The Weekend Australian - Review


Whether it’s dis­cov­er­ing them or es­cap­ing from them, hu­mans have a fas­ci­na­tion with is­lands, writes Si­mon Cater­son

- Iceland · Scotland · Treasure Island, FL · Switzerland · Oscar Wilde · Antarctica · United Kingdom · Hawaii · John Donne

urely no event could bring our am­biva­lent at­ti­tude to­wards is­lands into sharper fo­cus than a global pan­demic.

The re­sponse to COVID-19 has forced us to dis­tance our­selves phys­i­cally as though some­how we could in prac­ti­cal terms be sep­a­rated from one an­other, even as it re­minds us force­fully that no one, to para­phrase John Donne, is an is­land en­tire of them­selves.

As Gavin Fran­cis’s Is­land Dreams and Alis­tair Bon­net’s The Age of Is­lands ex­plain, the fas­ci­na­tion with is­lands — imag­in­ing them, vis­it­ing them, liv­ing on them, and even cre­at­ing new ones — is as old as hu­man­ity it­self.

An is­land can be a refuge or a prison, and per­haps it is both at once. Although the au­thors of these books range across much of the world, each of them draws pri­mary in­spi­ra­tion from the wild north­ern re­gions of Scot­land, where is­lands that are nat­u­ral or made by hu­mans have an an­cient his­tory.

In Is­land Dreams, a dis­cur­sive and some­what whim­si­cal ex­plo­ration of the clus­ters of is­lands cen­tred on Shet­land and the He­brides, Fran­cis, a Scot­tish physi­cian, med­i­tates on the ways we an­tic­i­pate and ex­pe­ri­ence is­lands.

Fran­cis’s ob­ses­sion with is­lands be­gan in child­hood and was stim­u­lated by tales such as Trea­sure Is­land and The Swiss Fam­ily Robin­son.

“I was in search of dis­tant is­lands,” he muses, “in love with the idea that, on a patch of land, pro­tected by a cir­cum­fer­ence of sea, the obli­ga­tions and ir­ri­ta­tions of life would dis­solve and a sin­gu­lar clar­ity of mind would de­scend.’’ Then he adds: “It proved more com­pli­cated than that.”

Fran­cis searches for that state of mind that would rec­on­cile our de­sire for both iso­la­tion and con­nec­tion on the per­fect is­land. That quest, he ac­knowl­edges, is un­end­ing. For, as Os­car Wilde once ob­served: “A map of the world that does not in­clude Utopia is not even worth glanc­ing at, for it leaves out the one coun­try at which Hu­man­ity is al­ways land­ing. And when Hu­man­ity lands there, it looks out, and, see­ing a bet­ter coun­try, sets sail.”

Fran­cis vis­its re­mote is­lands where monas­ter­ies have been es­tab­lished for cen­turies, and is also at­tracted to far-flung sci­en­tific out­posts. “The de­ci­sion to live and work at Hal­ley Re­search Sta­tion in Antarc­tica was per­haps the most ex­treme man­i­fes­ta­tion of my isle-o-philia.”

He is con­vinced that the year he spent at Bri­tain’s most re­mote sci­en­tific fa­cil­ity per­ma­nently al­tered his con­scious­ness, and left him aching for more.

Fran­cis sees him­self as a kind of is­land­hop­ping wan­derer. “Af­ter fif­teen years of go­ing back and for­ward be­tween iso­la­tion and con­nec­tion I tried com­bin­ing the two, and looked for sus­tain­ing, col­lab­o­ra­tive, en­gag­ing work on is­lands — work I was lucky enough to find.

“But just as it’s in the nature of the north and south poles that they can never be brought to­gether, in the longer term, these twinned en­thu­si­asms of my life were to re­sist be­ing com­bined.”

It seems to me that the ten­sion iden­ti­fied by Fran­cis be­tween our com­pet­ing and ul­ti­mately ir­rec­on­cil­able de­sires for iso­la­tion and con­nec­tion helps to ex­plain the last­ing ap­peal of the 1960s TV sit­com Gil­li­gan’s Is­land, which I binge­watched dur­ing the lock­down.

The show is about an as­sorted group of castaways who are ship­wrecked on an un­charted trop­i­cal is­land some­where off the coast of Hawaii and whose con­stant ef­forts to get them­selves res­cued al­ways end in fail­ure, mostly be­cause of the (ap­par­ently) well-mean­ing id­iocy of the epony­mous Gil­li­gan.

Over the course of nearly 100 episodes of Gil­li­gan’s Is­land, it be­comes clear that psy­cho­log­i­cally the char­ac­ters si­mul­ta­ne­ously do and do not want to leave the is­land. Gil­li­gan, per­haps the great­est covert trick­ster in pop­u­lar cul­ture, thus both stim­u­lates and thwarts the dreams of his un­know­ing cap­tives. If ever a tragedy was dis­guised as light com­edy, it is Gil­li­gan’s Is­land.

Is­lands are not just sites of im­pos­si­ble utopian yearn­ing and un­re­solved psy­cho­log­i­cal con­flict.

 ??  ?? The cast of Gil­li­gan’s Is­land
The cast of Gil­li­gan’s Is­land

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