I am in Lerwick, Shetland across from Queens Hotel, next to The Spiders Web and I’m passing a shop called The Magpies Nest and this is not a Harry Potter story. Centre stage and proudly displayed in the window of The Magpies Nest are Gollywogs.. They are in Time Magazines top ten most dubious dolls. Gollywogs! So I enter. A grey lady from behind the counter rises like Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. She splays her arms and in a Brando whisper she says “I’m no racist. These are my childhood. Would you like to buy one?” She says there are rarely complaints.
But it’s a loose definition of “rarely”. I hear complaints have been reported in the National newspaper and national radio. There have been petitions to remove the Gollywogs. In fact there are more complaints about her stock than any other in Lerwick. “They sell very well to the Americans” she tells me. It’s a harsh comment. “The Americans” come from The liners who visit the port and keep the shops cash flow bouyant.
I am in Shetland for The Wordplay Festival and I’m having a a great time amongst great people, wonderful food, breathtaking scenery, deep conversations on literature…. I had an hours chat, just myself and David Knopfler of Dire straits yesterday. The Shetland people are of great standing and greatly let down by the willful racism of one citizen who gets a weird kick out of selling them. She sees herself as a rebel. But this is cowardice. (Yes I know I used the word “great” too many times)
Just before I leave The Nest I see a framed picture of Mohamed Ali. I know the picture well. “What’s my name” he shouted as it was taken “what’s my name”. I felt sorry for the shop owner. Racism ultimately devours the racist and bitterness rots the vessel that carries it. On Shetland Island at the furthest tip of “Great Britain” she sells Gollywogs to tourists who buy what they think is Shetland but what is actually the bitterness of an angry lost old Shetland lady tucked into a magpies nest. Her favourite product proudly displays a flag and a tag that reads Made In England. (further information on this story happened on September 13th)