Have plane, might travel

A bout of severe weather exposes the vulnerability of fast-paced modern lifestyles

It is surprising how quickly you stop taking certain things for granted. Travelling, for instance.

At this moment I really shouldn’t be here. I am supposed to be 100 miles north of Fair Isle, in Unst, staying with my brother. But I’m not. I’m still at home.

After the gilded promises of last weekend, when the sun threatened to become a familiar visitor, we were brought firmly back to reality this week with some fairly horrific wind and rain, and, of course, transport has suffered. My flight on Friday afternoon was cancelled because of the weather, and a replacement flight on Saturday morning didn’t go either. It is now Sunday, but I will have to wait until tomorrow to travel. Well, hopefully tomorrow.

Travel delays here are common. Very common. The plane, which links Fair Isle and mainland Shetland, can’t fly if it is too windy, or the wind is in the wrong direction, or if it’s foggy, or if there’s low cloud, or snow, or ice, or if there are technical problems, which there are frustratingly often. (In fact, a brand new plane, just purchased by the council to provide the inter-island service, was recently stuck in Fair Isle for a week after suffering a cracked exhaust. The pilot and passengers had to be rescued by a second plane, and engineers were flown up from England to make the aircraft safe to remove.)

The ferry too is severely affected by the weather. During the winter months it sails only once a week: every Tuesday, in theory. But strong winds or heavy swell can make the crossing to Shetland impossible, and days, weeks even, can pass without a sailing.

The boat provides a vital link for the island, bringing essential food supplies, milk, bread and newspapers, so a delay can be a serious inconvenience. As of today, we have not had a boat for 11 days. However, relief has come from a special “freight plane”, which reached the island on Wednesday, carrying vegetables, milk, bread and other necessaries, so starvation is not on the cards just yet.

Shetland is a very windy place, with an average of 42 days of gales each year (a number that seems to be growing as the climate changes). Some of the strongest winds ever recorded in Britain have been recorded here, including an unofficial record gust of more than 150 knots, on New Year’s Day, 1992. Later that night, the anemometer which took the recording, at Muckle Flugga Lighthouse in Unst, blew away.

Last month, when mainland Britain was struck by strong winds, the Northern Isles were one of the few places to escape the gales. It was rather odd to see the chaos that erupted across the country. Here, winds of those speeds are not nearly so unusual, but the damage they cause tends to be minimal. Houses are built to withstand the weather, and significantly, there are no trees to blow over.

But with weather like that delays are something we get used to. When planning a journey off the island, it is prudent to allow several days extra travelling time just to be safe. And sometimes even that is not enough.

People spend so much time rushing around these days that even the slightest interruption to their schedule can throw them into fits of utter distress and helplessness. We rely on cars, trains, planes, buses and boats every day to get us where we want to be. Fast. But living in a place where our reliance is so easily undermined is a good reminder of how vulnerable that lifestyle really is.

Photographs: David Wheeler

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
Photo: Getty
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Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from surplus into deficit. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.