Robertson writes with sharp observation about Mack’s childhood growing up in a manse; while his descriptive work around the geography, and seasonal weather, of Monimaskit (a website which amounts to a terrific bit of side promotion by Robertson himself, as well as bringing more witnesses to the scene) conveys great beauty as well as bringing home to us the hard reality of the tale. When Mack goes out running, or in the lead up to his fall, we feel the weather with him, the cold frost, the rain and wind, and the smells and sounds of the forest in which he runs. We experience what Mack experiences and that makes all of us equally a part of his story: we are all actors, and witnesses, in it.

Further, I also enjoyed the reference to not trusting skating ministers (at the time of Robertson’s writing,  and subsequently, a contemporary debate), while the devil’s brief, cynical observations about his affections for Scotland and its people (p. 283 in the current Penguin edition) are amusing and likely to cause a few sharp intakes.

Overall, a well-crafted and brilliantly-written tale by an author who knows how to spin a yarn.