Lindsay Cooper’s tale of St Helena

Remote: A Story of St Helena by Lindsay Grattan Cooper, reviewed by Vivien Horler on September 15, 2015 in the Cape Argus:

Ode to romance of a vanishing island life

Remote Story of St Helena coverSt Helena – Somewhere between here and the mid-Atlantic, the last British Royal Mail ship in the world is chugging towards the island of St Helena. It sailed from Table Bay on Saturday, and on board are Lindsay Grattan Cooper and her husband Chris on their umpteenth voyage to the island.

Chris says it’s his 37th trip, Lindsay has lost count. But it will be a special journey, steeped in nostalgia, because this is the last time they’ll sail on the RMS St Helena. The ship, after serving the island faithfully for 25 years, carrying passengers and cargo, will make its last voyage next June. Then it’s the scrapyard.

The island is to get an airport, currently being built by the South African construction company Basil Read, and people wanting to go to St Helena will be able to fly from OR Tambo, a five-hour flight replacing a five-day voyage.

Which sounds much more efficient on the face of it, but the Grattan Coopers, like many other people who love the island, have a keen understanding of what will be lost.

Lindsay realised there needed to be a record of the island’s old way of life, and since she has been visiting St Helena regularly since 1969, sat down and wrote it. As she says in the last few couple of sentences of her book Remote: “This was then a very special place, an island whose whole personality and extraordinary uniqueness were shaped by its great distance from the Outside World. I write this in remembrance of that remoteness.”

The Grattan Coopers’ home is in Tokai, but in 1969, when all her friends were haring off to Swinging London, 22-year-old Lindsay decided to try somewhere different. With a pin hovering over a map of the world, she selected the tiny island of St Helena of which she knew nothing but that Napoleon had been exiled and died there. So she spoke to a travel agent who told her confidently: “No one goes there. In fact you can’t get there!”

The travel agent had no idea whom she was dealing with. Lindsay discovered that Union Castle ships sailed to the island; she booked a voyage for a week’s stay, arrived in Jamestown Bay and fell in love.

“I felt I’d come home,” she told me over wine and cheese in the Grattan Coopers’ home last week, the room crowded with boxes and parcels marked “Hold”.

She made friends on the island with whom she kept in touch, and went back in 1970 for a month. There was a long gap when she married and had two children, but in 1987 she took the whole family to visit the island. In 1999 she and Chris bought a 200-year-old house, Villa Le Breton at the top of Jamestown.

From then on their lives became increasingly connected to the island, with Lindsay choosing to spend much of her year there, while Chris stayed in Cape Town to support their schoolboy son Richard. Meanwhile their daughter Virginia, who had just finished matric in Cape Town, decided to spend six months on the island as a gap half-year.

“She’s never really left,” says Lindsay.

On the shelf are pictures of Virginia’s wedding to islander Stuart, and another of their toddler son Dylan. The Grattan Coopers have gone from being occasional tourists to home owners to grandparents of an islander. You can’t get much more involved than that.

The book begins with the purchase of the house, and follows the ups and downs of Lindsay’s island life.

At the start everything seems idyllic, but she soon discovers that life 1 600km from the nearest continent can be hard. Almost entirely dependent on what the RMS brings, islanders are at the mercy of the vagaries of the ship and the weather.

“You learn patience on St Helena if you learn nothing else,” says Lindsay wryly.

Islands are, by definition, insular, and their inhabitants can be too. St Helena is a British Overseas Territory supported by British taxpayers, and many of the locals seem to lack the entrepreneurial gene. Lindsay recounts an incident when a cruise ship loaded with more than 1 600 passengers called at the island, and a local who had planned to sell cold drinks to people who made the massive effort of climbing Jacob’s Ladder – 800-odd stairs up the side of a very steep cliff – stayed at home instead.

And there was the time the Heritage Society decided that it needed no truck with the Napoleon story – the one thing that most people know about St Helena.

There are also petty jealousies to deal with, and islanders who resent what they refer to as eight-day experts, people who spend a week on the island and then come up with solutions to all perceived local ills.

The airport has been on the cards for well over 15 years in a British government bid to make the island self-supporting through tourism.

But people like the Grattan Coopers are wary.

St Helena is not your average tropical island: there are no proper beaches, the weather is frequently cold, misty and wet, and Jamestown is not known for its restaurants and nightlife.

Yet the locals are friendly, the scenery is magnificent, the hiking is good and there is something wonderful about being in a place that – in this world of almost instant access – requires a five-day journey to reach.

There is also concern about the decision to have the once-weekly flights – to be operated by Comair – leave from OR Tambo rather than Cape Town. A flight from Cape Town would be an hour shorter, and the islanders are used to Cape Town, which is where the RMS sails from every three weeks.

Many islanders have been brought to the Kingsbury and Vincent Pallotti hospitals for medical attention, and there is a network of accommodation on the Cape Flats that welcomes Saints. There is no such network in Joburg.

Meanwhile, a way of life is coming to an end, and Lindsay has recorded the last 15 years in this personal yet clear-eyed view of the island. She rarely kept a diary for long, but says she has a good memory, and also gleaned information from scores of letters she had written and received over the years.

If you’ve ever thought of sailing to St Helena, you’ve probably left it too late – every voyage from now to June next year is said to be fully booked.

But you could read Lindsay’s book to find out what it was like, and if you have a yen for small, far-away places, their people and politics, you will probably love it.

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