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:

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

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A world away from Brexit – Up Helly A’ 2020

I spent Brexit Day in Lerwick, up above 60ºN and some 760 miles from London – further from the carnival in Parliament Square than any other place in the British Isles; and, travelling eastwards from London, you’d have reached Poland before you got as far again.

I was not only escaping Brexit, of course, but attending the 2020 Lerwick Up Helly A’, which pays tribute to Shetlands’ Norse origins, proceeding from pageantry (with costumes of the main squad taking literally years to work up and build because of the intricate details worked into the designs), to the drama of the torchlit parade through the darkened streets of Lerwick, to one massive all-night party, if you’re lucky enough to get a ticket to one. The history lies in marking the end of Yule, with the days visibly beginning to stretch out after the winter darkness, and in youths returning from the Napoleonic Wars with an appetite for doing things with gunpowder and, later, barrels of burning tar around Lerwick’s narrow, steep streets. The Lerwick Up Helly A’ – one of 12 fire festivals taking place around Shetland from January-March, is the second in the season and, with (this year) 845 marchers (‘guizers’) in fancy dress, it’s not only Shetlands’ but Europe’s biggest fire festival. It’s always held on the last Tuesday in January and, famously, is never, ever cancelled for the weather – the only time it has been cancelled was when it coincided with Winston Churchill’s funeral. Perhaps this explains why the Proclamation – traditionally posted at 6am on a giant board at Lerwick’s market cross – lists this year’s Guizer Jarl (Liam Summers) as the 100th such, although he actually appears to be the 101st named.

If you’re looking for a video which explains what Up Helly A’ is all about, this Shetland.org video is an excellent explanation – well worth 23 minutes of your time (and for a number of reasons, one of which is that the young woman presenter is a former Jarl’s Squad member (in the South Mainland Up Helly A’)). Though she ought also to have mentioned the magnificent beards on display.

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Up Helly A’ is a stamina and endurance event, not least for the Guizer Jarl’s squad – this year numbering 55 people and the only guizers to be dressed as Vikings. Their day starts before breakfast and they’re in costume all day (and then literally all night) – no mean feat when a dose of the ‘flu had affected much of the main squad this year and when Liam’s costume weighed some 30kgs (66lbs), plus axe and shield representing probably an additional 12-15kgs. To get to the end of the night and be as fresh for the last hall as you were for breakfast takes some doing.

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Controversially, however, the Lerwick Up Helly A’ has always excluded women and girls from participating as guizers; it is the only one of the twelve that does. Recently, there have been campaigns to change this which have attracted increasing media attention (see here for a Scottish perspective on this year’s event; and here for a UK one) as the festival has become more and better – and internationally – known. This year, ‘Reclaim the Raven’ brought ‘artivism’ to the existing information gathering and letter writing campaign of the more long-standing ‘Up Helly Aa for Aa’, with the group designing their own proclamation and, guerilla-style, attaching it at 5am to the market cross, on the opposite side to where the Proclamation is erected. This was removed (anonymously) at 8am and has not since been recovered even though those responsible were caught in the act on camera.

Whatever the weight of tradition, the reasons for not excluding women from a public space on the grounds only of their sex are surely stronger. Whatever happens next is clearly for the campaigns themselves to decide, but the Guizer Jarls’ motto – (‘We axe for what we want’) surely has something to commend it in the context of the typically expressed change mission of educate-agitate-organise. The spectre of people genuinely applying to participate as mixed squads but being met with point blank refusal – as happened this year (‘Activists attend London event’, Shetland Times 31/1/20, p. 6) – and teachers at Anderson High School having to inform the lads, and only the lads, in their classes about where to go to sign up for the Junior Up Helly A’ squad is appalling. It is unjustifiable and completely unsustainable to continue to exclude women and girls from the biggest fire festival in Europe, and it sends a completely wrong, and unhealthy, message to young girls in particular. Equality must be everywhere – or there is no equality, as the slightly surprised tone of the newspaper editorials linked above emphasise. The Lerwick Up Helly A’ Committee needs to change; and it needs to decide whether it wants to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 2020s or whether it wants to gain some credit, even at this late stage, by choosing to reform itself in line with the really quite modest, and certainly low key, demands of the local campaigners.

Senior level change will take time: with the new, and already magnificently bearded, member of the Committee being elected to take Liam’s place having to wait fifteen years for his shot at being Guizer Jarl, the earliest a woman could head the Lerwick procession would, at this point, be 2036. The world will have changed substantially by then – and hopefully the Committee will not at that point still be fighting the battles of the 1970s – while small (but significant) change can be accomplished immediately by allowing mixed squads into at least the ranks of the rest of the guizers from the 2021 Lerwick event onwards. When even the Shetland Times – not apparently a particular champion of change in this respect – points to the problems to Shetland society of the divisiveness of the debate, and expresses its hopes for Up Helly A’ to continue ‘in a way the whole community can celebrate it’, you know your time is up.

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Men dressed as women are a frequent sign in the skits put on by the squads during the night-time partying in the 11 halls around Lerwick which act as party venues – 47 squads were in this year’s event and their routines are likely to be more than recognisable to the squads in 1920, all featuring a mix of music and singing, dance and the lampooning of local and national figures and events, with each taking months to plan, write and rehearse. It was a hugely enjoyable night, not least in the sights of men quite clearly enjoying the liberation of wearing a dress and in the oddball costumes in which some spent large parts of their night. I spent my night at the Mareel arts centre, courtesy of tickets obtained by my nephew, Igor – and, despite the lack of progress on women’s participation, there were other positive signs compared to my last Up Helly A’, back in 2013:

– no act used blackface this year

– one squad (23: ‘Slantiģirt does Oz’) did a thoughtful routine based on the Wizard of Oz and included two men clad in rainbow suits.

Top of the pile for me was Squad 42, whose ‘Swine Lake’ – men in pink tutus and lycra and wearing pig masks dancing to Swan Lake – was a thing of style and no little grace. Honourable mentions, among others, also to Squad 38 (‘London Calling’); Squad 33 (‘Still Game’ and including a spot-on Slosh to ‘Beautiful Sunday’, of course); Squad 32 (‘Post Office Redirection’); Squad 43 (‘Sister Act’); and Squad 30 (‘Man’s Event in Lerwick’).

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8.20am and the scene at bedtime.

I went on to spend part of Brexit Day itself at a town hall commemoration in respect of Holocaust Memorial Day, held over from the Monday perhaps as a result of the preparations within the Town Hall for Up Helly A’. The call of HMD to ‘Stand Together’ being made on that day was certainly not lost on the Bulgarians and the Poles present at the event.

Other links can also be made: not only does Up Helly A’ symbolise Shetlanders’ Norse heritage, but the drama of the burning of the boat has symbolic relevance, too. In some Up Helly A’s, the burning galley is launched into the sea, in reference to the suggestion that the galleys of deceased Norse warriors were turned into funeral pyres and put to sea – but not in Lerwick, where the Up Helly A’ burning takes place in a small public park. Here, the symbolism of boat burning, leaving people unable to get home but, instead, having thus exercised the choice to stay, is one that speaks firstly to the settled immigrant that is present in most of us Brits but also in the reference of Up Helly A’ Day to a community coming together to celebrate those same traditions of migration.

Book Review: Cartes Postales from Greece

I dug out Victoria Hislop’s 2016 collection of short stories from my unread bookshelf to take on our recent trip to Crete. Popularly described as one of the UK’s most ardent philhellenes, and these days at least a part-time resident of Crete, Hislop is a well-qualified companion with whom to discuss – over the written page – modern Greece and its tragedies, as well as its heroism, its lyricism and its love of songs and stories.

The stories in Cartes Postales – quite simply, postcards – were mostly written while Hislop was travelling in Greece, alongside Alexandros, a photographer whose images lavish the pages. They were not taken to illustrate, but to act as a prompt with Hislop tending to spin her stories out of the things that they both saw on the journey. Some of the latter are new, some are modern twists on old stories (the Venus di Milo makes an appearance as does, from a Cretan perspective, Icarus and Daedalus), others are founded in the continuousness of the search for meaning in natural signs with which to prompt human decisions at various crossroads (such as at the Oracle at Delphi). As such, most of the stories have a timeless appeal, even if imbued through a modern lens, not to say a glass of wine.

As in any short story collection, some of them work (Je Reviens being a particularly good example, twisting the fortunes of the people who inhabit modern Greece with the threads of its recent past; while Et In Arcadio Ego is menacing and disturbing), while others do not (Air on a G String is filled with the dreadful romanticism that Hislop seems to have rescued from the floor of Richard Curtis‘s writing room). We encompass otherwise the macabre (Honeymoon), the elegiac (Man On A Mountaintop) and the dramatic (The Boy In The Silvery Suit).

The difference to most normal collections are that the short stories are all linked, all being tales told to a traveller in tavernas, guest houses and in town squares. The traveller in question is not Hislop, except perhaps by some kind of displacement, but Anthony, a man on the run from a failed relationship but whose process of letting go entails the sending of a series of postcards, and finally a notebook, from each stopping point to the address of his lost lover, who has since moved away. There, they are received instead by Ellie, a young woman at something of a crossroads herself; and, intrigued, she decides to head for Greece. After that, well, Richard Curtis may yet be on the phone.

So here we have the first problem: the conceit of the structural idea is bold, but its execution in practice is breathlessly, remorselessly romantic in tone. The contrast between this and many of the stories is sharp, but the effect is not interesting since the romanticism of what is essentially the plot – and a rather thin one, at that – both undermines and subtracts from the stories themselves.

The second problem is a minor, practical one: Anthony is on the run but spends the year finishing writing a book on the sculptures of the Cyclades which, as it transpires, actually plays little role in his re-building of his sense of self. The difficulty is, he spends no time in the Cyclades on his journey, which is based virtually entirely on the mainland, and precious little of that in Athens – and, even there, he doesn’t appear to go to the museum where Cycladic art has been stolen re-located. Perhaps his research notes were all complete but, if it was me, I’d be wanting to visit one, probably both, and regularly, as I was finalising my work. Consequently, the threading of the stories relies on a hook which is both extremely insecure and which, ultimately, actually has little meaning.

Thirdly, the ageless appearance of the stories is fine at a superficial level, but it leaves the characters on the page inhabiting a yesterday world. This affects particularly the women characters who are disappointingly realised, being usually young girls, femme fatales or old crones (while the men are, although not as ubiquitously, portrayed either as weak-minded old fools or young, strong and silent types). There is nothing new about such an objectification of women (and, indeed, men) in literature, although I choose to read modern women writers to escape that sort of thing. It’s not as though Greece – and specifically Crete – has no examples of strong women, both in revolution and in modern times, on which Hislop could draw but the collection here ignores those in favour of sexist stereotypes. Easier, for sure, but ultimately a lot less challenging. I would have liked to see Hislop go a lot further in the direction where Et In Arcadio Ego seemed to be taking her.

In this yesterday world, modern Greece does appear, but only in the linking sections between the stories whereas a collection which really wanted to tell a story of the modern realities of the country would have made the old stories resonate in a more contemporary fashion with some of the photographs. All we are left with, therefore, is a flavour, a taste of the Greece of kafenion and zacharoplasteion – but one drawn more from the Greece of the travel pages than the reality of the modern stories told, to take just one example, by the graffiti-laden walls which we could see even in downtown, and somewhat sleepy, Rethymnon on our visit. The impression is thus of a throwback; of a recall of, and desire for, happier times; and, ultimately, of somewhat middle-class concerns and mores and standards.

Even for holiday reading, I’m looking for a bit more than that.

So, as this is also a bit of a postcard, as well as a review, here’s some graffiti on a bit of shabby house. I’m a little nervous about capturing graffiti in a foreign language because impressions can mislead and my Greek is, well, holiday Greek. Here, however, I think the loose translation would be ‘Under Heavy Manners’. And absolutely right, too.

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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):

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

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24 hours in Brussels

I had a quick trip to Brussels last week immediately ahead of the European Council which offered a ‘flextension’ get-out-of-jail card on Brexit (much to the amused interest of people who I’d told where I’d been). (And which, of course, we’ve used immediately for parliament to go on recess.)

Brussels is a place I’ve been going to more or less annually for trips, conferences and seminars, and other events, since about 1994 and I both know it reasonably well (as far as anyone can ‘know’ any city), and like it: it can hide its charms, to some degree, and these might also be somewhat idiosyncratic and easy to mock, as Channel 4’s Travel Man (coincidentally on a repeated showing on C4 Sunday afternoon) clearly uncovered without a great deal of effort. Walking down on arrival at the Gare du Nord to my hotel (yes, I know…), I met the sight of a young man openly making good, if unofficial, use of a street planter in performance art tribute to one of Brussels’s statues (maybe this one, or perhaps this one).

But the airport is well located, just fifteen minutes by train (of which there are five or six an hour) from the centre of Brussels, and without charging rip-off fares; and even the automated passport barriers work without supercilious staff suggesting I take off my glasses like I’m intentionally using them as some sort of disguise (BA/Heathrow Airport seriously take note). And how you can not like a place whose baggage hall has a jukebox:

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Unusually, I managed to get from these islands to where I wanted to be the same day (morning flight from Benbecula-Glasgow; a short wait for a flight from Glasgow-Heathrow T5; and then a slightly longer wait than flight from T5-Brussels), though the downside was that this meant this trip was one of the shortest I have ever made (little more than the aforementioned 24 hours, from late afternoon one day to just before dinner the next). I was there for the annual meeting of the Editorial Board of the SEER Journal, with discussion of many interesting ideas, articles and innovations coming the way of our subscribers in 2019/20, but no visit to Brussels would be complete without a meal at Bij den Boer or without sampling a few beers.

24 hours either side of a busy and important meeting didn’t deliver too much opportunity for the latter. (And gentle rain in the evening, persisting more heavily right throughout the next day, didn’t encourage much in the way of trekking or, indeed, of photos.) However, I did manage to make Brasserie Omnibus, a cafe bar  with a train theme, my local for the duration, serving a rather good, if sweet, Tripel Le Fort (plus a welcome little dish of bar snacks); while a nearby hotel bar delivered a proper temperature Rochefort Trappist 8 (which currently makes Belgium’s top 50 beers on Rate Beer), offering plenty of chocolatey goodness; while a wander around the corner from Bij den Boer to Cafe Merlo offered some new-style small-batch craft beer via Brasserie de la Senne, whose Zinnebir (a Belgian blonde) provided citrusy dryness to the post-dinner chat with colleagues wondering what the heck was happening with Brexit (my only new observation being that the UK is – or at least was, last week – a country in a state of open revolt in search of a revolution). All beers from bottles, by the way.

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So, with a tinge of sadness – this being (possibly, who knows?) my last trip to Brussels as a ‘free’ citizen, it was a farewell to the city of Brussels with at least a hopeful au revoir/tot ziens. ‘Til next time then, comrades (if the creek don’t rise).

Facial recognition technology: a personal story

A quick check to the photo on the left would confirm – were it to be required – that I have spectacles. I’ve worn glasses since I was about seven years old when my class teacher, (a Mrs Whitehead, I believe, though I might be wrong about that) quite astutely realised that I couldn’t see the blackboard, and told my Mum. (With nothing to compare it with, how was I to know that not being able to see the board wasn’t the default position for everyone?)

So, I’ve worn glasses for nigh-on fifty years, and they are a part of me. ‘Twas not always thus: the silent movies of Harold Lloyd (motto: A pair of glasses and a smile) did much to habilitate me to the things in front of my face. These days, not only do they frame my face, they also frame a major part of my identity: I look in the mirror and I see me, in glasses (I am unable to see me, without!); furthermore, I am who I am in no small measure because I wear glasses: when I was young, a fear of breaking them, and shards going into my eye, or my parents having to contribute some of their very hard-earned cash to replace broken ones (most NHS specs were not free, even in those days), which happened on more than one occasion, were quite a major part of my growing up in some of my very formative years.

Without my glasses, I don’t see very well, being acutely short-sighted and with age yet to do its thing and start correcting it. Consequently, in front of strangers, even ones who mean no harm, I do feel vulnerable. It doesn’t help that my house was once, a long time ago, broken into and my glasses taken off my face and broken by the intruders. My glasses are me and I’d be no more without glasses in front of strangers than I would any other item of clothing.

This is not a post about my passport photo which, taken in the last few years, shows me without glasses on the grounds that glasses were not ‘approved’ (Ali Smith has a funny, and all too familiar, extemporisation on this theme in ‘Autumn‘). But it is linked.

The introduction of new technology in airports takes on a number of guises, one of which is the automation of security control barriers. Here, you are supposed to stand (absolutely squarely) on rough outlines of feet on the floor and stare at a post which takes your picture. Aside of the intrusive aspect of this, and those which raise all kinds of data protection and civil liberties issues, it doesn’t work for people who wear glasses: light flashing off the glass, apparently, confuses the technology (quite why, when cameras, including on mobile phones, are quite used to dealing with this, is a different matter).

‘Take your glasses off, sir,’ is the call when red lights flash and I have to seek assistance at the gate into security.

‘I can’t,’ say I, by now quite practised at this charade and also quite genuine in my objections. ‘You need technology that works and, if I have to deny my identity, your technology doesn’t work.’

This time, just yesterday, having this debate with the officer on duty, at a major airport in the London area, who manually checked my documents and waved me through. The added twist this time was the expressed thought that glasses – and, by implication, my own – could be used to disguise identities.

Coming eventually to the gate for my domestic flight to Edinburgh, I find similar technology and, putting my bar code face down on the glass, I am confronted again with red lights and a familiar, and growing, sense of helplessness. I again have the conversation with the airline staff at the gate about the vagaries of their applications of technology and that, no, I am not taking my glasses off.

Checking my details takes some time and everyone else has gone through by the time the gate staff tell me that the person they have a photo of on their screen isn’t me.

Bidden, I take a look. The horrendous head and shoulders caricature I see on the screen before me in a peculiarly detailed black and white x-ray style photo, distorted and twisted, with my head apparently bigger than my body, arms flowing from shoulders in an oddly-shaped way, and bearing more than a passing resemblance to Nosferatu, even I don’t recognise as me.

‘We can’t let you board the flight, sir’,’ say the gate staff, ‘ Your biometrics don’t match up with our records.’

And indeed they don’t let me on. Amidst the course of several conversations about the whys and wherefores of this, the security implications for those on my flight as well as another, unknown, one on which this apparent stranger is booked, and not least the implications for my later flight out of Edinburgh to Gdansk, my plane is backed away from the stand. It appears to all, including myself, that someone else’s picture has become associated on their systems with my boarding pass. I have been denied boarding, and through absolutely no fault of my own.

Resolution appears in the form of senior staff, who have the ability to call up what seems to be a higher resolution, albeit still peculiarly negative, photo. ‘That is him,’ says one, to the doubts of others. ‘Sir, is this you?’

A second, more sustained look at this second photo gives me pause for thought. It does seem to be me – the coat (critically by now in my carry-on bag) but framing me in the photo is the same and I have a button-through shirt, although I don’t appear to be wearing my glasses. Nosferatu has, however, been replaced by a figure a little closer to something I would recognise as myself. ‘Yes,’ I think out loud, ‘It might well be me.’ Too late, of course: my flight has long gone.

Photo retaken, manually, glasses still on, by one of the senior staff and I’m free to go away and stress with others about my chances of catching the next flight and whether it gets me there in time to catch my connection. (A side note: even these new photos still don’t trigger the gate barriers when I try and use them to board the next flight.)

As to where this earlier photo came from – who knows? Ignoring conspiracy theories, it can only have come from photos that were taken at the gate into security but which, however, were for some reason insufficient to let me pass through.

Ostensibly, of course, the photo is there to capture an image of people so that boarding cards can’t be swapped once people are air-side, although it seems to me that a stage is being jumped and that some form of retina recognition is already being implemented. This raises a few other issues, including that this – if true – is not being as widely publicised as civil liberties indicates it ought. More generally, however:

1. A technology that requires people not to be wearing glasses is not a functional one. There are quite a lot of us who wear glasses. Most people might be comfortable doing as instructed and taking off their glasses; unfortunately, I’m really not one of them.

2. To be useable, a technology has to do the job required of it. A technology which seems to be capable only of producing such a poor quality image, and which is dubious even at higher resolution, is simply not doing the job required when, at least on the surface, much better and more useable technologies are available.

3. And it has to be easy to use. A photo that even the subject himself can not recognise, still less hard-pressed gate staff with a really important, front-line job to do in the security of all of us, and with only seconds or less to spare per passenger, is not useable. People with glasses frequently look a lot different without them.

Time for a re-think, HAA?

The Legendary Park Bar

In Glasgow at the weekend and, following a walk along the River Kelvin and through the grounds and museum at Kelvingrove – still no pub called The Kelvin, I note, dammit, anywhere in the area – we wound up for a few whiskies and a bit of entertainment at the legendary Park Bar, just a few hundred yards from the museum. Star of novels and radio productions (forthcoming), The Park Bar is a bit of a legend amongst Uibhisteach and western isles folk more generally – and with very good reason as it is something of a home-from-home down there in Baile Mòr offering traditional music, good food and drink, some familiar faces, experiences and points of reference and a bit of a chat (not least when Runrig are also playing The Last Dance, and the islands have therefore emptied).

Satisfying myself with a few Schiehallions before switching to a Bruichladdich (or two), and enjoying Scott Harvey‘s slimmed-down trio of keyboard, accordion and drums, I couldn’t help a wry smile at this sign posted to the wall just to the right of the wee stage and warning of the Park Bar’s zero tolerance policy:

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An image which is somewhat shaky (and therefore reduced in size here as full scale really does appear like the lens has been smeared with vaseline), not as a result of the Bruichladdich(s), I swear, but genuinely as a result of being bumped by dancers doing their best to throw a few Highland shapes in a bar that was *absolutely mobbed*. That’s the story I’m sticking to, anyway.

Yep, it was a great night!

A wee trip near Scotland

A period of radio silence for me, then, as a trip to Poland for a bit of holiday and a wedding was accompanied by a deliberate decision to leave behind my trusty laptop in order to make extra room in my suitcase for a few more shirts – better clothed sartorially I might, perhaps, have been but also somewhat more naked in that, like a lot of us, my life centres on the connectivity provided by my laptop in ways that are more flexible and easier to accomplish than they are via a purely hand-held, if rather old, device. (Even if, as is the case even in remote Poland, just a handful of kilometres from the border with Lithuania, 3G connectivity is a lot better than it is here in the UK.)

Imagine my surprise, then, to find out that, after a trip of 200 miles from our base here on the islands down to Glasgow, a 1,250-mile airplane trip across Europe to Warsaw and a 150-mile drive up Highway 61 () to the outskirts of Augustów, and then a bit further still towards Suwalki, our initial base at the small village of Dowspuda was just 1km out of  Szkocja:

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Szkocja was indeed founded by Scots who had been called across to the north-east of the Duchy of Warsaw in the early years of the nineteenth century to provide specialist agricultural advice to the local landowner, a former general in Napoleon’s army who was allowed to build a somewhat grandiose palace and mausoleum at Dowspuda, specifically on crop rotation systems as a way of making more productive use of the land. To those familiar with the history of the Highland Clearances, under which working people were, usually forcibly, evicted to make way for sheep as a way of making more productive use of the land, this is a somewhat ironic footnote in the history of Scots migration, not least given today’s general lack of visible sheep in much of rural Poland.

The army general concerned supported the rather ill-thought out November (1830) Uprising against the Tsar, and subsequently fled abroad, and so little remains of his Palace today other than an impressive portico and a tower, most of the rest of the stonework having been removed for use in local projects elsewhere (the windows, for example, found their way to the church in Suwalki), and the remains were subsequently destroyed. There are, however, plans to re-construct the palace as a five-star hotel – something which raises interesting points of discussion, regardless of the Polish historical context, about whether culture is really better served by looking backwards rather than forwards. Nevertheless, the former guardhouse has been beautifully regenerated as a tourist centre providing well-appointed rooms as well as very welcome employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

As for the Scots farmers, they came, they stayed and were allowed to build houses in a village they deliberately called home, constructing their lives there in the way that migrants have always done. Interestingly, there is at least one other Szkocja in Poland. Travelling the length of our Szkocja, we did see signs naming the village but none with the name crossed through in the way in which the geographical limits of Polish (and other east European) towns and villages are routinely identified – thus seeming to prove that there is, indeed, no end to Scotland. Rumours that the local Polish dialect is influenced by Gàidhlig have, however, still to be confirmed at the time of writing 😉 .

Integration of the western Balkans – Sofia 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 🙂