Book Review: The Outrun


The Outrun, by Amy Liptrot, recently won the 2016 Wainwright Prize, this after being shortlisted for the 2016 Wellcome Book Prize. Although I would not normally be drawn to read memoirs, the judges’ comments persuaded me to pick this one up. I am very glad I did.

Amy was born and raised on a farm on the remote island of mainland Orkney. Her father suffered mental health issues which triggered psychotic episodes so severe he would, from time to time throughout her childhood, be sectioned under the Mental Health Act and removed to a secure unit in Aberdeen. Her mother was a Charismatic Christian whose Church influence and disciplines led to Amy developing a strong aversion to religion. Her parents divorced after her father had an affair.

As an adolescent Amy eschewed what she regarded as a subtle conspiracy to present Orkney as an island paradise. She describes herself as:

“a physically brave and foolhardy child […] Later I plunged myself into parties – alcohol, drugs, relationships and sex – wanting to taste the extremes, not worrying about the consequences, always seeking sensation and raging against those who warned me away from the edge. My life was rough and windy and tangled.”

As a teenager she wanted nothing more than to leave the island, dreaming of glittering success and excitement in London. When she got there she immersed herself in a social whirl fuelled by alcohol and drugs. Over a hedonistic decade her life spiralled out of control. Eventually she determined to undo the damage she was inflicting upon herself and enrolled in rehab, taking steps to manage her alcoholism. She returned to the islands to recuperate, not expecting to stay.

The book opens with this return, with her visiting the farm she grew up on. Her story is told from the perspective of a recovering alcoholic looking back on events that brought her to where she is today. Woven into her tale is the island, its weather and wildlife, history and topography, as much an influence on what she is and was as any people she has known or choices she has made.

It is a study of nature and of life. Amy is aware of how the land was formed, how it affects what it supports with all changing and adapting over time. Yet still there are events that cannot be fully prepared for – asteroids, severe storms, addiction. She writes of the place of which she is a part.

She spends a winter on Papay, a small island north of the mainland, with a population of seventy. She describes how a community such as this gets by:

“Here I have been mixing with people of all ages and backgrounds – we have to – whereas in London I was in a bubble. I went to the city to meet new people, to expand my ideas and social circles, but ended up meeting people more and more like myself. We curated our experiences into ever narrower subsections until we were unlikely to encounter anything that made us uncomfortable.”

Amy’s parents came to Orkney from the South of England so, although she was born there, she was still considered an incomer. With so many young people choosing to leave incomers are now welcomed as necessary to keep the small communities viable. Just as wildlife must adapt to change to survive so too must people.

Amy enjoys the apps and information available via modern technology. She keeps in touch with life beyond the island through the internet:

“Many of them I’ve never met in person but we’ve vaguely followed each other’s lives for years. Often I feel as if my real life is inside the computer while my time back in Orkney and the people I see here are just a temporary intrusion. I know people on Twitter I’ve never met better than people I’ve sat opposite for months at work or people I went to school with.”

Amy watches the skies, swims in the sea and takes long walks. She describes the land and the wildlife she encounters, recalling the history of the place and the changes over time. She considers her own existence alongside that of the birds and sea creatures whose habits and habitats she studies and presents. The story told is poignant and perceptive but it is the quality of the prose which sets this book apart.

The writing is sublime. This is a memoir but also an appreciation of the nature of which we are all a part. There is raw beauty but also acknowledgement that change is inevitable. Amy chose to adapt to survive.


Book Review: Queerbashing


Queerbashing, by Tim Morrison, is a raw and searing account of the life of McGillivray, a homosexual who refuses to bow to the conventions of his time and remain silent about his sexual orientation. It would be a challenging book to read given the levels of contempt and violence he encounters, but the author writes with such a dark humour and wit that, at times, he had me laughing out loud.

McGillivray is born in the late 1950s, in Stromness on the island of Orkney:

“second from the top and over to the right on any competent weather map of the British Isles.”

The descriptions of living in a tight, religious community where even the clergy were regarded as too forward thinking by many of the locals, provided a spot on account of the attitudes I encountered growing up in Belfast. Children were raised to fear, above all, eternal damnation. Their god of love had been known to flood the world and kill all but his chosen family and a few animals. They were commanded to love thy neighbour but not in that way. Interest in the opposite sex was discouraged. Had McGillivray admitted to interest in the same sex then his neighbours would have solemnly prayed for his soul, and for the souls of his family, for goodness knows what had gone on for him to turn out like that.

McGillivray was miserable at school but he drank in the teaching, particularly from the religious zealots. When he left the island it was to study theology at Aberdeen University. He knew that he was gay but kept this guilty secret to himself. As part of his formal sex education his class in school had been informed by a kindly doctor that

“Everyone goes through a homosexual phase before becoming normal. You should not be worried by those feelings. Some unfortunates seem to get stuck at a particular stage of development but this is unlikely to be you.”

When McGillivray did decide to come out he opted to do so publicly. He was interviewed by a student magazine and challenged those who would quote biblical texts as proof of his sin. He accepted the stares from his peers who regarded him as a dangerous exhibit. He also had to accept that he would not be allowed to graduate as a minister of the Church of Scotland.

He moved south to London, experiencing anonymity for the first time, and then settled into life in Northern England where he found a job with the local council. He rented a house in a rough part of town, a decision that changed his life.

Where the chapters set in Orkney, Aberdeen and London are filled with caustic but clever humour, the narration of life in Grimsbrough is more poignant. Openly gay men were regarded as legitimate targets by many, including the forces of law and order. McGillivray had his friends but amongst wider company was required to accept personal insults cloaked as jocularity as a matter of course. When these attitudes spilled over into violence he was considered to have brought it on himself for being what he was. It reminded me of the assumptions of many that girls shoulder some of the blame for their rape because they looked attractive to their attackers.

The fallout from events in Grimsbrough provided a powerful account of the effects on an individual of such prejudicial attitudes. McGillivray was forever changed.

The story concludes with an account of a strange event in his later life. I struggled to navigate these words. I could guess at an interpretation for these last few chapters but am unsure what the narrator wishes to convey.

Despite this somewhat perplexing denouement I would recommend the book. It is short compared to many modern reads but packs a mighty punch. The skill of the author in presenting a dark story in such an entertaining way is to be commended. This is saporous, satisfying food for thought that merits wide recognition and debate.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Thunderpoint.