Wednesday, October 07, 2009

To the zoo, at night

The repressively complacent character of post-war New Zealand society helped to create a series of hermetic teenage male countercultures. Unable to identify with the rugby players, bushmen and shearers who were supposed to represent the essence of New Zealand manhood, and tired of the milk bars and movie theatres that were supposed to absorb their leisure time, minorities of young men defined themselves by their strangeness and gravitated towards spaces on the fringes of the tight little communities their parents and grandparents had constructed.

In his memoir Years Ago Today, the late Alan Brunton recalls some of the tangential but closely-knit tribes that the quiescence of 1960s Auckland created, and the places in which these tribes congregated. One tribe, which had its origins on the freshly-laid bitumen of Mt Roskill, announced itself by ritually sacrificing a sheep beside the nineteenth century cemetery of Grafton Gully. Other tribes found stomping grounds in derelict forts, tunnel complexes, and abandoned asylums: in spaces and structures which hinted at a world more exotic and chaotic than tidy welfare state suburbs like Mt Roskill.

In the mid-'70s a group of young men from Auckland's western suburbs became fascinated with the zoo which lay at the end of their neighbourhood amidst scoria stone walls and elaborate gardens. Students at Westlake Boys High, they shared a love of loud music and a hatred for the mixture of rugby and evangelical Christianity which dominated life at their school. In opposition to the officially- endorsed rituals of the first fifteen and the Crusaders Club, the young dissidents established their own, clandestine, bonding exercise: on quiet nights in the warmer months of the year, they scaled the walls of the zoo, and visited its monkeys, lions, and other inmates.

In daylight the zoo was the sort of environment that the tribe detested, a place where sentimentality and safety ruled. Children and camera-happy tourists gawped as elephants rolled in the dust for peanuts and big cats wearily patrolled the tiny wildernesses of their enclosures. In the evening, though, the zoo was transformed: emptied of its crowds and lit only by the moon, the place invited adventure and fantasy.

In the first section of his new book On the Eve of Never Departing, one of the Westlake High School rebels recalls a visit to the zoo which was full of both terror and wonder. Richard von Sturmer read the passage at the launch of his book last month at Fordes Bar, and a recording of his performance has been placed online here.

Although the recording was made on a cellphone sitting on a table in a far corner of Fordes Bar, it captures von Sturmer's voice clearly. The clinking glasses, lowered chatting voices, and scraping chairs which usually form an accompaniment to an author's reading are absent. The silence you hear around Richard's voice is the sound of a transported audience.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Transported to where?

9:19 am  
Blogger Paul said...

Two books I must read; can you recommend any others that describe the undertow of Auckland life?

1:33 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Hi Paul,

if it's the seamy side of Auckland you're after, I'd definitely recommend a couple of David Lyndon Brown titles, which I reviewed here:

http://readingthemaps.blogspot.com/2007/07/decay-and-beauty.html

8:46 pm  
Blogger Paul said...

Thank you. I asked because I suspected that the writers you discussed might provide another view of architecture, one about buildings as they are experienced by those who lived in them, rather than as objects seen at a distance. David Lyndon Brown seems to give some sense of an Auckland which contrasts with the official view, as your 2007 review indicates. I shall investigate further. Thank you once again.

9:24 pm  

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