Simon Winchester, the writer who was banned from Tristan da Cunha for repeating a story of a love affair that may not even have happened, has expressed his sympathy for islanders.
In an essay for the historical journal Lapham’s Quarterly – written while “wallowing” offshore on a cruise ship – he admits he was wrong to trample on local feelings and re-tell the story of a wartime visitor to the island who fell for a Tristanian girl.
It related how Lieutenant Derrick Booy spent 18 months posted to the island, then returned home and wrote a book describing “a wartime love affair which, by all accounts, had been tender, unconsummated, and quite possibly entirely imagined.”
Islanders had pleaded with him not to repeat the story, which had caused great embarrassment, but he thought they were being over-sensitive, and told it anyway in his book, Outposts – for which he also visited St Helena.
Twelve years later, he returned to the island as a cruise ship lecturer, and learned he was banned from going ashore – for life.
“The Island Council of this half-forgotten outpost of the remaining British Empire has for the last quarter century declared me a Banned Person,” he says. “I am welcome on Tristan neither today nor, indeed, as was succinctly put to me in a diplomatic telegram last year, ‘ever’.”
When he told fellow travellers on his latest trip, he says, “a gasp went up. Most seemed quite incredulous… Tristan is British, and you are British: it isn’t even an immigration question. It is a simple assault on free speech.”
But during an “irritating” wait in his cabin, he says, he reflected on the upset he had caused.
“I had no understanding whatsoever that by repeating that naval officer’s memoir, I could hurt the feelings of anyone. To my clumsy, unthinking, touristic mind, the notion seemed quite absurd. I held to an unspoken assumption that as a visitor from the sophisticated outside, I knew better.”
Despite his contrition, though, he is not greatly flattering towards this island.
“Though some may suspect sour grapes,” he writes, “I have to confess that there is little of great charm to Tristan.” Once visitors have visited the pub, the shop, the potato patches and the Welcome To The Remotest Island sign, “most will be eager to return to their waiting cruise ship, to wonder as the island fades away astern, why on earth anyone would wish to live there.”
Read the full essay here