Monday, 30 August 2010
Through a smirr of icy rain, there could be no sight more poignant than this abandoned village. A bumpy track rises parallel to the shore, and on one side, a row of cottages looks out to sea. A handful have been restored, but most have been left to the elements, and have been torn apart by the almost ceaseless gales. Humanity though is still defiant and inside each ruin, a stone slate, positioned in the fireplace, tells its story.
At No 8, the stone reads: “1930 Empty. Formerly Callum MacDonald ‘Old Blind Callum’.” A little beyond, inside the ruins of No 15, is the home once shared by John Gillies Jr and Annie Gillies, known, apparently, as the “Queen of St Kilda”. A third house has a simple round pebble inscribed: “Flora Gillies”.
This is Main Street, St Kilda, 80 years to the day that the island’s resident population was evacuated on HMS Harebell, and removed from its punishing life on the most exposed outcrop of the British Isles. For at least 4,000 years, people had eked out their lives here, dining on the oats they grew, and the seabirds they plucked from the cliffs, until their unique brand of “sustainable” living finally became unsustainable and they were forced to quit.
Three generations later, the island’s owners the National Trust for Scotland, strike rather a different pose. St Kilda is one of around 20 places on Earth to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site both for cultural and for natural reasons. Its importance can hardly be understated, says Dick Balharry, the naturalist who chairs the Trust, but the cost of maintaining the site is high, and every last ounce of publicity helps.
To that end, a German TV crew has this morning anchored its yacht in Village Bay, joining the BBC team that arrived last night. The islanders latest residents, contractors who man St Kilda’s weapons testing station, and keep its 1950s army barracks running, look on at the launching of a replica of the island’s mail boat, pleased to share the island’s story with their visitors.
In truth, St Kilda’s history speaks for itself if you make the steep ascent to the Gap, the little dip on the ridge between Oiseval and Conachair, at 430m St Kilda’s highest point. The village – whose population never passed 180 - is wrapped beneath this vast amphitheatre, and its is easy to pick out the semi circle of verdant green where the community grew barley, oats and potatoes, and husbanded their cattle. The descendents of the islanders’ sheep are scattered out over mountainside, running wild.
Above the Gap, is Conachair itself. At the summit, the fiercest winds reach 170 knots – or 200mph. Beneath, sheer rock tumbles into the sea, the highest cliffs in Britain. It is scarcely credible, but here, every summer, St Kildan men, roped together, and carrying long sticks with nooses attached, defied death (though not always) to snare thousands of fulmars; or took their boats over the treacherous sea to Boreray island and trapped gugas – young gannets – for the pot.
The carcasses of these birds were stripped of their feathers, the birds split down their backs, and the meat either eaten straight away, or, in most cases, salted and stored away in the hundreds of stone cleiten – sheds of stone and turf, that are still scattered all over the island, even on steepest hillsides.
In the end, modernity crushed the St Kildans. When the first tourist steamer arrived in 1838, the islanders, alarmed by the smoke rising from the funnel, went running to the manse to tell the church minister that a ship was on fire.
They soon grew accustomed to the summer trade. Tourism brought money, and an acquaintance with non-perishable foods, medicines and fuel, consumable that became almost essential, as grinding poverty slowly cleared the island of its youngest and fittest inhabitants. The Royal Navy set up a post during the First World War, and the clearance accelerated; when the forces left after the war, a quarter of the remaining St Kildan population followed them off the island.
Unlike the former inhabitants, today’s residents have mastered the art of modern living. In 1957, when the trust bought the island, it allowed the Ministry of Defence to take up residency. Though the army and navy quit in 1998, their ugly barracks block is occupied by the26 contractors who man the weapons station, and keep the electricity working.
Now, their lives too may change. Their biggest customer is the British government. The Strategic Defence Review will inevitably cut forces spending, and could quite conceivably put paid to this latest community. What then for St Kilda? Would the barracks block be ripped up, and St Kilda returned to nature?
Not necessarily, says Mr Balharry. St Kilda is a world resource. The mysteries of its Neolithic and Viking past remain uncovered; so does its marine environment and its the dynamics of its unique bird life. Even its sheep are the subject of detailed scientific study. In Mr Balharry’s mind’s eye he sees an international research station here, funded by agencies from all around the world.
But as he descends from the Gap, that notion remains a distant dream. Beneath the vastness of the mountain, he demands: “How have you enjoyed your first morning on St Kilda? Once seen never forgotten. It is magnificent, isn’t it?” And it is.
Photographs by James Glossop.
Monday, 23 August 2010
This week – with violence casting a long shadow in North Ireland – the two men will take to a stage in Britain for the first time, in an extraordinary act of public reconciliation, to discuss the devastating moment that has shaped their lives and to promote their message of peace.
Both men - Richard Moore, 49, the victim, and Charles Inness, 68, the solider who fired the gun – have spoken to The Times about their memories of this most traumatic of incidents, and how it changed their lives. Their vivid, affecting, but very different accounts are printed here.
For Mr Moore, his sudden blindness was a catastrophe, but from an early age his astonishing lack of bitterness and self pity, and his determination to lead a full life were obvious. He completed school and went on graduate from the University of Ulster.
With £68,000 in compensation he established himself as a successful businessman, then, in 1996, founded Children in Crossfire, a charity dedicated to helping children caught up in poverty and the threat of war.
Mr Inness remained in the army, and returned to North Ireland to work closely with the Royal Ulster Constabulary. He left the forces in 1993, and eventually retied to the Scottish Borders, with his wife Louise.
But despite his years of service a single day in 1972 continued cast a long shadow: “Occasionally one remembered Northern Ireland and thought: ‘O my God, had I have the gift of foresight, I would not have done what I did and fired a rubber bullet,” he said.
As the tenth anniversary of Children in Crossfire loomed, events conspired to bring Mr Moore and Mr Inness together. A documentary maker put them in touch, and they met for the first time, in Edinburgh in 2006.
They have remained firm friends, regularly staying in with each other’s homes, and with one another’s families. On Friday, they will appear at Edinburgh’s Festival of Spirituality and Peace.
Victor Spence, the festival director said the men’s story was almost overwhelming in its intensity. “These two men provide outstanding examples of the power of forgiveness,” said Mr Spence. “Years ago, I heard Richard speak about his own experiences and was brought to tears. To see both men together at our festival will be a moving and memorable experience.”
Richard Moore's testimony
It was 4 May 1972, four months after Bloody Sunday. It was in Derry, and I lived on the Creggan Estate. Nowadays we tend to forget the environment that existed then.
This was a no-go area. - the British Army and the police were not allowed in. The place was barricaded off. There were riots, shootings, bombings on a daily basis. I remember watching cars in flames and CS gas shooting across the sky. Our house, was a 30-second walk from the houses of four of the people killed on Bloody Sunday. One was my uncle Gerard, my mammy’s brother. That is the context.
I went to Rosemount Primary School. It was on the edge of the Creggan. Both the primary and secondary schools were next to each other and beside them was an RUC police barracks, heavily protected by the British army.
The barracks had sangars – look-out posts – and one of these things was built between a row of houses, facing out onto the football of St Joseph's secondary school. On that day, I got out of school as normal at 3:20 and ran up by the football pitch. I had to pass that sangar as I had on many occasions.
On this particular day, I ran past and a British soldier fired a rubber bullet. I don’t remember hearing a bang. The next thing I knew was waking up in the school canteen. My music teacher, Mr Doherty, had found me lying on the ground. He carried me into the canteen and laid me out on the table. I remember him asking my name. I told him: 'Richard Moore'. He got a shock, because he was my teacher, and he wasn’t able to recognise me. My nose was completely flattened, my eyeballs were down on my cheekbones and my face was just a bloody mess.
The next time I awoke, I was in an ambulance. My daddy and my sister were beside me. My daddy was holding my hand. I remember him saying: 'You'll be OK, Richard.’ One of the ambulance people said, 'There's a woman outside, she's very upset - will we let her in?' He said: 'Don’t let her in, it's his mother.' He didn't want her seeing me in the state I was in.
When I eventually came to, all my conversations were about getting the bandages off my eyes. I loved playing football - there was a boy in the bed opposite and I remember joking with him: 'I can't wait to get these bandages off - I'll teach you how to play football.' That must have been very difficult for my parents and my brothers and sisters.
A month after I was shot, my brother Noel took for a walk up and down the back garden. That wasn’t unusual, because every day he would take me out to help build up my strength. But on this particular day he said: 'Do you know what's happened to you?' I said, 'Yes, I know I was shot.' He said: ' Do you know what damage was done?' I said, 'No.' He said: 'You've lost your right eye and you'll never see again with your left eye.'
There were no dramatics that day. The only time I remember crying was that night when I went to bed. I was a ten year old boy. I wasn't thinking about getting a job, or about getting an education. All I felt was this enormous sense of loss that I would never see my parents again. I was on my own and I cried myself to sleep.
The next day, I woke up and it was the first day of the rest of my life as a blind person. I wanted to be independent, I didn't want people to feel sorry for me. I didn't want to go to a school for blind children. I went back into primary school on to St Joseph's Secondary. Then I went to university and graduated in 1983. I learnt the guitar and played in a semi-professional band and travelled all over Ireland.
I didn't have a moment's anger or bitterness for what happened to me and I always wanted to meet the soldier who shot me. The reason for my attitude was my parents. Despite their best efforts to avoid the Troubles, the Troubles found us and they had to deal with the magnitude of it. They were just poor people dealing with the most difficult situation: watching their son who one day had been out kicking a football and racing and running and climbing over hedges – then, weeks later, walking into half open doors and groping his way round the walls. In the middle of that the only thing I can remember is their hurt. There was never anger. When I talk about forgiveness, it came from them in a very implicit way.
Thirty thee years later, someone asked to make a documentary and I found out the name of the soldier. I flew to Edinburgh and we met in a hotel foyer on 14 January 2006.
The build up was very emotional for me, and I never thought it would be like that. I remember the day before I met Charles, I went to my daddy’s grave and said to him, ‘Look – I hope you are happy with what I’m doing.’ Then I went to see my mother. I said: ‘I am going to meet the soldier tomorrow – what do you think?’ She said: ‘Are you alright about it?’ I said I was. She said, ‘Well Richard if you’re happy, I am happy.’
Finally, to sit there in the hotel, opposite the guy who blinded you and caused so much hurt to your family and to like him, was an incredible experience.
I won’t justify violence, I’m not justifying violence. But sometimes in a violent situation things happen that shouldn’t happen. For me – I can't speak for any other victim – that is the way I have let it go. Whether I hate or love, I won’t get my sight back. Charles is not a bad person. I believe he is someone in a situation where he acted incorrectly and unjustifiably and I bear the consequences. I have to allow him the space to say what he has to say, as long as he allows me the space to speak too. We may not agree – but we can agree to move forward. I forgive Charles.
Charles Inness's testimony
We were sent to Londonderry. I was a captain, given the dubious task of running Rosemount RUC Station. It was a red-rag-to-a-bull situation. We were in a hard line Catholic area, and positioning a police post there attracted every bit of violence that could possibly be thrown at it. The norm was anything from bombing, nail-bombing and shooting, to much lower level violence, rioting, stone throwing , petrol bombing. Almost on a nightly basis we were shot at. Not long before the incident with Richard, two soldiers from my own battery were killed, blown to pieces by a remotely-detonated bomb.
Rosemount police post had a number sangars –manned, sandbagged structures, from which personnel could observe outwards and sideways, and maintain the integrity of the base. It was essential that the sangars were manned, the people were alert, and they were fully aware of what the procedures were, in the event of them seeing something abnormal or being shot at.
On that day, I was called to the sangar and it was pointed out to me by the poor lad inside it, the sort of aggro that had been going on hours – not continual but the coming and going of youths, chucking stones. At one stage they had got hold of a scaffolding pole and they were trying to skewer the guy inside with it.
The choices you had were pretty simple. You had a fire arm and a thing called a rubber bullet gun. A rubber-bullet gun was relatively short-barrelled bit of kit – about 20in long and an inch and a half wide. It was smooth bore, a low charge propelling, literally, a rubber bullet. It is a black piece of rubber about six inches long, conical at the sharp end, blunt at the back. In the time I was there – a six-month period – we used these as a means of trying to disperse low-level violence and fired hundreds with very few effects.
In those days, the procedure was that you most certainly would not go out of the defended area. Because the game was very simple. The youths would throw stones, and cause aggro, a soldier would expose himself by remonstrating with them. Then a chap with a telescopic rifle who would promptly shoot dead the solider. Under no circumstances would I let anyone go out; one merely shouted through an observation slot to get people to disperse. That usually resulted in more shouting and more stones thrown.
On this occasion, I took the appropriate action at that time – which was to fire a rubber bullet, with a view to getting a group to disperse. One of them went down and the rest did disperse. Very shortly afterwards, people came and took the individual away, who had been lying on the ground. Soon we heard some shooting and that incident passed. I didn’t give it much thought.
The next thing, the following morning, I was rung up by my CO, who said the individual who had been hit by the rubber bullet had damn near been killed. He would be very lucky to survive. My immediate feeling was one of absolute and total shock. I thought: ‘How the hell did that happen?’ Obviously, I was devastated.
There was an RUC police inquiry into the incident and a military police inquiry. The upshot was the action I had taken was justifiable and absolutely in line with the procedures at the time, though the outcome was simply horrific. That was a point I totally agreed with.
Over a period of time, the shock of it went, because I am pretty robust and there were many other grisly things going on. It was an unpleasant incident to try to put behind me, and obviously, the sadness and regret stayed with me. Occasionally one remembered Northern Ireland and thought: ‘O my God, had I have the gift of foresight, I would not have done what I did and fired a rubber bullet.’
Many years later, five years ago, I was rung at home by a chap who was ex-RUC. He said: ‘If I said the name Richard Moore to you, would it ring a bell?’ I said: ‘It most certainly would’. He then said, ‘Can I come and talk to you?’
So this guy appeared and gave me a bit of background: that despite his appalling injuries, his total blindness, Richard had managed to get himself back to school, had gone to a good university, had become pretty successful. He had established this wonderful organisation, Children in Crossfire. The guy then said, ‘Richard has got a letter for you – would you like to take it?’ I said, ‘Yes, give me the letter.’ It was absolutely brilliant: there was no acrimony in it, no feeling of hatred. It was astonishingly positive. I took a bit of time to couch a reply – I didn’t think me reply was as good as his letter – but the upshot was that we agreed to meet in an hotel in Edinburgh.
What a day. I walked in and he was sitting in a chair. I walked up and tapped him on the shoulder, and said: ‘Hi Richard, it’s Charles.’ He got up and shook my hand. The next four hours went by like they were a matter of a few minutes. We talked, we chatted, we laughed, we told jokes, we talked about our families. We talked about everything under the sun. We had a damn good lunch, and a bottle of wine. It was the beginning of a great friendship.
I took Richard back to the airport and passed him over to the escort who was going to take him down to the plane. Richard later said to his escort: ‘That man you saw me laughing with – that was the man who blinded me.’ The guy thought he was completely barking mad.
Tuesday, 10 August 2010
As she assembled tales like these, McWilliam found the humour, the shafts of light, that must have lightened her darkest moods. Then, after an article about her physical blindness was published in The Times in 2008, she was recommended to a surgeon who had developed a treatment for blepharospasm. Within a matter of weeks, she began the painful, invasive surgery which literally pulled her eyes open for ever more. At the end of What to Look for In Winter the light is pouring in.
McWilliam, still just 55, has led a life of extraordinary richness, that for all her self-destructiveness, remains full of love. The final page of the book movingly acknowledges those people who have been closest and cared for her most. It concludes with a line from Milton, blind and mourning his dead wife: “I wak’d, she fled, and day brought back my night.” For a sardonic introvert, this counts as a happy ending.
Sunday, 1 August 2010
A small, dark-haired woman is staggering across departures at New York’s JFK airport, weighed down by a couple of suitcases and a backpack. She has travelled 2,500 miles, but has an ocean to cross before she can even begin to contemplate her new life of stardom. To help her on her way, she has stowed 1,000 needles among her luggage.
Meet Olivia Rhee, the still not-very-famous “singing acupuncturist” en route to the Edinburgh fringe. Brimful of hope, this morning when she sets foot on British soil for the first time, Rhee will join thousands of others whose greatest desire is to find stardom over the weeks ahead.
It is easy to be cynical about the Fringe, all those slick comedy promoters and TV executives who fill up the city; the student luvvies so roaringly drunk for the first time in the their lives. But among the 21,000 performers who arrive, there are hundreds of dreamers who woke up one morning, and took the miraculous decision to abandon their job, or sell their house, or leave their partner – or any combination of the above – to prepare for their shot at fame in Edinburgh.
Rhee, 42, is one of that fearless breed. “I am so much closer to my dream now I am a performer,” she says cheerily, ahead of her second long-haul flight. “Every step further along makes me a little bit happier. Just having the opportunity makes me smile. I am on my way.”
In any other August, she would be working acupuncture clinic, founded in 1975 by Hak, her father, when he moved his family from Seoul, South Korea to Las Vegas. But while Rhee studied hard to become a qualified doctor of oriental medicine, her career has never quite been enough to douse that needling desire to enjoy the limelight.
Her Edinburgh debut is a mixture of stories and poetry, song and dance, but for all that, Adventures of a Singing Acupuncturist, ironically enough, might see a little pointless. Nothing of the sort, retorts Rhee, who has been rehearsing in New York for a week.
“I know four guitar chords, I can play the congas,” she says. “And I do have feet. I can’t really call myself a dancer, but I do a kind of freestyle. People look at me and point. There is a unique quality to it.”
If Rhee has all the optimism of the Fringe virgin, Lynn Ruth Miller, 78, is a grizzled veteran by comparison.
Professor Miller - in an earlier life she held the chair of humanities at the University of Toledo – had never performed on stage until her Edinburgh debut five years ago. This year, she flies in from San Francisco with a portfolio of shows and turns, including her unique rendition of that Sex Pistols classic, Anarchy in the UK, which ends with her throwing brassieres into the audience. Sid Vicious would have approved.
But the performance to capture Edinburgh’s heart is Ageing is Amazing, her one-woman burlesque that celebrates the sagging glories of senior citizenship. Conforming in almost every degree to Sam Goldwyn’s dictum: “Start with an earthquake, and build up to a climax”: it opens to the tune of the Strip Polka as Miller slowly undresses.
“If my mother knew I would be stepping out with tassels on my nipples, she would be spinning in her grave,” chuckles Miller, who has worked her way through two husbands (“both my own”). What on earth makes her stand up in a room full of strangers and disrobe? She has no hesitation. This is all about love.
“I go to Edinburgh, I make people laugh, and they stand and cheer,” says Miller. “It is as good as any orgasm. This is approval and love beyond anything I have ever had. In San Francisco I am an old lady; in Edinburgh I am something.”
Peter Buckley Hill promotes the Free Fringe - a roster of over 300 shows with no admission charges – and sees more hopeful and hopeless acts than most. Very few of the dreamers will fulfil their expectations, he warns.
“The fringe is entirely fuelled, and financed, by performers backing their dreams – the wastage rate is high. People do succeed, but only by working hard at what they do all the year round. It takes a lot of effort to make your performance sound effortless.
“The overwhelming majority go away disappointed. Either they don't know how small the fringe audiences are, or they believe against all logic that the world will beat a path to their door. If you're a leaf, even quite a good leaf, you go to the forest if you want to hide, not if you want to stand out.”
After years of effort, some, a tiny handful, come into this year’s festival with a sliver of a chance, that finally the breakthrough will come, the reward for so impetuously leaving a former life behind.
Kate Smurthwaite, 34, was head of strategy for a hedge fund, who gave up finance six years ago to become a full-time stand up. Jools Constant, watched his marriage collapse and threw away a successful building business, employing 12 people, as he set about turning himself into comedy performer and writer.
“It has given me a new life. For the first time I feel ‘this is where I should be,” says Constant, 42, who lives in a single room, somewhere in central London. “I made a clear-headed decision to lead a life where I expressed myself, and which was rewarding. I found it among people that I like and respect.”
Smurthwaite, like Constant, she has acquired a healthy audience on the London stand-up scene. She has no regrets about swapping the dreary world of finance for the adrenaline rush of performance.
“I went back to my old job for a while – just three months,” she recalls. “After a couple of day, I was thinking, ‘This is just so not me’. I’d found stand-up, and was so thrilled and happy to be doing it. It’s strange to look back and think, ‘Why did I put up with a job I hated so much for so long?’ You’re young I suppose, and you have to be earning money. Instead of doing something that actually inspires you.”
Others are less sanguine. Like Rhee, Danny Hurst, from London, has turned his own life into art, and brings a comedy drama, I Was a Teenage Rentboy to the Fringe. It really is based on his own life story, the grubby assignations and the street-walking that funded him through college.
“It’s more cheerful than an average episode of EastEnders,” he says diffidently. “I’m not looking for stardom – all I want to do is make a living as a performer.”
And that is true of all these magical self-made artists. Each one craves wider recognition of the strange new talent they’ve discovered in themselves. Miller has set her sights on appearing on a big comedy club bill. Smurthwaite and Constant would love television to come calling.
And Rhee? In her mind’s eye, she is already hosting a TV chat show, the kind of thing that gets syndicated around the world. Like Ellen Degeneres?
“Yeah, I’d see it as a bit like Ellen. With good guests to talk to and some nice songs.” And acupuncture? “O yeah. And acupuncture.” It’s the stuff of dreams.
Comrades, this is from beyond the pay wall. It ran in the national edition of The Times, last Friday. Lynn Ruth, if you're reading this - that's about half a million readers.