The great outdoors

Tarring, hoeing, dyking... it's all in a day's work

In recent months I have spent far too much time sitting in front of my computer.

There are several problems with this situation. One is that there are many, many things I would rather be doing, and most of them involve being outside the house. Another is that it is far too easy to waste time on the computer and this time-wasting just exacerbates the whole situation.

I can’t do anything else until my work is done, and somehow I just can’t seem to get myself in the right gear to do it. So I am stranded with the laptop for yet longer. And because of the bright screen and my chronically bad posture, each day ends with sore eyes and an aching back.

I am aware, of course, that wasting time is just as easy while outside, but time wasted in the open air is never really wasted, and it certainly doesn’t leave you with that hollow feeling that computer-use inevitably produces.

Tarring is not my favourite job. In fact it ranks pretty low on an increasingly lengthy list of current and previous occupations. But it requires being outside (obviously), and interacting with people, which makes it 10 times better than numbing my brain in front of a screen. So I was delighted to be out on the roads at the beginning of the week, getting myself covered in the filthy sticky black stuff.

Filling in potholes is a fairly regular task. It involves, firstly, heating a barrel of tar over an open fire (probably not the textbook method), then rolling it a quarter of a mile down the road, to try and make it as smooth and lump-free as possible. This is often the most entertaining part of the day – chasing after the barrel as it sails merrily down the road towards... well, you never quite know until you get there.

Once that’s done it’s just a case of filling in all the holes in the road with chips (stone, rather than potato) and covering them in tar, poured from an old metal watering can. Simple. Only the intervention of wind, other traffic or lumps in the tar (“turds” is the technical name) can get in the way. Which they do. Often.

At the end of the day I usually have to scrub my hands and face with rough sandpaper and wash my hair in diesel just to return to a normal state of cleanliness.

Thursday was spent rather less messily, mending two large holes in the Hill Dyke – the tall, dry stone wall that separates the northern and southern parts of the isle.

There is an art to dry stone dyking, but, as this was my first attempt at the job, I’m not ashamed to admit that I don’t have it. My skills were more on the level of say, doodling – acceptable in private, but hardly desirable for public display. I enjoyed myself immensely though, so all was well. Between four of us we filled both holes by the end of the afternoon. And with the warm sun beating down, I could hardly think of a better way to spend a day.

Yesterday, feeling guilty about ignoring our garden for so long, I went down to try and tackle some of the weeds that have been making themselves at home there. With a dogged enthusiasm that I have never before felt for the task, I hoed myself almost senseless, filling fishbox after fishbox with weeds. I returned home, six hours later, with my back aching and my eyes sore, and immediately switched on the computer.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.