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.
Getty
Show Hide image

Is the Great Fire of London a blueprint for how governments deal with disasters?

Visible leadership, an established authority, and a common external enemy: an enduring defence mechanism 350 years on.

In 1968, the science journal The Lancet ran a report into human behaviour. When populations are confronted with disaster, it recommended, effective “communications, coordination, and control, and the establishment of a recognised authority” are of utmost importance (advice that should have been heeded immediately after the Brexit result in June this year).

The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London this week seems is a good time to think about how we deal with disasters: over 13,000 homes were destroyed, 87 churches ruined and thousands of Londoners displaced.

For me, one of the most striking parts of the story of the Great Fire is not the fire itself nor the dramatic rebuilding programme that followed, but the state of flux in between.

When the fire broke out, England was at war with both the Dutch Republic and France. As soon as news reached France, the Venetian ambassador Alvise Sagredo, declared that the fire would be “worse than the plague and any other disaster, capable of making [the English] change their government and their principles”.

In England, even the London Gazette warned that England’s foes would try “to persuade the world abroad of great parties and disaffection at home against his majesties government”. Faced with unparalleled destruction and unprecedented disarray, how did the king, his advisers and civic authorities regain control of London?

With the Guildhall severely damaged and the Royal Exchange destroyed, the first step was to find a new base for civic and mercantile power. On 6 September, Charles II instructed the Lord Mayor and the city aldermen to resume governance of the city. Gresham College and buildings around Bishopsgate were taken over and efforts were immediately taken to re-establish trade. Vendors were granted permission to set up sheds in temporary markets at Bishopsgate Street, Tower Hill, Smithfield and Leadenhall Street.

“Honest and able persons” were selected to monitor the ruined city to ensure fire did not break out afresh, appeals were made across the country for charitable donations and neighbouring counties were called upon to provide sustenance. From the navy stores, ship’s biscuit was offered to the needy and canvas was provided so that the tens of thousands of homeless people stranded in the fields surrounding London could fashion tents.

The measures were not perfect. Visiting Moorfields, the diarist John Evelyn described, “the poor inhabitants . . . some under tents, some under miserable huts and hovels, many without a rag”.

Those stranded found food to be in short supply and many succumbed to the illnesses bred by a reduced condition in life, including aged playwright James Shirley, who died in October 1666.

But it wasn’t long before people started to disperse – either leaving London altogether, finding accommodation elsewhere, or returning to the locations of their former homes and shops to erect makeshift shacks above the ruins.

In the background, the trial and execution of French watchmaker Robert Hubert, who falsely claimed to have started the fire, provided a focus for any anger and rage.

With communication ruptured following the destruction of the London Gazette printing house and the General Letter Office, rumours of plots, arson and invasions had spread almost as quickly as the fire itself. Indeed, terrible violence had broken out during the fire, with mobs targeting any “strangers” or foreign-born Londoners. One French servant, for example, reported how gangs of “English women did knock down strangers for not speaking good English. Some of them armed with spits, some with bread staffs, and the captain with a broad sword.”

When the London Gazette was released the week after the fire – after only skipping one edition of its biweekly run – it provided readers with a detailed description of the catastrophe, emphasising its accidental nature and promoting the role played by Charles II and his brother and heir, James, Duke of York, in preventing the fire spreading even further.

Against protocol, the newspaper also allowed important tradespeople to advertise their new offices: the goldsmith-bankers, for example, informed readers that they had found premises along Broad Street.

By mid-September, the etcher Wenceslaus Hollar had already begun his survey of the city and plans had been submitted to the king from John Evelyn and architects Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, to name just a few, as to how to rebuild the capital.

Writing at the time, Sir Nathaniel Hobart, believed that the “rebuilding of the Citty will not be soe difficult as the satisfying all interests, there being many proprietors”. As such, one of the most important innovations following the disaster was the establishment of a judiciary, known as the Fire Court, to untangle the complex web of formal and informal agreements between tenants and landlords. From 1667 until 1672 the Fire Court settled hundreds and hundreds of cases.

There were certainly many bumps along the way – for a while, the City of London was plundered and inhabited by gangs. Plus, anger towards foreign-born Londoners continued; owing to his Dutch background, one Johan Vandermarsh had to fight tooth and nail to keep hold of his property on Lime Street, despite helping to save many of his neighbours’ homes.

All of this considered, there was nothing like the widespread disorder that Charles II had feared and his enemies expected. On the contrary, the visibility of the king and his brother and heir – and the convenient suspicion that the fire had been started by an external enemy – worked to bind the people to their king and settle unrest. Although hard to believe at the time, there was also the promise of “a more beautiful city”.

Rebecca Rideal is a historian, factual television producer and author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

She will be speaking at London’s Burning festival on Friday 2 September – a contemporary festival of art and ideas produced at Artichoke to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Free to the public, it runs from 30 August-4 September.