A tale of two birds

My favourite armchair is located adjacent to our east-facing lounge window, from where I can look out over the bay at Kilaulay just about thirty metres to my right and observe the coming and going of the tides, the constantly changing colours of the water and the sky, the view across the Eabhal on North Uist, up to the mountains of Harris (on a good day) and across to McLeod’s Tables and the Cuillins on Skye. As well as the ups and downs of the lives of the bird population – a variety of shore birds, largely, as well as a variety of farmland birds and our ever-present, and thriving, gang of starlings.

Treating myself to a morning on Twitter, as a result of an attack of the lurgy (a touch of Australian Flu, undoubtedly) getting on top of my other plans, I became aware at the edge of my vision of a large bird making steady, slightly laboured, progress southerly down the bay, level with my eyeline sitting down. Glancing up, and taking in the gull which was tracking it at a somewhat respectful distance, my first thought was ‘Oh, grey heron’, before I became aware of its reddish-brown colour… and then, as the chills ran down my spine and my eyes opened wider (probably my mouth also fell open, too, although I couldn’t comment), I became aware of the mightily powerful hooked beak at the front end, and then the white tail feathers at the back as it disappeared from my view, me looking backwards over my shoulder. Not a heron, then. We do get regular sightings both of buzzards and also hen harriers but this was clearly much, much bigger. White-tailed eagle, surely. Almost dropping the laptop as I leapt out of my seat, I dashed through the house to the bedroom, flinging open the window (and paying suitably scant attention to Aussie Flu) to get a better view… but nothing. It had gone. The rest of the local bird life continued without a great deal of bother – itself something of a marker since white-tails are largely, though not exclusively, birds of carrion rather than hunters of live prey. My look at it had probably totalled little more than a second, of which the first 0.25 was spent thinking it was a heron (and thus no time for photos, though my camera is usually on the ledge beside my binoculars, and my RSPB Handbook, specifically to help with bird ID).

Amateur birder that I am, I tried to recall exactly what I’d seen as well as the scene itself – recognising that sometimes my assessments and judgments are formed by what I have seen, and sometimes the reverse. But I’m fairly sure of what I saw: and, luckily for me, the Outer Hebrides birds website records an adult white-tail this morning at Baleshare, a little to the north of here as the eagle flies. So I’m taking that as confirmation.

It’s the first white-tail I’ve seen here in Ardivachar – though I know that there are white-tails and golden eagles further south on South Uist, with the hills and terrain being territorially more suited to both, although white-tails are also happy around farmland and, of course, the coast since fish is a major part of their diet. I’ve seen a white-tail before – both at a bird of prey demonstration (though static that day) and also from the little boat heading out of Portree harbour on Skye (though it was the ‘Lady B’ back in 2008), where the birds nest on the cliffs just to the south of the town. But that time – when a gull was also paying close attention – there was a very high chance of seeing one (and there was a bonus sighting not only of Sammy the Seal but harbour dolphins that day, too); this time, my sighting of this most majestic of birds – the UK’s largest bird of prey, with a massive 2m wing span – was in the absolute wild. Just for a second, or so.

A couple of hours later, I’m watching from the same spot (still hoping my white-tail would return) some oystercatchers and a few black-headed gulls, as well as starlings and redwings, poking about for worms on the grassy strip between the end of our garden and the shoreline, the tide being in retreat. It’s unusual to see shore birds do this except at this time of year and I don’t know whether it’s because food supplies are scarce at this time or whether they are looking for extra nutrients ahead of the breeding season. Probably the former. Noticing that one of our little population of redwings – a thrush-like migratory bird and winter visitor from northern Europe which is unusual in that it tends to move around rather than migrate to and from a particular spot – was scattering around the top of the picnic table, I popped out with a little extra help (some berry-flavoured suet) when I noticed one of its brothers lying on the thin strip of concrete path that runs around the house; quite dead, and recently so. Given its location, it must have fallen dead from a perch on the roof or chimney, perhaps succumbing to the winter cold (although it looked in good condition); or, alternatively, it might have been driven, sparked by fear and panic, into the window, a fate of many birds which break their necks on contact with the glass (although there was no tell-tale mark on the glass itself).

What to do? It had no BTO ring, so there was nothing formal to report, leaving the two choices of scooping it up and putting it in the dustbin; or returning it to the ground, perhaps a little softer than the unforgiving concrete on which I had found it. Of course, I chose the latter, placing it on the croft land outside the house where the energies that had given it such vitality in life could, in death, give nourishment to something else in the complex food chain. Nature is self-sustaining (when not interfered with by humans, that is) and a noble death for any animal is perhaps that it may then subsequently play it role and take its place in nourishing what comes after it. Including humans too, I might venture.

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Two photos to bookend the day

Firstly, this morning’s sunrise (yes, dear reader: I do occasionally manage to catch one) was spectacular: this was taken at 08:34 when the orange colours were at their most intense, contrasting with the silhouetted infrastructure and the foothills of Thacla, looking south-east from our lounge window:

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Sunrise was at 09:07 for us, although the sun didn’t poke its head above Thacla for another 25 minutes or so after that (just before it did, there was the most gorgeous light blues and silvers and mid greys of the sky and clouds, with the oranges having faded to the most gentle of lemons – given my title here, that one will have to wait a bit longer to see the light of day…). And the silence being broken by the whistled song of a single blackbird (to confirm the impression I had of a few posts ago, I have seen a couple of blackbirds skittering around our land, one – a young male, brown at the front end and black at the back – taking a lengthy rest on the bottom bar of our fence just yesterday).

After all this natural drama, an exciting day of pensions followed, competing towards the end with my view from the west-facing office window, looking out over the croft buildings and houses of our neighbours, this one (actually a composite of two snaps) looking south-west and west taken at 16:22 and with the buildings deliberately under-exposed to highlight the colours in the sky:

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As early in January as this, it’s good to see light in the western sky stretching out well after five o’clock, too. The year is on the move and seeing (and hearing) simple evidence of that is both heartening and refreshing to the soul.

A little mood indigo at the Solstice

Winter Solstice indigo

And the close of daylight on the shortest day; the sun having set behind the main roof of the house on the right and calmly reflecting gentle pink skies a little further south; and a first quarter moon rising bright in the clear sky.

We’ve not had a lot of days like this these last few months, and sunrise this morning saw a familiar pattern: grey skies and little warmth in the sky – albeit with no wind and, therefore, no cold. But the weather slowly improved as the day passed and the clouds lifted, before clearing to the south and west, giving a fireglow sunset of colour and gentle drama.

This is my view from the office – here, south and west with the sun on this day setting several points to the south of west. And, recently, it’s a view that I have been taking in a lot – though I’m not absolutely complaining 🙂 – except with a little less to detain my interest than here, on the day with the longest night.

PS 22 December: As if to emphasise the message that this is the turning of the seasons, I heard a songbird this morning, just after sunrise. Not one of our usual gang of starlings chattering away as they do at sunrise and sunset, but a single bird calling, a little like the song of a blackbird, although that would be unlikely since we don’t see too many of them; or perhaps a redwing – we have plenty of them although its song is rare, so that’s unlikely too. But, whatever it was, its song was pretty, and very welcome at this darkest time of the year. Not quite Hardy’s Darkling Thrush but somewhat in the same vein, at least.

By the way, on blackbirds, see here for evidence that blackbirds, in contrast to the prevailing view that they’re happy to be more or less home birds, do indeed get about enough to need a CalMac island-hopping ticket (without tender, of course).

Bosnia after the ICTY

I write as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia is getting underway with its decision on the charges of genocide against Ratko Mladić (and just now sentenced to life imprisonment). The decision can be followed in many places, among them the live blog being run by Balkan Insight, whose coverage of the issues raised in and by the war has been sharp and whose pre-verdict summary of Mladić’s actions is well worth a read for background. (As, indeed, is its work in uncovering the interest in the countries of the region of the fascist right.)

Whatever his level of guilt in terms of the charges, Mladić has used the trial as a platform from which to justify his actions as ‘defender of the Serbs’, a narrative shaped by nationalist sentiment and long-rooted victim culture. In particular, his defence has been based on the ‘Islamic Declaration‘ of Alija Izetbegović, President of Bosnia before and during the war (and also a nationalist, imprisoned as such for activities during the 1980s), essentially as a plan to subject Serbs living in Bosnia to Muslim domination. This argument was, by the way, given short shrift in Allan Little and Laura Silber’s ‘Death of Yugoslavia’, where it is described as a ‘work of scholarship, not politics, intended to promote philosophical discourse among Muslims’ (p. 208, 1996 edition). We might also see its re-publication as part of the balance of fear between the different nationalisms during the descent into war, as well as self-assertion against plans to dismember and cantonise Bosnia, determined a few months later at KaraÄ‘orÄ‘evo by Milošević and TuÄ‘man but around which nationalist fires were already being stoked.

Mladić is responsible for his actions and needs to face justice (his pathetic attempts thus far this morning to disrupt the verdict are symbolic of fear and a refusal to own up to his actions – products, too, in their own way of nationalism).

But what of Bosnia and Herzegovina subsequently? The ICTY is due to pack up its work (this month), after 24 years, and hand over responsibility for the remaining cases, and appeals, to the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals, the UN body to handle the tribunals both for Rwanda and former Yugoslavia at the completion of their mandates had finished. As has been pointed out, the ICTY has never been able to overcome domestic hostility to trying war criminals who are held, as Mladić is, as heroes; and neither has it been able to reach out victims to allow them to forget the past – disclaimer: I am Associate Editor of the journal linked here). Meanwhile, Bosnia and Herzegovina knows no peace: political leaders in Republika Srpska regularly hold out the prospects of an independence referendum; a lack of trust and dislocation disrupts the work of the country’s institutions, denying progress; and lack of economic growth leads to unemployment and poverty, an environment which breeds brooding and blaming.

It may be that a post-apartheid style Truth and Reconciliation Commission may have helped heal the tragic wounds of war, cleansing and dislocation of communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. At this distance, clearly we’ll never know, although the internationally-driven legitimising of separate entities under the Dayton Accords would not have helped; equally, the extent of community division may have prevented such a Commission from functioning effectively. The ways in which the war has been progressed since 1996, in a time of so-called peace and in a thousand examples of hatred, are not encouraging that such a thing would have been successful. More than twenty years after the war – compare relations between Germany and France in 1965; or compare the reactions of Germans cleansed from territories lost as a result of the re-drawing of the borders of post-war Poland – Bosnia remains divided and the time for such a Commission is long gone. Nevertheless, the nationalisms with which it should have been tasked and with which it might have dealt remain extant, brooding and disruptive. They still need to be tackled, as does the unemployment, poverty and (social) exclusion which allow them to rumble and fester. The ways in which nationalisms drive deep-rooted hatreds and division between peoples means that, as with the price of peace, the only defence against nationalisms continues to be eternal vigilance.

Books-to-read shelf

Looking just about as packed as it ever has (am a pretty slow reader and don’t tend to read more than one book at once), although it’s pleasingly representative of the stuff I usually read. Readers’ recommendations as to what I should pick off the shelf next are welcome!

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Actually, at least one of these is well underway – I’m halfway through Ted Gioia’s ‘The History of Jazz‘ (2nd Ed), which was my bedside read of choice while in Perth, which accounts for why progress on this has been slower than usual. Selling the flat means that it has now managed to find its way here to the islands, and I have recently picked it up again. I’ve reached the part immediately after the rise of bop to replace big band swing, with the new modern jazz movement at the start of the 1950s looking to build on bop while building something new coincidental with the resource-instituted break-up of the big bands.

As I found before, this is a remarkably easy book to put down and pick up again, with just a casual reminder of the prevailing subject matter. Each chapter takes a look at a particular movement within jazz, looking successively at the key bands, line-ups and essential listening by each (the Third Edition should definitely include some CDs…). It’s exhaustively researched and includes plenty of colour but the writing is balanced and not judgmental in spite the strong association between jazz and substance abuse and, despite being an enthusiast, Gioia’s metre is never off-putting to the casual reader.

What continues to strike me is that, in the UK, we’re just celebrating 40 years of punk – well, 1976 was the real 40th anniversary, but this year saw the release of ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’, the hook on which Marc Riley and Rob Hughes have built their hugely entertaining A to Z of Punk series, now available as a podcast. Casting back 40 years from punk and the biggest draw in popular music in 1936/37 was Benny Goodman. I’ll not hear a word against Benny Goodman – anyone building a career in popular music based on playing the clarinet and who wears glasses is alright with me, for one thing; and, for another, his band was racially integrated in an era marked by segregation: his quartet featured Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton alongside Goodman and Krupa; and his big band featured many charts, and most of the popular ones, arranged by Fletcher Henderson. Benny Goodman was not playing music for middle class cardigan wearers in their 50s; at the height of his fame, and still in his late twenties himself, he was playing for thrill-seeking teenagers.

Sonically speaking, Goodman’s is a world away from punk from which, 40 years on in turn, The Damned’s ‘New Rose‘ still sounds both fresh and vital to me (a tribute to the production of Nick Lowe, which knocked the band out at the time). Rat Scabies, fag in mouth, clattering out that rhythm on his drumkit; Brian James’s buzzsaw guitar; the whole coming together with an explosive energy – still blows me away in a heartbeat of recognition. I’m perhaps not as well placed to others to judge the worth of ‘New Rose’ (among others) in a contemporary setting (age being somewhat against me) but, sonically, I can’t hear that same great leap forwards now as there was between Goodman and the Damned. And that’s because it clearly isn’t there.

The rupture that the arrival of rock’n’roll represented is key, of course (though – arguments aside as to the real originators of rock’n’roll – there was a stylistic link between the swing era and Bill Haley and the Comets, coming eighteen years after Goodman, and thus more or less the mid-point between swing and punk). Equally important is the electrification of the guitar and its amplification; but Gioia continually points to changes in popular taste and in changing economic circumstances defining what musicians do and that’s also true. Gioia is referring more to the shifts within various parts of the jazz scene – but it’s true today too in terms of fragmentation within modern popular music into genres (where once jazz gave birth to trad, swing, bop and modern; electronic dance music gave birth to drum and bass, jungle, dubstep and grime). Equally, the ending of prohibition gave rise to the energy and the opportunity for big bands like Goodman’s to function, however briefly; today, it’s reality TV and the ubiquity of Simon Cowell which gives rise to the narrowly stylised vocal warblings and pyrotechnics on which modern wannabes build their own stardoms.

Apart from the mistaken call on many bands of the punk era to reunite – on which issue John Lydon has (still) the most appropriate comment – the longevity of many music careers today would have surprised Goodman and the Sex Pistols alike (Goodman had one triumphant tour and a major concert at Carnegie Hall (while clearly continuing for a longer while albeit much less influentially); the Pistols had a number of gigs and one album). It surprises me, too – bands were never supposed to last more than a couple of years or albums, by which time we had all moved on to something new and they should have retired; and the notion of one man (Springsteen, to pick another from my to-read shelf) in his late 60s still appealing to many people in their 20s – take a look at attendance at his gigs, and I don’t just mean Glastonbury (or the 48 year-old Dave Grohl, to pick a more contemporary example) – would have shocked (and clearly disappointed) the 14 year-old me.

To return to Gioia’s assertion of music directions being the product of changes in circumstances and in taste, the substantial lack of a new sonic direction for music in first the twenty years, and then the forty years, after 1977 – while accepting that exponential leaps in music can’t continue to keep happening – seems to indicate that punk in its energies and music form was doing something right. Bands shouldn’t last for ever and there should be a deal of turnover, but a shared, collective vision on what popular music should be about, based on a DIY mentality and an energetic assertion of the emotional power of popular music, certainly ought.

280 characters – making a good thing bad?

My Twitter timeline this morning regularly features tweets agonising over Twitter’s decision yesterday to expand its ‘trial’ of 280 characters, applied a couple of weeks ago to some tweeters, to all users (among the best examples here and here. Oh, and here. As well as a delightful example of the scope afforded by the new limits here.). I guess that means the trial has been adjudged a success and Aliza Rozen, a Product Manager at Twitter, has produced some interesting data-based evidence on this. (Rozen also confesses that the reason for the expansion is that Twitter is hoping to expand use of the platform by dealing with the frustrations of tweets being abandoned because of the limit – so, at heart, it is of course all about the numbers.)

I’m a low-level, though growing, user of Twitter, and one the things that always put me off joining much earlier than I did (and that a full seven years ago), as a committed longform writer, was indeed the 140-character limit. However, I quickly came to appreciate that one of the better features of the limit was the imposed requirement for brevity and that a well-crafted tweet was, as a result, a thing of beauty. The original reason why 140 characters was selected was because it fitted within the 160 allowed by SMS plus enough for the user-name. Well, technology advances and SMS no longer require messages to be split so why should tweets? And, alightly unnervingly, we have already been moving in this direction for some time with Twitter relaxing the limit last year as regards quotes, polls, videos and images.

The downside of the character limit was that many simply abandoned (or were creative with…) spelling (and grammar) in order to force thoughts to fit within the limit, rather than better ordering them in the first place. Frequently, this made tweets hard to read but the better tweets, the ones written by those with faster and more ready wit, were all the more appreciated as a result. The limit also led to the practice of getting around the limit by ‘threading’ thoughts together; these can also be difficult to read where people simply write up to the character limit in each tweet in the thread rather than ordering their thoughts to a single one per tweet. A microblog should do exactly what it says on the tin: longform blogging is better done on other platforms (like this one!).

Doubling the length to 280 characters provides a lot of space (and takes up a lot of space on the screen). Such tweets are also harder to read quickly and, when Twitter users follow hundreds and thousands of others, this greater on-screen space will lead to a lot of interesting and valid thoughts being simply lost in cyberspace as a result of overload. But, ’twas ever thus. The difficulty is also that the character limit imposes a pressure of its own in both directions – not only to reduce to fit the limit, but also to expand thoughts up to the limit where the tweets appear to be ‘too’ short. @realdonaldtrump (I don’t follow – he crops up on my timeline enough as it is) is definitely guilty of this and the existing linguistic and of course other horrors of the Donald in 140 characters doesn’t bear thinking about when he catches on to the new limit. One of the more useful aphorisms in life is that less is definitely more.

People are likely to adjust quite quickly to the new expanded limit and behaviour will normalise, as Rozen expects. Some users will make full use of the greater verbosity now allowed (and still look for more); while the faithful will insist on sticking to 140 characters (some client apps already exist in this area, and some are likely to be re-written to provide a countdown to 140). Others are likely to find some ground in the middle.

Twitter’s evidence suggests that the vast majority of tweets are likely to stay within the lower limit. I really hope that turns out to be the case. 280 characters is, comparatively for the Twitter platform, a significant expansion and I really hope that this doesn’t lead to the loss of the well-crafted, pithy tweets that the lower limit encouraged, while giving people a little more room to order their thoughts when these are simply too complex to fit within 140 characters. Some words on this at Twitter’s third-quarter results call (link above) are reassuring. And abuse can always, of course, be dealt with promptly with judicious use of the ‘unfollow’ button.

But please, Twitter: no further character expansions. And please abandon any remaining thoughts of 10,000 character tweets.

Learning GĂ idhlig: a small PS

While I was drafting my post yesterday, a lengthy defence of the use of GĂ idhlig was simultaneously being prepared by Pavel Iosad, a linguistics lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, and in response to a piece by Magnus Linklater in Monday’s Times. If I had been aware of it a few hours earlier, I would have linked to it – but the beauty of Twitter is that I came across it at all.

Iosad has already done an extensive job deconstructing Linklater’s arguments and I’m not going to have another bash at it other than to observe that, from Iosad’s quotes, the sophistication of Linklater’s arguments seemed to run no higher than the 18C establishment belief that people speaking minority languages are likely to be serial plotters. (Besides, Linklater’s contribution is behind the Times‘s firewall and The Digger and his cronies get neither my money nor my data.)

From the perspective of his New Town residence, I suspect Linklater has (notwithstanding his Orcadian roots) essentially little desire to understand why people persist with minority languages. Yet it is another apparently metropolitan journalist, Madeleine Bunting, who has the soundest arguments I’ve ever read about the importance of GĂ idhlig: pp. 220-227 of Love of Country offer a clear defence of the importance of language not just in preserving another way of seeing the world but in linking people directly with their places of habitation: words coming from the skills required to survive and thrive in harsh circumstances; a range of colour descriptors which fine-tune what is found in a particular locality; and concepts which are not fully translateable into other languages but by which people understand and emphasise their relationships: a view of the land as community-owned rather than subject to an alien system of individual property rights.

There may (or actually there may not) be fifty words for snow but, however many there are, while many of them may make little sense to townies, such a range exists to give meaning to those living in a place and who need to understand the nuances. We’re all the richer for that diversity – as long as we choose to engage with it, that is. Bunting has spent time out here on the Western Isles specifically to understand the significance of the use of GĂ idhlig; and that is the crucial difference. And, conversely, we’re all the poorer when opinion-formers make ill-informed, judgmental attempts to put minority languages back in the box; and, indeed, speakers of minority languages may regard that as oppressive. When even the World Economic Forum is hosting a debate on the importance of learning ‘dialect’ (ouch) rather than a ‘global language’, the need for sound policies to ensure that minority languages may flourish and that people do not feel uncomfortable for speaking their language has never been clearer.

Learning the GĂ idhlig

Saturday saw me and around a dozen others embark on the first of five Saturday morning lessons in GĂ idhlig, run by the estimable Ceòlas organisation. This is not, I’m afraid to report, my first attempt to learn some GĂ idhlig, having attended courses last year in which, despite the best attempts of a notable and patient teacher, aided by a few catch-up viewings of BBC Alba’s 1990s Speaking Our Language, I must confess that little sank in long-term (practise does make perfect and, of course, the reverse is also true). Indeed, for most of us present, this was at least a second go.

The Western Isles generally is a stronghold of the language, and we learned that Uist is currently regarded as holding the gold standard for how to speak it properly (like anywhere else, GĂ idhlig has dialects and different accents). With some 52% of the population of the islands still using it as a native language, you can hear GĂ idhlig spoken just about everywhere other, of course, than where you are yourself: islanders use it with each other but tend to switch to English if they don’t know who you are (there is little that is sinister about this; it comes more from a desire not to cause embarrassment). So, chances to practise can be fairly rare unless you are assertive; and, like learning any other language, while knowing what to ask is one thing, understanding the reply that you get is another thing entirely. Our teacher this week, Liam, a young US-Canadian probably in his late 20s, arrived in Scotland in 2008, finding his way to the islands sometime later, learned GĂ idhlig by immersion and is profoundly knowledgeable about the language and about its scholarship. I can see the attraction: with immersion, you don’t get to rely on your English or have others rely on it for you – and sink or swim is always a good way of learning how to do more than just keep your head above the water.

The difficulties of learning any language vary from one to another. The GĂ idhlig alphabet has only 18 letters (no ‘j’, no ‘k’, no ‘q’ and nothing beyond a ‘u’), leading to a variety of interesting ways to combine different consonants; and, although it uses the Latin alphabet, it seems best not to rely on familiarities for how they should sound but to see them in their own context. GĂ idhlig has a verb-subject-object word order, in contrast to the English (and French) subject-verb-object; and, while it shares with a lot of European languages both cases and nouns being either masculine or feminine, this is not predictable (‘morning’ (madainn) and ‘night’ (oidhche) are feminine whereas ‘afternoon’/’evening’ (feasgar) is masculine; whereas in French ‘matin’, ‘jour’ and ‘soir’ are all masculine while ‘nuit’ is feminine). Beware of false friends. Indeed, my strategy this time around is to try and learn how phrases sound and learn them by rote, not to try and learn them by reading them out. And don’t get me started on the complexities of lenition.

After five weeks I’ll be hoping that a few more words and phrases stick than asking people what their names are and how they are; and ‘Turned out windy again’. Indeed, they already have, with two more ways to ask ‘how are you’ than the standard, one of which translates as ‘how’s your trim?’ a phrase originating in seafaring which ought (and may well do) have some localised English equivalents (English does of course have an expression about dis/liking the cut of someone’s jib). Perhaps there is indeed more in common than divides us.

Repairing to the Polochar Inn afterwards for a spot of lunch, the young woman who served us was (of course) bilingual and happy to reward our attempts to use our GĂ idhlig. She grew up largely speaking English to her mum (who was from Edinburgh) and largely GĂ idhlig to her father (an islander); and was learning French and hoping to study Italian. Much depends on the individual, of course – but what a start in learning, and in understanding others, comes when you grow up in the home with two ways of asking others what they know, and of intrepreting their answers.

Book review: Midwinter Break

I read Cal, Bernard MacLaverty‘s second novel, when it emerged back in 1983 drawn by the title of the work and the early literary development of an understanding of what Pete McCarthy later came to describe as the philosophy of never passing a bar which has your name on it (itself a rare, but not completely abstract, event for me; the inn in the wonderfully-named Perthshire village of Calvine having passed up the opportunity, calling itself the Struan Arms instead – something missed there, I feel).

Back then, I immediately went on and picked up Lamb, MacLaverty’s similarly sparsely-titled debut work from 1980, and enjoyed the staccato, if somewhat bleak, prose. But there’s not been a lot to go on since – Midwinter Break, released in August this year, is MacLaverty’s first novel for 16 years and only his fourth in a career spanning 35 years (there have also been short stories). Both Lamb and Cal were short novels, and Midwinter Break‘s trees-cut-down-per-volume-sold ratio is also going to be pretty low.

MacLaverty’s tale follows Stella and Gerry, a retired couple from Belfast now exiled in Glasgow, taking a long weekend in Amsterdam. From the outset, the setting is clear: a couple who, while still rubbing along together pretty well, nevertheless find habits and foibles in the other grating and a source of grit in the gearbox of the relationship. For Stella, it is Gerry’s excessive whiskey drinking and his continual bantering and search for humour; for Gerry, it is Stella’s contrasting sense of propriety, organisation and orderliness, perhaps, stemming from her religious faith which plays a major part in the development of the novel and about which Gerry is also notably, and openly, sceptical. They bicker; but they also laugh and share closeness and intimacy. They talk but, substantially, only about superficial things. In short, they are absolutely normal.

As MacLaverty develops his theme, it becomes clear that this midwinter break could see a break in their relationship. Or, just perhaps, it could also see a break in the routine to which they have become accustomed and which might, alternatively, see each of them re-commit to the relationship. This is not just a novel about how people grow old together and stay together – Stella and Gerry have a shared past which gives them a strong bond and foundation – but how even long, and strong, relationships require to be refreshed if they are to remain that way.

Told alternately by following each character on their travels through Amsterdam and then extensively through dialogue in their scenes together, and with other characters being largely incidental, MacLaverty forces a relentless focus on the two protagonists. This is not implemented in a claustrophobic way but in one which heightens the reader’s awareness of the state of their relationship and maximises our sympathy for each. MacLaverty draws gentle, extremely sensitive and well-rounded portraits of both Gerry and Stella, presenting each of them in an even, non-judgmental way. To accomplish that, he needs to be able to write women characters and it is to his credit as an author that Stella in particular has real voice and resonance. The dialogue is convincingly accurate, as it needs to be given its importance to the structure of the novel, with the exception of a couple of places in which Stella’s annoyance at Gerry’s banter was less apparent than it ought to have been given her subsequent reactions.

This is a slow-paced novel and some readers will find its gentle tone and lack of action – essentially an ordinary, older couple pottering around a foreign city looking for inspiration – too gentle and too one-paced. Gerry and Stella do not seek to confront a consciously failing relationship by argumentatively thrashing things out in an anonymous hotel room; their being in Amsterdam is not to undertake a ‘fix or bust’ resolution although it is clear that at least one of them is grasping for a better outcome. This is real life, in which the minutiae of characters successfully making their way through their day are allowed to take centre stage.

In holding up successful long-term relationships as ones in which people consciously take the steps to (re-)learn to communicate properly, and with honesty, MacLaverty has done a favour to all of us still looking for that key. There might be nothing particularly new in that – but, it seems, such a lesson is in need of being continually re-learned.