I had been studying for my Masters degree at Essex for just a few weeks and was struggling with the idea of liberty. I concluded, straightforwardly, that liberty is, for the most part, associated with being able to ‘do’ something. It implies action. Anthony Burgess depicted Alex, in his book ‘A Clockwork Orange’, as someone who constantly ‘did’ (mostly bad) things and having his liberty taken away effectively stopped him doing these things. To some extent, we see liberty as access, and rapid access, to doing stuff. As a society we expect our food to be fast, the light to come on when we flick a switch, the train to be on time – we do not expect to be kept waiting….at the bust stop, at the traffic lights or at the supermarket check out We complain about the wait at the doctor’s surgery or the airport. It seems the biggest infringement on or everyday liberty is to be ‘kept waiting’.
However, this ‘intolerance’ doesn’t seem to be an innate human characteristic. In some non-western traditions it is not always present. For example, some Native American groups learned to take pleasure in waiting and keeping still as this was necessary when stalking game. Even within our own society people seem prepared or even enjoy waiting; watch practically any group of people fishing for instance.
Our inability as individuals and as a society to linger can be understood as a lack of freedom; we ‘just can’t wait’. Those we work with as part of our practice often seem to demand immediate gratification or satisfaction. We talk about ‘offering opportunities’ or ‘fulfilling needs’ but this has to be done quickly, otherwise we lose attention. Our clients are taken as being likely to make off to locations that are not so tardy in serving up stimulation.
Logic would tell us that waiting is inherent in dialogical situations. I have to wait for you (or you have to wait for me) to finish speaking or even thinking before ‘I put my oar in’ if the dialogue is to be sustained over anything other than a minimal period. It’s perhaps surprising the number of times this does not happen in conversations wherein we are much more concerned about what we have to say than waiting for someone else to say what they want or need to say. We, as a society, appear to have a fear of waiting; we think of it as dead time. Generally it is thought of it as dead time. Waiting, for perhaps most of us, suggests inactivity. But waiting is not an inactive or dead process. At its best it encompasses expectancy and excitement, like waiting for Christmas or a first kiss.
I heard a swooping sound and saw a blur of dull cinnamon just before a set strong pinions whacked my head. I was under attack by a pair of great skewers. These birds have a 1.5 metre (five foot) wingspan and can have very nasty manners. As it dive bombs it utters its war cry; ‘Scare, scare, scare’. In more tender moments it may squat on its nest and sing ‘Woh, woh woh’, there is no sound in the entire avian kingdom more unlovely than the skewer’s affectionate ‘Wohers’ to its mate.
I am a celebrant of remote and outrageous places. I first experienced intimate contact with skewers on Foula Island in the Shetlands in 1987 not long after I had started my studies for a Masters degree at Essex. You probably haven’t heard of this place, few have. It’s the most remote inhabited Island in the United Kingdom. You won’t find it on some maps; it wasn’t on the official Shetland Islands tourist map 20 years ago.
In 1998 I wanted to go back to Foula because I was curious to see what had befallen the Island over the intervening years. But I had another reason; I have a perhaps irrational passion for islands that have fallen off the map.
I flew from Heathrow to Edinburgh, Edinburgh to Wick and Wick to Sunburgh. I took an epic £25 taxi ride from Sunburgh to Tingwall Airport, arriving just in the nick of time to catch my flight to Foula. I entered the waiting room of Tingwall Airport. It would appear to be a rather unassuming place; no bar to which you can retreat and have a pint whilst waiting for your flight, no computer monitors to indicate the status of that flight – it looks a bit like a doctor’s surgery, complete with the scales where the patient is weighed. There was a bit of luggage on the scales at that moment.
The waiting room, I confessed to myself, was austere though it had an unrushed, unhurried, pre-modern quality that I found somewhat appealing. It was the sort of place that seemed designed for waiting. Endlessly waiting; there was nothing there that would seem to indicate that travel was possible.
There was bad news for me; the flight for that day had been cancelled. 1 supposed that I could expect that sort of thing in that part of the world. I decided to spend the evening in the nearby town of Lerwick and try again the next day.
I had been walking around Lerwick, the capital of the Shetlands. I eventually found myself in the Thule bar. It seemed an appropriately named watering hole in which to take a pint. Foula, my destination, is reputed to be the ultimate Thule of legend; the last place in the world, before you fall off the edge and into the gapping mouths of sea monsters.
I looked around and there seemed to be about 35 people quaffing pints around me, just the same number of people who at the time lived on Foula. I’m drawn to places like that, maybe because I was born in the middle of a great big city; London. It is hard to get anymore ‘central’ than London. It is at the centre of a very recent Empire – the biggest the world has ever seen. It is a financial, communications and military centre. It is the link between Europe and America, the 2.5 billion people of the Commonwealth and the rest of the world.
Even as a child, I seemed to want to escape the middle. I would go to the far parameters of our back-yard and sit there and dream of remote places.
As I sipped my own pint and listened to the pop music on the duke box, I felt even more urgently to be on Foula…soon.
I arrived back at the airport the next morning. The flight for Foula was reputed to leave in ten minutes or so, but it didn’t look hopeful. There was this thick fog, like a dropped curtain on a play that was over. There was a bit of drizzle, a bit of mizzle, sort of archetypal North Atlantic weather.
Well, let me describe the airport itself. Rather different to Heathrow or Gatwick. No concessions, no places to change money. Was there place to get something to eat, or buy a newspaper? Nope! I look around me and all I see is a mixture of moor, fog, grassland, and occasional, worm-like, sinewy roads winding through it all like tributaries running down to a lack.
There’s an airstrip, with puddles of rain. Prospects don’t look very good.
An official suddenly appeared; “Right that’s it folks for this morning! In this kind of fog anyway, so that makes the decision that much easier. So I’m afraid it’s going to be this afternoon”.
I asked him what the forecast for the afternoon was, and if a word like ‘forecast’ had any meaning in that part of the world. “The forecast is for things to improve” he said. “The indications are that it should be getting better during the day”. I asked if this forecast was made by the same person who had yesterday forecast that it would be quite good that morning. The man laughed “Eh, Yes”. I commented that it was possible he had got it wrong again.
I tend in my daily life to be a complete, total, driven perfectionist. It makes me an uncomfortable person to have to live with. It makes me uncomfortable to myself at times. How does this relate to travel? Do I tend to want to take perfect trips, to perfect destinations, and sit on perfect sands and have a perfect drink, with a perfect person, under a perfect palm tree? Not at all! Travel absolves me from having to be perfect. It frees me from this terrible burden that was bestowed upon me by well meaning parents.
Others make decisions and I can live with their imperfections in ways that I cannot live with my own. I don’t go to places that others consider perfect. I go to places that are likely to test the perfectionist urge of almost anyone. Places where things tend to go wrong as a matter of course, but when other people make mistakes I don’t find that intolerable; its life and I accept it and even rather like it.
Part of the joy of going to a place like Foula is not getting there. I don’t mean actually not getting there, but the difficulty in getting there. Nowadays, when a piece of corporate plastic can get you to the wilds of New Guinea, the depths of the Amazon (and I’m not talking the on-line book store) or the heart of the Arctic in almost less time than it takes me to finish this sentence (a sentence still going on by the way) going to Foula by air or sea is something that is going to be an imperfect event. The weather will definitely be a factor, it will remind you that however refined modern humanity’s mechanisms of transport are, however sophisticated our technology, that nature itself will have the final word.
I went out for a walk and on my return the waiting room appeared to have filled up a bit. I sit next to a woman, a fellow traveller. I ask her what she thinks about our chances of getting to Foula. She replies that she saw our chances of getting there that day to be pretty thin, she sees it as how life is in those islands. If you don’t get where you want to go today, you might make it tomorrow. She can see no reason to get upset about it; you have to see things that way because that is how it is. You just ‘sit on and hope’. She hopes that the pilot will look out of the window and think, ‘things don’t look too bad – we’ll go’. She said that it’s not like being in a town, champing at the bit for the bus to come, complaining that it was ‘late again’. For her, her island existence is a different world.
I commented that it suggested eternity – a kind of endless timelessness, the fact that nothing might happen. I said that it was almost Zen like, as if going to Foula and not going to Foula was almost the same thing; that the imagination and anticipation of being there, in the absence of actually going, has to constitute the trip.
She replies that when there were only boats, before you could fly to Foula that the Island could be cut off for weeks at a time. They just used to ‘sit on’ till the boat came. And it came eventually – like the plane would. I tell her that if I don’t see her on Foula I will definitely see her there, in the waiting room, later in the day. ‘Yes’ she replies. ‘And again tomorrow morning’, I quip. ‘And maybe tomorrow afternoon’ she retorts. ‘But they don’t work Sunday though…unless necessary’. She makes this last point in a rather disturbing matter of fact way. ‘Well’ I went on, ‘there’s next Monday then. As they don’t work Sunday we can talk about what we did on Sunday, apart from waiting in the waiting room’. ‘True’ she giggled.
While waiting for the pilot’s next report I wandered over to West Voe and back again. There I was, yet again at the Tingwall airport, on the Shetland mainland, waiting in the fog, the mist, the mizzle, the occasional rain, for the plane to take off and go to Foula.
I see the pilot and stroll over to talk to him:
“What’s the prognosis now about travel to Foula” I inquire.
“Well, I regret to say that perhaps I’ve been suckered, looking at down weather. It seemed things were getting a bit better. Looking into the weather now things are certainly worse than before.
“Maybe you’d like to go to the North-East where things appear to be clearer – somewhere other than Foula? I don’t know; I’m still hoping that things will lift. In this part of the world, until you actually see the clearance, you can’t be sure.
“Unfortunately, it’s just frustrating for you and me that we can’t, actually, get airborne at the moment”.
I ask him how he decides when the weather was good enough to fly in. He tells me he rings round the islands and speaks to the locals. They give him an idea of what the weather is like. It isn’t quite people going out looking at their washing, but it’s almost like that as far as the outer islands are concerned. But what folk say is fairly accurate. He says that his decisions are often based on “Unofficial observations.” I’m not comforted.
Once again I’d been unable to fly to Foula. For some reason, this gave me a powerful thirst. I went back to Lerwick to enjoy a few more pints. The lounge of the pub made a lively scene. A veritable cross section of Shetlanders; young and old – people long in the tooth, people with no teeth. The fog of cigarette smoke lingered in the air; it was every bit as thick as the fog that shrouded Tingwall and presumably Foula. Such were bars of that sort in the days before the ‘no-smoking’ legislation kicked-in. But the traditional Shetland music seemed to dispel this fog and I saw clear blue sky and I felt certain that I would be airborne soon.
While I was waiting to find out if there was going to be a flight I thought about how I tend to be a relentlessly backward person. At that time I didn’t own a microwave or a mobile phone. Unlike most men I meet, I’m not interested in how cars work, sound systems or the intricacies of computers. This seems to link with my passion for remote islands.
Mingulay had been wholly devoid of people since 1908. So we went there and Hector said that he would pick me up at six o’clock. I had a Cadbury’s chocolate bar, and some fags (this was during a relatively short period when I had taken up smoking after years of abstinence) and I spent the day drifting around. It’s a very high Island. It has very high sea cliffs, about 700 feet.
At six o’clock I returned to a small prow of a rock and I waited for Hector. Six o’clock, seven o’clock, eight o’clock, nine o’clock; no Hector.
I started to worry a little and at the same time I convinced myself that he had said six o’clock the following morning. So I spent the night there. Six a.m. I sort of jerked awake – 7 a.m., 8 a.m., 9 a.m.; No Hector.
I was alone on this island, about two by three miles. I wandered about for the rest of the day, but never went terribly far from the place where I had been dropped off, because I was convinced that Hector’s boat would appear at any moment. Meanwhile, I was developing rather severe hunger.
The afternoon progressed and at 6 p.m. I went to the rock where I had been dropped off. Thinking well, maybe, in fact, he had meant 6 p.m the following day; 6pm, 7pm, 8pm – still no Hector. By now I felt as if my body was starting to feed off its own inner organs. I was very worried that I had been marooned on this island. It goes back to your childhood. You’re left somewhere by your parents, or you get detached from them. You don’t know if they’ll ever come back. It’s that fear that the world has just left you and you’ll never be found again – this is the fear of waiting. That’s what I was feeling.
I was still casting glances at the place where I expected the boat to be, but I wasn’t hanging out there. Mingulay has been completely taken over by birds. I was now panicky and constantly fearful of having been abandoned in this remote place, for the rest of my life; that I didn’t think might be very long at that point.
Days went by until, early in the morning, I suddenly heard and I believe I also smelled, a primitive diesel engine approaching Mingulay.
It wasn’t Hector in the boat however, it was his nephew. Hector had gone back to West Barra (a bigger Island not far off with the massive population of around 700); he’d had a stroke. He had been removed to the hospital on South Uist and he had been more or less in a coma for days. When he awoke he said, “I’ve left a man on Mingulay!”
The Rocky Isle’
I got my Taxi to Tingwall airport. When I tell the driver I’m headed for Foula he tells me that it’s a place he’d never been, even, though he has spent his entire life in the Shetlands. He calls it ‘The Rocky Isle’. I ask him if he thought the plane would fly. He says ‘keep your fingers crossed’.
The pilot spoke to someone called Ken on the phone. I heard the pilot say ‘It’s gone out again then. Okay. That makes the decision that much easier. It’s got a little bit better than when I spoke to you a little bit earlier, but it’s still not a lot of good here. So, we’ll call it off for this morning then. If you can keep an eye on things and let us know when things get better. Thanks, bye-bye’.
He turned to me and said, ‘I’m afraid that’s it.’
It had been relatively easy for me to visit Foula in 1987. I just climbed aboard the plane and off I went. This time travelling there proved completely impossible. The Island seemed to have cut itself off from me, or the world, or both me and the world. Of course, I was disappointed not to have returned to Foula, but perhaps it is just presumptuous of me to think I can merely hop over to Britain’s most isolated inhabited island whenever I choose to do so. But I’m consoled by the thought that one of the purposes of travel is to avoid your destination at all costs. Once you’re there, you’re there and you’ll never be permitted that long baited breath of anticipation again. And in not getting to Foula I’d seen some perfectly splendid fog, some perfectly splendid cloud cover too. And felt the wind against my skin so often that I dare say that I’d become friends with it. Perhaps I’ll try again next year. I’ll have to wait and see.
To wait, softly, gently, like the woman I met in the airport at Tingwall, is a manifestation of liberty. She was free from the torture of waiting; she had found something in it; an acceptance of what was liberation in an embracing of what was offered by the wait.
Waiting is a window in time out of which one can take the opportunity to look over the world. We can be trapped in time, in our waiting for the lights to change or the next TV programme to come on, or in my case waiting for the I-player to ‘unfreeze’. Or we can be in the world, the reality that exists outside of our manufactured time.
To wait with someone is to be active. Maybe I am most with someone when I wait with them. We share our expectancy, the adventure of the future, from the comfort of the present. In our waiting we look out to the very horizon of consciousness and we are joined in that relief from the unforgiving moment; those who ‘just cannot wait’ are sublimely ‘unfree’.
It may be true that all is lost to those that wait, but ‘fools rush in where angels dare to tread’; the ‘all’ that the angel looses may well be acquired by the fool, but the fool will never know that what they have gained may have meant the loss of just a little bit of their soul.
‘Patience is a virtue’; ‘everything comes to those who wait.’ Everything worthwhile maybe? While I waited on Mingulay I was most acutely aware of being alive and wanting to stay alive. My wait then helps me see the folly of worry about money or cleaning my car. You see, waiting can be a gateway to freedom. Without waiting life is linked up with meaningless ‘doing’; trudging from one thing to another – never actually stopping – perhaps that’s why so many of us have trouble sleeping, or staying asleep for too long.
The place without the chance to wait is a desert of a world, with no seas, no islands, just the blandness of immediacy. We are never hungry, never thirsty, we are constantly sated. Irritations are scratched before they itch; there is no play and no foreplay. We know not what it is to be teased or tantalised, our mouth never waters. Desire is replaced by having and thus we are deprived of the satisfaction that is only had through, after, as a consequence of the act of waiting.
We, as a society are locked in prisons of ‘having’. The guards are those who seek to ‘meet our needs’. The social worker, the health worker, who can make the judgement to act maybe needs also to exercise the judgement to stand-off from time to time; not wait forever, but at least until the other person finishes what they have to say or what they want or need to do.
I often wonder if we can and do ‘help’ too much. In the last seconds of the 1969 film ‘They Shoot Horses Don’t They’ there’s an exchange between one of the main characters and a police officer:
Policeman: Why’d you do it, kid?
Robert: Because she asked me to.
Policeman: Obliging bastard…
Sometimes, I feel a bit like what that policeman called Robert and that waiting is the means to dialogue.
Burgess, A. (1962) A Clockwork Orange, London: Heinemann
McCoy, H. (1940 They Shoot Horses Don’t They, London: Wells, Gardner, Darton & Co Ltd
Film of the book (DVD) 2008, Fremantle Home Entertainment; Dir Sydney Pollack