Friday, 4 July 2014

July's Shetland Life - shops and shopping!

Home delivery, the fate of the local shop and Tesco-itis. - My editorial from July's Shetland Life. Buy it here

I am not among the Tesco-itis sufferers who say, proudly, that they have never been inside the place, “and never will”. There are things hidden away there you can get nowhere else, for example the lovely Beurre d’Enseignes from Normandy. I prefer North Eastern Farmers or LHD for clothes (it’s a fashion thing) and of course the Big T does have some locally-supplied fresh food. Though I have to say that the only ‘off’ stuff I’ve bought in Tesco was locally supplied - and instantly refunded, without smelly packaging having to be shown.
And there are the Co-ops, In Brae and Lerwick. The ownership of its own farms has always meant, I’ve felt, high-quality meat at the Co-op, but now with the parent organisation in disarray and the farms being sold off, I’ve kind of lost faith. But you can get tubs of organic houmous in either Shetland Co-op, and for me that’s a matter of near-addiction. Food quality, particularly of own-brand flour and the like, is high.
The Lerwick Tesco is brilliantly and imaginatively run and stocked. Staff are well treated, quite well paid (I understand) and exceptionally well trained. Choice is massive. Prices are low.Why should you shop anywhere else?
Well, we have superb local foodstuffs in Shetland which don’t reach either supermarket. For fresh meat, the Shetland-sourced organic beef, mutton and vegetables in Scoop are not just fantastic quality, but reasonably priced, though available in limited quantities. Our various specialist butchers provide excellent products and service and the availability of locally-caught fish is one of the glories of the isles. In the country shops, fish and meat from Shetland sources is widely available too, though not every day and again, often not in the widest of varieties.
Bakery products? We have superb oatcakes, bannocks and bread, but again, wisely choosing your day to get fresh baking  is essential if you’re shopping outside Lerwick. We also, in truth, have had in the past some very average bakery products, which I think has led to the taste for ‘sooth bread’ you find everywhere, though the home baking habit has also meant that yeast and bread flour are on the shelves of nearly every rural outlet. Not to mention Shetland Dairies’ great triumph: buttermilk, bannocks for the making of.
But it’s easier to just go and do a huge, weekly one-stop supermarket shop. Convenience is, for some folk, everything. And if you live in Lerwick, why wouldn’t you nip into World of Trolley? Leaving (or not) honourable exceptions for butchery, fish, bakery products and, well, clothes and white goods? Rural dwellers with access to transport, can do a ‘big shop’, later ‘topping up’ at the local shop, if you’re lucky enough to have one: milk, eggs and...anything you’ve forgotten or run out of.
We have an excellent local community-owned shop in Hillswick, and I am privileged to have just been co-opted as a director. That it happened the week after I’d used the new Tesco home delivery service for the first time was embarrassing. But instructive.
I found the whole rigmarole of online ordering very irritating. Also, because this is Shetland, several items were unavailable. You are then provided with ‘an alternative’ or a refund. Fortunately, Beurre d’Enseignes was in stock.
I had no complaints about the delivery. Joel the driver arrived in the time slot arranged, was happy to carry the shopping into the house, and it was all curiously like Christmas. You forgot you’d paid in advance. The groceries were just...there.
I won’t be doing it again, though, and not just because of my new directorship. I believe local shops are essential to the wellbeing of a community, and there’s no question that Tesco home delivery threatens their viability. However, there is no reason why local shops cannot provide a delivery service which would be much more responsive, and not limited to those with computers. 
But it’s not just that. If I’m shopping for food, I want to see, reach out, touch, choose. I check onions’ softness and bananas’ brownness, bannocks’ give and crusts’ crispiness. Yes, I will go to Tesco and other Lerwick shops, if I happen to be in town. For sea-salted butter, among other things. But my default retail position is: the local shop. 
Use it or lose it.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Editorial, November. Remembrance, HMS Bullen, and the bodies the sea returned

My editorial from this month's Shetland Life Magazine:

“To the world, he was just one. To me, he was all the world.”

November is the month of remembrance. Remembering the dead of not just two world wars, but the wars that have taken place since. The ones still going on. Those who left to serve and fight, but never returned, and those who came here to die. There were 78 recorded air crashes on or around Shetland in World War Two, many involving multiple fatalities.
And there were those given up by the sea. It’s something rarely mentioned or discussed, and awful to contemplate - the many, many bodies washed ashore here in the course of world War One and World War Two. But a cursory look at the stones in our cemeteries reveal the appalling numbers. The recent notices that have appeared on graveyard gates pointing out that Commonwealth War Graves lie within will perhaps have drawn folks’ attention to this for the first time. The ones in Eshaness and Hillswick drew mine.
There are other signs of death and destruction still visible. The remains of some of those air crashes, are, as this magazine has often pointed out, still lying on Shetland hills. You can see the solidified remnants of heavy bunker oil from long-lost convoys ingrained in outcrops of rock, and until quite recently a bale of raw latex, cargo from a sunken cargo ship, was used to hold down hauled-up boats at Heylor.
But the gravestones all tell stories. Notably the one on the front cover of this magazine, which you will find in the old Hillswick graveyard at the West Ayre - site of an ancient kirk, with nearby monastic settlements and a broch also indicated. A place which has always been special, probably always holy, for as long as humans have been here.
The story of Petty Officer NE Lown  centres on HMS Bullen, a Captain class Frigate built in the USA as part of the lend-lease scheme which saw a great deal of military materiel being provided for the use of British Forces in the Second World War. She was system built as a submarine hunter, welded together like the notorious Liberty Ships, and her crew, probably including PO Lown, travelled to New York aboard the Queen Mary to bring her back across the Atlantic. They had some adventures in the USA, some of which you can hear about in the voice of one of the crew members, Rating John Albert Hodge interviewed here for the Imperial War Museum’s archives.
HMS Bullen - named for one Nelson’s commanders at the Battle of Trafalgar - joined the 19th Escort Group based at Belfast, and on 6 December 1944 she was off Cape Wrath, protecting a convoy which came under U-Boat attack. A torpedo from  U-775, commanded by Oberleutnant Erich Taschenmacher, hit her amidships, an explosion occured on the starboard side, just behind the funnel. The aft engine room and boiler room probably flooded immediately. The ship quickly broke in two, the forepart turning on its beam ends and the aft-section floating vertically Within an hour and six minutes, both parts of the ship had sunk completely. Ninety-seven men were rescued, many in a poor state from cold, injury or from inhaling oil. Seventy-two died. U-775 sank only the Bullen and one merchant ship. She was only at sea for a total of 86 days.
Erich Taschenmacher survived the war, surrendering U-775, which was sunk by the Royal Navy along with dozens of other empty U-boats. U-775 was used for target practice.
Petty Officer Norman Lown, aged 27 and leaving a widow at his home in Dover, Lilian Rose, was carried hundreds of miles to Shetland, along with three other HMS Bullen crew: Able Seaman Arthur Wealthall was buried at Eshaness, Leading Stores Assistant Francis Farrell and Leading Stoker Felix John Read  in Lerwick. PO Lown lies within the calling of the sea at the West Ayre, and the Eshaness light flares in the distance every night.

Lilian Rose's heartbreaking inscription, easily missed at the bottom of the stone, perhaps expresses the real cost of war, the true and eternal story of loss. And sums up why it is important that we remember, not just on 11 November, but always, the price that was paid by so many.

“To the world, he was just one. To me he was all the world. Always loved,deeply missed.”

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Shetland roads: the madness of the high-speed Hi-Lux driver...

Shetland Life editorial, October 2013

Slow. Slow. Quick, quicker, slow.
And stop, probably without giving any indication that you’re about to, because your brake lights are broken or you’re towing a trailer which doesn’t, indeed never had brake lights. Or brakes. Or proper wheels, seeing as these ones came off an old lorry you found rotting in a field in the South Mainland and only turn when you use three cans of WD40 on each axle. Which you do at the beginning and end of the sailing season as you need to get the boat into and out of the water.
Number plates? No need. Felt tip marker pen scrawled on a piece of cardboard will do fine. And as for the ‘proper’ Ifor Williams stock trailer you use for sheep, house moves, fetching peats and removing large quantities of stone chips and road grit from council stockpiles under cover of darkness, well. The electrics failed on that a long time ago, and hanging a couple of hurricane lanterns from the back with skein of twisted wool seems to work just fine...
But let’s not get sidetracked by Shetland trailer culture. Even though it is vastly amusing that there is now a ‘trailer test’ young drivers have to sit before they get a chance to demolish the rear light clusters of the Hi-Lux when reversing a horsebox-load of inebriated Up HellyAa guizers into the hall car park.
I wish to discuss driving, generally.
It’s appalling. And it has worsened, of late, as traffic on our wondrously pothole-less roads has increased due to the arrival of Evil Soothmoothers in droves.
And how evil they are, coming here, drinking our beer, vomiting on our pavements, trying unsuccessfully to steal our women, criticising our golliwog industry and making loud gutteral noises in bars. Away with them, I say, send them and their tiger-striped Dazzle Ship accommodation barges off into the misty befuddlement of the Orcades, or worse, Wick. We don’t want their money or their genetic material! Do we? Of course, speaking as soothmoother myself, albeit one of many years standing, sitting and yes, driving, I may be slightly biased.
Although come to think of it, the blame for bad driving has be evenly apportioned, in my experience. Local idiots who think pick-up trucks are Formula One cars. Dawdling tourists in Star Kias who slow down every time they see an attractive fencepost. Even more dawdlesome local ancients, peering through the steering wheel at 10mph, saving their sidelight bulbs from ‘wear’ by never switching them on until it’s pitch dark. Crazed oil and gas executives running late in their Range Rovers, overtaking on blind bends, tailgating hapless commuters and hitting 120 on the Tingwall Straight. And don’t even mention the Whalsay fishing skippers in their Rolls Royces, Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Bugatti Veyrons. I have no idea how they get some of those cars up the linkspan onto the ferry without ripping their underparts off. The cars, that is.
(Incidentally, has the Tingwall Straight sunk? I don’t remember that blind dip when I arrived here a quarter of a century ago?)
Who else is on our roads? Bad-tempered bus drivers, and those trucks being driven at ludicrous speeds, festooned with unnecessary and blinding fairy lights , transporting important consignments of caviar and Champagne to Total management at Sullom Voe. The days of the tarted-up Vauxhall Nova are long gone, but we still have nedmobiles , lowered Japanese saloons with sound systems blasting out One Direction and Calvin Harris so loudly they have to keep the windows slightly open or they’d blow the windscreens out.
Then there are the drunks. Hugging the verge, driving oh-so-carefully, veering towards and then away from approaching headlights, slowing down when other cars appear, slamming their brakes when the giant rabbits appear. Be ruthless. Seriously, please phone the police if you see one. Save them from themselves. They don’t need a fatality on their conscience.
Obviously, you’ll pull over before using your mobile...
Finally I have three tips, for everyone who chauffeurs/chauffeuses themselves or others around our islands. And here they are, maker of them what you will.
(1) There is a blanket 60 mph limit on Shetland. If you drive faster than that you are are breaking the law. No, I’m not joking.
(2) Vans owned by building firms are not exempt from this limit.
(3) Neither am I, even though I now own an elderly Mercedes 300TE with sport gearbox and a kickdown which is capable of sending it into temporary orbit.
(4) All trailers should have working lights, brakes and not be made out of old safety handrails and water pipes. Unless of course you’re in the People’s Republic of Northmavine, where the law is quite, quite different. Obviously.

Friday, 6 September 2013

September's editorial: helicopters and Shetland

Download the full Shetland Life here
Editorial: Helicopters and Shetland

Helicopters have played an important role in Shetland’s modern history, from their crucial role in the exploration for and exploitation of North Sea oil and gas to the rescue of many from the sea and the evacuation of sick local folk to hospital.
They are, however, among the most unforgiving pieces of equipment used for transporting human beings, should any mechanical failure occur. And Shetland is fully aware of the consequences. The most recent, fatal incident involving a Eurocopter Super Puma AS332 L2 just off Garths Ness, which took the lives of four passengers, is a shocking reminder of how at the mercy of machinery we are.
It is impossible to pay sufficient tribute to those who moved with great speed, bravery and skill to save the 14 survivors, and then to recover the bodies of the victims. In what were difficult conditions, the rescue services carried out a hard and harrowing task
What went wrong? As I write, the Civil Aviation Authority's unprecedentedly quick hint that the problem was 'not technical' has brought the grounded fleet of Super Pumas back into service. However. The 2009 crash off Peterhead that killed 16 people involved the same model of helicopter, and two non-fatal ditchings last year were of EC225 Super Pumas. There are questions about the machine that need answered. The EC225 was banned from flying for 10 months and only recently came back into service. The confidence in all models of Super Pumas of those who work offshore has been shaken. And the results of investigations into the reasons for the EC225 ditchings are not encouraging. Experts found a whole range of gearbox problems, including manufacturing errors, corrosion and even basic design faults. All, it seems, now sorted.
It is impossible to ignore the economic pressures to get the majority of the British offshore helicopter fleet flying again. There are around 57,000 workers travelling to 600  installations each year, and capacity is tight, given the high level of activity in new developments such as Clair Ridge and activity west of Shetland. With aircraft grounded, workers were asked to take longer shifts offshore and supply boats were pressed into passenger service.  It wasn't 'economically workable'.
The bottom line is this: helicopters are necessary if offshore oil is to be exploitable. And yet, despite assurances and knowing hints, confidence in them is low.  It is not hard to imagine the dread oil and gas workers must feel at the thought of a flight to the rigs and platforms.
We have been here before, and in even more tragic circumstances. The 1986  crash off Sumburgh killed 45, making it the world’s worst ever helicopter incident. As a result the giant twin-rotor Boeing Model 234 Chinooks, capable of carrying almost twice a Super Puma’s payload, were taken out of service in the North Sea. History has proved that there was nothing wrong with the Chinook’s basic design. The CH47 military versions remain crucial to armed forces throughout the world, including the RAF. Columbia Helicopters in Oregon still use the 234 and its little brother, the twin-rotor 107, for passenger transportation and heavy lifting. There is said to be a much-upgraded Chinook in Afghanistan being flown by the grandson of the man who originally piloted it in Vietnam. Yes, there have been other disasters involving the machine, notably the controversial 1994 Mull of Kintyre crash which killed 29 people, and which was blamed on both pilot error and poor maintenance.
But that is not the reason Chinooks no longer fly in the UK offshore oil and gas industry.  It’s back to the unforgiving nature of helicopter technology: If anything goes wrong, the results are likely to be catastrophic, and a machine with nearly 50 people on board offered a level of fatalities which was simply unacceptable. More people died in the  Chinook disaster than in all the other eight fatal North Sea helicopter crashes. Public opinion, not technology or inherent safety, forced a change, and the decision was taken to move to  the Sikorskies and (mainly) Super Pumas now in service. 
 The switch to smaller helicopters was about reducing the numbers of potential casualties, but saw an inevitable increase in flights, and therefore the statistical risk of mechanical failure. But remember too that 14 people survived the most recent crash, and several Super Pumas have ditched without loss of life. Could a Chinook do that? 

As offshore activity peaks, it is absolutely essential that every step is taken to minimise risks to workers. Complete confidence may never be restored in Super Pumas, and in the end, one fatality is too many. But the risk will always be there. Helicopters are unforgiving machines, and offshore oil is an unforgiving industry.

Friday, 1 March 2013

March's Shetland Life is out now!

There's some great stuff in this month's magazine, including a splendid trip down memory lane for music lovers who were in the habit of raiding Aberdeen's record shops in the 1970s. Download the full magazine - and read the editorial -  here or buy it in print throughout Shetland.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

September - Papa Stour's future, the Great British Bake Off, and a brand new photo competition

This has been a difficult magazine to put together for lots of reasons, but I think in the end it's a really good read with some fantastic photographs - and the opportunity for you to take some that will perhaps be just as good!

Andy Holt from Papa Stour contacted me several weeks ago to suggest a piece about the problems being faced by the island - only eight permanent residents now - and his impassioned article makes for salutary reading. Fancy a move? It is one of the most beautiful places in Shetland. Funnily enough, since taking over as editor of Shetland Life I've been looking at something to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the arrival on Papa of the 'first hippies'; Andy was one such. As it turns out, it's a melancholy anniversary.

Meanwhile, The BBC2 show The Great British Bake Off has taken over the Morton family's lives, to an extent, as my son James is one of the competitors, and for the summer's duration our kitchen has been awash with flour and sourdough starters. James shares some of the show's secrets with Shetland Life readers.

We have a unique (these days) photography competition that demands the use of film; another thrilling detective story from Marsali Baxter, regular features like Rosa Steppanova's superb gardening column and Ann Prior's brilliant recipes. And I absolutely love John Brown's hilarious memories of his first motorcycle - a 1940s Velocette.

There's loads more to read and gaze at, and you can either buy the magazine in print form - move fast, though, as it sells out - or download a full pdf version online - you can pay for just one copy and the Pagesuite software is very good indeed. It works very well on an iPad. Get it here:

Thursday, 5 July 2012

July's Shetland Life is on two wheels - but no engine

This has been a hard magazine to get together, mainly because of bicycles. Or one bicycle in particular, the Surly Long Haul Trucker I rode from the Mull of Galloway to Muckle Flugga. The mull2muckle, as we're calling it. Full story in this month's magazine, and a great wee video from Precious Productions here:

In addition, the magazine has a new Sigurd The Tentative, Bohemian Viking cartoon strip, Rosa Steppanova on geraniums, A further instalment in Jon Sandison's important series on the World War One Shetland Territorials, and Jim Tait on the shetland connections with the Titanic.

It's available to buy in most Shetland shops and you can get one copy or a subscription as a full colour pdf online, instantly, here: