Book Review: The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places

Neil Oliver’s recent history is one of those works of non-fiction which does exactly what it says on the tin.

Born out of people coming up to him and asking about the places they should visit, this is Neil Oliver’s attempt to crystallise the history of these islands into a series of short essays about the most remarkable finds, events and structures which tell the story of the people who have lived here. Starting with footprints uncovered briefly in the mud at Happisburgh in East Anglia, which may have been up to 950,000 years old and at a time when this ‘long island’ was joined to the rest of Europe and there was no sea Channel, Oliver pursues his narration chronologically, proceeding up to the Millennium Dome and the Scottish Parliament building before back tracking slightly to relate in the final two essays to structures which highlight the main two aspects of his theme.

The first of these is that these islands have a history of bloody conflict and that:

We have arrived where we are in these islands at the end of a long and bloody road… The path back to that chaos is quick and straight and easily taken. Like it or not, believe it or not, we live protected by a shelter made only of our old mistakes. (p. 403)

And, we might add, for as long as we continue to recognise those mistakes as such.

Secondly, standing on the shingle beach at Dungeness ‘under the weight of the biggest, bluest sky… pebbles slipping and sliding beneath my feet while the sea rolls’, is that these islands are fragile, at ‘nature’s mercy most of all.’ (p. 406)

Published in 2018, amidst a risingly intemperate political discourse about our post-Brexit future and against a background of increasing concern about climate change, manifest to island nations most evidently in rising sea levels and plastic pollution, it is easy to identify the prompts for the centrality of such themes.

Oliver is not a trained historian and this is not a work of scholarship – he studied and worked firstly as an archaeologist before re-training as a journalist and finding his niche in broadcasting – and the language of the writing, as the above quotes testify, is poetic, often spiritual in nature and even romantic (as, perhaps, befits what is a self-confessed ‘love letter to the British Isles’ and p. 410). The essays – from two up to (rarely) eight pages – start with some contextual, frequently contemporary, analysis as well as descriptive detail about the selected location before Oliver seeks to use his undoubted empathy to put himself not only in that place but in that time, to use his imagination to project what it would have been like there, at that particular point, and then to provide some observations about the significance and continuing resonance of the site. Nevertheless, this is never an over-romanticised piece of work.

Oliver is careful with his choices, ensuring that the nations and regions which make up the British Isles are fairly represented (Ireland and Wales each have eight selections and Scotland 22, while the islands in our archipelago are represented by Orkney, Isle of Man, Skye and Iona, the Channel Islands and the Aran Islands), and that London and its immediately surrounding area (with ten) do not dominate. Frequently, the choices are coastal – for evident reasons of maritime history and the invasion, raiding and incursions, and plantations to which these islands have been subject – thus ensuring that the ‘peripheries’ occupy the central locations they deserve.  He is also careful with his language, often referring – as he acknowledges – to ‘these islands’, partly as a result of the evident political challenges of naming and labelling conventions and border issues; but also because he has come to the view, as a result of his travels, that the shared histories of the people of the ‘long island’, the flow of the population movements which have resulted during that history and the sheer longevity of the land in the face of the brevity of such human concepts as borders across a topography, nations and national identities, are such that:

Instead of any sense of different countries, I see only one place. (p. 409)

A view that will, no doubt, continue to prove as controversial as Oliver himself has been in recent years. Clearly, a perspective of someone who is, first and foremost, an archaeologist. He is, nevertheless, also absolutely correct to recognise that ‘The flow of new arrivals has never stopped’ (p. 407); we are all migrants, and we always have been. At a time when the far right is seeking to ‘claim’ sites such as Avebury and Wayland’s Smithy (the latter not covered by Oliver here) simply because they are representative of the melting pot of cultures and traditions that migration represents, this is an important assertion.

The collection is evidently an entirely personal one – the final selection mostly self-selecting as a result of some places registering with him more than others during his almost constant travelling around these islands. As such, there is almost zero point in personal quibbles with Oliver’s choice of locations to tell the story that he himself wants to tell. (I can claim to have visited no more than one-third of the hundred sites selected.)

Nevertheless, there is a heavy focus on politics and power struggles, and military might, somewhat to the exclusion of social and economic history and the selection is therefore a little conservative. The history of people is clearly there – it underpins many of the essays – and, while there are entries for the great famine in Ireland (Abbeystrewry Cemetery, Skibbereen), the highland (and island) clearances (Bettyhill), on the struggle for workers’ rights (Tolpuddle) and on the birth of the industrial revolution (Ironbridge), entries on the creative and literary tradition outnumber these. To tell a more rounded tale, I would have liked to see something on Peterloo (and see other references passim on Keith’s site), the 200th anniversary of which only just post-dated the publication of this work, or the Chartist Movement or on suffragettes, in which Emmeline Pankhurst’s youth at the outset of her involvement (she was just 14 when she attended her first meeting of the Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage) also bears a striking resonance with some of today’s environmental activists, not least in reactions to them.

This is not just a personal preference, however: protest – and reactions to it – to achieve social change is also part of our bloody history, and a major one at that. Furthermore, it’s also a part of the mistakes that we’ve made which help to shape the shelter under which we live today, while the accommodations that we have reached as a result of such actions amount to one of the reasons why the social peace that we enjoy in general is both hard-won and often fractured as a result of the mistakes that societies like ours, still ridden with class and other hierarchical structures, continue to make.

There remains plenty of room for protest action as we continue to shape the social aspects of our shared destiny, and anywhere that it is absent from the pages of history books represents an unfortunate omission, whatever the qualities of the surrounding work.

Communications in transition – the continuing need for dialogue

The third of my columns for Stage, Screen and Radio, the quarterly journal of BECTU, the union for creative ambition, appeared in the Autumn 2019 issue (‘Celebrating Young Creatives’). Members of BECTU can download the magazine from the website – I’m on p. 24. Now the Winter issue has hit the streets, I thought it was about time to re-publish the text of #3, minus Tony Kelly‘s cartoon pointing up my words. Not a member of the union and want to see the text in all its glory? Here’s how to join.

For 15 years now, Ofcom – the regulator for the communications industry – has published an annual overview of the state of things in its Communications Market Report. This has always been required reading for its broad-sweeping analysis and its essential facts and figures on what remains a rapidly changing industry. Continuing a trend began last year, though, it is now truer to say that it’s required viewing: the comprehensive report of yore has gone the way of ‘big data’ with the 2019 CMR now consisting of a set of charts, each accompanied by a ‘key message’ bullet point.

A picture might well be worth 1,000 words – but art consisting of little more than graphics is going to leave the reviewer somewhat unfulfilled. It might suit the view that today’s wealth of access to news, stories, comment and images, along with too little time, has left us with the attention span of a goldfish. Or that, to capture people’s attention in these days, you have to hit them up with something punchy and direct. I don’t necessarily buy either one, although there are elements of truth in both. More prosaically, the reason for the switch is likely to be a lack of available resources. And that’s a shame.

Some of the key points to emerge from the 2019 CMR are:

  • telecoms prices and revenues continue to fall in real terms
  • there is a continued shift away from fixed-line to mobiles for telephone calls; and from mobile to web-based messaging services for text communications
  • revenues are static for commercial TV broadcasters, amidst a reduction in advertising revenues associated with a drop in viewing hours
  • public service broadcasters continue to spend less on generating new UK content (excepting the effects of the 2018 World Cup)
  • the reach for radio remains high and the time we spend listening to the radio nevertheless remains the same year-on-year, while digital radio broadcasting continues to expand.

Right across communications, the internet continues to wreak (creative) havoc. Telecoms companies and TV and radio broadcasters alike are facing continued declines in revenues while somehow justifying the substantial investment required, whether this lies in generating new content or in the pipes and airwaves that carry that content to us, at home or on the move. Rightly, we expect that experience to be seamless and to deliver us the same quality wherever we are even though we have been enticed into a world in which we expect to pay increasingly less for it.

Substantial investment is taking place, of course: in telecoms, more and more fixed broadband connections are ‘superfast’ and more of us are on faster mobile connections.

But investors demand both absolute dividends and predictability in them over time. And, when revenues are declining and there are plenty of free-riders around, continuing that level of share-out can only come from squeezing more and more out of workers whether this be in terms of effort or in terms of demands for further and greater concessions in our terms and conditions of employment.

Indeed, the share of national income going to workers continues to fall, with impacts in left-behind communities and in more of us in work feeling the pinch. And, when more of us are in work than ever, that’s a disgrace.

Just as in the transition to a low-carbon world, workers in communications are in transition too. This presents difficulties, and these can only be confronted, and resolved, through dialogue. In organised trade unions, we are not only aware of the importance of this, but we have the opportunity to do something about it. However, the message of dialogue needs to be more widely understood if workers are to start increasing their share.

Election 2019 (2)

Disappointed, bruised and sore.

That a manifesto seeking to tackle social and economic injustice was rejected in favour of empty slogans; that lies, and the practise of lying, have been rewarded; that our democracy is incapable of dealing effectively with obfuscation and the deliberate avoidance of scrutiny; and that the healing which these nations which make up the UK need has been cast aside, to be replaced by further division, hatred and exploitation.

It was indeed a ‘grim’ night in which the balloon of my hope and optimism was punctured at about 22:01, before I finally called it a night just after 04:00. The only bright spot all night (there were two, really, but the failure of The Brexit Party to gain any seats, especially in Hartlepool, is rather meaningless in the circumstances) was the success of Matt Rodda in Reading East, the constituency of my birth. Rodda has been around for a while and his Tory opponent was new, and this might provide a partial explanation to his increased majority. However, a marginal drop in the Labour vote share seems to indicate that, whatever the situation nationally, Rodda – surely confronted with the same issues on his doorstep – is doing something right from which Labour might learn once its – essential – review gets underway.

Here’s a few initial thoughts about the implications of what happened last night.

1. Brexit will happen on 31 January 2020. There’s no way that this will not now take place. This was, after all, a Brexit election and Johnson’s determination to talk about nothing else than ‘get Brexit done’ – when he elected to speak at all, that is – clearly permeated into people’s consciousness, at least in key Tory target areas. Ultimately, this was a successful strategy, pains me though it does to say it. ‘Brexit, stupid’, as someone else might once have said, and keeping it simple, clearly worked.

However, we should note that Brexit remains a democratically-unpopular option. The votes cast for ‘leave’ parties added up to 14.98m, according to my quick calculations from the BBC election results website this morning, compared to a vote for parties committed to a re-negotiation/second referendum or remain of 16.63m (among the 16 largest parties attracting votes of 10,000+). So Johnson’s sloganeering was, across the UK as a whole, not successful. In the meantime, this therefore remains an utterly divided nation (note: the breakdown in favour of re-negotiate/remain is 53:47).

2. Labour’s pivot to re-negotiate to provide a Brexit which hit jobs and living standards less, and then to put this to a second referendum, was clearly not a success. It was either not understood or else it was dismissed – it doesn’t really matter at this point which. In hindsight – though some will claim foresight on this – this was perhaps only likely to work as part of a coalition (or understanding) between ‘remain’ parties. That was never going to happen and there is an argument that, looking at Brexit in isolation, Labour would consequently have been better on a platform that was, at least audibly, closer to one which ‘respected’ the 2016 referendum.

3. In the absence of any such understanding, tactical voting to keep the Tories out was a clear failure. The notion that tactical voting had more traction that it evidently did underpinned my optimism in my post below, as well as my anticipation of the fall of some big (Tory) guns. Neither happened. Evidence published only on Monday this week that people were quite attracted by the idea, though had little idea of the online tools available, ought to have provided sufficient warning (not least of the need to escape your own social media bubble once in a while). Nevertheless, it was not even close for any of the big guns – Raab, Duncan-Smith, Redwood and Johnson himself – and this looks a failure of the MRP technique which, at constituency level, had given gaps to the nearest challenger in these cases as low as one percentage point, whatever its apparent success at UK-wide level in predicting the scale of the Tory majority. In short, MRP got a little lucky.

4. We are heading for a constitutional crisis sometime in the life of this (up to) five-year mandate, once Brexit occurs. Neither Scotland nor Northern Ireland voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum; yet Northern Ireland now has more Sinn Féin/SDLP MPs (the former of course not taking their seats in Westminster) than unionist ones, while the SNP’s share of the vote in Scotland was 45% (a rather interesting figure in the light of the 2014 outcome of IndyRef1).

Much here depends on just what sort of government Johnson actually leads – and it is, by the way, a disgrace to democracy that Andrew Marr, the BBC’s former political editor, can post on the BBC Live pages this morning, and having interviewed Johnson only a week last Sunday, that ‘The biggest question in British politics this morning is, who is Boris Johnson politically?’ (at 07:34, currently p. 5/21). A ‘softer’ Brexit than the one envisaged under the previous government would, to some degree, head off some aspects of this challenge, in the sense of minimising the impacts of a Brexit which left us isolated from the EU. Were we to end up at the end of the transition process without a sensible free trade deal with the EU – i.e. one which protected jobs, working conditions and environmental standards – then Brexit will increase these constitutional pressures.

In that context, there would be a clear argument under which lending a vote to a nationalist project, where the focus was a re-joining of international social and economic structures in the face of a disastrous Brexit, may well have merit in terms of protecting the Scottish working class against such impacts. The SNP has a platform of seeking IndyRef2 in 2020, but that’s not incompatible with the timetable under which a free trade deal with the EU would need to be approved. It’s also quite clear that the only free trade deal with the EU which can be negotiated in that timescale is one which effectively minimises the impact of Brexit. Whether Johnson can cast aside his erstwhile buddies in the ERG to deliver that remains to be seen. So, ‘wait and see’ before making any such pivot would be a wise move – but, for me, it remains a more substantial possibility than hitherto.

5. A rather thin Tory manifesto contained a particular hostage in its promise to ‘look at’ judicial review from the perspective of ‘ensuring that [it] is available to protect the rights of the individuals against an overbearing state, while ensuring that it is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays‘ (p. 48; emphasis added). This is a clear reference to the – evidently embarrassing – cases brought by anti-Brexit campaigners this summer (Gina Miller and Jolyon Maugham. That the cases were won against the government is evidently troubling were any such ‘look’ now to emerge with restrictions on the courts’ capacity to hold the executive to account. This is one of the essential checks and balances in any democracy and, where these are cut back, democracy will suffer. Any look at the example of Poland, where the governing party is attacking the judiciary, much to the consternation of at least the previous European Commission, is clearly illustrative. A UK outside the EU would, clearly, mean no such censure were the government to embark on such action after January 2020. This is clearly not the reason for Brexit, but a government that turns out to be hardline will see it as one of the bonuses of leaving.

In the meantime, I’m off to listen to some Smoove. Loud, I think.

Election 2019

This has certainly been one of the more interesting election campaigns in recent memory. By turns chaotic and mendacious, but nevertheless enthralling, I’m looking forward to an outcome on Friday morning which proves it (as well as to enjoying plenty of Portillo moments).

The last 24 hours has perhaps seen the worst of things as regards the dark arts with the beginning of the Tory advertising blitz via Facebook, coinciding with the re-generation of sock puppet accounts as a diversionary tactic to the horror of a boy lying on a hospital floor as there was no bed for him, and in the face of Johnson’s own dissembling and point blank refusal to look at the image when faced with it (now with 11m views…), coupled with a non-story about an adviser being punched.

From a policy point of view, there are two issues that need to be addressed here: firstly, the willing take-up of Dominic Cummings’s rouble-sourced bait by journalists who ought to know better; and secondly the dominance of the social media platforms, especially Facebook but also, albeit to a lesser extent, Twitter, in terms of the news we see and what, in a time-pressed world, we come to regard as truth.

Robert Peston and Laura Kuenssberg ought to know better, but rather than pin the blame on them in a conspiracy theory about the modern state of the BBC in the clutches of a vile government, I think the main problem lies with the failures of journalism under pressure of a 24-hour news cycle. Before t’internet came along, the time pressures where a journalist had a story to break would be somewhat less and publishing timetables tended to lend more time for fact checking in advance of publication or broadcast. Nowadays, journalists making their living in the field, and who have a story but fear being scooped, tend to report everything and then – occasionally – backtrack when proved wrong. Evidently, that’s often too late once tweets and posts have been shared and then amplified via individual networks.

Journalists need to be less afraid of being scooped and to take greater time to establish the facts before engaging with their social media accounts – or at least to qualify their messages with an acknowledgment that the situation is still being checked. I for one am quite happy if the news comes to me fact-checked and accurate, if a little slower; although I acknowledge that this understates the adrenaline rush realised by those among us who are the ‘first’ to tell us something. We also need to break the consensus that people spreading such stories are not ‘sources’ in the accepted journalistic sense and can be identified in the public interest. That might, however, need a little more solidarity between journalists if the cosy relationship between spinners and relayers is to be broken.

Secondly, James Mitchinson, Editor of the Yorkshire Post, got it spot-on yesterday in his response to one reader who took issue with his paper’s coverage of the story of what happened at Leeds General Infirmary. In a discombobulating world, when we do not know who to trust and when we have been led actively to distrust those institutions to which we formerly looked for honesty, it is very easy to be led astray. This is of course where Facebook – particularly – comes in since it has scooped up much of the local advertising revenues on which local journalism used to rely and whose loss has starved local papers of resources and journalists. The dispute over job cuts at the Herald has much to comment on this, also.

The genie can’t be put back in the bottle, but the unchecked abuse of its powers out in the wild can and should be better controlled, not least in terms of the potential for the manipulation of opinions during an election, as well as in terms of the stealing of identities and their use by/sale to hackers. When Facebook has such control but so little interest in exercising it responsibly – sock puppet accounts are as good as any other when it comes to the numbers proving continued growth to the investors – the only answer can be better regulation. Clearly it’s own – largely algorithm-based – actions to remove false accounts are not working and neither, does it seems, are its fraud reporting mechanisms (while Twitter’s are scarcely any better) while certainly it needs to have something in place which stops people impersonating and misrepresenting others and stealing data. This means that Facebook itself also has to put more of those advertising revenues into human intervention to ensure its user accounts are genuine.

(And the government needs to publish that Intelligence and Security Committee report into meddling in UK referendums and elections – it’s clearly already too late for this election, but there are lessons to be learned in respect of future ones.)

The Western Isles electoral seat – Scotland’s smallest, and a protected constituency under the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 – was held in the last parliament by the SNP, with a majority of about 1,000 votes over Labour in second (and the rest nowhere). In Alison MacCorquodale, we have a good candidate from North Uist (and an active trade unionist, to boot) highly capable of building on the efforts of Ealasaid MacDonald in 2017 in making this a two-way, non-Tory marginal. Touring this southern end of the constituency at the weekend, the equal matching of red and yellow lamp-post favours was highly encouraging. All of which means I can vote Labour with both my heart and my head. Only Labour has the manifesto committed to ending austerity, re-building the NHS (and keeping Trump’s hands off it) and achieving real change for people.

Other people don’t have that luxury where a Labour candidate is neither the sitting MP nor the nearest challenger. If that’s you, and especially in those narrow marginals which will make a substantial difference to the outcome on Thursday, do vote for the candidate best placed to eject the Tory. There is a plethora of tactical voting websites to help you make your mind up, the latest addition being the @ledbydonkeys campaign to GetJohnsonGone. Others include Best for Britain’s tactical voting site Get Voting.

Do consult at least one of them and, even if you do, for one reason or another, have to hold your nose while putting your ‘x’ in that box, ensure that we wake up on Friday morning with a series of ‘Were you up when…?’ exits, Johnson gone, advisers with egg all over their faces and a future awaiting us in which we can together start to put right the things that have gone so wrong in the last nine years. Vote for hope.