Keeping in touch

Disconnection exists everywhere - whether you live in a big city or on a remote island

Being on an island can induce, in some people, a feeling of disconnectedness – disconnection from friends and family elsewhere, from the comforts and trappings of commerce, and from the news and events of the 'real' world.

For some, that is exactly what they are looking for. People come to visit places like Fair Isle in order to 'get away from it all' – to escape the confinement of modern society and to experience the freedom of another way of life.

But for others, the feeling can be uncomfortable and alienating. Freedom and constraint both coexist here, as they do everywhere. And islands are, by their very nature, separate.

But connection is a strange thing.

These days people are connected, for the most part, through the media. We read about each other in the newspaper and we watch each other on the television. On the internet we can do both.

Although I don’t have a television (through choice rather than necessity), I do get a newspaper, though only once a week (through necessity rather than choice). My Saturday Guardian arrives, if the weather is fine, on a Tuesday. By which time the world has moved on without me.

It can be easy to feel as though that world is a long way away. I have, more than once, failed to notice a major news story. It is a shock to turn on the radio and find out that you are the last person in the country to be aware of some major event, days after it happened.

I trust though that, were something really important or dreadful to happen (like nuclear war, say, or the Conservatives winning an election), someone would mention it to me before it was too late.

But I rarely miss the newspapers. And I certainly never miss the television. And, as I said, connection is a strange thing.

The mediation which now permeates every aspect of most people’s lives disguises itself as connection. We can, if we wish, find out much about our colleagues and neighbours by looking them up on Google. We can learn everything we want to know about politicians and celebrities in our newspapers and magazines. We feel somehow close to these people, no matter that they are strangers.

But it is all, of course, an illusion. We are separated from the world, not connected, by the media. And by focusing all of our attention on that which is far away, we become yet more distant from the things which should be close to us.

People sometimes ask whether it is difficult to live in a place with just 70 people. Is it not claustrophobic? Are we not all fed up of each other? But think about it: how many people do you really connect with in a normal day? Half a dozen, perhaps? One or two even?

What about the man who sells you your milk in the corner shop? Or the woman sitting beside you on the train? Your colleagues in the office? Or the waiter in the restaurant? What kinds of connections are those?

Here, every connection is a real one. Though there are only 70 of us, we are all connected through a mutual reliance and a shared sense of... well, of what exactly? To be honest, I am not sure. A shared sense of being on an island, perhaps.

I have lived most of my life in a small town. But I have also lived, at various times, in three different cities in three different countries. Disconnection exists everywhere. And connection is a strange thing.

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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The dog at the end of the lead may be small, but in fact what I’m walking is a hound of love

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel.

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel. I seem to have become a temporary co-owner of an enthusiastic Chorkie. A Chorkie, in case you’re not quite up to speed with your canine crossbreeds, is a mixture of a chihuahua and a Yorkshire Terrier, and while my friend K— busies herself elsewhere I am looking after this hound.

This falls squarely into the category of Things I Never Thought I’d Do. I’m a cat person, taking my cue from their idleness, cruelty and beauty. Dogs, with their loyalty, their enthusiasm and their barking, are all a little too much for me, even after the first drink of the day. But the dog is here, and I am in loco parentis, and it is up to me to make sure that she is looked after and entertained, and that there is no repetition of the unfortunate accident that occurred outside my housemate’s room, and which needed several tissues and a little poo baggie to make good.

As it is, the dog thinks I am the bee’s knees. To give you an idea of how beeskneesian it finds me, it is licking my feet as I write. “All right,” I feel like saying to her, “you don’t have to go that far.”

But it’s quite nice to be worshipped like this, I have decided. She has also fallen in love with the Hovel, and literally writhes with delight at the stinky cushions on the sofa. Named after Trude Fleischmann, the lesbian erotic photographer of the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, she has decided, with admirable open-mindedness, that I am the Leader of the Pack. When I take the lead, K— gets a little vexed.

“She’s walking on a loose lead, with you,” K— says. “She never does that when I’m walking her.” I don’t even know what that means, until I have a think and work it out.

“She’s also walking to heel with you,” K— adds, and once again I have to join a couple of mental dots before the mists part. It would appear that when it comes to dogs, I have a natural competence and authority, qualities I had never, not even in my most deranged flights of self-love, considered myself to possess in any measurable quantity at all.

And golly, does having a dog change the relationship the British urban flâneur has with the rest of society. The British, especially those living south of Watford, and above all those in London, do not recognise other people’s existence unless they want to buy something off them or stop them standing on the left of the sodding escalator, you idiot. This all changes when you have a dog with you. You are now fair game for any dog-fancier to come up to you and ask the most personal questions about the dog’s history and genealogy. They don’t even have to have a dog of their own; but if you do, you are obliged by law to stop and exchange dog facts.

My knowledge of dog facts is scant, extending not much further beyond them having a leg at each corner and chasing squirrels, so I leave the talking to K—, who, being a friendly sort who could probably talk dog all day long if pressed, is quite happy to do that. I look meanwhile in a kind of blank wonder at whichever brand of dog we’ve just encountered, and marvel not only at the incredible diversity of dog that abounds in the world, but at a realisation that had hitherto escaped me: almost half of London seems to have one.

And here’s the really interesting thing. When I have the leash, the city looks at me another way. And, specifically, the young women of the city. Having reached the age when one ceases to be visible to any member of the opposite sex under 30, I find, all of a sudden, that I exist again. Women of improbable beauty look at Trude, who looks far more Yorkie than chihuahua, apart from when she does that thing with the ears, and then look at me, and smile unguardedly and unironically, signalling to me that they have decided I am a Good Thing and would, were their schedules not preventing them, like to chat and get to know me and the dog a bit better.

I wonder at first if I am imagining this. I mention it to K—.

“Oh yes,” she says, “it’s a thing. My friend P-J regularly borrows her when he wants to get laid. He reckons he’s had about 12 shags thanks to her in the last six months. The problems only arise when they come back again and notice the dog isn’t there.”

I do the maths. Twelve in six months! That’s one a fortnight. An idea begins to form in my mind. I suppose you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out what it is. But no. I couldn’t. Could I?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism