Bliadhna Ùr Mhath (from up south…)

Weeks of bad weather, of ragin’ gales and rain falling either in torrents or else as mist, followed by 10 days of calm, unseasonable warmth (8C/46F, and currently 11C/52F), and even sunshine, has led to more than a few garden daffodils deciding that spring is on the way. Despite – or perhaps because of – a lack of snow anywhere in South Uist, including on the hills and certainly down here at sea level, winter is, however, a long way from over yet.

IMG_10316 (Custom)

But on this New Year’s Eve, with excitement already building of plans for the evening and for the future, and as darkness begins to fall, signs of hope, such as these, are more than welcome as symbols of the continuing cycle of the seasons – or,  in human terms, of what goes around, comes around.

So, Happy New Year to everyone (or Bliadhna Mhath Ùr, if you’re from down north); and may 2019 bring again a sense of peace, of tolerance and of a willingness to adjust to the lives, and the hopes and dreams, of other people. All of us are migrants, as we travel through this life; not always in the physical sense (though that’s true of more of us that some are prepared to acknowledge) but certainly in the spiritual and the emotional. And may the challenges of recognising the journeys of others become once again what defines us as individuals and as a people.

UPDATE 1/1/19: With the six-hour 86-song party playlist in full swing, and  – unusually, since I put a lot of work into constructing a coherent, flowing playlist – on shuffle, the New Year was brought in by Cathy Ann McPhee’s beautiful arrangement of Chi mi’n Geamhradh (I See Winter), followed immediately after by Mary Ann Kennedy (Mise Fhuair). Make of that what you will.

Book Review: Winter

This, the second volume in Ali Smith’s ‘four seasons’ quartet of novels, emerged in November 2017 just fifteen months after the publication of Autumn (the next – Spring – is due out next March, i.e. with a very similar time interval). The novels are complete entities in their own right and can be read as stand-alone novels, but there are clear links between them both in terms of characters and in terms of theme, adding depth to both (somewhat buried in the first case, unless you are really paying attention; but overt and strong in the second). This is a unified major work, produced not as one book but in instalments.

Here, we have a family coming together over Christmas in a delapidated house (itself standing as metaphor for the series’ theme of the post-Brexit state of the UK) located in Cornwall. Sophie and Iris are sisters, the first formerly a successful businesswoman now sonewhat embittered and showing the first signs of dementia, living alone in the house; the second, and older of the two, a veteran of the women’s camp and protest at Greenham Common, currently working among refugees in Greece, and previously part of a radical commune in that same house; Art is Sophie’s son, a fairly feckless 30-something copyright researcher (for the same conglomerate security company which also featured in ‘Autumn’) by day and nature blog writer by night, who arrives on Christmas Eve having fallen out with his girlfriend but who has managed to procure Lux, whom he had met at a bus stop on the winter solstice, in her place.

As always with Ali Smith novels, there is much going on here thematically and readers  know what to expect – words tumble from the pages, sometimes apparently incoherently; the timeline jumps around continually and not always clearly; alternate readings of developments are placed in immediate juxtaposition; there are deep allusions to earlier events in how the characters interact; the writing style is witty, humorous, laconic and acerbic, and with knowingly planted literary references; and there are word plays gu leòr. The links to ‘Autumn’ are clear, both in terms of theme and in terms of a link to art (here the sculptor Barbara Hepworth; there the artist Pauline Boty). In short, Smith writes about art but also about life, and with a life-like liveliness and in full, glorious colour; and her characters are not only immensely believeable as a result but with near-independent lives of their own. Thematically, she is absolutely in charge and she handles her thematic material with supreme confidence and vitality.

My difficulty with the book is the rushed publication timescale. I understand the importance of speed in a quartet of this type, while Smith also believes that, when a novel comes, it needs to be trusted and allowed to breathe. The aim is to produce each of the novels just prior to the the season of the title but the danger is that hasty rush to publication imposed by a forced deadline can lead to errors, dropped threads, awkward interferences in the lives of the characters and a potential loss of control over some of the plot material. In a work in which art is a major theme, the existence of forced, and somewhat arbitrary, deadlines comes as something of a surprise.

Iris, for example, has no other family that we know of than Sophie – with whom she has not spoken in nearly thirty years, by the way – but finds herself back in the UK for Christmas and located somewhere close by. Nevertheless, she is able to respond to Art’s early Christmas morning call for help to come over to the house and, of course, she has enough food for all. Lux is indeed the key character, shedding light on all despite her youth and stemming from a complex personal history and current circumances (she is a Croatian refugee from a family which had fled to Canada but who had recently been studying in the UK, the country of Shakespeare), but the choice of name is shockingly, and unnecessarily, mallet-like. (Neither, despite intensely reading a ‘Chicken Cottage’ menu when Art first meets her, does she actually work for Chicken Cottage, though this might reflect a deliberate concealment.) Art’s blog writing is truly awful – that’s part of the point, but it is indeed terribly cliched and unreadably written; you’ll have to trust me on this one, but it’s not actually possible to build a blog audience (or a twitter following) when you have absolutely no feel for what you are writing about. Both Sophie and Art have some kind of unexplained visual disturbance which has a physical manifestation but which appears to come to naught. Despite the (contemporary) action taking place over just one week at the end of 2016, the end of the book extends forward well beyond winter, and into spring and summer 2017 with little apparent purpose other than to shoehorn-in references to events in the UK (and in the US) within the perspective of the series’ desire to echo current events. I’m entirely comfortable with this as a device – but when the novel’s message is already entirely clear, perhaps the proper homes for such observations is a blog post. Or, indeed, future work within the series.

All these are problems symptomatic of a rushed publication timescale in which there is little time to pick up non-sequiturs (this is not a plea that all loose ends must tie up; just one for threads not to be introduced only to be simply dropped) but also, more crucially, mistakes in the text and weak, or poor, editorial choices. These undermine the work which would have therefore benefited from a more extended review of the content, and one hopes that ‘Spring’ doesn’t suffer the same. It may well be, however, that a rushed timetable means we have, if not to overlook the flaws, then at least to forgive them.

Despite the flaws, the themes constitute ‘Winter’ as a magnificent thing. Seasonally: that winter, when everything appears to be dead, is more a time when things are stilled, gathering strength for the renewal of spring; that jaded palettes and people can be restored even when things seem hopeless; and that the winter solstice, while marking the depth of winter, is also the turning point – that, from here, light once again grows in strength; that things do indeed ‘get better’. Politically: that after the:

… poison, mess [and the] bitterness… the balance [does] come back. The lies revealed. The losses compensated

– that there is both reckoning and rectification. And that the greatest truths about ourselves are often told by those who are ‘outsiders’, people with whom we appear on the face of it to have little in common and whose lives and experiences are not our own. At a time when we as a people are turning inwards, and our backs on our fellow human beings, when available technology ought to be making us more open to new messages and to new people with different characteristics and different perspectives, that is a message of which we urgently need to be reminded, at Christmas and in the depths of winter not least of all – but not only then.

Wood briquettes – a new supplier

I spent a part of my day today working up an appetite for lunch by shifting one tonne of briquettes for our wood-burning stove from their usual landing place off the D.R. McLeod lorry and into the shed. For those that like to note these things, this was (again) 96 boxes on the pallet, implying 48 return trips, in somewhat autumnal conditions featuring 30+mph average wind speeds coming from the south and a somewhat unwelcome splash or two of rain at the start. Oh – and one butting of the top of my head on the low shed entrance, two-thirds of the way through and about three trips after I had mentally noted that I had not yet banged my head. I never learn.

Following problems at Verdo, which used to supply our briquettes – they sold their Grangemouth manufacturing plant last August while a flood earlier this year wrecked production to the point that it seems it has still not fully recovered – I went looking for a new supplier. Aided by some excellent meta-tagging, I came across Wood Fuel, based in the Queen of the South (where – little-known fact about me – I once (long ago) played bowls while working for a famously no-longer-existing building society.)

Wood Fuel ticked a lot of boxes for me since it’s a co-operative, which means that it not only offered me great customer service, it also does good things for its local community, including for the Dumfriesshire food bank, as well as guaranteeing that its products – and it offers a sizable range of these things – have done as few miles as possible (they’re made in the UK in Herts and by a small family company) and come from sustainably-sourced timber. They also offer briquettes quite a bit cheaper than Verdo, where per-briquette prices (including delivery to these islands) had gone up by over a quarter in two years (yes – I keep a detailed eye on these things).

Proof of the quality comes with burning and it’s a bit early to report on that just yet. However, I note that the briquettes are hardwood; they come packed in cardboard boxes rather than plastic sleeves; and they look, for a number of technical reasons, a little easier to use than the Verdo ones (which could be slow-burning). Wood Fuel also supply a very helpful A4 leaflet on using the briquettes and getting the best from the stove; and, after being also out of stock when I first contacted them, managed to get them to me within the week and two/three days earlier than expected.

I was particularly pleased to note the use of cardboard boxes to house the briquettes rather than plastic sleeves; we always used to re-use these as bin-liners so they did get one (but only one) extra use: cardboard means not only eliminating that but it also provides us with an additional source of fire-starting material. The drawback is that, despite its strengths, cardboard presents a number of issues when unloading the pallet and storing the boxes, especially since the briquettes are a little different and, consequently, the boxes need to be stacked higher in the shed (they’re up to the roof to ensure I take up no more scarce floor space); while rain is clearly an enemy both to safe storage in this respect as well as to the briquettes themselves (they are made essentially from sawdust and so are, quite evidently, useless when wet.

Today was, briefly, showery – but the pallet comes double shrink-wrapped as well as with a plastic sheet to protect against damp in transit – more of the environment-killing stuff but this is unavoidable in the Uist context and, at least, all that squashed down to an old log bag. Fingers crossed that the boxes’ journey from pallet to shed didn’t compromise them too much. Else my not-so-much leaning wall of briquettes at the back of the shed may yet come tumbling down.

I do like the look of these things not least in that their brittle nature – you can easily break them apart by hand – should mean that they catch quicker once the fire is underway and, quite probably, they could also facilitate some economising on kindling, the need for which remains present with the Verdo ones. We’ll see in the next few weeks but, as long as these go well, I’ll definitely be using Wood Fuel again.

Good news from HIE youth survey

Welcome news this morning from Enabling Our Next Generation, Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s survey of people aged 15-30, that a higher proportion of young people are committed to staying on the islands than when the survey was done three years ago; and indeed also to see their futures here. Migration of young people away from the area is indeed a problem – here on Uist and Benecula, we are an ageing society and the loss of young people represents a major concern as regards both the sustainability and the vitality of these islands.

This is a clear tribute to the hard work being done by many organisations – HIE among them – to provide greater opportunities for young people such that they are able to see a future for themselves in the region. And that means a future not just in 30-40 years time when they are considering retiring ‘home’ again but an immediate future of opportunities while – to put it frankly – people are at their most economically productive.

At 90 pages, I haven’t yet read the full report, which is detailed, in-depth and closely-argued and self-evidently a serious contribution to our thinking on economic development. It is also accompanied by sub-area reports focusing on the findings for each of HIE’s eight offices although these do not yet appear to be publicly-available. I hope that HIE and the report authors choose to put these into the public domain in due course as these will contain important research material.

I do note, however, that the survey is much older than it was three years ago – the proportion of young people aged 15-18 was 29% in this new survey, but 51% three years ago. The 2018 survey might well be more representative in this sense as a result, but consequently, any headline that focuses on a greater willingness to stay compared to 2015 needs to take this changing demographic into account – those aged 25-30 (34% of this year’s survey compared to 21% three years ago) are likely already to have made their plans and their choices based on the opportunities available to them. The key group remains those who are 15-18 and who may or may not see such opportunities as being open to them; and it would be interesting to see the views of how this specific group have changed.

It’s also interesting to note that the proportion of people from the Western Isles has also risen from 2015, to 8% (and actually three points higher than the percentage of people in the HIE area who are in the age group and living here). On this basis, the wider survey might be a fraction less representative, therefore – but the needs of people living in the islands are different to those elsewhere in the HIE area (which is huge, encompassing a vast swathe of land from the Western Isles down to Argyll and then up through Lochaber, Ross and Moray, Caithness and Sutherland to the Orkneys and Shetland). Frequently, those needs are quite specific based on the culture and geography of the islands on which they live. A close look at the response of specifically islands young people would also cast an interesting perspective on the extent to which the initiatives being undertaken are successful in making the decision to stay a meaningful one. And, in turn, what else needs to be done to make that decision one that subsequently rewards those making it.

Here on the islands – as anywhere else, really – the keys remain education opportunities, housing, and good quality and skilled jobs. And clearly, the key target group is not as broad as 15-30, it’s really 15-18 because, at 18, life choices are being made and, if not yet set in stone, will become much more so once young people have left full-time schooling. It remains the case that a decision at 18 to stay on the islands is both courageous and challenging (and one that is frequently subject to negative assessments from peers who regard it as unambitious, which is a different challenge for policy-makers entirely).

Greater opportunities for further and higher education courses via UHI – based up in Stornoway but with satellite centres on Barra, Benbecula and North Uist – and indeed for musicians via Ceòlas’ Cnoc Soilleir project, will help in making a desire to stay and study a more realistic one.

The new housing being constructed in Balivanich will add to the quality of the housing stock, as will – more importantly – the regular housing land audits identifying potential house-building sites which is encompassed as part of the Council’s five-year housing strategy. There remains, nevertheless, a substantial part of the housing stock right across the islands which is left empty and slowly rotting, creating eysores rather than opportunities. Action needs to be taken here as a means of improving the situation for people looking for housing locally.

Nevertheless, with regularly-revived concerns over the long-term future of the MoD range and the in-principle decision to proceed with centralising air traffic control services at Inverness, and operating Benbecula remotely, the threat to substantial parts of these islands’ employment and skills base is significant. Some people do take the decision to return to the islands when they have children – support from grandparents remains an important component of such decisions – but they need good quality jobs and, without those, opportunities for return become objectively much more difficult to make.

The business park based on small-scale units being built up at the airport will help with those looking to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities (as, indeed, would a site for homeworkers to be able to come together). Welcome as these are, however, they will replace neither the skills base lost through the departure of high-tech employers nor the spending power of those employed by them. And neither, despite the same broad welcome, will jobs working in retail, tourism and hospitality, and the care industry. We might well, even within the same set of islands, take the view that centralising services leads, and on the same basis, to a loss of opportunities for people living more remotely.

Such concerns are clearly broader than the remit of today’s survey report but, in adding to the policy debate around the hard-edged economic decisions influencing island peoples’ choices to stay, it provides welcome evidence giving impetus to the policy tools that we have and to those on which we still need to work.