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.
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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation