An island presents an ideal conjunction of the three states of matter: land, sea and sky; solid, liquid, gas. The world rarely displays itself so uncomplicatedly to human understanding. The same tripartite division is available to anyone standing on any coastline: here is the land, there is the sea and there, in the distance, is the sky, but the arrangement of horizontal strata is too basic, too much like a cream slice.
An island offers a more complete and fascinating series of meetings between the three states, a different boundary ever way you look. There is land and sky, there is sky and sea, here sea and land.
Each of the three states makes it available to the inhabitant of the island. Climb the island’s mountain, and you might find yourself enveloped in cloud; comb the beach and discover the daily exchange of a coastal economy.
On this particular island that border is patrolled by up to 200 grey or Atlantic seals. Bobbing in the water they act as sentinels, curious, and ready to follow a walking human or come in closer to inspect their credentials, lifting themselves on the swell to peer, then dipping back down to show the sleek line of a back. Out on the rocks at low tide, however, the change is huge enough to be laughable. What were doglike in behaviour, roughly human in scale, so far as you could tell – you can see how the myth of the selkie arose; these creatures are seductive in their mastery of their element – are now preposterous in their camp torpor. Lolling on exposed rocks like Roman senators at feast, they pose and groan like Renoir odalisques, brushing a flipper over their whiskered snouts, clapping their tail flippers delicately together – something strangely coquettish about that laying together of the flippers, at once demure, like legs pressed resolutely together, and sexual, as of the female genitalia: hidden and on show at the same time. I have perhaps been on this island too long.
Yesterday* as we waited in the small harbour for the boat from the mainland, that would deposit daytrippers and then take us on a trip around the island, we saw B, a student in Exeter when he’s not back here with his parents, who farm the small island in defiantly traditional manner – though how many farmers will you see at the end of the working day drifting over their fields on a paraglider? – out in the bay in his row boat, make the tour of his lobster pots. It was just the particular moment of the tide, rather than a sealish guard of honour for this son of the island – and certainly not him throwing any of his catch – but still the sight of some sixty seals congregating around the small boat, as close as maybe ten feet, was cherishable unto anthropomorphism.
Anthropomorphism unrepentant: some attempts to describe the sounds of sixty or seventy seals out of water at low tide: yowling, snorting, snarling, mewing, farting, snoring, hooting, keening, whinnying, rasping, hawking, mooning.
As a human, on an island, you feel how you are able to move between the three states of matter, or through them, but are also apart from them. This is because we ourselves move through a fourth medium, that of consciousness, in which moves our self, our sense of identity.
The view of the island from the Irish sea: as you approach the island from the Welsh mainland all you see of it is the hump of a hill that sits on its east side – at some 540 feet far from tall enough to make a mountain, but its exposure means the habitat is close to what you’d expect from a mountain – and the now-unmanned lighthouse at the low southern tip. It’s not until you’re landed, and making your way up the track from the harbour, that you see any of the ten or some habitations.
The high and precipitous east side means that the houses all face west, towards the rarely visible Ireland, and it is only really when looking back at the island from this body of water that it really strikes home how the island is not just geographically remote, but further – and inherently – isolated by orientation. The island faces away from the mainland. To see any of the Llyn Peninsula, or Cardigan Bay (or, for instance, to get mobile phone reception, should you require it) you need to climb the mountain, or at least its north or south flank, or head to the lighthouse. The island faces the sea, the mountain at its back like a geological shrug. The horizon is uninterrupted. With the mountain behind, and the good grazing and willow beds, or withies, below, the houses are restricted to a strip of land along the north half of the island. (The Narrows, as the isthmus that links the north and south parts is called, will one day be eroded away, making two islands of one.) But it’s only when you see them from the unnatural aspect of the sea’s eye view, that you see this.
What would the island history have been like if the island geography had been reversed, with the houses and farmland facing back east, sheltered from the sea by the mountain? It would have made for an easier life, and better land, more productive vegetable gardens, surely. But what have been lost? A sense of self-reliance, suggests C, the boatman, of bloodyminded independence. You don’t see the mainland, you don’t miss it, you don’t even think about it. Unmoored by sight from the nearest landmass, the island doesn’t so much become desert – for there are always people about; the slight elevation of the houses means that wherever you are, off the mountain, you’re more or less in sight of someone – as a world unto itself. And I think of the religious history of the island, the purported 20,000 saints that came here to die and be buried. And of Saint Cadfan, who founded the first monastery, in the Sixth Century, because his previous foundation had become too busy with hangers-on. The island is a Finisterre of sorts. Beyond here, on the days you can’t make out the Wicklow hills, is nothing but infinity. It’s a place where you feel you’re meeting your maker at least halfway.
Nights on the island can be as full as the days. Not just in the excursions to watch the ringing of Manx shearwaters and storm-petrels, but in the dreams and insomnia. Dreams as vivid, involving and action-packed as any I can remember – some that seemed above all thought through, the intricacies and internal logic of which you’d have to put down to intelligent design, though design informed as much by the bravura leaps and radical convergences of Surrealism as by any sense of symbolic or narrative order you might find in a Creative Writing manual. You kill a joke by dissecting, and you bore a reader by expounding a dream narrative, but these were dreams I wanted to rewind, go over, analyse, in order to come to some understanding of the unconscious workings of that same mind I try to press into the creation of daytime fictions. The periods of insomnia on the island, strangely, I found just as interesting.
Insomnia is something I, like many people, experience occasionally, most often triggered by obvious stressors or sources of anxiety – the start of a new term, a job or journalistic interview – but occasional it can come unbidden, and be benign, productive. A week on this island is anything but stressful, and thought was able to range forwards and backwards in time without fear of monsters. I was sleeping in a four-bed room with my three sons, and partly there was interest, and ease, in listening to their rounds of breathing.
There were stories of my own to be thought through, and naturally the dark (not quite) and still (not quite) and quiet (not quite) of the 4am room brought up different angles and avenues than those produced by day. And then, last night, a trip to the outside toilet at some otherwise ungodly hour gave me a glimpse of a night sky that took me round to the front of the house. It’s pointless to look for words to describe a clear sky full of stars unmasked by human light: it’s a sight that has prompted humanity to the production of most of religion and science. Depth of field is what occurred to me, looking at it, not so much the extent of what was on display, or the brightness of the familiar constellations, but the invitation to dive in, to rise up and enter into new divisions of focus.
And then, yesterday evening, as the boys took part in an open invitation, all-age, 26-person 90-minute game of football on a mown, sloping field alongside one of the houses, with the mountain to their left, and the slope down to the sea to their right, I walked down past the withy and the low-lying wet field to the west coast. After a clear, hot Wednesday, the day had been overcast, but now the sun had made it below the cloud cover, and threw itself for a glorious hour across the rocks and grass and up to the houses, until it reached the low cloud over Ireland, fifty miles across the sea. The previous night this lower belt hadn’t been present, so we were treated to an immense eighties neon-grapefruit millefeuille sky as the sun slipped behind the Wicklow mountains, distorting their outline until they looked like the Grand Canyon. This evening the atmospheric disturbance was limited to a molten meniscid blob of yellow on the sea horizon below the sun, and also a rippled reflection on the water that widened as it came towards shore. With the sun above, and short bars of light on either side of it, it suggested a possible origin for the shape of the Celtic cross, with its scooped out descender.
The light makes a mockery of a camera phone. Perhaps these dozens and dozens of landscape shots, of lighthouse shots, of shots of stone walls with the slant light hitting them just so, will look great at home on a computer screen, or even printed out, but on the phone screen they look derisory.
Well, okay. Maybe it looks alright. But back there, on the island, the gesture of photography seemed more powerful than the result would look.
*not yesterday now. I was on Bardsey last week.