An escape to Poland’s borderlands

It’s been a little-more-than-usually quiet on the blog these last few weeks as we’ve been away and, well, a holiday deserves to be a holiday.

Covid-19 and foreign travel

Our plane tickets were booked some time ago but it was a bit of a late decision actually to use them, amidst rising CV-19 cases ahead of the UK’s ‘unlocking’ on 19 July and eventually secured not least as a result of Bulgaria’s decision to close its borders (again) to UK citizens from the same date, it surely not being long before the rest of the EU was likely to follow suit (well, I would, in their shoes). This didn’t happen, as it turned out, but it was a key factor prompting us to take the chance – if borders had been closed again, it might have been some time before we got back to Europe proper.

Getting into Poland was not onerous: a downloadable certificate demonstrating our double-jabbed status; and a passenger locator form in the shape of an A4 pro forma issued and filled in on the plane, and collected by flight staff; if they even passed it to the Polish border guards, I suspect it wasn’t long before it duly found its way into the big round A-Z file. After a steep rise in the spring, CV-19 cases in Poland have fallen dramatically now representing, according to this interactive chart on the Pink ‘Un (set up to show comparative cases/100,000 population in Poland and in the UK), a tiny fraction of those in the UK: given the bureaucracy (and the expense) associated with getting back into the UK from a visit to a country which remains, still, ‘amber list’, things really ought to be the other way around.

Face coverings remain formally mandatory in inside, unventilated places and, while this was usually respected at the start of the trip, the sheer absence of cases and a vaccination programme which has seen substantial progress among the over-18s saw non-observance noticeably rise during the course of our stay. As we’ve seen from the UK this week, however, large proportions of vaccinated people do not mean that cases cannot rise, or restrictions be again under contemplation – other factors are also at work and, in Poland. a fourth wave is indeed predicted for the autumn.

Introduction

2021 also sees the 10th anniversary of my first visit to Poland (a latecomer on my travels around central and eastern Europe).

Anyway, our trip took us initially to Wrocław and then anti-clockwise around the borders of modern-day Poland with the Czech Republic (via the spa towns of Świeradów-Zdrój; and Kudowa-Zdrój) to the very south-east corner in the Bieszczady Mountains, bordered on three sides by Ukraine and where Poland also borders Slovakia via the Carpathians, and then slightly north to the major city of Rzeszów. Thus, the more progressive, developed and investment-heavy west and the more socially conservative, less developed investment-poor east. The nature of the locations prompted quite a few thoughts about borders, migration and the importance of symbols and language, and I’ve attached these in an extended longform essay below, along with some of the on-theme photos filtered out from the 1,400+ I took during the three weeks, interleaving these observations with a few diary entries documenting where we visited.

We travelled by train and bus wherever possible; planning each stage (travel and accommodation) one in advance. This gave us some flexibility although we were able to retain a broad direction in mind.

Some relatively modern history about borders

I suspect like many others in the UK, I was ignorant until quite recently about the fact that Poland was shifted physically westwards as a result of World War II. Despite being on the winning side, as well as being the casus belli between the UK and Nazi Germany, Poland lost extensive amounts of territory to the east (along the so-called Curzon line which meant the loss of then Lwów, now Lviv and previously part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), to newly-independent Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania as Stalin sought to push his ‘security zone’ as far west as he could (modern geopolitical history continues to see this frontier very much as contested territory); but gaining the ‘Recovered Territories’ from Germany in the north (Gdańsk and eastwards) and in the west (along the Oder-Neisse line and including Silesia (Wrocław) and up to Szczecin, the latter actually west of the Oder). Modern-day Poland was essentially re-established on the basis of the realm of the medieval Piast dynasty. From being pretty central, even slightly west, of the longitudinal centre of Poland, Warsaw found itself quite firmly in its east; and, while Poland certainly lost territory overall, in terms of hectares (it ended up at about 80 per cent of its pre-war size), this was, at least to some degree although this is inevitably controversial, compensated by the Recovered Territories being more highly developed than the areas conceded in the east. The Poland that emerged was more compact than before, and with two quite distinct halves, and the fault lines that resulted from this continue to affect Poland and Polish society today. Polish agreement to this reduction in its size and influence was only achieved by intense wartime diplomatic pressure as well as, rather belatedly, a recognition of the geopolitical realities.

As we might imagine, the cost in human terms of all this border-shifting was immense as people were forcibly moved, on the basis in some cases of an ‘exchange of populations’, as the Polish nation state sought to reconstitute itself as a homogeneous entity and find room in the Recovered Territories for people leaving lands lost to the east, while itself deporting non-Poles to the east. Ordinary German people lost their homes in lands in which many had been settled for some time to the new Polish nation, being forcibly moved to within the borders of how Germany was now constituted. It is hard to disagree with Norman Davies‘s simple conclusion that:

Inimitably, frontiers were to have priority over mere people.

‘God’s Playground’ p. 379, 2005 edition (re-printed in 2013)

Politicians debating over where lines should be drawn on a map can have no other outcome.

The sheer effort involved is hard to imagine: it consumed much of the next three years and, in terms of German expellees from Poland, totalled no fewer than five million people held and then transferred in conditions which may have been familiar to the Nazis but much less so to ordinary Germans caught up in the war but living lives outside of the Nazi machine. On top of the number of Poles moved internally, and into Poland from beyond its new borders, this was indeed one of the ‘greatest demographic upheavals in European history’ (Davies, p. 422, p. 423) – and it happened within the living memory of many of us. It’s a shame that, collectively, we don’t know, or appreciate, these key events better.

Świeradów-Zdrój

After a night in Wrocław (formerly Breslau), a two-hour bus trip took us back west and a bit south to Świeradów-Zdrój (Bad Flinsberg), for some acclimatisation, cake and a delightful, charming family reunion. Świeradów-Zdrój is a rather genteel spa town, notable otherwise for being high enough above sea level to sustain a winter sports industry in the harsh months of the Polish winter – the highest peak is Stog Izerski, served by a cable car, and, despite being 1107m above sea level (that’s 3,360 feet; for comparison, Mount Snowdon/Yr Wyddfa is 1085m above sea level), it’s still substantially below the tree line (largely spruce, and substantially regenerated since thousands of hectares were lost to pollution and insect infestation in the late 1980s). Finding a view from the top, other than of trees, rocks and blueberry bushes, is a bit difficult other than at the summit restaurant.

It’s also a short, tree-lined walk from the top into the Czech Republic, across a border marked simply by a boardwalk and a few signposts, to the neighbouring (and slightly higher) peak of Smrk (1124m) which has a newly-(re-)constructed viewing tower that does take you above the tree line to views over Poland and the Czech Republic. We repeated this bureaucracy-free border-crossing experience some days later.

Świeradów-Zdrój also has a quite astonishing church which, as you progress down the nave towards an apparently oddly offset centrepiece, the presence of a second, modern nave (added in the 1970s at an angle of around 45 degrees to the nave in the ‘old’ part of the church) slowly becomes evident. Poland is, now, overwhelmingly Roman Catholic (see also below, churches being one of the themes of this trip) but thoughts abounded as to how a dual nave church might be used in multi-denominational Christian countries.

Around the town, English language skills were rarer, though growing, and German was more common. Adjacent to our dinner table at a neighbouring 4* hotel (built in 1907) one evening was a party of elderly, and rather sombre, German men and women, clearly lead by a tour guide, likely to be representing one of a number of associations whose aim is to facilitate visits to the patrimony of German people expelled in the immediate post-War period – i.e. where they, or their parents, grew up. That this is these days relatively uncontroversial – that there are few, or no, evident claims to property restitution – is due no doubt to many things (and things were not always so comfortable in the post-War period) but including among them the peaceful integrationist aims of the EU, and the affirmation in 1990 by newly-unified Germany, within that perspective provided by the EU, of the post-war border between Poland and Germany. The flag display outside that same hotel is a symbolic, and incredibly powerful, representation of what that message of unity between European people actually means and the key role played by the EU in that process:

Additionally, Świeradów-Zdrój offers forest walks and the broad walkways and gently rising elevations of the new Sky Walk tower – a terrifically relaxing place to step into the holiday.

Kudowa-Zdrój

Heading south-east from Świeradów-Zdrój by taxi and then train, our next destination was the border town of Kudowa-Zdrój (Bad Kudowa). Today a youthful and quite lively resort, though replete with the panoply of the formal things that spa towns have to offer, but less influenced by the pull and the wealth of Wrocław, the predominant linguistic note in Kudowa-Zdrój is not German but Czech. This is no surprise since the town is surrounded on three sides by the Czech Republic while the E67, the European motorway stretching from the Czech Republic to Finland, goes more or less through the town, splitting the train station firstly from the lower and then the upper parts of the town. Adding to the Czech notes, there was also a ‘cross-border’ Czech-Polish cultural festival going on, funded by the EU’s Interreg programme.

The attraction here was not so much the spa water as two things: firstly, the opportunity to experience a border not influenced by the natural divides raised by mountain ranges; and secondly the Góry Stołowe (Table Mountains) whose highest peak, Szczeliniec Wielki (919m) is a short bus ride away.

Cieszyn, further to the south-east, might be better known – the border here is a small river brutally splitting the town into two parts in different countries, reflecting a sad history – but the divide in Kudowa-Zdrój splits Mała Czermna (Little Czermna, in the Polish) from the district of Czermna, lying on the north-west outskirts of the spa itself. It’s a short walk to the border point and, while there was formal crossing infrastructure in place in the past, Poland and the Czech Republic are now members of the EU’s Schengen Area and achieving the ‘crossing’ is a simple barrier-free stroll down the road. The Czech police apparently take a dim view of undocumented Poles traversing their territory so what they would have made of an undocumented Schengen-less Brit is anyone’s guess (under CV-19 rules, travel into the Czech Republic for UK citizens is barred other than for essential reasons), though the question didn’t actually arise at any point on our bike trip for a late lunch into the neighbouring, and comparatively rather sleepy, Czech town of Nachod. Essential travel, surely.

Here is the border point, familiar elsewhere on both these early legs of the trip from mountain crossing points; ‘P’ on the one side (for Poland); ‘C’ on the other. Note, however, that this is a re-purposed stone, clearly dating from before 1945:

On another occasion, I re-crossed the border (yes, a repeat offender) to spend some of my remaining Czech crowns in one of the not one, not two, but three pubs that lie immediately across the border, wherein I noted that it was still possible, in one corner of the EU in 2021, to buy a pint for a pound (500ml of beer for 30 crowns; the official exchange rate on the day being 29.9 crowns to the pound). It was the type of continental lager best described as cold and wet – much better (and more pricey) was had from a variety of the craft breweries that now inhabit even the remotest corners of Poland – but, nevertheless, this has its place in some contexts. The cost of food and drink was certainly lower in this part of the Czech Republic than in this part of Poland so, unless there is some sort of currency thing going on, Interreg has some work to do in terms of a number of its core aims.

The other attraction was another mountain to climb. In typically Polish hill-walking style, Szczeliniec Wielki offers steps which, in this case, go all the way to the top (actually dating back to the beginning of the 19th century, when the mountain was part of Prussia) and, frequently, a handrail which, in other than Covid-19 terms, might often have been quite a useful thing. Additionally, signs attached to the trees every hundred metres or so mean that you can rarely lose your way (unless you’re really not paying attention) – all very different from our climb this time last year of South Uist’s Beinn Mhor.

The precise number of steps up Szczeliniec Wielki varies according to what you count, but the common assumption is that there are ‘around 700’; the definitive answer, however, is that there are actually 722 taking you to a summit restaurant, of course, as well as breathtaking views of the countryside and the rest of the Sudetes mountains. The key feature of Szczeliniec Wielki, however, is its monolithics – huge lumps of sandstone carved by erosion and weathering into a variety of interesting shapes and also into rock labyrinths (additionally at the nearby site of Błędny Skały, which we also visited the same day in a monumental day of walking). You get to visit this bit of the mountain after paying the appropriate national park fee – taking you to a few more steps up (and then down). Some of the names of the formations leave a little to the imagination and some are best left undescribed for reasons of not spoiling the (frequently breathtaking) surprise, but here’s my version of probably the most photographed one – a rock formation that could barely better resemble a mountain gorilla had it been deliberately sculpted:

Quite soon, though, someone’s going to need to tackle that birch stubbornly clinging to the gorilla’s shoulder…

Sanok

On next to the Carpathians and a first, short-stay base in Sanok – a day’s journey from Kudowa of more than 500km involving a taxi, a train and finally a bus. Sanok is a large town through which flows the River San whose upper reaches form the modern boundary between Ukraine and Poland at the eastern edge of the Bieszczady Mountains and which also featured in the call of Ukraine nineteenth century nationalists for a Ukraine ‘from the San to the Don’ (Davies, p. 115). Sanok has a number of attractions but the biggest is the skansen – a large open air folk museum akin to St. Fagans in Cardiff but covering 38 hectares and featuring some 180 original wooden buildings from the 17th to the 20th century re-constructed faithfully on site (and labelled with basic information in Polish and English). The aim is to provide a sympathetic consideration of what life was like for the peoples of the Polish Carpathians, including both Boykos and Łemkos, long-established Rusyn minorities typically inhabiting the villages of the Bieszczady and the lands adjacent to the west, respectively, and both essentially ethnic Ukraines. The confession of both is Greek Catholic – accepting the authority of the Pope but adhering to an Eastern Christian rite – and the skansen features a number of astonishing wooden churches (cerkiew, in Polish; tserkvas in UNESCO language, as they are internationally recognised as having global heritage) in the different styles of both Boykos and Łemkos.

Both groups suffered hugely in the aftermath of World War II despite a tradition of living peaceably alongside their Polish ‘brothers’ and with some degree of intermarriage. Military activities in the Bieszczady in 1945-1947 by units of the fascist-led Ukraine Insurgent Army (UPA) in support of an updated claim for a Greater Ukraine led to Boykos and Łemkos being regarded as sympathisers and to decisive military action (Akcja Wisła) being taken against them by the new Soviet-backed government. Whole villages in the Bieszczady were cleared, with a total of 140,000 inhabitants repatriated to the ‘Recovered Territories’, and buildings systematically razed to the ground. Many were left as ghost towns for decades and, in some still, orchards with no farmstead and overgrown foundations remain a symbol of the tragedy that arises when nationalism turns people against each other and when people are forced to pick sides.

Cisna

Cisna, our base for most of a six-night stay in the Bieszczady, was one such clearance village although Cisna has been repopulated from the 1970s onwards as the government sought to open up the tourism potential of the Mountains. The village, which occupies a key strategic position in the geography of the area, retains a Communist-era monument to the outcomes of Akcja Wisła on a small rise in the centre of the village but, although it was cleaned up in 2017 and a new memorial tablet inscribed, parts of it remain in a poor state. The new stone commemorates the ‘Defenders of Cisna and the surrounding area in 1944-47 against the Ukrainian Insurgent Army’ and at least this has stopped the graffiti which overlay the original tablet’s commemoration of the ‘Fallen in the fights to consolidate people’s power in Cisna’ although a little has been lost as a result. The frieze, showing soldiers in action in the battles of the time, appears to remain although the open air sections are blackened and indistinct. A new information board at the site tells the story of the actions in Cisna and provides some thoughtful contextual comments, while the main events are also usefully re-told, with photographs, in other places online (Polish language required; or at least access to a translator).

Rain and damp, muddy ground interfered somewhat with our trip here – it is the mountains, after all – but we did manage a couple of small local hills (Jeleni Skok, 777m above sea level; and Hon, 663m – both well below the tree line although the former at least has a viewing platform allowing a perspective on the Carpathians) as well as the main objective – walking the połoniny, Poland’s mountainous wild meadows free of grazing sheep (though neither bears not wolves). We chose the higher for our trip – Połonina Caryńska (1297m) – although most of the mountains hereabout top out at roughly the same level. After some uncertainty as to where to get off the bus, we managed to start the walk in the right place and, while full of gratitude for the stone steps, handrails and clear signs on display throughout, I do have a little beef with the officially-produced tourist leaflets and brochures which promise a walk up of 70 minutes and up to two hours down (to a different destination). These are not times achievable by 50-something occasional, albeit enthusiastic, walkers or indeed by people with babies and young families and there is of course a serious point that mountains need to be respected and, with that in mind, people need not to be encouraged to over-reach themselves in conditions where their own safety – and that of others – may be endangered. It took us, including stops for photos, water and rest, two hours to reach the top and two and three-quarter hours to get down, the last eighty minutes of which was a relentless and frequently steep slog downhill through the forest, often with some quite challenging underfoot conditions as a result of the rain. The walk up Caryńska from where we finished is advertised as two hours – it would have taken us considerably more, even had we started our day there, not least when this is the view after the forest, but uphill, as you eventually break through the tree line:

And that’s not the real top of Caryńska. Of course, we didn’t say that to people on their way up, some already apparently exhausted from that slog uphill.

Nevertheless, the views all around, across Poland and to the Carpathians border with Slovakia and down into Ukraine, were magnificent and the wild flowers, while clearly past their collective best in early August, were nevertheless still showing very well individually. And the top, while crowded (hiking is very popular in Poland) not least with a party of scouts, was not as crowded as some: either in the UK or, notably, at some famous spots further west in the Polish Carpathians.

Having seen some examples of cerkiew in the Boyko and Łemkov styles in the skansen at Sanok, we were keen to see some more examples located within the communities they serve and, aided by a day when we re-located a little out of Cisna, and with the aid of a hire of electric bikes from Robert at Agroturystyka Wojtasiówka and some information from the Icon Trail, now in the process of being renewed, we ventured out. Having travelled across the River Osława, formerly marking the traditional boundary between Boykos and Łemkos, what we found was in the Łemkov style; and we explored no fewer than six (well, it was a Sunday): one in Radoszyce, now re-purposed and re-dedicated as a Roman Catholic church (and only a couple of kilometres up the road from the Slovak border although there’s absolutely nothing there other than expanses of concrete and a picnic table and so we resisted the opportunity to step into Slovakia); two in Komancza; and then the jewels in the crown – one at Rzepedź; one at Szczawne; and then finally the one at Turzańsk which is one of the 16 tserkvas formally on the UNESCO list (the numbers of which are evenly divided between Poland and Ukraine) but which currently has the builders in until next month (the main building, though not the separate belfry, was surrounded by scaffolding when we visited). Most are still in use, all have been renovated (or even rebuilt, in one case) in some way and serving what are quite small, though clearly devout, Uniate communities most of which are likely to have returned to the area once people felt themselves more free to be themselves again following the tragedy (described as such in a commemorative sign in the cerkiew at Rzepedź) of the clearances.

Most of the cerkiew were closed (keys are often available) but the one at Szczawne was open, with a retired geography teacher acting as curator. She was certainly aware of where the Outer Hebrides were, but made it quite clear that she looked only east: apart from Polish she spoke Russian, Ukrainian and Łemko. Her children, nevertheless, had looked west, with three living in the UK (two in Hereford and one in Southampton) and the pain that migration frequently presents – the absence of children and, perhaps, grandchildren – to those left behind not least in the circumstances represented by their own history, was clearly heartfelt. For Europeans, at least, migration is a choice and, while recognising that economic and social circumstances also present something of a compelling force for some people, at least migration is no longer something that comes at the end of a gun. Progress, of sorts. Here, and offered with respect, is the belfry of her church, built in 1889 and renovated in 1973 (bullet holes, remnants of both world wars remain), with the core design broadly reflecting that of the church itself:

Rzeszów

An early start for our next move, north to the city of Rzeszów, and two two-hour bus trips with a connection time of eight minutes (successfully made) meant we were there in time for brunch. The day could scarcely have got any better when we picked on an upstairs cafe on the main square where one of the duties of the waiting staff was to flip the record over to play the other side; and when the staff’s choice of vinyl for the day was THIS.

Eventually tearing ourselves away for a tour of the city’s major sights, and after a brief, but comic, interlude one of us enjoyed with the local police (what goes on in Rzeszów stays in Rzeszów), we started off at the ‘Revolutionary Act Monument’ dedicated, it says here, to the ‘fights for freedom that took place in the Rzeszów area’. Built in 1974, and currently rather well-maintained, despite the attention of a glut of pigeons, its location opposite what was clearly CP HQ, which now houses the provincial administration for the Podkarpackie region of Poland (the more things change…), gives the game away that its correct name probably runs something like ‘Workers and soldiers joined in the ultimate and inevitable victory of Socialism’. While we’ve had our own debates in the UK in recent years about the messages that statues send and their continued relevance in different times, there is a clear argument for explaining and re-contextualising the history. Rzeszów city council deserves a bit of credit for not simply pulling the monument down, as has evidently happened in other places – though it has to be said it does also occupy a major space within the city. However, something a bit less mealy-mouthed on the tourism brochures would also help the impression of a confident city which is at ease with itself and with its recent history.

We used Rzeszów largely as a base for day trips out to places which give readers decent experience of the breadth of the Polish alphabet – to Łańcut; Przemyśl; and to Sandomierz – before ensuring that we had enough time to spare to get the UK Covid-19 bureaucracy in place before our return (tests, both taken and booked (and in both cases paid for); and online forms completed. All the trips – respectively by bus/train, train and then bus again – had their merits. Presenting here just a couple of highlights: Łańcut offered baronial splendour alongside a completely renovated synagogue (in its original building) now in use as a museum (as well as being the home of the best beer sampled this trip); Sandomierz a series of 18th century oil paintings depicting – in a cathedral – people meeting their deaths in a variety of bloodthirsty ways, and including, separately, one depicting the blood libel which frequently features in anti-Semitic discourse (well examined and contextualised here in a piece from 2014 looking expressly at Sandomierz).

The pick of these three trips for me, however, was the mystically-unpronounceable Przemyśl – a city of spires, southern Poland’s second oldest city and an important trading post in the Austro-Hungarian Empire – where the renovated station building, built 1859-1860, offers Baroque style and a station buffet with drapes, plush chairs and fine dining, damask table cloths and all. The city lies close to the border with Ukraine – Ukraine nationalists laid claim to it as part of Greater Ukraine – and the River San flows through it before its eventual confluence with the Wisła a short way north-west of Sandomierz.

The city is multi-confessional and, to some degree, this has been a little fluid: in 1991 the Roman Catholics moved out of one of their two centres of worship – a monumental building whose frontage towers over the street outside, built originally in the 17th century by the Jesuits – to make way for the Uniate community, who had been worshipping in the Carmelite cathedral until that Order wanted it back in the immediate post-Socialist period. The more interesting thing, however, at least in contemporary terms, was this window display in a private apartment immediately opposite the church’s main entrance:

Gusts of wind coming from the wrong direction made the red flag stubbornly refuse to stay the right way out for the camera, but – as might be clear from the logo – it reads ‘Strajk Kobiet‘ (women’s strike) and refers to the mass grassroots protests by women taking place on Polish streets in 2020-21, the largest protests in Poland’s modern history, whose sparking point was a new abortion law but which also, in some contexts, can be seen as mounting an effective opposition to Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS – Law and Justice), the right-wing national-conservative ruling party whose MEPs are now the largest group in the Eurosceptic ECR group (set up by David Cameron) in the European Parliament. The story is not over yet – the leader of Strajk Kobiet has been charged with offences in connection with the protests – but the encounter here this afternoon in Przemyśl was made even more interesting when the young woman who lived in the apartment came down the street behind us as we were taking our photographs and, with a broad smile, asked us if we liked her flags. After assuring her that we did (these things can be misinterpreted), we congratulated her on her placement not least given her location (churches being one of the flash points between Strajk Kobiet and the government, with protesters angry at the Church’s role in the new law -and its powerful role in society more generally – and with leading PiS representatives calling on party members and supporters to ‘take part in the defence of the church’. The language is familiar from our own debates about statues; and, it will not be a surprise to learn, the outcomes of the use of such language were also shared: populists learn very quickly from each other in a globalising world).

It was impossible not to share the woman’s joy in her celebration of her gesture – the rainbow flag was, she said, a replacement for one that had got a bit tatty and had been unfurled only that morning (hence the packaging lines) – nor to escape the massive symbolism of what was going on: here was a woman in the south-east corner of Poland making a dramatic gesture at the surrounding forces of conservatism, symbolised by a church serving the eastwards-facing Uniate community, and turning herself to face very deliberately west in doing so.

The rainbow flag is of course the international symbol of LGBT rights and units of local government in south-east Poland have been at the forefront of the adoption of statements of ‘LGBT-free zones’ or ‘pro family’ charters (including the province of Podkarpackie, whose seat is at Rzeszów, but not Przemyśl as a ‘city powiat‘ within Podkarpackie). Walking around Rzeszów it was impossible not to notice rainbow colours in use on logos and infrastructure and, as it seems, there is a unifying symbol of opposition to the government contained within it, too: it was present, alongside other symbols, in an opposition party protest (actually also sporting flags for a centre-right party which indicates how far right PiS has positioned itself) about media freedom taking place in Wrocław when we returned there before our flight home:

Note also the Covid-19 mask, being worn fashionably as a chin-strap. Other, less common, public usages spotted this trip were as an elbow pad and as a bracelet.

Conclusion

My theme in this post has been borders, language and symbols and the Polish locations we visited on this trip provided plenty of opportunity to consider what these things mean in a modern country located within the EU – and highly secure within its own borders, however much blood and suffering had been spent in the the fight to secure them – and able to participate in a border-free Europe which encompasses not just goods and services but citizens, too.

Below the surface, however, there are difficulties. Poland provides an external border for the EU and, currently, is open to criticism for its policy towards refugees on the border with Belarus – a border it would not have recognised before 1945. Many of these are Afghans – and there is a sizable community of Muslims around Białystok, further north than we went on this trip, hence why the Belarus route has proven attractive – and the position may well deteriorate substantially in the autumn as a result of the current situation in Afghanistan. Elsewhere, it was clearer than ever that freedom of movement is reserved for those who are already in the EU – those on the outside face, in sharp contrast to borderless Europe, fences that are being re-doubled both in their size and in their intent to keep people, however, desperate out.

Aside of its fresh attractiveness to asylum seekers, and evidently in sharp contrast to the will of PiS, Poland is also a country of immigration – there are, for example, 1.5m Ukrainians now living and working in Poland (many of the young men and women serving us in restaurants across the country were likely to have been Ukrainian); these may be the ‘brothers’, but that is rather old language these days and, in a conservative country, while their immediate labour market rights may well be fully protected, their long-term presence is likely to change the country in ways for which it may not be prepared. As will, of course, asylum seekers for whose ‘brotherhood’ people need to look a little deeper than perhaps a country homogeneous by choice for the last seventy five years has been used to.

PiS is able to dominate party politics in the face of a fractured opposition, but the new politics does not take place in the Sejm and there is plenty for people to be angry about, including women’s rights, LGBT rights and media laws as well as public sector pensions, among others, to say nothing of a rights-based clash with the EU (though cynics may be right to point out that, not least with the EU’s requirement for unanimity, little will come of that). Poland is a free country – but it is not yet a society in which all people can feel free to be themselves and the dividing lines, both socio-cultural and geographical, are beginning to show.

Furthermore, much more needs to be done also to deliver growth across Poland on a more even basis – the fissures and fault lines based on development are also clear – and while a ‘Polexit’ might well be extremely unlikely, regardless of the current points of confrontation with the EU, as with Brexit the wider debate about the EU will be won and lost among those that feel they have been left behind and those for whom party politics provides no opportunity to have their voices heard. As we’ve seen in the UK, continual sniping and playing up the confrontation is no solution.

My final photo in this essay comes from the wall of the rebuilt synagogue in Rzeszów, now serving as an archive. On the edge of a public park named in honour of the victims of the ghetto – and which lay within the area of the ghetto itself – the synagogue commemorates in Polish, Hebrew and English those murdered and the whole is a moving, and still, place.

And yet, in a country which has spent so much in trying to get the international community to get the language around the death camps right, and which is so sensitive when it comes to language around the Church, the language here is wrong. Ordinary Germans were also victims of the war, and of Hitler, both at home in Germany and beyond what are now modern Germany’s borders; and were as much liberated by the end of the war from Nazi tyranny as the rest of Europe which had been occupied by the Nazi machine. The language around ‘German occupiers’ and, far worse, ‘German genociders’ (reading the Polish, the problem is not one of translation) is entirely misplaced at this point in a unified Europe which encompasses both Poland and Germany as sovereign, independent and, crucially, equal states. Continuing to cite ‘the Germans’ not only does little for present-day relations between the two countries but will also play a role in perpetuating suspicions and indeed hatreds. ‘Nazi’ is surely the preferred term here, providing both contemporary contextualisation and explanation. A country which celebrates the Polish and the German flags alongside each other in its western borderlands – and which, in Rzeszów itself, is clearly aware of how language changes and the sensitives that are involved in how it is used – needs to make stronger efforts to get the language right in its south-eastern third, too.

[Edit 7 October: When writing this concluding section, I wasn’t aware that a debate already existed in Poland about the correct term for Nazi offences, as this article from today’s Notes from Poland testifies, highlighting a series of vandalisms of memorials in Warsaw carried out by right-wingers from clubs linked to Gazeta Polska. Regardless of whether ‘hitlerowcy’ has its own connotations, the point remains that something else is needed other than ‘niemcy’.]

Working time: yet another study says…

There has been a lot of coverage on the BBC yesterday and today, both via the website and on the news bulletins, of the publication of the results of the shorter working hours trial in Iceland. Judging by the number of comments – upwards of 2,500 at the time of writing – there is a fair amount of UK interest in this (I did break a rule and peek below the line) and, while some comments are clearly misanthropic in tone, there is also a fair amount of genuine objective curiosity. The existence of the trial has been well-publicised and its results have been keenly awaited.

There is, of course, no reason why such an experiment should not work in the UK; and neither is there much to be lost by at least instituting a trial to see what lessons can be learned about the application of shorter hours in this country.

The Iceland trials (there were actually two) come on top of several others worldwide in recent times: a pilot project in Microsoft found that going to a four-day workweek (not necessarily associated with a reduction in working time) in 2019 in Japan boosted productivity by 40 per cent; Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand trust management company, introduced in 2018 a successful trial of a four-day, 32-hour, working week, later made permanent for all staff, which saw sizable increases in productivity and in worker well-being; while TalkTalk found last year that ‘five days work could be done in four’ (actually a quote from the Chief Executive rather than a quantified research result) as a result of productivity gains reported by a clear majority of workers working from home during the pandemic (NB TalkTalk and Microsoft do have products to sell you as a way of working differently).

Some of the UK interest will have been sparked by the involvement in a joint analysis of the trial by a UK organisation, Autonomy, geared towards analysing the future of work not least in the area of working time. This might give it an specific interest in a successful outcome of the trial but Autonomy has, by the look of its funders, some interesting connections, including on this specific project and incorporating the past and present trade union movement, and therefore what it has to say is of interest. Autonomy’s partner in the analysis is the Icelandic organisation, ALDA (Association for Sustainability and Democracy), a think tank also engaged in analysis of the changing reality of work which openly advocates cuts in working hours. Shorter working hours with no loss of pay also of course featured in the 2019 Labour Party election manifesto, whose section on work included a whole sub-section on working time; and influenced quite heavily by the New Economics Foundation’s identification of the decoupling between leisure time and increases in productivity. Party policy here was driven by the Communication Workers Union, behind one of the major union campaigns to reduce working time in recent years (in the Royal Mail), and itself a backer of Autonomy.

What the trials (firstly in Reykjavík City Council between 2014 and 2019; and secondly in the Icelandic Government between 2017 and 2021 – together entailing nearly 3,000 workers out of a working population of around 200,000) concluded was that a drop in weekly working hours from 40 to 35 or 36 hours per week, with no loss of pay, resulted in productivity and service provision remaining the same or improving across the majority of trial workplaces (a substantial number were involved both in trials as well as in acting as control groups in which there had been no changes); while worker well-being dramatically increased including in terms of perceptions of stress and burn-out, and in health and work-life balance. Furthermore, the trials also remained revenue neutral for both the Reykjavík City Council and the government. While underway, the trials’ evident effects led either to collective agreements being signed between 2019 and 2021 for permanent reductions in working time or for the right to negotiate shorter hours covering a total of some 86 per cent of the country’s working population.

The trials were established following concerns that Iceland’s low productivity, long working hours, poor work-life balance and poor well-being – items which have no little connection with the UK – could be addressed by shorter working time on the basis of the correlation between shorter working hours and increased productivity both in wealthy nations and in individual workplaces. Indeed, the trials were set up to explore the veracity of these links within Iceland. This might be thought to give the trials something of a head-start since there is a degree of vested interest in their success: the trials were set up to prove on the ground something thought of as likely. However, this does not negate the full data gathering exercises, both qualitative and quantitative, that accompanied the trials – and we should also not forget that the trials were lengthy enough for workers to have established and embedded new routines by the end of them. We should also not forget that the trials did not just drop working hours – the intention to retain service provision levels required the trials to set about the reduction intelligently, by re-thinking some tasks and working practices while dropping others to re-organise work around the most efficient activities. As with Microsoft in Japan, this frequently entailed cuts in meetings.

Working hours of full-time workers in the UK are lower than in Iceland – 39 is the average (according to the 2019 Annual Survey on Hours and Earnings, picked deliberately to omit the effects of Covid-19 on the 2020 provisional ASHE data), and this has inched incrementally downwards from 40 in 1997. The equivalent in the UK of the Icelandic trials would thus be not to move to a four-day week, as much of the debate has recently envisaged, but to a lunchtime finish on Fridays. Thus, the Iceland trials were actually quite relatively conservative in their ambitions (and in this respect we should also note that the trials were, at the same time, also more radical in terms of the hours cuts than the agreements which have subsequently introduced shorter working time in Iceland which are, for the most part, considerably more modest).

More does indeed need to be done in this direction but, as a trial, the Iceland experiment successfully points to the direction of change; with lessons that are common to both the public and the private sectors. And there is plenty of arguments as to why shorter working time needs to happen, including the slowing down of the historic trend towards reductions in working time which would see workers in the UK on target for a 30-hour week by 2040 had pre-1980 trends continued; automation and the difficulties with implementing a robot tax; the failure of the share of national income going to workers to keep pace with productivity improvements across Europe (and the US and Japan) in recent decades; and the need to ‘build back better’, in the workplace as much as elsewhere, after the pandemic. It’s not as though workers are looking for something for nothing in this area as survey evidence, such as from Kronos Incorporated, has noted: there is real appetite among workers across the globe for a four-day week in which good employers will be ahead of the curve.

The main lessons from Iceland would seem to be these:

  • the requirement for revenue neutrality is not essential, but it was an important component in these particular trials. In some places – either on a country-wide basis or in individual workplaces – there might be a desire to invest in reducing working hours, recognising the disconnect between productivity and working time to which the NEF has pointed, and redressing the existing imbalance between productivity and the labour share
  • there is, otherwise, indeed a link between reducing working hours and productivity increases where the attempt is made strategically to re-design or re-organise work around the more productive activities
  • working time reductions need to be actively introduced if there is to be radical, rather than incremental, change in working time in the future
  • staff need to be actively engaged in the design of the programmes to achieve the aims of retaining service provision; and monitoring committees need to encompass trade unions not least from the perspective that organisational changes may have a damaging effect on some staff even where working time is less. Organisational change, even when implemented to achieve reductions in working time, is rarely a painless experience
  • a replacement of meetings with e-mails may well be a productivity solution which has a somewhat slimmer chance of working in the UK than it apparently did in Iceland – hence the importance of locally-negotiated solutions in which staff are engaged in identifying what will work best
  • take-up of options across a range of negotiated settings may well vary from sector to sector, recognising different job loading and peak gearings
  • managers need be involved in the programme too, not least in terms of setting examples to and acting as role models for those they manage. This means, in the UK, addressing unpaid overtime activities – and it also means active policy engagement with the ‘right to disconnect’ for which Prospect is currently campaigning: the same tools that facilitate improvements can also be used to depreciate working conditions and we need specifically to ensure that workers’ own practices start from a protected right to switch off.

As the UK’s Covid-19 lockdowns ease and calls are made from the usual Luddites for a return to an office-based way of working, either as a result of a desire for managerial control or else to ‘stop the city from crumbling‘, and as concerns rise over the climate impact of travel costs and interest grows in shorter working hours in this domain, too,* the publication of the Iceland trial data is a timely reminder that, not least under this current UK government, whose concern over working time is a well-established point of debate, a post-pandemic future that is not ‘the same as before’ won’t just fall into our laps: it has to be won, which means articulating it and organising around it.

As always: your quickest and best route to getting organised is to join a union.

* A report also funded by Alex Ferry Foundation while Autonomy is a supporter of the 4 Day Week campaign which produced it.

ToTW: I Wanna Be Vaccinated

Vaccines much in the news today again (no, not The Vaccines – Ed; though it seems they are having a bit of a re-launch, I suspect at the timely instigation of their record company) with a government consultation underway about whether workers in care homes in England (health otherwise being a devolved matter) need to have had a vaccine in order to keep their job; Denmark abandoning its roll-out programme of the AZ vaccine; while a certain publicity-shy London mayoral candidate was touting his fear of needles while nevertheless having visible tattoos (I’m not bothering to link).

The best vaccine news of the day – heard over the live! Marc Riley show on 6Music tonight (even the pre-recorded and well-used jingles sound fresher and more exuberant) – was that Jeffrey Lewis has finally got around to putting a video together for ‘I Wanna Be Vaccinated’. I blogged about the lyrics on this a while ago and it’s great to see him get around to it. Now featuring drums, bass and b-vox as well as electricity – all additions to the demo (radio) version which was just him and his guitar – as well as a somewhat slower pace of attack which lets him fit the words in even better (yes, I misheard one of the lyrics earlier), the video has little of real-life Jeffrey himself other than his hand-drawn cartoons illustrating the lyrics and delightfully capturing both the Ramones and Jeffrey himself in hand-drawn form. He’s an extremely talented man is Mr. Lewis and the cartoons – which pass inevitably quickly on first viewing – have lots of features which reveal themselves the more you view it and including, in this blogger’s view, a pretty faithful rendition of himself at the end in the style of Woody Guthrie’s own ‘Bound for Glory’ self-drawing.

Anyway, without further ado, here it is:

Still no sign of a paid-for version on Bandcamp, though if you’re quick you’ll definitely be in the first 500 viewers on YT – it was only released today! Track of the week this week, for sure.

I’m not so sure about care home workers but I reckon mayoral candidates definitely ought to have proof of vaccine before being able to stand (or going out campaigning and mixing it with the public) …

GET YOUR SHOTS!

Rights at work in the platform economy

Readers will know that I have been writing a regular column for Stage, Screen & Radio, the quarterly magazine of BECTU, the digital, media and entertainment arm of Prospect, for a couple of years – all the columns are linked via the specific page on this site which you can find over there on the left. I am paid for this work and the money to do that comes from the monthly subs provided by BECTU members, so I prefer to keep the columns privileged for members of the union for a while, posting them publicly up here only once the new issue of the magazine lands on members’ doormats.

That’s therefore a quarter behind and, editorial and production deadlines being quite understandably what they are, it’s usually a fair bit longer than that. That occasionally means that the column, when put up here, has been a bit caught up by events. This, dear reader, is the case with this particular one, which looks at whether platform workers are employees or contractors. This was originally written in early November last year (the US elections referenced at the outset were taking place at the time) but has now been caught up by events, firstly in the US by a lawsuit filed to overturn the Prop 22 ballot result mentioned in the article’s Intro; and secondly in the UK by the Supreme Court decision in the middle of February in the case of Uber, the driver hire business. You can read plenty more about the Supreme Court decision elsewhere, and not least in my post on the issue below; but I thought I’d post the original column in the usual way; and, for those who saw the original, this time slightly extended and with a few additional links.

What hasn’t changed is the reference to unions keeping a close eye on the situation as it continues to evolve. That remains as true this side of the Supreme Court decision as it did back then. Further, reading the text back again now, I’m also struck by the relevance of the article’s closing paragraph which hints at the importance of seeing, and using, law-provided rights as a starting point on which to build and not seeing them as in some way tradeable. Sweetheart deals – no thanks!

_____________________________________________________________________________

Whether platform workers – those who sign up to deliver services digitally, or work for delivery companies – are employees or contractors is a distinction likely to become increasingly important, not least in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

As voters cast their ballots in the US elections, in several states they were also put a series of other propositions applying to laws within their state. The US political system incorporates elements of direct democracy in which, in some states, legal initiatives can be put straight to voters.

California is one such state, with Proposition No. 22 asking whether voters wanted to support a minimal package of employment rights for those working for platform companies. The story here is complicated, but Proposition 22 essentially prevents such workers, who are not regarded as employees, from accessing a much larger range of employment rights they would otherwise have.

Regretfully, Proposition 22 – supported in a hugely expensive campaign by the big companies, like Uber – was passed by California voters.

Persuasion

Here in the UK, back in the summer before politicians started to talk once more about lockdowns, there was a concerted attempt to persuade people working from home to go back to the office. This had a number of facets. Perhaps the most interesting was the view that working from home drew attention to the notion that working in this way could subject the worker to competition from anywhere across the globe.

A large number of digital platforms offer the opportunity to work digitally – online platforms are not only for delivery, whether that be a person or a meal, but also facilitate a variety of services. Work on these platforms tends to be broken down into micro elements with workers asked to tender for each element. We are witnessing a new approach to Taylorism – the management system designed to increase efficiency by evaluating every step in a production process, breaking work down into simple microtasks – this time not on the production floor for the office. This is sometimes called ‘crowdwork’ or, more frequently, and in an unthinking corruption of the complex jobs done by BECTU members in the entertainment industry, the ‘gig economy’.

Most Prospect and BECTU members who are able to work from home are not in a situation in which their job can be – or will be – broken down into micro elements. That’s trade unionism in action, in no small part.

However, not least under Covid-19, with the gaps in government support programmes being particularly visible in our sector, the temptation clearly rises to look to such platforms as a means of ensuring continuing income during shutdowns where workers have been entirely inadequately supported.

What employment rights might you find when you get there? Well, the line in the sand for platforms seems to be that their workers are not employees, but contractors, where a lower set of rights prevails.

A question was recently put in parliament by Derek Twigg, Labour MP for Halton, whether the government would assess ‘the potential merits of providing greater protections for online platform workers using crowd work platforms.’

The answer came in a two-part way.

New protections

Firstly, a forthcoming (and long-awaited) Employment Bill (intended to set new employment rights in the post-Brexit era) would include a consideration of the options for ‘new protections’ for those in the ‘gig economy’; and, secondly, that the current strategy of the Director of Labour Market Enforcement had already recommended the government examine the threat to compliance posed by online and app-based businesses.

The Director of Labour Market Enforcement is substantially concerned with the informal economy. This actually says quite a bit about what the government thinks of people working for online platforms.

It is, however, actually quite encouraging that employment rights in the platform economy will soon be on the consultative agenda. However, we will need to watch that the big operators in the sector don’t try any California-style ‘sweetheart deals’ over here.

Book Review: Summer

Ali Smith’s Summer – the last in her quartet of seasonal novels – was published in August 2020. Autumn, the first, emerged in October 2016 which means that, within the life of this blog, whose first post was also October 2016, she has published four bestselling, critically-acclaimed novels. I have read – and reviewed – them all (Autumn, Winter and Spring). Smith’s is a phenomenal achievement whose origins might owe something to a long-rooted desire to produce a series of connected novels about the seasons but more so to a piece of personal misfortune – she was a year late with her manuscript for 2014’s How To Be Both, but the publisher still managed, somewhat heroically, to get the book out more or less on time. Among other things, this demonstrates something very interesting about Smith’s own writing process, of which more in a bit.

Summer, recently shortlisted for the 2020 Highland Book Prize, ties up some though by no means all the loose ends established in the earlier novels. For those with an interest in these things, others have exhaustively and painstakingly drawn the myriad links which Smith has made, connecting characters, motifs and figures in the art world, in the course of these four novels.

This one starts, however, with new characters Grace Greenlaw, recently divorced from a husband who now lives next door (interesting, but entirely coincidental, thematic echoes here of Our House which I read just previously), together with her daughter and son, Sacha (16) and Robert (13). In terms of the narrative arc, there is an entirely chance meeting with Art and Charlotte, who we met in 2017’s Winter (though this time it’s the real Charlotte), who are on a mission to reunite Daniel, the old man we met in Autumn, with something which Sophie, Art’s mother, wanted returned to him after her death. This they do. In the course of the journey, Grace and Daniel both revisit their youths, summer being a time for warm, even dreamy, recollection, her at the end of the 1980s, him in the 1940s, while the tale is spiced with latter-day notes prompted by the activism of Sacha, who is concerned not only with environmental issues but also with the fate of refugees in immigration removal centres whose story was central to 2019’s Spring. The item is returned and the tale reaches a surprisingly romantic (and, perhaps, a rather cliched) conclusion as a vehicle for Smith to relate her significant optimism and hopefulness for our future on this planet, born from the warmth of our essential humanity and the timeless things that endure about the human spirit.

The narrative arc is thus slight but, as in all the novels in this series, the point is indeed the journey not the culmination of the tale, just as summer is neither the end of the chronological year nor, indeed, is the end of the year ‘the end’ as the seasons continue rhythmically to roll around. The book, and thus the series, does have a conventional end – it would have detracted from the work had it not – but, in pointing us back towards autumn, we are reminded both of those seasonal rhythms, that eternal regeneration and the continuing evolution of the human story.

This evolution is naturally picked up via Smith’s literary reference points throughout the quartet to Shakespeare (in Summer, overtly, to The Winter’s Tale); and to Dickens (in terms of narrative genius as well as Dickens’s own writing of some of his stories, including Oliver Twist, serially for regularly published journals). Both would recognise Smith’s characters in their own times and their own tales feature recurrent human tragedies and heroism (and with a strong eye on the singular rather than the grandiose).

Smith started writing Summer at the end of January, when the Australian wildfires which wrought such devastating environmental effects were much in the news, and just as stories were coming to the attention of the western media about Covid-19, with the narrative mostly taking place in March – Summer is not set in summer, but in late spring – handing in the final manuscript as Black Lives Matters protests took to the streets (there is an understandably brief reference to the murder of George Floyd, which took place at the end of May 2020). Thus it was written entirely during the early phases of Covid-19 and there are references to the ‘sickness’ – which is unnamed – in the novel both thematically as well as in terms of the events described, both Daniel and Charlotte experiencing their own lockdown imprisonments, both physical and mental. Six weeks from manuscript to finished product, in the middle of a pandemic, is indeed another heroic achievement by Smith’s publishing team.

Writing in this highly contemporary fashion allows Smith to use literature to shine a light on our own times as well as to draw illuminating connections with events in our shared history. This not only allows her to explore the circularity of events within the human condition, but also lends a considerable topicality to her work – Daniel’s (very real) recollection of the 1940s is as the son of an unnaturalised German living in the UK, and thus interned for a period on the Isle of Man (while his beloved sister Hannah is fighting the Nazis in occupied France): events called to mind later in 2020, and which have re-surfaced recently, as the Tories have openly considered sending asylum seekers to places such as Gibraltar and, indeed, the Isle of Man for the processing of their asylum applications (an idea immediately rejected by both). Lorenza Mazetti, related to Einstein and the artist whose spirit informs this part of the quartet, and who died only as Smith was getting underway with Summer, was herself an ‘undesirable alien’ in 1950s London. More humourously, the disagreement about sourcing a Hannah Arendt quote from the internet, the subject of a debate at the start of the novel between Sacha and her mother, crossed my Twitter feed on only Wednesday this week as Deutsche Welle wondered why so many famous quotes – many of them from Einstein – are fake.

As with the rest of her novels, Smith glories in language, both verbal and non-verbal, and in playing around with words and Summer is no different – I love, for example, the fun she has here with Einstein and ein stein; while here, the opening monologue takes on, and challenges, the simple word ‘so’, in the first place as an expression of jaded, shoulder-shrugging, care-free indifference and in the second as a word as resolute, determined, programmatic and as focused on action as any verb. This love of language dominates her work and its expression here – never forced, never apparently hard work – seems to come entirely naturally to her. The revelation that she suffered during the writing of Spring from a loss of faith in what she calls ‘dialogue with the form’ – the conversation between author and novel in progress – is thus a surprising one, Spring representing for me a return to form from what I saw as an over-hasty realisation of Winter.

All artists suffer at some times from a form of “writers’ block” – that crisis of confidence in which you read, or hear, or see only the weaknesses in your work accompanied by a stymieing inability to recognise that what makes something great can also be its weakness, whether you’re a late-20s New Jerseyan taking months to get right not just the sound but the opening sound on what will turn out to be your most famous record; or a member of a production crew walking around Los Angeles at more or less the same time wearing T-shirts carrying the legend ‘Stevie’s nearly ready’. It is therefore a sign of great confidence in her own abilities that Smith took on the task of producing such a masterwork in this timeframe, as well as in bringing it to its conclusion. Artists of all kinds have to have the confidence, but also the courage, to ‘let it go’ – to let things out in the wild despite what may be imperfections and such that they stand or fall as products of their time. Smith makes such a connection between art and literature in this series; I draw a similar connection between literature and music in the same way – not that literature needs to be the rock’n’roll more than anything else does (rock’n’roll being some way from falling on its back). But, a novel is much like an album: you let it go and it may turn out to be ‘long grass by the wayside’ in ten years’ time (as Smith herself self-deprecatingly thinks likely about these volumes) or your songs may still be being sung 120 years in the future (see Nanci Griffiths’s introduction before playing track ten).

It’s partly confidence but it’s also about process. Smith is able to get novels out in this short timeframe because she re-drafts and edits as she goes. Consequently, there is no lengthy period of to-and-fro between writer and production house: what the production house gets as a final manuscript is – give or take a bit of subsequent judicious editorial intervention – what the reader holds in their hand. This ‘dialogue with the form’ is the key: books don’t ‘write themselves’, but they do go down their own roads in the process of being written, sometimes in ways that surprise their authors the most successful of whom have that confidence in the natural evolution of what they are writing. Writing is, ultimately, about your own reading.

Summer starts out as a book about forgiveness, perhaps as befits a novel whose purpose, at least in part, is to bring about some form of closure to the series. But with the pandemic raging against the background of a government whose multiple failures, weak preparation and incompetent handling, alongside PPE debacles and cronyism, allied to its catastrophic trust in a murderous herd immunity strategy, this was clearly no time for a message of ‘forgiveness’. In lesser hands, this turn of events might have implied disaster to a novel written for the here and now but Smith has skilfully turned the book into an extended consideration of the collective implications of the occurrence of a national sickness.

Far, therefore, from Summer being ‘derailed’ by the pandemic, as some readers have alleged, it is in fact made by it. This is the case not only in that the pandemic forms the essential background to the novel – which would have been written to the same timeframe whether it had happened or not – but which also provides the key hook for the key message which she allows to evolve from it – that, given Smith’s ability to juxtapose opposites and enjoy doing so: a Winter’s Tale toured in summer; lightness in the middle of darkness; happiness in the midst of sadness; protests in the face of implacable opposition; hope for the possibility of another world when this one seems to be at its worst; health (and healing) coming after sickness – we may still, despite all the signs of loss of the times in which we live, find the hope of a healing which will resolve the fractures and the fractiousness of the years in which this series of novels has been set. That we cannot truly experience joy unless we have always seen despair – that, in terms of the theatre, we carry two masks: one for comedy and one for tragedy. There is, at least, hope and, indeed, times pass as time passes. Til then, our pandemic-influenced position is, as it is for Leontes in The Winter’s Tale which Grace interprets for her colleagues in the repertory company as follows:

A blight comes down on him, on his country, from nowhere. It’s irrational, It has no source. It just happens. Like things do. They suddenly change, and it’s to teach us that everything is fragile and that what happiness we think we’ve got and imagine will be forever ours can be taken away from us in the blink of an eye. (pp. 282-3)

Smith is not for everyone – those who prefer a more linear narrative arc will find the novel’s extended flashbacks and playing around with the time sequence confusing and disorienting. Others of a less liberal mindset will find much that they will despise. Purists will hate the lack of quotation marks when characters are in dialogue. But, if you love words and enjoy the thought of watching a master writer at work, able to tell a story about the way we live in our times and, in doing so, relate much about the creative process that authors and editors experience, do engage with this: Summer, both in its own right as well as the summation and realisation of an immense literary ambition, deserves all the awards that ought to be coming its way.

A song of our times

I tweeted earlier this week, after Dolly Parton received the Modena jab that she had also helped to fund, that Jeffrey Lewis, the New York artist, had covered and updated The Ramones, ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ for our times (and shortened it – at least in terms of time: Jeffrey does have the ability to spit out lyrics in very short order while playing a guitar – an immense skill for someone like me who can (only) do one thing at once). Faced with being awake at an entirely atypically early hour, and in honour of it being a ‘Bandcamp Friday‘, I thought I’d spend the time scribbling out his lyrics. So, here they are:

I Wanna Be Vaccinated

I’m making an appointment for the Covid drug

I wanna be vaccinated

It’s been a year since I gave my friends a hug

I wanna be vaccinated

Living in dystopia is losing all its charm

I’m sick of rising numbers, paranoia and alarm

So hurry, hurry, hurry and just stick it in my arm

Oh Oh Oh Oh – Oh Oh

I never see my family, or a gig or a movie theatre

I wanna be vaccinated

But that now all seems normal and that makes it even weirder

I wanna be vaccinated

Let seniors and essential workers get it in advance

Then although I’m scared of needles, man, just give me half a chance

I’ll be rolling up both shirt sleeves and be pulling down my pants

Oh Oh Oh Oh – Oh Oh

Bah bah bah bah bah – Bah Bah Bah Bah

I wanna be vaccinated

<key change>

Bah bah bah bah bah – Bah Bah Bah Bah

I wanna be vaccinated

I wanna stand around with friends and look like a Ramone

I wanna be vaccinated

If you’re an anti-vaxxer, Cool! you can stay at home

I wanna be vaccinated

Science is the coolest thing about the human race

So let’s keep spreading the safety and keep picking up the pace

‘Cos I miss having a life and I miss having a face

Oh Oh Oh Oh – Oh Oh

Bah bah bah bah bah – Bah Bah Bah Bah

I wanna be vaccin-a-ted

That line about anti-vaxxers just makes me smile! A somewhat better effort, I think, than Dolly’s ‘Don’t be such a chicken squat. Get out there and get your shot’ (from The Guardian article in the first link). Though full applause for Dolly, all the same.

If you can’t pick up the tune, it is, of course, to this absolute and indeed now visionary classic:

Jeffrey’s version, recorded in his ‘Pandemos’ series, is still not out yet (hurry, hurry, hurry!) but you can pick up a copy of ‘Keep It Chill (In the East Vill.)’ – an earlier lockdown special and with *a lot* more lyrics- at his bandcamp. So do stop by and at least hear Jeffrey’s style.

Like all net-based platforms, Bandcamp is not immune from criticism but, in music industry terms, its fair trade music policy does mean much more of what you pay them for your music goes direct to the artists – typically 80-85 per cent. On ‘Bandcamp Fridays’ – like today – that share rises to 100 per cent. So go on – give it a go. You can try (sometimes selected songs, sometimes the whole work) before you buy, so you have nothing to lose – and struggling artists have everything to gain.

Right. Now off to make a mug of coffee. And then brew some beer.

Book review: Four Futures

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

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

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

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

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

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

p. 27

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

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

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

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

Western Isles back in full lockdown

As of first thing yesterday morning, the whole of the Western Isles has been placed in Tier 4 – full lockdown – as a result of the rising number of cases not only on Barra and Vatersay, in the south, placed earlier into Tier 4, but further, isolated clusters arising in Stornoway centred on the hospital, in Benbecula and in South Uist.

All very necessary, of course, but it does mean the furthest I’m likely to be travelling for the next few months is the 5 miles to the Co-Op. And back. Travel will return, eventually, as a result of restrictions being eased in time but, for now, the longer lockdown goes on, the less likely I am to want to go anywhere at all. This is an interesting echo of the time before the military came here, when minor roads were tracks, before the causeways, before electricity and other utilities, when travel was much more difficult and, as a result, much less possible. Partly, this is in turn a reflection of the substantial distances involved: forget the number of people for a moment, the distances across the island chain are simply vast: to get from Barra and Vatersay, in the south, to Stornoway, the ‘capital’ up on Lewis, is – literally – a day-long journey: a road trip of 139 miles taking, according to a popular online distance service, no less than 5 hours and 57 minutes. And that’s provided you can time your trip with the two ferries you need to catch: more realistically, setting off just after breakfast on Monday (at 9.45 am), you would get to Stornoway at lunchtime. On Tuesday. And neither is it possible to fly from either end to the other, unless you take a substantial detour down to Glasgow.

It’s no wonder that there are rumblings of discontent about the extent to which a single Council area can effectively ensure the democratic representation of people on the southern Isles. Anecdotally, there is also evidence of a complete lack of information ‘up there’ about the institutions and services being provided to people ‘down here’; something which Covid-19 has done much to entrench in justification for councils’ desire to save money amidst reports pointing out the evident pressures. A single council covering such a distance, not least in these times, is evidently likely to suffer not only from issues of connectivity but also of understanding and awareness.

Issues such as these, marked and highlighted by Covid-19, are likely to continue long after the virus.

In the meantime, here at the end of January, the only journey I’m likely to be following is that of the sun as it ‘travels’ back across the sky – one of the points of inspiration for the timing of Shetland’s Up Helly Aa fire festival, the bill for which was still posted this week in Lerwick’s Market Place, commemorating this year’s (long-cancelled) festival.

With this in mind, here’s yesterday’s post-sunset view (taken out of the office window at 5.15), with the setting sun having ‘travelled’ across the road to set behind the lowest of the farm outbuildings on the extreme left:

And, in contrast, here’s the picture on 21 December, with the sun’s trajectory causing it to disappear to the left of the roof of our neighbour’s house, the view above extending just off the right hand side of the image below:

While we can’t journey ourselves, such obvious signs of progress, and the promise of warmth and positivity and better times to come, with the sun now between one-fifth and one-quarter of its way back from the depths of mid-winter, are a very welcome natural sign that these days too shall end.

The battle over working time

I think it’s fairly obvious by now that the reason why the EU working time directive, and its application in UK law, was not on Hannan’s list was that it’s so very obviously at the very top of it he hardly thought it actually needed to be mentioned.

The assertion late last week by Kwasi Karteng, Secretary of State for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy, that the government had no plans to dilute workers’ rights was believed by no-one, for reasons not least of all that Kwarteng was co-author, along with a number of other leading representatives in this Vote Leave government (Priti Patel and Dominic Raab among them), of Britannia Unchained. This was a call written back in 2012 for an end to the UK’s ‘bloated state, high taxes and excessive regulation’ and (in)famously described UK workers as:

Among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor.

Karteng’s non-credible denial was rapidly followed yesterday by confirmation in parliament that the government is, indeed, looking at scrapping some EU labour laws, including a ‘relaxing’ of the working time directive. Another lesson in the ‘never trust a Tory’ narrative.

In the midst of a pandemic and post-Brexit uncertainty – is, of course, scrapping workers’ rights can scarcely be much of a priority. Working class families are struggling with huge numbers of issues, including insecurity at work as a result of employment laws failing to keep up with the pace of change in employers’ exploitation of them, while still (in substantial numbers of cases) occupying positions as keyworkers keeping this country going. Furthermore, ‘building back better’ post-Covid-19 requires the sorts of consensus-building exercises and extending involvement to workers’ organisations that, actually, comes as second nature in Europe proper but which is clearly entirely foreign territory to this government. By definition, scrapping workers’ rights does not embody much in the way of consensus building.

Other than that, however, I wanted to make two (main) points.

Firstly, Karteng points to ‘being struck’ by ‘how many EU countries – I think it’s about 17 or 18 – have essentially opted out of the working time directive’. This is of course rhetorical nonsense: ‘countries’ cannot ‘opt out of the working time directive’ – EU health and safety laws have general application across the EU and are not available on the pick’n’mix counter. (As indeed should social and employment rights not be either, although that is a slightly different argument.) What he does mean is that member states are allowed to deviate from bits of the working time directive where – crucially, but which is frequently forgotten – this is with the agreement of the individual worker (calling to mind here the blanket forms issued to employees, especially new recruits, and where coercion rather than ‘agreement’ has been the keyword). Alternatively, this can be done – other than in the UK – where there is a collective agreement in place. With the specific maximum 48-hour week limit in mind (the working time directive being about much more than just that), there is a qualification which must be met about the protection of the health and safety of workers being guaranteed. This is all covered summarily, and very usefully, in Opting out of the European Working Time Directive, a publication from the European Foundation from 2015 and bits of which Karteng – more probably an adviser – seems to have read.

In particular, pages 4-5 of the document summarise the positions across the then EU. Broadly, it is not possible for workers to opt (or be opted) out of the provisions across Scandinavia, southern and south-eastern Europe (other than Bulgaria) and Ireland; some, limited opt-outs are available across the swathe of central Europe; while broad opt-outs are (or were) the case in the UK, Cyprus, Malta, Estonia and Bulgaria.

Consequently, the number of opt-outs are (surprisingly) not as many as Karteng would like to portray and, actually, they encompass those among the peripheries of the EU. So, it will not be as easy as all that to remove these protections without triggering a response in kind from the EU as regards the tariffs it will be able to impose, under the free trade agreement agreed and signed before Christmas, where the UK departs from EU norms.

I suspect that Karteng knows this very well and that this exercise is a little bit of testing the waters to see who is listening (the EU will be, of course) and thus to see what he may be able to get away with. But it won’t therefore be much, except at a price: the UK can only depart from EU norms under the agreement in limited, and heavily circumscribed, ways: the price of negotiating with experienced, expert negotiators. The phrase ‘rule taker, not rule maker’ springs to mind as regards the UK’s post-Brexit future – while that, of course, for any number of reasons including among Brexiteers themselves, is simply unsustainable in anything other than the short-term. Again, I suspect Karteng is also very well aware of this. Expect therefore more war, in private of course, within the Tory Party over the next few years. This testing of the waters is being done with that in mind, too.

Secondly is the issue of the direction of reductions in working time. Historically, working time fell for much of the twentieth century but, from around 1980 onwards, such a trend has slowed and even, in some cases, been reversed. There are a number of reasons for this, explained in depth in a very useful paper – The Why and How of Working Time Reduction – written by colleagues from the European Trade Union Institute (I believe an update will also be available shortly). Again unsurprisingly, hours (of full-time workers: the key to the Britannia Unchained phrase) are not lower than elsewhere: such hours are pretty standard but the UK ranked among the highest in the EU.

The working time directive is a health and safety law. It was proposed under a particular section of the European legislative framework allowing a majority vote by member states and its aim is to improve health and safety. Nevertheless, it also improves social rights in allowing workers the opportunity to control, in some small way, aspects of their working time and, thereby, to achieve some measure of influence with the employer as regards their work-life balance. All of this is, of course, why the Tories hate it and why the working time directive is at the top of the list for removal (pro tem: restriction). It also explains very well why it needs to be defended. At a time of the deunionisation of society in general – stout battles still taking place in certain sectors – we can expect to see such gains as were made in working time during the first three-quarters of the twentieth century reversed here too, deunionisation being one explanation for the gains having come to a halt.

As Brexiteers have already implicitly observed, this issue is one that underpins huge aspects of the future social organisation of this country. It concerns not only the decoupling of wages and productivity – with gains in national income not going to workers over the last few decades – but taken instead by capital owners in the form of corporate profits and shareholder dividends. It is not just that, to quote that phrase again, ‘productivity is poor’: it is, but quite clearly wages are even poorer and, in comparison, becoming increasingly so. We know from the theory that such a decoupling leads to rises in income inequality – something in which the UK is, shamefully, among the countries already taking a bit of a lead. But also, with fresh concerns of job loss through mechanisation and robotisation (on top of those lost in the destruction wreaked in hospitality and the arts and entertainment industry during the pandemic, as well as the loss of workers who have, simply, gone away), reduced working time in compensation for the impact of mechanisation on the jobs and security of workers has again come back on the agenda, as indeed has the idea of a universal basic income.

When we emerge from the pandemic, the quality of jobs will also matter and, in this respect, a National Recovery Council, as proposed by the TUC, has a clear role in building consensus and support for a better, more inclusive society. Furthermore, if the loss of substantially younger workers as pointed to by ESCoE is correct, increased mechanisation to deal with the loss of workers is one possible outcome. That may, in turn, raise productivity – but wages, and the labour share in general in terms which also encompass working time, need to rise too. Working hours in the UK are not low – but they do need to be lowered and there are thus many pressures building in that direction.

All this is why the Tories want to knock the working time directive on the head – and, furthermore, why they want to do it now while the pandemic is causing much of a distraction and when this lends itself, at a time of prospective rises in mechanisation, all too readily to people being regarded as ‘lucky to have a job’.

As always: Join a Union. And Organise.

Clocking big tech: the fight to own your data

This is the text of my autumn 2020 column for Stage, Screen & Radio – the quarterly magazine for members of BECTU, the media and entertainment union and a part of Prospect.

Prospect has been working with a coalition of unions, tech specialists and researchers to develop new approaches to how we take control of our own data.

In July the beta version of one of those ideas – the WeClock app – was launched but soon after Facebook decided to ban the app on its platform. After discussions with the app developers, Facebook has now reversed this decision.

At Prospect, we have long been aware of big data and the need to secure the interests of our members when it comes to all the ways that algorithm-based software can be used at work.

Desktop spying

Indeed, many apps seek to put a ‘spy on our desktop’ – and with more people working from home during the pandemic, the risk increases of employers also wanting to put a ‘spy in our homes’.

Google has invested billions in mapping the world and developing self-driving car technology, because it wants to be in a position to shape our technology choices when it comes to our mobility.

That means knowing where we go, how often we go there and how often (and where) we stop en route. This encroaches into our lives as workers as well as private citizens.

Facebook is not the only example – merely among the most egregious. Earlier this summer, the social media platform pitched that Facebook Workplace, its office collaboration project, would allow employers to control the content of group discussions by banning words such as ‘unionize‘.

It later had to backtrack after complaints by its own employees and the US trade union organisation AFL-CIO.

Knowledge is power

Not least when it comes to the workplace, the data on which our choices are based belongs to us – or should do. Surveillance software undermines that principle and its very existence raises the need for accountability and worker involvement in decision-making about its use. Data needs to become part of our bargaining agenda.

This battleground reveals the rationale for Facebook’s initial decision regarding WeClock: its whole reason for being lies in hoovering up our data about what interests us, analysing that and then packaging it to secure advertising revenues.

Start-ups like WeClock, which enables workers to log their own working hours and overtime to protect themselves from being overworked and underpaid. Crucially it leaves control of the data entirely in users’ hands.

As Christina Colclough, who led the team behind the app, observes, WeClock is a ‘self-tracking privacy-preserving tool we can be proud of’. The more apps opt for such an ethical approach, the more those users will understand what platforms like Facebook and Google operate. And the more people realise the importance of asserting their rights over their data, the more shaky these platforms’ way of operating becomes.

Facebook’s monitoring software, Workplace, is a key tool it can sell to employers facing worker recognition campaigns.

Online activism

I doubt we have heard the last of Facebook Workplace. Lobbyist and employer consultant Rick Berman says the pandemic has encouraged a ‘historic rise in labour activism‘.

He warns that employees worried about exposure to the coronavirus have taken to Facebook and other platforms to share their concerns, giving union organisers greater access to disgruntled workers.

Worker recognition campaigns in the tech giants and elsewhere are certainly growing in the face of increasingly precarious terms and conditions.

In ‘building back better’ after the pandemic, we need to encourage high-trust workplaces where managers are allowed to do their jobs by actively using their own people management skills.

Prospect will continue to articulate the need for better trust, accountability and transparency when it comes to monitoring and surveillance software in the workplace; and for data to become part of the bargaining agenda.

As our workplaces change, our core commitment to empower our members to realise those goals remains steadfast.