Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession

Gavin Francis

Canongate, £20

Review by Fiona Rintoul

UK home secretary Priti Patel’s idea of dumping asylum seekers on Ascension Island may have been obscene but it was not new. Islands have long been used to imprison and exile – as places of removal. Napoleon was incarcerated on Saint Helena; Nelson Mandela spent 18 years on Robben Island. Closer to home, undesirables were for centuries sequestered on Inchkeith in the Firth of Forth.

“In 1497 it was decided that Edinburgh sufferers of syphilis, plague and leprosy would be transported by ship to die on Inchkeith,” writes Gavin Francis in Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession. “For 300 years it remained a place of pestilence and quarantine.”

The imprisoning role of islands is just one aspect of their place in the world and their perhaps even more powerful place in our minds that Francis explores in this wide-ranging book. As its subtitle suggests, Island Dreams is essentially the story of the author’s love affair with islands – though peppered with others’ stories and observations from ancient times to the present day, with philosophy, psychology and literature.

The result is a fragmentary text, which could strangle any narrative thrust. However, Francis somehow manages to jump from stone to stone in seemingly random fashion but still make it across the river to the other side. “Text too can be an interlocking network of supporting connections, a framework, a scaffold, a web,” he writes towards the end of the book, drawing a comparison with the interlocking beams of the Forth Road Bridge. He might be describing his own work.

“Isle-o-philia” has taken Francis to some of the remotest places on the planet. He lived and worked at Halley Research Station in Antarctica for 14 months. On Taquile Island, which sits some 4,000 metres above sea level in Lake Titicaca, he was simply a tourist, eating by candlelight with his allocated family. (Tourists are a valuable commodity on the island and are shared out.) On the monastic peninsula of Mount Athos, which only men may enter (it counts as an island as you can only get there by boat), he recovered from a failed love affair.

The GP-cum-writer, whose previous books include Adventures in Human Being and Empire Antarctica, has also tried island life for real, practising as a doctor on Orkney and on Skye. After the birth of his first child, however, he and his family retreated to the mainland “for this chapter of parenthood at least”, living first on the Lothian side of the Forth estuary (Francis grew up on the Fife side), before going the full urban hog and moving to Bruntsfield in the west end of Edinburgh.

“The walls of the flat felt porous. Each evening, once the children were asleep, E and I felt the city’s plurality and potential to connect as an ambivalent force – warmly enveloping, but also threatening. In comparison with the insularity of the family it offered an immense continent of possibilities. Was the family, then, an island requiring protection?”

The tension between the joys of connection, assumed to be found in mainland locations, and those of isolation, assumed to be found on islands, is the book’s over-riding theme. On the Andaman Islands, resting in the shade of palm trees, Francis realises that these opposing conditions are “the two energising poles of my life”.

Medical practice brings intensity, social engagement and a “ringside seat to all the bustle and brilliance of humanity”. Island postings and polar travel grant distance and perspective and “the chance to feel part of a world somewhat emptied of the human”.

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have, of course, all had the “chance” to feel part of a world somewhat emptied of the human. And while the resulting limits on connection can be challenging and even painful, many of us may also relate to the happiness that Jean-Jacques Rousseau found on the lake island of St Peter in Switzerland, which was a consequence of the simplicity of life there.

“He had few possessions, an abundance of leisure and the conversation of just a handful of others,” writes Francis. “This island curtailed the possibilities of engaging with others, and the connections he felt were all the deeper and more satisfying.”

But is this perhaps an outsider’s perspective? For island dwellers, their home may be a very connected place full of possibilities. Francis concedes elsewhere that curtailment of opportunity may be an island’s gift “to visitors outside the community for whom it is home”.

Furthermore, seen from a certain perspective, isolation is an illusion. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who thought it unwise to search for peace beyond the confines of the self, mentions Athos in his Meditations. Francis quotes from a passage that reflects on the nature of isolation and connectedness.

“Bethink thee how all things are united, part and parcel of, and connected with each other, whether through community of purpose, or similarity of form.”

Francis too is torn between feeling overwhelmed by “the apparent peace” of the life of the monks on Athos and finding them ridiculous. This raises the question: how much isolation is too much? Is the Frenchman who visits the Greenlandic island of Upernavik once a month from the even remoter island where he lives alone disturbed or in touch with his true self?

Is our obsession with islands just a cliched, Romantic dream? Are islands more given to holiness than other places? Francis does not answer these questions. How could he? They are unanswerable. He merely raises them as part of “a simple and sincere cartography of my own obsession with the twinned but opposing allures of island and city, of isolation and connection”.

An immense atlas read on the floor of the local library as a child was the starting point for Francis’s island obsession, and this volume is lavishly illustrated with the old maps he finds “intoxicating”. A sturdy hardback with sewn binding and thick cream paper, Island Dreams is thus an object of desire as much as a text.

It is a short book by word-count but nonetheless covers swathes of territory. Above all, it is a thought-provoking read that feels timely – and not just because of the pandemic. Francis the doctor notes that in the age of smartphones clinical levels of anxiety in adolescents have increased. Balancing connection and isolation has never been more important.