Finding your place in this world
It’s no real secret that I grew up in a different country to the one I now live in.
You go through a strange process when you move countries — especially if you’re moving from Australia, where we have a very strong sense of place. First you feel foreign in the new country. The big differences — weather, language, currency and food — are different, as you expected them to be. The little differences are a surprise — different definitions of courtesy, different names for familiar objects — capsicum anybody, a zucchini perhaps — different ways of doing things, and the re-engineering of your social status inside a completely new structure.
Then, you go home to visit your old country — and you feel different there too. You roam the familiar streets with the eyes of a visitor. Things you thought were important before, aren’t; things that you ignored before, leap out at you with new significance. You feel like you are caught between two dimensions — two states of being. You are no longer a native of the old place, and you are not yet a native of the new place.
They say that humor never translates — which can make settling-in difficult. It does translate, to a degree — especially into the UK, because the natives have a strong appreciation of humor and irony. What doesn’t translate is nostalgia. It’s hard to be nostalgic for things, people and places that you have had little contact with.
So I was surprised, this morning, at my reaction to the burning of the Cutty Sark. My first reaction was one of terrible loss, and disbelief. Not as strong as my reaction to the 9/11 tragedy, of course, but on the same continuum. My second desire was to get into the car and head down to Isle of Dogs to see for myself — to take some photos to send to my Dad — and to see what the fire smelled like.
Yes, to see what it smelled like.
I knew about the Cutty Sark long before I saw it for the first time. My Dad brought back a booklet from one of his frequent trips, when I was a kid, so the famous picture looking up from the ground, past the figurehead, to the rigging, was a familiar part of my childhood. And later I read books like The Last Great Grain Race, so I understood the significance of the clippers and barques to global history. But when we did our family trip to the UK, Dad said that Greenwich was too far from london for it to be worth us visiting for just the Cutty Sark and to re-set our watches. So finally, when we moved here, and I was looking for flats, I boarded the DLR for Greenwich, where I boarded the Cutty Sark. It was quite boring really — the only thing that stood out was the smell.
If you have ever sniffed the inside of an old tea caddy — do it next time you’re in an antique shop — you get the most amazing aroma of old tea and wood. The closest tea to the smell would be Chinese Gunpowder Tea — a rich, over baked herbal smell, like rich tobacco. In the hold of the Cutty Sark, the smell overwhelmes you. There is no escape — it surrounds you on ever side. Yet the hold is clean — scrubbed clean, and painted. It’s just that the smell permeates everything — it is in the very fabric of the ship. It conveys the sheer quantity of tea that it carried, the sheer number of years that it carried it, and the power of the tea itself to drive the pleasure of an entire nation.
Then you think of where the tea came from — wooden caskets of leaves, picked by Chinese, and then Indian hands, dried and baked in kilns, ground and packed into wooden boxes and tied with hemp rope. All transported to the docks and heaved into the hold by sweating, shirtless men — stained brown with tannin, hands and shoulders red with rope burns and effort. You think of the journey — of salty old tars, frightened of sea monsters and superstition. Of bastardization of the equator virgins as the ship crossed zero degrees latitude, of sextants and chronometers and Turk’s head knots. All of this is represented by the inside of the Cutty Sark, and all of this may have been destroyed by the fire. I thought all these things as I listened to the 6am news this morning, and I found myself mourning for a place that is no more.
And later, I wondered whether all really is lost, or if it’s just another chapter in the history. And in the future, when school children jostle for position in the hold of the Cutty Sark, they will smell a new smell — the tea mixed with burned timber and ash. And their teacher, or the guide, will add a new paragraph to the narrative, about the fire that ripped through the vessel as it was being refitted on 21 May 2007, starting in the holds, destroying the upper deck, and spareing the rigging and deck furniture which had, mercifully, been removed for restoration.
Ultimately, I felt happy. The nostalgia had translated. I was making myself at home in my new home.
Copyright Damian Clarke, 2020. First published on the Our Albion blog, 21 May 2007 under London life.
Comment from Dandelion
Time: May 21, 2007, 4:31 pm
This is so beautiful it makes me want to cry.
Comment from drew
Time: May 22, 2007, 12:43 am
When I did my time in London I lived on the Isle, so Greenwich was a regular weekend haunt for me. I remember getting off the DLR at Island Gardens (or even walking there from South Quay) before going through the damp tunnel and coming up on the other side and bam, there it was. I wish we’d had digital cameras back then.
So I felt that little lump in my throat last night when I saw it on the news.
I grew up in country Victoria by the way and now live in Adelaide, so I know all about the foreign country thing…
Comment from Damian
Time: May 22, 2007, 6:18 am
Hello Dandelion, welcome to Our Albion.
Hello again Drew — I like the tunnel. I like to surprise foreign visitors with it.
Comment from Julia
Time: May 26, 2007, 5:02 pm
Gorgeous post Damian. Really enjoyed it.
Comment from guyana-gyal
Time: May 27, 2007, 2:18 pm
When old buildings are torn down here, and names of streets are changed, something in me protests, cries. But then, that’s what life is all about, isn’t it? Change. Some might be good, some dreadful. The only constant is change. The key is to find your special niche where you can be happy. But even that niche can change too, can’t it?
Comment from Sally
Time: June 4, 2007, 2:02 pm
It’s really sad. We were married in Greenwich, so the Cutty Sark was nostalgic for me too.