Thursday, 6 February 2020

Waiting for the Barbarians ...

In which John rashly pursues some thugs in a half-blind state.

When a group of men tried to kick down my front door in the small hours of Friday, 13th December in the seaside suburb of Bayswater, Auckland, it brought on a strong whiff of nostalgia for my former life on the other side of the world.

A colossal hammering woke me at midnight, and levitated me out of my bed, convinced I was having a nightmare. Then it came again. I ran to the door. 'What's up?' I called. No response. The noise intensified. 'What the hell is going on?' Peering through the stained glass window of my front door, I could see several moving shadows. This didn't seem like a friendly visit.

I rang 111, and my call was answered by an operator reassuringly called Wyatt.

In the comic books of my youth, Wyatt Earp was the sheriff of bad-ass Western towns terrorized by criminals. Wyatt wasted no time in racing to the scene, and dispatching the low-life with his Colt 45.

Wyatt Earp played by Kevin Costner in 1994 movie
This Wyatt didn't have such good news for me.

'All our cars are tied up on other incidents right now. But if thing escalate let me know.'

'If things escalate, it might be a bit late,' I pointed out.

'We'll get there when we can.''

The hammering on the door came again. 'Did you hear that?' I asked.

'Yes, I did,' said Wyatt. 'It sounds a bit extreme.'

'That's how I would describe it.'

The police arrived two and a half hours later.

Twenty minutes after I got off the phone, one of the men ran at my door and gave it another huge whack. Through the stained glass window, I saw him run off.

The fact that he had turned his back triggered some primal instinct. I grabbed my squash racket, wrenched open the front door and, clad only in my boxer shorts, sprinted after the intruders.

I heard the sound of feet running rapidly down the street, and a flash of a yellow hoodie, barely visible, given I was half-blind without my contact lenses in. I raced after the men, waving the racket in an intimidating manner. After a few hundred metres of the chase, the intruders disappeared into the darkness.

I got into my car and drove around the neighbourhood, then staked out my house. After an hour, I went back to bed.

Half an hour later, the crashing on the door came again. They were nothing if not persistent, I thought. This time, I ignored them, which seemed to be what I should have done the first time. I had looked back at the end of my chase to see my front door wide open, light blazing into the night. A perfect invitation.

For the next hour or so I lay in bed, gazing at the ceiling and casting my mind back to my first job after leaving university in Wellington, which was as an estate manager in London's red-light district, Kings Cross.

My responsibility was to try to manage the heroin dealers and pimps on my estate - 'Kings Cross Estate of Shame' as Hillview was known in London's Evening Standard. Perhaps the most notorious estate in Camden, if not London. The estate acquired its name from the fact that it was located next to a vast ash-heap that had stood by the station in Victorian times.

I had a large metal box bolted to the back of the letterbox in my front door, as a precaution against a visit I anticipated from Sparky, aka Mr William Patterson. Sparky lived in the next stairwell and had acquired his name from his firebomb attacks on the homes of his competitors in Kings Cross.

He had flat eyes, a Glaswegian accent, and a pudding basin haircut.

His name was engraved on a large metal plaque that he had fixed to his front door. A stylish attempt to confer respectability on Kings Cross's most notorious and violent pimp.

I had a rope ladder under my bed, tied to the bedposts, so that I could scale down the side of my apartment block in case the metal cabinet failed to contain the anticipated inferno.

A dozen dealers and pimps, lead by Sparky, ran a network of prostitution and drug commerce on the estate, and my strategy was to watch the flat in question over a period of time, and then when the criminal was out, swiftly bring in a gang of workmen, and bolt a thick steel door to cover the existing one, and add steel shutters to the windows.

The dealer would return, find his squatted flat inaccessible to him, and go off to find fresh pastures. That was the theory at least. I deliberately spaced these evictions a few months apart, to lure the criminals into a false sense of security. I was keen to avoid them banding together to plan reprisals.

Sparky's right-hand man, Big Jo, was a cashiered member of the SAS who had served during The Troubles in Northern Island, and got about the estate in summer clad only in a pair of lurid green running shorts, with a machete tucked into his waistband.

The interior of Big Jo's flat was painted bright pink, to simulate, I imagine, brothel-like ambience. Unlike Sparky, who was ominously uncommunicative, Big Jo was a garrulous, friendly man, and I sometimes got chatting to him in the courtyards. He was quite open about his business activities, and I never knew whether he knew that I was plotting his demise. He once confided in me: 'I'm like a vampire, I only go out at night.'

Estate of shame
So it was at night that we made our move.

It took five years and a couple of trips to hospital before we got rid of these men. During that time I became acquainted with violence. Very acquainted. Anyone who enjoys violence on screen hasn't seen it up close. Up close it is messy and unpredictable. And profoundly corrupting of the human spirit.

Now, here in Auckland, Friday 13 December, I lay in bed unsleeping, alert to any new sound, smartphone and squash racket beside me, remembering those years with absolute clarity. I recalled that the most extreme violence could happen quite suddenly and was often over quite fast. You had to pay attention.

At 2.30am the police finally arrived.

'Do you have any enemies?' enquired the teenage bobbies.

I laughed in a hollow kind of way. 'How well do you know the literary scene?' I asked.

They looked a bit perplexed. 'Also quite a few in Kings Cross, London,' I went on. 'But I don't think they'd come this far.'

We discussed an ex-flatmate who I had evicted because of his drinking. They checked him on the police national computer and noted his drink-driving conviction. 'Hmm,' I said. 'I don't think its him. There was more than one.'

In fact, as I found out the next day from my neighbour Chris, who has witnessed the whole incident from his second story house, albeit also without his contact lenses in, there were four of them. One quite large, who had operated as look-out. My counter-charge with squash racket suddenly seemed about as smart as the Charge of the Light Brigade.

The large one had operated as a look-out, who clapped his hands as a signal for the gang to scarper.

I had once been the editor of a magazine with a lot of readers, and during that time had had one or two adversaries. I recalled, for instance, a furious letter from the head of the tow-drivers' association after I had run a series of satirical cartoons at the expense of the tow drivers' fraternity.

Towies are large men, who have been known to bear grudges.

I recalled, also, the outraged owner of a car and plane museum, which had accidentally filled a 1947 Studebaker with high octane aviation fuel for a road trip across the Southern Alps. As a result the car burst into flames at the pinnacle of the range, nearly incinerating me.

When I wrote about this, the museum owner angrily denied they had done any such thing, and threatened dire reprisals if the story was not withdrawn.

Even the most sweet-natured person can acquire a few enemies over a life-time. And regrettably, I couldn't recall anyone ever describing me as sweet-natured.

Death of a 1947 Studebaker
The next day a key piece of information came from another neighbour, Anthony a hundred metres away on Balfour Street. He had heard a similar hammering on his downstairs door the same evening. This suggested I hadn't been personally targeted, but rather that it was a random attack.

It was a relief to know that I could now sleep easily - easily, that is, until my next book review was published.

Monday, 23 September 2019

Unscheduled night up a tree ...

John gets lost on the remote island of 'Eua

There are only a handful of sign-posts on the Tongan island of 'Eua, and these are in pretty poor state after the 2018 tropical cyclone Gita, which damaged most houses on the island. On the vast majority of the island that is uninhabited jungle and farmland, there are no sign posts at all.

I had set out in the morning for the Fangatave cliffs and caves on the north-eastern tip of the island. I had done this hike a number of times, and on this occasion, as so often before, I was picked up by a Tongan family returning from church, and given a lift to the end of the Houma Road. After that, it is about a three hour walk through jungle and farmland to the spectacular cliffs and caves looking out to the Tongan Trench - the second deepest point on earth.

'Eua sign-post
It had been raining for the previous few days, and when I scaled down the cliffs to the cave system using a series of fixed ropes, I found myself stuck. Rain sluicing through the caves had made them slippery and dangerous, and any attempt to navigate them without a fixed line would result in me being spat out through caves to a ten-metre drop onto the rocks below.

I reluctantly turned back, because Fangatave Beach is pristine, deserted and miles from habitation - a truly beautiful location. It was late afternoon, and as I made my way back through the jungle and farmland, I noticed that logging of the forests had changed the topography, and paths I had previously recognised had gone. And then it began to rain.

I was clad in shorts, parka, and hiking boots, and soon my GPS smartphone got wet, and stopped working. After an hour or so, I realised I had taken a wrong turn and when my GPS briefly sputtered into life, I could see I was far to the south-east of my destination. Night was coming on, and no matter how much I looked for a track to take me to the west, I was drawn inexorably away from towns, to the uninhabited coast of the island.

Night time temperatures, mid-winter, on 'Eua had been about 17 degrees, and as the rain was getting stronger, and I didn't have a tent, the situation was looking unpromising. In the last half hour before darkness fell, I would need to find shelter. I had with me a bottle of water and a can of tuna. I would save the tuna for breakfast. The smart thing to do meanwhile was to wedge myself up a tree, away from the soaking ground, and trust the canopy to protect me from the relentless drizzle.

Top of the Fangatave cliffs
As night fell, I thought how rare it is to spend time in pitch darkness. In urban life, there is always a glimmer of light. In a forest, if there is no moon, the darkness is absolute. You cannot see your hand in front of your face. So black, that if I got out of my tree, I might not find my way back up it. So I wedged myself between the branches, and settled down. It was 6pm. Dawn would be in twelve hours.

Because I was wet, I curled into a ball. A drop of as little as two degrees centigrade in the core body temperature can be dangerous: Exposure is the biggest risk to wayward hikers. I also knew that I wouldn't be able to sleep; by moving all night, my muscles would generate heat and prevent my core temperature falling.

The first few hours were spent in an obsessive review of my situation … How had I been so stupid? Why hadn't I brought waterproof leggings? What would my buddies back at the Ovava Tree Lodge be thinking? It was a hike I had done many times before, so I hadn't even told them my destination.

Hotel 'Eua
I had only a few minutes of battery life left on my smartphone, and wanted to conserve that for a GPS reading in the morning - assuming it had dried out by them. But by midnight I knew that my friends at Ovava would notice my absence. I also knew they rarely answered their phone: A very 'Eua way to live. I reluctantly called 111, not because I wanted a police search - they would never find me - but because they could visit Ovava Lodge and let my friends know I was OK.

111 rang for a long time, then a woman's voice, with a thick Chinese accent said: 'This line is under maintenance. Please call back at a later time.'

I burst into laughter. I could imagine a Chinese company, contracted to supply emergency services, late in receiving kick-backs, deciding to withdraw services until whichever official in the local bureaucracy was responsible paid up. Tongans had told me the government is riddled with corruption.

Around 2am in the morning, I entered a trance-like state; a kind of meditation, in which I was detached from an anxiety that otherwise might have exhausted me. The next four hours were spent in this reverie, interspersed now and then with violent singing of tunes I composed specially for the occasion.

The keys I invented for my songs were new to mankind, and I hope never to hear them again. Small animals in the forest ran away in terror. My songs included a passionate hymn of praise to the sickle moon (which finally emerged around 3am); an appreciative song for the tree I was in - its bounty and gracious hospitality; and a wild and tuneless ditty about the importance of taking a sanguine view of things.

My biggest concern, aside from exposure, was that I would be too disoriented by sleep loss in the morning to find my way to the coast. An hour or two before dawn, I got out of the tree and lay on the soaking ground and tried to get some sleep.

Light flooding over the horizon at dawn was the most beautiful sight I could imagine. I carefully ate my can of tuna, using the lid as a spoon. Before it abandoned me, the GPS had signaled I needed to move due west ... I knew that if I started out at dawn, with the rising sun directly behind me, I would have a true compass direction.

After half an hour of dead ends, but having enough mental freshness to retrace my steps, I began to make steady progress westwards until I topped a ridge, and saw the sea – the 30km strait between ‘Eua and Tongatapu.

Moving towards the ocean, which was about three kilometres away, I came to successively bigger tracks, like tributaries. Finally I stumbled upon a workman’s hut, with oily abandoned overalls in it (warm clothing!). The sense of exhilaration I felt was indescribable - a surge of joy so deep, I felt giddy.

Buddhists say: 'Live with the Prince of Death at your shoulder at all times.' We should think about death daily, because only through this familiarity will we truly live each day in the present. While far from death, I had had enough of a glimpse of my own mortality to unleash in me the most profound gratitude for being on the earth - and simply breathing. I knelt down by the workman's hut and kissed the damp, sweet-smelling grass.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

My grandmother ... artiste with a shotgun

Elsie was a small, bird-like woman, a former London school-teacher, whose house in Saunders Avenue was marked out with a large warning cross on the maps of the Waikato chapter of the Jehovah's Witness Church.

Something in her past had left her with a deep animosity to fundamentalist Christians, and when they came to her door, she would trap them on the porch, and deliver to them a harangue of such ferocity that they were often left white-faced and trembling, before she ushered them from the property.

In those years, before the Mormon Church sent its crisp-white-shirted emissaries door to door in small Waikato towns, the Jehovah's Witnesses enjoyed a prolonged ascendancy ... hawking copies of their magazine The Watch Tower, which was illustrated by terrifying cartoons featuring lurid threats of eternal damnation to the unbeliever.

(Israel Folau is their spiritual heir.)

Elsie Beswetherick  had endured many things, including the death of two of her children in infancy, the death of her mother at the age of ten, and Zeppelin airship raids over London in WW I. She was known to have exterminated the rat population on her property in England with a shotgun, a weapon that was taller than she was, when she posed beside it with a sorry gaggle of slaughtered rodents.

Her son, Roger: "A single-barreled full choke 12-bore shotgun ... stood by the window in their bedroom, close to the hand of anyone overlooking the chicken run ...  The hens and their food attracted the occasional rat ...  One day I was mooching about in the chicken run, obscured from the house by apple trees ... there was the roar of the gun, a swish of shot and a stinging sensation in my forehead and arm.  A few flattened ricochets had struck me with just enough force to lodge in my skin.  What are you doing? Says I.  I’ve just shot a rat, shouts Mum! On another occasion, a plague of jackdaws was infesting the run at feeding time, accounting for a proportion of the chicken’s grain.  Mum caught the jackdaws clustered in the Victoria apple-tree ... The old gun roared, and nine jackdaws flopped to the ground."

She was a music teacher, had perfect pitch, and I still have her elegant Bannerman piano in my bedroom. A shot-gun-toting music-teacher seemed to me to be an ideal model for a grandmother - a perfect balance of yin and yang, of the masculine and feminine principles. Although ferocious in her attacks on rodents, jackdaws and Jehovah's Witnesses, to me, her oldest grandson, she was always gentle, unassuming and fun.

She had Cornish ancestry, and once a year, she would import fine red threads of saffron from Spain, and make a ceremonial batch of saffron buns; a Cornish traditional dish ... pale yellow, doughy and delicious.
Elsie and Stanley
When my grand-father, a man wrecked by WW I, an arduous life as a blacksmith, and grief for the loss of his home country, began crying eight hours a day, seven days a week, and was incarcerated in Tokanui Mental Hospital for a savage round of electric shock treatment, she maintained an imperturbable calm, as if he was on a prolonged business trip, and rarely if ever mentioned his absence.

When he returned, all Stanley could manage was to do was sit in the porch and knit scarfs, an incongruous activity for a massive ex-blacksmith, and in order to cheer him up, I would tell him my twelve-year-old's jokes, which sparked uncontrollable laughter, laughter that wracked his body until once again he broke into violent sobs, the tears falling onto his half-completed knitting.

Elsie, London school teacher to the core, wasn't keen on these open displays of emotion, and would chide him on misbehaving in front of his grand-children. I remember feeling a mixture of sorrow, pity, and a certain fascination at this spectacular disintegration of masculinity.

By coincidence, my own father, Elsie's son-in-law, was also a music teacher, and the whole question of what constituted real masculinity became a pressing question in our home in Morrinsville, stamping ground of the renowned All Black Don 'The Boot' Clark, and his famous brothers.

I compensated for this lack of masculine credibility in our men-folk by becoming a ferocious rugby enthusiast, playing at No 13 and was known for my kamikaze attitude to tackling. Sometimes, Elsie, a firm proponent of the principle that men should be men, would come to see me play, a tiny figure standing on the side-line and cheering me on - something my own father never did, lost as he was in his Bach fugues and Beethovian caprices.

Elsie with my brother, Andrew. c 1980
When Stanley finally died, and Elsie was incarcerated in a rest home in Hamilton with alleged Altzheimer's disease, I remained convinced during my teenage years, that her dementia was an act, that she had decided 'not to be a nuisance' and had gone quietly to the zombie domain of the aged and infirm rather than be a burden on the family, and that behind her octogenarian demeanor her school-teacher's mind was just as sharp as ever.

I shared this thought with my mother, Elsie's daughter, who looked first horrified, then strangely impressed, as though perhaps I had hit upon something. There was an element of self-abnegation among the women-folk in my family, as though conscious that their intelligence, self-awareness and complexity was not too highly valued in a woman in that era, and that it might just be smarter to play the game and go quietly into that good night.

Friday, 22 March 2019

Christchurch terror attacks - writers must respond

On John's election as national president of the NZ Society of Authors

Tēnā koutou katoa

We send love to our Muslim brothers and sisters at this terrible time.

New Zealand writers will always stand for tolerance and understanding in the face of barbarity and ignorance.

Writers through their work, can spread understanding of other cultures and faiths. They can celebrate the dignity and mana of these faiths and cultures. They can dispel hatred and fear.

They can show that the 'other', the foreigner, the immigrant, is just like us, with the same hopes, struggles and dreams. This can help combat the anti-immigrant rhetoric of political leaders who set people against each-other for their own ends, and who encourage and give legitimacy to racists and haters.

They can shed light on the corrupting role of violence and the glorification of violence.

The Ponsonby mosque in Auckland is opposite the Sacred Heart Catholic Church. Two days after the attack, the mosque was a fortress guarded by a huge Maori policeman and a tiny pakeha policewoman with loaded M4 carbines. A telling metaphor for the way Muslim communities in the West have often lived - islands in an alien sea. I could only leave my flowers outside the high walls.

A week later, things had changed. I passed the heaped up mountains of flowers left by Aucklanders, pungent but decaying, and was ushered into the domed room of the mosque by a smiling young man. I sat cross-legged on deep red carpet while the bearded imam, a Koran in one hand, reminded his flock, seated before him, that we are all living on borrowed time. He alternated Arabic with English. Above him, a huge red digital clock underlined his words.

I was aware of my own 'otherwise' in this holy place; how alien, how foreign I felt, a striking reminder of how awkward and out-of-place Muslims must often feel in our cities. I was inside the fortress looking out. I listened to the oratory for half an hour then left.

As I exited the mosque, another imam, Habib, stopped me and took my hand. He spoke of his long journey from Bangladesh, to Thailand and on to New Zealand. When I told him I was a Buddhist, he grasped my hand more firmly and smiled. 'In Thailand,' he said, 'Our friends the Buddhists lived such simple lives. They were very generous.' Perhaps out of tact, he didn't mention the genocide being perpetrated by the Buddhist majority against Muslims in neighbouring Myanmar.

Still, here were a Muslim and a Buddhist holding hands on a street outside a Catholic Church in a small country which has just been torn open by an unthinkable act of barbarity. In the wake of such terrible events, perhaps this was a little progress.

We can use these attacks to cross the moats between cultures and faiths. And we can take action as writers, too.

The greatest books of the last hundred years have opened our minds to the complexity of humanity, its miraculous variety and richness. Novelists in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and our own Maori writers have shown us how to understand and appreciate the marvelous diversity of humankind.

In 'Midnight’s Children', Salman Rushdie reveals in magical prose, the moment when the Indian sub-continent freed itself from the shackles of British colonial rule, and ran helter-skelter down a new, riotous and uncontrollable route to independence.

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, the great Kenyan writer, writes from a jail cell, on toilet paper, and reflects on the emergence of a new democratic Africa from the rule of despots and tyrants.

Witi Ihimaera, Patricia Grace and Albert Wendt have shown how grievously neglected our own Pacific identity has been until recent decades, and how this marginalisation and neglect has diminished us all. Their books strike a rich new vein of cultural complexity that we New Zealanders can mine for our genuinely Polynesian future.

These books are narratives of emancipation and enlightenment. Of cultures emerging from the past and establishing something precious and new.

In the face of this richness, poetry and diversity, the writing of white supremacists is shown to be arid, impoverished, and destined for the dust-bin of history.

For ten years I lived and worked with immigrants in a poor and violent part of a foreign city. Many of them, Ethiopians, Chileans. Nicaraguans, Iraqis, had fled oppressive and cruel dictatorships. They were regularly vilified in the local media and by politicians as outsiders, parasites, free-loaders.

They were among the most brave, resilient and cheerful people I have ever met. They were thankful for the relative safety of their new home. They were grateful for the smallest generosities and the kindness of their host communities. Our Muslim countrymen and women here in Aotearoa remind me of them.

The Christchurch mass-killer posted an 87-page, 16,000 word manifesto on the libertarian website 8chan. It was lucid, spell-checked, and persuasive for those who desire to hate. It was a paean to medieval notions of racial superiority that informed the Christian crusades and animated a generation of Nazis in 1939.

Racist writers around the world, egged on by a new wave of populist politicians, echo Tarrant's message on their websites and in their chat rooms.

We must use our own skills as writers to counter these messages.

Writers are opinion makers, culture bearers and influencers. The best writers aspire to the highest standards of humanity. To what we all have in common. To our brotherhood and sisterhood with other nations.

We have much work to do in 2019.

Ngā mihi 

John Cranna

Monday, 24 December 2018

Tigress of tango

Gisela in motion
Two days before Xmas, and I descended into a dark and musty dance studio in Newton. A humid day, with rain falling outside in Myers Park. This subterranean venture was a Xmas present to myself - an expensive tango lesson with international performers ... Ariel and Gisela from Buenos Aries.

My last lesson from an international dancer was a couple of years before in Berlin, with the lovely Laura, an expatriate Italian. Although I have been dancing tango for many years, the Auckland tango ecosystem is sheltered and small, and stars - and teachers - of this calibre are rare visitors. At a mere $160 for an hour lesson, I leaped at the chance.

Tango embodies all the delights and anguish of man-woman relationships in highly concentrated form. Although lead by the man, the intention is to showcase a woman's grace and panache. And leave her feeling emotionally and physically satisfied. Sound familiar? Yes - tango is often described as the vertical expression of horizontal desire.

Gisela enveloped me - a total stranger - in a very Latin embrace. Vivid, animated and charismatic, she charmed me immediately despite my mounting terror. She nestled her head into my neck and demanded I hug her close. She was clad in a very large grey cardigan.

'John!' she said. 'When we met I can tell you are a nice person! But now, I feel nothing.' She frowned. 'You are a many miles away! Give me some warmth!'

Here was a sensual woman with glistening hair and animated brown eyes, demanding I avidly embrace her in front of her - equally frowning - and statuesque partner.

Gisela and Ariel - sensuality and panache
Fighting decades of Anglo Saxon emotional reserve, I opened my heart, and stepped out into the basico, or basic eight steps, in which the man brings the woman to a cross on the fifth step. Years of experience evaporated, and I stumbled along like a man sleep-walking through a bog. Never had I felt so incompetent on the tango floor.

When they asked what I wanted to focus on during the lesson, I said: 'Please strip my technique right down to basics. What am I doing right. What am I doing wrong.'

Well, it turned out that I was doing just about everything wrong.

'You are moving your arms like a mad conductor,' said Ariel. 'Keep them still. You must maintain the frame of your embrace intact.' And then there was my walk, 'Like a little penguin,' chortled Gisela, rolling her eyes in mirth. No-one had described my gait as penguin-like before. Somehow, coming from Gisela, I wasn't offended.

Next we tried the backward ochos, one of the first steps a tanguero learns. It seems my weight was in the wrong place, and I was both failing to maintain my axis and to turn the woman with my torso. By now my brain was writhing with rapid-fire Latinate instructions and I begged for respite. 'Is so much wrong?' I cried despairingly. They both smiled and laughed, 'Of course,' they said. 'We always have to start again. Before you break the rules, you have to learn them. You must do the simple things right.'

It was my turn to laugh - this was a line my writing students hear several times a week, and is true of any art form. I was getting the same lesson in humility that my own students were obliged to absorb. And continual lessons in humility are what life seems to be all about ...

I thought back over my life of professional successes, and how frequently they seemed to be followed by abject and sometimes humiliating failures. We seemed destined to go on aspiring to the greatest heights, and spectacularly falling short.

At the end of the hour I was humming with energy. Both Ariel and Gisela clasped me in a fond embrace ... they were flying back to Buenos Aires is a few hours. Their charm was palpable, like a thousand watt light bulb. I felt immensely privileged to have been their student. To connect with such talent, such excellence, is galvanising.

As I left, I found myself skipping down the street - backwards ...

"Winning does not tempt that man. This is how he grows; by being defeated decisively by constantly greater things."                                                    Rainer Maria Rilke: 1875-1926

Monday, 15 October 2018

A drunk in a wheelchair is never a pretty sight ...

... and cartoonist John Callahan made an uglier sight than most. Prone to rocketing around the suburbs of his home town, abusing social workers and passers by, he found redemption in acerbic cartoons that were very black, and chokingly funny.

Oddly enough, Joaquin Phoenix, who plays the benighted Callahan in a brilliant new movie, 'Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot' has also had his struggles with alcohol and was also almost killed in an auto wreck of his own making.

In real life, Callahan's drinking accelerated after the accident that crippled him, until a miraculous vision of his mother appeared at his bedside and told him to sort his shit.

Next stop, Alcoholics Anonymous, and the most hilarious (and touching) scenes in this movie are set in the home of his wealthy hippie sponsor, who guides Callahan along the perilous road to sobriety.

We could all do with a stretch in AA - not necessarily for substance abuse, but because of the ruthlessly sane philosophy it propagates. Self-pity and self-serving whinging are very much off the agenda, and the heart of the AA philosophy is an invocation to the alcoholic to take complete responsibility for his life.

After pouring out his woes, and receiving scant sympathy from the group, Callahan abuses an obese young woman for her heartlessness: 'How can you know what I'm going through?' he whines.

'Actually,' she says, 'I have cancer of the heart.'

It's a salutary moment: 'If you keep on with this poor me shit,' she goes on, 'You'll end up saying 'poor me another glass'.'

As the scales (more or less) fall from Callahan's bloodshot eyes, he embarks on a series of chaotic adventures - botched sexual encounters, spectacular humiliations, no-win gambits - all of which are executed with a kind of manic zeal that leaves you laughing and crying by turns.

And what art!

His cartoons, published widely throughout the USA, at first glance appear to mock the plight of the disabled, the marginal, the despised, but in fact are unerringly accurate about the patronising way minority groups are treated.

In another cartoon, a large and threatening perimeter fence, topped with barbed wire, is sign-posted: WARNING, AREA PATROLLED BY LESBIANS.

What offended Callahan most, and what Gus Van Sant's movie clearly depicts, is the way marginal or minority groups are handled with social awkwardness and embarassment, but rarely treated with the brusque equality and respect he craved.

Callahan's cartoons teeter on the brink of the repugnant, and it's this very high-wire act that makes them so compelling. He would delight in publishing the (copious) hate mail he received ... and it is precisely this mischievous iconoclasm that makes him such a riveting figure.

Now dead, after a mishandled operation for his bed sores (something he would have cartooned with glee), Callahan's story is an unmissable look at a truly gifted artist with a fanatic's heart ... a man who rushed in to zestfully occupy the zone that angels fear to tread.

Saturday, 29 September 2018

Helpless seal pup blues

Hiking from Whatipu to Karekare this weekend, one of the wilder and more isolated parts of the Tasman Coast, during which I never see another soul on the seven kilometre beach, I came across a lone seal pup, marooned a hundred metres above the surf line. Unschooled as I am in seal wrangling, I started a conversation with Nathan (instantly coined), asked him where the hell his mother was - the kind of thing that happens when you spend time alone in the wilderness. Frankly there wasn't much response ... just a bit of wriggling, whimpering and when I came too close, rearing up on his hind flippers and barking at me.

At this time of year, seals give birth on remote parts of the coast, and leave their pups to rest on the sand, and to warm up, as the Tasman is still pretty cold. However there was no sign of life for kilometres in either direction, and I assumed his mother must be out at sea, cruising the coast for mackerel and kahawai to feed the little tike.

Flies had started to settle on his eyes, which didn't seem like a great thing, and I briefly considered carrying him back to the water, as he was incapable of moving more than a metre or two in any direction.

Such a picture of helplessness! And so far from anywhere.

The New Zealand fur seal was ruthlessly hunted in the 19th century (sealing was one of our first major industries) and almost wiped out ... a few colonies survived in the south of the South Island and on off-shore islands.

Since these beautiful animals became protected, their population has rebounded, they have spread north again, so that there is now a seal colony on Oaia Island just off Muriwai Beach, a little further north of where I found Nathan. If he was from the Oaia Island colony, he was a long way from home for such a tiny creature.

The stretch of water at Oaia Island was the site of the fatal great white shark attack on Muriwai film-maker Adam Strange several summers ago, and it is likely that the explosion in seal numbers has caused the huge great white shark community at Stewart Island to send emissaries north up to the coast.

Aucklanders' favourite West Coast swimming spots at Piha, Muriwai and Karekare may be a little riskier than they used to be in the summers to come. However this seems a small price to pay to have these frisky creatures frequenting our beaches again.

As for Nathan, I figured the sooner I left the area, the sooner his mother could revisit with whatever sustenance he needed. But the sight of his tiny body covered in flies stayed with me for days afterwards.

Whatipu to Karekare beach - 7 km of wilderness                                           Photo: John Cranna