About Me

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Artist,writer,poet from Orkney

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 façade 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



After two days only
The flesh has gone grey
Something has eaten out
The innards
A leg-bone shows
Stripped it was
A rat
That burrowed up through
The Rib-cage

A neat tunnel reveals
The clever rodent route to the larder of
Rotting meat
Like a bloodied purse
In process of being secreted away
Lies the liver
And kidneys too
That even richer stench
Like silage almost sweet

But nothing
Can get the rotting stink of carcass
From my coat
My hands
My nostrils
Unguarded gasp
The putrid air
Spading in the collapsing wool
To garnish
A pudding of rot

I force down the bared skull
With the metal of the shovel
It makes me think the rats are not to blame
For the trenches in France
And the simple thing that is
And flesh
In all our war-ending wars.

The Queen Mother Dies

The Queen Mother Dies

'The Queen Mother died peacefully in her sleep'
And on trawls the line
Of nasal voices from another century
‘One parasite fewer’ says Davey from the grave

Yesterday I buried a sheep
A grand old white-haired lady
Who for days I expected to find dead
Lying in the doorway of the shed
Scooring from her rear
The noise of my feet
The merest flicker from her ear
That death rattle chest and wheeze
It’s all the same

The time they left me sitting
With the Herdman wife in the home
No family, just carers, cleaners even
Took their turn
Beside her cot in
A triple bedroom shared
She rose and groaned from the pillow
Just hoping she would not die
While I was there

The toothless yow I carried from the shed
An old companion
So many winters on the hill
Her blue eyes still
And head flopped down my back

The gases fizzed
As I pressed hard
The securing final
Clods of turf on top

The Black Diamond Jacob


The Jacob was still alive
Acceptable face of sheep the
Black diamond demonic head
Softened sometimes with panda eyes
Other times just plain wicked
But still the aesthetic choice of
Good lifers
Four black horns

A thousand shetlands on the hill
Subsidies on legs they would say
The horn is living you know
Not dead
Because I had to saw right through
Before the curled one at his cheek
Bored into the skull
He was a ram
And going to the slaughter anyway
But the colour of  blood is something else
Like port

Two straight spirals like ibis
Two curled like Mary Quant
Mute nose the
Stippled black plastic
Of a rather serious toy bear

This time she was still alive
Her one hind leg curving arcs into the earth
The tireless repititious failure
To lever her haunches upwards
Leg of mutton

So I
Heave her onto her feet
She collapses
I bring the barrow
And clasp my arms round her chest
Wishing it was easier
Breast bone 
A fin of cuttle fish
Rammed through the gently rusting bars
Of a bird cage
In a damp house

I drag her backwards, it’s a
Murder movie, hind legs skitting
Fore legs jolting with the dips
Expression of passive resignation.

She flops into the barrow sedan
Hind quarters  folded in after
And sits afloat
As if it is her place
To travel by barrow these days
Watching the rooks
To get her eyes.

Burying Curly

Burying Curly

I always started out
With good intentions.
Of doing the job properly.
Measuring up by eye
I learned later not
To dig the plot
Too far away

A long drag over bumps and rash
Clumps in sodden ground was
Hard work
Everytime I would start out
Saying this time
It will be a proper plot
A neat rectangle
Spaded out the
Black Butter smooth sides
Four across
Six along …or maybe eight
A comfortable fit
Dig dig
Turf to the side
For finishing off
Later on

A week to die

A week to die

There were big deep baas
Like an old smoker
From the far end of the shed
Corrugated sheeting resounding
She got propped up on a bale
The back legs would scramble a little
Balance then sag
Move her out of the warm skitter
Onto clean straw
With offerings of ewe nuts and hay
Vitamin injections and water
She sat like a foundered ship
Slowly leaking


This is lambing time and I wrote a number of poems about my times with sheep, lambs and their deaths.

Four lifeless lives
A smaller
Better grave
Less effort
The top turf came away
Neatly all in one
Like a coffin lid.
Dry soil a sandy blanket

The first one
Still like a stuffed toy
The bandaged stomach
And memory
Of the pained rhythmic
Groaning – I had to stitch
The intestines back inside
A cramped cavity

Like a Baghdad hospital
Precision fallout and
Amateurs with only a soaped
Stanley knife blade
Like me
Last of the out of date

The next
A bag of black jelly
Too pale hooves
Unformed and skewed tongue
No rigour mortis
A sign said Albert
Of still birth

Number three
First born triplet
Of incremental scraps of
Black and white bone and wool
Dropped by the shire wire
Corner of the field
Very dead

The last I picked up too late
A good sized black ram
The birds had stripped the innards
To Rack of lamb
And blood red spine
Bared against
It’s inside out
A thorough job
He made it to the freezer for a day
In case an orphan took the skin

Relaying the lid of well knit grassy weave
I tried a new technique
Feathering the edges
To make a better knit
Time heavy musings
Of ages of grave diggers

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Hooker in the hard world

What is it we fear? What is it they want us to fear? Is it poverty, failure, military weakness? If you have never bought the pension myth, think on those souls who put their present in hawk over fear of future material poverty and all the while impoverish their day to day family life and relationships. And then think on those who bind themselves to a 9 to 5 slavery of mortgage indenture that taints the bulk of their active life, for a time of distant ‘security’ when they must queue for a hip-replacement. For those who are already poor, it is a state of being which they can only hope will get better. If there are upsides to poverty, these might be found in a perverted kind of inclusion in communal lack.

I speak from relative comfort, but when you extrapolate the hypothetical fear of anything and boil it down to its constituent parts, that fear becomes manageable, but firstly, as with arachnophobia it needs examined. We need a snapshot of the fear presented from a distance at which we can poke and prod before we can take the horror in our hands and stoke it.

Having dodged and dived through these years of rampant capitalism, at times playing the capitalists at their own game in order to survive, I confess to having been a survival hooker, selling myself in their system.  In mitigation I can only hope that using their system and operating with their rules, I have done so in a more compassionate and fair way.  Still I have no admiration for that system that places market above humanity but can understand now, in a world that demanded my personal adaptation to Jackess of many trades, that the confidence to design a project or a business that might provide collective benefit beyond one’s own immediate needs, takes a lack of fear of ‘the market’ underpinned by the reality-check of failure.

My motivation for inventing businesses was to be absorbed and remain busy – my personal fear, was less of material poverty than being unused, un-busy, un-stretched and unemployed. When no jobs were forthcoming I had to invent my own. This took me right into uncharted territory that I would normally have shunned. The service economy in the tourism business always struck me as thinly disguised cultural prostitution, (sometimes not so thinly if you witness The Royal Mile in the summer).Discovering I could do this touristy stuff better than many competitors was a surprise, but it exploded the mystery of business and showed me that there could be huge potential for development if those that usually eschewed business applied their creative minds to it.

Fear is the ultimate and enduring tool of control – at its’ limit, the employment of physical hurt or violence to control individuals, from women in abusive relationships (yes I agree with Joan McAlpine) to whole populations: look this day at Syria. Both  the institutions of state and religion who have needed to consolidate their power employ psychological fear, the primitive fear of damnation or the complex conspiracy fear of terrorism and when they feel their controlled populations become restive with the established fear ‘givens’, they turn up the screws.

Every generation looks back on a more halcyon past and longs for it, and misses the obvious that the present they are living in will be transformed into the rose-coloured past of the next generation. Our survival instinct dilutes the bad memories and allows the rosier ones to prevail. The danger is we either forget the challenging parts of our past, or start to disbelieve they were ever that bad. The prize of building a better future is to refashion the best things from the past into a new configuration of the present calibrated by a realistic appreciation of our mistakes, our fallibility and our weaknesses.

Capitalism has duped us into thinking that money is God,that stuff will stave off unhappiness, and we must work on the hamster wheel of material accumulation to inoculate ourselves from lack. At both ends of the scale we are anaesthetised by alcohol, where those who fall through the net are numbed with addiction. ‘Schooling’ which we call education plays its part too, with the factory modelcorralling young people into prolonged infancy, in a siding of society with a fiction of education only serving to better prepare them to embrace the rampant money and acquisitive culture that we are told is the only option.

For young people, fear and pressure in equal measure filter up through the pervasive veil of sound-bite positive reinforcement – in the race for exam success, university places, and employability. Where in this crowded adjunct of supermarket-like education and policy documents is there room for the spark of individual addiction to knowledge? The link to education providing a better future life has been lost, in favour of acquisitive exam goods in a shopping trolley.

Profit prevails above sharing because that is the trickle down ethos of the one-party state of Capitalism and like a parent is the one that has the most influence in the end.

The real fear which we should plan for is the meddling by darker side of the imperialist state, which will be operating now in some former cold war control room stacked with umbrellas and bowler hats.

We need to have the confidence to believe that we can think our way to a better small society where we indeed have the potential to turn our collective minds to create a catalyst for bigger social change. We will not leave others behind, but will be the first domino, tipping a change of thought. Our society can become the focus of their hope, the possibility of a better reality for others.

Because things are the way they are is not how they will always be or how they should be. The first step is to free our minds to think that change is an inevitable part of our evolution and that we can shape that through personal agency. The vested interests of the status quo tell us we cant do this, that indeed we are naïve, idealistic, heart-led dreamers who don’t understand the ‘real’ hard world.

We should allow ourselves to believe that we can build the confidence to manage how we share out the poverty or the wealth. The new Scotland may be one or the other and at times both. But is it preferable to have your poverty imposed and regulated like Greece finds itself, or be a people who can at least have a say in how they manage their lack? The 10 years of imposed austerity in Greece leaves a generation without ideological hope. It has been removed from their collective psyche. Greece is being bureaucratically smashed. This was exactly what Thatcher did to Scottish youth in the 80s. For Scotland we should countenance failure but believe that there is the potential to turn the tanker of greed around and give the outmoded mores of sharing some room to breathe.

If we begin to think like this we may develop a society that expects the best in its population, not one that operates in expectation of the worst of human behaviour legislating to the level of the lowest common denominator. Much of the debate over the viability of the new Scotland relies on scare-mongering over our ability to manage ourselves, being too poor or too small. This doom-mongering comes from the traditional conservative business class who see the desire for independence as emotional rather than practical. They cling to their closed shop of business knowledge which they believe the rest of us do not understand.

But it is the very psyche of our people that is the untapped ingredient which is currently hobbled. Unfairness breeds resentment, anger and violence to the self or to external objects. Transparency that the pain is as fairly shared as are the gain is the kind of ‘fairness philosophy’ those under the yoke of global capitalist ethics are desperate for. The emotional wish for independence is no woolly soft option. Hope is key to the well being of humans, and achievable realistic goals as well as longer term dreams are what keep the human spirit moving on. The denial of that hope is a killer.

A population that can overcome its fear is one that can reinvigorate the engines of its collective potential. Perhaps our future will contain the germ of a world where the pursuit of the material is supplanted by the pursuit of knowledge, where it is normal to use what you need not what you think you can secrete away for yourself, that less is sometimes more and where profligacy, greed and competition play second fiddle to communal aid . What is needed is the creation of ‘busy-ness’ as something that replaces the old terms and models of business. A new place where social enterprise and capital will work for humans and the surplus created go to sustain communities through a different financial network of ethical and mutual banks and co-operative societies.
None of this is new, but when the pendulum is swinging there’s no harm in jumping on to give it a bit of a push. It may ironically be that the imposed policies of the Thatcher era that removed the expectation of employment from many and forced some of us out of our comfort zone into the wilderness of business, will in turn come back to bite the very politics that spawned the worst of the hard, real, uncompassionate world of greed economics.

All we have to fear is fear itself, so get that fear on the table, and give it a good interrogation with a stick. Give it a name, then dispense with it for good.