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Today's quote:

Thursday, February 17, 2022

When dream meets reality

Someone - not me! - sitting on Pallarenda Beach looking towards Magnetic Island


Perhaps it was a mental image such as this that made me buy a block of land in Picnic Bay on Magnetic Island in 1979 and a couple of years later an old beachshack on Pallarenda Beach.

We all need a dream, and the dream of one day living there gave me a sense of hope and home as I continued my peripatetic, some might say pathetic lifestyle, moving from place to place and country to country.

I once met an Englishman in Honiara in the then British Solomon Islands Protectorate who spent his evenings drinking gin & tonics in front of a fake fireplace with a huge painting of London's Tower Bridge above it.

In Maugham's "On a Chinese Screen" collection of 1922, there's a short story called "Mirage", which tells of a character from England called Grosely who has spent most of his working life in China. We're given in the first pages much background detail concerning his early days as a medical student, and what brought him to the Orient in the first place.

But the story really only picks up when, after years of very difficult saving and hard work, Grosely is able to travel back to the England he has adored, with the money he has accumulated. What happens when he eventually arrives, however, is perhaps not all that surprising.

"It was different from how he remembered it, there was much more traffic and he felt confused and a little at sea. He went to the Criterion and found there was no longer a bar where he had been used to lounge and drink. There was a restaurant in Leicester Square where he had been in the habit of dining when he was in funds, but he could not find it; he supposed it had been torn down."

What he does next is really quite interesting. He leaves England, his memories and perhaps part of his Self, for China. En route, he visits places like Singapore and Colombo. But at the last stopping place before China proper - Haiphong - he remains. He’s only supposed to go ashore for forty-eight hours, but he stays, because for this character at least a sense of self - partial and fluid though it may be - is so immediately tied to place: "I’ve never been so happy in my life. I often think I'll go on to Shanghai some day, but I don't suppose I ever shall. And God knows, I never want to see England again", he remarks to the narrator.

Looking at life through the wreaths of opium smoke that he exhales several times a day, Grosely represents the partially disorientated traveller who has settled for flux rather than fixity. Positioned between east and west, undecided where home actually is, Grosely seems to find the in-between existence not only agreeable, but a sort of solution.

"I knew that on the threshold of China his courage had failed him. England had been such a terrible disappointment that now he was afraid to put China to the test too. If that failed him he had nothing. For years England had been like a mirage in the desert. But when he had yielded to the attraction, those shining pools and the palm trees and the green grass were nothing but the rolling sandy dunes. He had China, and so long as he never saw it again he kept it."

When dream meets reality it sometimes becomes a nightmare, and so it was with my premature homecoming in 1985. I felt like one of those expat characters in a W. Somerset Maugham story who, when finally washed up on their home shores, can often be found peering into an empty glass while wishing to be somewhere else. Maybe I, too, should have stayed forever abroad and dreamt of home from a safe distance.

I sold the block of land on the island and that beachshack in the late '90s for little more than what I had paid for them which didn't matter as by then they'd served their purpose as my London Tower Bridge painting.

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