Saturday, 8 September 2012

Islands & Icons

So, the Isle of Wight.

First, some notes on terminology. These are terms I shall be using throughout the rest of the proceedings, that I have touched on before. The Isle of Wight is always, by it's residents, simply called "The Island". The rest of the UK is "The mainland". People who were born on the Isle of Wight (and, depending on the level of severity in play, had both their parents also born on the Isle of Wight) are 'Caulkheads'. The origins of this term (like so many) are unclear, but probably have something to do with the traditional local industry of caulking the seams in wooden ships. Other long-term residents, especially those who grew up here, are 'Islanders', people who have moved over from the mainland more recently, or are over here on business, are 'Overners' (short for 'Overlanders'). Tourists are 'Grockles'. The difference in respect accorded to an overner vs. a grockle is probably distinct just from the sound of the two words.

So, what is the Island? Where is it? Why is it?* 

The Isle of Wight is a small Island off the south coast of Great Britain. It is part of the United Kingdom; not an overseas territory, or a dependency. It is one of the UK's smallest counties, and currently it's largest parliamentary constituency in terms of population, which means in practical terms that the votes of Islanders count for less than anyone else in the country. This will be solved at the next election by a boundary change, which will give the Isle of Wight two MPs and, entirely by coincidence, probably create an extra MP for the ruling Conservative party. It has a rich and storied history, being the site of genocides, battles and sieges, being invaded by Romans, Saxons, Vikings and (surprisingly often) by the French, and later on becoming, in a rather unlikely way, first a centre of Victorian literary culture (Dickens, Marx and Tennyson stayed or lived here for a time, amongst many others) and then a centre for high-technology, boasting the world's first radio station, and spending the first half of the twentieth century being used as a base for research into radar, hovecraft and space flight amongst other things, with rocket testing facilities and electronic warfare development compounds placed incongruously amidst the rural isolation. These two letter phases are of particular interest to me, for a number of reasons, but particularly because of the wealth of documentary evidence available, and because of the web of connections linking out to the modern world. The high technology phase is particularly interesting because it ties in well with a theme that,I fear, will come to somewhat dominate Vectis: that of decay. The Island suffers from problems of decay both physical (in the form of coastal erosion) and economic (in the form of ever-increasing unemployment and the demise of non-service industries); the shattered post-war dreams of a Dan Dare future embodied in the crumbling concrete monoliths at the Needles New Battery rocketry site are but one element of this.

But I am digressing.  I said in the last post that I would take about the Isle of Wight, and I would talk about maps. Geography is very important on an island, in a way that it is not necessarily important in other places. The Isle of Wight is defined by it's geography. To move back to the old counter-example, take London. London can, and has, grown over the years, hugely. Places that are not London have become places that are London. This can never occur with the Isle of Wight. Nowhere else can ever be part of the Isle of Wight, but what is the Isle of Wight now. It can diminish, and it does, but it is limited by the natural shape of its coastline.

Therefore, the shape of the Island is important. The island is shaped thus:

This shape can be iconised to a high degree, usually to something like this:

'Iconisation' refers to the process by which a thing can be simplified visually whilst focusing on a particular meaning; it doesn't mean that the meaning of something becomes less complex. In fact, a thing that is iconic can acquire further levels and shades of meaning through use; think of examples such as the Union Jack (and how it can appear both on John Bull's waistcoat and the back of a punk's jacket), or Jim Fitzpatrick's stylised version of Alberto Korda's photograph of Che Guevara. This is a much used example in the discussion of the concept, as each iteration and change of medium moves away from Che Guevara as a person, with complex political motives, towards Guevara as a symbol of rebellion; but as it does so, more meanings are acquired, till the original meaning is subverted. The image of Guevara can now be plopped on a Rage Against the Machine t-shirt, and used to sell music that trades on a similiar airy notion of purely symbolic and aimless (and thus harmless to the companies that make such t-shirts) rebellion.

With the Isle of Wight, it is actually difficult to say if the meaning really changes between these two levels. It should be noted that both symbols (the more accurate geographical coastline and the icon) as well as many different stages between are ubiquitous on the Island. They appear on the new (terrible) flag, on the logo for the Isle of Wight council, and on the logos of countless other small business, most of them with the terms "Island" or "Wight" in their names. At some future point I'll probably grab the camera and do some flânerie, snapping all of them that I see.  Each level of iconicity carries simply one meaning: that of the Isle of Wight.

This is actually quite interesting, because what it means, in a nutshell, is that the Isle of Wight is best represented, symbolically, by itself, or at least by a map of itself. The Island has a few other iconic sights (the Needles rocks chief amongst them) but none of these have anything like the same level of ubiquity. If you think about it, it's obvious that this could only really be true of an Island. There are countries which have iconic, recognisable shapes (think of stiletto-heeled Italy) but they always have some more potent symbol; their national animal, or more obviously their flag. The Island's flag is its map. There are no cities of which this is true, except perhaps island cities; cities change their shape, they are amorphous, ever-expanding or occasionally withering. Political boundaries chase the physical ones; they are mostly sort of blobs. The island, on the other hand, cannot change its boundaries except by processes that occur (at least on the level of representation indicated by the above maps) on a geological timescale**.
There is an oft-repeated phrase in philosophy, art etc. that "the map is not the territory"; that a representation of a thing is not the thing itself. Volumes have been written on this, and it's spawned a whole field of study, 'Map-Territory Relations', but it's not, I think, a particularly difficult concept to grasp. The interesting thing with the Isle of Wight is how much meaning has been collapsed into that geographical accident of the Island's shape; just as the real coastline contains all the physical reality that is the Isle of Wight, so the representation of the coastline contains all the symbolic meaning of the Island. 

I'm starting to get dangerously close to talking bollocks here, so I'll ease off. Basically though, that's what makes the coastal walk such an important part of this whole thing, and why it needs no words, and also why it completes the entire project. It is the containment within which all else that is the Isle of Wight, and thus is the direct subject of Vectis, exists. Of course, it is probably obvious by now that Vectis is not simply a book about the Isle of Wight, but a book about a lot of other things as well. Remember my point about how anywhere could be the centre of the world? Let's try some more mysticism; the hermetic concept of the microcosm and the macrocosm. "As above, so below". A person could live all their life quite happily and fully just on this one island; thus is not all human experience somehow mirrored here? 

I'll let you ponder that one. 

*Okay, we'll leave that one for the moment.

**We will deal with how the direct experience of coastal erosion in the south Wight immanentizes geology sometime later.

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