Many years ago I read an article in the Sunday Times magazine about the island of St Helena. It told of a place that to me seemed some sort of paradise. It was the one of the remotest inhabited islands on the planet, a lump of rock in the middle of the south Atlantic, and as a British overseas territory a quaint leftover from the days of Empire. A few thousand people lived there, an entrancing mixture of the descendants of British settlers, military and slaves (African and Indian), making the population the sort of cultural and ethnic melting pot that idealists dream of.
None of them seemed happy, however. The article recorded the sense of neglect and unfulfilled hopes that infected most of the inhabitants. They had been forgotten by the mother country; their young were emigrating and not returning. They yearned for a visit from any member of the British royal family, yet none had ever come. They yearned also for an airport, to open them up to the world. The only contact they had was by ship, an infrequent five-day voyage from Cape Town.
St Helena was of course the island to which Napoleon was finally exiled, banished to the remotest spot possible. It has become a place of pilgrimage ever since, with Napoleonites visiting his island residence at Longwood House, and just like the emperor himself looking out to sea and contemplating the futility of human ambition.
I wasn’t particularly interested in Napoleon, but I was entranced by St Helena – for its remoteness, its rugged beauty, and its sadness. I vowed that I would visit the island one day.
It’s not a vow I’ve been able to fulfill as yet. Sheer logistics have got in the way, since ten days’ sailing, on top of the period of time spent on the island before the return sailing meant too long a time for someone who had to work for his living. There was also the thought of five days spent cooped up in the RMS St Helena, which looked a little too claustrophobic for my tastes. Like the islanders, I would have to wait for an airport – but who was going to pay out the huge amounts required, to serve such a tiny island? There was no argument that made economic sense. And so the St Helenans waited, hoped without hope, and were sad.
Then, miraculously, in 2010 an airport was agreed and building began. A stupendous engineering achievement, the airport was built on the east side of the island, at a height of 1,000 feet above sea cliffs, for the sum of £250 million pounds. The economic argument was that the UK’s annual budget subsidy of £30 million would be reduced and eventually withdrawn, following the rise in tourism – in other words it would pay for itself in 8-9 years. There was a strong element of romance behind the plans, however, as would become clear.
The airport was due to open in May. The opening ceremony had been prepared, and every website and travel guide on the island mentioned the opening of the airport and the decommissioning of the RMS St Helena as an inevitably. Then the reports from the test pilots came in.
You can read the reports on the severe ‘wind shear’ and turbulence which makes landing an airplane alarmingly hazardous – or you can just look at the above video, showing the first test commercial flight from last month, and see for yourself. It’s a nightmare. The challenging terrain, the proximity of the steep cliffs, and the stiff crosswinds coming off the Atlantic, have combined to make conditions hazardous for the landing of any large aircraft. “I have personally never experienced windshear this severe, not even in the sim[ulator]” reported one pilot.
How did it come to this? There’s a fascinating account of the airport’s financing, the troubled test flights, and the likely impact on the islanders, on the Conservative Home website, written by the controversial Tory donor and former party treasurer Lord Ashcroft.
The length and detail of Ashcroft’s piece reveals someone who had invested more than usual interest in the building of the airport. It turns out that he visited the island in 1948 when aged two, and though naturally has only vague memories of the place, a lifelong emotional attachment was established. It’s the sort of thing that the island does, just the very idea of it. He had lobbied hard for the airport to be built, clearly using all of his considerable political influence. He had nothing to do with the actual building of the airport, however, and his fury at the bungled planning decisions that must have been made is evident from his article. Likewise there is his sympathy for the islanders at their despair and sense of betrayal. He writes:
Local businesses – everything from hotel owners to shopkeepers – have been relying on the new airport to bring a much-needed influx of visitors. Yet without the promised flights, the hotels, guesthouses and shops are empty. With bills and overheads mounting but no money coming in, numerous business are struggling for their very survival and for many heavy debt, even the threat of bankruptcy, hangs over them. Even food and other goods are in short supply on the island.
I know nothing of aviation matters. It could be that these things will be resolved: different aircraft, different approaches to the runway, amendments to the runway, or maybe the whole thing has been exaggerated (it has passed the official certification required for any aerodrome). Those in British government who paid out £250 million on an engineering project are bound to have got their sums right beforehand, surely? Indeed…
What does intrigue me about this, however, is the haunting appeal of St Helena itself. Comments on social media and forums of one sort or another make it clear that there are many, like me, who have dreamed of visiting the island and had seen the airport as the answer to those dreams. Lord Ashcroft has been one of those dreamers too. But what were we dreaming of? That which is remote is only remote so long as it is far away, self-evidently so. Its appeal lies in the gap between its reality and ours. Were I to visit St Helena, the remoteness would be lost. My being there will have destroyed it. It will still be a rock very far out to sea, and the endless seas around it and the journey in getting there will give a profound sense of isolation. But it will be the rest of the world that is remote, not St Helena.
The ease of flying there (it will happen, eventually – it must) will also erode the remoteness. Much as you can fly to the South Pole, or sent a text message from the top of Mount Everest, we have done our best to eliminate remoteness as a possibility. The beauty of St Helena has been how it has defied the encroachments of the modern age, and in tandem with that the sense of abandonment that I picked up in that article all those years ago. It was the sadness of St Helena that appealed. The people were in paradise, but didn’t know it.
Of course it isn’t paradise, it’s just a home. The people of the island want better pay, better communications, better opportunities, and – yes – a visit from British royalty (Prince Edward was lined up to open up the airport). But the St Helena I know will disappear once the flights begin. Indeed it may never have existed – a far-flung isle conjured up in the pages of a magazine, whose special nature would vanish the moment I set foot upon its shores. The sadness will have lifted, and what then will remain?
- Whichever way you eventually manage to get there, the ways to do so, and the attractions once you have done so, are given on the St Helena tourism website
- Official news on the St Helena airport can be found on the St Helena government website
- Michael Ashcroft’s polemic (cleared aimed at embarrassing the British government into action) is on the Conservative Home website, with a very interesting set of comments accompanying it
- Thomas Keneally’s new novel, Napoleon’s Last Island, is set on St Helena
- Update: I was wrong about royal visitors – the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) visited in 1925, King George VI in 1947 (with the future Queen Elizabeth II), the Duke of Edinburgh in 1957, Prince Andrew in 1984 and the Princess Royal in 2002.