Preparing for winter

Malachy Tallack muses on the beauty and brutality of a Fair Isle winter


Traditional cultures have always sought, and found, balance within the natural world, and in their relationship to the lands and landscapes that have sustained them. And winter, it seems to me, is the time when we are reminded most forcefully of that balance.

Here in Fair Isle, as in other northern places, winter is the most animate and aggressive of seasons. To imagine it as lifeless or inert is to have failed, somehow, to experience it at all.

Where spring and summer are times of advancing into the world – of planting and tending, and the intrusions of agriculture – autumn and winter are times of retreat.

Many visitors to Fair Isle speak enviously of our lifestyle, and the environment in which we live. A part of them wishes that they too could exist somewhere like this. “But”, they say, “I couldn’t cope with the long winters”.

In some ways this attitude is understandable. The winters here are long: they can last, in practice, up to five or six months. Sometimes it seems much longer. The weather is poor too. Strong winds are the norm, making the cold air feel even colder. And the days are short. At the moment the sun rises around nine o’clock in the morning and sets again about three. There is a lingering twilight for much of the time in between, and it can often feel as though there has been no day at all.

Working outside at this time of year can therefore be difficult. The lack of daylight hours, and the even greater lack of suitable weather, means that opportunities must be grasped whenever they come along. Most of the time is spent inside, sheltered and protected from the world. And with the curtains and doors closed, it can be easy to feel detached or disconnected from what lies outside. But that is misleading.

This rhythm of advance and retreat, of warmth and cold, summer and winter, has been part of the natural cycle of human life since people first migrated beyond the equatorial regions. For those peoples that moved further still, into northern Europe, Asia and America, it is a rhythm that is deeply ingrained into our cultures and our psyche. The ebb and flow of each year affects us in ways that we cannot begin to understand; it balances us within our environment and within ourselves.

While we may shut the doors and block out the darkness, the winter itself does not end outside our homes. It reaches in and touches us, changes us. We must not imagine ourselves immune to the seasons.

Many people find winter a depressing time. It can induce feelings of loneliness, even despair. Others find hope and comfort in the recognition of change and return – of cyclical, seasonal movement. It can be exhilarating as well as exhausting.

This afternoon, as it grew dark, I drew the curtains and lit the fire. The room filled with warmth. Generations of people have done the same thing, within this house, on this island. It was a natural reaction – an interaction with the world outside. And I watched as the flames leapt and danced in the grate.

Photographs 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.
Photo: Getty
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What the tragic case of Charlie Gard tells us about the modern world

People now believe medical science can perform miracles, and many search for them online.

If Charlie Gard had been born 40 years ago, there would have been no doubt about what would, and should, happen. Doctors treating a baby with a rare genetic condition that causes the body’s organs to shut down would have told his parents “nothing more can be done for him”. Charlie – deaf, epileptic, his muscles wasted, his brain probably damaged – would have died peacefully and unremarked. If an experimental US treatment had given such children an estimated 10 per cent chance of survival, his parents would not have known about it. Even if they had, they would have sorrowfully deferred to British doctors.

Now people believe that medical science can perform miracles and, through the internet, search the world for them. Yet they do not trust the knowledge and judgement of the medical profession. They rally public support and engage lawyers to challenge the doctors, as Charlie’s parents unsuccessfully did in the hope of being allowed to take their child for experimental treatment in America, despite warnings that it would be ineffective and distressing for him. This is a strange situation, the result of medical progress, social media, globalisation and the decline of deference. It causes much heartache to everybody involved but, like Charlie’s death, it is probably unavoidable.

Mogg days

A few weeks ago, Jacob Rees-Mogg was a 50-1 outsider for the Tory leadership. Now, as I write, he is third or fourth favourite, quoted by the bookmakers at between 6-1 and 10-1. For a few days, he was the second favourite, ahead of both Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond and behind only David Davis, the clear front-runner. Perhaps Davis organised rich friends – of which I am sure he has a few – to flood the market with bets on Rees-Mogg to frighten Tory MPs into rallying behind him.

But do not write off the man dubbed “the honourable member for the early 20th century” – generously, in my view, since he looks and behaves as though he has stepped off an 18th-century country estate and he actually lives on a 17th-century one. Rees-Mogg, a hard Brexiteer, would be an appropriate leader if we left the EU with no deal. Having excused ourselves from the world’s largest and most cohesive trading bloc, our best prospect for earning our living would be as a giant 18th-century theme park. Who better than Rees-Mogg to front it?

The royal revenue stream

Princess Diana is the gift that keeps on giving. TV companies produce documentaries on the anniversaries of her death and marriage. New tapes, photos and letters are unearthed. Anyone who cut her hair, cleaned her windows or sold her a frock can make a bob or two from “my memories of Diana”. Most important, Diana guarantees the future of the royal family for at least another half-century. In an ITV documentary, Prince William spoke movingly and sincerely (as did his brother, Harry) about losing a mother. Even the most hard-hearted republicans must now hesitate to deprive him also of a throne.

Strictly newsreading

I am a BBC fan. I regard the requirement, imposed by the Tories, that the corporation publishes the names and salary bands of employees paid more than £150,000 a year as an attempt to exploit “the politics of envy” of which Labour is normally accused. But I wonder if the corporation could help itself by offering even more transparency than the government demands.

It could, for example, explain exactly why Gary Lineker (£1.75m-£1.79m), Jeremy Vine (£700,000-£749,999) and Huw Edwards (£550,000-£599,999) are so handsomely paid. Do they possess skills, esoteric knowledge or magnetic attraction to viewers and listeners unavailable to other mortals and particularly to their women colleagues who are apparently unworthy of such lavish remuneration? Were they wooed by rival broadcasters? If so, which rivals and how much did they offer? Have BBC women received lower offers or no offers at all? The BBC could go further. It could invite a dozen unknowns to try doing the jobs of top presenters and commentators, turn the results into a programme, and invite viewers or listeners to decide if the novices should replace established names and, if so, at what salaries. We elect the people who make our laws and the couples who go into the final stages of Strictly Come Dancing. Why shouldn’t we elect our newsreaders and, come to that, Strictly’s presenters?

Mail order

A tabloid newspaper, founded in 1896 and now with its headquarters in Kensington High Street, west London, obsessed with the Islamist terror threat, convinced that it speaks for Middle England. An editor, in the chair for a quarter-of-a-century, who makes such liberal use of the C-word that his editorial conferences are known as “the vagina monologues” and whose voice is comparable to that of “a maddened bull elephant”. Sound familiar?

Two weeks ago, I wrote about Splash!, a newly published satirical novel about a tabloid newspaper from the long-serving Daily Mail columnist Stephen Glover. Now I have had early sight of The Beast, due out in September, also a satirical novel about a tabloid paper, written by Alexander Starritt who briefly worked on the Mail after leaving Oxford University. Like Glover, he pays homage to Evelyn Waugh’s classic Scoop, where the main characters worked for the Daily Beast, but there the similarities end. Glover has written what is essentially a defence of tabloid journalism. Starritt offers a fierce, blackly comic critique, though he cannot, in the end, quite avoid casting the editor Paul Dacre – sorry, Charles Brython – as a heroic, if monstrous, figure.

How many other journalists or ex-journalists are writing satirical novels about the Mail? And why the presumed public interest? Newspapers, with fewer readers than ever, are supposed to be dying. Fiction publishers seem to disagree. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue