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Essay

 Half A World Away from Home

By Mike Smith

Auckland downtown. Photo Courtesy: Mike Smith

I recently visited New Zealand, where I met up with writer Jenny Purchase, whose collection of short stories Transit Lounge  has just been published. I was fortunate enough to read an earlier version of this in manuscript form, and it was good to meet up face to face with her at last; and to get my own proof copy of the then not yet published volume!

Reading a book written in and about a foreign country (where, it has been famously asserted, ‘they do things differently’) is a bit like travel itself. We are hit simultaneously by not only what is dissimilar from our own patch and experience, but also what is, unexpectedly perhaps, amazingly similar. It’s not just Maori culture that Jenny’s stories jolt the outsider into, but the wider society of this modern democracy, which is said, at least here in my country, to be like stepping back in time into a version of our own past.

That’s true to a very shallow extent. Buildings are reminiscent of British structures: but who could tell skyscraper London, from skyscraper Hong Kong, or Dallas, or tower packed City Centre Auckland if they’d never been in any of them before? I used to think a good TV game might be to fly contestants into night clubs around the world and ask them to guess which country they were in. It crossed my mind more than once that you could do something similar with shopping centres, or malls if you prefer it. There would be clues, but often not in the appearance of the shoppers, nor in the brands they were carrying. But what we in the UK call charity shops are in NZ called opportunity stores, which implies differences that cut much deeper than mere labelling.

Yet those low-rise suburbs of New Zealand’s largest city, the wood-framed clapper boarded houses that I think of as ‘chalet chic’, and especially the oldest of them, and which look so alien to my eyes, were once common in the UK, and I could take you to a few still rotting gently in Lake District lanes under pine trees, oak and ash. One house we stayed in, at the resort town of Akoroa, settled by the French in 1840, is said to have been imported in kit form from Britain in the 1850s, and to be same kit as the more famous ‘Treaty House’ at Waitangi, except of course with an additional second storey.

The traffic, too, has that blend of the familiar and unfamiliar to European eyes, with the same private cars I would see on UK roads. But the lorries! Huge Mack trucks, often with trailers, that I’ve seen before only in the movies. There was the odd Chevy knocking about too. But they all drive on the left, just like in the UK.

When people get off the bus in Auckland, they thank the driver. Yet, I was told, the drive to get more people out of their cars and into public transport in the city was struggling against a deeply ingrained reluctance to take the bus. Snobbery was given as the explanation. And from the sound of engine noises in the night, and during the day, there are more drivers than I hear where I live who still think it’s clever to be audible three streets away. And don’t get me started on those who play their music louder than all the traffic noise within a hundred yards!

And what about the forests? Walking on the Queen Charlotte trail near Picton in South Island, it was the difference that struck me: the canopy of ferns and palms; leaf shapes that I couldn’t identify; the scars of recent landslips, which looked as if some giant had taken a massive ice-cream scoop to the hillside and peeled off a good helping, only to drop it a few hundred feet down the valley side, often into the sea where the path ran close above the shore. I got the feeling all along the coast that I was walking on sandcastles not yet reached by the rising tide. 

Yet, turn a corner and momentarily you could imagine yourself in an English glade or a Scottish glen, and in so many places the name given to it might well be of an English or Scottish general or politician, or any surname that you’re very familiar with. And, let’s be honest, in an English woodland I’m as likely to struggle with identifying those leaves except for a really obvious few! But the palm fronds and ferns exploding like huge green fireworks from an otherwise normal — to my eyes — New Zealand forest canopies always excite me!

Plants that at home are house plants on the windowsill, and never big enough to block the view are here growing outside, and above head height. Fruit that costs a fortune in English supermarkets falls here in back gardens like English apples and is left to rot.

The Fish and Chips are good, and celebrated both here and there, though it throws me for a second each time what we call crisps are referred to as ‘chips’. The coffee, ‘a long black a day keeps the senses in play’ is my take on the old saw, is the best I’ve ever had, though I’m doing my best to replicate it here in Cumbria!

Similarities and differences abound both in stories, and in the places they come from and reveal. They told me when I was young that travel broadens the mind, but I wonder if also, and perhaps more so, it sharpens our perception of where we’ve come from as well as that of where we’ve arrived, whether we travel by plane or on the page! 

Raising A Trowel

Seen from the Auckland waterfront, where the pedestrian swing bridge salutes the boats as they enter and exit the inner harbour, city centre offers an intense, almost intimidating backdrop of close-packed tower blocks of concrete and glass, overtopped by the sharp needle of the skytower a few blocks further up the hillside beyond the historical shoreline.

But turn around and follow the embedded railway tracks left over from the days of steam trains and sailing ships, all the way to where the old industrial silos have been decorated with lights and festooned with climbing plants and find the single track spur that slips away to the right, splitting almost immediately into two again before entering the double-track tram shed, and you will have arrived at what we were told is the last of the Auckland Community Gardens.

Lying alongside the long building are some forty raised beds, tended by volunteers, each bed that I saw, carrying the name of its gardener. Hard up to the tram shed wall (here decorated with images of old tickets), sits a row of composters for food waste and wormeries in plastic barrels. There’s a greenhouse and a traditional pallet-built compost heap. Water runs from the tap.

There were many such gardens in Auckland at one time. I recall encountering one unexpectedly on a small site on one of the steeper city centre streets during a previous visit. But I’m told that all save this one have gone now, the land taken for the far more valuable purpose, in monetary terms and for other reasons, of squeezing in another tower block. This last of them is fighting to keep its plot, and I hope it does. Buildings, from what I’ve seen, sit tight in their boundaries in Auckland. It’s a city that doesn’t seem to see the need for growing space. And perhaps, with a country more or less the size of the United Kingdom but with only about one fourteenth of its population, that shouldn’t surprise us.

Two tomato plants were pressed on us, for our daughter’s nascent garden out in the suburbs. My guess is that I will never eat tomatoes grown in such valuable land, on a dollar per acre basis. But the clue is in the name. This is a Community Garden, and the community, which it not only serves but also creates, is an inclusive one.

Community Gardens offer more than a source of ‘home grown’ food, paid for in care rather than cash. I would guess that even a city like this, which to the outsider’s eyes can seem remarkably relaxed and laid back at first glance, could use those benefits.

The names on those raised beds confirmed the story told by the volunteer who we chatted with on our stroll past. The garden brings together people whose languages and skin colour vary enormously, but they are united by their green fingers and that remarkable thing, the human smile, and much more.

Back on my own plot now, bound fast in winter frost, harsher and earlier this year than we have become used to over the last decade, I raise a trowel from the iron hard soil, in salute to fellow gardeners everywhere.

A Cacophony of Voices

The variations we hear around us, in accent and in language itself, I suspect, offer different perspectives of reality rather than merely alternative words for it. Perhaps that’s why I came home from my recent trip to New Zealand with a beginner’s guide to Maori!

‘Yis’ and ‘yes’ are both similar and different at the same time, and so are ‘iggs’, though the latter perhaps weighs more heavily on the difference side of the scale. But in the North of England, yes and aye carry a much older distinction, despite both being used without forethought locally. Though my skin is more or less the same colour as that of almost all my neighbours, and though I’ve lived in this part of the world for over half a century now, any school kid, and any old codger of my own age would know as soon as I opened my mouth that I’m ‘nut frum rahnd ‘ere’. Old codgers, fifty years ago, in a Cumbrian pub told me that during their childhood, people from villages only two miles apart could be distinguished by the way they spoke.

Only the outsider is fooled into thinking that rural England has a homogenous population, and perhaps that’s true elsewhere. But in the cities, it is cosmopolitan around the world, and visibly so. More interesting to me is the cacophony of voices, none of which I believe, have been genetically inherited. We speak as we have heard. We speak as we have listened, and in the accents of those we have listened to and consciously or unconsciously, copied.  Until a couple of generations ago that would have been limited almost completely to geographically close family and neighbours.

Several years after my visit to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, it suddenly struck me what I had overlooked, though it was obvious from the beginning. The Treaty was signed by many Maori leaders in 1840, but on behalf of a single Monarch-Emperor. Our perceptions of others, and of ourselves, evolve over time. As part of that process we forget, deny, re-interpret and re-invent both our own narratives and those of people we have encountered. We redefine who ‘we’ are, and who ‘they’ are. ‘Us’ and ‘them’, are perhaps the two most unstable words in the English language.

Language itself is unstable. New languages are formed by the coalescence of older languages – English is a prime example of this, and not yet a thousand years old as a national, let alone an international tongue. They are formed too from the disintegration of an earlier single language – Scottish Gaelic, Irish, and Welsh among others, all derive from a single widespread early European language. Which process the language of any people is undergoing at any moment, that of coming together or that off moving apart, must be an indicator of wider social, political and religious evolutions.

The biblical story of Babel’s Tower, and its cataclysmic dividing of us, of being struck down as it were by the curse of having different languages rather than one, is a story that raises ideas we might do well to ponder and examine more than it seems to me that we have.  Harari’s book Sapiens makes the simple assertion that once upon a time a monkey had two offspring, with the astonishing addition that one was a human being. My question is did their offspring develop a single language from which all our languages grew? Or did they disperse into separate communities each of which developed their own languages?

A history of the North American Indian that I came across asserted that those first people had dispersed across the continent before the development of language, which implies that by the time we had spread that widely across the world we were still, apart from, perhaps, something like birdcalls, mute. Yet we all carried the genes that would predispose us to develop language, and that when the American Indians did so it was in quite as many unrelated languages. The Maori came to New Zealand less than a millennium ago and brought with them languages with shared roots despite their many tribes.

Of course, I have no answers, though it seems likely to me that communities and individuals who are open to strangers are more likely to see the amalgamation of languages, and that those who are not will encourage their disintegration. And I do have the suspicion that language, to use a modern analogy, is like a TV channel. Each one carries its own agenda and its own programmes. Each presents the world from its own perspective and its own focus. There may be overlap. There will be difference. But as language using beings we can, with varying degrees of competence and effort no doubt, tune in to any, and who knows, perhaps to all of them, if we wish to do so.

Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com 

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