Six of us had cycled fifteen miles for lunch at a favourite Herefordshire restaurant. We had eaten too much, so despite the perfect cycling conditions – a windless afternoon, sunshine, warm autumn air sweetened by the scent of ripe cider apples – we decided there was no need to hurry home, and the village bookshop beckoned. First the garden section . . . then the cookery . . . but the travel shelves were more fruitful: Dalrymple alongside Leigh Fermor; Mackintosh-Smith next to Thubron, Crane and Simon Winchester. Mostly paperbacks, many were apparently unread, though obviously not remaindered. People hereabouts, I thought, don’t dog-ear the corners of their pages, and they read their books once, then dispose of them before the dust has time to settle.
The bright orange spine of The Emperor’s Last Island shone conspicuously. The author’s name didn’t register, but the powerful word ‘island’ most certainly did, and when I took the slim volume from the shelf and saw the painted sketch of Napoleon and read the subtitle, A Journey to St Helena, my pulse began to quicken. My great-grandparents were married there, a place more remote than anywhere else on earth; of greater significance to me, in the mid-1960s my own teenage eyes gazed briefly upon this island with its fortress-like cliffs; but in the intervening years I had read nothing about it.
My own visit to St Helena (near-visit, rather, since the ship on which I’d ‘run away to sea’, aged 17, only ‘anchored off’) lasted a mere few hours. Napoleon was trapped there for a quarter of a century, hemmed in for six years while he was alive by ‘the heat, the rain and the wind; by rats, by soldiers and government representatives’, and for nineteen years after he died (until his body was exhumed and returned to France) by six feet of heavy clay, two ten-inch-thick layers of reinforced concrete, a slab of stone and a lead-lined mahogany coffin.
Julia Blackburn’s r
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