Book review: Four Futures

This slim volume (150 pages) is a joint product, published in 2016, between Jacobin magazine (for which the author, Peter Frase, is an editor) and Verso Books. The book contains scant biographical details about Frase and neither does the author’s own website say too much (the ‘about’ page merely contains quotes from three well-known intellects and philosophers); but Jacobin I do know a bit about: being ‘reason in revolt’ and ‘a leading voice of the American left’ it may claim, but it has published theories denying that the Srebrenica massacre was genocide and falling for the conspiracy theory that the camps run by Bosnian Serbs were exaggerated in the effort to gain sympathy – comprehensively debunked by Peter Maass and by Adnan Delalić during the entirely justified furore over the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Peter Handke.

Imperialism (not only of the US) remains a problem but the desire to see my enemy’s enemy as my friend (as I heard articulated at meetings in London in the 1990s) is an over-simplistic cliche while it is perfectly possible to take a standpoint which both accepts that the actions of the Bosnian Serb militias were genocidal while leaving the individual free to criticise imperialism in general. The ethnic division of Bosnia as promoted by the Dayton Agreement (and, presumably therefore, at the instigation of US imperialism, in this view) has left the country not only divided and sclerotic but has also established perennial fault lines which, until they are finally addressed, continue to leave the country permanently prey to being placed in a choke-hold by ethnic extremists. The gains from that to monopoly capitalism are not obvious and, furthermore, they have, at the very least, been somewhat slow to emerge. It may still be a bit too early to tell (at least in historical terms), but it has now been 25 years since Dayton.

There are of course known links between imperialism and capitalism, so this introduction to my review is not so much of a digression – Frase’s book is sub-titled ‘life after capitalism’ and his ‘four futures’ does some thinking about the alternative organisation of life and work in a post-capitalist context: two favourable and which put people first; the other two more favourable to hierarchies, or elites. A lot of thinking has been done post-2008 about whether we are in a post-capitalist state and, if so, how we define the tools and measures of economic management in view of establishing a fairer, more sustainably secure society. The starting point of this brief contribution is that, if we are not already in a post-capitalist state, the combination of rapid automation and increasingly scarce resources at a time of intense climate change will soon put us there.

What works well is Frase’s linking of theoretical thought with totems of popular culture, including TV and literature. The bringing together into one volume of speculative thought about very different futures linking four concepts of abundance, scarcity, hierarchy and equality in different combinations also has substantial merit. The first chapter explores a post-work scenario prompted by advanced robotisation at a time of an increasingly predominant universal basic income; the second a rentier economy based on the prevalence of intellectual property; the third climate change amidst scarce resources; the fourth our domination by rich hierarchies.

What doesn’t help is his choice of format: the brevity of the individual essays setting out the four different futures means that his choices take on, necessarily, a selective and somewhat random appearance; illustrative rather than explanatory; and occasionally oddball rather than pervasive. His arguments run the risk of being superficial and, while the format mostly works in enforcing a straitjacket of clarity on the thought process, Frase is not free of sections of prose that strive for intellectualism but which actually turn out to say very little. I’m always wary of taking quotes out of context but if anyone can explain what this, in the comparatively lengthy introductory chapter, means, I would be grateful:

Science fiction is to futurism what social theory is to conspiracy theory: an altogether richer, more honest, and more humble enterprise. Or, to put it another way, it is always more interesting to read an account that derives the general from the particular (social theory) or the particular from the general (science fiction), rather than attempting to go from the general to the general (futurism) or the particular to the particular (conspiracism).

p. 27

For a minute, I thought I had already advanced into a future in which even our prose was being written by robots.

The chapter dealing with abundance and equality, while looking at the principle of universal basic income, ends with a lengthy and rather odd celebration of alternative currencies (while the notion that robots will take all the jobs is in itself controversial); the chapter on intellectual property doesn’t reference the right of creative artists to earn from their creations; and the chapter on climate change has an odd belief in the ability of markets to drive socially-useful gains, prompted (apparently without a trace of irony) by the differential pricing scheme for car parking operated in Los Angeles in which more popular times of day for parking attract higher prices. Additionally, the effect of this in allowing the rich to park where they want when they want, and without any consideration of the effects on the elderly and the disabled, seems to have bypassed Frase completely.

The chapter on hierarchy and scarcity, while looking at the issue of ‘exterminism’, takes on much stronger relevance at a time of the pandemic than Frase could have foreseen before publication, but focuses only on individual examples of state agents taking out people and makes no mention of eugenics, which has quite a history in the US, for example in the US prison service. Writing at a time of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have better insight into the chilling examples of precisely the issues that Frase was considering – earlier this month, the British Medical Journal was editorialising on the ‘social murder‘ that the response to the pandemic represents globally, led by the US, Brazil, Mexico, India and the UK (which together account for one-half of the world’s deaths from the virus); while we also have other examples of forced sterilisation operations on women held by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in Trump’s America. There is, as we know, nothing new here – yet Frase makes no mention of any exterminist actions that have a class-based focus. Neither do the chapters referencing work and UBI make any mention of trade unions – which is odd, even in a post-work scenario – or, alternatively, any other form of the collective organisation of people in response to threats to them.

As Frase concludes, our future is likely to contain individual elements of all the four futures he sets out – although, as of now, some elements do look more a part even of our present than others. Ultimately, we are likely to need new names for systems in a post-capitalist world that were themselves developed in response to the problems set out by industrial capitalism (one reason for not mentioning them by name here). The key debates set out out – over robotisation, universal basic income, sustainability and climate change amidst increasingly scarce resources – are far from resolved and will continue as we define our future. We need only to think about the issues caused by tensions over availability of Covid-19 vaccines. But it is in the area of hierarchies – or elites – and our response to them that Frase’s book has, unwittingly, most resonance as well as, critically, being the one which, in our pandemic current, is thereby responsible most for dating his contribution.

Book review: The Constant Rabbit

The rather cryptic reference at the foot of the previous #NewMusicMondays post, about a rabbit holding an accordion by a stone marker at the end of the Julia Jacklin video, was a bit of a link to what was then planned as my next post (this one): a review of Jasper Fforde‘s The Constant Rabbit, published at the start of July. A happy, and entirely unplanned, coincidence.

There are no rabbit-playing accordions in The Constant Rabbit – but perhaps there could be: an apparently spontaneous, but unspecified and probably unknowable, Anthropomorphic Event happened back in 1965 which saw eighteen rabbits, alongside some other animals, take on human characteristics so that they become part-human while still retaining their animal characteristics. The rabbits are 6′ tall, use human language, they reason, decry the pictorial representation of rabbits in human culture, live in houses, go to the cinema, shop in supermarkets and drive cars (slowly) – but are vegan, continue to burrow, enjoy the delights of lettuce and, well, being rabbits what was a few has now become over 1.2m in the UK alone. Faced thus with a rapidly growing humanised rabbit population, a post-Brexit UK, headed by Prime Minister Nigel Smethwick’s UK Anti-Rabbit Party, also has a solution – ‘Rabxit’: the packing of all rabbits (who are, largely, already segregated) off to a MegaWarren in Wales, aided by the middle-class militant thugs of ‘TwoLegsGood’.

In my review of Fforde’s previous novel, Early Riser, I noted that the somewhat whimsical tone of much of Fforde’s (otherwise engaging and interesting) work (his debut novel was in 2001) had taken on a significantly dystopian note. 2010’s first volume of Shades of Grey (the long-awaited second is now formally planned) likewise. With humanised rabbits the theme of this work, you might be forgiven for thinking this is a return to whimsy – but this would ignore the deeply allegorical, and utterly chilling, nature of the novel. Take the Prime Minister, for example, whose name is extremely well-chosen: Nigel is of course evident, especially given the initials of the party he leads; but Smethwick – well, back in 1964 (one year before the event initiating Fforde’s novel), Smethwick was the electoral constituency which defied the national trend and went Tory, and where campaigning was famously accompanied by the slogan ‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour’.

The central theme of The Constant Rabbit is, therefore, racism and, quite specifically, the modern notion of ‘replacement theory’, with UKARP expressing fears around ‘litterbombing’ – fast-breeding rabbits soon outnumbering humans in their own country. Fforde uses the duality of the novel – rabbits make fine neighbours since they are unselfish, live in harmony with the environment and practise sustainability while having a strong sense of social responsibility; but are the targets of a peculiarly English type of casual racism (class snobbishness mixed with outwardly pleasant indifference but disguising cold rejection) – in a way in which wit, satire and intelligent humour are allowed to carry the novel’s predominant approach to its theme.

It is of course difficult to carry off a treatment of an extremely serious issue by using humour. Fforde is clearly aware of this and has expressed in several interviews (in a podcast for the New Books Network, in a piece in The Guardian, and an interview for SciFi now, for instance) that he is alive to the dangers of someone – never discriminated against once, in his entire life and with all the luck of privilege being defaulted to him at birth – talking about racial discrimination and prejudice. He has also posted a reading list on his website, and it’s clearly informed by some important works, Reni Eddo-Lodge‘s among them.

He addresses this not by trying to put himself into the shoes of someone without that privilege – an object of racism – but by putting it from one of the other sides, not from the perspective of a worst-of-the-worst member of a hate group but from someone whose unthinking ignorance and bystander complicity has allowed such a group to continue their narrative unchallenged and away from the spotlight. Peter Knox – likeable, but spineless and also flawed – is the central human character and the narrator of the novel who works for the Rabbit Compliance Taskforce: an agency charged with enforcement activities because of his ability to tell rabbits – which otherwise all look alike – apart. Humans don’t come out of the novel particularly well, being substantially leporiphobic, regarding rabbits in all the demonising and dehumanising ways in which one group will ‘other’ a minority group, and the plot of the novel concerns the extent to which Knox (and, by extension, humans more generally since he does stand as a privilege-based ‘everyman’) is able to redeem himself.

It’s also a valid criticism that Fforde risks trivialising the issue firstly by using (evidently non-human) rabbits as his minority group. Allegory and tragi-comedy, however, has a long-standing role in pointing out failures – TwoLegsGood is, of course, a tribute to Orwell’s own allegorical powers in Animal Farm – and I think is justifiable in a literary context. Humans are fully capable of mixing, at one and the same time, the cruel and the unpleasant with the comedic – Fforde has, for example, pointed in interviews to the role of M*A*S*H in mixing laughter alongside the evils of war, while the science fiction of District 9 uses comedy to sharpen the sense of tragedy. A book without comedy is indeed not a book about human beings and, consequently, the comedy makes the darker themes more recognisable and therefore more identifiable and, as a result, it is easier to be more empathic about the lessons being demonstrated. A spoonful of sugar may indeed help the medicine go down.

Amidst the humour of the opening chapter’s ‘Speed Librarying’, enforced as a result of cuts with the resource going instead fully into the monitoring of libraries’ compliance with the new rules (in a parody of curtain-twitching watch schemes), Fforde has written some genuinely horrifying scenes: Mr. Ffoxe (foxes and rabbits of course do not mix) is a terrifying character; while one scene set in a prison (which, otherwise, contains two of about the only good humans in the book) is quite shocking. Amidst the comedy, such moments of pure evil have to work if Fforde is to carry off his purpose.

Fforde’s ultimate message here is, I think, a two-fold one.

Firstly, that the Anthropomorphic Event contains a message: the rabbits came with a warning for humans also about the unsustainability of our ways and what we are doing to the planet. Furthermore, in listening to others tell us of their alternative conception of the fundamentals on which a society should be based, we are allowing them to teach us: and we all of us need to be reminded of that.

Secondly, that we can no longer stand by when something has become obvious which was hitherto invisible. Individual and incremental, not heroic, action can be enough given that we are ‘not all revolutionaries’ and that ‘enough people challenging the problem can make a difference.’ Choosing no longer to be ‘constantly rabbiting’ on about a subject (one of the ways in which the title of the book works on several different levels), but deciding, as a result of realising the need no longer to be in denial, to increase our self-awareness and then to convert that into action is one way in which we can stop being, like Knox, an unconscious part of the problem. For Fforde, if readers ‘laugh when… reading this book, and frown a little when… finished – and that together, eventually, as part of a much larger and broader and more principled coalition, we can start to loosen some bricks in that wall’ the work will have served its purpose.

About the chances of this, Fforde seems in conclusion to be mildly optimistic – although with the clear warning that messages such as this one don’t come along very often; and that, critically, as Smethwick well realises, ‘the language of division can always be monetised’.

Huawei – the UK malaise and what can be done about it

My spring 2020 column for BECTU, the union for creative ambition within Prospect, addressed some of the issues behind the January announcement in the government’s Telecoms Supply Chain Review.

You can read that post directly below, or via the separate page link over on the left, but it has now been superseded by yesterday’s announcement that Huawei equipment must be removed from telecoms networks in the UK by 2027. This stems from fresh advice from the National Cyber Security Centre that it could:

No longer offer sufficient assurance that the risks arising from the use of such post-sanction manufactured equipment can be mitigated (para. 18).

What has changed in the meantime is that the US, in reaction not least (although clearly not only) to the UK’s decision in January, decided in May to block Huawei from buying semi-conductors made by US manufacturers – this is the sanction to which the NCSC refers. The critical importance of this in yesterday’s decision is recognised by the NCSC in the title of its collection of pages on the subject. As neatly explained by Gordon Corera in his interview for the BBC’s Newscast (the news item, with three different interlocutors, covers most of the programme starting from 03:45; but see, in particular, Corera’s segment starting from 6.00), what this essentially means is that, firstly, Huawei needs to find a new source of semi-conductors; and, secondly, that the UK’s intelligence services, which examines Huawei’s equipment regularly, would as a result not be able to guarantee they could give the equipment the same security vetting.

I’m by no means a technical expert, so take this with the requisite amount of salt: but I simply don’t buy this as an explanation. The notion that the UK’s intelligence services are unable to investigate the security of alternative (non-US) sources of semi-conductors, as a part of their regular examination of Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s communications equipment, and then to vet their use, appears on the face of it to be an extraordinarily lazy, sloppy claim entirely unworthy of the men and women in the NCSC. But, like I say, I’m no expert here.

There are, of course, many reasons to be careful of dealings with China, new security law in Hong Kong and its internment of Uighur Muslims (China says that the camps are closed, former detainees having ‘graduated’) being but two.

What the decision does do, of course, is tie the UK (now ‘liberated’ from membership of the European Union) very firmly into the US orbit, and quite specifically a Trumpian view of the world. Whatever the technical and security aspects of the decision, such a decision is highly favourable to Trump and the UK has thus been heavily leaned on, Trump’s self-congratulatory pleasure at the decision doing nothing to minimise such a conclusion. It couldn’t be clearer, at this point in the UK’s history, as to where this country’s political elites see its future, regardless of the likelihood of Trump losing the forthcoming election and US foreign policy changing as a result. China has reacted angrily, foreshadowing ‘public and painful retaliation’ as a means of preventing China from being seen to have been bullied. At this point, I’m very much reminded very much of this wonderful cartoon, copyright of the New Zealand Herald:

https://pbs.twimg.com/media/EbnRsjQXkAEuqjl?format=jpg&name=900x900

Cartoon by Guy Body, NZH cartoonist.

And, once China has done for us, we’re likely to find the US agricultural industry next donning the guise of Uncle Sam.

Politics apart, the roots of the malaise in which the UK has now come to find itself, as a consequence of a decision which is likely to put back the broadband connectivity timetable, not least in rural and small towns, can be traced back to Margaret Thatcher, as my colleague Keith pointed out back in January. Decades-long reliance on ‘the market’, on privatisation and on an abandonment of industry and long-term investment in favour of profit-taking has left the UK exactly the sort of state which is not only reliant on the cheapness of foreign goods but which has come to see price as the ultimate determinant of decision-making. Be in no mistake, whatever the quality or advantages of Huawei kit, this country’s telecoms firms are using it because it is the cheapest around – as a result  not least of extensive R&D investment by the Chinese government – and because its deployment therefore maximises the return to shareholders.

Indeed, telecoms companies are now faced with greater costs as a result, not so much in having to strip out kit because the likelihood is that much of this is likely to have been replaced by 2027 anyway as a part of the continual upgrading of the network, but in terms of the likely greater expense that a removal of one of the three major players will entail, as Rory Cellan-Jones goes on to explain in his contribution to Newscast (from 11.40 and see, in particular, from 15.00). Nokia and Ericsson were already more expensive; they may yet get more so as a result of the narrower telecoms equipment supply market the exclusion of Huawei means. On top of this, there is the impact of the likely post-Brexit lack of a deal on trade in goods with the EU, judging by the current state of negotiations, as well as the continuing decline in the exchange rate (the £ has slipped by 6.2% against the euro since 1 January alone, standing today at just €1.10).

The decision raises a substantial number of policy questions, chief among which would appear to be these.

Firstly, there is the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS), which gives private companies from one signatory state the right to sue governments of another when policy changes. This has a controversial history and was the cause of the EU (eventually) dropping negotiations with the US on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) free trade deal. The failure of the EU to tie up many free trade deals was, of course, one of the arguments mounted against it by Brexiteers, though we should note the involvement of trade unions and other civil society actors in persuading the European Parliament to put pressure on the Commission to drop the deal. The US (inevitably) is a fan of ISDS and we’re thus likely to see it included in US demands of the UK as part of a free trade deal. Representatives, activists and negotiators need to be prepared for that. In this context, China’s open question as to whether the UK can ‘Provide an open, fair and non-discriminatory business environment for companies from other countries‘ raises substantial, and reverberative, questions.

Secondly, BT reckons that the additional costs of this decision can be absorbed within its estimates of the cost of the original January decision (£500m). That may or may turn out to be so – it looks somewhat optimistic – but, equally, BT is not the only telecoms company. The potential costs of £6.8bn identified by Mobile UK in April last year look geared towards a somewhat different set of circumstances, but costs there will be. It is extremely unlikely that we will see UK companies sue the UK government for a change in policy affecting the climate of business decisions, in a kind of internal ISDS, but there will, instead, be substantial lobbying for other mechanisms under which these additional costs can somehow be recouped (in terms of forbearances on network roll-out, more favourable terms for investment, etc.). Those costs will, therefore, be born in the end by UK citizens.

Thirdly, and going back to the reasons why UK telecoms companies find themselves in the position of buying Huawei kit, there is the interesting context of the UK’s industrial policy. Non-existent since the time of Thatcher, which has seen all manner of technological companies either fail or sold off ahead of their time, from Marconi to ARM Holdings, while the UK government stood on the sidelines preaching about ‘the market’, industry policy seems to have gained a new focus. In this light, the publication last week of a policy paper on the UK’s Research and Development Roadmap looks like a step forward. This is, of course, Cummings’s grand plan. A commitment to spending £1.5bn more on R&D each year on average, taking the total to £22bn by 2024/25, to make the post-Brexit UK a global centre for science and innovation, certainly looks ambitious, not least in the face of governments’ deliberate act of vandalism in running down engagement in such areas and their encouragement of a privatised, share option focus to the rewards which such innovation ought to bring.

Now, this blog is no fan of Dominic Cummings, as readers might well be aware. But there is at least significant potential in this, not least in terms of establishing a route out of the malaise into which the lack of industrial policy has led us. There are questions that arise, including the extent to which public sector money can generate further private sector investment as well as, most critically, the ways in which this can generate, in non-military areas, a sustainable, zero carbon economy. The question of collaboration, across Europe, is also critically important to such a vision.

But what is also important is the question of ownership and the retention in the public sector, for the long-term benefit of everyone in this country, of what has been generated by public money. Capitalism, based as it is on inequality and exploitation, cannot generate a green economy nor, in the current context, a recovery which is geared towards sustainability. That needs planning and design, improved democracy, and it implies a key role for the public sector in the launch of a Green Recovery Act for which Common Wealth, a think tank supported, among others, by the Communication Workers Union and the Trades Union Congress, has recently called. Organisationally, it means democratising the workplace so that everyone has a stake in, and shares, the wealth that their labour is creating.

This is probably an issue which is not on Cummings’s horizon nor that more widely of the party actually in government, but it needs to be. The focus on short-term profit, and the focus on the supposed primacy of the private sector, have both had their day.

The route out of any malaise is – as with any pit – firstly to stop digging; and then to turn attention to thinking on how to build a ladder. If the Huawei decision means that we have indeed now stopped digging – and that is a big ‘if’ – it may be that the Roadmap, allied to a Green Recovery Act, provide some of the rungs of the ladder. Ultimately, however, we can’t build a new, bottom-up industry policy which puts right the problems ever since the Thatcher revolution without addressing that key question of ownership.

Edit 16 July: Worth noting in the context of the security concerns over Huawei that the European Court of Justice has this morning struck down the EU’s ‘privacy shield’ arrangement with the US on the grounds that US surveillance of data transferred to its territory (e.g. by Facebook) is ‘not limited to what is strictly necessary’ – i.e. that US data surveillance of communications is over-obtrusive.

Still no joke… ten years on from an exploding Icelandic volcano

‘Hey,’ said my friend Darko, ‘You can’t get back home!’ on finding me, as arranged, one mid-April evening in a hotel bar in Plzen, located mid-way between Prague and the Czech-German border broadly in the direction of Nürnberg. We were there, with other colleagues, to participate in an annual, albeit travelling, conference. I suspected Darko, known for his jokes, was pulling my leg – but ‘No – really: look!’ The TV was showing shocking pictures of a spreading ash cloud from an erupting volcano in Iceland which soon led to airspace being closed, flights grounded and airports shuttered.

Hidden Europe, the regular English language publication dedicated to slow travel and to taking the train wherever possible, and published by a Berlin-based editorial bureau, reminded me this morning that it’s now just over ten years since those events saw me engage in some ‘slow travel’ of my own as I sought some way of returning north-west to the UK as the ash cloud was making its own, fairly leisurely, way south-east.

At a time of a lockdown caused by a different set of circumstances entirely, and with short-haul air travel again being viewed as not so much at a crossroads as at an end, assisted by sustainability concerns, it’s interesting to reflect on how things might have changed for travellers now faced with similar disruption.

I wrote about my experiences at the time on Connected Research, a WordPress blog I used to maintain (daily!) while working as a researcher for Connect and then Prospect. I’m deliberately not linking to it as the blog itself is not so much ancient as pre-historic, although you can still find it easily enough if you’re that motivated. The focus of my post was that, at a time of a communications revolution under which corporations were rapidly saving money for shareholders by locating customer services online, away from central, accessible locations (or at call centres whose lines were constantly engaged), information (and support) was almost unavailable with the result that travellers were being abandoned to the outcomes of their own, frequently poor choices and to chance. So much for customer service in the information era.

My own return journey took me in a rather circuitous way via Prague, Nürnberg, Berlin and Amsterdam (I had flown by KLM and laboured initially under the naive assumption that it was up to KLM to get me home again, or somehow ‘look after’ me) as I sought some resolution in the context of a rapidly dawning realisation that I was being abandoned entirely to my own devices amidst highly-influential stories (perhaps, indeed, sourced from a good deal of theatre; Hidden Europe is probably right there) of people paying exhorbitant sums for cross-border journeys.

This sort of return would be surely less likely to happen today: information is much more widely available to people on the move; ‘roam like at home’ has made data services more accessible to travellers; and smartphones are more ubiquitous than the ‘feature phone’ I then had, offering maps of somewhat less-than-familiar locations and access to pages offering advice on rights, as well as things like Twitter (which I joined six months later), providing hints and tips both from official as well as unofficial ones about what is, and is not, happening on the ground. The evident result of greater information is that critical choices at a time of immense disruption are likely to be better informed. Advice about the impact of CV-19 on impending journeys today features clearly on corporate webpages – see, for instance, the current KLM one.

On the other hand, it is not clear that travel companies have become more adept at the sort of decisive decision-making that lends itself to the ability to make definitive alternative plans in such a situation. Public accountability via things like Twitter can often produce turn-arounds when corporates become aware that they are losing a particular public relations battle – and that’s a clear advantage of the medium – but what is still more likely to prevail, at least in the first instance, is a fear of the outcomes of practical decisions, not only in the sense of claims for compensation, and this tends towards corporate blame-shifting, indecision and sclerosis. In my case, my airline was – like many others – caught on the hop and, as a result, it became invisible (though, perhaps, not as bad as some). Clearly, companies need time to sort themselves out when pressured by this sort of thing and, in the context of volcanic eruptions, the situation changes all the time. Lessons may well have been learned in the meantime – both as a result of Eyjafjallajökull as well as CV-19 – but whether these extend to clarity and decisiveness among corporates is a moot point. [Edit: it’s clear, meanwhile, that the UK government – Tories then as now – hasn’t got any better at repatriating people stranded abroad, with organisational incapacity, communications failures and a desire to save money at its heart.]

Incidentally, returning to Hidden Europe, my experience was not that Eurostar had plenty of seats available. In Nürnberg, Eurostar had no capacity at all from the Saturday afternoon until the Tuesday (and then only in first class) while, returning to the centre of Amsterdam on the Monday afternoon from a fruitless trip to Schiphol, I chanced on a travel agent who told me that a Eurostar had only just been released for the following day, and who wasted no time in booking me on it. An overnight coach from Berlin to London would have been interesting, though.

Did someone say Plzen? Here’s my photo of the brewery gates from that trip:

IMG_6644

And here’s where they used to brew beer in the couple of centuries before the 1839 ‘beer revolt’:

IMG_6606

Change your mindset – not your handset

Here’s my winter 2019 column for Stage, Screen & Radio – the quarterly magazine for members of BECTU, the media and entertainment union and a sector of Prospect, which organises managers and professionals right across the UK. This was my fourth column for the union and, as always, the full column is available only to members – you can join right here and indeed so you should.

In it, I look at the sustainability of mobile handsets within the context of the industry’s two-year, contract-based replacement cycle and the environmental arguments behind why this should be extended. Note that I have slightly updated this with a couple more links.

The frequency with which we replace our mobile handsets – what the industry calls ‘handset replacement cycles’ – continues to lengthen.

Evidence suggests that consumers are seeing value in keeping their devices beyond the two-year timeframe which the industry has seen as standard in recent years.

Forecaster Gartner recently predicted that worldwide sales of smartphones will drop by 3.2% in 2019 – apparently the largest decline in shipments ever experienced.

If this is true, it will come as news to Huawei, which shipped 200 million smartphones in 2019 some 64 days earlier than it did in 2018.

And Apple has just increased production of its new iPhone 11 models by up to 8m units (about 10%). However, the company’s initial conservatism over production levels means that the increase takes it ahead of 2018 production levels by a much smaller amount.

5G to the rescue

5G is expected to rescue manufacturers in 2020 and will bring a return to growth in the market. This is one reason why the industry is continuing to talk up 5G technology as ‘transformational’.

But it does seem that 5G will facilitate some genuine breakthroughs, including:

  • much faster access speeds
  • extremely low levels of latency – the delay between sending and receiving information; this will encourage the development of connected self-driving cars
  • extremely low power consumption
  • greater connectivity, which will be required if the internet of things – the ability of your fridge to engage with your grocer of choice – is to take off.

Low power consumption, albeit within an energy market that will still grow as a result of new uses, has to be a good thing.

But, returning to mobile handsets, the question is ‘How often do we need to replace our handsets?’

Climate cost of short lifespan products

The European Environmental Bureau – a network of environmental citizens’ organisations in Europe – recently released a report on the climate impact of short-lifespan consumer products, including smartphones, and drew attention to the benefits of making such products more durable.

The study said that the average lifespan of a smartphone, whose production has the largest climate impact of all the consumer products studied, is just three years. Extending this to four years would save more than 2 million tonnes of emissions (CO2eq).

EEB argues that the study is ‘further proof’ that Europe’s climate obligations cannot be met without addressing our production and consumption patterns, which are based on the disposability mindset of the wider consumer electronics industry.

EEB says smartphones need to have longer lifespans and be more easily repaired when they break in order to minimise the climate impact of the production of new handsets.

The study concludes that it is hard to assess if manufacturers build obsolescence into their products. But the number of consumers who are replacing, rather than repairing, defective products is growing.

Right to repair law won’t cover mobile handsets

A new EU law on ecodesign, seeking to facilitate a right to repair and part of a much broader approach to sustainability and the circular economy, will help here although unfortunately it does not extend to mobile handsets (Edit: though this may be changing both for mobile handsets as well as for other electronic devices).

So, the next time your two-year mobile phone contract comes up, ask yourself whether you really need a new handset or whether you can make do with the old one for a bit longer (and save yourself some money in the process).

Rebelling against the disposability of mobile handsets might be but a small act on behalf of the planet – but it is an act.

Working from home: the gloss and the reality

Concerns over the spread of the corona virus, especially in view of the up to one in five workers who government estimates could be compelled to stay at home if the virus reaches the next stage, have revitalised a bit of interest in the potential of people working from home.

There are indeed rising numbers of people who are working from home, and 1.72m regularly did so in 2018, some 6% of the workforce, even if the rise is a little slower than advocates of flexible working policies would have hoped. The trend is certainly less than might have been expected from the scale of some major experiments taking place among large hi-tech employers in the 1990s, although a backlash was, sadly, clearly visible in some equally large hi-tech workplaces in the early part of this decade.

I was a homeworker between 2003 and 2016 and, aided by a supportive trade union employer, I hope I was a successful one. Currently, I’m a freelance writer and editor, and this post was written while sat at my desk, located in the office in my home.

As part of my work while in full-time employment, I used to edit a regular newsletter for the union’s homeworking members in which I regularly invited readers to contribute entries to our own ‘hall of infamy’ as regards the sorts of pictures which media organisations use to illustrate stories about homeworking. Frequently, these tended to feature young people slouching over a laptop, soft furnishings or kitchen counters in full view, adopting in the process a variety of unsuitable and unhealthy postures; or which portrayed them somehow balancing laptop and baby, sometimes with a mobile phone thrown in for good measure. There was always quite a haul. This is evidently not ‘homeworking’ – the clue is in the name; and, while homeworking might allow people better to juggle work responsibilities and domestic caring ones, the two – as in traditional workplaces – ought only rarely/never to come into contact with each other. Dedicated facilities are required, in both cases.

Consequently, it was a little disappointing to see BBC Scotland illustrate its story on Tuesday this week, on whether working from home would become the new normal, with a customary image drawn straight from the hall of infamy:

I’m not quite sure what this young woman is doing but, if it’s work, well, she won’t be doing it for long sat like that.

The trouble is, as all homeworkers know, this sort of image just feeds the prejudices – that homeworkers are not really doing a lot other than respond to phone calls as they come in and, strategically, a few e-mails now and again. In short, that working from home is a skive, and an unhealthy one, frequently carried out by people in their PJs (and often in bed or, otherwise, sat cross-legged on the sofa), punctured by regular trips to the fridge, to the washing machine, to the TV or, once dressed (presumably), to the shops.

The reality, of course, is that homeworkers are usually more productive – there is nothing necessarily efficient about office working, where distractions are also ever-present and frequent; while there is of course an ‘observed worker’ effect in which people who are in the eye of their managers, so to speak, need frequently to show their effectiveness. And this very well describes the position that homeworkers are in. Typically also, the output of a modern day is infinitely measurable and there is nothing less in this respect about work being done at home compared to in an office. After all, work is what you do, not where you do it.

The jury might remain out on the environmental benefits of homeworking – some assessments showing a positive impact are now a little out of date; while other important ones are apparently lost to website changes (even if the press release is still available). Coincidentally, just a couple of weeks before the BBC Scotland story, elsewhere on the BBC, on its ‘Worklife’ project, there was a lengthy blog pointing to the nuances of the debate in which, with energy supply, including for transport, coming from increasingly renewable sources, there is a potential undermining of some of the argument for the sustainability of homeworking in the long-term. Even so, there remain clear pointers – and ones that are academically sustained – in favour of homeworking in terms of the reduction of network congestion and vehicular emissions in which there is an immediately positive return to health and to sustainability.

Working from home doesn’t suit everyone – and nor is everyone’s home necessarily suitable for homeworking. You do need to be possessed of a certain sort of temperament as an individual – ideally, the type not to need a lot of human interaction to sustain interest – and your home does need to be suitable for adaptation into an office environment: not necessarily a room set aside as an office, although that is the ideal, but otherwise a committed space in which you can go to work, undisturbed and which, equally importantly, doesn’t impinge on the rest of your home life once you’ve wrapped up for the day. It is for sound reasons that all homeworking must be a voluntary initiative – on both sides; and, if it is not – as always – see your trade union.

As is frequently the case, there is a calculation to be made, and a balance to be struck, about the benefits of homeworking and the suitability of homeworking solutions to domestic problems, or even to mass outbreaks of contagious and life-threatening illnesses.

Just no more the balance of I’ve-got-my-laptop-on-knee-while-I’m-sat-on-my-floor-but-I-am-working, please.

New car post

That trip to Dundee I referred to below was to pick up a new car.

For one reason or another, it was decision time on the Nissan Leaf in which we have been running around for the past two years – chief among them being that it was the end of the two year period of the personal contract payment scheme under which we bought the car and which seems to prompt the majority of finance-based car purchases [registration] these days. After some research we – well, this means my partner, really, given my continuing non-driver status – opted for a Kia Niro plug-in hybrid as opposed the fully electric Leaf:

newcar

This is not the e-Niro currently causing a bit of a stir in electric car circles but one whose electric battery is supported by a petrol engine.

With an electric car, battery capacity in terms of mileage is the key and the advances in the capacity of the Leaf since 2016 are fair enough, but insufficient to compensate for the lack of advances in the charging infrastructure. It was interesting – though not at all surprising, based on experience – to read in the Pink ‘Un recently that the rapid, but still very low, take-up of electric cars is being held back by the infrastructure (hat-tip: tweet by Prospect Research & Economics). A journey of any distance is fraught with the fear that still-infrequent charging stations will be occupied or otherwise not operating, and driving on routes off the islands, and through remote rural areas, this is a fear that is ever-present.

If you’re not sure of your geography of Scotland, you’ll need to bear with me for the next bit (or otherwise have a suitable online map at hand!). From Mallaig, where we dock on the most convenient ferry route, we can (with a full battery on setting off from the house) reach Fort William (otherwise, it means a charge on disembarking in Mallaig) and then, on a journey to Perth or Dundee: 140 miles from Mallaig) that means a further stop, usually in Tyndrum or Crianlarich. If the Fort William charger isn’t working, a stop at Glencoe Mountain Resort is required and if that’s not working, Tyndrum is only reachable from our house with extremely careful driving, a favourable wind and fingers firmly crossed. Which did happen on one memorable journey.

Stopping is not the problem – it’s good to take a break – and nor is the time to charge which represents an inconvenience but a small one in respect of the carbon emissions saved by not using a car with a combustion engine. The difficulty is the strategic one of planning charging stops around having a fall-back plan, since the infrequency with which stations exist on our route to Perth (which has several options, once we get there) – Mallaig (one rapid charger), Fort William (ditto), Glencoe (ditto), Tyndrum (two!)/Crianlarich (one), Crieff (one) – implies the potential for difficulties in the not infrequent case of chargers not being in use or in case of them being already occupied (and increasingly so with higher numbers of electric cars on the roads). Worst of all, however, is that this situation has not improved in the last two years: these stops were our options back in 2017 when we first went electric and it’s this failure to invest in the infrastructure which prompted our decision to go for a plug-in hybrid.

The Kia Niro’s battery can be charged via a plug-in lead (as in the pic above) and this will deliver a journey of up to about 34 miles with the battery as automatic preference to petrol. This means my partner’s journey to work (c. 26 miles) is battery driven – or largely so: the car will mix and match and it won’t simply exhaust the electric battery before kicking in the petrol engine; it all depends on speed, wind and road conditions and level of battery charge. Consequently, and on initial experience, she gets to work rarely on the battery alone but consuming no more than two miles of petrol. Furthermore, we have the flexibility of not having to worry about charging stations on longer journeys.

This seems to me to indicate the likely direction that electric cars will take: great for those with short journeys with the potential to charge at home (and/or at work); not quite hopeless, but certainly stressful, on long journeys which, without a reformation in the charging infrastructure, most people simply won’t attempt in an electric. Most car journeys may well be short ones – nearly 70 per cent are shorter than five miles (p. 176), according to research which is admittedly fifteen years old but which is probably unlikely to be substantially different now. Such a direction is fair enough, up to a point, but if we continue to leave the charging infrastructure to the market, there will be no change and this will, as a result, heavily jeopardise carbon emission targets whatever the warm words at the G20 and those dates by which the petrol engine should be phased out (currently 2040 in the UK; 2032 in Scotland). [UPDATE 1/7/19: The UK government’s plan, crucially, excludes hybrids; while the status of hybrids under the C40 fossil-fuel-free streets initiative, under which (parts of) London (amidst a number of other cities around the world) will be zero emission by 2030, is unclear although it seems that hybrids are also excluded.]

To meet such targets we need hugely improved public transport infrastructure: electric cars (certainly on current trajectory) won’t be enough by themselves (and with a reminder that the rare materials used in electric cars have their own environmental and social impacts). But, in the context, and given the long road there is to row back given the lack of investment in public transport over the last thirty years, plus the popularity of driving around the highlands and islands (NC 500, anyone?), we do need our governments both at UK level and at the level of the nations of the UK to work closer with industry to invest in a charging infrastructure which provides the opportunity for longer journeys to be made by electric cars, too – and not only on the motorways but across all major transport routes, and with a frequency which delivers suitable and easily reachable options for charging. With most electric cars these days being Type 2 (one of the problems of allowing the market to ‘decide’ is that charging types are several), there is the potential to build a charging infrastructure which works at least for the majority.

But we do need policy-makers actually to get down to making a decision and then taking some action on it. Which, in our current sclerotic terms and given the pathetic response to the Extinction Rebellion so far, will take policy leadership of the kind we absolutely lack.

Outer Hebrides and Shetland: a tale of two archipelagos

Just back from a short trip to the mainland, firstly to Dundee (more about which in a later post) and then up to Shetland. My partner lived on Shetland for a while and still has friends and family there. It’s thus a place I know quite well, having visited and toured it quite frequently, although I haven’t been there since September 2015, a year before I moved to Uist.

A couple of postcard snaps will follow (eventually), but I was struck by a couple of things during the visit. Firstly, and flippantly, it was several degrees cooler than on Uist. Arriving at Sumburgh Airport in the early afternoon, the wind delivered a proper and sustained blast of chilled air during the short walk from the plane to the (expanded) terminal building; and, surrounded by guard rails, towards one end of the terminal on the floor sat one massive heater, glowing red and fully on. On 31 May. We do indeed get bad weather on Uist, and perhaps a generally warm and dry spring has made me quickly forget how bad it can be, but it seemed right there and then and for much of the following, largely damp and cool, week that the northern isles do have it worse. Perhaps, being so far north – it is level with Bergen, after all, and half-way to the Faeroes – it’s just that it’s naturally colder as a result of being at 60° latitude.

Secondly, and with greater significance for my post, I was struck – and not for the first time – by the contrasting levels of economic development between the Hebrides and Shetland. Extended Sumburgh terminal building apart, there is an absolutely stunning new campus for Anderson High, the secondary school, whose 900 students enjoy a four-storey, two-winged education block as well as gracefully angled halls to accommodate students from outside the mainland. Despite being next to the Lerwick sports centre, Anderson High has its own sports grounds including all-weather track, grass pitches, nets for throwing events and swimming pool, located at the very front of the campus and sending a clear message for students walking past them to get to their classes about the importance of sporting endeavour. The Island Games were taking place there that Saturday, and raucous cheers spoke of the message being loudly received. There are at least four new food and drink places which have opened up in Lerwick, offering a range of interesting and well-crafted food and each offering extensive craft beer menus (in bottles and cans and on tap) and taking a pride in local produce: Fjarå; The Dowry; and The String as well as an excellent French cafe in C’est la Vie. All were busy, even outside the weekend. It’s not just in the capital: the cafe up at Braewick has also been significantly and beautifully extended. Furthermore, a second brewery (beer being something of a bellwether of development, in my view) – Lerwick Brewery – has added to its range and styles of beer in addition to the continued presence of the longer established Valhalla. And the houses are bigger, more opulent, while Lerwick supports both a Tesco and a Co-Op, in large supermarket form.

The facts confirm the impressions. GDP in Shetland is significantly larger than in the Hebrides and the gap is growing. While the economy of Eilean Siar has struggled to a growth of 12 per cent over the last ten years, the economy of Shetland has bounded ahead, with nary a pause even during the great recession, by over 40 per cent.

GDP Shetland and Eilean Siar

(Figures from Eurostat; unit of measure – million units of national currency. See also the Eurostat press release on the release of its 2017 NUTS 3 figures in February this year.)

And, to rub it in further, Shetland has fewer people: 23,080 (only Orkney is smaller in Scotland) compared to 26,950 living on Eilean Siar, so the gap in per capita GDP (£38,160 plays £22,190) is a canyon of 72%.

The major source of the difference is likely to be North Sea Oil which is driving Shetland’s economy via Sullom Voe much more than the agrarian one is driving our own (of course both Shetland and the Hebrides share an agrarian history and, while sheep are still very evident on Shetland, smallholdings and crofting are much less the case there these days). Oil has been a source not only of jobs in Shetland and, therefore, opportunities for people to remain, or return, there but also the high-tech skills with which come high wages and which, in turn, lead to money being spent in the shops (and the bars and cafes). Here, without an oil boom (and despite the rumours), it is not apparent that there has been significant skills transfer from the MoD presence, now in slow and steady withdrawal phase, while we are also faced with the further erosion of the skills base should HIAL proceed with its plans for the remote control of airport towers which my old union, Prospect, is fighting hard.

Both oil and small-scale sheep farming of course have their issues, the first from the highly-effective Extinction Rebellion protests which have led the government to plan to legislate for a zero carbon future by 2050 (though this is indeed less impressive than it looks), and which raises serious questions about whether those prospective oil finds should actually be left under the sea anyway; the second from Michael Gove and Brexit and the extent to which the Scottish (and Welsh and Northern Ireland) government, farm policy being a devolved matter, will be both able and willing to replace CAP payments lost after Brexit.

A green view would be that GDP growth is an inefficient way of measuring economic vitality since it omits much of the voluntary and not-for-profit work that keeps things ticking over; while it is certainly true that it ignores quality of life and greater well-being – the reason many people move to the northern and western isles (though we should also not ignore that several serious health problems associated with isolation are not uncommon) – as well as community life and culture (though it is also possible to find both these things in London, too). And it is absolutely not that there is nothing going on here – the new and very welcome Islands Revival blog recently detailed many of the initiatives now being undertaken on Uist.

What is required is, as Islands Revival commented, not only an end to managed decline – the council response to austerity and driven by the rut of population decline – but continued and further public and private investment. With significant scale private investment likely to follow, or be inhibited by, the dynamics of economic growth, public sources and projects occupy the central position in generating the new opportunities required to stem the decline and inspire regeneration. The energetic and enthusiastic Scottish Islands Team, responsible for a lengthy consultation tour discussing the National Islands Plan, and recently also in Shetland too, needs to take away that message from its trip to Uist and Benbecula on Monday and Tuesday next week. In the meantime, that spaceport up on North Uist (coincidentally one of its rivals is Unst, the most northerly part of the Shetland archipelago) is sorely needed.

I did promise you photographs. Here is a sunny view of the tombolo connecting St. Ninian’s Isle with the Shetland mainland (complete with coo and young ‘uns):

IMG_3382 (Custom)

And here, on a rather more dreich day in Lerwick, are boats of neighbours, occupying peacefully adjacent spaces:

IMG_3426 (Custom)

Book Review: The Wall

John Lanchester’s The Wall is frequently, and indeed best, described as ‘dystopian’ – relating to or denoting an imagined state or society where there is great suffering or injustice.

Lanchester’s vision is of a future somewhat shrunken UK surrounded by a 10,000km wall built, primarily, in response to the impact of ‘the Change’ – climate change resulting in dramatically raised sea levels which have destroyed every beach, led to the destruction of food chains and food security, and made fUK a place of cold weather much more closely associated with our latitude than is currently the case; and patrolled by Defenders on a two-year stint of compulsory national service whose job it is to keep out – with extreme prejudice – all those who seek to get over it. This is not because the fUK within resembles anything like a promised land – inter-generational conflict, a society based on the racist exploitation of others, population collapse and a vast level of its limited resource sucked into security see to it that fUK is a place of cold, hatred, totalitarian control, guilt, bitterness and barely-disguised fear – and in which ‘Sweet moderation/Heart of this nation‘ has, finally, deserted us – but it does highlight the desperation motivating those seeking nevertheless to enter.

fUK society is divided into a globalised Elite still able to fly; the elderly, blamed for the disaster since it was on their watch that the Change happened; Defenders, some of whom, like Kavanagh, the central character, dream futilely of joining the Elite but whose more realistic future is to become a Breeder whose key role in staving off further population decline is rewarded with time away from the Wall; and Others – those managing to get over The Wall and who are, once caught up with, given the choice of enslavement or euthanasia. Those who are judged responsible for influxes of Others over the Wall are de-chipped – essentially, they are ‘enemies within’ – and put out to sea on a one-in-and-one-out basis. The prospects of any sort of redemption for Kavanagh and his colleagues appear bleak.

The novel is opaque as regards just how far into the future this vision takes place. Some will see Lanchester’s fUK as a continuation of several trends already present in society (all dystopian novels, including The Road, 1984 and Brave New World are essentially versions of the present). With this in mind, calls for non-intervention in the case of the tiny numbers of migrants crossing the Channel in small boats, on the grounds that such action might encourage others, are being made; while the dehumanising nature of our political discourse and the normalisation of hate speech facilitated by social media platforms and given full voice by Brexit, with Stephen Yaxley-Lennon’s Facebook page taken down only yesterday and with Shamima Begum’s image used in ‘light-hearted fun’ at a type of shooting range aimed at young children, give Lanchester’s fiction a very real footing. Unmistakeably, this is also a ‘post’-Brexit novel – its language is the language of Brexit – to add to a burgeoning list. What he is outlining in The Wall is not the future – but it does indeed feel a lot like a version of the future towards which we are currently headed.

Lanchester does not seek to describe the state of fUK. (Incidentally, this is not a term that he uses, but the UK seems still to exist in some way given that Scotland appears to continue to be a part of it, although how much of Scotland is actually left is a moot point given that it is also referred to as ‘the north’.) Indeed, this is not a grim tale of what we have become but to take this, in a quite matter-of-fact way, as a given. This provides a solid starting point for the novel’s exploration of human reactions to their state and to question how on earth it is we have got there. Whereas the history of the present up to September 2001 had been the tearing down of walls, as Lanchester himself has commented, the post-World Trade Center history of the present has represented a dehumanising of the ‘other’ coupled in the last ten years with a post-crash austerity politics which has sought to use the ‘other’ as a target for blame; and on which the present-day version of inter-generational inequality – our children’s generation being the first to transfer resources back to their parents (a reversal of the accepted inter-generational inequality of the past) – has much to comment.

A slightly more ambitious novel than this one might have sought to establish The Wall as a character in its own right but, here, its role is simply a physical barrier while yet underscoring a clear point about our obliviousness to our environment – our inability to learn and to act in its defence. Given the known CO2 emissions involved in the manufacture of concrete, the construction of 10,000km of concrete wall, five metres high on the seaward side and involving ‘millions of tons’ of the stuff, erected in response to the destruction wrought by climate change, provides an acutely ironic comment on our own lack of understanding of what we are doing when it comes to green issues. As indeed, given the environmental impact of air travel, does Kavanagh’s appreciation of the elite as being those that are still able to fly.

As other reviews have indicated, the style of Lanchester’s writing is ‘affectless’ (see here and here – both ££) and its dispassionate nature makes the characters’ role in their own misery somewhat hard to work through until we reach the final section. fUK is an individualised, post-collective society – a reminder that this is a state which those driving Brexit seek further to entrench – and the implications of that for the UK’s current direction is clear. There is no collective organisation in response to the conditions in which people find themselves and neither, does it seem, is there any attempt at riots and revolution.

Such attempts may of course have already been defeated and, as I say, it is not Lanchester’s aim to describe what we have become but to use this is a platform to contemplate why. One of my earlier thoughts while reading the first two of the book’s thirds, aided not least by the almost complete lack of typos on the pages, was that this was a novel written by artificial intelligence; or that the characters we meet within it are actually cyborgs. Neither is true (at least, I don’t think either is true) but key to understanding how the characters interact with their society, and therefore to how Lanchester contemplates our current state, is our increasing lack of empathy. The Wall is, here, not without hope. Re-learning, in the first place, and then re-establishing empathy – the key also to addressing a lack of collective awareness and solidarity – may yet give Kavanagh and his colleagues the key to overcoming their state. It is a long way back from there – but if we are to avoid that state, re-establishing empathy before we have to re-learn it, and while we still have time to appreciate precisely what it means, may yet help us avoid such a state’s worst excesses.

Wood briquettes – a new supplier

I spent a part of my day today working up an appetite for lunch by shifting one tonne of briquettes for our wood-burning stove from their usual landing place off the D.R. McLeod lorry and into the shed. For those that like to note these things, this was (again) 96 boxes on the pallet, implying 48 return trips, in somewhat autumnal conditions featuring 30+mph average wind speeds coming from the south and a somewhat unwelcome splash or two of rain at the start. Oh – and one butting of the top of my head on the low shed entrance, two-thirds of the way through and about three trips after I had mentally noted that I had not yet banged my head. I never learn.

Following problems at Verdo, which used to supply our briquettes – they sold their Grangemouth manufacturing plant last August while a flood earlier this year wrecked production to the point that it seems it has still not fully recovered – I went looking for a new supplier. Aided by some excellent meta-tagging, I came across Wood Fuel, based in the Queen of the South (where – little-known fact about me – I once (long ago) played bowls while working for a famously no-longer-existing building society.)

Wood Fuel ticked a lot of boxes for me since it’s a co-operative, which means that it not only offered me great customer service, it also does good things for its local community, including for the Dumfriesshire food bank, as well as guaranteeing that its products – and it offers a sizable range of these things – have done as few miles as possible (they’re made in the UK in Herts and by a small family company) and come from sustainably-sourced timber. They also offer briquettes quite a bit cheaper than Verdo, where per-briquette prices (including delivery to these islands) had gone up by over a quarter in two years (yes – I keep a detailed eye on these things).

Proof of the quality comes with burning and it’s a bit early to report on that just yet. However, I note that the briquettes are hardwood; they come packed in cardboard boxes rather than plastic sleeves; and they look, for a number of technical reasons, a little easier to use than the Verdo ones (which could be slow-burning). Wood Fuel also supply a very helpful A4 leaflet on using the briquettes and getting the best from the stove; and, after being also out of stock when I first contacted them, managed to get them to me within the week and two/three days earlier than expected.

I was particularly pleased to note the use of cardboard boxes to house the briquettes rather than plastic sleeves; we always used to re-use these as bin-liners so they did get one (but only one) extra use: cardboard means not only eliminating that but it also provides us with an additional source of fire-starting material. The drawback is that, despite its strengths, cardboard presents a number of issues when unloading the pallet and storing the boxes, especially since the briquettes are a little different and, consequently, the boxes need to be stacked higher in the shed (they’re up to the roof to ensure I take up no more scarce floor space); while rain is clearly an enemy both to safe storage in this respect as well as to the briquettes themselves (they are made essentially from sawdust and so are, quite evidently, useless when wet.

Today was, briefly, showery – but the pallet comes double shrink-wrapped as well as with a plastic sheet to protect against damp in transit – more of the environment-killing stuff but this is unavoidable in the Uist context and, at least, all that squashed down to an old log bag. Fingers crossed that the boxes’ journey from pallet to shed didn’t compromise them too much. Else my not-so-much leaning wall of briquettes at the back of the shed may yet come tumbling down.

I do like the look of these things not least in that their brittle nature – you can easily break them apart by hand – should mean that they catch quicker once the fire is underway and, quite probably, they could also facilitate some economising on kindling, the need for which remains present with the Verdo ones. We’ll see in the next few weeks but, as long as these go well, I’ll definitely be using Wood Fuel again.