Me and James K Baxter

The Real New Zealand 

This month I received an email from a British man who's making a documentary about the "real New Zealand." He was, he said, interested in New Zealand themes: extreme sports, Maori culture, wine, conservation, manuka honey, sheep. But above all he wanted to meet real New Zealanders. He listed some he'd heard about, including a champion sheep shearer who can hypnotise sheep and blow up trees. Could I supply some Kiwis like that? They didn't all have to be eccentric, he said, but it would help.I was eager to help, but did I know the sort of person who could blow up a tree, or hypnotise sheep? (Why did this person blow up trees? Was that actually legal?) I couldn't organise him a powhiri. Obviously I would rather die than take him bungy jumping. It was hard to come up with a reply. I imagined emailing London: "I want the real Britain. Can you tee me up with a Beefeater, a Hooray Henry, a minor Royal. Plus I'd love to see a really serious football riot, and meet some jihadists from Bradford..." Admittedly, his message wasn't quite that demanding, but still, I felt it was a conundrum, especially since my sense of the "real New Zealand" was so different from his list of themes. In fact the list, while not inaccurate, gave me the feeling of boredom you get leafing through a glossy tourist brochure: everything turned to bland cliché. How to explain the real New Zealand to an outsider? How to convey the light, the silence, the mangroves, sun on the volcanic cones, the iron light of autumn, the warm blind melancholy of summer rain? His interest in Maori culture was laudable, and yet the Maori people I know seem as separate from official displays of Maori culture (the ubiquitous powhiri for example) as do most pakeha from the arse-numbing boredom and inanity of an Anglican church service.

And there was the question of eccentricity. I asked a fellow writer, "Know any eccentric people?" He replied, refreshingly, "I hate eccentricity!" I thought about eccentricity as a quality. Are we a nation of odd-balls? Many of us adults, in Auckland at least, would shy away from the idea of dressing up as a children's book character and parading down a street. Perhaps the uninhibited behaviour over the Hobbit movie, out in public, weeping tears of pride, dressed as hobbits (I'll say no more about that spectacle other than an incredulous Christ) has given us a reputation for being a bit peculiar.
Eccentricity – it's all very well, so long as it's backed up by talent. Sometimes that crazy artistic local character, who lives in the boat or tree house, simply wears eccentricity as a carapace that conceals, among other things, the fact that he or she is a chaotic underachiever. Scratch the surface and you will find a profile, along with potter, poet, painter, that goes something like supremacist misogynist racist, or heroin addict mystic astrologer, or terrifyingly vicious drunk. At the other end of the scale would be, say, our late great poet Allen Curnow, whose elegant house in Tohunga Crescent was a picture of respectable order, and whose poems gave us our beloved Auckland, the water, the hills, the pohutukawas, All over the dead hot calm impure/Blood noon tide of the breathless bay. Perhaps this is part of the answer: it's the artists, the real ones, who can best convey the particular collective sense of New Zealandness we share.
I can think of talented eccentrics. I remember Frank Sargeson, who gave me presents when I was a child: books, a set of croquet mallets. Once I visited Janet Frame in a house so crammed with furniture you could barely enter. Neurotic about noise, she had lined the walls to make a fortress. She said to me, "You were the child who thought Katherine Mansfield was called Kathramansfield, all one word!" I remember, when I was five, a man arriving home with my father. They came upstairs. My father said, "Oh, here's Charlotte." The man and I glared at each other, then he sat down on the floor. Barefoot, bearded and imperious, he decided he liked this sunny room, and would stay, possibly for good. Later my parents, needing urgently to visit a hospitalised relative, had a whispered conversation: should they leave the kids with the poet upstairs? I was against it. The thing was, the upstairs room was my favourite place. And now I was sharing it with this lordly, bossy hippy, James K Baxter.
But those talented eccentrics are dead, and I'm racking my brains. Where and who is the real New Zealand? Know anyone who can hypnotise sheep, or blow up a tree?

First published in Metro Magazine NZ