More on the Shore
My proposal for a Community Ed course on North Shore writing and history has been given the green light, subject to enrolment levels. One of the purposes of the course is to continue the canonisation of Jack Ross, one of the finest North Shore scribblers of his generation and a man who has bought me a good many drinks over the years. Here's an essay on Jack and North Shore lit which was published in brief last year, and which I'm sure I'll end up cannibalising for the Community Ed course.
After the Golden Weather: Jack Ross and the New North Shore
Monkey Miss Her Now, Jack Ross, Danger Publishing, 2004
Jack Ross is a Shore Boy. The blurb on the back of his fabulously rare first collection, City of Strange Brunettes, tells us that he ‘grew up in Auckland’s East Coast Bays, where he continues to live’, and Monkey Miss Her Now hits the bookshelves at the same time as Golden Weather, an anthology of North Shore writing he has co-edited with Graeme Lay.
The Shore is a strange place. The golden sand, pohutakawas, and island views of those East Coast Bays are still keeping bad watercolourists busy, but the vistas looked prettier thirty or forty years ago. Sargeson and his acolytes colonised a Ruritarian paradise, but for more than three decades the Shore has been a developer’s dream, one of the fastest-growing parts of New Zealand.
Jack’s home suburb, Mairangi Bay, offers an especially sharp lesson in the dialectics of development. Thirty years ago it was a hippy paradise, complete with dirt roads and fields of mushrooms. In the eighties the hippies became yuppies, swapping Values for Lange-Labour, and potholed right-of-ways for smooth concrete drives. Today’s boom town is nearby Albany, where streets lined with half-built houses make for a boy racer’s paradise at night.
It is possible to argue that, in the very extremity of the juxtapositions it now presents, the North Shore exemplifies changes seen across New Zealand society over recent decades. In his introduction to the poetry section of Golden Weather, Jack talks about the ‘two sides’ of the Shore – the fragments left over from a ‘golden, relaxed, Mediterranean’ age, and the ‘coarseness’ and ‘realism’ of the new ‘mortgaged suburbs of modern homes’. Most of the writers in Golden Weather are noticeably keener on the Old Shore – at least, when choosing their subject matter, they prefer baches and fresh-caught snapper to boy racers and concrete drives. Frank Sargeson, the godfather of them all, waged a famously stubborn rearguard action against the New Shore, refusing to abandon his Takapuna bach to an advancing motorway.
Today Sargeson’s home stands as a sort of monument to the Old North Shore, mocked by the hiss and roar of a nearby on-ramp. Many of the stories and poems in Golden Weather make a similar stand. In the anthology’s first piece of prose, for instance, Michael King grits his teeth and turns his back on the ‘nascent urban centre’ of Browns Bay, with its ‘seven banks and seven real estate agents’, and comforts himself with the indifference of the sea. It seems a remarkably nihilistic gesture, from a man so identified with a feel-good flavour of liberal nationalism, until one realises that the whole aesthetic of the Defiant Old North Shore – of snapper caught beside rush-hour traffic, and remembered baches blotting out beachfront apartments – is predicated upon a fear and loathing of most of the real inhabitants of the New North Shore.
I wish that Jack and Graeme had thrown a few of the stories in Jack’s book into their anthology, because Monkey Miss Her Now is a determined attempt to come to grips with the place Michael King rejected. Jack’s unusual achievement is to treat the subject matter of this ‘new’, if not improved, New Zealand – language schools, suburban swing parties, boy racers, text message pests, and the rest – using a style and sensibility that hark back to the ‘classical’ New Zealand literary tradition that the best writers of the Old Shore did so much to establish. Sargeson has left his bach-fortress, forded that motorway off-ramp, and discovered a strange new world.
Admittedly, there are no concrete drives or boy racers in ‘Robinsonade’, the first story in Monkey Miss Her Now. Jack offers us, instead, a resourceful castaway, on a well-resourced tropical isle – building blocks, one might think, for a classical adventure story. On Jack’s isle, though, nothing happens. The tokens of Crusoe’s industrious self-improvement – the raft, the vegetable plot, the windmill, the hut – are judged ‘singularly futile and pointless’, and the closest we get to Man Friday is a rather diffident ghost. Like Valery and Wittgenstein before him, Jack has created his Crusoe not to justify a plot, but dramatise certain traits of the human beings who live inside a real society. Crusoe is isolated in the way that a scientist’s sample is isolated. His sense of boredom and futility is all the more affecting, because it seems to have its source in something deeper than mere loneliness. Reading this Crusoe’s response to a random epistle from the offshore world, we sense that his isolation is existential, as much as geographical:
This morning, walking on the beach, I found a little glass bottle...As I had hoped it contained a note...Why did it anger me so much, I wonder? Was it the idea that of all the people in the world, I should pick up a portion of this one’s private correspondence? The triviality, the banality of it all! Why should anyone even dream of writing such a letter?
In the first volume of Edward Upward’s trilogy The Spiral Ascent, the protagonist leaves his job and settles on the Isle of Wight, determined to live the perfect ‘poetic life’ in seclusion. All too soon, though, he becomes tormented by a feeling of futility, and decides to jump off one of the island’s many cliffs. Only a decision to join the Communist Party and live a ‘meaningful’ (read: political) life keeps Upward’s hero in one piece. Jack’s Crusoe actually makes it off his cliff, but his ‘tentative crab-like tumble’ suggests that ‘my body, the house of my life’ has ‘decided to stay’. Jack’s resolution is less dramatic than Upward’s: ‘back to the kelp beds, I suppose’ is as much as he seems able to manage. This sort of dour stoicism belongs, of course, to Sargeson’s isolated anti-heroes.
‘Robinsade’ is a good introduction to Monkey Miss Her Now: its faux-exotic, almost abstract setting dramatises themes that will appear in more quotidian surroundings through the rest of the book. In the second story, 'ADIOS DOS', the theme of alienation relocates to an English language school, where a bereaved teacher’s exact observations of his surroundings only dramatise his emotional isolation. Jack weaves students’ exercises into his text with a sensitivity that recalls Michael Henderson’s anti-Vietnam war masterpiece Log of a Superfluous Son:
He is very kindly and friendly. Everyday he wears difference quite nice dress. He always wear a pair of nice glass. I think he is more tolerant person. Sometimes he likes sociable, but a lot of time he keeps his life alone. He is very knowledge.
Again and again, the protagonist of ADIOS DOS returns to a ravine that seems to symbolise his own wound. But the hole that Jack digs can’t offer the succour his hero requires:
[I]t was no friend of his. It was no friend of anyone’s. It was just a big black hole – a meaningless feature of the landscape.
Ultimately, ‘furniture, clothes, books’ and ‘a new living room purged of negative associations’ seem a better bet. (Perhaps some Walpole novels would look good on those shelves?) Jack’s theme may come straight from Sargeson, but the formal structure of 'ADIOS DOS' is far removed from the austere manner of Takapuna’s last horticulturalist. A better reference point is Sargeson’s one-time acolyte, Maurice Duggan, who lived for many years in Forest Hill, just a gentle stroll from Mairangi Bay. Written through the mists of morphine in the summer of 1974, Duggan’s late, great story ‘The Magsman Miscellany’ reads like a rough blueprint for the episodic, allusive, yet compulsively observant style of Monkey Miss Her Now.
The three pieces which follow ADIOS DOS – ‘Summer Tango’, ‘On Love’, and ‘Tahiti’ – push Duggan’s form to breaking point, coming close at times to collage. ‘Summer Tango’ and ‘On Love’ organise their fragments with overarching themes, while ‘Tahiti’ appears autobiographical. These stories’ cut and paste method helps Jack to make extensive use of what was once rather delicately called ‘vernacular language’.
But Jack’s dirty language often lies down beside highfalutin’ registers and references – the sort of stuff that’d make Jake Heke blush – so that we are aware of the author’s distance from his subjects. Is anyone else reminded of Sargeson, who sat alone in a corner of a 1930s pub, scribbling down and annotating ‘authentic working class dialogue’?
‘On Love’ and ‘Summer Tango’ are clever, and frequently entertaining, but they seem a retreat from the seriousness of ‘ADIOS DOS’. Is the real impetus for Jack’s writing being disguised here? Is the author valourising rather than exploring his alienation? In some of his other books Jack has given himself a sort of bumbling, pedantic ‘Doctor Watson’ persona, in an effort to dramatise the distance he feels from his subject matter. In Chantal’s Book, the cycle of poems issued last year by HeadworX, a pedantic narrator manages to erase the real personality of his girlfriend and ostensible subject by continually taking his eye off her to scribble learned and irrelevant notes. In the novel Nights with Giordano Bruno, Doctor Watson makes a rather awkward visit to Showgirls. The same comic persona can be found in ‘On Love’, and I am not sure whether he dramatises or trivialises the author’s alienation:
“We’re all hairdressers” they say, and start to rattle off names. There are five girls and one boy (his name you do catch). They’re all dressed alike, in black, and are probably around seventeen or eighteen, from what you can judge.
“Hey driver man, do you have a stereo?” You do, and turn it on to Classic Hits, indulging itself with Abba revivalism.
“Mind if we change the channel?” You don’t, particularly.
The most important text in Monkey Miss Her Now is ‘A Strange Day at the Language School’, which won Jack second place in Landfall’s 2002 essay competition. Jack’s dry observations of an outpost of Auckland’s flagship ‘postmodern industry’ are interrupted by the sudden death of one of his students, In-Jae Ra. I remember reading Michael Schmidt condemn Dylan Thomas’s ‘A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London’ for burying the real human being who was its ostensible subject under an avalanche of resonant obscurities, rhetorical sleights of hand:
Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness
And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn
The majesty and burning of the child’s death
Reading these lines, I am lost in a verbal facility that exploits and obscures the tragedy Schmidt wants to remember. ‘A Strange Day’ takes a stand against such dishonesty, as Jack remains attentive to his own confusion, and to the limits of his empathy for a student he knew only fleetingly and superficially. He has no truck with easy eloquence, let alone easy answers:
It was a moment which called for something extraordinary from each of us, and afterwards it was impossible to know how well one had performed. Simple human gestures were what was required, yet they didn’t seem enough. The gulf between us and the students, between them and poor In-Jae, could not be bridged.
With its radical reticence, ‘A Strange Day’ shows Jack’s debt to the earlier generations of Shore Boys who occupy such canonical places in our literature. The ghost of Sargeson’s deeply feeling yet confused and inarticulate protagonists haunts Jack’s language school.
A highlight of the launch party for Monkey Miss Her Now was a generous and amusing talk by Roger Horrocks, who located Jack’s scribblings in the ‘exciting alt. lit tradition of local writing’. Horrocks’ opposition of ‘alt. lit’ to ‘mainstream literature’ took me back to Alan Loney’s theory of two warring and irreconcilable traditions of New Zealand writing – the one formally innovative, and influenced by American modernism and postmodernism, and the other local, parochial, and formally conservative. More than any other living writer, Jack Ross shows us the inadequacy of Loney’s schema. As postmodern as it is parochial, Monkey Miss Her Now drags a venerable tradition into the strange new worlds of twenty-first century New Zealand.