A very busy trip to Auckland, but I managed a couple of hours out at Onehunga’s ‘Hard to Find’ Books.
It is huge now, and there are a few other branches. If it isn’t the country’s best second hand book store, it is in the top five. I remember when it was in a basement behind the main street, a chaotic shambles of a place with, for no adequately explained reason, a large disused printing press in the middle of the room. Popped in there a few times in 1987 after visiting my grandfather, who was in Greenlane, dying of cancer. It helped take my mind off things.
Anyway, this visit reaped two very different books from different authors. ‘Tall Tales, Some True’, from playwright and former very-nearly-an-All Black Greg McGee; and ‘Memories of Muldoon’ from property investor, commentator, and very-nearly-a-politician Bob Jones.
McGee is most famous for writing ‘Foreskin’s Lament’, a play which probably seems dated to younger people now but in retrospect it captured a New Zealand torn between an almost unconscious nostalgia for the certainties of an earlier time, and the growing recognition that the economic and social ground was shifting uncontrollably and irrevocably under our feet.
It’s weakness – to my mind – is that, like so many New Zealand plays, it had to have an angsty rant at the end. New Zealand plays are full of ‘Angsty Rants’ and they all seem very adolescent to me. Too many playwrights saw John Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger”, or its various derivatives, too often.
At least the Angsty Rant at the end of ‘Foreskin’ has some quite clever wit.
McGee himself trialled for the All Blacks and was very nearly picked for the 1972-73 tour to the United Kingdom and France, but narrowly missed out. McGee had had a number of previous run-ins, on and off the pitch, with ‘Grizz’ Wyllie, who he often marked (they were both loose forwards) and given Wyllie was one of the leaders on that tour, McGee seems almost relieved not to have made it.
“I didn’t have the physical or psychological avoirdupois to be an All Black”, he concludes, in a line which made me laugh out loud. One can only imagine the reaction of Wyllie or someone else of his ilk to a word like ‘avoirdupois’.
(No, I’d never heard it, either. I had to look it up).
McGee covers his later writing assignments, including the controversial – and, now, topical again, ‘Verdict on Erebus’ television series. He does his OE playing rugby in Italy, gets caught up on the edges of Bert Potter’s decidedly dodgy Centrepoint commune, which tries to state a takeover of a voluntary group he is doing legal work for (Centrepoint did this, or tried to do this, to a number of similar organisations in Auckland in the late 1980s)
But the book itself, while it covers the development of a very good rugby player who wanted to be a writer, also records McGee’s developing – perhaps a little late developing – maturity.
There is a lovely bit, when he links up Mary, who was to become his wife. Mary already had a couple of children and McGee tells the story of his suddenly having to grow up if he was going to keep this relationship well.
“In my rapid movement from pot plants=0 to little boys = 2, I didn’t always, or often, cover myself with glory. But in time, I came to see that Mary’s way was the only way, that if adults aren’t capable of acting like adults, the children don’t get a childhood.”
I have added the italics. I think its a great piece of wisdom.
Bob Jones’ book was written to correct what he saw as the unfair demonisation of Sir Robert Muldoon.
I’m inclined to pay Jones’ views considerable respect, and not only because he writes well. He was a friend of Muldoon’s who nevertheless helped bring Muldoon down, publicly breaking with Muldoon in 1983 and setting up the New Zealand Party which pulled votes away from National in 1984.
Jones’ breach with Muldoon was over principle rather than a personal matter, although the battle got very personal indeed.
They had great similarities: two boys from the wrong side of the tracks, very bright mavericks with no social advantages who got amongst the country’s social and educational elite and, in their different ways, caused mayhem.
Both had a contempt for people who owed their position to where they were born and what school they went to. And good on them for that.
There are some good yarns in here although I suspect some have been glossed over.
One story which is not here, but which I heard Jones tell at a Press Gallery function a couple of years ago when the smokers decamped to Parliament’s front steps, was about him and Muldoon arguing into the night over the government’s economic direction.
They had apparently been going at it, hammer and tongs, for hours. Muldoon eventually ebbed – one suspects after giving they bottle a fair bashing – and pauses, looks Jones in the eye and says,
“Do you know what really worries me? What if you’re right? At least you will argue with me. None of these other bastards will do that.”
Personally I refuse to don rose-tinted glasses for Muldoon. I don’t think he was the demon some have portrayed him as, and I don’t think he caused the economic crisis which engulfed New Zealand from the mid-1970s.
But the way he chose to deal with that crisis made matters worse. And the bullying side of the man – and he was a bully, no question – is not something I can applaud.