Book review: Islander, by Patrick Barkham

Barkham misses a trick when writing about St Kilda
Barkham misses a trick when writing about St Kilda
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It is very rare for me to finish a book and think, gosh, I really hope the author writes a sequel. Patrick Barkham – the author of The Butterfly Isles, Badgerlands and Coastlines – brings his poetic and forensic gaze to 11 islands in this work: namely, the Isle of Man, South Ronaldsay, Barra, Eigg, Rathlin, Alderney, St Martin’s in the Isles of Scilly, St Kilda, Ynys Enlli, Osea and Ray Island.

It is a book where ecology, sociology and cultural history meet, and is further threaded around the writer Compton Mackenzie, an inveterate buyer of and lover of islands, and the DH Lawrence story, “The Man Who Loved Islands”; a stiletto of a work which vivisected, applauded and mocked Mackenzie’s fixation with isolation.

The Mackenzie motif holds these essays together admirably, if sometimes tendentiously. It is an achievement to find something new to say, particularly about the Western Isles and Orkney, as they are fast becoming over-written. Barkham cites or references Adam Nicolson, Amy Liptrot, Alastair McIntosh, Madeleine Bunting, Will Self, Ray Perman, Donald Meek and many other writers I have reviewed over the years. Although his essay on Barra is a complete delight, he finds his full stride when on uncharted ground.

As an aside I should mention that he misses a trick when writing about St Kilda – although Mackenzie is most famous for the skit Whisky Galore, dutifully referenced, Barkham might profitably have read one of its sequels, Rockets Galore, about Ministry of Defence antics in the islands, when discussing Hiortaich, given that it is home not just to nostalgic ruins but a military base.

The title is significant, in that this is a book about the humans – and the non-humans – who inhabit islands. The days of swooning over bladderwrack and marram grass are long over, although Barkham has a keen eye for precise imagery: there are porcelain crab-shells, “grass slopes… which are covered with daisies, which are actually the heads of fulmars”, “buzzing insects that turn out to be puffins” and a “Jenga game of dead twigs”. But as he says at the outset “people may be islandish but islands are also like people”, and it is the people that make the politics so interesting here.

Islands are experiments in one way or another. The Isle of Man is encouraging the use of cryptocurrencies. Eigg, to an extent, struggled with the implications of community buy-out. Rathlin and the Shiants are a model for how far one might intervene in an ecosystem: does eradication of an “invasive” species benefit others? Tresco, in the Scillys, has an ambivalent relationship with the Duchy of Cornwall, and the heir to the throne’s fantasias of feudalism and Orwellian spinsters on bicycles – never bikes – hearing the smack of willow on leather and the tintinnabulation of the church bells. Osea was a hedonist hideaway; a kind of Magaluf or Ayia Napa off Essex that boasted a cut-price version of The Priory to boot. Ynys Enlli, in contrast, was home to a contemplative convent. Although Barkham, like any good journalist, seeks to give all sides of the stories, I can’t help but feel he is a little unforgiving on the Sisters of the Love of God whose nuns have visited Ynys Enlii seeking a retreat. It is, as one vicar says, and which applies to all monasticism, “the island of solitude where one is least alone”. That is one reason why I would like to see a sequel: think of Sark, most famous because of Mervyn Peake’s Mr Pye, where the island is the precise size to attempt a theological revolution. Islands are prisons as well as potential utopias, as Peake demonstrates. Barkham looks to a different Channel Island to prove this.

The stand out chapter is on Alderney. While Guernsey and Jersey were occupied, Alderney was evacuated and became the only concentration camp on “British” soil during the Second World War, with prisoners of war subjected to brutal and horrific treatment. One – Georgi Kondakov – has written bravely about the crucifixions, the mass executions and the bodies which might still be entombed in the concrete buildings for which they provided slave labour. Its architecture retains the tang of the Nazi regime. This is a very effective and challenging essay, about memory, about belonging – many of those who returned were so shocked they left again – and about how contentious the war still is in those abandoned rocks.

Barkham’s triumph is to write a book about islands that is more concerned with politics than periwinkles. Much though I would like him to write about the mystical Lindisfarne and Coquet, the Brythonic reliquary of Anglesey or the isles of Sheppey and Canvey made surreally immortal by Nicola Barker, maybe the real task is to look to the islands which are not surrounded by water.

“When they learned the power of the penny they were doomed,” one commentator says of St Kilda. On Barra, Mackenzie found “the aristocrats of democracy”. Where are these places today?

*Islander: A Journey Around Our Archipelago, by Patrick Barkham, Granta Books, £20