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Published: March 29th 2013
Dark Sky Week
Well, how long is a year? We know all the numbers, don’t we but there is something miraculous and strange that from our own point of view, time is not constant. A year away from family, friends and hometown has been longer than I imagined it to be. My geriatric gap year has been as full of fun, challenge, interest and difference as I imagined it to be – I know that it will stand out to be one of the best years of my life – but a year is still a jolly long time. Reflecting back, there is a year of public events in the UK and the rest of the world that scarcely rippled the quiet surface of life on St Helena. The South Atlantic Media Services (SAMS) news which is broadcast intermittently during the day (I haven’t yet worked out the pattern of broadcasts and, so, miss what is going on – however, I can always catch up at some future time or date) is deliberately (I assume) described as news from St Helena. Nothing from the outside world touches it – no international intrigue or crisis passes the lips of the news presenter, nothing of great sporting events of financial crises. This does, of course, present something of a challenge because, to be honest, there are some days when nothing actually news worthy happens of the island – to be frank, nothing actually newsworthy actually happens on most days. So sometimes the headline features something that may have occurred three or four days earlier and may not have been particularly noteworthy at the time – the success of ‘Summer Sizzle’ at Harford School, athlete breaks high jump record at Prince Andrew School. But no mention of the banking crisis in Cyprus, or the antics of North Korea on their borders.
None of this is a criticism. This is what one ‘buys-in’ to when coming to St Helena, whose tourist board sells it as being the ‘most extraordinary place in the world’. Something of the hyperbole here methinks. Living in a new place has been a new experience for me and it is quite different from being on holiday. What is extraordinary is how ordinary life this past year has been. Life goes on, the everyday matters of everyday life is pretty well the same as in the UK – a different backdrop of course and with a different cast of characters certainly. Well, what have been the highlights of the year, as I was asked by a friend at one of a series of leaving do’s during this past 2 weeks. I had to sit back and think for a while because the highlights of my particular year seem as parochial and simple as the news on SAMS radio. Regular readers of this blog will know that during the year I have discovered personal talents that I discovered in the various worlds of sport, media and leisure. But I’m not sure that they stand out as highlights – so don’t worry chaps I won’t return to Much Wenlock and describe my developing technique employed on the skittles alley or demonstrate in the George and Dragon on a Wednesday evening how I extricated my partner and I from that tricky problem when dancing the waltz and finding ourselves stuck in the corner, not having mastered the turn. I recognize that these are personal incidents that are of no particular interest or understanding to others if recounted – rather like SAMS radio news if presented on the BBC World Service.
So, come on Michael, get back to that technique of understanding personal experience that many of you will recognize as being my way of interpreting the world – Top 3 features of a year living on St Helena:
1.Distance in Time and Space
The most obvious extraordinary feature of the island is its isolation. There are other isolated spots on the world but how many of them will require a journey of a week to get there? This provides what is most unique about the place – when the RMS leaves the island is completely alone. Surrounded by sea one would think that the surrounding ocean would be a major marine highway but the occasional sighting of a vessel makes all the news services – even if the vessel remains several miles from the shore. The island is so very isolated and is not on any serious route to anywhere – and this is the terrible dilemma facing those charged with developing the island’s economy through tourism. Some (not all, of course) will be like me and recognize that this isolation makes the island an attractive destination – the romance of the Royal Mail package ship with its charm and understated elegance and its 5 day journey across the South Atlantic is a wonder of our busy and instant access world. The new airport will provide that instant access that a successful tourist industry requires if it is to save the island from future pointlessness – but (stating the blooming obvious) where is the romance and excitement that I first felt when coming to the island for the first time? It is truly extraordinary to be forced to take the slow route as there is no alternative – the challenge for economic developers is to ensure that the package experienced by travellers is sufficient once the time and space dimension is removed.
2. Pace of Life
I guess this must be related to the previous entry into my top 3 selection. You won’t be surprised that the absence of mobile phone technology has a profound impact on life’s pace. The mobile seems to symbolize the need to pack every minute with instant access and communication. On the island there is, of course, an efficient telephone system supported by a Directory which in itself describes so much of life on the island. My name is not in the Directory – I am, of course, just passing through – but no matter. Apparently it is enough just to phone the switchboard and let them know you want to speak with that chap with a moustache who is doing something in schools and the caller will be put through to the right number – but that could, of course, just be a consequence of the enormous successes that I have demonstrated in so many fields of endeavor described in these blog entries! I am, of course, too humble to presume.
Rush hour is at 4 o’ clock in Jamestown. Buses and cars trundle up the hill towards the country taking the workers who tumble out of the offices at that time precisely – work for most people finishes at that hour and for them there would appear not to be too much of an issue with work life balance. Some ‘ex-pat experts’ express some frustration or anxiety at the sometimes slow pace of change – and here at the end of my highly successful professional project I see something of the way in which I must be viewed by many of the Saints. I trust that they will have a kindly view of me, as someone who brought some expertise without (I hope) any of the arrogance of a missionary – but I know and realize that I am just one the endless and timeless sequence of such people bringing the ultimate key to their success and they know that if they missed this one there will be plenty more coming down the road. The perspective is, and must be, different – a year is a huge chunk of my life but just a chapter in the seamless flow of their lives on this isolated patch in the middle of the sea.
3. The Darkness of the Heavens
I was talking to one of my new friends, Stedson, at Donny’s last evening – and isn’t it wonderful to make so many new friends in such a short time – about the wonder of the night sky on St Helena. Now, Stedson is the local astronomic expert and is an enthusiast about the wonders of the southern skies. And ‘wonders’ is correct – there is an unfathomable blackness about the skies surrounding the island and recently the absence of cloud emphasizes the extra ordinary universe in which this little island on this tiny but wonderful world sits. The clarity and the brightness of the stars and planets within this terrifying darkness is, in my view, the most extraordinary feature of the island. The silky greyness of the Milky Way, the absolute precision of the star clusters and the Cat Steven’s-like crispness of the moonshadow on nights of the full moon makes this my number 1 extra-ordinary feature of life on the island and this is being celebrated, shortly after I leave the island by Dark Sky Week.
I shall be gone but, of course the steadiness and regularity of the stars will there to welcome the next visitor to this wonderful place.
This concludes my blog narrative of how I have experienced life on St Helena since I first set out in June 2011. Thank you for those who have shared something of the incompetence of an old chap taking the deep dive into his geriatric gap year. I hope, if nothing else, that this intermittent diary has encouraged you to look to explore the possibilities that lie outside of your every day life – remember what Frank Balcombe (‘Independence Day’ by Richard Ford) reminds us with what has become my mantra: ‘the ways that we miss our lives is life itself’ – we need to look up, experience and enjoy the day to day and live in the moment.
So ‘Homeward Bound’ – as Paul Simon wrote during a tortuous tour of north of England folk clubs. A wonderful song celebrated by a plaque erected at Ditton Station (‘I’m sitting in a railway station, got a ticket for my destination’) where he apparently wrote the song – the station was demolished and the plaque re-placed at Widnes railway station – a building that he probably never entered – what a wonderful reminder of the serendipity and magic of our lives. Have fun!
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