Just going about their business…

This week’s archaeology lecture was a very interesting session on the preserving qualities of sand, with specific reference to Links of Noltland, up on Westray, Orkney. This is an important late Neolithic/Bronze Age site (which means 3000 BCE-2500 BCE) – even the name juggles both Scots, Norse and English – and, like a lot of Orkney’s heritage, is both buried in sand and vulnerable to coastal erosion. Excavating the site, and preserving it for future use, represents a challenge in which available resources are confronted with the remorseless impact of time.

Consequently it provides an excellent illustration of the coastal archaeology course on which I’m enrolled; and has important resonance for the Western Isles given that a large number of the sites of archaeological interest – over 13,000 of them – on these islands are coastal (or, at least, they are now…) and a large number of those are buried in the sand beneath our feet.

My lecture notes need a little more time for reflection as the content was complex but the week also featured a good class discussion (online, of course) inspired by two items of source material which looked at what prehistoric civilisations can tell us about dealing with coastal erosion. The first was a 2009 article by Jim Leary in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology looking at the flooding of the North Sea lowlands; the second a contemporary piece by Robert Barnett and Sophie Ward in The Conversation looking at how rising sea levels affected what is now the Scilly Isles, in the south-west corner of the UK.

There is little evidence as to what happened to the peoples who once inhabited the vast area of the North Sea lowlands – Doggerland – which once connected the UK and continental Europe (why didn’t they write anything down?!) and so essentially we are only surmising about what became of them; but there is a little more evidence from Scilly, where rising sea levels were associated not with a decline in human activity, as might be expected, but in a flourishing of it. The key point is of course that coastal change, erosion and rising sea levels affect people in different ways depending on precise location – the spark for Barnett and Ward’s conclusion that it is local communities that have to drive response plans. Scilly may well have flourished whereas Doggerland – hit by immensely rising sea levels (of about 1.25 cm/year; or 30+cm per generation) – had already become a series of low-lying islands even before the ‘Storegga Slide’ swept much of the rest of the land away.

The question which occupied much of the class discussion – and which is also well addressed by Leary, although the simple lack of evidence leads him to go a little anthropological in the middle – was why people stay in low-lying areas affected by inundations and rising sea levels. It’s evidently a recurring question. Many people – in many communities around the world and including up on Baile Sear, which has been the focus of all our field trips so far – are also facing similar questions. Aside of the very different, and the changing nature of, the barriers to mobility, human beings across thousands of years are likely to have had fairly similar answers to tidal inundations and to the essential question, posed restrospectively, of ‘why didn’t they leave?’: family; community; and residence. All provide ties to the land (and/or the sea), even in hunter-gatherer societies; and all provide very valid justifications for not moving, in spite of all the evidence surrounding them.

Mulling over these questions later that evening while watching a bit of TV – it does sometimes happen in this household – I was struck by something really rather profound said by one of the characters in The Missing, a programme made by the BBC (of course) and whose second series was filmed in 2016. Both series were well received and well-watched, it appears, although it is an open question as to whether such a series – set in Europe, featuring characters speaking languages that are not their own and, where they are speaking their own language, the dialogue is not always sub-titled into English – would be commissioned in these Brexter’d Isles today. Anyway, Julien Baptiste, a retired (and ill) detective, is travelling in 2014 in northern Iraq/Iraqi Kurdistan to find evidence in support of a promise made to a parent of a murdered teenager and he has procured Stefan Andersson, a journalist, as travelling companion. Reaching the city of Azwya, which has been the subject of recent intense fighting between Isil forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga, they first encounter utter desolation – not a soul in sight and every building stripped back to the bare bricks by shells and gunfire, roofless and only frames where windows and doors used to be, concrete acting as road blocks and rubble everywhere. Later, they sit down watching some young lads playing football, while some semblance of normal life returns behind them. People had, it seems, been in hiding from the fighting.

Baptiste: ‘Remarkable, is it not? In front of all this, people still go about their business.’

Andersson: ‘This is the only way of taking control of your life, I suppose. Feeling like your future is in your own hands for a change.’ (The Missing, Series II, programme 2 ‘The Turtle and the Stick’ @ 42.05)

It struck me immediately that this is likely to be a time-honoured response to disaster, whether in Azwya in the middle of the Iraq War; or on Doggerland or on Scilly thousands of years ago. Faced with problems that are external in nature and environmental, which wreak their own havoc and which exist beyond your own control and your own plans, your choices are limited – of course, you organise to fight back, however you can and by whatever means. But, ultimately, you stay because that remains your decision and, when everything else is being taken away, that decision – perverse as it might sometimes appear – is the only thing that remains your own and within your own control.

Right there, under our feet

It’s been an interesting week for archaeology what with Milly, a 13-year-old, discovering a horde of Bronze Age axes in Royston (on her third metal-detecting trip, natch); and publicity arriving for a very well-kept secret find, in a farmer’s field in Rutland, of a Roman villa complex with a mosaic depicting Homer’s The Iliad. Both go to prove the old adage that you never know what’s under your feet – and that probably every grass-covered hillock in otherwise broadly flat ground is likely to be of potential archaeological interest.

We do have Bronze Age – up to c. 800BCE – finds out here on Uist although Iron Age ones, i.e. from the era immediately following the Bronze Age, are more common. The Romans, of course, never made it this far in their conquest of these isles – to them, the western isles were ‘here be dragons’ even if they weren’t quite ultima Thule – so there’ll be no villa complexes or mosaics out here and, probably, neither any evidence of underfloor heating (although certainly people of that time knew how to heat stones for a variety of purposes).

This week’s course featured a terrific lecture from Dr. Emily Gal, of UHI, reflecting on the relationship between archaeology and the paleoenvironment: how climate change influences what we now find on archaeological digs and how humans somewhere way back up the line responded to climate change; and how to interpret meaning into the evidence we find in the ground (via plant matter, insects and ‘remains’ of all types imaginable). It was quite mind-blowing to discover that the western isles are literally sinking, as a result of geological factors, whereas much of mainland Scotland is still rising: the ice sheet was much thinner here, but up to one kilometre deep on the mainland. The consequence is that, whereas there is still a kind of ‘trampoline effect’ on the mainland, with the earth’s crust rebounding upwards after the release following its suppression by the weight of all that ice, there is little or no effect here and, in fact, the key is movement in the other direction caused by the dense weight of the gneiss which forms the bedrock of these islands. This is not to say that sea levels are not rising on the coasts of the mainland too – they are, especially on the east coast, and at a rate of knots.

The outcome of the sinking of the western isles is nothing particular to worry about – the rate here is about one metre per millennium – but, on top of human-influenced climate change, it does raise the question about what evidence we can find for how people previously interacted with the changing climate: how they tried to respond to it and the mobility issues that inevitably arise when things get a bit too hot for survival, and human growth, right here.

The follow-on issue is one of how Uist would have looked in times gone by. Probably, it was about twice the width it now is, extending the latterday coast out into the Atlantic by as much as 14km. The Monach Islands (that’s the little tilde on the map to the right, lying out to sea between Benbecula and North Uist), and now uninhabited, was still connected to North Uist by a land bridge as recently as the 16th century. Furthermore, the ‘long island’ probably therefore was indeed one long island, stretching from what is now the Butt of Lewis (Rubha Robhanais) and reaching down probably to Barra and, perhaps, even further south. Certainly South Uist was joined to Benbecula with the bay between the north-west tip of South Uist – where we now live – and Benbecula being actually previously constituted of one freshwater, inland, lake before being swamped by the sea. There is evidence of a wood existing on the edge of that expanse of water, now constituting a submerged forest on the current southern shore of Benbecula and, apparently, there is some similar evidence here, too, as well as on the small island of Gualan slightly further east to us though that needs to await the next spring tide (and good weather!) for an exploration (and, perhaps, a photograph should I be able to find anything). That’s next weekend, by the way. (Weather not guaranteed.)

The lecture was succeeded the following day by some field work on Baile Sear – just about visible on the map above as the island between Benbecula and North Uist and close to the shore of the latter – where the class was engaged in some photography and some ‘cleaning’ (gentle scraping; no gouging) of sections of the exposed midden (tip site), largely to expose the different colours signifying how the midden was composed. Here’s a couple of small (unofficial) photos showing ‘my’ section: check the band of red (peat ash) against the lighter colours of the windblown sand above; and, lower down, a protruding bit from a darker section of soil which, after a bit of more cleaning, revealed itself as a shard of pottery, with a pleasingly curved shape and, at the top, a clear rim. Elsewhere in the midden there are animal bones and a few scattered shells although not as many of the latter as elsewhere in the locality.

I’ve tramped over these dunes above this site a few times and, while the exposure of the midden is not new – it dates back now a few years when a hurricane lead, amidst human tragedy, to a 50m section of dune being lost in one night – I’ve never known what was there, underneath. Or, to be fair, and to my shame, given it too much more than a passing thought. But that small shard, readily exposed to my fingertips, is at least 1600 years old and there may – just may – be a lot more of interest underneath the machair. People lived here, died here and are, perhaps, buried here – in what was not an isolated manner of existence but as part of a sizable, probably noisy, jostling community and, judging by the size of the midden, a successful one at that. Perhaps that piece of pottery was an ordinary household item broken in the course of every day living – or perhaps it was used to lug a load of shellfish to a celebration of some kind. Perhaps it might even have been broken as a part of that celebration. Now, that evidence of existence lies on the coast and is exposed not only to the mighty Atlantic and the winds – but back then? Quite some way inland, perhaps even sheltered from the wind in some way, with people making their existence not just from the sea but from the land all around them.

All is really speculation – we just don’t know, at least at this stage – but, after all, what is speculation other than the product of evidence, and an informed ability to interpret, set alongside a free running imagination?

Archaeology and coastal erosion in Uist

Have just enrolled on this 10-week course starting in a week’s time; and I’m really looking forward to some pre-course field work taking place tomorrow up on Baile Sear – an island off the west coast of North Uist which experiences a pace of erosion which is almost visible. I haven’t been up there for around five years now and I’m interested (and rather full of foreboding) to see the amount of change that has taken place in that time. I’m hoping that the course will give me a greater understanding of climate change and its role in shaping the islands on which I live; and the lives and the opportunities of all of us who stay here.

The pre-course field work is based on a drone study of the archaeological remains eroding from the coast, which is being led by Ellie Graham, a PhD student from Aberdeen.

Just hoping that the rain, which is in the Met Office forecast for tomorrow morning, alongside some rather changeable weather, holds off – making judgments and recording observations through wet glass(es) can be a bit of a challenge…

The course is likely to be quite intensive while holding down the (freelance) day job, so blog activity might be a bit more rare over the next period. Will be trying to post some materials and some thoughts up here as the weeks go by, though. This is my first time in a learning environment for quite some time and, on this side of the learning room as opposed to the other, for quite a bit longer. There were archaeologists in my last employment and I really wish I’d come across a few more of them while I was there.

Anyway – wish me luck!

News flash: calm weather in Uist

Uist fishing boats in rare dialogue about the wind direction

We don’t usually have to wonder too much about the wind direction – the Dark Island turbine and the fishing boats, when in the bay, give us all that without us even having to step outside. Consequently it’s a rare day when the wind is so still that the boats point in different directions (even if the above photo, taken yesterday afternoon, was taken just about an hour after low tide with the boats being still somewhat stuck in the sand). Today, again, there’s barely a breath of wind.

To tell the truth, the weather has been extremely poor in June, with cold grey skies, plenty of rain and strong winds for much of the month until its last few days: a clutch of tourists arrived at our door on Wednesday last week, in search of a neighbour’s B&B, clad in shorts and light summer jackets; a few hours later they were spotted on the way back from the beach in heavier coats, long trousers and holding to each other for warmth. Our fisher folk have indeed rarely ventured out – not so much the weather in June itself as the lingering effects of our long, cold winter on the size of the shellfish, typically lobsters, that they usually catch: shellfish are simply too small to warrant the effort, and the dangers, of going out and bringing them ashore.

I alluded to this below in the late return of the corncrakes, given the lack of cover provided by the nettles and yellow flag iris – one male was still calling yesterday afternoon, somewhat forlornly, although most females will be on a second brood by now so there’s little for the males to make much of a song about. There is now, at least, plenty of cover for them on the land: June’s rains have seen the nettles and the iris spring to life and it’s likely that their nests – the second ones – will have remained well hidden. Worse effects seem to be on the birds which can be predated upon and whose nests are more in the open: there is so little seafood to go around that the gulls – not so much the ravens this year, which are remarkable absent from our headland – have turned to the bird populations instead, and with catastrophic effects: a pair of shelduck popped up one day last week with a brood of 8-10 ducklings but I caught sight of a pair, probably the parents, on Saturday evening, just drifting on the tide, distanced but sorrowfully together, and entirely duckling-less, before taking off together toward the setting sun. There is no eider nursery that I’ve seen: parent birds, now moulting and looking in pretty poor condition, but entirely duckling-free. And a lapwing nest on a neighbouring croft was taken by gulls over two days last week: on the first day the parents were mostly successful in driving the gulls off but a determined one returned to polish off what was likely to be a solitary remaining chick the following day. Again, the parents – after making a quick, but vain, attempt at defence, swooping fast from the air at the gull(s) on the ground – flew high up, parted and then away separately into the skies.

The fishing season will pick up, even if the autumn gales ensure that it finishes more or less at the same time as usual, leaving (probably) a much truncated season behind; but it is too late for those breeding birds whose clutches are solitary and whose breeding window, in many cases, is brief enough. Despite the effects of our own activity, nature is largely balanced and self-regulating: a poor season one year is still likely to be followed by a good one the next. In the long-term, however, a repetition of long cold winters as a result of climate change will spell trouble: as resistant to long-term change as we humans can be, we tend nevertheless to greater adaptability in the short-term in the face of the havoc we are causing. There will be other jobs on the crofts, with crofters tending each to have three or four jobs anyway. But, while the survival urge will prompt its own changes in response among wildlife populations, unless they are also able to do so in the same short time frame, devastation will be the result. This tension between long-term and short-term adaptability, between humans and wildlife, lies at the crux of the problems being wrought by climate change.

NewMusicMondays – 28 September 2020

David Mitchell spoke, in interviews surrounding the launch of Utopia Avenue, of how a novel has no loudspeaker; and of just how hard it was to write lyrics for non-existent songs that ‘Utopia Avenue’ might actually sing in which he was, as my review noted, only partially successful. For those wondering just how a band made up of guitar, bass, drums and keyboards might actually have sounded, at least in acoustic session and without Jasper’s frenetic fret work, Chris Small has an idea:

Small is a singer-songwriter from Perth, and a multi-instrumentalist specialising (not here) on the trombone. ‘Money Can’t Buy’ is a bluesy groove about love and loss and is a live lockdown track recorded in his backyard and part of an EP whose songs are being released in a regular series over the next few weeks. Chris, also a regular member of Perth Americana band Red Pine Timber Company, comments that the song ‘tries to encapsulate the raw power found on a lot of those late 60’s r’n’b/rock songs, where distortion was really starting to become the backbone of popular music’ – thus, fits very much within the ‘Utopia Avenue’ vein and era.

You can download ‘Money Can’t Buy’ – and the rest of the EP – via Chris’s bandcamp.

I’ve seen Chris at the Twa Tams in Perth with Red Pine Timber Company on a couple of occasions as part of Perth’s Southern Fried music festival which, before taking a break in 2019 and, indeed, 2020 had brought a range of terrific Americana artists to Perth since starting up in 2008. My second track this week is also one from a regular at Southern Fried, appearing in both 2014 and 2018 – the unclassifiable Steve Earle.

I’ve linked to a lot of artists’ bandcamps in this series of posts, but this is not to forget the contribution of independent record stores in keeping us sane in these times, such as 101 Collector’s Records in Farnham. Record Store Day 2 took place this weekend before a third drop next month, but Earle’s ‘Times Like This’ was released specifically for the first (major) RSD drop this year – and my copy came from a very early morning queue outside 101 (thank you, Tracy!). ‘Times Like This’ is a protest song with the singer seeking inspiration from the dynamics of liberation events in the past to revive sagging spirits in these times; but I’m going here with the ‘B’ side: ‘The Devil Put the Coal in the Ground’, a foot-stomping, driving howl of a song with Earle’s banjo providing a banshee scream of hellish protest:

The title is not a description of the climate change impact of burning fossil fuels, nor a reflection on the Polish government’s eventual, and problematic, agreement with the Polish coal unions to phase out production by 2049 (!). Taken from Earle’s current album Ghosts of West Virginia, released in June, it is a tribute to the coal miners of that state and inspired by the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in 2010 that killed 29 workers. The album is essentially the soundtrack to Coal Country, a play written about the disaster and featuring Earle, himself a West Virginian, and explores the historical role of coal in mining communities seeking to generate an understanding of the ‘texture of their lives, the realities that provide significance to their days’ as a means of generating communication and dialogue with miners.

Thus the album fits in very well with the work of Pete Seeger, touched on earlier in this series, as well as with Dick Gaughan, whose 1984 album True and Bold, issued via the STUC to raise funds for striking miners, was probably my first contact with trade unions (yes – I still have my copy). Sadly, Gaughan remains unwell following a stroke in 2016. Must dig out my tapes from those Andy Kershaw sessions – I can recall one cracking session from Gaughan in particular (the 1991 one, I think) though I live in hope that someone at the BBC will, one day, do it for me.

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.

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.

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.