More than seventy years ago, on 13 July 1946, Douglas MacDiarmid first sailed from New Zealand – bound for England, and ultimately France. World War II was over and the sea lanes to the Northern Hemisphere were finally open again to non-military passengers. He was travelling as tutor to 11-year-old Buddy, son of his Christchurch landlady and cherished friend Blanche Harding on the six-week voyage and subsequent European adventures to claim her lost inheritance. This was a departure bound up in mixed emotion – yearning to be getting away to “devour the world’ at last, some trepidation for the unknown ahead, and the deepest disquiet for unresolved relationships being left behind. The night before boarding MV Port Alma in Lyttleton, sitting up in the Port Hills, he wrote this poem, and later painted a self-portrait of himself on the brink of this new life…
The Night Before Sailing from Home 1946
Tonight, though stretched
Upon the actual turf,
Sweet airs are keener
In the tussock than by day
As the city’s eyes in dark
To penetrate the peace denied me.
For a dead and limbo heart
Alone and lying in the hills,
At least there’s staring at the moon.
In 2016, Douglas MacDiarmid recorded a number of his early poems, including The Night Before Sailing From Home as a lasting impression of his voice.
By that time, he had made two nostalgic paintings of his feelings that graphically illustrate the poem. In her 2002 art history book MacDiarmid, Dr Nelly Finet describes the intensity of The Last Night There 2002: “This is also a way of seeing the past, taking the painter back nearly sixty years to the night before leaving New Zealand for Europe. At last, Douglas realises, this gnawing need to discover for himself a continent fertile with every hope, is on the point of becoming reality. It is a fulfillment of years of dreaming and he is worked up and ready to burst. At the same time, the clear fact of now leaving birthplace, family, friends, compounds into the sure pain of uprooting. The young man passes several hours of his last night up in the Port Hills, Christchurch. It is a meditation of some moment, looking down over the Canterbury Plains to the Southern Alps of his student years, that is here evoked. The last of the sun’s rays glow beneath a crescent moon in the sombre firmament overtaken by obscurity. His state of mind is conveyed by this duality of day and night, light and dark, known and unknown. It is a moment of exultation in which youth’s frustrations give way to relief, but also the bitter wrench of breaking with life till now.”
To read more about Douglas MacDiarmid’s fascinating journey through life Buy your copy of Colours of a Life – the life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid by Anna Cahill (2018)