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Review | Remote : A Story of St Helena by Lindsay Gratten-Cooper

Ode to the romance of a vanishing island life

As St Helena prepares to open to air traffic, Vivien Horler meets a resident who celebrates the joys of the island’s seclusion OMEWHERE between here and the mid-Atlantic, the last British Royal Mail ship in the world is chugging towards the island of St Helena. It sailed from Table Bay on Saturday, and on board are Lindsay Grattan Cooper and her hus- band Chris on their umpteenth voyage to the island. Chris says it’s his 37th trip, Lindsay has lost count. But it will be a special journey, steeped in nostalgia, because this is the last time they’ll sail on the RMS St Hele- na.

The ship, after serving the island faithfully for 25 years, carrying passengers and cargo, will make its last voyage next June. Then it’s the scrapyard. The island is to get an airport, current- ly being built by the South African con- struction company Basil Read, and people wanting to go to St Helena will be able to fly from OR Tambo, a five-hour flight replacing a five-day voyage. Which sounds much more efficient on the face of it, but the Grattan Coopers, like many other people who love the island, have a keen understanding of what will be lost. Lindsay realised there needed to be a record of the island’s old way of life, and since she has been visiting St Helena reg- ularly since 1969, sat down and wrote it. As she says in the last few couple of sen- tences of her book Remote: “This was then a very special place, an island whose whole personality and extraordinary uniqueness were shaped by its great dis- tance from the Outside World. I write this in remembrance of that remoteness.

” The Grattan Coopers’ home is in Tokai, but in 1969, when all her friends were haring off to Swinging London, 22-year- old Lindsay decided to try somewhere dif- ferent. With a pin hovering over a map of the world, she selected the tiny island of St Helena of which she knew nothing but that Napoleon had been exiled and died there. So she spoke to a travel agent who told her confidently: “No one goes there. In fact you can’t get there!” The travel agent had no idea whom she was dealing with. Lindsay discovered that Union Castle ships sailed to the island; she booked a voyage for a week’s stay, arrived in Jamestown Bay and fell in love.

“I felt I’d come home,” she told me over wine and cheese in the Grattan Coopers’ home last week, the room crowded with boxes and parcels marked “Hold”. She made friends on the island with whom she kept in touch, and went back in 1970 for a month. There was a long gap when she married and had two children, but in 1987 she took the whole family to visit the island. In 1999 she and Chris bought a 200-year-old house, Villa Le Breton at the top of Jamestown. From then on their lives became increasingly connected to the island, with Lindsay choosing to spend much of her year there, while Chris stayed in Cape Town to support their schoolboy son Richard. Meanwhile their daughter Vir- ginia, who had just finished matric in Cape Town, decided to spend six months  on the island as a gap half-year.

“She’s never really left,” says Lindsay. On the shelf are pictures of Virginia’s wedding to islander Stuart, and another of their toddler son Dylan. The Grattan Coopers have gone from being occasional tourists to home owners to grandparents of an islander. You can’t get much more involved than that.

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