Farewell from Fair Isle

Malachy Tallack's last blog from Britain's remotest place reflects on a very different way of living


When I began writing these short pieces for the New Statesman a year ago, I was reacting in part to what I felt were misrepresentations and misunderstandings of life in the Northern Isles that were appearing with some regularity in the national media.

The islands, and Fair Isle in particular, were portrayed as somehow old fashioned – relics of an era long since forgotten elsewhere. The people who lived here were too often caricatured as naïve and idealistic, backward-looking, or, worse, as mere museum pieces, existing solely for the entertainment of our visitors.

I wanted to write an alternative story; one that did not treat island life as an eccentric curiosity, or as a polar opposite to the ‘normal life’ that is lived elsewhere. I wanted to write about the realities of living here – the problems as well as the pleasures – and to do this without adding too much of a romantic sheen. I also wanted to ask myself what exactly it is that makes places like Fair Isle different, and specifically what it is about this particular community that visitors and islanders find so refreshing and worthwhile. On this last point I am quite sure that I have not succeeded, but I wanted to offer here a few final thoughts.

There is a common misconception about Fair Isle’s community, which I think is perpetuated by the tendency to consider it as being a cohesive unit, rather than a nebulous group of individuals. Fair Isle is not a community that is sustained by any kind of heady idealism, or by a desire for ‘like-minded’ communal living. It is a community of individuals, often with very different opinions and ideas, who simply choose to consider their neighbours’ interests as well as their own.

We do this, I think, for two reasons, both of which involve a recognition of something that can elsewhere remain hidden. Firstly, there is the recognition that each person has some sort of role, no matter how ill-defined, within the community. Many of us have jobs that are needed for the maintenance of essential services; others may simply offer a different way of looking at things. But each of us relies, quite literally, upon a network of other people, sharing this island with us. While this fact remains true wherever you live, it is often difficult to see.

The second reason is that people here recognise that the community, as a social group, is itself worth sustaining – that there is something here to sustain. Most people feel no need to define that something, just to acknowledge it. It is related, I would suggest, to an entirely natural and instinctive desire to be part of a functioning social group. After all, that is how human beings, as social animals, have evolved. But it is a feeling that is increasingly hard to find in other places today.

The community works so long as most people, most of the time, are able to remember and accept that their own interests are not always consistent with those of their neighbours, and that everyone benefits by acting with this in mind. This seems to me to be an entirely healthy and natural social order, and one that is completely alien to the hierarchical structures of power and wealth that now binds society together throughout most of the West. It is this naturalness that I think visitors notice when they come here, even for a short time; the feeling that, somehow, this is how it is meant to be.

Anyone who travels in the remote parts of Scotland, and particularly in the Western and Northern Isles, will have come across the evidence of abandonment. Old crofts and cottages lie derelict, ruined. Whole villages and islands that once were populated are now entirely empty of people. It can be a depressing sight. This island could very easily have gone the same way. But it did not.

For me, Fair Isle is a place of great hope. People here work hard to maintain something that they truly believe in, something that they cannot find anywhere else. What they find on this island is a real community of individuals, a natural and native order of things, and a satisfaction that springs not so much from a way of life, but a way of living.

Many thanks to Dave Wheeler for all his wonderful photographs.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
GARY WATERS
Show Hide image

In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt