Coontin kin

Cousins, second cousins, third, fourth, fifth cousins, eight times removed: an intricate web of conn

This weekend the population of Fair Isle has swelled to more than double, as a ruby wedding anniversary celebration has brought family and friends to the island from all over the country.

A celebratory meal was held in the community hall on Saturday night for around 140 islanders and invited guests, who were joined later in the evening by others – work campers, bird observatory seasonal staff and guests, and anyone else who happened to be on the island – for a dance. A band came in from Shetland especially for the occasion.

Dances are among the most important social occasions in the Fair Isle calendar, and there are usually several throughout the summer. This one though was particularly special, and the floor was full the entire night as people worked off their meals with Boston two-steps, eightsome reels, quadrilles, lancers and hesitation waltzes.

Visitors are often surprised to find that young people in Shetland are still taught these dances in school. Admittedly many of them will be forgotten almost instantly, but dancing has long been considered a vital part of Shetland culture. There are unique variations of some of the traditional dances here, and others that exist nowhere else.

I can well recall the torment of being paired up in P.E. classes in high school to go through the steps of the St. Bernard’s waltz and others, to prepare for our end-of-year dance. At the time I would rather have been doing anything else, but I am very glad now that I can still just about remember what I’m doing. In Fair Isle, while not exactly compulsory, dancing is certainly a mass-participation activity, and it is not considered an embarrassing or humiliating experience by the children, either.

An event like this, in a small, isolated place such as Fair Isle, requires extensive planning, and every household was involved in some way with preparing food and decorating the hall. A banquet for 140 people is not an easy thing to organise when all food and supplies have to be ordered well in advance and shipped in on the ferry. Any unfortunate oversights or miscalculations could not be solved with a last-minute trip to the supermarket. It was miraculous then, perhaps, that everything went smoothly and successfully. So far as I could tell, anyway. The only problem for me being that I ate too much too early, so didn’t allow enough room for cake.

Any mass gathering of Fair Isle or Shetland families like this will always provide the opportunity for that most popular of island sports – reddin up kin. This involves working out exactly how you are related to any or all of the people in the room.

My girlfriend Rachel is a third (or fourth?) cousin to the ruby groom, through both his father and his mother. Our neighbours at the dining table, whom we had never met before, were related to the ruby bride. But their mother had shared a surname with Rachel, so were probably also related to both her and the groom, though apparently no-one had ever been able to discover exactly how that connection worked because the historical records were incomplete.

And so it went on. Cousins, second cousins, third, fourth, fifth cousins, eight times removed: an intricate web of connections that was enough to make anyone feel a bit dizzy. I am certainly relieved at such times that I don’t have to worry about these things.

My family come from England on one side and Ireland on the other, so unless there is some very bizarre coincidence, I am unlikely to ever be related to anyone. It makes life so much easier that way.

Photo by Dave Wheeler

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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue