Thursday, June 19, 2008

Books I never wrote, no.1

Prompted by the BBC1 programme about St Kilda tonight (and can I just point out that, much as I would still love to go there, it only took me about 20 minutes in the Mitchell library in Glasgow to find the answers to the questions "Who were the strange and remarkable St Kildans? Why did they desert the islands 80 years ago?"), I dug out a very old and clunky laptop and looked up the pitch for Islanders, the book I pitched to publishers six years ago which eventually, by a curious process, became The King of Sunlight.

Here's the introduction. If it makes you want to read on... you can't.

Start with a love story.

Once upon a time – around three billion years ago – a large lump of rock packed its metaphorical backpack, waved goodbye to the super-continent of Laurentia where it had grown up, and sailed off to see the world.

Like any young, good-looking land mass it had some fun on the way, enjoying some hot geological action with the other rocks it came into contact with. For a few hundred million years it shacked up with another continent south of the equator, but when that relationship petered out it spent a few aeons as a merry singleton, drifting around the southern hemisphere partying hard. Another lengthy dalliance, this time with North America, came to nothing, and it soon found itself at a loose end, wandering around the Iapetus ocean wondering if at 2.9billion years old it wasn’t getting a bit too old for this sort of thing, and what it should do with the rest of its life.

That’s when it happened. Over the horizon floated another young rock, this one a newcomer to the travelling scene, just making the first move out of the parental home in North Europe. Their shores locked across a crowded primeval sea. It was obvious this one was going to last. They swapped fault-lines, settled down in a temperate spot in the North Atlantic, and made a baby.

That baby has been called by many names, but we’ll settle on the one by which we know it best: Great Britain. Mummy rock was, roughly speaking, Scotland, and Daddy rock was England and Wales. It was a largely happy, if tempestuous marriage (we’ll gloss over the seven million year itch that saw Scotland tempted to stray, creating Loch Ness in the process), but you could hardly say Great Britain grew up as the most well-adjusted of countries.

For a start it had a difficult adolescence, with acne on a horrendous scale. Great volcanic eruptions burst up across its north-western face, spurting pus-like magma miles out into the ocean. That, and the usual growing pains, created the five hundred or so islands that cluster down the coast of Britain from the Outer Hebrides through Skye, Arran, Ailsa Craig, the Isle of Man, all the way down to Lundy in the Bristol Channel. They ranged from sheer rocks uninhabitable to any but the most determined of seabirds, to fertile fortresses that provided everything your average Stone Age man could want from a home. Later they provided handy stopping-off points for the Vikings, who island-hopped their way down the coast of Britain like package-holidaymakers in Greece, only marginally more violent. And with hornier helmets.

Later, all grown up and as united as it was ever going to be, Britain decided to get some invasion action of its own. This drizzly cluster of tiny rocks off the coast of Europe became the biggest landowner in the world, singling out every country of a different hue to itself and remorselessly colouring them in a garish shade of pink till the globe looked like one of Imperial Barbie’s more garish accessories. It was the empire on which the sun never sets. That was actually just a convenient coincidence of astronomy, but the mood Britain was in, it was prepared to take the credit for anything.

Of course it couldn’t last. The British were persuaded to return their colonies to their rightful owners, largely because once they’d nicked all the decent stuff and killed half the people, they weren’t much use to them any more, and with a last, defiant blast of the national anthem, the Empire dwindled away to a few tiny spots in the middle of the screen at closedown. These days hardly anyone bar the Queen and a few other high-profile tax evaders knows that places like the British Virgin Islands, Anguila, Ascension Island and the Turks and Caicos are still there. The British Dependencies are like distant relatives on the side of the family you don’t talk about, discreetly helped out when they get themselves into trouble (Montserrat), stonily ignored when they get noisy at parties (Gibraltar), or fiercely defended when the right matriach comes on strong about family (the Falklands).

And that is Great Britain, 2002. Never has a nation been more defined by its island status. As referenda loom, the Gibraltarians scrabble desperately to be allowed to stay British, while back home we’re foaming at the mouth not to be European. An island surrounded by other islands is engaged in the constant business of subdivision, finding islands even where none exist. After ceding home rule to Scotland and Wales in 1998, England has plunged further into its customary state of not-so-splendid isolation, worrying about celebrating its saint’s day, fretting about the football, and unsure whether or not waving a Union Jack at Cliff Richard to celebrate the golden jubilee is an ironic gesture. Like Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt, we can stir ourselves into passion over

This fortress built by nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England

without noticing that it’s nothing of the sort. It’s a confused little country with arbitrary boundaries and ragged edges surrounded by handy little land-masses that know exactly what they want, thank you very much, and are generally pretty happy to be left to get on with it.

To find out how they do just that, I decided to tour the outer British Isles, taking my mainland sensibilities and prejudices and giving them a good shake-out along the way. I wanted to know about the practicalities and romance of island living, the physical realities and the mental state of what it means to be an islander. Like Piglet, I wanted to find out what it felt like to be Entirely Surrounded By Water. I was off to meet the Islanders.

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