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Playing With Water: Alone on a Philippine…

Playing With Water: Alone on a Philippine Island (original 1987; edition 2014)

by James Hamilton-Paterson (Author)

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Title:Playing With Water: Alone on a Philippine Island
Authors:James Hamilton-Paterson (Author)
Info:Faber & Faber (2014)
Collections:Your library

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Playing with Water: Passion and Solitude on a Philippine Island (Twentieth Century Lives) by James Hamilton-Paterson (1987)


Asia (220)

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I saw this book on the shelf in my local library, borrowed it, and, given the subject, decided to buy it. It brings back happy memories of my travels in South East Asia
  corracreigh | Jan 4, 2016 |
In Playing with Water, author James Hamilton-Paterson begins:

The places a writer writes are always somewhere else. (1)

This, what may be considered a paradox, sets into motion a rich account of his own experiences with alienation as he journeys some considerable distance away from his roots. This distance is both a geographical one as much as it is an ideological one. It is geographical because he finds himself halfway across the world in a little known part of the Philippines. It is ideological because Hamilton-Paterson tells us that his English family is one of medical doctors but he has chosen to become something else despite expectations of him to follow those medical footsteps. It is ideological because this something else is ambiguous to us as it is seemingly ambiguous to the author himself. In many ways he spends time on the remote island of Tiwarik in the Philippines to ponder upon exactly that, the question of what he is, and we are left to ponder upon whether Hamilton-Paterson is really saying that 'the people a writer writes are always something else. (Here someone may have functioned better if the sentence stands alone. To fit it into the bigger context, however, I have elected to use something to represent an occupation or a profession, to better fit my narrative.)

The ambiguity referred to here does not come from a lack of suggestions as to what that something is, however. Hamilton-Paterson offers us options. He demonstrates to us that he has a background in studying chemistry. He shows us how he is at ease with spearfishing. He dives. He is a journalist. He is a poet. He writes. The ambiguity exists because the author intends it. He chooses to see or describe himself with it. He writes:

If I describe myself as a spear-fisherman, hunting for my own food, then I believe in terms of time and energy expended, in terms of sheer physical attrition I earn every ounce of my food. I eat my successes … gratefully. My failures account for unrecorded hours which at present amount to my days. (106)

The conditional 'if' provides the ambiguity. The ambiguity is also found in the paradoxical juxtaposition of his mentioning of failures next to successes. This may be interpreted as Hamilton-Paterson's reluctance to inhabit the role of a spear-fisherman, even though he has no particular difficulty with spearfishing itself. In fact, in the book he shows intimate knowledge with not only spearfishing but with the sea in general. He writes about using “waterproofing a cheap Chinese Flashlight for night diving” as an icebreaker in a conversation(16). He describes making and using his first spear to pursue a cuttlefish (55). He has “become very fond of sun-dried fish although much can depend on how it is marinaded beforehand” (98). He gives a detailed account of a particular night hunting excursion in chapter 11 (229-246). So, equipped with all these, why is he, or why should he be reluctant to be a spear-fisherman? Is there, in fact, a reluctance?

There is not. Hamilton-Paterson does not think that the skills of a spear-fisherman is completely out of his reach. He recognizes that “if [he] had been born in Sabay [he] would have been as good as anyone and a lot better than most [at spearfishing]. But [having started] when [he was] ... [f]orty, [he really is a great spear-fisherman already]. (253) In fact, he may have already attained those skills, and he sees this as a compliment and receives it very well.

The ambiguity, therefore, lies somewhere else, and may have stemmed from something rhetorical. It is found in the self-deprecating undertone of the book. Immediately after the compliment from Arman, mentioned above, which Hamilton-Paterson describes as having overwhelmed him, that he is “so pleased [he] can hardly bear [himself]”, he reports Arman saying the following:

The people here don't usually go on spear fishing much beyond thirty, you notice. It's too hard, it's a young man's business. They go on to dynamite, hook-and-line, nets, fish-traps. … To become the best, of course. You'll never be that. That's why I said you ought to have been born here. Plenty of boys born here, ay, they don't want to fish, they're frightened or they don't like the sea so they plant rice and hunt baboy damu instead. But the ones who do want to fish are watching and learning for fifteen years. (253)

This is an act of self-deprecation because the author could have simply not reported it or excluded it. If he chooses to represent himself in comparison with others, ultimately concluding that it is beyond him to catch up with the truly great ones, it is his own decisions to do so. What Hamilton-Paterson looks for is, however, an alternative triumph, one that is defined by successfully finding what one sets out to look for in an inner journey. He writes:

Even though I have irrevocably misspent my life, even though I have wasted my chances of doing something really well, I climb up to my hut full of self-pleasure. It is deeply satisfying for love to be found out. (254)

What Hamilton-Paterson also concedes, however, is that what he sets out to look for, that something, which he finds here in a remote part of the Philippines, is “rendered dumb in London's uproar” and “sounds silly … when expressed over a dinner-table sandwiched between gossip from Academe and scandals in Bohemia.” (254) The Philippines, or at least Tiwarik, is perceived to be lagging behind Europe and America. This is conventional thinking and is made plain in parts of Playing with Water, especially in his helping the local community develop a water system. He also remarks, nonetheless, on the West's imposing their values on the Filipinos, all because of their false notion that they know and understand better. Hamilton-Paterson calls it 'hubris'. (197) He writes, “[i]t is hard for people from the democracies of the industrialised West to remember how their own countries once exhibited such phenomena, and not so long ago.” (142)

This gap between the Philippines and the West also sets up an ironic observation. Hamilton-Paterson describes the West's romanticised view of a remote place such as Tiwarik: even though it “is not a paradise island [and] [i]t has only discomfort to offer” (247), the developed world, seeing it from a distance, thinks that they want to turn it into a tropical beach and diving resort. The author himself, of course, has drifted very far from this Western idea, but still finds himself ironically on this remote island. Only that, his reasons are very different. He observes that he doesn't “know how on earth people can live in England.” He writes: What I actually mean, of course, is that I no longer know of any way in which I could [live in England]. (249) He finds, however, that the West represents something drastically different for his friends in Tiwarik. Intoy, for example, says “I can't stay [in Tiwarik] all my life. I don't want to be just a fisherman. I want to see things, do things.” To this Hamilton-Paterson comments that “[t]he sadness with which his words fill me is so familiar it leaves me with nothing to say but raise practical objections. (258) He asks, “What work will you do?”, to which Intoy answers “Oh, anything...” Of all this, Hamilton-Paterson concludes:

What [emphasis added] to me is a desperate gangland of pavement vendors, beggars, prostitutes, scullions, grease-monkeys, casual labourers, exploited labour, loiterers in cardboard shacks, endless victims, is to him a fabled city, a whirligig of opportunities. ... (259)

So, the something for Intoy in the West he has left as an ambiguity but with definite pessimism. To his own definition, on the other hand, he seems to have found the triumph that he seeks. The ambiguity of his something, ultimately, lies in the very fact that though options are plenty, he is reluctant to settle on a single choice. He writes, regarding how the local Filipinos have been both 'irritated' and 'intrigued' by his case but are 'unable to settle the matter', that “[a]pparently kapitan Sanso's old father once snorted and said 'Why does he have to be anything? Why mightn't he just be sensible?'” “For that,” Hamilton-Paterson writes, “I salute him, ...” (112)

It is, however, not good enough to simply settle with ambiguity, according to him. “There are many things worse than being thought perverted and one is to be pitied for having no love of any kind.” (254) So we learn, clearly, that he sets out to find passion, or what he loves, and thinks that we should too, even if it is to be found somewhere else. ( )
  siafl | Nov 16, 2012 |
Magical, lyrical. It is the autobiographical (?) account of tuning out of civilization on a small island in the Philippines. In vivid descriptions, the contrast between island life and the interval in Manila couldn't be truer. The description of the reception of the narrator by the locals is spot-on. The account of the night-time spear finishing with only a tube for air is simply magical. This is what it feels to tune out. I have lived it. ( )
  thierry | Apr 12, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0941533824, Paperback)

James Hamilton-Paterson spends a third of each year on an otherwise uninhabited Philippine island, spear-fishing for survival. Playing with Water tells us why he does. Beyond that, it gives an account of life in that class-bound country as a whole. For it is in places like this rather than Manila of the international news reports that the underlying political and cultural reality of the Philippines may be seen.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:55 -0400)

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