Noo Dan by Douglas C Smith. The Shetland Times, £12.99
The great American editor Ellery Sedgwick once ambiguously said: “Autobiographies ought to begin with Chapter Two.” Douglas Smith must have been aware of Sedgwick’s dictum, for his newly-published life story Noo Dan opens its second chapter with the author’s birth, while the first chapter outlines the Smith and Campbell families, as far back as 1763.
An autobiography is a courageous exercise; a person’s life laid bare for all to peck among, life from day one to the day the manuscript is despatched to the publisher. It’s also subtly different from a biography, in that its author has total control over what’s included and what’s left out. That said, there’s plenty to enjoy; along with the details of his young life and upbringing Douglas adds fascinating glimpses of Lerwick life in the 1930s, before we read his account of the Second World War years that dominated his secondary schooldays.
This to me was the most interesting part of the book; many of the events he describes have been chronicled more than once, but his personal experiences bring a fresh perspective and new detail to the story. In 1946, Douglas was in the very last batch of men to be “called-up” for military service – in the RAF – only a month before war-time conscription was turned into National Service.
After two years’ service in England and Egypt he became a civilian again – and found a career in local government, as apprentice sanitary inspector. How would any trainee fare today, I wonder, if his wages stopped while on block release? Changed days indeed!
Change, over Douglas’s lifetime, is of course an underlying thread right through the book, and his narrative brings out very clearly these huge changes in Shetland life and society. Not least of these is the rise in bureacracy from the old ZCC days to the present day SIC where a quarter of Shetland’s workforce is on its payroll. As director of environmental health – with housing included later – Douglas was in the thick of the action when the oil era dawned, and his account of these times is both absorbing and entertaining. I’m sure he was glad to retire, in 1989, after 40 years with “da coonty”. There’s always more to life than work, of course, and he gives us a lively account of social life and leisure pursuits – football, Up-Helly-A’, the Brass Band – as they interwove with career and family life.
Since “retiring” Douglas remains a busy man, with his interest in Norway and its links with Shetland, his activities as a tour guide and his writing. Indeed, it’s a wonder he found time to write his life story but I’m glad that he did, and he deserves to be rewarded with a wide reader-ship.