Book Review: So Much Life Left Over

This, the second in Louis de Bernières‘s trilogy of historical novels dealing with England in the first half of the twentieth century, is a difficult book to review. It follows Daniel and Rosie Pitt from the conclusion of The Dust That Falls From Dreams on their short sojourn in pre-independence Sri Lanka at the end of the Great War, and it ends as World War II gets underway. Given both the status of So Much Life Left Over as the ‘difficult middle book’ and the historical era that is its focus, this is thus a little like reviewing the middle pages in a novel – you know where it’s been and you know further tragedy lies ahead but, for the most part, you’re in a waiting room, pulled towards a destiny which is clear but whose journey is proving long and somewhat difficult.

Indeed, given what follows in this review, it might be better to see the whole trilogy as a single work. In this sense, I do wonder whether future editions might usefully combine all three works into a single volume: depending, of course, both on the content and the precise length of the – as yet unpublished and perhaps still unwritten (M. de Bernières’s website needs a little updating) – third volume.

The essential premise of the novel is a simple one: what do combatants who survive a war (and without having expected to – though that really goes without saying), and who therefore have ‘so much life left over’, do once the peace comes? This is the question facing Daniel, a man of considerable abilities as well as uncertainties, prone to emotionalism but yet with a substantial appetite for life, and whose story and perspective fills the overwhelming majority of the book. He seeks to resolve this question with his wife and new daughter in the Sri Lanka of colonial times, but an unresolved, and partially unexplained, tragedy sees them make an early return to the UK where Daniel, a reluctant leaver from Sri Lanka, feels increasingly frozen out of family life.

Structurally, this looks very much what we have come to expect from a de Bernières novel: short, episodic chapters told from a single perspective which both pull the story along and which develop the characterisation. There is humour here, and pathos, and genuine sadness, too – although the work of the author as puppet master is occasionally all too visible. The major trouble is, however, that this is all about Daniel and, without consistent and characterisation, such episodes increasingly resemble vignettes – engaging but uninvolving. Of Rosie, whose perspectives dominated the first novel, there is – inexplicably, given the plot – next to nothing (to do this is barely excusable other than in the ‘middle pages’ scenario that I referred to). This is unsatisfactory not least from a feminist perspective – and there are other characters in the novel whose pre-feminism would serve the telling of a much more rounded story. Meanwhile, other characters feature to some degree before being dropped almost completely and whose role is almost exclusively only in support of the development of the character of Daniel. This includes Archie, an older brother whose war trauma leaves him to live in a one-room hovel – somewhat oddly, we might have thought, for a man whose extended family are of considerable means.

The other difficulty with the story here is that an historical novel ought to reflect something of modern times if it is to have continuing resonance. A ‘between these wars’ novel about a family (actually, families, given the one reference to the origins of Gaskell’s wealth) of some means might, for example, have usefully referenced the fatal attraction that the English upper classes had for the growth of fascism and, while this might not necessarily have broken new literary ground, it would have provided an alternative anchor for the story as well as providing an interesting take on current-day events. The rise of fascism in Germany is referenced (Daniel also has a sojourn in Germany) but there are no references in a UK context. Clearly we shouldn’t review a book on the basis of what content we think the author should have put in it – yet, without something like this and a stronger role for more of the characters who pass through the story, what we are left with is an Upstairs, Downstairs sort of kitchen sink drama in which the older members are straight from central Edwardian eccentric casting while the women are either gushing or cold, and the representatives of the working class are largely salt-of-the-earth types. All of course, absolute caricatures but this is what happens in a book where the characterisation is, additionally, somewhat sentimental and where the characters themselves are differentially developed.

de Bernières is a much better, and much cleverer, author than this. His Birds Without Wings – set in Turkey interestingly in the same historical period and which provided a prequel to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – remains one of my favourite novels. What alleviates the picture here is both de Bernières’s palmarès and the awareness that this is, simply, the middle book in a trilogy. We should also carefully note that, while it is not autobiographical, the plot lines of both the first two novels in the trilogy have been drawn out from major developments within de Bernières’s own family. There is enough here, and there are sufficient little bombs which have been carefully planted in the text, for the third volume to provide an explosive end to the story and to lift this second volume out of the doldrums – provided that the third volume indeed allows those little bombs to do their work.

Ultimately, as a stand-alone novel, this is a rather unsatisfactory work but we need to make some allowances in view of its positional status and we should, therefore, perhaps hold back on making too harsh a judgment on it – at least, until we have the chance to review it in retrospect.

Pay, productivity and high performance: time to get a MAC?

I’ve resisted blogging about Brexit for quite some time, largely because the amount of lunacy out there is simply astonishing. Brexit remains, in my view, a policy outcome intended in the first place to settle internecine war within the Tory Party but which it is clearly failing to do – and, indeed, which it is turning out to be completely ill-equipped to do.

In such circumstances, while there remains an awful lot of stuff going on that policy needs to settle, there’s little for policy-makers to do but watch on in horror as this the Brexit sh*t show meanders to a conclusion. I’ve watched on in horror as public positions have solidified around the hardest of Brexits in the attempt to appease the Tory Party’s Brexiteers and as the policy debate has shifted further rightwards to the point where Brexit has not become a far-right project – it was always this, from the days before the referendum was called – but an excuse for the public outbursts (and worse) of illiberal, angry boors.

The UK leaving the EU is still the most likely conclusion – though you never know, and that’s no reason not to try – but making sense of what things will be like afterwards is an essential task facing policy-makers. (Were our public debate to mend itself more meaningfully to actual debate rather than false slogans on buses, this is of course the sort of thing that would have happened prior to the referendum. Nevertheless.)

One of the policy organisations trying to get on with life after likely Brexit is the Migration Advisory Committee, the government’s advisory body on issues – largely but not exclusively to do with the labour market – concerning the impact of migration. The MAC has been charged recently with coming up with a report on what effects migration has had on the UK’s economy and society, which it did last month in the background of a focus on its (almost certainly false) equation of wages with skill levels, and its recommendation to impose a £30,000 minimum salary requirement on labour immigration visas.

Last week, Professor Alan Manning, Chair of the MAC, appeared before the House of Lords Home Affairs sub-committee to discuss the findings. One of the issues raised was the (very) lukewarm recommendation to engage with a seasonal workers’ scheme for agriculture – though not for care – on the grounds that the sector was absolutely dependent on EU workers and there were no prospects of what we might call ‘domestic re-supply’ taking their place (I’m deliberately avoiding repeating the nauseating terminology of ‘settled workers’). You can watch the appearance here (relevant bit at c. 11:15.50) or else read the BBC’s report which contains a full quote of the statement behind this post.

The reason for the lukewarm nature of the recommendation is the low levels of productivity (stemming from low wages) in the agriculture sector, against the background of the government’s desire (in its ‘Plan for Britain’) to turn the UK (I think this is what it means) into a high productivity, high wage economy; and the view expressed by Professor Manning in his appearance, but which isn’t at all a conclusion of the report, that low-skilled migration has been ‘fiscally negative’. (Indeed, the report specifically says that there is no evidence that low-skilled migration has any negative impact on productivity, innovation or training – though it does say that high-skilled migration is (entirely unsurprisingly) ‘better’ in all these areas.)

Now, I’m very much in favour of the principle of a high wage, high productivity economy – except in that, like a lot of things this government does, having a plan is all very well but what is also required is that someone must actually do something to achieve it (it’s not going to be happen by wishing on a unicorn). Furthermore, an essential part of any plan must be the proper taking care of the local economic, employment and social impacts none of which can be left to the market, and this is somewhat missing from recent government pronouncements. (Had we taken greater care over the last forty years of those things that cannot be left to the market, we might well not be in this mess.)

Startlingly, Professor Manning said in his appearance that the loss of seasonal produce markets ‘wouldn’t be the end of the earth for the country as a whole’ and that giving agriculture ‘privileged access to labour’ wasn’t a way to achieve a high-productivity economy. I think this is both arrant and shockingly complacent:

1. agriculture is a market that is rigged by the big retailers. The demand for lower prices by the big supermarkets, the natural effect of the cut-throat competition facing them, is what will continue to keep wages in the sector down. At the same time, falling prices won’t provide the conditions for farmers to invest in automation to raise productivity, even if the incentive might be there to do so. The same rigged market is, by the way, also present in the care sector: it’s called austerity and the resultant cash strapping of the local authorities who fund care. The government can end austerity – but, in the context of agriculture, it also needs to do something to tackle the power of big retailers to force farm prices downwards

2. it is ridiculous to suggest that the appropriate policy response to the loss of soft fruits and asparagus is to import them instead. There is the issue of quality, with large areas of Scotland, e.g. The Carse stretching along the side of Tay from Perth to Dundee, having natural advantages for the growing of premium quality soft fruits. More than that, however, one of the focuses of the environmental debate is, quite rightly, reducing the food miles involved in the transport of our food from source to plate. It makes no environmental sense to import soft fruits that can be grown, and successfully, in the UK – and there is the issue of the use of preservatives to extend lifetimes, too. Yet, green issues and concerns are apparently absent from considerations in this debate

3. agriculture constitutes less than 1% of UK GDP. It is extremely facile to think that low productivity in agriculture is somehow holding the UK back from becoming a high productivity economy. Even more so when we are specifically speaking about low productivity in one tiny (see Table 2.2 under previous link) sector within the agriculture industry

4. Brexit is already likely to lead to up to 25% of farms in England going to the wall – and probably more in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland if there is knock-on effect on budget subsidies to the devolved administrations. If this was an EU country, there would be consultation, a social plan and a desire to provide re-training programmes to provide a degree of support and re-orientation for those involved. But, this is the UK, and a country which is heading out of the EU

5. MAC suggests a (higher) minimum wage in agriculture will be required to provide upwards pressure on wages in the event that a seasonal workers’ scheme is introduced so as to raise productivity and in view of this ‘privileged access to labour’. I’m in favour of a higher living wage across the UK but I’m not sure that a minimum wage in the already distorted agriculture market, in isolation from a higher living wage particularly elsewhere in the food supply chain, will act in the way it thinks

6. to gain a high productivity economy, we would need, firstly, a more advanced manufacturing industry as a launchpad for a high skills, high technology revolution. However, Professor Minford, the economist that Brexiteers most like to listen to, was already prior to the referendum predicting (and indeed welcoming) the elimination of what little manufacturing industry we have left; although his post-referendum analysis is somewhat less apocalyptic predicting UK manufacturing profits ‘possibly higher than pre-Brexit levels’. (He’ll probably be right about something one day, at least on an infinite monkey basis.) Secondly, all workplaces, regardless of industry sector, need to be adopting much more of the sorts of high performance practices that create productivity and to which trade union general secretaries, for example, have pointed, and repeatedly. But, as EEF’s budget submission this week highlighted, there is precious little evidence of that. (The EEF submission also highlights that foreign-owned workplaces are more productive than ‘domestic’ ones. Funny that.)

Ultimately, if we’re to have a high productivity economy, we need our policy-makers to pay less attention to what is happening in agriculture and more to proselytising about high performance workplaces and putting clear incentives in place to encourage the adoption of high performance practices. Meanwhile, we know that a lot of people in primary industry areas such as agriculture voted for Brexit. But, funnily enough, I never saw ‘Vote Brexit: lose primary sector jobs and pay higher food prices’ on the side of a bus, either.

Runrig: A Sasannach* appreciation

I missed out on Runrig in my earlier days, so they have indeed been something of a foreign territory. Coming first to national prominence in the late 70s, but on radio shows and TV that, living in England, I wouldn’t have seen, I was certainly aware of them from 1987, with the release of The Cutter and The Clan, their breakthrough, fifth, LP. By then, though, the only guitars I really wanted to hear were African, and specifically Congolese (out of Paris), while I really wanted to hear west African koras and, as for accordions – well, they were fine as long as they were in the vallenato style or otherwise played by Flaco Jimenez; and, if Andy Kershaw or, to a lesser extent, John Peel never played it, I never heard it. And I certainly missed their, surely unlikely, appearance in the 1990s on Top of the Pops, singing An Ubhal As Airde, their rather lovely song in memory of Calum and Rory’s father, and introduced by a young woman presenter who’d clearly been taken lessons from one of the band on how to say Gàidhlig properly (and very nearly making it, too).

What I didn’t do was make the connections between traditional music from elsewhere and that coming from ‘home’: the one should have led me back to the other.

So, for ages just about the only Runrig song I actually knew was An Toll Dubh, and that on a compilation CD which had been lent to me (thanks JB!). And, even then, I wasn’t quite sure how much was Runrig and how much was Paul Mounsey (the producer/re-arranger). Until this summer, that is, when my regular stint volunteering up at the museum in North Uist brought me into regular contact since, in advance of The Last Dance, and given that the museum holds the Runrig archive, part of the display was a Gold Disc (for Searchlight) and a series of well-chosen TV and other video clips from throughout the band’s history (including the aforementioned TOTP appearance) showing on a continual loop. Slowly, gently over the weeks, the songs got into my head, so I went out and bought 50 Great Songs, a 3-CD compilation (two in English and one in Gàidhlig) as well as a DVD. The CDs feature a number of studio and live recordings, mostly from the Bruce Guthro era, plus unusually, but typically generously, an allocation of space to a handful of other musicians singing Runrig songs (and including the stand-out track in this collection). One of these is Dick Gaughan, last heard by me in a session for Kershaw singing – among others – Amandla! a ahout-out for Umkhonto we Sizwe in the last days of apartheid which continues to be both chilling and inspiring.

You don’t have to live on Uist to appreciate Runrig’s worth: apart from elsewhere on these islands, and on the mainland, the band is also highly successful in Germany and in Scandinavia and, famously but tragically, in North America, too. But it does help, I think – and I don’t mean the obvious appeal of references to the Uists and in lyrics such as that in The Message:

Gonna take the last flight home to Balivanich/In the month of June/Go racing up the South Ford…’

[in a car, obviously: no-one goes racing up South Ford on a bike].

What Runrig does very well is to capture the spirit of Uist in a way that not only pulls on the heartstrings of emigrés but also pays tribute to the courage of those who took the decision to stay – the product of a lack of opportunity in some cases, sure, but in many others one of a conscious desire to build on traditions, to pay tribute to the efforts of those who went before and to sustain communities – choices which, once made, frequently carry a heavy toll on those who make them. Runrig does this both in the lyrics (although the lyrics tend more towards moments in and out of consciousness, lines of inspired poetry, and emotional references and pulls, in songs that may not necessarily otherwise tell a linear story) but perhaps more particularly, as I’ve hinted already, in the music – but, in truth, the magic lies in the combination of both. Other than in echoing the luadh (waulking), as famously in An Toll Dubh but also in other songs in the collection, the melody lines are strong and with solid hooks, and the band well know the little tricks of making keyboards and guitars sound like falling rain, bass lines that pulse like gusts of mighty gales, rolling drums that echo the pounding ocean, and the whole coming together in a sound that forms a subliminal, aural recognition of the wild-at-heart soundscape underneath the big, wide-open skies of the Uists.

Of course, the short answer is that, wherever they’re actually from, like all live bands who’ve spent a lifetime gigging and spending a life on the road, the secret to Runrig is that the band are really good at giving a live audience what they want: passion, intensity, rousing choruses and the chance to jump up and down a bit. In that, they’re not so different to any other band, including that E Street one (with which there are some melodic similarities here): it’s all rock’n’roll, whether its inspiration is rooted in Celtic mysticism, American blues and gospel or British beat.

For an introduction into the sound of Runrig (at least, in its post-1997 second coming), this isn’t a bad place to start. That and Flowers of the West, which tells the story behind some of the songs and including some marvellous anecdotes and tall stories, including one of the TOTP appearances and a certain Diana Ross (sadly out of print, it seems, but perhaps available at a library, or indeed museum, near you).

That stand-out song? The version of Chi Mi ‘n Geamhradh (deliberately loose translation: Winter is Coming) by Catherine-Ann McPhee, a woman from Barra now living in Canada (a path familiar to many emigrés from the Western Isles) – and a reversal of the one undertaken by Guthro. Accompanied by the clarsach, and then by the violin, this is a vocal of extraordinary, spine-tingling power – confident, assertive and self-determining – set in the most lovely of arrangements. It is a thing of rare and lovely beauty: do check it out.

* Check the earlier discussion here.