Archaeology and coastal erosion in Uist

Have just enrolled on this 10-week course starting in a week’s time; and I’m really looking forward to some pre-course field work taking place tomorrow up on Baile Sear – an island off the west coast of North Uist which experiences a pace of erosion which is almost visible. I haven’t been up there for around five years now and I’m interested (and rather full of foreboding) to see the amount of change that has taken place in that time. I’m hoping that the course will give me a greater understanding of climate change and its role in shaping the islands on which I live; and the lives and the opportunities of all of us who stay here.

The pre-course field work is based on a drone study of the archaeological remains eroding from the coast, which is being led by Ellie Graham, a PhD student from Aberdeen.

Just hoping that the rain, which is in the Met Office forecast for tomorrow morning, alongside some rather changeable weather, holds off – making judgments and recording observations through wet glass(es) can be a bit of a challenge…

The course is likely to be quite intensive while holding down the (freelance) day job, so blog activity might be a bit more rare over the next period. Will be trying to post some materials and some thoughts up here as the weeks go by, though. This is my first time in a learning environment for quite some time and, on this side of the learning room as opposed to the other, for quite a bit longer. There were archaeologists in my last employment and I really wish I’d come across a few more of them while I was there.

Anyway – wish me luck!

Book Review: Case Study

Published by Saraband only at the start of October – precisely on the anniversary of the birth of the Scottish countercultural psychiatrist, RD Laing, no less – Case Study jumped (for a number of reasons) straight to the left hand side of my to-read shelf. Remarkably therefore, I find myself in the position of delivering a review of a book not only in the month of its publication but while the author himself is still out and about in promotional activity for it. Probably I need to decide whether being this far ahead of my usual self – even if not quite ahead of the curve – is a comfortable place to be.

A word first of all, however, for the cover. Dan Gray has done a mesmerising job, hitting the spot with a design which summarises the core of the novel’s content: the 1960s and swinging London; psychiatry; and handwritten notes dividing the otherwise steady gaze of a woman who is, therefore, very much at the centre of the novel.

Rebecca Smyth is the name of this woman, from a well-to-do background and with a role as a ‘Girl Friday’ at a theatrical agency in Soho, who consults a radical, charismatic anti-psychiatrist, Collins Braithwaite. Or, rather this is the name she uses since she sets up her consultations with him having come to the belief – on finding a book of his case studies – that therapy sessions with him had driven her sister, Veronica, to death by suicide; we never actually find out her real name. Written in the belief that she may be putting herself in danger as a result of her interactions with Braithwaite, the notebooks are her own handwritten records of her series of consultations, alongside other notes she also makes about her life. These notebooks – five in all – form the bulk of the book and these are interspersed with chronologically-ordered biographical details of Collins Braithwaite’s immensely controversial and volatile life and work as drawn by the author – ‘GMB’ – whose initials will be familiar, being those of the writer researching his grandfather in His Bloody Project and who comes across the materials presented there about Roddy Macrae, as well as the translator of Burnet’s Inspector Gorski novels. The notebooks are sent to ‘GMB’ by Martin Grey, who found them when clearing out the house of his uncle (the father of Veronica and her sister) and who did so in response to a blog post ‘GMB’ had written about psychiatry.

Burnet’s interest in psychiatry, and the extent to which the material presented in case studies is objective or scientific, is genuine. Furthermore, that blog post (dating from 2019) does exist and is also given added impetus by a comment at the start of this year which draws a response from Burnet that his next book ‘very much inhabits this terrain’. And there we have the set up – or, of course, the question is whether it us that is being set up. Fans of Burnet can already see from this post what to expect – Alphonse Maeder is real; Braithwaite a work of Burnet’s own fiction – and Case Study absolutely doesn’t disappoint. Mixing fact and fiction, real people with walk-on parts (including RD Laing himself) and author-drawn characters, reality and fantasy, truths and alternative truths, the reader is thus invited to participate in the novel and in the world created by Burnet not least by cross-checking the existence of people and places; or, in my case, electronically wandering up and down the roads around Primrose Hill in London and Darlington and the North Yorkshire Moors in the steps of those who populate the novel. The blurred lines that are created between fiction and true life extend the form of the modern novel – did it happen or was it made up? – and openly encourage the reader, by joining the dots between the material in the notebooks and the results of ‘GMB’s own research about Braithwaite, into self-reflection about the nature of identity and sanity.

Burnet says that he doesn’t set out to manipulate readers and that his books don’t start with the intention of writing about a theme; both emerge as a consequence of the novel’s natural development and the life it comes to take on during the process of being written, giving space to the reader to come to a thus unchained, or unanchored, text in their own, equally valid way; and that themes emerge and characters develop in ways that sometimes surprise the writer. Nevertheless, being played is part of the experience the reader has in reading Burnet’s work, and this is true once more of Case Study whose narration features a range of story-telling devices with Burnet firmly locating his work in line with Barthes’s essay on the ‘death of the author’.

The core theme that emerges in the sessions between ‘Rebecca’ and Braithwaite is not so much that the reader is unsure of who is therapist and who is patient – though how much of ‘Rebecca’s testimonies are real and how much they are developed because that’s either what she wants Braithwaite to hear, or thinks he wants to hear, is a moot point. Either way, putting her at the centre of how the sessions are related to the reader serves a dual purpose: the book becomes about her but it also, at the same time, puts her in control of what the reader sees and of how the dynamics of the encounters with Braithwaite appear. This increases the power of Burnet’s text and is fully in line with ‘GMB’s realisation in his blog post that the presentation of the core material of key psychiatric studies – sometimes as fabricated by the therapist – is likely to say as much about the therapist as about the patient. Or, as Braithwaite himself puts it:

The crimes of psychiatry are legion, but they can mostly be attributed to a single cause: the idea that the therapist knows more than the patient.

Other themes will be familiar to Burnet’s readers: people struggling with themselves in some way and feeling that they don’t fit in may well be an established element of most literature, but the twist, repeated here from His Bloody Project, is of characters who narrate their own stories via written testimonies: a re-assertion of the power of the written word in contradiction of Braithwaite’s (humorous) condemnation of it late in the text. Also featuring here, as in other of his novels, is teenage sexual fumblings told unstintingly and in a fair amount of detail; while alcohol, and heavy drinking, again also play key parts in the novel and in the development of the plot.

In my review of The Accident on the A35, I wondered, somewhat implicitly, whether Burnet had the confidence in his own abilities to ‘write female characters that have as much depth as his male ones’; and that Case Study was likely to prove something of a landmark in this respect. Here indeed we have a woman at the centre of the text and, within the confines of the plot, she is reasonably well-drawn as a woman with 1950s attitudes and clearly unable to participate in the swinging London of the 1960s – which helpfully makes the point that not everyone was able – or wanted – to join in with that. She also has the lion’s share of the book’s many cracking lines and her account is written strongly and assertively, in spite of the domesticity that lies at her core, and with a droll sense of humour. Burnet also deserves credit for taking on the development of a character of a woman of some (family) means rather than the working class characters which have largely inhabited his work so far. On the other hand, she is rather repressed and the lack of her real name (other than ‘Rebecca’) is, not least in this context, problematic. Braithwaite fulfils the role of bluff northerner/angry young man, fitting in well with the iconoclastic breaking of the class divides of the time and the rejection of the old guard. Here we point directly to Colin Wilson (The Outsider) and John Osborne (Look Back in Anger), while I’d also throw Alan Sillitoe’s northern working class males into the mix there, too. While fulfilling a clearly secondary role to that of the main protagonist, his character is the better drawn, being more rounded. There are clear plot reasons for this but it is somewhat unfortunate. Nevertheless, Burnet brilliantly brings off the challenges of voice presented by the manner of his story-telling: in writing, as a woman, a set of notebooks detailing her character; and, at the same time, conveying the details of ‘GMB’s own incipient biography of the character of Braithwaite. These two aspects of the tale – plus ‘GMB’s own in the novel’s essential Preface and Postscript – never overlap in terms of their voice and the reader is never confused as to where they are in the text.

‘Rebecca’ and Collins Braithwaite present themselves as rather different individuals – ‘Rebecca’ naive, concealing and somewhat other-worldly, and Braithwaite lewd, direct and very worldly – but, ultimately, they share a number of things in common with regard to life experiences that, however unlikely it might seem, do interlink their lives. The outcome is an inventive, entertaining, tautly plotted (here, uniquely, loose ends are few in number) and wryly observed meditation of the gaps in identity, self and sanity and the nature of the lines between how people present to others in different contexts and the different personas they take on and inhabit as a result, and who therefore they truly are. Stripping out the controversy which otherwise surrounded its own author, the novel highlights that there is much to be said for RD Laing’s theories of the Divided Self, which Burnet has spoken of as a ‘stunning and electrifying piece of work’; with such a reference in view, Burnet has produced a rather fine homage to the value that lies in exploring, and accepting, our own contradictions and the varying authenticities of our reality.

Automated recognition software: your rights in the public space

This is the text of my summer 2021 column for BECTU’s Stage, Screen & Radio, slightly extended and with added links. Sometimes the column – especially when published several months later – gets overtaken by events; occasionally concurrent events give it added relevancy and that’s the case with this one, with news this week that the Information Commissioner is stepping in over the case of facial recognition technology in Ayrshire schools ‘to speed up the lunch queue’; and with Eurostar testing the same to give ‘seamless travel across borders’ and a ‘touch-free journey through border checks’ (under plans originally announced last summer). As always, the language is of course interesting focusing on the upsides with little consideration of the (considerable) downsides. Passport checks – which already incorporate biotechnology – are one thing; whether school children are in a place to give informed consent for something as quotidian as school lunches is another thing entirely.

Anyway, on with the column…

The European Data Protection Supervisor – an agency which reinforces data protection and privacy standards – has called for a ban on the use of ‘automated biometric identification in public space’. This means a number of things connected with the use of what, for simplicity, we’ll call here ABI to categorise a range of features including, most obviously, facial recognition but also gait, voice, keystrokes and our other biometric or behavioural signals.

The EDPS is not concerned with the use of AI to unlock your smartphone, but it is concerned about the public space: law enforcement and also the wider commercial and administrative environments in which it might be deployed – for example ‘smart’ advertising hoardings and billboards, attendance at sporting and other mass events, in airport screening or wherever users access public services.

The call for a ban is clearly serious – but so is the context in which it was made: the European Commission’s legislative proposal for an Artificial Intelligence Act. This, the EDPS noted, did not address its earlier calls for a moratorium on the use of ABI in public, however otherwise welcome the initiative.

The UK has of course left the EU, but the Information Commissioner’s Office – the UK’s own data protection and information authority – is also concerned about these issues. A reference to facial recognition technology appeared very early in the ICO’s 2019/20 Annual Report; while the Office issued an Opinion on the use of facial recognition technology in law enforcement in October 2019. It also intervened in a judicial review on the use of such technology by South Wales Police – a review which the police lost on human rights and data protection grounds.

We know – and have done for some time – of the problems of ABI in distinguishing between people: it has a much lower accuracy record in correctly matching people of colour, women and those aged 18-30. Partly, this speaks to the lack of diversity amongst those developing ABI software and amongst those on whom it is tested; in either case, were the base to be more representative, its accuracy record may well be better.

This, in turn, speaks to the need for software development standards also to be more representative and more inclusive, and to take serious account of tightly-drawn standards of ethics.

(Whatever the comical faults of the LinkedIn jobs algorithm, it is AI that is responsible for diverting job advertisements in a way which reproduces the extent of existing occupational job segregation, and which may contravene sex discrimination laws, by sending grocery delivery jobs to women and pizza delivery jobs to young men).

Furthermore the EDPS spoke specifically of its concerns that AI ‘presents extremely high risks of deep and non-democratic intrusion into individuals’ private lives’ while the ICO being similarly exercised – expressly, and in very similar language, about its potential for ‘unnecessary intrusion into individuals’ daily lives’ – indicates a worry among regulatory authorities that there are unsettling data privacy and state surveillance aspects surrounding the use of ABI in this way.

ABI works on the basis of matching scanned images against a ‘watchlist’, deleting those where there is no match and otherwise prompting human intervention. What the authorities are concerned about is whether an individual could anticipate, and understand, their image (or data) being processed in this way; and whether this is both a necessary and a proportionate response. What you and I might be concerned about is how someone could put us on a watchlist – was it because we went on strike, perhaps, or demonstrated against racism? – and how the authorities would then be allowed to track us wherever we go without us knowing.

Unquestioning faith

Additionally it’s true that we tend to place a large amount of unquestioning faith in the results that machines give us. If our trust is not to be abused, we need to be confident that the ABI which lies underneath has been developed, and is being used, in a socially just way.

The South Wales Police case highlights that ABI could identify large numbers of people and track their movements. Few trade unionists – or others organising protest actions – will need a refresher course on what that might mean. The decision in this case recognises the need for precise legal boundaries on the use of ABI, something which EDPS also openly acknowledges, although what these will be has yet to be defined.

Where we impose limits on the use of surveillance technology, in a law enforcement capacity and in terms of our knowledge of our data rights and our trust, is something in which we should all be taking a keen interest.

Book Review: Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Madeleine Thien’s sweeping inter-generational novel about the upheavals in the creation of modern China was the fourth book I picked up from the 2016 Man Booker Prize shortlist (the others being Paul Sellers’s The Sellout, which won that year; Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk; and Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project). Although I’ve read one or two shortlisted works in most years of the Prize, this is a total never reached before or, especially, since – the result, I suspect, from living in a place (Perth, at the time) with a bookshop offering the opportunities to browse; buying books off the ‘net is not the same when you can’t pick something up, feel its heft and read some of its prose (I’m a firm believer in the power if not always of the opening line then certainly of the opening paragraph or two).

Thien’s book – a family saga set against the background of actual historical events – certainly has heft: it weighs in at nearly 500 closely-typed pages; and its subject matter (China after the civil war which ended in 1949 with the triumph of Mao Zedong’s Communist-led army) has serious weight. Her title – and indeed her text – is well chosen: it’s drawn from the closing line of the first stanza of the Chinese version of The Internationale, identifying the need for people to rise up together in revolt. The Internationale became the anthem of the Chinese Soviet Republic established in 1931 and was also a rallying cry of the students at Tiananmen Square in 1989, whose events form the climax of this work. The forty years of history from 1949 to 1989 were tumultuous, with China experiencing famine, labour camps, repression and brutality, re-assignment of people to remote areas and unfamiliar work and a continuous state of struggle as the leaders sought to defend and entrench the revolution; although the 30 years since (25 at the time of the book’s publication) have seen much less of all five with leaders opting for a controlled bread and circuses approach, essentially subverting the words of the anthem. Neither, it must be said, did the experience of keeping people in a state of perpetual revolution contribute to the development of an improved society.

The changing nature of words and their subjective duality, forming a continuing quest for meaning in a context in which messages can be either apparent or buried in text, or can change given the different tones used in Chinese language, as well as be manipulated in the service of a powerful regime’s politics, forms much of Thien’s material. The early part of the work sees Li-ling, a young Chinese girl living in Vancouver who also goes by her English language name Marie and who is the novel’s narrator, striving to come to terms with the loss of her father, who died by suicide in Hong Kong in the months after the events at Tiananmen Square. She is simultaneously also dealing with the development of meaning in the Chinese characters of a letter sent to her mother and then in a series of notebook manuscripts. Later, this duality is given space in terms of music – the two families which form the core of the novel are connected by musicianship through study at the Shanghai Conservatory prior to the Cultural Revolution – and the extent to which artists performing another’s material are copying, or reproducing, that work or adding new meaning to it by nature of their own performance; or, for instance, by transcribing musical scores into jianpu, a numbered (mathematical) musical notation system. Given the artistic flair with which the characters forming Chinese language are drawn, the same can be said for writing words and slogans, or copying texts – one of the means by which one of the family branches communicates within and down the generations.

The development of the novel’s plot is triggered by Ai-ming, a girl in her late teenage years, coming as a refugee to stay with Li-ling and her mother subsequent to her involvement in the student movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Ai-ming is the daughter of Sparrow, a composer and teacher at the Shanghai Conservatory whose work and parts of whose family history made him, at the time, suspicious in counter-revolutionary terms; while Li-ling’s father, Jiang Kai, was a skilled pianist and accompanist, and one of Sparrow’s students. Thien captures well the repression which Sparrow, whose life is at the centre of the novel, first experiences and then consciously develops as a means of survival in the face of the fear, grief and guilt sparked by the Cultural Revolution; and both him and Kai, who develops a different approach to the very same needs, are drawn hugely sympathetically. Both live for, as well as by, music and the impact of being denied this is different for each, driven by their own familial history and personal motivations while silence is explored not only as a way of dealing with grief but also in the context of the music of which it also forms a whole. The coming together of the daughters is the spark of the plot, leading Li-ling to uncover the layers of mystery in the backgrounds of the two families, but it is the fathers who are at the core of its development; while the fear of the sins of the fathers again being visited on the daughters, in a repetition of family history, tragedy and memory, lies at the core of Thien’s theme.

This is a hugely resonant work of immense depth, perception and feeling. It’s not by any means an easy read: there is a large cast of characters; you need a broad awareness of Chinese history (Thien, born in Vancouver to Malaysian-Chinese immigrants to Canada, makes few concessions here); and the savagery of the post-War years, during the period of land reform in the 1950s as well as the Cultural Revolution and the ‘re-education’ programme of intellectuals in the 1960s and 1970s, is described unstintingly as mobs are encouraged in acts of physical violence and humiliation during ‘struggle sessions’ against those pinned as class enemies. Lest we think this is the product of another time and another country, these days the violence is as likely to be mental as physical and we now call such sessions, when they occur on social media, ‘pile-ons’: Red Guards still exist and they are indeed cross-cultural, even if they don’t these days wear armbands. As the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina also shows, people can all too easily be whipped up into hatred and the oppression of others. And, as regards the Uighur Muslims, China itself continues to run re-education camps and to commit human rights abuses.

It must have been an emotionally harrowing novel to write and Thien, who had previously written about the Cambodian genocide under Pol Pot, has, by the look of her own rather quaint website (tumblr??), produced nothing coherent in the five years since: a period in which she has, no doubt, been spending time listening, having spoken of the reconfigurative powers of music – in particular, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which appears as a motif throughout ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ – as a way of dealing with the overwhelming sadness of the events about which she writes. Her word choices and metaphors sometimes require thinking and don’t always appear to work at first sight – occasionally, the book takes on the appearance of a translated text which, interestingly, is a theme shared with the work of fellow nominee that year, Graeme Macrae Burnet) – which, for a person born in Canada, is surely deliberate by way of reminding the reader of the gaps which exist in culture and in interpretation of meaning as well as in the fluidity with which the latter can (be) change(d). Thien demonstrates great skill in contrasting the greys of the historical sections of her non-linear narrative with the colours of Li-ling’s childhood in Vancouver and in contemporary China on her visit towards the end of the novel; and in the use of colour to emphasise the different approach and thinking embodied by a student movement concerned not to follow the mistakes of their parents. The historical detail of the work seems not only accurate but also told without embellishment.

The level of input required of the reader in understanding Thien’s apparently abstract expressions does sometimes act as an inhibitor while the rhetorical dialogue between characters (or the author) and the reader, and the figurative language of the text, sometimes palls: this is a problem which authors engaged in historical fiction frequently encounter. If something was real and there is testimony to it, a novel’s value lies in encouraging the reader to step into the shoes of the characters and to debate their actions and their own responses. ‘Saying too much’ might be as much of a problem as saying too little since it can prevent the taking of those steps, but Thien mostly stays on the right side and, while we know of the clear and established links between mathematics and music – Li-ling in her later life is a mathematics professor, complementing the musical skills of her father – her skill as an author lies in emphasising, in contrast to cold mathematics, the poetry of language that music, and musicianship, possesses.

Nevertheless, concentration is required: I was afforded the space to give the novel the attention it both needs and deserves by virtue of a trip to the mainland involving long journeys by train. If you can give it that space, then it will repay you: this is indeed a ‘magisterial’, in the words of Isabel Hilton’s insightful, but rather rushed, review in The Guardian, as well as an interestingly-structured work; and, if the Booker Prize really is about pushing books on to family and friends, as beautifully described by Charlotte Higgins in this morning’s wonderful long read about the Booker in The Guardian, then consider this review as me doing precisely this. ‘A heady tangle of arguments, controversy and speculation’ the Booker may be – in other words, it’s all about opinions – but, from the four of the six choices on that year’s shortlist that I did get round to, this really ought to have been the victor.