I have just read “The Outrun” by Amy Liptrot, and what a great read it was! Amy’s book is an autobiographical account of returning to Orkney from London and her struggle with alcohol addiction. Returning to Orkney, Amy reflects on her upbringing (on a sheep farm in the West Mainland), her drive to leave the islands as a teenager, and her return to the islands, newly sober. Trying to make sense of these movements, Amy’s book is a fascinating read for people interested in the experience of growing up on islands, and the movements of young people from islands.
Much of what Amy describes will be familiar to other young people in Orkney and Shetland (and in fact young people in rural communities generally). In particular she describes having a ‘great drive to leave’ (p112) the islands, to experience life elsewhere, and to get off ‘the rock’. The world away from the islands is characterised as full of potential, as exciting and boundary-free (in contrast to the boundaried life of the islands). However, alongside this sense of excitement is a sense of risk, and of possibility tipping into excess, notably Amy describes the ‘temptations of the lifestyles elsewhere’ (p111) – with the word “temptation” summing up the attractions but also potentially the addictive or excessive nature of urban life.
Having left the islands for London life, Amy describes the challenge of maintaining a sense of ‘reality’ that encompasses these two very different lifestyles: ‘When I am in London, Orkney itself seems imaginary. I find it hard to believe that this life is real when I’m down there’ (p112). The challenge of creating a narrative (such as Amy’s book) or indeed to simply be able to understand your own personal story depends on being able to resolve contradictions and present a coherent narrative. Having two different experiences of lives can therefore present a real challenge – who is Amy when she is in the city, and who is she when she is in the country? One interesting potential for working with this tension appears in the book through the use of technology – Amy is online, blogging and communicating with a global audience even when she returns to Orkney and she notes that: ‘since I’ve been sober and in Orkney, I’m online more than ever as a way of keeping myself linked to the old life I’m not prepared to cut ties with.’ (183). Technology offers a way of ‘linking’ lives together, allowing her to ‘be’ in several places at once. However, the potential of technology goes further, creating a virtual space that feels more like ‘home’ than potentially either London or Orkney. She uses the internet to research what she is seeing in the sea and sky of Orkney, to connect with people, and to explore herself, she says ‘I’m using technology to take myself to the centre of something from my spot at the edge of the ocean. I’m trying to make sense of my environment’ and ‘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’.
The world that Amy presents is certainly very ‘placed’ with Orkney and London being the two poles of her world, but at the same time technology allows her to be in-between, and in fact to create a space which is uniquely her own. This being ‘in’ two lives, and creating her own space is perhaps an experience that, for Amy, with her own biography is relatively familiar. As the child of English parents who moved to Orkney she describes not really feeling like she belonged in Orkney, feeling ‘too big and too English’. However, this familiarity doesn’t mean that it’s a comfortable experience, and I couldn’t help remembering Giddens’ ideas about how globalisation and the rise of technology has created particular demands on people in terms of creating and maintaining their sense of self.
As well as wrestling with having two different lives, there is a challenge for Amy in terms of understanding what it is to have ‘returned home’.:
“I don’t want to have to admit that I’ve come back – that I’ve failed. I wonder if it’s possible to really come back once you’ve lived away for a while, or if it’s called coming ‘home’ when you never belonged” (p85)
With our cultural expectations of living a life ‘independent’ to our parents, it is easy to see how returning to a family home, to the resources of your parents may be experienced as a ‘failure’. In addition because Amy doesn’t feel like she ‘belongs’ in Orkney, she doesn’t have the comfort of returning to a wider social context that feels like ‘home’.
Not only does Amy struggle to find ways to think about her return for herself, but trying to explain her choice to others is even harder:
“I tell people I came here simply for the cheapest rent I could find. Although that isn’t completely true, I didn’t choose to come here to ‘downsize’ or ‘get back to nature’. It wasn’t my plan to return home for recovery, it was more that I came back for a visit and got stuck. This is where I come from, not – like most English people in Orkney – where I chose to come to. The last year has been a gradual process of saying, ‘I’ll just stay for a few more weeks,’ for dyking or lambing, then for a few months the corncrakes, and now I’ve committed to a whole winter on Papay. Orkney keeps holding on to me.” (p143)
Here Amy is clear that where other people might move to Orkney for lifestyle reasons or for the nature, for her there is not so much ‘choice’. The fact that she is in Orkney is almost by default, and this makes it difficult to ‘explain’. Indeed it is quite possible that many of us end up in places (careers or locations) that seem to happen by default, or by accident and with limited planning. However, this doesn’t make for a good ‘story’ and as such we may rationalise these decisions, or (at least) present them as rational. But in this case, how can Amy present her decision? For her, as for other young people raised in the islands returning home may simply be a practical decision, and finding an interim job like being the ‘Corncrake wife’ can then be the reason to stay for a little while, and then a little while longer; and before you know it you are ‘stuck’, or as Amy says ‘Orkney keeps holding on to me’.
Overall the book was a fantastic read, very well written and absolutely fascinating for me from my research perspective. Amy’s writing is clear and honest and articulates a particular experience of growing up, leaving and returning to the islands so incisively. I have to say it was also a delight to read so many Orkney stories all woven together with Amy’s very personal story. As the cover matter states it is ‘astonishingly beautiful… a luminous, life-affirming book’ which I would strongly recommend – even if you are not studying a PhD in the experience of young people from island communities!