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Letters Blog Letters Blog | Barrie Mahoney

'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

Live and Let Live

One of the many things that I love about our island in the sun is the ‘live and let live’ attitude of most of its people. No, I don’t mean the thousands of tourists, but the true Canarian people, those who were born here and have stayed in this little corner of Paradise. As long as it is broadly legal and does not interfere with anyone else, in the main, anything goes. For many of its present day expat population, with its heady mix of faith, culture, colour and sexuality, it takes time to get used to not being judged. Maybe this stems from the time, it is said, when Spain’s General Franco, intolerant of gay men in the military, would ship them off to Gran Canaria, which became a kind of penal colony for homosexuals. Whether there is real historical substance to this claim or whether it is an urban myth, I do not know for sure, but it sounds reasonable enough to me, although I am quite sure that the Yumbo Centre wasn’t there then!

For me, one of the real unsung heroes of the Second World War was the code-breaker, Alan Turing. 23 June 2012 saw the centenary of his birth and it was thanks to this mathematical genius that the war against Nazi Germany ended two years earlier than it otherwise would have done. He managed to intercept and crack ingenious coded messages that gave detailed information to the Allies about the activities of German U-boats. However, there was only one problem with Alan Turing - he was gay.

Alan’s reward for his pivotal role in cracking intercepted messages was quickly forgotten when, in 1952, he was prosecuted for ‘indecency’ after admitting a sexual relationship with a man. As an ‘alternative’ to imprisonment, this unsung war hero was given ‘chemical castration’ - a newly devised treatment for such ‘disorders’ at the time. In 1954, at the age of 41, he killed himself by eating a poisoned apple, which was apparently inspired by the story of Snow White. Needless to say, as with much of history, this version of events is currently being challenged and massaged for the financial gains for another film, documentary or book. However, I rather like the original version of the tragedy, agreed by the coroner at the time; it is just so dramatic!

Or was this the end of Alan Turing? This amazing man is also credited with creating the beginnings of computer technology and artificial intelligence, which led to the development of one of the first recognisable modern computers. Alan Turing's brilliance and personal life came to the attention of present day computer programmer, Dr. John Graham-Cumming, who began a petition asking for a posthumous apology from the government. Many thousands of people signed it and a previous UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, finally apologised for how Alan Turing was treated in the 1950s. Whether it was through political motivation or genuine compassion for this brilliant man, and I like to think it is the latter, he said that "on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work, I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better.”

My thoughts also go out to the many thousands of gay men and woman who have been persecuted over the years - just for being themselves.

All this serious stuff brings me back home to Gran Canaria. Spain’s General Franco certainly had his faults, but I cannot help thinking that being shipped off to a life in the sun in the penal colony of Gran Canaria, just for being gay, was a far preferable alternative to ‘chemical castration’!

From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney

Expat Survival : ISBN 978-0992767167

Click here to find out more

It’s an island thing

I have always loved islands. Maybe it was reading just too much Robinson Crusoe, Enid Blyton’s ‘Five on a Treasure Island’ and other stories about islands that inspired me, but I always knew that one day I would live on an island.

Maybe it was that first glimpse of the magical and mysterious Brownsea Island pointed out to me by my elderly great aunt. We could only view it through binoculars from Poole Harbour in Dorset, because, in those days, as my great aunt explained, it was inhabited by an old witch and her elderly manservant, and they cooked and ate all newcomers to the island. Animals, birds and insects that lived there were special and unique to that special place. Indeed, the giant ants could eat people alive. As I discovered many years later whilst accompanying classes of schoolchildren to the island, she was partly right about the giant ants! Great Aunt Gertie did have a vivid imagination, but it was the stuff of inspiration.

For many years I thought that my eventual island destination would be the Isle of Wight. Career opportunities often seemed to lead me there, and on one occasion it was the dreadful realisation that I was about to be offered a job that I didn't really want, that made me flee the island at 5.00am one morning and well before the final interview, and I didn't return for many years.

We visited the Scilly Islands - a delightful destination, but I soon realised that the rusting bath tub, which the islanders call a ferry, was a nightmare, and after one terrible voyage with myself and other passengers vomiting for most of the journey, I flew back to the mainland by helicopter realising that I could never attempt that journey by boat ever again, let alone live there.

We spent many glorious summers exploring islands around the UK and beyond. We tasted delicious malt whiskies on the Isles of Skye and Islay, exploring the Outer Hebrides, avoiding tweed jackets in Harris and Lewis, as well as tasting the relative decadence of Orkney and Shetland.

Islands as diverse as Majorca, Cyprus, Ibiza and Madeira were also visited, but although wonderful in their own unique ways, none seemed to inspire me as a possible home for the future. That is until we visited the Canary Islands in general, and Gran Canaria in particular. I knew then that this would be home and found myself gripping the handrail and forcing myself up the steps of the plane going home at the end of our first visit. I was determined to return again one day.

So what is so special about islands? It is a difficult one to answer, because people are inspired in many different ways. Maybe it is the feeling of being part of a small community, never being far from the sea, or the reminder of a primitive form of survival instinct. Maybe it is just that feeling of “Getting away from it all”, although critics of this view will quickly point out that this can be difficult to achieve on islands such as Tenerife, and parts of Gran Canaria and Lanzarote! If you really do want to get away from it all, I suggest heading to El Hierro, La Gomera or La Palma instead!

An elderly friend visited a few days ago. “I could never live on an island,” she declared loudly after critically peering out to sea. What do you do for shopping? You have only got one small shop,” she asked.

“We have many good local shops nearby, and you can get anything in Las Palmas, the seventh largest city in Spain,” I replied.

“It must be so difficult to get off the island in an emergency?” she frowned.

“Not really, after all Las Palmas airport is the third largest in Spain. Flights are always available, but the fares vary depending upon demand.”

“I would need still need to be in Europe, because of the health service”.

“The Canary Islands are part of Europe and offer some of the best medical treatment available anyway. Indeed, patients are often flown to Las Palmas from the Peninsular for specialist treatment.”

“Hmm, well, I still wouldn't like to live in an island...” she mumbled.

Great, I thought. I am so pleased you are not going to move here. Intending islanders need to be committed to island life and be aware of the disadvantages, as well as the advantages. Islands are rather like Marmite, Blackpool or Benidorm. You either love them or hate them.

From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney

Expat Survival : ISBN 978-0992767167

Click here to find out more

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