It was supposed to be a clean break from their humdrum existence in a dingy Manchester flat. But all Max Scratchmann and his partner, Chancery, did when they moved to the Orkney Islands was replace one vision of hell with another.
To compound his misery, the writer's satirical travelogue about six years among the islanders – whom he describes as "staid, emotionally repressed drunks, stuck in the 1950s" – has so enraged inhabitants of the Scottish archipelago that it has been shelved by his publishers, after threats of legal action.
Chucking It All: How Downshifting To A Windswept Scottish Island Did Absolutely Nothing to Improve My Life was supposed to be a light-hearted warning to "smart-arsed urbanites", tempted by the idea of escaping the rat race, who thought that starting a slower, rustic life somewhere like Provence, Umbria or the Outer Hebrides would somehow find them inner harmony.
Scratchmann described moving to the Orkneys as like "falling through a rent in the fabric of the universe and tumbling headfirst into the 1950s". He wrote: "We were taken aback at our first night-time encounter with Orcadians, who are rather staid and emotionally repressed by day, but veritable Jekyll and Hydes when the midnight sun sinks and rum and whisky washes away their numerous inhibitions."
He concluded: "The two major pastimes on long winter nights are gossip and adultery."
Scratchmann said the Orkney landscape looked like an "alien planet in a classic episode of Star Trek". He unkindly recalled participating in drunken ceilidhs, discos and festivals, and meeting the local lotharios as well as the only gays on the archipelago.
Angry islanders, including one lady who recognised an unflattering depiction of herself, remonstrated with the Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland, Alistair Carmichael. He obtained a preview copy after it was featured on the island's radio station, and successfully lobbied the London publisher Nicholas Brealey, who has cancelled the book's publication scheduled for this month.
Mr Carmichael insisted it was never his intention to get it banned altogether, but objected to the author's "hurtful and vindictive" lampooning of several residents, whom he argued were "clearly identifiable" and would have their reputations damaged if the book were published in its existing form.
Scratchmann insisted it had never been his intention to insult the locals and that the people he portrays would only be recognisable to "a few dozen Orcadians". He added: "I wanted to write an honest, truthful book about what life in Orkney is really like. Up there, Orkney is universally portrayed as God's own territory on earth. I dared to point out in a light-hearted way that is not the case."
He was told there had been a complaint about the book weeks before the final draft was due, and agreed to edit the offending sections. But he then received a letter from the publisher informing him of its decision to cancel the project.
"The book I set out to write was not about Orkney; it was a book about the experience of downshifting, and about urbanites who think that all you have to do is go to the middle of nowhere and that everything's going to be wonderful," he said yesterday. "Of course it's not. The society, the weather: everything about Orkney was totally wrong for us. There are no trees, for a start."
Scratchmann, who has spent most of his life in England working as an illustrator and artist, decided to move from Manchester to Orkney in 1999 with his partner after the pair became "burnt out" and sick of living in a succession of dingy flats.
"Around that time a lot of books were popping up about people who'd dumped it all and gone off to live in some rural idyll," he explained. "We, like a lot of other people, became infected with this idea."
He added: "I've portrayed the people and the place as real; it's a humourous book, I'm not saying it's the worst place on earth. I'm just saying it's not the best place on earth either."
Scratchmann's conclusions about the island were not shared by Barbara Foulkes, the director of the local tourist board and a life-long Orcadian. She said she suspected he was "bitter" because his own attempt at downsizing had failed.
"I certainly don't think it's an accurate view of Orkney today, because it's a very vibrant community," she said. "We have a good, thriving social life that doesn't all revolve around drink. I don't know this chap so it's difficult to say, but he strikes me as somebody who maybe doesn't get on with people."
When asked whether adultery and backstabbing were prevalent on the island, she said: "It's certainly not something I've come across."
Scratchmann is now so disillusioned with the book, which took two years to write, that he has "no plans" to seek another publisher.
The Orkney Islands
The Orkney Islands, an archipelago off the northern tip of Scotland, have a total population of about 20,000. In all, there are about 70 islands, only 21 of which are inhabited, covering 974 square kilometres. The largest is often referred to as "the Mainland".
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