Tom Gilling

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Tom Gilling

Silly Isles By Eric Camp­bell Fourth Es­tate, 312pp, $32.99 There is noth­ing like liv­ing on an is­land to in­stil dis­trust of peo­ple who live on other is­lands. Wan­der­ing through In­done­sia in the late 1980s, I was warned by a Ba­li­nese to beware of Java, an is­land full of “thieves”. Be­fore leav­ing Java, I was given iden­ti­cal ad­vice by a Ja­vanese about the “thieves” wait­ing for me on Su­ma­tra.

In­su­lar­ity is a state of mind (“nar­row or il­lib­eral”, ac­cord­ing to the Mac­quarie Dic­tio­nary; “re­mote, de­tached or aloof”, ac­cord­ing to the Collins) as well as a ge­o­graph­i­cal con­di­tion, and journalist and au­thor Eric Camp­bell sets out to ex­plore both in Silly Isles, an en­ter­tain­ing suc­ces­sor to Ab­sur­dis­tan, his pre­vi­ous book about be­ing a re­porter in strange places.

Camp­bell is one of the ABC’s more ver­sa­tile tele­vi­sion jour­nal­ists. His years chas­ing dodgy builders and crooked salesmen on The In­ves­ti­ga­tors proved a handy ap­pren­tice­ship when it came to doorstop­ping dodgy politi­cians and crooked po­lice chiefs as a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent. Although more than ca­pa­ble of se­ri­ous jour­nal­ism — he did ex­cel­lent work in Kosovo, Moscow, Afghanistan and Iraq — Camp­bell has a wry sense of hu­mour that is well suited to his pre­sent role as a rov­ing re­porter on For­eign Cor­re­spon­dent.

Silly Isles is a col­lec­tion of tales drawn from nearly two decades of trav­el­ling around the world for the ABC, ac­com­pa­nied by var­i­ous cam­era­men called Dave; oc­ca­sion­ally (when the bud­get al­lowed) by a pro­ducer; and al­ways by a lo­cal “fixer” hired to tee up in­ter­views, or­gan­ise trans­port and — where nec­es­sary — hide the crew’s where­abouts from au­thor­i­ties.

Ac­cord­ing to Camp­bell, his deal with the ABC al­lows him to “go al­most any­where I can” to find a story. But through the years he has de­vel­oped a spe­cial fond­ness for vis­it­ing is­lands. Hav­ing ex­pe­ri­enced his share of hard­ship post­ings, Camp­bell proves a mas­ter at find­ing rea­sons for his bosses to send him to is­lands he is keen to visit (although the food and ac­com­mo­da­tion do not al­ways match his hopes).

As Charles Dar­win dis­cov­ered a cou­ple of cen­turies ago on the Gala­pa­gos Is­lands, life tends to evolve dif­fer­ently on is­lands. This ap­plies as much to hu­mans as it does to tur­tles and frigate­birds. Grow­ing up in iso­la­tion can ac­cen­tu­ate be­hav­iours as well as phys­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics. Is­lands, Camp­bell writes in his pro­logue, can be “won­der­ful sym­bols of hu­man­ity, mi­cro­cosms of the van­i­ties, ambitions and con­flicts of great pow­ers but with the folly laid bare, like lo­cal coun­cils with tanks”.

Take the Kuril Is­lands, oc­cu­pied by the So­viet Union (and now by Rus­sia) since the end of World War II but long claimed by Tokyo, which con­sid­ers them to be an in­te­gral part of Ja­pan. “The Ja­panese, they are zom­bies!” one Rus­sian lo­cal as­sured Camp­bell. “How to ex­plain such peo­ple? They are not nor­mal like you and I. The id­iots once call me and say I must meet them at the Ja­panese Friend­ship House. Like they own the is­lands! I say f..k you, you can come to my of­fice!”

So­cial me­dia has mit­i­gated the in­su­lar­ity of is­lands but sev­eral of Camp­bell’s tales date back to the early 2000s, long be­fore Face­book and Twit­ter had the power to bring crowds on to the street and de­pose dic­ta­tors. Although Silly Isles is billed as a travel book, it is more a book of re­portage, and some of the ear­lier re­ports feel their age. A lively ac­count of the au­thor’s quest for an in­ter­view with rebel fighter Al­fredo Reinado in East Ti­mor ends with a men­tion of the 2008 at­tack on Jose RamosHorta. Camp­bell’s fi­nal sen­tence — “East Ti­mor con­tin­ues to strug­gle on from the legacy of the re­bel­lion and the bit­ter­ness of lost hope on that trou­bled is­land” — feels inad­e­quate.

Else­where, ju­di­cious tech­no­log­i­cal up­dates dis­guise the prob­lem, as in his ac­count of a 2007 visit to the Faroe Is­lands to wit­ness the an­nual slaugh­ter of whales known lo­cally as the grind: ‘‘Mums and dads race out of their de­sign studios and apart­ment lofts, kids put down their iPhone 6s and ev­ery­one picks up sharp­ened knives for some old­fash­ioned fam­ily fun. Within mo­ments, they’re down on the beach hap­pily stab­bing and slic­ing in a sea of blood.”

Some read­ers will re­mem­ber these scenes from the orig­i­nal re­ports broad­cast on For­eign Cor­re­spon­dent. Camp­bell is shrewd enough to know that his book has to be more than a tran­scrip­tion of what we have al­ready seen on TV, and his sto­ries are pep­pered with asides about the mishaps, im­pro­vi­sa­tions and oc­ca­sional lucky breaks that hap­pened off-cam­era.

Some is­lands of­fer a cooler wel­come than oth­ers. On the “hol­i­day” is­land of Zanz­ibar Camp­bell and his crew spent much of their stay try­ing to avoid hand­ing over their tapes to the gov­ern­ment’s thug­gish se­cret po­lice. Af­ter a sin­is­ter phone call from the for­eign min­istry Camp­bell and his crew aban­doned their plans to leave the is­land by ferry and scram­bled aboard a char­ter plane, es­cap­ing to neigh­bour­ing Tan­za­nia in the nick of time. “Zanz­ibar hadn’t quite been the in­dul­gent treat we were ex­pect­ing,” Camp­bell writes. “I felt tense and ex­hausted. Even the tri­umph of get­ting away was tem­pered by the ob­vi­ous fact the se­cret po­lice were as in­com­pe­tent as they were bru­tal.” Es­cape is the priv­i­lege of the for­eign cor­re­spon­dent. It would have been in­ter­est­ing to know what hap­pened to the lo­cals whose faces were on the tapes and to the fixer left be­hind. But that would be a dif­fer­ent story. is an au­thor and critic.

Tom Hanks finds time for sport in the 2000 de­serted is­land film Cast Away

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