New Year in disguise

Strange guizers see in 2008 on Fair Isle

As I write this, Fair Isle has been cut off from mainland Shetland for about ten days: no boats, no planes. In part this has been due to a festive break for the ferry and flight staff, but the weather has also done its bit, serving up a severe easterly gale that lasted several days, and which made off with my neighbours’ poly-tunnel, among other thing.

I was lucky. Having spent Christmas with my brother out in Shetland, I got home without any delays on the last flight to reach the island, on December 28th. Others are less fortunate though, and several people are stuck here this weekend, waiting patiently for a chance to get away, back home, back to work, and back to normality.

Unlike the last few days, the evening of the 31st December itself was beautiful – flat calm and cloudless skies; perfect weather for a Fair Isle New Year.

Throughout most of Shetland, New Year’s Eve (or, in some areas, Christmas Eve) has traditionally been a time for guizing, though Fair Isle is now one of the few places that still keeps up the custom. Essentially, guizing means dressing up in fancy dress or a disguise of some sort, or, in the most northerly isles of Shetland, a skekler’s suit, made entirely of straw. Guizers will go out during the evening, usually in ‘squads’, and visit their neighbours, performing a humorous sketch or act for them. The hosts must then try to guess who each guizer is, before offering them a drink, some food, and their best wishes for the New Year. Then it’s off to the next house.

The sketches usually revolve around some story from the past year, an island event, or local politics. The trick is to perform the act well while managing to keep your identity hidden. This year, three squads of adults were out guizing, plus a group of teenagers and one of younger children. We each had ten houses to visit during the night, so an early start was essential.

My own squad’s act was based around the extraordinary hat-making skills of Tommy Hyndman, our American neighbour, complete with a Harry Potter-style ‘sorting hat’ to help find new homes for islanders. I was Tommy, dressed in a set of his own clothes, which were surreptitiously smuggled out of his house earlier in the day by his wife. Despite what I thought was a reasonably convincing American accent (and a somewhat less convincing mask) I was guessed correctly in most houses. Tommy himself had the pleasure of watching my impersonation of him in our final house of the evening. He took it very well, and didn’t seem even slightly concerned as to how I had managed to obtain his clothes for the part.

Once guizing is finished, most people return to their own homes to see in the New Year with their family. Then, after midnight, one household will host a party, which everyone who hasn’t yet retired to bed will attend.

Christmas and New Year are a good time here in Fair Isle. It is perhaps the only time of the year when everybody can relax and take a break from work. People eat together and socialise most evenings with neighbours, friends and family. It is a time when the dark, the cold and the terrible weather seem much less important than the warmth and the light inside each house. It is easy to remember what these midwinter celebrations are really all about, and why they have always been so important.

Photos 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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On the important issues, Louise Casey all too often has little to say

Far from moving the debate on, this new report on integration adds little to the report I commissioned in 2001. 

For 15 years, “numerous government reports on community cohesion and integration have not been implemented with enough force or consistency” concludes Louise Casey’s review of  integration.  The government’s lukewarm response suggests their effort will be as “diluted and muddled” as all the rest.

There’s a deeper reason why governments shy away from the measures that are needed. The report's wealth of data sets out a stark if sometimes contestable picture of a divided society.  But no amount of data can really bring the lives of our fellow citizens to life. As the Brexit vote underlined, this is now a nation divided by class, geography, education, wealth, opportunity and race. Those divisions colour the way we live our lives, the way we see problems in society, the relations we have with others, and our political choices. The report, like many before it, stops short of setting out that reality. It’s easier to pretend that most of us pretty much agree on most things; but just few people don’t agree and they must be the problem. Predictably, much of the early coverage has focussed on the Muslim community and new migrants. If only it were so easy.

According to Casey “in this country, we take poverty, social exclusion, social justice and social mobility seriously” and we do it “across political divides”. Apparently “creating a fair, just society where everyone can prosper and get on” is a cornerstone of British values. Yet for page after page the report chronicles the serial failure of this benign consensus to tackle educational under-performance, and economic and racial disadvantage. If we all agree, how come we haven't done anything about it?

These problems are not certainly easy to solve, but more lip service is paid to tackling them than effort. The practical material issues documented here need addressing, but punches are pulled when hard answers are needed. Given the dramatic impact of mass migration on cohesion, is integration possible while current rates of immigration persist? Can we find the political will to tackle poverty and disadvantage when those who might benefit from the effort are divided against each other by suspicion, race, geography and values? After all, rather than progressive policies producing a cohesive society, social unity is the precondition for the introduction of progressive policies.

We don't actually actually agree on what our “fundamental values” mean in practice. We can all sign up to democracy and the rule of law, but as soon as those are put into practice – see the court case on Article 50 – we are divided. When judges are popularly seen as “enemies of the people” and a vote in an elected parliament as a threat to democracy, in what sense are law and democracy fundamental?

Casey usefully highlights how treating homeless families equally, irrespective of ethnicity and length of residence can create the perception that minorities are being favoured over long standing residents. Our differing views on what is “just” and how “fairness” are defined can tear us apart. Is it fair to favour the newcomer over the indigenous? Is it just to put length of time on the waiting list above housing need? We often don't even acknowledge the legitimacy of other points of view, let alone try to find common ground.

The continual invocation of Britain and British values lends an air of unreality to the report.  Most people in England include British in their identity, but Englishness and English interests are of growing importance. In a worrying development, some areas of England  may be polarising between a white Englishness and an ethnic minority Britishness. Integration won't happen without a shared national story that combines a unifying national identity with the acceptance that we all have more than one identity that matters to us. Ignoring the reality of complex and multiple identities closes off one essential way forward.

None of this means that the criticism of some reactionary and occasionally dangerous ideas and practices in the Muslim community should be ignored and not confronted. But in a country where the established church opposes homosexual relationships and praise for Vladimir Putin's Russia is now mainstream politics it is hard to believe that all our problems can be reduced to the behaviour of a minority of a minority community.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University