Why is it that, when drifting off into fantasy, we so often transport ourselves to an island? We are probably wishing for disconnection, an insulated solitude; no vexatious neighbours, no dreary work to do. The reverie is a mental experiment, dispensing with the wanton abundance of our lives and calculating how much or how little we need in order to be happy.
Daydreams about living on islands have always amused me, since, having been born on one, I know what a strange, alarming condition it can actually be. Tasmania, though lashed by wild, cold seas at the bottom of the world, is not quite a desert island. But growing up there in the 1950s I felt set apart, perhaps rejected. Our little island had split apart from the Australian continent millions of years ago, with water rushing in when the seam of Bass Strait opened, and we were still treated with haughty mockery by mainlanders, who joked about our backwardness and – as a radio interviewer in Sydney said to me only the other day – our “limited gene pool”.
In time I came to appreciate the advantages of my island instead of complaining about the fate that had deposited me on it. Islands are schools of individuality, perhaps of idiosyncrasy, which is something to be proud of; they produce specimens as quirky as the finches and tortoises that amazed Charles Darwin when he visited the Galápagos. They are places where the solitary individual learns to make do, piecing together his own small, improvised world from whatever flotsam can be salvaged. The shipwrecked characters in JM Barrie’s play The Admirable Crichton make a house for themselves by recycling bits of their damaged vessel; its steering wheel becomes a chandelier, a lifebuoy serves as a chair back, two barrels sliced in half make a settee.
Even more idyllically, the little boys who flutter off to Neverland in Barrie’s Peter Pan treat their island as a realm where everything can be imagined, a playground where life is a game. They eat “pretend meals” – repasts of empty air that are a change from bread fruit, yams and bananas – and afterwards “clear away with dispatch, washing dishes they don’t have in a non-existent sink and stowing them in a cupboard that isn’t there”. The pretence is pleasant enough but, of course, if you lived this way on your own desert island you would soon starve. Islands are scenes of danger as well as of desire.
The notion of taking lonely refuge there is fairly recent, a reaction to urban congestion and to the claims that industrial society began to make on people in the early 18th century. For the first man to record this exile from the populated world, the experience was less a dream than a desperate trauma. In 1704 the cantankerous buccaneer Alexander Selkirk quarrelled with his captain and was offloaded on the rocky island of San Juan Fernández, 600 miles south of Valparaíso, Chile. He spent four years there before a passing ship took him home to Fife, Scotland. He fed on turtles, which gave him dysentery; rats nibbled his feet when he slept. He feared that the lack of human companionship would drive him mad and read aloud from the Bible to ensure that he retained the power of speech. Despite this precaution, the sailors who rescued him found that he had regressed to an almost bestial incoherence.
When Daniel Defoe retold Selkirk’s story a few years later in Robinson Crusoe, he lengthened the hero’s term of trial to 27 years but made him triumphantly overcome its physical and psychological challenges. Selkirk lived in a rude hut left behind by previous castaways; Crusoe has no such advantage but diligently sets about fabricating a replica of the world he had lost, constructing a town house and a country retreat, farming the land and fortifying his encampment, raising goats that supply him with milk, butter, cheese and meat (though not with sexual favours, which Selkirk apparently wrested from his shaggy, cloven-hoofed herd). Crusoe possesses a domestic genius, a talent for homemaking, which enables him to bend twigs into baskets and mould lumps of clay into pots. In a sublime feat of bricolage, he even reinvents the umbrella. Though cut off from “humane commerce” he doesn’t miss it and is dismayed, not elated, when he finds a strange footprint on the beach. The island for him is the ego’s monopolistic kingdom, a society of one.
Few of us, I suspect, would survive such solitary confinement. Desert islands like Crusoe’s are more a punishment than a privilege.
Tasmania was first settled as a penal colony, where the dense forests and lashing seas debarred escape. Other islands seemed to be designed as condemned cells, sentencing the internee to a dreary routine that would slowly prove lethal. The British had their revenge on Napoleon by sending him to St Helena in the south Atlantic, where he played cards, wandered in monotonous circles and cultivated a vegetable patch with less skill and less enthusiasm than Crusoe. How the sight of San Francisco, so near but so unreachable, must have tormented the prisoners on rocky Alcatraz!
For those who muse about islands from a safe distance, the life looks enviably irresponsible. Fletcher Christian and the Bountymutineers, who set Captain Bligh adrift in 1789 and later hid on Pitcairn Island, are supposed to have happily gone native, romping with wanton Polynesian girls as they successfully outwitted the naval police who hunted for them in the wet wilderness of the South Pacific. That, at least, is the popular version of their story. The truth is grimmer and grubbier: Christian and his shipmates soon fell to quarrelling with the indigenous islanders whose women they coveted and spent the listless years distilling moonshine liquor and drinking themselves into a stupor. Their descendants still populate Pitcairn, where the men have made their lives easier by agreeing to set the age of sexual consent at 12.
We are all free to indulge the dream; to realise it we need spiritual stamina as well as the handyman’s skills possessed by Crusoe. The people best suited to islands are probably hermits or recluses, able to cope with austerity. The islands off the Scottish coast – scorned in the 18th century by Samuel Johnson because they lacked trees and every other amenity that furnished the world and made it habitable – have long been the chosen lair of mystics. St Molaise lived in a cave near a healing well on Holy Isle, offshore from Arran. In 1990 a Buddhistic community acquired the island’s freehold and cottages once occupied by lighthouse keepers have been taken over as monastic cells where acolytes live alone with their thoughts for periods lasting from three months to three years.
If you’re not a saint in training it helps to be very rich. Contemporary islanders who want to reconstruct Utopia no longer have Crusoe’s talent for making things from the ground up; they import an expensive infrastructure. Leonardo DiCaprio owns Blackadore Caye, a piratically named island off Belize, which he intends to turn into a resort for tourists with an ecological conscience. Richard Branson plans to do without fossil fuels on Necker and Moskito, his personal fiefdom in the British Virgin Islands, harnessing energy from sun, wind and tides to power his battery of appliances. Other plutocratic islands are like film sets, artificial paradises where the expensive illusion is maintained by service personnel who skulk out of sight. Fisher Island, south of Miami, was dredged from the sea in 1905 and is now a gated community, home to a few hundred residents who tot up digital debts in their own cashless economy. Caged toucans and macaws – let out once a day for a stroll with a professional bird walker – supply a soundtrack of jungle music, even though the undergrowth has been flattened to install tennis courts and golf courses. Don’t think of dropping in to reconnoitre: a printed invitation from an islander is required before you can board the ferry or charter a helicopter.
The fantasy is so compelling that those who can’t travel to an island make one for themselves while remaining at home in the city. The hero of JG Ballard’s novel Concrete Island is an urban Crusoe who crashes his Jaguar on the Westway leading out of London, injures his leg and spends a weekend invisibly marooned on a grassy plot behind a barricade of reinforced concrete, surrounded by a metallic tide of passing traffic. His vehicle, he realises, is his mobile island, a fortress of gadgetry upholstered in leather. Nowadays, whether we drive a Jaguar or not, we all resemble self-enclosed Crusoes, cut off from nature by our double-glazed windows and (significant word) insulated lofts or by the electronic cocoon – MP3 player with earphones, hands-free mobile phone – that shields us when we venture into the streets.
As for me, 40 years after leaving Tasmania I’m still running away from it. But where has my frantic escape bid taken me? More often than not to another island. My favourite place happens to be Manhattan. Here the contents of an entire world are crammed into a sliver of granite a few miles long, divided by rivers from a continent to which it doesn’t really belong; the islanders who can’t expand laterally have climbed into the sky with reckless glory. This is the ultimate resort for voluntary castaways, offering, despite its raucous bustle, what the essayist EB White once called “the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy” – a proudly exclusive island of the mind.
Peter Conrad teaches English at Oxford University. His latest book, ‘Islands: A Trip Through Space and Time’ (Thames & Hudson, £14.95), was published earlier this year. To buy it at a discounted price of £11.95 plus postage and packing, contact the FT’s ordering service. Tel: +44 0870-429 5884 or visit www.ft.com/bookshop
Get alerts on Sydney when a new story is published