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By Gillian Bickley
It used to be said that there was no need to worry what people would say about you, after you left Hong Kong. You would be forgotten before the ship sailed out of the harbour.
Harry Ricketts taught in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Hong Kong in the 1970's and his early book, People Like Us, published in Hong Kong by Eurasia Publishing in 1977, was reviewed then, by the present writer, in The Asia Magazine.
Ricketts was a third-culture kid, brought up in Hong Kong, Malaysia and England. Since 1981 he has lived in New Zealand, where he teaches literature in English and creative non-fiction at Victoria University of Wellington. Much of his writing from New Zealand has been published by presses there, with scant distribution in Hong Kong, but his biography of Rudyard Kipling, The Unforgiving Minute (1999), was published in London by Chatto & Windus.
Of his poetry, the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature states: "Ricketts' best are either deftly satiric 'light verse' ... or wry commentaries on the perplexities of love, marriage or parenthood." Your Secret Life – his first full-length poetry collection since his selected writings, Nothing to Declare (1998) – is consistent with this description.
The poems are conversational, mainly short, but packed with observation and understanding. "Retro" is a good example: "'The two of us just grew apart,' / you say quietly, sick at heart;/ careful not to wonder whether/ you just never grew together."
As the publisher says, "his subjects include the secrets and lies we tell ourselves and the underrated rewards of failure and loss". "Don't begrudge your blunders, / screw-ups, A minor blues", / Ricketts writes in "The necessity of failure". "Nothing's wasted; failure makes sense."
The poems refer to the New Zealand countryside with its flora and fauna and New Zealand life, with its parochialism, its literary competition and tragedies: "In Wellington, in Wellington, / the cake is rather small; / and everyone who wants a crumb / must practise how to crawl.//" ("After Glover") He presents family and personal lives, strongly imprinted by this environment.
As presented in these poems, Ricketts' emotional life is coloured by his expatriation. Cricket and the classics of English and European Literature are as vividly present as New Zealand writing, sights, scenes and personalities.
A section of four Hong Kong poems reveals how a sense of history also provides him with an emotional space to inhabit. "Repulse Bay Hotel, Hong Kong" reads: "Soon, they say, this elegant façade / will exist only in photos: for some, // a shard of post-imperial tristesse; / for others, more colonial scar-tissue. // But here this morning on the quiet verandah, . . . //…// you find yourself shuddering suddenly / to think of all those, gwai-lo and Chinese, // who have sat, like you, watching / distant flame-trees scarlet out of green."
Another piece of local wisdom used to be that people who retire away from Hong Kong do not live long after wrenching themselves away from the stimulus Hong Kong provides. Ricketts is probably still several years shy of retirement. Nevertheless, it is good to know that there is life after Hong Kong. And that Hong Kong can still be part of that life, even if only in the imagination.
Your Secret Life is available in Hong Kong through Proverse Hong Kong at www.geocities.com/proversehk/harryricketts
HeadworX Publishers HK$138.00
pbk 80 pages ISBN 0-476-10130-0