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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.