Friday, March 20, 2015

Eclipsed by Shetland

Over the winter, I've wandered Northmavine with my camera set to Doom-Laden-Black-and-White-Artiness, snapping pictures of this, that and the other. But mostly the sky.
Elcipse, 20 March 2015

Sometimes it seems that Shetland is all sky. The low humps of the landscape, the lack of trees, the scattered humans and their occasional, crouching habitations...add some of the most extreme weather in Europe and you can find yourself unconsciously bent and cowering beneath the firmament.

I've known visitors who left swearing never to return, intimidated by what they saw as the massive, glowering threat above them, the sense of their own insignificance.

But our skies move and change, season by season, moment by moment. From the Northern Lights' strange flickering towers of night-time colour to the boiling, scudding clouds of day, the sharp beams of stark sunshine, highlighting the glint or thrashing power of the sea. I love it, winter and summer, viciously cold and blisteringly, briefly hot.
Eclipse skyscape,The Clave, Hillswick Ness

Anyway, today was to be the solar eclipse, and Shetland was promised 98 per cent of the sun obscured. Not that an obscured sun is that unusual hereabouts. Still, the moon had to do what the moon had to do, and so I prepared a flask of coffee and climbed the Clave, the highest point of the Hillswick Ness. I changed the camera's setting to Rock-Star-Rayban-Facing-Flashgun mode and waited.  Proper coffee, Vietnamese full roast from The Longship in Orkney. It was cold and gusty, but the sky...the sky was in full, playful try-and-keep-up mood.

I'd woken to stillness, thick sea mist and low cloud. By the time the moon was ready to do its thing, there were patches of blue sky and a scudding north-westerly wind moving things along briskly. Add the occasional squally cloud and rainstorm, and...

I sat on the overgrown concrete base of an old wartime radio mast, drank Java and marvelled as the sun blinked, the eclipse showed itself coyly among the clouds, and Northmavine, Shetland and its ever-altering skies remained as miraculously beautiful as ever.

Nothing can eclipse that.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Welcome to Shetland: My 'Shetland Showcase' speech, 3 March 2015

A very special welcome to those here who are visiting the isles. Those whose money and resources we wish to appropriate.

I hope you’ve all had a pleasant and interesting day, and I’m sure you’ve enjoyed the wonderful food. Shetland possesses some of the greatest seafood and mutton in the world, though I personally was thankful tonight not to be served raans - cod roe -  or sheep’s heid, with seared fleece, which I have had, and is like eating burnt knitwear. Perhaps some other time. Those boiled eyelids have to be cooked...just right,

Shetland has its own beer, its own gin, will soon at last have its own whisky, and as you will have noticed, has some of the best weather in the northern hemisphere. You’ll have seen the forests of palm trees swaying gently in the wind.

It’s also a place of invention. Smallpox inoculation began here, courtesy of the man known as Johnnie Notions. Erving Goffman invented modern micro sociology after a summer spent working on the island of Yell. And of course, the internet was invented in Scalloway. Or to be precise, a peerie bit of it was. It is alleged that 'power circuit networking' was invented by an engineer in Scalloway - that’s the business of using home electrical circuits to send your broadband from room to room. I’ve been told that this was an accidental discovery made when one BT engineer wired a telephone into the mains by mistake. 

But when I put this to BT management they said it was, and I quote, a shocking allegation.

Anyway what I thought I might do tonight is recite a few poems, and use these to introduce our visitors to some aspects of Shetland life they may not have come across before, or which may be mystifying them. And to start off, I thought I’d tackle the question of the Shetland beard. The beard is of course, a highly desirable, if not essential component of the Up Helly Aa festivities, though it can pose certain risks. Who can forget the great Guizer Jarl chin conflagration of 1958, and the consequent banning of Vaseline to provide added shine to one’s manly growth? When used along with Samson rollies...


Welcome to Shetland, land of the beard
Where weak jawlines are made to disappear
And chins, quadruple down to double
Sprout wispy, weedy down, or fearsome stubble
The kind that leaves a rash or even scars
The casual  kisser, or removes the paint from cars
Should face and body work collide
Some small refreshment having been imbibed

It can take many months, or even years
To grow a quite convincing Viking beard
And would-be Norsemen, filled with fear and doubt
Their naked chins refusing to sprout
Resort to desperate measures, pills and ointments
To counter any hairless disappointment
Hormone supplements, consumed in quantities
So vast, they've opened special pharmacies

Male pattern baldness, fought by men down south
Means nothing here. It's whiskers round the mouth
Which mark the man of honour, poise and strength
No wonder here we'll go to any length
Those bristles to obtain
We'll suffer any pain

Abrasion with sandpaper will
Used with a Black and Decker drill
Stimulate, I'm told those Viking follicles
It's a fact, historical, absolute and true

It worked for me. I pray it works for you

Now as you’ve been shown around Shetland, you will have encountered our excellent transport system. Often known as ‘roads’. There are two potholes in Shetland, one in the Co-op car park in Brae, one in the Co-op car park in Lerwick. That one actually takes up most of the Co-op Car Park in Lerwick. But there is the question of the ultimate Shetlandic vehicle. What is it? It can only be one thing...

The Pickup

Once this addiction starts
I cannot stop
I need an Ifor Williams top
Though never will a sheep
Or dog, woman or child,
Scratch my tailgate
I hate the thought
Of grubby paws, or bags of Tesco shopping
Scarring the luscious Mitsubishi sheen

I've been there. I had a HiLux once,
A crew cab, with roll-bar, shotgun rack
Springsteen, Steve Earle and Daniel O'Donnel tracks
Rang in my ears
It ended in tears
A wife, a collie, trips sooth to IKEA
Talk of baby seats and daft ideas
About trading in for a Citroen Picasso or worse
A Vauxhall Zafira
I did not hear her
For I was gone, long gone
Working offshore in Venezuala
My relationship a failure

But I raised the cash for this
Shiny Barbarian, with leather seats
The sound so sweet
Of its diesel engine in my ears
Crankshaft and gasket failure fears
Assuaged. (That was the early L200 years)

And so I drive from North Roe down to Sumburgh
And back, in clement weather
I'll wash her with the finest shammy leather
And in the heated garage
Stroke her gently
She's better than a Bentley
Or Nissan, or Toyota
Not one iota of regret
Do I feel
This love is real
I count my blessings and my luck
In finding you, my one true pick up truck

My L200
My precious! Do not fear
I'll never overrev you in third gear!

During the referendum campaign, which you may (or may not) remember, a journalist came to see me. Indeed, I used to work for him, when I too was a journalist, before I became a light entertainer. He had come to Shetland as part of a 'state of the nation' tour of Scotland, and I was happy to make him some lunch, introduce him to my two St Bernards, give him a cloth to wipe the drool off his expensive Edinburgh breeks. He wrote a fairly innocuous piece at the time, and it wasn’t until a few weeks ago, in a column, that he revealed how he much he hated Shetland, hated we who live here, hadn’t enjoyed his lunch and was forced to throw away his trousers due to the acidic qualities of St Bernard slobber. But there was another reason, I felt, why he didn’t like Shetland. He got a knockback, apparently, in Posers.

Or rather, from Posers. Posers is a nightclub. Posers is THE Shetland nightclub. And what a name that is! Worthy of Ibiza. Or Orkney. When I first came to the isles, almost 30 years ago, I was used to Glasgow nightclubs and when I was told by my wife to be we were going to one in Shetland I dressed accordingly - Levi 501s, polished Docs, Cruise leather jacket. So we got to the door, and the bouncer said - sorry sir, you can’t come in wearing that. Or those. I was forced to remove my jacket and my shoes, and put on a pair of strange funeral Grand Hotel brogues. I walked in and the first thing I saw was two guys at the bar, wearing boiler suits and wellington boots.

Edinburgh Man Hates Shetland

Edinburgh man hates Shetland!
Too much building work,
Too many cranes and bulldozers
Besides, they wouldn't let him into Posers
Not dressed like that
In Boden and Hackett
You'll have to remove that jacket, sir
And, indeed, all your clothes
It speaks of values we don't share
Look, we have Fair Isle you can wear
(Admittedly a little itchy
As underwear
But it's compulsory). Soothmoothers must learn
To love the constant rubbing, the knitwear burn
On naked skin
You'll soon fit in
Scar tissue forms quite quickly
True, you may feel sickly for a while
But smile. And have a dance
It's a Boston two step!
Now's your chance!

You see, how stimulating
Wool on bare skin can be?
You'll recover soon
It's just minor surgery

Just one final verse, and this one concerns my own assimilation into the ways of Shetland fashion. The padded lumberjack shirt. The Dickies jeans. The unavailable-anywhere-else Wolsey Bri-nylon underwear. Guaranteed to provide enough static electricity to power the average pacemaker.

The Zetlandic Fashionista

What a relief
When I came to this place
To wear comfortable trousers
With elasticated waists
No need for ties
Or Armani suits
You could go to the Jubilee
Wearing Wellington boots
Preferably white
With optional fish scales
Or yellow, but not black or green
Those would fail
Any bouncer’s test
And for boiler suits
Blue was the best
Under the black light
It looked kind of cool
But no leather jackets
That was the rule
Because leather was evil
Leather was bad
It made people violent
It made people mad
Back in the days before
Jaegermeister, Magners or Aftershock
It was leather made young people
Knock off each other’s blocks

Now we slump on sofas
In pullups and baffies
Lerwick still has one nightclub
And 27 cafes
Commercial Street runs with
Lattes and capuccinos
Councillors are wearing
Hugo Boss and Moschino

Still, I wear North Eastern Farmers
And LHD proudly
And play Daniel O'Donnell records
At home now
Quite loudly.

And Posers!