Friday, 28 May 2010


Last time I was in an international airport I spent several hours facing the following poster:
“You never actually own a Patek Philippe.
You merely look after it for the next generation”

I think that’s clever. First, because it justifies spending a small but fairly new car on something that tells you the time. Second, because it implies that it’s not even FOR you; buying yourself this opulent item is an act of generosity to your beloved child. Third, it’s an investment not a luxury, thus whisking it out of the frivolous class and straight into the prudent. Fourth, it gives you delusions of dynastic grandeur. And fifth and grandest of all, merely by buying this item, you are moving yourself into the social stratum that ponders legacies. And all this without mentioning watches, money, children, class, value, materials, build quality or price.

The reason it struck me so was a conversation I had had in Maruranau just a week or two previous. I will try to set the scene. B and I are driving around the Deep South on the Quest of the Holy Sewing Project. We have had a hot and spine-frottingly uncomfortable morning. We stop in with Adrian the Headteacher’s parents, even though we have barely met them, just because we want a break from stiff and awkward conversations. Adrian’s dad welcomes us like old friends, seating us on sawn-off log stools. He sends a man up a tree to fetch coconuts. He climbs using a figure of eight loop of cloth twisted round his feet, which he jumps up the trunk. The machete tucked down his back doesn’t seem to bother him. He lowers a huge bunch of coconuts. Adrian’s dad slices the top off and passes them on to be drunk, one, two, three each. The young green coconuts have only a thin, eggwhite-soft meat. He hatchets them in half and we scrape that out with a spoon.

We sit chatting of Aishalton, the Deep South Games, education and home. He tells us he has been preparing the ground for a full year now to plant a whole new set of coconut palms. He digs a hole 3 foot square by three foot deep, and fills it with compost. Watering regularly through the dry months, he keeps compressing and composting, compressing and composting. He fences to prevent the pigs scoffing all the compost. The crucial decision comes around May, when he must judge whether the rainy season is really set in. Plant too early and the coconut palm will die from insufficient water. Too late and it will not have a chance to mature as it needs to before the next dry season kills it off altogether.

His house is built for impermanence: mud brick and wood and thatch. Why would he collect money? The nearest bank is 6 rough and expensive hours away. The Guyanese dollar is a soft currency and few would bank on its worth. What expensive possessions would survive here? Electrics quickly die from the damp. Jewellery seems rather pointless when one is constantly grubby and scruffy and clothes never get clean. If it’s mouldable, rustable, or has any problems coping with heat, water, insects or being stomped on, forget it.

So he plants these coconut palms as the legacy for his grandchildren. It’s simple but genius. Doesn’t need replanting every few years, doesn’t need tending, isn’t susceptible to any of the listed attritions, and gives food, drink, shelter and roofing. When it comes to the crunch, which is more use? Somehow Adrian’s dad and his coconut palms make absolute nonsense of Patek Philippe.


  1. You go girl! I couldn't agree more! xx

  2. It is interesting that while his house is built for impermanence, there is an underlying assumption that his grandchildren will remain there so as to benefit from the coconut palms. Theoretically I could plant a small orchard in the UK, but I have no expectation that my grandchildren would remain in the area to benefit from it.

    The concept of leaving a legacy is a deep-rooted one, although the context may change. Whether one is saying "my grandfather planted these coconut palms" or "this was my grandfather's watch", there is still an inherent sense of pride that one's ancestor thought ahead, and that one can have that tangible link with a previous generation. The contextual difference is that if Adrian's dad doesn't plant the saplings then there will be no adult trees for his grandchildren, whereas if I don't buy an expensive watch it does not preclude my grandchildren from owning one.

    But I think that what you are saying is that we should consider the form in which our various legacies have their existence. Adrian's dad is assisting in the creation of something that would not otherwise exist. In the West, people mostly think of legacies as being financial or property. Those of us able to create something lasting should be honoured above those just able to save money, yet the reverse is often the case. For example, to be able to sing or play a piece of music and say "my father wrote that" would be amazing. But then you know all about that :o)