Review published on January 16, 2018.
We are an island nation, and this element has gone a long way to defining our character as a people. As well as the main two islands, there are an astonishing 6,289 others, making us an archipelago. The largest of our islands is the Isle of Wight and they go all the way down to small pieces of rock that are only inhabited by seabirds. Some are permanently populated and are semi-autonomous states with their own laws, traditions and a very different view on taxation. Some have temporary residents or are strategic military locations and others were abandoned decades ago.
From these 6,289 islands Patrick Barkham has chosen eleven that best portray an element that shows just how special these places can be. First on his list is the home of the TT, the Isle of Man, which along with Jersey and Guernsey are Crown Dependencies. This means that they are not part of the UK, nor part of its overseas territories nor part of the European Union. Whilst we are responsible for defence, they are a self-governing and self-contained island that has made a unique position for itself in the world. From there he heads north to three of the Scottish islands that face the brutal onslaught of the winter storms. These places were once the centre of the Neolithic world and the ancient landscape that we can still see resonates into the modern world. He meets some of the new owners of the island of Eigg who bought it from the original laird and see how it is run as a trust. He visits one of the most famous islands that was abandoned back in 1930, St. Kilda, now occupied by military contractors and seabirds. This wedge of rock that leaps almost half a kilometre from the ocean is the last remains on an ancient volcano.
Ireland has its fair share of the islands that go to make up our archipelago and he heads to Rathlin just off the north coast. Like many of our specks of land, it is populated with mostly seabirds, but here people still make a living from the place. His tour of our island bounty would be amiss if the Scilly Isles and the Channel Islands were not visited, so he heads to Prison Island in Alderney, home of the only Nazi concentration camp on British soil, and St Martin’s, which is less than 1 square mile in size. But it is the islands that are so very tiny that are the icing on the cake of his all too brief journey. In Ynys Enlli he learns about the spiritual dimensions and solitude that an island can offer. His final destination is two islands off the wild Essex coast, one that offers privacy and discretion to those need it and to one that is now abandoned and is slowly returning to nature.
This is another book by Barkham that is a heady blend of travel, natural history, personal stories and history. Bearing in mind he has barely dipped his toes in the tales that our islands can tell with the eleven he has chosen, there are some fascinating stories in here. Throughout the book, we hear the stories of Sir Compton Mackenzie, another man who was equally obsessed with islands and even bought one too as well as living on others. He is not afraid to talk about the positive and negative aspects of living on an island either. The beginning of each chapter on each island has a delightful sketch and a carefully chosen quote from D.H Lawrence ‘The Man Who Loved Islands’. All of these elements deftly drift in and out of the narrative making it a joy to read.
Paul Cheney 4/-
Islander by Patrick Barkham
Granta Books 9781783781881 hbk Oct 2017
AUDIO: Slider by Pete Hautman
EDWARD STANFORD SHORTLIST: The Epic City by Kushanava Choudhury
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