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25 November 2020

What islands teach us

A doctor's odyssey is a reminder of the trials and wonders of solitude. 

By Erica Wagner

When Gavin Francis was a boy, his family would holiday at campsites on the coast of Fife, “where the estuary of the River Forth relaxes into the expansiveness of the North Sea”. As Francis reminds us in his expansive, picaresque new book, the Fife coast was once home to one of history’s most famous island-dwellers: Alexander Selkirk, a mariner who was marooned on a South Pacific island in 1704, and whose story became the model for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

As he lay on his camp bed in a caravan, the young Gavin would look out over the water at the winking lighthouses of the far shore, one of them the light on the Isle of May. This is one of the earliest lighthouses in northern Europe; a brazier on a stone tower was first kindled there in the 17th century. “Selkirk would have sailed past it on his way to the high seas, and on his eventual return,” Francis notes.

His obsession with islands, like the flame of a primitive lighthouse, was kindled. It has taken him to the furthest reaches of the Earth, north and south, east and west; Island Dreams is the striking result. The book itself is a beauty: a sturdy, unjacketed hardback with text printed in black and turquoise, and rich with full-colour illustrative maps. Its 11 chapters bear titles such as “Peace & Imprisonment”, “Islands in the Sky”, “Treasure Islands”. At the end of the chapter called “Reverence, Transformation” is a small, circular map depicting the wanderings of Odysseus. “The Odyssey makes it obvious that islands can be testing grounds, way stations in the storm of life,” Francis writes, and what the book offers is a vision, fragmented and yet feeling whole, of those testing grounds, mythical and actual. In short sections Francis interweaves his own experience with tales of the natural world, history and folklore. The themes of the chapters are loose, and within them Francis skips from island to island, era to era, but always with the guide of a blue-inked waymark at the side of the page: Unst, Lofoten, Chiloé.

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It is a particular pleasure to read this book now, when we are not travelling, when we have had to become our own islands. Francis asks his children what they like about visiting islands. “They have beaches all around, said one; they make you feel safe, said another; they have space to play and trees to climb, said the third.” This is the happy desert- island-doodle of the islands in our imagination, the very same one conjured, as Francis rightly notes, by the gull-flecked theme of the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, which shows absolutely no sign of losing its appeal after nearly 80 years.

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But Francis’s book displays all the rich, strange variety of islands: often as barren as they are sun-drenched. (Francis recalls Rupert Goold’s 2006 production of The Tempest, which had Patrick Stewart’s Prospero in furs and oilskins, his bald head patterned with Inuit-style tattoos.) In one striking episode, he shares an experience of that diversity packed into a mere couple of weeks. Battered by a love affair gone wrong, he determines to head for the complex of monasteries on the Athos peninsula, a place of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians. (If you are wondering how a peninsula came to be included in a book about islands, Francis traces the etymology of “island” to the early Germanic word meaning watery place – “suited as much to describe a peninsula as a piece of land surrounded on all sides by water”. I’m willing to allow him that.)

Since he’ll have more than enough time to get to Athos, why not go to the Orkneys first? Francis heads to North Ronaldsay, the most northerly of this Scottish archipelago. Only 60 people live there. He walks three circuits of the island, 13 miles each, and finds richness in the windswept land: fearless seabirds, sheep that have evolved to subsist on seaweed, the eerily human-like forms of seals.

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After four days, he returns to the Scottish mainland to fly to Greece: in Athens, he obtains permission to visit Athos, where there is no radio or television, and where no women have been, it is said, for a thousand years. The monks have no money. Here is a different kind of richness and isolation than that which Francis found in the north.

Here, as throughout the book, his limpid language brings these landscapes before the reader’s eyes: the donkey bells, waterfalls and birds of Athos; the dull green glow in the sky above North Ronaldsay, “a ‘quiet arc’ of auroral light”. And throughout, Francis calls other islands to mind even as he seems to settle on one place: in Athos and Orkney, he brings in Edge Island in Svalbard, where in the 18th century four Russians survived for six years by drinking the blood of reindeer and foxes; he describes Selkirk’s confinement on Juan Fernández Island, too. These are stories of dreadful solitude, and yet they are also stories of resilience and survival. Francis’s time on North Ronaldsay and Athos helps heal his broken heart.

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Francis can leave his islands, of course. He is aware of that privilege. “A condition of tolerating island life,” he writes, “might well be the capacity to escape it.” This sentence leapt out at me, for from Pandemic Island there is no escape, at least not at the moment; marooned as we are, we must find ways to manage and ways to heal.

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Like Anton Chekhov and Mikhail Bulgakov, Francis trained as a doctor; he still practises as a GP in Edinburgh, where he lives. Perhaps it is the close observation to detail necessary in medicine, the way in which doctors must construct stories and solve mysteries from fragmentary information, that makes so many of them accomplished storytellers – Arthur Conan Doyle was another who combined the two careers. Francis’s day job is not too much in evidence in this book, but there is something striking about reading it during this medical moment in which we find ourselves. Towards the end of this compilation of meditation and experience, the author reflects that it has become apparent to him that “isolation and connection were the two energising poles of my life”. It is the social engagement of medicine that draws him to it, he writes, “its ringside seat to all the bustle and brilliance of humanity”.

And yet Francis’s far-flung travels to the poles and to distant islands bring him “distance and perspective… the chance to feel part of a world somewhat emptied of the human”. Here is silence and the space for contemplation. For many of us over these past months – and in the months to come, no doubt – that sense of silence and space has been overwhelming, unfamiliar, unsought. Island Dreams provides a reminder of isolation’s wonders, as well as an extraordinary tour of some of the most remarkable places on our precious Earth. 

Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession
Gavin Francis
Canongate, 246pp, £20

This article appears in the 25 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Trump