Last summer I very much enjoyed Malachy Tallack’s first book, 60 Degrees North, a memoir cum travel book about looking for a place to call home in the midst of a nomadic life; see my Nudge review. His new book is a gorgeous art object (illustrated by Katie Scott), composed of two- or three-page mini-essays about the real and legendary islands that have disappeared and/or been disproved over the centuries. A few of the names may be familiar – Atlantis, Thule and the Isles of the Blessed, perhaps – but many of the rest are fairly obscure entries in the historical and geographical record.
It’s fascinating to see how some of these islands inhabit both mythological and real space. For instance, my favorite story is that of Hufaidh in the Southern Iraq marshes. This area where the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers meet was the ancestral home of the Ma‘dān or “Marsh Arabs,” and was known to Western visitors such as Gavin Maxwell, who came to collect his otter Mijbil (the subject of Ring of Bright Water) there, and travel writer Wilfred Thesiger. Tallack writes that Hufaidh “was part paradise and part hell, both of this world and another.” When Thesiger asked locals about the island in the 1950s, he was told that “anyone who sees Hufaidh is bewitched, and afterwards no-one can understand his words.” So Hufaidh was mythical? In a sense, Tallack acknowledges, and yet Saddam Hussein’s deliberate destruction of the marshes after the first Gulf War also obliterated Hufaidh, and even the ongoing campaign of ecological restoration can never bring it back.
I was also intrigued by the tale of the Auroras, presumed to be located between the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. They were sighted multiple times between 1762 and 1796, including by a Spanish research ship, but were never seen again after the eighteenth century. Were the sailors simply mistaken? In 1820 Captain James Weddell concluded that they must have confused the Shag Rocks, 100 miles to the east, for a new set of islands. But the mystery remained, as evidenced by Edgar Allan Poe’s 1838 novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which has a ship’s crew searching for the Auroras as well as for fur seals.
Plato almost certainly invented Atlantis for his allegories, but in reading this book you will learn that some islands are indeed suspected to have sunk, like Sarah Ann Island in the Pacific, which the USA claimed for its guano resources. And while you might think that bogus territories could not exist in the late twentieth or early twenty-first centuries, a few did: the Terra Nova Islands of the Antarctic were only removed from the map in 1989, and Bermeja, an island in the Gulf of Mexico disputed between the United States and Mexico, was only definitively proven not to exist in 2009.
A few of these cases feel thin or repetitive; even with 24 islands discussed in full and another 10 listed with capsule explanations in an appendix, you sometimes get the sense that the book required a lot of barrel-scraping to craft satisfying narratives out of frustratingly incomplete stories. Still, Tallack has done an admirable job parsing fact from fiction and extracting broad lessons about the truths that might lie deeper than our atlas pages:
Absence is terrifying, and so we fill the gaps in our knowledge with invented things. These bring us comfort, but they conflict, too, with our desire for certainty and understanding.
The science of navigation has worked towards the eradication … of mystery, and to an astonishing degree it has succeeded. We can know where we are and what direction we are traveling with just the click of a button. And though that technology brings its own kind of wonder, part of us mourns what has been lost.
With its excellent color illustrations, this would make a perfect coffee table book to dip into whenever you have five or ten spare minutes to read an essay or two. I would particularly recommend it to readers who are captivated by maps, historical oddities and hoaxes.
(My review copy came wrapped in matching paper!)
The Un-Discovered Islands releases in the UK tomorrow. My thanks to Kristian Kerr of Birlinn Polygon for the free copy.
Further reading: Two similar books I’ve read are The Ice Museum by Joanna Kavenna (about the search for Thule) and Banvard’s Folly by Paul Collins (more tangentially relevant – it’s about historical mistakes and failures). You might also try Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands.
Here’s an obscure nature classic for animal lovers who can’t get enough of Gerald Durrell and James Herriot. It was a bestseller and a critical success when first published in 1957, and the fact that it has been reprinted several times in the new millennium is testament to its enduring appeal. It’s the account of seven years Farre spent living in a primitive Scottish croft (no electricity or running water) with her Aunt Miriam, starting at age 10. Despite an abrupt beginning, a dearth of dialogue and slightly rushed storytelling, I found this very enjoyable.
Like the young Durrell, Farre kept a menagerie of wild and half-domesticated animals, including Cuthbert and Sara the gray squirrels, Rodney the rat, Hansel and Gretel the otters, and – the star of this memoir – Lora, a common seal pup. Other pets came and went, like an ill-tempered roe deer fawn, a family of song thrushes, and a pair of fierce wild cat kittens. Early chapters about the struggle to keep all these ravenous creatures fed and wrangled are full of humorous mishaps, like Cuthbert falling down a chimney into the porridge.
Farre acquired Lora on a trip to Lewis. Like dogs, seal pups are very loyal and attached. Farre fed Lora a bottle on her lap and let her sleep at the foot of the bed. Lora was also strikingly intelligent: she recognized 35 words, collected the mail from the postman, unpacked groceries and had an aptitude for music, including playing the mouth organ and xylophone and ‘singing’ along to piano accompaniment. She and the otters, along with Ben the dog, loved to frolic in the water and slide down snowy hills in the winter.
Besides capturing animal antics, what Farre does best in this book is to evoke the extreme isolation of their living situation. Aunt Miriam had saved up £75 a year for them to live off, but also painted designs on wooden bowls for extra cash. The regular summer routine of storing up food was not about passing the time but survival. Near-catastrophes, like getting lost in a mountain mist or the goats raiding Lora’s food supply, showed how precarious life could be. There was little to do on winter days, and only five or six hours of daylight anyway;
“Another hour in the croft and I would have had a nervous breakdown,” said Aunt Miriam. Life up here got you like that sometimes.
Really there are very few adults these days who possess the mental and emotional self-sufficiency necessary for leading satisfactory existences in these remote parts.
A life with animals is bound to involve some sadness. One pet gets picked off by a peregrine; another is injured in a trap and has to be put down. Ben’s fate is particularly sad. Lora’s, by contrast, is just mysterious: after seven years at the croft, she simply disappeared. Farre never learned what became of her.
At age 17, Farre had to decide how to make her own way in life. She took solo camping trips to contemplate her future, doing some informal seal research on Shetland and Iceland. Especially after Aunt Miriam met a Canadian man on an extended trip to visit friends in Berkshire and got engaged, it was clear that their crofting life together was soon to end. Farre hints at what happened next for her: she would go on to travel with British gypsies and journey to the Himalayas, subjects for two further autobiographies. The book ends on a melancholy note as Farre returns to the croft five years later and finds it no better than a ruin.
Farre died relatively young, aged 57 in 1979. Alas, an afterword by Maurice Fleming introduces an element of doubt about the writer and the strict veracity of her memoir. For one thing, Rowena Farre wasn’t her real name. “Piecing Daphne Lois Macready’s life together is like laying out a jigsaw from which some bits are missing and others faded,” Fleming writes. We know she was born in India to an Army officer and the family moved around the Far East for a number of years. However, Farre does not account for her formal schooling, and no evidence of the croft has ever been found. In other words, we don’t know how much is true.
Does this matter? It doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of this lively animal-themed memoir (after all, Herriot also did plenty of fictionalizing), but it does make me wonder whether some of Lora’s feats might be made up. Are seals really as intelligent and personable as she makes them out to be? I was left feeling slightly uneasy, and wanting to do more research about both Farre and seals to figure out what’s what. Still, this is a wonderfully cozy read to pick up by a fire this autumn or winter.
With thanks to the publisher, Birlinn, for the free copy.