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The Orkney Tourist Board strongly advises not going to Orkney to see the Northern Lights. It admits that yes, you can see the Northern Lights in Orkney, but if you’re visiting purely to do so, you’ll most likely end up disappointed.
So here I am, in Orkney, for no reason other than to see the Northern Lights and yes, I’m disappointed. Thanks to the unyielding presence of clouds, the closest thing I’ve seen to stars is the local cover band on New Year’s Eve who, credit where credit’s due, were phenomenal.
A prominent Scottish lecturer with a particular interest in Orkney described the climate as “the most vile under Heaven”, and it wasn’t for dramatic effect. With this knowledge, you’re probably asking, like every other person, why I came to Orkney, and the answer is I couldn’t afford Iceland. I can’t afford to be in Scotland either, to be perfectly honest, so I’m making the most of it, leaving Orkney and heading to the Scottish highlands in a couple of days.
I tell this to Martin, who is staying in the same hostel.
“Now let me see,” Martin says. “You’ll arrive Thursday, so that’d be curry night. You’ll be there Friday too, and that’s fish ‘n’ chip night and that’s even better. Tuesday is steak night, Wednesday is chicken night, and you already know Thursday is curry night. You’ll get a pint with your meal too, all for under six quid.”
Martin is taking me through the weekly menu at Wetherspoons, a chain of UK pubs known for cheap booze. I last visited one in 2012 and watched a girl vomit in the men’s bathroom. I wasn’t there specifically to watch a girl vomit; it was just a byproduct of the aforementioned prices. Say what you will about Wetherspoons, they’re surprisingly progressive with their policy on gender-neutral toilets, however unofficial it is.
“They call it club night, they do. Now Tuesday, that’s steak club. Wednesday is chicken club. Thursday is curry club and then Friday—”
I cut him off. “Fish ‘n’ chips club?”
“Aye, it is too,” he says, “but we call it Fish Friday – my favourite.”
Martin has visited either 700 or 701 Wetherspoons in his 72 years and plans on having a drink at them all. I Google how many there are, and it turns out that in 2015 a British woman, Mags Thomson, already completed this questionable feat. She’d drunk at 980 establishments by the time she’d finished and, statistically speaking, should’ve vomited in at least 452 men’s bathrooms. There are now 1100, so Martin still has a way to go.
“Doesn’t that bother you,” I ask Martin, “that you won’t be the first?”
He stares at me, perplexed.
“No, o’course not, why should I care what anyone else has done? There are about 100 that have done it, but I still haven’t drunk at ‘em all. It’s for me. No-one else.”
At least he’s not doing it for the fame. It’s inspiring, in a slightly depressing way.
What makes Martin’s quest more impressive is there are no Wetherspoons where he lives. There isn’t even a pub. For the past 26 years, he’s been living on Sanday, a small island off the coast of Orkney’s mainland which, as we know, isn’t exactly a thriving metropolis. Stromness, the town we’re in, is beautiful, but it’s January 2nd and nothing is open.
“It wouldn’t even matter if the pub was open,” Martin tells me. “It’s 3.85 for a pint. Can you believe it?” He points to an empty can on the counter. “I got these for 66 and a half pence each. 3.85, it’s robbery.”
I tell him that he’d be paying about 7 pounds for a pint in Australia.
“I won’t be going to Australia for a drink then,” he says. And why would he? There isn’t a Wetherspoons in sight.
He has no interest in going to Australia anyway. Too hot, he reckons, especially when a cold beer sets you back 7 quid. Besides, the last Australian he met was in Liverpool and that bloke was only there to kiss the gates at Anfield Stadium, the home of Liverpool FC.
“How stupid,” Martin says. “Football’s daft. They forced me to play at school. You were given two choices: play football, or get the cane then play football anyway. Not much else in Liverpool though, everyone kept asking if I was there for The Beatles. A bunch of teenagers making teenage music? No thanks.”
It’s easy to discard Martin as another old bloke who hates everything. Too easy, actually, but I think he just knows what he does like and won’t waste a second on anything else. Like snow.
“Hate the stuff, slipped on ice last year and broke my ankle,” he says. “They couldn’t give me crutches, so I kept walking on it and cracking the cast. Couldn’t be getting the ferry to the doctor all winter though, so I just did it up in electric tape.”
“How does it feel now?” I ask.
“It’s okay y’know, twinges in the winter time but that’s normal for folk with injuries.”
I tell him I broke both my wrists a few years back and that they seize up in the cold.
“Those tram tracks, they’re dangerous,” he says. Don’t I know it.
“My friend came off a bike years ago,” he continues, “and it turned him into one of those epileptics. Just started frothing at the mouth one night, he did.”
“Is he alright now?”
“O’course not, he’s dead. Age of 21, I was only 18. Went round to his house and his ma said come inside so I knew something was wrong. John’s dead, she said, and I did nae be‐ lieve it. I remember thinking Christ, if this is life, it’s a bit feeble.”
Martin used to visit the Wetherspoons with a fella he only referred to as ‘my pal’, who features in almost all of his stories. “My pal was late,” he begins. “My pal and I would get the ferry together,” he continues, and eventually, “My pal died last year,” and he trails off, but only for a moment.
“So what brought you to Orkney?” he asks.
“The lights, remember?”
“Ah yep, that’s right, I see them five, six times a year and I’m not even looking. I just go inside now. Saw ‘em the first night I moved here, 26 years ago. It was September 21st. Came outside and I thought they were having a laser party on the Shetland Islands.”
“What are the Shetlands like?” I ask.
“They don’t look too happy there,” he says.
“I’d say it’s because they have to walk two miles to the superkmarket.” I’m laughing, but he’s serious.
I envy him now, because he’ll keep walking to the shops, he’ll keep ignoring the Northern Lights and one day, if all goes to plan, he’ll finish his last 399 or 400 pints. For Martin, that’s enough to prove that life isn’t so feeble after all. And for me, like so many others, that’s really all I’m after.