Caught by the River

Deer Island

Melissa Harrison | 5th June 2013


Deer Island by Neil Ansell (Little Toller)
Reviewed by Melissa Harrison.

There are places we need without understanding why, and things we do that we can’t give a reason for. I’m thinking of a high place on Dartmoor where, whenever I visit, I choose a stone – carefully, one that feels right – and cast it down into the granite and bracken and tormentil below. ‘For luck,’ I might have answered, glibly, ten years ago. But I don’t believe in luck, or God for that matter. I’ve been doing it all my life, and I couldn’t tell you why.

Not that these rituals are always born in childhood. Neil Ansell was in his late twenties when he discovered Jura, a remote Scottish island home to thousands of red deer, and found there a cairn on a storm-lashed promontory where he enacted his own wordless and unrehearsed ritual, one whose power over his imagination, 20 years on, is undiminished. “It is a place I cannot forget, because I have left a little piece of myself there, a fragment of who I am…” he writes. “I could not have explained quite why I was doing what I was doing, not to myself let alone to others. But sometimes a symbolic gesture is all that we have to give.”

Ansell is an award-winning TV and print journalist, and author of the brilliant Deep Country: Five Years in the Welsh Hills. He’s also someone who has swum against the tide all his life, from the three intense years he worked and lived with the street homeless in London, to his time spent living in squats, and from travelling in over 100 countries, picking up work and existing hand-to-mouth, to the period he spent in almost total isolation in a cottage in Wales. Now settled in Brighton, with two children, Deer Island is part-memoir, part-travelogue, a backward glance from a place of safety down the passages of memory to a formative decade in his life. It is partial, and glancing, and has that strange mixture of the detailed and the dreamlike that time can impart, and which lends this short book an unexpected emotional weight.

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It begins in Camden when Ansell is just 20, new to London and working for the radical homeless charity The Simon Community. It is an initiation almost unimaginable to most of us: having met someone who volunteered for the charity, he says, “I had been drawn to what sounded like the sheer bloody-minded extremity of the place.” And it is: this isn’t tidy soup runs at Christmas with a team-building group from a blue-chip company, this is total immersion into a world of meths drinkers, derries (derelict buildings) and voluntary poverty. “You were never alone, not for a minute of the day… in the time I spent there I don’t suppose I ever read a newspaper, or watched a television programme, or listened to a new song on the radio. I never had the time,” he recalls. His description of the friends he makes on the streets is both fascinating and heartbreaking, and as an opening chapter it leaves you in no doubt that you are in extraordinary company.

It is after Ansell stops working with the charity – “worn out from having to make friends with people and then having to watch them die” – that he first travels to Jura, and his account of his epic road trip to Scotland on an old Triumph Bonneville is a great piece of travel writing, funny and moving, and as refreshing as the wind in your face after the claustrophobia of cardboard city and the derelict buildings known as the Sunset Strip. Something about the island imprints itself on him in the mysterious way that places can, so that despite his subsequent years of travel, of rootlessness, and of living in squats back in London (brilliantly described) he finds himself back there five years later in the second of the two pilgrimages that bookend Deer Island.

Reconciling our desire for change and adventure with our need for permanence and security creates a tension that can run throughout a life, and which can be a rich source of creative possibility – just think of Edward Thomas or Gerard Manley Hopkins. Even in the years in which Ansell abjured material possessions and was content to be nomadic, it is as though Jura was a talisman, proof that there are places that do not change, and where roots – however fragile, however symbolic – may be put down.

“I wanted to experience everything. That was my life goal in my twenties,” he says. “It was not to accumulate wealth but to accumulate experience. A wealth of experience, as it were.” One gets the sense that this is still a fairly accurate representation of Ansell’s priorities, but nonetheless there is a distance between the man writing about this intense, long-ago decade and the youth who lived through it – and perhaps that distance is to do with vulnerability. When we’re young we don’t just think we are immortal; we know it, and that can gift us with great courage as well as recklessness.

What comes with age is not just a knowledge of how brief our time here is, but a concomitant understanding of our need for changelessness as well as change. When I stand on my granite outcrop on Dartmoor and cast my stone into the ancient landscape below I am doing something that will outlast me; reordering the universe slightly as if to say, however fruitlessly, I did this: for this brief moment I was here. Reading Deer Island I can’t help but wonder if, in the midst of a life of great change, the gesture Ansell found himself making on that dreamlike promontory all those years ago was something similar. As Hopkins has it,

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves – goes itself, myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

Deer Island is on sale in the Caught by the River shop, priced £12

Clay by Melissa Harrison (Caught by the River Book of the Month for January) is also on sale in the Caught by the River shop.