I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
William Wordsworth, 1804
It is so much easier to be in tune with things when you are near to, or immersed in, them. As a seventeen year old school girl in New Zealand I sat through a year of European Art History lessons. The subject was semi-interesting but I always wondered at the relevance of such olden-day, far-away subject matter? My level of interest was well exhibited in class one day directly after lunch. I was sitting at a front desk biting into an apple when Mister Boyd turned to me with a question. Taken by surprise, I opened my mouth and unexpectedly, shocking myself at least as much as anyone else in the room, gave a loud burp! Two years later I moved to England and one of the first visits I made was to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. Paintings I’d studied in Art History were suddenly before me! Cathedrals, castles, gardens, parks, statues and so much more all occupied space where famous people had stood and historical events had taken place. It all seemed so much more real and relevant and it was exciting. Would I have accidentally burped at Mister Boyd had I been learning European Art History from a school based in Europe? Given the complete disinterest that my fellow passengers showed in the hilltop castle bearing down on us as we pulled into Lancaster railway station the other day, the answer is probably “yes”!
Standing in the carpark of Dove Cottage near Grasmere in Cumbria three days ago, a fighter jet thundered overhead at supersonic speed, disappearing over the nearest crag before my nerves had time to collect themselves. Wordsworth, who wrote the above poem whilst living at Dove Cottage, could never have imagined such a phenomenon. His imagination inhabited much more organic places, inspired by his rural lakeside life in the days before England’s Lake District became the tourist mecca that it is today. Many of the millions of daffodils I’ve relished since arriving in England a month ago have made their way to my Facebook photo album, prompting Mum to refer me to the above poem. If I’d ever seen it before, I didn’t remember – remotely distant as I usually am from such lofty verse! What I didn’t know as I read his words, was that he was born, bred and wrote most of his work in and about, the Lake District, where I was headed. Life seems full of such serendipity!
Parking at Dove Cottage, I was amused that the parking meter assumed I might stay for up to three hours. How can looking at a little old cottage and museum about a long-dead poet take three hours? That was before I entered through the 400 year old dark oak door of this charming 17th century whitewashed stone converted inn, into Wordsworth’s world! The half hour guided tour through what was his home for only eight years, but at a time when his creativity was at it’s most prolific, was evocative of Wordsworth’s life here over 200 years ago. The museum next to his home was riveting and I came away – almost three hours later – well informed about Wordsworth, his family, the other Lakeside poets, their travels and ideas, romanticism and so much else.
For me, the most interesting thing about Wordsworth, who loved and wrote so much about nature, was his social commentary. He wrote about simple people – rural peasants, children and “idiots”, including one long poem called “The Idiot Boy“. According to one exhibit in the museum, “… William Wordsworth and his contemporaries challenged the established depiction of societies’ under-represented groups. The era posed the opportunity for civil rights and civil liberties to be re-evaluated for all…”. It seems he was an egalitarian, a fact which upset many of his peers.
I wondered about this as I drove along the steep and narrow stonewall-edged country lanes to the quaintly named, picturesque valley and lake of Buttermere that afternoon. During 15 months in Cambodia I never once saw any aircraft in the skies above us. Commercial flights do fly into and between airports at Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville airports, catering almost entirely to foreign visitors. There is allegedly an airforce, but on the small runway of Pochentong International Airport in Phnom Penh, where they are apparently based, I never saw anything resembling military aircraft. I can’t imagine who the pilots would be, or where they might have been trained? Certainly nothing comparable to the British pilots who twist and turn with such precision in the skies above Lake Windermere on a daily basis. Wordsworth died 165 years ago. But there are still no civil liberties for all in this world. Is injustice for the “lowly masses” born into bad luck an inevitability? I ask this question to myself everyday as I continue to wander lonely as a cloud among the daffodils in my privileged world.
Today may be the grimmest day in history yet, of people trying to make it across the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe. A migrant boat has capsized and 700 people are missing. BBC News have called the Mediterranean “a graveyard for people trying to escape”. During the Khmer Rouge terror in Cambodia in the 1970s boat loads of Vietnamese and Cambodians turned the South China Sea into a similar graveyard as hundreds of thousands made desperate attempts to escape. Many asylum seekers travel similarly on boats from Indonesia to Australia today and our government has brazenly taken steps to “stop the boats”, as though this somehow stops the crisis which leads to these desperate measures. All in the name of “protecting Australia”, implying suspicious foreign intent and feeding on our prejudices.
Researching a possible side-trip to Greece the other day, I was surprised to read that approximately 100 Syrian, Afghani and Sudanese refugees are arriving on the tiny island of Kos every day. Medecins sans Frontieres are launching a joint search, rescue and medical aid operation in the Mediterranean Sea and have been providing assistance and lobbying the Greek government to improve facilities for those arriving on the islands. MSF’s general director Arjan Hehenkamp could just as easily be speaking about Australia in his claim that “Europe has turned its back on people fleeing some of the worst humanitarian crises of our time…. Ignoring this situation will not make it go away. Europe has both the resources and the responsibility to prevent more deaths on its doorstep and must act in order to do so.” When people are so desperate to escape their homes using such drastic measures, the misery must be unimaginable. Which is why so many of us in our privileged bliss make accusations of “illegal immigrants” and their alleged ill intent. We are as disconnected from the subject we opinionate about, as the seventeen year old art historian I once was.
Everyday I hark back to Cambodia. I should probably be there. Or somewhere with Medecins sans Frontieres. But this year off has been so long anticipated and so many others have told me that they regretted “working during my long service leave”, that I am forcing myself to spend these few months holidaying. Very few people have such an opportunity and I need to revel in it. But while it’s many positive things – relaxing, interesting, different, fun – my life has changed exponentially since the days that I thought my dream was to sit about in New York tasting wine and taking photography classes. My happiness really does not lie in such self indulgent spoils. It probably never did. A message from Chom today said “We are very miss you”. The feeling is mutual!