Calm before the storms?

A spell of good weather heralds the start of Spring and a sudden burst of activity in the gardens of

A miraculous spell of dry, calm weather has been lingering over Fair Isle for the past couple of weeks. Already the land is beginning to dry out and there is even a hint of new, green grass starting to emerge.

Gardens, virtually abandoned throughout the long winter, have suddenly become hives of activity. All around the island the sound of forks and spades turning soil has been heard. It feels, finally, as if the winter hibernation is over. The cold, wet months, when the only thing to do outside is to try and get back in as quickly as possible, are coming to an end.

During the winter it can sometimes be hard to remember the positive aspects of living so far north. The long hours of darkness, the rain, the wind, the cold, more wind; it can get, well, just a little depressing. But when the light finally does return it is like a blanket being lifted, and the world feels suddenly bigger and brighter again; the days begin to lengthen rapidly, stretching themselves out towards mid-summer when the sun will hardly set at all.

When it happens, as it seems to this past week, the garden becomes the immediate focus.

Seeds, which have also lain dormant for months, suddenly seem filled with potential, and the first trays of compost are filled with things that, hopefully, will return to feed us in the autumn. Tentatively, some of these have been placed outside (under cover, of course) and the more delicate have been placed in windowsills around the house. Red cabbage, cauliflower, curly kale, lettuce, spring onions, rocket and broad beans, as well as herbs such as coriander, fennel, dill, parsley and thyme have all been entrusted to the soil. I hope we have not been too optimistic. Others have been more cautious and are holding back; there is still plenty of time for the weather to misbehave.

In the vegetable garden itself, which we share with two of our neighbours, there has been action also. In the past week we have spread muck over the ground, ploughed it, and planted potatoes, again in the confident assumption that things will go our way weather-wise. In five months or so, with any luck, each little potato will have multiplied into a dozen or more, hidden beneath the ground. It never ceases to amaze me, the great value of that deal; with just a little digging and weeding during the year, one magically becomes many.

But it’s not just people that are ready for change. The sheep too are looking increasingly eager to rid themselves of the great weights inside them. Our lambs are due to start arriving next Sunday, and all around the island the swollen mothers-to-be are looking just about ready to begin.

Gestation periods for sheep are fairly predictable (around 150 days) so it is possible to know with some accuracy when the lambs will appear. Occasionally an over-eager ewe will have jumped a fence to meet the ram before she is supposed to, and will therefore lamb early, but, for most, next weekend is the crucial time. Again, poor weather can be a serious problem when the lambs are first born, so it is vital to keep a close eye as the time approaches, and to make sure that the sheep are comfortable and have shelter available. Fingers and toes are all crossed in the hope that things stay as pleasant as they have been.

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When I wrote the first part of this blog a few days ago, the isle was still enjoying the calm spell; now it is pouring with rain and blowing a gale. I hate weather!

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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

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.