Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Deer Island - Neil Ansell

'Deer Island' came to me as a review copy from Little Toller Books, they asked if I'd like a copy and as everything I've read from them has been excellent I naturally said yes please before they had a chance to change their minds. When I read the brief description of Ansell as a man who had lived and worked with the homeless in London staying in squats interspersed with brief escapes to Jura I was reminded of people I had known but not much taken to in my own teens and twenties so was ready to disapprove. It is however a short book - only 96 pages, and there's no better invitation to step outside of your reading comfort zone than a short book.

What happened in the end is that I read it twice, the first time pages at random whilst the book sat on my kitchen table for a couple of weeks - a few page with every solitary cup of tea or at breakfast, the second time I read it properly from start to finish over a couple of hours. Both readings marked this book out as something special. The beginning is, I think, a happy ending - it describes a settled sort of life in Brighton, the actual ending is altogether bleaker, or would be without that beginning. 

There is something about Ansell that reminds me of Gavin Maxwell, I don't think there's a  particularly obvious parallel here unless it's a sort of lost boy quality (I've put Ansell's earlier book on my wish list, it'll be interesting to see if the impression continues) but it's meant as high praise. Life amongst London's down and out's sounds intense but occasionally familiar; working in a city centre you soon get to recognise and be recognised by the down and outs, when I first worked in town I had quite a lot of friendly contact with local beggars, changing their coins into notes helped them out (and saved us in banking fees). Every 18 months or so though you would realise a familiar face had gone. I hope some got off the streets and generally found more stable lives, with most you simply watched a process of physical disintegration which could never end well. I found this depressing observing it from the relative distance of the shop door, I can only imagine what it does to you when you live right in amongst it all.

Ansell's way of dealing with it seems to have been to travel, sometimes to far flung corners of the globe, but periodically to Jura on the west coast of Scotland. Unless you fly at least part of the way getting to Jura is basically a two day process from London - which when you think about how small Britain is, makes you realise how remote it is, the process of getting there gives the traveller ample time to feel removed from whatever it is they're leaving behind and to adjust to what they'll find when they arrive - which in city terms is a whole lot of nothing but geography.

As this post rambles on I really wish I had Ansell's skill for succinctness. It's a book about losing and finding things within yourself, but far less pretentious than that sounds. It's also a very good book, one that should be sought out, enjoyed, and meditated over. 

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