Andrew Neaum

When I was a little boy, a lovely, curly headed lad of seven, my father, who was an Anglican parson, abandoned his comfortable country parish in England, and went off as a missionary priest, with his wife, my brother and sister and me, to the Island of Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic Ocean.


Whales tails, penguin and albatross eggs

This is reckoned to be the loneliest island in the world, being fifteen hundred miles from the nearest inhabited land. It is the peak of an old volcano, rearing up from the sea floor to a height of six thousand seven hundred feet above sea level.


On the edge of the Roaring Forties, it is almost midway between Cape Town in South Africa and Montevideo in South America. Its population in those days was about 350 people, folk of mixed race, making a living from the sea.


Splendid cray fish are caught there in the kelp beds around the island. Their tails were tinned in a tiny factory and sent off, via Cape Town, to America. There Rockefellers, Roosevelts and Kennedys gobbled them down with upper-crust gusto. We used to gobble down the rejected and delicious legs with lower class gusto, just as much enjoyment and at no cost whatsoever. “Blessed are the poor” indeed.


On that island of Tristan da Cunha where, my memory tells me, I was deliriously happy, with its wild seas, its soaring mountain, its gales and its calms, we lived in a Royal Navy built, wooden house. It was a mere hundred yards or so from the sometimes sighing, usually roaring ocean, from which, on calm, still evenings, we could hear whales blowing and trumpeting, and smashing their tale flukes on the sea's surface.


When I look back on my very happy childhood, Tristan dominates. It has become a personal Garden of Eden where I ran wild and free, bare-footed in summer, riding donkeys, fishing, serving at the altar, keeping a pet penguin, learning to eat and appreciate penguin and albatross eggs, knowing God uncomplicatedly, loving and being loved.


I was there for three and a half years. When I left, I knew that in all probability I would never ever get back. That I was expelled from the Garden, but I have remembered it, and longed for it ever since.


Expulsion from Eden

Adam and Eve were expelled from their Garden too, so the old story goes. They were expelled from the sort of garden that wild, flea-ridden, grit-in-the-eye, desert nomads would dream of. Expelled from scented, flowering, leafy-loveliness, from bubbling streams and fountains, from ordered, bordered paths where God strolled, like an Oriental Sheik, in the cool of the evening. They were expelled from all this into a real and adult world that we know only too well. The world of nettles and thistles, of struggle and discord, of cancer, multiple sclerosis, terrorists, pollution and politicians, a world of filthy, graffiti-scribbled walls, of city streets upon which the weak and elderly are pushed, shoved and mugged. a world in which innocence and goodness are crucified.


Poor Adam, poor Eve, poor us, their descendants. But we all come to terms with our lot. Kicked out of Eden, the Eden of our childhood, we attempt to build or to find again our own private little Gardens of Eden, and most of us, after a little impossible dreaming, settle upon our home and garden. Which becomes to us our personal and particular Garden of Eden, a carpeted, comfortable, just-as-we-like-it, cosy, tasteful paradise. We lavish our savings, plans and dreams upon it, until, with ineffable sadness and regret, we are expelled once more, this time, by old age, or death.


I am no different from anyone else, I too fancy a particular and personal Garden of Eden, but being a nomadic parson, someone who doesn’t own his own house and doesn't particularly want to, I look elsewhere for that Eden.


Which perhaps explains why, some years ago, I decided on a return to the Eden I was expelled from as a child.


Swapping Africa for St Helena

At the time I was a priest in Africa, and happy enough there. I was Rector of a parish that had been left a share in a local gold mine, way back in the days when gold was but a few dollars an ounce. Since then the price of gold had rocketed and so my parish was embarrassed with money. It was the richest in its diocese, and all the money was tied up in a carefully controlled and policed “Trust Fund”, for the use and welfare of this particular parish alone.


It was a crazy situation. It didn't matter what the Rector did or said, it didn't matter if no one came to church! With an insouciant air, he could rest assured that the parish coffers were full and brimming over.


However, one day, with my wife's companionable agreement, I turned my back on the problems of too much money and on the insuperable political challenges of black Africa, with all its poverty, uncertainty and violence, and instead I went as a missionary priest to somewhere very different. We headed for somewhere which I hoped would approximate very closely to Tristan da Cunha, to St Helena, an island again, right in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean.


It is a thousand or so miles from Africa, more from South America and one thousand five hundred miles north of Tristan da Cunha. It has Tristan connections though, because many years ago, the men on Tristan had asked the Captain of a passing whaler to acquire some wives for them, women being hard to come by in the middle of a wild ocean.


The captain forgot about his promise to do something until he called in at St Helena, and so there he picked up half a dozen or so adventurous or desperate women, who were willing to take a chance on Tristan and her men.


As he drew near to Tristan, the captain began to have a few qualms. The women were decidedly dusky of complexion, would the Tristan men accept them? The pusillanimous fellow dropped the ladies on the beach before dawn and disappeared to the other side of the island for a while.


When he returned, he found no complaints. The men had chosen their wives by lot and all was well. So Tristan and St Helena have been linked ever since, and although fifteen hundred miles of ocean separates them, they are linked administratively as well. For the Governor of St Helena, a fellow who on ceremonial occasions still wears the white plumed imperial pith helmet of yore, is governor of Tristan as well.


We arrived on St Helena two months late. We were stranded in Cape Town because the British Government had seized the island's only supply ship upon which we were booked, to assist them in the Falklands war. We had to throw ourselves upon the charity of the Anglican church which put us up for a couple months, here and there, in the beautiful city of Cape Town until a place was found for us on a ship found to replace the one serving in the Falklands, a rusty little tub called “The Aragonite”. It was only six hundred tons, and it took seven days to get to St Helena, rolling and bucking in the South Atlantic swell and carrying only twelve crew and twelve passengers, with very few comforts. It was nonetheless a very happy little ship.


On the morning of the seventh day, we were up before light looking at a black stain against a starry horizon, and as day dawned we had our first proper glimpse of the forbidding, thousand feet or more brown cliffs of the island that was to be our home for the next three years. We eventually sailedg into its lee with porpoises heralding our arrival, a good dozen of them leaping in unison, breaking the water for our ship’s bow and leading it to its anchorage off the narrow valley into which the single-streeted and only town of the island, Jamestown, is crammed. We could see an ancient fortified wall at the valley's bottom and St James' Church and tower clearly visible beyond it.


The emerald set in bronze

The island is a scrap of an island, only six miles by ten, about forty seven rugged, precipitous and very beautiful square miles. It was discovered in 1502 by the Portuguese, and was garrisoned by the British East India Company in 1659. It was inhabited thereafter by British officials, settlers and slaves. There were about five and a half thousand of their descendants when we were there. There were no native or aboriginal inhabitants. Today's population is made up of folk of every colour and characteristic, bearing evidence in their features and pigmentation of China, India, Malaya, Madagascar, Europe and Africa.


It is an island far into the tropics, but cooled by the constant Trade Winds. It is brown and arid around its precipitous perimeter cliffs, lush, green and temperate higher up in the centre. An emerald set in bronze as viewed from the air by a passing angel. Very beautiful, very peaceful, anachronistic, one of the few remaining full British colonies, poor, but not starving, thanks to British Government grants-in-aid.


So what more could a priest like me ask for then? Truly a little Garden of Eden in this troubled world. Out of the stream of things, famous briefly when Napoleon was exiled there and died, but now largely forgotten. No airstrip of any kind, the terrain far being too rugged, and so almost no tourists. Mail arrived from the North only six times a year, and from the South Six times a year, brought by the one small boat that supplied the island sailing from Avonmouth in England to Cape Town and back, calling in both ways.


The climate where we lived, seventeen hundred feet up, next to the Cathedral, of which I was vicar, was almost perfect. In three years the coldest temperature on the coldest night was 14 degrees centigrade, the hottest temperature on the hottest day, 25 degrees centigrade. Rainfall was about 33 inches per annum, though three miles away, on the coastal cliffs, only 8 inches per annum. Always gentle rain too, never any thunder storms.


The last thunderstorm had occurred sixty years before our arrival and because so rare an occurrence it was remembered not only with awe, but also with horror by association with an outbreak of polio.


The island has what is called orographic rainfall, a shallow layer of moist air, when forced over the mountainous island sticking out of the sea is forced up and over, and so drops a degree or two in temperature which leads to gentle precipitation. Hence far less rain on the edge, far more in the higher interior, as well as lots of mist too, higher up. So much so that the trees grew lichen beards on their branches, epiphytic growth. The Garden of Eden.


The parson’s lot a happy one

What of my job on the island? Was that as good as old Adam's in Eden? Well few people probably realise, that even in Shepparton an Anglican parish priest's job takes a lot of beating. You are largely your own boss, for a start, and you are paid not only to work, but also to pray, read, think and ruminate as to life's meaning and purpose. You also have innumerable opportunities to be creative, in the written and the spoken word, or architecturally, if that is your bent, or in stained glass, painting, music, needlework and embroidery, should any of these be where your talents lie. And always there are people to mix with, defer to, impress, dazzle or bore, people of every sort; rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief, ancient, old, middle-aged, young, children, infants. The whole spectrum of humanity is grist to the parson's mill and how fascinating and absorbing it all is.


My mother's father was an Anglican parson, my own father was one, soon, very soon, my son and his wife too will be parsons. All of us, we trust, authentically called by God, but that call made all the clearer by our first-hand acquaintance with and experience of i,t as well, perhaps, as by our possession of some strange, haloed and Levitcal gene.


There are always difficulties and obstacles in our job of course, like mealie-mouthed and wowser parishioners, or interfering and doltish bishop's, or aggressive hot-gospellers, fanatic fundamentalists even fanatical and evangelical atheists. However it must be said, that from this parson's point of view, the priests fascinating job, especially when lived and worked in a setting such as St Helena, is very good.


The perfect diocese

In those day the diocese of St Helena would have to be close to being the perfect diocese. One Bishop, four parishes, four priests. One of the parishes and its priest though, an inconvenient 700 miles away on Ascension Island.


Of the three priests on St Helena each had a parish, and each parish contained roughly a third of the island' s total population. So there were about two thousand souls in each parish. There were two country parishes and one town parish.


There was, as I've noted, only one town, Jamestown. That town and parish, had three churches to serve its total population of about 1800.


Then there was the Cathedral parish, where I was. Up in the hills it took in half the island's area, the loveliest half too, for its total population of 2000. It had the Cathedral and four daughter churches, none of them empty or in danger of redundancy.


The third parish took in the rest of the island. It had two churches and another was planned.


So for a mere five and a half thousand people, three priests. Less than 2000 people a parish. What an opportunity, perfectly possible to visit every single house in your parish each year.


It is odd, of course, that there should be eleven Anglican churches for so small a population, but it was due largely to the rugged nature of the terrain. The churches were where the people were, and none of them was empty. So for a priest the place was indeed the Garden of Eden.



One of the minor difficulties of living on isolated small islands, is that there is no where to go to get away from it all. Days off and holidays have to be held on site, as it were. There is no escape from your parishioners.


This was no real worry to us. On my days off I would go fishing, for example. It is the only place I have ever lived where you never, ever came back empty handed. It was there that I actually learned to fish. A small group of Islanders would collect me at the crack of dawn and we would make our way down horrendously unstable and dangerous, thousand foot high and crumbling cliffs, the islanders wearing homemade hessian moccasins, as a remedy against slipping and falling to their death, I, in rugged boots, relied on them, the islanders knowledge, prayer and extreme caution.


Eventually we would arrived at some obscure, ruggedly beautiful, but notable fishing spot, grab a few scuttling crabs for bait, and off we'd go, nearly all of us returning with at least half a sack full of really tasty fish, to supplement our rather limited diet, for not only were we poorly paid, fresh meat was often hard to come by and we kept our own chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese, both for their eggs and meat. Particularly succulent eating came from moray eels, vicious brutes that needed careful handling. Their beautiful white flesh was also dangerous if any of the Y shaped bones were left embedded in it. They are indigestible and so pass right through you, unless, as sometimes prone to do, they pierce somewhere nasty and stick there.


One of the island's great stories, verified as essentially true by one of the doctors I sometimes went fishing with, was of some poor fellow who was fed by his simpleton wife some moray eel with a bone or two still in residence. One of these, on its passage through him, didn't quite make it and embedded itself in his sphincter as firmly as a bindi in a sandal’s sole. Instead of going to the hospital he was persuaded by his wife to allow her to sort him out, and so she took to his sphincter with a pair of pliers. This was so excruciating that the poor fellow rushed roaring from the house, and pulled up a banana tree in his agony, after which septicaemia set in and he died.


Another sort of fishing available on days off was a trip out with professional tuna fishermen. We started before light in the island’s lee, catching mackerel for bait, and then, with a good stock of them in the boat's tank, we would eat several of them fresh, for breakfast, delicious they were too, splashed with vinegar and cooked on a cockroach-spit and grease enamelled stove as we headed out for the deep water and tuna haunts. Once out of the island’s lee, needless to say, the delicious breakfast, diluted with bile, returned to the mouth and then over the boat's side until excitement displaced seasickness as the great lines hummed and the large-eyed, glittering, monster fish were gaffed on board.


Although a very small an island, it was extremely rugged, and cut by deep gorges and ravines that defined distinct highlands and mountains, so there were innumerable, spectacular walks and climbs.


All around the perimeter, the walks would be moonscape-dry, the crumbling and colourful scoria and rocks hard on the feet. More toward’s the island’s centre, steep green pastures made for easier walking, though there remained large areas of less accommodating, wind touseled , New Zealand flax, which had once been the island's main cash crop, from which string for England's Royal Postal Service was made, but now redundant, having been superseded by nylon. You could earn a hundred quid an acre grubbing the flax out, not a large enough incentive to clear the place quickly.


The people

And the people? What were they like? They were 90% Anglican. There was a quite strong group of uncooperative Jehovah's Witnesses, there was an active little group of Baptists, a tiny community of Salvoes and of 7th Day Adventists, but the overwhelming majority was Anglican.


Like everywhere else though, not all went to church, but unlike Britain and Australia, which are almost irredeemably new-age-sentimental-pagan, or thoroughgoing secularists, materialists, and hedonists, and where the attitude of the public at large to the Church is either hostile or indifferent, this was just not so on St Helena.


There, certainly when we were there, everyone was aware of the Church as a positive part of the island's life. Until about three years before we arrived, by unwritten agreement, no public dances were held for the whole of Lent. There still weren't any during Holy Week. The priest was “'Father” even to those who never went to church. He was called in, without exception, at grievous illness and death.


Each month I took the sacrament into thirty two homes, many of them little, painted, stone cottages at the end of scenic winding paths with glorious views of mountain, gully and sea. In those I visited lived the housebound elderly or sick desirous of sacramental comfort.


Churchgoing, although supposedly in decline, was far better than anywhere else in the world I know of. Where else in the world, for example, would a regular Wednesday Evensong attract anything up to sixty people, as it did in one of my churches? The Garden of Eden indeed.


All of which leads on to a very obvious question. One which everyone here, I am sure, is perceptive and alert enough, to be dying to ask. Why, for heaven's sake, were missionary priests like me having to go to such a place? The traffic surely should have been the other way. It is, or was, a more Christian society than either Australia or England, an inspiration. It should have been exporting clergy and Christians, not importing them.


The answer to the question is, of course, that there is no such place as the Garden of Eden. Eden is a myth from our past, a nostalgia for the comfort and security of the womb. The truth in the myth is that God, for our own good, kicks us out of Eden into the real world which is the “Vale of Soul Making”.


Not really Eden

So I fear that even St Helena, was a part of the real and fallen world too. To pretend otherwise would be to lie, although everything I have said so far is true. It was a wonderful, lovely, rewarding place to work and live.


While we were on the island we had the first murder in something like 80 years. It was all to do with drink, jealousy and adultery - common enough sins in Shepparton as we all know. But I remember well the comment made to me by a top English defence lawyer who came out to play his part in the trial. He looked at our lovely island, on his first day there, and he said: “What a terrible place. How can anyone bear to live here? The sadness of the people and place Is almost palpable.”


He was overstating things of course, but he had caught something of an underlying feel to the place nonetheless. Something of the less than obvious. Superficially everything was indeed wonderful. People waved as you passed them in the car, smiling, but underneath, in many, there was discontent, resentment, hopelessness, idleness, lack of direction, materialism, selfishness, unoriginal original sin.


In this South Atlantic Garden of Eden, people were no happier than anywhere else I have been, perhaps less so. The illegitimacy rate was 50%, in spite of all that churchgoing, in spite of all that pre-baptism counselling and marriage preparation.


Round the world yachtsmen knew St Helena to be a haven where so called love is free. They dallied there for weeks, many of them Australians, bringing new blood to the island and new strains of venereal disease.


Guaranteed employment for men encouraged only idleness. Why work if employment by government is sure no matter what? Guaranteed employment was in the form of a work for the dole scheme, unemployed men spent three days a week idly scraping weeds from the fifty or so miles of twisting, narrow roads. Not soul-satisfying work.


The island produced little to be proud of. There was nothing to export, except for a small amount of fish. The waters around the island are not rich, there being almost no coastal shelf worth talking of, and deep sea fish tend to be less abundant in tropical than in cold waters.


For no apparent reason, except lack of initiative, the island was not even self sufficient in fruit and vegetables. Alcoholism was a problem, drunkenness among the men endemic. And of course Britain has forgotten how to govern colonies. She is embarrassed by them, she sent out lots of well paid experts who were resented both for their pay and their expertise.


The Queen and Royal Family were loved, their portraits graced the walls of every cottage, but the British Government and its immigration laws was hated. There was an ongoing battle to get full British identity with freedom of movement in and out of Britain for the islanders, but while we were there nothing had come of it, and so there was a great sense of grievance. The British government was hated, and yet to love her Majesty and hate her Majesty's Government, can come perilously close to schizophrenia.


Full entry rights to Britain have now been obtained, and so possibly much of this resentment has gone, certainly since we were there the population of the island has shrunk with folk leaving to find employment in Britain.


When we were there the few islanders who made it to the top, tended to be scorned and vilified for sycophancy. Finding leaders and people who would speak their mind was very difficult. Church membership was almost entirely conventional, there was no fiery commitment to Lord or sacrament, just affection for the institution, the building, and above all, for the graveyard, where Mum, Gran and Grandad are buried.


And gossip, how people gossiped. One sherry for the vicar and he was declared an alcoholic, a smile at the churchwarden's wife and he was an adulterer.


So where is my Garden of Eden? Not there. Not anywhere. Eden is always once upon a time, never now. Always yesterday, never today.


Shepparton as Eden

Eden really is a myth, and must be a myth, a lovely, lovely myth encapsulating important truth.

It is somewhere we travel from, not to.


There must be many folk around the world who spent their childhood in Shepparton, and who look back on it with all the joy that I look back on Tristan da Cunha. Who view Shepparton as they remember it as a Garden of Eden, and who dream of swimming on hot summer days in the clay-misted eddies of the Goulburn river, and of fishing in a tin boat for Murray Cod, longing to sink their teeth into a soft fillet of one such. Who dream of hearing again the cacophonous, pterodactylic caterwauling of the cockatoos that roost and nest in the eucalypts of the flood plain, and of chasing goannas along the bark-and-broken-branch-littered, sun-parched earth up the silvery trunks of our riverine gums. For whom the names Corio Street, Wyndham Street, Maude Street and Welsford Street are filled with enchantment, flooding them with nostalgia and longing, and for whom the old post office remains the post office for it was still standing when they left, and who dream of orchards in blossom, and of sun-warmed, lightly furred peaches and apricots soft to the lips and sweet on the tongue, and who would die to take one more a trip to Dookie and to stroll up Mount Major.


Yes Eden is a myth, it must be a myth. a lovely, lovely myth, somewhere we travel from, not to.


But we were there once, and so if it doesn't exist, it did. And where we are now, one day we won't be. So in fact, Eden is now, though of necessity, viewed always from then, the future, rather than from now, the present.