Deer Island by Neil Ansell

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Deer Island by Neil Ansell

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Steve Shayler
Reviewed by Steve Shayler
Summary: A pleasant account of one man’s life in the 1980s working with the homeless and recuperating on the remote Isle of Jura.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 96 Date: May 2013
Publisher: Little Toller Books
ISBN: 978-1908213136

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Neil Ansell volunteered in the 1980s to work for an organization that provided support for the homeless. These homeless were the people other shelters would reject for various reasons (drink, drugs, etc.) but the group Neil worked for were a little different to most similar charities. Due to this Neil experienced some of the worst case scenarios of being down and out in London, and along the way befriended many interesting but ultimately ill-fated people. To escape and recover from a life full of brief friendships, poverty and untimely death Neil travelled to the Isle of Jura off the West coast of Scotland. Jura came to be a special place for him and of all places in the world it was the one most in his heart. Deer Island is Neil’s account of his life in the 1980s and his discovery of Jura; it is, in effect, his love song to the island that has been his sanctuary.

I have only been to the West coast of Scotland once, a few years back, and during my time there I visited the Isle of Skye, it is a place I hope to return to and have very fond memories of, in fact our dog is named after the island. Deer Island is the translation of the Old Norse name Jura and knowing that this book would be about the island is what attracted me to it. I expected beautiful descriptions and a loving account of the rugged landscape of a Scottish island that is full of character and that was to have a profound effect on the author; I hoped to be transported to a place that would remind me of my brief encounter with this part of the world. Neil Ansell does not disappoint as this little book portrays a beautifully isolated yet invigorating part of the world which is fantastic to read. Only a small portion of this already very small book is set on Deer Island though and I think the book would have benefited with being a bit longer. It is an entertaining read while it lasts but it feels too brief and despite its title the book contains only two very well written but short accounts of Neil’s time on Jura.

The other setting for Neil’s reminiscences within this book is London and these accounts dominate the book; this is not a problem at all though as these are very interesting to read and show us a part of London life that is too often glossed over or ignored. When in London Neil worked for a charity helping the large number of homeless people on the streets of the capital. The work was long and didn’t pay but became a way of life and one that suited Neil who is very clearly a caring individual with little desire for possessions and material gain. The stories of the people he met when living this life are often touching and even though the vast majority of these people had very little future the book is written in a way that tackles the difficult subject matter without being depressing. The warmth and generosity of this community of people that Neil came to inhabit shines through the bleak conditions and the self-destruction.

This life takes its toll though and this is why he escaped to Jura where he could go days without seeing another person. He would swap the hive of activity and desolate conditions he experienced in London with the total isolation and desolate landscape of Jura. The island became a safe haven to Neil and it is easy to see why, with the stunning scenery, abundant wildlife and feeling of serenity being charmingly described.

Deer Island is an interesting book and has made me more determined to return to the Scottish islands. It is a book about freedom and a life spent gathering experiences rather than belongings. Ansell has led an exciting life that I would happily read more about; I just wish there was a little bit more of it in this book. This is a well written and engaging tale that is worth reading but is just a little brief.

For another’s experiences of the people and landscape of Britain try Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson.

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