Desert Islands? No thank you!

The Daily News – 10 August 1940

Desert Islands? No thank you! 

    IT is reported that 21 pilgrims have left San Francisco to settle on the uninhabited island of West Caicos.
    One of them explained before leaving that they “wanted to get away from politics, traffic hazards, hunger and threats.”
    I wonder whether there are many men and women who, if they had the chance, would like to join them. There seems to be something about small islands that makes all sorts of people want to go and live on them.
    W. B. Yeats wrote a beautiful poem in which he declared his intention of settling down and cultivating beans on Innisfree. But he went on living within a stone’s throw of Euston Station.
    That, I think, is as far as the dream of living on an island—just our private island—gets with most people.
    London would not have 7,000,000 inhabitants if a passion for loneliness were general. I for one would rather sit in an armchair in London and read about Robinson Crusoe by electric light than experience his solitude.

    ONE of the charms of these lonely islands is supposed to be that there are no taxes to pay. It seems to me, however, that to cut oneself off from most of the pleasures of civilisation is too big a price to pay for escaping income tax.
    I prefer living as a taxpayer among taxpayers to vegetating as a taxdodger on a boring island. Again, there are people who think they can “get back to nature” more effectively on an island than in a large city.
    Perhaps they can, but I don’t want to get back to nature. Nature in moderation is not a bad thing; but I like coal fires, gas stoves, hot baths, toothbrushes, cooked food, books, music, comfortable chairs, razor-blades, and all sorts of things that nature omitted to produce.
    It seems to me to be unnatural to want to get back to nature. What is commonly called nature is something with which human nature never has been, and never can be, satisfied.
    Some years ago a number of island-worshippers published an advertisement which ran: “Small community of idealists, wearied of pomposities and complexities of modern life, are anxious to hear of any island in agreeable climate which is for sale.” To want to escape from the pomposities and complexities of modern life seems to me no more than to want to get back to nature.

    I CONFESS I do not see enough of these pomposities to be either wearied or worried by them; and as for the complexities, one could avoid mostof these by going to gaol. And, after all, men have made life complex because they found it more interesting so. I am in favour of the simple life up to a point, but I can reach that point in a London grill-room.
    It may be thought that in the present disastrous state of the world lonely islands should have a special attraction for the imagination. To live on a desert island till the war is over, without newspapers, without wireless, as completely cut off from the contemporary world as if one were in another century—how charming a thought! If you had a chance of doing this, however, would you accept it? And, if you did, would you not merely be flying from one kind of misery to another—the misery of being cut off from your kind and feeling that you were only half alive?
    I sometimes think that I should like to fall asleep like Rip Van Winkle and wake up only when all the troubles of our time have been settled. But if I were offered a drug that would give me this long sleep, should I drink it? I doubt it. I prefer the company of my contemporaries to posterity; even if posterity will have achieved Utopia.

    PERHAPS it is only when we are young that most of us dream of an ideal island or of some comparable solitude where we can found a new society nearer perfection than the ramshackle civilised world. My own dream was of a labourer’s cottage on a hill-top three miles from Coleraine, but I did not even want to found a new society.
    Coleridge and Southey in their, youth made plans for settling in a lonely part of America and forming a sort of Communist community which they called Pantisocracy; and in our own time D. H. Lawrence had dreams of a community in Mexico.
    Here, as with the idealists who advertised for an island, was the desire to escape from the complexities of civilisation.
    We hear a great deal of escape nowadays. Some people condemn it, and one of them has invented the word “escapologist”—for which he should have been punished as for crime—to express his contempt. But we all practise it every day of our lives—reading and talking and listening to music. If we could not occasionally escape into sleep we should die. And other forms of escape are as necessary to us.
    Even escape, however, should be practised in moderation; and It seems to me that, though escape through a dream of a desert island is as commendable as it is pleasant, escape to the reality of a desert island is rather like suicide.


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