A hole in the ground

19Apr09

firstbombLast Monday, I learned something that I had not known before. I learned it – believe it or not – while visiting a shed on a remote island, almost 1000km north of London in the North Sea. 

The shed belonged to an artist living on the island of Bressay, eight minutes or so across the sea by ferry from Lerwick, the main town in Shetland – an archipelago of wind-swept islands off the north-east coast of Scotland. This is a place remarkable for its complete lack of trees and legendary knitwear. On outlying islands, communities numbering in their tens live their lives at the mercy of the elements. This is also the only place I have ever visited where corpulent, grey seals gather and laze around on rocks around the back of Tescos and where the roadsigns proclaim “Otters crossing”.

Arlette – a friend who also coincidentally happened to be visiting Shetland from London – had called me that morning and told me we were going to visit an artist. As we made the short ferry crossing, I asked her how she knew him. She said, “I don’t”. She had discovered this particular character by looking up “Artists” in the Shetland directory. She had telephoned, told the chap’s wife that we were interested in coming to visit artists and – Shetland people being what they are – received a warm invitation for us to visit.

So, after returning home from the fish factory where he spends his working days, Dougie – for that was the artist’s name – took me to the shed where he works to show me his paintings. Most of the work consisted of well-executed, realistic paintings of local scenes – boats anchored in the harbour, seagulls perched on posts, the quaint, white painted facades of houses rising up from the dock side. Then one of Dougie’s paintings particularly caught my eye. It was a surrealist fantasy in the manner of Salvador Dali that, on first glance, replicated the Catalan painter’s familiar, trademark beach scattered with oddly juxtaposed objects and figures. Then, with closer inspection and intense enthusiasm, Dougie pointed out to me that each of the items on the beach had some resonance to Shetland’s history or peoples.

One image in particular struck me as particularly strange – it was of a well-dressed chap in black cap, suit and tie standing, most unusually, in a crater. What was its significance, I enquired of the painter. This is what I learned: Although there was no intensive bombing of Britain by the German airforce in the early months of the Second World War, the very first bomb dropped on the British Isles during the Second World War landed on Shetland. As I understood it from Dougie, the then mayor instructed his chauffeur to drive him to see the crater and then asked the loyal servant to stand in it, to demonstrate to one and all – and a local photographer – its size. This image has become an iconic image of Shetland’s history, which was why Dougie had included it in his surrealistic beach scene.

The particular surrealism of the incident in itself made the image and its use in Dougie’s painting very compelling. This was the last place I would have expected a German bomb to be dropped. And that image of the proud and patriotic chauffeur standing in a gaping hole in the ground, while a bearded crofter looks on in his flat cap and shabby jacket, is almost Pythonesque in its absurdity. There’s something wonderfully stoic about the chauffeur’s posture. I’m not sure what he’s got in his hand – it looks like a gingerbread man! I can imagine him saying, “Jerry hit oor island but he didna destroy oor confectionary”.

I think this is possibly the story of Shetland: its original Pictish settlers conquered by the Vikings, the colonisation by Norwegians, the arrival of Christianity and the islands being pawned to the Scots – and through it all, survived a hardy people whose doors – and artist’s studios – are always open to strangers, warm, welcoming, a little amused by life’s absurdities.

“I like to visit artists,” I told Dougie, “whenever I travel places.”

“Och, I hope your not disappointed, coming all this way,” he said earnestly, gesturing to his own paintings, “But you’re welcome to come back anytime.”

“Not at all,” I replied. “It was very kind of you to let me see them.” Certainly, I won’t quickly forget the memorable image of an unlikely hole in the ground.

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2 Responses to “A hole in the ground”

  1. This brings back memories of ten years living in Shetland in the 1970s and early 80s. Shetland open-door hospitality is legendary and took some getting used to. When we left Shetland it was difficult to reaccustom ourselves to locking doors and answering door bells!

    Shetland rocks! (Well, it is mostly rock).

  2. 2 Matthew Edwards

    Having had the wonderful opportunity to have been a Bahá’í living in Lerwick between 1986 and 1994 I was especially interested in your picture here because rather remarkably I had come to this blog by way of your memorial to Lady Blomfield who I learnt from your article passed away on the last day of 1939 which is seventy years ago just before “The Chosen Highway” was published. Just now the BBC is reminding us of the outbreak of the second world war seventy years ago and your picture would have been taken in the early months of the second world war. I think it was while I lived in Shetland that I was told that it was this event that inspired the RUN RABBIT RUN wartime 1940s song.


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