Book review: Autumn

Just this side of Easter, Spring having sprung; and Calvin is writing about autumn. He must spend his hours wishing his life away.

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Our first 2018 daffodil (taken last Monday, 10am)… now joined by dozens more daffs and narcissus. This, of course, is ‘Spring’.

And this, of course, is ‘Autumn’. By which I mean Ali Smith‘s first in Seasonal, a series of a promised four stand-alone novels (‘Winter’ has indeed already arrived, a signed copy of which sits on my shelf) documenting life in modern Britain. It may well be the first ‘post-Brexit’ novel, although the publishers here have done little favour to a tale that, while written substantially after the 2016 referendum, is not about Brexit but one which brings to the fore the ever-constant themes of time (as befits a series of novels on the cyclical aspects of nature) and of love – mental, emotional, physical; between men and women; between mothers and daughters; of books and literature; of art; of ideas, and of the idea of vivacity; and of country, of what it was and what it is becoming – against the backdrop of the social and relationship changes in the UK brought before, and then by, the referendum itself.

The plot centres on Elisabeth Demand, a thirty-something art lecturer in an insecure, untenured world; and her relationship with Daniel Gluck, a centenarian and wordsmith who arrived in the UK from war-torn Europe, a neighbour whom she first gets to know as a young girl and from whom she learns many life lessons. Gluck is near death – a source of and explanation for the novel’s many dream sequences – and the symbolism of the key events in his life for the UK’s relationship with the rest of the continent on which it sits, so often uneasily, is clear. As, indeed, is the wise old man-enquiring young girl-in-search-of-a-(grand)father-figure symbolism; and it’s fair to wonder why Daniel Gluck could not, instead, have been Daniela: a wise old woman occupying the same role, and in charge of the same dynamic impetus, is definitely a character in search of a novel.

Ali Smith fans will know what to expect from ‘Autumn’ – endlessly, energetically and artistically inventive with both prose and punctuation, and with textual layout (half of me thinks she must be a nightmare to sub-edit; the other half, a dream because there can be no requirement for subbing), ‘Autumn’ consists of a playful rolling and tumbling of words off the page; parenthetical asides from author to reader; dialogue entirely without speech marks; a timeline that jumps around all over the place; characters who talk to themselves in realistically incomplete, sometimes coherent, sometimes incoherent sentences; and dream sequences that take the reader on apparently unconnected flights of fancy. All this plus the non-linear narrative won’t make this a book which will please everyone and neither, I suspect, will it turn unconverted Smith fans into proselytisers – by itself an interesting comment on the state of public discourse on the big issue of the day.

The way that Smith manages to thread into her novel her research and her reading – chiefly into pop-art and sixties London, again a contemporary theme, judging by one London hotel I’ve recently stayed in – is likely to subject her to criticisms that she has clumsily shoe-horned a ragbag of material into it. This, in turn, and owing to the deliberately short timescale of the novel (it seems to incorporate even a pun on the title of the novel of eventual fellow-shortlisted, and actual Booker winner, George Saunders) is likely to entrench criticism that the book was (too-)hastily written (and, in that context, over-hasty in its search for the tag ‘gifted’ it by the publisher). Rather, I would see this – in combination with the ways in which Smith has adroitly weaved her themes into the novel; her characterful vignettes of modern UK life and the absurdities of the interface of ordinary people with bureaucratic regulation; and of the juxtaposition of the profound and the mundane – as emblematic of the collages of Pauline Boty, the actress, model and pop-artist whose work underpins both the development of the plotlines in ‘Autumn’ and in its overall approach: a riot of colour and apparently abstract thematic disconnectedness but which nevertheless tends towards a statement, a position, a theme, or a development in time. Much, it would seem, like autumn itself.

I’m writing this review on the day ‘celebrating’ the one-year anniversary of the UK government’s triggering of the mechanism to leave the EU. The hope is that, like autumn gives way to winter, but then to spring, the events brought by the referendum will, perhaps eventually and after a painful period, bring new growth and new life; the fear is that, as cyclical as these things are, this may instead lead to a return of the UK to its time of Empire, a retreat into the past in an era when the problems of our time can only be resolved by coming together. Either way – and just as how ‘Autumn’ draws to an end on an unexpectedly positive note – we can take comfort in taking the long-term view: that things are never constant and subject always to change, however difficult and full of foreboding they might look in the short-term. Time is, as Smith herself might have put it, timeless.

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The Aurora – probably an unpopular view…

Most readers will probably know that the aurora was very visible over Scotland last night, including over Uist. This was the second time I have seen it, the first being a dozen years ago in Perth, when I got a glimpse of the typical ‘curtain being waved’ manifestation. Last night, I was alerted by Andy Stables’s Twitter, posting of an ‘extreme’ substorm underway, and dashed outside to catch a view of ‘STEVE’, the oddly-named aurora-like effect showing to the west as a ghostly, pale white, shape-shifting pillar, standing at 60 degrees to the horizon and looking something like an inverted horse’s tail, and well captured by Bob Moss from his garden on Skye.

Repeated trips outside later in the evening revealed a more traditional green aurora, showing as a thin arc low in the northern sky and, from our house, clearly spanning its full width from north-west to north-east; with occasional flares and pillars. This was of such a brightness that it was even visible from inside the house (with all the lights out!) – though clearly better outside, in context and with some association with the elements.

It wasn’t as visible as this lovely example (from further north) of the aurora set against the stones at Calanais on Lewis, or this, from Barra (from further south) but the cameras here are – quite correctly – letting a lot more light into the exposure, brightening the image and, therefore, also brightening the aurora. Here, in stark comparison, is my best effort, taken at 0107 on my handheld pocket camera, with the ISO cranked up as far as it will go (3200 – oooh!):

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Hmm. (For the full experience, you might need to be in a darkened room, too.) That’s the bright lights of Balivanich to the right and the bright star in the top left corner is – I think – Capella in the Auriga constellation.

Clearly, the picture is not as ‘good’ as others; but, arguably, it is ‘fairer’ in that the relatively low ISO captures a better representation of the reality, of what the naked eye could actually see of the aurora at that point. It is – and here’s the probably unpopular bit of my view – somewhat uninteresting since it is not as good in real life as you can see on the internet. Clearly, photographs don’t lie – they can’t capture what is not there – but, equally clearly, they can misrepresent when they let so much light into the camera to capture an image which the human eye, because of its own limitations, struggles to see in as much detail. I can’t imagine a better night to see the aurora – an ‘extreme’ sub-storm, no clouds and a cold, late winter night offering apparently clear light (though today, which offers dreamily cloudless skies and a beautiful view for those on the morning flight, which has just gone over my head on its way into Balivanich, is a little hazy to the north and it may well have been the same last night). And, of course, there is no structure in my image from which to capture some foreground interest.

Yet, if this is as good as it gets, then people may well be better off viewing pictures of the aurora than chasing it. Still beautiful, and offering a perfect arc across the sky, but not as powerfully majestic as you might think and, therefore, somewhat underwhelming. A natural wonder that can’t fail to stir the emotions, but, perhaps, only more memorable in the human eye than a rainbow as a result of its rarity. That’s obviously not a view that will go down well with Visit Scotland, but better to be prepared for the reality, I think, than to be disappointed. Naturally, further into the Arctic Circle, where the storm’s strength will be better felt, the aurora will be stronger too and better viewable than the rather faint, but nevertheless obvious, green smudge on the sky that I saw last night. I could of course be entirely wrong – and that, for whatever reason, this was not as good as it gets.

Other than the aurora, it was, however, a wonderful night to be outside: the complete absence of cloud, coupled with the night being clear, and cold, as well as the lack of light pollution on Uist, meant that so many stars were visible that it was difficult to pick out even some of the major constellations; the plethora of stars putting on a uni-colour show that was, otherwise, as good and as absorbing of self as any firework display. I also saw two shooting stars (though I didn’t wish on them, obviously). If the lack of cloud cover continues, I’ll be out again tonight to take in all that breathtaking beauty, aurora or not.

‘STEVE’ was something else, though.

Stick a brew on, Calvin (2)

Coincident both with the last ever London Drinker and with the opening of a new Brewdog in my hometown, I managed to choose today finally (FINALLY!) to get around to brewing one of the beers I blogged about obtaining some months back. Well, it is just about the first time since then I’ve had a guaranteed time at home to keep an eye on things as they ferment and then undergo a secondary fermentation once bottled. Despite my original purchase being the product of a Twitter advertising campaign (one reason for me never ‘liking’ things on Twitter…), Brew Craft Beer has never once contacted me subsequently by e-mail or even by post; a level of marketing tardiness in this day and age which ought, in principle, really to be a prompt for another purchase.

Anyway, of the two kits I bought last summer I went for the IPA. Aside of a couple of small holes in the brewing instructions (resolved with the aid of a few scribbled notes for next time), this was a pretty smooth, if very long, process: three solid hours, plus equipment preparation (sterilisation) and then decanting into a demi-john, and then the washing up, is a fairly solid investment of time into something whose results are far from certain and certainly not guaranteed. Truth to tell, I suspect that the yeast might have been a little close to the end of its life (expiry this month), and I managed to overheat the water at the start of the mash (the difficulties of working with an electric hob, not gas!). Concentration, and speed of reaction, here is really important. The most significant problem, however, was at the sparging process, during which you really need an industrial-size sieve: I used the biggest one available in our kitchen but it was big enough to handle little more than one-third of the wort at one time. I think I remember my Dad using an old pair of Mum’s nylons at this point but, it seems, these days, equipment needs not only to have been thoroughly washed out, as in the past, but fully sterilised, too.

Time will tell as regards the taste of my IPA – eleven days in the demi-john and then a further two/three weeks of conditioning in the bottle – but this has so far been a rewarding process and one definitely worth repeating (and a good job too: the yeast in the Dilly-Dally is also up this month). Brewing in small batches is a pricey business, though: £12 for 4ltrs of beer, for just the raw ingredients alone (as I moaned about previously), makes this an expensive hobby in comparison to popping down to the Co-Op and picking up a few bottles of fully-formed and matured Innis and Gunn, currently at £2.89/660ml). But then, price has never been much of a prompt in comparison to experience gained and knowledge won.

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Time starting to do its telling (demi-john not here in its final position, obviously).

Now, I just need to find a local crofter who could do something with the draff. And, also, I need to start to think about a recipe for making Marmite, just in case that Unileaver loses attention on the UK as a result of its HQ move yesterday 😉 Though making Marmite is, it seems, quite another business entirely from that of making beer. (And, by the way, hats off and absolute respect for a live and active blog post that is just about celebrating its seventh birthday.)

And, as a reward for making it this far through a post about beer (and Marmite), here’s something for that handful of individuals for whom these things are not so important: the view from my kitchen window as I was watching my pots (or, indeed, not). Specifically, somewhat to the left of the position of the demi-john, looking East North-East and taken just before 2pm on an incoming tide.

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There she goes…

In a similar way to what happened to me just a couple of weeks back, I’m again sitting in my usual chair by the window, working on something or other on the laptop, when I caught the movement in the corner of my eye of a large dark object just below eye level moving this time right to left. A cat, perhaps: no, quite clearly an otter barrelling over the grass just outside the garden door and then down over the rockery towards the fence which divides our garden from the grassy strip separating us from the shore. Just managing to grab the camera which I keep on the adjacent window shelf and zooming in as quick as I could on the animal’s shape and general direction, I managed to get something on, er, film:

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The picture quality is clearly pretty poor – though it is, ultimately, a shot of an animal moving with a fair amount of speed taken through a window and on a day that was both wet and (though this has little to do with the quality of the shot) blowin’ a bit of a hoolie in the direction of the window glass. But, nevertheless, a moment of joy worth capturing as I realised – and impressively quickly, for me, precisely what I was seeing.

This is the second otter I’ve seen from this position in a couple of weeks: the other one to capture my attention was further away on the croft land which surrounds our property. I watched him – I’m guessing wildly here from his sheer bulk – move fairly slowly over the land towards the shore before taking a sharp left and heading for the cover of the remains of a long-ruined building. I got a shot of him too, but heading away from the camera reveals little more than a fairly sizable rear end and not much to identify it as an otter other than what is in my head of what I had seen a few seconds previously. This one here, I think, is a female – again, judging by the size: this one appears smaller. Her front end has been blurred by raindrops on the glass, but you do nevertheless get an impression of hindquarter power and muscle as she bounds determinedly and hastily towards, and then under, the bottom rail of the fence, as well as the denseness of the fur. A date, perhaps – or simply in search of tea. Beyond the fence, she disappeared on to the shore (at more or less high tide, but held somewhat at bay today by the force of the wind, she may have gone straight into the water or otherwise tracked over the seaweed-covered rocks), leaving no further trace but a blurred memory. And a snatched photo.

A she and a he, eh? Just 50 yards and a couple of weeks apart. I hope they meet – though I suspect they already have.

Book Review: Adults in the Room

It is impossible for the reader not to approach the closing chapters of Yanis Varoufakis‘s memoir of his six months as Greece’s Finance Minister with anything other than increasing sadness: sadness at the sapping of the revolutionary zeal of the minority Syriza government, worn down and demoralised by the weight of pressure and expectations which its election had created, and internally divided as a result of dealing with petty party politics as well as a shameful lack of mutual trust and discipline; and sadness at the evident disappointment with which Varoufakis, an indefatigable character who bounces back from one ‘no’ to the next, convinced of the unarguability of his econometric analysis and understanding of the data it reveals, begins to relate the events and the breakdowns in human relations and in Syriza’s collective narrative which culminated in his departure from the (party) political stage.

As I reviewed previously, this is a compelling narrative containing a lucid amount of detail of Varoufakis’s attempts to represent Syriza on the international stage and in pursuit of a good agreement with Greece’s creditors re-negotiating the debt and ending self-defeating austerity, drawn both from his diary and from recordings made of key moments and meetings. Never actually a member of Syriza – an ‘outsider’ to the party’s ‘insiders’ – he may have been guilty of a certain amount of naivety, and certainly a political naivety, which contributed to his downfall but his grasp of detail (a certain amount of financial economics is required of the reader) and his ability to build an apparently cohesive and diverse international support network, containing some rather surprising members (some of whom may, of course, have had agendas of their own), commands respect for the deliverability of his ideas, at least in terms of their potential.

As a person, it is difficult not to warm to him and, as someone who has also carried in his pocket a letter of resignation into important meetings on more than one occasion (never yet deployed, by the way), I also felt an affinity. His desire to represent the voters who elected him – he polled higher than any other figure in the 2015 Greek election, perhaps as a function of the size of his Greater Athens constituency and also his high profile within Greece – is clear but there are, as a result, some doubts over his ability to compromise. Varoufakis would of course not be the first politician to founder on the EU’s ability to say ‘non’ (or, better said here, ‘nein’). In these circumstances, however, a lack of agreement is not only unsurprising (and which also, at the same time, raises questions about the ability of the creditors themselves to compromise on something other than their ‘programme’) but the counter-view – that Greece was also suffering as a result of this continuing impasse – clearly has merit. Inevitably (this is his own memoir), his view of the process may not necessarily be a fully-rounded one (the true history of this clearly requires an examination of the views of other participants in the process) but it is, nevertheless, one that is firmly dug in.

For Europe itself, Varoufakis’s book raises a recognition of how the democratic deficit which is present in the powerful Eurogroup, the informal body which exists to co-ordinate financial policies within the Eurozone yet which has no presence within the EU’s treaties, and where a large part of the events related in Adults in the Room plays out as a result of its de facto role as the Commission’s representative on the troika, can be ended. Such informality gives dominant characters like Wolfgang Schäuble, the ‘architect of austerity‘, a platform but without democratic accountability or legitimacy. It was at the Eurogroup where the EU’s policy of containing the potential damage to the Eurozone played out, and where a solution for Greece was purposively denied so as not to provoke similar demands from deeply indebted others across southern Europe, thus protecting the position of the Euro. The remoteness of that from the concerns of ordinary voters surely has to be addressed not so much in the sense that ECFIN – the formal Finance Council including all Finance Ministers, not just those in the Eurozone, and which has a foundation in the treaties – is any the closer to such concerns but in the sense that the Eurogroup not only contains an element of power without responsibility arising from its informality but also that it introduces confusion around the locus of authoritative decision-making and inevitably creates a layer of insulation around its leading authority figures. It is difficult to escape the view as a result that greater political union must also accompany economic and monetary union.

The problems raised by the Eurogroup are heightened by the power of group dynamics and peer pressure: repeatedly, Varoufakis confronts his peers and persuades them of the merits of his approach and of the logical inconsistencies of their own models only for them, back in plenary session, to fold under the heat lamps of more powerful figures and the realities of geo-political relationships. ‘Twas ever thus – but the absence of democratic legitimacy on the stages on which most of the book is set, and which have driven Varoufakis’s career subsequently (he is currently setting up his own Europe-wide political movement, including in Greece), do need to be addressed and, if Adults in the Room provides an account which convinces reformers of what needs to be done in this direction, then it will have served us, the people of Europe, as well as Varoufakis sought to fulfil his mandate on the part of the people of Greece.

We will clearly never know whether Varoufakis’s original plan on taking office would have worked had the conditions for its implementation been reached earlier than June 2015 (although there is a certain amount of evidence that direct action might have forced compromise on at least the EU side of the troika). But, for a negotiator, there is plenty in here to suggest that the broad lessons of what was in essence a failed negotiation: of using popular revolutionary zeal to drive real change in relationships with a powerful negotiatory partner, having a genuine strategy in support, and otherwise not to let time and bureaucracy first create and then embed the spectre of inertia, continue to be both time-honoured and genuine. Ultimately, constructive disobedience, without a strategy which is independent of the actions of a negotiating partner which is prepared to take its time over delivering the conditions on which that strategy is predicated, is no strategy at all. Even if it does, ultimately, leave one free to resume life as an outsider.