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.


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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Leader: Mourning in Manchester

Yet another attack shows we are going to have to get to used to the idea that our liberalism and our freedoms can only be preserved by a strong state.

Children are murdered and maimed by a suicide bomber as they are leaving a pop concert in Manchester. As a consequence, the government raises the terror threat to “critical”, which implies that another attack is imminent, and the army is sent out on to the streets of our cities in an attempt to reassure and encourage all good citizens to carry on as normal. The general election campaign is suspended. Islamic State gleefully denounces the murdered and wounded as “crusaders” and “polytheists”.

Meanwhile, the usual questions are asked, as they are after each new Islamist terrorist atrocity. Why do they hate us so much? Have they no conscience or pity or sense of fellow feeling? We hear, too, the same platitudes: there is more that unites us than divides us, and so on. And so we wait for the next attack on innocent civilians, the next assault on the free and open society, the next demonstration that Islamism is the world’s most malignant and dangerous ideology.

The truth of the matter is that the Manchester suicide bomber, Salman Ramadan Abedi, was born and educated in Britain. He was 22 when he chose to end his own life. He had grown up among us: indeed, like the London bombers of 7 July 2005, you could call him, however reluctantly, one of us. The son of Libyan refugees, he supported Manchester United, studied business management at Salford University and worshipped at Didsbury Mosque. Yet he hated this country and its people so viscerally that he was prepared to blow himself up in an attempt to murder and wound as many of his fellow citizens as possible.

The Manchester massacre was an act of nihilism by a wicked man. It was also sadly inevitable. “The bomb was,” writes the Mancunian cultural commentator Stuart Maconie on page 26, “as far as we can guess, an attack on the fans of a young American woman and entertainer, on the frivolousness and foolishness and fun of young girlhood, on lipstick and dressing up and dancing, on ‘boyfs’ and ‘bezzies’ and all the other freedoms that so enrage the fanatics and contradict their idiot dogmas. Hatred of women is a smouldering core of their wider, deeper loathing for us. But to single out children feels like a new low of wickedness.”

We understand the geopolitical context for the atrocity. IS is under assault and in retreat in its former strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa. Instead of urging recruits to migrate to the “caliphate”, IS has been urging its sympathisers and operatives in Europe to carry out attacks in their countries of residence. As our contributing writer and terrorism expert, Shiraz Maher, explains on page 22, these attacks are considered to be acts of revenge by the foot soldiers and fellow-travellers of the caliphate. There have been Western interventions in Muslim lands and so, in their view, all civilians in Western countries are legitimate targets for retaliatory violence.

An ever-present threat of terrorism is the new reality of our lives in Europe. If these zealots can murder children at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, there is no action that they would not consider unconscionable. And in this country there are many thousands – perhaps even tens of thousands – who are in thrall to Islamist ideology. “Terror makes the new future possible,” the American Don DeLillo wrote in his novel Mao II, long before the al-Qaeda attacks of 11 September 2001. The main work of terrorists “involves mid-air explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative.”

Immediately after the Paris attacks in November 2015, John Gray reminded us in these pages of how “peaceful coexistence is not the default condition of modern humankind”. We are going to have to get used to the idea that our liberalism and our freedoms can only be preserved by a strong state. “The progressive narrative in which freedom is advancing throughout the world has left liberal societies unaware of their fragility,” John Gray wrote. Liberals may not like it, but a strong state is the precondition of any civilised social order. Certain cherished freedoms may have to be compromised. This is the new tragic narrative.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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