The Weekend Australian - Review
Whether it’s discovering them or escaping from them, humans have a fascination with islands, writes Simon Caterson
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.