I’M not the greatest fan of travel writers.
Obviously, there are exceptions like the legendary Clive James and we all appreciate the sharpest observations of Theroux or Bryson, but for the most part I’d sooner be travelling than reading about someone else’s journey.
Jealousy, perhaps? But it’s not a lot better with nature writers. I genuinely want to savour their words of wisdom but although the bookshop shelves are groaning under the weight of a whole new generation of writers exploring the natural world, many seem to lack sufficient humour or depth to truly engage the reader.
But The Guardian’s natural history writer Patrick Barkham is an exception – and one who defies stereotypes as easily as he crosses literary genres.
Not only is it hard to neatly categorise his work, but he also seems to brilliantly tread that fine line between caring about things intensely without becoming too pompous, pessimistic or pretentious when it comes to sharing his passion.
Barkham is a convivial travelling companion whose infectious vitality is matched by a ferocious curiosity and forensic attention to detail when it comes to research.
His early literary offerings on butterflies and badgers firmly established him as a nature lover able to combine literary panache with an inspiring brand of boyish zeal. How else could a book about a quest to track down all 59 British butterfly breeds be accessible to anyone other that the most hardened lepidopterist?
Then he’s off on moonlit excursions on the trail of the enigmatic and elusive badger, exploring whether our striped companions deserve their reputation as farmers’ foe needing to be culled or are better served by the homely image of that stoic character from Wind In the Willows, making his way to bed in dressing gown and slippers.
Racking up prize nominations along the way, Barkham found that his next challenge was a commission coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the National Trust’s campaign to save the British coastline from development and destruction.
The strenuous fieldwork involved in that project may have been perfect preparation for Islander, his fourth book, published in 2017.
More than a travelogue and closer to a personal quest, this is a book which subtly entwines the political, philosophical and sociological as he embarks on a fascinating tour of some of our more unusual island communities.
The book has attracted an extraordinay range of adjectives from reviewers, and for once these are not the glib, overblown phrases we so often see on DVD cover sleeves, perhaps because so many of these words of praise come from people who are themselves writers.
Engaging, enchanting, lyrical, beguiling, vibrant, memorable – take your pick. And what they are excited about is that this isn’t just your average magpie journalist’s article, seizing on a few glittering treasures and lazily presenting them to the reader in a haphazard way.
It may sound a little trite when it’s boiled down to the bare bones of “the British archipelago has thousands of islands, so author visits a few of the more interesting ones”.
But the premise is more intriguing than that, because this is a journey exploring what it means to live on an island and what it is about island life that intrigues and appals us.
Barkham takes as his starting point DH Lawrence’s 1928 short story The Man Who Loved Islands, where the unfortunate island-obsessed hero Cathcart was said to be somewhat cruelly modelled on his friend Compton Mackenzie, of Whisky Galore fame.
This adds an intriguing historical dimension to the quest – and a touch of mystery too as we consider Compton Mackenzie’s island-hopping adventures and the similarity or otherwise of his life to that of Cathcart.
The nuts and bolts of the adventure were covered well in reviews at the time, particularly in the Guardian and Observer, but the combination of themes works well as a means of exploring what islands can teach us about human nature and how the atmosphere varies so dramatically around our shores as we move from one to another.
Now as always islands bring out the best and worst in people, inspiring us with fear and longing, the desire to escape, or possess, to be part of a community or apart from one, like Lawrence’s ill-fated hero.
And there is always that background echo of eccentricity echoing across the century as we move from Eigg to Barra and on to Alderney and St Kilda, with Barkham arranging interviews and meetings with the locals wherever he goes.
These provide us with first-hand memories of Compton Mackenzie on Barra and moving testimony from the islanders of Alderney who became wartime refugees when their home was surrendered to the invading Germans and turned into a prison island.
Elsewhere there are a host of fascinating anecdotes and obscure facts, of mad owners and ambitious incomers, of resilience and rebellion, laughter and tears. And always, always the elements, ever present as a backdrop…the crash of the surf, the howl of the wind, the cry of the gulls.
I’ve been fortunate enough to visit a couple of Barkham’s 11 islands, sampling the desolation of St Kilda and conviviality of Barra. And he’s not wrong about the contradictions and contrasts, the eccentrics and castaways, the superstitions and hardships.
What lessons we can learn from the lives of those communities around the periphery of the British Isles is a moot point. But Barkham leaves us to draw our own conclusions, and frankly whatever the answers, it’s simply a delight to be taken along for the ride.
Islander by Patrick Barkham is published by Granta and available in hardback and paperback.