Rock of Exile. By D. M. Booy. (Dent, 25s.)
White Cliffs to Coral Reef. By William Howell. (Odhams, 16s.)
NOT many could envisage a stay of over a year on. Tristan da Cunha without qualms. Mr. Booy was no exception. 'We faced adventure with grim reluctance. The spirit of Drake, if it was present at all in our little party, quailed before the chill, dank breath of the South Atlantic.' The 'little party' were naval telegraphists, waiting on a jetty in Simon's Bay, Cape Province, for a boat to take them to Tristan to establish a naval station. The year was 1942.
Now, fifteen years later, Mr. Booy has pro- duced the record of what, for all of them, was regarded as involuntary exile. Whether time has lent a peculiar enchantment to that period, or whether Tristan itself has a slow-maturing magic to it, Mr. Booy's book is as tenderly written as if it dealt with a 101.4 affair. How did he come, after so long, to write it? Did the name chance to catch his eye as he flipped through an atlas at the school where he now teaches, or had the yeast been slowly brewing its way to the surface of his mind all this time? It is not clear : but what is apparent is that the experience was indelible, and now Mr. Booy has relived it from start to finish with the patient, loving exhaustiveness of one going through a pile of old letters, each carry- ing a faded, musty scent with, nevertheless, a sur- prising power to wound.
The 'start' was conditioned by ignorance and dread. A few facts about their 'spot on the map'
were learned from the South Atlantic Sailing Directory : Tristan da Cunha was farther from the nearest populated land than any other island in the world, its area covered thirty square miles, it was founded as a colony in 1817 by William Glass (the year before a garrison had been sent from South Africa to guard against any attempt to rescue Napoleon from St. Helena), the population was about 200, the islanders, in spite of a soft potato diet, had excellent teeth, and so on.
The 'finish,' when the ship with their reliefs on board arrived, was not as any of them could have predicted a year earlier. 'I sat near Joe Repetto in the stern, and he turned to me and said : "You-all got a foine day fOr to leave the hoighland!" I swallowed something that seemed the size of a petrel's egg before replying. From now on we all looked steadily at the ship we were approaching. . . . The island was still there. Slowly the sun sank on the warmest, clearest day we had known there. Across the dark void in the mountain rim at the top of Hottentot Gulch a white bird sailed gracefully. It reminded me of the white dress that I had seen months earlier, fluttering among the rocks high up on the slope. That dress! I had caught up with it, but where was it now? If anything moved on the island, it was no longer visible to us.'
But between arrival and departure there was a great deal. The process of getting to know the islanders, who lived an apparently formal, dig- nified, reserved life apart from their uninvited guests, was a slow one : but week by week, and by devious stages, they opened their doors, then their hearts, wider. Mr. Booy goes through the months of his year there, describing the seasons, the social life, the strange dialects, the stranger
methods of dancing and courting, the methods of building, fishing, agriculture, worship and education. 'Custom 'was the ultimate court of appeal. There were no laws, either written or orally transmitted; but there were standards. . . .
The settlement was a republic of the simplest kind, bound by accepted practice enforced by common consent. It was based on the family, but lacked one essential feature—the authority of the head. The Chief was merely a spokesman : he might command respect, but npt obedience.'
Mr. Booy has, in fact, compiled a family history, a history of the Repettos, the Greens, the Swains, the Glasses, and by means of this he has managed to tell one, in the liveliest personal terms, all that one could ever want to know about life, in the past and the present, on Tristan da Cunha. It might be thought that this was of little
general interest, for existence on Tristan is probably as undramatic as anywhere in the world.
But Mr. Booy has written his book with such exceptional skill, with such discreet but real affection and concern, that anyone reading it is as likely to be as involved by any stray men- tioning of the island's name as he is himself.
In comparison, the three other books on this list are of minor interest. Mr. Blakeston's Isle of St. Helena has many enjoyable things about it, but he has disfigured his account by a whimsical narrative manner and a continuous desperate attempt to be bright at all costs. Two people seem almost to be writing alternate pages, the one curious, scholarly, discriminating; the other slightly self-conscious, careless and allowing each theme to dissolve as soon as it is realised. None the less, Mr. Blakeston tells the intending visitor what and what not to see and eat, who and who not to meet, how to get there, where to stay, what it costs. He writes about parties, slaves, Napoleon's garden, drinks with the Bishop, and lepers : and despite some grisly encounters with smart local ladies, patently he had a very good time. He writes out of enthusiasm, and this has its rewards as well as its dangers.
White Cliffs to Coral Reef is mainly for sailing enthusiasts, and offers both encouragement and discouragement to those who hanker after giving • up a steady, daily job and setting off to the South Seas. Mr. Howell, an Australian dental surgeon with a London practice, did just this : but he needed £2,000 to do it, bought his experience dearly, went nearly blind, escaped drowning by a hair's breadth, and needed seven lives as well as a great deal of courage. His boat was twenty- four feet long, and he sailed it on a voyage of 18,000 miles from England via Gibraltar and the
Canaries to the Cape Verde Islands, then west to Barbados, through the Panama and, by way of
Tahiti, to Canada. It was in every sense a re- markable achievement, since he was quite without previous experience, and though he is, in his own kind of language, no great shakes as a writer, he communicates the splendours and miseries of his journey fairly forcibly.
Mr. Don Taylor, who is editor of New Com- monwealth, describes in Ten Stars South of Asia an exhausting, fact-finding trip round Australia and New Zealand. This is a journalist's book, concerned with industrial development, problems of integration .and expansion, the political and economic patterns of the future in two countries waking fast to the isolation of their position and their urgent need to establish a balance between freedom and Commonwealth dependence. It is competently, honestly written, but Mr. Taylor travels too fast and restlessly, and is too relent- lessly and conclusively probing for the flavour of the places he visits to seep through his various findings.