Tuesday, February 04, 2014

A cold wind from the south

  
Hamish Dewe and I had been struggling with the atlas for half an hour, as we kneeled on the floor of my living room. We'd turned page after page, marched our eyes across mountain ranges with homely or carefully factual names - I liked Raggedy Range, whereas Hamish, always an enemy of subjectivity, was impressed by the dour moniker Rock and Pillar Range - we'd forded rivers with our fingers, and we'd followed roads and rail lines hopefully, until they petered out in marshes or on high plateaux.

We were looking for a town - was it a really a town, with a solid brick hall and a pub and a supermarket and a KFC, or was it more like the sort of village where an old black labrador sleeps on the main street at noon, and local farmers who have driven in for their rations of gossip have to resort to standing about in front of the dairy? - named Middlemarch, and we were lost.

I was embarrassed by my ignorance of South Island geography, but Hamish was defiant, even after one of our journeys left us stranded on the cool shores of Fouveaux Strait, and forced us to resort to the atlas' index. "I don't want to know too much about the South Island" he said. "I want it to hang down there vaguely and emptily, as a possible sanctuary, if Auckland ever gets hit by a pandemic or another rugby world cup. It's my insurance policy."

Hamish and I had gotten down the atlas and set out for Middlemarch after getting a  message from Bill Direen, the legendary musician, songwriter, and translator. Bill has lived for most of the last twenty years in Europe, a continent he treats like an archipelago of cities, as he moves by train and plane from a home in Paris to other built-up islands like Berlin, making music and teaching and writing.
During his regular but relatively brief visits to New Zealand, Bill has kept to our country's urban spaces. Once, when Bill was staying in Auckland, I asked him whether he fancied a journey into the spacious and lonely Limestone Country that begins south of the heads of the Waikato River; he declined my invitation, and explained that he found extended periods in the wilds unsettling, because decades of exposure to loud guitars had given him a serious case of tinnitus (he did eventually agree to travel as far as Port Waikato).

Bill's pale, almost translucent face, which might belong to a snooker champion or a technician at a nuclear power plant, made me guess that, even in sanctuaries of noise and bustle like Paris, he avoided the open air.

Bill's art has always seemed as urban as his lifestyle. The songs he has performed and recorded, with the ceaselessly changing lineup of his consistently raucous backing band The Bilders, are full of creaky bridges and vandalised walls and chaotic tube stations, and short on forests and mountains. The video at the top of this post, which accompanies a song The Bilders cut in 2011, takes us on a fast journey through Direen's world.

I was surprised, then, when Bill announced that he had recently acquired a house in a little South Island town called Middlemarch, and that he intended to live there, in between jaunts to Europe and Auckland. When I passed the news onto Hamish, we began to argue about the exact location of Middlemarch. Hamish insisted that, with its echoes of George Eliot, the town must lie somewhere in that antipodean England known as the province of Canterbury; I bet on a more southerly location, and wondered whether Middlemarchers might have a view of the Clutha. After our grudging resort to the atlas' index, we discovered that Middlemarch lies in central Otago, northwest of Dunedin and southwest of Oamaru.
Bill Direen is not the first artist to settle in the interior of New Zealand's coldest province. Brian Turner, who has for decades now enjoyed strangely complementary careers as a sports biographer and a poet, moved many years ago from the comparative comfort of Dunedin to Oturehua, the coldest settlement in all of New Zealand. But Turner is an ostentatiously rugged character, who enjoys cycling and hiking through subzero weather and treats a heavy frost as a sign of favour from the heavens. How will Bill Direen, with his urbane habits, deal with life in Middlemarch? Can we now expect tussock and snow in his songs? Will he sing about potatoes that come from the earth, rather than from the dumpsters his characters like to dive?

Bill's fans might be able to answer questions like these next Saturday, when he plays a gig at the Wine Cellar with The Bilders. I'll be there in my tupenu and my Hawaiian shirt.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


13 Comments:

Blogger Ray said...

Middlemarch is in Central Otago (start or end of the Railtrail depending on whether you like riding down hill) and while Oterahua is cold , Ophir is the seriously cold place just over the hill. Doubt if there are any KFC's with in cooee though

6:57 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Thanks for that Ray: my ignorance is endless! I have been through parts of central Otago, but not for far too long. I googled the main street of Middlemarch and it resembles my beloved Ohura, which is not a good sign.

7:46 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Have you read "Middlemarch" it is one of the great books by one of the world's greatest writers. Jack Ross, when I muttered something to this extent was a bit taken aback and could only counter with read "War and Peace"...I haven't yet.

I think Bill is indeed very urban if not urbane: there is a gritty, grainy streetiness about his images and music. I think that apart from language and its beauty, complexity and depth; his 'theme' is people. People are everywhere. But cities are a kind of old new thing. They are getting bigger. I got interested in Ballard and in one of his stories I read last year the whole world had become one vast city; in another time had been abolished and so on. The "apocalypse" is really a way of going on: that is perhaps there is a way people can live without sharks or dogs or whatever...once we can replicate photosynthesis...

Or is it that, a man, a woman, so long in cities seeks the relative solitude and "nature". But even Wordsworth wrote a poem celebrating London city (albeit a city about 200 years ago).

Bill may still, like the Flying Dutchman, be cursed to endlessly chase the world (although Wagner's "hero" didn't find a "faithful" woman), but the image of Bill restlessly seeking like Tennyson's Ulysses stays there...


Turner is the b

11:48 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I was going to add somewhere that Turner is the brother of the cricketer and the golfer.

I was at Bob Orr's book launch today: quite a line up of well known NZ writers and others: the place was packed, many many people...

Bob's liked,loved even, by many people of many stripes: which is unusual for a great or significant poet.

11:52 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Very sorry not to make Bob's launch, Richard - it's tricky with a small kid! - but pleased to hear it was well attended. Do you fancy braving the midsummer Auckland cold (I'm not joking, it's damn cold here at night - why did I never realised that before I spent time in Tonga?) and seeing Bill and Brett play next Saturday night?

11:56 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

And 'The "apocalypse" is really a way of going on' is a typically startling Taylor phrase! Like 'Life: the semi-random movements of the bee'!

11:58 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

FYI Richard
http://www.nytimes.com/1997/01/21/science/seismic-mystery-in-australia-quake-meteor-or-nuclear-blast.html

9:21 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do keep all of the rock & rollers I've known in prayer that they have a similar epiphany like this man did

10:38 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Ho! I might get there, I agree, although I haven't been to Tonga, I can understand: in fact I feel cool here in the evenings but as warm air passes over I start feeling hot.

The reason I don't come is more, well it is the reason I go hardly anywhere, even to play chess (at one stage I was playing at 2 clubs each week); is a kind of anxiety I feel where there is any gathering of people. Now that I don't booze I cant mask it that way. My psychologist advised me to avoid certain places where I used to booze etc so I am reverting to the way I was as a teenager...come to think of it I am fast reaching that "last stage of all...second childishness and mere oblivion" (the melancholy Jacques in 'As You Like It')...

I understand the problem with small children...

The paradox is that once I'm there I usually have quite a good time.

I talked to Bob, Peter Bland (I remembered the very day I met him, at Poetry Live in 1989), briefly John Pule (who I used to know fairly well in the 90s),Barry Lett, Robert (?) Steele, Farrell, Olwyn, David Lyndon Brown (both seem well), Genevieve McLean (we had quite a long chat), Brian "Moa Hunter", Riemke Ensing, and brieflyb the immortal Morrissey. Quite and extensive conflab with Michael Steven (who has been writing some great poetry lately). Others there included Paula Green who launched it (very well), Michelle Leggott, Kevin Ireland (who tall as he is is yet not as large in stature as Peter Bland,(the poet who exclusively uses a typewriter), Roger Horrocks (lecturer, film expert, poet, and the writer of the lyrics etc to the opera about Len Lye composed by Gillian Whitehead),Raewyn Alexander, Miriam Barr (a rising writer of some interesting writing, and very enthusiastic), and many others. There was a large crowd of people from music, perhaps Bob's personal areas, art, the book world, poets, maybe fellow sea fellows...

I downed two small bottles of beer. I have one extra copy of his book for sale.

6:04 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Who wrote the "semi random movements of the bee" was it I? It was probably actually or meant to be pseudo-random as in fact one of my lines ( a poem I wrote a long time ago about Borges) refers to "the diode blasted random" which is a reference to the way white noise is generated: that is by "over-driving a diode" - to see the effects, and if one is bored, one can switch the tv off-channel (or untune it) and there is a picture of "white noise", in fact you are "looking at" the beginning of the universe - the effects of the microwaves generated by the so-called "big bang" are shown on the TV screen!

Pseudo random noise generators are used to test what are called signal to noise ratios between radio and telecommunication channels. The "noise" is sent at a certain set power level. The reason I say this is there is quite a lot of this mixed up in my writing...sometimes my "formulae" have been incorrectly "translated"...

But the bee: can it make random movements or can there be semi-random movements? Humans can only do that. The "noise" of the universe is effectively random I think.

But it's like infinity, no one is quite sure if such a concept is valid.

Thinking about such things drove Cantor mad, or was it the reaction of others to his ideas?

Bob is has quite some surprise and depth in his writing. Martin Edmond compares him stylistically to Cavafy (who has poems in a real situation where a god walks around and so on, which is Bob Orrish..)

I recall Brent who owned Nostromo Books saying he read a lot of books of quite a wide range of subjects...so he is no fool.

6:18 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Maybe not stylistically quite, maybe in "tone" etc He has a poem that refers to Mason and Curnow and he also has a "homage" to other poets (I missed off Murray Edmond who was there, but I think both he and Martin are dedicatees)...but he has some great poems in there...

Michael Steven mentioned how 'Dwarf with a Billiard Cue' was the book that got him to reading Smithyman...then he mentioned "Building Programme" in 'Earthquake Weather', which he recalled as we saw some chaps welding a gate or mail box across the road from the Library...

Bob also has poems (in one anthology I saw) about buildings or construction.

The distance between Smithyman and Orr may not be as fundamental as many might think.

Got me reading Smithy again...

Which reminds me, that eminent character, pianist, poet of some order, controversialist, but generally nice fellow: Mr Denys Trussel was ALSO there...so many were there though!

6:41 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Looking at and listening to the beginning of the universe, I should have said...

That is, if we can believe any of that or if there is indeed any such thing as a beginning...and so on.

6:44 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I forgot to mention Murray Haddow who is an interesting character and a likeable fellow. He is also quite a brilliant performance poet. I know Maps doesn't agree but I reckon he would get on well in Tonga with that Club...he's a kind of performance "genius" although as far as those things go...(he's not much like some of these "rappers" or hip-hop guys: quite unique.

Now Bob is not a particularly good reader even of his own poetry. He is modest and a good fellow, but not flamboyant until he is too drunk (and he and I used to get drunk together...) and then he is too far gone: but I saw Haddow perform once and that hour or so he was there was extraordinary.

Bill Direen, with his ability, is also part of the academic circuit, whereas the working class Haddow is on the outer so to speak...although these things are never clear.

Smithyman had a plum position it has to be said (genius or not) and the AUP published book after book of his work. It is good poetry, great in fact. But it helps to know those who it is "valuable" to know in this world, and to be in "academia".

2:15 pm  

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