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Artist,writer,poet from Orkney

Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Plastic Dictators

My Utopian dream for the New Scotland is to be liberated from the tyranny of stuff. If you have ever had to crawl around the floor and contort yourself to reach into the gunk-filled areas of your home and investigate murky folding sofa beds to retrieve the item known as the ‘Polly pocket’, then you will begin to know what I mean.
I sit amid a claustrophobic accumulation of stuff and wonder how this nylon and fake velvet coup happened. I can just remember the far off days when each room of the house, bought with the innocence of those days as a 20 year home not a financial investment, echoed with uncarpeted emptiness.
I am to blame for the second hand kitch that began the clutter, but that came from an obsession with getting bargains and rescuing ‘must have’ flying duck sets from such emporia as the cancer shop in Stockbridge. I confess to losing the plot when I insisted in shipping, like so much emotional baggage, a deadweight of an enormous second hand piano from the Area 7 warehouse at Abbey Hill all the way to Orkney.
In the last recession, funded by our giros courtesy of Thatcher’s North sea oil bonanza, us expendable youth combed the Edinburgh streets on bin night for furniture for our shared housing association flat. Lauriston Place was entirely decked out with other folk’s cast offs, rugs, sofas, mattresses, chairs, tables, fridges and even a piano from the Castle Trades Hotel in the  Grassmarket. Spores of consumptive TB and bedbug infestation are modern ills that never entered our heads then.
The merciless drive towards buying new stuff took hold with the arrival of children. The TV babysitter conspired to tantalise the toddling duo with all the delights of pink plastic, the price bombshell placed discreetly on the screen, oblivious and incomprehensible to toddler eyes, and then the tsunami started to take real hold. There were must have ‘collectables’ things called ‘beanie babies’, targeted at the doting granny market, which seemed to be regularly issued in order that you always might feel just behind everyone if you did not have the latest stuffed necessity. Being ignorant of the comparable boy-tide of plastic I am sure it is similar but in suitably un-girly and gender appropriate colours.
TV advertising was unrelenting and cynical. Like, if you like, taking candy from a baby except in reverse, ensuring babies extracted candy from their parents through girning and pester power which we all know is much more difficult to resist, if you are a knackered mum, than the naughty-step-brigade claim.
 The hideous plasticana of Barbie would annually launch another doll slightly different to the last with, lo and behold, new accessories and accoutrements for her Californian lifestyle somewhere in Plasticland with the anatomically challenged Ken. Sitting up at 4am trying to assemble a Barbie carriage complete with battery operated automaton horse and a million fiddly little stickers is just one horror memory of chrismas eve. I moot the ‘C’ word indeed, reminded of those nights fabricating the serial virgin births of annual Barbies while waiting in tense anticipation of Santa rolling in from the pub and the subsequent frosty overhung pall that would seep through into the ‘must have joy’ of Christmas day.
As Edwina Curry points to large flat screen tellys and the ‘comfort’of families on benefits with food handouts (BBC One show) there is confusion over what  poverty is in the First World.
While I could always afford to buy the dreaded Christmas fashion toy, I knew that many could not. I knew that I did not have to struggle to ensure my kids had something that helped them fell ‘normal’ in the playground. Their desperation to feel a kind of peer acceptance through acquisition that was constructed and marketed by big business was and is the evil.
Trying to keep your head above water as a mother in that moment between cajoling and damage limitation and somewhere trying to get a night’s sleep or a shower on your own, makes for a very compliant tool in the marketing plan. There is no mental energy for reasoned debate with your toddler on the complexities of capitalism and manipulative selling and any way that will just make the kids seem even more odd in the playground when already, as with my kids, withdrawl from the all the God stuff marked them out.

Feeling different and lesser than their peers is the worst thing a child can feel, so the toy marketing is supplanted and bolstered by clothes, trainers, designer this and designer that,  then graduates to mobile phones and their attendant superfluous fashion, right up to laptops, cars and, yes, personalised number plates. Young people can sniff out an inferior make at a hundred paces. This of course is not what life is about and yet our continued buy-in to this type of toy, clothes and ‘stuff’ dictatorship renders us all powerless with wholly distorted views on what does matter.
I began my own ethnic cleansing policy towards plastic infiltration and latterly my one-woman dictatorship began to mercilessly hover up stray Polly Pockets or bits of them that had escaped the safety of their meringue-topped glittery house with shutters. The noise of them rattling up the hover tube brought a wicked satisfaction to me in my powerless state.
The myth of choice in many areas of our life is that we demand it, it is a ‘right’ and it will make us happy. Yet only those with money can exploit choice be it from schools to supermarkets. In my youth when you just went to the only shoe shop in the town and bought your shoes from the 3 available styles it might be claimed we were deprived of choice. Now I find the blinding nature of choice turns me into an obsessive evaluator of the frivolous pros and cons of miniscule differences in buckles and bows, straps and heels, and still you think you might have missed the elusive perfect shoe.
I just wonder if this whole ‘growth’ thing that we are all supposed to be hell bent on achieving is really where it’s at – I mean GDP. Does it actually make anyone ‘feel’ better? It just illuminates everyone’s lack in the Polly Pocket plastic crap stakes. Likewise, for Edwina Curry to equate poverty only with a distended African bellies is simplistic. There is a whole other argument on food as a weapon of war and Western compliance with corrupt regimes that could be had but will have to wait today. We have in our complex society managed to create more sophisticated perspectives on ‘lack’.
 If the considerable brain power of the human race was concentrated less on finding ways to sell plastic rubbish back to itself, and the engineering expertise of our best minds was less obsessed with enabling us to sit in our seats and remote control everything, what kind of lack free society might we envisage? Is it possible that the first base of poverty that is distended bellies could be eliminated, and the subsequent bases of satisfaction lack which our stuff-choked society feels, could be replaced by human connection and feeling normal? Can material acquisition be replaced by intellectual acquisition built on a given of a full belly, warmth and a roof?
 The up side to austerity is the realisation of the worthless con that is material greed on which the house of cards of collapsing economies rely. The built-in obsolescence of Henry Ford means we never have things that last although it is perfectly possible that we could. The challenge is to create a new normal that does not require de facto poverty and an exhausting and unaffordable race to chase stuff to make you feel fleetingly accepted and good with the subsequent downer of an addict.
For starters, stuff stuff.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Donkey jackets, cuban cigars and the night of Halley's Comet

I never thought student politics mattered much although I had a nominal position of ‘welfare officer’ at Edinburgh College of Art which enabled me to stand up in front of all the new first years from the lofty position of second year and sport my latest arty outfit, which I recall on that day included green  rope-wedged espadrilles worn over coloured socks. The Students’ Association as it was called, was so moribund that there was no danger of having to face an election, so filling the roles was more a case of who you could drag into them rather than anything else. An early lesson in the sorry state of participative politics perhaps but other than an early flirtation with the Lauriston Place fire station (now a museum) when we made the student common room available to the striking firemen, like most I didn’t understand what politics was about despite my tribal family loyalty to the labour party, till it affected me.
That came in 1980 when I emerged from the red sandstone ECA clutching a degree when I had actually only embarked upon  a diploma, something of a small lottery win for us fortunates who had managed to cobble together a dissertation of suitable standard to satisfy the awarding CNAA body. This degree would bequeath upon us the same pay as maths and geography teachers, we were gleefully assured when (not if) we gave up any silly notions we had about revolution through art and knocked on the ‘told you so’ doors of Moray House.
But the degree was something that commanded achievement (even a 2ii whatever that meant) and a nice little library job was something I thought might be fitting. I had spent most of my summers earning big bucks at the Flotta Oil Terminal working for Occidental’s Vick-fragranced yanks and then in a moonscape of portacabin canteens at Sullom Voe getting eye-raped by the ‘bears’. A two hour stint at Martin’s shortbread factory in Fountainbridge was enough to tell me the factory line was not for me but I got my come-uppance in true old wifie style with the election victory of Thatcher.
The airy fairy aspirations were unceremoniously and rudely ramped down till all of us ‘young unemployed’ of the Thatcher dawn (the price worth paying for the economy remember) were scrambling for pub work, signing on the dole, taking cash in hand jobs, getting paranoid about DHSS snoopers and circulating in our own little underclass of economic activity. There was a black economy of nice degree-educated Highland girls who did cash-in-hand cleaning and childminding jobs for wealthy double-income families in Morningside and Marchmont, one I remember ironically the female CEO of a large benevolent charity set up by a Scot. It was as if we were a different species to the adult employed who inhabited a world we could never attain. We slept all day and thronged sweaty clubs by night, the nice Highland Girls quenching their next-day hangovers with freshly squeezed orange juice from the middle class fridges.

If you can become phobic about watching  election counts then that is what happened. As young people in the 80s we could not believe that Thatcher would be re-elected. As the screeching face of shrill Toryism took greater hold our hopes and aspirations conversely plummeted. It was the most rotten and inescapable trap to be in – to want a kind of fairness people called socialism, live in Scotland and get cruel Conservatism via England. When Tony Benn lost his seat in Chesterfield we sent him a drunken  post-card from our communal flat to which the dear man even replied.
Then came the Miner’s Strike and things went up a gear. This was real big men in Donkey jackets, not our Jessie lads with their skinny drainpipe trousers and Flip baseball jackets. Hearing Dick Guaghin play in the Dalkeith Miners Welfare along with the rallies and speeches by Mick McGahey and Arthur Scargill reaffirmed the power and passion of the word, what a real gut politician sounds like, and how the aspiration of fairness, a job and a fair pay is emblematic across the centuries. The things you cant learn out of a politics manual.
When the bottom rungs of the ladder are ripped away, you never recoup your place or any place in that world where people assume positions on a career path. As one of the lucky ones with a bar job in the High Street (for which I had to fight off 23 competitors wear a tight black skirt and invest in brand new un-laddered tights)  and where the Advocates swilled large gin and tonics before going into court, I recall the cigars on the top shelf costing more than my entire week’s wage of £34.00. Surely some skewed Cuban solidarity lurks in there somewhere. As FE places got cut the big metal gates to the ‘second best’ profession of teaching began to clank shut, and it was only by doing a hasty limbo under the descending security gate of Birmingham Polytechnic that secured me the magic pass out of the world of £1.20 and hour into the stratosphere of  ten quid an hour work.
You could still get a full grant for teacher training – just. Phew!
Still seduced by the magic of ‘pieces of paper’ a merry-go-round of hard-to-let supply teaching posts was the mixed and varied diet post TC and in the days before Newly Qualaified Teacher posts secured at least a year of relative stability in which to figure out when to shout and bawl and who it was that dished out the proper rollickings in the school, the shiny £10 per hour was indeed a well and hard–earned pay. Supply teachers are the outsiders of the profession, whose survival in the supply jungle doesn’t count as ‘experience’. Real ‘experience’ being that thing you get when you actually have a job not when you are doing things like, delivering yellow pages, running summer playschemes, doing a bit of waitressing and early morning cleaning. As your CV starts to resemble an improbable Chinese menu of ready and waiting options produced from a miniscule kitchen and with the unemployed gaps polished up into more positive if bland offerings, the reality is, no-one gives a damn how adaptable you are, if you don’t have a proper job record like normal people forget it.
By the time of the labour landslide and in 97, and after 13 year of Tory government, us of the unemployed expendable youth had a natural fear of election night. I was at a meeting on a remote island about re-establishing common grazing rights for the few aged crofters left, in the face of exemplary imperial arrogance from the multi millionaire landlords the RSPB. With no electricity in the cottage where we had to stay, my self and my husband had come prepared with a portable black and white tv ( indeed bought once I’d repaid my bank overdraft from my £34 pw pub job) and a car battery.  Suffice to say that too much beer was taken post grazings and in Lib Dem Orkney there is never much chance of a photo finish national political interest marks out as decidedly nerdy. The last thing I remember is watching Halley’s comet over the hill as we drove an ancient Lada through the darkness, and then blanking out and missing probably the most cheering spectacle for a generation as Forsyth and Portillo were gubbed by labour.
The 7 year old daughter who stayed that night with her grandmother is now 21, and one of the 23% of 16 – 24 year olds who cannot get work. The sacked miner who was with us at the Dalkeith Welfare in 1984, has been to university, got a much better degree than I could ever have, overcome alcoholism and is now facing his second tranche of redundancy from the public sector. This is the repetition of human wastage that is unforgivable. And there are those that say we should stop talking about Thatcher.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Fish theft and vodka

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My father used to say the EEC was nothing more than a Tory club. In 1973 I was coveting suede mini- skirts, denim Wrangler jackets and trying to work up the courage to ask him to let me go the ‘Harray’ dance. Harray is the only landlocked parish in Orkney and natives of Harray got the nickname’ Harray Crabs’ as they had no shoreline. (No I don’t know the logic behind it, I suggest you google it). The Harray dance was symbolic of everything that was terrifying to a parent emerging blinking into the 60s and then hurtled into pre-punk 70s. The iniquity of the hall’s reputation  encompassed legendary copulations at the ‘back of the hall’,  imbibing of vodka behind broken toilet doors with secondary spewing in the same location, and a floor running in spilt beer which was de rigeur. Unregulated, even socially condoned underage binging in the macho rural society that was Orkney then, created the perfect storm of authoritarian parenting for someone like my dad – a refugee from the Wee Free kirk.
In our house pre –TV – the news whined on and off station from a Bakelite radio, and news times were religiously observed. We later got telly – my uncle Kenny who ran the Decca station was a whizz with electronics and always had the latest in TV and electrical stuff like an 8 track reel to reel tape recorder on which he taped us all. He was well known among the fishing community of course in Orkney and then later in Peterhead when he moved to Longside. A radio operator in the war he survived Monte Cassino. (Never get a risk assessment for that now). Seeing Thunderbirds in their house was again, tasting the forbidden fruit of ITV.
I only realise now, how significant that time was politically for fishing and our remote and coastal areas. It went almost without question that the UK Atomic Energy Authority would site an experimental reactor at Dounereay as far away from Westminster as you could get. There was no devolved power. Caithness and Orkney really were at the end of the line and the populations small, insignificant and ultimately expendable if the thing blew up. Orkney was much more of an island than it is today when we only had one daily crossing of the Pentland Firth by the St Ola. In 1973 ro-ro changed our island ethos out of all recognition. Oil was mooted and speculative companies arrived in town to present their plans to remove entire hills, build refineries, make millionaires, (Local Hero indeed) while proffering the inevitable beads and goodies to the wary local population. (We got a Steinway Grand which apparently is no longer cost effective, as it’s too dear to repair, and therefore  no longer of the calibre required during the annual import of RP culture which is the Saint Magnus Festival)  It is a cyclical state of our remote communities, to those of us that were born and brought up here, that a procession of shiny suited developers  ‘discover’ our undeveloped potential, come in with big talk and promises and deftly use the isles and our communities as stepping stones in furthering their personal careers or company aspirations.
In the 1970s, the UK still had all of its manufacturing base, its heavy industry and as yet had not grabbed and squandered the spoils of the oil industry. Europe had all these things too. What Europe did not have was the riches of the Scottish fishing grounds. I believe that fishermen were seen as the peasant class of the UK. Ted Heath negotiated the UK entry to the EEC and those fishing riches were part of the key bargaining chips for securing entry. It was class and national politics at it’s worst. Scotland, where fishing was of much larger importance to the working population than England, was viewed as no more than a backward and stroppy Jock-filled shire and the industry itself and working fishermen were perceived as an expendable economic entity that could be scrificed  in order to gain entry to the coveted club. If the wheat fields of central England had been handed over to Europe’s farmers to come and reap willy-nilly there would have been outrage. Our Scottish fishing grounds were our prime harvest crop and they were squandered and handed over practically whole sale to be carved up by Europe. Thinking of it now it was unbelievable folly that this should happen. But then in those times there was precious little hope of any control for the Scottish population over their economic future nor the fishing industry of stemming the desperate juggernaut towards the Tory club. ‘As you sow shall you reap’, and what we see now is the pathetically sad and infuriating state of our fisheries and our communities.
The Scottish fishing grounds were stolen and handed away without the democratic say so of the Scottish people let alone fishermen. The EU in its Common Fisheries Policy reform proposal, barely disguise their appetite for screwing down our fishing communities as they are set to reinvigorate the Tory club and release even more lawless market driven forces on what is left of Scotland’s  hammered industry .In polished vagueness, the CFP document allows everything and nothing to be possible. Most alarming is the assumption that market forces will assist sustainable fishing – the economic analysis of a Santa list is produced to justify this and the fervour of a blatantly neo-con drive toward a free market in quota via permanent international transfers of fishing quota. They have changed the terminology slightly to keep everything subtly disguised, so what was once fishing quota and became rights based management is now tradable fishing concessions. If international permanent transfers in fishing quota – (the right to fish the un-owned fish in the sea) are introduced then the status of tradable quota loses all links to national boundaries and individual fishermen and becomes exactly the same as stock market commodity shares traded on the international market with no controls at all. Quotas currently restricted to the demersal and pelagic fleet fishing( cod, haddock herring mackeral ) will  be extended to encompass all species including those caught by inshore fishermen in our small remote and fragile communities, crab, lobster and scallops.
 Fish swimming blithely round today are oblivious to the fact that under the CFP they are destined to be owned at birth. The fisherman will have to go cap in hand to buy the right to fish at whatever price the quota owner, who could be a football club, a pop star or a multinational supermarket chain, wishes to charge. The ‘market’ is notoriously bad at protecting the interests of the non-monied. Survival of the fittest is all very well if you happen to be the fittest, but even the fittest are unaware that there’s a bigger cat in the jungle till it’s too late. Note well the plight of the UK’s dairy farmers held to ransom by low supermarket prices. Potential quota buyers will right now be rubbing their hands and thinking up ways to get round the feeble legislation mere governments might attempt to introduce – ghost fishing companies, nominal links to bona fide fishermen…
We are at the end game of what started back in the 1970s, the theft of Scotland’s fish. In those pre- ro-ro days us islanders, who didn’t buy the life-style on the back of a housing boom in the South East, all felt a bit dislocated from the Mainland and the big decisions that happened there out-with our control. Back then we never knew we were 20 years behind the fashion down south, till we arrived in the city and felt like Eastern European refugees possibly feel now. In the Harray Hall where ‘disco’ was something only read about in the ‘Jackie’ our local bands played out cover versions of The Doors, Deep Purple and Led Zepplin. We never expected to wake up years later and see our industries and our communities fighting for the basics of their survival

mince and tatties politics and fish

It isn’t quite a year, but it’s long enough to now be able to put my head above the parapet and tentatively say, ’I think I’m starting to get my head round this.’ Last year my only true credentials for the post of Secretary to Orkney Fisheries Association were as the wife of a former fisherman. Another slight inaccuracy, Neil still fishes, but since 1995 we have been unable to rely on fishing for our total income. This is part of the story of this blog and will I hope help to map the dramatic decline in fishing in Orkney since that time.
My background was heavily reliant on family associations with the crab and lobster fishing in Stromness in particular. As kids we were brought up with the vague knowledge of all the extraneous things our father did which meant he was out most nights at meetings of one kind or another. One of the things he was involved with was the OFS or the Orkney Fisherman’s Society, a co-operative set up in Stromness in the fifties to provide the fishermen with a fair return for their catches. He strongly believed that fishermen were often ripped off by the Billingsgate fish merchants who would report that lobsters arrived dead. There was no way of knowing the truth.
The smells of the OFS permeated our Stromness lives up until the factory moved out to the soulless Cairston Industrial Estate. We used to think the fisheries in Alfred Street stank – as they did when they were boiling the crabs and we would run past holding our noses. However today I really miss the smells of the fishery – they were as endemic to the town as the Breweries to Edinburgh. Compartmentalising industry and work away from where people live has also meant a loss, kids on their way to school no longer see the work going on, the smells and the sounds nor imbue the ethos.
We had two fish shops in a town of 2000 inhabitants, Omands and Dowies. Maggie Dowie was a class-mate of my dad’s and was a formidable character and also the sister of Alfie Sinclair, father to Angie and Ollie who both in time were to make their mark as Stromness fishermen. Bob Dowie would give us kids boiled sweeties in the shop while Margaret wrapped up the fish in grease proof paper. The uncoiling roll of brown sticky flypaper  held my gaze as my Buckie grandmother invariably argued about whether she had been sold whiting or haddock.
There were two boatbuilders, McKays and Pia Anderson’s. Again my dad and Pia were of like mind and friendly so the ups and downs of the boatbuilding industry came and went around my ears. Of more interest to me in those days was Pia’s wife’s shop, an ‘up market’, well as far ‘up’ as you could get in Stromness, clothes shop where my mother bought her clothes. It had what seemed like glamorous changing rooms with curtains, and Mrs Anderson had a miniature dog (probably a chihouha) with staring eyeys an incessant shake and which looked as if it would break in bits if you patted it.
As a kid I was inside Pia’s yard when my dad had to speak to Jimmy about something and remember being knee deep in wood shavings, hearing the noise of the electric saws and the smell of fresh cut wood. The ‘Highland Board’ as it was known started to help fishermen build boats and it was a big thing. Prior to that many were little more than yoles with a tractor engine. Pia came up with a design which you can still see today and all about it felt like things were thriving. The yard was out a Ness where Stanger’s yard was before and long before it became a camp site, the fishermen stored their gear out there. The other yard, McKays was tucked in behind Wilson’s store on the North Pier just about where the cars Q to get on the North Link Ferry now.
My mother and grandmother cooked in the old fashioned Scottish way, mince and tatties with dough balls, stew with carrots, scotch broth, syrup puddings, custard and apricot tarts with jam from a tin and when it came to fish we had boiled cod, boiled whole in a huge pot (the stock kept of course). I never liked the look of the whitened eyes, but we ate the chunks of cod with white sauce. ‘Yellow’ fish or smoked haddock was eaten poached in milk, but top of the menu was always fried haddock in breadcrumbs. If we got a boiling of partans or lobster that was considered a treat, and the entire kitchen would fill with fishy steam as they were boiled alive. That’s where I learned to cook- by watching them and ‘helping’ roll the cubes of beef in flour or dust the fish with the bright orange ruskoline.
Bear with me it all has to do with the present state of fishing. Like most things its all a bit more complicated that it might at first seem….