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]