Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Ebb Tide

I am on the tail end of my Robert Louis Stevenson reading jag, having made lots of detours along the way. I only have Treasure Island left to go, which somehow I managed not to read during my childhood. One of my favorites among all his stories has been the novella, The Ebb Tide, which he co-wrote with his step-son Lloyd Osbourne – a taut, gripping tale of three disparate men, two Brits and an American, who are down on their luck and stranded in Tahiti. Together they hijack a schooner and plot to kill a rich settler on an outer island and steal his priceless stock of pearls.  
At the beginning of the novella, there is a general description of the transplanted European in the tropics, a particular breed of seedy misfit who is familiar to us from the fiction of Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, and, more recently, Graham Greene:
“Throughout the island world of the Pacific, scattered men of many European races and from almost every grade of society carry activity and disseminate disease. Others again must marry for a livelihood; a strapping, merry, chocolate-colored dame supports them in sheer idleness; and, dressed like natives, but still retaining some foreign element of gait or attitude, still perhaps some relic (such a single eye-glass) of the officer and a gentleman, they sprawl in palm-leaf verandahs and entertain an island audience with memoirs of the music hall.” 
This is not too different from the catty description of Alexander Salmon (which I have quoted before here) by Herman Melville:
“This adventurer rose late, dressed theatrically in calico and trinkets, assumed a dictatorial tone in conversation, and was evidently on excellent terms with himself. We found him reclining on a mat, smoking a reed-pipe of tobacco, in the midst of an admiring circle of chiefs and ladies.”   
While Alexander Salmon was a displaced European who reinvented himself and his humble origins in Tahiti, he was certainly no slacker or parasite. While he acquired considerable amounts of land as a result of his marriage to Ariitaimai, it was as a result of his efforts that they came to yield as much value as they did. Because the war with the French had destroyed many of their crops and livestock, Alexander had to work extremely hard to rebuild his family’s livelihood. Luckily, it turned out he had an aptitude for farming and for business. By introducing the most modern methods of production, he vastly increased the yields of his wife’s coconut plantations and pig farms. He also began cultivating coffee and oranges, exporting his goods as far afield as Sydney and California.
Another way in which he was unlike the stereotype of the lazy European settler was his passionate commitment to his adopted home. With Ariitaimai, he helped to broker a peace deal in the Tahitians war with the French in 1846-7, after which he acted as Queen Pomare’s secretary and was closely involved in preparing the treaty that laid out the powers and responsibilities of the French Protectorate vis-à-vis the Tahitians and their Queen. And later he headed the Commerce Tribunal (or Chamber of Commerce) and served on the island’s Council of Administration. And in 1858, he travelled all the way to Paris in an attempt to bring to the attention of Emperor Napoleon III “actions [by the French authorities] which have led to wrongful treatment prejudicial to this ... blessed but unhappy isle.”  
So there was no sprawling on palm-leaf verandahs for Alexander Salmon. And when he died in 1866 – of dysentery at the age of only 46 – the whole island went into mourning. As reported in the official newspaper of the time, “in the various posts he had filled he had won the affection of many by the amenity of his character... that the entire population preceded by the Governor of the colony accompanied his mortal remains” to the cemetery.
There can be little doubt that Robert Louis Stevenson heard Alexander Salmon’s story from his son Tati while RLS was staying at the family home in Papara in 1888 (I have described here how RLS sat up in bed at Tati’s house scribbling the last section of The Master of Ballantrae). Perhaps it was too much of a success story to inspire the Scot – who preferred to write about his seedy colonial misfits wrestling with the good and evil within themselves in a far-off land.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Last Flight

Velma's last day
Less than three months after we lost her sister, our brave sweet cat Velma has also left this mortal coil. A year of trying to find a solution to her rampant incontinence had worn us out, and when she started protest peeing around the house right in front of our very eyes, we began to understand she’d had enough.
Because her illness was the kind that wasn’t going to kill her by itself, the decision about whether her life should continue or end was entirely in our hands. I found myself overwhelmed by the responsibility. Who was I to play God - to decide the fate of another living creature, especially one whom I loved so much. I felt like a Roman emperor deciding the fate of a gladiator with a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down.
Above all, I didn’t want it to be about me and my convenience. Certainly a year of cleaning up after Velma’s accidents and taking her to various vets and getting up in the night to check on her had taken its toll on me in terms of anxiety, sleep, and dollars. But I wasn’t prepared to let her go as long as there were options to be tried, and as long as I felt like she was still enjoying life.
People would say “You’ll know when the time is right” and I thought that was just a kindly bromide. But it turned out that I did know. As recently as Thursday, she had a good day – full of joyous purring and sun-basking and giving the scratching-post a good seeing to. But it didn’t last. At 5am on Friday morning as I stroked Velma’s head after cleaning up after another series of leaks and pees, it became crystal clear to me that she deserved better and that neither I nor veterinary medicine could give that to her.
So yesterday morning, a gray day with an inch of snow and a coating of ice on the ground, Mike and I took Velma on her last journey. At the local vets’ office, the doctor gave her a sedative and handed her to me, calm and spacey and wrapped in a blanket like a newborn. We took our time saying our goodbyes as she looked up at both of us with her lovely yellow-green eyes, the pupils dark and dilated. When we were ready, the doctor came in and slipped the needle into the catheter, and peacefully and quietly Velma slipped away from her broken-down but still beautiful little body.
Now we can take the waterproof covers off our furniture and take away the litter boxes that were in almost every room. We can sleep through the night and we can plan the weekend trips we’ve wanted to take for a long time. And above all, I’m looking forward to having more time and psychic energy to get back to writing. But for now, all I can do stare out at the wintry sky and mourn.

Never More Will the Wind by H.D. (from Hymen)

Never more will the wind
Cherish you again
Never more will the rain. 
Never more
Shall we find you bright
In the snow and wind.

The snow is melted,
The snow is gone,
And you are flown;

Like a bird out of our hand,
Like a light out of our heart,
You are gone.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Some Strange Conflagration

Still from "The Eligible Bachelor" an episode of the Granada TV series Sherlock Holmes

I lived in London for almost eight years from 1980 to 1987 and had many memorable experiences, but I was about 20 years too late to experience a classic pea-souper fog. By my day, the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968 had cleared away the miasma of soot particulates and sulphur dioxide that used to envelope the city.
Those fogs – known as London Particulars – were lethal, especially to the elderly and people with respiratory conditions. The Great Smog of December 1952 is estimated to have killed as many as 12,000 people in just five days. Nevertheless, I would have liked just once to have been able to experience moving through a city swathed in that surreal, muffled darkness.
Robert Louis Stevenson includes a memorable description of a London fog in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde:
“A great chocolate pall lowered over heaven, but the wind was continually changing and routing these embattled vapors; so that as the cab crawled from street to street, Mr. Utterson beheld a marvelous number of degrees and hues of twilight; for here it would be dark like the black end of evening; and there would be a glow of a rich, lurid brown, like the light of some strange conflagration; and here, for a moment, the fog would be quite broken up, and a haggard shaft of daylight would glance in between the swirling wreaths... The fog still slept on the wing above the drowned city, where the lamps glimmered like carbuncles; and through the muffle and smother of these fallen clouds, the procession of the town’s life was still rolling in through the great arteries with a sound as of a mighty wind.”
Fogs were very frequent in the early 1800s when Alexander Salmon was growing up over his father’s greengrocer shop on Piccadilly. They were often so thick that the horses pulling omnibuses and coaches had to be led by men carrying torches in order to warn of their approach. A particularly dense one occurred on December 5th 1837, and perhaps the 17-year-old Alexander was a witness to the incident described in The Times of London the following day.  
“Not only was the darkness so great [in the morning] that the shops were all lighted up, but also every object in the streets, however near, was totally obscured from the view of the persons walking along. In Piccadilly the darkness was very great, and the confusion caused by the vehicles running against each other beyond description. About 9 o’clock the Hastings branch coach, which had just left the Old White Horse Cellar, while endeavouring to turn into St. James’s-street, ran into the shop window of Mr Hoby, the celebrated bootmaker, at the western corner, which it demolished with a fearful crash, breaking upwards of 40 squares of glass.”
Can any greater contrast to this dark, Satanic metropolis be imagined than the palms, cloudless skies, and black sand beaches of Tahiti?

Saturday, January 7, 2012

In the Room They Left

When I was growing up and would lament some lost opportunity, my dad used to quote to me from his favorite poem:   
"The Moving Finger writes: and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it."
This is the famous Stanza 51 from The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, a long poem by an 11th century Persian astronomer, mathematician and poet ‒ Ghiyathuddin Abulfath Omar bin Ibrahim Al-Khayyami. The manuscript of the poem was discovered in the Bodleian Library in Oxford in the mid-19th century by Edward Fitzgerald (1809-1883), a friend of Thackeray and Tennyson. Fitzgerald, who had studied Persian at the University of Oxford, translated and adapted the obscure poem. It was published as a penny pamphlet that sold barely any copies until it was taken up and popularized by the Pre-Raphaelite poets Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Swinburne. Since then, it has appeared around the world in 650 editions in 70 different languages. It has been set to music by 100 composers and illustrated by 150 artists (including Edmund Dulac as in the lovely picture above).
The poem was very popular in the first half of the 20th century and was very well known to all schoolchildren of that era, including my father. The poem’s seize the day theme resonated with him.  This was how he lived his life. No regrets and no looking back.  He made plenty of mistakes as we all do, but he never dwelled on them but forged onto the next challenge. While this meant he sometimes didn’t take the time to learn from his mistakes, it also meant that he was a man singularly devoid of self-pity. It also meant that he managed to stay positive. Even in the face of a terminal diagnosis of pulmonary fibrosis, he lived every day to the fullest, right to the end. In that respect in particular, he remains an inspiration to me.  
He died on January 8th 2008 - four years ago tomorrow.
“And we, that now make merry in the Room
They left, and Summer dresses in new bloom,
Ourselves must we beneath the Couch of Earth
Descend – ourselves to make a Couch – for whom?

Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie
Sans wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and sans End!”

Rest in peace, Dad.