On Michael Laws

Feral Territory

There was no sun, there was nothing new under the sun, but few sights are as unchangeably beautiful as the colours of Doubtless Bay: gradations of white, grey, blue, green as the sea shades into the Far North sky. Above the vast stretch of moving water the gannets scan the surface, plummeting with a white flare. At Whatuwhiwhi we were a party of seven: two adults, three children, son's girlfriend, daughter's boyfriend. Gales whipped the bay into a mess of foam and flying water, then the wind died and the sea turned calm under the low grey sky. My brother-in-law, Dave Grimshaw, the TV helicopter paramedic, now home here and working in Kaitaia, turned up one evening and described, with relish and in comic detail, the challenge of a Far North ambulance callout: locations remote and obscure, communications liable to fail. In the dark, in the middle of nowhere, armed with map and torch, Dave drives his ambulance into the unknown. 'The people are lovely,' he said, 'if you can find them. And if you show them you care.'

It went on raining. I read Claire Tomalin's biography of Dickens. The tides were strangely high, swelling like the slow, sinister surge that rises and rises in John Banville's novel, The Sea. The serial arsonist who'd razed acres at nearby Matai Bay was still at large, but the weather was not on his side. At night there was rain on the roof and bangs echoing in the hills. 'Is that fireworks?' someone asked.
On a day of sun and rainshowers we walked into the Maori land beyond Whatuwhiwhi, behind my father-in-law's grave in the Maori cemetery and up into the pine forest. High on the hill we paused, listened. Nervous silence. 'That wasn't fireworks,' someone said. We came to a forestry digger, its windows shot and shattered, its door pitted with bullet holes. Shots cracked in the valley below; it seemed easier to go forward than back, we went on, found shotgun cartridges scattered on the track, a beer can full of holes from a .22. , a caravan extensively shot up, bullet holes in the glass, metal pitted with big dents. The vast hillside, the land cleared by forestry to the dark line of uncut pines, is a beautiful forbidding landscape, always with the sense of presences unseen. Even if you can't find them, the locals are near. Last time we walked here we hid a bag near the track, intending to retrieve it later. In this remote, wild place, we thought, no one could have seen us hide it. When we came back, it was gone.
On the beach, where Doubtless Bay meets the open sea, fish jumped in the estuary, the mangroves had a green and gold sheen, the pohutukawas dropped red flowers on the beach. I sat on a rock reading about Dickens; someone read out a Michael Laws column on "ferals." The sun came out, Laws foamed at the mouth; there was nothing new under the sun.
In 1834, conditions were very bad in Dickens's Britain; agricultural workers were half-starved and protesting. To quote Claire Tomalin: "The view of most parliamentarians was that the poor needed tough treatment, and if they could not support themselves, through old age, misfortune or having too many children to feed, or were laid off... rather than being given piecemeal payments by the parish to keep them going in their cottages, they should be forced into enlarged workhouses. Here they would be housed, scantily fed and humiliated by being made to wear uniforms, and their families would be broken up, husbands and wives, mothers and children, put into separate dormitories. To most landowners and middle class members of parliament this made good sense..."
Dickens's sense of social justice spurred him to write about the workhouses. He was angered by cruelty to the poor, was savage on hypocrites. Michael Laws thinks he's original, but he's a character out of Dickensian satire. Unsurprisingly, given his comic genius, Dickens was prone to fits of mirth, he was a perfect mimic, and he could have given us a very funny Michael Laws. Deeply sentimental about the children of "ferals", Laws has been known to talk about sterilising their parents. When young "ferals" get old enough to have children and transgress themselves, Laws suddenly turns: no more Mr Nice Guy, no more violins; now they're grown up he'd like to have them neutered too. You can't plausibly pretend to care about underprivileged children when you so obviously don't care about their parents, but logic's not the strong suit of the Genius from Whanganui...
We packed up our papers and books, started the long walk back. Ceasefire in the hills, among the menacing pines. And at home a present waiting: a parcel of fresh snapper and crayfish, left by a passing feral.

First published in Metro Magazine NZ