Will Self: PsychoGeography

Fantasy island
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The Independent Online

For a week last summer I lounged by the infinity pool and stared out at the rocky spire of Es Vedrà, an islet 2 kilometres off the southwest coast of Ibiza. It looked enticing – if sheer. Clearly, the thing to do was to set off at first light, swim across the aquamarine sound with a couple of rolls and a pat of butter tied to my head, then scale its 350 metres, before having breakfast on its summit. I only hoped I'd remember the butter knife.

This was what Patrick Leigh Fermor would do – it was what Wilfred Thesiger would also do. (Although in his case he'd probably require the companionship of some lithe Berber lads.) However, I'm made of more pliant stuff. I stayed by the infinity pool, smoking Montecristos, and reading Jared Diamond's Collapse, a comparative analysis of self-destructing societies, while contributing to the destruction of my own by inanition alone.

Nevertheless, Es Vedrà got to me, and day after day I found myself corralling my own lithe boys into building ridiculous floating islets out of the numerous inflatable toys that cluttered up the pool. Usually these would be dive-bombed as soon as they were finished, but on a few occasions the lurid periclinal form would still be intact as the sun squished into the Med, a bizarre visual echo of the real thing offshore.

I felt like Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, mounding earth in anticipation of an alien landfall. And if a spaceship landed on Es Vedrà what would the little green men do? Abduct me, complete with cigars and reading material? Then perform unnatural sexual experiments on me? I lived in hope, waiting for the infinite to come to me as I slumbered by the infinity pool.

Then, in early June of this year, I found myself in the Inner Hebrides on the island of Jura, looking out from the village of Craighouse across Small Isles Bay towards Eilean nan Ghabar, nan Coinein, Bhride and Pladda – the eponymous small isles. These were altogether more homely affairs than Es Vedrà; dorsal fins of rock and greenery, barely breaking the waves. Even so, they lured me on with their propinquity and their promise of perfect and apprehensible peace.

The pace of life on Jura was way too frenetic, what with the goaties, the boaties, the drinkies and the folkies. What I needed was a retreat from my retreat. This is what the islet offers: somewhere that Crusoe can go, safe in the knowledge that Friday won't come trudging along the beach, leaving footprints with size 12s that have never been in a shoe, let alone a Birkenstock.

I can never see an islet off an island without getting caught up in a whirlpool of regression. For, there must be a smaller islet off the islet, and a still smaller islet off that one ... and somewhere, poised like a crane on a nugget of land, there must stand the ultimate beachcomber, carefully examining a single grain of sand. It's childlike – I know that – a longing for smaller and smaller demesnes, more and more play-isolation, but isn't this the very mindset of this archipelago we find ourselves inhabiting? You can hardly imagine a Siberian giving a toss about islets, let alone tundra within tundra.

And now I come to muse on this, it occurs to me that I'm never really building sandcastles when I'm at the seaside. I couldn't give a toss about battlements or turrets – it's an islet I'm intent on constructing; a sea-girt fortress, within which I can retreat, with my smoking materials and a good book, like a single Barclay brother on a Brecqhou of my own devising. From here I can watch the rest of the world implode on itself, fusing into a ghastly Pangaea.

A woman at a party (stock character, stock situation, what would we do without them?) asked me why I was so obsessed with islands. I explained to her that they're like novels: small-scale versions of the world, complete with a limited cast of equally understandable types. The depth psychology of islanders is not unlike that of characters in novels: they all want to badmouth each other to an outsider, and so they manufacture their own MacGuffins. I like to write novels on islands because this, too, is a form of regression.

But what does this imply about islets? Are these the places to write short stories? And what about islets off islets off islets? What literary forms are they suited to? Perhaps only the slightest of vignettes in the case of the latter, a few score words on place itself, like this column for example. Alternatively, I could remain mute, furious that even after evading the jellyfish and the cramp, and battling against my own lethargy, I had indeed forgotten the butter knife.

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