Book review: Downsizing

The title here is not so much comment on his career subsequent to his resignation as an MP just prior to the 2019 general election (and when his seat went to the Tories) as a reference to the conscious battle against weight gain which Tom ‘Two Dinners’ Watson engaged in subsequent to a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes in 2015. It’s an engaging and easy-read account of a typically resolute and determined (though not without a recent setback) fight to cut down on the intake of sugars and processed foods which contributed in a major way to his obesity and to real fears for his health.

His chosen vehicle for this – despite the pull quote on the cover from Michael Mosley, who is more associated with a (very) low calorie intake and a balanced, Mediterranean-style diet – was the ‘keto’ diet, a controversial way to weight loss via replacing all carbohydrates with fats and proteins, allied to ‘bulletproof coffee’ (whose origins Watson is careful to attribute correctly) and an exercise regime. Watson correctly asserts that everyone is different and that he can only report on what worked for him – and it clearly did: losing eight out of nearly 23 stones does indeed leave him a shadow of his former self and on this Watson should be congratulated, alongside his account of the resulting improvements which he has experienced in terms of his concentration, fatigue and responsiveness.

For all the easy-to-consume nature of the writing style, the tone is evangelical, proselytising even, in connection with the benefits of the keto diet (and, let’s not forget, the associated exercise regime which has him doing workouts in a park, attending a gym and, eventually, cycling, hill walking, kayaking and running) which can, at times, read a little like the script of a committed, and now enthusiastically clean, convert. Well, he is one such, of course. But a keto diet clearly works for others, too; and Watson is no doubt right that doctors need better guidance (and training) in recommending weight loss programmes which focus on individual needs and which puts ‘one size fits all’ programmes completely to one side. Personally I’m not convinced that a ‘hit list’ of ‘banned’ foods is a healthy way of improving our relationship with food and, as a committed beer drinker (and bread maker), neither do I think that carbs are ‘the enemy’. I also worry that a diet high in fats – for all the admirable desire to save the NHS from vast amounts of spending on the health problems which are related to obesity – is building up future health problems (and therefore spending) of its own. But then, I’m not really the core audience for Downsizing; I’ve always been blessed with a fast-acting metabolism and I’ve never been a fan of sugary fizzy drinks, takeaways and convenience food. Neither, it seems, do I have a particularly addictive personality. But, it seems, diet is one of those areas which absolutely commends itself to subjectivism and there is, therefore, little point in me substituting my views for those of others. If it works, it works (and we need to take the long-term into account in judging that) – and fair play, too.

This is not a political memoir – Watson provides little comment on any of the developments in UK politics since 2015 other than in how they form the general background to his desire to lose weight and in his achievements in doing so; and he throws few bones to those searching for political comment about his relationship with the Labour Party and specifically with Jeremy Corbyn. For the truly committed he does, however, contribute an amusing anecdote about a remark thrown his way by a member of the public who spies him engaged in early morning boxing sessions in a public park; while Len McCluskey, now retired as leader of Unison, is on the end of a laugh-out-loud line which references his negotiating style.

For all that the book focuses on Watson’s weight loss, this is not a diet book and it does, for the whole of its final one-third, address some of the core related policy issues to obesity and public health spending. As you might imagine, Watson – and his (uncredited, though not unacknowledged) co-writer – is very good on the policy stuff around the food lobbying industry and in his attempts to get particularly the manufacturers of high-sugar foods (‘Big Sugar’) – Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola, Pepsico and Unilever come in for special mentions here – to pay a share via a ‘sugar tax’ of the costs of the addictions that their foods and beverages have created in people; and to prevent high-budget branding and marketing programmes from such companies not least when they are targeted at children. There are some powerful vested interests here and Watson deserves credit for taking them on, not least in a ‘naming and shaming’ style in a book of this type. He is also very good at seeking to ally trade union principles to the cause of giving the millions of people in the UK with Type 2 diabetes a voice in his desire to achieve his earnest goal of ‘remission for all’.

And yet, for all the desire for a policy-related outcome to the problems of diet and sugar addiction in particular, and for all the desire to give leadership to people who do absolutely need a voice when faced with the necessarily isolating circumstances to which shame (of weakness, of body image and of fault) is a major contributor, Watson’s decision to step down from parliament in 2019 necessarily reduced his influence over policy and his potential to provide people with that voice. Downsizing, indeed.

There are few clues here as to what led Watson – still not yet 55 – to resign his seat and, apparently, his political career. It’s not as though as he has given up interest in policy development: he currently chairs UK Music which is engaged with the righteous battle to #FixStreaming; and, while his website might currently suggest he is short of a role or two other than in podcasting, a lot of that might well be explained by the arrival of Covid-19 which has had a lot of us on hiatus for much of the intervening time since the back end of 2019. Scrutinising Downsizing for a few between-the-lines clues, I suspect the decision to retire from being an MP has much to do with a quite literal desire to ‘spend more time with his family’ – that curse of politicians – as well as the more evident fearful, personal recognition that a stressful role in frontline representative politics is likely to have played a major role in robbing him of his health as it did with his friend, Labour leader John Smith, before him; and, perhaps, of robbing him of his relationships.

Who knows what the future holds for Watson – and that no doubt includes Watson himself. But I ‘wouldn’t rule out a return’ to party politics once he has satisfied himself that his weight is fully under his own control and once his children, quite naturally, are happy to be spending a little less time with their Dad. ‘Big Sugar’ still needs controlling – and that may well need to be driven by someone whose considerable energies are no longer fuelled, as they once were, by its products.

Right there, under our feet

It’s been an interesting week for archaeology what with Milly, a 13-year-old, discovering a horde of Bronze Age axes in Royston (on her third metal-detecting trip, natch); and publicity arriving for a very well-kept secret find, in a farmer’s field in Rutland, of a Roman villa complex with a mosaic depicting Homer’s The Iliad. Both go to prove the old adage that you never know what’s under your feet – and that probably every grass-covered hillock in otherwise broadly flat ground is likely to be of potential archaeological interest.

We do have Bronze Age – up to c. 800BCE – finds out here on Uist although Iron Age ones, i.e. from the era immediately following the Bronze Age, are more common. The Romans, of course, never made it this far in their conquest of these isles – to them, the western isles were ‘here be dragons’ even if they weren’t quite ultima Thule – so there’ll be no villa complexes or mosaics out here and, probably, neither any evidence of underfloor heating (although certainly people of that time knew how to heat stones for a variety of purposes).

This week’s course featured a terrific lecture from Dr. Emily Gal, of UHI, reflecting on the relationship between archaeology and the paleoenvironment: how climate change influences what we now find on archaeological digs and how humans somewhere way back up the line responded to climate change; and how to interpret meaning into the evidence we find in the ground (via plant matter, insects and ‘remains’ of all types imaginable). It was quite mind-blowing to discover that the western isles are literally sinking, as a result of geological factors, whereas much of mainland Scotland is still rising: the ice sheet was much thinner here, but up to one kilometre deep on the mainland. The consequence is that, whereas there is still a kind of ‘trampoline effect’ on the mainland, with the earth’s crust rebounding upwards after the release following its suppression by the weight of all that ice, there is little or no effect here and, in fact, the key is movement in the other direction caused by the dense weight of the gneiss which forms the bedrock of these islands. This is not to say that sea levels are not rising on the coasts of the mainland too – they are, especially on the east coast, and at a rate of knots.

The outcome of the sinking of the western isles is nothing particular to worry about – the rate here is about one metre per millennium – but, on top of human-influenced climate change, it does raise the question about what evidence we can find for how people previously interacted with the changing climate: how they tried to respond to it and the mobility issues that inevitably arise when things get a bit too hot for survival, and human growth, right here.

The follow-on issue is one of how Uist would have looked in times gone by. Probably, it was about twice the width it now is, extending the latterday coast out into the Atlantic by as much as 14km. The Monach Islands (that’s the little tilde on the map to the right, lying out to sea between Benbecula and North Uist), and now uninhabited, was still connected to North Uist by a land bridge as recently as the 16th century. Furthermore, the ‘long island’ probably therefore was indeed one long island, stretching from what is now the Butt of Lewis (Rubha Robhanais) and reaching down probably to Barra and, perhaps, even further south. Certainly South Uist was joined to Benbecula with the bay between the north-west tip of South Uist – where we now live – and Benbecula being actually previously constituted of one freshwater, inland, lake before being swamped by the sea. There is evidence of a wood existing on the edge of that expanse of water, now constituting a submerged forest on the current southern shore of Benbecula and, apparently, there is some similar evidence here, too, as well as on the small island of Gualan slightly further east to us though that needs to await the next spring tide (and good weather!) for an exploration (and, perhaps, a photograph should I be able to find anything). That’s next weekend, by the way. (Weather not guaranteed.)

The lecture was succeeded the following day by some field work on Baile Sear – just about visible on the map above as the island between Benbecula and North Uist and close to the shore of the latter – where the class was engaged in some photography and some ‘cleaning’ (gentle scraping; no gouging) of sections of the exposed midden (tip site), largely to expose the different colours signifying how the midden was composed. Here’s a couple of small (unofficial) photos showing ‘my’ section: check the band of red (peat ash) against the lighter colours of the windblown sand above; and, lower down, a protruding bit from a darker section of soil which, after a bit of more cleaning, revealed itself as a shard of pottery, with a pleasingly curved shape and, at the top, a clear rim. Elsewhere in the midden there are animal bones and a few scattered shells although not as many of the latter as elsewhere in the locality.

I’ve tramped over these dunes above this site a few times and, while the exposure of the midden is not new – it dates back now a few years when a hurricane lead, amidst human tragedy, to a 50m section of dune being lost in one night – I’ve never known what was there, underneath. Or, to be fair, and to my shame, given it too much more than a passing thought. But that small shard, readily exposed to my fingertips, is at least 1600 years old and there may – just may – be a lot more of interest underneath the machair. People lived here, died here and are, perhaps, buried here – in what was not an isolated manner of existence but as part of a sizable, probably noisy, jostling community and, judging by the size of the midden, a successful one at that. Perhaps that piece of pottery was an ordinary household item broken in the course of every day living – or perhaps it was used to lug a load of shellfish to a celebration of some kind. Perhaps it might even have been broken as a part of that celebration. Now, that evidence of existence lies on the coast and is exposed not only to the mighty Atlantic and the winds – but back then? Quite some way inland, perhaps even sheltered from the wind in some way, with people making their existence not just from the sea but from the land all around them.

All is really speculation – we just don’t know, at least at this stage – but, after all, what is speculation other than the product of evidence, and an informed ability to interpret, set alongside a free running imagination?

Ancient monuments: protect and survive. Or not?

General warning: this post constitutes some unusually early thoughts and may be neither accurate, reasonable nor fair. But please read on. And let me know if I’m wrong!

This week’s archaeology course lecture – they’re on Fridays, hence #FridaysForThePast (sorry!) – was led by Dr. Rebecca Rennell and, around a series of interesting slides on understanding the erosion of heritage sites on Uist, there was a fascinating discussion within the group on the issue of the extent to which sites close to the coast and subject to erosion can, or should, be protected.

The discussion was with reference to Dun Mhulan (Dun Vulan), a broch site on South Uist of which more in a minute. Brochs were monumental structures erected on coastal locations on the west of Scotland and across the western and northern isles somewhere between 1BC (possibly earlier) and 3AD (possibly later). With a double skin wall, giving space for access to chambers and galleries and to the upper floor(s), they stood perhaps up to 20m tall and were used for – well, we don’t actually know. Smokehouses for preserving food, possibly; as stores, possibly; as defensive structures, unlikely; as symbols of the wealth and organisational ability of a community, quite probably; as waymarkers for those travelling on the highways of the sea – almost certainly although that’s equally very unlikely to have been their major purpose. Here’s a couple of snaps I took precisely ten years ago of probably the best remaining example of a broch, up on Mousa in Shetland, which has been preserved fairly intact. The one on the left shows the broad dimensions and the general setting – those smudged specks at the top are indeed people; the one on the right shows the double skin wall and stairway access (grilles and framing may not be original features):

Aside of a bit of care and maintenance over the centuries, this is not a reconstruction. The reasons why the broch here has survived in such good condition are likely to be several: Mousa is a small, now uninhabited, island located only a short way off the mainland of a small island archipelago (that is the Shetland mainland to the right centre); and, crucially, it’s sheltered by a small hill to the east (the left) and, though it is itself on the west side of Mousa, it is protected (at least from sea surges) by the mainland. Consequently, much of the force of erosion is not focused on the broch itself; and, equally importantly, there are not a lot of people around requiring its stones for their own structures. Both of these are, of course, mutually reinforcing factors.

Here, in comparison, is Dun Mhulan, in a photograph taken by Howard Fenton: and see also, for a bang up-to-date 3D model, that taken by Smilemaker (Simon Davies) just last weekend, following the lecture:

The site transparently doesn’t have Mousa’s advantages. That’s the Atlantic to the right (i.e. the west) and there’s no shelter from the winds, from whichever direction. Erosion hasn’t just knocked things down, it has also created a lot of infill – the stones on the ground at the entrance way (lying at just about twelve o’clock in the picture) actually form the lintel of the main doorway so a lot of the original action is below what is now ground level. The wall on the Atlantic side is a rebuild, buttressed by a concrete apron put in place in the mid-1990s at the same time to provide some support for the site but which, as can be seen from Simon’s 3D model, has already had to be supplemented by gabions not least since the concrete has been cracked – presented with an angled concrete barrier, the Atlantic has simply gone around the sides (illustrating the issue of measures taken with preservation in mind frequently leading to problems somewhere else). Furthermore, brochs were often built on islets – the left hand side of the picture shows what is actually a saltwater lagoon, but this was originally matched by one to the right which has now been lost to the Atlantic – while that is also the sea to the upper right, the site being on a small promontory (the broader location is well illustrated in this shot, which also highlights that the sea at the upper right in the above picture is held back from swamping the lagoon by a thin bar of shingle). Dun Mhulan is extremely open and thus it is extremely jeopardised.

It would thus be a mistake to say that the future for Dun Mhulan is uncertain because, actually, we can be fairly sure that, at some clearly unknowable point in the future, it will be inundated. And perhaps we’re only one major storm away from that eventuality: at Baile Sear, up the coast off North Uist (and the focal point for our field work), the significant hurricane of 2005 saw 50m of coastline lost in one night.

The dilemma facing archaeologists, and the local community, is therefore well encapsulated by Dun Mhulan: it’s one of striking a balance between preservation and excavation. Or, as the professionals say, ‘preservation by record’ since excavation, depending on its precise focus, is likely destroy a site completely but that, in the process, a clear picture will be drawn up of how the site was used and developed. In conjunction with modern technology, preservation by record becomes an issue of how sites can be presented, sometimes reimagined by informed guesswork but used to educate ourselves not only about the building techniques and the creeds of communities in the past, but also how they confronted climate change (much of what we don’t know about brochs centres on why they fell into disuse and were abandoned). Interestingly, key sites can indeed be relocated to places where they can be better preserved and presented – see the example in the previous link about the Meur Burnt Mound, on Sanday in Orkney (also referenced here) – and in support of community heritage (and, let’s be frank, tourism) initiatives.

So, if we cannot protect Dun Mhulan against coastal erosion, rising sea levels and all the rest of the impact that climate change is having, the question remains as to what can be done with it. Legally it is a scheduled monument, which complicates things a little – scheduled status, whose aim is to preserve sites as far as possible in the form in which they passed to us, is extremely important; but, equally, scheduling paradoxically means that action can’t be taken either so that we can learn from sites. Given the level of threat to Dun Mhulan and its general low-key nature (its level of exposure means that interpretation boards, which don’t currently exist, are likely to have extremely short lifespans anyway), as well as the availability of other broch sites, including in the western isles, offering a better representation of shape, form and structure, I do wonder whether our interests might be better served by re-excavating Dun Mhulan (some work was carried out in the 1990s, before the apron was installed), possibly in conjunction with a Meur-type relocation, so as to capture as much information as possible from it so we can learn. Perhaps the site’s major value could lie in telling us more about how these unique and enigmatic buildings were used, how and why they came into being and why they were abandoned. Or, with a nod to the tenets of academic research, at least about how this one particular site was used.

As ever, the availability of resources is likely to play a major role in determining whether this could happen (excavation is of course costly); or whether, by taking no action, we are playing instead a game of risk with our chances of learning. It seems to me that, in the face of coastal erosion our choice when it comes to such exposed sites is either to try and preserve by record; or else being faced with the reality that we haven’t preserved at all.