Big Windies

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The lady at the Aerolineas Isla Robinson Crusoe desk greeted me by name, though we’d never met. Her passenger list comprised three words: Señor John Harrison. The six-seater Cessna was piloted by a handsome 30-year-old trying to look like an extra for Top Gun, and doing rather well. We left the heat of Chile’s vineyards behind us, arrowing over the Pacific, aiming at a myth. Conditions were calm, despite the receptionist’s warning: ‘There is a lot more weather on the island than here: big windies.’

The Juan Fernández Islands, 400 miles offshore, were discovered in 1572 by a Spanish priest and navigator who modestly named them after himself. Failing to make a go of a settlement, he left only goats as a memorial. The main island became a mid-oceanic convalescent stop, providing wood, fresh water, fruit, turnips planted by mariners, and the tasty descendants of Father Juan’s goats. It’s not so welcoming for aircraft; when I saw the landing strip, I had big windies myself. We shot down a dirt runway that began at the cliff edge, ran across a narrow neck of land, and squealed into a U-turn yards from the opposing cliff top. Top Gun grinned. ‘Madness!’

I first met Robinson Crusoe when I was 8, in a hardback children’s edition with a red cloth cover whose edges I stroked as I read, curled up in an armchair. It had footnotes (so grown up) to explain delicious antique words like pannikin, pipkin and calenture (a tropical delirium in which the sailor believes the sea to be green fields, and tries to leap into it). Before starting to read, I looked at the frontispiece, showing a man in a goatskin suit with matching umbrella, then at each illustration in turn, imagining how the plot would stitch them together, writing my own story. When I finished the book, my mother helped me place the kitchen table upside-down on the lawn. Each heavy round leg was held in place by a single wing-nut. I removed two and propped them over the s

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About the contributor

As John Harrison posted the manuscript for his travel book, Where the Earth Ends, about South America and its islands, he realized every influential text behind it had been read before he was 12 years old, including Robinson Crusoe.

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