Malachy on tour

How escaping from island life can remind you of the benefits

I am sitting in a hotel room. The walls are a sickly, bright yellow, and the quilt cover is a peculiar tartanesque pattern, identical to the curtains. Outside my window is a large car-park; beyond that, a housing estate.

I am in Glenrothes, three nights in to a four night musical tour of Scotland. We began in Aberdeen on Thursday, and will end, on Sunday evening, in Edinburgh. This is the first time I have found myself 'on tour', and it is a fairly strange experience: long days with not much to do are punctuated by moments of stress and nerves, and then the concerts happen, and are over in an instant. They are followed, inevitably, by a sigh of relief, usually lasting several hours.

My friend Steven and I have spent the days driving around, visiting places both new and familiar. It has been good to see, albeit briefly, parts of the country that we had previously only heard of – Loch Leven, Gleneagles, Auchtermuchty – and the weather has been, for the most part, beautiful. Spring has definitely arrived here in the south: daffodils lined the road in some of the villages we passed through, and there is a definite freshness to the green in the fields and hills.

But travelling also leads thoughts back towards home. It is slightly depressing to remember that when I arrive back in Shetland on Tuesday morning, after the overnight ferry from Aberdeen, the world will not look nearly so green, and the sun won't be nearly so willing to shine.

Many people living in Shetland (and, I suppose, other remote islands) feel the need to escape once in a while – to be in a bigger place, with more people, and to feel less detached from the rest of the world. They take shopping trips to Aberdeen or Glasgow, or weekend breaks to Edinburgh or London: places where the world looks and feels different from at home.

A sense of claustrophobia can develop when living on an island – a feeling of restricted movement, which can grow into a more complex sense of being held back or restrained. Some people find it difficult to cope with. But an occasional journey to mainland Britain, or further afield, can help to alleviate that feeling.

There are restrictions on the mainland too, of course. Whereas in Shetland, the views stretch out across the sea to the horizon, here you are hemmed in by trees and buildings. Cities in particular can feel very constricting and claustrophobic, as well as being noisy, dirty and intensely alienating. For someone used to life on an island, city dwellers can seem like very unnatural creatures indeed.

And perhaps that is the reason for these journeys away from home; it is not the escape from the limits of the island that is important, it is the reminder of why you live there in the first place. One person's freedom is another's prison, and sometimes it takes a change of view to remember which side of the wall you are actually on. For me, freedom lies back at home, with the horizon all around, and I will be heaving one final sigh of relief on Monday evening, as the ferry leaves Aberdeen harbour, heading north to Shetland.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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Aussies and Kiwis can be “us” to Brexiteers - so why are EU citizens “them”?

Nostalgia for the empire means Brexiteers still see Australians and New Zealanders as "Brits abroad". 

There are many terrible things about Brexit, most of which I counted, mournfully, on the night of the referendum while hiding in a stairwell because I was too depressed to talk to anyone at the party I’d just run away from. But one of the biggest didn’t hit me until the next day, when I met a friend and (I’m aware how ridiculous this may sound) suddenly remembered she was Dutch. She has been here 20 years, her entire adult life, and it’s not that I thought she was British exactly; I’d just stopped noticing she was foreign.

Except now, post-referendum, she very definitely was and her right to remain in Britain was suddenly up for grabs. Eleven months on, the government has yet to clarify the matter for any of Britain’s three million European residents. For some reason, ministers seem to think this is OK.

If you attended a British university in the past 20 years, work in the NHS or the City – or have done almost anything, in large parts of the country – you’ll know people like this: Europeans who have made their lives here, launching careers, settling down with partners, all on the assumption that Britain was part of the EU and so they were as secure here as those with British passports. The referendum has changed all that. Our friends and neighbours are now bargaining chips, and while we may not think of them as foreigners, our leaders are determined to treat them as such. People we thought of as “us” have somehow been recast as “them”.

There’s a problem with bringing notions of “us” and “them” into politics (actually, there are many, which seems like a very good reason not to do it, but let’s focus on one): not everyone puts the boundary between them in the same place. Take the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan. The sort of man one can imagine spent boyhood afternoons copying out Magna Carta for fun, Hannan spent decades campaigning for Brexit. Yet he’s not averse to all forms of international co-operation, and in his spare time he’s an enthusiastic advocate of CANZUK, a sort of Commonwealth-on-steroids in which there would be free movement ­between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

When pushed on the reasons this entirely theoretical union is OK, when the real, existing one we’re already in isn’t, he has generally pointed to things such as shared language, culture and war memorials. But the subtext, occasionally made text by less subtle commentators, is that, unlike those Continentals, natives of the other Anglo countries aren’t really foreign. An Australian who’s never set foot in Britain can be “us”; the German doctor who’s been here two decades is still “them”.

There’s a funny thing about Hannan, which I wouldn’t make a big thing of, except it seems to apply to a number of other prominent Leave and CANZUK advocates: for one so fixated on British culture and identity, he grew up a very long way from Britain. He spent his early years in Peru, on his family’s farm near Lima, or occasionally on another one in Bolivia. (You know how it is.) That’s not to say he never set foot in Britain, of course: he was sent here for school.

His bosom pal Douglas Carswell, who is currently unemployed but has in the past found work as both a Conservative and a Ukip MP, had a similarly exotic upbringing. He spent his childhood in Uganda, where his parents were doctors, before boarding at Charterhouse. Then there’s Boris Johnson who, despite being the most ostentatiously British character since John Bull, was born in New York and spent the early years of his life in New England. Until recently, indeed, he held US citizenship; he gave it up last year, ostensibly to show his loyalty to Britain, though this is one of those times where the details of an answer feel less revealing than the fact that he needed to provide one. Oh and Boris went to boarding school, too, of course.

None of these childhoods would look out of place if you read in a biography that it had happened in the 1890s, so perhaps it’s not surprising that they instilled in all of their victims a form of imperial nostalgia. I don’t mean that the Brexiteers were raised to believe they had a moral duty to go around the world nicking other people’s countries (though who knows what the masters really teach them at Eton). Rather, by viewing their homeland from a distance, they grew up thinking of it as a land of hope and glory, rather than the depressing, beige place of white dog poo and industrial strife that 1970s Britain was.

Seen through this lens, much of the more delusional Brexiteer thinking suddenly makes sense. Of course they need us more than we need them; of course they’ll queue up to do trade deals. Even Johnson’s habit of quoting bits of Latin like an Oxford don who’s had a stroke feels like harking back to empire: not to the Roman empire itself (he’s more of a late republican) but to the British one, where such references marked you out as ruling class.

There’s another side effect of this attitude. It enables a belief in a sort of British diaspora: people who are British by virtue of ancestry and ideology no matter how far from these shores they happen to live. In the 19th century, Australians and Canadians were just Brits who happened to be living abroad. What Britain absolutely wasn’t, however, was just another European country. So, in the Leavers’ minds, Aussies and Kiwis still get to be us. The millions of Europeans who have made Britain their home are still, unfortunately, them.

I’m sure these men bear Britain’s European citizens no ill-will; they have, however, fought for a policy that has left them in limbo for 11 months with no end in sight. But that’s the thing about Brexiteers, isn’t it? They may live among us – but they don’t share our values.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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