Frank Wilson

Story of the Month

Extract from the beginning of a draft chapter in ….

Nowt at all like Home – Travels of a Yorkshire Farmer’s Son

Hard Times in the South Pacific

Downstairs in a glass-fronted cupboard in our basement is a beautifully (and expensively) bound many-paged doctoral thesis or (if you prefer) dissertation. It was very important (if only to me) once upon a time and the end product of blood, sweat and maybe a few tears. Not counting those who may, just possibly have accessed it in a university library, it has probably been read all the way through by no more than six people. It spun off into a number of conference papers and journal articles and chapters of books edited by others but did not exactly shake the academic world to its core. It was not converted into a best-seller or a feature film. It does not contain any jokes, personal asides or larger than life characters. It is all about Samoa.

This chapter is also all about Samoa and draws on a year spent living and working there and two follow-up research visits. There is little or nothing academic about it, so please read on.

Perhaps by their very nature, South Pacific Island states have been blessed with larger than life characters - some local and many washed in like flotsam on the tide. James Michener has written about them - and titled one such book ‘Rascals in Paradise’. Some of such find their way into this chapter - which will hopefully be enjoyed by a few more than six readers!

Michener was by no means the first to find his imagination carried away by the South Pacific. For years I carried around a file card on which I had scribbled the following quote from one of Rupert Brooke’s letters home ....

‘If ever you miss me suddenly one day from my lecture room’ll know that I have got sick for the full moon on those little thatched roofs and the palms against the mornings and the Samoan boys and girls diving thirty feet ...into a deep mountain pool under a waterfall - and that I’ve gone back.’

Robert Louis Stevenson first arrived in Samoa in 1889 and settled permanently only a short walk from the Apia wharf in early 1891. Almost as far as it was possible to be from his native land, he made his home at Vailima and took his final rest on a hilltop nearby in December 1894. Whilst continuing to write ‘Weir at Hermiston,’ he also penned evocative short stories about beaches, beach-combers, beach-bums and their associates.  I am not in serious competition with Stevenson - who the local Samoans called Tusitala (or story teller). Nor with Brooke, Michener, Margaret Mead, Paul Theroux or a few distinguished others, but I too was stimulated by the almost unique environment of a small island country. I too met a number of not easily forgotten characters. Some of them find their way into what follows ....

There was something special about a Samoan Sunday morning that has stayed long and strong in my memory. Samoans like to go to church; religious belief and observance being accommodated well into traditional culture since the first London Missionary Society vessel anchored off in 1830.  It’s old style.  People get dressed up and it is a key social occasion.  From the sea the first impression is of a whole family of white clapboard churches of different denominations stretching along the beach front. On a Sunday morning, white is the predominant dress code amongst the many hustling in or straggling out of their chosen place of worship.  All of which brings me to one particular Sunday.

Late to arrive as usual, there we were with all three of our children, somewhere in the middle of the old wooden church amongst a very mixed group of expatriates and those Samoans or part-Samoans who preferred an English language service.  Ron Kemp, our affable minister, ran his usual up-beat service with a short up-beat message. The singing was good, the Sunday-school classes were well organized, the fans were not coping with temperatures in the mid 80s but the fellowship was strong. But I was soon distracted ….

In the pew in front of us were two young European looking women, one with long brown hair stretching down her back. She clearly enjoyed the singing but she was not a regular and yet she looked familiar. I could not work it out and was even more confused when at the end of the service, she turned, said “nice to see you again” smiled briefly and hurried away. My wife’s suspicions disappeared in the face of my obvious mystification and it was only much later in the day that the slow-moving hard disk in my brain worked it out.

Only a week or so back I had arrived early at his small rented property to pick up Jan my Dutch “associate.”  He was to join me on a trip across the island to the Australian Aid backed banana plantation. Finding the door open I went in to find Jan wearing only a pair of shorts walking out of the bedroom area.  In his usual cool style he invited me to help myself to a piece of papaya while he found his shirt and sandals. Before we left he suggested that I should “say hi to Christine” and pushed open the bedroom door. A mass of brown hair topped off by a big totally unabashed smile half-emerged from the bed. “Nice to meet you” she said. The next time I saw her there she was singing one of my father’s favourite Charles Wesley hymns “Love Divine All Loves Excelling ….”

Poem of the Month