29 April 2008

The perils of naturism

Adam Nicolson (a grandson of Vita Sackville-West) remembers a sticky situation his father, the writer, publisher and politician Nigel Nicolson, got into when he bought the tiny Shiant Isles, off the coast of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides:

At a loss of a hundred pounds to Colonel Macdonald [the previous owner] the Shiants were finally transferred to my father and he spent the month of August 1937 there on his own. He nearly drowned, when a collapsible canoe did indeed collapse halfway between Eilean Mhuire and Garbh Eilean but that wasn’t the only catastrophe. His supplies had been sent up by train from Fortnum & Mason – it was a different world – in smart, waxed cardboard boxes. They were delivered to the quayside in Tarbert. From there they were loaded on to the fishing boat and on arrival at the Shiants offloaded onto the beach. My father waved goodbye to the fishermen, who said they would return in a month’s time, carried the boxes to the house and began to open them. As he folded back the cardboard flaps, he found a neatly typed note from the Manager:

Dear Mr Nicholson,

Please find enclosed the supplies as requested. Unfortunately, due to Railway Regulations, we are not permitted to dispatch flammables by rail and therefore have not been able to include the safety matches you requested. Trusting this will not be of any serious inconvenience, we remain,

Yours etc…

Faced with the prospect of a month without a fire, my father dismantled his binoculars and with one of the lenses managed to focus a few rays of the watery Hebridean sun on to some dry bracken. Somehow a flame sprang up and he carried it between cupped hands to the fireplace in the house.

For the four weeks he would have to nurture the fire like a dying lamb, returning to it at least once every two hours to see that its heart still beat. All went well, until one day returning from a walk on the heights of Garbh Eilean, he was horrified to see from above that a yacht had anchored in the bay and a party from it was picnicking on the beach between him and the house. If he was to get back to the fire, whose thin grey thread of smoke he could just see trickling upwards from the chimney into the sky, he would have to pass the picnickers. That in itself would not have been so bad if he had been wearing any clothes. He wasn’t. It was a 1930s habit to walk about in wild places undressed.

Unobserved from the beach, he waited crouched behind a rock for the picnickers to leave. They were having a marvellous time. Sprinklings of laughter came drifting up to him. The young men and women in their yachting skirts and blue jerseys lay back on the warmth of the shingle. The hours went by. The trickle of smoke from the chimney had thinned to invisibility. There was nothing for it. Dressed only in what he describes as ‘an apron of gossamer fern’ my father strolled with as much dignity as he could, past the picnickers and on to the house where with flooding relief he could dress himself and restore his faltering fire to life.

- Adam Nicolson, ‘Sea Room’, 2001

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