You are an aspiring young writer in need of a holiday. Being all but penniless you decide to stow away on an ocean liner, the SS Ruritania. Being also a bit of a lone wolf you tell no one of your plans. One morning you simply pack a bag, lock up your flat and leave. What a story your adventures are going to make. Publishers are bound to snap it up.
It’s not much fun in the bowels of the SS Ruritania. It’s damp and noisy, so dark it’s hard to tell whether it’s day or night. You soon lose track of time. You get so hungry and disorientated that you can’t even remember where the SS Ruritania was supposed to be heading.
One day, or possibly night, you are woken by an almighty bang and hear someone shout ‘Abandon ship – we just hit a reef / whale / iceberg / yellow submarine’. It takes you an age, in your weakened state, to clamber up all those little narrow stairways to the upper decks, by which time everybody has already jumped. You jump too.
You manage to cling to a piece of driftwood and many days later are washed up on a desert island. You could be anywhere in the world. You have no means of contacting anyone, and no one knows you are there.
Exploring the island you discover a plentiful supply of bananas and cocoanuts, and a freshwater stream. There is also a substantial hut, once occupied by a hermit. You find his sun-bleached bones on the beach. The hermit must have been a writer because, in a dry underground cavern you discover – amazingly enough – an enormous cupboard full of A4, wide-feint refill pads (green or yellow tint – easier on the eye) and an unlocked treasure chest full to the brim of 2B pencils, the ones with the orange ends. Oh, and a smaller treasure chest full of pencil-sharpeners.
So, knowing you will never be rescued and no one will ever read your words – will you write?
That is the Desert Island Question.
Which reminds me of another story, slightly more subtle than the one I just cooked up for you, or rather one of those peculiar, po-faced English jokes disguised as a story. It was told at a lecture by Geoffrey Bateson, a brilliant anthropologist, social scientist, linguist, visual anthropologist, semiotician and scientist, who died in 1980:
A man had a very powerful computer, so he asked it ‘Will you ever be able to think like a human being?’ The computer rattled and clicked for a bit before printing out its answer:
THAT REMINDS ME OF A STORY
Human beings can’t resist telling stories – which was Bateson’s point. It’s our natural mode of communication. It must have started with the Stone Age equivalent of Guess what? A mammoth chased me and it was THIS big!
But what happens when there is no audience, no other caveman/woman with an interest in mammoths? If you are alone in your house watching tennis on TV, do you leap up and exclaim: Guess what? Roger Federer just beat Andy Murray! Probably not.
On your desert island, will you finally start planning that epic novel? There will be no kids to separate, no dog to be walked, no washing-up to wade through, no tennis on TV – just you, and all that paper, and all those pencils. You might start a diary; but in the absence of other human beings what of interest could be said to be happening, day by day?
I made cocoanut-and-banana soup. Delicious.
Saw a fish.
To be continued…