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Tuesday 24 September 2013

Islands in the Stream of Consciousness: From Typewriters to Spratlys

I just love this photograph. For one thing, it shows a journalist using a tiny typewriter while working under trying conditions, a situation with which I was once very often familiar. Yes, the typewriter is a first model Gossen Tippa, one of my favourite portables, so for me that adds a lot to the value of the image. Indeed, I wish that in my own experiences, I had had the chance to use a Gossen Tippa as a work tool. But I didn’t know about the Tippa until about 10 years ago, when I found one in a Salvation Army store here in Canberra – a badly battered one at that, yet one still in good working order. It had previously been used in what were, at least for the Tippa, extremely trying conditions.
But perhaps, more importantly, this picture contributes at least 1000 words to the story of my long fascination with tiny islands, islands that are often uninhabited and seemingly inconsequential dots on the world map, specks sitting out in vast oceans and yet fiercely contested by nations. Islands to which I'd like to go, Gossen Tippa in hand, and just disappear for a while. I actually had a taste of it in New Caledonia a few years ago, with a Remington portable, and loved it.
The photo at the top of this post was taken on Heligoland in 1952, and naturally, as a portable typewriter disciple, my immediate thought upon looking at the image was this: The story this man is writing would have been transmitted somewhere, somehow, to be published in a newspaper. He would not have had access to telephone or telegraph lines, and by the look of it, there was no electricity. The island is just in the process of being re-inhabited, with facilities and utilities still to be re-established. How would that challenge be met today?
Barreiro da Faneca, Ilha de Santa Maria, Açores
My fascination with extremely isolated spots around the globe may well have been borne of fright – on an emergency refuelling stop on the Ilha de Santa Maria in the eastern Azores, in middle of the Atlantic in July 1975, during a Dan-Air flight from Gatwick in London to Bridgetown, Barbados. Anyone else out there old enough to remember a hit song of that same year, Barbados by Typically Tropical, about Coconut Airways Flight 372 and Captain Tobias Wilcox? Well, let me tell you this wasn’t in any way the fun that Flight 372 sounded, not one bit.
It was one scary touchdown, on a runway which seemed to take the full length of the 10-mile-long island. I stopped thanking God for still being alive, and gazing out at the cliff edge which seemed just yards from where the Boeing 727-46 had pulled up, to look back and wonder how anyone could thank God for being alive in such a barren, remote place.
Then again, my obsession might have stemmed from silly, romantic dreams, such as those brought on by stepping on Gauguin’s grave in the Cimetière Calvaire at Atuona on Hiva ‘Oa in the Marquesas Islands (where Jacques Brel has since been buried).
Or, back home in Ireland, being inspired by the apparently nonsensical fight for Rockall (to which I will return, if only in subject matter). More likely, it had actually lain dormant since, as a child, I had read Robinson Crusoe (set on Más a Tierra?) or Treasure Island (not written by Robert Louis Stevenson on a Hammond typewriter).
Wot? No typewriter?

Simon Winchester, somewhere in the world
One of the newspapers for which, in the mid- to late -70s, I used a tiny typewriter (an Olivetti Lettera 32) in often trying conditions was the London Sunday Times. Simon Winchester was its chief foreign features writer. I love Winchester’s works, especially Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire and Atlantic: A Vast Ocean of a Million Stories – both of which seriously fuel my own intrigue with small, isolated islands. I remember hearing Winchester interviewed about Atlantic and recounting, to my considerable amusement, the story of  how he had been sent to Tristan du Cunha and, after some time there, came to realise he had been completely forgotten about by his Australian-born “Insight” team leader Phillip Knightley, stuck on a tiny island in the middle of the  ocean.
Imagine my envy as Winchester travelled to Diego Garcia, Tristan, Ascension Island, Saint Helena, the Falklands and (most intriguing of all, as events transpired) Pitcairn Island. Winchester was in the Falklands when the Argentinians invaded, was captured in Patagonia and imprisoned on Tierra del Fuego for three months.

Anyway, back to the photo at the top of this post. It shows Fred Krause-Reussen, a reporter with the German newspaper Münchner Abendzeitung, working on the small North Sea archipelago Heligoland in 1952. The caption refers to “The state of war between England and Germany is not finished yet”. It says “The inhabitants [ethnic Frisians of Heligoland] have made themselves at home as far as possible. No one knows when bombs will fall again.”
Heligoland (in German Helgoland) is two-thirds of a square mile in size and sits 29 miles off the German coast. Once Danish and British possessions, under the German Empire the islands became a major naval base, and the first naval engagement of World War I, the Battle of Heligoland Bight, was fought in the first month of the war. But it is perhaps best known as the place where Werner Heisenberg, escaping hay fever in mainland Germany, conceived the basis of the quantum theory in 1925.
During the Nazi era the naval base was reactivated and became the target of the aerial Battle of the Heligoland Bight in 1939. During World War II, the civilian population remained and was protected from Allied bombing in rock shelters. Following a penultimate air raid, in April 1945, involving 969 Allied aircraft, the islands were evacuated.
From 1945 to 1952 the uninhabited islands were used as a bombing range. In April 1947 the Royal Navy detonated 6700 tonnes of explosives ("Big Bang" or "British Bang"), creating one of the biggest single non-nuclear detonations in history. The bang shook the main island several miles down to its base.
In 1952 the islands were restored to the German authorities, who had to clear a huge amount of undetonated ammunition, landscape the main island and rebuild the houses before it could be resettled.
Heligoland is now a holiday resort and enjoys a tax-exempt status, as it is part of the European Union but excluded from the EU VAT area and customs union. Consequently, much of the economy is based on sales of cigarettes, alcoholic beverages and perfumes to tourists. The Irish, not quite as frugal as the Scots, but nonetheless ever keen for a bargain, would no doubt flock there, if there was ever a trace of the sun. Which brings me back to my days on the Emerald Isle.
The naming of a tiny, exceedingly remote and uninhabited islet in the North Atlantic Ocean has always appealed to my unshakable sense of the ridiculous. It’s called Rockall. And yes, folks, it ain’t nothin’ but rock.
Rockall is just 83 feet wide, 102 feet long and about 70 feet high.  It is a sometimes visible fragment, 55 million years on, from the ancient continent of Laurasia. It is 229 nautical miles north-west from any sizable, constantly inhabited land mass (County Donegal in Ireland) and 163 nautical miles west of the Scottish island of Soay, Saint Kilda. But for such a mere dot on the horizon, a small drop in the ocean, it has been the cause of considerable fuss.  More on that later. Let’s first consider the name.
It’s a real shame such sublime imagination was not applied to the naming of some Australian states and territories. Western Australia, for example, might just as easily be called ‘‘Buggerall (Beyond Perth)’’, South Australia “Still Buggerall (Beyond Adelaide)” and the Northern Territory ‘‘Next to Buggerall’’ — all of which, I think, are about as descriptive as Rockall, and far more exotic than Western Australia, South Australia or the Northern Territory.
One may read all sorts of fanciful and esoteric theories about the origin of the name Rockall, such as that it derives from the Gaelic Sgeir Rocail,  “skerry (sea rock) of roaring”, and that it has an etymological link with the Old Norse “hrukka”.
But when one conjures the name, and looks at the place, such notions will mean stuff all. After all, as Michael Flanders and Donald Swan so subtly put in their 1955 song:
To free the isle of Rockall,
From fear of foreign foe.
We sped across the planet,
To find this lump of granite,
One rather startled Gannet;
In fact, we found Rockall.

The Flanders and Swan ditty was written by Flanders in a for-once successful attempt to get one past the “iron hand of the Lord Chamberlain” (a sort of the British censor, or keeper of morals).  It was called Rockall but listeners heard the lyric as proudly expressing a now too commonly (and openly) used phrase.
Flanders recalled, “You couldn't mention lavatories or anything dreadful like that! No sexual deviation, or four-letter words - you may wonder how we managed … But I did get away with one mild double entendre, in a song celebrating the occasion when our gallant British Navy annexed Rockall. It was really more of a single entendre, because the lyric looked innocent enough written down, but when you sung it, it was considered daringly near the bone then.  Nowadays, I don't think anyone would raise an eyebrow.”
The annexing to which Flanders refers occurred on September 18, 1955, at precisely 10.16 am, and it marked the last territorial expansion of the British Empire – something which has been sinking with the sun ever since.  A Royal Navy landing party was deposited on Rockall by helicopter and laid a plaque. In 2010, the plaque mysteriously disappeared. Which brings me to the Falkland Islands
I was yet again reminded of Rockall when one day last year the Philippines announced it was seeking a summit on the Spratly Islands. The previous night I had seen Meryl Streep’s superb performance as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, a film which included some stark reminders of the folly of the Falklands War. 
There is, of course, a common link between Rockall, the Spratlys and the Falklands. That is, quite apart from them all being islands that are well down on my list of favoured holiday destinations – Rockall, for instance, doesn’t exactly have that alluring ‘‘come hither’’ look about it. No sirens there.
The common thread is that they all have been, surprisingly enough, keenly contested. And if you smell a rat here, you would on the right trail: it’s a rat that’s dripping in oil.
The Irish, who call Rockall Rocal, say it belongs to them; and if the Scots, who call it Rocabarraigh, do finally strike out for independence from Britain, they will probably lay claim to it as well. As of Lieutenant-Commander Des Scott’s landing in 1955, the British government has already done so, though not, naturally, on Scotland’s behalf.  But it is part of Scottish Gaelic folklore, a mythical rock which, upon its third appearance, the world will end.  Well, I suppose it’s fair to say it’s at one end of the world, though we tend not to think of that part of the globe as the arse end.  Anyway, I digress … there are two other claimants to Rockall - Denmark (on behalf of the Faroe Islands) and Iceland.
Rockall has aroused such passions that the former Lord Mayor of Dublin, Independent Irish politician Seán Loftus, changed his name by deed poll to Seán Dublin Bay Rockall Loftus. Greenpeace declared it part of “Waveland”. Similarly, the Spratlys were in 1956 part of what Philippines admiral, lawyer, millionaire and general stirrer Tomas Cloma called Freedomland.
Cloma: Man of Vision?
Greenpeace actually occupied Rockall for a short time, in a protest against oil exploration, declaring it a "new global state" and a micronation. It offered citizenship to anyone willing to take their pledge of allegiance.  But then, I suppose, you’d have to have been prepared to go to Rockall.
As for the more romantically named Spratlys, they are claimed by not only the Philippines (as part of the Palawan province) but Brunei, China (Hainan province), Malaysia (Sabah state), Taiwan (Kaohsiung municipality) and Vietnam (Khánh Hòa province).
Before being named after British sea captain Richard Spratly, a frequent visitor to these shores, the Spratlys were known as Horsburgh’s Storm Island. So I suppose Spratly is a bit of an improvement, though much less descriptive than Rockall


Richard P said...

I mark this one "funny," "interesting," and "cool." Microislands and microstates are fascinating.

I wonder if there is a little Italian island named Ugatz.

Robert Messenger said...

Thank you Richard, much appreciated. The Urban Dictionary seems to indicate "Ugatz" would fit nicely into the Flanders and Swann song.