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Tropical getaway

19 June 2015


"WHAT social joys are there!" Neatly proving the vital theological distinction between paradise and heaven gave solid meat to Kevin McCloud: Escape to the wild (Channel 4, Monday of last week).

McCloud is investigating those who are living dream lives, and none will come closer to the most widely held fantasy than the couple who have settled on their own island in the Tongan archipelago.

It is, of course, breathtakingly beautiful. Karen and Boris have created something remarkable for themselves and their three sons, showing ingenuity and resilience in the erection of a house from the wood and stone around them, and the growing of 60 per cent of the food and materials they need. They have, with a vengeance, escaped from the pressures of Western life.

They are not naïve: they are fully aware that nature is not entirely benign in this exquisite place: hurricane, tsunami, and earthquake all play their part. But the real problem, the real void, is what heaven offers and paradisal fantasy ignores - the very thing we assume we must at all costs escape from: other people.

The eldest son, a teenager, is about to go to boarding school in New Zealand, because he longs to be with others. The rarest of all callings is to be a hermit.

A very different island experience began, and will no doubt conclude, BBC2's new three-part documentary Napoleon (Wednesdays). St Helena is not exactly the destination peddled by travel agents. This is a self-consciously revisionist portrait - rather too much so, because the historian Andrew Roberts keeps telling us that he draws conclusions that are diametrically opposite from those drummed into us at school.

This is self-defeating, as it encourages me to recall just how much we were encouraged to paint a more complex and nuanced picture: the Emperor was certainly not presented to us as a diabolical bogeyman. Roberts rightly emphasises the breadth of Napoleon's achievement; his strategic genius; his creation of a tight-knit band of generals, appointed by merit not connection; his saving of France from the chaos of the Revolution.

But, despite acknowledgement of the First Consul's ruthless brutality, this is something of an exercise in hero-worship. At times, the programme tells us more about Roberts than Napoleon: his admiration for strong leadership, for national glory and pride.

Two incidents involved crowns: the coronation in Notre-Dame, where Napoleon snatched the diadem and crowned himself; and then in exile, when he claimed that he now wore the crown of thorns. Roberts does not seem to think that both display a questionable lack of personal humility.

There were hints of Christlikeness where one might least expect them in How To Be Bohemian With Victoria Coren Mitchell (BBC4, Monday), which traced the artistic lifestyle from its source in 1830s Paris. Not only does the genuine Bohemian embrace poverty, but also lives only in the present moment: if you get money, spend it immediately, or give it away. No thought must be given for the morrow; find beauty where others are repulsed; be true to yourself, and free. But it sounded self-conscious, and selfish.

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