The transformation of Marcus Lush
If you wandered into High Street's Unity Books on a Friday night, wondering whether the manager had bowed to the inevitable and discounted the unsold stacks of the most recent Times Literary Supplement yet, you might well find a boozed-up Marcus Lush enjoying a loud but rather one-sided bit of 'banter' with an unsmiling staff member. If you joined the rush for the toilets of the doomed Mandalay club during Paul Kelly's rendition of Hot Chocolate's soppy pop classic 'It Started With A Kiss', you might be confronted with a mock-serious Lush castigating the grand old man of Australian music as 'Aussie's answer to Brazier' whilst leaning into the urinal. If you sat by the window at Gloria's cafe on Anzac Avenue late on a Saturday morning you might be rewarded with the sight of an eeriely silent, red-eyed Marcus Lush gingerly shambling his way down the pavement towards the city.
Some TV celebs seem to adopt different personas in their offscreen and onscreen lives. I lived opposite Richard Long for a while, in a student flat which was a continual minor irritation to the rest of a well-heeled Mt Eden street, and I was always struck by how miserable and timid the legendary newsreader seemed, whenever I encountered him walking his pudgy labrador to the circle of long grass at the end of the road where the creature liked to defecate. The avuncular, ever-smiling celeb could barely manage to look up and fashion a half-grin on his grey, unshaven face.
Marcus Lush, though, seemed to have the same personality on and offscreen. Whether he was fronting Bizarro or hanging about in Unity Books, he came across as exactly the sort of smartarse, unshockably sophisticated JAFA that had earned our city the contempt of the rest of New Zealand. As an interviewer, Lush sought out quirky, and sometimes downright strange subjects - guinea pig shows were a speciality - and then subjected them to the sort of deadpan mockery that Jeremy Wells has since perfected.
A few years ago Lush disappeared from the TV screens of New Zealand, and from the gutters and bookshops of High Street. When advertisements announced that he was reemerging as the presenter of a documentary called Off the Rails I feared the worst. I was pleasantly surprised, though, when Lush's new vehicle turned out to be a ruminative journey along mostly disused rail lines through some of New Zealand's most unfashionable backblocks. Lush was off the sauce, and the brash, interminably clever suit of the late nineties had been replaced by a self-deprecating, slightly melancholic scruff. Lush's profiles of embattled country towns like Ohai and Otira were characterised reverence, rather than ridicule, and revealed the ways of life which are lost along with jobs when coal mines and railway workshops close. When he interviewed the elderly women who had worked at the Temuka pottery in the middle of last century, or chatted with the bloke who digs near rusty lines for railway memorabilia, Lush seemed more like an oral historian drawing out half-forgotten facts than a slick TV celeb.
Lush was not afraid to let a few of his own opinions fly in Off the Rails, and they surprised both his erstwhile supporters and detractors. As he rode an aged bicycle over the rail trail through central Otago, Lush castigated the commercialism that the tourist industry had brought to a number of New Zealand towns including, most notoriously, Queenstown, that millionaires' playground filled with American accents. On the West Coast, Lush took a stand for the mining industry, remembering the role it had played in developing and sustaining isolated communities.
What had caused Marcus Lush's transformation? The man's new TV series lets us hazard an answer. South is intended as a celebration of the region which spreads out around Bluff, the town Lush has made his home for the past few years. In the first episode of South, Lush took to the seas below New Zealand's most southerly port, and visited Stewart Island, where the Department of Conservation is the major landowner.
In last night's episode of South, Lush struck westwards, and found himself in the old sawmilling town of Tuatapere on New Years' Eve. After wandering down to the town's only pub at ten o'clock and finding it inhabited by half a dozen drowsy pensioners, Lush stepped outside, did his own early countdown to the New Year alone on the pavement, and went back to his motel to get an early night. Lush needed the shuteye, because he was off early in the morning to Tuatapere's New Year's Sports Day, which was dominated by epic woodchopping duels between beer-bellied, barrel-chested men. Without a trace of irony, Lush lauded Tuatapere and its sportsmen. For this former JAFA, the deep south represents a repository of practices and values which have been lost in some of the more allegedly sophisticated parts of New Zealand. Lush has become an internal emigre.
Of course, it is not new for urban New Zealanders to give up their old lives and beliefs and head for the sticks. During the sixties and seventies, for instance, many Aucklanders gave up the 'rat race' for communes in the Coromandel, the Hokianga, and even the West Coast of the South Island. But these hairy young men and women were drawn to the backblocks not by the culture of small town sports days, but by the dream of creating islands of an 'alternative', decidedly non-traditional culture on cheap land. Although they took up residence in some of the most isolated parts of New Zealand, they drew their ideas and imagery from metropolitan centres like London and San Francisco. They often clashed with the conservative rural communities which already existed in the backblocks.
In the sixties and seventies, the rural 'heartland' still set the cultural pattern for New Zealand society as a whole. Farmers were idealised, and the country town was seen as the bastion of 'Kiwi values' like hard work, emotional reserve, and a sort of faux-egalitarianism that was hard to differentiate from philistinism and conformity. The globalisation of the economy in the eighties and early nineties, the gutting of many country towns, and the steady drift of people away from regions like Northland, the King Country, the West Coast, and Southland have reversed the situation. When urban Kiwis think about the countryside of their country today in positive terms, they tend to imagine the pristine forests and snowcapped mountains of tourism adverts, not the shearers of Te Kuiti.
Marcus Lush has come to identify with a culture that once seemed hegemonic, but which now appears marginalised and vulnerable. Will his identification, and his internal migration, be imitated by other urban New Zealanders dissatisfied with their lives? The popularity of Off the Rails and South suggests an answer.