Women’s participation in Up Helly A’: some follow-up

One of the themes of my earlier, otherwise more general, post on Up Helly A’ was the campaign to allow women and girls to march in the Lerwick event, the only one from which they are currently excluded because of their sex (see, for instance, the Shetland Times‘s report on the following week’s Nesting and Girlsta UHA). Crossing my timeline this week was a reference to a new campaign group being set up called ‘Women for Remain the Same’ – essentially, therefore, an anti-inclusion group although its ‘supporters’ are in no way limited to women. ‘Women for Remain the Same’ being open to men when it’s not open to women to join UHA squads and to join the ranks of the guizers is, perhaps, one of the odder and more perplexing aspects to all this.

Things being what they are, this is a Facebook campaign and, because I don’t subscribe to Zuckerberg’s data mining operation, I can’t see what the group says or why they’ve decided to set it up. It would seem obvious, however, that the purpose would be to illustrate that there is not ‘community support’ for the inclusion of women; and that the campaigns in that direction would therefore appear to have progressed far enough to get someone, or a group of people, somewhat rattled.

The arguments around the careful establishment of ‘useful’ groups to slow down progressive change are well-trodden ones – as a letter writer to the Shetland Times points out, there were anti-suffrage groups, too; probably all movements for change are faced with the need to overcome the sclerotic forces of conservatism.

The direction in which this blog’s sympathies run on this issue ought to be very clear.

A campaign for things to remain as they already are doesn’t readily lend itself to activism and declamatory sloganising, and it isn’t designed to get the juices running and people on the streets – indeed, its purpose is actually the reverse of this. However, the song can’t always remain the same, as Robert Plant – coincidentally appearing at this year’s HebCelt, by the way – would perhaps report in connection with his post-Led Zep career. Organisations, especially social ones – and the Lerwick Up Helly A’ Committee is a social organisation – need to evolve, especially when confronted with pressures to change, or they risk becoming not only anachronistic but also ossified where they are deliberately exercising the choice not to change, once asked to do so.

If ossification is not to result, those arguing that the Lerwick UHA does not need to change need to come up with greater justification for a lack of movement than things are fine as they are. (Since they are clearly not fine.) Amongst other things, they need to say how they think allowing women and girls to march will change the character of the event. Tradition only takes us so far (and not least when women are able to march in all Shetland’s other UHAs). Furthermore, the joy of UHA night, after the pageantry and the drama of the day’s events, is the right to dress up in outrageously silly costumes, with numerous WTF? moments, entertain people in the halls with song and dance, and simply have fun. Those that want to keep things as they are need to justify why those same rights cannot be extended to women – and the answer clearly does not (and should not) lie in that this will stop lads dressing up in dresses (because I bet that it won’t). Squads dressing in fishnets and short dresses to pay homage to Tina Turner in her 80th year (Squad 25), or as 18th century society ladies to commemorate Beethoven’s 250th (Squad 36), or in pink tutus (the magnificent Swine Lake, again: Squad 42) will still not only be able to do that once women participate – but will still be doing so.

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Guizing isn’t for everyone – the night is long and, for the main squad, the whole day can be gruelling even in good weather – but stamina and fitness is no respecter of sex and, when you’re having this much fun, why would you want to choose to deny those who want to do so the opportunity to join in? And the answer to that is the same for one person as it is for 300.

Above all, people need to explain why they think it is perfectly feasible to direct girls towards achievement, and goals, and participation, and on an equal basis to boys – but direct them around the time of the Lerwick UHA into the kitchen instead of marching and guizing. Equality is nowhere unless it is everywhere; and equal rights to participate don’t take away the existing rights of others to do so.

The bigger Lerwick UHA gets and the better known it becomes, and the more people start to talk about building a wider Viking festival around the Lerwick UHA, the more questions will start to be raised about the desire to make the event ‘more public’ – surely a euphemism for allowing women and girls to march. The exclusion of women and girls from marching in the Lerwick UHA, and their confinement to roles instead in the halls, not least the kitchens, will come under ever-closer scrutiny. Those defending the status quo will need to come up with some proper answers than that things should ‘stay the same’.

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Railway telecoms – what goes around comes around…

Many of my readers will be aware that I have a regular column in Stage, Screen and Radio, the quarterly magazine of BECTU, the media and entertainment sector of Prospect. The aim of the column is to reflect on issues in the communications industry – broadband, smartphones, mobile coverage, etc. – and their relationship with the policy-making process. Rightly, you have to be a member of the union to read the columns as they appear but the text does appear at some later date on this website: you can read them directly on a separate page on this site by following the direct link to the left (or, otherwise, here).

Production lead times being what they are for a professionally edited and produced print magazine, I wrote the column for the March issue at the start of February. The text of that will appear here (too) in due course, but I had a couple of choices of issues to cover this time around, and this post broadly follows one of the themes that (just) missed out.

The spark for some further research was provided by an item in a telecom news feed just before Christmas which referred to Deutsche Bahn, the German railway operator, deciding to open up its 18,000 km fibre-optic communications network to telecoms companies seeking a core network over which to deliver consumer services. In a subsequent conversation with the sharp members of the union’s organising team, we wondered whether there was a similar system applying across the UK’s rail network and, if so, whether this might face demands to be opened up in a similar way as a means of developing the UK’s communications fibre infrastructure.

Network Rail does indeed have a communications infrastructure – it’s actually an operational necessity in terms of running the signalling on which safe rail travel depends and which, in an emergency, provides secure and complete trackside communications for workers in the industry.

But there is a history here, too, which speaks more broadly of the failures of public policy over the past forty years based on privatisation, the desire to make money by selling off assets developed in the public sector and an over-reliance on ‘market’ solutions and competition, not least when it comes to infrastructure provision. A summary of the details of this ‘somewhat traumatic’ history has been provided (as of 2015) by Clive Kessell, a career-long inhabitant of railway telecoms, and it’s well worth a read (and see others at the same site (Rail Engineer) under the ‘signalling and telecoms’ news section, some of which have been linked in this post).

The story in short is that the railway telecoms network in the UK had been developed piecemeal between 1972 and 1993 under public ownership in pursuit of various signalling and electrification projects. Consisting by then of some 17,000 km of fibre optic and copper cable, it was the largest private telecoms network in the country. The network was parcelled up in the 1990s as part of the privatisation of British Rail and then, later, sold off firstly to Racal Electronics (in 1995, for £140m) before being split up with the main network being sold on (in 1999, for £1bn) to Global Crossing (which ultimately, and after bankruptcy recovery, was taken over by Level 3 in 2011. Level 3, a US company, has also since been bought by CenturyLink, another US operator). We ought, by the way, also to wonder at the valuations of assets which lay behind those prices.

Essentially, therefore, the privatisation of rail telecoms – as with the wider railway – was a botched process in which, as Kessell comments in a key section:

None of these private companies really understood what they were buying… At the same time, the privatised train companies were tempted to acquire telecom services from order-hungry sales people in a myriad of companies intent on cherry-picking the easy bits and ignoring the more important operational comms. The result was communication chaos with ignorance as to who was responsible for what and with serious doubts as to the integrity of the services being supplied.

Network Rail – by then back in public ownership following the failure of Railtrack – therefore took the decision in 2004 to recreate what had been destroyed by private hands in the mid-1990s by agreeing a £1.2bn investment plan for a fibre-based nationwide transmission network, based on GSM-R, a radio-based system whose use was being harmonised across the EU under legislation on interoperability. After securing agreement from the Treasury in 2006, this was instituted between 2007 and 2015 with the outcome that Network Rail – once again – now has access to a UK-wide communications structure. Subsequent investment has resulted in the development of an optical network to support the usage of IP-enabled devices, and will need to continue at a high level as GSM-R comes to the end of its natural life in the next ten years or so and as the industry’s need for bandwidth continues to expand.

The lesson – that there is no valid reason to privatise a core public asset which the private sector does not understand and will not see as intrinsically valuable other than in a commercialised way – ought to be clear.

It’s just possible that we might be making the mistakes again, however. Network Rail Telecom – which currently has some 600 staff – was formed in 2011 to own and manage the new asset on behalf of the whole industry. NRT’s asset base is sizable and encompasses some 18,000 km and 22,000 km respectively of fibre and copper backbones with an architecture based on hundreds of interconnecting rings to obtain a large amount of resilience, as well as 2,500 GSM-R base stations and 3,500 data nodes. The decision has been taken to merge operational and business telecoms, with many systems being used for both – a cross-over which external telecoms providers may not understand. This may provide some element of a ‘poison pill’ against the threat of outsourcing-based private rapacity, as indeed might railway congestion and the need to have trains running at speed and closer together – a solution in which reliable and comprehensive, not to say absolutely dedicated, communications networks have a key role to play.

Nevertheless, as indeed in Germany, the questions have already arisen about the use of the network ‘to benefit wider society’ – to whit, looking at it hungrily from the perspective of the government’s (2017) Digital Strategy for the UK, which (re-)raised the question of publicly-owned and funded networks being opened up to increase the fibre connectivity of homes and businesses. Various trials are underway, and envisaged within NRT’s Strategic Plan, and, while it is clear at least to existing senior industry personnel that the operational needs of the railway are paramount, this may not be at all clear to a Conservative government recently elected with a thumping majority, acting in a populist fashion (£) and allied to a complete lack of moral compass and a ‘year zero’ approach to public policy in the post-Brexit era. Back in 2016, Network Rail had considered a(nother) sale of its telecoms company, as part of plans to raise £1.8bn towards the Railway Upgrade Plan and under government pressure to reduce debt, but then ruled out a sale – though not, critically, any sale of access to spare infrastructure capacity.

But, even if it is good that wider counsels have prevailed (this time), who has the handle on deciding what is ‘spare’, alongside the level of priority to be enjoyed by digital rail where infrastructure is shared and in the context of the expansion of the industry’s own bandwidth requirements, is clearly the key question that will remain outstanding as policy develops.

Ultimately, it seems that this fiendish play – of national assets being sold off (under a Tory goverment) to a private sector which engages in a wanton destruction of value, only for the owner (back under a Labour government) to have to re-build that utility and then facing pressure to sell off that utility again after a change of government – may have a season or two to run yet.

Dennis catapults in

Still stormy here, with winds in the high 40s/low 50s, although this is a little lower than the 60+ winds of yesterday and we haven’t had the rain that has flooded the south of England, Yorkshire and central Cardiff (amongst other places). In Uist, it’s been mostly showery, albeit that the showers are torrential, wintry and horizontal as another storm front sweeps across, eradicating a moment’s blue sky and sunshine with yet another overcast prelude to yet another incoming shower.

We have had a succession of very high tides which, allied to the largely southerly winds that Dennis brought yesterday, saw incoming breakers having their tops flung into reverse, plumes of spray being thrown backwards. But, amidst the muddy browns of the near side, reflecting the seaweeds being roiled up by the waters, the aquamarine of the water towards the far shore and the white, marram-topped sand dunes of Mol Mòr at Kilaulay, backed by white-painted cottages, in moments of sunshine underneath a slate grey sky, reflect the complexity of the South Uist colour palette.

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IMG_5393 (2)At least there was no further ingress of seaweed across the shore road, as also happened last week, for at least the second time this year and only the fourth (IIRC) in my time here.

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2020 has been windy, with few and brief days of respite. This has made it much more difficult for birds to feed and yesterday, as the tide was forced by time to concede its battering of the shoreline and to dismantle its seaweed trebuchet, a mixed flock of ringed plovers, sanderling, greenshank and oystercatchers, and a few gulls, desperately resumed their foraging of their own 100cm² portion of the retreating waterline. There is, it seem, enough room for all, increasingly so as the tide retreats further, and the small nature of the morsels offered up made squabbling a pointless waste of energy.

However, a different side to this sort of frenzy smacked the office window this morning in the shape of a small bird with a force violence suggestive of a much bigger bird and which made me think of one of of our gang of starlings. There on the ground, upside down and apparently quite dead, mottled brown and buff underside in full vulnerable show, was a meadow pipit; and then, within seconds, the reason for the force of the smack appeared in the shape of a female hen harrier, which wheeled 180º around where its prey had fallen, tail fanned, banded alternatively light brown and cream and almost translucent in the sunshine, as it alighted on the pipit where it stayed a few moments settling itself and assessing the nature of any threat in the surroundings before rising up into the air and quickly out of sight, talons full. Only one in ten strikes are successful – and a strike is only half the battle as the right to the prey must then be preserved against all comers. At least this one was painless, on the one account, and non-wasteful on the other, although the shower which swept the landscape just a moments later would have made the plucking a damp occasion.

An extendedly bleak midwinter, then – though the fat, energetic shoots of daffodils emerging into and in spite of the strength of the storm are signs enough of the resilience and the vitality of all things. And, likewise, we will rise again.

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A world away from Brexit – Up Helly A’ 2020

I spent Brexit Day in Lerwick, up above 60ºN and some 760 miles from London – further from the carnival in Parliament Square than any other place in the British Isles; and, travelling eastwards from London, you’d have reached Poland before you got as far again.

I was not only escaping Brexit, of course, but attending the 2020 Lerwick Up Helly A’, which pays tribute to Shetlands’ Norse origins, proceeding from pageantry (with costumes of the main squad taking literally years to work up and build because of the intricate details worked into the designs), to the drama of the torchlit parade through the darkened streets of Lerwick, to one massive all-night party, if you’re lucky enough to get a ticket to one. The history lies in marking the end of Yule, with the days visibly beginning to stretch out after the winter darkness, and in youths returning from the Napoleonic Wars with an appetite for doing things with gunpowder and, later, barrels of burning tar around Lerwick’s narrow, steep streets. The Lerwick Up Helly A’ – one of 12 fire festivals taking place around Shetland from January-March, is the second in the season and, with (this year) 845 marchers (‘guizers’) in fancy dress, it’s not only Shetlands’ but Europe’s biggest fire festival. It’s always held on the last Tuesday in January and, famously, is never, ever cancelled for the weather – the only time it has been cancelled was when it coincided with Winston Churchill’s funeral. Perhaps this explains why the Proclamation – traditionally posted at 6am on a giant board at Lerwick’s market cross – lists this year’s Guizer Jarl (Liam Summers) as the 100th such, although he actually appears to be the 101st named.

If you’re looking for a video which explains what Up Helly A’ is all about, this Shetland.org video is an excellent explanation – well worth 23 minutes of your time (and for a number of reasons, one of which is that the young woman presenter is a former Jarl’s Squad member (in the South Mainland Up Helly A’)). Though she ought also to have mentioned the magnificent beards on display.

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Up Helly A’ is a stamina and endurance event, not least for the Guizer Jarl’s squad – this year numbering 55 people and the only guizers to be dressed as Vikings. Their day starts before breakfast and they’re in costume all day (and then literally all night) – no mean feat when a dose of the ‘flu had affected much of the main squad this year and when Liam’s costume weighed some 30kgs (66lbs), plus axe and shield representing probably an additional 12-15kgs. To get to the end of the night and be as fresh for the last hall as you were for breakfast takes some doing.

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Controversially, however, the Lerwick Up Helly A’ has always excluded women and girls from participating as guizers; it is the only one of the twelve that does. Recently, there have been campaigns to change this which have attracted increasing media attention (see here for a Scottish perspective on this year’s event; and here for a UK one) as the festival has become more and better – and internationally – known. This year, ‘Reclaim the Raven’ brought ‘artivism’ to the existing information gathering and letter writing campaign of the more long-standing ‘Up Helly Aa for Aa’, with the group designing their own proclamation and, guerilla-style, attaching it at 5am to the market cross, on the opposite side to where the Proclamation is erected. This was removed (anonymously) at 8am and has not since been recovered even though those responsible were caught in the act on camera.

Whatever the weight of tradition, the reasons for not excluding women from a public space on the grounds only of their sex are surely stronger. Whatever happens next is clearly for the campaigns themselves to decide, but the Guizer Jarls’ motto – (‘We axe for what we want’) surely has something to commend it in the context of the typically expressed change mission of educate-agitate-organise. The spectre of people genuinely applying to participate as mixed squads but being met with point blank refusal – as happened this year (‘Activists attend London event’, Shetland Times 31/1/20, p. 6) – and teachers at Anderson High School having to inform the lads, and only the lads, in their classes about where to go to sign up for the Junior Up Helly A’ squad is appalling. It is unjustifiable and completely unsustainable to continue to exclude women and girls from the biggest fire festival in Europe, and it sends a completely wrong, and unhealthy, message to young girls in particular. Equality must be everywhere – or there is no equality, as the slightly surprised tone of the newspaper editorials linked above emphasise. The Lerwick Up Helly A’ Committee needs to change; and it needs to decide whether it wants to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 2020s or whether it wants to gain some credit, even at this late stage, by choosing to reform itself in line with the really quite modest, and certainly low key, demands of the local campaigners.

Senior level change will take time: with the new, and already magnificently bearded, member of the Committee being elected to take Liam’s place having to wait fifteen years for his shot at being Guizer Jarl, the earliest a woman could head the Lerwick procession would, at this point, be 2036. The world will have changed substantially by then – and hopefully the Committee will not at that point still be fighting the battles of the 1970s – while small (but significant) change can be accomplished immediately by allowing mixed squads into at least the ranks of the rest of the guizers from the 2021 Lerwick event onwards. When even the Shetland Times – not apparently a particular champion of change in this respect – points to the problems to Shetland society of the divisiveness of the debate, and expresses its hopes for Up Helly A’ to continue ‘in a way the whole community can celebrate it’, you know your time is up.

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Men dressed as women are a frequent sign in the skits put on by the squads during the night-time partying in the 11 halls around Lerwick which act as party venues – 47 squads were in this year’s event and their routines are likely to be more than recognisable to the squads in 1920, all featuring a mix of music and singing, dance and the lampooning of local and national figures and events, with each taking months to plan, write and rehearse. It was a hugely enjoyable night, not least in the sights of men quite clearly enjoying the liberation of wearing a dress and in the oddball costumes in which some spent large parts of their night. I spent my night at the Mareel arts centre, courtesy of tickets obtained by my nephew, Igor – and, despite the lack of progress on women’s participation, there were other positive signs compared to my last Up Helly A’, back in 2013:

– no act used blackface this year

– one squad (23: ‘Slantiģirt does Oz’) did a thoughtful routine based on the Wizard of Oz and included two men clad in rainbow suits.

Top of the pile for me was Squad 42, whose ‘Swine Lake’ – men in pink tutus and lycra and wearing pig masks dancing to Swan Lake – was a thing of style and no little grace. Honourable mentions, among others, also to Squad 38 (‘London Calling’); Squad 33 (‘Still Game’ and including a spot-on Slosh to ‘Beautiful Sunday’, of course); Squad 32 (‘Post Office Redirection’); Squad 43 (‘Sister Act’); and Squad 30 (‘Man’s Event in Lerwick’).

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8.20am and the scene at bedtime.

I went on to spend part of Brexit Day itself at a town hall commemoration in respect of Holocaust Memorial Day, held over from the Monday perhaps as a result of the preparations within the Town Hall for Up Helly A’. The call of HMD to ‘Stand Together’ being made on that day was certainly not lost on the Bulgarians and the Poles present at the event.

Other links can also be made: not only does Up Helly A’ symbolise Shetlanders’ Norse heritage, but the drama of the burning of the boat has symbolic relevance, too. In some Up Helly A’s, the burning galley is launched into the sea, in reference to the suggestion that the galleys of deceased Norse warriors were turned into funeral pyres and put to sea – but not in Lerwick, where the Up Helly A’ burning takes place in a small public park. Here, the symbolism of boat burning, leaving people unable to get home but, instead, having thus exercised the choice to stay, is one that speaks firstly to the settled immigrant that is present in most of us Brits but also in the reference of Up Helly A’ Day to a community coming together to celebrate those same traditions of migration.