The Very Thought Of You

A debut novel by Rosie Alison, better known as a film and TV producer and director, this is an accomplished and moving novel about love; the search for connections and meaning in life; the failure of people to communicate, brought about by a sense of propriety; and the ability of love, when realised, to give both meaning and a vitality to life.

The telling of the tale never crosses the line into sentimentality, a trap into which it would have been easy to fall and which the author appears to have been trying particularly hard to avoid, but the story is crafted with a level of skill that belies its ‘first book’ status. The period detail – from the time of the Second World War, and beforehand – is evocative and the impact of the extraordinary events of the time having a resonance on those who experience them years into the future is wholly believable (I’m writing this at the time of the 70th anniversary of the evacuation of Dunkirk). It may occasionally appear to suffer from a multitude of voices rather than a single one, such that the central character of the tale is constantly shifting, but the overall effect is to add to the author’s theme: that the search for love and tenderness is a universal, and dominant, theme.

The novel is not without its flaws – there is a shifting pace in different sections and the author is occasionally guilty of a ‘reportage’ writing style – but these shouldn’t blind us to its achievements: this is a period novel which has something fresh to say about its subject matter.

Fifteen years ago today…

… and still gutted for Archie, for forcing me to wake up from what had been a glorious dream (Reading? Elm Park? In the Premiership?) – ultimately only redeemed by the madejs-tic triumphs of the 2005/06 season – and for all the injustices of the day itself and before it. A patched-up, threadbare Reading side just unable to hang on to the result their football and approach to the game richly deserved – just take a look at the breathtaking speed of that opener and the 1-2 punch of the finish. Yet, at the last, a side run too low on resources and unable to push itself over the line into the Premiership – a better metaphor for what life in top flight football has become you couldn’t hope to find.

Ahhh football, dammit. She’s a hard, cruel and unforgiving mistress.

BBC 1 : 0 ConDems (og)

The missing government minister on last night’s BBC Question Time programme appears to be because governmental toys have been thrown out of the pram on the grounds of who else had been invited on the show.

The BBC is absolutely right to resist political interference in its programme scheduling: it’s a vital part of the impartiality of the BBC and its role in the public life of this country that the government of the day cannot dictate to it or seek to script it. The key issue remains that – regardless of who else had been invited on the programme, and regardless of it being the week of the Queen’s Speech, and regardless of the aspect of whether representation on the programme should be on a ‘like for like’ basis between government and opposition – the government should simply not be demanding the removal of other panellists as a price of their own appearance on it. It’s a matter of principle and the BBC is absolutely right to insist on it.

This new coalition government has a lot to learn – and it had better start by learning that it is in no place to throw its weight around like a wannabe playground bully.

Broadband – at some point, perhaps

There was a reference in today’s Queen’s Speech to one’s government ‘enabling investment in high-speed broadband’, but there was not a lot of detail in the accompanying announcement from No. 10.

However, it does look a bit more hard-line on the issue of the primacy of the market than the Tories’ pre-election pronouncements on the issue, if only in the apparent absence of a Plan B (although, to be fair, the Queen’s Speech is evidently a promise of the legislation due to be brought by the government to come (or, in this case, which may, or may not, need to be brought) rather than a place for discussion of the merits of the hows). I’m not at all convinced that ‘ensuring a strong, competitive, market-led approach to next generation broadband roll-out’ is going to see that roll-out actually achieved in practice ‘across the country’. I can see the argument that the costs of civil infrastructure are a large part of the overall costs of installing communications infrastructure, and that easing this might help better make the case – but I have two responses:

– I would suspect that what is more important in terms of prioritising investment cases (i.e. urban or rural, since this policy is designed to help improve investment cases in rural areas) is less the quantity of the initial capital expenditure input and more the long-term return that can be made – though both are clearly linked. The long-term return is much more difficult to work out in rural cases for the simple reason that there are fewer people about and less multiple occupancy – in combination, they make rural areas poor prospects for decent returns, even if the costs of the initial expenditure are (or may potentially – see below – be) lowered as a result of this sort of approach

– I’m also particularly unpersuaded about the efficiency of the case for competing infrastructures. It seems to me that this is likely to lead to over-provision in some areas and under provision in others: the market is just not that good an allocator when it comes to infrastructure investment projects. And, where investment is so expensive, as high-speed broadband infrastucture is (up to £29bn, in the case of a particular type of fibre to the premises solution), isn’t it more efficient from the perspective of getting everyone linked up that we don’t waste resources by over-concentrating them, perhaps with a role for public funding thrown in, too? (Oh – I forgot. We had an election.)

On top of all that, there is the issue of the capacity of BT’s ducts; here, Ofcom published a report from Analysys Mason yesterday saying that duct capacity can be particularly small in the last sections of the network going to the customer, so there is much less space available for competing network investors to install their own pipes anyway. This clearly mitigates against seeing the use of ducts as a remedy, probably not least in rural areas where the ducts are likely to be older (and, therefore, built for less, er, competitive times) than they are in urban ones. So, in many cases, duct access is not likely to be a remedy at all – particularly in those areas where, apparently, public policy is relying on it most of all. Above all, stretching the infrastructure to do what it was not designed for is simply not a 21st century solution to the country’s needs for a modern communications infrastructure.

What the Queen’s Speech says to me in this area is that this ConDem government remains committed to a roll-out plan for broadband which is:

(a) heavily reliant on the Tories than on any contribution the LibDems might have made (somewhat strange given that BIS, headed by the LibDem’s Vince Cable, is the lead department here, given that it supervises Ofcom, even if Ed Vaizey is the broadband minister – and that’s a recipe for chaos, even if Vaizey is shared between DCMS and BIS); and

(b) heavily reliant on a wing and a prayer rather than anything which seeks to facilitate, encourage or support.

Government IT efficiencies

Yesterday’s cuts announcement by Chancellor George Osborne referred to efficiency savings in government IT costs of just £95m (as some commentators have noted, this is less than 10% and as little as 5% of the figure suggested earlier by Peter Gershon – though, of course, more savings may yet be found and some of the surplus may be accounted for by delayed, stopped or re-negotiated contracts). Nevertheless, Osborne is reported to have said that the cuts were ‘based on’ Gershon’s work.

BT is a major government IT contractor, so some of the cuts here are likely to find their way through to BT’s bottom line via (eventual) contract re-negotiations (mind you, and depending how hard ball the contractual parties play – and that’s likely to be considerably hard – the expenditure of civil service time in negotiations to achieve this £95m figure is also likely to eat considerably into it). This is, of course, likely to have an impact on jobs in BT, although the overall effects are likely to be subsumed within BT’s own continuing programme of job cuts via efficiency savings (BT has removed 20,000 jobs over the last year, many of them agency workers and contractors but also including a large number of permanent staff), rather than being separately declared.

A smaller cut than expected is welcome – but still likely to represent bad news for workers in the IT and communications sector, and more pressure on trade union negotiators in the industry.

The joy of… connected things

Thomas had always secretly prided himself on his solitary epiphanies of sheer joy, moments when everything seemed to be connected. From the delicate veins of a forget-me-not to the constellations above, he had felt he could intuit a pattern, a soul – a fleeting sense, almost, of infinity.

Rosie Alison (2009) The Very Thought Of You reprinted in paperback April 2010, p. 125.

I’ve never much believed in the ‘connectedness of all things’ – that there is a common pattern, or a destiny, in which everything has a role and through which everything else takes its shape. But I do believe that Ms. Alison has a quotable point here: that those moments when sometimes disconnected things appear to be indeed connected are indeed moments of great enlightenment, or epiphany; when previously apparently random patterns of events join together into a coherent whole, or when deep and sometimes philosophical mysteries appear to grow tantalisingly more tangible in the context of the examination of what seemed to be a different issue entirely; when greater truths fall within the dim grasp of our search, because we have spotted that they are indeed connected.

Life – the real one, as well as the Web 2.0 one – is full of connections and about looking for connections; it’s not to be lived in a silo.