In his enormous, almost forgotten book Rethink, British futurologist - does the word itself not sound old-fashioned, today? - Gordon Rattray Taylor divided human beings into two types, based partly on the sort of landscape to which they felt most attracted. Taylor's 'romantic' type was moved by wildness and motion; his 'classicist' prefered peace and order. I always think of Taylor's dichotomy when I look at a map of the narrow peninsula that is Auckland. The peninsula's densely-populated East Coast boasts golden sands, orderly processions of Norfolk pines, and waters calmed by the Waitemata Harbour's complex network of islands, isthmuses, and sandbars. This is the idyllic coast celebrated in Bruce Mason's famous play 'The End of the Golden Weather', and in ARD Fairburn's 'The Cave':
We climbed down, and crossed over the sand,
and there were islands floating in the wind-whipped blue,
and clouds and islands trembling in your eyes,
and every footstep and every glance
was a fatality felt and unspoken, our way
rigid and glorious as the sun’s path,
unbroken as the genealogy of man.
Auckland's West Coast cannot even be glimpsed from the east: the eye travels thirty kilometres, across mortgaged suburbs, extinct volcanoes, and horticulutral sections, only to be frustrated by the rain forest and steel antennae of the Waitakere Ranges, the remnants of massive volcanic eruptions thirty million years ago. Until the 1930s, when unlucky prisoners were forced to pave the route known as Scenic Drive, the Coast was reachable only by a very tired horse and a mud-stained buggy. Even today, Scenic Drive and its outliers do their best to slow the movement of surfers and fishermen, wrapping themselves round pillars of rock and stands of remnant kauri so that journeys of a few kilometres can last half an afternoon. It is appropriate that such a spectacular place as the West Coast should be approached with a slowness and caution that perhaps approximate reverence.
Last night, at about eight o'clock, Skyler and I found ourselves on the edge of Muriwai, the last and longest of the western beaches, after a slow drive over gravel and fallen pohutakawa blossoms. The sun was low in the sky, and a tired-looking lifeguard was busy trying to persuade half a dozen teenage surfers out of the darkening walls of water that broke as far as the eye could travel.
As the last of the surfers disappeared into a combie van that shook with the sound of The Doobie Brothers, Skyler climbed over a massive black dune that was slowly collapsing onto the fairway of the Muriwai Golf Club. The earthworks of an ancient Maori pa snaked along the edge of the fairway, before being tidied into a bunker and the low ridge that cupped a tiny green. Beyond the green, at the bottom of another precarious dune, stood the ruins of a concrete blockhouse, twelve feet by eight feet, with two holes punched in the seaward wall for the rifles of the Home Guard. An apple tree had grown in the guardsmen's crouch space, but couldn't get up the mettle to reach through the blasted roof. After pushing dunes away with a rusty forklift mounted on a local farmer's tractor, the part-time soldiers of the Guard would have taken turns waiting here, smoking roll your owns and squinting through binoculars for a sight of a Jap submarine or float plane.
'Good place for a doobie...' I hear Skyler say.
Kendrick Smithyman waited here, or somewhere near here, too.
Where does the ocean begin?
Not here, where the stakes of the wrecked pier can barely stagger out thirty feet, and the rising tide capsizes a dinghy called Mabel.
The ocean begins on page 112, where Kendrick Smithyman stuffs toheroa into the pockets of his shirt and shorts, watching the ranger’s buggy disappear over a dune.
It is eleven-thirty a.m., the sixth of May, 1957, and Ken is drunk. He has just begun to compose the first line of a poem, about the ocean, and about toheroa, or perhaps he has just finished the line. Either way, it doesn’t really matter.
What matters is the thick dry husk of a sea monster, a sea weed (Latin name lapis lazuli, 6 ft x 4ft) lying under beheaded lupins on the smooth edge of a dune.
What matters is the rot-blue colouring of the side of the monster, the side that faces away from the waves, towards Ken.
What matters are the eleven black-backed gulls, turning and turning in a widening gyre, or distributed randomly across the dunes, above the sea, and on pieces of driftwood riding the swell.
What matters is going to bed in a Muriwai bach and waking up under the keel, in a poem or a dream, at 3 a.m., when the bones of the drowned coldly associate.
Ken winces, and turns, remembering the corugated blues and oranges of the gumdigger’s shack, remembering the bombed-out blockhouse, the bright blind eyes of sunflowers staring through collapsed rooves.
For a long time he could not understand the impenetrable hardness of external objects, the way they seemed to flee from the eye into corners and crannies, like the deer Hamish frightened with his warning shot.
Now he knows the truth: to move or otherwise alter any single object, or to refrain from doing so, is to change the history of the entire world.
Now he does not dare to move, to stand still.
It is eleven-thirty a.m., the sixth of May, 1957.