Death by water

Now, as in the past, the sea functions as both giver and taker of life

Early on Sunday morning, a Polish yacht with seven crew was rescued 30 miles to the west of Orkney. It had been due to arrive in Aberdeen the previous day, but had lost radio contact and had not been heard of since Monday, shortly after leaving Keflavik in Iceland.

The yacht had been suffering engine trouble, but finally managed to restore communications late on Saturday evening. Coastguard stations in Iceland, Faroe, Shetland and the Western Isles had all tried to contact the vessel unsuccessfully, and the alarm had been raised for all vessels to keep watch for her.

The crew of the Syrenka were very lucky. Finding a vessel in the North Atlantic with no clues as to its whereabouts would be near impossible without the ship’s emergency beacon being activated. The ending of this story could so easily have been a tragic one.

For me the events were a reminder, as if one were needed, of just how vulnerable human beings are out on the sea. If technology fails, as it can and inevitably sometimes will, or if the weather turns against you, the relationship between the sailor and the sea becomes something altogether different – more threatening, and more honest, perhaps.

Living on an island means, of course, that your world is defined, in a physical sense, by the sea. But that world does not end at the shore. The sea itself is a part of island life, no less than the land upon which you live.

For as long as people have been here, the sea has provided food for them – a livelihood. It has also been their connection to the rest of the world, their highway to other places and other people. It is not a barrier, but a provider of opportunity.


That opportunity, though, can come with a high price. Death at sea has always been a familiar occurrence. The waters around Fair Isle are littered with the wrecks of ships from years past. The most famous of these wrecks is the Gran Grifon, part of the Spanish Armada, which went aground here in September 1588. On that occasion none of the ship’s 300 men were killed, though in the seven weeks that they were marooned on the island, 50 or so died from starvation.

Countless other vessels have met their ends in these waters too, and sometimes it has been islanders themselves that have been the victims. In September 1897, four island boats found themselves in danger after a north-westerly storm blew up unexpectedly. Two made it home safely, another was found the following day with four of its seven crew dead. The other boat was never recovered. Eight men were lost in total, leaving four widows, and 27 children without fathers.

People took those kinds of risks not simply because they had to. The risks were a part of their bond with the sea – a part of the bargain, you might say. There was an element, too, of the old Norse acceptance of Fate, which manifested itself in a refusal by many Shetland seagoers to learn to swim – something that continued until quite recently.

Safety today is taken extremely seriously, and accidents are far rarer than in the past. But every year in Scotland lives are lost by people on the sea, and fishing remains the UK’s most dangerous profession. The bond that people feel with the water that surrounds them is a strong one though, unbreakable even. People will always make their livings from the sea, and as long as they do, there will always be those who are lost.

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

The vitriol aimed at Hillary Clinton shows the fragility of women's half-won freedom

The more I understand about the way the world treats women, the more I feel the terror of it coming for me.

I’m worried about my age. I’m 36. There’s a line between my eyebrows that’s been making itself known for about the last six years. Every time I see a picture of myself, I automatically seek out the crease. One nick of Botox could probably get rid of it. Has my skin lost its smoothness and glow?

My bathroom shelf has gone from “busy” to “cluttered” lately with things designed to plump, purify and resurface. It’s all very pleasant, but there’s something desperate I know at the bottom of it: I don’t want to look my age.

You might think that being a feminist would help when it comes to doing battle with the beauty myth, but I don’t know if it has. The more I understand about the way the world treats women – and especially older women – the more I feel the terror of it coming for me. Look at the reaction to Hillary Clinton’s book. Too soon. Can’t she go quietly. Why won’t she own her mistakes.

Well Bernie Sanders put a book out the week after the presidential election – an election Clinton has said Sanders did not fully back her in –  and no one said “too soon” about that. (Side note: when it comes to not owning mistakes, Sanders’s Our Revolution deserves a category all to itself, being as how the entire thing was written under the erroneous impression that Clinton, not Trump, would be president.) Al Gore parlayed his loss into a ceaseless tour of activism with An Inconvenient Truth, and everyone seems fine with that. John McCain – Christ, everyone loves John McCain now.

But Hillary? Something about Hillary just makes people want to tell her to STFU. As Mrs Merton might have asked: “What is it that repulses you so much about the first female candidate for US president?” Too emotional, too robotic, too radical, too conservative, too feminist, too patriarchal – Hillary has been called all these things, and all it really means is she’s too female.

How many women can dance on the head of pin? None, that’s the point: give them a millimetre of space to stand in and shake your head sadly as one by one they fall off. Oh dear. Not this woman. Maybe the next one.

It’s in that last bit that that confidence racket being worked on women really tells: maybe the next one. And maybe the next one could be you! If you do everything right, condemn all the mistakes of the women before you (and condemn the women themselves too), then maybe you’ll be the one standing tippy-toe on the miniscule territory that women are permitted. I’m angry with the men who engage in Clinton-bashing. With the women, it’s something else. Sadness. Pity, maybe. You think they’ll let it be you. You think you’ve found the Right Kind of Feminism. But you haven’t and you never will, because it doesn’t exist.

Still, who wouldn’t want to be the Right Kind of Feminist when there are so many ready lessons on what happens to the Wrong Kind of Feminist. The wrong kind of feminist, now, is the kind of feminist who thinks men have no right to lease women by the fuck (the “sex worker exclusionary radical feminist”, or SWERF) or the kind of feminist who thinks gender is a repressive social construct (rechristened the “trans exclusionary radical feminist”, or TERF).

Hillary Clinton, who has said that prostitution is “demeaning to women” – because it absolutely is demeaning to treat sexual access to women as a tradeable commodity – got attacked from the left as a SWERF. Her pre-election promises suggest that she would probably have continued the Obama administration’s sloppy reinterpretation of sex discrimination protections as gender identity protections, so not a TERF. Even so, one of the charges against her from those who considered her not radical enough was that she was a “rich, white, cis lady.” Linger over that. Savour its absurdity. Because what it means is: I won’t be excited about a woman presidential candidate who was born female.

This year was the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, and of the Abortion Act. One of these was met with seasons of celebratory programming; one, barely mentioned at all. (I took part in a radio documentary about “men’s emotional experiences of abortion”, where I made the apparently radical point that abortion is actually something that principally affects women.) No surprise that the landmark benefiting women was the one that got ignored. Because women don’t get to have history.

That urge to shuffle women off the stage – troublesome women, complicated women, brilliant women – means that female achievements are wiped of all significance as soon as they’re made. The second wave was “problematic”, so better not to expose yourself to Dworkin, Raymond, Lorde, Millett, the Combahee River Collective, Firestone or de Beauvoir (except for that one line that everyone misquotes as if it means that sex is of no significance). Call them SWERFs and TERFs and leave the books unread. Hillary Clinton “wasn’t perfect”, so don’t listen to anything she has to say based on her vast and unique experience of government and politics: just deride, deride, deride.

Maybe, if you’re a woman, you’ll be able to deride her hard enough to show you deserve what she didn’t. But you’ll still have feminine obsolescence yawning in your future. Even if you can’t admit it – because, as Katrine Marçal has pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, our entire economy is predicated on discounting women’s work – you’ll need the politics of women who analysed and understood their situation as women. You’ll still be a woman, like the women who came before us, to whom we owe the impossible debt of our half-won freedom.

In the summer of 2016, a radio interviewer asked me whether women should be grateful to Clinton. At the time, I said no: we should be respectful, but what I wanted was a future where women could take their place in the world for granted. What nonsense. We should be laying down armfuls of flowers for our foremothers every day.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.