The editor of the ISISA blog, Laurie Brinklow, contacted me with an invitation: ‘One idea I thought of is for you to write something about your “collection” of islands – where you're at in the list, how it all started, the oddest thing you've seen... that kind of thing.’ How could I refuse?
Collection? This refers to my list of islands visited. I am a true obsessive; of course I keep a list. And I boast of it. When I wrote my Geography of Islands, published back in 2001, I recorded proudly that I had been to 320 islands. Small beer; for when Godfrey Baldacchino had me write for his Archipelago Tourism book published in 2015, as boasted in the title of my chapter I had made then a 767-island odyssey. Small beer, for I have now, as of 4 January 2016, visited 855 islands. I write this piece on the island of Kyushu, Japan, where I am Visiting Professor at the Kagoshima University Research Center for the Pacific Islands. I am writing a book, researching, doing a little teaching and also ‘islanding’, a word known to my family as a shorthand for the old man going off yet again to some speck of land surrounded by water.
Whilst living in Kagoshima I have been to Tanegashima; to Yakushima; I went to a conference on Iojima; I am going to do research on Amami Oshima; I am going with students to Nakanoshima; I went to an islands conference in Korea and visited Geomundo, the small archipelago about which I am writing my book. My colleagues applauded, for these are worthwhile enterprises and/or significant places: Tanagashima is where the famous scissors come from and where the first Japanese muskets were made; Yakushima is a World Heritage Site. But when I announced I was spending one weekend in Amakusa, offshore, but bridged chunks of western Kyushu they were surprised, for there is nothing of note there. Nor is there, but my visit bagged me 10 more islands. Obsessive? Sure, but harmless, surely, unless you belong to my oft-abandoned family. That there were island holidays when the children were young apparently was no compensation for the islands were not the right ones. Going to the Outer Hebrides one summer was cool, it seems, only regarding the weather.
Laurie asks how did my collection start. It started in one sense with my birth on the large island of Great Britain and I have lived for 40 years on another large island, Ireland. But Laurie really means how did I become an islands person, an islophile? That’s a story I have told before: in 1974 my young wife and I went to Ireland for the first time, on holiday, little knowing that we were to spend our lives there as I was appointed to Queen’s University Belfast the next year. We went to the end of the Beara Peninsula in the southwest of Ireland and came across the then newish cable car leading to Dursey Island. We waited for the operator to come back from his lunch and crossed to Dursey, which was in a state of severe decline with most of its housing abandoned. I climbed into one house and found a newspaper from 1930 lying amidst the detritus therein and, with the curiosity of a geographer, started to wonder why this island space had been brought to this sad state.That incident led directly to me writing this blog on Kyushu nearly 42 years later. When I retired from Queen’s last year I had to give a speech at a dinner. I recounted this story and as an aside remarked to my wife that did she realize that if we had not bothered to wait for the cable car man that day our lives would have been different. She agreed – rather too readily for my liking.
‘The oddest thing you’ve seen – that sort of thing’: I am often asked which is my favourite island. I don’t think I have a favourite from the 855, but the most special to me, my ultimate island, is St Helena. This South Atlantic island is just so remote, with such an island story – Napoleon’s incarceration is only part of it – that I find it utterly compelling. I wrote a book on early St Helena, The Company’s Island, and it was just the most enthralling project of my career. Reading 17th-century manuscripts in the basement of the castle in Jamestown, days of travel from the nearest piece of land, was wonderfully exotic, such an unlikely experience. An airport is being built on St Helena now. Maybe it will make the island less exotic, but I hope not.
Other exotic, perhaps ‘odd’, moments? Celebrating Chilean Independence Day in the Globe Tavern in Stanley, Falkland Islands; going to a bonfire party for Guy Fawkes’ Night, a very British activity, but on Ascension Island; stalking a Japanese family around the Anne of Green Gables house on Prince Edward Island to see what they made of this structure which could have been Anne’s residence if only she had not been fictional; watching a football match on Rapa Nui with a moai observing the game from an excellent viewpoint overlooking one of the penalty areas...
... landing on the airstrip of the Faroe Islands at Vágar – nobody who has not had this experience can appreciate just how frightening this is; landing on Majuro in the Marshall islands where the airstrip is along the atoll, so on the approach you see only water from both sets of windows; seeing the super-rich trying on fur coats on Capri when it was 42 degrees; hearing African djembe drumming on the smouldering volcano of Iojima off Kagoshima. Moving moments: seeing Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island; appreciating the fragility and vulnerability of atolls on Tarawa, Kiribati; hearing the stories of Falkland Islanders about the events of 1982. ‘Wow’ experiences: just being on Tahiti – it really is gorgeous; seeing turtles on Ascension Island and on Fernando de Noronha, Brazil, where I saw also a spinning dolphin.
The most privileged experience: watching a boat launching ceremony on Pongso no Tau (Orchid Island) off Taiwan. This is not commodified, not for tourists, but is an expression of the ancient culture of the indigenous Tau community.
‘Islanding’, leading to my becoming Emeritus Professor of Island Geography, has brought me a fabulous career, which is ending with a bang with my current employment at Kagoshima (this ‘bang’ may not be metaphorical given the extremely close proximity of the smoking volcano of Sakurajima). Thank goodness we waited for the Dursey cable car man to have his lunch!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Stephen A. Royle is currently Visiting Professor at Kagoshima University Research Center for the Pacific Islands. He is now retired from a long and illustrious career teaching Geography at Queen's University Belfast, where he is Professor Emeritus. Steve is the author of several books and articles, including his most recent, Islands: Nature and Culture (London: Reaktion Books, 2014). He is also the Reviews Editor for Island Studies Journal.
Are you a collector of islands? Any special ones on your list? How did you get started? If you have a story you'd like to share with the rest of us "islophiles" here on this ISISA blog spot, please send it along to me at brinklow[at]upei.ca. (Max. 1,000 words; photos and links welcome!)