Life; An Alternative

I once read a case study about a child who, when she learned that her parents were splitting up and they would have to move house, took one of the ornate candlesticks from the dining room table and buried it in the garden. This was perhaps not the most fortuitous choice as the parents thought they’d been burgled and called the police in, but the child sat tight-lipped, and never gave a sign of what had been done. Years later as an adult in therapy she recalled the incident, eventually returned to the house and, with more permission than she’d had the first time around, dug the candlestick up again. It had served its purpose as a horcrux. For all those years it had held a part of her that had been happy and secure, keeping faith with a version of herself she knew she would have to leave behind. Burying it had been an act of self-protection, and a promise to the future.

deer islandI remembered this case study while reading Neil Ansell’s latest book, Deer Island, which begins and ends with a similar act at an isolated cairn in the wild and mostly uninhabited Isle of Jura in the Hebrides. In Neil Ansell’s case it’s even more extraordinary that he should have anything at all to leave behind. I fell in love with his first book, Deep Country, which was about five years spent in a tumbledown cottage in the heart of the Welsh countryside practising a kind of extreme self-sufficiency. This new book, a hybrid of nature writing, travelogue and memoir, starts from an earlier time in his life when he worked in London for a charity, The Simon Community, dedicated to helping the homeless by finding them safe spaces where they could live on their own terms. Those who worked for the charity accepted voluntary poverty themselves – no wages, no possessions, no place of their own to live. They stayed with the homeless in their squats and derries and at the residential centres owned by the charity.

The boundary between the homeless and the volunteers was such a ‘porous’ one that ‘there was risk of traffic the other way, too.’ And this book treads an exquisitely fine tightrope between the healthiness of being free and empty-handed and its unhealthy flipside, spiritual destitution. At the heart of Neil’s writing there’s an extraordinary mindset in this age of acquisitiveness, one of absolute simplicity, in which the narrator has nothing but his inner resources and is, for this very reason, infinitely open to the world around him.

After three years with the charity, he was burnt out and exchanged his London life for peripatetic travel, striking out for mountains and deserts, places of emptiness and otherness. One journey takes him to the Isle of Jura, whose wild and windswept beauty enchants him. It’s a sanctuary of sorts, a place of soothing wilderness and welcoming locals. But another takes him to the Kalahari and the Makgadikgadi salt pans, the ‘most extreme landscape’ he had ever seen. The experience is a turning point of sorts, a moment of such fierce impression that it leaves a mental and emotional bruise: ‘The land stretched perfectly flat and unmarked to every horizon. Except there was no horizon, because the heat haze melded the earth to the sky in an unbroken wash of light. The pans were the bed of a shallow lake long since dried up, leaving just salt. The earth was a crystal plain, entirely featureless.’ Finally a flatbed truck with a dozen or so other travellers turns up and he hitches a lift, through two hours of desert storm with forked lightning and icy cold torrential rain.

I think part of me was washed away by that rainstorm in the desert. I felt that I no longer had any will, any power of self-determination, that I no longer had any control over my future, that any choices I could make were an irrelevance, that I was in the hands of the universe and I could only follow wherever it might lead me.’

Travelled out, he returns to London and, with no money and no job, realises he will have to pick up a lifestyle he once knew very well and find a squat in which to live. In the early days, the people he came to know shared a sort of integrity of the homeless. But during the intervening years, the culture has changed as hardcore drugs have swept through. The squat he finds which looks so promising at first – an empty children’s home – is subject to a hostile takeover by drug dealers and eventually wrecked. Sullied by the experience, Neil Ansell needs to take one more journey, one that will bring him back to himself.

I thought this book was amazing, and it’s extremely hard to write about in a way that does it justice. It is very short and written with such directness and lucidity in a style that manages to echo the unpretentious economy of Neil’s way of living. Yet it evokes such spiritual depth and explores such strange and unusual places. It is not at all a religious book, but I can’t quite shake the impression of the narrator as a modern day saint (not that he’d thank me for that description, I’m sure!); at the very least he is a man with a shining faith in the fundamental goodness of humanity, and the willingness of the world, even in its most inhospitable spots, to encourage and nurture life. Deer Island looks at the oddest of communities and the most extreme places with gentle tenderness and poetic sensibility, and it considers what really remains with us from sometimes vivid, sometimes violent, experience. It’s quite a book that, after forty years of pretty intensive reading, takes me somewhere I have never been before and am not likely to go again. I thought it was creative non-fiction at its finest.

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16 thoughts on “Life; An Alternative

  1. Your journey into non-fiction is fascinating. This is clearly a remarkable book and illustrative of the fact that there are some intense and life-enhancing books out there – if you know how to find them. How are you making up your selections? I’ve just started a non-fiction book chosen by someone else for a book group and it’s already clear that all 300+ pages are going to be a slog, certainly enough to ensure that it will be a long time before I will go in search of non-fiction for myself. Unless, that is, you pass on your secret.

    • Ah, well, I’ve been thinking about and reading non-fiction with focus and intent for quite a few years now, so I know what I like and what I’m interested in reading. Then, when I was considering a course, I looked over the reading lists of several universities and cherry picked what I wanted. And then, I’ve just been lucky recently! I am sure that I’ll hit a few disappointing ones, it’s inevitable. But just lately, they’ve been really good. I think that recent publications have favoured the trend for unusual, hybrid books, which I love, but to get published doing something like that at present, it has to be pretty damn good. So, there’s a Darwinian race for survival going on, too. Overall, though, I think it’s luck. ;)

    • Heh, with your unerring aim, Mrs C, you hit the trickiest part of the post. The case study (and I adore case studies, could read them from one end of the day to the other) came from a collection by the joyfully named and completely bonkers Prince Masud Khan. When I came to write about it, I realised I hadn’t read the study for about five years so, being anal, I went to the UL to see if I could borrow the book. I returned home with the only book of his I could borrow from the shelves, and yet it didn’t have the case study in it. How curious! I’m still convinced it’s by Khan, pretty sure I have the general outline correct, but wish I could lay hands on the actual volume!

    • I borrowed it from Harry Potter! I don’t know if proper therapists use the term horcrux, but they really ought to – it’s perfect for what it describes and so useful! :)

  2. The book sounds fascinating, I’d like to read it. I thought it interesting that you make a dichotomy (if that’s the right word) between material and spiritual destitution. When you think of many at least of the world’s religions, they advocate a freedom from possessions as a virtue, yet here it seems that it is a more complex situation, that you can just be empty and untethered. Perhaps because religion fills the empty spaces? I don’t know. I’m adding this to my endless list of books I’d like to read though.

    • You put your finger on a really good point, Helen. It was something I was trying to say and felt I couldn’t quite get it out accurately. But essentially I suppose there is no ‘answer’, no ‘ideal’ way of living. Life infects every situation, every condition with good and bad, qualities have the potential for both crisis and triumph, every structure, every ideology will shatter under sufficient pressure. I find that sort of depressing and comforting at the same time! Would love to know what you think of this one if you read it.

    • Lilian, it’s a real writers’ book. I think you would appreciate how much he accomplishes in so little space with such a small amount of hoopla. And I’d love to know what you think of it.

  3. Ansell sounds like a fascinating individual. That charity he volunteered for was really hard core! The practical side of me wonders, after he left it, how did he manage to travel? Where did the funds come from? And how exciting that you found a book that has taken you someplace you have never been before. I am glad you returned to tell us about it :)

    • That bit was really interesting – the Simon Community doesn’t pay its volunteers, but when they leave, they are given a lump sum to help them during their adjustment to a more orthodox way of life. Neil Ansell spent most of his on an old and unreliable motorbike that broke down regularly and amusingly across his travels. Once he was travelling, he picked up jobs where he could to help fund him – and I get the impression he can survive on very little! I’d love to know what you make of this if you read it!

  4. If rhis has taken you to a place you haven’t been before, reading wise, I think it must be very good. I’m interested in the fact that it seems to have a somewhat fleeting spirituality. I’ve got Deep Country here and will read that first but this is a must read for me as well.

  5. Pingback: Tales from the Reading Room

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