Thursday, 24 March 2016

Glossary Island

If I came to be stranded on an undiscovered island, I'd hope to find it peopled by inhabitants that epitomised words I hadn't before seen or heard; words that in my land hadn't been used for a very long time, that had, in fact, been abandoned then forgotten. Cast off to this unknown isle like convicts sent to Australia. The English then were very good at that: ignoring or removing problems. Some people might say they still are.
Usually the question asked is: what three items would you take to a desert island? Some respondents give practical answers like a penknife, a lighter and a fishing rod; others provide replies in pursuit of leisure: a hammock, an mp3 player, a Kindle Paperwhite with crisp high resolution display, whilst some make outlandish selections in expectation of a utopian state. They will reside in a Paradise where all God's creatures are non-violent and nature is bountiful. Experience harmonious living on peaceable ground. They can't imagine the ill-winds that might blow or what dangers might lurk. The potentiality of poisonous snakes, spiders, fruits and plants. Real risks don't exist in a land you've created.
Herein lies the problem, my problem with the question posed: it allows the interviewees to choose. It's a planned excursion like a billionaire renting a private island for a party of exclusive guests. It's too neat, it's too tidy. The landscape swept clean so that it closely resembles a watercolour painting. There's luxury huts and staff clothed in flowered sarongs who cater to every guest's whim. You can do whatever you want, however, whenever you want to. The surrounding seas are always calm, the sun is always shining. There are always zephyr breezes and time always goes blissfully slow. It paints an untrue picture of unmapped territory because its location has already been staked: named and impaled on the globe by another Christopher Columbus, or by someone who's read Daniel Defoe and thinks they're the next Robinson Crusoe.
All the respondent has to do is decide on which three items to pack. The island pre-exists; they don't even have to worry about how they will get there because the itinerary says by big plane, then small plane and/or boat. Creative thinking gets cancelled, but then this hypothetical question alienates life's common players because it's mostly put to the rich, the famous, those on some kind of celebrity list.
I prefer to conceptualise what sort of island I'd liked to be washed up on. That's how I visualise it: being washed up like a folded message in a screw-top bottle, never mind the reason, how or why, just opening my eyes and finding myself there: beached on a foreign shore. If there's a mainland it's not in sight, and in the sea there are floating words, bobbing like life buoys; some have run aground, and the sand is pebbled with sun-dried papers on which their definition is printed. The perpetual student in me starts to collect them, assembling them in a disorganised pile, as other more sensible exiles might gather wood for an impromptu camp fire. I will then sit down to read with my back against a palm tree until all daylight naturally fades, where under the cover of stars the sound of waves will lull me to sleep.
In the morning, I awaken to a clamorous, mocking woman standing over me, peering at me as if I were a museum exhibit. Her prattle one continuous stream, some of which I think might be insulting, as she studies me with a quizzical crow-like expression. She gives up, trudges to a marooned word and points to it, then herself; it, then herself; herself, it. I scramble to look the word up amongst my newly hoarded treasure:
hoydenish ragger: Ill-bred, rude and noisy teasing woman.
Me, she mouths, gesticulating wildly. She's a late nineteenth-century native of the type found in an H.G. Wells novel.
As I nod and smile, smile and nod, I would think that I could quite happily live in this paradisal glossary of my own creation.