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On Trying to Keep Still

First published in Great Britain in April 2006 by Little, Brown
Copyright Jenny Diski © 2006

Night-room

We’re here because we like to keep things simple.
We like to think of nothing but ourselves.
This place is here for us.
This place is ours.
The nurses are all ours.
The drugs are ours.
All we have to do is do nothing.
All we have to do is ache with joy.

From ‘Lou-Lou’ by Selima Hill, 2004

Recently I retired to my estates, determined to devote myself as far as I could to spending what little life I have left quietly and privately; it seemed to me then that the greatest favour I could do for my mind was to leave it in total idleness, caring for itself, concerned only with itself, calmly thinking of itself. I hoped it could do that more easily from then on, since with the passage of time it had grown mature and put on weight.

But I find . . . that on the contrary it bolted off like a runaway horse, taking far more trouble over itself than it ever did over anyone else; it gives birth to so many chimeras and fantastic monstrosities, one after another, without order or fitness, that, so as to contemplate at my ease their oddness and their strangeness, I began to keep a record of them, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself.

From ‘On Idleness’ (I:8)
The Essays by Michel de Montaigne, 1580

I N T R O D U C T I O N

Something about the idea of being a travel writer distresses me. So this is not a travel book, though it contains some journeys. It is a book on travelling and keeping still. Primarily, it is about the wish to keep still. Something about the distinction between being a fiction and a non-fiction writer distresses me, too. So I think of myself as a writer. Period. I suppose that curiosity, the need to know, is at the heart of it – at the heart of us. Writers (and others) might qualify as that dreadful child frozen in time who repeatedly asks ‘why’ in response to every answer to every previous question. That’s curiosity, but it’s also the good sense a child has that she is being lied to. Mostly the answers to her questions are wrong, or at least insufficient, sometimes because of ignorance, sometimes laziness, but often because the question was impossible to answer.

The problem about not knowing is that the question which is supposed to elicit enlightenment is difficult to frame precisely, because you don’t know. Perhaps the point of asking questions is not to receive an answer but to reiterate and refine the question itself. I’m inclined to think that there is, essentially, only one question. It is ‘What is the point?’ and in some form or another it is asked over and over again by those of us who have failed to mature enough to stop asking it.

Another question is: what is it like when something or nothing happens? Something or nothing happens all the time. The same question has been asked – more or less consciously, with more or less precision – by many others; let’s say just about everyone, but notably for me by Michel de Montaigne in his Essais, along with Daniel Defoe in Robinson Crusoe, St. Augustine in The Confessions, Nietzsche in his Notebooks.

In 2000 I made a millennial move from London (where I was born, brought up and always lived) to Cambridge, for no other reason than that someone I loved – the Poet – lived there. Not quite travelling, not quite keeping still. But it can’t be said that now I am alone most of the time. It troubles me no end – I worry about it while delighting in the company I chose, and choose. In the past year I have spent periods alone – in various ways, but usually deliberately – in New Zealand, in a farm cottage in Somerset, in Lapland. You are never alone with a mind, of course. I am, therefore I think – remember, wonder, obsess. You’re never alone with a world. No man is an island – if only. The past and the present state of the world and of my regular life press in, no matter how I would wish my private space impenetrable. Levi-Strauss declared of totemic systems that animals are good to think with. Irritants and interruptions are also, much as I dislike them, good to think with. Anyway they are there, in and outside my head – memories, inconsequentialities, and the doings of the world.

Much worse, more alarming than anything else, there is also in solitude emptiness: a mind devoid of thoughts, or rushing away from them, which is more shocking than outside interruption. No peaceful blankness, but a mad, skittering nothingness. The perfect image of aloneness collapses into trivia and pointlessness. Boredom, perhaps, but I don’t think so. It is more like a flat refusal to think. A compulsion to subvert the circumstances I have provided myself with. Not stillness, but a fretful pacing in my cage. This may be an altogether more authentic will to oblivion. A sorry truth that shines a light on my narcissistic notion of blankness and turns it inside out. Take travelling and keeping still, fiction and non-fiction with a pinch of salt.

PART ONE

ON DISTANCE


If I am not at home, I am always very near it.
Montaigne: Of Repentance

ON BEING VERY FAR AWAY

I may be the last person left alive who is still amazed each time I arrive in another country. In most other ways I have adjusted to modernity – I write on a computer, send and receive emails, even carry a mobile phone when I am out (if I remember it) – but I have never shaken off a sense of wonder each time I set foot in a foreign land. My sense of the extraordinariness of being in another country was strong when I travelled as a small child, by boat or plane with my parents to Belgium and Italy. We lived in London, mostly in our part of London. Knowing I lived on an island was central to my thinking about my geographical place in the world. Other parts of my island, south London or anywhere else in Britain, were simply places belonging to where I lived but which I didn’t inhabit. But once I was crossing the defining boundary of the English Channel I felt like a space traveller setting off for a distant planet. A trip on a plane to Brussels or Alassio matched the folk-and-fairy-tale journeys I read of princesses, fishermen, woodcutters and youngest sons, travelling mysteriously in the dead of night to other lands, magical flights on carpets or winged horses, quests for their hearts’ desire to impossible elsewherenesses.

It is my experience that the oddest of existences becomes normal, regular, ordinary, if that is what you are living, and yet the strangeness of getting to somewhere else, to another country (pace Scotland, Wales), has never gone away. I remember how I felt about those foreign journeys as a small child so clearly because I feel just the same now. I cannot get used to foreign travel. It has nothing immediately to do with difference in language or customs, but simply with arriving somewhere that is designated quite else. Somewhere talked of, seen on a map. Somewhere not here, where theoretically I always have been and am. A place that must be crossed over to. Over the border. It isn’t that some places are more exotic than others. Amsterdam and the moon are equally other to me, and if I ever go to the moon, it will be quite as exciting as each time I arrive in Amsterdam.

Conversely, although it takes as long to fly to Manchester as it does to Paris, at Orly airport I am somewhere else, whereas when I set down on the runway in Manchester I am just in a place where I happen not to have lived. The distance in miles from one place to another has nothing to do with distance. It is more like that usefully untranslatable word Freud made so much of: unheimlich. Unhomelike, literally. Uncanny, as it is generally translated. For me, it is strangerness and a most particular vastly lost sensation that I can’t help but define as homesickness.

I know for a fact that you don’t have to have a home you want to be in to be homesick. I was at home during my four-month stay in the Lady Chichester Psychiatric Hospital in Hove at the age of fifteen; I was not at home in the children’s home I was sent to four years earlier at eleven, when my mother and I were evicted from our flat. I was never at home when I lived alone with my mother (at times living with her was the very definition of unheimlich), but I was homesick when I was taken from living alone with her to the children’s home somewhere on the coast, with its hospital-like dormitory of beds so tall I had to climb to get into mine. The first night, I tried to make my getaway after dark when everyone was asleep, but I was stopped by the matron who saw me sidle past her door. She sat me in front of the fire in her room, gave me cocoa and biscuits and asked me where I was going. ‘Home’ I said, which was nowhere just then, so I meant ‘my mother’, who was nothing like as warm and comforting as the kindly matron. I expect my mother loved me, but she needed me more, and vented her fears and grief on me.
She terrified me sometimes and, worse, was always on the verge of terrifying me, but in the cosy chair of the matron’s sitting room, where she gently asked me to explain my problem, all I wanted was to be back where I had been, where I should be, where I had always been, even though I was where I was now because the school truant officer had found me in an empty flat from which all the furniture, even the carpets, had been repossessed, my mother shrieking, me lying on the floorboards crying. When my father left, months before, he gave me the option, suitcase in hand, of going with him. I opted to stay with my mother, though he was the one I felt most comfortable with in all the world. The parent I loved. But I knew neither of them were trustworthy, and I must have believed that mere love would not prevent homesickness, so I chose my mother as the place where my home was. Simple inertia, perhaps. Homesickness is a longing for inertia – for never having moved in the first place. Which, unless I had a choice before conception, would make my mother the very emblem of home, however she and I got on. She was at least as close to the original inertia as I could get. And Freud, of course, places the source of the unheimlich in the maternal womb. Forty-five years on, I am not at home at King’s Cross Station at eleven p.m. taking the late train back to Cambridge. Even if I am with the Poet, with whom I am at home and almost live with, I am not at home waiting for (or on) the train. I am not at home when I am not at home but, strangely, I like to be in transit.

To be in transit is a very particular condition: on the train to Cambridge is not in transit, it is just not yet home. On the train with no particular destination around America is fine; I’m not on my way, trying to get home from somewhere, not there yet. I cried once (not so very long ago when I was still living in London) outside Liverpool Street Station. It was eleven-thirty at night. I couldn’t find a taxi to take me home to Kentish Town after I had been to Norwich to give a reading. Suddenly, looking up and down the empty road, the distance between Liverpool Street and Kentish Town was unbridgeable. It seemed quite possible that I would never get home. I was flooded with the certainty that this was the beginning of the rest of my life of homelessness. I suppose (even with a sore foot *) I could have walked home in an hour or so. But as well as the sense that homeless for the rest of my life didn’t depend on the logic of effort but on some cosmic decision that had been pending and was now made, I had not the faintest idea in which direction to head. Liverpool Street is nowhere to me. It might have been a windblasted beach in Antarctica for all my sense of direction† was capable of detecting. I started to walk, but with every step wondered if I should turn around and go the other way. How is one to know which way to go if you don’t know? That was when I began to cry – just a stifled sob or two. I have felt bereft on an Antarctic beach, but it was muted by the fact that I was there because I wanted to be there, and I knew that a dinghy was scheduled to take me back to the ship in three hours. I have never wanted to be at Liverpool Street Station. Yet I grew up roaming London: wandered around Soho and Charing Cross Road, took the bus alone from Tottenham Court Road to Camden Town every day to go to primary school, to Stepney when I started secondary school, ran away to Wembley when I was twelve, secretly met my father in Golders Green bus station. I was by both necessity and inclination an independent and resourceful child. But in my late forties I had to fight back tears because I was stranded at Liverpool Street – because I felt lost and alone in the world. After half an hour or so, a taxi approached with its light on. I felt at home in the taxi.

*Of which see later
†Of which see later

Homesickness has retained a powerful if ill-defined grip on me, but it seems to be at its most potent nearer to where ever home is conceived to be, rather than a world away. Distance is a difficult calculation. If it is defined by the time it takes to get from one place to another, then there’s no difference going to London from Cambridge railway station, or Amsterdam by plane from Cambridge airport. Different speeds, of course, but the speed of the vehicle travelled on is irrelevant to the traveller’s understanding of how far they have gone. Time is the thing. Not long ago it took me twelve hours to get from Inverness to London, in theory by plane. The airport was fogged over, so we were bussed to Aberdeen and then waited several hours for a plane, which left us at the wrong London airport thus taking much longer to get to King’s Cross, from which the late train to Cambridge stopped at each station taking an age to get there. It would have been twice as quick to have caught a train home from Inverness. In the time it took me to get back from the north of Scotland, I could have returned to Cambridge from somewhere beyond Singapore. That journey was just modernity playing its regular cruel trick, but I had the same sense of panic as I had trying to get to Camden from Liverpool Street. I was too near where I was going to tolerate the difficulty. The only safe distance from home is the far distant.

Perhaps – after an initial refusal – I said yes to the New Zealand invitation because it was as far distant as it was possible to be. I was invited to the Wellington Readers and Writers Festival for eight days in the early spring, which was their autumn. I asked for the return flight date to be extended so that I could spend a couple of weeks travelling around on my own. Far, far away. In transit. A stranger, unwatched by anyone, no one’s concern, wandering around or staying still at will, once I had finished my stint as a public writer. Wandering, not trying to get home. I daydreamed of driving a rented car through the most exotic of landscapes, and of being alone in forests and by the sea. I had a hankering for being completely on my own after the closeness of life with the Poet in Cambridge. I had a nagging worry that closeness was wrong for me. I missed being a stranger. I thought that strangerhood was where I really lived, and needed to get to it for a while. Quiet, no one else except for other strangers. The very warmth and pleasure of my relationship with the Poet seemed to me to deafen me. I wanted, I thought to myself, to think – meaning not be connected to anyone – so that I could hear the echoes inside my head. I felt I was avoiding something I ought to be listening to. I wanted to be alone as far from home as I could get: not that near-enough-to home that causes homesickness, the unbearable unheimlich. I wanted unheimlich – it is essentially what I am always looking for – but of the right kind. Strangeness and strangerness without the blank despair. A matter, I decided, of no one nearby to care what I did, and the far, far distance. New Zealand fitted the bill almost perfectly: I have never particularly wanted to go to New Zealand, I knew no one in the country, and you couldn’t get further away from almost anywhere.

After twenty-eight hours in transit, I got off the plane at Christchurch, New Zealand, to be informed by vast signs and paintings on the walls in the airport that I had arrived at Middle Earth. The journey had begun on the morning of 4 March in Drummer Street, Cambridge, when I got on the ten o’clock bus to New Zealand. To Heathrow, actually, but it felt as if this first step was the crucial one, and it entertained me that a journey of twelve thousand miles should begin on bus number JL717. (Of course, if the plane had crashed, it might have seemed to my surviving friends that the journey had begun in 1947 in the Tottenham Court Road, or back in 1912 and 1910 when my parents were born in the East End of London, or during the war when they met and she got pregnant while her then husband was overseas.) A young woman with her backpack beside her sat opposite me in the seat across the aisle. She held an old white rectangle of towelling, a nappy or a hand towel faded to grey with washing, and throughout the journey she lightly brushed its frayed edges back and forth across her lips, rhythmically, over and over, as she must have been doing for twenty or more years. The action rendered her completely private. Of course, I could see her doing it, but in some fashion, the hypnotic comfort of the remnant of cloth on her lips made me, and everything else, invisible to her – which, perhaps, is as private as a person can get. We took off from Heathrow at dusk and flew into a night that lasted two days by the calendar or twenty-three hours by an unaltered watch. At some point along the flight path between London and Singapore, the world turned or I overflew its spin or whatever it is that happens, and a day disappeared. After a three-hour stopover, long enough for a shower, and another flight, I landed in Christchurch on the morning of 6 March. I don’t sleep on planes. I tried for the oblivion of the girl on the bus, but lacked a towel or some other soothing fetish to take my mind off the world. I felt only that awful restlessness of waiting for a long time to pass. I fidgeted, ate the stream of meals that came to me, drank water, and fidgeted some more. I watched Kill Bill 1 on the screen on the back of the seat in front of me, and tried not to watch Love Actually, which was on every screen in my peripheral vision throughout the journey. I listened to John Dowland’s pavannes, to Rossini’s Petite Messe Solonelle, to Tom Waits’ ‘Alice’. All of them, in retrospect, connected by a kind of mock or mocking melancholia. I read a book about reading. I took Temazapam and stayed wide awake. I got very close to watching Love Actually, but at the last moment began to watch Jack Nicholson and that Annie Hall woman in a film that tried to re-make Love Actually without its audience noticing. I switched it off and decided to watch the sublime Kill Bill 1 again. I think I may have let a weary tear fall once or twice, sentimentalising over my book of lost stories and library closures. By the time we touched down I was barely sane, and certainly not sensible.

And when the signs insisted I had got to Middle Earth, I was groggy enough not to care where I was. New Zealand, Middle Earth, Tottenham Court Road, any place, so long as I was somewhere (although actually I still wasn’t; only in transit to Wellington on the North Island. Another wait, another delay, another plane journey, another landing in another airport). So, being sick with lack of sleep, lagging a day ahead of myself, and overhearing one young man explaining earnestly to another, ‘I was reading this Tibetan monk who said that we only use one per cent of our brains. Wow, huh?’, Middle Earth seemed as likely a place to be as anywhere. Although it meant that time as well as space travel had to be involved because, for a few moments in my muddled brain, Middle Earth was the place I’d known in 1969, an underground club, literally and metaphorically, somewhere in a Notting Hill basement I think, where we ingested quantities of hallucinogens while dancing, or sitting cross-legged to watch the recombinatory adventures of hot coloured oils projected on to screens all around the dark, smoke and incense-thick room, and listened to the pixilated lutes, tambours and whining voices of The Incredible String Band:

And I’ve nothing to do,
And I’ve nowhere to go;
I’m not in the slightest way upset.
. . . And I’m not even chasing the sunset . . .

For a demented moment in Christchurch airport I wondered how anyone could possibly fault those tripping troubadours and their incredible string message. What other condition was there to aim for in my frazzled state, or in any state at all? No wonder I took the hippie route in the Sixties. It was my route home. I was a lizard and someone sweetly turned over a rock in front of me. Oh, God, yes, that’s where I belong. And I’m not even chasing the sunset . . . Then I remembered all that was decades long gone, that I was in New Zealand and that the walls were simply reminding jet-lag bedevilled travellers about the dreary sourcebook of my drug-crazed somnambulistic hippie nights, The Bloody Lord of the Bloody Rings, which had been filmed there and recently won a regiment of Oscars. There are only about four million people in the country and it seemed as I travelled that almost everyone had either been in the movie (there were calls for extras apparently that required only those over six-foot seven-inches or under four foot to apply) or been inconvenienced by it, so it was a cause of great national pride. It’s not for me to judge. As I say, I didn’t, at that point, care where I was, though perhaps I would have preferred to be on the moon – the Sea of Tranquillity, say, which seemed just as probable as New Zealand – but I was still in that state of passive acceptance of life or death or finding oneself in surprising places, which is the only way to survive the stupefying effects of long-haul jet travel.

After I’d spent just a little time in the country, it seemed less surprising that the people of New Zealand should have embraced rather than resented their reassignment to Middle Earth, because there can’t be a population in the world who so consciously feel themselves to be peripheral. My guess is that they would welcome being in Middle Anywhere. Everyone explained, almost by way of saying hello, how far away they are. ‘We’re so far away,’ they kept telling me apologetically. ‘Far away from what?’ I’d ask, surprised, because they and I were both here, so far as it was ever possible to tell.
‘Everything.’

In fact, of course, everything is far away from New Zealand when that is where you are. But perhaps that’s easy to say if you are merely making a visit and you have a return ticket to the far away you came from. It doesn’t help, I should think, that so many of the place names on the map are not Maori, but hankerings after some home that was home, if ever, generations ago: Christchurch, Wellington, Cheviot, Hastings, Richmond, Eltham, Oxford, Cambridge, Blenheim, Hamilton, Dunedin. Eltham, for God’s sake.

As soon as they’ve met you and ascertained that you are from those parts, most New Zealanders tell you about their European trip; their year or five spent where far away isn’t, as if on dayrelease from the penal colony. Or they say, with an unnecessary degree of passion and determination, that they are planning such a trip soon – or one day. Shop assistants and students, academics and artists, all earnestly assure you they have been or will go, like people conscious that they are illiterate in a world full of bookworms and promising to remedy it. I’d thought that the traffic was, these days, the other way, with backpackers and gap-yearers heading off for a trip of a lifetime to New Zealand. But either because the distance really is palpable, or because the New Zealanders’ sense of wonder at where they already are in the world is so omnipresent and insistent, the feeling of separation grabbed me too, and I begin to think like a local. I’ve never felt the distance of distance so strongly. Not on that beach in the Antarctic, not sitting with my legs dangling over the edge of the jetty, gazing towards the end of the world through Drake’s Passage at the tip of Tierra del Fuego, not even in the desolate, dusty nowhere of the station platform in Raton, New Mexico, staring off into the hazy featureless horizon looking for the pinpoint that would be my train out of there. But this was not a remoteness like being in the grip of a depression or outside Liverpool Street Station without a taxi. Not unheimlich in the sense of needing to get home and being barred from doing so. It was the ‘world’, whatever I and my New Zealand hosts meant by that, which was so remote. Not homesickness, but world-lostness.

Not, so far as I was concerned, an unpleasant feeling at all. During the first week, the ‘international writers’ at the book festival were a group. There were thirteen or so of us internationals all together in the Hotel de Wheels (which adopted its soubriquet when, a few years ago, after it was decided to put the Te Papa Maori museum in its place, it was hoisted up on to a hotel-sized trolley and wheeled from the harbour front across the road to the opposite pavement). Us thirteen international writers were locked together and on show because we were from far away. A group – bussed here and there, waiting side by side in the lobby for our various interviewers and photographers – because we all didn’t come from there. We were from Israel, Germany, America, Australia, Canada, Singapore, UK. An arbitrary group (though pretty white and largely Anglophone) except that we all wrote – fiction, non-fiction or poetry – which gave us less in common than non-writers might imagine.

Our large bright rooms, with heavenly bathrooms and showers big enough for dancing in, opened out on to a continuous balcony where, together or separately, we could sit and watch the comings and goings on the harbour front, a place, like all harbour fronts these days, of play and sport rather than work and sea traffic. On the first afternoon we were driven in convoy to the Governor’s residence to be welcomed in her immaculate gardens. Speeches in English and a bit of Maori. Shaking of hands, smiling smiles, as polite and grateful as we could manage; a very well-behaved collection of international writers. I miss the days I never knew of loud-mouthed, liquored, sexually rampant writers. How tame we were. Positively ambassadorial. How fearful that if we didn’t behave – what? We’ll never be published again? Never asked back? Sent to bed without our tea? During the week, morning and afternoon, we went off to the cinema (refurbished for the premier of The Lord of the Rings, and now in use for less glitzy delights) where the Festival readings and panels were held. A phalanx, a super-group of International Writers, some of us on stage, the rest in the two rows of seats reserved for us, opened the proceedings. Naturally, we formed our own subgroups or solitudes fast,
according to our preconceptions of each other, how we supposed they thought about us, mutual regard or contempt for the work, and plain antipathy or attraction.

We collided in corridors, went off for lunch and gossiped about the others, and we met in the foyer in the queue (most often at three or four in the morning for those of us with European jetlag) for the single computer with internet access. We waited edgily for our turn to get back in touch with the world and raised our eyebrows in recognition of our own absurdity to others who waited, while the person at the treasured machine made the most of their online time. Each one of us, once we had gained access to the computer, ignored the length of the waiting queue and huddled over the keyboard as if it were a security towel, tapping away at unheard-of speeds. One thing writers can do is type fast and look intense while they’re doing it. I watched the hunched backs impatiently and with increasing despair, convinced (as, of course, it turned out was everyone else) that whoever was hogging the machine was keying in and sending the finest prose or most incisive poetry back to excited editors in their own countries, while I was just waiting to email frantic, barely literate messages home to the Poet complaining about being jet-lagged and overwrought. There were parties and more parties, cocktails, dinner, lunches and launches, opening parties and closing parties. There were moments of escape, when I sat on the balcony and stared at the ever-present wind whistling round Wellington’s corners and blowing old ladies against lamp posts. And there were the public performances where, separately and in various combinations, we took to the stage to read from our books and take questions from a reading public who here, as everywhere, wanted to know how we disciplined ourselves to work and where we got our ideas from. To which questions neither I nor anyone else seems to have a satisfactory answer (though my standard answers 1] by receiving gas bills and 2] desperation, seem as likely as any). There were Maori greeting ceremonies almost daily. I have never been so greeted in my life. The first of these was a surprise, the second felt more like an assault, the third and later ones I skipped. The Maoris and the descendants of European settlers seem to have come to a very uneasy accommodation about who the place belongs to. Great battles were raging, while we were there, about who owned the offshore fishing rights. The left was accusing the right of racism. The right was accusing the left of racism. The Maoris were demanding their land under the sea. The white New Zealanders were muttering about being discriminated against. The minority status of the original inhabitants was on everyone’s minds, as conscience or victimhood, which resulted in extreme public displays of togetherness. All formal verbal greetings are said both in English and Maori by everyone, and both languages are taught compulsorily in schools. One of the organisers received a complaint that the International Writers were racist because none of us had learned any Maori in order to greet their audience bilingually. Heritage looms large in place of real cross-cultural ease. The Maori greeting ceremony was a version of what you see the All Blacks doing before a rugby match, but much more up close and personal. Its original intention was to warn off any visitor thinking of taking a liberty, with a show of the extreme warlike nature of their hosts. A twenty-minute choreographed assault by young men in loincloths making testosteronic gestures, offering violence against you (spears pointed, repeated fuck-off gestures with one arm inside the crook of the jerking other arm, eye-rolling, tongue lolling, bellowing, leaping within inches of you). Behind them, women do much the same thing, though you sense that their presence has more to do with equal rights within the ethnic group than authentic Maori warrior behaviour. And we white international authors, properly liberal, stood in our best or least creased party clothes, smiling gratefully at the assault. It became hard to say which party was most assaulted. Some of the young men drew blood as they beat themselves in their frenzied attempt to show us visitors who was boss. On the whole, it seemed to me that a handshake and a watchful eye is a wiser method of ensuring peace between strangers. Frankly, the amount of time and energy used up by the warriors displaying their terribleness would have allowed any real enemy to load their rifles in their own good time, take leisurely aim and fire. I had an image of a bloodbath, and astonished, dying young men gasping with their last breath, ‘But we hadn’t finished scaring you. Not fair.’ Heritage, of course, but if a group of young men behaved like that to me anywhere else in the world, I’d have been inclined to tell them to fuck off and stamp on their bare feet. Or run a mile. But heritage, so we all responded (even the American author whose idea of fun was shooting holes in the books of those who criticised his) with the sensitive dead smiles of foreign dignitaries being entertained by the locals, as patronising as any imperial working party visiting the colonies.

After a week, the formalities were over, the readings were done, emails exchanged, and the international writers dispersed back to the wide world from which they had come. Now it was my time. I was simply far away, as far away as it was possible to get, on my own and purposeless. Almost free as a bird. A return date, a stop off in Auckland to see some people about a film they wanted to make of one of my novels, aside from that, nothing. I sat in the lobby of the hotel with a map, waving farewell from time to time to International Writers, and made a plan. To Auckland by plane. From Auckland to . . . I spotted a peninsula on the east labelled the Coromandel Coast. Dum di dum di dum di dumdum started to play in my head. Dum di dum di dum di dumdum . . . On the coast of Coromandel . . . Edward Lear . . . The Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo. The heart-wrenching story of a tragic love between the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo and the Lady Jingly Jones.

On the Coast of Coromandel
Where the early pumpkins blow,
In the middle of the woods
Lived the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.
Two old chairs, and half a candle,
One old jug without a handle,—
These were all his worldly goods:
In the middle of the woods,
These were all the worldly goods
Of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo,
Of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.
‘Lady Jingly! Lady Jingly!
Sitting where the pumpkins blow,
Will you come and be my wife?’
Said the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo,
‘I am tired of living singly,—
On this coast so wild and shingly,—
I’m a-weary of my life;
If you’ll come and be my wife,
Quite serene would be my life!’
Said the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo,
Said the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.
‘On this Coast of Coromandel
Shrimps and watercresses grow,
Prawns are plentiful and cheap,’
Said the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.
‘You shall have my chairs and candle,
And my jug without a handle!
Gaze upon the rolling deep
(Fish is plentiful and cheap):
As the sea, my love is deep!’
Said the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo,
Said the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.

But it was not to be. The Lady Jingly was married already to Mr Jones (Handel Jones, Esquire and Co) in England, who sends her Dorking Hens from time to time as a sign of his continued existence. She’s sorry, she really is:

‘Though you’ve such a tiny body,
And your head so large doth grow,—
Though your hat may blow away,
Mr Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo!
Though you’re such a Hoddy Doddy,
Yet I wish that I could modi-
-fy the words I needs must say!
Will you please to go away?
That is all I have to say,
Mr. Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo!
Mr. Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo!’

Her desolated lover disappears off to beyond the sea on the back of a passing turtle and leaves the Lady Jingly Jones alone to wonder how, but for the fact of Handel Jones Esquire, things might have been so very different:

From the Coast of Coromandel
Did that Lady never go,
On that heap of stones she mourns
For the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.
On that Coast of Coromandel,
In his jug without a handle
Still she weeps, and daily moans;
On that little heap of stones
To her Dorking Hens she moans,
For the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo,
For the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.

And there was the coast of Coromandel on the eastern edge of North Island, just a bus drive away from Auckland (as well, of course, as on the south-eastern coast of India), just waiting for me to spend some solitary time in it. I found something called a Farmstay in the guide book. It said:

As soon as your car heads down the long, fern flanked driveway you will know you are in another world. Settle in, then take a wander in the cool bush, paddle a kayak on a tranquil harbour or just walk and talk with the animals. Or just sit and softly weep into a jug without a handle. I called and booked into one of the farmstay cottages – view of the hills and harbour, no other guests staying – for several days. There are geysers and volcanoes, rainforests and mountains – no end of places a person ought to see in New Zealand, and most visitors, knowing their chances of returning are fairly slim, see everything they can possibly fit in. But, although I only had about a week and a half after I finished talking to the animals on the Coromandel Peninsula, I had focussed now on the glorious sound of Doubtful Sound and I planned the rest of my time around my desire to get there. In a great flurry of deciding and telephoning, I booked everything from the sofa in the hotel lobby: overnight bed and breakfasts between destinations, the hotel in Te Anau in Fiordland which is the nearest town to the Sound, flights and buses, and the three-hour boat trip through Doubtful Sound itself. I finished just as the taxi arrived to take me to Wellington Airport for Auckland, and then the bus to the coast of Coromandel.