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Today's quote:

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Today is forever


If there are places left where a man can grow old contentedly, it is on some such quiet, drowsy atoll, where today is forever and tomorrow never comes; where men live and die, feast and sorrow, while the winds and the waves play over wet sands and gleaming reefs", observed Julian Hillas (aka Julian Dashwood) in his book Today is Forever.

Julian Dashwood, or “Rakau” (the Maori word for wood), as he was known locally, was an eccentric Englishman born in 1899, who lived in the Cook Islands until his death on Mauke Island on September 5, 1970. He went to the Cook Islands in 1929 and became a trading store manager, having earlier been a schoolmaster in England, a farmer in South Africa, a rubber planter in Malaya, and a midshipman during World War I.

Julian Dashwood during his short but eventful career as a Minister in the first Cook Islands Government in the 1960s from which he resigned after being convicted on corruption charges.

The book was originally published in the United States under the title Today is Forever, and then in an English version under the title South Seas Paradise, which is understood to have been much edited and abbreviated.

South Seas Paradise begins in Sydney in 1929 where the author, with an incompatible wife in tow called Winifred, was on his beams ends, and one of more than 100,000 unemployed.

A silent movie, White Shadows in the South Seas, moved him to sell his last remaining asset, a decrepit car, and buy a steamer ticket to Tahiti. When the steamer sailed, Winifred was left behind (he later divorced her from Rarotonga for the sum of $1.58) and Dashwood decided to “remedy a lack of appreciation shown by the war office some years previously” by adopting the rank of captain.

On reaching Rarotonga, this self-confessed bounder met an old friend, James Carfax-Foster (later of Fiji), whom he had last seen in Constantinople “organising a football game on the floor of a night club and insisting that the White Russian hostess take part.” Carfax-Foster invited him to visit a plantation he was running at the far end of the island, and Dashwood wound up running the place himself instead of going to Tahiti. His self-adopted captain’s rank helped him to bluff officialdom into permitting him to stay. He subsequently made a living by trapping rats and collecting a bounty from the Administration – delivering the rats whole, and very dead, when officialdom refused to accept only their tails; and by serving in a Rarotonga store.

Then he spent an idyllic year on Rakahanga atoll in the Northern Cooks – a place "where today is forever, and tomorrow never comes”, and where he wrote a novel called I know an Island, which is his only other published book. As he said, 'I spent a year on Rakahanga and put on 18 pounds, which I lost again within six months of leaving. I developed a marvellous appetite and have never felt better than I did during that period.'

Escape from the bonds of utter conformity was relatively brief for this Errol Flynn with literary talents as he acquired Kopu - one of the few authentic virgins in the northern group of the islands. Her unused status was due in part to her being secretary of the Seventh Day Adventists: he had to marry her to change it. A large and shimmering woman who weighed 200 pounds on the copra scale and had the kind of big gracefulness that Gauguin captured so well on canvas.

Mauke from the air

He built a home on his wife’s ancestral property on Mauke. He mentioned the property in one of his letters to a former customer in 1961, and it’s quoted here:

“Yes, am still running a trading-store for a firm with its head office over in Rarotonga, a few years ago a much bigger and better premises was built. At the same time building myself a pretty large home down on wife’s ancestral land near the lagoon, a couple of miles from the store. The house covers about 2000 square feet and there is over half an acre of lawn. Paid for the whole thing out of shell sales. In mentioning that fact am possibly inviting a somewhat sour smile on your part as one of the contributors to the new residence.”

Shell collecting was both his hobby and his business. He worked out a co-operative deal with the natives and they enthusiastically went to work collecting shells for him. But then he became bored and left for Auckland, where he opened a little shell store. After three months he knew the dizzy pace of civilization was not for him and returned to the atoll.

In 1958 the battery went dead on his shortwave radio, his only contact with the outside world, and he was frantic for a while, wondering what the world was up to. Then he found he didn't really care.

Not long after another crisis arose. The natives got tired of collecting shells, and his trade, carried on by the four ships a year which call at the atoll, came to an end. No matter what he offered them, they refused. After all, what good was money on an island without a store and where everything they ate, drank or wore was in natural abundance.

Finally, he had an idea. He sent to Auckland for a movie projector and some old films. At the first showing the natives went wild over them. But on the night of the next show he stood at the door and told them the price of admission was a penny. Of course, no one had a penny. The economic dilemma was quickly solved, he wrote in Today is Forever. He paid them a penny a week to collect shells and they paid it back to him to see the movies. -

Graves of Julian Dashwood and his wife Kopu outside their derelict house on Mauke - more pictures of the house here

High on the list is the author’s account of his highly profitable life as a “pox doctor’s clerk” during a visit to Tahiti in the 1930s. Another highlight is a side-splitting account of the visit of New Zealand’s vice-regal pair, Lord and Lady Galway.

'To the atolls and islands of the Pacific the storm tides of Civilisation have brought many strange objects, and seeds of greed and disease, carried by the angry winds of Progress, have infected the peoples of Polynesia. The swan-song of a race is now being sung, and the tragedy lies, not so much in the singing, but that it is so often mistaken for a paean of praise of those responsible for the calamity. In 'White natives' I have held up a mirror to faces and places, which although fictitious in themselves, might easily find counterparts in almost any group of South Sea islands.' Julian Hillas

Throughout the book are many acute observations on Polynesian life as the author sees it and some brilliant pearls of Dashwoodian philosophy, which clearly explain how the author has managed to live where he has all those years and to enjoy every minute of it. Thoreau's words of wisdom, "A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone", were certainly part of it.

The book is still a very popular read after all these years, even though it is hard to find.


P.S. Samoa had Robert Louis Stevenson and Tahiti had Paul Gauguin. The Cook Islands, in addition to Julian Dashwood, had Robert Dean Frisbie, a Californian writer who, in the late 1920s, sought refuge from the hectic world of post-war America and made his home on Pukapuka. Eventually, loneliness, alcohol and disease overcame Frisbie but not before he had written sensitively of the islands in numerous magazine articles and books. His eldest daughter, Johnny, is also a writer and has produced a biography of her family titled "The Frisbies of the South Seas". Another fugitive from the metropolis of London was Ronald Syme, founder of the pineapple canning enterprise on Mangaia and author of "Isles of the Frigate Bird" and "The Lagoon is Lonely Now". And, of course, everybody knows Tom Neale's "An Island to Oneself", in which he describes his yeras spent on Suwarrow.