A SELECTION OF REVIEWS AND TRAVEL JOURNALISM BY JENNY DISKI
(Click on a title)
Author, author: Advice for young writers-to-be
Beatles to Bowie: beneath the surface of 60s photography
A voyage to world's end
Speaking for Myself: The Autobiography by Cherie Blair
The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death and Happiness
From The Observer, Sunday 1 June 2008
'Please don't go away and write that St Helena is an island paradise, like all the other journalists do,' Michel Martineau, the honorary French consul of St Helena, said wearily. But even before I arrived, I'd caught a shadow underlying the charm. The visit to St Helena begins when you board the RMS St Helena, at Portland, Dorset, not a fortnight later when you land on the island.
The whole idea was charming. A voyage on Britain's last working Royal Mail Ship to an island 10 miles long and six miles wide, slap in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, near to nowhere (703 miles from Ascension Island, 1,500 miles from Tristan da Cunha, 1,649 miles from Cape Town). After eight days on the island, the RMS would take us on to Cape Town, where we would disembark five days later, having had a leisurely trip through time and history. What's more, I was told that it would be one of the last ever sailings, since St Helena, one of the most isolated inhabited islands in the world, which depends solely on the RMS St Helena for everything, apart from fish, is about to get an airport and the ship will be decommissioned.
The RMS is a cargo ship carrying mail, salt, groceries, white goods, electrical parts, electronics, alcohol, pharmaceuticals and motor cars: everything the island was running out of (aside from the cars, of which there are almost as many as people). But it also has comfortable accommodation for 100 or more passengers, of whom the majority are Saints. It's what the 4,000 islanders call themselves. For them the RMS is a shuttle; the only way to return home for a holiday or retirement, after working in the UK, the Falklands or Ascension Island to support themselves and their families on St Helena.
The Saints took the seats ranged around the wall in the upper lounge ('Where they always sit,' the captain, a Saint himself, told me), and settled down with enforced patience for the long wait to get home. They were happy to tell me all about their island, but when I asked how they felt about the imminent airport, they mostly started laughing. The airport that's going to be built by 2012, I explained. Sometimes, instead of laughing, they shook their heads with the same weary look in their eyes as Michel Martineau.
I wasn't initially impatient to get to the island: I was lured by the sea. When I crossed the Atlantic to the United States on a cargo ship a few years ago, it had been blissfully uneventful and unorganised. I imagined this trip would be similar, but it turned out that the RMS takes its social responsibility to passengers much more strenuously. Some of my 25 or so fellow tourists (mostly retired couples, some solo travellers) really did enjoy the fancy hat parade, frog racing, cricket, deck quoits and disco dancing with fun and games (pass the balloon under your chin, between your knees), scheduled and announced in the RMS Mail, which appeared under the cabin door every morning.
I took to roaming the ship in search of a place to sit and watch the sea. Apart from the cabins, nowhere was safe from organised fun, or taped upbeat music to distract our idle minds. Eventually, one evening when half a dozen of us were sitting quietly on deck watching the sun set, the assistant purser arrived with a huge loudspeaker to play the scheduled 'Sunset Serenade'. We took a quick survey. 'Um, no one on deck wants music, thanks.' 'It's on the programme,' said the purser, looking neither right nor left, and the selection of 'popular classics' began to play to the sea, the sky, the dropping sun and us. On the programme? It was a Fletcher Christian moment. We cheered and stamped our feet as one man strode to the loudspeaker and ripped out the plug. Look out for it in seafaring annals: the party-poopers' mutiny.
If by paradise other journalists meant beautiful and wild, then St Helena is certainly that. Desolate and lush by turns, it has a landscape that seems to offer the whole planet in miniature. Jamestown is visible from the sea as a streak of habitation in a crevice between two steep inclines. It is the only town, the only place to anchor, and even then you have to hop on to a launch to get to land. Most of the island was at the harbour to greet the RMS and watch for returning friends and relations, or just to look forward to the arrival of the containers. Both containers and passengers mean a lift for the island's spirits and income for a while. We walked up the main, and more or less only, street of Jamestown, lined with wooden colonial buildings. The radio was playing 'Mrs Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter' at Ann's Place, where very good St Helenian-grown coffee could be had, in the neatly tended Castle Gardens.
We met there often, the RMS tourists, mostly because it had the only public internet connection on the island, and shared our experiences. Most people stayed at the Consulate Hotel, with its long veranda to watch the town go by, but some of us were in self-catering flats, or like me in a small cottage a little way out of town, with a pretty garden and a mountainside of my own to gaze at. Within a day or two we recognised half the Saints, and had learnt to wave hello to every adult and child we passed.
Some people took the 12-seater 1925 charabanc tour across the island. The more intrepid hired cars and drove themselves, enjoying, or enduring, the corkscrewing, almost vertical, one-track mountain roads, and a feast of changing vegetation and climate: from one heart-stopping hairpin bend to the next rainforest became desert, lush grassland and volcanic wilderness. Stand on the opposite side of the island in the rubble and desolation below the outcrop called Lot's Wife and above Sandy Bay, and you might be at the making of the planet, the day after the volcanoes erupted out of the sea. Visit Plantation House and Mrs Gurr, the governor's wife, will show you round, as well as take you out to watch 172-year-old Jonathan, the giant tortoise, having astonishingly noisy sex. 'Who knew tortoises could be so interesting?' she wondered. Climb, if you're so inclined, up Diana's Peak and see the whole island below you in the middle of an endless ocean.
In town there is the museum, the Castle, the tiny prison with its own sky blue veranda, the 700 steps of Jacob's Ladder rising almost vertically 900ft, and, if you're wise, Basil George, a Saint devoted to the island, who will take you round and tell you everything you need to know - including how to slide down the Ladder as he did as a child.
And it has such a history. Discovered by the Portuguese in 1502, it became a vital halfway house for supplying ships heading east with fresh water and leaving sick sailors to recover or die. An early Robinson Crusoe, Fernando Lopez, minus nose, ears, one hand and a thumb, concealed himself from the world in St Helena before Shakespeare wrote The Tempest. The Dutch and the English squabbled over it and finally it was controlled by the British East India Company. East India Company employees, soldiers, sailors, plantation owners, slaves from Madagascar and Asia, and, later, emancipated slaves arriving in British ships, indentured workers from the Maldives and China, all added diversity to the population as well as the landscape.
After Waterloo, Napoleon was exiled to St Helena. He died there in 1821, and eventually Longwood House, where he stayed with his retinue of 30, and the surrounding acres were given to the French (hence the honorary French consul). Captain Cook, Captain Bligh and Darwin all dropped by on their way to somewhere else. But in 1834 it came under Crown control and the East India employees were left destitute by the company to make do as they may. And when, in 1869, the Suez Canal opened and steam ships became more common, no longer needing the trade winds to blow them eastwards, the island of St Helena became an impoverished, forgotten backwater.
The charm, returning tourists say, is that the place is a throwback to England in the Fifties, but the island also suffers from the austerity of that period. The shelves in the shops were virtually empty - no salt, eggs, potatoes, no fruit at all, a few stunted cucumbers and wrinkled green peppers. In the butchers I took a packet of beef sausages from the chiller. They had a best-before date of September 2007. I returned them to the chiller. It was like Romania in the old days, one of the passengers from eastern Europe said. People stand or sit about on Main Street, Jamestown, unemployed. They smile, they wave, the buildings they stand in front of are pretty colonial throwbacks, but there is very little work and even the highest paid can expect to get around £4,500 a year, while the prices of what you can get in the shops are higher than the UK. Other men in shirts and ties, women in neat heels, walk briskly about with files under their arms, being administrators. Some 10 per cent of the population suffer from alcoholism. It's British colonialism past its sell-by date.
The demoralisation among the islanders is historical. Over the years they have tried to make a living with whaling, quinine, flax, lace, fish-canning and stamps, but nothing has made the island economically viable. Today it is one of the last 14 British Overseas Territories. For some reason no one seems to understand, its grant comes from the overseas aid budget, so it competes with Darfur and other desperate places for money. This year it will cost the British taxpayer £17m (approximately 30 per cent less than MPs' expenses in the Commons.) None the less, Malcolm Geere from the Department for International Development told me: 'The island must become self-sufficient.'
You wouldn't expect a town in the UK of 4,000 people to be self-sufficient. Why not double its grant, put in better on-island training schemes and increase wages? The British taxpayers still wouldn't notice it in their purses if £34m was given back to them, I suggested.
'I get more letters from taxpayers complaining about their money going to the island than those who don't mind.'
About St Helena? Not Iraq or Northern Rock, I asked.
'Different budgets,' he said.
The airport is the British government's way out. Luxury tourism is the planned industry that will make St Helena independent. The governor suggests a safe haven, high-security escape for rich white South Africans 'after Zuma gets into power' and boarding schools for their children. The editor of the St Helena Independent newspaper suggests offshore finance, like the Cayman Islands. The tourist office suggests high-end luxury holidays, with the likes of Madonna and Nicole Kidman making paparazzi-free visits. But there are only three hotels, no infrastructure, no agriculture, insufficient water supplies, the airport is to be built on the wrong side of the island where the crosswinds are vicious, and won't Nicole and Madonna mind that there are no beaches to lie on?
Even by air from Cape Town, the island is a very long way away from anywhere. It's beautiful, but so are lots of much more accessible islands. The projected cost so far for the airport is £200m. Where will the money for the rest of the infrastructure come from? Outside investment, say the British and St Helena governments. Where will the profits go? To the investors. And the islanders, how will they benefit from all this? They'll get jobs (cleaners, waiters, builders) and start businesses to service the tourists. But most of the returning visitors on the RMS say that they wouldn't come if the voyage wasn't part of the trip, and the islanders wonder what their island will be like when the proposed 20,000 tourists arrive and want what tourists want when they want it.
Perhaps tourism will make St Helena rich and the islanders happier. But what everyone is asking right now is whether the British government really has a long- term plan. Nothing Malcolm Geere or the governor said to me sounded very much like a long-term plan beyond a commitment to finance the building of the airport. The airport has been 'coming' since 2002, and, although the first jet is supposed to land in 2012, still not a bag of cement has arrived on the island to begin building the access road to haul the materials across the island. Indeed, they haven't even decided which consortium to award the contract to. So this is and it isn't an island paradise. Everyone who arrives to visit the island, even in its present melancholy state, falls in love with it and its people. Out of the way, unworldly, not fulfilling targets of any kind. Perhaps it should be kept as a museum of what the world was once like before the new order decided that everything had to be efficient and pay for itself.
Where is it? One of the world's most isolated inhabited islands, St Helena sits in the South Atlantic, some 700 miles from the nearest landfall (Ascension Island) and 1,650 miles from Cape Town.
What is it? St Helena is one of 14 British Overseas Territories, formerly known as Crown Colonies. The Queen is head of state and appoints a governor, who leads an elected legislative council.
How big is it? The island is 47 sq miles, with just one major town, Jamestown.
Who lives there? Approximately 4,000 people, descendants of East India Company employees, plantation owners, sailors and soldiers.
How do you get there? On the mail ship RMS St Helena, which sails twice a year from the UK, and shuttles between the island and Cape Town, Ascension Island and Walvis Bay in Namibia.
Why is it British? Discovered by a Portuguese sailor in 1502, the British East India Company seized possession and founded Jamestown in 1659, before the Crown took control in 1834. It was an important stop-off for ships using the trade winds, but with the advent of steam ships and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 St Helena slipped off the map.
What about the economy? It is funded almost entirely by the British government. Until the mid-Sixties, the sole industry was growing flax for rope but now there is little commerce apart from tourism and the St Helena Coffee Company, which produces one of the most expensive coffees in the world (at about £40 a pound).
Famous residents? There's only been the one - Napoleon, who was exiled there in 1815 after Waterlooo and remained until his death.