Infectious enthusiasm in print as well

Shetland Diaries by Simon King. Published by Hodder & Stoughton, £20.

It was said at a recent council meeting that Simon King’s Shetland Diaries on TV could be worth £6 million to the isles – £6m being the probable cost of six hours of prime time advertising the programmes and their repeats afforded. The book accompanying the series, on sale from Thursday, continues the process.

The Shetland Diaries, subtitled “otters, orcas, puffins and wonderful people”, is an unashamed paeon of praise to all things Shetland. Well-written and easy to read, it expands on King’s time in the isles – the logistics of setting up the TV series, the places and people he and his family met. He offers tips on rearing children – introduce them to the natural world as soon as possible – and on otter-watching – keep a low profile against the skyline – but all this could be gleaned from the TV series. These programmes contained some fantastic wildlife footage and captured the essence of King’s time in Shetland (probably in a more effective way than in print).

Ultimately the book offers little new, although it will be a treat for fans, and naturalists will surely identify with the blow by blow accounts of chasing otters swimming north, then south, and waiting hours in the cold or wet to see a bird or animal at close quarters.

There is no doubt about it, King is in love (or possibly infatuated) with Shetland. The wildlife, the wilderness feel, the people – it is all good.

His enthusiasm, however, is infectious, as in his description of a bull orca’s fin: “It is like the energy of the restless sea, like the essence of all that is magical …There it was, surging forward with a stream of spray breaking across its leading edge, betraying the great speed and power of the creature beneath.”

Or mother and cub otters sleeping nose to tail against a rock on a beach: “Each soft wavelet beat not a man-made second, but the inexorable shift of tide and sun, of heartbeat and breath from a mother and cub lost deep in their slumber. From time to time their toes twitched and nostrils flared, and I imagined their dreams chasing silver bars of fish through gloomy depths.” He even finds otter spraint fascinating.

Or terns, scattering before a skua “like a stream of waste paper fluttering behind a dump truck”, or the “serpentine” movement of red-throated divers and their call: “it starts with a fluty cat-like wailing, as though the wind itself had conspired with the sea and hills to lift music from its heart”.

King was, of course, fortunate to have a band of helpers tipping him off about sightings and thus saw more orcas and otters in his Shetland sojourn than most people see in a lifetime.

He was fortunate, too, not to let the vagaries of Shetland life, such as the weather and the cost of air fares, annoy him. To love Shetland, he said, “was to embrace its hard edges, its storms and dark winters, its treeless skyline and howling gales, because in that embrace came precious access to wildness, beauty, space … and a sense of freedom”.

And the people he met baked the best home-made bread or offered the use of the most attractive houses. Even in the town’s pubs things went well: “I was approached with cordiality that bore no hint of sycophancy”. He could have been wary if he believed the crime reports in this paper, or knew about the less than positive reception given to another BBC presenter Ben Fogle by a certain Guizer Jarl, but no.

Everywhere he went he was apparently welcomed, even to the extent of being invited to “gate-crash the tribe” of Northmavine Up-Helly-A’.

As King had his family with him it would not have been difficult to enjoy his time in Shetland. But the featuring of his wife, and especially his daughter Savannah in both the TV series and the book (in which it emerged that it had been King’s idea), would not be to every viewer or reader’s taste.

Some would have found it interesting, to others it would have verged on the self-indulgent. It seemed, initially, that Savannah was the first child of a proud father, but King tells of the three children from his first marriage and his regret, guilt, possibly, that he had not been around to see them grow up. (And there was no suggestion of their coming up to Shetland to see him in the beauty spots of Benigarth, Lingness or Busta House.) What would they be making of the constant exposure of Savannah? She is mentioned on most of the book’s pages and her photographs feature as well. Surely pictures of Savannah with a bunch of daisies or being about to wipe her nose on the camera lens belong in the family album.

The wildlife photos are glorious and it is understandable the captions do not reveal sensitive otter sites, but to have no location on scenes of storms or sunsets is frustrating.

More pages of photos of the natural world, and fewer of text, might have improved the book, which could be seen as an optional extra after the TV series.

The series, and the book, will be absolutely wonderful for tourism, however. King’s invaluable helper in Shetland, South Mainland RSPB warden Helen Moncrieff, described by him as a “charismatic wonder”, once said she did not want to see Shetland develop into a tourist “theme park”.

This may not happen, but there will be surely many, many visitors to “Simon King country”.

Rosalind Griffiths


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