Few people actually read ‘The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pirates’ these days. Defoe’s prose is relentlessly long winded and the book’s eye catching title squashes any element of surprise that the plot might have mustered. Fortunately, the novel has been retold and repackaged in more digestible forms. It has been published in so many shapes and sizes so many times that almost everyone is familiar with the story of Robinson Crusoe. Children’s chapter book versions were first published in the seventeenth century. Since then, countless novels, films and television series have drawn upon Crusoe’s novel. Literary critics label these stories ‘robinsonades,’ and they range from much loved classics such as The Jungle Book to obscure comic book series like Space Family Robinson. In order to qualify as a ‘robinsonade’ a story must loosely follow the Robinson Crusoe formula: Man is stranded on an island, Man fashions miniature civilisation from island resources and unlikely array of salvaged objects, Man overpowers hostile nature, Man finds God.
It isn’t hard to understand why robinsonades are so popular. Who hasn’t fantasised about being stranded on a desert island? It is the ultimate test. We wonder whether we, like Crusoe, are armed with untapped pools of strength with which to survive against the odds. I like to imagine that I would quickly settle in to island living. After all, I can put together ikea furniture and chop up logs. With those sorts of skills spearing fish and throwing up a liana hammock should be a doddle. A market has emerged for those who want to live out their island fantasies. Hordes of people audition to be on a television programmes like Castaway and Shipwrecked. If you don’t make it onto the screen then you can always fork out £1,300 to be dumped on an island off Belize for a ‘desert island survival course.’
I wonder what Robinson Crusoe would have made of this desert island cult? It’s hard to imagine him hobnobbing with Ben Fogle over barbequed scallops, and I can’t see him getting a snog at a Shipwrecked beach party. These programmes are about making friends and forming social hierarchies. There is no room for the thing that defines Robinson Crusoe: solitude. I remember one particular episode of Shipwrecked in which a member of the ‘Tigers,’ let’s call him Darius, fell out with his fellow competitors. Darius never quite fit in with the golden skinned lads and bikini clad beauties—he had a lot of hair on his back and couldn’t get a tan. For one reason or another he decided to set off into the island interior to stake out an island of his own. The producers wouldn’t have it. There were to be no self imposed Crusoes on the programme. Darius was sent packing. It was made very clear that Shipwrecked was for team players.
If Robinson Crusoe had made it onto the show he would have gone the way of Darius. Crusoe cherished his solitude. He states that he preferred to converse with his own thoughts than with other people. After his 28 year stint on his island he struggled to fit back into society. Back in
England, a rich plantation owner, Crusoe finds it difficult to make new acquaintances and he doesn’t seem to be too attached to his wife and children either. They are dealt with in just a few words: ‘I married, and that not either to my disadvantage or dissatisfaction, and had three children, two sons and one daughter.’
Desert islands are the top destination for those wishing to escape from society. But as Crusoe proves, if it is solitude that one is seeking then one need not leave home. I read Robinson Crusoe after having holed myself up in a hostel in Delhi. A cramped and dirty room gave me refuge from the heat and deafening crowds. As I lay on my mattress I became more and more reluctant to venture outside. The solitude accentuated my dread of the streets below me. Over the next few days the room became my island, the fetid contents of my rucksack my scuttled ship and the scraps of food my coconut palms. A trip to the bathroom came to require as much mental strength as that which Crusoe needed to leave his cave and explore the dark island interior. I found it impossible to leave the room, and my supplies were beginning to dwindle. I was confined on my island for three days until I was rescued by my esteemed co-writer Niko Munz and his band of adventurers who hauled me back into society.
J.G Ballard was particularly adept at stumbling across everyday islands. He writes,
‘The Pacific atoll may not be available, but there are other islands far nearer to home, some of them only a few steps from the pavements we tread every day. They are surrounded, not by sea, but by concrete, ringed by chain-mail fences and walled off by bomb proof glass.’
His novel, Concrete Island, tells the story of Robert Maitland, an architect who crashes his Jaguar through a temporary barrier on his way home from work. The car careers into a traffic island. A broken leg and the incessant traffic which surrounds him prevent his escape. The increasingly demoralised Maitland exclaims, ‘you’re marooned here like Crusoe – If you don’t look out you’ll be beached here for ever.’ But, just like Crusoe, Maitland doesn’t give up. He busies himself by fashioning tools out of motorway debris and collecting the rainwater which collects on his wrecked car. When he encounters the island two other inhabitants – Jane, a runaway bride and Proctor, a brain damaged acrobat – he sets about becoming their master. A week passes and Maitland is delirious with fever but he has established a tight grip over the wasteland. He is too weak to walk and so rides about on Proctors back, spurring him on with a rusty exhaust pipe. The semi-conscious Maitland declares, ‘I am the island.’
Concrete Island is a cautionary tale. It is too easy to become marooned, the escape routes from our bedrooms, homes and neighbourhoods can quickly be forgotten. Ballard was particularly prone to lapsing into Crusoeism. In ‘Empire of the Sun’ he recalls how, as a boy interned in a civilian camp under Japanese guards, he was happiest when he drew his curtain and sealed himself into his tiny cubicle with his pet tortoise. Ballard spent most of his later life in his writing room in Shepperton. He shunned cities, stating that they were a ‘semi-extinct form.’ It was only in the privacy of his suburban home that Ballard was able to fully explore his imagination and his obsessions. My three days in Delhi proved to me that the draw of everyday islands can be very strong. When the outside world seems hostile it is not long before my bedroom transforms into my own miniature universe, amply equipped to satisfies my needs.
So perhaps it was for the best that Darius was bundled off the Shipwrecked set before he did a Crusoe. Televising a self-imposed maroon’s retreat into the dark recesses of their mind might make Shipwrecked a more accurate robinsonade, but it would certainly deflate the light hearted desert island fantasy that the programme seeks to create. Solitude is purposefully banished from the set—if it was allowed to seep into the schedule then there is a risk that the competitors might step back, reflect and stop behaving like a crowd of over-sexed, jabbering baboons. Ralph Waldo Emerson tells us that we need both society and solitude, to have only one or the other is destructive. By following this remedy I myself have avoided becoming marooned in any more hostel rooms. But fortunately not everyone has swallowed Emerson’s advice. If they had, the great manuscript of human culture would be missing two important chapters: J.G. Ballard and Shipwrecked.