The epigraphs of Islander: A Journey Around Our Archipelago, which tours 11 of the 6,000 water-girt rocks composing Britain, are taken from DH Lawrenceâs The Man Who Loved Islands. Lawrenceâs story tells of one Cathcart, who runs away to small and smaller islands, fails to integrate, spends all his money, seduces his housekeeperâs daughter, goes mad and dies. Cathcart was modelled on the authorâs friend Compton Mackenzie, who did indeed island hop and seduce â and suffered misfortunes, overdrafts and âplaguing by malevolent spiritsâ â but did not finally lose his loot or the plot. (A wreck off one of his island homes, Barra, gave him the story of Whisky Galore, and a fortune in royalties.)
Lawrence treated friends and family ruthlessly in his quest for material, but Mackenzie emerges as a luminous figure; island-struck, life-struck, the realised hero of his own fantasies. Our author, Patrick Barkham, whose outstanding nature journalism and books on butterflies and coastlines will be known by many readers, shares a love of islands with both men. âWhen the mainland or mainstream is in crisis,â he writes, âpeople look to the periphery for escape or inspiration. Many of us are looking there right now. Small islands may offer a critique of our larger island life, but might they also provide salvation for our epoch?â
Barkham is such an elegant and unegotistical writer that it is easy to miss the answers to this question, which his visits to Barra, Eigg, Rathlin, Alderney, St Kilda, Bardsey and others seem to provide. First, islands inspire cravings for possession and domination. The rolls of island owners here are littered with loonies, brutes and megalomaniacs, some rich, some pretending to be. Others, like Adam Nicolson, whose Shiant isles once belonged to Mackenzie, are the very opposite, so struck by their treasures that islands own them.
The dynamics of residency Barkham describes will be familiar to mainlanders who live in a village or village-like district. The distinctions between established residents and incomers, the roles of the manually adept, the influx of creatives and broadband dependents, the necessity of children at a local school to a sustainable community, and the flowering of hybrid and distinctive culture can all be found in Hebden Bridge, for example. But being surrounded by sea intensifies the actual and psychological weather, magnifying contrasts.
Barkhamâs place writing makes the bookâs settings a joy: âI wake on the third morning to the kind of explosive Highland summerâs day that English visitors â¦ remember for the rest of their lives. In a humid frenzy, lawnmowers rev in croft gardens, washing flutters on the lines that run up the hillside, and butterflies jink out of the steaming greenery.â This is Eigg. Across the Irish Sea on Rathlin, âYou didnât tell your right hand what your left hand was going to do in case your neighbour got to know about it,â a shrewd local tells Barkham.
Faith, politics, allegiances and flags are taboo, because âthe island is too small to tolerate a sectarian divideâ. We might say the same of Britain. And there is this, from an incomer to Eigg: âWeâve had a few unbalanced people in the past and it really affects the collective mentality. In a small community like this, one person can wreak total havoc.â It only takes one Boris Johnson to make a Little Britain, we conclude.
Generosity, solidarity, conservation-mindedness and venturesome spirits are characteristics that islands produce and reward, it emerges. This insightful and beguiling book is a great guide and tribute to ours. I hope it is also a spur to the best of our islandness.
â¢ Islander by Patrick Barkham is published by Granta (Â£20). To order a copy for Â£13.85 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over Â£10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of Â£1.99