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Fishing boats, Lochmaddy harbour. Picture taken 23 November, 11:41

I spent three days last week in Lochmaddy, courtesy of taking advantage of some training in museum documentation (incorporating the Adlib categorisation package) on behalf of the North Uist Historical Society. Lochmaddy is the largest settlement on North Uist (thus two (actually three, including Grimsay) islands hence from South Uist). More people actually live on the west side of the Uists, with land on the east side substantially broken up by sea lochs and enclosed freshwater lochs, and substantial hills) but Lochmaddy’s proximity to Skye, and thus its port facilities for the ferry (a key one among Calmac routes), as well as a long-established, but now largely disappeared fishing industry, makes it the only settlement on North Uist with a clutch of co-located services.

Getting there, however, presents something of a challenge, especially from the south. It’s a trip of just over 26 miles from our house which, even in a car, takes around 45 minutes. For me, bearing in mind my status as a confirmed non-driver, it takes a wee bit longer. For this trip, getting to Lochmaddy in the middle of the day entails a three-mile walk to the main road to pick up the bus which runs up and down the spine of the islands and then a change of bus in Balivanich, the islands’ only town, on the central island of Benbecula.

None of this is a problem, I should add: I’m perfectly happy both in walking and using public transport (interestingly, the number of the bus: W17 (from South Uist to Benbecula; W16 from Benbecula to North Uist) is the same as the service both in Reading from my childhood home into town; and also from a home I shared in a small village outside Perth into Perth itself). And I have absolutely no complaints either about the companies or any of their excellent staff either in the offices or driving the buses themselves.

But, door-to-door, the journey is 2 hours and 4 minutes (including a brief stopover in Balivanich and allowing for the detour to Balivanich adding four miles to what is otherwise almost exactly a standard marathon route): at least eight separate Kenyans and Ethiopians would be likely to arrive at Taigh Chearsabhagh before me were they to set off from my house at the same time as me. Taking the high road, indeed.

As I changed buses, the driver reminded me to show my ticket to the driver on the W16 (it is possible to buy a through ticket) and then, in cheery farewell, said ‘You’re the first I’ve had for months!’ Not many people, it seems, want to travel beyond Balivanich (at least, not by public transport, not in the middle of the day, and when there’s no ferry due). And I suspect that’s almost as true from north to south as it is from south to north.

There could be any number of reasons for that, of course: Balivanich is the central town, and has both the airport and more shops and services than anywhere else north or south (a situation which, it seems, is likely only to become more pronounced); and the length of the journey by bus, the relative infrequency of services and the inconvenience of having to change buses in mid-trip means that a car journey is simply more practical for that journey (to say nothing of the three-mile hike at the start!). It might also be a little to do with the history: that people from the south have little reason to go that far north, and vice versa, stemming partly from the different socio-religious characteristics of north and south but also (and more likely) as a result of the simple practicalities: that journeys, in typically poorer societies, were rare except in cases of necessity and/or God, or animal heath and welfare; were undertaken otherwise only to visit friends and family who, typically, would be nearby anyway; and that travelling around the Uists, being a series of separate islands, would in the past be seen as risky (and still can be, by the way, in bad weather even though the islands in the Uists are all connected by causeways). All of this does add to the very different characteristics, and atmosphere, that constitute the different islands in the chain. Moving south, as we did on finding this house, did raise a few eyebrows from some of our friends in the north, even in 2015.

But back to my journey: 30 miles, via Balivanich, and I passed fewer than 2,000 people in making it: marathon runners would pass fewer than 1,000. A friend of mine recently remarked on how different life must be from London (and even from Perth!) and there is no clearer example of the starkness of the difference. Goodness knows how the Hebridean Pizza people find it: from working in media jobs in bustling Soho to bringing pizzas to the Uists (even to the bright lights of Balivanich!), and beyond, is about as dramatic a lifestyle change as you’ll find. Whatever it is they’re in search of, I hope they find it.

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From a late Sunday afternoon stroll along the machair, adjacent to Ardivachar beach, sun already below the horizon. This piece of reflection was somewhat opportunistic, since the water here is a result of a steady build up of rain water on the machair over the last few weeks; it’s not a regular lochan (though it did act to put a bit of distance between us and a small herd of fairly inquisitive heifers). To some degree you could repeat the scene regularly, and from a little closer to, from Loch Druidibeg further south, but from this angle we get a much better idea of the length of the chain.

Thacla, the mountain on the left (well, hill, I suppose – it is a sub-2000′, after all), crests the local scene quite magnificently and, in close up, there is something rather Swiss-like in the rising grandeur of its peak and flanks, particularly on the left side. Beinn Mhor, on the right, is probably more often climbed since it is higher (and, indeed, the Uists’ only Graham – sorry, Graham…) although there is a clear, and day-long walk encompassing all three and a total 1200m of ascent, but there’s only a few metres in it, height-wise. Were I to have to choose, Thacla would win for me on the grounds of its more impressive bulk and the superior way it lords it over the much smaller rise directly beneath, but both have their appeal and contribute to the very different character of South Uist compared to its neighbours to the north.

Book Review: The Sellout

I picked up my copy of Paul Sellers‘s latest work four days after it won the Booker Prize. Not only was ‘Winner’ proudly stamped on the front cover, and the author’s bio consequently updated on the inside back; such fresh-minted copies had also made their way as far north as my local bookseller in the City of Perth. That’s quite impressive going by Oneworld, which publishes Sellers in the UK.

Actually published in the US as far back as March 2015, and now marketed in the UK as a ‘lacerating satire’, a quote from Guardian (although, interestingly, the Guardian in question doesn’t appear to be this one), it is certainly satirical on the state of race relations in the US. There is a doubt, however, which is sustained throughout the novel, as to the major target of the satire. Famously, the author has said that he doesn’t know what point is being made in The Sellout – an odd admission, on the face of it, although that might be an entirely legitimate device to allow the reader to approach it in his/her one way, particularly given that this interview was made in launch publicity). Regardless, Sellers is excoriating in his attacks on a variety of targets, from individuals wrapped up in a multitude of petty concerns, to street gangs no longer sure why they’re fighting each other, to intellectuals distanced from what the real issues are, to the failure of senior black figures (Barack Obama, Bill Cosby, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice all make (disguised) appearances) to achieve real change for ordinary black men and women. The multiplicity of Sellers’s targets makes for confusion as to the purpose and aims of the novel (this reader spent a lot of – ultimately wasted – time considering that the sellout of the title was, quite simply, POTUS) but through such confusion comes the truth that, actually, we’re all to blame for the current state of things.

A US presidential election won on the basis of a racist discourse and with the use of racist tropes, and a resignation of a mayor for an approving, if thoughtlessly naive, response to a clearly racist comment about the First Lady, on top of the evident need for a Black Lives Matter campaign to be fought, all prove the point that race – the fault line throughout modern US history – continues to be the issue which divides the nation despite the election of a black man as President.

Which, it seems, is Sellers’s main point. Race relations appear to have come a long way since the 1950s and Birth Of A Nation, but the events of the past week in the US, on the one hand, and the credible testimony of Bernie Noel, Adrian Chiles’s friend in the BBC’s #blackandbritish campaign, on the other, not only demonstrate how depressingly far they have yet to go but indeed call into question the notion that they have actually come very far at all.

Carrying humour that is sometimes wearingly sardonic and cynical, but always bitingly sharp, The Sellout is genuine satire in that the novel contains little in the way of characterisation and the plot – such as it is: the narrator (a black man) is brought before the Supreme Court for having reinstituted segregation and for slavery offences – is not only weak but features some mystifying developments. The characters are mere playthings, puppets whose strings are all too visible. The narrator, an urban fruit and veg farmer and surfer, but who appears to do very little of the former, has sufficient clout, apparently on the basis of the quality of his produce, to persuade school authorities to embark on a programme of re-segregation. The reason: a segregated bus caused people travelling on it to become more polite since they realised what their parents had been through. And, apparently, this led to improved school results. (BTW: on the issue of intergenerational relations and the spark for passivity or activity in societies torn apart by racism, it’s worth hearing the ‘born-free’ Gigi LaMayne and the Fees Must Fall movement in South Africa.)

Nevertheless, Sellers’s rapier prose and his ability to leave few lodestones in the black emancipation movement untouched (clearly, to start with: school segregation; Rosa Parks) leaves us wondering what we need to do next to deliver a society that is truly post-racial. The complacency of our own selves – Sellers’s ultimate and most meaningful target: specifically in the novel, the black community but, ultimately, absolutely all of us – surely continues to be our most dangerous enemy.

In the context of the direction of contemporary politics in a post-Obama, pre-Trump US and a pre-Brexit UK, The Sellout is a worthy, if flawed, winner of the Booker Prize which, in asking us to confront that complacency, will have done exactly the job an international Prize ought to achieve if it elevates its 2016 flagbearer to a much wider readership.

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Composite picture, taken 0853 looking south and a bit east. From left to right, Thacla, Beinn Corradail (the lowest, at 527m) and Beinn Mhor (the highest, at 572m). (The need to keep exposure values the same in a composite picture means that the sky has whitened out: it was much brighter over Beinn Mhor as we’re not far off sunrise.) Very calm (almost no wind), very cold.

The Met Office looks to have got this one absolutely right: (‘… 1-3 cm of snow may accumulate on hills above around 200m and more than 5 cm above 400m…’). Cold northerly weather which yesterday brought hail and which stayed cold over night, to bring this scene on wakening with, by the look of the skies to the north, a bit more to come. Time to stop posting and get that stove stoked up, I think!

Expressions of the democratic will and ‘taking back control’

Like most of the rest of the world, I woke up to the news that Trump had taken the White House in the US presidential elections with a sense of shock. It is self-evidently true that the full effect of this is, as with Brexit, yet to be perceived, but a couple of points arise in the immediate aftermath:

1. at the time of writing (almost one week after the election) we have results from 99.5% of voting districts (follow the link to ‘Results in full’) and, as a result, two states – Michigan and New Hampshire – are yet to declare. The ‘result’ is not in doubt (see also below) – but what are they waiting for? With a turnout of 57%, it’s not as though polling stations were overwhelmed by an unpredicted and unprecedented rush of voters…

2. With some results yet to come, it looks obvious that Clinton will have secured more votes than Trump – currently, some 670,000 more. On this poll of even registered voters, of just shy of 128m people, this is not a small margin – it amounts to some 0.5% of all votes cast and Trump will have won the White House, in a more or less two-horse race, with 47.3% of voters. Leaving aside several issues – including: the low turnout (Trump has the expressed support of only fractionally more than one-quarter of the US electorate who are registered to vote (Clinton, indeed, got only fractionally more)); the percentage of Democrat voters who stayed at home (the level of Democrat support is some 8.5m votes down on President Obama’s 2008 result, while the Republican vote is only around some 400,000 higher); and the role of ‘third’ candidates (who have attracted much more support than they did in 2004, 2008 and 2012 – again, see the BBC graphic) – this is a unique expression of democracy. It is clear that this is not an unprecedented result, and that the US electoral college system (well-explained by my friend Roger Darlington here) has a lot to answer for, while the vagaries of the the US voting system (specifically, turnout and the number of people who are unregistered as voters) were well explored by the great Gil Scott-Heron back in 1981 (whose analysis is well worth repeating this week) – but ‘the National Popular Vote’ – is, in these circumstances, a singularly mis-named phenomenon.

3. It is for the losers to complain about the results of elections and the anti-democratic nature of the rules but, despite the lack of a popular mandate for his populist revolution, Trump has wasted no time in appointing some unsavoury characters to his kitchen cabinet – acting, perhaps, as if he had indeed won a landslide. To those who thought that the realities of office might make Trump act differently, it seems pretty clear that he won’t be. It might be an expression of liberal angst, but it seems evident that what the US needs is healing, not a further jump rightwards. Furthermore, electoral justification for this is scant but, more than that, in the case of the US presidential elections, it is particularly clear that this is actually not what US people, collectively, voted for last week.

Here the comparison to Brexit Britain is, aside of the ridiculously self-aggrandising Nigel Farage, pretty strong; as indeed is the association between the ‘2-3m illegal immigrants‘ in the US now to be deported and the assumption that UK voters wanting out of the EU want restrictions on the free movement of people. We might well wonder precisely from where this association between populism and a policy response which entrenches a fear of ‘the other’ comes from, but it is clear that the political scene in the post-election US and the post-Brexit UK has several features in common.

Those of us who didn’t vote for either Trump or Brexit  – on both sides of the channel – might be able to learn from each other (and also work together) in terms of developing and articulating a response to this assumption of power by absolutist, right-wing hegemonists.

Gig review: Iain MacFarlane

Iain MacFarlane, the fiddler from Glenfinnan, pitched up in the Uists on Tuesday this week with his band touring ‘Gallop to Callop’, his new CD – his first as a solo artist – despite being involved with Blazin’ Fiddles for over fifteen years since he set up the band.

Playing a well-balanced combination of sets of strathspeys, jigs and reels, and airs, interspersed with tales laced with humour and with more than a whiff of shaggy dog, as well as insights into how a traditional musician goes about his craft of collecting tunes and writing (and naming) new ones, MacFarlane and his band kept a capacity crowd royally entertained. The core band – MacFarlane; Ingrid Henderson on keyboards and clarsach; fiddle player (and stepper) Megan Henderson; guitarist Ewan Robertson; and Dermot Byrne on melodeon – played two sets of about 50 minutes each, plus an encore, and supplemented their number with stand-in guests including soundman Iain Macdonald, Artistic Director at Ceolas Uibhist, on whistle, who had been instrumental in bringing the band to the Uists; and Allan Henderson, MacFarlane’s old mucker from Blazin’ Fiddles. This helped bring about an atmosphere of a proper pub session to the gig – no mean feat when the venue is the (otherwise very well-appointed) drama hall of Lionacleit School – and brought a real warmth to a chilly November night. Indeed, despite the obvious lack of a bar, in the context of a style of music which more or less demands a degree of looseness to be enjoyed at its best, the music held up well, assisted chiefly by MacFarlane’s own swinging virtuosity, at its best on the faster tunes, and Robertson’s effortlessly fluent underpinning rhythm.

Good local support for the gig, and the growing musical scene in the Uists, all help to prompt the need for a proper musical venue, in which the required ambience for traditional music to thrive, and in a larger setting, can be found more readily. In this direction, it is to be hoped that Ceolas is successful in its ambitious Cnoc Soilleir project.

Meanwhile, ‘Gallop to Callop’ is available direct from Old Laundry Productions. Go on – inspire your Friday night with the degree of energy and musical chutzpah it demands!

New business cards

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Delighted to have taken delivery this morning of these little beauties, courtesy of moo.com. Not only is the quality of the finish (even) better than described, they arrived beautifully packaged, complete with high-quality embossed card box to keep them in, be-ribboned and ‘wax’-sealed. Top stuff, moo.

And – they do what they say. If you’re reading this and could do with some quality, original research or word-smithery: well, the details are deliberately obscured (this is the internet, after all) but I’d be delighted to hear from you via the contact form on this website, which you can find in the links in the sidebar to the left, or otherwise here. I’m a specialist in public policy research, and in organisational development and employee engagement; but I’m a versatile, flexible researcher with a range of interests and an ability to apply research techniques in a wide variety of research contexts, and in a balanced, independent and objective way. Get in touch!

Yesterday saw a calmness descend on South Uist: a light, more or less southerly wind with which the grass stalks in the garden were barely moving. There was a sense of everything taking the chance of the change in wind direction to be a bit lazy, to draw some breath. Sunday’s bright, northerly coldness (which first lent a sharpness to the stars in the sky; and then put snow on the peaks of the Cuillins) had disappeared, leaving the air a little warmer. We were, however, under a fair amount of cloud which lent a very soft focus to objects both in the foreground as well as in the distance.

That apart, the possibility for reflections meant it was a good day for photographs and I had the opportunity to take a bit longer on my walk to the main road to catch the late afternoon bus to catch some reflections in the waters of Loch Bi and, in particular, the lochans and water courses very close to the main road.

Here is a very peaceful scene of one of the small bays on Loch Bi’s outstretched (or outstretching…) arm by Lionacuidhe, albeit a little more soft focus than I’d like, partly as a result of the late afternoon light (actually about 75 minutes before sunset):

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This is one of my favourite spots on South Uist – calm, peaceful and reflective – which I’ll be exploring in a little more detail given decent weather and with a following wind.

And here’s a couple of houses more or less adjacent to Iochdar School, reflected in Loch an Os, taken about half an hour later:

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And finally a bonus sunset picture, snapped out of the window of the bus as it crossed the causeway to Benbecula (hence the blurred foreground wall), at very low tide with the remaining waters describing river-like water courses over the mudflats:

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A Wigan Taster

No, not this one: though a third win in a row and up to fourth in the Championship is welcome enough for the mighty Royals.

Craig Charles on his 6Music Funk and Soul Show tonight called for Northern Soul Top 10s. Never one to be able to resist such a challenge, here’s mine (a southern boy living a somewhat vicarious northern soul life aided, among others, by Roger Scott’s all-too-brief half-hour show at 6pm on Friday evenings on Capital Radio in about 80/81: running home from my school-based community service, running up the stairs calling out greetings and discarding coat, etc. as I went just so I could make it in time to the record/play buttons on my radio-cassette…)

1. Chuck Wood – Seven Days Too Long

This was the starting point for Mr. Charles’s request (though he had several other northern classics during the show) – and it’ll absolutely do as a starter for me, too: an absolute belter of a tune with a honking sax and an impassioned vocal (and a good reference to Northern Soul nights being one week apart).

2. The Contours – Just A Little Misunderstanding

Like Chuck Wood, this was a staple tune on Roger Scott’s shows and it’s another floor-shaker as Billy Gordon, singer with The Contours, seeks – and with a great deal of honesty about his own personal failings – to pull a failing relationship out of the fire.

3. The 7th Avenue Aviators – You Should ‘O’ Held On

Classic sound, beat and horns, falsetto vocal and a theme of lost love and knowing what you want: no self-respecting top-whatever is complete without this stomper. In typical northern soul style, providing endless fun for DJs and enthusiasts, the actual musicians responsible appear to change with the label but this is an unforgettable dance tune.

4. Rita and the Tiaras – Gone With the Wind is my Love

I have to confess: not a tune I knew until Levanna McLean‘s Move On Up compilations (this one’s on Vol. 1) came on the scene. But: what a song: a driving beat, stirring strings creating an atmosphere of intensity against which Ms Rita’s lovely, sweet, frustrated vocal mourns the absence of her love despite her having given it her everything.

5. Garnett Mimms & The Enchanters – As Long As I Have You

One of the great lost soul vocalists, Garnett Mimms’s sweet vocal is the stand-out part of this song, along with the garage guitar. But, like a lot of northern soul, it’s also a great production job: the tune just bounces along, sweeping all before it. Unlike a lot of other northern classics, the joy comes from having love, not the bittersweet loss of it (or threat of loss).

6. The Third Degree – Mercy

The single most played tune in my current collection and quite simply the definitive version of Duffy’s 60s throwback song. An absolute belter, in which horns and drums build to an epic stomping finale, this always leaves me breathlessly wrecked! It’s a great video, too 🙂

7. Smoove and Turrell – Let Yourself Go

Another contemporary tune (the 60s and 70s didn’t have all the good tunes), the muscular drive of this modern classic pays tribute to the working class roots of the northern scene, with a gorgeously soulful vocal from a notable beard-wearer. Originally from Eccentric Audio, the Geordie lads’ second album.

8. The Steinways – You’ve Been Leadin’ Me On

Back to the classics, and another one I recall from Roger Scott’s shows, this is typically northern in its intensity and in its themes, with a driving beat and an out-loud vocal from Ms. Steinway (like a lot of northern bands, not a lot is known about this group) with whose power the rest of the Steinways, joyously playing the role of the feckless lover, strive manfully to keep up). Recorded in 1966, worth noting for its recording of the woman telling her lover precisely where to get off.

9. The Precisions – If This Is Love (I’d Rather Be Lonely)

Another punch of intensity analysing the wreckage of another failed love affair, this one’s also notable for featuring a vocal nod to The Meters’s influential ‘Cissy Strut‘ (The Valentinos also do something very similar on ‘Sweeter Than The Day Before‘: yep – I’ve squeezed in a bonus eleventh track there).

10. Timi Yuro – It’ll Never Be Over For Me

An inevitable change of pace for my closer, but this still packs a drive and is a real tear-jerker (just listen to the emotional pull of the poetry in that bridge, and how brilliantly executed it is, too) from Ms Yuro, knowing the conversation that’s coming and making a conscious choice to let her lover go but still sufficiently in control to be able to make a steadfast promise.

Slightly over half an hour (a fraction too long for a Trunk of Funk!) of intense, danceable, joyous, celebratory mayhem. Northern Soul at its best!

High Court right on Brexit

Today’s decision by the High Court articulating the need for parliament, not the government, to have the ultimate say on when Article 50 should be triggered is a welcome one. In contrast, the immediate decision taken by the Department for Exiting the EU to appeal it to the Supreme Court, Liam Fox having otherwise promised in the Commons to ‘consider the judgment carefully’ (yes, for all of five seconds), is nonsense and it is to be hoped that common sense may yet prevail. On the other hand, looking at the politicians involved – this is perhaps unlikely.

The High Court’s decision changes nothing by itself – pace the referendum itself being advisory only (a point that is well worth repeating), the UK is still leaving the EU; and (EU citizens’ rights and future participation in EU-funded projects apart) the Article 50 withdrawal process mostly concerns the administrative mechanics of the departure rather than the stuff that is more interesting, such as about the future relationship with the EU, including on trade, and the £350m/week that the NHS is now going to get (or not). Invoking that procedure, as momentous as it’s going to be, is actually going to turn out to be a little less dramatic than all that.

But, the significance of the High Court’s commendable decision is that it does (or, rather, it may do, depending on the outcome of the appeal) force government personnel to stop hiding behind their meaningless ‘Brexit means Brexit’ mantra and instead involve parliament in developing a plan for what the UK, post-EU membership, is actually going to look like once the more or less fixed two-year period expires after Article 50 is invoked. It is very likely that such a plan (or, at least, someone’s version of one) does exist – but it is right that it should be the property of parliament, not the cabal of leading Brexiteers Prime Minister Theresa May (a long-standing sceptic on EU matters, her decision to come out for ‘Remain’ was surely a tactical domestic one within Conservative party politics), Foreign Secretary Boris ‘Titanic‘ Johnson, Brexit Secretary David ‘power to the people‘ Davies and Trade Secretary Liam ‘business is fat and lazy‘ Fox – all of course new in post since the referendum result. Make no mistake, we have had a coup since June 23rd – a very British coup, perhaps: but, nevertheless, a coup which has placed in power the hard right of the Tory party. The government might claim that to reveal its plan is to disclose its negotiating strategy – but any negotiator understands that the ends of a negotiation are little to do with the strategy one undertakes to get there. Furthermore, what precisely otherwise is May talking to other EU leaders (next stop: Budapest) about on her autumn tour? She is not talking strategy but, unless she is talking only about the weather, she is talking about ends (much as the EU might be seeking to restict discussion until such times as the UK invokes Article 50). There is, therefore, a plan – it’s just that the cabal was hoping to keep parliament out of it.

For what reason – and what it might then do should (and if) it be compelled by the courts to act differently – is open to conjecture. In the meantime, we might well wonder what it looks like outside the UK when the cabal that is in control of this process is so determined to keep parliament out of it. Leaving the EU has such significance that ‘the people’ must be involved in the process of withdrawal and that, in a parliamentary democracy, means that our elected representatives must be fully involved at every stage. (As indeed must we all, by the way.) That is a celebration of democracy, not a subversion of it. In contrast, to seek to restrict that involvement, to couch it in secrecy, betrays the terms of the national discussion we had during the referendum and cheapens the sovereignty of parliament, on behalf of which ‘take back control’ was advanced to such great effect by Brexiteers during the campaigning. Who’d have thought that, eh?

Post-publication edit: also well worth reading on the politics of this: Ian Dunt; and Hugo Dixon on why the next step should be a Green Paper.