15 September, 2020 • • 44.5CultureEnvironment

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Island Clichés

J.R. Patterson

Gavin Francis
Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession
Canongate Books
£20.00 (hardback)

Hitch-hiking through Scotland’s Shetland Islands, Gavin Francis is told that an albatross has been sighted off Unst, the upmost headland of the British Isles. It is likely that the bird was Albert: a notorious black-browed albatross that has been frequenting various islands in northern Europe since 1967, after being blown off its regular southern-hemisphere course. Bruce Chatwin, the travel writer and novelist, chased the same bird to Unst in 1988, when Francis was only thirteen years old. In The Albatross, his short essay about his encounter, Chatwin describes traveling up to Shetland. In true Chatwin form, his pursuit of Albert is merely the essay’s setting: in a brief 1,500 words, ostensibly about an albatross, he manages to bring to life the Patagonian coastline, the oil industry in the North Sea, two Chileans, and a Scot, as well as Albert himself. Francis, in his fifth and most recent book Island Dreams, is neither as lucky nor as informative.

Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession sees Francis return to the comfortable subject of geography; two of his previous books, True North: Travels in Arctic Europe, and Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins, tread similar territory. Island Dreams’ loose, ‘free-form’ narrative follows Francis, a self-confessed ‘isle-o-phile’, as he skips around the globe, alighting on dozens of islands, atolls, and skerries. Drawn to the ‘therapeutic’ seclusion of islands – which he claims helps ‘recalibrate (his) sense of what matters’ – Francis often finds that what really matters are his ‘deepening connections to career, society, friends.’ (p. 18, 11). This push and pull between the poles of isolation and connection, forms the book’s central question.

Francis has stumbled upon an excellent premise. The questions he asks are timely and captivating. What is ‘the value of isolation in an increasingly connected world’? In what ways, if any, is disconnectivity from technology comparable to the ‘thrill of being marooned’? (p 11, 14) In terms borrowed from the psychoanalyst and paediatrician Donald Winnicott, how can we isolate ourselves without insulating ourselves? Islands, when viewed through the dichotomy of prison versus paradise, seem an appropriate place from which to address these questions. Yet, as the book moves along, these questions are never fully answered. As Francis seeks to reconcile his internal conflict, they are yoked across the book like the notorious albatross, pulling it down and keeping Island Dreams from taking off.

Nevertheless, the book glides seamlessly through time, weaving childhood and youthful backpacking reminiscences with literary injections. Island Dreams is so full of quotations and memories that there is little room for Francis’ own thoughts. At least once a chapter, he points in directions of interest before, instead of following them, choosing to insert yet another quotation or memory. His hesitation to digress seems to come from a reluctance to disturb the sleekness of the prose, rather than any ignorance of the subject matter. Indeed, there are several instances where his medical experience (Francis studied neuroscience and medicine at the University of Edinburgh and now works as a GP) would foreseeably have shed some needed light: for example, on the idea of smartphones changing the nature of isolation, or on his experience with patients made anxious by too much online connection (p. 14, 29).

As we jump from Scotland to Greece, from India to Chile, from Kenya to Antarctica, from Greenland to Bolivia, it is Francis’ love of cartography that shines through. In a recent piece for The New Statesman, Francis writes that in his most enthusiastic moments he saw cartography as ‘a way of crafting panoptic perspectives on the world, and cataloguing the diversity and the brilliance of humanity.’ That passion for cataloguing is present here, albeit in fits and bursts.

Island Dreams would have benefitted from giving us more time in each place rather than mere wisps of memories. Francis’ reliance on literary outtakes, and his own memory, weaken the book. It’s reasonable enough to presume that Francis was not planning this book when making his various journeys across the world, which explains his lack of dialogue. But a desire to avoid putting too many words in people’s mouths makes his encounters with others piecemeal and pliable. Strangers are given short shrift; rarely is anyone given more than one or two lines. Although there are few conversations or details of islanders to give us an idea of what life on the various islands we visit is like (in some instances, Francis actively avoids others, seeking only the isolation of the island), these brief encounters provide the book’s best passages.

On Neill Island, in India’s Andaman chain, we’re introduced to two Israelis seeking refuge from a conflict in their homeland: ‘The man told me that he’d never experienced freedom until now, on this tropical beach’ (p. 60). Are we meant to believe it is being on an island that gives him his sense of freedom, and not simply being away from war? With no dates in the book, it’s impossible to know which conflict these two are fleeing from.

Later, on the Scottish island of Hoy, a chance encounter with a band of youths is more informative than any of Francis’ personal memories. Drinking and relaxing on the beach, the group lament the pompous day trippers from the Mainland (that is, the largest island in the Orkney archipelago) who come to their outlying paradise to wreak hell. ‘Stromness folk come over and tear up and down drunk in their cars…Those folk from the Mainland, they jist (sic) don’t know how to behave.’ In that short interlude (it only lasts one paragraph), we are provided more insight into the Orcadian life and the tension that exists between islanders than all the subsequent pages of Francis’ wistful ambling through Viking remains provide.

Too often, passages end with Francis trailing off, as he does in the Andaman Islands: ‘I stood waist-deep in the sea, watching the sunrise with two Brahmins from Delhi, thinking of a monk I met once who imagined he felt divine love waxing and waning on his skin’ (p. 61). Who are these Brahmins? Who is this monk? And what of divine love, from then on never mentioned again? We are left to make our own assumptions, adding to the frustrating level of ambiguity.

That is one problem with memories: they inevitably stretch the suspension of disbelief. Are we meant to take Francis at his word, or does the title’s reference to dreamsimply leeway should be given? Either way, Francis’ recounted memories, drawn from across decades, suffer for their selective vagaries. We learn he ate thali for breakfast on the day of his departure from the Andaman’s, but not what made those isles, or the Kenyan island of Lamu, or the Bolivian island of Isle del Sol more peaceable to visit than their mainland countries (p. 61, 41, 147).         

There are many literal dreams too, which, dropped in without explanation, feel ham-fisted into place. In one, Francis falls through an ice-chasm as the floe he is on begins to separate from mainland Antarctica. In another, Francis scuttles a boat packed with luggage marked “medical” and “travel”, and swims ashore ‘with a sense of liberation’ (p. 170, 215). Even allowing Francis the slack to recall a twenty-year-old dream reaps no reward; his dreams dither as much as his memories.

Francis is an able, imaginative writer, no stranger to the thesaurus. The water of Dreams is blue, translucent, iridescent turquoise, phosphorescent blue, glittering, cool, smooth, a dazzling mirror, like blue silk, a murmuring, churning, lapping plate of Hokusai waves and Morano glass. The sky is Iznik blue, azure, equatorial, dull green, indigo, violet, a thunderous, forbidding blue, sulphurous yellow and orange. Francis is undoubtedly well-read and researched, pulling quotations from some seventy-eight sources and works of literature. The pages are so waterlogged with others’ ideas that, at times, it reads more like a compendium of quotations. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Melville’s Typee, and D.H. Lawrence’s Sea and Sardinia, among others, all make their necessary appearances, but references to islands by other, unexpected, writers are the more delightful: Peter Matthiessen, Knut Hamsun, John Berger.

While Francis gives his own ideas little space, the particular influence of Berger is clear (Francis wrote the introduction to the 2015 re-issue of Berger’s A Fortunate Man). Just as Berger sought to blur the lines between the separate acts of painting and writing, Francis seems to want to blend another art with his prose: weaving. ‘Text too can be an interlocking network of supporting connections…a bridge into memory, a balm for isolation’ (p. 218). But it is Berger’s, rather than Francis’, power as a philosopher and writer that shines through in these moments of imitation. While Francis is able to throw up Berger-esque questions, he lacks Berger’s skill and bravery to bring them back down to earth.

The beautifully printed and tactile book is shorter than it seems: of 230 pages, 74 are taken up by maps. Even in a work as brief as this one, Francis finds room for subtle humblebrags. His claim that polar isolation (a subject on which he has written two books) induces already self-sufficient, controlled, calm men to become even more so, clangs loudly (p. 167). So too does his mention that he has walked all of the pilgrimage trails leading to Rome, Varanasi, Santiago de Compostela, Lhasa and Jerusalem (p. 223). Elsewhere, Francis takes a strange pride in being told he is the first Scotsman to set foot on the Greenlandic island of Uummannaq. When a tourist boat arrives and sees Francis in his ‘squalor and happiness,’ he seems affected as a local might (p. 134). But thinly-veiled immodesty shouldn’t sour us against what Francis is quixotically trying to accomplish, or against what Island Dreams is. Underneath the surface of the book lies an attempt to assuage a modern traveler’s guilt, to wring meaning from years of aimless wandering and justify travel’s environmental effect with its psychological affect.

Towards the end of the book, Francis attempts to take stock of all the evidence he has collected, to tie together the various threads he has gathered, but finds he cannot. ‘What is it I’ve been trying to capture?’ he asks. When it comes to addressing his primary concerns about isolation, he admits that ‘it seems I’m no closer to solving the dilemma’ (p. 230). Isolation may be inner, he muses, but he isn’t sure. He comes to no solid conclusion, other than deciding that the ability to hold two opposing points of view simultaneously is a mark of distinction (p. 183) – another subtle boast. In the end, we are left, nobly, with family; they round out the book as Francis’ partner and children are introduced (his anchors, sails, and ballast, from the dedication), a kind of modern Swiss family Robinson, whom he envisions as living in a kind of paradise (p. 16). But Francis’ hopes for his readers—that they will ‘read of an island in words, and then again on the map… and invest those same islands with dreams of their own’ – which may be the book’s highest accomplishment. The descriptions of far-flung locales and the inserted maps are excellent fodder for aspiring island dreamers.

Francis recounts finding a glossy coffee-table book called Dream Islands, its pages “all palm trees and beaches, any hint of refuse or the effluent of human settlement airbrushed away.” (p. 214). It is tempting to think that, by flipping the title, Island Dreams is Francis’ attempt to provide a mirror image of the surreality of Dream Islands;exotic extravagance given over to rough-and-tumble philosophy. Ironically, Francis’ one-sentence coda ‘we are all islanders’ feels schlocky and insubstantial enough to fit right into the gloss of Dream Islands.

‘I too am mystified by this story,’ writes Chatwin at the close of The Albatross. The same can be said of Island Dreams. Francis makes it to Unst, but never finds Albert the albatross. He arrives too late to see the beast: it has moved off, flying to Sula Sgeir, a small rocky outcrop in the north Atlantic. It is just as well. The island dreams hanging from around his neck are already heavy enough. 


J.R. Patterson is a writer who divides his time between Canada, Scotland and Portugal.