Riddoch’s blossoming vision is rose tinted

Lesley Riddoch speaks about her vision for Scotland's future. Photo: Dave Donaldson
Lesley Riddoch speaks about her vision for Scotland’s future. Photo: Dave Donaldson

Thursday night’s Wordplay event saw an audience of around 30 congregate in Mareel’s auditorium to listen to Lesley Riddoch talk about her book Blossom: What Scotland needs to Flourish.

Had this year’s Wordplay been timetabled in its usual early September slot the evening would have been different. If we been in the heady days leading up to the referendum, the turn out would, I believe, have been greater and the mood more hopeful.

As it was, this was a somewhat gloomy evening. Riddoch appeared at times frustrated, and at one point chided the audience for passivity in the face of their miserable lot.

The talk was accompanied by slides, which featured Riddoch’s own photographic portraits of Nordic people enjoying the good life.

We saw a “mad” Icelandic taxi driver who had spontaneously taken Riddoch on a tour of his country.

We saw two elderly Norwegian women out sledging: rosy cheeked and radiant.

We saw happy, hardy children playing in sub-zero temperatures.

These images were held up in stark contrast to the Scottish reality: lonely, fuel- poor pensioners, stressed out office workers and sickly, cosseted children.

“What strikes me about the Nordic countries”, Riddoch observed, “is their utterly independent mindedness.” This independent mindedness, she informed us, is a trait that we Scots also possess. We have so much in common with our Nordic neighbours: in fact, Riddoch reminded us, we were geologically attached at one point and still share much linguistically and culturally.

Here the audience visibly brightened as Nordic Nirvana hovered within reach. Sadly, we poor Scots have had had our independent mindedness “beaten” out of us by an unjust political system and a distant government who neither know us or care about us.

Using a mixture of quantitative data and anecdote Riddoch explored the numerous ways in which things are better in Nordic countries (with a particular focus on Norway). Many of Riddoch’s claims were familiar from the countless surveys which rate Nordic countries as the best places to be a woman, child or elderly person.

Child care is excellent. Locals own the land. Democracy works. Much of this enviable state of affairs, Riddoch argued, comes down to localisation. People have a say in what happens where they live and this makes for a healthier and much more equal society.

While nobody would argue that there is much to admire about Scandinavia, it struck me that Riddoch was strikingly selective about the aspects of Nordic society she chose to present. Norway’s famously strict immigration policy was not once mentioned: neither was the fact that a high proportion of the migrants who do make it to Norway find themselves living in poverty.

The less rosy side to Scandinavia was ignored altogether, although it is not hard to find evidence of the Danes’ enthusiasm for privatisation, the sharp rise of the Swedish right, or Finland’s drink problem. What is more, Riddoch was keen to lay the blame for all our ills at the door of our national political system.

Wider issues (such as global capitalism) were completely overlooked.

Like a disappointed mother, Riddoch listed our failures and wasted opportunities, comparing us unfavourably with the neighbour’s high achieving golden child. By the end of the evening I felt rather like an East Berliner might have done looking over the Wall: the good life which should rightfully be ours, seems so near and yet out of reach.

Riddoch offered little in the way of comfort: when an audience member asked what could be done to “move forward” she replied that “we need to realise that we are living in a weird country.”

Ultimately though, Riddoch’s vision involves chopping and pruning rather than “blossoming”.  She suggests, it seems to me, that we should polish our own house and get everything just so before pulling up the drawbridge and cosying in for the night.

Such insular ambition is rather sinister, and I had to supress a shudder when Riddoch expressed her desire for the Dutch masters in our “so-called national gallery” to be moved to the basement.

Despite my quibbles with a great deal of what Riddoch said, this was a very interesting evening hosted by a relaxed, articulate and animated speaker.

The presentation was slightly marred by the venue though: Riddoch’s conversational style would have been better served by a smaller, cosier space. Or as Riddoch might have wistfully suggested, somewhere more hyggelig.

<i>Genevieve White</i>


Add Your Comment
  • Mark Ryan Smith

    • November 17th, 2014 9:49

    It’s hard to imagine a review in the Shetland Times that would be so critical of any other event. Anybody who has paid attention over the last year has probably realised that the movement in favour of Scottish self-determination was relatively outward looking, especially when compared to the hysterical anti-European xenophobia currently being peddled by British Nationalists. Perhaps reporters who still feel the need to caricature the progressive side of the argument as parochial, nationalistic and insular might be as well not going to a talk by Lesley Riddoch, one of the outstanding Scottish voices of the last few years. Speaking about ways life could be made better for Scottish people isn’t a avoidance of ‘wider issues’. Of course global capitalism is a major problem, but it might be possible to protect people from its ravages if Scotland could make its own decisions, instead of being prey to the hammer-the-poor austerity policies of a government nobody in the country voted for.

    • John Tulloch

      • November 17th, 2014 14:38

      The “progressive side of the argument”?

      I would suggest change can only be considered “progressive” if it is seen to be beneficial.

      The change proposed by nationalists would, not only, be bad for Scotland, it would be very damaging, indeed, for Shetland.

      That said, future referendum success for the nationalists would provide an opportunity for constitutional change for Orkney and Shetland.

  • Dave Hammond

    • November 17th, 2014 18:36

    As part of my day job I had the pleasure of conducting an interview with Lesley after her talk, which was feisty and upbeat in contrast to her delivery at the venue. Little wonder really, when so few people turned up. I agree with Ms. White that a more intimate venue would have been more appropriate than what is really an entertainment space but I do take issue with her opinionated and somewhat patonising interpretation. The interview is available here http://www.writerstories.tv/

    • Robert Duncan

      • November 18th, 2014 10:21

      A more intimate venue might not have been required had it been better promoted. I might have attended had I heard anything about her visit before hand.

  • Douglas Young

    • November 17th, 2014 18:51

    I have the book.

    Thank goodness for Scots like Lesley Riddoch.

    Rose tinted?

    Something wrong with optimism?

    Terribly negative review.

  • Robin Barclay

    • November 17th, 2014 19:27

    Most of us will recall Lesley Riddoch from her time at BBC Scotland as a fairly acerbic interviewer and commentator. I for one enjoyed her contributions, but found you had to examine her views with reflection, removed from her forceful arguements, and might subsequently disagree. As I recall, she is from Ulster, not Scotland – and seems to have developed an interest in Nordic culture fairly recently. Since most Shetlanders think of themselves loosely as Nordic Scots and many have a longer standing relationship and knowledge of our Nordic neighbors than Ms Riddoch, is this not yet another person with a gift of the gab arriving to tell Shetlanders what they already know, and maybe better than her.

    • John Tulloch

      • November 18th, 2014 10:00

      Yes, Robin, im pitten a mind o’ “Heather the Weather” coming to Shetland to churn out a lot of twee pap about “climate change”. I never did get my questions answered.

      Gravy trains never run out of passengers.


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