Like a rock in the sea
Like Trotskyist study groups or Calvinist churches, The Bilders and most of the other great Flying Nun bands were, in their 1980s heyday, inherently unstable, inevitably fissiparous outfits. The same punkish love of improvised performance and do-it-yourself recording which brought band members together led to contests of ideas and splits, as this or that member left to establish his or her own version of the faith. Tonight’s keyboardist, whose face is almost obscured by a Tolkienesque beard, left The Bilders to found a cult Flying Nun outfit named The Terminals. The other men on stage have formed various bands of their own, and earned their own places in musical folklore.
There is something disconcerting, though, about the reunion of these legendary figures. Jorge Luis Borges has a short story in which the Gods of antiquity – Janus, and beak-nosed Thoth, and other beings marginalised for millennia by the jealous abstract deity of the Abrahamic faiths – materialise on a dais in a Buenos Aires lecture theatre. The mortals who have crowded the theatre, eager to adore the long-absent Gods, are soon dismayed to find that the objects of their reverence have suffered the indignity of physical decay. The Gods’ brows are beetled; their teeth are yellow. I think of Borges’ story when I look at the potbellies and the receding hairlines and the greying beard on stage. Would these Gods have done better to hide from us, and to thereby preserve the images established by old album sleeves and memories of gigs at the Gluepot and the Captain Cook?
Of all the men on stage, only Bill seems to show no trace of decay. His stomach is flat, his scalp is well-covered in thick brown hair, and his face, from this distance and in this light, seems almost unnaturally smooth. He could have materialised straight from the mid-‘80s.
Bill was a teenage folkie before he was a teenage punk, and the lilting melody of ‘Dublin’ might have been borrowed from one of the hundreds of songs his Irish ancestors brought with them when they emigrated to the South Island more than a century ago. The lyrics of the song, too, seem old: full of poetic inversions and images Yeats might have used during his Celtic Twilight period, they speak of the gap between innocence and experience, and of the mysteries which the aged cannot share with the young:
What darkness is this, suddenly fallen?
There’s a vanishing door, but I’ll not tell you more
There are things that are meant to unfold
This is a song that I love
That I learned long ago
There are things I could tell
But it won’t do you well
You must wait like a rock in the sea
Bill sings in a low, steady voice. The Bilders accompany him gently, and the crowd is quiet, so that when I close my eyes I can imagine a jukebox turned down low in an empty bar at the end of a summer night.
After the last verse of the song, though, Bill drops half to his knees and begins to play a loud, jagged solo. His smooth face is suddenly a mess of wrinkles; his eyes are shut tight. The men and women around me whoop and jump up and down and hold their bottles of Macs and Emersons aloft like torches.
Even the old fans, as obviously subject to decay as the men on stage, pogo like young punks. I am standing beside Graham Humphries, who has spilled most of his beer with his impromptu salute to Bill’s solo. Humphries punched me in the face a couple of songs ago, when he decided to celebrate the solo in the middle of ‘Bedrock Bay’ by closing his eyes and performing clumsy star jumps. Holding a cool bottle to my bulging eye socket, I was about to remonstrate with Humphries, who was oblivious to his deed, when I remembered that Skyler and I had played his music at our civil union. How, I was forced to ask myself, could I reasonably object to getting a left hook under the eye from the man who wrote a love song as gorgeous as ‘Sour Queen’?
Not all of the punks are old. A teenager with a shock of platinum hair is whooping particularly loudly, and making a cryptic gesture with his thumb and forefinger whenever Bill changes chords.
Eventually Bill finishes his solo, and steps away from the front of the stage. He has opened his eyes so that he can wipe them. The rest of the band lose the melody, then fall into silence one by one, then remonstrate with one another, as the stage lights dim. “We’re taking a break” Bill says, from somewhere near the back of the stage. “We may be a while.”
A couple of weeks ago Skyler and I drove Bill down the Southern Motorway, past the turnoffs to suburbs which remain to him exotic names, into the recently-abolished district of Franklin. Bill had for some time wanted to visit Tuakau, the little town on the lower Waikato where his father attended a boarding school run by Marist brothers in the 1930s. Andy Direen’s working class Catholic parents had sent him north from Timaru after he had capped his primary school education by winning a scholarship to the Tuakau Juniorate.
A photo on the rambling, luxuriantly detailed website run by and for old boys of the school at Tuakau offers a view of Andy Direen in 1938, wearing the black shorts, black socks, and black long-sleeved shirt with two white buttons which comprised the uniform of the Juniorate. If it were not for the bare knees and smooth smiling faces they show in photos, the school’s students might be taken for members of Mosley’s Blackshirts, or of the Spanish Phalangist militia that leaders of New Zealand’s Catholic church were supporting so uncritically in the second half of the ‘30s. Other corners of the Juniorate old boys’ website record the adventures of Andy and his fellow pupils on the modest peaks of the Bombay Hills, and at the children’s health camp near the mouth of the Waikato River.
Andy Direen died near the end of 2010. The obituary which appeared in The Press on the first day of 2011 gave prominence to his wartime career in the Royal Air Force, a career which saw him dropping torpedo-bombs on the oversized German battleship Tirpitz in a Norwegian fjord, and later flying out from Ceylon to destroy Japanese oil refineries in the Sumatran city of Palembang. The Press eventually described Direen’s postwar career as an accountant in Palmerston North and Christchurch, but it barely mentioned his teenage years in Tuakau.
We turned off the motorway at Drury, and stopped for a cup of tea at my parents’ farm. I grew up on the farm, less than a quarter hour’s drive from the site of the Juniorate, but I had no idea the school existed until Bill told me about the part it had played in his father’s life. The old boys’ website stated that the Juniorate had closed in 1974, but gave no clue as to what had happened to its red brick buildings and its playing fields and its stone grotto adorned with a plaster Mary. Even the colour photos on the website might have been taken forty years ago.
My parents were as ignorant as I had been about the Tuakau Juniorate. Bill wasn’t surprised by our innocence of the place.
“It’s a micronation” he announced, squinting into his teacup.
“A secession, a nation within a nation. There are lots of them in New Zealand. We seem to need them.”
The mention of secession reminded my father of the South Island.
“New Zealand ends at the Bombay Hills. I never vote for South Islanders in Fonterra elections, you know. They’re a funny lot. Xenophobic. The South Island has had a tough year, with the earthquake and this mine thing. I think we should cut them loose. Auckland should unite with New South Wales.”
Bill didn’t detect the joke. “You advocate the division of New Zealand?” he asked politely.
“Yes! The South is a burden. We’ll sell you lot to the Chinese. China needs more land.”
“I’ll have to think about that carefully. I’ll have to bear it in mind.”
“I’m just joking, you know.”
“I’ll bear it in mind”.
The awkward silence became a comfortable silence, as we sat and sipped our tea and looked out a window at the Drury Hills, which had turned worryingly brown since my last visit. The wires of a distant fenceline shimmered in the heat; for a moment I imagined that an earthquake was moving them. “We need some rain” my father finally said. “You South Islanders bring droughts up with you”.
As we drove southwest toward Tuakau, past the glasshouses and hen houses and country houses of Ramarama, I asked Bill how he was enjoying the Franklin countryside. Bill has spent almost all of his life in cities, and both his songs and his stories teem with urban imagery. He has passed much of the past decade in Paris, but has almost never entered the French countryside. He told me once that open spaces made him feel lonely, and aggravated his tinnitus. But Bill liked Auckland’s southern greenbelt. “This is good country” he said as passed through Harrisville, the area of onion and potato farms that bears the name of one of the generals who invaded the Waikato Kingdom in 1863. “It’s densely populated, isn’t it, this land? And people look like they are using it. It doesn’t have that bleakness you sometimes get in New Zealand…”
Harrisville was intended to be a country town, complete with a wide main street and a paved square, but the soldier-settlers who had helped Harris seize the Waikato soon abandoned the place, realising that there were no jobs to be had, and knowing that the small plots of land they had been gifted by the government in Auckland were absurdly uneconomic, even for subsistence purposes. It took the growth of Auckland, the invention of refrigerated shipping, and the arrival of skilled farmers from Ulster and – later – Gujarat to make this part of Franklin economically viable. Today the small plots and intensive cropping give Harrisville a curiously Old World air, despite the groves of puriri and totara which still stand on the edges of some of its fields. We crossed the railway line at the edge of Tuakau, and turned left, away from the township, up Dominion Road. The drive which led to the complex of red brick buildings was protected by puriri which must have been saplings when Andy Direen was young. A door was open in one of the buildings; inside, a middle-aged woman asked if we’d come “to buy the place”. Most of the old Juniorate was up for sale, she explained.
“The Felix Donnelly Trust, they had it. They had it for a school for troubled kids, but the Education Review Office has closed them down. Poor conditions, they said. The kids were suffering. This building is being rented by Youthlink – we do counseling here. The rest of the place is for sale. Take a look. You may decide to buy it after all.” The buildings were set on a low hill which fell away into fields of grass tall enough for children to hide in. Desks and tables and chairs had abandoned their classrooms and taken up positions on the external staircases and concrete verges of the larger structures.
Skyler went looking for Mary and her grotto. “We had a plaster Mary and a grotto at my school” Bill remembered, as he stood on the newly-mown lawn that surrounded the empty buildings. “Mary is everywhere.”
When the Tainui people pushed out of their base around Kawhia into this part of Te Ika a Maui hundreds of years ago, they left small stone figures in the soil of the rohe they crossed, and thereby rendered the new land hospitable. I wondered whether the Catholic tendency to leave images of Mary in the most improbable places might have its origin in the same sort of desire to make a homeland out of a strange new land.
At the end of the ‘70s Bruce Hayward carried out a comprehensive survey of historical and prehistoric sites in the Waitakere Ranges; one of his more surprising discoveries was a rectangular grotto cut into a clay bank along the edge of Anawhata Road. Long obscured by scrub, the space had once housed a statue of Mary which had been carried through the bush of the Waitakeres by the Irish workers who built the road to Anawhata. When the roadbuilders broke up their camp and returned to the city, they took Mary with them; in the same way, the Marist brothers appear to have evacuated Mary from the grounds of their old Juniorate. Skyler could find no signs of the Virgin, but I spotted a pile of stones which might have been the remains of a demolished grotto. Bill took photos of the walls of the Juniorate’s main building, zooming in and out, stepping this way and that, trying to locate his subject in the landscape. Against the blues and greys of the sky and the waving shades of green in the unstocked paddocks behind it, the long rectangle of red looked, from a distance, like the decisive element in an abstract painting by Hans Hoffman or Milan Mrkusich, the block of vivid yet undifferentiated colour which holds the composition together and compels the viewer’s gaze. Close up, though, each brick was defined by some small imperfection: a chip the size of a small marble, or a chalked grafitto, or a long elegant sliver of fossilised birdshit.
I asked Bill if the physical decline of the Juniorate saddened him. “It is a place I couldn’t enter anyway” he replied. “Even if it was open I couldn’t enter. Not in the way my father could. It’s a micronation.” It would be tempting to make the Tuakau Juniorate into a symbol of the much-publicised crisis of Catholicism, as the church struggles, in Western nations like New Zealand at least, to reconcile the asperity of its leader’s moral judgments with perpetual revelations of sexual misdeeds by his employees. But no former student of the Tuakau Juniorate has accused the Marist Brothers of abuse, and the Felix Donnelly Trust bears the name of a priest who, even in the relatively liberal 1970s, was ostracised by the church for his criticism of its theological and sexual conservatism. If Donnelly’s school had failings, it would be unfair to rush to associate these with mainstream Catholicism. The Tuakau Juniorate may be decaying, and orders like the Marist Brothers may be failing to attract new members, but only twenty minutes’ drive away, in the Bombay Hills the young Andy Direen liked to explore on weekends, a monastery and nunnery which share the name Tynburn recently expanded their operation, opening a visitors’ centre and a space where outsiders can come for weekend ‘spiritual retreats’.
“My father never said anything bad about this place” Bill remembered, as he put his camera away and turned for the car. “Nor did he have anything bad to say about the church. Some of his army friends said that they expected him to become a priest, once the war was over. They were surprised when he chose accountancy, but perhaps there are some similarities. Counting shillings, counting souls…” The road to Port Waikato runs twenty or so kilometers along the southern bank of the river, after crossing the dusty art deco bridge on the far side of Tuakau. Fringed by swamps and fed by tributary streams and farm run-offs, the lower Waikato is bloated and brown. The farmland close to the river is either swampy or hilly; after the conquest of the Waikato much of it escaped confiscation. Today Maori-owned farms in this area still sometimes struggle to get the capital investment they need for new milksheds and gorse clearance. Banks used to the tidy Pakeha model of the single proprietor dislike having to negotiate with scores of owners from multiple whanau or hapu.
My father once told me a story about travelling with his rugby team across the Tuakau bridge to play a game at one of the marae on the road to Port Waikato. “We were all set to go out on the field when someone realised that a blackberry bush was growing on the twenty-two” he remembered. “The Maoris sent some goats out onto the field, and we all sat down and had a few beers while we waited for the goats to get rid of the bush.” The south side of the river feels a long way from Harrisville and Drury. The Port Waikato Outdoor Education Centre sits a few hundred metres from the main road, at the bottom of an almost-vertical hillside, beside the Maraetai Stream, which has the distinction of being the very last tributary to flow into the Waikato before the river reaches the Tasman. The Centre is the successor to a children’s camp set up in the late ‘20s by Hilda Ross, the ferocious Hamiltonian socialite who eventually became a National MP and a member of Sid Holland’s Cabinet. Ross’ institution was one of a network of health camps organised by well-heeled New Zealanders in the ‘20s and ‘30s. In a 1996 essay on the health camp movement, Margaret Tennant argues that Ross and her colleagues were driven by the fear that the poor food and crowded living conditions of New Zealand’s burgeoning urban slums would create a generation of physical and moral degenerates. The health camps were an attempt to preserve the country’s ‘racial strength’.
The children sent to Ross’ camp usually came from the poorer parts of Hamilton and other Waikato towns, after being commended as worthy cases by their doctors. The Tuakau Juniorate students, who mostly came from modest backgrounds, seem to have visited on weekends, and sometimes during longer holiday breaks.
Camp guests were woken at six-thirty, made to wash in the stream behind their dormitory-huts, and then assembled around a large flagpole, where the Union Jack was hoisted and patriotic songs were sung. Later Ross and her staff would inspect the huts, while the children stood to attention beside their beds. Ross weighed the children regularly, and fed them large amounts of fatty foods, like porridge coated with a thick layer of sugar, in an effort to bulk them up quickly. Children were also subjected to ‘heliotherapy’, which was a fashionable ‘30s term for sunburn.
As we wandered past the thick trunk of the flagpole Hilda Ross erected at the centre of her fiefdom, I decided to avoid asking Bill, who is the most militant republican I have ever met, how an Irish Catholic boy like his father might have felt about having to salute the Union Jack every morning. Bill already had misgivings about the camp. “All a bit militaristic, isn’t it?” he asked, pointing at a row of huts with names like Captain’s Cabin and CO’s Den. One of the oldest buildings on the site boasted a painted mural showing a grove of trees and the motto AND the LEAVES of the TREE were for the HEALING of the NATION. Puriri, karaka and other natives grow by the dozen around the camp, but the mural showed oaks and gums and other exotic trees. As we finished the drive to Port Waikato Skyler asked Bill about his parents’ Catholicism. Was it partly the rituals, the vivid garments, and the serenely beautiful music which attracted them? Skyler’s own parents were for some time enthusiasts for the ideas of Rudolf Steiner, the prophet of a creed quite as elaborate and strange as Catholicism. They taught in Steiner schools, and for a few years took Skyler to a church full of psychedelic murals and inscrutable ceremonies. “My mother was attracted to the beauty of the religion” Bill remembered. “It is a type of art, really. Or it was, for her."
The baches at Port Waikato are still single-storey wood or fibrolite affairs, not the mansions of marble and tiles found in many other twenty-first century New Zealand beach towns. Relative isolation, black sand and exceptionally rough surf mean that the Port has never been fashionable, even during property booms. We walked the hundred or so metres from the carpark to the cliff which marks one end of the beach. Five kilometers to our north, at the end of a system of high ironsand dunes, the Waikato slips into the open ocean, unseen by anyone except the occasional trekker.
I spotted some shells clinging to the eroding side of the cliff. Bill put his hand to the midden, feeling the warmth of the afternoon sun on the compacted black sand.
“People ate their meals here, hundreds of years ago, left their rubbish? You’re sure? Hundreds of years…That’s a long time.”
He stood with his hand on the midden and his head bowed.
This is a song that I love
That I learned long ago
There are things I could tell
But it won’t do you well
You must wait like a rock in the sea