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The Islander – Patrick Barkham


Interview

Globe trotting on a wonderfully small scale – we catch up with Patrick Barkham to discuss his latest book, Islander.

Image of The Islander – Patrick Barkham

The rapidly growing Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards – a celebration of globe trotting and travel writing in all forms, from round-the-world cookery books to glossy coffee table tomes – are due to be announced this week in a glittering ceremony. To celebrate, we’ve managed to catch up with one of the nominees for the most prestigious category – the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award, in partnership with The Authors’ Club.

The man in question, Patrick Barkham, is a regular columnist for The Guardian, and a prolific nature writer – he has previously published books on the UK badger population, our (rapidly) changing coastline, and the vanishing numbers of butterflies in the British Isles. His latest effort is Islander: A Journey Around Our Archipelago – an epic undertaking which celebrates the mentality of living in a remote, often cut-off location (and all the difficulties that this can bring) alongside a rich array of stranger-than-fiction anecdotes & stunning biodiversity. The book features trips to eleven places, including St Kilda, Alderney, the Isle of Man and Barra – each chosen to represent a different side of island life.

Do you think the people of mainland Britain consider the existence of these smaller British islands often, or is it a subject that could be better understood?

I suspect that most people on the mainland are oblivious to the reality of daily life in all peripheral places, including promontories and rural hinterlands as well as islands. The centralisation of life on the mainland into urban areas is partly why we have this emerging cultural war between city and countryside. But many small islands loom far larger than an equivalent patch of the mainland because they are extremely well-trodden by writers, artists and Instagrammers. All of us know far more about the Isle of Man (pop. 75,000) than the equally big town of Redditch in the West Midlands. Skye, the Outer Hebrides, Orkney, all punch well above their weight in terms of their wider profile within Britain. In this sense, small islands are geographical celebrities.

Was it important for you to chart an objective path between the idea of ‘the island’ as an insular environment, and as an unspoilt paradise? 

I hope I’m alive to both these possibilities of an island. I felt it was important not to be overly romantic about small islands, and not didactic either, so each reader can decide how they see each place. Most small islands are both a trap and a liberation, even today, and this paradox is what makes them so fascinating.

Do you have a favourite island of those you visited?

I genuinely formed a bond with all the islands I visited but particularly Eigg, Rathlin and Ray Island. I think Bardsey or Ynys Enlli was my favourite. It is the holy island of Wales and has a very calming, restorative atmosphere. Perhaps this is an accident of geography: the eastern end of this small island is a steep hill; the inhabitable bit of the island is its western slopes. So you are permanently oriented away from the mainland and towards the open sea, and the western horizon. You perpetually contemplate the setting sun. In older times we believed we departed this life over the western horizon.

Are there any islands that you were unable to travel to for this book (and for your previous, Coastlines) that you would have liked to have seen?

There are more than 6,200 islands, islets and tidal rocks in the British archipelago and I’ve only written about 11 in detail (and five more in Coastlines) so there’s a whole lifetime of island exploration still to be done. There were so many on my longlist that I wanted to write about but I had to be very selective – I tried to choose islands with very different stories, which demonstrated different paths for small islands, as well as a rough geographical spread. But I wish I could’ve included some of Shetland, Foula, the Isle of May and Skokholm or Skomer as well.

What was your favourite anecdote/story that you heard whilst writing?

There are so many! Islands are by their very definition eccentric, and they often attract unconventional people (in contrast, native-born islanders are usually paragons of pragmatic wisdom). In the 1950s, Major Allnatt, a fabulously wealthy owner of Ray Island, held a week-long convention on his island. His staff were expected to attend. Allnatt forced his “guests” to dress as schoolchildren and take “examination papers”, sat in tiny chairs. After a dinner well-fuelled by Edwardian-vintage burgundies, there were bizarre competitive games. The most disturbing was a relay race through the island’s gorse and nettles in underwear during which the Major pursued his guests with an electric pig prodder.

Which of the islands that you visited did you find to be the most richly bio-diverse?

St Kilda lies almost 100 miles west of the Scottish mainland. It has a paucity of flower and mammal species but a great wealth of marine life that thrives at the very edge of the continental shelf, where the sea shelves steeply into the Atlantic Ocean. This attracts hundreds of thousands of seabirds – gannets, puffins, fulmars – a great abundance of life that we’ve lost from our ordinary coastline.

Is there an island language (Gaelic/Manx etc.) that you would most like to learn?

I would love to learn Gaelic because I didn’t feel qualified to write about the Outer Hebrides without it. There’s a great tradition of English writers opining about life on Hebridean islands, and I tried to not repeat some of the historic mistakes but Islander is a book by a tripper. I hope at least that [the book] is alive to my shortcomings!

How do you feel Islander fits in with your existing body of nature writing, both in your other books and in your work for The Guardian?

I hope Islander is my best book so far. I guess it is more travel writing than nature writing but I hope it is a book suffused with an awareness of other species. I’ve also tried to write a really readable book, which is intelligent but also gripping – sometimes nature writers forget to include a compelling narrative. The Guardian is my day-job, and I try my best to produce good journalism about our relationships with other species, but in my book-writing I hope to create something more nuanced, immersive and pleasurable.