Literary Nonfiction

The best books on Islands

recommended by Gavin Francis

Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession by Gavin Francis

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Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession
by Gavin Francis

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Generations of writers, explorers and armchair travellers have found a focal point of fascination in the idea of the remote island. Why so? Gavin Francis, the award-winning writer, explains the everlasting appeal of the lonely isle – and why the fantasy is at least as powerful as the salt-sprayed reality – as he selects five of the best books on islands.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession by Gavin Francis

OUT NOW

Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession
by Gavin Francis

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You recently published your sixth book, Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession. In it, you write about what you call your ‘islophilia,’ and encounters with other island-lovers around the world and in literature. So what is it about the idea of the island that draws so much fascination?

It’s remarkable, isn’t it, how enduring and widespread that fascination is? We can see it today in the way that people still talk about Robinson Crusoe though it’s 300 years old, and in the way people listen to Desert Island Discs, and watch shows like Love Island. We can see it in literature, from Thomas More’s Utopia to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, from The Swiss Family Robinson to Treasure Island, from Lord of the Flies to Alex Garland’s The Beach.

I’m sure that fascination has many different roots – people love the idea of a space that is circumscribed, protected, that has a limited number of outside influences – it creates a stage on which characters can interact, whether they’re fictional or not. People also love the idea of getting away from it all. And perhaps the source of satisfaction in thought experiments like Desert Island Discs is that people reliably enjoy imagining how they’d simplify their lives to essentials. What would you pack if your life depended on it? How would you prioritise the elements of your life, if you really had to distil them down to what matters most?

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We can tell just from old histories and from the naming of parts of the landscape that islands have often been considered in the cultural imagination as places of spiritual significance, even of facilitating change. So many islands around the Scottish coast were once monastic settlements, and as Adam Nicolson writes in Sea Room the connection between islands and holiness seems to predate Christianity. It’s a very ancient association.

You’ve recommended five great books about islands for us. Let’s start with The Voyage of St Brendan, written around 800AD. You’ve specifically recommended the version found in the Penguin Classics edition of The Age of Bede. Can you tell us more?

For those who don’t know it this is a marvellous Dark Ages tale of early medieval fantasy and mysticism. It describes a journey made by St Brendan probably up the west coast of Ireland and the west coast of Scotland, out to what sounds like the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and quite possibly the Americas, in a small leather coracle in the 500s AD. The geography of the journey is sketchy because although the Irish monks of that era were skilled navigators almost nothing of their writing on travel survives, and the stories that passed on with their oral tradition weren’t written down until many centuries later. They knew the earth was round, for example, and described as being like ‘a well-formed apple’.

Brendan’s Voyage was written down in Latin probably in the 800s, and is called the Navigatio Sancti Brendanni Abbatis. The way the story develops has a lot in common with fairy tales. The narrator will tell you something quite pedestrian and pragmatic, such as how to build a boat, then drop in the most amazing occurrences – talking birds, a whale you could walk around on and light a fire on, a land where troll-like figures could throw burning rocks and lava at you (probably an eyewitness description of an Icelandic volcanic eruption). Brendan and his companions reach a kind of promised land which could well be Maine or the coast of Newfoundland.

“People reliably enjoy imagining how they’d simplify their lives to essentials. What would you pack if your life depended on it?”

What is really striking as you read through The Voyage of St Brendan is how the different islands encountered on the voyagers’ way across the North Atlantic are seen as places where the monks’ faith is tested but then invigorated. Sometimes they come across monastic communities where one of the other monks on the voyage will decide to disembark. And with Island Dreams I wanted to emphasise that capacity of islands to allure and to transform perspective. The chapter of Island Dreams that describes Brendan’s voyage (as well as other voyagers) is called ‘Reverence, Transformation.’

I think a lot of our readers will be able to relate to that idea. Next on your island reading list is Adam Nicolson’s wonderful book about Scotland’s Shiant Islands, Sea Room. Why do you recommend this book?

Because it’s a beautiful read and because it conveys in spare, unromanticised prose the lifelong love affair that Nicolson has with these islands in the Minch, between the Scottish mainland and the Isle of Lewis – which were given to him by his father. Nicolson’s father had bought them from a man who bought them from Compton Mackenzie of Whisky Galore fame. Along the way Nicolson digs down into the cultural origins of all that fascination we’ve been discussing, and he ranges over the history, geography, archaeology, biology, and politics of the tiny little archipelago itself. It opens with a discussion of the question, ‘who can say they really own the land?’ And then moves on into an examination of a question very close to my heart: what the word ‘remote’ really means in the context of islands, and what can we say of isolation, when an ‘isolated’ community in such a place has to be very close-knit in order to survive.

Yes. I moved to a fairly small island two years ago, and I must say it’s been the opposite of isolating. Next up, we have Diana Souhami’s Selkirk’s Island, an account of Alexander Selkirk’s time marooned on an uninhabited island in the Juan Fernandez archipelago of Chile. Why did you select this book?

Souhami does something very interesting with this book; first of all, she examines the story of Robinson Crusoe, which has somehow managed to hold onto its power and fascination through the centuries, and then she sets out to write a biography of Alexander Selkirk – whose story of being marooned in the early 1700s in the South Pacific largely inspired Defoe’s tale of Crusoe. Selkirk was a leatherworker’s son from Fife, just a few miles down the coast from where I grew up, and ran away to sea at a young age. Through a great deal of archival research Souhami reveals all sorts of details of Selkirk’s life, and what life was like in general for mariners and pirates in the south seas in the eighteenth century. It was a life consisting of almost unimaginable ordeals of discomfort, but there was also, through privateering against Spanish vessels, the opportunity to win great riches.

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Souhami manages to tell Selkirk’s story with a focus being the island itself. In Defoe’s story, Crusoe lived on his island for something like 27 years, while Selkirk was on his just 4 years and 4 months. She talks about how he was almost captured by Spaniards two years into his experience, and there are very moving accounts of his rescue that she unearths from the (British) sailors who ultimately brought him home. Anyone interested in the background of Crusoe, and how they might survive on a desert island themselves, should definitely read this book!

Can we take a brief detour, and talk about why Crusoe has caught the imagination so? I think its success caught even Daniel Defoe unawares.

Defoe was prolific – he published sixteen other pieces of writing in 1718, the year Crusoe came out. And the appeal is I think at its heart because we love to imagine how we’d cope in his abandoned situation. It would be a terrifying one to be caught in, but it remains so appealing because it combines something quite frightening – being marooned – with something that many people also fantasise about – being left on a beautiful tropical island. What would it be like to cut yourself off from every single obligation in your life? How long would it take you to get bored? The tropical island is a stock image in our culture – it stands in for holidays, for rest and relaxation, for luxury, and reaching such a place is a shorthand symbol of success.

Crusoe’s story also overlaps with other great myths – with the Garden of Eden, for example, or with the story of Odysseus marooned with Calypso. These undercurrents of other great stories run just under the surface with Crusoe, and to my mind they are a large part of why it continues to hold such power.

Next on your list of island books, you’ve recommended Christiane Ritter’s A Woman in the Polar Night. It’s a 1930s memoir of a year spent in Svalbard. What do you like about this book?

When I was writing Island Dreams I wanted to look more closely at the kind of fairytale island fantasies that we’ve just been discussing with Crusoe, and in the book I describe a fair few islands that I’ve been to that really are like that – beautiful, tropical, with palm trees and beaches of yellow sand. But one of the principal themes of Island Dreams is the allure of isolation, and nowadays for that you’re likely going to have to set out for more temperate or circumpolar islands – not tropical ones.

Ritter was a German woman living in a trapper’s hut with her husband on the north coast of Svalbard during the years when Germany was sliding towards fascism – you get the impression she was pleased to leave. Her book is still in print after almost 90 years because it’s so unusual to have a woman’s perspective on these landscapes – all travel writing of that era, but polar travel writing in particular, is so dominated by male perspectives. And Ritter writes with such eloquence about the beauty of polar isolation. She loves it there on the edge of Svalbard, the edge of Europe, looking out towards the north pole – and her husband spends much of his time away hunting so she’s alone. She revels in that solitude, and thanks to her beautiful book we’re able to experience it second-hand.

Next, you’ve selected Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands. It has a beautiful design. Can you talk us through it?

Schalansky is a designer to trade, and this book is an extraordinary testament to her skill – very plain, bold colours, printed in black, blue and orange ink, it takes the reader through a personal library of remote islands that really are remote – the likes of Bouvet island, where there was a nuclear bomb tested that almost went unnoticed, or even Juan Fernandez, where Selkirk was marooned. Each island gets a new map and has an accompanying text. To be honest, to my mind the accompanying texts are a little hit-and-miss in terms of their appeal, but the map images are so gorgeous that the pleasure of flicking through the book isn’t impacted at all.

I like the sometime subtitle: ‘Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will‘. Do you think that gets to the heart of the issue? Islands as fantasy, as much as geographical destination?

Yes of course! There’s a secret tribe of us cartophiles out there, flicking restlessly through atlases, admiring places that we’ll never actually manage to visit in real life, but which nonetheless hold us spellbound within the pages of the atlas.

In Island Dreams, you relate the plot of D H Lawrence‘s ‘The Man Who Love Islands,’ a short story in which a very rich man moves from island to smaller island, in search of peace and simplicity, and never finding it. What can we learn from this?

Lawrence has such a jaundiced eye; he once wrote from the French Îles d’Hyères I don’t care for islands, especially very small ones. That short story is a kind of warning, I think, about the egomania that can be implicit within the desire for solitude. Because Lawrence’s protagonist is a rich man who owns his own archipelago, and has the resources to buy ever more remote islands, there’s nothing to stop him sinking into a kind of misanthropic frenzy. I’ll just add below a little bit about the story that I wrote into one of the conclusions of Island Dreams:

[he] finds himself at last on a small Atlantic island, just a few acres of rock. It has some turf, some rainwater, rocks, sedge and seabirds. He has abandoned his naïve new wife and newborn daughter to move there. And on this island his solitude becomes a mania: he eyes passing steamers with distrust, fearful they’ll attempt to communicate with him, while sinking into a stupor of isolation. Lawrence describes a wandering, spectral figure, surrounded by luminous fogs, absolutely alone, with the space soaking into him. The grey sea alone, and the footing of his sea-washed island.

There’s an unwholesome puritanism about Lawrence’s island lover, the rich man seeking his protected domain with the kind of obsessive intolerance that turns loyalty to bigotry, love into hate. His love of islands leads him to abandon family and friends, to seek doom and oblivion. At the end he dies muttering: The elements! The elements!

I think Lawrence’s protagonist becomes a kind of Kurtz-like figure, and like Conrad’s story about the Congo, it’s a cautionary story about the terrors that can be unleashed by the ego when it can pursue whatever it wants, unrestrained. Which brings me to another theme of Island Dreams, which is the idea from psychotherapy, and in particular the writings of Donald Winnicott, that we all need a measure of isolation in order to retain our psychological and emotional health. Too much isolation and we become insulated to the world (Winnicott’s distinction), but with recourse to isolation we have the opportunity to pause, reflect, recharge, and be better versions of ourselves.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

November 17, 2021

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Gavin Francis

Gavin Francis

Gavin Francis qualified in medicine from Edinburgh in 1999, then spent ten years travelling, visiting all seven continents. He is the author of six books, including Empire Antarctica, Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins which was Scottish Book of the Year in 2013 and shortlisted for the Costa, Ondaatje and Banff Prizes; and the bestselling Adventures in Human Being (2015). His latest book is Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession (2021), an account of his 'islomania' and a study of the role of the island in the cultural consciousness. He lives and practises medicine in Edinburgh.

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Gavin Francis

Gavin Francis

Gavin Francis qualified in medicine from Edinburgh in 1999, then spent ten years travelling, visiting all seven continents. He is the author of six books, including Empire Antarctica, Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins which was Scottish Book of the Year in 2013 and shortlisted for the Costa, Ondaatje and Banff Prizes; and the bestselling Adventures in Human Being (2015). His latest book is Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession (2021), an account of his 'islomania' and a study of the role of the island in the cultural consciousness. He lives and practises medicine in Edinburgh.