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Where money means nothing and midge repellent means everything

The girl in the woolly hat at the tiny village of Elgol on the Isle of Skye summed it up: “I’ve realised,” she said, almost shocked at the possibility, “that money means nothing up here compared with having enough midge-repellent.”

Elgol on Skye by Shirley Mann

We had been having one of those random in-depth chats about the meaning of life that occur when you are travelling - us in our small motorhome and her in a converted van, when this stranger launched into how the mountains were giving her a new perspective on the life choices she was making.

I’ve found one of the advantages of being an older woman is that you become a ‘mum’ figure and somehow invite confidences that younger people wouldn’t normally share with their therapists, let alone a woman in a cagoule on a quayside in Scotland. It’s as if, with age, you become a bit of a fairy godmother who is seen as someone who has all the answers. Well, I’m not sure about that but I am old enough to know that most of the obstacles we face can be overcome and as the reassuring words came out of my mouth, I thought of how I too, while researching my war novels, had relied on the wise words of the previous generation to put life in proportion for me.

The spot was idyllic - all right, I admit, more idyllic than the day before when it had drizzled relentlessly, but as always in Scotland, when the sun comes out you forgive it everything. The tiny quayside had just a few boats moored up, bobbing up and down on the turquoise water, overlooked by the majestic Cuillins, draped in a strip of fluffy white cloud. The girl and I were standing shoulder to shoulder in awe at the scene in front of us when a Rolls Royce turned round next to us to make its way up the steep hill. It looked so out of place in an environment where cattle roamed so freely that we had, just an hour before, been woken up by a bull, a cow and a calf happily munching grass outside our van’s back doors and we both stared at the incongruity of such a symbol of wealth in that simple environment.

She confessed within minutes that she was struggling with life and whether the relentless treadmill to earn money had put her out of sync with the person she wanted to be. It seemed a few days in the Highlands and islands were opening up thoughts she hadn’t dared to address. Working in the creative industries, she had been told that if you weren’t crying, working through the night and, she added ruefully, prepared to do it for nothing, then you weren’t committed. In her mid-thirties, she wanted children but was terrified to take a break in case all the good work she had done was forgotten.

Her concerns about her stress levels echoed ones I was constantly hearing from my own daughters and just that morning I had received a rushed three-word Whatsapp from one who was working on an impossible contract to impossible timeframes and changing briefs and to hear similar words from yet another young woman in her thirties made me want to reach out to her and give her a hug.

The problem is, I feel slightly guilty. We were the ones who made sure we went to university, took the pill and developed careers that broke glass ceilings. We ignored the fact that we were still the ones primarily who organised the child-care and did the housework; we thought we had it all and proudly passed on our new-found freedom to our daughters, blithely telling them they could do anything they wanted.

It was while I was racing around the country to find women who had experience of the war for my new, belated career as a novelist that I fully grasped the implications of this brave new world that had been created. The women I met had all been propelled out of their mother’s kitchens into a world that was fraught with danger, yes, but also one that allowed them to reach out of their comfort zones to achieve things beyond their expectations. Flying aeroplanes, mixing explosives and driving tractors were just some of the tasks they took on while men were shipped off to fight on the front leaving jobs that needed to be filled. Their fortitude and pragmatism inspired me and as I chatted to that young woman on Skye, I wondered what advice they would have given.

She confessed within minutes that she was struggling with life and whether the relentless treadmill to earn money had put her out of sync with the person she wanted to be.

I heard the phrase every one of those amazing women repeated to me when I interviewed them- that they weren’t doing anything special, they were just doing their job and the fact that we still stand in awe of them, years on, just shows how wrong that assertion is. I still talk to some, now in their 90s and they epitomise the pragmatism that defined that generation. Unimpressed by drama, they had no choice but to fit in with whatever was expected of them and that now means they have little sympathy for any 21st century navel-gazing. I suspect they would be bemused by the fact that young women see a dilemma here.

They didn’t have any choices but the war did give them an unassailable belief that life was for living and not having regrets was more important to them than wasting time worrying about decisions to be made. As far as they are concerned, there is only one way not to make a mistake and that’s not to do anything.

But there are differences. The main one is technology, I worked in the frenetic industry of the media but I did not have a Zoom call at 10.30pm on a Friday and without access to a mobile, no-one could track me down at weekends or on a walk in the hills.

This generation has no escape, they are never allowed a holiday, never allowed to switch off. An email or a Whatsapp needs to be answered instantly and as a result, work is ever-present but even that isn’t enough.

Once I returned home from Scotland, I made a point of asking other young people in the creative and charitable sectors whether they, too were feeling so pressurised all the time, the answers were uniform ….and chilling.

A worrying echo from the past was the attitude of the media, which I find ironic as it is often the first to point the finger at the working practices of big companies. I remember deciding to call a halt to my own BBC career when I found myself yet again missing bed-time with my children because a late story had broken. For people sitting in a London office, it was always the case that Yorkshire wasn’t far from Shropshire and no, of course we weren’t valued, we were cannon fodder to a huge machine that would just spit out anyone who wasn’t fast enough or willing enough to devote their life to it. Don’t want to work seven days a week, 15 hours a day? Fine, there are loads of others who will do it. I eventually took a risk to change course and walked away - a decision I never regretted- and now I wonder how long it will be before these burned-out young people do the same, taking their expertise and experience with them.

Covid has obviously made matters worse as there has been little else in life to do except work and as more people allow work to infiltrate the sanctuary of their home, there is nowhere to escape to. Also, unwilling to treat their staff as grown-ups, helicopter bosses hover suspiciously, checking every move. Nothing is good enough, nothing is enough.

This generation has no escape, they are never allowed a holiday, never allowed to switch off.

There seems no concept that anyone might actually have a life. If any of the young people I talked to dared to confess they might actually have something on this weekend, they suffered a sharp intake of breath that was audible even over an email.

Every time some new development offers a ‘freedom’ to working practices, what we seem to find is that our liberty is actually eroded. Mobile phones were going to mean we did not have to be tied to a desk, emails were going to make communication easier and then with Covid, commuting was going to save hours of travelling time. But what are we doing with all this free time?

You’ve got it, working.

I’m well aware that work is a drug and that it’s addictive and it’s only as you go cold turkey in somewhere like the Highlands that you can remember there is more to life. If only we could make such a trip to the mountains a statutory requirement for all stressed-out thirty somethings because standing on that quayside made me reflect on my own life choices and yes, there were career highlights in there that I am proud of but I realised the most vivid memories are those of travelling the back roads, meeting people with different lives along the way and chaotic family gatherings.

And, I’m not done yet. As long as I can, I am going to carry on having adventures and keep trying new things, just like the 95-year-old WAAF I regularly talk to urges me to do. For heaven’s sake, who’d have thought I’d have become a novelist in my 60s? But life comes down to people and places for me and I really hope that young girl in the woolly hat manages to step back and find a balance in her life and if she does, perhaps she could pass the word because, after all, as John Ruskin said: “There is no wealth but life.”

Written by Shirley Mann

About the author

Shirley Mann is a former journalist who now writes war novels inspired by real women. Her second novel about an ATA pilot, ‘Bobby’s War’ has won this year’s RNA Romantic Saga Novel of the Year. Her books are available online from Amazon, WHS, Waterstones and other bookstores.

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