Yeah so all it is is that MY COUSIN TILLY IS ON SERIES 3 OF THE ISLAND WITH BEAR GRYLLS, the Channel 4 UK series where 16 men and women are left on an uninhabited island to survive against what one participant described as an ‘uncompromising, terrifying environment.’ If you have had any contact with me over the past few weeks, then I must apologize for repeatedly regaling you with this information. That apology must extend to the customer services assistant in Virgin Bromley who could never have known that a simple talk through the latest Virgin ‘bundle’ (since when did ‘bundle’ not refer to a load of sugar-rushed primary school kids jumping on top of each other during lunch break? When did this change? Oh how I pity the children of Cameron’s Britain) would unleash a torrent of excitable yapping about MY COUSIN BEING ON THE ISLAND WITH BEAR GRYLLS (yes, this information does require the excessive use of capitals) until my partner removed me from the store with the promise of a half of pale ale at our local. It is testament to the customer service training of the Branson empire that said assistant did at least feign some interest.
I digress. The premise of The Island – testing oneself, minus 21st-century frippery, against nature as ‘if you’re stripped of everything, the only thing that is left is you as a person’ (#TillyWisdom) – inspired me to read Walden, Henry David Thoreau’s 1845 story of living by himself in a hut on the north west shore of Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts.
It started so well with our Henry. His documentation of efforts to ‘live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life’ includes a wealth of beautiful observations centred around the belief that recognizing how little we truly need to survive is the route to true freedom. It was pertinent how much this seemed to ring true for the ‘Islanders’, 170 years on – as Roz said,’ you get to know that you are a little greedy. You can live off a lot less.’ It all sounded like a glorious Levellers record and I boarded the 8.17 to Charing Cross safe in the knowledge that it was ok that I’d missed the 7.57 as ‘if a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer’ and thought about getting a nose ring and wearing some flannel to work as ‘the life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others?’
But then it all began to unravel. His ridiculous romanticization of poverty (‘The town’s poor seem to me often to live the most independent lives of any…It is life near the bone where it is sweetest’) was closely followed by a patronizing spiel about the poverty-stricken local Irish family, with Thoreau sounding like a politician on a Channel 5 programme banging on with glee about living comfortably on the minimum wage: ‘If (the Irishman) and his family would live simply, they might all go a-huckleberrying in the summer.’ I’ll huckleberry you mate if you carry on with this crap, I thought, as I returned the flannel skirt to Oxfam and began to rethink the nose-ring.
And, as I watched my ballsy cousin and her fellow Islanders battle the elements, I imagined how they might react to Thoreau, who only ‘pretended to live in the woods’ (Walden Pond was actually only a mile-and-a-half from his hometown, where he still popped back to dine with friends or get his washing done at his mum’s). It went something like this:
Thoreau: Early in May, the oaks, hickories, maples, and other trees…imparted a brightness like sunshine to the landscape…
Erika: What I think you mean Thoreau, dear chap, is that we are now going into a place where there are some fuck-off thorns, ok?
Thoreau: No humane being…will wantonly murder any creature, which holds its life by the same tenure that he does. The hare in its extremity cries like a child.
Tilly: Give it a rest Henners! Winner Winner Turkey Dinner!
Thoreau: The pond was my well ready dug.
Chris: Well Thorntons, or whatever your flaming name is, I’m just having a wee in it…living the dream.
Rob: I swear it’s the closest I’ve come to ejaculating.
Thoreau: Time is the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.
Simon: Eh Thoreau mate, keep it real like Ian Beale, yeah? (off camera) God I wish I’d done Geordie Shore…
Thoreau: What danger is there if you don’t think of any?
Erika: Don’t be a bloody idiot, Thoreau. That mother-f*cker (ocean) over there will gobble you up, just like that.
Thoreau: Not till we are lost… do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.
Chris: The biggest part is not knowing where you are going, and we’re still flipping lost Thoreau.
Tilly: You’re telling me Thoreau, when you tried to do this whole get back to nature/live simply thing, your mum was only up the road?
Thoreau: Yes, she did my washing.
Tilly: Give it a rest! You f*cking sign up, you do it you d*ckhead! My mum’s still in f-ing Bush Hill Park!!!
Thoreau: Don’t get monkey with me Tilly.
Tilly: You’re from 1845, you don’t even know what ‘getting monkey’ means! You’re f-ing doing my head in today!
In my mind this episode concluded with the Islanders pelting Thoreau with manky shark gut bait and yelling ‘YOU’RE A WUSS, MAAAATE!!’ My imagination ran away with itself, no doubt due to the pale ale, but in short Thoreau began to sound like a university fresher talking up his gap year experiences (you know, the ones who insist on eating their Nandos with their fingers ‘just like when I was in Indja’) and I couldn’t take him seriously anymore. I know this is going to get me into a lot of hot water with all those ‘Thoreauvians’, and I’m sorry. He does write some beautiful things. They do serve as a reminder of how much we over-complicate life, and why that is pointless. But he did my head in by the end. Please don’t get monkey with me…