Introducing Jimmy…

Jimmy the Crake is a man about town; a man on a real mission, as you can see from his calm, confident, determined air. He’s also, quite possibly, the world’s (or, perhaps, the Hebrides’s) most non-secretive, sanguine, confiding corncrake. Dapper, suave, with a degree of rural sophistication quite befitting his environment, and well able to carry off a zoot suit and bandana combination, here he is striding about his business.

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And in full view of me stood not only watching him but also zooming in on him.

Set off here against a backdrop of the nettle bed stirring into post-winter life just above the shoreline, but yet to regain its full stride, Jimmy soon made his way along the fence to the corner of the garden, where a stone stands proud and which he seems to have made his calling post. From here – twice yesterday in the daytime – as well as several times from elsehere, he rasped, bass steel comb struck along a hard edge, regularly but in short bursts, for the next few minutes before moving on. It’s not for nothing that corncrakes are more usually seen than heard. You see, I’m stood – uprooting a stack of dandelions which have leapt into life while I was away in Sofia – on a bank on higher ground no more than 20 metres away. An afternoon-long activity which is far from complete. Movement into and then from the house, to pick up the camera, and then my somewhat clumsy attempts to creep along and and down the garden, treading less like Grasshopper than Keystone Cop, to where I could get a shot unencumbered by wood or galvanised wire mesh seemed to have little impact on his desire to engage in his primal duty of calling out.

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This is my third summer here and I – very briefly – saw one corncrake the first year, with two other calling males nearby, but saw none (at least, not here in Ardivachar) and heard few others last year. And Jimmy has only arrived in the last week or so – he wasn’t here before I left for Sofia.

A level of bravery perhaps aided by the presence of another calling male a couple of crofts up into Ardivachar; or otherwise, male corncrakes being the love-’em-and-leave-’em types that they are, by the desire to keep an eye out for other women, Jimmy already having found one mate this season (oh yes – I saw her too: a little more traditionally shy, she was spotted in the dense vegetation contributed by irises and nettles a little distance away, Jimmy in fairly close company). Indeed, yesterday I was as likely to see corncrakes as I was starlings. Well, almost.).

Regardless, it seems a good plan to leave the bottom section of the garden unmown again this forthcoming summer, just in case we’re hosting, or otherwise providing cover for, any of Jimmy’s off-spring. The apparently rising population of corncrakes across the UK, where the further reaches of the Hebrides chain, and Orkney, play a key role, is good news and thus a bit of inaction in the garden this summer seems to be entirely justified in support of Jimmy’s attempts to do his best on behalf of the future of his species. Amongst which a lineage based on greater confidence of approach, and less skulking around in the nettlebed, would also surely be a good thing.

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Integration of the western Balkans – Sofia 2018

Just back from Sofia, where I was attending a symposium for the 20th Anniversary of the SEER Journal, which I founded along with my good friend and colleague, Peter Scherrer, and which I still help to edit alongside Bela Galgoczi, Senior Researcher at the European Trade Union Institute (and who has capably edited the Journal for three-quarters of its life). If Peter and I were the parents then Sofia was the maternity hospital, so Sofia as a location for the 20th Anniversary symposium was well-chosen – and those invited, including some who contributed articles to the very first number, as well as the SEER’s welfare guardians (its Editorial Board, and researchers and leaders of trade unions from the western Balkans) – meant that the birthday celebrations were attended by many friends and supporters.

Back in 1998, we reckoned we could pull together enough interesting material to fill one volume, so to be still going 19 years later, 70 regular issues and nearly 800 articles on from our first number, plus several special issues and two paperbacks, including in the language of the ‘western Balkans’ as well as in German and in French, represents a pretty good achievement for which we are very grateful to our sponsors: in the first place the Hans-Bockler-Stiftung, and latterly the ETUI, as well as Nomos Verlag, our publishers. Pleasingly, we have also now completed a full 76cms of SEER – the internal width of one of my bookshelves. Vol. 21 will start bookshelf no. 2.

Our keynote was given by Christophe Solioz, whose formal symposium paper ‘Europe from the post-Wall era to post-crisis future’ can be found in .pdf form on his website and which we’ll be carrying in edited form in a future issue. Other colleagues, including KNSB President, Plamen Dimitrov, and Luben Tomev, the Director of ITUSR, KNSB’s research institute, also brought welcome comradely greetings.

For me, apart from looking back over our history, I also focused a few remarks on the impact of Brexit on EU integration, especially as regards the potential loss of budget finance within the EU’s post-Brexit multi-annual financial framework for projects like integration of the western Balkans post-Brexit (e.g. here); as well as on the shadowy figures behind Brexit and the increasing organisation of extremist nationalists amidst not only the current ‘rogue’ regimes in Hungary and Poland, as well as in Austria where they form part of the government, with key ministries, but also given the tensions within Bosnia and Herzegovina concerning the increasing militarisation of Republika Srpska and the explicit support being given by the government of Croatia – a member of the EU, let’s not forget – to nationalists in the Croat-dominant cantons in the south. It is no surprise that extremist nationalists – some having been ejected from Hungary – see the western Balkans as fertile territory (here and also here).

Here’s Cde. Scherrer and myself at the symposium:

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(Thanks to Bruno S. Sergi for the photo.)

The book that Peter is presenting me with, by the way, is Paul Strand’s Tir A’Mhurain: a typically thoughtful gift being not only about South Uist – The Land of the Bent Grass (or marram) – but also a book which has a complex and quite astonishing political history, according to the introduction by Fraser MacDonald (linking to his Twitter since his blog is, unfortunately, quite literally unreadable) in The Guardian to this, 50th anniversary, collection of photos documenting life in South Uist at the time of the installation of the MoD rocket range. Indeed, many islanders were fearful that the range would bring immense changes to their lives and so a documentation of exactly what that was, both in photographs and in text, is extraordinarily useful. I was aware of the book – a regular visitor to bookshops in Scotland, I could not possibly be unaware of it – but I had no knowledge of its fascinating origins. Following up, it is interesting to note that prints of some of Strand’s photos – authorised in their production by Strand himself, and thus as rare as hen’s teeth – have quite recently been bought by Scotland’s National Portrait Gallery.

We timed the symposium to coincide with the summit for trade union leaders from the region organised by the Bulgarian trade unions KNSB and ‘Podkrepa’, and in conjunction with the ETUC and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, with the intention of drawing up a statement to go to Thursday’s EU-Balkans summit, also being held in Sofia under the Bulgarian Presidency of the EU for which integration of the region with the EU has been a priority. You can read the trade union summit declaration here at the ETUC website (in English) or here at the KNSB website, if your Bulgarian is good enough (along with the following two entries for 9 May further down the page). Like a lot of these things, the words of the statement need to be turned into a practical, workable agenda for action – noting that wage convergence is an achievable target, in the context of the region’s productivity reserve, as well as a principle – but these things are not easy to co-ordinate and produce, and it is good to see the many trade unions of the region come together in support of a common goal.

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Hands clasped in friendship and in solidarity outside the headquarters of KNSB, in one of the perhaps lesser-photographed examples of this style of architecture still prevalent around Sofia (though its history is actually a lot more modern, dating from 2004, I think).

I’ve argued before that what we need is a bold vision of integration from the EU, not more warm words, progress reports and initiatives. Not least in the face of the problems that the western Balkans faces outlined above, the need for concrete proposals, investment and a clear prospect of integration continues to be clear – as does the path of continued destabilisation where these things continue to be lacking. Thursday’s summit needs to deliver on an agenda targeted towards solid progress on accession, a prime requirement for which is that the EU lifts its head from its own problems – of the divisions of the sort which marked drafting discussions over the summit declaration – towards a contemplation of the problems to which inaction will surely lead.

These are troubling times but the SEER Journal will, in its next period, strive to carry on providing a platform for discussion on the western Balkans’s path to the EU. In the meantime – happy birthday, zhiveli and, of course: solidarnost!

The prospect of summer

We were talking on the blog yesterday about the strength of the winds throughout the Hebrides; and then I saw a tweet from the inestimable account run by Orkney Library, raising an old blog post from the Archive describing some Orkney customs for 1 May. One of them was this rhyme relating wind direction on 1 May to the prospects for that season’s crops:

If the wind is in the Sooth
Thir’ll be braed for every mooth;
If the wind is in the Aest
There’ll be dule for man an’ baest;
Sud the wind blas fae the West
The muckle shaeves are ill tae fest;
If the wind comes fae the Nort
Aa‘ the rigs are tight and short.

(‘dule’ = ‘suffering or misery‘)

It’s interesting – though not at all surprising – that the state of the weather on key dates (as 1 May is, in respects both of pre-Christian customs and traditions as well as having more modern significance in terms of workers’ rights both historically and currently, for example with the McStrikers), popularly linked to agricultural prospects; nor that people in other parts of the UK where trees are somewhat less abundant have different rhymes to the arguable better-known (at least, by me) arbour-based ones (‘When the rooks build high/The weather will be dry’; ‘Oak before the ash; and we will have a splash/Ash before the oak; and we will have a soak’) or the one about St. Swithin’s Day [no, not that one – Ed]. Or, indeed, that rhymes in the northern isles seem to be based on wind, which can be changeable to some degree, rather than rain, which is more or less a given.

The general level of pessimism contained within the Orkney rhyme over prospects for the crop can be noted – only when the wind is southerly is the harvest likely to be decent. And there’s humour in that as well as, probably, grim historical reality. Fortunately, yesterday here on the Range the wind was due south all day, at least until 6pm when it switched right around to NNW. So, there’s some room for debate but, given that 6pm is after most of the growth is done for the day, I’m calling the 1 May wind as a southerly – so, that means there’ll be ‘bread for every mouth’. (And therefore beer too, of course.)

Encyclopedia Brittanica reports the conditions for good wheat production as follows:

‘Weather that is comfortable for humans is also good for wheat. Wheat needs 12 to 15 inches (31 to 38 centimeters) of water to produce a good crop. It grows best when temperatures are warm, from 70° to 75° F (21° to 24° C), but not too hot. Wheat also needs a lot of sunshine, especially when the grains are filling. Areas with low humidity are better since many wheat diseases thrive in damp weather.…’

So, if the Orkney rhyme is to be believed, and can also hold true for over here in the west, we’re likely to have a warm, sunny, non-humid and not too wet summer. Probably, there ought not to be too much wind, either. That would do me.

Harris and Lewis, including on Sunday

Just back from a two-day break at the weekend in Harris and Lewis – first time for me for the latter; second time for the former (we toured around south Harris, from Leverburgh to Leverburgh via Rodel, Tarbet and the west side, on Easter Saturday). The weather was just gorgeous (sunny and with the beginnings of a real warmth to the sun), which helped, as did some excellent overnight accommodation on the west side of Lewis, at Barvas, just at the end of the road across the moors from Stornoway (and a place with as high a concentration of Gàidhlig speakers as South Uist).

Arriving off the ferry on Saturday late morning, and with a short delay caused by a non-working charger for the electric car in Lochmaddy (we needed to use the slow charger in Leverburgh to give us enough juice to get to Tarbert, where the rapid charger was thankfully working), there wasn’t time for a lot else on Saturday other than a visit to the excellently preserved and maintained blackhouses at Gearrannan.

It was also a good time to experience the ‘quiet Sunday’ still enjoyed by our northern cousins (and which I also recall of my own, very distant, hometown of my youth in the south of England).

Coming back south on the Sunday, we did a full run of the rest of the west-side tourist attractions – the Arnol Blackhouse, the spectacularly-sited broch at Dun Carloway and Callanish (I, II and III though there are several more). Being Sunday, nothing was actually open: the sites themselves are open access but Arnol was closed, as were the visitor centres at Callanish and at Dun Carloway. This was not unexpected – we knew beforehand that nothing was likely to be open – but I felt the loss of information that was the result more keenly since trips to Lewis are not that common. We don’t have many blackhouses (or whitehouses) left on Uist (an interesting thing by itself since, at least in this corner of Lewis, there are ruins (as well as restorations) a-plenty, and it would have been good to have explored that with knowledgeable staff); I know a little more about brochs having visited the sites at Mousa, on Shetland, and at Glenelg; but it would have been good to have found out a bit more about why Callanish III is billed as ‘one of the most interesting stone circles at Callanish’.

In the 20 minutes we were at Arnol, at least four other cars showed up: at £5/head that’s a sizable loss of revenue. I know it’s not about the money and you’ll find no argument from me about protecting workers’ rights or about the need for families to enjoy time together. It’s not uncommon in Europe for museums to be be closed one day a week – though Monday is often that day. And that is, obviously, a very different day to Sunday. But families are interested in trips out, too – and a custom which draws on the power of the church and which acts to inhibit people from finding out more about the way people lived their lives in the past because of the way (some) people choose to live their lives now never made much sense to me. That custom will change in time (indeed, it already is, bit by bit) and that has to be a good thing, although I can see increased traffic on a Sunday being a bit of an issue – many of these attractions are essentially at the linear end of someone’s street, or in the middle of their village. There’s always the internet, I guess – though finding out information on-screen, later, as opposed to asking an on-site expert is never a good substitute (and, nine times out of ten, will never actually be done).

Fortunately, on a Sunday there are natural wonders also to be enjoyed (although often these are also to be found only by travelling past the houses of people enjoying a ‘quiet Sunday’, as the picture below also relates): the legendary beaches on the west side of Harris never fail to disappoint on days like these. Here’s a view across turquoise waters to the smooth white sands, backed by marram grass dunes, of world-famous Luskentyre:

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This is not quite the ‘money shot’ of Luskentyre – this one’s taken from the main road above Seilebost and on the way to Horgabost – although you can easily see where the money shot is: to the right of the little estuary adjacent to the main beach and thereafter down along the dunes, with the smooth curves of the estuary itself as a prominent foreground feature. (And, just in case, there are of course no filters being used here.)

And, this last Sunday, you (probably) wouldn’t even have needed your coat.

Book Review: Smile

My copy of Smile, Roddy Doyle’s eleventh novel (for adults), came signed by the author and dated by him the day before publication date last September, and with a personal dedication, too: a marvellously thoughtful birthday gift from my sister.

Doyle remains one of my favourite authors; I have read all his novels and A Star Called Henry continues, nearly twenty years on, not only to be a masterpiece but one of my desert island book choices. In recent years, however, his work has focused less on the novel and more on short form writing. The Guts (2013) saw a revival of the Rabbitte family, while 2006 saw a revival of Paula Spencer; 2010 saw the disappointingly rather overblown conclusion to his  Last Roundup trilogy of Irish history in the 20th century given such a memorable start in A Star Called Henry. Other than these, we’ve had two collections of short stories (in 2007 and 2011) and two collections of banter-based dialogue (2012 and 2014) – light snacks and frothy coffees and witty and enjoyable enough for all that but, otherwise, there’s not been a lot new to get our teeth into in the last decade up until Smile. Indeed, somewhat half-way through this book, the (mistaken) impression I had was that Smile was, again, really two short stories struggling to get out.

Doyle himself has acknowledged that Smile is a very different book in structure and in tone than has been explored in his previous work. Of course, there are continuing threads: the boozer-inspired banter among Dublin’s working class men of a certain age; the boom and bust of the Celtic Tiger, and the associated social upheaval which Ireland has experienced since the 1980s – itself a character in many of Doyle’s stories; the casual, frequently savage violence meted out to and among young boys; and the reliability of the witness provided by the narrator. The habitual stylistic quirks in Doyle’s writing are there, too, underpinning the question marks over the reliability of the narrator. Here, however, what is different to Doyle’s previous work is that the narrator himself – Victor Forde – doesn’t himself accept that his narration of his own story is not necessarily reliable but is forced to do so by the end of the novel.

Given Doyle’s assertion that what you see is, indeed, not necessarily what you might get, any synopsis of Smile has uncertain foundations. What we do know is that Forde, a lonely chap in his mid-50s and a former journalist, is seeking to re-build his life by falling in with a new group of acquaintances in the pub. In doing so, he chances upon a mysterious character called Fitzgerald, an apparent outsider who appears to know Forde very well and who, by the end of the novel, compels him to review key events in his life at a deeper level than he had hitherto been able to do.

One of those key events – Forde being bullied at his Christian Brothers School as the result of a remark by one of the teachers – is drawn from Doyle’s own personal history (see previous link to publisher’s interview with Doyle; and also here). Apart from that single detail, the book is not in any sense autobiographical and the treatment that Forde subsequently receives did not happen to Doyle: we don’t have here, therefore, a situation similar to that affecting Alice Sebold, for example, who was unable to get out the novel she wanted to write until she had worked through certain events in her personal life.

The shocking twist on which the novel spins, which brings the two stories together and which changes the tone of the novel completely, is breathtakingly audacious and unlike anything Doyle has attempted in his work before. Not all readers will enjoy having their feet swept from under them by a novelist playing with their perceptions; and some might comment that question marks remain over the execution which mean that the plot twist doesn’t quite come off for Doyle. Even so, the confidence of the attempt has to be admired. There is much else to admire in the novel, too, in terms of the telling, precise accuracy of the observations which fly unerringly home within a shattering finale which wrings the emotions of the reader and which must count among the bravest 3,000 words of any novel anywhere. Three days later, I’m still coming to terms with it.

Ultimately, this is a novel about memory and the long-term damage which schooling can do in which, perhaps, Philip Larkin missed a nuance: it’s not your parents you have to worry about so much as your schooldays. Smile is not only Doyle’s best work in years; but, given the tautness of the tale and the compelling prose, it might indeed be his best yet.

Where have all the eider gone?

Gone to eiderdowns, every one (it seems). (Apart from this one mature chap, obviously.)

IMG_0195aYet, despite looking so glitteringly handsome as he floated amidst the seaweed in the afternoon sun of Easter week (only the blush pink chest is not quite so evident in my picture here), he has no mate (or, at least, it’s not apparent that he does). And, actually, he’s the first eider I’ve seen in the bay all winter.

Last year’s breeding season wasn’t a great success: we had (at least) four pairs but only three chicks ever made it into the eider creche and at least one, and maybe more, of those didn’t survive: the rest of the eider, the males having already departed, were all gone early and none has returned all winter. In contrast, I can recall a couple of pairs lingering here for the whole of the previous winter before being joined by a couple of other couples. Although perhaps that, rather than this, was the exception.

Competition for scarce food sources is, as always, the most likely explanation for wildlife moving on in this way: this winter, the high tide, especially when driven in by a north wind, has brought a feeding frenzy of herring, common and black-headed gulls stabbing at the morsels drifting in on the tide and it’s likely that they’re snaffling much of what the sea has to offer. Here’s a small section of the water in the bay at high tide, taken on Friday evening last week, to show what I mean:

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Spot also the pair of oystercatchers watching on from the shore with a look of stoical bemusement. They tend to feed on buried shellfish patiently winkled out from the sand once the tide has started to retreat or on the early incoming tide, although oystercatchers usually feed a little lower than the high tide line and they can dig for worms on the machair – something denied to the eider whose diet is entirely sea-based. Similarly, eider – sea-going ducks – tend to dive for their food, which gulls tend not to do. Left entirely to its own devices, nature tends to look after itself, as we know from sparrowhawks and songbirds; and, more recently, from the tentative relationship between pine martens and red and grey squirrels.

So, it may not be just the scarcity of food which is keeping the eider away, although it may surely be one factor. And, after this all-too-brief show, this one eider’s away too. Perhaps they’re just hiding somewhere around the bay.

Apart from the colours of the male (and the variety: last year’s numbers included an eclipse version), eider make the most fantastic calls calling to mind a deeper, perhaps tenor, version of Kenneth Williams in full surprised mode. Colour and good humour all wrapped up in one package means that the prospect of not having them around the bay this spring, and replaced in the latter case by the manic, panicked screaming and mocking of gulls, would definitely be a loss.

UPDATE 15/4/18: Up a little earlier than usual this Sunday morning and my reward was the arrival, with no little ceremony, of a small armada of eider flying in close formation as they do, bulk notwithstanding, and landing in the bay. Closer inspection revealed five males and five females, with at least two pairs seeming to take a close interest in settling round-here-abouts.

UPDATE 19/4/18: A group of 7 males and six females cruised in on this morning’s receding tide to preen and sunbathe following the very rough southerly winds we’ve had these past few days, plus I spotted another pair drifting a little further away. So – record numbers. After all. 🙂

Here’s a group of 6 plus 6 😉 with the seventh somewhat stand-offish male omitted to focus a little better on the main group:

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Stick a brew on, Calvin (3)

It’s bottling day.

This was due originally to take place early last week but, with a small, unscheduled time lag arising from a delayed start to fermentation (note to self: do not shock the yeast when pitching; aerate the wort well; and the advised ‘cool, dark’ temperatures of 15-22 Celsius, well, it really needs to be a bit warmer than that in the cool of a Hebrides house to encourage the yeast to come out to play), and with fermentation likely to have finished a couple of days ago (at least as far as the visible evidence is concerned), I left my brew for a few more days happily lying on.

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The observant will note that, with 4ltrs of beer in the demijohn, these five bottles must be a somewhat odd size; or otherwise that something else may have happened. They are indeed 660ml bottles (ex-Innis and Gunn Original, actually) but that ought to have made six bottles, not five… Disaster struck as a result of an over-enthusiastic application of the bottle capper, post filling, which left the neck of the fifth bottle in shards across the kitchen table and a good chance of a few more in the bottle itself. As well as a rather tense capping of the sixth bottle. It’s really not worth the risk of drinking the contents, strongly tempted though I am, so I’m just back from pouring 1/6 of my hard work straight down the sink. Grrr.

I did get an early taste of the beer when bottling – flat, at this stage (carbonation happens as a result of secondary fermentation in the bottles) and certainly cloudy (it’s the colour and consistency of hefeweizen, quite naturally since I’m not using a secondary fermentor or finings), but certainly tasting of beer, being both dry, hoppy, bitter and citrusy (as expected). And alcoholic, too; although I’m not going to be measuring its actual gravity (my kit suggests it ought to turn out, eventually, around 6.3%). And how did I come to know this at this early stage? Well, after going to the trouble of sterilising the bottles, the caps, the siphon and the racking cane, the siphon has to be started somehow… which seems to defeat the object of sterilisation somewhat. Still.

All being well, the (rest of the) beer should be ready in 2-3 weeks; pending which all remaining five bottles are back in the same place in the kitchen where the demijohn stood, and underneath a towel (which has the dual purpose of keeping light out and adding some form of protection against an over-active conditioning process).

As for me, I’ll get on with the cleaning up before getting on with brewing the next batch

An Easter Bunny says hello…

… snapped through our lounge window, sunning him/herself in this morning’s sunshine while contentedly chewing on yesterday’s tender morsels.

IMG_0212a (Custom)It’s the third time I’ve seen him/her this week too, but the first time I’ve done so with a camera close at hand: the first time hopping around underneath the nest box/bird table made with love, and with pride, down at Restore, on which I think s/he was feasting on some spilled berry suet otherwise ignored by our thriving (and clearly well-fed) gang of starlings; the second time when s/he scuttled off to a hidey-hole after seeing me head for the shed for more briquettes for the fire, probably to a ‘burrow’ made by me among the somewhat haphazardly ‘stacked’ and now a little overgrown concrete blocks in the background of the photo, discarded in the renovations of our home nearly two years ago. (And which also forms cover and potential nest sites for other birds, including wrens, by the way – reason enough not to tidy it up!)

All this and plenty of grass: it seems that Bunny is living the life of Riley – at least until that white-tailed eagle comes a-calling again…

In the meantime, a Happy Easter to one and all!

Book review: Autumn

Just this side of Easter, Spring having sprung; and Calvin is writing about autumn. He must spend his hours wishing his life away.

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Our first 2018 daffodil (taken last Monday, 10am)… now joined by dozens more daffs and narcissus. This, of course, is ‘Spring’.

And this, of course, is ‘Autumn’. By which I mean Ali Smith‘s first in Seasonal, a series of a promised four stand-alone novels (‘Winter’ has indeed already arrived, a signed copy of which sits on my shelf) documenting life in modern Britain. It may well be the first ‘post-Brexit’ novel, although the publishers here have done little favour to a tale that, while written substantially after the 2016 referendum, is not about Brexit but one which brings to the fore the ever-constant themes of time (as befits a series of novels on the cyclical aspects of nature) and of love – mental, emotional, physical; between men and women; between mothers and daughters; of books and literature; of art; of ideas, and of the idea of vivacity; and of country, of what it was and what it is becoming – against the backdrop of the social and relationship changes in the UK brought before, and then by, the referendum itself.

The plot centres on Elisabeth Demand, a thirty-something art lecturer in an insecure, untenured world; and her relationship with Daniel Gluck, a centenarian and wordsmith who arrived in the UK from war-torn Europe, a neighbour whom she first gets to know as a young girl and from whom she learns many life lessons. Gluck is near death – a source of and explanation for the novel’s many dream sequences – and the symbolism of the key events in his life for the UK’s relationship with the rest of the continent on which it sits, so often uneasily, is clear. As, indeed, is the wise old man-enquiring young girl-in-search-of-a-(grand)father-figure symbolism; and it’s fair to wonder why Daniel Gluck could not, instead, have been Daniela: a wise old woman occupying the same role, and in charge of the same dynamic impetus, is definitely a character in search of a novel.

Ali Smith fans will know what to expect from ‘Autumn’ – endlessly, energetically and artistically inventive with both prose and punctuation, and with textual layout (half of me thinks she must be a nightmare to sub-edit; the other half, a dream because there can be no requirement for subbing), ‘Autumn’ consists of a playful rolling and tumbling of words off the page; parenthetical asides from author to reader; dialogue entirely without speech marks; a timeline that jumps around all over the place; characters who talk to themselves in realistically incomplete, sometimes coherent, sometimes incoherent sentences; and dream sequences that take the reader on apparently unconnected flights of fancy. All this plus the non-linear narrative won’t make this a book which will please everyone and neither, I suspect, will it turn unconverted Smith fans into proselytisers – by itself an interesting comment on the state of public discourse on the big issue of the day.

The way that Smith manages to thread into her novel her research and her reading – chiefly into pop-art and sixties London, again a contemporary theme, judging by one London hotel I’ve recently stayed in – is likely to subject her to criticisms that she has clumsily shoe-horned a ragbag of material into it. This, in turn, and owing to the deliberately short timescale of the novel (it seems to incorporate even a pun on the title of the novel of eventual fellow-shortlisted, and actual Booker winner, George Saunders) is likely to entrench criticism that the book was (too-)hastily written (and, in that context, over-hasty in its search for the tag ‘gifted’ it by the publisher). Rather, I would see this – in combination with the ways in which Smith has adroitly weaved her themes into the novel; her characterful vignettes of modern UK life and the absurdities of the interface of ordinary people with bureaucratic regulation; and of the juxtaposition of the profound and the mundane – as emblematic of the collages of Pauline Boty, the actress, model and pop-artist whose work underpins both the development of the plotlines in ‘Autumn’ and in its overall approach: a riot of colour and apparently abstract thematic disconnectedness but which nevertheless tends towards a statement, a position, a theme, or a development in time. Much, it would seem, like autumn itself.

I’m writing this review on the day ‘celebrating’ the one-year anniversary of the UK government’s triggering of the mechanism to leave the EU. The hope is that, like autumn gives way to winter, but then to spring, the events brought by the referendum will, perhaps eventually and after a painful period, bring new growth and new life; the fear is that, as cyclical as these things are, this may instead lead to a return of the UK to its time of Empire, a retreat into the past in an era when the problems of our time can only be resolved by coming together. Either way – and just as how ‘Autumn’ draws to an end on an unexpectedly positive note – we can take comfort in taking the long-term view: that things are never constant and subject always to change, however difficult and full of foreboding they might look in the short-term. Time is, as Smith herself might have put it, timeless.

The Aurora – probably an unpopular view…

Most readers will probably know that the aurora was very visible over Scotland last night, including over Uist. This was the second time I have seen it, the first being a dozen years ago in Perth, when I got a glimpse of the typical ‘curtain being waved’ manifestation. Last night, I was alerted by Andy Stables’s Twitter, posting of an ‘extreme’ substorm underway, and dashed outside to catch a view of ‘STEVE’, the oddly-named aurora-like effect showing to the west as a ghostly, pale white, shape-shifting pillar, standing at 60 degrees to the horizon and looking something like an inverted horse’s tail, and well captured by Bob Moss from his garden on Skye.

Repeated trips outside later in the evening revealed a more traditional green aurora, showing as a thin arc low in the northern sky and, from our house, clearly spanning its full width from north-west to north-east; with occasional flares and pillars. This was of such a brightness that it was even visible from inside the house (with all the lights out!) – though clearly better outside, in context and with some association with the elements.

It wasn’t as visible as this lovely example (from further north) of the aurora set against the stones at Calanais on Lewis, or this, from Barra (from further south) but the cameras here are – quite correctly – letting a lot more light into the exposure, brightening the image and, therefore, also brightening the aurora. Here, in stark comparison, is my best effort, taken at 0107 on my handheld pocket camera, with the ISO cranked up as far as it will go (3200 – oooh!):

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Hmm. (For the full experience, you might need to be in a darkened room, too.) That’s the bright lights of Balivanich to the right and the bright star in the top left corner is – I think – Capella in the Auriga constellation.

Clearly, the picture is not as ‘good’ as others; but, arguably, it is ‘fairer’ in that the relatively low ISO captures a better representation of the reality, of what the naked eye could actually see of the aurora at that point. It is – and here’s the probably unpopular bit of my view – somewhat uninteresting since it is not as good in real life as you can see on the internet. Clearly, photographs don’t lie – they can’t capture what is not there – but, equally clearly, they can misrepresent when they let so much light into the camera to capture an image which the human eye, because of its own limitations, struggles to see in as much detail. I can’t imagine a better night to see the aurora – an ‘extreme’ sub-storm, no clouds and a cold, late winter night offering apparently clear light (though today, which offers dreamily cloudless skies and a beautiful view for those on the morning flight, which has just gone over my head on its way into Balivanich, is a little hazy to the north and it may well have been the same last night). And, of course, there is no structure in my image from which to capture some foreground interest.

Yet, if this is as good as it gets, then people may well be better off viewing pictures of the aurora than chasing it. Still beautiful, and offering a perfect arc across the sky, but not as powerfully majestic as you might think and, therefore, somewhat underwhelming. A natural wonder that can’t fail to stir the emotions, but, perhaps, only more memorable in the human eye than a rainbow as a result of its rarity. That’s obviously not a view that will go down well with Visit Scotland, but better to be prepared for the reality, I think, than to be disappointed. Naturally, further into the Arctic Circle, where the storm’s strength will be better felt, the aurora will be stronger too and better viewable than the rather faint, but nevertheless obvious, green smudge on the sky that I saw last night. I could of course be entirely wrong – and that, for whatever reason, this was not as good as it gets.

Other than the aurora, it was, however, a wonderful night to be outside: the complete absence of cloud, coupled with the night being clear, and cold, as well as the lack of light pollution on Uist, meant that so many stars were visible that it was difficult to pick out even some of the major constellations; the plethora of stars putting on a uni-colour show that was, otherwise, as good and as absorbing of self as any firework display. I also saw two shooting stars (though I didn’t wish on them, obviously). If the lack of cloud cover continues, I’ll be out again tonight to take in all that breathtaking beauty, aurora or not.

‘STEVE’ was something else, though.