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Tuesday, January 5, 2021

The Drifters

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In 1975 I worked in Burma and lived, for the first six months at least, in Rangoon's Inya Lake Hotel which, together with the Strand Hotel, was one of Rangoon's two luxury hotels. However, Burma, being then the most isolated country in South-East Asia, allowed us no access to Western goods, Western food or Western books, and so my employers, TOTAL-Compagnie Française des Pétroles, sent me on a shopping trip to Singapore.

Knowing nothing about Singapore, I had booked myself into a hotel also called the Strand which I assumed to be of a similar standard to Rangoon's. Today's website certainly suggests that it has received a major make-over but back then it was a real dive in what was a very unsanitary Bencoolen Street.

I spent my evenings along Singapore's famous (or infamous) Bugis Street which was just around the corner, and my days inside the MPH Bookshop where I became acquainted with W. Somerset Maugham's Short Stories, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and the large collection of James A. Michener's novels.

James Michener's novel The Drifters became my much-loved and much-read 'Bible' during those footloose and fancy-free years and it has stayed with me to this day. It is a fairly epic tale, following the lives of eight principal characters thrown together in a great journey from Torremolinos, Spain, through Algarve, Portugal; Pamplona, Spain; and Mozambique; to Marrakech, Morocco in turbulent 1969. Joe is escaping the draft; Britta the dark winters of Norway; Monica the shadow of her father, a failed English diplomat to Vwarda (a fictional African nation); Cato a seemingly losing battle for racial equality in Philadelphia; Yigal the tug-of-war in the choice between American or Israeli citizenship; and Gretchen the psychological scars of sexual abuse at the hands of police officers following the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Britta is the daughter of a radio operator whose mission it was to alert the Allies to the arrival of German ships in Norway, and who dreams of going to Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka) once the war is over. As Britta grows up she watches her father endlessly listening to Georges Bizet's The Pearl Fishers during the endless arctic nights while his dream slowly fades into a distant vision never to be realised.

All flee to the resort town Torremolinos where they meet each other and, by chance, sixty-one-year-old George Fairbanks, the story's narrator and one- or many-time acquaintance of most of the six drifters. Through what can only be described as fanciful fiction, these seventeen- to twenty-one-year-olds allow George to join them on their ensuing adventure and even let him be their guide around the world.

In the ninth chapter, a new character is introduced by the name of Harvey Holt. He works as a technical representative on radars in remote locations. He is an old friend of Mr. Fairbanks, and has been everywhere from Afghanistan to Sumatra to Thailand. He is very old-fashioned and a fan of old music and movies.

I strongly identified with the book and its characters, such as when Britta says, "... I believe that men ought to inspect their dreams. And know them for what they are." I was already too old then to be Joe and not quite old enough to be Harvey Holt and I dread to think that today I should identify with Britta's father. I don't even like Georges Bizet's The Pearl Fishers! Carmen yes; The Pearl Fishers no!

The permanent temptation of life is to confuse dreams with reality. The permanent defeat of life comes when dreams are surrendered to reality. What dreams do we have today for ourselves and for the world in which we live? Let us search them out and discover where the journey takes us while we're still young at heart. Because once we have ceased to dream, Michener seems to say, it is simply time for us to die.

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