Whenever I see photos of storms at sea, with the waves crashing over fragile sea defences, I am back in the Scilly Isles, that beloved piece of earth, so low-lying, so vulnerable.
We had been three years in Britain before I discovered them – (like Livingstone ‘discovering’ the Victoria Falls.) Our applications to become British citizens were, we hoped, winding through the system, and meanwhile Robert had no travel documents so couldn’t leave the country. The long dark winters were getting him down. I looked on the map for the furthest south point that didn’t need a passport, spotted the islands, heard that they grew daffodils in January, so I reckoned they must be warmer and lighter than anywhere else we could go. It was April, and when I look at the photos I see we were always in anoraks but our memory is that it was perfect.
We went back every year while our daughters were growing up. A magic retreat, idyllic, safe for children, removed from the pressures of our usual lives. On our last day we would fantasise about a storm blowing up that would make it impossible for us to return. We skipped a few years when the girls were beginning to do holidays with their friends, then started again with successive boyfriends attached — and then with grandchildren. By now I had walked on every headland, explored every cove, and felt, as thousands of holiday-makers have felt, that the place had got into my soul. That sense of belonging to an adopted piece of the earth emerged in my novel, Somewhere More Simple.
Another flood in Hebden Bridge, where our daughter May and her family live. It happens regularly. Two of our grandchildren are interviewed for TV as they help clear the debris.
It’s half-term and we are off to the islands, the whole extended family. Three of our grandchildren have never been and the others are excited to share it with them. From Yorkshire, London and Copenhagen we all converge on Penzance. One night bed-and-breakfast, and in the morning we’ll cross the 30 miles of sea to the islands. Star and her family are going by ferry, which is what we usually do, but for me the sea crossing is survivable only by going downstairs to lie with closed eyes, semi-conscious, so this time Robert and I are going by plane. May’s family have opted to do that too. We arrive at the airport at Lands End, surely the smallest in the country. It’s a foggy morning and the flights are delayed. Nothing unusual in that, but the fog doesn’t clear. Flight after flight gets cancelled, and the airport lounge fills up. It has one small café, but clearly a point will come where they’re not going to cope. Stressed parents, bored children, each in their own small family cluster. May is trying to break the invisible barriers, to draw her children into chatting to others they don’t know. She admires the soft toys they’re holding on to, and the blow-up boats they’re waiting to use when they get there. Suddenly I see she is standing up and announcing, with a clarion voice that reaches to the far corner of the small airport lounge, that there are children’s games being organised outside the building.
There aren’t yet, but she’s about to. Everyone is dazed at this un-British lack of inhibition. (Not her family, we are used to it.) Shyly, children nudge their parents. Parents cautiously go with them, to find out whether this is for real. Within minutes May, who in her day job runs an outdoor school, has them sitting in a circle on a bare stretch of concrete while she explains the first game. Now they are pairing up and running around, discarding all shyness, while their parents stand at the edge, bemused, admiring. Any of them could have done it, but only May did.
I get talking to the young woman next to me, one of mums. We exchange names. She says, watching May, ‘She’s amazing.’ I agree.
About an hour later the airport officials announce that there will be no flights today. The games instantly cease as parents summon their children and scramble into emergency action. We will now all have to find somewhere to spend the night, and an alternative way to get to the islands. A throng forms around the officials, asking for information. Tomorrow’s flights, if they happen, are already fully booked. It’s a Saturday, the ferry has already left, and there isn’t one on Sundays. Insurance refunds will be no compensation for missing the children’s long-planned holiday.
Taxis are summoned, buses arrive to take us back to Penzance. Eventually we get a message: a special ferry has been laid on for tomorrow morning.
Sunday morning. We get there early, join the queue that already stretches half a mile back from the pier. An instant common culture has emerged. We’re all elated, relieved — we’ll get there after all! The children are recognising others that they were playing games with yesterday. I see the young woman I chatted to yesterday. She tells me she went on the internet last night to check out my name, and see if I was the person she thought I was … Almost 20 years ago, when she was working as a volunteer in Mozambique, she and her friends were reading my first novel, A Shield of Coolest Air. ‘We were passing it around between us,’ she says. ‘It was my favourite novel.’
Mozambique in the 1990s. How did a copy even get there?
We arrive on the island, settle in to our tent-homes, take the children exploring — and are caught anew, as we are each time, by the shapes and colours of sea, sky, rock formations, headlands. The rest of the world falls away.
There are warning signs up: Road blocked. Find an alternative route — And yet we don’t. We keep on, apparently unable to change direction.
It’s getting harder to just get on with normal life and not bother. In Southern Africa, where many of my close relatives and friends live, it’s prolonged droughts. Crops fail, millions face hunger. A few years ago Cape Town almost ran out of water. In Europe, Australia, California, intense summer heat causes wildfires to blaze out of control. In Portugal people I know had to pack their three small children into a car, to drive out of the valley and escape the thickening smoke. Their home, a lovingly restored old farmhouse, was destroyed.
School Strikes for Climate are happening in over 60 towns and cities in the UK, inspired by the unshakeable clarity of a 16 year old Swedish girl. There, among the 15,000 children and students are all of our grandchildren, aged 5 to 17. ‘I’d be in school if the world was cool,’ says their poster. By March a million students across the world are demonstrating. In September four million people take part in climate actions around the world.
And I? I have lived through decades of gradually mounting evidence of how the world’s current way of life threatens the natural world that we depend on, yet I have done nothing beyond making a few personal adaptations. With children and a full-time job there were always so many other things demanding my attention. I am proud that my daughters take actions that I never got to. When Star’s children were very young she worked late at nights to put herself through a Masters in environmental decision-making. Now she has an amazing job as an environmental consultant, advising local authorities on their Climate Action plans. May works with school children to give presentations on climate change.
I have been commissioned to write a short story for publication. This has never happened to me before, and I am amazed. Even more wonderful, it’s for the islands — five writers, one for each inhabited island, and we will each produce a ‘walking story’ that traces a route across our island. The stories will come out in audio versions, downloadable so that people can follow the route and listen as they walk. A simple concept, but a challenge — how to coordinate the development of a story with the pace of a country walk? Each has its own mood and process.
Robert and I have a week there, quietly on our own. While he does his own writing I walk my route, accompanied by Nikki, a young woman who grew up on the island, went away, and came back to work for the local Wildlife Trust. We have hardly set off before we are hit by a sudden fierce hail storm, blowing in out of an apparently clear Atlantic sky. We shelter under pine trees, get pelted, soaked, watch the sky do its worst. Then, innocently, the sun comes out and we go on. The colours are extraordinary. Every few yards I learn something new. Nikki has childhood memories attached to places, and her job has made her alert to the link between nature and human use of the land, and what needs to be done to protect it.
Touching Base emerges, my small fictional tribute to this unique and fragile environment.
Adapted from my new book, Journeys without a map: A writer’s life.
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For more on how the islanders experience the climate threat, see