Saturday, 8 June 2013

Town or Country? Could you live in a small island community?


Caroline and Vic catching up on their holiday reading
"I'm so tired of the squalor and the grime of the city" Richard Rodney Bennett, 1978

I remember, in the 1980s, quite sensible people decided to leave London and move to Brighton, or the West Country. ‘To hell with London’ they said.  And having packed up, and shacked up, by the sea or in the woods, how they did go on about not missing London at all.

I stayed, because I could go to ‘Pizza on the Park’ to see jazz singers like Richard Rodney Bennett and Marion Montgomery. I once heard them do “Let’s go and live in the country”. It’s a comic duet written by Bennett about a couple who flirt with the idea of living in the country, and then rush back to the city, because they are allergic to hay, and know they couldn't cope if the roof started to leak. I used to agree with them.

Recently, however, I’ve been having thoughts about going to live by the sea, getting an Irish Terrier, and growing vegetables. A short holiday in the Western Isles of Scotland gave me a chance to weigh the pros and cons of staying put, or going for a complete life change. This is what I learned.

What are the gains of island life?
  • The freshest, most gulpable air. In the spring, the island air is even sweeter with the scent of bluebells.
  • Being part of a real community. They have a ceilidh when they think they need one, and anyone can join the dance. Children dance with their parents, and dogs are most welcome.
  • Time goes further, spread over long days and short nights. I had to learn how to take my time. When I rushed to the only shop to buy a missing ingredient for supper, the locals gently reproached me. “People are a bit more relaxed here”.
  • Spirit raising views. The sea and the hills change colour with the light and the weather. Watching Rum from Eigg is like being at a Son et Lumiere show, powered by nature. The best thing about Eigg is the view of Rum, according to the people who live on Rum. But they would say that, wouldn’t they?
What do islanders give up?
  • Globalisation, things like the energy crisis. Eigg produces more electricity than the residents can use
  • Commuting to work; it doesn’t happen
  • Any desire for national or international news. It’s irrelevant
  • Having to remember to take your keys with you. No-one bothers to lock their door
  • Consumerism, though the village shops are well stocked, and Amazon does good business
  • Traffic, except when people are arriving or departing on the ferry
  • Noise, except birdsong and – I suspect – the sound of raindrops and howling gales.
What is the person specification for an islander?

Ability to have many jobs, or none
Islanders have multiple identities, and many hold down different jobs. The Harbour Master, without whom the boat cannot arrive or depart, also drives the electric buggy, mends the road, and tends the trees. The lady who cooked you a splendid dinner, also runs the bakery. Your dance partner at the ceilidh, pops up in the tea shop to serve you coffee and cakes, and later arrives to prepare your accommodation for the next group. Everybody else is unemployed, or has no obvious responsibilities.

Tolerance
You are unlikely to take to island life unless you can learn to tolerate midges, tourists, alcohol, unpredictable weather, and things left where they were last used or needed e.g. tractors, baths, bits of machinery.

Other skills, knowledge and attitudes that will serve you well on a Scottish Island are:
After a week exploring the Western Isles of Scotland, beautiful as it was, I think I will stay in the city, and holiday in the country. I am allergic to hay, and if the roof began to leak, I would definitely need a man with a beard. 

Thanks to everyone living in the small isles who made us feel welcome.

Song: ‘Let’s go and live in the country’1978, Richard Rodney Bennett


8 June 2013


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