Wuffling in the sunshine

A summer's day spent cutting and wrapping silage can be idyllic

Our summer seems to be taking a bit of a holiday at the moment, with the mild and (occasionally) sunny weather having given way to rain, strong winds and biting cold. It feels like winter has returned already.

Throughout the year there are jobs that rely on the weather behaving itself, and summer is certainly no exception. One of the most important jobs of the season is making silage, which is used as feeding through the winter. Silage is basically just various grasses that are allowed to grow tall, then cut, dried a little, and wrapped in bales to ferment for a few months before being fed to the sheep.

With the warm weather earlier in the month a good proportion of the island’s silage has already been cut and baled; everyone else is now waiting for the sunshine to return.

The job requires at least two dry, and preferably sunny, days in a row to be done properly. The first day the silage is cut into lines and then left to dry out. The grass can also be turned to aid the drying process, either by hand or with a machine called a “wuffler”, which, er, wuffles it a bit.

The following day is the bigger job, which also requires more people. A tractor with a baling machine attached moves slowly around the field; the grass goes in at one end, then comes out the other end in tightly-packed cylinders about a metre long.

Another tractor follows it around with a trailer and a team of lifters on the back. They pile the bales up on the trailer and take them to yet another machine, where they are each spun around and wrapped in plastic, then stacked up ready for the winter. Each field may have upwards of 100 bales in it to be processed in this way.

Although there is a core of folk who are nearly always involved in the work (generally those people who own tractors), it also requires more people to come out and help. The more people there are the easier it becomes and the less time it takes.

This is one of those community jobs where folk help each other because they need help themselves; if you want people to turn up when your silage is being done then it’s only fair to go and work when other people are doing theirs.

On the whole, silage days tend to be fairly sociable events. The children are usually on their summer holidays so they always get involved, and because the job needs to be done in good weather, people are quite happy to be out in the sunshine doing something useful.

It can at times feel like an idyllic pursuit, though the aching back and muscles the following day normally dispel that illusion. Until the next time.

The silage baler is actually quite a recent addition to crofting equipment on the island. In the past many people had pits, into which the cut grass was packed. But that tended to be a fairly inefficient and difficult means of creating silage, with a lot of wastage, and so the baler has proved a very welcome development.

It was also normal until not so long ago for crofts to make hay as well as, or instead of, silage. But haymaking is a far more labour-intensive process, with days of repeated turning and stacking required to get the grass sufficiently dry.

The weather here is simply not reliable enough for good haymaking, and so an activity that had been part of life in Fair Isle for many hundreds of years is now almost completely gone.

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As summer marches briskly on, the time has come for a short holiday. A break from blogging is required, and so my next will be on 20 August.

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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.