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.
I 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.