Birthdays and beyond…

As promised, here is one of the blog posts that you are owed! Long overdue – this should have been posted in April….I haven’t put many photos on this post to save bandwidth, but I’ll add some extras when I can….

So it was my birthday last week, and like most of my birthdays it made me feel slightly melancholy. I’ve never been one for birthday parties, and bar a couple of small birthday dinners, one surprise dinner thrown by an ex, and a 10th birthday spent at a water park in Trinidad with a Super Mario cake, I’ve mostly managed to avoid having parties where I have to be the centre of attention. Though many of you might not think it, I don’t really like being the centre of attention. I like being detached enough to slink away, and I prefer doing something low key.

On this one, more than most, I spent most of the actual day reflecting on life and what has happened so far, and also the situation I have found myself in. I suppose my Pitcairn trip was planned as much as a documentation of Pitcairn as it was a cathartic experience for me. It has brought many things to the surface for me, and being so cut off from everything familiar for such a prolonged period has made me realise what is important and what isn’t. It has made me look at my relationships, with friends, with family, my romantic attachments, my decision making processes. I have disassembled much of my life block by block, and I can see it all with more clarity than I thought possible. Though at times being here has been incredibly stressful, sometimes you need to take yourself so far away from your own life to see it clearly. I know that when I get home and back to civilisation, many things need to change and evolve.

me pawl

The day before my birthday, Sue and Pawl held a quiz for the April birthday roll call. It was Sue’s birthday in early April, and Pawl’s a couple of days before mine, so they organised one of their quiz afternoons. Quizzes at Sue and Pawls are always a guaranteed headache for those who aren’t sure of the answers – you can swap a correct answer for a whale’s tooth shot (almost a Pitcairn rite of passage). Pawl has a collection of carved out whale’s teeth which are the same size as a shot glass, and somehow the fanfare of drinking out of one supersedes the reality of drinking shots at 3pm and logic goes out of the window. As a result I wasn’t quite sure if we had won or not, or whether the quiz master just took pity on our team as we had more birthday boys and girls on our team than anyone else’s [edit 17/05/2015: we did win, as I just discovered from the latest issue of Pitcairn’s miscellany newsletter. Vaine tells me that in the 20 years he has lives here he has never made it into the newsletter and that me making it in is an achievement of sorts]. At one point I was presented with a birthday cupcake board, decorated with snakes and ladders sweets as vines, and sliced marshmallows as petals on the cupcake ‘flowers’.

It was an impressive effort, though it was partially (actually, forget ‘partially’) made to tease a certain male (also in attendance) who had been coming into my room and leaving flowers in my bedroom almost daily for a time. Once news gets out on this island you can never live it down. For instance I once enthusiastically declared how much I “love roast chicken” and then the whole island was in on the roast chicken joke – teasing the same aforementioned male about when he would invite me home for roast chicken. Every time he and I were within the same space, chicken recipes would be exchanged by anyone within earshot or spying distance. I’m probably going to go off roast chicken for a while!

I do remember leaving the birthday quiz feeling rather despondent (despite an ensemble Macarena dance for additional points) after a very matter of fact telling from one guest that I was now “past it” and that my “eggs were drying up” so I had better get my figuratively ‘get my skates on’. I don’t particularly dwell on any of these things myself, preferring just to live life and take it as it comes, but having everything put quite so bluntly on a day of so-called celebration did feel a little unnecessary. Naturally I went home feeling a tad melancholy which carried over into the next day and my actual birthday.

fire

On the Monday morning following my birthday I received a welcome phone call from Daphne, Pawl’s mum “How are you?” she asks enthusiastically. She lives upstairs from Pawl and Sue in a quite separate home with her husband Keane. Though they share one driveway, the two floors really are worlds apart. Daphne has been one of the few islanders who has always welcomed me with open arms. I’ve enjoyed my time with her chatting about her family, going through old pictures, or talking about Elvis and her visit to Graceland. She always has the time for me, there is always a cup of hot coffee waiting, and usually some homemade breadsticks or some other baked delicacy. She was one of the first people to agree to have her photograph taken by me, which really helped in more ways than one.

I have spent many hours watching her weave her baskets with fingers dancing between the strands with quick precision. Weaving is one of the few traditional crafts that still exist on Pitcairn, with many of the older generation producing baskets for sale on the cruise ships and for their own use. It’s a laborious process, of gathering palm fronds from both a pandanus and the common palm tree, followed by preparation – stripping spines, washing, dyeing, drying, and cutting into strips.

On the phone Daphne mentioned that she had something for me, and to “pop up” when I was passing. Later that morning I stopped by and Daphne presented me with a homemade basket, with ‘RHIANNON’ woven around the lid in navy blue and natural coloured strands. After the time I had been having, it was such a genuinely thoughtful gesture that it almost brought me to tears. I gave Daphne a big squeeze which she seemed to receive happily enough.

It’s something that I have noticed about Pitcairn…. That there is very little physical affection shown anywhere. Not between brothers and sisters, parents and their children, husbands and their wives, or between friends. In London, life is not so matter of fact, people greet each other with a hug or a kiss on the cheek. People hold hands or will casually squeeze their partner around the waist when passing. Small shows of affection, nothing ground breaking, but present all the same.

Pitcairn has to be one of the least outwardly loving places that I have ever experienced and I think it’s one of the things I have struggled with in being here. People are happy to tease, or joke, but shows of real affection are rare. The people often move with a kind of bluster and purpose that almost seems to paint affection as time wasting. It feels very loveless and that practicality and necessity have taken precedence over the small encouragements that make life seem bearable. It’s almost as if everyone has to stay busy all of the time just so that they don’t stop and think and dwell on the relationships that they have and how they operate. Perhaps behind closed doors, things are different. I hope that they are different, and that at home when I am not there, love thrives. But I have a sneaking suspicion that things are not that different in private, and that life has now become about toil and the hard graft, a constant wheel turning relentlessly that everyone can rely on in a place where relationships can be fractured and fragile.

sundown

While here I have often wondered about community and what it means. Whether community is always good, or whether community can sometimes stifle goodness. I now know that ‘small’ and ‘close knit’ do not necessarily mean “strong” when talking of community – that a community’s small size can stop the individual from flourishing and in turn create barriers, reluctance and anger. There is no outlet. Even the roast chicken joke could be included in this – an island wide joke that spread via Chinese whispers. It was mostly harmless, but I did feel that instead of giving gentle encouragement or advice, the ribbing can lead to isolation of a kind. I never thought that feeling isolated would be possible in a place of only 40 people, all of whom are around you continuously, and I’m sure I’m not the only person that feels this way. I often feel I need space here, but by that I mean mental space away from the cacophony of gossip and negativity towards me. Pitcairn can be an exceedingly lonely place despite being the most claustrophobic place I have ever experienced. It’s not so much the physical position of this island that causes loneliness, but the dynamic of the people together.

The legal turmoil of the last decade has taken its toll, with divisions arising between families and even within families. No one has been untouched by that past, and here I still feel that tension all around me. It may have abated somewhat but the rifts are visible everywhere and it is going to take mammoth efforts to reunify and change attitudes.

As I mentioned in my last blog, I have felt this more than most – I am travelling with a camera and a recorder and I have been placed into a box by many islanders. No one has independently asked me what I am here to do, though a small handful of the community – the council members – had read my application in order to approve it. However all islanders have made assumptions and drawn conclusions that have embedded themselves and spread throughout this island like a kind of deadly poison. I have never been to any small place with strangers, where people have been so disinterested in me, even personally. They don’t really want to be friends with me and hold me at arms length – as I say, it’s lonely.

I am trying desperately to make this project work, to fight against the tides, to talk to people, to show my work, to show who I am, but it seems all too often that once a decision has been made it is unshakeable, and then the negative media released from Pitcairn is itself a self fulfilling prophecy. The positivity is drowned out by the past, yet again. A quick Google search will reveal pages and pages of bad press mostly to do with the trials, but when the community doesn’t seize opportunities to divert that image towards the positive angles, then how can Pitcairn really hope to survive?

I feel perfectly comfortable about saying this here because I have had this same conversation with many islanders. If you don’t dilute the negativity with some new content all that will ever be remembered is the recent history. How can anyone move on without presenting and being proud of a different side? Despite the recent history, there are good people here, there are good stories to be told, there are things to be proud of. But the world is unlikely to ever see them, and instead the overwhelming impression is that Pitcairn seems intent on wallowing under a shroud of darkness. I feel often as if I am watching the end – an island on lockdown. Nothing in, nothing out.

It makes you wonder about repopulation plans – it begs the question of if the island is ready for newcomers. Whether change from within can happen fast enough to save this small lump of rock for the ‘community’ that lives here. I may be generalising here, and I know that not everyone feels this way, but there seems to be an end point that certain islanders are striding towards rapidly by their own reluctance to engage and take ownership of their image. In a sense they are reconciled to the fate that awaits and as a result they have become complacent to an extent, and are defensive of that position, preferring not to draw attention to themselves and vanish quietly.

I have heard it mentioned by a couple of people that they almost look forward to being the last person to turn the lights out. It seems to me that this foregone conclusion acts as a barrier itself, as though by admitting failure one eschews ‘defeat’. This in turn comes back to their reluctance to engage with my project – I don’t know what I will leave here with. If the islanders don’t believe in preserving their present because the future is uncertain – it’s the “I’m not going to be here so what does it matter?” sort of attitude – then my efforts are almost thwarted before I begin. What most don’t seem to realise is that by letting me in, they might have a better chance of starting to change that image, but being open, openness spreads.

As someone who is fascinated with stories and by people, I find this all very puzzling. Especially in a place which superficially trades on its history to the extent that Pitcairn does…. That famous Bounty history that is seen everywhere – on hats and t-shirts worn by the islanders as an unofficial uniform, to the replica Bounty models in homes, to the paintings of the Bounty, and bookshelves overflowing with Bounty stories and Pitcairn related titles.

There is, outwardly, an obsession with the legend, but yet history in the real sense seems to slip through my fingers at every turn. As an artist, or a photographer, you are, effectively a historian. A record keeper, an observer, looking at the present as though every moment is an opportunity to capture an underlying essence or truth about the time we live in. But when so much seems to be smoke and mirrors, when people are closed, that kernel of truth – the truth that can sing out from an honest portrait or a simple detail is hard to find.

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