Saturday, 25 October 2014

2 Degrees of Separation - No Escape

Raised in the UK and West Germany in an insular family of airmen and service people, my world was small. Not just childishly small, but a mini version of the real thing. When we emigrated to New Zealand after the sprawling population of Britain, I was struck again by how small the world can seem.

With only four million people, give or take a few hundred, it stands to reason that the country will function like a large city. I never knew all the people in Market Harborough, the town in England where we emigrated from, but I couldn’t leave the house without greeting a fair few. We couldn’t quite list the colour of everyone’s underwear from observing their washing line, but it was close on occasion.

Sometimes when I write, it feels as though my characters link and swirl in a bizarre dance, knowing each other and things about someone else that can be used to vary the pace of the plot. Someone always knows someone who knows someone. Perhaps on other continents, that can seem a little convenient, but once you’ve lived here a while, you realise that it’s how things are.

It’s called 2 degrees of separation and yes, there’s a name for it. It’s even the trademark of a mobile phone provider.

In the UK, if you go to a party and know almost nobody, conversation will invariably focus on two main topics.

“What was the weather like when you left home? It was raining where we were.”

“How did you get here today? Did you get stuck on the M25? It was like a car park this morning.”

In New Zealand, the conversation goes very differently. Occasionally it might be drawn towards the weather in a particularly dry lull in the chatter but we live on an island that is only a few kilometres across in some places. Auckland for instance, gets battered by tides and weather fronts driven by the Tasman Sea to the west and the Pacific to the east. The city can experience four complete seasons in a single day. It’s the same for the rest of us too. I have been rained on from a cloudless sky before now. There's no point mentioning it - it will be different in a minute!

The roads are largely dreadful, so we don’t mention those. When we first arrived, parts of State Highway One weren’t even sealed and Hamilton only just got a decent bypass after 150 years of existence. If we start talking about roading, we might not stop and anyway, it’s boring.

This is how the conversation in New Zealand with strangers will definitely go.

“Oh, you’re from Hamilton? Good old Tron hey. You might know my cousin; he lives in Pukete and works in a jewellers in Te Awa.”

Now if you did that in the UK - which unwitting New Zealanders will do when visiting with their, ‘Oh do you know John Smith from London?’ - you would get looked at as though you were mad. Not so here.

“Lives in Pukete and works at Te Awa? What’s his name?”

“Hone Ropata. He’s the manager.”

“Tall chap, nice teeth, got everything pierced?”

“Yeah, that’s him.”

“Ah yep, I know him. He goes out with my daughter’s best friend’s sister. Nice guy.”

See, I can hear you sniggering already but I’m telling you - that’s New Zealand! And yes, it took us by surprise too.

My husband once travelled an hour and a half to Rotorua with a colleague on business. They decided to go into a cafe for lunch which they had never been in before. Whilst there, my husband recognised a man sat at a table in the corner and approached him after they had eaten. And yes, it was his old boss from the bank in England that he worked in before we came. The man was on holiday in New Zealand.

If that’s not enough for you, then how about this?

We arrived on a one-way ticket with our four small children and used a camper van to tour the North Island. We camped in the far north at Russell and attended Sunday service at the oldest church in New Zealand which still has the musket holes in the walls from the Maori wars. A lovely ex-pat couple offered us to go back to their beautiful house on the beach for lunch and guess what?

Yes, our kind host turned out to be the obstetrician who delivered my husband in Bradford Royal Infirmary maternity unit over three decades previously.

My very beautiful daughter in
Palmerston North. This was on the cover of About Hana for a while.
If you are still doubting, then try this.

Whilst also in Russell, we parked next to a couple with a pop-top caravan. We chatted a few times and they gave us their address in Hamilton.

“That was nice,” I said to my husband afterwards. “Where’s Hamilton?”

“No idea,” he replied. “But isn’t that the place that everyone in Auckland told us to avoid. I seem to remember them saying, ‘take the 1B and go round it’ I’m sure that’s the place.”

Memorial to Captain Hamilton who is the namesake of
the city of Hamilton
So south we went, avoiding Hamilton and hit the east coast and a place called Te Puke. We were a good nine hours away from Russell and at least two from Hamilton - where obviously we had never been. In the camp site spa at 9 o’clock at night, we met a lovely lady and her granddaughter. Our four children and her one played around together and we got chatting.

“Ah Russell,” she said. “My friends just went for a holiday up there. You might have met them.”

Husband and I roll our eyes at each other. As if.

“Yes they’ve got a pop-top caravan and he limps slightly...”

Oh my goodness! Further chatter confirmed that it was definitely them.

A few weeks later heading north again, I glance up to see the welcome board for...

“Why are we in Hamilton?”

“I just wanted a look,” my husband says and I groan a bit. The town is beautiful; the sun is shining and the family consensus is to stay for a few days. “I’m going to ring that couple we met in Russell,” husband says and I’m gripped with misgivings. You just can’t do that! They won't have been serious! How embarrassing is this going to be?

They invited us for tea and we stayed the night. A week later we rented a house from them and have been in this area for nine years. On the Sunday, we went to their church and who should we see there but the woman from the spa - with clothes on this time.

My eldest daughter posing for the cover
of Free From the Tracks on the railway
line in Ngaruawahia
There are massive cultural differences between New Zealand and other countries and this is definitely one of them. The whole nation is one big community. Nobody is a stranger because there’s always this connection. I have given up fighting it. I will always know someone that they know and vice versa. 

As a Christian, I know that God had a hand in our journey over here because he slung so many good people across our path to help us out. But he used a cultural factor that was already here to do it.

If novels by New Zealand authors seem a little unrealistic from the point of view that everyone’s lives are bound up in each other’s then it’s because that’s truly how it is. If you’re reading our work from the safety of another continent, don’t make the mistake of thinking we played out some complicated plot sequence just for convenience. It’s highly probable that the murderer will be the hero’s brother’s-dog’s-cat’s-Uncle Tom-once removed from the budgie’s aunty.

So don’t scoff at us.

And whatever you do - never criticise one New Zealander to another. It is an absolute certainty that they will know them and you will end up sorry you ever mentioned it.

2 degrees of separation has no escape.

#travel #amwriting #NewZealand #tourism #2degrees #2degreesofseparation #novelines