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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!