Friday, March 30, 2018

My local ruin

Heritage New Zealand has lately annoyed the nation's philistines by championing the preservation of that masterpiece of brutalist architecture, the former Teachers Training College in Karori. 
Perhaps I can interest Heritage New Zealand in the preservation of Pepperwood Mews, one of the most spectacular examples of Auckland's leaky buildings aesthetic and a Glen Eden landmark. 
Since 2004 the Mews has been evacuated, looted, squatted, and tagged. Its windows have the dark blank stare of war widows. 

When Auckland Council funded Pepperwood Mews, it talked of a housing crisis. The building soon began to leak; tenants moved out; the homeless took councillors' rhetoric too literally, and began to squat. Police removed them, but their urine and vomit stains and tags remain, as quaintly obscene as the murals unearthed at Pompeii.
Apart from being a masterpiece of leaky building aesthetics, the Mews was site of the longest robbery in NZ history. In 2011 a team of orange-vested men laid out cones, spent months moving purposefully in and out of the Mews. They stole everything, including doors & sinks.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Quigley's withdrawal

[Quigley - I chose to represent him with a single name of my own invention - is another veteran of the Great South Road who hasn't made it into my forthcoming book. I wrote up one of his adventures; the publisher has mollified me by promising to use it in his promotional material for the book. I believe that Quigley is currently enrolled in that most august New Zealand institution, the methadone programme.] 
Quigley was withdrawing; so were thousands of other Aucklanders. It was six o'clock, and the traffic on the Great South Road and the Southern Motorway had coagulated.

As it waited on an on-ramp, Quigley's Vauxhall shivered like a junkie queuing for methadone. Rain sweated down the track mark on his windscreen. The red light at Greenlane was a tablet, fifteen milligrams of aprotinin.
By the time Quigley reached the pharmacy it had been closed for an hour. He leaned his forehead against the pane. 
The big bottles of opiates sat in the distance, on the top shelf, close to the ceiling, like the most sacred gods in a temple. Below them were the rungs of lesser medicines: the cold cures, which had been useless since they lost their pseudoephedrine, ointments meant for stinking feet, antipyretics with names like ketoprofen, nimesulide, names that sounded like rare and deadly diseases.
As he left through the hole his boot had made, Quigley noticed the blood. It covered the white tiles of the pharmacy in bold but clumsy strokes. It was his note of apology. The roads were dark and empty, waiting like veins. He drank a bottle of opiates, another, and steered back down the Great South Road, back onto the Southern Motorway.
Quigley drove down the motorway, into his head. The Vauxhall was a blue pill, Sevredol. His neural pathways flared; the lamp posts blurred. Now he was dissolving, dispersing, speeding down off-ramps, side roads, flashing capillaries...

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Another hero of the Great South Road

[There's a distressing number of wonderful people who haven't made it into my forthcoming (May the 17th; final proofing at the moment) book about the Great South Road. One of them is Stowell. This is a fragment of his story. I'll post tomorrow about another hero, whose name is Quigley.]

Stowell refused to resent his task. He knew that the other photographers at work on the calendar had tickets to Rotorua, to Queenstown, to Haast Pass. He imagined Renee and her Canon EOS, the wide dopey eye that ogled and flashed models and rugby players’ wives, as a chopper dragonflyed them over the mountains, as it landed on a glacier. He imagined the after-shoot party in the ski resort, moonlit snow out the windows like free cocaine. He saw Chris in Rotorua, getting a few lazy shots then wrapping, and heading out on the lake for lunch.

He had no ticket, no room in a resort. He had been sent to the Great South Road, to Takanini Strait. The editors wanted an ‘urban’ shot, to sit amongst the glaciers and lakes and geysers, to make, through its very dullness, its ugliness, the rest of the calendar resplendent.

But Stowell refused to resent his task. Anyone could photograph the vulgar architecture of the Alps, Rotorua's erotic mud. Takanini roundabout, though, required discernment, craft, inspiration. He wiped the drizzle from his camera's lens, in the careful way a father wipes tears from a son's eye, then knelt again. The puddles on the Great South Road resembled a series of silver trays, abandoned by distracted waiters.

Thursday, March 08, 2018


The other night Cerian insisted on filling in my census form; I dictated any answers that weren't obvious to her. When I struggled with the question about religion, she became impatient. 'You're a boring old left-wing atheist', she said. 'Stop trying to think of something romantic & enigmatic to say.'
Many New Zealanders object to the census question on religion; some also dislike having to list their ethnicity or ethnicities. I disagree: I think both questions are vital. The answers we give to them are a sort of gift to the future.
The folks at Statistics NZ talk about the role census data plays in planning the future, but I'm preoccupied with the past, & the numbers from old censuses can open doors into many rooms of NZ history. The data on ethnicity and religion helps us remember liminal, marginalised people & communities.
During our study of Great South Road, Paul Janman & I became fascinated by the presence of Assyrian hawkers, refugees, on the road of the late 19th century. We used census data to corroborate newspaper reports about the hawkers, & ended up talking about NZ's semi-secret Syrian past on national TV, & linking it to contemporary debates about refugees.
After waiting ten minutes for me to declare my religion Cerian became fed up. 'Give me your answer', she threatened 'or I'll call you a Mormon'.
'Alright' I finally said. 'Put me down as a pagan atheist.'
'Don't be silly!' Cerian replied 'There's no such thing!'
'Pagan atheist isn't as silly as you think' I countered, in a voice that was leaking confidence. 'I'm an atheist because I don't believe in god, but a pagan in the sense that I tell my kids Greek & Polynesian myths, and support people like Sio Siasau, who are trying to recreate the ancient shamanic religions of the Pacific.'
Cerian was unimpressed. 'You just like drinking kava and staying up all night talking to Sio, that's all. It's not a religion.'
Cerian eventually relented, and let me be a pagan atheist. She called herself agnostic, and told the census that our kids follow a religion called 'Magical'. Aneirin is interested in a range of Pacific & Mediterranean gods, & recently told me that his favourite deity is Zeus, 'because Zeus fires electrical bolts, & electricity makes TV'.