Book Review: Love of Country

Read while contemplating, and then completing, my final move to South Uist, I enjoyed this quite wonderful book immensely. Madeleine Bunting has used her journalistic skills of enquiry to weave together threads of geography, history, philosophy, literature and politics, and other familiar themes of spirituality, identity and migration from her years on The Guardian, into a sharply-focused, cohesive analysis of place and home.

Bunting’s journey across the Hebrides was inspired by family holidays as a child in the north of Scotland, and then as an adult with her own family in the north-west with a perspective on the Hebrides. Never having lived here, but always having felt the pull of the north-west (I can describe a similar experience standing in Falkirk one October/November Sunday morning, weekend school delegates hard at work in groups, staring at the heather to the north in full blaze in the morning sun, and wondering just how much further north there actually was), this is, nevertheless, no superficial, dry, desk-based analysis. On her journey, with separate chapters on various stopping-off points on her trip north-west, Bunting is prepared to get her hands fully dirty: camping; staying in hostels; visiting Corryvreckan (the ferocious whirlpool off Jura in which Orwell capsized); yomping across seven miles of moorland to camp at Barnhill, where Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four; and taking spray-soaked, physically uncomfortable trips on small boats to St. Kilda and the Flannan Isles. This hands-on, elemental approach has allowed Bunting to write a warm, introspective, intimate and accurate portrait of the Hebrides in which her own spirit of inquiry and empathy allows her to get into the soul of the place and feel it as home.

There are a few quibbles: the use of ‘Gaelic’, when ‘Gàidhlig’ is surely to be preferred, seems a rather odd choice in a discussion on place, especially when Bunting takes such effort to get other place names, and descriptors, right (for example using Leòdhasaich, for the inhabitants of Lewis) and when she clearly understands the vital importance of the language to convey concepts when English, as rich as it is, is simply insufficient to describing the crucial attachment between people and land. South Uist, my own home, appears rather fleetingly (though not ungenerously) which, given it is the largest community buy-out thus far, seems something of a lacuna in a book with takes a strong look at issues of land ownership. The final chapter, at journey’s end, drifts somewhat unsatisfyingly, repeating some of the themes of the journey thus far but without really drawing them home, like a boat holed up temporarily at a cliff face, the swell echoing and playing with the boat until its engines kick in and drive it on again (perhaps this was inevitable given the circumstances). Oh, and it’s definitely just Buzzcocks (without the definite article). But these are minor issues in a book whose sweep and whose themes and treatment are as important as this.

Part travelogue, part memoir and part historical narrative, this is an indispensable guide for anyone wanting to visit the Hebrides or understand the complexities of life lived here which no amount of ‘life on the edge’ toe-dipping could ever convey (or where camera crews go away and construct their own narrative!). Coming out here from 2013, on regular trips that coincided with the timetable for Bunting’s own research visits, this is the book I had started to dream of writing myself. I’m going to have to find another one, now; dammit.

May in Florence

Poor* Theresa May. Upstaged in her long-trailed traipse to Florence to talk substantially to the UK media and her own immediate Cabinet colleagues (no-one from the EU actually being there) about her ‘vision’ for the future, firstly by her own Foreign Secretary [firewall] and secondly, and far more importantly, in Rome the day before by Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, this was a speech whose prospective import was, as it turned out, far greater than the actual substance.

Apart from the rolling political theme of May’s evident lack of domestic authority amongst her Cabinet and her lack of judgment wrapped up in her (absent) treatment of Johnson’s own, reverse Churchillian, two-fingered salute to her, I doubt that history will be too kind on the Florence speech. Critical assessments abound already, not the least David Allen Green’s erudite Twitter feed, InFact’s own observation of May as flip-flop queen and Michel Barnier’s own measured, polite but oh-so-critical response pointing, essentially, to the all-too-evident reality gap.

Barnier is absolutely correct in observing that May’s speech needs to be turned – and urgently – into substantive negotiating points which the respective teams can tackle in the next, and subsequent, weeks. The obvious point to make is that, six months into a (maximum) two-year negotiating period for exit (which encompasses the time to secure the necessary approvals, including from the European Parliament), this is no time to be (re-)setting out a vision for the future. If the UK needs a two-year extension to the negotiating period, this is symbolic only of its own lack of preparation prior to triggering the Article 50 withdrawal process, and the absolutely shambolic domestic political process which has succeeded it. Furthermore, May’s observation that ‘throughout its membership, the United Kingdom has never totally felt at home being in the European Union’, and that the EU ‘never felt to us like an integral part of our national story’ was both rude and ignorant. What – never at home despite all the opt-outs which the EU granted the UK, on adopting the Euro, on Schengen and on the European Social Charter? Never at home despite the single market being the singular idea of Lord Cockroft, Thatcher’s own EU Commissioner? Never at home despite the maths of the referendum vote failing to provide any sort of endorsement for such a view? Personally speaking, I’ve never felt less at home in the UK in the period since the referendum – based, substantially, on the petty nationalism that has come to mark our national political discourse, bank checks on immigration status being but the most recent example. If we’d made more effort to integrate, to understand the EU’s political processes and, more so, to involve ourselves in them, such an observation might have been better founded. But, we did not and, therefore, it is not. We never even tried.

More to the critical point, we still have no strategy for Brexit, no graspable endgame. it’s not so much that the UK government isn’t levelling with people on the trade-offs that will be required to make any sort of a purse out of the sow’s ear of Brexit, it’s that – as the TUC’s statement in response correctly observes – we have no realistic negotiating strategy at all. Quite simply, we don’t know what we’re doing.

I wanted, however, to make one critical observation of my own. For a speech whose title was ‘shared history; shared challenges; shared future’, May spent an awful lot of time talking about ‘me’. The section on citizens’ rights – so critical to the lives of so many people here in the UK and in the rest of Europe, and so important to the EU’s negotiating agenda – was just 255 words long but featured the pronoun ‘I’ no fewer than nine times, and the pronoun ‘we’ no more than five (and some of those being part of May’s attempt at rhetoric). (Aside of no fewer than three references to ‘I want’, which would have got me short shrift as a child!) In the rest of the speech, May referred to herself in the first person singular no fewer than forty times. An odd thing, don’t you think, in the context of a speech whose text was ‘shared’? And in the context of seeking a deal in the best interests of the UK, not to speak of favours, with the skilled, expert, well-prepared negotiators sat on the other side of the table? Unless, of course, May was indeed using the occasion to rehearse her speech to the Tory Party Conference next month, and to support her ever-declining level of authority in her own Party. But, then again, that is really what Brexit is about, isn’t it: the Tory Party’s own attempt to settle its own internal politics regarding the UK’s relationship with the EU. Our own domestic politics – and despite the outcome of the election – has become simply subservient to the selfish interests of the Tory party whose packing of House of Commons committees is simply the most obvious symbol of the failure that our democracy has become.

* Sympathy somewhat limited, obviously.

Travelling hopefully… PS

Do not – repeat: do not – challenge the gods of fate, Calvin…

On my trip to London referred to in my post below, my Caledonian Sleeper – already detoured around the Fife coast route which meant that it was stopped in Perth station for a good additional half an hour (although, paradoxically, this was actually to allow the timetable to catch up) – was then held in Oxenholme for some considerable time (I was, mostly, asleep but it was for a couple of hours). Flooding had apparently got into some boxes of electronics and this prevented the signals from functioning. Sleeper staff eventually appeared to advise us that we were running considerably late and that we could be in London quicker by changing at Preston and then Crewe (a usual stop on the Sleeper but no longer intended for this one) as its late-running nature meant that it had been diverted on to the slow track and was therefore liable not to be in London til nearer 11 o’clock – arriving thus some three hours late.

I did as advised (I wasn’t in a rush, but slow-running trains, in my experience, only run slower): but, dear reader, passengers on late-running Caledonian Sleeper trains are entitled to a refund (of 100% of my ticket price), as we were informed by helpful staff, when journeys are disrupted (including as a result of weather events). (The link is heavily promoted on the front page of the website, something which I have always found rather odd.) Given my thoughts in my earlier post about refunds on public transport journeys: what to do now? Essential fact disclosure: Caledonian Sleeper has, since 2015, been run under a separate contract by controversial public services international conglomerate, Serco. Research shows Serco’s industrial relations – including on the Sleeper itself – to be poor; and its activities in running asylum centres have also put it under the spotlight. This might indeed, and in spite of my earlier thoughts, be the time for a little financial correction, intended as a reminder to Serco that it needs to sharpen up its act.

Furthermore… the things you hear on trains (no. 46 in an occasional series): the Virgin train I caught at Preston was unable to serve hot drinks from the onboard shop ‘as a result of the volume of passengers’. Including a 20 or so minute wait on a northern rail station before 7.30 AM it had, I thought, up to that point, been a hot cup of coffee sort of morning. Clearly Richard Branson needs to invest in a bigger kettle, or otherwise stump up the money for another 50p for the leccy meter. The jolly Scouse guard on the (Virgin) train I then caught at Crewe apologised, on arriving into London a few minutes late, stating that the train had had to pick up extra passengers. I think they meant me. Thanks for that.

Return journey fine, though 🙂

Travelling hopefully…

Monday this week found me heading back to the mainland, ahead of a trip to London on Wednesday (I like to be on time). This was not my usual trip, since high winds had prevented the Lord of the Isles from its usual dock at Mallaig on Sunday, diverting instead at the last minute to Oban, and this was the planned arrangement for Monday, too, since the winds were at least as high again. Going into Oban was a new route for me – I know Oban well (it has a good distillery with a generous tour) – but I had never before travelled into Oban from Lochboisdale and, seasoned ferry traveller that I am, and fortified early on against the swell by one of CalMac’s black pudding and fried egg rolls (and a granola fruits of the forest yoghurt, in the interests of a balanced diet of course), I was looking forward to the trip.

In particular, I was looking forward to catching a glimpse of Tobermory’s famous painted houses lining its waterfront: the route into Oban flows through the slim Sound of Mull separating Mull from the Morvern peninsula and I was anticipating being able to take a few good shots, especially with the weather clearing rapidly to blue as we entered the Sound, from a cloudy grey and misty Uist, and with increasingly good quality light. In reality, the Sound is a lot wider than it looks on the map and Tobermory’s harbour turns out to be well shielded from the channel by a rocky outcrop: distracted also by a church on the Morvern side* located typically remotely, i.e. with no obvious access, I didn’t see the waterfront until the very last moment and then only in retrospect, and for literally a few seconds through a slim channel to the south-east before the houses disappeared from view (serves me right for looking forward only to a glimpse!). Still, here’s my best shot:

IMG_6732 (Custom)

Oban is somewhat handier for Perth than Mallaig, being almost 50 miles closer and a journey more or less due east along the A85 (although I was travelling (initially) by the lower branch of the West Highland rail line down to Glasgow and thus my journey took me along two sides of a triangle. The joys of public transport…) Nevertheless, the question of financial ‘compensation’ arose given that CalMac provide some sort of refund where travel arrangements are disrupted, albeit for technical breakdowns. I did lose the return portion of an advance, non-refundable Citylink ticket from Mallaig to Perth which I booked last time I left Perth’s fair city but, aside of that, I don’t think I’d be bothering even were I eligible.

Firstly, the notion of ‘compensation’ for public transport ‘failures’ is a peculiarly Tory (specifically Majorite) policy which sits very oddly with the ethos of the delivery of a public service (and which also ends up starving public services of the financial resources for improvement, thus increasing the likelihood of future failures). People on public transport try very hard to deliver me from A to B and I’m usually very grateful for their efforts and their hard work. The ‘right’ to financial compensation is also a highly individualistic response to what is ultimately – and which needs to remain – a collective problem, and that ain’t no solution at all.

Secondly, I might accept the notion of compensation – in general – where it entails some actual inconvenience – but delivering me closer to my actual destination (and, ultimately, some 20 or so minutes quicker than my original route would have done) is stretching the definition of ‘inconvenience’ (pace the lost bus ticket). Furthermore, I think I’m also pretty grateful for those who decide that the challenges of docking a sizable ferry boat safely in Mallaig is potentially more traumatic than it’s worth when the wind is gusting to over 40mph (the approach to Mallaig harbour along the rocky shoreline ordinarily leaves me wondering whether actually jumping over the side and wading ashore, surely getting no more than my knees wet, is a seriously viable option – it looks no more than about 70 yards from ship to shore).

And, thirdly, seasoned traveller that I am, I’ve always taken the view that the journey to arrive at a destination is worthwhile in itself – that travelling is not a means to an end but an opportunity for enjoyment in and of itself. This was a new route and, therefore, an opportunity to experience something new. Travel stoically, and with a good book, is a good motto – and Madeleine Bunting’s esoteric, thought-provoking search for a definition of home, not least in a time of nationalisms, is a terrific companion, not least on this journey (if here undertaken somewhat in reverse).

So, no, I don’t think I’d be claiming ‘compensation’, thank you very much.

So, then – Perth (one more time). And just a day too late to join Sunday’s counter-demo against the SDL, which I would absolutely have done had I been here at the right time. Fascist b&stards. Not in my Perth.

Much later edit: It was St. Columba’s Chapel, on the Drimnin Estate, originally erected in 1838 and restored just over five years ago.