Russell Crowe on the Phone

What I Learned That Summer

'What I learned that summer' – the subject anticipates nostalgia, childhood adventures, the beach, first love, life lessons. Was there one summer where I learned something momentous, something that makes that particular year stand out? I can't come up with just one. Every summer added to the store of knowledge, every one has been packed with data. I have never been one to hang about doing nothing. Writing about a whole series of summers is the best, most accurate answer to the 'learning' question I can come up with.
Auckland: I remember childhood summers of physical freedom. We ranged and roamed, we were always outside. We lived in Tohunga Crescent, a street that runs down to Hobson Bay. With the neighbours' children we built rafts and sailed around the bay when the tide was in. At low tide we walked on the mudflats and caught eels; we stalked through the mangroves, we played in the cave in the cliff under the pohutuwakas.

We spent school holidays out at Karekare, the black sand beach on the west coast. One summer my brother Oliver, who was ten, told my parents that he was taking me, aged seven, and a visitor, aged five, on a bush walk. My parents agreed, not realising that he was preparing to take us through the Pararaha Gorge, an all day bush tramp down a treacherous river, the walk preceded by a sign that read: 'This track is for experienced trampers only.' I remember setting up a small protest when we came to that sign. Oliver dismissed it. We pressed on, and it was only when we were well into the gorge that we realised what we'd taken on. Some way down the big, boulder-strewn river the track disappeared altogether and we were hopelessly lost.

  I remember the hours and hours in the dense bush, our attempts to find a track, the final realisation that we didn't need to go on looking for a path, that we simply needed to follow the river until the gorge met the sea. We walked, waded, climbed and swam. At various points the five-year-old and I lay down with exhaustion, while Oliver ranged about trying to find the way. Once we thought we'd found a path and followed it up a long, steep bluff, only to discover that it ended in a sheer drop. It was dark by the time we made it to the end of the Pararaha Valley, and were met on the bush track over the hills by our searching fathers.

Menton is the beautiful town on the French Cote d'Azur where Katherine Mansfield lived, seeking a cure for her TB. My father had the Mansfield fellowship there one year, and we lived next to the olive grove in a grand apartment block called the Garavan Palace. On the French Riviera it seemed always to be summer. The marina, the beaches, the Mediterranean sky. Summer storms over the olive grove. The beauty of the place made me euphoric. Oliver and I went to school in an old house that had bullet holes in the walls. The photographer Marti Friedlander came to stay and I dropped a petanque ball on her foot. I developed a perfect French accent. We toured around Europe in an ancient Ford van, sleeping in a tent along the way. On the way to Spain, the old bomb's steering wheel locked. I remember asking, 'What's going to happen now?' as the van lurched and bounced across the road, my father vainly wrestling with the wheel. We crashed into a bank. My mother went through the windscreen, cut her eye and lost the very tip of her nose. We rode to the next town in a wailing French ambulance.
  In London one year we lived in William Goodenough House, a complex for Commonwealth post-graduates. My sister and I went to a savage school on a housing estate. On the first day I was asked, in deepest Cockney, 'Who do you support?' I had no idea. Later I learned the question referred to football, and that the correct answer was 'Arsenal.' Being hopelessly different, I was bracketed with the 'Pakis,' and earmarked for regular houndings and tormentings. That summer, my parents booked for a season of Wagner's Ring Cycle: operas that lasted five hours at a time. We children were aged thirteen, ten and seven. During their long absences they left us alone in the flat. We used all that freedom to torture one another, as children do. When we got tired of playing Lord of the Flies we mooched down to the Games Room and amused ourselves with the many other international children. I remember a girl from some African country getting me up against the wall and punching me while repeating tonelessly, 'We are the People. We are the People.'
   One summer it dawned on me what was wrong with Epsom Girls' Grammar: there were no boys. I decided I had to get out. In the fifth form I started at Selwyn College. The teaching was better, the pupils were better – half of them were male. Things were looking up. I started enjoying my studies again. Everything was so much more civilized with men about the place.
  In the sixth form my school friends and I built a raft and sailed out into Auckland Harbour to protest at the arrival of a nuclear submarine. It was a sparkling summer morning. We were completely unafraid; we were full of the joy of life. My father cruised past us on a yacht sailed by Peter Williams QC. We were crowded and rammed by the police. We bobbed and rocked and took on water. It was hilarious. It never entered our heads that our creaky little craft might let us down. I still value those friends I had at Selwyn. One of my fellow rafters – tall, good-natured Paul Anderson, didn't survive: he was the innocent bystander murdered in a nightclub by Graeme Burton. Another became a lawyer; another lives in Spain and has formed the model for quite a few characters in my fiction: the good ones, the ones I love.
  My sister Margaret and I were mercilessly critical, given to terrible laughter at the expense of all the boys who rang the house. Their verbal solecisms were repeated for weeks. We were always avoiding someone, whispering with the phone receiver cupped in our hands, hiding when some boy came to the door.
  One summer, aged seventeen, I was asked out on a date by Phil, a handsome guy who drove an old American car. After we'd been out he invited me to his apartment in Brooklyn Flats. He plied me with gin and then, trembling with anticipation, led me to his room. There in the dimly lit boudoir he had arranged something special: a rippling, leopard-skin-covered waterbed, on which he had strewn an artful display of chocolates and red roses. There followed a tragic scene: my suppressed mirth, his dismay and bafflement. Why was I not moved by this magnificence? Why did I laugh?
  The scene changes. Swallowing his disappointment, manly Phil has driven me home. I creep into the house. My grandmother is staying and I am obliged to sleep on the fold-out bed upstairs with Margaret. Standing in the hall I throw up a great deal of Phil's gin; it runs in a cold stream down my shirt and chest and into my jeans. Refreshed by this disgraceful bout, having got rid of my clothes and swabbed myself down, I go upstairs. Margaret is wide awake and weeping over her great love, Roger. 'Forget about Roger. Go out with the other one,' I advise, crashing into bed beside her. The bedsprings squawk; she kicks me; clearly neither of us is going to get any sleep. We whisper far into the night. Margaret had two suitors at that time, or two significant ones among the many hopefuls who hung around her. There was Roger, a DJ, who was acceptably cool. And there was a deep-voiced, Rockabilly-style thug called Russ le Roq, who ran an underage nightclub (I didn't go there, since I could get into pubs) and who'd rung the house asking for a date. She spurned le Roq; he was too absurdly dressed, too butch, too embarrassing altogether. I saw potential in him; I could tell the Russ le Roq thing was a kind of dress-up. I've always liked a bit of rough, also flamboyance – I like being with the loudest person in the room. She didn't take my advice. 'He has acne,' she coldly observed. A pity, since he went back to his real name, Russell Crowe, took on Hollywood, and won an Oscar. Now that would have been a brother-in-law.
  The summer I gave birth to my first son, I remember long dreamy days at the tiny flat in Epsom, sitting out in the garden with the baby in a carry cot. Having been obliged to read legal stuff during the years I was studying law, I rediscovered fiction. The hot garden, birds squabbling in the trees, my book, and beside me my beautiful baby. What I learned that summer? How grandly, absurdly happy it was possible to be.


First published in Metro Magazine NZ