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A mixed bag
on 3 February 2014
I'm English and have lived on Orkney with my (Dutch) wife for 12 years now, including Sanday (2002-3), South Ronaldsay (2003-7) and Dounby (2007-). I found this somewhat repetitive and depressing book funny in places, but disappointing on a number of levels. I borrowed it from a friend and would not have bought it.
Firstly, the way Max treats various people who helped and in many cases befriended or even loved him is simply deplorable. Treachery is never an attractive trait.
The author doesn't seem to realise that he actually had a pretty good time economically - good jobs seem to have fortuitously appeared whenever he needed them and his own business flourished. He chose to live in an isolated cottage - albeit one a short walk from a decent sized village with an hourly bus service into both towns.
There are numerous factual inaccuracies in the book. He describes Orkney farmland as "arable" (it's mostly pasture and almost all the crops here are grown for animal feed and bedding), talks about "corn" (only barley is grown here) and explains that the blockships were sunk to protect the Churchill barriers from being torpedoed (they were put in place to stop U-boats prior to the barriers, their permanent replacements, being built. The idea that a German torpedo could significantly damage one of the barriers is laughable).
More worrying are some of his descriptions of infrastructure on the islands which could potentially put people off visiting or moving here. We're told that the Kirkwall to Stromness route is served by a rickety old bus driven by the one full-time bus driver on the islands - there are many very modern buses and he certainly was not the only full-time bus driver by 2003. Were Mr. Scratchmann still living here he would find he could have the West Mainland "Octobus" pick him up from his front door. When it comes to transport difficulties, he describes the terror of crossing the barriers - his car being hit by wave thrown seaweed as it crossed. I had to commute across those barriers twice a day for three years and my car was hit by seaweed precisely once in all that time. I was prevented from getting in to work on time about once or twice a year. One of his first trips out in the post van was blocked by a 10 ft snowdrift which a JCB miraculously managed to clear in a couple of bucketloads (that must have been quite a digger!). In Eight years of commuting from the Hope and Dounby I was never stopped from getting in to work by snow and I have never seen a drift deeper than about three feet deep anywhere in Orkney.
Then we come to the paucity of fresh or interesting food in Orkney and the horror of Cummings and Spence closing down. He may have been unaware that William Shearer soon took up the slack and offers an amazing array of specialist foods in their wonderful emporium. We also have a huge, very well-stocked Tesco store that's open until midnight - unfortunately it doesn't fit Mr. Scratchmann's sole criterion for civilisation - being able to shop for CDs and at 3 am (something he could easily have done on amazon.co.uk). It is implied that weather also cuts us off from fresh food for protracted periods - this simply doesn't happen. In any case, Tesco chartered a Norwegian Lockheed C-130 Hercules to fly supplies into Shetland on a rare occasion that they were cut off.
The book might have been funnier if it wasn't for the all-pervading smugness of the "university educated" Mr. Scratchmann. The numerous artistic and literary references included in his (sometimes witty) observations are doubtless intended for his fellow cognoscenti and, I suspect, give away the intended audience of this book.
That said, Mr. Scratchmann does give a bit of a flavour of island life that rings true and that alone makes me feel it deserves two stars - it's just a shame he had to stitch up so many former friends in doing so.