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.

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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 Gàidhlig: a small PS

While I was drafting my post yesterday, a lengthy defence of the use of Gàidhlig 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 Gàidhlig: 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 Gàidhlig; 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 Gàidhlig

Saturday saw me and around a dozen others embark on the first of five Saturday morning lessons in Gàidhlig, run by the estimable Ceòlas organisation. This is not, I’m afraid to report, my first attempt to learn some Gàidhlig, 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, Gàidhlig has dialects and different accents). With some 52% of the population of the islands still using it as a native language, you can hear Gàidhlig 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 Gàidhlig 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 Gàidhlig 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. Gàidhlig 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 Gàidhlig. She grew up largely speaking English to her mum (who was from Edinburgh) and largely Gàidhlig 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.

As dusk falls

I’ve recently been in Mazury, Poland’s lake district, where I’ve been helping my partner pack up her house following its sale (this is the sixth house move I’ve been involved with in little more than six years, a process of now rapidly-diminishing returns!).

The weather was mostly damp and cool, although autumn is well underway and the colours of the trees, even against a grey sky with little sunshine to lighten, are beautiful. My subject here is a small lake at Wilkasy, near Gizycko (which Germans know as Lötzen: Wilkasy has a few signs advertising rooms, with Zimmer Frei alongside the Polish Pokoje), unusually not connected by waterways to other lakes and thus with few tourist yachts and, with a shoreline dominated by swamp and mud, it is not so popular with wild swimmers either. Those in the know tell me that it is, therefore, great for fishing and there are a few small boats moored at the side of the lake. As winter sets in, and ice covers the lake sufficient to walk on, they will be frozen in, marking time until the spring thaw.

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Here, looking north, the desolation of the derelict, sunken, wooden landing stage, set against the background of the messy, untidy curve of the reed beds, the soft tone greys providing an absence rather than the presence of colour, other than the yellow hint of a set sun reflected in the water, delivers a lonely scene of a contrastingly calm stillness. To complete the picture, a rook in the forest on the far shore utters a few of its deep, evisceral KARK! calls, half-warning, half-assertive of self, as it settled into its night’s roost.

As for the soundtrack, a soft piano would seem to suit – perhaps, given the picture, the sonorous calls of Satie’s Les Trois Gymnopédies, or, to lighten the mood a little, some soft jazz. All I can think of, however, is Phil Collins and In The Air Tonight – not because it fits the particular mood I have been painting, or because I particularly like the song, but because RadioZET, our listening station of choice when in Poland, has, amongst a mix of popular Polish artists and today’s auto-tuned stars, a continuing and deeply obsessive fixation with 1980s power ballads. Think Tina Turner denying that we need another hero while Bonnie Tyler is continuing to hold out for one; think Foreigner wanting to know what love is, as well as Journey admonishing us not to stop believing (though that one also has a more recent connotation of which I’d perhaps rather not be reminded now!), alongside all the other US bands badged under what we used to know as AOR (adult-oriented rock); think the soundtracks to Footloose and Dirty Dancing. And, on this visit, think Phil Collins feeling ‘it’ coming in the air tonight. No fewer than four times in less than one week, that I am aware of, and when the radio tends only to be on for less than an hour at a time, is a little bit much to take. The 1980s, punk energies abandoned and the old guard, initially hiding behind the settee as a riot of anarchic popular vandalism took over at least the music press, starting to be confident enough to reassert itself, was (and with a few honourable exceptions) really the decade that popular music forgot. And don’t get me started on Rod Stewart, after all these years, asking us (afresh) if we think he’s sexy. But, after all, perhaps RadioZET is just en vogue. Nightmare thought.

Back to packing up stuff, I think. In a different room where my music folder might, if I’m lucky, provide me with a few new, more acceptable earworms.

Book Review: Love of Country

Read while contemplating, and then completing, my final move to South Uist, I enjoyed this quite wonderful book immensely. Madeleine Bunting has used her journalistic skills of enquiry to weave together threads of geography, history, philosophy, literature and politics, and other familiar themes of spirituality, identity and migration from her years on The Guardian, into a sharply-focused, cohesive analysis of place and home.

Bunting’s journey across the Hebrides was inspired by family holidays as a child in the north of Scotland, and then as an adult with her own family in the north-west with a perspective on the Hebrides. Never having lived here, but always having felt the pull of the north-west (I can describe a similar experience standing in Falkirk one October/November Sunday morning, weekend school delegates hard at work in groups, staring at the heather to the north in full blaze in the morning sun, and wondering just how much further north there actually was), this is, nevertheless, no superficial, dry, desk-based analysis. On her journey, with separate chapters on various stopping-off points on her trip north-west, Bunting is prepared to get her hands fully dirty: camping; staying in hostels; visiting Corryvreckan (the ferocious whirlpool off Jura in which Orwell capsized); yomping across seven miles of moorland to camp at Barnhill, where Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four; and taking spray-soaked, physically uncomfortable trips on small boats to St. Kilda and the Flannan Isles. This hands-on, elemental approach has allowed Bunting to write a warm, introspective, intimate and accurate portrait of the Hebrides in which her own spirit of inquiry and empathy allows her to get into the soul of the place and feel it as home.

There are a few quibbles: the use of ‘Gaelic’, when ‘Gàidhlig’ is surely to be preferred, seems a rather odd choice in a discussion on place, especially when Bunting takes such effort to get other place names, and descriptors, right (for example using Leòdhasaich, for the inhabitants of Lewis) and when she clearly understands the vital importance of the language to convey concepts when English, as rich as it is, is simply insufficient to describing the crucial attachment between people and land. South Uist, my own home, appears rather fleetingly (though not ungenerously) which, given it is the largest community buy-out thus far, seems something of a lacuna in a book with takes a strong look at issues of land ownership. The final chapter, at journey’s end, drifts somewhat unsatisfyingly, repeating some of the themes of the journey thus far but without really drawing them home, like a boat holed up temporarily at a cliff face, the swell echoing and playing with the boat until its engines kick in and drive it on again (perhaps this was inevitable given the circumstances). Oh, and it’s definitely just Buzzcocks (without the definite article). But these are minor issues in a book whose sweep and whose themes and treatment are as important as this.

Part travelogue, part memoir and part historical narrative, this is an indispensable guide for anyone wanting to visit the Hebrides or understand the complexities of life lived here which no amount of ‘life on the edge’ toe-dipping could ever convey (or where camera crews go away and construct their own narrative!). Coming out here from 2013, on regular trips that coincided with the timetable for Bunting’s own research visits, this is the book I had started to dream of writing myself. I’m going to have to find another one, now; dammit.

May in Florence

Poor* Theresa May. Upstaged in her long-trailed traipse to Florence to talk substantially to the UK media and her own immediate Cabinet colleagues (no-one from the EU actually being there) about her ‘vision’ for the future, firstly by her own Foreign Secretary [firewall] and secondly, and far more importantly, in Rome the day before by Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, this was a speech whose prospective import was, as it turned out, far greater than the actual substance.

Apart from the rolling political theme of May’s evident lack of domestic authority amongst her Cabinet and her lack of judgment wrapped up in her (absent) treatment of Johnson’s own, reverse Churchillian, two-fingered salute to her, I doubt that history will be too kind on the Florence speech. Critical assessments abound already, not the least David Allen Green’s erudite Twitter feed, InFact’s own observation of May as flip-flop queen and Michel Barnier’s own measured, polite but oh-so-critical response pointing, essentially, to the all-too-evident reality gap.

Barnier is absolutely correct in observing that May’s speech needs to be turned – and urgently – into substantive negotiating points which the respective teams can tackle in the next, and subsequent, weeks. The obvious point to make is that, six months into a (maximum) two-year negotiating period for exit (which encompasses the time to secure the necessary approvals, including from the European Parliament), this is no time to be (re-)setting out a vision for the future. If the UK needs a two-year extension to the negotiating period, this is symbolic only of its own lack of preparation prior to triggering the Article 50 withdrawal process, and the absolutely shambolic domestic political process which has succeeded it. Furthermore, May’s observation that ‘throughout its membership, the United Kingdom has never totally felt at home being in the European Union’, and that the EU ‘never felt to us like an integral part of our national story’ was both rude and ignorant. What – never at home despite all the opt-outs which the EU granted the UK, on adopting the Euro, on Schengen and on the European Social Charter? Never at home despite the single market being the singular idea of Lord Cockroft, Thatcher’s own EU Commissioner? Never at home despite the maths of the referendum vote failing to provide any sort of endorsement for such a view? Personally speaking, I’ve never felt less at home in the UK in the period since the referendum – based, substantially, on the petty nationalism that has come to mark our national political discourse, bank checks on immigration status being but the most recent example. If we’d made more effort to integrate, to understand the EU’s political processes and, more so, to involve ourselves in them, such an observation might have been better founded. But, we did not and, therefore, it is not. We never even tried.

More to the critical point, we still have no strategy for Brexit, no graspable endgame. it’s not so much that the UK government isn’t levelling with people on the trade-offs that will be required to make any sort of a purse out of the sow’s ear of Brexit, it’s that – as the TUC’s statement in response correctly observes – we have no realistic negotiating strategy at all. Quite simply, we don’t know what we’re doing.

I wanted, however, to make one critical observation of my own. For a speech whose title was ‘shared history; shared challenges; shared future’, May spent an awful lot of time talking about ‘me’. The section on citizens’ rights – so critical to the lives of so many people here in the UK and in the rest of Europe, and so important to the EU’s negotiating agenda – was just 255 words long but featured the pronoun ‘I’ no fewer than nine times, and the pronoun ‘we’ no more than five (and some of those being part of May’s attempt at rhetoric). (Aside of no fewer than three references to ‘I want’, which would have got me short shrift as a child!) In the rest of the speech, May referred to herself in the first person singular no fewer than forty times. An odd thing, don’t you think, in the context of a speech whose text was ‘shared’? And in the context of seeking a deal in the best interests of the UK, not to speak of favours, with the skilled, expert, well-prepared negotiators sat on the other side of the table? Unless, of course, May was indeed using the occasion to rehearse her speech to the Tory Party Conference next month, and to support her ever-declining level of authority in her own Party. But, then again, that is really what Brexit is about, isn’t it: the Tory Party’s own attempt to settle its own internal politics regarding the UK’s relationship with the EU. Our own domestic politics – and despite the outcome of the election – has become simply subservient to the selfish interests of the Tory party whose packing of House of Commons committees is simply the most obvious symbol of the failure that our democracy has become.

* Sympathy somewhat limited, obviously.

Travelling hopefully… PS

Do not – repeat: do not – challenge the gods of fate, Calvin…

On my trip to London referred to in my post below, my Caledonian Sleeper – already detoured around the Fife coast route which meant that it was stopped in Perth station for a good additional half an hour (although, paradoxically, this was actually to allow the timetable to catch up) – was then held in Oxenholme for some considerable time (I was, mostly, asleep but it was for a couple of hours). Flooding had apparently got into some boxes of electronics and this prevented the signals from functioning. Sleeper staff eventually appeared to advise us that we were running considerably late and that we could be in London quicker by changing at Preston and then Crewe (a usual stop on the Sleeper but no longer intended for this one) as its late-running nature meant that it had been diverted on to the slow track and was therefore liable not to be in London til nearer 11 o’clock – arriving thus some three hours late.

I did as advised (I wasn’t in a rush, but slow-running trains, in my experience, only run slower): but, dear reader, passengers on late-running Caledonian Sleeper trains are entitled to a refund (of 100% of my ticket price), as we were informed by helpful staff, when journeys are disrupted (including as a result of weather events). (The link is heavily promoted on the front page of the website, something which I have always found rather odd.) Given my thoughts in my earlier post about refunds on public transport journeys: what to do now? Essential fact disclosure: Caledonian Sleeper has, since 2015, been run under a separate contract by controversial public services international conglomerate, Serco. Research shows Serco’s industrial relations – including on the Sleeper itself – to be poor; and its activities in running asylum centres have also put it under the spotlight. This might indeed, and in spite of my earlier thoughts, be the time for a little financial correction, intended as a reminder to Serco that it needs to sharpen up its act.

Furthermore… the things you hear on trains (no. 46 in an occasional series): the Virgin train I caught at Preston was unable to serve hot drinks from the onboard shop ‘as a result of the volume of passengers’. Including a 20 or so minute wait on a northern rail station before 7.30 AM it had, I thought, up to that point, been a hot cup of coffee sort of morning. Clearly Richard Branson needs to invest in a bigger kettle, or otherwise stump up the money for another 50p for the leccy meter. The jolly Scouse guard on the (Virgin) train I then caught at Crewe apologised, on arriving into London a few minutes late, stating that the train had had to pick up extra passengers. I think they meant me. Thanks for that.

Return journey fine, though 🙂

Travelling hopefully…

Monday this week found me heading back to the mainland, ahead of a trip to London on Wednesday (I like to be on time). This was not my usual trip, since high winds had prevented the Lord of the Isles from its usual dock at Mallaig on Sunday, diverting instead at the last minute to Oban, and this was the planned arrangement for Monday, too, since the winds were at least as high again. Going into Oban was a new route for me – I know Oban well (it has a good distillery with a generous tour) – but I had never before travelled into Oban from Lochboisdale and, seasoned ferry traveller that I am, and fortified early on against the swell by one of CalMac’s black pudding and fried egg rolls (and a granola fruits of the forest yoghurt, in the interests of a balanced diet of course), I was looking forward to the trip.

In particular, I was looking forward to catching a glimpse of Tobermory’s famous painted houses lining its waterfront: the route into Oban flows through the slim Sound of Mull separating Mull from the Morvern peninsula and I was anticipating being able to take a few good shots, especially with the weather clearing rapidly to blue as we entered the Sound, from a cloudy grey and misty Uist, and with increasingly good quality light. In reality, the Sound is a lot wider than it looks on the map and Tobermory’s harbour turns out to be well shielded from the channel by a rocky outcrop: distracted also by a church on the Morvern side located typically remotely, i.e. with no obvious access, I didn’t see the waterfront until the very last moment and then only in retrospect, and for literally a few seconds through a slim channel to the south-east before the houses disappeared from view (serves me right for looking forward only to a glimpse!). Still, here’s my best shot:

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Oban is somewhat handier for Perth than Mallaig, being almost 50 miles closer and a journey more or less due east along the A85 (although I was travelling (initially) by the lower branch of the West Highland rail line down to Glasgow and thus my journey took me along two sides of a triangle. The joys of public transport…) Nevertheless, the question of financial ‘compensation’ arose given that CalMac provide some sort of refund where travel arrangements are disrupted, albeit for technical breakdowns. I did lose the return portion of an advance, non-refundable Citylink ticket from Mallaig to Perth which I booked last time I left Perth’s fair city but, aside of that, I don’t think I’d be bothering even were I eligible.

Firstly, the notion of ‘compensation’ for public transport ‘failures’ is a peculiarly Tory (specifically Majorite) policy which sits very oddly with the ethos of the delivery of a public service (and which also ends up starving public services of the financial resources for improvement, thus increasing the likelihood of future failures). People on public transport try very hard to deliver me from A to B and I’m usually very grateful for their efforts and their hard work. The ‘right’ to financial compensation is also a highly individualistic response to what is ultimately – and which needs to remain – a collective problem, and that ain’t no solution at all.

Secondly, I might accept the notion of compensation – in general – where it entails some actual inconvenience – but delivering me closer to my actual destination (and, ultimately, some 20 or so minutes quicker than my original route would have done) is stretching the definition of ‘inconvenience’ (pace the lost bus ticket). Furthermore, I think I’m also pretty grateful for those who decide that the challenges of docking a sizable ferry boat safely in Mallaig is potentially more traumatic than it’s worth when the wind is gusting to over 40mph (the approach to Mallaig harbour along the rocky shoreline ordinarily leaves me wondering whether actually jumping over the side and wading ashore, surely getting no more than my knees wet, is a seriously viable option – it looks no more than about 70 yards from ship to shore).

And, thirdly, seasoned traveller that I am, I’ve always taken the view that the journey to arrive at a destination is worthwhile in itself – that travelling is not a means to an end but an opportunity for enjoyment in and of itself. This was a new route and, therefore, an opportunity to experience something new. Travel stoically, and with a good book, is a good motto – and Madeleine Bunting’s esoteric, thought-provoking search for a definition of home, not least in a time of nationalisms, is a terrific companion, not least on this journey (if here undertaken somewhat in reverse).

So, no, I don’t think I’d be claiming ‘compensation’, thank you very much.

So, then – Perth (one more time). And just a day too late to join Sunday’s counter-demo against the SDL, which I would absolutely have done had I been here at the right time. Fascist b&stards. Not in my Perth.