Monthly Archives: May 2013

First, catch your puffin

I’ve been reading about the diet of the St Kilda islanders, which was apparently very successful for many years, though I have to admit I don’t fancy it myself (because I am an unreasonable conservative who thinks puffins and fulmars are cute (*)).

St Kilda

Hirta, the main island of St Kilda

Just a little background: St Kilda’s a small archipelago off the coast of Scotland with one inhabitable island, Hirta. It’s quite a long way off the coast as these things go (40 miles from Uist on Lewis) and was inhabited from prehistory until 1930, when the few remaining residents decided to leave.

So, apparently one of the reasons St Kilda was inhabited for so long was the diet of the islanders, which for many years consisted of sea birds (apparently fish were less interesting because they weren’t as fatty and filling). And it probably wasn’t a good idea to be a sea bird on St Kilda — in1696, the islanders had a poor year and consumed only 22,600 gannets (113 each).

People kept big piles of boned and rolled gannets, just waiting to be eaten, in their cleits (stone-built storage houses).

But — excellent news for the gannet — by the mid 18thC people had started eating fulmars instead. Visitors apparently reported that young fulmar was delicious roasted — like a cross between pork and chicken. You had to soak them first, though, or they tasted really strongly of fish.

But the highlight — the puffin, which sounds like a form of island toast. The best way, apparently, was to split the carcass down the back and opened it flat like a kipper (a weird image right there).  Then, you propped in front of the hearth and grilled it in front of the fire. Reading that makes me wonder what it smelled like when you visited someone’s house and they were toasting a puffin.


And if puffin was toast, the butter was the fat of young gannets, which was used as condiment and eaten with everything. Mmmm.

(I’m being silly but actually I’ve also been reading recently about how hugely healthy animal fat is. Admittedly my sources might be hideously wrong since they’re people on the internet, but there does seem to be some interest in animal fat being good for you — and not messing around with your blood sugar in the same way as the modern low fat diet is supposed to. So perhaps the diet was much better than it sounds).

source: Charles MacLean St Kilda — Island on the Edge of the World first pub 1972, my ver pub 1992.

(*) I also think lambs are cute. I am aware that my thinking on this is not very coherent, or rational.

Resistance may be futile, resistenz tends not to be

When I was a young thing, I studied history — modern history, with guns and cigarettes and revolutions, not the sort with knights and kings.

I was fascinated by the thought — the insanely seductive idea — that if you found the Truth, you could build Lenina perfect world, and if you knew you’d found the truth — as the Bolsheviks knew with absolute certainty,(*) then you could, should, do anything to ensure that idea spread across the world — because how can you justify sacrificing the future happiness of millions to protect a few people now?

I didn’t believe it, but I was caught by the certainty and simplicity of that idea and by the appalling things people would do in its name. This isn’t a rant about fundamentalism — political, religious, or economic — which I find fascinating and terrifying and alien, it’s a meander on an idea I encountered while I was reading about those big brave murderous societies that flourished in the early Twentieth Century, resistenz.

The term has a (semi-)respectable pedigree from historians of Nazi Germany (especially Martin Broszat) but it has wider relevance — the idea is that because totalitarian regimes want to control everything people do (and think), from the music they listen to, to the art they appreciate, to the way they interact with their neighbours, refusing to obey any of these demands counts towards undermining the ambitions of the regime. So, while “resistance” takes place at a visible, public level and is consciously directed at resisting a regime, resistenz is more about what people just get on and do — about maintaining life despite the regime. So, resistenz, I suppose, is a problem when seen from the perspective of the regime, rather than necessarily a deliberate effort to resist it.


Does that make sense? As an example, whenever I see a path trodden into the grass, which has clearly made by people who aren’t prepared to be directed by the existing paths, it reminds me of resistenz. I like the concept because it’s about people and it weakens the idea that in a totalitarian society people somehow became cardboard cutouts crushed flat by the ambitions and ideas of those in charge.

Totalitarian regimes needed support — they needed people to work and fight and, more passively, to ignore the persecution of others. Those who didn’t work very hard or who failed to fire their gun, those who did their best to protect their neighbours, may not have been resisting in big shiny public ways, but they were damaging to the ambitions of such regimes nonetheless.

(*) Except Bukharin and people like him, and see what happened to them.

Sports Day thorts

Today was my six-year-old’s first school sports day. He wasn’t hugely keen to go — I could tell (maternal instinct, you know) when he wouldn’t get out of bed this morning and, from beneath the duvet, asked if he had to go to school. It made matters worse, weirdly, that his best friend was wildly, massively keen and — I heard — insisted on getting up earlier than usual and wearing proper sports clothes.

Anyway, here’s the Bad Mother confession: when he told me he didn’t like sports because he couldn’t run as fast as the other kids, I believed him. I wasn’t sure he really needed to go to school and be made miserable by coming in last all the time. Though, of course, I did lip-service to “We can’t all be good at everything”/ “It’s the taking part that counts!” (that one has to be accompanied by a crazed grin to be fully effective), I was kind of sad.

Which goes to show that one can’t always trust a six-year-old’s perceptions and, even less, mine. He’s not slower than all the other kids and, more importantly, he had a fabulous time. He spent the whole morning chatting to the other children in his team (not paying attention to the instructions, which tended to become obvious in the middle of races) and they banded together to rescue the earth worms that were coming out of the wet ground to investigate. He almost came to blows with an older girl who was trying to stamp on them.

So, I’m really glad I went. I’m really glad he did. If he’d taken his hands out of his pockets during the races, he might have run a bit faster, but it really, really (bizarrely) was the taking part that counted — and the way he took part was brilliant.

I appreciate I am dangerously close to donning a smock made of pure, organic goat wool and singing about all children being precious individual flowers blooming in their own special way, so I’ll stop, now, before I do something I regret (goats’ wool is so itchy).