Bird brained?

The incredible enthusiasm of birders and twitchers

The recent stretch of good weather has seen the return of that most seasonal of visitors to the island: the tourist.

There are a variety of different species of tourist to be seen in Fair Isle during the course of the year. These include the ‘relaxers’: middle-aged couples and families who come to sit down for a few days, and occasionally stroll slowly down to the beach then back again, just in time for tea. The more elderly relaxers tend to be a little more adventurous, and sometimes make it as far as the shop during their stay.

Then there are the ‘explorers’, who come to island in mid-summer dressed for trekking in the Arctic tundra. They are easily spotted, wearing expensive hiking gear in pristine condition, striding assuredly around the island’s roads with a walking pole grasped tightly in each hand and a compass dangling pointlessly from their huge rucksacks. I’m not entirely sure what these people do once they have completed the few miles of roads; I have certainly never seen any of them venture off the tarmac. Perhaps they sit down and join the relaxers by the window, eager to tell their friends back home about their adventure.

By far the most numerous visitors to Fair Isle, though, and certainly the earliest arrivals, are the birders.

For over half a century Fair Isle has been a Mecca for bird lovers, particularly in spring and autumn, when rare migrant species take a break from their long journeys, or else arrive on the island lost and confused, after getting blown completely off course. The sight of a “mega rare” American warbler, half dead with exhaustion after its accidental journey across the Atlantic, is enough to send grown men (they are, invariably, men) into a terrifying frenzy, and anyone or anything that stands in their way is likely to get crushed in the stampede.

But birders too come in a number of different sub-species, or perhaps a hierarchy is a better description. At the bottom are the common or garden ‘birdwatchers’: people who enjoy looking at blackbirds and starlings from their kitchen windows, and who may even confuse the two.

Above them are ‘twitchers’, who are basically checklist birders. Like trainspotters, their interest is in amassing the longest list in a given year, area or lifetime, and they will often go to unbelievable lengths to see a new species. When the rarest birds appear in Fair Isle (usually in September or October) it is not unusual for twitchers to charter flights from England up to the isle, occasionally coming back again days later if another rarity appears. Our airstrip can be a very busy place at such times.

‘Real’ birders, at the top of the ornithological social ladder, tend to take themselves and their hobby very seriously, and they also like to exaggerate the difference between themselves and twitchers. The main difference, so far as I can see, is simply that twitchers have got the time and money to do what birders would like to be doing.

My brother is a recent convert to birding – a born-again birder, you might say – and like all converts he suffers from a certain over-zealousness. Everything else in his life, including his sanity, has been sacrificed to his binoculars. He wears them at all times now, even when in bed, just in case a bird should fly in through the open window and perch atop his wardrobe at night. He talks about birds, reads books about birds, watches DVDs about birds, listens to CDs of birds making bird noises.

I have disowned him.

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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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories