My Sailing-to-a-Desert-Island Discs

EDIT: Little did I realise when I compiled my list that 6 weeks later I would find myself castaway on a desert island… But here I am, stranded on St Lucia, with no boats able to leave for the foreseeable future. Granted, it’s a fairly luxurious desert island, and there is (so far) no lack of company (although gatherings of more than 10 people are banned and non-essential services must close by Monday).

If you’re stuck at home in isolation, I can highly recommend taking some time to choose your Desert Island Discs – I would love to know what they are (and why).

Today, our fourth crew member, Irish John, arrived. We spent the afternoon going through all the safety procedures for the boat, showing him where we had stowed everything and then going out for a welcome drink. With a full crew and having checked the weather forecast, we now plan to set sail from Marina Lanzarote tomorrow (Wednesday) after lunch…! We will have a two day passage to La Palma, one of the most westerly islands in the Canaries, where we will review the boat and how we work together as a crew (and take a couple of days to explore what is supposed to be a really beautiful island) before setting sail for Martinique.

So we have a busy evening and morning ahead of us making final preparations, and one of mine is confirming my Desert Island Discs collection. I have long been a fan of the Radio 4 programme, and have often thought about what my choices would be or how I would actually fare with only eight songs to listen to, so I thought a 3 week crossing of the Atlantic might be a good time to try it!

For anyone not familiar with the format of Desert Island Discs, I urge you to go and listen to any episode from the archives. It is BBC radio’s longest running programme, and the basic premise is that people are cast away to a desert island with the eight discs that they would like to listen to, all alone. As the songs are played, they share the story of their lives and the memories associated with the songs. They are also given three books: the Bible, the complete works of Shakespeare, and a book of their choice, and a luxury item – not something that would be useful to survive, but something that would make life on the island more enjoyable. Finally, they have to choose which disc they would save should they be washed away by the sea.

When I started making my selection for this voyage, I quickly realised that my Desert Island Discs (DIDs) would actually be different from my Sailing-to-a-Desert Island Discs. My DIDs include songs that I would want to sing along to at the top of my voice, which I probably shouldn’t do when listening to them through headphones on a small boat with three other people… Pink Floyd’s Great Gig in the Sky was soon crossed off the list.

Anyway, here goes. First up, Van the Man. Van Morrison was a major part of the soundtrack to my childhood – quite literally, in some cases, with home videos of us playing in the garden with Van playing loudly through the open doors. My parents went to a Van Morrison concert on one of their first dates, and when I asked my mum for suggestions for tracks, she immediately said Crazy Love. There’s been many an evening washing up after supper with music playing and dancing between dish drying. In truth, there could have been any number of Van tracks on this list, but I’ve gone for Days Like This (it was very nearly These Are The Days – similar sentiment but less upbeat). I’ve felt in a great place in my life for the last year or so, surrounded by wonderful friends and pursuing all the things that bring me joy, with everything seeming to fall into place. It hasn’t always felt that way, far from it, but mama always told me there’d be days like this.

Next is Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra – another part of the soundtrack of my childhood, and some of my first experiences of live music (for contrast, along with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers on their Stadium Arcadium tour with friends at sixth form, and Lady Winwood’s Maggot at Swanage carnival and beyond!). Jools used to play at the Larmer Tree Festival every summer, and a couple of years we got day tickets and went in the evening. We also went to see him at the BIC a couple of Christmases. I used to think about having this song as the first dance at my wedding… Who knows if I’ll ever get married, but I can’t listen to it and not smile and start dancing along.

A lot of the songs I’ve chosen played at home when I was growing up, and were imprinted in my memory without me being aware of it. When I was at university, my boyfriend at the time was studying music and got into story songs and concept albums. Dad compiled three CDs of his favourite story songs for Callum’s musical education, and I copied them on to my computer and listened to them as I wrote up my thesis. So many of them were familiar, and this was one of them. Not only is it a great song, but it seems even more relevant to me now:

They’ll ask me how I got her, I’ll say “I saved my money”, they’ll say “isn’t she pretty, that ship called Dignity.”

In the two years following university, I worked in Mozambique, Ghana, Madagascar and Egypt on various conservation projects. I visited beautiful places, met wonderful people, many of whom became friends for life, even if we don’t see each other very often, and I felt invincible.

However, one evening in Egypt, I was sexually assaulted walking home and for the first time in my life I became aware of the disadvantages I faced being a woman. Until then, I’d never had reason even to consider that I might be at any kind of disadvantage; I had always been treated equally in all my relationships, schools, and work places, and was proud of being strong and able to carry as many heavy jerry cans of water to and from camp in Madagascar as any man. That night changed everything for me, and suddenly I saw inequality everywhere. The catcalls were harder to ignore, and for the last month or two that I was there, Egypt lost its sheen for me.

I wrote more about my experience and how it influenced me not long afterwards on a friend’s blog here, so I wont repeat it all now. Ultimately, I wasn’t physically hurt and got away before anything too bad could happen. I’d like to reiterate that I still believe that the same thing could have happened to me anywhere in the world, and that, taking positives where I can, I am grateful for the naivety it washed away and world that my eyes were opened to.

In the last month that I was living in Egypt, I discovered this next song, and listened to it on repeat, very ready to go home, Over the Hill. The artists playing together would all be on my list individually if I was allowed more than eight discs; Michael Kiwanuka, The Staves and Ben Howard in particular all spent much of the following two or three years on loop. I love the beautiful harmonies, and watching them all clearing taking so much joy from playing together.

Soon after I got back from Egypt, I met C, and began a relationship of the highest highs and the lowest lows, that ran, on and off for the next six and a half years. His job took him away a lot, sometimes to war zones where communication was rarely possible and my fear for his safety and wellbeing was all-consuming. Our already unstable relationship broke down during one of his long trips away. In the weeks and months that followed, I rediscovered Paul Simon’s Graceland, another album familiar from childhood, and played it over and over. The lyrics from Graceland struck a chord:

Losing love is like a window in your heart. Everybody sees you’re blown apart, everybody sees the wind blow.

Friends came to stay with me during that time and said afterwards that I had been a shell. They could see how much I hurt behind the smile. They could see I was blown apart.

Graceland is still a great song, but so is the whole album, and I don’t think I need to be reminded of being blown apart on my desert island, so I’m choosing Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes instead, which also includes the wonderful Ladysmith Black Mambazo choir.

A couple of months after my relationship with C ended for good last year, I took myself off to Malta to spend a week cycling and wild camping around the island. I wanted to do something that was entirely for me, and to prove to myself that I could do anything I wanted by myself. It was a magical week of reconnecting with myself, rediscovering what I wanted out of life, and once again feeling powerful and invincible. I didn’t have any music with me, but cycling through a village one morning in the sunshine, a car overtook me playing this song loud through open windows and I pedalled fast to keep listening as long as I could, feeling like a giant. Whenever I hear it, it reminds me of that elation, strength and joy.

I later heard an interview with Rag’n’Bone Man about the song in which he explained that becoming a parent himself had made him realise how much his parents had done to lift him up and always support him, and that he wanted to do the same for his child. I know that I almost certainly couldn’t be on this journey without the security of knowing that whatever happens, my parents will be there for me if I need them, and what a privilege that is. They have always encouraged me in everything I do, even if it terrifies them (and frustrates them when they have to store all my belongings in boxes in their house…) I know you won’t much like the song, but this one’s for you. I love you.

I am also very fortunate to have two very talented brothers. I had piano lessons for 10 years, but could only ever play from manuscript. When Tim was small, he asked me to teach him how to play chopsticks. Our great uncle Dario then taught him a couple of blues sequences, and he was off. Maddeningly, he can play anything he hears almost immediately, and on multiple instruments. I gave up the piano soon after. For one thing, I could never practice because he played from morning til night (or so it seemed, as we heard Carmen for the millionth time).

Alec taught himself to play the guitar and created beautiful music on a piccolo bass with a loop pedal. One of those songs was one of my first choices, but in a moment of madness a few years ago he deleted all trace of them from the internet. Instead, I’ve chosen a song from his most recent album, which also features Tim playing the Hammond organ. Alec is full of wisdom and has taught me a lot over the years about what is really important in life. His Instructions For When Feeling Crap will, I’m sure, come in useful in the moments when all is not quite plain sailing over the next few weeks. And I get to take both my brothers with me.

My final disc… I got to seven quite easily once I got into it, but choosing a final disc was really hard. I suddenly realised how much brilliant music is out there, and how much of my life has different tracks associated with it. Was there enough variety? Should I go for something completely different (Jurassic Five)? Did I need any classical music in there (Andrea Bocelli, Nessun Dorma)? What about Oh Happy Days to remind me of the gospel choir I joined in Oxford and discovering the joy of singing together? The more I listened to, the longer the list of other potential tracks grew. I asked friends and family for recommendations – maybe I should take a song with no prior associations, so that I can have a song that comes to represent this journey? Then, to my dismay, I realised that there were no female artists on my list (other than The Staves on disc 4). Dad recommended Aretha Franklin’s version of Bridge Over Troubled Water. I listened to it, and it was followed by this. Two women of immense talent, bigging each other up, with the Obama’s thrown in for good measure. There is still hope.

So there are my eight discs. I don’t have any other music saved on my phone, so that will be it for three weeks (or however long it takes us to reach Martinique). I am not limiting the books I can read (or the podcasts I can listen to), as I am already breaking the rules by having human company…! The only physical book that I have brought with me though is Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, which I always find something relevant in, regardless of my situation.

As for a luxury, I think it will have to be a good bar of soap. My various adventures, travels and wild camping trips have taught me that everything feels better when you are clean, even if you can only wash with soap in the sea. I sometimes helped to make the soap at Trill Farm when I worked there, so I might be biased, but it is excellent and I now use no other.

I can highly recommend taking the time to choose your own Desert Island Discs, for the trips down musical memory lanes, the lyrics you didn’t know you knew (hello Spice Girls) and the challenge of getting down to eight… Good luck if you try it!

Now it’s definitely time to sleep… we sail in 12 hours…

2 thoughts on “My Sailing-to-a-Desert-Island Discs

  1. Hi Mariel, This is Giulietta, Auntie Ines’ youngest daughter. I am so enjoying reading your blogs. I wish you safe travels and the joy of music to accompany it all.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: