Different becomes usual if it’s done all the time.
These are the words that stand out for me the most as perfectly capturing the spirit and and fortitude of this next amazing individual.
Lucy Irvine became a household name when, in the 1980s, she answered an ad in Time Out to move to a uninhabited island for a year with a gentleman she was yet to meet. What followed, with her book and press tours and subsequent film, took Lucy from her already unconventional life and thrust her into the tumultuous spotlight.
Following this came Runaway and Faraway, her novel One is One, then more recently Cherries and Elders, with which she proved to be just as adept at stories. Despite leaving school in her early teens, by 16 she had joined Mensa, to prove to herself that she could.
I had corresponded a little with Lucy, followed her “Castaway Lucy” Facebook presence, and read her writings of both life on Tuin and beforehand, she seems to me to have an incredible inner resilience. She’s not afraid of making decisions that might bring challenges and difficulties – whether moving to the Torres Straits (was that an easy decision? “Yes”, was Lucy’s simple, certain answer) or helping the maxlata, the Roma, in her new home in Bulgaria, in the foothills of the Balkans. I asked her for a little advise as well, about a decision I’m trying to make at the moment, and her words were heartening, absolutely, but touchingly self-deprecating.
How did you manage to get your children used to the idea that their mother will always be doing something weird and wonderful rather than being like all the other mums?
By just doing it. “Different” becomes usual if it’s done all the time.
You’re now writing again, is it difficult to keep up that motivation needed? What works best for you in overcoming writer’s block?
I don’t have a problem with self-discipline or block but do find writing exhausting so no longer drive myself to the point where I’m too drained for anything else. There is art and there is life.
You doing an incredible thing with the maxlata from near where you are in Bulgaria, do you find it difficult trying to work around social parameters and expectations to help them without stepping on any toes?
I help only on a very modest scale. It interests me to observe how such help is received and I confess to being meritocratic in my choice of recipients. I have stepped on toes unintentionally but am getting better at learning how not to. The locals here – both Bulgarians and Roma – have, for the most part, accepted my eccentricities and it’s hard not to feel grateful for that.
We were talking about “Kapkis”; her small, informal operation aimed at helping only local people whose needs have become evident over time, through their proximity. The name comes from the Bulgarian word for “drops”, but it is certainly not hand-outs, indeed it is far from it, with Lucy encouraging the entrepreneurial youngsters to become economically independent. She keeps the supporters updated through her Facebook page, www.facebook.com/castaway.lucy.
Where possible, Kapkis tries to help recipients find ways of supporting themselves and a degree of ‘pay it forward’ is expected where outright gifts are made.
I asked her about her life at the moment, whether this was her “settled”, and unsurprisingly, the answer was a cryptic “yurts are essentially mobile...”. What else could we expect from the adventuress who took her two youngest out to Pigeon Island to give them an experience of life outside the normal parameters of childhood?
Having read anthropology at university with Robin, Lucy’s insightful and gentle son, and spent a memorable evening watching he and another brilliant anthropology student friend picking through each other’s thoughts and ideas, I could see that the time spent on the island wasn’t remotely detrimental to his education. Far from it, his quiet confidence and self-reflective honestly speaks of something with a depth beyond his years. That said, it is perhaps telling that it is man’s relationship with animals that always came at the front of his anthropological interest. I put this to Lucy though, interested in what she had experienced…
You made the incredible decision to take your youngest boys to Pigeon Island for a year, have you faced much subsequent criticism for taking them out of formal education?
A few people suggested that what I did was irresponsible but education-wise at least I ensured they didn’t lose out. I think they gained rather than lost in other ways too and am pretty sure they’ll say the same themselves. However, I do think it was important to ‘bring them back’ to the cultural sphere in which they started life for that all-important sense of belonging humans seem to need to thrive. I wish I had more of it.
Having heard from Lucy that she was willing to answer these questions, I did see if I could find a copy of the film. I had read the book, Castaway, but had heard that the film was quite different. It certainly took an interest in the relationship between Kingsland and Lucy, in particular his mistreatment. I wondered to myself, and then to Lucy, whether it was fair…
It must have been incredibly challenging heading out to the Torres Straits to live with a stranger. The central theme in the film adaptation of your time together seems fixated on your relationship, but is that a true portrayal of how much time you were actually preoccupied with each other rather than learning to survive?
No, but concentrating on the human relationship makes for a movie with broad appeal. The book reveals more about how we stayed alive and our (different) relationships with the island itself.
And lastly, if you could invite five people, from any point in history, to join for dinner, who would they be?
Off the top of my head I’d like Mary Kingsley and Sir Richard Burton within footsie-play distance of one another; Nick Bostrom, Mary Midgely, and Socrates.
Mary Kingsley of course, being the British ethnographer and explorer, Sir Richard Burton a second British explorer, ethnologist (and ‘so, rumour has it, spy!), and master of over 20 languages, Mary Midgely, the moral philosopher with a particular interest in animals and what can be learnt from a closer observation of nature, Nick Bostrom (who, as Lucy said, “would have fascinating and quite new angles to bring to the conversation”… which already promises to be quite something!), and of course Socrates who needs no explanation. How glorious a gathering that dinner party would be!
As I reflected on her answers, which perhaps in their briefness reveals more than had she divulged more verbosely, I’ve no doubt at all Lucy’s future will be both as fulfilling and challenging as her past.
See an interview with Lucy written for the Independent.
See an interview with Robin, Lucy’s son, for the Guardian.
Click here for Lucy’s books.
And here for a link to the film.