The Possibility of an Island is a better title than it is a book. Indeed, although I have read it I cannot for the life of me recall a single scene from Michel Houellebecq’s book, but the title has stayed with me. To me islands always seemed to be filled with possibility; they are an endless source of fascination. Perhaps it is because they are contained, a world in and of itself, that can be explored and mapped. There is an end to an island. A natural border.
A few weeks ago I read about a short journey I have always wanted to take. The writer Richard Carter had climbed into a canoe on Coniston in the Lake District and, slowly but surely, made his way across the lake to Wild Cat Island. No matter that the island’s real name is Peel Island, for any readers of Arthur Ransome’s wonderful Swallows and Amazons will know what it is really called, and thirty five years after reading the book for the first time (about six or seven years before I did), Richard discovered the magic was based on reality:
We drift past a low, rocky promontory and some rocks. This is so right: it’s just like in the book! We’re almost past it before I see it: back to our right—I mean starboard—a steep-sided, narrow channel leads straight into the heart of the island. A few feet to either side of here, and the channel would be invisible, obscured by rocks and headland. This is the place! We’ve found the secret harbour!
It is fair to say that Swallows and Amazons, and that illustrated map just inside the front cover, was the start of my island fascination. As kids in the summer we would row out in a dinghy to what we called Seagull Island at the mouth of the bay at Rhoscolyn (something I have written about before, in relation to another island in Sweden), and I always wondered what it would be like to camp out there, cut off from the rest of the world. Some of my favourite trips in Germany have been to the islands of the North and Baltic Seas, catching the ferry to Fohr with Lotte only eight weeks old, exploring the locations of Katrin’s childhood on Rügen, or more recent journeys to Usedom. One Baltic island, like Wild Cat Island, remains “on the list”. Hiddensee lies off Rügen and is completely car free. Ever since I heard about it I have wanted to go there, although for now I enjoy the idea of it existing only in my imagination.
In Slovenia I rowed out to the island on Lake Bled with its white church, an image that graces every scrap of local tourism marketing material. A few years ago we took a trip to the Farne Islands, to see the birds and the seals, and hear the stories, but I was as fascinated by the wardens and their day to day life within sight of shore but often cut off by the weather for days if not weeks at a time. And it appears I am not alone with this fascination. I have spent plenty of happy moments virtually exploring all the islands documented on the Island Review website, where their tag list gives you an idea of the topics and themes that can be contained on the many different types of islands there are out there, from Scolt Head Island to the Bay of Bengal; Nelson Mandela and Iain Banks; Landscape, Art, and the World Cup; and yes, Arthur Ransome (but no sign of Michel Houellebecq)
Which brings me to a small lake about forty five minutes drive north of Berlin, one of the countless watery holes in the forests that surround the city. There is a walking trail that loops around the German capital called the 66-Lake-Trail, and not only are there more than 66 lakes on the trail, they are just a fraction of the hundreds if not thousands in Berlin and the state of Brandenburg. So the Gamensee is nothing special, although the water was cool and clear and perfect for swimming. We saw red kites and buzzards, dragonflies and fish. And perhaps because the weather was not so warm last weekend, we had the place pretty much to ourselves.
As you can see from the image at the top of this piece, from the small bathing area at the head of the lake, the only sign of human intrusion on the scene was a small, floating plastic island about fifty metres from the beach. It was anchored to the lake floor and was just far enough out to give those who are not massively keen swimmers (such as myself) the sense of achievement in getting there. And once there, well, it may have been made of plastic and an island only for as long as the anchor chain held, but it was an island nevertheless… and once my brother Sean had dived off and swum for shore it was, for a few moments, my island in the middle of the lake.
There was no secret harbour and no place to camp (even if allowed). It would soon, on warmer days, be flooded by teenage boys leaping from its banks in hopeless attempts to impress the indifferent. But still, as I sat there on my little floating island, the red kite hovering above the trees as Sean made for the beach, I was taken back to all the islands I have known and reminded once more of my fascination with the promises they hold. The possibilities of islands, indeed.
Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Katrin Schönig