My name is Mat and I am an islomaniac.
Ok, it’s your turn to say it too. It feels better to have got it off your chest no?
I’ve been putting off admitting my fascination with islands for a while now, I kept telling myself that I needed to wait until I had visited just a few more; a couple more photos of an island from the bow of a boat, maybe another image of a rocky outcrop silhouetted against the sunset. But it’s time to lay it out: I have a thing for islands. I can’t define it but their mysterious charm has cast a spell on me. The list of islands (and groups of) that I want to visit just keeps growing, and at this rate I’d never get around to writing this so strikes me there’s no time like the present.
There are thousands of islands on the planet. Trying to find out just how many depends on how you define an island and how you categorize them; The Vikings would only class land as an island if they could pass a ship with a rudder between it and the mainland, whilst the 1861 Scottish census defined an island as “an area of land surrounded by water and inhabited by man, and where at least one sheep can graze. Some are prisons, others holy, some are glorified cruise ship docks or have been razed and re-turfed as golf resorts, some are owned by film stars, some support the world’s biggest cities, some of them are islands at high tide and linked to the mainland at low tide, and a lot of them are knee deep in bird crap.
Big, small, sandy, rocky, volcanic, coral atolls; a lone palm tree, jungle, desert or bleak and windswept; cold, tropical, temperate; oceanic, freshwater, river; remote or a stones-throw from the mainland; there are so many variables that actually coming up with a definitive number of islands on planet Earth is nigh on impossible.
But why are so many of us entranced by islands? After all, they’re just bits of land restricted by water. But maybe that’s it; are they are reflection of us as human beings, individual and often isolated? “No man is an island”? Perhaps not John Donne. Perhaps we see a bit of ourselves in them and are comforted by the fact that when we view them in our minds eye we usually see an island that’s manageably small - the sort that you could walk around and get to know.
When I was little there were times when I exclusively read books about islands: Treasure Island, The Coral Island, Swallows and Amazons, Peter Pan, Swiss Family Robinson and later Robinson Crusoe, Lord of the Flies and The Beach all fuelled my over-active imagination. There was a pond near where I grew up which had a little island in the middle of it that my friends and I used to gaze at, but never swam out to it because we all knew that it would never live up to our expectations and imaginations. And these days when I look out of my window I stare straight at Newland, a rocky outcrop straight offshore from where I live. In the summer when the ocean’s flat some of us will paddle out to it but there’s nothing much to do when you get there; it’s just a lump of rock. At least one of us will still make the paddle year on year though. One day I’m sure that one of my friends will find pirate treasure out there though and make it all worth it.
George Orwell argued that we need solitude, creative work, and a sense of wonder as much as warmth, society, leisure, comfort, and security, and that “man only stays human by preserving large patches of simplicity in his life.”
It would appear that it is often much easier to gain and maintain this simplicity on an island than on a comparatively sized chunk of continental land (Thurston Clarke).
Simply put, we’re more human when on an island.