Last night I had a blitzread of a book belonging to a genre of which I have quite an extensive collection, that being the genre of travel books related to some of the world's more far flung and mysterious inhabited islands, most of which coincidentally (and most excellently) happen to still be part of the British Empire.
I am particularly fascinated by the island of Tristan da Cunha, which must be one of the most inhospitable places to live on the planet, being basically a vertical volcano rising out of the sea 2000 miles from anywhere and smack bang in the middle of the Roaring Forties. Boats only visit the island on a handful of occasions each year. The rest of the time its just you, a few worried looking sheep, and 270 of your closest relatives: on the island there are only a total of 8 surnames.
Even weirder is the amazing Bounty adventure yarn and subsequent fly-blown incestuous decline that surrounds the almost mythical island of Pitcairn.
The rather pointless way that I can spend hours and hours scanning empty oceans on Google Earth for the remotest of islands would seemingly hint to some kind of inbuilt island-urge. A very strange and deep rooted human impulsion is the phenomenon of Islomania, mostly affecting males of the species, myself seemingly included. It seems to be atavistacally stored in a subfolder of the 'eden-chip' I talked about here. Islomania was first delineated by one of my least favourite authors, Lawrence Durrell. He said:
"Islomania is a rare affliction of spirit. There are people who find islands somehow irresistible. The mere knowledge that they are in a little world surrounded by sea fills them with an indescribable intoxication.”
Robert Louis Stevenson was probably the most famous Islomaniac, and was certainly responsible for creating many more of them down the years through his writing. Here's a letter penned by RLS to a friend in 1875:
- "Awfully nice man here tonight...telling us all about the South Sea Islands till I was sick with desire to go there; beautiful places, green forever; perfect climate; perfect shapes of men and women, with red flowers in their hair; and nothing to do but study oratory and etiquette, sit in the sun and pick up the fruits as they fall."
Unfortunately for me I can see a big negative side to all this love of islands, and it is inadvertantly alluded to in this letter. The delight in the arcadian revelry of a pristine green eden is harmless enough, but it is the latter part of the passage that I dislike - the having nothing to do but sit lazily and gorge yourself in the sun.
Having visited a few fairly remote islands in my time the one thing that strikes you is the absolute weirdness of the inhabitants. Some people may like this ‘otherness’ but it seems to me that the 'civilised', educated people that move to islands live there because they are hiding from the reality of mainland life. They enjoy island life because they are big fish in tiny ponds, so therefore don’t have to make any effort. They know that they will hardly ever be confronted with something that they don't know. Everything that could possibly happen to them is contained within a few miles of familiar surroundings. This phenomenon is also quite visible amongst the urban hippyish types who move in increasing numbers to my home county of Cornwall. It’s voluntary stagnation and personally its not a trait I like in people, I think its a sign of weakness - hiding from reality, admitting defeat, giving up, closing your mind.
Writing this I was reminded of a few pieces of literature that deal with a similar theme, for instance the evil benevolence of the floating algae island in The Life of Pi, and also two of the islands encountered by Odysseus, both of which used decadent eden-like charms to rob him of his men - the island of the Lotus Eaters and Circe's unpronouncable island of lost consonants - Aeaea.
Maybe my dislike of this lifestyle is simply a product of being brought up in a protestant country, surrounded by that work ethic and fear of laziness. I can't help but view the fruits falling from Stevenson's tree's as the evil allegorical apple in the garden.
Doesn't stop me from wasting time on google earth though.