According to the Harvard Business Review, when it comes to making sense of vast amounts of complex data, time is really on our side. It’s a simple concept, one that everyone understands: an action starts, then eventually stops. The distance or the event horizons between those two points convey information – information about then, about now, and about the differences between the two. Being ‘away’ generates vast amounts of data, some of which is valuable, most is not. It takes time to sift through the mountainous piles. Like a poker hand, you have to know what to throw away and what to keep.
When I was at school, geography was one of those grey, indifferent subjects which had to be endured between more interesting activities. I never really was able to get to grips with it probably because my geography teacher was away scaling some impossibly difficult Himalayan peak and the substitute was a squat little Welshman who usually taught PE and coached Rugby, about which he was passionate. Lessons could therefore be fairly easily diverted from the main theme as long as Rugby, particularly Welsh Rugby was under discussion. En passant, we learned about the Steel Company of Wales, if memory serves, which was about as much use as Urdu For Dummies and I left his class no wiser whether Ougadougou or Wolverhampton was closer to Wales. My knowledge of longitude therefore did not extend very far and even as a young adult I can still recall thinking that New Zealand was a rather jolly little place just off the coast of Australia, within sight of land, rather like the Isle of Wight and easily reached by ferry.
I imagined it to be populated by dark-skinned, muscular individuals with tattoos – I’d seen ‘The Piano’ after all – with a few white people courtesy of Captain Cook, and quite a number of sheep. Rolling hills and Middle Earth, with quite a good Rugby team, which would have pleased my old geography teacher.
Anyone who has ever booked flights on the Internet will know that there is a malevolent faerie employed by the travel companies whose single job description is to change the numbers. Burrowing in the undergrowth of a million flights and connections one has no sooner tagged and bagged a particular flight than when the site is revisited five minutes later, the flight originally advertised at $1650 has unaccountably been repriced at $3480. I wondered what extras one gets for this additional amount. A seat, probably. We were committed to visiting only two destinations, Shanghai and Auckland. How we got there was a matter for the relevant faeries and their interns, of whom there are thousands, I’m certain, to sit down in the ether somewhere and hammer out an itinerary for us which didn’t cost a king’s ransom, nor involve twenty-six hour stopovers in Kazakhstan. We did make several fortuitous stops in various exotic locations, some with friends and some without. Singapore was one, if memory serves. I think we went to Sydney also – I have a photograph of me beside the Opera House – and we entered Hong Kong as we left it, in the middle of a violent thunderstorm.
When I look at friends’ Facebook interactions, and observe the strong ties they have with members of their families, I realize how conspicuously absent my own is. There is a black hole sometimes where others place the ‘family’ totem. I know it is there and have reconfigured the emotional software to skate around it, much as one might ski around a crevasse which you know is there and all you have to do is avoid it. My personal history has much to do with this and those who know me will understand why. I don’t necessarily envy such connections, for to do so one would have to have intimate knowledge of the object of such envy. I don’t envy the driver of a Bentley, since I’ve only ever seen one from the outside – I have no idea what it feels like to put it in gear and drive round in it. We were met at Auckland airport by a woman I had last known when she was a child. I wondered how we would greet one another. Yet, strange and perverse are the rules of family engagement, here was someone who thought like me. There was a thread, a bridge of some kind which joined us. It didn’t bind us together suffocatingly as two sheaves of wheat – it seemed ephemeral and without substance, yet strong, reaching across years of separation and growth in different directions to allow the unspoken to be perfectly understood and feelings to be calibrated with uncanny accuracy. To my surprise, I found this strangely comforting.
Before we left France, I wondered about her husband, the man with whom she had moved across eleven time zones. I wondered whether he would be ebullient, larger than life, obnoxiously full of backslappery and beery bonhomie, anxious to make me feel at home. Or, would he take a mutinously silent dislike to me, resenting my presence? Turned out I was enriched and blessed by our meeting. I sensed strength and quiet purpose about him – a man who says what needs to be said with clarity and quiet grace. I liked him immensely.
The notion of being a grandfather had always filled me with some degree of horror, since persons of this kind invariably have hairy ears and poor dress sense. It was therefore with some small relief that I met a small boy, my grandson, for the first time, who is the calmest child I have ever come across. I wondered whether he would either throw his arms round me or hide under his bed. Fortunately, he did neither. We sat together sometimes, he and I, sorting Lego into colour coded piles or looking at insects through a small plastic biotrope. He seemed to be OK with that, as was I.