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Artist,writer,poet from Orkney

Monday, 27 October 2014

Ratskin for the lady?

Its 2014, blog so where have you been all this time? Why do I feel like this blog page is entering a secret room where nobody can see or hear me. I'm shut inside the coat cupboard of my childhood rubbing my cheek against the musty fur coats. They are still here. I wont throw them out in fact I have collected a few more. I was in Bergen last week and had two hours before my flight home to have a look around the historic town. It was gratifying for me to see wooden buildings much more squint and askew than the 150 year old wood and tar shed at the back of my house. I had despaired of it watching the tilt of the upper floor head seawards. Thought it was beyond the pale, but it seems not. I'm wishing now I hadn't pulled down the wee cludgie on the pier that emptied into the tide. There was me in a fit of anti-squintiness removing the old cludge because the squint ship's door, purposefully squint to fit the squint shape of sailing ship and because it wouldn't open at all. Old Bergen is full of such acceptable oddness and HSE nightmare angles of adrift foundations.Just one or two metal props here and there, some repaired clinker planks but lots of well encrusted original wood. So the old shed with its chalked boat measurements, carved signatures of long dead local boyos and lists in pencil of cwts of coal scrawled on the wall may yet have a reprieve. I still dream about it blowing away in the night in a gale.. There was a fur shop in the old town in Bergen resplendent with skins, coats, boots and hats. All manner of animal pelts. Seal was surprisingly cheap about £200 a skin for a small one. When we inherited the black shed there were gin traps and harpoons. No photographs it said in the fur shop, and we were continually watched by the shop girls. I did not buy. I have a sealskin hat made in Westray before that particular craft export ceased, sealskin slippers that Neil brought back from Canada and several fur coats that I would wear if it didnt rain so much. A sheep skin is the same to me and I have skinned a lamb and cured skins. Can you talk about fur now? At this time of year I brace myself for the winter lodgers that move in with me. The rats, they have become a feature of almost every winter. I am ultra sensitive now to hearing them moving around and scratching and of course I have seen them too. While the house was still in renovation stage they came in under the street and ran along the new pipework from the heating boiler clearly visible in unfinished parts where the plasterboard hadn't reached. I could hear them above my head in the gap between the foot-worn old floor of Wilson's shop and the false new floor laid with sterling board. We invited them in with central heating and plenty covered runways and nesting space. It's all systems go with high pitched sound emitters, electrocuting traps, cage traps, metal traps and sticky pads. Interesting the sticky pads deter them but dont stick them down - these are not lightweight lodgers I doubt. The most efficacious is the wooden neck breaking trap baited with various favourites among the rat trapping fraternity, Nutella, bacon, Turkish Delight, butter. Oh yes I can delight in the noise of the trap springing but you wont get me any where near the carcass. I become the pair of thick set legs in slippers in Tom an Jerry and cant even witness the removal of the corpse. No rat-skin gloves for me.www.fionamacinnes.co.uk

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Hugh's Fish Fight and Tall Tails

There’s something fishy going on. Funded to the tune of $500,000 by the Oak foundation ‘Hugh’s Great Fish Fight’ (Channel 4) with the great proletarian leader himself waving the revolutionary flag of middle class conservation is setting itself up as the great saviour of the Seas. The 3 programmes have set a hare running wild in terms of facebook indignation from fishermen and an alternative site ‘The Real Fish Fight’ with a slogan of Save our Fishermen is jumping with keyboard rantings from the reasoned to the rabid.  Fishermen as a united body is something of a misnomer – as the pursuit of fish has to be individual and competitive – collective solidarity is only seen in the interdependency of crews in mutual survival in a hostile element to ensure the catch is landed so everyone can get a pay.
In 1974 fishing was of little interest to the UK government, but became a valuable nay essential bargaining tool for entry to the Common Market. A big interest in Scotland it meant little to an English dominated House of Commons. With the flourish of Ted Heath’s fountain pen we lost our 200 mile limit and most of the North Sea stocks to Europe. There is black comedy to be had in the whole debacle of fisheries and the lament of those who have to tinker with the Kafkaesque regulations is that you couldn’t make it up. Fisheries regulation is a haven for the anal, the Aspergian, the jobs-worth and indeed the dehumanised and malicious civil service robot.
It is difficult to equate fishing simply with the other great industries we have lost, (cue Proclaimers). It is a mix of business owners small and large who encompass the most humble single man in a tiny boat to a multi millionaire with a massive trawler. Views similarly encompass widespread differences in attitude whether its about ‘business first’ or communities, whether crew are part of the economic model of the boat or part of the sharing of the good times and the bad.
The complexity of fishing politics is not for the fainthearted, the frustrations are age-old and calls for restrictions on beam trawlers go way back before HFW to the sixteenth century no less. Therein is the key. Like fish in a dynamic environment, fish management can never be static. There is never a final result, and never a permanent solution as change and fluctuation is what fish do. It can only be a process badly or better managed. Removing one element never equates to the simple increase of another.
In what is left of our sea where the UK government have jurisdiction, and only through the grace and favour of The Crown Estates who ‘own’ the seabed, the race to ‘lease off’ the Crown’s asset to proper people who can pay rents is well advanced. The fishermen who work inside the 12 mile limit are the commoners of this resource. The have no property rights to the sea they work and are now at the bottom of the pecking order among a tranche of shiny new ‘stakeholders’ who the Crown Estates see as having the ability to pay namely Aquaculture, Windfarms and Wave and Tidal Renewables.
Where does this take us then? To the position that those inshore fishermen have even less of the protection of their terrestrial counterparts in even the weakest land based industry. They are wholly at the mercy of a feudal landlord. The media are making much of the phoney rable rousing of HFW, with journalism that smacks of a pre- planned outcome prior to the end documentary.  A letter to HFW by Ruth Brown from Bird Island South Georgia can be seen on this link describing how she felt misrepresented by the documentary. https://www.facebook.com/hughsfishfight/posts/514272531957104
Fishermen are not luddites, they live, work and enjoy the environment in the same way as anyone and more than any one have a vested interest in ensuring stocks are sustainable and that the environment is healthy. They however are getting the flack for regulation induced practices that no-one in the media would take up at the time. ( I wrote to the Herald 10 years ago about discarding.)
The human reality for many fishermen out with the big players in the super wealthy bracket is that if they are catching haddock now, the prices at Scottish fishmarkets are so low (£12 per box) that boxes of edible fish are being withdrawn from sale and going as fish feed or bait. (In case anyone was unsure it takes 3kilos of wild edible fish to produce 1 kilo of farmed fish.) The derisory returns mean that crews don’t get a pay or very little after the running expenses of the boats are paid. This is wage cutting and zero hour contracts on a whole other scale and a colossal failure of the entire system. These are quality fish that are being legally landed and yet the failing system is working for no-one. Only yards away well meaning charities are distributing food parcels to people who cannot afford to eat in the Condems Coalition Britain.
 In the last century pre-separation, Ireland was exporting grain while their population starved.  Are our media choosing not to see what’s going on under their eyes and are we simply to be diverted by simplistic soundbites coming from a TV personality bent on constructing a cult following? What, many fishermen are asking will be done with all the undiscarded fish when they start to be brought ashore given that they cant sell what they are landing now. Some-one needs to work out a plan before we see landfill filling up with prime haddock and an explosion in the rat and seagull population. But more to the point will the EU and market failures of the current import and glut system continue to blindly ensure that all this protein bypasses the hungry in our country and will we continue to swallow half truths and misrepresentations hook line and sinker?

Sunday, 10 June 2012

What's in a bit of flag-waving

I do so think I deserve a pat on the back, a little praise or small republican treat of some kind for my exemplary behaviour during the last week or is it two weeks?  In any case it’s finally becoming a fading mirage of discordant primary colours. You can tell a decent designer has been nowhere near the union jack.  When Charles and Di wed the world was watching it on telly and I chose to go to the only place just about in Britain (see I’m even conditioned into the lingo again) where you couldn’t get TV. It was a blistering hot day, strangely silent like Italian siesta time and I opted to do a solitary trek across the hills of Hoy only returning when I knew that it might be safe to do so and the inbreds had finally been coupled. Back then I was smouldering with barely controlled resentment and anger. But having an adolescent strop in public never looks good and the gullible that have been starved of knowledge and education and lost the ability to question all the truly bad things about why the monarchy just cannot continue, can be dangerously rattled by attacks on the symbol of their own intellectual and material servitude. It’s a strange conundrum.

The cobwebbed alliances of the Masonic lodge and the Christian right came together with the sleeping republicans to produce I confess some undoubtably spectacular bonfire beacons, and depending on the concentration of your fervour, dubbed  ‘a community bonfire’ or a ‘jubilee celebration’. You could take your pick although I know of one beacon that caused not a little domestic strife  as the coastguard offer of £100 to cart the pallets to the top of the hill was not a sum that could easily be denied on grounds of republican principal. As a late arrival at the local bonfire I was greeted by fellow ‘quiet republicans’ who could appreciate a bit of a community thing for the kids and the good old primal charge of a raging inferno, and all muttering some conspiratorial mitigations as if caught in a guilty act.

Nature took its course on the bunting the new London neighbours strung out from their washing poles as a grim easterly gale swept in, to my (quiet) joy. I have been like a sugar addict who has not touched the bag of home made tablet, tantalising as it is because I know that once it takes hold I will make a pig of myself then feel sick. I could so have been disgraceful but instead I have been a quiet and well behaved republican, I have not sworn at any white haired grannies or derided the most tacky town hall pageant. You see I have known all along that it will pass. It’s pretty much on a posh Jeremy Kyle or rather more stuffy X-factor level. Even this second helping of torch-a –rama which I suppose is ok-ish until you talk about the cynicism of sports sponsorship, the bus-driver’s and their bonus, the fishing fleet banned from the Thames, ( you mean you didn’t know about that one – its pretty low status Iagree). I could go on and I think I will on money and then the wrecking of wee football teams, the absurdity of buying players like Pokemon cards and the obesity bomb that is fuelled by those very big companies that are part of the whole bloated charade.

As Arundhati Roy says, ‘flags are bits of coloured cloth that  governments use  to first shrink wrap people’s  brains, and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.’

In her debrief on her day at the local old peoples’ centre my mother  ( a war widow of a war several wars back from today’s batch) likened it to being dropped into a 1930s Mosley rally, and like the rest of us kept stumm summing it up only later, safe among consenting adults with ‘I don’t know why folk are so stupid.’

Sunday, 15 April 2012

We all wore knitted ganseys

In the 60s I would hear my father describe the Orkney in which we lived as a classless society. Then I didn’t know what ‘class’ meant. We were literally thousands of miles away from the industrial central belt, where the enormous shipyards, steel works and mines employed numbers which were in excess of our entire community. The Second World War made men of my father’s generation into union men, cementing their hatred of the forces hierarchy that was the badge of the pre-war Churchill world where workers won the war despite the blunders of the Colonel Blimps in command.

 But in the isles unions and working class solidarity were a tenuous thing. The social aspirations of working people, farmhands, tradesmen and fishermen were predicated on the feudal patronage and allegiance to the mores of the Protestant Kirk, the Masonic lodge, and the acceptance that you would be Christian, subservient and thankful. In political terms Labour was a dirty word and socialist affiliations would ensure you were ostracised from the Kirk’s elder-led ladder of opportunity.

Without any kind of religious divide to speak of – there were no Catholics in evidence, or apparent consolidation of working class identity through a boss/worker dynamic, our only picture of the upper classes were the Lord Snooty visions of the joke toff. There were no private schools, so you might say today no choice, but like the very distant comic image, the few gymkana children of the bona fide Laird class would disappear to Gordonstown and Eaton never to be seen again but in plus fours and loud cartoon voices. They however never counted in our world- they were already a whole galaxy apart.

We were all the same, or so we thought. We all wore home-knitted ganseys, and split into innocent childhood ‘gangs’ that divvied up the geography of the 2000 strong town into Nessers, Middletooners and Northenders. The demarcation of the gang boundaries could be a fluctuating as with all turf disputes. The Northenders claim took in the slaughter house, the egg packing factory and the Thornley Binders grain Store as well as what would now be known as a ‘mix’ of social housing. The Middle Tooners encompassed the ‘scheme’ of former army huts known as ‘The Attery’ that become temporary post war housing but lasted well into the 60s. Also the stone built villas of the retired sea captains, the three bakeries, the harbour and the school. The Nessers, the most feisty of the tripartite Stromness gang culture, laid claim to the area south of a burn that ran past a disused distillery that once produced Old Orkney Whisky, although there could be disputes about whether their line was not indeed another burn that lay further north… Within the Nesser’s patch lay the museum with its wonderfully politically red-faced collections of stuffed birds, animals and plunder from the British Empire, as well as a scattering of former air raid shelters which provided them with first rate gang huts and stores for the annual Guy Fawkes bonfire collections. Their’s  was the largest area of council housing, the Captains villas petering out to ones and twos as you moved southwards until you reached Anderson’s boat yard and the nearest you might get to a place with a workforce that might suggest class solidarity.

There were divides in pay and education – the doctor, the teachers, the ministers (there were 3 forms of Protestantism plus methodist hall) were still revered and treated with some deference. This was the separation of education which perpetuated the need to please those in positions of influence. You could not risk a bad reference from the schoolmaster or the minister in your hope to enter the Post Office, nursing or the Navy… Attitudes or questioning  views that could be described as uppity let alone subversive, could seriously impede your life’s ambitions. ‘Cleverness’ was talked of like some genetic given that ordinary people couldn’t achieve.

My father always insisted he was working class, a badge I realised could not apply to myself and nor technically to him as an adult. Still he wanted his family to share his working classness. He ended his career as a respected and radical educationalist and headmaster of the same school he attended as a ragged boy, and we lived in one of the afore-mentioned large merchant’s villas sandwiched between the new grey-harled council scheme and the crumbling substandard fishermen’s houses on the harbour.

If finance and professional status is the only definition of class then he was indeed the ‘working class boy made good,’ when he shifted himself to the middle class via a teaching diploma and by default his offspring. His attitude and those he taught all that he influenced, remained resolutely empathetic with the trials of the working class and the view that each individual retained the agency over their own life to make it the one they wanted it to be. He railed against unfairness, the plight of the under-dog and the injustices perpetuated by the powerful Kirk and feudal Empire- driven heirarchy.

The mass battles that were to be fought in the isles were not union or wage-based but were about the very survival of small peripheral and financially poor communities in the face of their perceived expendability at the hands of a distant state justifying ‘national interest’. Middle and upper class London ( there was no power in Edinburgh) wanted to develop nuclear power, uranium mining and nuclear dumping and the insignificant peasant fishing and farming communities were mere gnats of irritation in their grand plans.

40 years on from the ‘classless’ innocence of my island youth I can appreciate that the divisions of opportunity and class were always more subtle than I may have thought then. Returning from the city as a refugee of Tory policies in 1986 it was apparent then that everything was on the shift and the bubble that was old Island Orkney was straining and breaking too.

 In the wake of a push to bigger scale operations and EU regulations it emerged that industrial zones were preferred where people worked separated from their living communities. Planners told us this was for the best. Where small carpenters or blacksmiths operated next door to homes, hotels, butchers and bakeries, the new thing was to separate work and living. The financially robust did not want their nice new bungalow sited beside a noisy joiner’s shop surrounded by white vans. It was cleaner, more efficient, made economic sense to have food parks, industrial zones and residential areas.

At the same time it removed work as a sensual part of the fabric of the people’s lives. No longer could you walk from end to end of our small street and hear the noise of electric saws, smell crabs being boiled, fresh bread baking, oatcakes or fudge wafting, see beef carcases dripping blood on the floor through the back door of the butcher or the hose swill the blood across the street into the town drains. The dislocation of everyday life from the means of production of our necessities in particular food, has bred a sanitised class that balk at the simple hands-on dirtiness of what is means to provide for life. Work has become a thing separate from life that you go somewhere else to do and others don’t see.

The butchering, crab killing and welder’s flashes are all safely hidden from view and consciousness and have become an unknown world to most. Our workless non-class who cannot even aspire to the level of working class might if presented in a rural context be shooting seals, deer and snaring rabbits to survive, only to be much frowned upon by the emergent environmental class who manage not to see too clearly the human deprivation on their doorstep which results from the supremacy of the protected mammal. Foreign poverty is much more sexy it would seem.

A confident middle class has burgeoned in Orkney since my return in 1986. It was starting back then as refugees from elsewhere in the UK flocked to buy up the quaint old fishermen’s and crofter’s houses dirt cheap (but not so cheap the ‘workers’ could), effusing gushingly over the qualities of the ‘real’ community they had discovered. These were economic migrants with substantial stashes of cash that could fund non-working lifestyles of leisure pursuits and marginal tea-room operations. The below tolerable houses are now tarted up and titillated with government grant schemes homogenising even the paint palette to a selected shade card of colour options…The former residents decanted to a warren like (award winning) scheme. And so in stead of the plethora of hotch-potch  life there is now supplanted all the best accoutrements of transition to total gentrification.

Slick glassy galleries packaging the indigenous past, a fringe of satellite craft shops and further galleries reselling ersatz versions of the former place ad infinitum is the fa├žade that sells itself in the weather- acceptable few months technically termed summer, while high culture from elsewhere is dispensed into ‘Orkney the Venure’.

 This new middle class is a self sufficient social enclave of its own in a way it never was in years past operating within its own sphere, regaling in the virtues of clotted cream and despairing in the waiting lists for swimming lessons. Even the museum has had to withdraw its politically incorrect stuffed birds from its windows in the face of bird politics, only to replace them with much less intriguing felt offerings and touristy gizmos.

It was never classless here, as at the age of five I knew the boy who came to school in jumble sale clothes had less money than me, but now you can see the evidence of class difference much more clearly. The rampant middle class are on the rise loudly proclaiming their success at assimilating themselves into these blighted but ‘picturesque’ and disintegrating working communities. 

In my childhood the differential was smaller, now it is vast, and the great working unwashed that spray slurry, stink of bait and know humans kill animals because we are top of the food chain, are in danger of extinction in their own environments for spoiling the sanitised green kailyards of the nouveaux gentile. This new middle class insist on the comforts of city supermarkets, knows their rights and vociferously insists on them. They stack themselves onto committees and into the better paid professional jobs, while as a county we remain staunchly among the lowest ranking wage economies in the UK.

Is middle classness a combination of finance, attitude and dislocation from your own roots with the unexamined assumptions that applications of your cultural values apply universally without investigating first whether or not they are appropriate in an adopted context?

Where does that leave the product of a middle class upbringing searching for a lost working class heritage? Well ditch the guilt, you’re still far from a posh kid. Use the skills you have to illuminate that the inequalities in society are still about class, where humans lose touch with each other’s living and working situations and the seismic unfairness there now is in access to opportunity.
The rich/ poor divide is obscene and the middle class cannot be allowed to salve their social and financial consciences by psychological transference to distant causes and frilly single issues that ignore what is happening to the disenfranchised in their own backyard. The simple post war rules of class have changed and those most in need of a voice are even more disenfranchised than ever before.

In the years when the prevailing spin was that class was dead in Britain, the acquisitive individualist smoke and mirrors concealed the fact that this is very far from the truth. Organised middle and upper classness which never needed union meetings to consolidate its power is in ascendency while traditional organised working classness has evaporated along with the only mechanism it ever had to organise- work. Class is now something of a moveable feast split into many shards of definition  akin to the fluidity of identity itself. And we are left with the simple truth that the poor are always with us, be they financially, aspirationally or educationally, that is unless we choose to change that.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Sheep Poetry

Here are a few sheep poems I wrote a while ago when I was working with sheep. Many solitary times in mud and on the hill mostly burying carcasses!

A better Grave

I always anticipate
Digging a better grave than last
I size it up
A generous rectangle
Of golden proportion
Then after a tussle with the top turf
(Those rashes are the worst)
Only one spade down
The rich black earth
Gives way to ochre
Then grey

The excavation becomes octagonal
Even curved
Ending up at best
A primitive

Dead sheep in the mud

 Dead sheep in the mud

Black kitehead of
Primal eyes
Goya horns
The devilish demeanour of that
Yow off her feet
Stick of leg scratching
The rooty rash-woven swatch of ground
Too much clay
Water logged
I slogged through
Sucking mud to reach
The half sunk
Dirt snorkelling shetland gimmer
Already wholly dead beside the feeder
Greying mould wretched dusty hay
Put away too soon
And fermented with such a
Sorcerer’s vengeance
With fronds of white
Another time they would have pointed
At the woman who put on a spell to turn it
‘See her at Seatter’
Whispering her away with
Their deathly eyes