Caught by the River

Lundy, Rockall, Fair Isle and Dogger; a celebration of Britain’s islands

1st May 2015

Lundy - front cover jpg

Ten years ago I walked into Colin Page, a venerable second-hand bookshop on Duke Street, Brighton, in search of Christmas presents. I easily found something for my brother Alistair – Islands Round Britain by RM Lockley. Our shared love of islands can be traced back to childhood holidays on Caldey, a small island off south Wales that is owned by Cistercian monks. My grandfather first went there in the 1930s to weave habits for the monks. My grandmother was a milkmaid on the farm – they met, fell in love and got married in the ancient church. My family has visited Caldey ever since.

Islands Round Britain was part of a ‘Britain in Pictures’ series that Collins published between 1941 and 1949. There are 132 in total, covering a range of subjects from English Villages to British Orientalists. The general editor was the poet and literary editor of the Spectator magazine, Walter James Turner, who managed to persuade many famous authors to contribute including John Betjeman (English Cities and Small Towns), Graham Greene (British Dramatists), Cecil Beaton (British Photographers) and The Bishop of Chichester* (The English Church). They have great looking covers, but the contents are often disappointing. Islands Round Britain was no exception. I am not sure if this was the reason, but I never gave the book to my brother. Instead it stayed on my shelf.

A few years later, partly to be closer to my parents, I swapped life in suburbia for life in the countryside. The new house came with a large shed. It was not the metrosexual variety the middle classes currently spend thousands of pounds installing in their back gardens. This one had been built for pigs. There were no decorative cushions or fragrant candles. It was not a place to sip Sauvignon and watch the sun go down. The drinking in this shed would be done surreptitiously and probably in the morning. The windows were broken, mice scuttled round your feet and there were cobwebs that looked older than me. I loved it. I had a contract to write a trivia book for the publisher Quercus and I dreamed of spending the summer listening to techno, at decibel levels not permitted in the family home, while gambolling around the internet for obscure facts. Sadly things didn’t turn quite out that way and the blame lies entirely with RF Lockley.

Before I started work in the shed I decided to tart it up just a little. Five litres of the cheapest white emulsion were hastily splashed over the crumbling brickwork. I pinned up a map of the Himalayas, lined up my prized collection of Richard Allen Skinhead novels (banished to the shed by my wife) and a few other books whose covers I admired. Islands Round Britain stared down at me every day. I would occasionally read a few pages, until one day the penny dropped – why don’t I write an improved version of the book?

Bursting with enthusiasm for this new project, I explained the idea over coffee at my parents house. My dad looked up from the telly, ‘Have you read Dream Island?’ he asked. ‘No,’ I replied. He became animated, ‘What? You want to write a book about islands and you haven’t read Dream Island?’ He shook his head, not for the first time, in disappointment at my ignorance. ‘What is Dream Island?’ ‘A very famous book about someone who moves to a remote Scottish island and brings up pigs. I think he gets his wife to do most of the work. It’s up there somewhere,’ he pointed vaguely to the bookshelf. My mother got up, took the book down and handed it to me. ‘Here, you can have it.’ My dad glanced up, pulled a face and said emphatically, ‘put it on the list’.**

The book wasn’t set in Scotland and didn’t concern pigs; it was set in Wales and if any animal was featured more than others it was probably the shearwater. And by co-incidence it was written by the same author as Islands Round Britain. Ronald Lockley was born in 1903 and grew up in Whitchurch just outside Cardiff. After leaving school he tried his hand at pig farming but he dreamed of living the simple life on an island. He had been reading the American author (and inventor of the modern pencil) Henry Thoreau who in 1845, had spent two years living in a cabin in the woods. In his classic book Walden, he explained his motives, ‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived… I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life’.

In 1928, aged just 24, Lockley leased Skokholm a 250 acre island off the south west corner of Wales. He moved into a derelict farmhouse and began a rather precarious existence. Just as things looked like they could get a bit dicey, an old wooden schooner, the Alice Williams, is shipwrecked on the rocks. Lockley recovered two hundred tonnes of coal from its hold and used the wood from its mast, hull and deck to refurbish the farmhouse. The figurehead of the Alice Williams can still be seen on the island today. The rest of the book rattles on without any further great dramas; Lockley gets married and his wife moves to Skokholm, there is a game of cricket, and countless storms. The book concludes, ‘Thus you will see my one time dreams have come true, for I dwell on an island far from the turmoil of the city.’ It is a delightful little adventure story – ideal winter reading.

As soon as I finished Dream Island I searched for more Lockley titles on I discovered that he had enjoyed a long career, but many of his books seemed to be variations on the Dream Island theme they included quite a list Island Days, Dream Island Days, Letters from Skoklhom, Early Morning Island, The Island, Dear Islandman and The Island Farmers. Presuming they would all be pale imitations of the original, my eye was attracted to a very different sounding Lockley book The Private Life of the Rabbit***.

The edition I received was published by the Reader’s Union in 1974 (the first edition came out in 1964) and it includes an introduction from Richard Adams saying it was the inspiration behind his bestselling novel Watership Down. Inspiration is probably overplaying it, as Adams relates, he already had his book underway when he chanced upon Private Life. Rabbits play a starring role in both books but it is hard to spot any deeper connection. Whatever the truth, Adams was generous in his praise. And in the early 1980s the two authors went on a journey together, which resulted in a book Voyage to the Antarctic. When Lockley died Adams said, ‘I can’t recollect that we ever had a disagreement’ a curious epitaph that, to my cynical mind, hints of a more complicated relationship.

The Private Life of the Rabbit lacks the charm of Dream Island, but is still strangely compelling. In the first chapter Lockley unconvincingly argues that the appeal of the rabbit is all to do with their face, ‘we accept roundness because of its feminine shape, seductive, receptive, protective, suggestive of the welcoming shelter of the stone-age cave, the open door, the warmth of the womb and the round vaginal entrance through which the child has been expelled into this world of pain, coldness and fear’. Stirring stuff. The rest of book concerns itself with an experiment studying rabbits that Lockley conducted after the war. By then he had left Skokholm and moved to Orielton, a rather grand-looking (at least from the outside) house he bought in Pembrokeshire. Myxomatosis, had arrived from France in 1953 and the government was worried that it didn’t know enough about rabbits, so Lockley was commissioned to conduct research into their life cycle. He penned off twelve acres in front of the house and constructed an ingenious underground concrete warren with an eight feet by four feet window running down one side through which he could watch the animals. The rabbits were tagged and numbered. Quite soon though Lockley began referring to them by nicknames that reflected their behaviour: Timid Timothy, Mrs Potter, Rough Stuff, Weary Willie etc.

For me, this is when the trouble began. One morning as I sat at my desk I had a thought – surely if Lockley could identify such characteristics so could I? Wouldn’t that be fun. Our new garden was full of rabbits and so, as soon as the weather warmed up, I wedged open the shed door and quickly found myself becoming distracted by their antics. My challenge was whether I could identify them as individuals rather than just see them as an anonymous rabble. I decided to name them after authors. Afternoons when I should have been working on the trivia book discovering the name of Gary Barlow’s favourite biscuit were now wasted gazing across our lawn. Is that PG Woodehouse sniffing Henry Miller’s bottom again? Was that Leslie Charteris chasing poor old HE Bates into the hedge? Such pressing questions began to take up whole hours and then days. The book wasn’t getting written. Maybe if I could identify just one rabbit then my quest would be over. Maybe the smallest? Or the fattest? Or one with distinctive markings? It couldn’t be that hard. Drastic action was called for. I moved an old wooden chair into a spot under the pear tree, right next to the most active-looking rabbit holes. It would be my equivalent of Lockley’s concrete bunker. Soon whole afternoons were drifting past with me not moving from the chair. But even close-up the rabbits all looked the same. I had been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers in which the crazy-haired American hack claims if you do anything for 10,000 hours then you become an expert. I worked out if I averaged five hours per day under the pear tree then it would take three full years to gain the right level of skill. Sadly, I knew from reading Private Life that the average life span for a rabbit is only 18 months. They would all be dead before I could identify them. What was I going to do? The deadline on the book was fast approaching. I was starting to get anxious emails from my editor. Should I tell him that I was now mainly living under a pear tree in a chair my dad had got off Freecycle (a website that is basically crack for anyone of my father’s generation that lived through rationing) staring down rabbit holes looking for Jeffrey Archer?

And then one morning I got up, made the kids their breakfast, and with a cup of tea in my hand, began gazing out through the kitchen window, hoping to see Kate Atkinson, when I realised something strange had happened. All the rabbits were gone. I presume a fox (or foxes) had come in the night and taken them away. My rabbit experiment was over.

Reflecting in the shed, later that day, I realised the only definitive thing that I had learned about their behaviour was that they liked to crap in the same place each day. One of them (Martin Amis?) was particularly fond of a small hassock near the swings, something I discovered on my first walk around the garden after we moved in. Hey-ho. Without the rabbits to distract me I quickly finished the book, it got published and sold roughly twelve copies. I haven’t thought much about rabbits since then, but I have thought about Lockley. Despite my father’s misgivings, I did get round to re-writing Islands Round Britain. Lundy, Rockall, Fair Isle and Dogger; a celebration of Britain’s islands by the illustrator Anthony Atkinson and me is published by Ebury this May.

*This book is worthy of mention in that the author is billed on the cover using his title not his name, which seems a shame as The Bishop of Chichester in 1942 (when the book was published) was George Bell, a really fascinating man who helped start the ecumenical movement, repeatedly attacked the government for bombing the civilian population of Germany, entertained Gandhi long before this was seen as a acceptable thing to do and did many other noble things.

** the ‘List’ is a series of blue tacked sheets in my parents kitchen that lists everything their six children and now their thirteen grandchildren have borrowed over the last twenty five years. One of the first entries is a full croquet set lent to me when i moved to London in 1991. What was i thinking? I was moving into a miserable house share on Brixton Hill, my life was not about to magically turn into an Evelyn Waugh novel. I don’t think i every played a single game of croquet and all that is left of this youthful dream is a solitary mallet somewhere in the back of my garage.

***The titles derives, in part, from an earlier project that had involved Lockley and the naturalist (and eugencist) Julian Huxley. Filmed on Grassholm (the island next to Skokholm) The Private Life of a Gannet was a groundbreaking study of seabirds that in 1938 became the first wildlife film to win an Oscar.

We’re presenting an evening with Mathew and Anthony at Rough Trade East, London E1 on Thursday 11 June. They will be joined by the writer Patrick Barkham and the theme of the event will be islands and coastlines. Details here.