Friends, books and how to leave

This is how I know I have good friends who understand me. When I first told my friend Elsa that I’m leaving this week to live for the rest of the year on an island in Greece, taking nothing with me but a single suitcase and uncertain expectations, she stared at me in startlement.

“But …” she said. “But what about books?”

This is precisely the problem. “I don’t know,” I said. “I should get a Kindle maybe?”

“You can’t,” she said. “A Kindle would ruin everything.”

She’s right. I’m not by nature a light packer – I’ve been known to take three jackets on a long weekend because how can I predict which one I’ll feel like wearing when I get there tonight? – but all this week I’ve been carefully parsing my clothing requirements, winnowing out anything not strictly necessary for spring, summer and autumn on a remote island in the north-eastern Aegean. Jeans? No. Paint-spattered canvas shorts with a length of old rope as a belt? Yes. Sun-faded t-shirt with a picture of Hemingway on the front? A little on the nose, but sure. I am like a man packing for a trip around the world in a hot-air balloon – all excess weight is coming out. How much do those sleeping pills weigh? Do I really need a toothbrush?

But books are a dilemma. Part of the point of going to the island – population: less than 1500, spread across four villages where everyone is poor but lives to the age of 120 – is to disconnect from the world and to experiment with distance and isolation and interiority, and that means a lot of time to read. The nearest bookstore will be 11 hours away in Athens on a ferry that stops at every archipelago, and who knows whether it will even have anything in English? But being on an island is an adventure in escaping from screens, so how do I take enough books to last me though? Will I be sitting on the flight with books taped to my body underneath my shirt? Will I have to swallow books inside condoms?

But I think maybe the books are occupying me so because they’re a safer way of agonizing about what to take and what to leave behind. Even when going is good for you, leaving is hard. I’ve been trying to apply Marie Kondo’s principles of decluttering to the practice of packing. Marie Kondo is that strange Japanese-American woman who made a fortune recently by telling people how to tidy up. It’s obviously geared for wealthy middle-class people like me who have more than they need and multiples of most things, but her fundamental tip is to take each item of, say, clothing calmly in your hand. If it doesn’t spark joy, discard it.

I tried it some while back, as something to do during a slow session of cricket. My problem was with joy. Obviously not every item of clothing will make me feel joy, but why single out joy from the other emotions? That t-shirt in Australian yellow that Mike Haysman gave me in 2003 with the number 23 and “Warne Not Guilty” on the back certainly doesn’t spark joy, and I would never wear it in public, but holding it made me feel a swirl, a galactic spiral of things rarer and as precious as joy: gratitude for good, unjudgmental friendship at a difficult time; sorrow at the things you lose through a life; something a little more indistinct and painful that I can only describe as a vague determination to do better.

The island I’ll be living on doesn’t have many tourists. They make their own rough red wine and share it among the residents in rough clay jugs. It’s a rough, mountainous island in a rough blue sea, in sight of Anatolia’s snow-capped mountains, near Patmos where St John lived in his monk’s cell and wrote Revelations. I won’t be writing the Apocalypse but I’ll still be writing this column for you. I will send it in a wicker basket strapped to the back of a donkey and it will be placed on a Phoenician vessel that will carry it to Tarsus or Ephesus where a young bare-chested Greek boy, the fastest runner in his village, will carry it in a cleft stick down to Egypt for the camel-train south. Or maybe I’ll just find a café with Internet.

I’m excited about what I’ll discover in my sabbatical from the world: what in my life and in my personality is necessary and abides, and what isn’t and falls away. But right now as I write this I am also sad at what I’m leaving behind. A good life hard-built; the rest of the cricket season; people who love me; someone who loves me more than I deserve to be loved.

An hour ago I finished packing. I’ve abandoned most of my clothes to fit in more books and I have no space for another page. My phone rang and it was my friends Tom and Tanya to say they’re taking me to the airport. “And we’ve brought you a gift,” they said. ‘”It’s The Magus by John Fowles. Have you read it? It’s set on a Greek island! You have to take it!” This is how I know I have good friends.

When you’re packing to go, sparking joy doesn’t apply because depending on the moment, everything sparks joy or nothing does. Everything is ending or everything is beginning. Obviously, this is true of every moment of our lives, but you feel it most keenly when you’re packing to go.

The Times, 15 March 2018