Flyin’ High

I’ve been travelling a bit recently (firstly to Poland and am just now back from a few days in Brussels – some photos may follow), so have been catching quite a few flights. Of course, I was paying close attention to the safety briefings on board – for fans of these things, the @flybe one features a few subtle changes to the wording, which it seems has caused a degree of apparent consternation – but I can never quite get this clip out of my head as I do. From the brilliant minds and inspired pens of Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, and from Red Dwarf’s epic Stasis Leak Series 2 episode (the first bit, obviously, but this clip has also includes the equally marvellous ‘What is it?’ sketch):


Starmer on Brexit

Interested to hear Sir Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, on this morning’s Today programme on R4 (@2:12) and, later in the day, setting out Labour’s policy on Brexit in a speech at the Institute of Civil Engineers (no direct link currently available: but Julia Rampen’s report in the New Statesman is about as good a source as any to start with). This has, by the way, been an impressively bright, confident start to this pre-election pre-campaign by Labour in a number of different policy arenas, not just on Brexit, which will pay off in terms of the (eventual) vote.

In addition to Sir Keir’s four benefits of a positive relationship with the EU outside of membership – no tariffs; no new customs burdens; regulations presenting no difficulties; and having a common platform for workplace rights so one country cannot undercut another in a race to the bottom – he made essentially two points of substance: Labour would unilaterally guarantee the right of EU citizens in the UK to remain; and that the UK Parliament would be able to reject the deal in a vote once negotiations had been concluded. In the process, as he made clear in the ICE speech, Theresa’s May’s Great Repeal Bill would be scrapped and a replacement White Paper issued (which doesn’t give the ‘Henry VIII‘ powers to legislate by proclamation that May is seeking and which really ought to be confined to the dustbin of history).

On the first, this is absolutely the right thing to do – in simple human terms, it resolves some of the anxiousness, as set out by the on their website and FB page, felt by EU citizens who have made their lives in the UK without needing to take out UK citizenship (but who were denied a vote in the referendum). Sir Keir has said similar previously. In getting the tone and the approach right as negotiations kick-off, he is absolutely correct. People are not bargaining chips. And, in providing an appropriate and precise degree of differentiation, to coin a topical phrase, from the starting point of the Tories, it’s a very welcome position to take.

On the second, it is absolutely right that parliament has not only a meaningful say over the outcome of the negotiations but gains the ability to reject it and ask the negotiators to improve on it. Within a parliamentary democracy, it is impossible to deny parliament such a role – though of course many seek to do so (including the Tories – and here comes that ‘d’ word again). I understand the arguments around negotiating strategy, but this is a position faced by many democratically accountable organisations – trade unions, for example, in negotiating pay deals – and it hardly presents a unique set of problems. (In essence, no responsible negotiator who is to be held democratically accountable will conclude a deal that he or she thinks their constituency might not later uphold and will take regular private soundings as negotiations progress.). Not one that is sufficient to withhold from parliament its primary role, anyway, or which support Theresa May’s rigid, take-it-or-leave it autocratic approach. (I’m tempted to argue here that a parliament – or indeed a Labour Party – which was composed more of trade unionists would understand that instinctively.)

Labour is caught here in a maelstrom in which coherent policy becomes hard to define. The UKIP vote is collapsing and, if polls are to be believed (and there evidently are a few reasons why – outside the French elections – recent opinion polling is not to be believed), seems to be heading to the Tories; while there is the reality that large parts of the core Labour vote outside London lives in areas that voted more strongly for Brexit. At the same time, the Party is caught by the failure – of course not unique to Labour – to develop a more positive narrative about the achievements of the EU which, in contrast to the easy headlines (the EU can be its own worst enemy sometimes), would have encouraged a more open, evidence-based debate about the EU and the UK’s international role in the run up to the referendum. There are strong analogies with the first Scottish independence referendum here, too – a failure to develop a positive, convincing narrative about the benefits of pooled resources within the context of the UK, and what needs to be done to improve the distribution, has left Labour and the Labour voice squeezed between the independence and the unionist votes: a polarised debate which leaves little room in the centre.

So Sir Keir – and the rest of Labour – is facing an uphill task in seeking to protect the Party’s position by not alienating core voters while developing a coherent response to the impractical realities of the policy issues, including on immigration and free movement, raised by Brexit (and which, by themselves, raise major issues of threat to the working class in terms of health, social security and employment). On freedom of movement, I would rather have seen a policy position developed out of the genuine concerns over investment and skills, the impact of neoliberalism and free market economics on people’s jobs and livelihoods, and on poverty and inequality, and the impact of robotics – the sort of issues confronting European capitalism that we hold in common with our EU neighbours and with whom we might have been able to work out a common position were it not for the ludicrous situation in which we find ourselves as a result of this ridiculous referendum. But that’s of course not where we are.

In that context, it is instead about reaching for the principles and values that will help us define a new future for our ourselves. Humanity, dignity, openness and co-operation and collaboration with others, as set out by Sir Keir today, look a good start to me. Ones to vote for, in fact.

Book Review: Hot Milk

Deborah Levy‘s Hot Milk is the third of my dips into last year’s Booker Prize shortlist and, as a hot favourite prior to the announcement of Paul Sellers‘s win, I had high hopes. This is a powerful, literary novel (though its references are not worn as badges of honour), and it is easy to see why it made the shortlist. In particular, it’s good to see strong, confident writing from a woman recognised at such a level.

Weighing in at just 218 pages, this is a short novel (actually, it is probably a collection of earlier short stories written into one tale) about individual people’s ‘struggle to live in all the dimensions between forgetting and remembering’ (p. 201), with the shadows cast by events being long and, sometimes, ill-understood. Levy’s unifying theme, nevertheless, is the power of maternal love and the strength of the mother-daughter bond in which Sophie, a 25-year old post-graduate currently working as a barista in a London coffee house, travels to Spain with her mother, Rose, to a clinic in search of a cure for an unexplained (or inexplicable) illness in her mother. It immediately becomes clear – the screen of Sophie’s laptop, containing ‘all my life’, is shattered on a concrete floor in the opening paragraph of the novel – that it may equally be Sophie who is in need of a cure and that, from the framing quote at the outset, ‘It’s up to you to break the old circuits’, that her cure, at least, may lie in her own psychological make-up. The link is made perfect by the origin of the quote – a 2012 article on feminist writing by Helene Cixous entitled (in translation) ‘The Laugh of the Medusa‘ – making an allegorical appearance in the opening chapter as Sophie is stung while out swimming by jellyfish (= medusa in Spanish, and a noted symbol of female rage although rage itself is not a major theme of Hot Milk). The physical appearance of the clinic, and the graffiti which appears on it, provides further source material for Levy’s themes of maternal and wider female sexuality and psychoanalysis.

Set in 2015 austerity-ridden Spain, and encompassing a visit to Greece by Sophie to visit her absent Greek father, Hot Milk is of its time, containing more than a cursory glance at austerity politics (Rose’s medicines are first withdrawn at the Spanish clinic, and then re-instated at a general hospital): not so much Levy’s view that the patient needs to ‘keep taking the medicine’ as a comment on political reactions to and developments in the crisis in both Greece and Spain. This is not a novel about the post-2008 crisis, but the author’s ability to incorporate such references adds colour as well as bringing the novel a little more to life. There is, throughout the work, a sense of collapse, of people clinging on to what is left of shattered lives in the face of continuing impending (economic) disaster.

Levy’s prose is economic in its construction – she is not, it seems, one for flowery phrases – but, nevertheless, this is a richly written tale which is likely to repay a second read to revisit the themes more fully in the light of awareness as to its end. The heat of the Spanish sun, and the tempers that it provokes not least in those not used to heat, and the search for a variety of forms of sustaining coolness, bring a welcome contextuality in which Levy’s themes run their course. The many people who pass through Sophie’s life on her Spanish and Greek sojourns are rather sketched, although this acts to heighten the characterisation of Sophie herself and her own struggles. Words and phrases are repeated in different contexts, creating motifs that deliver both dissonance and echoes as we grapple (indeed, sometimes in a most peculiar way) for shards of meaning as well as dimension. Levy can over-reach herself with metaphors that, on occasion, bash the reader over the head rather than drawing him or her on but this is a minor criticism of style rather than of substance. Similarly, the regular repetition of the medusa theme – extending to snakes, and decapitations – in Levy’s exploration of female sexuality does become a little wearing.

Ultimately, however, the biggest criticism is that the book rather fizzles out during, and after, Sophie’s visit to her father and his new family in Athens and the more or less single paragraph closing denouement comes, it might seem, as a relief more to the author than to Rose and Sophie. Conversely, how in the light of that denouement these two take their relationship forward might form an interesting future novel(la), although I suspect at this juncture that Levy might well not be pitching herself as its author.

And some Easter lambs

Did someone mention lambs yesterday?

IMG_5241 (Custom)

If anyone can come up with a better caption than Fetch! the prize* is yours…

These twins were born overnight on Easter Saturday/Sunday, so as of now they’re less than 48 hours old. The crofter who owns the sheep was telling me that he’s been involved with sheep all his life and has never had one like this mother: apparently she’s a ‘jumper’ (wot already :-)) and had to be rescued from a neighbour’s garden, having jumped the fence one way, only on Saturday morning so they had doubted anything was inside her. Let alone twins. Jessica Ennis-Hill – eat your heart out.

From my untrained observations, she’s a good mother, too: putting the lambs between her and the occasional passer-by (very occasional, obviously) and, perhaps more fundamentally, from two ravens that I watched taking a close interest from the perspective of a nearby fence.

May they all live and thrive.

* There isn’t one, really – sorry…

Easter Sunday colour

Delighted to come back from a couple of weeks in Poland to find these beauties – coming into bud as we went away – still in bloom (at least, on the eastern side of the ‘clump’ – that is, if a circular of daffs clearly planted for show and measuring some 90″ in diameter can be considered a ‘clump’ – the western side having been beaten about a bit by some fairly strong nor’westerlies over the last few days).

IMG_5230 (Custom)

Now, to complete the Easter picture, I need to find some spring lambs. Still working on that one, but it’s only a matter of days…