Gutenberg and The Hermit

09Mar10

He lived alone as a hermit in a remote part of Skye, a secret place of his choosing. I was taken by local boat to stay with him in his shelter, a primitive yet comfy home built around the walls of an old sheep-pen, sunk into a fold of the glorious Scottish landscape. Hard to spot from even a hundred yards out on the freezing water, the inside was like Shackleton’s hut on the Ross Ice Shelf.

Tom was 72, an ex-soldier, a sailor, loner and survivalist now happiest out on the far fringes of society. Largely undisturbed, his friends were the local wildlife and occasional neighbours from the nearest town who sometimes dropped off mail. The Navy canoed over too, wishing him well with gifts of cast-off torches.

He had weather-proofed everything. His provisions, clothes, heating fuel, all the paraphernalia of isolation immaculately sealed in screw-top containers.

I was thinking too about his precious library and how book collections were jealously guarded way back. In 1450 scribes and illustrators were working in the same joint-numbing cold as Tom’s subterranean cell, taking for example five years to hand-copy a Bible of say, 1,272 pages. Thanks mainly to Johannes Gutenberg, the goldsmith/printer from Mainz who, dodging plague, bankruptcy, political warring and corruption plus Papal decrees, revolutionised the written (and therefore spoken) word with his 42-Line Bibles. Fifty years later, with a population sickened by Rome’s greedy interference, there were 15-20m books knocking around, the heretic-turned-bestseller Martin Luther was a hunted man and world media (and Catholicism) was never the same again.

There is a familiar ring to this new Gutenberg-style leap in literature what with the iPad as it showing us the way forward on our high streets, as if the mighty word of Apple were written within the doctrine of Rome – an age of new reading.

Being with Tom was one of my strangest encounters and I keep thinking about him at this time of year when I see met reports for the Western Isles. I remember his self-imposed resourcefulness and solitude; his kindness too but also his fading memory and dangers of injury. And also how some people seem to thrive away from civilisation, as if the inviting progress that society forces upon us actually repels others, urging them to live in seclusion, shunning all that materialistic religion.

After 22 years of Arctic cold and damp, Tom’s books were well-preserved in polythene, still dry and mould-free – just as many of Gutenberg’s paper and vellum copies are 500 years on. To this lonely but septuagenarian, ironically at peace with his flashy Maglite, books were a comfort – a warm escape from technology and harsh frosts outside as he rifled through the shelves in search of a favourite passage.

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