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Like the living seed within the island stone, all the reserve, the emotion, the frustrations and hopes of the Tristan community throbbed quietly in the bare little barracks chapel at the Calshot camp at the farewell communion service before the advance party returned home. The atmosphere was as intense as in an ancient cathedral.
A cold gale blew damp and salty across the fields from Southampton Water. There was no shipwrecked bell from the Mabel Clark to admonish the few late-comers, no vagrant animals thundering on the roof. But in the entry the pile of male headgear was nearly all navy-blue nautical caps; and the door opened to the swell of the trusty island harmonium beside the altar where the Rev. N. T. Brewster moved among the familiar church plate which the Leopard had rescued. As rector of the parish he had patiently won the confidence and affection of this strange new flock.
The small wooden interior echoed with a constant coughing and snuffling. The chapel was already overcrowded. 'All the island' was there, except a few who were ill with flu, and the handful of Roman Catholics. Here en masse were the transplanted faces, light or dark, with the 'Tristan look'. There was one big concession to foreign ways: the male and female worshippers were not segregated.
As a congregation they were expert. People who, from babes in arms, had gone to 'charch' as a treat every Sunday, moved with almost unique poise and assurance through the prayers and responses, the procession of Holy Communion, and the hymns. The hymns: p268 the wholehearted island fervour, with everyone singing out eagerly, colds and all, as moving as the old diaries had said.
How else did they differ when seen in an English church? On the whole the women were dressed with more traditional conservatism than the men. Most of the older ones still wore the peasant skirts, 'hangchers,' home-knitted 'gansies' and long white woollen stockings with thick shoes. One little girl modelled a white starched 'kappie' in the fashion of the original Mrs Glass. Some of the young women, however, were dressed like British girls, with trim figures in the latest chain-store clothes, and the make‑up and nylons which had at first been taboo; they even wore spindly shoes. 'I'll bet she's staying,' I thought as I gazed at each of these. But no, later I learned that they were going back to join husbands or boy friends on the lava island — winkle-pickers and all. (To be contented, I wondered?)
The men had long ago given up wearing their white stockings outside their trouser legs. Their sedate church-going figures were mostly dark-suited, some well-groomed, and except for the many exotic complexions they might easily have been part of the congregation of any English parish church. I was powerfully, almost incredulously, reminded that these were the wiry boatmen who had battled the raging waves with miraculous telepathy in the home-made cockleshells — knowing perhaps that, as in 1885, they might never come back to the signal fires and tea‑pots of the women. Dangerous indeed, but a wasted skill and self-respect which they must have been missing sorely.
(Later, when I mentioned this thought to Arthur Rogers, his eyes kindled and he told me that he had once been four days in a longboat, returning from Nightingale when the wind had changed; and his brother was adrift for eight days, nearly starving. Two boats of the six had been parted from the rest. And when some of the village men had climbed up behind the Rogers' house to look for a sail from the heights of Hottentot Gulch, the people had seen them running down the mountain like wild creatures, with the tiny white sail in sight in the sun.)
That life, that experience, was somehow vitally present in the Calshot chapel, dimming the drabber English reality. The clergyman read aloud a letter from Tristan in which it was explained that young Lars Repetto (whose bride of a year was expecting a baby any day and could not join him yet) held a service each Sunday for the handful of lonely men who had been pioneering afresh on the island for seven months.
p269 At the end, with masterly simplicity and kindness — exactly right for the Victorian family feeling and piety of his flock — Father Brewster asked the fifty returning pilgrims of the advance party to rise for the special blessing.
A shuffle of chairs, and there they stood: Willie Repetto, large, good, slow and quiet in his dignified blue suit; strong weatherbeaten men, middle-aged or young; stocky mothers and nylon-clad daughters; and the two little 9-year‑old girls who would be the only Tristan children returning. As Father Brewster commended them all to God for a safe journey and a successful return, there was not a dry eye in the chapel. The emotion was in the air for even an outsider to share to the full: the strong roots of the diffident people so out of step with an alien world which they had not made with to hands, in their own time, among their own kin; embarking now on the other half of their life's greatest adventure; returning to poverty and a dormant volcano; but going home.
' "Home, sweet home" — that's what we always say,' Headwoman Martha Rogers told me as she poured the inevitable strong tea in her tidy little terrace house.
Here at the camp, too, Martha had made a bower of her few square yards of front garden. 'They's always asking me for flowers for the charch, just like at home.'
Arthur's eyes brightened — they were an odd, dreamy pale blue, sailor-clear in his olive face — when he told me that the cattle were 'doing foine', though the poultry had mysteriously disappeared; and the new, second beach which the Puma had blasted near Little Beach Point was said to be 'wery good,' covered with small rocks. The 'crawfish' plant was to be rebuilt on the cliff above the Point. As for the canteen store, the several islanders who had formerly worked there had been recruited by the Administrator for its reopening, with supplies to be brought as before by the two fishing ships. So, thank God (whom the devout people often mentioned) there would be jobs and money once more.
Even the new hill of lava and cinders between Big Beach and the Settlement was not without merit. 'It's wery high. It's given us more of a lee,' they said.
'What if the crater should erupt again?' I asked them.
p270 'Then we'll all move to another part of the island.'
Easier said than done, with steep slopes, no suitable beaches, and very little money. But the Tristanians' godly fatalism on the whole has never failed them yet.
The Rogers' hearts ached because they could not go back with the advance party in the Amazon, but the gentle Arthur had worried himself into an operation for stomach ulcer. (Martha had made her very first telephone call when the young policeman came through the snow to tell her that her husband had been taken from work by ambulance; and the constable had put the pennies into the box and dialled the hospital for her so she could quaveringly ask how Arthur was.)
She herself had been in hospital three times with 'ashmere' (asthma). The fickle electric heaters were not nearly so cosy as the great Tristan fireplaces in the gable ends of •four-foot stone. And there had been the inhospitable power cuts in the coldest and whitest of winters for, the newspapers said, 122 years. It seemed indeed as if 'Tristan luck' had pursued the fugitives to Europe.
Fortunately there had so far been no deaths in the Hampshire camp, following the early few in Surrey. Father Brewster was grateful for this blessing, knowing how gravely the people regarded death and funerals. Even the men still followed the practice of keening, handed down from the pioneer colony.
Of weddings — those much more casual events — there had been seven, and all so far between island couples. In the village of Fawley I learned that one or two of the youthful Tristanians, who danced the twist and watched TV in the camp social hall and ventured to play darts in the public bar at the Falcon, had acquired an English boy friend or girl friend. But it took courage when someone finally got engaged outside the fold.
'The older people keep themselves to themselves,' the Fawley residents observed. The Tristan men who worked at the oil refinery were described by the Scots engineers as 'moody,' clannishly staying together. Some of the elders were even regarded in the village as 'unfriendly' — which could, however, be discounted in view of the traditional reserve, and the resentment of the refugees at the way they had been exploited and misquoted by swarms of interviewers.
In the Falcon bar a typical group of six dark-skinned men and four bright-scarfed women sat quietly sipping beer — but only as sightseers, intensely interested under their withdrawal, but not wanting to say more than 'Yes' or 'No' to strangers.
p271 The islanders were no longer willing to be taken for country bumpkins. When a television unit filmed a similar Tristan party's visit to the pub, each person nonplussed the producers by announcing that his fee was two guineas.
A number of the people had lost their jobs, but there was state aid and the Tristan da Cunha Fund. 'They get all their coal free,' the taxi driver told me enviously, and added, 'They don't never seem satisfied.' I noticed considerable eyebrow-raising at the official information in the Press that it was costing the British taxpayers a loan of £12,000 from the Crown Agents to send home and re‑establish the tiny group. The total cost of repatriation was estimated by Peter Day, the newly appointed Administrator, at about £50,000. It was hoped to finance this largely from the sale of new Tristan stamps, whose issue would doubtless be more popular than ever.
On the whole, the exiles had been saving assiduously with the well-known island thrift; many had a hundred pounds in the bank. Locals such as the milkman and the postman obligingly helped them fill in the various forms for Government benefits — and income tax. A half-dozen or so of the young men had bought motor-cycles on hire-purchase — to the disapproval of the elders; and even some of the schoolboys rode to the near‑by secondary school on flashy bicycles, hard to picture on the lava cart-tracks of their native mountain.
Father Brewster had gone to call on a family who boasted the status symbol of a gramophone, and whose son had sent them a new long-playing record from America. The parents innocently kept it blaring an overpowering blast all the time that the parson was trying to make seemly conversation. On Tristan, after all, there were thousands of miles of soughing wind and sea, without neighbours.
The people's almost oriental casualness about time made appointments seem irrelevant — used as they were to a lone village where everyone just dropped in. If they were not at home to receive an expected guest, some child or young person could be sent to fetch them. Once you were received, however, the call and the tea‑drinking must last a long time with nineteenth-century leisureliness, or they would be hurt.
The children seemed less polite and appealing — with rather cheeky monosyllables — than when I had first met them after their arrival from the South Atlantic. No longer did they call me 'ma'am'. One family contained both the most brilliant boy and a retarded one, but on the whole they were rated below the standard of English schoolchildren. p272 Some observers believe that this is from inbreeding, but perhaps it might be because of the lack of articulateness and of experience in so‑called civilization on the meagre island.
An Englishman told of accompanying the Tristan Boy Scouts to Southampton on a stormy spring day to attend a Scout Gang Show, the first stage performance they had ever seen. He gathered that they were impressed — though he had been unable to understand much of their rapid patois as they gabbled among themselves. However, when he asked them if they had ever had such strong wind and rain on Tristan, they stoutly and loyally answered, "No.'
'Won't the people miss some of the comforts and conveniences of England?' I ventured to ask the Rogers.
'Of course we'll miss some things,' said Martha promptly. 'But you can't have everything, I always say. I tell the young people, you can go or not go, as you like: you can make up your own minds.'
This worthy sentiment probably under-rated her influence. With the strong character and firm principles inherited from her late mother, Mrs Repetto, it was shown to be Martha more than anyone else who had been marshalling the community in its solid front of going back almost en masse. But in Fawley several persons told me that eventually a number of the younger Tristanians might summon their courage to defect. About twenty were believed to be hesitating, secretly at least.
The decision was not easy. There was the moral tale of the outstanding young Basil Lavarello. He had held out for more than a year in favour of his highly-skilled job and prosperous life in the wide world. His dissidence brought so much publicity in the newspapers and on television that gradually he had been almost ostracized by the community. ('He even stopped coming to church,' Father Brewster told me.) He could not stand the strain of feeling a traitor to his own flesh and blood. In January he had married Pamela Glass — 'the brightest of the Tristan girls' — and together they were going back in the advance party. (Would they stay for long? I again wondered. Tristan was not, after all, a prison isle.)
True, there was still the trickle, as in the days since Governor Glass, of ambitious young persons making their way abroad. Pamela's sister had been brought to London several years before at the expense of a missionary couple, and was completing her training as a nurse; she meant to finish with a midwife course and then help the doctor on the island. And only a year before the eruption, another island girl had p273 managed to work her way to England. She had been astonished at the early reunion with her family, who had tearfully expected never to see her again.
But though some of the young Tristanians might stay behind, solidarity seemed the rule. Several young men who had had good pay as deck-hands on the liners plying to and from the South Atlantic, had prematurely thrown up their jobs (and then been unemployed) for fear that they would be away at sea when the rest of the community left for Tristan. The family tie is still Victorian-strong. Kinship, piety, sentiment: naturally most of the people feel more at home in a place where those last century virtues and customs are still in fashion.
'On the island we's all just like brothers and sisters,' Martha told me.
I thought of Professor Munch's sociological findings, and wondered how the exiles' idealizations would stand up to reality when there was no more occasion for homesickness.
'We keep counting the days,' they sighed. 'Every day we says, "One more day gone".'
And as Willie Repetto remarked, when he was seen off aboard the Amazon with the advance party, 'In England it's money, money, money — worry, worry, worry — all the time.'
'It's a hard life on Tristan, isn't it?' I suggested to the Rogers.
'Yes,' they agreed. 'It's a hard life. But we‑all doesn't mind. We doesn't get run over by no motor-cars on Tristan. And nobody doesn't murder nobody.'
Here was a vital point. Most of the community had never recovered from the shock of the two thugs' assault on Big Gordon Glass. They were still convinced that grey respectable England was a land of potential violence, lurid as the old pirate menace of the South Atlantic. Father Brewster told me he was sure that the lasting fear was the strongest influence on the mass desire to return. Through the summer Sundays a good number had gone by bus to evensong at his old Norman church in Fawley. But as soon as the autumn days shortened, many were afraid to venture out in the dark, even in a large group.
Remembering the magnificent sunsets which I had admired in the South Atlantic, I asked the Rogers if they had not missed them in the muted English skies.
'Oh, yes,' said Martha. 'Facing west, we can see —' she made a great gesture — 'everything'.
'And the Southern Cross?'
p274 Arthur smiled. 'We see it every night, coming over the mountain.'
When I left before dusk for my •two‑mile bus journey between the peaceful fields and hedgerows to the village inn, my kind hosts were solicitous about my return and the perils of traffic and crime.
'I hope you got home safe,' Martha wrote me the next day.
I wished them the same, with their late spring volcano and tempestuous seas on the loneliest insubstantial on earth.
When the returning pioneers sailed from Tilbury — accompanied by fifteen tons of supplies, transistor radios, soft beds and big dolls — grey-bearded Frank Glass was holding the most incongruous piece of all the cargo. It was the potted seedling of an English oak tree: a thin bare stick, •a foot or so tall. It was to be planted among the rocks, reeds, gales and penguins of the Settlement plain. This fragment of faith and innocent irony seemed characteristic of the whole saga of the island's habitation, from the early 1800's to the present.
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Page updated: 13 Dec 20