At the obs

Fair Isle's rich bird life tempts many visitors to this remote place. Many of them stay at the islan

For most places in the UK the end of summer means the end of the tourist season; for us this is not the case. Late September and October are high season for birds and, consequently, high season for birders.

The island feels full of life at this time of year. Small clusters of people wander endlessly around the roads and fields, with an identical look of quiet, concentrated optimism on their faces – a look which only birders and anglers can truly muster.

Towards the end of the day their sheen of optimism may have worn off slightly, but there remains always an underlying energy that can snap into frantic action whenever required. If a "good bird" is spotted, there will be a rush to the spot, and a small crowd of birders can swell to a great mob within minutes.

Over the past week there has been a veritable flock of these good birds, including a buff-bellied pipit, two lanceolated warblers, thrush nightingale, Pallass’s grasshopper warbler and a grey-cheeked thrush. And that’s what folk come to Fair Isle for.

For the vast majority of visitors, particularly of the ornithological persuasion, the destination of choice is the Fair Isle Bird Observatory. As well as being a centre for the collection of scientific data on bird migration and breeding, the observatory is also a guesthouse, and a significant contributor to the island’s economy.

'The obs', as it is known to both islanders and visitors, is home year-round to a warden and administrator, Deryk and Hollie Shaw, and their four children. Between spring and late autumn it also employs assistant wardens, a ranger, cooks and general assistants. These additional staff – about eight in all – usually spend the entire season in Fair Isle, and play an important role in the island’s life. Increasing the population by more than 10 per cent, they help to add to the vibrancy of the community during the period, and their arrival each year, like the arrival of the birds, is a welcome reminder that winter is finally at an end.

It is difficult to explain or to quantify the importance of the obs to Fair Isle. To attempt to do so in financial terms – the numbers of visitors and the cash they bring to the isle – is to underestimate, and, I think, to misunderstand the nature of the relationship.

It is, in many ways, an unusual and a peculiar relationship. Not only are the full-time staff and their family a significant part of the community, but the observatory itself, as an institution, has a presence within the island that is much bigger than the sum of its parts.

To some extent this is just a question of longevity. The obs began its days almost 60 years ago, in August 1948, so it as been around for a long time. But the island and the observatory have evolved and developed together over that time. The connection has become symbiotic, and the success of one has also been the success of the other.

Today that success is greater than ever, and big changes are planned for the obs. The current building was first constructed in 1969, and, despite some improvements over the years, is no longer considered fit for the purpose. So plans are being drawn up to replace it with a modern building – more comfortable, more weather-proof and more environmentally sound.

This development will mean that for the first time the obs will have to be closed to visitors for one season – most likely 2009. The scientific work will continue during that time, however. And when the new observatory opens its doors the following spring, it will be a great step into the future, for the obs and for the island.

* * *

I am migrating away from the island for the next few weeks, but will return to Fair Isle, and to this page, later in October.

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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Let's face it: supporting Spurs is basically a form of charity

Now, for my biggest donation yet . . .

I gazed in awe at the new stadium, the future home of Spurs, wondering where my treasures will go. It is going to be one of the architectural wonders of the modern world (football stadia division), yet at the same time it seems ancient, archaic, a Roman ruin, very much like an amphitheatre I once saw in Croatia. It’s at the stage in a new construction when you can see all the bones and none of the flesh, with huge tiers soaring up into the sky. You can’t tell if it’s going or coming, a past perfect ruin or a perfect future model.

It has been so annoying at White Hart Lane this past year or so, having to walk round walkways and under awnings and dodge fences and hoardings, losing all sense of direction. Millions of pounds were being poured into what appeared to be a hole in the ground. The new stadium will replace part of one end of the present one, which was built in 1898. It has been hard not to be unaware of what’s going on, continually asking ourselves, as we take our seats: did the earth move for you?

Now, at long last, you can see what will be there, when it emerges from the scaffolding in another year. Awesome, of course. And, har, har, it will hold more people than Arsenal’s new home by 1,000 (61,000, as opposed to the puny Emirates, with only 60,000). At each home game, I am thinking about the future, wondering how my treasures will fare: will they be happy there?

No, I don’t mean Harry Kane, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker – local as well as national treasures. Not many Prem teams these days can boast quite as many English persons in their ranks. I mean my treasures, stuff wot I have been collecting these past 50 years.

About ten years ago, I went to a shareholders’ meeting at White Hart Lane when the embryonic plans for the new stadium were being announced. I stood up when questions were called for and asked the chairman, Daniel Levy, about having a museum in the new stadium. I told him that Man United had made £1m the previous year from their museum. Surely Spurs should make room for one in the brave new mega-stadium – to show off our long and proud history, delight the fans and all those interested in football history and make a few bob.

He mumbled something – fluent enough, as he did go to Cambridge – but gave nothing away, like the PM caught at Prime Minister’s Questions with an unexpected question.

But now it is going to happen. The people who are designing the museum are coming from Manchester to look at my treasures. They asked for a list but I said, “No chance.” I must have 2,000 items of Spurs memorabilia. I could be dead by the time I finish listing them. They’ll have to see them, in the flesh, and then they’ll be free to take away whatever they might consider worth having in the new museum.

I’m awfully kind that way, partly because I have always looked on supporting Spurs as a form of charity. You don’t expect any reward. Nor could you expect a great deal of pleasure, these past few decades, and certainly not the other day at Liverpool when they were shite. But you do want to help them, poor things.

I have been downsizing since my wife died, and since we sold our Loweswater house, and I’m now clearing out some of my treasures. I’ve donated a very rare Wordsworth book to Dove Cottage, five letters from Beatrix Potter to the Armitt Library in Ambleside, and handwritten Beatles lyrics to the British Library. If Beckham and I don’t get a knighthood in the next honours list, I will be spitting.

My Spurs stuff includes programmes going back to 1910, plus recent stuff like the Opus book, that monster publication, about the size of a black cab. Limited editions cost £8,000 a copy in 2007. I got mine free, as I did the introduction and loaned them photographs. I will be glad to get rid of it. It’s blocking the light in my room.

Perhaps, depending on what they want, and they might take nothing, I will ask for a small pourboire in return. Two free tickets in the new stadium. For life. Or longer . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times