By Jon Mcnaught
It’s a small book is Pebble island – 15cm square, sort of cd case but a little bigger. But it’s not just small in physical size. It’s equally small in narrative size as well. 36 pages, practically wordless save for a few captions and snatched dialogue from a movie on TV.
Three pieces; two stories and a 2 page art filler/ cute idea. All based on McNaught’s experiences of living on Pebble Island, a tiny piece of British territory off the Falkland Islands deep in the South Atlantic. Barren doesn’t quite describe it.
And barren isolation is the feeling McNaught is evoking here, on practically every page. Feelings of wilderness, big, open sky, people living isolated, immeasurably quiet lives.
And I wasn’t at all sure about it, not at first.
The whole book, as anyone who’s seen any of McNaught’s art will quickly tell you, looks gorgeous. Intricate and simple panels, muted colours – black, blue and red, but none too overwhelming, minimal lines, shading of simplistic shapes, dots and lines – everything with the artwork is perfectly evocative of the setting of the book. (Chris Ware and Seth are two very lazy and easy comparisons to make). And the physicality of the book, it’s small size, hardcover, very tactile paper quality all tick the required boxes to get a lazy qualification of objet d’art.
But there was precious little on a first reading of the first story; “Peat Bog” aside from the art to really fire up my imagination. I’m sure others would beg to differ, but Peat Bog’s little tale of a boy and his plastic dinosaur going on a mini, rather explosive adventure amongst the abandoned military flotsam didn’t really have (ahem) any spark.
The filler piece; “Pebble Island Landmarks” is two pages of nothing – albeit very attractive and quite funny nothing – bizarre combination of tourist descriptions, everyday scenes and down to earth modern ugliness.
And the final story; “Broadcast” seemed to be heading the same way. We settle down with a fisherman in his ramshackle cabin for a quiet night in watching Raiders Of The Lost Ark on the TV. Scenes from the TV are intercut with our eye panning around the room, picking out the little things that fill this man’s life. It’s cute, sure, but interesting?
And then the power goes out. He steps outside, feeds the generator with diesel and goes to head back in. And then he stops.
And so did I:
McNaught captured a moment, the instant where his gaze, his thoughts, travelled out, up, away from the day to day, away from silliness of some Harrison Ford movie on the TV, and into the nature all around him and the vast, open, night sky above. In that instant, Pebble Island became quite brilliant, vast beyond it’s physical size.
In just a few panels, McNaught saved the book. Made me stop and be amazed at his control. Made me pause and reflect. Made me happy. Made me step outside.
And then I went back to the start and read it all over again. And that moment in Broadcast completely changed my feelings and responses to Pebble Island as a whole. Perhaps I had come at it all wrong, perhaps I just wasn’t in the right mood…. it doesn’t matter. Because when I got McNaught’s work, when it connected, suddenly everything seemed to work. Peat Bog becomes a playful look at children finding moments of joy and life amongst the most barren of places, proof in the vitality of young life and the power of their imagination, no matter what isolation they face.
Even Pebble Island Landmarks had a new resonance, the silliness of the subjects against the beauty of their surroundings became far more than just filler.
If ever there’s a book that deserves re-reading, it’s Pebble Island. McNaught’s art is gorgeous, but his stories; quiet, uneventful things – once you get them, you’ll find, just like me, that they have their own particular beauty as well.
At just 38 pages and anywhere from around £7 (in our webstore here) to £10, you might see it as just an expensive art object. But it’s beauty, both physical and artistic and just how it can make you feel – that’s so worthwhile it’s practically priceless.