Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Somewhere out there

Aquamarine by Pants

Karen Blixen said 'the cure for anything is salt water - sweat, tears or the salt sea'. Although I don't do much sweating or crying these days, I can no longer imagine living without water to look out on. In London, I had but a small strip of canal but it gave me inestimable pleasure. I could see enormous fish from my window. A large, noisy family of coots nested under that same window every year. Mute swans would glide by, sometimes in the moonlight, looking like a Disneyland ride. In summer the little thoroughfare would clog up with narrowboats captained by pipe-smoking, real ale drinking escapees from 1973. In the winter it would sometimes freeze over.

In a big city, you want to be somewhere where you can occasionally forget that there are eight million other busy little drone bees doing a lot of buzzing for a little pot of honey. You also never want to lose the feeling of smallness, the possibility of infinitesimalness. In a place dominated by the historic, the monumental and the ordered, the proximity to tiny wild things provides a symmetry essential for maintaining sanity. Goldfish are meant to be calming but every time I see a fish tank, I think of Nemo. It doesn't compare with a pond full of unconfined bream.

One of my favourite places in London is Kenwood Ladies' Pond. It's a natural pond on Hampstead Heath where women can swim and sunbathe topless. I spent a good part of every summer for twenty-five years swimming in the cold, fresh water with the ducks and coots and kingfishers. Blue dragonflies buzz around your head and you never lose the fear that an eel or pike will nibble at your toes. There was once a pontoon in the middle of it but I think it rotted away. A few years ago Kenwood Ladies' Pond, and the two other swimming ponds on the Heath (one for men and the other mixed), were nearly closed down. Given that it costs millions to build and maintain a 'cement pond', to borrow an expression from the Beverly Hillbillies, it seemed crazy to close a facility that cost almost nothing to run and didn't turn patrons' hair green or give them nasty viruses. Common sense prevailed. Londoners know that all deserts need oases to survive.

Australia is, in a way, the opposite. Not a small, cluttered island but a big, empty one. It is mostly open space so what you want ideally are connecting hubs of activity rather than serenity. My home vista now is a large expanse of the South Pacific Ocean. I can no longer see fish from my window but the occasional sighting of a Minke whale makes up for that. Now the wilderness represents the overwhelming and unknowable and the town, the comprehensible and manageable. I'm no longer looking downwards and peering but outwards and gazing, albeit with an equal sense of longing and curiosity for something that ought to be understood but isn't.

Not such a bad situation to be in, all things considered.