ON ISLANDS, SHIPS AND THE SEA
I used to hate England – never the people, I always loved the people – but the land itself. Cold, dreary, grey, rainy, often misty, dark in the mornings on the long walk to school.
(It wasn’t that long; half an hour max, but aged 14-15 it felt like ages to me!)
It was a very different climate on my beautiful blue and green island in Hong Kong. When my mother gently told me we would be leaving, I refused to go as I was so happy there. Later I realised why China had its shanshui paintings of mountains and water – because the landscape does really look like that in real life! It was only when she pointed out that Britain, too, was an island, and showed me in an atlas to prove it, that I grudgingly agreed to go (!). At this point I was still unaware that islands didn’t float; I still thought they all floated in the sea, happy and free, unattached to the mainland (which was by contrast huge, bulky, lumpen and stationery).
I remember the long, final plane trip from Hong Kong to London Heathrow. I still have my ticket. I kept it for posterity, knowing its significance (I showed this to my parents recently and they smiled, not knowing I’d kept it all these years!) I remember sleeping flat on the floor with my sister in front of the big TV screen and waking up and having a disorientating moment when I thought I was back home in my bed in Hong Kong, then suddenly jolted into the realisation that I was 1000 feet in the air suspended in a plane on the way to England, forever. And how long that night journey was. So I simply went back to sleep, soothed by the white noise of the jet engines. I love planes, they are the closest we get to floating islands.
We landed in the middle of a grey misty morning. We were picked up by my grandfather in his old brown BMW. I remember thinking, out of all the colours in the world, why would anyone pick brown as their colour of choice for their car?! It was not promising. We drove for what seemed like ages and ages… this was new to me, as in Hong Kong taxis were all red, we didn’t own a car and nobody drove for ages and ages in nothingness as there was all this city, all around you, all the time. I saw Canary Wharf, then expectantly wondered when all the other building would come? When would the ancient temples mixed with towering skyscrapers follow noisy streets and incense smoke and traffic smoke and chattering rickshaws? And they never came. Just fields, fields and more fields. I was flabbergasted. What kind of landscape was this?! Then, laughing, my granddad handed me a pack of Werther’s Originals (sweets which were a similar colour of caramel, like his car!). These changed everything. On the packet was a picture of gently rolling green hills, a blue sky, and sunshine. Not the exact shades of green and blue I craved, but a gentler green and blue, which was actually not bad – just different. I had never seen this combination before and since I was ambivalent, decided to be open-minded. I looked out the window, saw exactly the same landscape, albeit greyer, and finally felt hopeful. Maybe it was just a grey day, and maybe this more comforting green and blue landscape would come later. I would just have to wait and see.
Settling in England, I missed Hong Kong dreadfully and painfully. I preferred the warm soothing turquoise Pacific to the cold dark blue Atlantic of the Titanic. Yet there were pockets of hope. I managed to find things I could fall in love with. There was the English imagination. There were Shakespeare, mushrooms, magic, fairyland and the Land of Green Ginger. There was the drama of the White Cliffs of Dover. There were nonsense and limericks, Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. The Owl and the Pussycat had a pea-green sea.
And then, as a teenager, I (re)discovered London. Not a skyscraper city, but a glorious city of wonders nevertheless.
We visited the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green. We visited the Tate Britain where I naturally gravitated towards anything blue or green, and William Holman Hunt’s painting of sheep on a cliff, because it reminded me of my island. I was desperate for any imagery of coastlines, however vague. We saw Chinatown (I wasn’t impressed). I discovered Japanese digital art (slightly more impressed as the colours reminded me of the Asian ones I missed). We watched one of the first ever 3D films at the IMAX cinema, Across the Sea of Time, about Ellis Island and a Russian immigrant child with a stereoscope in New York. (We visited the real Ellis Island and New York, a brief sideways loop into an endlessly fascinating city of cities, city of dreams and a memory of a lifetime. Only now do I suddenly realise that this little boy may have been like a premonition of my future husband. Later we were both moved to tears by Shaun Tan’s wordless picture book about immigrants, The Arrival. Fascinated by cinema and projections of all kinds, I went on to study 16mm film alongside painting at the Slade. Only recently my husband started doing 3D printing alongside his traditional leather. Only recently I bought the ViewMaster stereoscope reels of this legendary 1995 film. Startling coincidences. I love New York.)
We visited Greenwich (near where my mother grew up, incidentally) and the prime meridian line and had fun straddling East and West at the same time. I do faintly remember thinking how ridiculous this was, and having a sense that some man in the past just decided to plonk this line here one day and that was that and now we accept it as part of history and we’ve all moved on and does anyone ever wonder why…? since the grass on either side looked the same to me! The film Longitude cleared things up for me a bit, made me realise that people fought ferociously in order to establish it, and how it paved the way for Britain’s illustrious shipping industry and therefore the establishment of the British empire itself around the globe with all its colourful history… and all that, neatly summed up in a straight line in the middle of Greenwich. It still feels slightly unreal each time I go there and now that I’m older and am aware of all the artifice, the imperialism, the slaves and the bloodshed, and the tea, and the coffee, and the sugar and the spices, I am always with a strange sense of bewilderment at the contradictory nature of the world.
(Tate Britain is breathtakingly inspirational paintings that shaped my life; Tate is also Tate and Lyle, sugar and the slave trade.)
Early on I already loved London. I loved Covent Garden, miniature books, libraries, ships and coastlines. I thought of the past, the Renaissance, the Elizabethans, maps and Christmas. (I Saw Three Ships on Christmas Day…) I impressed my classmates with tales of my daily commute by ferry to school and island-hopping in Hong Kong. Both my grandfathers worked in shipping – they were granted free passage in those days – so I suppose shipping and the sea is somehow in my blood. Not the high seas nor the open ocean but portolans, coast-hugging littoral journeys where land is always in sight; islands in the distance, combined with the freedom of the waves. I imagine Greece could be like this, although I have never been there.
Slowly, I transformed.
How I’ve changed… I actively seek out nice meandering walks; once in central London you can pretty much walk anywhere and it’s always delightful.
So I have slowly come to love this land of England, together with all its interior charms. I don’t think I’ll ever fully get used to the cold. I’m always bitterly surprised every winter at how my fingers can freeze if I’m not careful, though I’m settled to the point of no return. Yet the ground has been pulled from beneath my feet again and I’m once more floating in a suspended sea of Brexit uncertainty, drifting further from the solid mass of the European mainland. Perhaps, after all, it is in the original nature of all islands to want to float away.
Whenever I’m a bit down, I remember that England is still a small, very important island in the middle of the Atlantic; I think of the tall ships at Greenwich, its glorious maritime history, tea clippers and Turner.
Islands, ships and the sea ~