Sometimes, you see or hear something that lodges itself in your mind and sparks off of other bits of information in there.
This happened when I went to see a production called Flit, directed and pro
duced by Martin Green. I think the current UK tour has finished, but they might be doing more shows. If they are, do your mind, heart and ears a favour and go and see it. It is challenging and magical and you won’t be sorry.
The show is a combination of music and animated sequences set within a world of looming brown paper structures. Flit, as the title suggests, looks at themes of human migration, home and our sense of place. While it is unfortunately topical, Green said he hadn’t written the show with the current migration crisis in mind, its beginnings forming after a visit he made to his Grandmother to collect stories for his children.
Notes from these visits formed the basis of songs which were written with Karine Polwart, Aidan Moffat, Anaïs Mitchell and Sandy Wright, and set to music by musicians Adrian Utley of Portishead and Dominic Aitchison of Mogwai. Featuring the beautifully paired vocals of Adam Holmes and Becky Unthank, and visually brought to life by the wizardry of animation duo White Robot, the show had me mesmerized. I basically cried most of the way through it.
I find ideas of home and moving emotive, and I doubt I’m alone in that. Island life is inbuilt with a push-me-pull-you element: a restlessness for the wider world, and often, once you’ve experienced it, a dull ache for home that never quite dissipates.
Islanders have historically left and returned, for myriad reasons, though employment is probably the most common and one that continues to be relevant. Perhaps one reason Flit affected me was because the question of moving away from Shetland is never too far from my own thoughts. (Other reasons include the fact that since becoming a mother, I’m essentially a human sprinkler. That and the plight of the refugees which the UK government seems to be ignoring is really fucking deplorable and beyond sad).
My own reasons for wanting to move and being …um, scared to, are too dull to go into, but leaving your home – even when you know it’s for the best, for financial or other, less tangible reasons is a difficult thing to do – and that’s without the anguish of political turmoil, not knowing where you’re going to or the threat of an unsafe future, if, that is, you even survive your journey.
Flit explores these ideas, with recordings of the stories of people who have migrated, in one way or another, interspersed throughout the music. In Strange Sky, Unthank sings:
“Under a strange sky my mother loved me in another tongue; it was a tongue I could never learn…”
Language is of course integral to our sense of home, and self. Growing up, language played a large and confusing part in shaping me, the Shetland dialect I spoke at home always in contest, if not conflict, with the English of my school friends.
The dialect was recently given a rather depressing 30 year prognosis, and while I know language naturally evolves, in good ways and bad (I’m not sure what the addition of “YOLO” and “biatch” to the Oxford English Dictionary does for us), it does make me sad to think of no-one speaking Shetland in a few years’ time.
It is more than just a different way of talking; it is central to out heritage and a link to the past. Perhaps we only realise the magnitude of these losses when it’s too late. Thankfully we will have recordings – you can hear my late grand Uncle, Billy Thomason, and an example of the Fetlar dialect, speaking on the Shetland Forwirds site. (This clip makes my hair stand up, he sounds so like my granddad and other family members, also now gone.)
The loss of languages is more than just sad from a familial point of view. The homogenisation of language is boring, and leads to a frustrating clumsiness: I recently learned that naan means bread. So we’re asking for “bread” bread at restaurants around the country, which is possibly not that big a deal, but it seems a shame that we’ve collectively ignored the actual meaning of a word that is now in daily usage in our language.
Our relationship with “home” is also altered by our travels. In Jackie Kay’s memoir, Red Dust Road, she describes the effect emigrating to New Zealand had on her grandmother:
“When my gran returned, her Fife accent had become so broad, such a mixture of Lochgelly and nostalgia, that her old friends had difficulty understanding her! She was like a woman on a shortbread tin come to life; her Scottishness had become, all those miles away, the thing she valued about herself the most.”
Nostalgia can do funny things to our perceptions of home, undoubtedly. But home and our longing for it is hugely important. It forms part of our identity, our culture; to deny people of that must surely count as a human rights abuse.
Go see Flit, if you can. The album is available here.