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Monday, September 02, 2013

Mark Ellen and I take a trip to the isles

Six months ago the people at Wordplay, a literary festival in the Shetland Islands, invited me to come and speak at their event in late August. I suggested Mark Ellen was, if anything, even keener on Scottish islands than I was and so he was invited too. A couple of months ago they asked what we were going to talk about. We came up with a title - 50 Years Of Rock And Roll In 60 minutes - which they seemed pleased with.

A week ago we sorted out enough pictures and captions to make a presentation. On Wednesday we flew, with our wives, to Shetland. Big plane to Glasgow. Little prop plane to Sumburgh on Shetland. At Glasgow airport we met Quentin Cooper, who was on his way to speak in Benbecula where the plane lands on the beach. Next to that landing at Sumburgh, where they have to stop the traffic so the planes can land, was a breeze.

Shetland is fascinating. It combines the characteristics of Scottish islands - peace, natural beauty, wildlife - with the characteristics of, well, almost nowhere else in Europe. Thanks to the oil and gas business off-shore Shetland's unemployment is only 1%. There are no ostentatious shows of wealth but there are some nice cars and a powerful amount of Farrow and Ball paint. Total are fitting the gas plant at Sullom Voe, a job so big they've had to build their own hotel, which doesn't have a vacancy for ten years. Some of the men are accommodated in a "floatel" (below), a giant waterborne barracks which was towed from Gdansk and was formerly used as a prison.

We rented a car and got around the islands, all the way up to the northernmost tip of Unst to Muckle Flugga, which is as far north as the UK goes, and roughly on the same latitude as Bergen. We saw thousands of gannets plunging into the waters off Norwick. When we flew back via Aberdeen we also saw plenty of Super Puma helicopters, grounded in the wake of the tragedy of the week before. If they can't resolve that problem soon then presumably the consequences for the economy will be serious.

We did our show on Saturday night in the big hall at Mareel (right). There was a gratifying turn-out. Lots of locals, some Word readers, a few Whistle Test diehards, and a contingent of poets and musicians who were also taking part in the festival. Everybody seemed to enjoy it. Somebody said "you must have done this lots of times before". In one sense we had and in another we hadn't. Somebody else said "you obviously know each other well." You could say that.

Afterwards in the bar a lady came up and asked to take our picture. She must have been in her 70s.