July 28. Over the weekend there appeared in the newspaper a preview article of the kind publishers like to commission as free advertising. It was headlined, ‘I ran away to a remote Scottish isle. It was perfect.’ The book in question was I Am An Island by Tamsin Calidas (Doubleday, £16.99).
As with my own project on solitude, isolated living in nature, a subject addressed by writers at least since Petrarch in the fourteenth century, is suddenly topical. A recent example of this genre is Sara Maitland’s How to be Alone (2014) about a retreat to an empty stretch of south-east Scotland. This new memoir should find a wide readership. There are, however, reasons for limiting its relevance to our present circumstance.
In the first place there is the headline (for which neither the author nor the publisher may have been responsible). It suggests that it is a narrative of a flight from the pandemic-ridden city to the sea-protected Hebrides. What is left of wilderness in Britain usually has communities living in them, who have not been enthusiastic about acting as refuges from the coronavirus. One of the first actions taken by the Scottish Government was to forbid the ferry company Caledonian MacBrayne from taking anyone to the islands who was not already a resident there. It was rightly fearful of an influx of infected escapees from elsewhere in Britain. On closer examination it transpires that Tamsin Calidas had moved to her island sixteen years ago. This is an insider’s account.
Beyond this technical point are more fundamental issues. The book is about isolation as pain. In the summary we are introduced to the breakdown of her marriage on her island, debt, unemployment, bereavement, loneliness, and acute illness. The path out of this suffering involves a voluntary embrace of other forms of hardship, particularly swimming: ‘I have swum in snow, in freezing rain with thick ice particles obscuring visibility, in crisp sunshine and in dense mist, and once with the wind chill dipping to -16C and the solid edges of the sea freezing.’ This need not diminish the readership. At least since Robinson Crusoe, the numbers of those who have taken comfort reading about the solitary misfortunes of others, whether imposed or chosen, vastly outnumbers those who have directly endured them. But it does call into question the relevance of such a narrative to those who are seeking a more humdrum, and essentially benign pathway through the unexpected experience of enforced solitude.
Tamsin Calidas describes how she made the transition from breakdown to fulfilment by embracing the spiritual resource of nature: ‘Some call this biodynamic living, and it makes sense. It connects the unique solitude of every animate or inanimate sentience, and connects it to an expansive, interconnected universe.’ Again there is a long literary heritage for this kind of pantheism, given a classic expression in Henry Thoreau’s Walden and restated in writings such as A Philosophy of Solitude by John Cowper Powys (1933). It still has a niche in our culture. People like to think of the countryside as restorative of health and spirits. However our growing awareness of global pollution has made it increasingly difficult to conceive an untouched nature as a of source of moral regeneration in the face of a corrupting urban civilisation.
At least in Western Europe and its surrounding seas there are diminishingly few opportunities to escape the trail of our destructive practices. We carry our responsibilities with us as we walk into what is now very rarely an unspoiled landscape.