Orcadian Crimes

This is interesting. This guy, Max Scratchmann, moved to the Orkney Islands with his partner in an attempt to escape the stresses of urban life. He parlayed his disillusionment with the islands into a book, Chucking It All: How Downshifting To A Windswept Scottish Island Did Absolutely Nothing to Improve My Life, the publication of which has been cancelled after threats of legal action and a complaint from the island’s MP.

Angry islanders, including one lady who recognised an unflattering depiction of herself, remonstrated with the Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland, Alistair Carmichael. He obtained a preview copy after it was featured on the island’s radio station, and successfully lobbied the London publisher Nicholas Brealey, who has cancelled the book’s publication scheduled for this month.

Mr Carmichael insisted it was never his intention to get it banned altogether, but objected to the author’s ‘hurtful and vindictive’ lampooning of several residents, whom he argued were ‘clearly identifiable’ and would have their reputations damaged if the book were published in its existing form.

Scratchmann’s conclusions about the island were not shared by Barbara Foulkes, the director of the local tourist board and a life-long Orcadian. She said she suspected he was ‘bitter’ because his own attempt at downsizing had failed.

‘I certainly don’t think it’s an accurate view of Orkney today, because it’s a very vibrant community,’ she said. ‘We have a good, thriving social life that doesn’t all revolve around drink. I don’t know this chap so it’s difficult to say, but he strikes me as somebody who maybe doesn’t get on with people.’

I have been to the Orkneys a couple of times and still have friends there. It’s a beautiful place and my memories of it are happy ones. I don’t know if I could spend six years there, as Scratchmann did. The winters are long and spooky.

I haven’t read Scratchmann’s book (and, now, never will) but he raises interesting questions about the urban versus the rural:

Scratchmann described moving to the Orkneys as like ‘falling through a rent in the fabric of the universe and tumbling headfirst into the 1950s’. He wrote: ‘We were taken aback at our first night-time encounter with Orcadians, who are rather staid and emotionally repressed by day, but veritable Jekyll and Hydes when the midnight sun sinks and rum and whisky washes away their numerous inhibitions.’

He concluded: ‘The two major pastimes on long winter nights are gossip and adultery.’

‘The book I set out to write was not about Orkney; it was a book about the experience of downshifting, and about urbanites who think that all you have to do is go to the middle of nowhere and that everything’s going to be wonderful,’ he said yesterday. ‘Of course it’s not. The society, the weather: everything about Orkney was totally wrong for us. There are no trees, for a start.’

People have this idea of the city as a soulless cluster of alienated individuals and the countryside as a place of warm, friendly communities. Of course in real life it’s often the opposite, with the happy, diverse and welcoming people located in the metropoli while the small town experience tends to be more League of Gentlemen than River Cottage Spring. Yet the romance persists and we have London’s rich couples buying second homes in some godforsaken cowtown that hardworking locals will struggle to get out of all their lives.

What doesn’t help is that there is a visceral oversensitivity about such things. When The Idler named Stockport as number 12 in its list of ‘Crap Towns’ (‘Entertainment includes being glassed in one of the town’s many pubs, avoiding being stabbed on the infamous 192 bus and avoiding leaving your house as much as possible’) it received a thundering denounciation from the local paper, the council leader and one of the town’s MPs. The thing is that a) The Idler’s comments were made in a comedy stocking-filler book, not in a serious report and b) many Stopfordians would agree with The Idler.

The fact is that some places in the UK are great to live in, others are landmarks of boredom and despair. Can we not now point this out without having our books pulped? Why this masochistic hunger for offence? As Howard Jacobson said in Manchester:

Why are the British always crying… From Diana onwards floods of tears, especially when a camera is near. You can’t turn on the TV without some person wailing because they’ve been thrown off a talent show when they had no talent in the first place. Our stiff upper lip has become a big, soft, wet, trembling one.


7 Responses to “Orcadian Crimes”

  1. mosiwells Says:

    Alot of times people in smalltowns feel that an outsider has come to snitch out their way of life or bring a pressure on them that is unwanted only when the author is trying to tell an interesting story of the times. I would like to read this book and see what Mr. Scratchman is saying for myself. I like the saying that fiction is the truth inside of a lie and I would like to take it a step further if you will that our emotions get in the way of perceiving the truth for what it really is.

    Mosi Wells

  2. Willow Hewitt Says:

    I read that piece in the Times and I can’t honestly believe he’s giving up on the idea of publishing it – he’s got too much press for it already. Even I want to read that book, though previously, if you described it to me I would have saad it sounded boring.
    I’d agree with The Idler, and I live in Stockport. But I think it’s better the devil you know. I know what parts of town to avoid and when, and I just sort of ignore those places. But if I moved to remote countryside I’d have to encounter the whole bredth of experience there fresh before I could decide what’s awful and what I want to avoid.

  3. maxdunbar Says:

    I’ve worked in central Stockport – there’s one decent pub but it has just always seemed like an evil, curdled place to me.

    I appreciate it’s better the devil you know, but with that general attitude no one would go anywhere new or try anything new.

    I think it shows you’re just as likely to be happy in the city as in the country.

    Maybe Scratchmann will get a new book deal off all this press.

  4. Willow Hewitt Says:

    I think that most people shouldn’t go to new places. Or at least they shouldn’t be so optimistic when they do.

    Personally, I love the terrible things about new places as much as I love the good things!

    I think he will get a new book deal, but he claimed that he was giving it all up in the Times article. I think it’s a bluff, I reckon he’s already got another deal.

  5. maxdunbar Says:

    I think the mistake is to assume that once you’ve moved to a new place all your troubles will disappear. A therapist would call it: ‘the geographic cure’ and it never works. To quote Milton: ‘The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make a hell of heaven, a heaven of hell…’

    Having said that, some places are easier to make into a heaven than others.

  6. Willow Hewitt Says:

    That Milton sure can turn a phrase!

    I ALWAYS fall for the con of the geographic cure, it’s so tempting to belive in it. And even if it doesnt work then at least it gets me out of the house!

  7. maxdunbar Says:

    Yeah arguably it’s better to be moving around the whole time in search of something that to spend your whole life in a single place you’re not that happy with.

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