:: Article

The Underground Island

Roc Sandford interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Roc Sandford grew up in England, Wales and Spain and was schooled at Dartington in Devon, taking a degree in Geography at Bristol University and modelling spatial phenomena at Pennsylvania State University before moving to University College London where his interest was the applicability of a natural science model to social sciences. He has studied with the Open University and participated at symposia with the Rockerfeller Foundation, Bellagio in Italy and the NATO Advanced Studies Institute at Bonas in France. He proposed a simple refinement for enhanced statistical confidence in psychophysics whilst examining the psychophysics of ‘inner’ sensationless magnitude and its methodological implications in psychology, economics – the synthetic a priori may in aspects be relativistic and non-Euclidian. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and was appointed an Honorary Fellow at Columbia University, New York, for contributions to sciolism.

He has worked in farming and estate management for most of his life, and has served on the committee of the Soho Housing Association which provides 700 affordable homes in London, and as director of their commercial start-up Soho Limited. He has published 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st century writers and artists including Stendhal, Baudelaire, Fromentin, Nietzsche, Barker and Dimbleby; has collaborated on Someone Must Be Lying, a BBC4 dramatization of his framing, wrongful arrest and false imprisonment by Her Brittanic Majesty’s Constabulary, about which parliamentary written questions on repeated occasions were evasively addressed by the Home Secretary; has appeared in national media on police corruption and reform; and was denied a right to family life within the UK and saddled with constructive exile on gender grounds by the British Government in contravention of articles 8 (right to family life) and 14 (equality) enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act (1998).

He joined Psychic TV for the whirlwind scoring of Micha Bergese and Derek Jarman’s ballet Mouth of the Night and has exhibited and provided informal residencies for contemporary artists in Scotland and England. With funding provided by the Metropolitan Police as compensation for his false imprisonment he endowed the Philip Dunn Trust, a small charitable trust in memory of his grandfather. He is a trustee of the Мемориальная Библиотека Князя Г.В.Голицына on the Fontanka in St Petersburg, Russian Federation. He is interested in environment, civil rights, architecture and writing; stood as a Green Party candidate for Westminster City Council in 2010 and 2014; and was a founder member of the Archipelago Forum, canvassing the Staffa Archipelago as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. He has campaigned successfully against three environmentally degrading factory salmon farms in the Archipelago, and is campaigning against a fourth: the blood of the isles which seethes in his heart will sometimes froth and smoke. He does not the feed the hate trolls and cyber bullies who result.

Radically he is diasporic Irish, Catholic Scottish & English; his Canadian forebears were on the emigrant ships to Nova Scotia. Many of his Scottish forebears died for Scotland; like them he believes in a cosmopolitan and economically numerate Scotland’s independence if and when that is on the table. Chauvinism he identifies with the smiley face of racism. He is named for Saint Roc, patron of mad dogs, sea storms and the falsely accused, who declined his mother’s breast on holy fast days. He is a single parent and lives on his farm on the Isle of Gometra and, obediently to High Court of Justice decree, otherwise in London.

3:AM: So how did you end up where you did? Was there a principle involved?

Roc Sandford: One premise, not rigorously applied, was that you should be able to live somewhere in Britain without money. So with a few exceptions we offered free accommodation, ad lib, to who-ever made it to the island. No references, no deposit. In the early days, no council tax. No notice to quit, no eviction, however extreme the acting-out. It was how the Welfare State was supposed to work. Incidentally, as Machiavelli reminds us, this was also how ancient Rome was founded, by attracting fugitives and outlaws from the modern.

3:AM: How long have you been living out there? How many houses are there on the island?

RS: I went out there 22 years ago with a shepherd, Iain Munro. He was engaged that day in rabbit hunting, on this abandoned, semi-mythical and half-known island, lying somewhere in Hebrides off the Atlantic coast of Scotland. He gave me his .22 rifle to hold and I rode sidesaddle on the back of his four-wheeled motorcycle, waving the rifle in the air for balance as, clinging low over the handlebars, he scrambled and slid the machine through six miles of scree, mud, burns and living rock to the causeway which joins the island to a larger neighbour. It’s a journey I liken to travelling inside a washing machine set on cold. The island had been abandoned after the failure of a red deer farming operation. Its houses were turning slowly green and sinking into shaking mounds of bracken and brambles. Many of the roofs had fallen in. How many houses? I’ve never counted. But at least 70 people used to live here in the 19th century, before the Great Hunger when the food supply failed.

3:AM: Where is this place?

RS: The isle of Gometra.

3:AM: It must have been a big decision to go there. What decided it for you?

RS: Once I’d seen the place I was hooked. It had been for sale for 18 months without attracting a community buyout, or a NGO or private buyer. I raised a mortgage with the bank and was able to buy it. That gave me the right, for as long as I can pay the mortgage, to fix up the houses for people to live in and keep cattle and sheep here. Only after I moved in did I discover by accident from my great-uncle’s boyfriend that my mother’s first cousin, Patience, had only moved out in the 1950s and I was now sleeping in her bedroom. The place had been held by that side of my family on and off for many years. That set off a train of finding-out leading to the Masons, the Führer, numerology, the mummified head of Christ and the Holy Grail, but that’s another story.

3:AM: Didn’t the isolation get to you?How did you cope? Or was it something that fitted your personality?

RS: You get lonesome on a wet desert island. A Land Rover had been left by the failed deer farm, and if I drove across the causeway and then for about another hour and quarter I could get to about a dozen people at the far end of Ulva ⎯ but still no shop, no bar, no gas station, no surgery. So it was about 2 ½ hours driving there and back to the nearest person. About 4 hours return by Land Rover and boat to the nearest shop. I would go a week or two without seeing anyone and sometimes, when the telephone was down as it usually was in those days, without speaking to anyone. It puts you in an interesting space – like a flotation tank, but one with houses, fields and cliffs in it, where you float for weeks. It’s somewhat psycho-active as a drug, and the psycho-activity is imperfectly reversible. For instance, when I came out I would have an irresistible fascination for human faces – I would need to examine faces from close range, which got me in trouble a few times. So I went overseas regularly for an urban fix.

3:AM: What do you do there?

RS: Well, we farm – we grow food for people to eat – lamb, venison, vegetables and fruit – and that brings in the money to keep things ticking over. There’s been a lot of hard graft keeping this going over the years ⎯ above all from Iain Munro and his family who joined me from Ulva ⎯ it’s the engine room of the island. Without it we would fail.

3:AM: There were legal risks as well as the obvious ones too weren’t there?

RS: We were trying to limbo under the radar. At that time my children were deemed illegal immigrants so it has had to be kind of a stealth project. That is perhaps why it hasn’t been documented. Basically if we’d been caught I faced up to two years inside and my children would have been deported. That’s over now, but it was horrible while it lasted. But also, having broken from the herd, there has always been a risk of becoming a political or media football which we wanted to avoid. The role of hate-trolls and cyber-bullies is to police the mores of the herd. We get our fair share, and we have a policy of not feeding them.

3:AM: Did you have a model of what you were trying to achieve?

RS: Robert Owen’s Utopian Community at New Harmony, Posey County, Indiana and Fourier’s Phalanstére, as enacted at the North American Phalanx, Monmouth County, New Jersey and in other places in the USA. Also Victor Considerant’s translation of the Phalanstery to a Vernesque steamship (vide the current plutocratic residential mega-ship, The World,) are relevant. Étienne Cabet’s Voyage en Icarie, and the Icarian communities which resulted, e.g. at Nauvoo, Illinois. As is the 19th century anarchist community at Modern Times on Long Island, New York, and Count Tolstoy’s slightly later innovations at Bright Glade, Tula Oblast. But there are countless models. The 1850s ‘Free Lovers at Davis House’, too, of course – that lasted 4 years, though other free love communities lasted longer.

3:AM: How would you summarise what you managed to enact?

RS: The counterpoint between Arcadia and Utopia.

3:AM: And who would be the figure who’d get what you were trying for?

RS: Thoreau of course. He knew that if he got a horse it would be him working for the horse rather than the other way around.

3:AM: So this was a genuine attempt at the Utopian dream?

RS: Utopia was set on a hidden Atlantic island. But we also reference the island states of Archaic Greece. (Homeric scholars have mapped the Odyssey onto this island and its neighbours, claiming Odysseus was blown here in a gall.) The Republic is obviously relevant, if only as a contraindication. Likewise, Propeller Island, Verne’s dystopian floating island shows how fast things go wrong.

3:AM: Are there any literary or cultural pointers to the spirit of what you were doing?

RS: Huxley’s psychoanalytic Island. Then Kenneth White’s On the Atlantic Edge ⎯ there’s a consensus sentimental take on the Hebrides from outsiders looking in which Kenneth White demolishes via his geopoetics. This ties in with Kundera’s work on kitsch, and Jung’s on sentimentality in general as representing the Marxian superstructure of brutality.

3:AM: So who is attracted to this?

RS: Being catholic we attract all types : hunter-gatherers, late capitalists, welfare junkies, anarchists, landowners, dissidents, democrats, atheists, egoists, nihilists, boozers, Sufis, rentiers, seers, pastoralists, dossers, plumbers, vegetarians, and the odd petit bourgeois. Also painters, farmers, fishermen, writers, plumbers, musicians, retirees, job-seekers, house-husbands, single parents, etc.

3:AM: Is it interesting to see new people arrive?

RS: When new people come the sensation is of watching a compressed paper tablet, unmarked except with stamped blue pictograms, which you put in a glass of water and watch unfold into the most elaborately lobed blossom, or undulating moth or bird. Unless they don’t like it and go away.

3:AM: Was there any individual who sticks in your mind?

RS: A Sufi ecstatic, who was deep and kind, wore patchouli, and filled many black notebooks in a minute script with fascinating arabesques.

3:AM: Presumably there were things you didn’t allow?

RS: Various super-lucrative cottage industries proscribed by Scots law, and others sub-lucrative not so proscribed.

3:AM: There must have been people who brought interesting surprises to the island?

RS: An enterprising Scouser and his husband, a native of Essex had, as we discovered only after they did a runner, been operating the mystery hydroponic cannabis farm supplying the West Coast ports ⎯ when the stems wilted, street prices spiked.

3:AM: Was there anyone you particularly admired whilst they were on the island with you?

RS: A friend I picked up hitching in the days when I had wheels ⎯ now I’m the hitcher. It was March, and sleeting. He self-identified as a tramp, and he was wearing a sodden t-shirt and shorts. He stayed for nearly a decade until, as he put it, his knees popped and he could no longer handle the walk-in. He was a rough-living savant/guru as well as a tramp ⎯ and a fine defiant soul. Mathew Huston made the biopic ‘My Island’ about his life as a hunter-gatherer here.

3:AM: How do people get to know about it?

RS: Everyone comes by word of mouth. We sometimes advertise, and get hundreds of replies and many visits, but we’ve never found anyone that way who stayed.

3:AM: How many people have lived there then?

RS: Around forty people in all, depending on where you draw the line. Many, many more have passed through, often returning many times. This above all is a tribute to Iain Munro, who has done more than anyone to keep people here.

3:AM: Have you ever turned people back?

RS: Only twice, when we had space, did we turn people away ⎯ there has to be an consensus between the existing tenants, and on two occasions we couldn’t get it.

3:AM: Only twice?

RS: Once or twice we have also turned away people if legally we are not allowed to house them ⎯ we interpret the law liberally, assuming we can figure out what it is, but where it is unequivocal we are coming to realize we have to obey, since the legal and reputational penalties are so severe ⎯ e.g. you can violate a homeless family’s human rights by offering a home with too few bedrooms.

3:AM: Do people have to pay rent to stay there?

RS: Sometimes we have asked for rent so as to be able to put money into the housing stock. Otherwise, given the number of people coming through, the houses keep slipping back into an illegal state ⎯ some people leave them far better than they found them, but others trash them, and housing law doesn’t have much of a sense of humour. And we ask rent for our holiday lets, though we always try to offer a rent-free option too, and even in the rental properties we have never asked anyone to leave even if they don’t want to pay. So in effect, the rent we have charged is voluntary.

3:AM: Is there a rhythm or pattern to the duration of people staying there?

RS: Most stay until the second winter then move on – they get out while there is still time. After a year or two those of us with children, especially, often end up back within range of doctors and schools, at least in term-time. It can be stressful otherwise.

3:AM: I was wondering about that. How do the children get to school?

RS: About half the Gometra children don’t go to school – the rest go away to school overseas, with or without their parents.

3:AM: Do you have to pay taxes? What’s the point if you do?

RS: In the absence of any government services ⎯ doctor, teacher, ferry ⎯ council tax becomes council tribute. It has the quality of protection, since the only service the government does provide, and yes it is a crucial one (literally, as in Golgotha) is not sending in, Waco style, the Scottish equivalent of the FBI. This is interesting from a classical liberal, libertarian, minarchic or anarchic standpoint. You not only get to explore the theoretical territory for real which is unusual in the West, but you are simultaneously permitted to think in ways which you normally self-censor thanks to the thought-police, what I call acamedia, and consensus herd-think.

3:AM: This is a very different space from the one I’m living in (and I suspect most readers). Is it interesting?

RS: Unexpectedly interesting. It’s no accident that 1984 was written on the nearby island of Jura. When the musak stops, when there are no more emotionally manipulative newspaper headlines and passive aggressive adverts, when no crowds compete for the space currently occupied by your body, when at night there may not be any light – not even the shape of someone’s face standing in front of you or the movement of their hand in front of your eyes…

3:AM: Night is just darkness?

RS: Or else blinding with stars, or with a moon so bright you cannot gaze at it⎯ and above all no social given, no more moral law, just the starry heavens above. You slide into a different state, unexpected from the standpoint of consumerism and the liberal consensus, but antique and hard to efface even when you emerge, though it gradually erodes until it’s time for another dose. Incidentally, your aesthetic values also change.

3:AM: The isolation must make every movement and plan precarious and necessary?

RS: There is a summer ferry to mainland Mull from neighbouring Ulva, which is an 8 mile hike along mountain tracks. If you miss the last October ferry, the next one is in April.

3:AM: And also it must be tough and require unusual tenacity of soul to survive the deprivations?

RS: Rain, wind, hail, mud. The windows crash-banging all night. You get drenched if you even open the front door. The boats get blown onto the rocks or sink, everything unsecured blows into the sea, including roofs and on occasion the quad bike. No mains electricity ⎯ it gets light after breakfast, and gets dark before tea time. The mountain tracks turn into white cataracts overnight and are gone by morning. No cinema, television, yoga classes. You have to be an unusual person to sit that out.
3:AM: What have you read that has made sense of this place and the life it imposes on you?
RS: Alone, by Admiral Byrd, about a winter spent in a snow-hole in Antarctica (where he also amused himself by founding Antarctica’s first Masonic Lodge). Byrd’s experiences somehow chime with winter here.

3:AM: Is there a philosopher you draw on?

RS: Nietzsche was distrustful of the ascetic, because he identified it with Christianity’s slave morals and a turning away from life. But he valued one ascetic strand – that which came from spiritual riches, which meant there was no spare room for consumerism, spiritual or carnal, because these were crowded out by the real.

3:AM: Is the community working on a green sustainability agenda regarding power sources where possible?

RS: The island’s policy is to phase out fossil fuel use where consistent with survival. We have a long way to go, we may fail, but we have achieved plenty. There are no working cars or tractors on the island and we use generators infrequently. Much of our space and water heating is wood-fired though we still also use coal. Many journeys are made by walking and hitching, but we do also make many journeys and transport animals using a petrol boat and a diesel car when overseas. We take few if any flights. The trend of our fossil fuel use is downwards. Our ideal is for people coming to be sensitive to these low-carbon aspirations.

3:AM: When do you think you’ll hit your targets?

RS: We are fast approaching the sauve qui peut point – and saving only for so long (in both senses) then. After that, we may not be able to continue to satisfy our criterion of downward trend in greenhouse gas emissions – above all because we will be starting from an abnormally low base.

3:AM: Is the greenhouse effect noticeable where you are?

RS: The winds get stronger and it rains more.

3:AM: How would you characterise those who don’t take doing something about global warming seriously?

RS: Pulling a trigger whose bullet takes years to hit its target, your children.

3:AM: Is there a bar? Do people drink there?

RS: The Síbín nan Shian, our bar, closed after a bad batch of Special Brew felled all the regulars. We never got to the bottom of that, but the symptoms were extreme in a psychiatric sense. We also tend to mingle early evening by stopping by at each other’s houses ⎯ most people are tied up during the day.

3:AM: What entertainment is there?

RS: Live music. And also the wind-up Grafanola with its brown felt turntable. My grandmother’s contemporary collection of Bakelite discs includes a rendering of the Cinderella story into prohibition Chicago.

3:AM: Are there tensions?

RS: People can fall out, cooped up as we are. Things get charged. Even the question of how best to knead a loaf can lead to ⎯ … sometimes it’s not so clear whether people are wrestling or hugging. Obviously there are parallels with The Wicker Man. And sometimes we reference Lord of the Flies.

3:AM: So nothing too serious?

RS: On the whole we are all fairly close. Sometimes there will be a dispute as to what music to play at Hogmanay, say, but it will usually blow over by summer. Then, in the summer the water supply fails, only a trickle or a spider comes out of the taps. You have to eke it out, and one couple are still not talking because one says the other took a bath.

3:AM: There must be things people bring with them that can cause problems too aren’t there? How does that work out?

RS: When you offer a haven to refugees from the system, some have been traumatized and bring society’s problems with them, present company included. It can get interesting given there is no police force, NHS or social services. This is more of a difficulty than it should be because we are already so fragile a community, given the extreme geography.

3:AM: For you personally how do these things pan out?

RS: There was a time when by morning the toilet paper would have disappeared, or the washing-up liquid, the salt, or the cooking oil, or the quilts and blankets, or the sheets, also the light bulbs, because we ran a generator some evenings in those days, and also the candles, the matches, the tea. I had made a point of never locking my door, whether I was home or not. That way you know how people really feel about you.

3:AM: Is theft a problem?

RS: Well property is theft, except in one’s own case when it is the other way round. We’ve had a few of these, present company included.

3:AM: have there been threats against the community?

RS: Crow-bars, spikes, pejorative remarks ⎯ but so far we’ve been lucky ⎯ just as those who come usually self-select to boost the community rather than drag it down, the more serious issues self-resolve.

3:AM: Have you been invaded by outsiders?

RS: Yes, they took over the music room, bleating loudly and shitting all over the floor. The rug is okay, but you couldn’t say it has ever been the same.

3:AM: Bloody hell…

RS: That was the sheep. The pigs liberated the rhubarb home-brew, vomited everywhere, and were discovered sleeping it off, naked, lying at all angles in the grass outside.

3:AM: More Orwellianism! Good job the pigs didn’t get in on the act!

RS: The pigs took over another house, smashed the windows, smeared blood and shit all over the walls in fantastic patterns, and turned years of artistic endeavour to papier mâché and matchwood. Luckily they couldn’t manage up the stairs to where the cello was kept. It’s a really nasty thing to happen. And so when anything really bad happens now, we call it ‘the pigs’.

3:AM: So how do you characterise yourselves in terms of how you fit in with the rest of the state apparatus? Are you a landlord?

RS: We are a social landlord without access to the resources of the state, unlike most social landlords, and on top of that without charging anything more than nominal rent. This has to be a finite project, by definition, unless we can attract alternative sources of revenue. But then most projects are finite in the larger scheme.

3:AM: What do you think the future looks like for Gometra?

RS: We’ve lost five full time people since Easter last year. We are now down to a very small handful. The absence of public services gets to you in the end ⎯ teacher, doctor, ferry ⎯ and until this is remedied our survival will always be in the balance. We are also increasingly eager to comply with housing law, which means we can’t offer so many tenancies. There’s been a very sensible request from the existing community that we start to ask for references and perhaps a deposit. So Gometra is entering a new phase ⎯ we’re not sure yet what form it will take. But it feels like there may now be less people who want to live here. The free housing angle is a bit of a gift horse.

3:AM: Why a gift horse?

RS: It’s a gift horse because it’s so difficult to survive in these latitudes. And because as I’ve said the government, presumably for ideological reasons, levies its tributes but starves us of services, which is like having a garden you crop heavily and don’t manure. In poor soil brilliant wild-flowers blow, but there isn’t much to eat.

3:AM: Is it a new kind of monastic life you’re instituting here?

RS: A secular, unisex monastery. The airport, the cathedral; and the supermarket, the church; but no institution has yet replaced the nunnery or monastery.

3:AM: How can people really know whether it works?

RS: Come see.

3:AM: And short of that, what might people read to get a sense of the atmosphere?

RS: Above all perhaps, Georges Prosper Remy’s L’Île noire.

3:AM: Ha. Well I take it that there are no Gorillas there like Ranko in the story?

RS: Ranko? – well l’Île noire is said by some to be a roman a clef and if there are candidates for the original of Ranko and even Dr J.W. Müller, I think it’s more a case here of life imitating art. The only currency we forge is our own and, as it were, our float-plane sank.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, December 21st, 2014.