Ship’s Log: Day Six (Melbourne to Tilbury)

The fourth day of the Tasman crossing, passing through Cook Strait and a brief stop in Napier, New Zealand.

Today we arrived in Napier, the small art deco town (all the buildings in the middle of town are so due to rebuilding after the 1931 earthquake) and western port. Our fellow passengers disembarked, since they had come from Europe on their way home to New Zealand: the logorrhoeic Bill, the retired minor bureaucrat with all the superficiality of an autodidact’s universal knowledge coupled with a mania for collecting things, the reticent and happy-to-follow Joe, friend of Bill, and the former seaman Abel, bedecked with gold chains and bracelets, a sweep of white hair and the desperate air of one who had spent too many days at sea listening to Bill’s drivel. Abel smiled broadly every time I cracked a mild joke at Bill’s expense or simply shocked him. So it was to be only the two of us as passengers for the Pacific and Atlantic crossings.

But not before Ahab (based on shore) had showed us all around town. Since that took five minutes, if that, most of the remaining time was spent sipping coffee, being reminded of why I was so pleased Bill was disembarking and wondering why a man who lives in Napier, New Zealand, should possess an expired diplomatic passport and manage to get ship captains fired.

But Napier brought out a curious paradox concerning New Zealand. Despite, or perhaps because of, the strong Maori presence, New Zealand feels more heavily British than Australia, which is much more diversely aware of its location within Asia. By contrast, a town like Napier feels like a conservative bucolic utopia, an ideal and mythical English seaside town as it was before all those horrible foreigners came along and spoilt it. I keep coming across English people who come to New Zealand to escape from their busy lives, to seek a slower authenticity that they feel New Zealand preserves like some yesteryear of merrie old England. Some do it in small bursts, others for stretch before they go suicidal from village idiocy and others plonk themselves here for good, working hard to preserve what they feel is passing. No wonder the film version of Lord of the Rings was based here and that the set of Hobbiton now exists as a tourist attraction.

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