Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Choosing new homelands

Last night Skyler and I watched The Tamarind Seed, a slightly cheesy seventies spy thriller starring a smouldering (that, at least, was Skyler's adjective) Omar Sharif. At the end of the film Sharif's character, who was a Russian spy defecting to the West, had to choose a country to inhabit for the rest of his days. He'd be provided for by his new hosts, but he wouldn't be able to leave his adopted homeland, or to see old friends and family.

Omar's situation made us wonder: if we had to live in a single country for the rest of our lives, where would it be? Our obvious first choice would be New Zealand, because of friends and family and memories here, but what if this country were ruled out, and we had to find a new homeland?

In The Tamarind Seed, Omar Sharif's character turned down the offer of Britain as a permanent abode, and instead picked Canada. I think this was a sound choice: Canada is a bit more spacious than old Blighty, which could quickly get claustrophobic, especially for a Russian used to the endless steppe.

I love Tonga, and am excited about living there for most of next year, but I think I would get cabin fever if I were to spend every day of the the rest of my life in a country the size of Lake Taupo with a population of one hundred thousand.
After a good deal of agonising, I picked Brazil as the place I'd make into a new permanent homeland. Learning Portugese would be tricky, but Brazil is huge, with an exciting mix of cultures, a tangled history, a weird and wonderful literary tradition about which I know far too little, and a broad, sophisticated political left. I think we could live in Brazil and treat the country as a microcosm of the wider world.

Skyler was undecided, but thought we might have a good time in Sweden, which she considers the most civilised country in the world. I love Swedish poetry, and Stockholm sounds like an improved version of Auckland, with its harbour setting, picturesque wooden architecture, and efficient public transport system, but I couldn't tolerate the cold.

Ted Jenner is a man who adopted a new homeland decades before he ever set foot outside New Zealand. When I interviewed him several years ago, in the lead-up to the publication of a major selection of his writings, the classicist and poet explained that he'd developed a fascination with Greece while growing up in  Dunedin back in the fifties. Inspired by Homer and Aristophanes, the young Jenner would lie awake at night listening to waves wreck themselves on the dunes of St Kilda, and imagine that they belonged to the wine-dark Mediterranean of the Odyssey, rather than the cold green Southern Ocean.
Ted's early enthusiasms were by no means unusual: several generations of Kiwi writers and artists grew up obsessed with classical antiquity, until Greek and Latin were pulled from school syllabuses and Kerouac's America rather than Homer's Greece became the spiritual homeland of young Bohemians. Greek heroes and Gods swagger through the poems of James K Baxter, Charles Brasch and Denis Glover like handsome gangsters.

Ted Jenner has published versions of many ancient Greek poems over the years, and he's currently travelling through his adopted homeland researching a new set of translations. Modern Greece has become sadly dependent on its tourist industry, but over the past six months the sunbathers and snorkellers have been augmented by journalists and aid workers, as the country's economy has gone into freefall and its people have taken to the streets. Recent parliamentary elections saw an explosion in support for the radical left-wing Syriza coalition and, more worryingly, for the Golden Dawn, a collection of shaven-headed, beer-bellied, seig heiling thugs who absurdly claim to represent the spirit of ancient Greece.
A confirmed social democrat, Ted Jenner is horrified by the rise of the Golden Dawn and sympathetic to the anti-austerity protesters on the streets of Greece. He has not made his latest visit to the country, though, to engage in politics. Even as Greece burns, he is focused on scholarship. He reminds me a little of the narrator of Jorge Luis Borges' famous short story 'Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius' who, seeing the world in tumult around him, busies himself with a translation of an obscure text by the seventeenth century writer and antiquarian Thomas Browne. If anyone questioned his priorities, Ted might plausibly argue that his translations help keep the spirit of ancient Greece alive, at a time when that spirit is being misrepresented by the sinister Golden Dawn, and forgotten by generations who have grown up, in New Zealand and elsewhere, with little education in the classics.
Ted has spent the last week or so in Thebes, a small market town north of Athens. Thebes may be an insignificant place today, but in Greek literature it is the setting for the sorrows of King Oedipus and the revels of Dionysus. Here's a message Ted sent me on the weekend:


will have to go without food today - am caught up in a general strike in Thebes of all places! Oh, and to add to my day, the museum is closed for months until restorations and extensions are completed. This will give you a little taste of what hardships a traveler in Greece occasionally encounters but I must say it has been very pleasant so far. The weather has been so kind to me, never below 25 degrees at midday.

Thebes is a natural citadel, a broad easily defended acropolis and one can trace the entry points the chariots must have made into what became known as the Kadmeia, i.e. the ancient citadel. Where the entry into the city spirals - and there are several of these - you can guess that the modern road follows the twists and turns of the ancient road up to one of the seven gates that defended Thebes. 

The Thebans still like to be known as Boiotians - after all these are the people that destroyed the Spartan army almost for good at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 B.C. 

You can blame the Macedonians for the fact that there isn't much to see in the modern city that is ancient  - Phillip II levelled Thebes after the Battle of Chaeronea leaving only Pindar's house standing. The main road in today's Kadmeia is called the Odos Pindarou. Other streets celebrate the names of  famous figures from Theban myth, history and legend, e.g. the Odos Oidipodos, the Odos Antigones etc. 

You will enjoy the mod. Greek for 'private property': KHOROS IDIOTIKOS!!

Don't see so many Greek men wielding their worry beads this time round - there's an accursed modern invention that is replacing the beads: the cellphone!!

Yia Sas,

I think that Greece is still Ted's adopted homeland. What country would you pick as a permanent abode, if you were forced to make the choice?

[Posted by Maps/Scott]


Anonymous Anonymous said...


8:03 am  
Blogger Sanctuary said...

Like the sad Russian emigre, yearning for the steppe and the intense pleasures of Slavic family life, I think I would simply curl up and die of a broken heart if I thought I could never go back to my homeland in Hawkes Bay ever again.

So since I am dead from grief, I am going to cheat and in my dying reveries select TWO places. I think I would like to largely live in Greece as well, Corfu in particular. I did Latin and a smattering of Greek at school, and I was enthralled by the Illiad once I worked out who everyone was. The Odyssey I found a bit dull in comparison, but Ithaca is just up the coast... The climate in Corfu is perfect for a person from the East Coast like me, used to dry hot summers and enough cold in the winter to bring snow to nearby hills - and none of this constant damned rain, rain, rain and more rain that blights the city of Auckland and pesters and harasses those of us used to a more certain climate! The Mediterranean diet is most agreeable to me and islands everywhere move to a more gentle tempo. But once a year, from mid-June to the of August, I would take myself off to an apartment in London, where I could spend the British summer enjoying cricket (a sort of Ango-Saxon Sumo in its cultural mores), museums, and culture, before retreating again in time to enjoy the late summer back on my little Greek island.

9:23 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


5:10 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


5:43 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey guys for your information africa and blatimore are not countries!

try again!

8:23 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hahaha. Baltimore is definitely one of the shittier cities. The Wire does it justice. Most towns have a bad section though, there are sections of south dallas that are unfuckingbelievable.

8:35 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I don't think it would be Tonga Maps!

I also studied Latin but the neither the Illiad nor the Odyssey impressed me greatly. But I think I miss out by not knowing Greek and Latin and classical history as well as Ted. Certainly there is a lot of fascintng Greek culture etc

I am afraid nowhere in any of the Americas or any African country interests me.

I'm at a loss - I simply cant imagine moving out of Panmure. My father was from London and my mother from Bedford and Kettering but I have never been to England and Rupert Brooke's England has gone (and there were too many wars in Europe). Japan except it has nuclear reactors always prone to damage and meltdown in case of an earthquake.

Australia has too many snakes, big spiders, and is too hot.

If I could get a good deal on the bludge in Sweden it might do me - but the cold would get me also! France might do...

No - it's got me knackered...

It would have to be Blighty so I could be somewhere near second hand bookshops...anywhere where there are libraries, they speak English and there are good coffee shops.

9:16 pm  
Anonymous down down azawad said...

This blog ignorantly praised the new Islamist nation of Azawad a few months go idiotically comparing it to Samoa. Well look what your Islamist idols have just done in Azawad...BANNED MUSIC!!!

So hey yeah go to Azawad a fun place...NOT!!!!!!

12:22 am  
Anonymous Keri Hulme said...

I've tried living out of Aotearoa-NZ.
The longest I lasted was 6 weeks...
So, there isnt any other possibility.
My family lines go back several centuries & 22 generations (Kai Tahu); 4 generations (Scots side) & 3 generations (English side.)
I quite liked bits of Scotland (although I never got to the Orkneys); generally loathed England - and, of the other places I've travelled to (Canada, Scandanvia, parts of USA including Hawai'i, Tahiti, and Australia) NONE appealed at all-

6:24 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'I'm at a loss - I simply cant imagine moving out of Panmure'

excuse me but where the heck is panmure?

9:29 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Panmure = NZ There is nowhere else of any importance in the world or in NZ except for where Keri lives (Somewhere on the right hand side of the SI).

10:23 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Very interesting comments from Sanctuary, whose talk about Corfu got me thinking of the Gerald Durrell stories I read as a kid, Richard, whose attachment to Panmure seems as robust as Frank Sargeson's love of Takapuna, and Keri.

I've been reading Raymond Firth's classic work of ethnography, We, the Tikopia, which describes how acutely attuned the people of that tiny (five square kilometres) island became to their immediate environment. Firth writes that:

'I was once asked seriously by a group of them, "Friend, is there any land where the sound of the sea is not heard?" Their confinement has another less obvious result. For all kinds of spatial reference they use the expression inland and to seawards. Thus an axe lying on the floor of a house is localised in this way, and I have even heard a man direct the attention in another by saying: "There is a spot of mud on your seaward cheek".

Firth, who was writing in the 1930s, claims that Tikopians who leave their home often die quickly of melancholy.

10:49 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Of course I really have no great love fr Panmure it's as good as anywhere else. It is simply that one makes a virtue of necessity! I have lived in Ponsonby (when it was a "working class area), Clover Park (a new suburb (in 1976 or so) just south of Otara, and Cockle Bay where we had very big house. I think it would be worth close to NZ$800,000 nowadays. I regret selling that.

My attachment to Panmure is that I have freehold house and I am broke and cant afford to live in Remuera or Ponsonby (or Grey Lynn or even the CBD) where would, rather live. If I had to I would live anywhere. I'm not sure I would choose to live here.

Its nothing to do with sociology it is to do with the really miserable state of my finances - that said - as they say:

"The pay is low, but the hours are good."! Geoff Dyer spent his whole life on the dole (until now he has started to make money via novels, essays, books on photography etc)...he writes about it in 'Otherwise Known as the Human Condition' an interesting series of essays. In one he becomes a little regretful about the problem of "having a life off" as there are no holidays..which is what I find now, or I have for several years.

But I DID work from 1966 to about 1988. In fact I had about 60 jobs. But I was hopeless at saving.
The problem is that as young man I didn't really believe I would ever get old! I was so fit, I used to run for miles every day and so on, and my occupation was very active...

So, it's good idea to pay into some kind of super fund.

What I think is important, is not where one is living, not how one views life where one is. A positive person can find good points wherever they go. I could live just about anywhere. But with limited funds I travel in my imagination via books!

For a good view of life I recommend turning off all TVs and news of any kind (you cant change anything) and taking time out to relax and think of positive and beautiful things. Keep the mind and body busy.

[By the way, I loved Gerald Durrell's books. I think very one in our family read him. He mentions his brother's ambition to be an author but I didn't think this would ever happen myself for some reason! I haven't read anything by Lawrence Durrell.]

11:36 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Richard,

I agree that 'Otherwise Known as the Human Condition' is a damn fine read! You might remember that I blogged about it a few months ago:

The essay in that book about coming down from Oxford in the mid-'80s and realising a lifelong ambition by going on the dole and settling in a rundown part of Brixton is oddly inspiring!

Dyer was out here for the Readers and Writers' Fest: brief/Titus should have grabbed him and gotten him to do something interesting (perhaps taken him on a tour down the Great South Road or into Panmure and commissioned a piece?)

2:06 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Belgium of course. It's got everything.

9:22 am  
Blogger Richard said...

I found the book in the local library and I was interested in the cover.He writes brilliantly about photography (there is a photographer who photographed some working class people in Virgina - all the young men were obsessed with cars so there are scenes of cars broken down and young men looking lovingly at cars and engines and broken parts etc, but his photographs of the "hippies" in San Fran (or Los Angeles are not so interesting); but Dyer laso writes about Capa, and his essay on Rodin is great, and his one about his life on the dole taking drugs and reading and reading and screwing women (he has a great "bong" for dope smoking (not great dong or a great body!) and also his one about searching the world for the perfect coffee and donnut (and clearly by now he is starting to earn some extra cash from writing etc)...

He is like a more laid back Terry Eagleton and in contrast to his parents (who even worked on their days off, mowing lawns and gardening and so on!) he is a laza-enjoylife-a-aholic rather than a work-aholic ("But some body has to work so you guys can be on the dole!"... "Well get to work then! Hurry up an earn more tax for me!!" But it is inspiring. I haven't quite done that but (Roger fox another candidate?) as I liked working when I had young family etc (but at that time no ambitions to write): but his point about the perfect moment with his coffee and the great donnut (how do you spell that in American? My spell thing is set in US English, I forget why... )

Dropping out is almost a way of rebelling against the system, that's why I liked that artist who set up an unemployment agency! Reminds me also of Maurice Gee telling us (at Auck Uni in NZ Lit 1990) that one of his major themes was his distaste of puritanism): but it is refreshing stuff.

But when I saw the book I just liked the cover and the look of it and some of the topics - didn't know who he was...must have missed your post on him.

I would say he is quite busy now, as he was clearly very busy as a writer. Wish I could be so organized.

Be good to button hole him one day.

2:53 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes, I recall that now. You employ that oblique approach to your subject, pick up one poster and put the boot into the Maoists. But they were the only ones doing anything worth while in the 70s - he rest were drugged out and mostly useless hippies and dreamy peaceniks or Trotskyist counter agents or deluded hacks for their "great cause" who were hopeless...

Dyer was not really political. But I probably didn't notice the stuff about him or photography as you then went on about the protest movement, so no one really was able to talk about photography and art as they had to defend there various ideological positions. Yours is of course a typical (but not necessarily bad) journalist's or critics method [by the way you are writing and do write some very good, often brilliant, posts on here, that is not in question] but you elide and seem to press things a bit much into your own designs - I didn't see that Dyer was pessimistic about art at all.

But I have to say that as I read his essays I was also reading other books, something I do, not sure why, and so I make it a part of my "What I have been reading." project etc as I write things out (I just do that as I like doing it no other reason! I know I could photo copy or use OCR etc but I like actually physical writing with a pen (frequently it has to be one particular pen, but this changes, or has changed as the years have passed) part or all (mostly small parts or more or less large sections) of what I am reading!)

Another thing is that one other motivation was the IP, now in that, initially at least I was not interested in what I wrote down actually meant (if it was difficult and complex and even quite baffling but sounded interesting all the better.

But you also referred to novel by DeLillo. I have quite a few of his novels now here - once I sold signed (FE) copy of his one about baseball etc.

I must re-read what you are saying there. DeLillo is obviously very interesting. {Ratner's star was too much like Alice in Wonderland gone very wrong! ...with dash of Kafka's The Trial thrown in...or The Burrow

You have three or 4 interesting topics is hidden in one post or am I getting old -I am - and find it hard to see all the parts?!!

But as to a COUNTRY...well the answer is to put a pin in the map - or ifon DID have a choice and enough money the word is now one country! Is it?

I don't see the world as inherently changed though even since the 50s. Hence Shakespeare is still very relevant. Many of the changes are superficial. NZ for a poor person is still a long way away from the major centres. The land STILL cries out for meaning. But there are good and bad things about every country. And we all still bleed if pricked or cry out if hungry etc etc etc

Arnold's poem Dover Beach is still deeply true and deeply moving.

3:30 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Why say anything with one word when you can use 200000 billion of them?
And who said anything about being "to the point"?

It's nearly Xmas!

3:33 pm  
Anonymous Edward said...

Germany (lived in Berlin and fell in love with it) or India (rich culture, diverse environment, and some of the best, though underestimated, archaeology on the planet). Brazil is actually a close third as the cultures there facinate me.

10:29 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chad. All the way, baby!

2:13 pm  

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