I’ve had two killer whale experiences in my life – the first was with my dad in his boat and was both close and really quite scary. The whales were about 20 yards away and eyeing me up like I was a seal. Second time around I had spent a week driving around Shetland with a friend reassuring him all the time that it was quite likely that we would see them but... finally we did see them, in his last hour before catching the ferry south we were walking through town to get a coffee when we picked up on a ripple of excitement near the harbour wall. Killer whales swimming through town, not more than 100 yards from where we were standing. Impressive and altogether less intimidating when you’re standing on land.
I’m very fond of Otters too, enjoy a good encounter with a Puffin, and could (indeed have) watched Gannets dive for hours. Simon King’s ‘Shetland Diaries’ – Otters, Orcas, Puffins and wonderful people is right up my street. In fact so promising did it sound that I was worried that it couldn’t possibly deliver all I hoped. Not least because publication has coincided with my annual bout of homesickness for Shetland (funnily enough I never feel so homesick in the winter) intensified this year because I didn’t manage a trip back last summer (which to add insult to injury was the best Shetland’s had for decades). I am going this summer though and only hope it doesn’t rain the whole time.
Now Simon King seems like an affable sort of chap when he’s on screen; happy, bouncy, smiley and desperately enthusiastic. I can report he’s the same on the page, and in some ways it would be easy to heartily dislike the man for having what looks like such a cracking good time all the time, It’s something which made me approach the book with a certain amount of caution. Still I wanted something different after my Angela Carter efforts so off I went.
I’m really pleased that I liked the book; King’s a much better writer than I expected him to be even with the jolly hockey sticks feel to some of the prose. This really does feel like a personal diary albeit one meant for publication, it mixes work, family life, and some socialising and philosophy with very finely judged balance. The work is interesting, I wasn’t so interested in the family stuff, but that’s just me, and it did contribute to a sense of story. I think he really does manage to create a sense of what Shetland can be like – definitely at its best, but not unrealistically so, if you want to know what it’s like at its worst I’m afraid you probably have to go and try it out to see how it fits. He certainly captures all the things I miss most about being part of a community in a fairly unique and special place.
When he talks about the wildlife the mix of passion and knowledge is truly infectious and certainly illuminating to the lay person, but more than anything this feels like a long thank you to Shetland. Plenty of people (and I’ll fess up now, this unexpectedly included my dad and step mum – page 56 – 57 if you’re interested) get very nice mentions, but he’s also careful to avoid any serious local controversy. The big debate in Shetland last year, and ongoing, is a massive wind farm which if it goes ahead would run down the spine of the Islands and for better or worse, depending on your point of view, will change things significantly. It’s the sort of thing I thought might come up but didn’t; that’s the sort of diplomacy which makes island life work.