Sport 37: Winter 2009
Home Thoughts from Abroad
I spent much of last year in New Zealand; that is, my inner life was going on there. I was reading dozens of collections by New Zealand poets, as co-editor of the anthology Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poets that has recently been published in both the UK (by Carcanet Press) and NZ. It's an odd feeling, being so absorbed by one culture while living in another, and in this case thinking also of how to 'sell' one culture to another. My co-editor, the poet Andrew Johnston, has lived in France for a decade, so we both know a lot about the insider/outsider identities of transplanted adults. Yet it was also a very familiar feeling, that mixing of inner and outer worlds and the contradictions that come with it. In the dark days of the Scottish winter, approaching my late-January birthday, somehow I still expect sunshine. In New Zealand, it would be edging towards the beginning of the school year, therefore the best weather.
If I think of those childhood summer days, I don't think first of afternoons at the beach—though there were plenty of those. I see myself, in shorts and a top or a sundress made by my mother, sitting on the brick steps of our porch. Or half-in, half-out of the front door, its great slab of grooved black wood holding the sun's heat, the paint a little blistered by it. Somewhere in the background there might be a radio, broadcasting the racing commentary delivered at top speed, or the slow-paced cricket. There are lines of ants trekking from the pot-plants on their stand across to the nirvana of the flowerbeds, over the hot bricks—the same procession that was to transfix my two-year-old daughter decades later. And I am reading.
Of course I did other things as a child: played hopscotch (after a lot of practice) or gyrated with my hula hoop (ditto); ineptly joined in the Saturday afternoon tennis enjoyed by the rest of the family; went to ballet classes; played endlessly with dolls or paper dolls; went to the beach but never learnt how to swim. My most constant occupation, page 183 the unfailing joy, was reading.
What I read had very little to do with my surroundings: a douce suburb of the capital city in the apparently placid 1950s and '60s; buffeted by the wind but in my memory becalmed in summer. At the end of our street were the Botanic Gardens: beautiful native bush and birdsong. One or two banks would be alive with glowworms after dark—if you approached them quietly, and let the night settle about you. B eyond those were the lush Lady Norwood rose gardens: whoever she was, the roses growing about her name were—are—gorgeous. And between the bush and the roses were the main lawn and the Sound Shell, built the year I was born, where bands played on Sunday afternoons. Sometimes there were pipe bands with their accompanying Scottish country dancers. Now I think of it, the gardens on a Sunday were our equivalent of Kelvingrove: every sort and kind of family strolling amidst the flowers and foliage with a keen civic pride and sense of ownership, much like those strolling past the stuffed animals and Colourist canvases in Glasgow's mighty museum. The Dominion Museum in Wellington had—in my memory at least—no such crowds or pride, as visitors squeaked across its acres of brown, institutional lino to reach the Maori meeting-house. It never occurred to me that the building's name indicated a certain cultural status, a dependency. It sounded grand.
Even now, that disjunction between my experience and my reading seems natural. My reading was almost entirely about 'home', and that place was not New Zealand. It was, essentially, England. Despite the dancing—my mother and I were amateur Scottish country dancers ourselves, in the winter, in our church hall; both of us small and light-footed, whirled around by large men in kilts—and the bagpipes, and the Scottish songs we sang in the car, I don't think that Scotland made a deep impression: that was more of a South Island inheritance. My mother and aunt, living in Wellington, were raised to think of England, where their paternal relations lived, as 'home'. Things were sent out to them from home: the long-awaited velvet pinafores, for example, brown ones—a lasting disappointment to my mother; she had been so set on black. There were dolls; replicas of things made for Queen Mary's dolls' house, of which I inherited the tiny jar of strawberry jam, still sealed and bright; some books, too. Rose Fyleman's The Fairy page 184 Flute has survived—she was the author of the song 'There are fairies at the bottom of my garden', which my mother used to quote (and also, I have discovered, of the unfortunately titled 'The Fairies Never have a Penny to Spend'); and the book I loved, The Mary Frances Story Book by Jane Eayre Fryer: 'adventures among the story people', who believed in 'truth and beauty, and courage and kindness', as one might long to in 1923, with the Great War only five years past.
that life in New Zealand can be a worthwhile and interesting experience, that New Zealand has a tradition and contemporary ways of living of its own; that New Zealanders are doing fascinating and important things here and now, that can best be written about and drawn by New Zealanders.1
Mine was the generation that received through school the famous— or infamous—Washday at the Pa: a simple text with photographs of real people by Ans Westra, a Dutch-born photographer.2 What a stushie that caused! It was withdrawn from circulation after Maori and Pakeha protests. I am sure that my grandfather saw my copy and raised his eyebrow. Neither the argument nor the School Journal—in which I might have read work by Janet Frame, among others—was central to my imaginative life.
Instead I was reading the books my contemporaries in England were reading: Lorna Hill's novels about Sadler's Wells, for example, and Noel Streatfield's Ballet Shoes. Re-reading that, years later, I was struck by the emphasis on money, on straitened circumstances, on make do and mend. It had chimed with my own family situation. At about 10 or 11 I discovered the marvellous world of historical novels, English again: Rosemary Sutcliffe, Elizabeth Goudge; Henry Treece, Geoffrey Trease and Ronald Welch. Of course there were the North American classics, too, with their train of sequels: Anne page 185 of Green Gables, What Katy Did; above all, Little Women. In all this, there was nothing that spoke to me of my life in Wellington: summer in January, Easter in autumn; no hint of snow except on the distant Kaikouras across the Cook Strait, on a very clear day. There were no Maori or Indian children—though these were exotic in my own school, like the Canadian girl with a divorced mother; nothing seemed newly built—everyone in those books was so settled, even the Elizabethans, perhaps especially the Elizabethans. No earthquakes or kowhai or possums.
In a 1964 School Journal, the same year as Washday made its brief appearance, Margaret Mahy published a poem which addressed exactly that disjunction I recognise:
Our Christmas Day is blue and gold,
And warm our Christmas night. [. . .]
We know our Christmas by these signs
And yet around my wall
On Christmas cards the holly gleams
And snow flakes coldly fall,
And robins I have never seen
Pipe out a Christmas call.3
Hers wasn't a name I knew then. Katherine Mansfield, I think, with 'The Garden Party' and 'The Doll's House', was the first New Zealand writer to make an impression. Moreover, she had been at my secondary school. Other New Zealand writers followed, and indeed the father of my schoolfriend Katie actually was a writer; but those early voracious reading years were basically filled with English images. It was perhaps no more curious that my head should be filled with English history than that boys growing up in Barrhead and Renfrew and Dundee should be reading Jennings and Billy Bunter and Just William. I read William, too, in my brother's red-bound copies. Their public schools and home counties life were as far from the Scottish streets as from ours in Wellington.
There are two sublime pleasures of reading: recognition and escape. If I was denied the pleasures of physical recognition, the pleasure of escape—the intense pleasure of total absorption in a different page 186 history—was everywhere available. Of course I agree that children should experience the sense of confirmation that comes from finding in the pages of a book the landscape—physical or emotional—that is familiar to them. Equally, we need to escape that familiarity and live elsewhere. We want, like Max in the Where the Wild Things Are, to venture through the unknown and still find our tea waiting for us, hot, at the end of the day. Some days we want to migrate without packing our bags.
When I settled in Britain, I needed an easy answer for people who asked about my migration: why, when New Zealand was so beautiful and life there—as they simplistically understood it—was like Britain in the 1950s, did I want to stay in the UK? If you grow up preferring books to beaches, and art galleries to outdoor pursuits, then naturally you will gravitate here, I'd say. It was shorthand but it carried some truth in the 1970s, and it confirmed the old country's sense of cultural superiority.
It was an answer that wouldn't do now. Although I'd arrived by plane, the whole business of flying between hemispheres was only just becoming affordable: that two-day journey, long enough, was in recent experience four weeks or more by ship. Katie's family had done that: I remember seeing them off at the wharf, with streamers and the traditional singing of 'Now is the hour/when we must say goodbye . . .'. People could be gone for months and years, saving up for the return. Sometimes they didn't return. They communicated by letter. Telephone was for emergencies; telegrams for special occasions. All those English magazines we read from cover to cover—from Princess and Judy to Woman and Home and Women's Own—were shipped over, arriving at least three months out of season. Now the books and magazines are there simultaneously, the films earlier. The journey is still exhausting but the separation—the isolation—is not so complete.
If your native language, if not your accent, is the same as the country's to which you've migrated, and your understanding of its culture is fairly sophisticated—through that same reading—then the process of emigration /immigration is blurred. The pain of changes, the frustrations, the absence of shared references, are not so immediately apparent. It seems that the migrant has to make scarcely any effort to be accepted, nor 'home' any effort at accommodation. Almost seamlessly, page 187 the Pakeha New Zealander is absorbed by the host country.
Of course, I wanted to be accepted. This was the society on whose literature I had been nourished for decades. It was a homecoming: winter in January, with those robins; Easter—appropriately, at last—in spring; the mesmerising fall of snow on city streets. Oxford's magnificent libraries and striped lawns; London's galleries and concert halls; eventually Glasgow and Edinburgh, architecturally rich and solid, culturally rich (although oddly, to the newcomer, still agonising over Scottish identity)—all this I embraced, cherished. This was the culture that stamped the New Zealand in which I grew up, whose approval meant everything. To be published or to exhibit or perform in London: that was the seal of arrival.4
That accent enables you to escape immediate class identification and limitation. In Scotland, it means that you escape 'English' identification and limitation. New Zealanders slip under the barrier of the expected: two New Zealand Gentiles were in charge of organising the opening exhibitions of the Jewish Museum in Berlin in 2001. One of them, Nigel Cox, in his fascinating posthumous collection of essays Phone Home Berlin, remarks of the New Zealanders that came to see the museum: 'I am floored by their worldliness, their informed alertness. . . . Yes, under the towelling hats, beneath the any-old shirts, New Zealanders keep brains which are [so] accustomed to problem-solving, hearts that history has not broken . . .'.5 I was very struck by that characterisation when I first came across it. Having been immersed in history through all my reading, and loved the long-settled landscapes of Britain, I was yet unprepared for history's dragging weight, how it might function as a lock rather than a key. I should have understood, coming from a dominion, what it meant to have been governed from Westminster for 300 years: I understood better, ten years ago, when the Scottish parliament was resumed.
New Zealand has no close neighbours. Its inhabitants 'live at the edge of the universe', as Bill Manhire says in his poem 'Milky Way Bar', and what used to be a drawback can now be perceived differently. These days, I am lucky to know quite a few New Zealand poets, and it's poetry that sustains a vision of 'home' for me. I'm a New Zealander who has never watched a rugby match all the way through, and never live, but how I enjoyed The Book of Fame, Lloyd Jones's page 188 novel about the 1905 All Black tour of the UK, and Anne Kennedy's rugby interlude in her narrative poem The Time of the Giants. I can carry New Zealand in my head in ways that, when I was younger, I didn't care about doing.
As children we're given a home, and as adults we have to construct one, which may be far from where we started out. It's the result of choices and chances. Reading, for me, is part of the construction. Sitting in the northern light of my kitchen in Glasgow, with the vast blossoming cherry tree beneath it, showing that the longed-for spring has arrived and that the days will lengthen until there's almost no night, I look up from my book of New Zealand poetry and can hold these homes in their hard-won, shifting balance.
1 Quoted by Gregory O'Brien in A Nest of Singing Birds: 100 years of the New Zealand School Journal (Wellington: Learning Media Ltd, 2007), p.13. Substitute 'Scotland' for 'New Zealand' and I think that this is what some Scottish educationalists are asking for now, so much later in Scotland's history that it seems astonishing to an outsider.
2 One of the reasons for complaint was that the Maori family portrayed in the book in fact lived in a private house, not a pa. See the entry on the website http://tpo.tepapa.govt.nz for an outline of the controversy surrounding this school bulletin.
3 Quoted by Bill Manhire in his essay 'Christmas', Doubtful Sounds; essays and interviews (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2000), p.273, where he makes a good case for 'the everyday pleasures of incongruity'.
4 And yet, seated right at the language gates, there were sentries from New Zealand, all Rhodes Scholars: Kenneth Sisam, who was Assistant Secretary then Secretary to the Delegates of Oxford University Press (1922-48); Dan Davin, Deputy Secretary to the Delegates (1948-78); Robert Burchfield, editor of the massive four-volume Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary (1957-86). Burchfield also revised Fowler's English Usage and, according to his Guardian obituary, is 'positively thrilling on the distinction between shall and will'. It's not as simple as the empire striking back, but an element of that is there—we were nearly invisible, we were patronised, yet New Zealanders guarded, defined and extended the English language in its most formal incarnations. See the study by James McNeish, Dance of the Peacocks: New Zealanders in exile in the time of Hitler and Mao Tse-Tung Wellington: Random House, 2003). The use of the word 'exile' is interesting and debatable.
5 Nigel Cox, Phone Home Berlin: Collected Non-fiction (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2007), p. 178.