The survivors of the Jonathan problem
It was a stormy night, but somehow I managed to fall asleep, in spite of the wind hurling mercilessly at my rooftop and all the accompanying noise the storm could conjure up. However, my sleep didn’t last long, I was woken at an ungodly hour by a frantic banging on my back door.
I quickly dressed and rushed downstairs. Alun wouldn’t be waking me at this hour if it wasn’t important.
“There’s a ship in trouble, Jed,” Alun said, “It’s lost in the fog and adrift in the storm.”
“What can we do to help?” I asked, grabbing my coat and heading for the door.
“Light a fire, Jed, to help the ship steer its way to safety.” The archipelago in which Happy Island is situated is notoriously difficult to navigate and is dangerously endowed with rocks and malicious currents.
We rushed down to the shore. Though it was dark, there was sufficient moon for us to make out the ship, a distant dot, which was being tossed and hurled around by the waves, as if it were indeed nothing more than a dot.
“It’s heading for the Really Dangerous Rocks, Jed,” Alun shouted. “Hurry with that fire.”
Luckily we keep a pile of timber by the shore, ready to light as a signal that the revolution has begun. Obviously there was no revolution, but it was the only beacon we had to hand. I struck a match, and within seconds the Corbyn Beacon sprang to life.
At first the ship carried on, straight towards the Really Dangerous Rocks and her consequent doom, but slowly, thankfully, the ship started to turn.
“It’s heading towards us, Jed,” Alun said. Alun likes to give a running commentary on things, even though I could see perfectly well what the ship was doing as I was standing next to him.
The dot slowly grew in size, until we could make out the ship in greater detail, a clipper, not a boat I’d seen before on these waters.
As the ship drew near, we lit torches which we carried to the quay, as a signal for where the ship should steer to safety. Miraculously, in spite of everything the storm could throw its way, the ship landed safely.
“Thank you,” the ship’s captain said, as he climbed ashore. “Captain Harris,” he said holding out his hand by introduction. “We lost our way in the fog. I thought we were goners.”
“You were,” Alun said, “you were heading straight for the Really Dangerous Rocks. If you hadn’t seen our beacon you’d have gone to grave on the ocean floor. Time and time again I’ve told the mainland council we need a lighthouse here to warn shipping, but they never listen to off-landers like myself.”
“Thank you, you’ve saved a ship-full of lives, we’re eternally in your debt. We’ll continue our journey tomorrow if the storm abates.”
“You should come ashore,” Alun said. “You don’t know what damage the ship has sustained, it’s safer to stay here until the morning, rather than sink and down while you sleep.”
“But we’ve nowhere to shelter if we leave the ship.”
You can stay in the Empty House,” I said.
“It’ll have to be a big house,” the captain said, “There’s a hundred people on board.”
“Oh, that’s fine, there’s over a hundred bedrooms.”
“An empty house with a hundred bedrooms! Why on earth would an island this size have a house that big yet unoccupied?”
“Our great, great grandfather built it as a plot device, for any stories that might be written about the island in the future,” I explained. “It’s come in surprisingly handy over the years.”
The captain returned to the ship. However, rather than simply order passengers of crew to leave for safety, he gave the order to unload the cargo. We saw dozens, nay a hundred people, scurrying back and forth carrying boxes.
Alun was furious. “What are you doing?” he asked Harris. “Don’t you realise that every second spent on board in this storm endangers lives. Leave your cargo, it’s not worth it. Why, even if the crates were full of solid gold it wouldn’t be worth the risk.”
“Our cargo’s more precious than gold,” Harris said, and ignoring Alun’s protestations continued to unload. Realising that we wouldn’t persuade the stubborn captain, we helped unload; the quicker the vessel was cleared the quicker the passengers and crew could be gotten to safety.
Eventually Captain Harris was happy that the cargo was safely unloaded and we led the way to the empty house, where a hundred souls could sleep safely and securely away from the terror of the storm that had nearly been their destiny.
The next morning, I was woken early by Alun and we went down to visit the Jonathan. It was a fine, sunny day, almost impossible to recollect the storm and peril of the previous night, yet when we reached the bay we were treated to a stark reminder, in the light of day we could see the battering the Jonathan had gone through.
Captain Harris was already there, inspecting the damage.
“How is she?” Alun asked.
“A wreck,” the captain replied. “There are a dozen leaks, it’ll take months to repair. It’s completely scuppered our plans.”
“What were your plans?” Alun asked.
“We’re librarians,” the captain explained, “We’ve been forced to leave the mainland, because the mainland council has closed down all the libraries. We’re hoping to start afresh in a new corner of the world where librarians and books are welcome.”
“So the crates containing something more precious than gold?”
“They’re full of books.”
I said nothing, though the market value of books is significantly below that of gold. If he was talking about spiritual value and benefit to the community it was hardly surprising they were fleeing the mainland, such niceties mean nothing there.
“Why don’t you set up a library here?” Alun said. “You could convert the Empty House, there’s plenty of space for books. The archipelago doesn’t have a library.”
“The Empty House a great facility, I’ll give you that. Your great, great grandfather really knew how to build the foundations for a long and varied series of stories and adventures. But would you mind?”
“Not at all,” I said. “It will be nice to have company. Sometimes entire years go by with nothing of note happening.”
The survivors of the Jonathan quickly busied themselves converting the Empty House into the biggest off-mainland library in the world. Alun spent most of his spare time helping the settlers with the conversion. Within a few weeks the Empty House had been converted into the Great Library.
As predicted the Great Library served as a useful resource for the other islands in the archipelago, but it also proved popular with passing ships and boats. Thousands of sailors would stop off at the library en route to and from the mainland, which no longer had any libraries left, picking up books to read on their long voyages.
Alun spent a great deal of time at the library, helping Harris and his fellow librarians catalogue the books, create a database of users and establish and online resource for reservations and research.
“You’ve been amazing,” Harris said to him one day. “First you save our lives, then you donate a library facility, then you spent all your spare time helping construct the Great Library. We’d like to reward you by making you king of Libraria.”
“Libraria?” I said. “Where’s Libraria?”
“Here. This island.”
“But this is Happy Island.”
“We thought we’d rechristen the island,” Harris explained. “The name confuses people. They associate the place with the library, not with happiness.”
“It doesn’t matter what you call it,” Alun said. “I don’t want to be no king, not even if you called it Alunsland. I’m a republican, I refuse to recognise monarchy as a legitimate form of leadership.”
“What about President?”
“You’re missing the point,” Alun said, “I reject all forms of governing authority and leadership. Titles and capdoffery can only lead to corruption and exploitation of power.”
“Chief Librarian, I’ve always wanted to be Chief Librarian. What does the role involve?”
“It need only be an honorary title, you can do as much or as little as you like.”
“I’ll accept. Do I get a hat saying ‘Chief Librarian’? I’ve always wanted a hat.”
Within a few days Alun was presented with a hat, conferring the official title of Chief Librarian. However, Alun’s rule as Chief Librarian of Libraria didn’t last long.
“What’s this?” he asked Harries one day. “DVDs one mainland pound a day, CDs 50 mainland pence. I don’t approve of all these moneymaking plans.”
“We need to generate income to pay for new stock. It’s all very well providing valuable community resource, but without the income from Miranda and Mrs Brown DVDs we wouldn’t be able to afford to update our books.”
“Bah, Miranda DVDs, and you call yourself a community service. I resign my post of Chief Librarian.”
“Surely,” I said to Alun, “you’re not going to give up your hat.”
“Yes, I’ll give back my hat. And my Chief Librarian socks and pants.”
“Socks and pants?”
“I had some made Jed. I got a bit carried away. Well, that’s me done with titles and the pointless socks and friffery that comes with them.”
Alun stomped off, without so much as removing his pants and socks, let alone explaining the word ‘friffery’. Alun has the habit of inventing his own language and not explaining it. It’s like the word octogasm all over again.
We saw little of Alun over the next few months, during which time the Library continued to flourish. A new Miranda DVD led to a substantial increase in profits, which weren’t being wasted as foolishly as Alun had feared. On 29th April, AlunsDay as it is known on Libraria, we visited Alun’s house to make another presentation.
“What is it?” Alun demanded. “Have you been exploiting the Great Library for the free market gain and greed again?”
“Yes we have,” Harries explained, “And we’ve spent the money on something you’ll like.”
“Not another hat,” Alun said, “I’ve got enough hats.” Alun didn’t actually own any hats, but was of the opinion that no hats is enough for anyone, it’s a theory he’s written a number of papers on.
“It isn’t a hat,” Harries explained, “It’s a lighthouse.”
“The Happy Island lighthouse,” Harries explained. “You always wanted one to warn ships away from the Really Dangerous Rocks.”
Harries led the way to the shore, where the Happy Island lighthouse was clearly visible.
“Fantastic,” Alun said. “A happy ending. You don’t get many of those these days.”
As we stood there we watched the first ship safely navigate the Really Dangerous Rocks and felt satisfied that we really had all played our part in a story with a
We later learnt that the ship contained Coldplay, Jenny Éclair, Jeremy Clarkson
and the entire mainland government.