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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder