Books, reading & writing

An Island in the City

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This single word is the heart of Aldous Huxely’s Island. Though the book is full of messages, reading in many ways as a personal reflection, shared with the reader (lecture would be too harsh a word for its gentle tone), where the story takes a back seat to the ideas it hopes to demonstrate, the skill of the work is that it can be compressed into this single, simple word. When Will Farnaby is washed up on the shores of the idyllic island of Pala, it is the first word he hears, sang from the throat of a beautiful mynah bird. As he is nursed back to health, and as he learns about Palanese society – Huxely’s utopic counterpoint to the shallow consumerist horrors of Brave New World – it is this word that guides him to recovery.


It had been my intention to finish Island today and then write a review. Free from the pressures of work, I went to the George Square Gardens, a small copse of trees and solitude that catches the sun and cusps it between the twisting boughs. It is a place I often go to read, when the weather is right (this being Edinburgh and pages not, as a rule, being friends with rain drops, this is less often than I would like – but perhaps that is why it is so nice when chance plays a hand in my favour). But on reading the closing pages I found myself taking up Huxely’s advice. What was it that I focused my attention on? The process of reading, and, in particular, reading in that place.


The sun strolled from cloud to cloud; its light, falling on the pages through differing thicknesses of sky held moisture, changed their colour from dull table-top brown to a glowing, golden yellow. Its heat, waxing and waning in a way that makes the body feel physically touched, was such a difference from the uniform mild warmth of the modern buildings I have been spending so much time in recently. Even when cold, with the thickest cloud between us, and with the catch of wind gently rushing along the bottom of my back, where my jumper didn’t quite meet my trousers, exposing a thin strip of skin to the bare elements, it was not uncomfortable – merely different. The noises of the city, a drill cutting into a nearby street, the rise and fall of traffic, mingled with the noises of the gardens, the cooing of pigeons in the trees, the scurrying of tiny feet in the undergrowth, the rustling of branches as they lean to and fro, and, when focused on, each one had a depth lost in the mad rush of modern living. I have filled the last month or so doing things, but I wondered, sitting there, how many of those things I had stopped to actually experience.


As if to show me how simple breaking the cycle of rushing and doing and pressure and deadlines could be, a young girl – probably 10ish – ran into the centre of the Gardens, where three old trees form a dome over a sanctuary of green leaves, and began to climb. With expert dexterity and not a jolt of fear of falling (or a thought that these trees might not be for climbing) she scaled the first hunched trunk and then switched mid-canopy onto the second. She quickly reached the top, straightening up for a second on the highest thick branch to poke her head out of the bare wooden crown, and then, just as quickly, slid and swung to the ground again, disappearing round the corner, arms outstretched to touch the bushes on either side of the path. I used to be a tree climber too. There was a good one just in front of my house. It was young and still springy, so you could bounce on it, and it leaned over a small stream me and my brother used to build dams and lose toys in. I haven’t climbed a tree in a while. The scene reminded me of a line in Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, about how adults stick to the path, but children, not yet burdened with a need to conform, explore their surroundings squeezing through fences, creeping through bushes, jumping on walls just to see what is on the other side. He puts it better than that but my copy is at my parent’s house so you’ll just have to believe me for now. Or, if you’ve read it (and if not, you should), you’ll already know.


Perhaps this is because adults have stopped paying attention. Not just attention to what is around them, but attention to what is inside them. I enjoyed reading Island but I enjoyed it much more when I gave it my full attention.


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