Love in Tonga

Also amongst my father’s books is one called A True Tale of Love in Tonga / told in 23 engravings on wood and 333 words by Robert Gibbings, which Faber & Faber published in London in 1935. The flimsy red paper cover, with its image of two lovers surfacing from beneath the sea, is falling to bits; beneath it, back and front, is a splendid image of a black palm tree on a yellow ground standing before ocean waves. There is no name or date on the flyleaf and no indication anywhere else in the book as to where and when my father bought it nor for how much. Or was it a gift?

Robert Gibbings was an Irishman from County Cork, the son of a minister and his wife, an antiquarian. He fought at Gallipoli, was wounded, then repatriated. He studied medicine for three years but after the war decided he wanted to be a wood block artist instead. His early work was in advertising but, by 1923, he was illustrating Samuel Butler’s Erewhon; and soon after, with a loan, he bought Golden Cockerel Press, where he worked for a decade with, among others, Eric Gill. He was most proud of publishing a luxurious four volume edition of The Canterbury Tales; and, subsequently, The Four Gospels, both of which Gill illustrated.

Gibbings’ connection with the Pacific was serendipitous. He had illustrated A Mirror for Witches by Esther Forbes for Houghton Mifflin and when he sent the blocks to Houghton in Boston, he said, jokingly, in the covering letter: ‘Next time you give me a job, for God’s sake send me to the South Seas―I’m sick of English fogs.’ However the publishers took him seriously and commissioned him to illustrate a book on Tahiti to be written by James Norman Hall, author, with Charles Nordhoff, of the novel The Mutiny on the Bounty and its two sequels, Men against the Sea and Pitcairn’s Island.

Gibbings went out via Sydney to Papeete and spent four months in French Polynesia, during which time he also visited the Marquesas Islands. Hall’s text never eventuated but Gibbings nevertheless published two books from his Tahitian sojourn. Iorana, a semi-fictional account of his time in the islands, came out in two versions, one bowdlerised, the second complete; he later disavowed both of them.

The other book was based upon a tale he heard on the beach: The Seventh Man, a True Cannibal Tale of the South Sea Islands / told in Fifteen Wood-Engravings and precisely one hundred and eighty-nine words. Published in a limited edition by the Golden Cockerel Press in 1930 and never reprinted, it is now very rare; nevertheless, it provided the template for the one my father owned: a small, square wood cut print on each recto, with the bare minimum of words above and below, describing the action; verso blank.

For A True Tale of Love in Tonga, Gibbings used a story told by William Mariner, the fourteen year old boy spared after the massacre of the crew of the privateer the Port au Prince off Lifuka in the Ha’apai group in 1806. Mariner lived four years in Tonga and afterwards, with an editor, wrote an account of the islands and their culture; the transliterations of the names are Mariner’s own.

Gibbings opens with an image of the high chief, the Tooi-Tonga, as an aging tyrant surrounded by piles of skulls. His rival Veachi intends to overthrow him but the plot is revealed by a traitor and Veachi and all of his family are condemned to death. They are to be bound and placed sitting upright in leaky canoes which are then sent out beyond the reef where they will fill slowly with water then sink beneath the waves.

Veachi’s daughter Lyfotoo is, however, absent when her people are captured, and Toio-omoo, a chief of Vavaoo, who is in love with her, runs to warn her of the danger. He conceals her in a cave, off the island of Hoonga, whose entrance can only be reached by diving under the sea; he found it while fishing for turtles. He continues to visit her each night with food and water, always returning to Vavaoo before dawn; until he and his kinsfolk are ready to sail to Figi to wait out the reign of the Tooi-Tonga.

Toio-omoo is asked why he doesn’t take a Tongan wife with him to Figi and replies, mysteriously, that perhaps he may find one along the way. Off Hoonga he dives over the side of his canoe and disappears; returning, some time later, with a comely woman by his side; whom his kinsfolk recognise as Lyfotoo. They spend two years in Figi then, when the tyrant dies, return to Vavaoo where they ‘lived happily ever after’.

It seems to me that my father might have seen analogies between this tale and his own encounter with the Tongan girl on Tongatapu in 1943 or 44. Or perhaps I am being fanciful. In the absence of any solid evidence, I still think he must have acquired this book after his war service was over; that is, in the mid to late 1940s when he and my mother were, apart from a year spent in Dunedin, living in Wellington.

Oddly enough, Robert Gittings was also living there for six months around the same time, suggesting the possibility of a direct connection. He left England for the South Seas on VJ Day and spent eighteen months on a leisurely tour of the islands, visiting Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, the Cook Islands, the Tokelaus, the Tuamotus and Tahiti; with a side trip to New Zealand. He had a friend in Dunedin, John Harris, the librarian at the University of Otago, whom he’d known at Oxford in the 1920s.

When he visited Harris he gave him five vellum sheets, three from The Canterbury Tales and two from John Keats’ Lamia, for the library; one of the sheets from the Tales was illustrated by Eric Gill. It might have been through Harris that Gibbings met the artist Russell Clark, then working in advertising in Wellington. The two became friends and Clark made a caricature of Gill which was published in the NZ Listener in 1948. He shows him naked, bearded, garlanded, on top of a wave in a small dugout canoe, while the sun beats down from above and round about the flying fishes play.

Clark had been an early teacher of Colin McCahon, whose sister Bea married my father’s friend Noel Parsloe after the war. Gibbings spent his six months in Wellington holed up in a house in Eastbourne with his wife’s sister as his amanuensis, typist and lover, working on the book he was writing about his Pacific Island travels. Over the Reefs, with engravings by the author, came out from J M Dent and Sons in 1948 and is as charming, as evocative and as elusive as was Gibbings himself.

He does not write much about New Zealand therein, confining himself, in chapter 25, to some brief remarks about its bird life including, of course, the kiwi; which he drew, humorously, with a worm wriggling near the tip of its long curving beak.

While Gibbings was in Eastbourne, my father and mother were living in Salek Street in Lyall Bay, in a house temporarily vacated by friends who had gone to Auckland. No car, no phone; non-descript furniture, typical of rented dwellings of the time: the squeaky wirewoves and lumpy kapok of their beds, the ancient cream and green painting of their kitchens.

My father established the first of his many luxuriant vegetable gardens—carrots, leeks, cabbages, beans, lettuce—in the unpromising sandy earth, while my mother grew marigolds, asters, sweet peas, delphiniums and ranunculus out the front. He had a rehab bursary that allowed him to study towards an MA in Education; in the holidays he worked painting the high wooden gates down on the wharves.

She was teaching at South Miramar Primary School, just over the hill in Worser Bay. It was 1947 and she was pregnant; their first child, my sister Virginia, was born towards the end of that year, around the time that Robert Gibbings departed for England.

I like to think of my father going down Lambton Quay to Modern Books one evening after work or study and finding there on the shelves a brand new copy of A True Tale of Love in Tonga, buying it and bringing it home: to show to his wife? Or not?

When I talk about analogies with his own experience, I mean he might have thought the woman Lyfotoo in the cave beneath the sea resembled the unnamed girl he met in the fale in the village on Tongatapu; with one difference. Unlike Toio-omoo, he did not return; but left her there, abandoned as it were at a fork in the road which she, and he, would never take.

Whether he felt abandoned himself it is impossible to say. He might have had regrets whatever happened. His true tale of love in Tonga had no issue but the enigmatic presence of the Gibbings, the only art book he ever owned, in his library; and my uneasy stewardship of both the physical object and its equivocal, perhaps illusory, meanings.

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