Monday 17 March 2014

St Helena Airport

During my research into conformist modern culture one thing I've noticed is that it has an almost virus-like ability to transform everything it touches into a copy of itself. This is hardly surprising seeing as it has been designed by people and organizations with over a century of training in psychological warfare behind them. This concerned me so much that it became the central theme of my second novel Rockall, which is now available free online, see: Since then I have discovered many real life analogues for the fictional setting I invented for the story, like St Kilda, which features in the story, but also St Helena, which does not.

St Helena is one of the world's remotest inhabited islands; it sits isolated and alone in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean over 1200 miles from the nearest land, the coast of Angola, Africa. It is a volcanic island, but there has not been an eruption there for over seven million years so nobody gets too worried about that. It was completely uninhabited until the 16th Century and then was settled by mainly British planters; it was also used as a base for the Royal Navy and a stopover and supply station for merchant ships on the East India trade routes, until 1869 when the Suez Canal opened and those shipping lanes shifted into the Red Sea. The island was also used as a place of exile for enemies of the British who were too dangerous to be let loose, yet too important to kill, most famously Napoleon Bonaparte. Interestingly St Helena was used for early experiments into geoengineering and weather modification; in the 18th and 19th Century attempts were made to shift its very localized rainfall patterns. St Helena is also small, only about ten miles across, and has a population of just 4500. It is one of three islands in the British Overseas Territory of St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha; both the other two islands are many hundreds of miles away. These extreme geographical factors have inevitably produced a very unique human culture.

I've never been to St Helena, like most people, but I can find a few things out by searching online. The small population there, less than that of an average English town, are mostly descended from the original British settlers and freed black African slaves. "Saints", as they call themselves. They speak English, but with an unusual accent, as you can see in this short video news report: As you will tell when the reporter polls the children at the island's school, the vast majority want to leave St Helena when they grow up. However when he asks: "How many of you would like the airport to come to St Helena?" opinion is far more divided. St Helena, unlike its two fellow islands in the Territory, does not have an airport and is served only by a ship, imaginatively named RMS St Helena, which operates a shuttle service between the island and Cape Town, South Africa. It's uniquely-designed to double-up as a cargo ship, mail steamer and passenger liner. Here we see the ship's second officer, Mia Henry, give a BBC reporter a tour of the vessel: It's a five day voyage each way, and that's the only means of travelling to and from the island. This is an almost exclusive situation in the world today; and it's a trip I would love to take myself (I must admit I would also relish the prospect of getting lost at sea with Ms Henry!). However it is a situation that will soon come to an end; the first ever airport is being built on St Helena; it is due to open in 2016, see: Those in favour of the airport being built make some good points, the island is suffering from terrible economic problems and poverty is rife. To combat this, the islanders want to make their home more accessible to tourists. RMS St Helena is also an old ship and is due for retirement from service; if another ship has to built to replace it that will cost a lot of money. There have been several accidents and breakdowns in recent years which meant the ship couldn't deliver its vital supplies to the island, and a catastrophe was only very narrowly averted. If St Helena were ever cut off from the outside world it would be a disaster because it needs to import most food and other essentials via the ship, and no other vessel berthed on the island is capable of making the long ocean voyage to safety. What's more, as the first youth who commented in the above report describes, there are few opportunities on St Helena for anybody with conventional ambitions or a desire for more enterprise, adventure and variety in their life. The bright lights of the world outside shine very brightly onto St Helena and they must be as seductive to the "Saints" as they were to the people of St Kilda a hundred years ago.
I don't think it is for me to judge; I don't live on St Helena and never have. I can't really put myself in their shoes. Nevertheless it is a simple fact that once the airport is opened in two years time St Helena will change beyond all recognition. One of the last places on Earth with a long sea voyage between it and the rest of civilization will come to and end. The advantages of this are obvious: easier access to goods and services that cannot be produced on the island itself; the ability to travel to anywhere else on Earth in the time it takes to walk from one end of St Helena to the other; a massive tourist boom bringing much-needed hard capital into the island's economy... and of course, all the luscious enchantments of conformist modern culture. We could one day see a branch of McDonalds open in central Jamestown, a Tesco convenience store in the grounds of Longwood House. Justin Bieber might hold an open air concert in the beautiful restored forests around Diana's Peak; and Simon Cowell will be arriving on the first plane to land at the airport to see if St Helena's Got Talent. There are many ways to assess human well-being in this world. One of them is material wealth and financial security, property, reputation, status over others; according to conventional wisdom these are the only ways, The... One... Goal. However, I can tell by listening to the second and third interviewees at the school, the next generation of St Helena's people do have an awareness of other values: individual beauty, distinctiveness, heritage, legacy, identity, environment, a love of the home and community. They fear for these values in the wake of the changes brought by the airport. Perhaps these people have learnt from the mistakes of the St Kildans; this shrunken, shrivelled and uniform world in which we live has many wonders and delights and a lot of safety and security... for some... but after a while we may ask why it is that everywhere we go we just see the same things reflecting back at us again and again, like a monotonous hall of mirrors. Conformist modern culture might be enjoyable, but it comes with a price. People of St Helena... do you think it's worth it?

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