From Oban, I had been transferred to Campbeltown, and the newspaper that covers the Kintyre peninsula of South West Scotland. Campbeltown is three hours by car from Glasgow, at the very end of a road that is sometimes closed by landslides. Kintyre is an area the size of Greater London, but its population is less than that of the Canary Wharf Tower on an average working day. Nevertheless it is land and history, not glass and steel, and has had its own paper for 150 years.
The paper is based in Kintyre’s main settlement, Campbeltown, which has five thousand people. But it also covers news for all of its other, smaller communities, as well as the islands of Islay, Jura, and Gigha. It was in Carradale, the largest of these smaller settlements, that I found myself, soon after I began the job. I was to find news from this village of 600 souls, and was searching for the man who was our established contact there to help me.
JD lived at the end of one of those curious streets only the French have a name for: a cul de sac. This one seemed particularly ill-named, not off some Parisian boulevard, but above Carradale, on the wild, eastern side of the peninsula. The first time I drove there, a hair-raising half hour along the narrow coastal road from the town, it was specifically to meet JD, who ran the community website. I had never been to Carradale before, didn’t even know that one of the doyennes of Scottish letters, Naomi Mitchison, had lived there for decades until her death in 1999, aged 101.
No one answered when I knocked on the door I thought was JD’s. I started to doubt if I had the right house. There was no phone reception so I couldn’t try his number. It was a grey day in early March with rain in the air. Across the valley, only conifer-clad hillsides; not a soul around. The houses were silent until I walked past next door’s garden and a black dog began barking. I tried a house across the street instead. A wizened old lady opened and peered out. Was JD there? No, son. Sorry. Do you know where he is? He’s at the end house. I went back, tried again, this time even walking round into the back garden. Still no one. I walked in the other direction, away from my car, planning to go back into the village and see if I saw a man with a van who looked like he could be JD.
I hadn’t walked a hundred yards before a rusty white van clattered past me going back the way I’d come. I watched it pull up next to the shed in front of the end house. That was JD.
I immediately liked him, this solid, overall-clad man with salt and pepper hair and a twinkle in his eye. His openness warmed me up. He told me about his past and showed me the inside of the shed where he worked. I had never, before then, seen such a cluttered place as that shed. Machine and engine parts, and the tools to fix them, were piled on top of each other, filling almost every cubic inch in what seemed absolutely haphazard fashion. I couldn’t begin to guess how he would access the things he needed. The shed surely had not been cleared out in decades. But JD seemed unconcerned. He appeared to be the kind of man whom little could faze, a philosophy born out of a lifetime’s experience. He told me he had been a fisherman out of Carradale Harbour in the seventies, stopping that when the fishing declined to become a car mechanic instead. Then, when there were no longer enough people with cars to be fixed to keep him going, he had diversified. Now his business was anything mechanical; and that included plumbing. He was also a volunteer firefighter, and a keen amateur photographer to boot.
After Naomi Mitchison moved to Carradale in 1937, she lived in what everybody called ‘the big house’. To this rambling villa she would attract an every growing stream of literary and artistic pilgrims throughout the rest of the century. She was 38 when she arrived, by then married to the Labour MP, Dick Mitchison, and with three children, to which she would eventually add four more. Her writing career had begun early; her first novel, The Conquered, was published in 1923. She had been a full-time writer ever since. From an aristocratic family of intellectual heritage, she had gone to Oxford to study science, then left to become a nurse in World War One. She would go on to produce over seventy novels, including short stories and children’s books. When she moved to Carradale she was at the height of her modernist period, having turned away from the classical themes that preoccupied her in the twenties. A collaboration with the Vorticist writer and artist, flirter with fascism, and all-round enfant terrible, Wyndham Lewis, reached its peak in ‘35. There is a story from that year written by Mitchison and illustrated by Lewis, called Beyond This Limit. A modernist piece par excellence, the narrator’s trip to Paris morphs into dreamland and ends with her metaphorical heartbreak in the shape of a bird being chased through the British Museum by a gang of Greek Gods, a white horse, and a ticket collector from the Paris Metro. It’s clunky in places, but Beyond This Limit is still a dazzling piece of work. With its theme of ancient myth foiling the gears of the personality-grinding modern machine, it shows a writer at the heart of the European avant-garde. So why, as the continent moved towards implosion, did Mitchison move out to the very edge of it – to Carradale?
In those days, one endeavour dominated the village. In this it was not unique. Villages all round the coast of Scotland had been transformed in the nineteenth century by the arrival of herring, ‘the silver darlings’, and the development in methods to catch them. The preferred way then was ring net fishing, where two boats worked as a pair, one sending the net out and the other taking it up on the other side of the shoal to create a ring. Like its larger neighbour, Campbeltown, Carradale had a strong ring net fishing fleet. As soon as they were old enough, boys would join the boats, often of older family members or friends. Between different boats there was a rivalry, friendly on one level, but on another quite serious. For a boat with five crew that went a week without catching, the married men had wives back in port who would have no money to do their shopping – and might have to rely on credit to keep babies fed. Hit a hot streak and the men would have a hearty bonus to share out – all to be taken home to the wives if they were dutiful – but the temptation to join the unattached crew mates gambling or drinking it away in a night out in Greenock was always a strong one.
I had thought JD’s shed was chaos, but in fact it did not really define the term. Chaos should not be confined to a limited space such as a shed. Like the universe it should refuse all boundaries and interfere with notions of a rational existence.
AO, like JD, had acquired in his time a lot of engines and parts of engines, motors and parts of motors, pipes and parts of pipes; most of which had by now rusted, flaked or corroded their way well past the point of obsolescence. Also like JD, AO was an ex-fisherman, but unlike JD, he had no intention of storing his objects in the privacy of a shed, at the end of a cul de sac, at the top of the village. He was a fisherman, his domain was the harbour, and he would keep his paraphernalia there, come hell or high water.
AO was a provocateur, in the tradition of the French. He even looked like an aging Serge Gainsbourg, with sallow skin and shrewd, hooded eyes. Always individualistic, until ten year ago he was on decent terms with the other villagers and active on the community council. Then something changed. From that point on he dedicated himself to the art of winding up as many people as possible without quite falling foul of the law.
When I spoke to him, finally, he told me his beef was with the people he called ‘white settlers’: incomers to Carradale, many of them English, of late middle age or older. Some of them ran hotels, guest houses, B and Bs. Others – those not retired – did jobs that allowed them to work from home. The greying of Kintyre was happening anyway, as more and more young people moved away, but in Carradale at least, the incomers sped up the process. In 2012, nearly half the village were of pension age; out of a population of 600, the primary school had a roll of less than 20.
AO had been part of the last generation of Carradale youth that had grown up into the fishing, in the fifties and sixties. He and JD went to primary school together. On the community forum, someone has posted a black and white photograph of the children of Carradale Primary in the early fifties. AO, standing to the side of the second row, looks straight at the camera with the trace of a grin still on his face. A lock of his blonde hair curls to one side.
My first meeting with the most active of Carradale’s ageing incomers took place at the village ‘network centre’, where there was a volunteer-run café and a small museum dedicated to preserving Carradale’s past. The centre opened in the 90s and had since grown decrepit, but that day volunteers from the village were cleaning it up. They had submitted an application to create a new mountain bike centre, and had just heard they would be receiving a £30,000 lottery grant to help them do so. I was there to take a photo of the clean-up for the paper.
When I pulled up in the car outside and stepped out, I did not know who to speak to. A florid, balding man in his fifties was walking towards me out of the yard. He looked like he knew what was going on so I smiled and told him I had come to take a photo of the clean-up. Instead of telling me what was going on, he issued a peremptory order to’ ‘go up there,’ without breaking his stride. Later, the same man would go out of his way to tell me the paper was ‘a two minute read’. I gritted my teeth. The others, many of them pensioners, and incomers, were extremely pleasant. But this man set my teeth on edge.
I stopped by JD’s on the way back. His legs were sticking out from under the van. When I told him about the clean-up he muttered darkly that it was ‘fine for them’ to arrange it for a Thursday morning: ‘Some of us have to work. But don’t tell anyone I said that. I don’t want to get in trouble with the Gestapo’.
Wyndham Lewis had made clear his sympathies for fascism in the twenties and early thirties. He was an ultra-individualist, a Neitzchean. Or was he just an angry young man, a provocateur who enjoyed winding up what he saw as the liberal artistic elite of the day? Anyway, by the time he came to Carradale to paint Mitchison in 1938, he had denounced the anti-semitic policies of Hitler. Lewis might have approved of a forceful incarnation of Nietsche’s superman, but he was not a backer of genocide. The boundary between good and evil was about to make itself clear again. But judging by Lewis’ portrait, he saw the artist as outside such paradigms. In the picture, now in the National Gallery of Scotland, Mitchison sits, pencil in hand, glaring out at the viewer, as if angry at being interrupted. A more hostile, individualistic portrayal of the artist it’s hard to imagine. And yet in Carradale, her easy ways with the fishermen, many of whom who would soon go off to war themselves, suggested the opposite. She was, and became ever more so throughout the rest of her life, a communal person: she was interested in how communities develop, what held them together, and what split them apart.
A month after the clean-up I was in Carradale Village Hall for a presentation about the planned mountain bike centre. It was a Wednesday evening in summer and the audience was mostly grey-haired, sat in rows on wooden chairs before the stage. We had each been given an information sheet and a questionnaire as we came in. The presentation was well-organised and modern; there was even a laptop with power point. The woman speaking explained the group’s aim was to create a mountain bike track that would appeal to all, from elite bikers to the elderly and disabled. To this end they had already purchased two electric buggies, in addition to sixteen bikes, with the lottery grant of £30,000. While most in the audience were onside, I noted a small coterie at the back including JD and one of his friends muttering darkly. Phrases like ‘deluded’ and ‘you’ve got to be kidding’ reached my ear. Sitting behind them was the evening’s main guest, a representative from the Forestry Commission, which owned the forested land above the centre where the bike tracks would be. This man was thirty-something, lanky, dressed elegantly in black trousers and waistcoat with a gold watch chain reaching from breast to side pocket. He was balding, but transmitted an air of glowering virility. He uncoiled himself from the small chair he was in, rose to his feet, and strode to the front to face the audience. I realised then who he reminded me of: he was Daniel Day Lewis’ in the film There Will be Blood: the oil tycoon antihero who ends up bludgeoning a preacher to death with a bowling pin. He began telling the Networkers that their plan for a high calibre mountain bike circuit was a pipe dream, a castle in the air. Did they realise, he said, in a tone that was both friendly and menacing, that such tracks cost £5000 per linear metre? Under his words lay the implication: they had not checked their facts; they were time wasters. He thought the whole thing was a farce: they were a gaggle of pensioners trying to build something only young, fit people could use properly, only there were none such people here. And these oldies wanted the Forestry Commission to waste its time on this?
But that was all under the surface. His actual conclusion was, they would be happy to help where they could.
Age. Age and death. There was something significant happening in Carradale, I began to feel, and it centred on this: the natural process of decay, of a cycle coming to an end, of things that once lived and thrived sinking into forgetfulness and decrepitude. But the networkers, incomers mostly, refused to accept it – they wanted to begin a fresh cycle, turn over a new leaf, as if they were not aged themselves, but optimistic settlers in the New World. There was a Pilgrim Fathers feel to Carradale, as if its sleepy harbour was on the eastern seaboard of America circa 1650, not Kintyre 2012. The days when Carradale was defined by its young ring net fishermen were gone. A new future, centred on that strange contradiction of ‘active leisure’ seemed to beckon.
Just one stubborn Old Indian was standing in the way.