'If you have a perfect place in your heart, I think it should stay there'
Sunday 29 June 1997
Date of birth
21 August 1958
Place of birth
Travel writer Dea Birkett has a rare stamp in her passport. It looks like a large, black postmark and says "Pitcairn Island Police and Immigration". In 1992 Birkett spent four months on Pitcairn, fulfilling a dream which began when she saw the movie Mutiny on the Bounty. She says: "I was sitting in a cinema on a rainy afternoon at the Elephant and Castle. I was watching the latest of five movies made about the Mutiny on the Bounty, in which Mel Gibson played Fletcher Christian and Anthony Hopkins, Captain Bligh. I was captivated by the images of this lovely island. At the end, the credits rolled up and said that descendants of Fletcher Christian live on the island to this very day. It was miserable and grey and cold outside and I thought, 'I've got to go to this lovely place.'" It took Birkett two years. The Foreign Office is inundated with applications from people who want to live on Britain's last colony in the South Pacific, and nearly all are refused. Birkett persisted and gained permission to go, but there were other problems. She explains: "Pitcairn is incredible remote. The only way is if you can convince a cargo ship to take you as a member of crew. The ships pass within about 10 miles of Pitcairn and they literally drop you over the side on a ladder into a long boat." Luckily she had worked her passage from Lagos to Liverpool as a steersman in 1987, so she found it relatively easy to join a chemical carrier in Houston, Texas, bound for the South Pacific. On Pitcairn she found people dressed in T-shirts and shorts, speaking a language reminiscent of the 18th century - calling a gun a musket and saying "tarry awhile" instead of stay. Birkett lived and worked with sixth-generation descendants of Fletcher Christian. "I did washing, I cooked, I helped in their garden, I went out to trade with passing ships." But Pitcairn was not the island of her dreams. She explains: "The island of the movies is surrounded by coral beaches, it's palm fringed, there's a lovely blue lapping sea. Pitcairn has no beach and a violent coastline. What I thought would make Pitcairn so attractive - its smallness, it's remoteness - were in actual fact huge problems for the people there and also for me. I found that the 38 inhabitants were fallible and human like all of us, and I was enormously disappointed. It was not fair of me to project this paradise on to a very ordinary place. If you have a perfect place in your heart, I think it should stay there."
"Serpent in Paradise", Dea Birkett's book about Pitcairn is published by Picador at pounds 16.99.
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