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23 September 2002

Sipping tea, as the war clouds gather

Even on a small, distant island, gazing at the ocean, Lucy Irvine feels power and arrogance in the a

By Lucy Irvine

I’ve been insular since leaving home aged 12. I started living on small islands in my twenties. I lived on one uninhabited dot for 400 days – resulting in my first book, Castaway. Surviving near-starvation, I discovered a passion for mere existence. Western civilisation seemed over-complex after this, and I bolted to an island in a sea of trees. There, I produced sons – Magnus, Joe and Benji – and soon travelled with them. During our year on an atoll in the Outer Solomon Islands I studied “primitive” morality in a microcosm. Using a solar-powered satellite system, I sent weekly “pigeon posts” to the Sunday Times and wrote my book, Faraway. Now, the family base is 800 acres of raw beauty closer to the outside world, but still far enough to keep my perspective intact. I won’t provide co-ordinates. Let me just say that the moat between here and America no longer seems wide enough. And we’re in the Gulf Stream.

My first island, in the Torres Strait, was so remote that I only heard about the Falklands war when it was over. “Missis, islan’ belong iu mashimup nara islan,” a visiting chief announced. I assumed he meant Northern Ireland, not Mrs T’s triumph. But now I’m grown up and peripheral to civilisation, and global trouble looms, I’m dropping my insular stance for once.

The alarm was set for 5.45, but sunrise cycling into my consciousness with orange-spoked wheels pre-empted it. Dressing, I listened to the demonisation on the radio: Saddam was evil, Bush a warmonger. Flashes from behind the mountains-across-the-sea signalled morning to pots of basil. A mini-tomato was caught in flagrante by the sun’s laser crayon.

I splashed my face in rainwater. Resumption-of-weapons-inspections seemed pointless, given America’s dominatrix stance. Blair faced rumbling unions, Bush an uneasy UN. I’d asked fellow writers to sign a letter to Downing Street, adding to the burgeoning “Nos” around Britain. From my island fastness – its microclimate courtesy of the Gulf Stream – I had watched nations line up to warn of potential chaos. Pakistan foresaw “grave consequences”. Russia, France and China held dissenting views. No question here of a neat, vote-grabbing war.

The anniversary of the twin towers attack: war drums beat as mourning bells tolled. Threats from Washington brought threats from Iraq. Terrorist cells seemed ubiquitous. Arrests were made; citizens exhorted to vigilance; people disappeared. Paradoxically, Bush may flatten Baghdad and trigger a centripetal “jihad”. I hate the power and arrogance in the air. I desperately do not want war. Most Britons feel the same. But what clout have they, in these strangely Orwellian days of democracy?

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I wriggled into wellies. The water in the bay in front of the island was limpid pink. I crossed the dawn-streaked garden to wake my sons.

In the family lounge, I threw old blankets over Joe’s chair. Benji’s homework showed “political corrections” to an essay on whether beggars should be removed from British streets. He had – tentatively – questioned the need for beggars in Britain. Benji has lived where people in grass huts feel rich if they catch a fish. His paragraphs were bright with crosses. Pouring cereal, I thought of red crosses on ambulances in war zones. It chilled me that Blair and Bush keep Bibles by their beds.

I packed lunch boxes, plucking salad from the jungle spilling out of the porch. At 6.35 I woke Joe, half-opening the curtains so the pink morning beamed in. Benji sleeps with a beanie fromnNorth Africa. It was purchased when “the men” were souk-strolling and I was in the hammam with Maali, our host’s wife. She’d shown me the sensuous cleansing rituals according to Berber tradition and Islam. Other naked women helped – passing buckets, miming how I should wield my rough mitten. We glowed afterwards, sipping wormwood-laced tea, talking of our children. Now here was Benji cuddling his hat and I had to break his dreams. Outside his window, flowering mint grows at angles and huge daisies rear.

Maali had just given birth. She was terrified of war.

Our generator-driven washing machine was on by 6.45, when we breakfasted. Beside Benji was a polythene package. He passes mail to the ferryman who takes the boys to school; Joe performs tasks in a mainland townlet.

Benji wanted a haircut for his 13th birthday. I hated leaving the island but felt that my desire for solitude mustn’t affect the boys’ gregarious natures. I’d do everything I could to prevent war spoiling their positive world-view, too. I thought of Maali’s baby and remembered my sons when their small skulls were still unformed. They see themselves as tough now, but I still feel their hopeless vulnerability. Bags were strapped to shoulders for a slippery ladder descent. Joe knew the boat was approaching by wave-movement in a bay beyond the cliffs.


“Be good.”

“Have cake ready!”

Benji’s shorthand recalled our pidgin-speaking Solomon Islands days. He’d integrated totally with the other “piccaninnies” there, and their relatives applied leaf-mash to his coral cuts as naturally as they ruffled his hair. Stranger-danger didn’t exist. Not like in the Outside World.

Softer light silvered the grasses in the garden now. Abandoning my apron, I took my 7.30 walk at 7.25am. War seemed improbable at that sweet hour, with no voices in my ear.

I was at work by 8.15. E-mails revealed new signatures for the statement of concern I’d drafted. Colin Thubron had been first to sign, adamant that Bush should be restrained. An attack on Iraq would make life impossible for moderate Arab nations, he felt. Queues of envoys echoed his misgivings. “It would open a Pandora’s box,” said HM King Abdullah of Jordan. How would the US close this? Why did Bush want this war? Whatever the famous “dossier” contained, one American spokesman had blurted that Iraq did not pose a threat to the US. I trawled websites for opinion. There were several verbal fisticuffs: “The US is the finest example of a multicultural democracy on earth,” claimed one Brit. “Yeah, home of the Ku Klux Klan, where they sue burger outlets when they’re fat and wave ‘Die, Fag’ banners at gays’ funerals,” jeered a respondent.

A fluttering at my window announced that I’d forgotten to put out bird food. After scanning the online papers, I shared an apple, welcoming the company; the normality.

I turned to my work-in-progress, Dejeuner sur l’isle, about a single woman risking her lover meeting her children. I described the children first, but by the time the man was watching the woman’s bottom as she ascended a sheeptrack, I was ready for more non-virtual air.

I tussled gently with bracken, aiming for a point giving an unbroken view over the Atlantic. Once I’d been told: “There’s not much between here and America.” An exciting idea then, this scared me now. The wind buffeted as the land rose, but beyond a hill was calm – until a shriek cut the scene. Military jets. There’d be another. They came in pairs – like deer – but didn’t always fly so low. I ran down the slope.

I’d come to this island for peace: a world of a size and complexity I could comprehend. I was curled under a bush when the fresh shriek came, leaving claw-marks in the blue. I chewed lovage and replayed Colin Powell’s reception at the Earth Summit. “Shame on Bush!” people yelled. I, too, had thought he’d have looked better trying to save the world there than waging a war on terror. I felt as if I could hear snippets from Blair’s alternately pugnacious and persuasive speech to the TUC. He seemed determined to drive the nation over a cliff. “If a friend’s drunk, we don’t let him drive,” one MP said. “Blair should persuade Bush to give up the keys.” But that was before we knew Blair wanted to steer in the same direction.

Too tense to resume work, I sought comfort in the family cottage. I froze when I saw a robin perched on a cushion in the lounge. “Hush,” I cajoled. I knew this fellow; he accompanies me when I garden. But he’d never come into the house before. A bird in the house heralds death, according to old beliefs. But I’d stretch a point. If he stayed out of the children’s rooms, they’d be safe. Aware of the futility when confronted by real, man-created horrors, I nevertheless closed their doors.

“I hate war,” Blair said “. . . but America shouldn’t have to face this alone.” Face what? Imposing hegemony? My hands shook.

Joe and Benji travelled home on the ferry’s roof, careless of splashes on such a sunny evening. Bombs hit the boat in the film strip in my head. The mountains-across-the-sea stood impassive.

“Is there cake?”

I presented my hasty effort.


I wouldn’t stop trying to stop the war but I wanted the boys to take everything simple and good possible from life now. On a plain sponge gleamed bramble berries bursting with juice. Somewhere in Afghanistan, a child was buried with only half her face. The rest adhered to parts of a cluster bomb. Stiff you both, I thought, of Bush and Blair. You’ll only regain my respect if you stop misusing might. Power-pax Americana? No thanks.

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