White man dreaming – the romance of the South Seas
18 September 2015
SEVERAL years ago, my wife and I pottered down to Trader Jacks on the seashore in Avarua on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands to get some calamari and a coffee for lunch.
Trader Jacks is one of those places where the cook is likely to sit down with you to eat if business is slow and then forget to charge you when you leave.
Our mode of transport was one of those ubiquitous scooters that hold sway on the roads of the Pacific islands. No helmets, a leisurely speed, never over 40 kph, and usually ridden abreast to enable conversation.
On this occasion, sated by the best calamari we’d ever tasted and chuckling over the cook’s anecdotes we were trying to figure out how to spring the seat on the scooter to get to the stuff we’d put in the compartment below.
While we were puzzling over the devilish Asian mechanism an elderly and barefooted gentleman stopped to help and solve our quandary. The trick was to push down on the seat while simultaneously pressing on the catch.
We got to talking and he invited us back to his house after the afternoon siesta for a drink. I was doing some work at the local museum and he professed an interest in island culture.
His house was a ramshackle affair of bush and permanent materials sitting just up from the beach on the eastern lagoon. There were kids and dogs and pigs wandering around outside and the airy inside was furnished with an eclectic mix of old furniture upon which sat vast piles of books.
He offered us each a glass of black rum watered down with tank water.
We went back to yarn with him several times before we left the island. He was a Frenchman who had washed ashore decades before and never left.
He was a modern day beachcomber, part of the disenchanted flotsam that still occasionally lands on the island beaches and takes root in the fecund soils. He was also one of the happiest souls I’d ever met.
Arthur Williams reminded me of him when he responded to my recent story about going back to the haunts of one’s youth.
Arthur quoted the legendary beachcomber/writer James Norman Hall, viz:
"…I heard as in a dream the far-off clamour of the outside world . . . but there was no reality, no allurement in the sound. I saw men carrying trivial burdens with an air of immense effort, of grotesque self-importance; scurrying in breathless haste on useless errands, gorging food without relish; sleeping without refreshment; taking their leisure without enjoyment; living without the knowledge of content; dying without ever having lived..."
Hall was one of those gifted writers who extolled the virtues and recorded the idiosyncrasies of lazy island life. His books sit on a shelf in my study along with the works of others like him, including Frederick O’Brien, Louis Becke, Robert Gibbings, George Farwell, Lewis Lett, Judith Tudor, Arthur Grimble and Beatrice Grimshaw.
Hall (1887-1951) was an American who had served during World War I in the British Army as a machine gunner and in the French Foreign Legion as a pilot.
After the war he joined Charles Nordhoff, with whom he had served in the Lafayette Flying Corps, and sailed for Tahiti. Both men were reacting to what they saw as the mundane and boring materialistic western world. They were part of Hemingway’s famous ‘lost generation’.
They only intended to stay in the islands for a year but ended up living there for the rest of their lives. They both married local girls and collaborated on eleven books. They both also wrote independently.
My favourite Hall’s book is his non-fiction autobiographical My Island Home, published a year after his death in 1952. In it he captures island life in all its exquisite beauty.
As my wife and I discovered, there are still people like Hall tucked away in the backwaters of the South Pacific, including Papua New Guinea. In the latter case you can mostly find them in the New Guinea Islands or on the north coast in places like Wewak and Madang.
A few of them are not that old but most of them seem to be kinds of latter day hippies without the collective imperative.
In most cases they have been absorbed into the scenery. Their total lack of ambition fits in well. A few have problems with booze and some of them are bitter individuals but most are happy souls and they contribute in many ways to their adopted societies.
Above all else, I think, they remind us of what is of real value in life.
Long may they prosper.
What? Like he who has the most toys wins?
Posted by: Donna Harvey-Hall | 18 September 2015 at 08:49 PM
It's a real dilemma being trapped in a society whose very being and way of life is problematic.
You may, for instance, hate the whole concept of materialism and the aspirational emphasis on wealth but what can you do when survival depends upon operating within that system.
My experience with beachcombers, as opposed to urban hippies and tree-changers, is that they manage to live independent lives outside the mainstream without relying on it for survival.
Our French friend on Rarotonga, for instance, received no assistance from anyone. He grew his own vegetables and caught his own fish. The small amount of money he got for his rum came from selling a few vegies at the market. He didn't have electricity and all the gadgets that depend upon it.
Along the way he entertained the locals with his books and encouraging a reading culture among the kids. For this he was allowed to live on his patch rent free.
He passed away about two years ago and was buried with great ceremony by his island friends.
Posted by: Phil Fitzpatrick | 18 September 2015 at 11:24 AM
Beachcombers may well be happy with their lot but they mostly still require some form of support from others, whether that be from something inside a bottle or just some company occasionally. Maybe they need to write about how happy they are so that others who choose to work hard then feel jealous?
Perhaps the true test and sum total of the value of a human life is what that person leaves behind them after they die?
Posted by: Paul Oates | 18 September 2015 at 09:59 AM