Julia Jones, Yachting Monthly's literary reviewer reads Island on the Edge: a life on Soay, by Anne Cholawo, and shares why she chose it for Yachting Monthly's Book at Bunktime for December 2021
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Island on the Edge: a life on Soay
The initial impetus to select Island on the Edge: a life on Soay came from a reader who had anchored there on his summer cruise and had been fortunate to meet Anne Cholawo herself.
I was intrigued by the recommendation but as I started reading I found myself wondering how relevant this might be for Yachting Monthly readers.
Yes, the author arrives by fishing boat but a significant amount of the early part of the book is focussed on the transition between the author’s earlier life as a graphic designer in London and her extraordinary unpreparedness for life on a small island with (then) only a handful of residents.
She had no idea of the practicalities of living outside the social infrastructure of utility supply, communications, consumer goods – and regular income.
Were it not for the kindness of her neighbours she is clear that she would not have survived.
She also learned quickly that this was not a one-way system: her neighbours had lives, problems and priorities of their own.
Self-sufficiency and inter-dependency were linked but essentially it was the first quality that made the second possible.
When Anne Cholawo began gathering winkles by boat to earn some tiny income I began to think that there might be something I could use as a Book and Bunktime extract – I was enjoying the book and didn’t want to give up on it.
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As her adventures by water extended, I was glad that I would be able to justify space on Yachting Monthly’s pages as our helpful reader had suggested.
However, the relevance of this book to the interests of cruising yachtsmen is perhaps more subtle that that.
Reading Maik Ulmschneider’s Birth of a Solo Sailor reinforced the message of so many cruising narratives that this community too is based on self-sufficiency, with a willingness to help that frequently exceeds what might be considered normal in an urban or suburban environment – at least when the infrastructure of modern living can be taken for granted.
Island on the Edge is a good read at a time when very many of us, even living on land, have needed to question our expectations.
The population of Soay has fallen during Anne Cholawo’s life there.
She is now one of only three permanent inhabitants.
In a postscript to the first edition of Island on the Edge she considers the prediction of an earlier inhabitant, Gavin Maxwell, that islands like this were destined to become uninhabited.
She has no easy optimism.
‘Adaptation is essential for survival and, as I have learned during my time on the island, Soay teaches us to adapt, but there always has to be a viable alternative for us to implement.
‘I have also learned that it is possible to run out of alternatives.’
I think sailors will understand this – even the most determined and ingenious – but is Anne Cholawo right to go further and apply this understanding to the rest of the planet?
‘My life on Soay has opened my eyes to the precarious and untenable state of modern civilisation in the twenty first century.
‘To heedlessly and recklessly exhaust resources that can never be replaced is nothing short of madness, yet I fear too little has been done too late and we are already too far down the line ti turn back and put it right.’
Whether or not one wishes to think as apocalyptically as this, I’m personally glad to have been alerted to an unusual and thoughtful book which I might otherwise not have considered. I hope other YM readers will feel the same.
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