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Comment: From park life to stoic life in Shetland
On A sunny day, Cassiobury Park really is gorgeous. We walked through it last weekend, watching the world go by, enjoying a Cha-Cha-Cha coffee and just about resisting the ice-cream temptation.
The sunlight was filtered through the branches, the cyclists and pedestrians managed to avoid crashing into each other and all felt fine with the world (pictured below).
On days like these, you can just about imagine you are in the countryside, with the traffic noise fading into the background and the Metropolitan Line out of sight.
But at the back of your mind, of course, you know civilisation is never too far away.
For lots of people, I suspect that’s the attraction of our bit of the world. It appears to strike a balance between being near London, but also within touching distance of fields and farms.
It’s a bit like London-lite, albeit with increasingly London-heavy property prices.
And this all came into sharp relief for me on Monday. That was the day I flew to the Shetland Islands to present my radio programme.
If you’ve never been there – and let’s be honest, you probably haven’t – then my advice is to give it a go. It’s like an antidote to modern life.
For a start, it’s beautiful. Not in a “that’s rather nice” way, but in a full-on, stop the clocks, I can’t believe what I’m seeing sort of way.
It’s not alone in that, of course – Britain has beauty on tap in the Lake District, the Peak District, Devon or the Scottish Highlands, for example.
But Shetland adds to that an element of otherworldliness. From the moment you leave the airport, the whole place is striking.
There’s no motorway leading you back to real life, no gateway that takes you back to the ugly bit of land.
Leave the Lake District, after all, and you end up back on the motorway. Leave Shetland’s biggest town and you just drive in a straight line past ever-stunning bits of countryside.
Yes, you end up back at the airport, but even that is next to a truly gorgeous beach.
Nobody on Shetland appears to be stressed or even impatient. The pace of life is thoughtful and considered.
These are people who deal with weather so harsh trees have given up the battle and don’t grow on Shetland any more.
For generations, they’ve relied on the biorhythms of fishing for much of their livelihood and it’s not so long since many lived in crofters’ cottages.
These are stoic folk, who like the see the bigger picture of life and nature. Every morning, they see seals in the harbour, with the occasional porpoise or killer whales swimming past. They are not brought up to worry about traffic jams or mobile phone reception.
But nor are they sort of outsider-hating oddballs some had warned me of, speaking with an accent so thick no Englishman could understand a word.
The accent turned out to be a rather nice lilting tone blessed with as much clarity as the sea water, while the Wicker Man references were wide of the mark.
From the moment our little propeller-powered plane landed in Lerwick, people couldn’t have been more friendly or welcoming.
No, I had only one complaint, and that wasn’t their fault. The daylight went on for far too long.
It was light when I went to sleep and light again when I got up, at 3.50am. Presumably there was some darkness in between, but nothing I was aware of.
This, of course, is to do with being in the really-quite-far north, for Shetland is as north as Britain gets, so I’m not sure my moan is actually going to change the fundamental way in which the world operates.
But darkness deprivation is a weird thing, changing the way in which you see the pattern of the day.
Perhaps it makes you calmer and more phlegmatic, or perhaps it bends your perception. Certainly it made me miss the structure of dark, light, dark that you otherwise take for granted.
In Shetland, so I’m told, they sometimes have spells with 20 hours of light out of 24. It sounds lovely but, in practice, it feels wrong.
So while we might think we have a touch of the countryside about us, for these folk it doesn’t really count.
A fisherman asked me where I was from, so I told him I lived near Watford.
He didn’t know it. “Much fishing there?” he asked, as vast quantities of mackerel were unloaded. I thought about the fellas sitting at the Aquadrome or Cassiobury Park, rods dipped in the water, listening to the radio and drinking a cup of tea.
“Not really, no,” I said. “We’re a bit short of trawlers round my way.”
It was a pleasure to be one of the judges on the Watford Observer Young Sports Writer of the Year award. There were some really strong entries and, pleasingly, a range of opinions on what makes for good writing. Some people went for straight reporting of an event, some for a blend of opinion and facts, and some just went in with both feet, producing hundreds of words of opinion.
And that's just how it should be. Journalism is a broad church, and it needs that range of writing, just as life roams from the purely functional to the entirely frivolous.
As a craft, journalism has had a turbulent time of it recently, with the internet hitting newspaper sales and the crises of phone-hacking and Jimmy Savile both hitting its credibility. But it remains crucial to our democratic well-being.
A free press is central to our society. I’ve travelled to many countries where journalists are reined in and stories are censored, from China to Zimbabwe, and in each case a strait-jacket over journalism has allowed corruption and injustice to proliferate.
So no, I don’t defend the failings of our industry and nor do I think it’s perfect. Personally, I’m not interested in celebrity culture and I don’t think famous people should automatically lose the right to privacy. Regulation of the press probably does need reform.
But nor do I think it’s right for the reputation of journalism to be castigated in the way that’s happened over the past few years. When I was the same age as these aspiring sportswriters, I wanted to be a journalist because I thought it would be a great job. I still do.