Books and My Life: Part 12

This blog outlines my life, seen through the lens of the books I have read.

At the end of summer 1991, after our year in Cameroon, Jane and I packed up all our gear from Joe’s and headed back to England. Our house still wasn’t ready.

We felt strangely disconnected from life in the UK. We had heard no new music, and we’d missed all the new TV programmes. This wasn’t a major concern, though, as there were two amazing developments; I was to study for a Masters degree at Oxford University, and Jane was pregnant.

After living in Africa, the familiar bustle and stress of England was a welcome contrast. We exchanged empty landscapes, wild forests, exuberant locals and mad traffic on deadly roads for England’s tranquil, man-moulded beauty, quirky locals and horrendous traffic on well-made roads.

My year at Linacre College was a highlight of my life. To be part of the university was a fabulous privilege. To be part of a group of students all eager to make the most of their year was even better. I’ve never experienced anything like it, and I miss it. Most of the reading I remember was related to my course. But, as I think back, I must have read fiction, too. I loved having Blackwell’s and Waterstones’ bookshops in the town. It is inconceivable that I didn’t buy any novels. But which ones were they? I don’t know.

At the end of my master’s course we got the news that HM Government didn’t need any more foresters for its aid programme. This was gut-wrenching. I had no Plan B for this eventuality. Still, I didn’t let it spoil the last month or two in Oxford. In the summer I worked in the library in the Plant Sciences Building. My dominant memories are of the eye-catching inner covers of the old books and the fact that we were selecting many pamphlets and specialised books to be thrown out. I kept my eye on the notice board over the summer and eventually noticed a job opportunity from the Commonwealth Development Corporation who wanted foresters to work in the Solomon Islands. I applied and, although it took until December, we found ourselves on a plane to Australia with an eight-month-old baby.

At Sydney we swapped to a smaller airliner which took us to Honiara, the Solomon Islands capital. There, we paused for a day or two, then got on a small eight-seater plan that took us to the Western Province across electric blue seas and aquamarine lagoons. At Munda we changed mode of transport and a canoe (with outboard motor) took us the rest of the way to our new home on a circular, volcanic island.

We spent over two years on that island, made good friends and experienced Melanesian culture, which was amazing. The island was remote, though, and Jane and I needed lifelines to survive. Again, we were isolated from much of what was happening in the rest of the world so, for instance, I only caught snippets of the 1994 football World Cup in the USA. We received a weekly copy of the Guardian newspaper (it often reached us weeks late), and we also got video cassettes sent to us from home. The best ones were the Vicar of Dibley episodes. The title sequence shows aerial views of the Cotswolds, where Jane is from, and we sighed as we watched them every time. At Christmas all the senior staff (half a dozen or so of us) queued up in the company office for our turn to talk to our loved ones back home. The delay on the line meant we had to say ‘over’ whenever we stopped speaking. It was lucky it wasn’t raining – that blocked all transmissions for a reason unknown to me. I relaxed by listening to music, particularly Kenny G.

A helpful stress-busting book was the omnibus edition of ‘Red Dwarf’, by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. This consisted of two books; ‘Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers,’ and ‘Better Than Life.’I thought these were great. A worthy successor to the Hitch hikers Guide. I had seen the tv shows while in Aberdeen, but the book gave me time to enjoy the jokes.

Other books I read included histories of the discovery of the islands by European mariners and the story of the Coastwatchers, who were allied men who relayed information about Japanese movements back to Australia during World War 2. These men were often loners or misfits who performed heroics against the Japanese invasion. Many paid with their lives. There was still a lot of equipment in the bush, left behind by soldiers during the war. Near to our forestry village there was an anti-aircraft gun, pointing at the sky through the trees, with corroded ammunition stacked around it.

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