Friday, May 16, 2014

One good tern deserves another: The Tirricks are back!

On Hillswick Ness this afternoon. The joy of seeing Arctic Terns back in their breeding grounds after the long, long journey from Antarctica. My favourite bird!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Lulu, 2002-2014

Lulu. The last picture

Lulu. She arrived as a puppy 12 years ago, soon to be joined be her sibling Lucy, and was a charming ball of fluffy cuteness. Who quickly grew into an adolescent whirlwind of uncontrollably bouncy territorial chutzpah, and then nearly 13 stones of unstoppable, unholdable friskiness.

If she ran into you, you went down and stayed down. If she stood on your foot, you were trapped until she decided to move. Not that she meant any harm. She would greet visitors by slobbering all over them and then leaning, in a convivial fashion, against their legs until they buckled. St Bernards like to lean. They like human contact. It’s what they do in avalanches - they dig down to the victim and cuddle up to keep them warm. And to feel less lonely. Because St Bernards hate being alone.

Lucy, her sister, died a few years ago and we acquired, quite recently, Rug, a rescue dog whose chequered life has not affected her equable temperament in the slightest. For the past couple of years Lulu has done a great deal of sleeping, interspersed with barking at tourists and engaging in  lead-twanging standoffs with the neighbours’ Great Dane. Gone are the days when she would spend hours bouncing up and down on the kids’ trampoline. 

Twelve is a good age for a St Bernard, and to be honest we’ve been expecting Lulu to run out of road for the last six months or so. She’d lost weight, became breathless easily and stumbled going up and down stairs. Still, it came as a shock when, during  last night’s ramble to the shop and back, she suffered some kind of attack, possibly to do with her heart, and became unable to use her back legs. She’s always been such a fit animal, even at the equivalent  age of 96 (with giant breeds it’s eight dog years to one human).

Rug was taken home, and the operation to rescue an immobile, panting 12-stone St Bernard began. Somehow, we lifted Lulu into the back of the old Merc estate and then into the house. A call to the vet indicated that we should wait and see how she was in the morning. 

When she woke, she still couldn’t walk, though she seemed a little better. But her inability to perform her ablutions properly was distressing for her and us, and it became clear something would have to be done. She had her (buttered) toast and lay in the sun. Jim the vet was at the house within an hour of us phoning. 

Big dogs take up such a lot of physical and emotional space. I look about and wonder what’s wrong. Where is she? Rug is wandering around, confused. But then she always looks confused. Phoning James, Martha and Magnus to tell them the dog they’d grown up with had departed was hard. It’s only a dog, I know. But for them, and for me, Lulu was their childhood.

I dug a deep grave next to the wooden picket fence, over from the trampoline she loved to bounce on. It looked too wee, but wasn’t. She was smaller in death, physically. 

Until I went back into the house and felt the massive, yawning absence.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Tonic for Unst as gin production set to start

Tonic for Unst as gin production set to start

(See full story and Smirk cartoon in this week's Shetland Times; available for Pagesuite PDF download here (£1): )

Britain’s most northerly gin distillery is set to begin operations in Unst next month. And it will have a true Shetland flavour, with botanicals such as juniper sourced in the isles.

The Shetland Distillery Company, headed up by Scotch Whisky industry veteran Stuart Nickerson, applied for planning permission last year for a boutique whisky distillery in one of the disused RAF buildings at Saxa Vord.

Whisky production is still Mr Nickerson’s intention, but any spirit produced in Scotland has to be aged for a minimum of three years before it can legally be sold as whisky. Gin, on the other hand, does not require ageing.

“I can confirm that we have ordered a gin still and that it will be installed at Saxa Vord in June,” Mr Nickerson said. “At the moment we are still finalising the secret recipe but our plans are to include at least some botanicals from Shetland, and preferably from Unst, in the first few batches.

“Eventually, we hope to source all the botanicals from Shetland. With the use of polytunnels you can grow most things.”

Mr Nickerson added that though no official name for the gin was being released, “we do have something in mind.”

This is not the first ‘Shetland gin’, and neither is it the first to be associated with a planned whisky distillery. It will, however, be the first spirit legally distilled in the isles. The controversial company Blackwood’s, under the management of Caroline Whitfield, first announced plans for a whisky distillery at Catfirth in 2002, and later transferred attentions to Unst. It produced Blackwood’s Dry Gin, distilled on the Scottish mainland but with botanicals allegedly harvested in Shetland.

The company went into administration in 2008 but, under new ownership, continues to make and market two varieties of ‘Shetland’ gin, as well as ‘Premium Nordic Vodka’ and Jago’s Vanilla Cream Liqueur, all manufactured on mainland Scotland.

Mr Nickerson is in partnership with Frank Strang, owner of the Saxa Vord site. In an article for Shetland Life last year, he said he was enthusiastic about Shetland as a site for a distillery, “because it is the last remaining part of Scotland that doesn’t have one. And it is the most northerly - it’s got a fantastic USP. And once you get to Shetland - I’ve lived in Orkney, I’ve lived all over the mainland - but Shetland has something unique, definitely.”


Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Location, location...scenery: putting TV crime drama in its place

I have neglected the Thrillfilter site over the past few months, which is not to say I’ve abandoned the crime and espionage genres. I have been guilty of obsessive Kindling, unable to resist the attractions of cheaper-than-the-hardback serials. Not to mention total immersion TV.

Netflix, of course, gave us the second season of House of Cards, which was terrific, but my big (re)discovery in telly terms has been the writing of the late Alan Plater. I bought the 20th anniversary DVD box set of The Beiderbecke Trilogy off eBay, which remains absolutely superb. Two teachers (woodwork and English) do not solve crimes, but explore the world of Thatcherite repression with heartbreaking wit and warmth. It sent me in the direction of Plater’s jazz autobiography (the unfortunately named Doggin' Around) and the recorded works of Bix Beiderbecke and Sidney Bechet.

Plater’s book of Oliver’s Travels  is far better than the TV series (Beiderbecke hits the road), in which a terribly miscast Alan Bates flounders floridly in a part written for Tom CourtenayBill Patterson is great, though. And so is Orkney. Then there’s Plater’s screenwriting for the Olivia Manning series of World War Two books Fortunes of War, starring the young Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh.  This wonderful tale of  eccentric British Council teachers and stragglers caught up in World War Two retains all its style, wit and power. And the acting is brilliant throughout. Available very cheaply on DVD.

There has been a huge upsurge of crime-related, location-defined TV drama recently. For the sake of peacekeeping I’ll not say anything much about Shetland, the adaptations of Anne Cleeves’ crime novels. Other than this: It’s getting better, and will improve further once the next series abandons the book plots. I live in those locations, though, and so have to overcome what our family calls ‘Green and Orange Bus Syndrome’, after a comment my wife made to one of the executives responsible for Taggart, thus cutting short my brief STV career (“The only reason people watch this rubbish is for the green and orange buses”). Hinterland is very much a Welsh Broadchurch-meets-Taggart and very well shot. I abandoned ship though, halfway through the second episode.  It creaks, if stylishly. No buses, but a dodgy caravan in a ridiculous setting, and loads of Welsh landscape. The Broadchurch II plot/backstory is pushing it, though.

Then there’s Fargo. I was puzzled, initially, by the whole concept of adapting the tone and location of the great Coen Brothers movie, while using aspects of the main film characters to ‘inspire’ what are essentially new ones. Yet it works well.  Martin Freeman at last transfers that weird cock-of-the-head mannerism into something utterly  un-Officeanti-Hobbit. Billy Bob Thornton is magnificently charming, funny and brutally sinister, and the infusion of David Lynchian Blue Velvet surrealism is an effortless fit with the cold humour of the Coens.

There’s nothing cold about Happy Valley. I have avoided the Sally Wainwright ouevre for no reason other than laziness and suspicions over someone working in what appeared to be Plater territory. But the first episode of Happy Valley completely captivated me. The Fargo references are overt and knowing, but the central female cop character, played by the amazing Sarah Lancashire, goes from initially funny through pathos to a kind of threatening, vengeful, simmering rage, all in the first 50 minutes. It has a rare narrative momentum (the polar opposite of Hinterland, for example) and the attention to detail is what raises it head and shoulders, I think, above the other ‘thrillers’ I’ve mentioned. Including Fargo, the (movie) plot of which is knowingly referenced. The grandchild’s behavioural problems, the affair with the ex-husband, the weird Corrie-in-the-country vibe of Hebden Bridge, nastified for the occasion; those sly, breathtaking wee scenes like the BMW Estate with mountain bike rack, and the appearance of Sylvia Plath’s actual grave at one point. I absolutely loved it.

And of course, the influence of Alan Plater is everywhere. The magnificent George Costigan (from The Beiderbecke Tapes) as Nevison may even be a nod in that direction. It’s more burtal and may turn bloodier than Plater could ever be, but it has wit, style and, most importantly, warmth. This is flesh and blood drama, anchored in more than just a location, more than scenery, but in a sense of real, beating human hearts.

One thing, and this applies to all current police dramas: We know cops have to wear disposable rubber gloves and weird wee bootees at a crime scene. But please, stop dwelling on it as if it’s an absolute indicator of verisimilitude and accuracy. 

Monday, May 05, 2014

The Phantom Thistle Thief of Shetland strikes again! Vikings, bagpipes, separatists and someone with a tin of paint

This is an expanded version of my ‘Spaekalation’ column in this week’s Shetland Times

First of all, it’s no’ me. For years now, someone in Shetland - and everyone but the constabulary seems to know who - has, under cover of deepest darkness, been erasing the thistles on those Visit Scotland tourist destination signs. He (or she) has struck again, recently,in the North Mainland. I’ve never quite understood how Europe’s biggest oil terminal, Sullom Voe, is a tourist attraction, but there are otters in the vicinity, attracted by the smell of burning gas and, obviously, the money. Those otters just love that hydrocarbon cash.

All this erasure of Scottish iconography led me to ponder, not for the first time,  the differences between  Shetland and Scotland, and also Scotland and England. Always bearing in mind, for the sake of openness and transparency, my basic position, which is that of Albert Einstein, a little known and now almost forgotten thinker of the 20th Century:

“Nationalism,” he said, “is an infantile disease. It is the measles of the mind.”

So, those English.  Things are different down there. Here’s some legal  precedents for you: 

Should a lost Caledonian be discovered wandering within York’s ancient walls, carrying, as is so often the case, a bow and arrow, he or she can be shot with impunity, except on Sundays.  

Alistair Campbell, erstwhile spin doctor and eminent bagpiper, should be cautious regarding any impromptu pibroch performances. In 1746, a James Reid claimed his piping was merely music. A court ruled he was utilising ‘an instrument of war and insurrection’. He was duly hanged.

Then there’s  Carlisle. According to the 440-year old Dormont Book, any Scot ‘found wandering’ in the city can be whipped and thrown in jail. Mind you, any local resident can be fined, whipped and banished for throwing dead animals down city wells or leaving piles of excrement outside their house for more than eight days. Perennial social problems.

And perhaps significant ones, illustrating just how different the folk of Carlisle, imbibing of an evening in Botchergate and commuting along English Street, are from their neighbours 10 miles to the north. Cross that border, and everything changes. Because, say the separatists, the Scots are so different from the English. In Scotland, people are nicer, more community-orientated, more committed to social justice, and what’s more, most of them have never voted for a Conservative government. Something which is factually untrue. A majority of Scots (and ‘Scotland residents’, as the classic Shetland usage has it) did not vote for the current Westminster coalition. A majority of Scots did vote for the previous Labour administration, though. It’s how democracy works.

 Shetland, of course, feels different from England and Scotland. The Norse ancestry of many in the Northern Isles is a  matter of genetically proven fact. Much is made of the proximity of the Bergen railway station, and the first image that many have of Shetland and Shetlanders is a man in a viking helmet, standing with a raised axe against the background of a burning galley. We don’t do thistles. Except on those Visit Scotland notices.

The thistle is of course not an historical symbol of all Scotland, but only - and apocryphally, it should be said - of one chunk. That would be the bit that defeated the Norse at the Battle of Largs in 1263. It’s an anti-Scandinavian sign. Allegedly, the Scots forces were alerted to a party of Viking land raiders by the agonised yells when one barefoot Norseman stood on a thistle.  Or perhaps two thistles. Or, for the sake of argument, let’s say three. So much for Scandic solidarity. If it hadn’t been for those three  thistles, things would be so different. And I would’t be lisping like this…

Anyway. That Gretna border seems very far away from the recently vandalised signs pointing oil-tanker-spotting tourists  towards the Sullom Voe Oil and Gas Terminal, so central to the UK’s offshore hydrocarbon future. 

Of course we in Shetland are Very Far Away, in one sense. From the soothernmost climes of Scotland.  So much so that we have allowed the misconceived  ‘Our Islands, Our Future’ Campaign to become our talisman. Leaving aside the uneasy alliance with Orkney and the Western Isles (The Battle of Largs handed the Hebrides to Scotland, leaving the Northern Isles in Norse possession for another 200-odd years), the sight of  local politicians lying on their backs, waiting to see which government, Westminster  or Holyrood, is going to tickle them the most, is, to say the least, tawdry. There is much talk about decentralisation and local democracy, but in the torrid referendum climate, anyone will say anything. In particular the separatist Government at Holyrood has a history of making promises it  has absolutely no intention of keeping, or indeed the ability to keep. Seeing as no-one knows what the result of post-separation elections might be.
And in any case, the central problem for Shetland is quite different. There is our geographical proximity to the North Sea and Atlantic oil and gas fields, our crucial importance for the importance of renewable energy and our population’s extra special niceness. And there is the question of the Zetland County Council Act (1974).

Leaving aside any other question of local authority that the SIC’s goatee-bearded-and-pierced leader and his archipelagic cohorts may put to the Powers that Would Be, the ZCC Act is unique to Shetland and gives us development control, and therefore income control, over not just oil developments affecting our immediate coastline, but aquaculture and all the looming possibilities of tidal energy and offshore windfarms. It exists. It is on the statute books, and it is a Westminster Act, fought for brilliantly by the late Jo Grimond, and for which we have to thank all the glory and wonder of Shetland’s welfare economy. One which it seems this council is industriously trying to dismantle.

The ZCC Act, used wisely, also offers Shetland control over the kind of seaborne renewables-based future that Scotland’s other island authorities can only dream of. In an important article for Shetland Life Magazine, Kate Johnson of Heriot Watt University argues that the ZCC Act provides a model for community coastal governance not just in Scotland, but throughout the UK.

Of course, come a separate Scotland, the ZCC Act would cease to exist. I’m sure that Fergus Ewing has made soporific noises of reassurance, if The Pierced One has thought to ask him about it, but the track record, the mantra of the SNP’s Edinburghian Government is: Centralise, centralise, centralise.  There is no way on earth or sea the separatists want the ZCC Act to survive, no matter what they say now.

And they will say anything.

Despite the weasel whining from a tiny, deluded minority, Shetland will vote overwhelmingly ‘No’ in a referendum which has sucked cash, energy and commitment from the real political issues of today, and instead focussed attention on nothing more than a line in the land, many miles away from here.

Should a separate Scotland happen we could face a future where the prime motor in  a no-voting Shetland’s economic regeneration, past, present and future, the ZCC Act, has been obliterated or is left as nothing more than a quaint relic of times past, like the ability of York residents to shoot any archery-inclined Alistair Campbells.

What will we do then? Well, It’s unlikely to happen. But if, in, a nightmare triumph for knee-jerk, Braveheartian anti-Englishness, Scottish separation happens, there will doubtless be compulsory bagpipe lessons for all. Which might be a bit risky for those planning any trips south of the border.

As for Shetland’s Phantom Thistle Thief, what will she (or he) do? Lead a movement pleading for assimilation into Greater Norway (note to Norwegian military strategists: no bare feet this time)? There are those in Shetland who would seek exactly that, especially if it means we could start roasting puffins for food again. Or, we could ask for UK offshore status, a friendly occupation by the Welsh Guards, or some other non-tartanised regiment. After all, there’s that oil and gas…

I will ask the Phantom Thistle Thief next time I see him. Or her.