My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.
I doubt I can be alone in feeling completely alienated from the contemporary world; a world in which the biggest banks are the biggest crooks; in which politicians and their electorates, economists and the media believe infinite growth is possible in a finite world (and even if it is, what kind of a world would that be?). Even the Mayor of Toronto lacks enough dignity to resign to save the city the embarrassment of his presence.
And this is not to mention the Three Es which are gradually and remorselessly closing in on us.
Energy – maximum global oil production has been reached, which is bad news for economics dependent on cheap oil to feed and supply more than seven (rising to nine) billion human beings.
Economics – evidently, infinite debt is not only possible but good for people; though commonsense and all the lessons of history teach otherwise.
Environment – all biospheres on the planet are in decline, mass extinction of species is occurring. Only the virtual world of Facebook and cloud computing is thriving, but it’s perhaps good to remember that Alice in Wonderland is a fantasy book for children.
So it has been with some excitement that I came across “Quest” by George Dibbern – and settled into the story of his (almost) circumnavigation that does not disappoint. The New York Times described him as “part Jack London and part Bernard of Clairvaux”.
Quest was, unfortunately, published in March, 1941 just before America joined the Second World War, and so vanished from public notice almost as soon as it reached bookshops. However, the book was noticed by American playwright Henry Miller, who greeted Dibbern as a “brother”.
“You breeze a spirit as warm and large as Walt Whitman’s. I salute you as one of the good, honest men of the Earth, one we shall always be proud of. Call on me if there is anything you think I can do for you,”
Miller wrote to Dibbern while he was in internment on Somes Island in New Zealand, towards the end of the Second World War.
Dibbern and Miller kept up a correspondence until Dibbern’s death on June 12, 1962.
“I always wondered, of course, whether you would continue cruising about, whether you would find nothing but disillusionment whenever you put ashore. The purpose of self-liberation, which you seem to have achieved, is to rejoin society.
“But how difficult – especially when it’s the kind of world we now have. The more you succeed in freeing yourself from passions and prejudices, from stupid fetishes and inhibitions, the less place there is for you in the world. That’s how it seems. I know something of what it’s all about, because I made a similar struggle all my life. The feeling of being cut off is agony.”
But this is to get ahead of Dibbern’s story and his quest!
George Dibbern was born in Kiel, Germany in 1889 and went to sea at the age of 18. In 1914 he was ashore in New Zealand when World War One living among the Maori until he was interred in 1918 on Somes Island, in Wellington Harbour. In 1919, he was deported back to Germany.
Two years later he married Elisabeth Vollbrandt, a woman who loved him enough not to want to keep him in a cage, though it must have cost her dearly. Together they bought a farm at Stocksee, Schleswig-Holstein, and had a son Jens Rangi, who died aged 5 months.
By 1930, the farm was sold, all other business ventures had failed and George and Elizabeth had two daughters. And his old wanderlust was returning once more.
Dibbern found himself adrift in the new Germany that was rising post-hyperinflation, with more than 6 million unemployed, with anti-Semitism growing and fascists and communists fighting in the streets and the ascendancy of Adolf Hitler barely two years away. He writes in Quest of labouring in a cemetery:
“I look around. There is Plattfuss, dull, narrow, big-mouthed, swinging to and fro, backing whoever gives him the most potatoes in his soup. Sandow, unskilled, lazy, revolutionary, muddled, grown up during topsy-turvy war years, with his principle of “grab for me, and to hell with the rest.” And then Karl, decent, honest, prepared to make real sacrifices for his ideal of patriotism, but unable to see anything beyond his own country. And all the others, each with his own little kink. How can such people ever find a solution for all, when they cannot even think clearly for themselves?”
Inevitably Dibbern was thinking of his happy years in New Zealand living among the Maori, and especially of his Maori spiritual Mother Rangi. Something had to give. In Quest, he records an argument with his long-suffering wife Elizabeth:
“What am I? Oh, nothing, nothing at all. A waster who cannot even keep his wife and children but in spite of it I am something. And perhaps more than you think. What? I don’t know myself.”
“I am like a tree that has been transplanted and lived too long in the open, so that its branches have stretched out. Sweetheart, don’t try to put me back into the forest again!!”
“Why not change your attitude, and be of use?
“Because I can’t. Because I haven’t risen in the good old fashion way of slow promotion and civility they cannot use me here.”
“When you are in Rome you must do as Roman does.
“If these are the conditions of Rome, who the hell wants to live in Rome? What is the good of adapting myself 99 times? The hundredth time, perhaps when I am tired, I am myself, as I really am, and then they rub their eyes, and call me a traitor because I have suddenly changed. Am I not 99 times a hypocrite. Whom they are right to mistrust? Don’t I sell my soul 99 times for a lousy piece of bread? And now I am a relief worker, unemployed, without any future – till the very soul is crushed within me, till I become a beast. Just cringing, afraid to lose my last bone. But I am not meant to be this. And I won’t be! How break through – because I must!”
“Who is going to provide for the children?”
“Whilst I am trying to answer, some deep inner voice says: “man does not live by bread alone.” I am shocked to hear myself saying it aloud; it sounds so smug, so like a parson. But suddenly I know it to be the truth. ” Perhaps it is more important that someday I may be an understanding comrade to the children than be a provider now.”
“A fine saying you are. Christianity starts at home, my wife answers, full of bitterness.
“What use is it to keep on arguing? My mind is made up. I am dead. I therefore packed my things. So little sense of possession have I that I have always felt myself a guest in my own home, and, as an old sailor, I have few belongings. Quickly I make three heaps – 1 to take a long, one to leave behind, and the third throw away.”
And so the dye is cast, the mooring lines loosed. Dibbern determines to essentially abandon his wife and two daughters and to sail a 32-foot boat from Germany back to New Zealand. Publicly, the plan was for his family to rejoin him in New Zealand once he was settled there. But it’s hard to believe that either he or Elizabeth really believed that that would actually happen.
REVIEW CONTINUES – see part two (coming soon)
Link to www.georgedibbern.com – his biographer, Erika Grundmann’s excellent website.