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.


  1. Serious question, have you thought of doing a tour?.

    I've been to a number of events like this at local arts centres in recent years and they have invariably been well supported and entertaining.

  2. Baby steps at the moment, I think, David. We'd certainly be open to offers of the chance to do it elsewhere.

  3. I was there and really enjoyed the evening. My husband has 2 around and around t shirts which he won in the early nineties from the Friday evening show of the same name. Nice to see you both in the flesh as it were.

  4. From a former Whistle Test viewer, Q reader (1st issue), Mojo ( you never did bring that up later on) and committed Word reader it was a pleasure to hear the pair of you talk on stage. Thought you missed the whole Peter Buck leaving REM when talking about drummers but hey who am I to be picky. Would have loved to have had a pint later but had to get home.
    Thanks again and get the podcast back on the go, you do not need a magazine for that, as Clive James has proved with his website

  5. Sounds to me like a radio or TV series waiting to happen, though six hours rather than 60 minutes might be even better

  6. The airport on Benbecula is not the beach. That's Barra (where Compton McKenzie - founder of Gramophone - set Whisky Galore). I know this, because when I was very, very young, my father was the airport manager on Benbecula. We did occasionally get a bag of cockles from the beach at Barra, delivered by the pilot who'd dug them up from the edge of the "runway".

    [/pedant mode]