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.
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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.