Genre-busting Hebridean island memoir leaves intentions unfulfilled

NOT JUST BOOKS…By Roger Hutchinson

At the beginning of the 21st century Tamsin Calidas was in her early 30s and living and working in London.

In 2004 a series of unhappy incidents (the usual city stuff: crazed vandalism of her garden, a break-in at night, and as the cherry on the cake, a crash between two taxis in one of which she was a passenger) led her to flee the city with her new husband, Rab, in search of a simpler, safer life.

Tamsin Calidas. Pic, Sophie Hicks

Naturally, their quest led them to a croft and its abandoned house on a Hebridean island.

Equally naturally, she has now written a book about the experience.

When in 1989 Peter Mayle published his bestseller ‘A Year in Provence’, he was adding to a vast back catalogue of the memoirs of Brits abroad.

But the enormous success of ‘A Year in Provence’ ushered a new type of book into the 21st century: the middle class expat’s time in the sun among the quaint locals, their baffling habits and their astonishing food.

‘A Year in Provence’ was followed by its Spanish equivalent, ‘Driving Over Lemons’, and by a host of copycats.

It was inevitable that the Highlands and Islands would be drawn into the game.

It duly was, in such volumes as the regrettable ‘Seasons on Harris: A Year in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides’ and, later, Anne Cholawo’s far more accomplished and welcome memories in ‘Island on the Edge, A Life on Soay’.

If they all had one thing in common, it was the message that the natives are friendly.

The Highlands in particular might not be blessed with Mediterranean weather, but according to autobiographical incomers, when it comes to quaintly hospitable locals our lot can hold their own with Andalusians and Provençals.

This is where Tamsin Calidas steps off the roundabout.

Her ‘I Am An Island’ has hit the headlines as a genre-buster.

It is supposedly the tale of a transplant which failed to take. It is the memoir of a woman who was unhappy in London, but then discovered that unhappiness also had an appointment with her in the Hebrides.

It was an appointment which she could not break or escape.

Tamsin Calidas does not name the island in her book, which omission has inspired some wild and some accurate guesses.

It is Lismore.

Unless there is another well-cultivated island eight or nine miles long, with fewer than 200 people, running parallel with the mainland in the middle of a narrow sea strait a short drive north of Oban, it is Lismore.

When Tamsin and Rab first arrived in the spring of 2004, they loved it. She loved it even before she first set foot on the ferry.

The advertisement for the property induced rhapsody – “That open sky with its cottage, outbuildings and weary fields was speaking to me. Perhaps it was its aura of quiet abandonment that drew me instantly to it… I held my breath and balled my fingers into fists. In my heart, I had no doubts.”

And when they landed in Lismore, “I am struck by the thought that I have no family, kin, friends or emotional ties here,” she remembers.

“It is an unfamiliar yet strangely liberating feeling.”

At around this point the reader knows to expect the worst. No place, no society on earth can live up to those expectations.

There is only one way to go from such ecstasies, and it is down.

In an interview with The Guardian two weeks ago, Calidas said that she “had expected islanders to read her book, but that anyone trying to find themselves in her pages would not succeed as each incident was an amalgamation of events and all characters were blended.”

Fair enough.

But the incidents are so graphically described and the island so easily identifiable that she must have expected some response.

The fall from grace begins just a few weeks into her time on Lismore, or wherever it’s supposed to be, when, alone for the day, she is sunbathing topless and a couple of drunken local men appear, apparently ready to re-enact ‘Straw Dogs’.

That “incident” either happened or it did not happen.

No sensible resident of the rural Highlands would pretend that there are no bad people here.

In small island communities, and I have little doubt that this applies to Lismore, they are usually identified and policed by their neighbours.

And these days if a rape occurs – which it did not in Tamsin’s disturbing “incident” – it becomes a matter for the actual police.

As it turned out, that was just the start of Tamsin Calidas’s difficulties.

Her troubles arrived in threes and fours, and they were each as bad as the next.

Her prizewinning tup dies, she suspects of poisoning.

Her husband leaves her and returns to London. Her only real friend on the island is killed in a car crash.

She breaks both of her hands. She attempts suicide.

It is harrowing enough to read about; it must have been hell for anybody to live through.

But she stays.

She may still be there – the book is unclear, but interviews with the author suggest that she has not left the Highlands.

“There was a time when I longed to leave this island,” she writes with characteristic elegance in ‘I Am An Island’, “but a meshing of circumstances held me down until that feeling passed.”

And strangely, she can also write: “Sometimes I think of our old lives, sitting around a full table, surrounded by friends. Those years, those memories, are full of bright lights, glasses chinking, eyes illuminated by laughter, reaching across an intimate space and a shared outlook on life…”

Well, yes, Tamsin.

And people who repeatedly poured paint into your fully stocked fish pond, and who broke into your house at night, all while you were asleep in bed.

The price that you paid to escape from the tableful of friends was also the cost of fleeing from the urban horrors of Notting Hill.

“This book is about love,” she has said, rather oddly. “It’s a book about being an outsider coming into the community… The intention was to go beyond place. It’s not bound by specificity of place. It’s not a travelogue… I’ve done everything possible to respect my friends, community and those around me.”

That may well have been her intention.

It is not a full or accurate description of the book titled ‘I Am An Island’, by Tamsin Calidas, which has just appeared in print.

‘I Am An Island’, by Tamsin Calidas, Doubleday, £16.99