Monday, January 07, 2013

Brett's radical travels

Back in 2008 Jack Ross invited me up to the Albany campus of Massey University to talk to his Creative Writing students about the art of describing unglamorous and unloved places.

Fearing that Jack's charges might doubt the value of the literary expeditions I'd been making to places like the Hauraki Plains and Huntly, I assured them that I had merely been jumping on a literary bandwagon that had gained impressive momentum overseas. The name of this bandwagon was, I announced, anti-travel writing. The term might be new to Kiwi ears, but it was, I insisted, tripping off the tongues of northern hemisphere scribblers. Iain Sinclair's walks through the slowly gentrifying wastes of greater London, JG Ballard's paeans to abandoned airports in the Nevada Desert, and Robert Macfarlane's fossickings in the sodden, ghost-thronged margins of East Anglia were all examples of anti-travel literature.
Unfortunately for me, Jack had that morning googled the term 'anti-travel', and discovered that it hardly existed outside of this blog and the webpage he had established to advertise my lecture. "It seems we've invented our own literary movement" my host said wryly.

Partly out of obduracy, and partly for want of an alternative, I've continued to use the term anti-travel to justify the reports I've posted, on this blog and elsewhere, from unloved suburban parks, the fringes of motorways, and little-visited pa. A few other bloggers have started to throw the term 'anti-travel' about, and Paul Janman has used it to describe his proposed film about the Great South Road.

One or two of the readers who have encountered the term 'anti-travel' have decided that it stands for the cessation of all human movement. One blogger, for instance, thought that I wanted to force people to remain permanently in their native villages and suburbs. Worryingly, he seemed to approve of such an idea.

Of course, 'anti-travel' isn't about staying put, but about travelling to unusual places, and thinking in unusual ways whilst exploring these places.

Some readers have claimed that I and those like me favour visiting unfashionable places because we love ugliness and boredom. They charge us with perversity and nihilism, and suggest that, if only we were honest with ourselves, we would admit that we'd prefer an hour lying on the beach at Pauanui to a week exploring Northland gumfields or the industrial ruins of Huntly.
If they were honest with themselves, these critics would admit that, in certain approved places and at certain approved times, they'd enjoy the sort of activities that anti-travellers engage in down here in New Zealand. How many of the Kiwis who sneer at Huntly's sealed coal shafts, fleet of derailed locomotives, and flooded, dangerously listing carbonisation factory would happily pay to join one of the Industrial Revolution Heritage tours of England's Midlands? For most Aucklanders the Hauraki Plains, with its vast painterly skies and intricate and ingenious canal system, represents merely a half-hour they must spend on their drive to the beaches of the Coromandel. But how many of the snobs who speed through the countryside around Ngatea and  Kerepehi would fail to celebrate the coastal plains of the Netherlands, which have very similar attributes?

Gianni Vattimo uses the term 'constellation' to describe the set of economic, political and cultural conditions which create the acceptable reality of a particular society at a particular time. Fifty years ago, at the apex of the postwar economic boom, the reigning 'constellation' defined New Zealand as a hypermodern, hyperproductive nation, where farmers armed with heavy tractors, tonnes of fertiliser and heroic physiques turned out huge quantities of milk, mutton, and grain. Important visitors were taken to hydroelectric dams and dairy factories, so that they could admire man's mastery of nature in the country that billed itself as a 'new' and 'better' Britain.

In the late eighties and the nineties, though, New Zealand was deindustrialised and globalised, the needs of the finance and tourism sectors of the economy were prioritised, and a new national image was created. The hypermodern paradise became an arcadia inhabited by laidback hobbits. Industrial heritage has become an oxymoron, and tour buses steer resolutely for profitable wildernesses like Fiordland and the Ureweras. The reigning constellation has changed.
In twenty-first century New Zealand, visiting and celebrating a town like Huntly or a region like the Hauraki Plains means rejecting a limiting, patronising vision of New Zealand, and affirming that there are other ways of understanding our landscape and its history.

To say all this is not to deny the shortcomings of the term I coined back in 2008. The excellent everywhere all the time blog, which recently reproduced my post about the history of the countryside around Hobbiton, uses the term 'radical travel' to describe its enthusiasms. I think that phrase easily beats out 'anti-travel', because it lacks all connotations of stasis and negativity. Why didn't I think of anything half as good?

Brett Cross is an inveterate exponent of anti- or radical travel. The boss of Titus Books tired of international journeying years ago, and now devotes himself to explorations of the New Zealand countryside which are both languorous and intense. He likes to move from one rural location to another, getting to know the terrain and culture of each place he lives in super-intimate detail. Brett spent 2011 and 2012 in an isolated area of the Kaipara, canoeing down turbid streams that were once highways for missionaries and Nga Puhi taua and fossicking at the bottom of disused wells. Recently he moved with his family to an area south of Auckland, and began a series of forays into the rough edges of the Waikato region and across the Hauraki Plains.

Brett sent me this account of an expedition to the central section of the Plains:

we went to the huge 'lake' south of ngatea a couple of days back, drove up a remote gravel farm road, saw a farmer on a 4-wheel and asked him if this was the way to the 'lake' - he looked at us quizzically, then said, 'you mean the swamp?' we said, 'nah, on the map, there's supposed to be a huge lake around here' - he goes, 'mmmmm, yeah ... there's a huge swamp, duck hunters use the next road down, gravel road winds through it, you can go there' - and looked at us like we were very strange folk indeed whilst the rest of the xmas holiday-makers roared past in the distance on state highway 2 looking for pauanui and the mt ... anyways, we went to the gravel road but lost our bottle as a very narrow gravel track headed into dense swamp, would like to go back sometime though if we could ever get hold of a 4-wheel drive. The swamps in the Hauraki District are very cool and fascinating - and the plains pretty much the highlight of the area...
Brett, who had avoided looking too closely at his map before striking out, reached the margins of the vast marshes which separate the towns of Ngatea and Paeroa. In satellite photographs these marshes resemble a black hole in the middle of the green and pleasant Plains.

When James Cook steered up the Waihou at the end of 1769 he found kahikatea rising seventy feet out of the swampland on either side of the river, and noticed the local people steering slender waka tiwai between the great white columns. The Hauraki people lived on islands they had created amidst the marshes, and harvested the eels and birds which thrived in its depths and heights. Their carvings, which are still occasionally discovered by the Pakeha dairy farmers who have drained blocks of swampland, are unique in the canon of Maori art, because the Gods and ancestors they depict often have webbed fingers and toes.

During World War Two the marshes of Hauraki became a graveyard for the craft of the fledgling New Zealand Air Force, as trainee pilot after trainee pilot beached his corsair or tiger moth in their rushes and ooze. No reason for the persistent crashes could be discovered. Historians of aviation still hunt wrecks in the swamps, and occasionally drag out wing-fragments and propeller blades, relics which resemble the bones of giant extinct creatures.

Those Christmas holiday-makers roaring past on their way to Pauanui didn't know what they were missing.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Then there's this book published in 2008:

4:51 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why I hate travel

4:53 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Smithyman was essentially an "anti-traveller". I dislike beaches and "popular" holiday spots these days. I liked them as a child. I still like them but I don't like large crowds of people. My dislike of them is not philosophical or political though. It is personal. Psychological.

I have gone on great holidays in the middle of the year. My daughter to Rotorua and New Plymouth at different times in the 90s.

It isn't an either or.

I suppose if one is young the beach and so forth is the ticket, but if you are (perhaps older) have an interest in local history it is different.

Anywhere can be interesting or enjoyable at different times.

But traveling is always costly. So to some extent I travel in the mind. I have an old book of Italy with black and white photos and I also like getting books of photos of various cities. I think I'm more interested in the old decayed looking towns and places for some reason. Industry and power generation I love. Hence Huntly. We owe a lot to Tesla!

I used to do work at the Meremere Power station - it was fascinating and chaotic place. Some of the houses in the village were built with steel! The telephone exchanges worked almost in a reverse mode to those of the NZPO PABX systems etc, communication lines were draped chaotically (and potentially dangerously) over the 240 V power lines and the place was like a huge coal eating monster! Inside was like being inside the engine room of a vast ship...

11:49 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

" Anonymous said...

Why I hate travel "

That is quite amusing! It's not always that bad I suppose but either you travel with a lot of money (accesible) and stay where it is safe and so on or you go rough (do that when you are young and crazy!)

I've done both. We used to hitch hike round NZ about 1970 or so. But in 1993 I had money from a mortgage investment so I put NZ$10,000 on two ccs and stayed in good hotel in Manhatten. I kept one cc in safe they had in the hotel in case I was rolled and robbed.

If you are older as I am traveling long distances by aircraft is not interesting (or pleasant). It helps to have a good bank balance though.
And I would avoid non-European or dodgy places such as Africa, South America, or Thailand...or Syria!.

Even in NZ.

Contingency plan if you have a major (vehicle) breakdown?

These are not such a problem if you are young and a bit silly as I was when I used to hitch hike or go by train etc or drive old cars that had cost me about $100. (1968)

12:03 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

world's most extreme tourist...

8:07 am  
Blogger skalusanini said...

As a kiwi living far, I've been following your blog for some kiwi-culture news. Particularly enjoyed your articles on Te Radar and Tongan Atenisi institute. Just a little question: my dad is coming to see me in France soon and I'd like him to bring me one recent book or a video from NZ dealing with politics, history and/or culture of Aotearoa/South pacific. Could you please give some suggestions... Thanks a lot. Also, could you please send me your email as well in case I have some other questions for you.

5:01 am  
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