Islomania

Islomania

Islomania is a craze for or a strong attraction to islands. The condition was first identified by British writer Lawrence Durrell in his book Reflections on a Marine Venus (1953):

"Somewhere among the notebooks of Gideon I once found a list of diseases as yet unclassified by medical science, and among these there occurred the word islomania, which was described as a rare but by no means unknown affliction of spirit. These are people, Gideon used to say, by way of explanation, who find islands somehow irresistible. We islomanes, says Gideon, are the direct descendants of the Atlanteans, and it is toward the lost Atlantis that our subconscious is drawn. This means that we find islands irresistible."

In a letter to a friend Durrell wrote: "Islomania is a rare affliction of spirit. There are people who find islands somehow irresistible. The mere knowledge that they are in a little world surrounded by sea fills them with an indescribable intoxication.” The American writer Thurston Clarke uses the term in his book Searching for Crusoe (2001) in his exploration of people's attraction to all sorts of islands –from the classic desert island to places such as Svalbard, from Key West to Mykonos.

Islomaniacs

Islomaniacs (or islomanes) are those who suffer from islomania, the irresistible attraction to islands first described by Lawrence Durrell in his travel book Prospero's Cell, set in the Ionian island of Corfu.

While islomania is most frequently associated with writers, this is probably simply because they are the most likely to describe and analyse their condition. One of the first recorded islomaniacs was Roman emperor Tiberius (42 BC-AD 37) who, growing tired of Rome, retreated to the island of Capri in the Bay of Naples, whence he ruled the empire from the Villa Jovis with its views over the bay to the Sorrento peninsula. Much later, Captain James Cook, explorer of the Pacific, was also an islomane, his third voyage to the Pacific in particular turning into a strange parade around the islands from which it seemed the Captain secretly never really wanted to return to England.

One of the first literary islomaniacs was Herman Melville. Although now famed as the writer of Moby-Dick, he was better known during his lifetime for Typee, a semi-autobiographical story of his stay in the Marquesas in French Polynesia. He followed this with Omoo, set mainly in Tahiti. The fame of Typee placed the seed of islomania within other 19th century writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson, George Lewis Becke, Jules Verne, Jack London and Joseph Conrad.

"Awfully nice man here tonight," (wrote Robert Louis Stevenson in a private letter of spring 1875), "...telling us all about the South Sea Islands till I was sick with desire to go there; beautiful places, green forever; perfect climate; perfect shapes of men and women, with red flowers in their hair; and nothing to do but study oratory and etiquette, sit in the sun and pick up the fruits as they fall."

For three years Stevenson sailed the Pacific in his private yacht, befriending island kings and writing stories set in the Scottish highlands, until in 1890 he built a house in Samoa; there he became embroiled in local politics, championing the Samoans against incompetent British officials, while still writing almost exclusively of misty Scottish mountains.

World War I interrupted the progress of islomania, but had one outstanding literary offspring, Norman Douglas's South Wind, which diverted the British public in the dark days of 1917 with the story of an amoral idyll on Tiberius's isle of Capri. Douglas, who had been hounded from England for much the same failings for which Tiberius had once been accused by his enemies - and with more reason - lived almost his entire life on the island, which, magnet-like, attracted through the inter-war years a whole coterie of literary and artistic exiles, including Axel Munthe (the Swedish doctor's The Story of San Michele remains a classic of islomania, although very little of it is actually set on the island), D. H. Lawrence and Compton MacKenzie (whose Vestal Fire is possibly the single best guide, though lightly fictionalised, to Capri's golden age).

Between the wars the South Pacific again attracted a host of writing talent in search of a simpler world, inspired by the venerable firm of Stevenson, London & Co. W. Somerset Maugham visited Tahiti and tracked down an original painting by Paul Gauguin, the French artist-islomane and contemporary of Stevenson, although then two never met. Maugham also wrote Rain, a short story detailing the moral disintegration of a missionary under the influence of the islands. The less-gifted Americans James Norman Hall, Charles Nordhoff, Robert Dean Frisbie, and Frederick O'Brien, wrote numerous short stories and serials about Polynesia which captured the public imagination.

The Second World War was far more disruptive of islomania than its predecessor. Lawrence Durrell's experience was typical: he had been living in peace in Corfu until the war drove him into exile in Alexandria; there, recollecting times lost, he wrote Prospero's Cell, the book which defined the term. Durrell's islomania was of the restless sort: he subsequently lived on and wrote of Rhodes (Reflections on a Marine Venus) and Cyprus (Bitter Lemons), all three books touched with the nostalgia which always seems to afflict islomanes.

The post-war period saw a host of islomaniac authors who, perhaps having experienced the horrors of war, saw islands as places to escape to. The most influential American contribution to the genre came with James A. Michener's Bali Hai, an island which started its mythic life in Tales of the South Pacific, then became a song (by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II) from the 1949 Broadway musical South Pacific. Bali Hai, like all proper islomanes' islands, was off-limits to ordinary mortals (in this case, to U.S. servicemen). Based on the real island of Ambae (or Aoba) in the New Hebrides where Michener was stationed in World War two, it was played in the 1958 film version by the island of Tioman. Bali Hai is also an enduring Tiki Temple restaurant on San Diego's Shelter island.

Tropical islands seem especially friendly to artists and writers: Ernest Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls and other masterpieces at his homes in Cuba and Key West, while Paul Bowles forsook Tangier for a time to purchase a tiny off-shore islet off a beach south of Colombo, which he named Taprobane - previously owned by a bogus French aristocrat, it is now an expensive boutique hotel. Miguel Covarrubias painted bare-breasted maidens on Bali in the Thirties, and the island continues to lure seekers of sophisticated simplicity.

Not that all islomanes dream of tropical paradises: Gavin Maxwell retreated to Eilean Bàn, six acres of windswept rock and heath off the Isle of Skye, to write of otters, and also the Isle of Soay, where he engaged in shark fisheries, while George Orwell wrote much of Nineteen Eighty-Four while living in a barn on the island of Jura. Another prominent Scottish islomaniac was Compton MacKenzie, who loved both the Channel Islands of Herm and Jethou, and also lived on the Scottish Islands of Eilean Aigas, the Shiant Islands and Barra.

While most islomanes simply live on islands, some collect them: Durrell noted that fellow-poet Kimon Friar claimed to have lived on 46 different islands, and Philip Conkling, director of Maine's Island Institute, has visited more than 1,000 islands in that state alone. Some members of the Travelers' Century Club, whose members attempt to visit as many countries as possible, have been to islands in over 100 countries. Welsh writer Leslie Thomas "collects" small islands, and wrote the books A World of Islands (1983) and Some Lovely Islands (1984) about his hobby.

Amateur Radio operators occasionally organize "DXpeditions" to uninhabited and sparsely populated islands with the goal of setting up temporary amateur radio stations. Once the radios, power sources, antennas and living quarters are set up on the island, they will contact thousands of other amateurs, thus giving the others credit for contacting an additional "country" for DXCC and other awards. Notable recent examples include DXpeditions to Ducie Island and Scarborough Reef.

Most islomanes are gregarious, but some are not: New Zealander Tom Neale, inspired by the stories of Nordhoff and Hall and Robert Dean Frisbie, escaped to Suwarrow Atoll in the Cook Islands, where he lived alone for 16 years.

The rich, as always, do things differently: in early 2005, actor/director Mel Gibson purchased Mago Island in Fiji for $15 million, over the protests of the descendants of Mago's original native inhabitants. Tetiaroa, one of the Society Islands, was purchased in 1965 by actor Marlon Brando, who saw and fell in love with it while filming Mutiny on the Bounty. Tetiaroa has one inhabitant: Brando's son Teihotu. In his will, Brando, who died in 2004, granted his friend Michael Jackson lifelong use of 2000 m2 (a half-acre) on the islet of Onetahi, to the west of Tetiaroa.

Andy Strangeway is a chronic multiple islomaniac and was the first - and so far only - person known to have visited and slept on all 162 notable Scottish islands. Completing a Strangeway is defined as 'to sleep overnight on all of the 162 Scottish islands of 40 hectares and over'.

One of the most notable islomanes outside the English-speaking world was Dutch writer Boudewijn Büch, who wrote four books on the subject of islands, commonly known in Dutch as the 'Island Series'.

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