Deer Island
by Neil Ansell

‘remarkable’  THE TIMES

‘written with real feeling and a dose of dark wisdom’ TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT

In spare and beautiful prose Neil Ansell overlaps two contrasting journeys through the streets of London and the wilds of Jura, building a powerful and moving meditation on what it means to belong.

Author: Neil Ansell

Artwork: Jonny Hannah

Published:  May 2013

ISBN: 9781908213136Categories: , Tags: ,


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‘Neil Ansell doesn’t look for an easy life . . . His story is remarkable in the frankness of the telling and the moving complexity of the teller.’  THE TIMES

Deer Island is charming . . . written with real feeling and a dose of dark wisdom.’ TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT

‘Dreamlike, fascinating and heartbreaking’

At the beginning of the 1980s Neil Ansell chose a life of voluntary poverty working for the Simon Community, a charity with radical approaches to helping homeless people. He lived in squats and ‘derries’ across London, becoming part of a floating community of volunteers and rough sleepers whose purpose was to offer companionship and support for each other.

But around them Britain was changing. It was becoming the decade of the individual. Soon there would be ‘no such thing’ as society. More and more young people started arriving in the Community, set adrift by unemployment, and the city streets and squats were becoming awash with heroin.

Immersed in this fragile world, Neil’s sense of self began to disintegrate against the hard truths of homelessness. Worst of all were the people he lost, the friends who died or disappeared. To escape he started taking occasional trips to the Isle of Jura, off the west coast of Scotland, to seek solace and isolation in the landscape. Along the way he hoped to find his way back to himself.

In spare and beautiful prose Neil Ansell overlaps two contrasting journeys through the streets of London and the wilds of Jura, building a powerful and moving meditation on what it means to belong. What makes us feel attached to a place or a community? What do we mean when we call a place home? Are memories the only things we can ever truly own?


210 x 156mm sewn hardback with jacket
120 pages printed on 100 gsm Munken paper
Illustrated by Jonny Hannah.
ISBN 978-1-908213-13-6


Additional Information

Weight364 g
Dimensions12 x 162 x 216 mm


  1. Ian Pindar & Times Literary Review 2013

    In Deer Island the writer and journalist Neil Ansell recounts his experience living in squats and derelict buildings (“derries”) in London in the 1980s, while working for a charity helping homeless people. Squatting in a house in Highgate, he finds a children’s book. “An empty house is not a home”, it says. “People make a house into a home.”

    How to find home is the central theme of this engaging memoir from the author of Deep Country: Five years in the Welsh hills (2011). Ansell’s Highgate squat is invaded by thugs who rip out the fireplaces and gut entire rooms, but in spite of such encounters he is no misanthrope. His contact with street drinkers, junkies and other rough sleepers has convinced him that people are “essentially good”. Nevertheless, much of this book deals with his desire to escape from London and, by extension, humanity; a quest for somewhere “wild, with very few people”. He finds the uninhabited west coast of the Isle of Jura most conducive, with “no schedule to keep, no deadlines to meet”. A keen-eyed observer of bird and beast behaviour, from otter and red deer on Jura (the name comes from the Old Norse and means deer island) to herring gulls in Brighton or a gemsbok in Botswana, Ansell finds solace in the nonhuman world and seems most at home swimming with a grey seal, observing its “moist, unblinking eyes”, or discovering otter skeletons in a cave, waiting “for salvation that never came” (he also has a fondness for deserts and once “misplaced a part of myself” in the Kalahari).

    Transience and drift haunt these pages and Ansell’s writing is often lyrical with an underlying sadness, informed by the deaths of homeless friends and memories of lost love. The tough lessons he draws from his experiences are that “Security is an illusion” and “Memories are the only thing we can truly own, and even they slip from our grasp” Deer Island is charming, however, written with real feeling and a dose of dark wisdom. There are funny moments, too, as when, sleeping in the open one night, he is awoken by a bull and chased around a field in his underwear. There are memorable characters in the book, not least a temperamental, clapped-out old Triumph Bonneville motorbike that just about gets him and his then girlfriend to Jura and back, with a little help along the way from some kindly mechanics.

  2. Deer Island looks at the oddest of communities and the most extreme places with gentle tenderness and poetic sensibility, and it considers what really remains with us from sometimes vivid, sometimes violent, experience. It’s quite a book that, after forty years of pretty intensive reading, takes me somewhere I have never been before and am not likely to go again. I thought it was creative non-fiction at its finest.’

    Read Victoria Best’s full review at Tales from the Reading Room.

    Watch Neil Ansell read from Deer Island

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