Sport 3: Spring 1989
Nigel Cox — Boys on Islands
New Zealand is an island country, and New Zealanders are islanders; which maybe explains why, as a boy, I was especially fascinated by I books about boys living on islands. Certainly I grew up to write a novel about a man who wanted to live within view of an island; who painted pictures of islands; who proposed living on an island as some kind of solution; who maybe wanted to make an island of himself.
The first of these books I remember reading was a children's novel — or maybe it was just a story in the School Journal. Its title has escaped, but the elements of it are still with me: a boy, in this case a Tongan or Samoan boy, has been found wanting by his family and been exiled to a small island as a punishment. There he is frightened of the dark and the loneliness. He drops the knife he has been provided with into a deep dark pond and has to overcome his fear of the alien element to dive and reclaim it; the underwater world is, once entered, strangely comforting, brilliantly exotic. Then, in hunger, and almost by accident, he kills a pig. The pig is not a domesticated one, it is what is always called a 'wild pig', and in these stories it is invariably a pig with tusks, a boar — no puns allowed. The boy kills it, eats it, and, most importantly, cuts off its tusks and wears them, on a necklace woven from grass, round his neck. When his father, or the tribe, I can't recall which, comes to end his exile, there are his trophies bouncing on his chest, announcing his bravery, his independence. His manhood. *page 134
Looking back now there are so many ways a text like that could be investigated. Tusk, for example, could be seen as a metaphor. But that wasn't how I read those stories then.
Of course I read lots of other things too: war comics, Tarzan comics, The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, Scrooge McDuck, a series of comics that had Moby Dick and other Classics in it. This was New Zealand in the 1950s: there'd been a lot of educational hysteria about how comics destroyed children's ability to read properly and so in those days they were more or less forbidden in our house. But I would go round to other boys' places and sit in their bedrooms for hours, reading every comic they had. They thought I was a boring visitor. Back at home I read books, all kinds: on puppetry, on magic, on skindiving, Famous Fives, The Moonmintrolls, Tom Sawyer, Animal Farm, Brave New World, etc. But I was always on the lookout for Boys Stranded On Islands books. One in particular I read over and over again: The Coral Island, by R M Ballantyne. In this children's novel written in 1858 three boys are shipwrecked in the South Seas. Their names are Ralph, Peterkin and Jack, all names which will reappear here.
From The Coral Island:
But now it occured to us, for the first time, that we had no means of making a fire.
'Ah, boys, I've got it!' exclaimed Jack, rising and cutting a branch from a neighbouring bush, which he stripped of its leaves. 'I recollect seeing this done once at home. Hand me the bit of whip-cord.' With the cord and branch Jack soon formed a bow. Then he cut a piece, about three inches long, off the end of a dead branch, which he pointed at the two ends. Round this he passed the cord of the bow, and placed one end against his chest, which was protected from its point by a chip of wood; the other point he placed against the bit of tinder, and then began to saw vigorously with the bow, just as a blacksmith does with his drill while boring a hole in a piece of iron. In a few seconds the tinder began to smoke; in less than a minute it caught fire, and in less than quarter of an hour we were drinking our lemonade and eating coconuts round a fire that would have roasted an entire sheep, while the smoke, flames and sparks flew up among the broad leaves of the overhanging palm trees, and cast a warm glow upon our leafy bower.
My friends and I tried this many times but it worked better in the book.
Apart from fire-making, the coral island boys hunt and kill pigs, make pets of the wild cats, go diving and are thrilled by the underwater page 135world, fight sharks, escape pirates, save a mother and baby from cannibals and take part in a bloody battle with heathen natives, all adventures I could imagine myself enjoying.
At this age I was in no sense a serious or thoughtful reader. I just mowed through books, seeking escape. Looking back now, as I start to make the connections that link these books to my first novel, I suspect that what I really liked about the island stories, as opposed to the books set in America or England, was that they made the Wairarapa countryside seem filled with exotic possibility. I could imagine our bush as jungle, our nikau as palm trees. There were wild pigs in our hills and our family often visited Pukerua Bay where I rather timidly went skindiving. For savages, there were the local Maori; it was always Cowboys versus Indians, where it was possible to identify with whichever side you were on. But the sense I had that I there were brown-skinned people who were different — it wasn't hard for me to think they were 'savage' — living in New Zealand around me fitted the sense of local excitement that reading these books gave me.
A few years ago I read Bill Pearson's Rifled Sanctuaries: Some Views of the Paczfic Islands in Western Literature, where I learned that the Scotsman R M Ballantyne had never been to the Pacific and that I The Coral Island is amongst other evils, a 'myth[s] of white supremacy in the form[s] of easy assumption of privilege or of domestication,' which of course it is.
I also read and re-read Robinson Crusoe, which Pearson describes as 'a myth of race relations'. My interest at that time was taken up mostly with the physical details of Robinson's survival, and with the sense of the exotic, the free world, close at hand, with no rules, no I work, good fishing, swimming, sunbathing and company.
The Swiss Family Robinson I didn't like so much, probably, I suspect, because the Robinson parents survive the shipwreck.
I say that this exotic world was close at hand. But it was quite a while before I clearly understood that 'the South Seas' which is where all these stories were set was in fact the Pacific that I lived in.
I was obsessed with Peter Pan, whose story mostly takes place on vaguely located islands. Of course, Peter Pan is also a love story of sorts; in the primers my first girlfriend had been called Wendy, and for years I called myself Peter in childhood games.
I read High Wind In Jamaica, The Old Man And The Sea, Tarzan, page 136and found some of those elements I particularly liked in all of them.
Then when I was twelve I was first given (by a friend of my parents) a copy of William Golding's Lord of the Flies. At first I thought it was terrific — here were those same names, Ralph and Jack, echoing, and there was to be sunshine, no work or rules, the fascinating and bountiful ocean, and the promise of a pig hunt. I remember thinking, This is just like The Coral Island, and other people have thought it too: when in 1983 Golding won the Nobel Prize for Literature he was accused of having plagiarised Ballantyne's book. But the two novels have entirely different intentions; as I progressed with Lord of the Flies its story began to be blighted by reality. Pig-hunting took on a new meaning. The scene where Simon hides under the foliage and is talked to by the pig's head of the book's title scared me. My younger cousin was called Simon; I saw him in that part all through the novel, and was worried for him, and for me: what role might I fill in a story like this?
Lord of the Flies might have put me off Boys Stranded On Islands books for a bit; I don't remember reading any more of them, until fifteen years later, in 1974, when my wife and I were waiting on Paddington Station to go off on our honeymoon: I bought a copy of Ernest Hemingway's posthumously published novel Islands in the Stream. This, probably Hemingway's worst book, absolutely delighted me. It was set on islands in the Caribbean rather than in the Pacific, but all the familiar pleasures were in place — the seascapes, the underwater explorations, the heroic fishing sequences, the quaint natives, the characterful cats, etc. But I suspect that what I particularly liked was that the boys of my childhood books seemed to have grown up — and still there was no boring work to do. And now there were women around to be fought over, and art to argue about, and alcohol to exceed with. Even a war.
I had at this point already written what I liked to call a novel and was at work on a second. But Islands in the Stream sent me scurrying to my notebooks; and when my novel Waiting for Einstein was eventually published in 1984, it featured a painter living alone in a house by the sea, not in paid employment but keeping the dignity of work through disciplined sessions at the easel, with a cat to talk to, and a male friend to fight with over a woman, and many other elements straight out of Islands in the Stream. Its hero's name was Ralph, the friend was called Peter, and Ralph's alter ego, a man who is perhaps politically islanded, was named Robinson; I didn't use page 137the name Jack, probably because it is my father's name. There's no pig hunting in the novel but many of the pig hunter's concerns were woven into Waiting for Einstein's skindiving scene. The painter chose the house he lived in specifically because it had a view of an island; one of his paintings is called 'I island myself'.
These days Waiting for Einstein strikes me as a novel reduced by an innocence that might be called wishful thinking. It's looking for a reader who wishes that we were all still trying to make the dreams of the late 1960s real. It doesn't want to think what fiction is, or has been and might go on to be. It doesn't see the implications of its various mythologies.
I don't particularly want to knock the book; it has its strong points and has thus far sold quite a bit better than my second novel, which I think is more interesting. I introduce Waiting for Einstein because what catches my attention about the series of connections I've been attempting to make here is the way I was reluctant to see the New Zealand I was living in. One of the things fiction can offer is a lens to see through, a window, but as a boy I was simply not interested in reading anything written by a New Zealander or set in New Zealand. This lack of interest lasted almost until I had a novel of my own published. It wasn't that I didn't want to be here; what I suspect I wanted was for 'here' to be like the novels I felt I lived inside. It disappointed me when I realised that 'the South Seas' were the Pacific. Yet I always sought to make the escapes that I found in reading be grounded in everyday, in local reality. The insistence on connecting characters by name to members of my family, the sense that The Coral Island was fascinating because it might be set in the Wairarapa...this wasn't only reading to escape. It was also a determination to drag the exciting world I was convinced was 'over there' back here. To stay in that 'over there' world until it arrived; to not be in non-fictional here.
Having that first novel published was meant to achieve all that. Surprise, surprise, it didn't. The wishful thinking meant that the novel wasn't really set anywhere that could be lived in, and at the same time it was not much of an escape, either; because it was hell-bent on making that wishful thinking 'real' it didn't have enough sense of itself as a game, as a source of pleasure. 'Well,' as Philip Larkin says, 'useful to get that learnt.'
When I look back over this strand of my reading, I sense that what I've been trying to describe is an innocence. Of course New Zealand page 138has never been an innocent country. But I suspect we've been a country determined not to know that innocence has simply never been possible here.
These days, my reading habits have changed. I haven't re-read any of those old books for years, nor even properly remembered them until I started to work on this piece. I've never yet managed to read Waiting for Einstein all the way through. Not that there aren't books about boys alone on islands to read now. Michel Tournier's novel Friday or The Other Island is a superb reworking of Robinson Crusoe. Ian Wedde's Symmes Hole examines the same ocean of material. Albert Wendt's fictions are all set on islands in the Pacific...
And, like many other New Zealanders, these days I'm spending more time reading books written here, by choice, for pleasure, for entertainment. I wouldn't say I've exactly found that novel I've looked for, the one that brings the 'over there' world of fiction to the immediate 'here' of everyday New Zealand without a sense of strain, of willed arrival — but maybe that's not what I'm looking for anymore, either...
* Elizabeth Knox suggested that this book might be The Boy Who Was Afraid by Armstrong Sperry, and to my delight she was right. 'There in submarine gloom a boy fought for his life with the most dreaded monster of the deep,' I have left the plot as I remembered it, but in fact there are several discrepancies. The boy in the book exiles himself, and is never comfortable in the underwater world; he has to lose two knives (to the ocean rather than a pond) before he works up the nerve to dive and retrieve one. [Adapted from a talk commissioned for the Concert Programme's Writers on Reading series.]