Song from the Dark Times.
A favourite spot, over the past summer, has been the hills above Makara. The bottom left-hand corner of the North Island, the area is wild, open, and glorious. The daughter loves it there, I’m pretty fond of it myself.
There’s a high tensile toughness, as it looks out at the world. The plant life is not tall – under constant pressure from howling seaward winds, it sticks close to the ground, even though the ground itself is not the most fertile you would find. It’s scrabbly, rocky, and gives up its nutrients grudgingly.
Remnants of how New Zealand faced past threats are there: concrete gun emplacements built at the start of World War Two glower out at the sea.
To the north, you can see Mana & Kapiti Islands. Wheel your view around to the south-west and there’s the South Island. You’ll often see at least one of the Cook Strait ferries, possibly more than one.
‘Silver blue, the sea like sheets on a bed
At the edge of the world a ferry boat crawls away like a snail…’
…as Don McGlashan wrote in the great Mutton Birds song, ‘Along the Boundary’. I don’t think the song is actually about this spot – I remember McGlashan saying, somewhere, it was about a specific place and memory, but I suspect that place is on the other side of the strait.
But anyway. It’s off an album which came out in 1995, around the time I moved to Wellington. It’s always had a special place in my heart and I think of this particular song almost every time I go up to this place.
It’s about a child climbing a tree, and struggling to keep up with a bigger child – a friend or, more likely, a sibling or a cousin – who is ‘much older’.
The song tells of a child discovering he/she could keep up with the ‘much older’ person.
‘You never thought I could get such a long way up, but I looked straight ahead…’
And there’s the evocative memory…
‘I feel the branches move around me
I see the thistles along the boundary
Up along the boundary…’
And, from up there, the child’s feeling of, if not omnipotence, then certainly strength and potential:
‘I move patches of wind round the bay of glass
I move shadows of clouds over the grass
I’m at the controls, there isn’t a shelf or a rock on the beach
That I couldn’t reach…
The sun pulls the hills the way the tide pulls on the sea
Waves and waves of grass are breaking, rolling over to me
And the sky’s like a wheel
Like a wheel…’
It’s sheer poetry. McGlashan’s one of our best songwriters: he is certainly our best at evoking the New Zealand space – both headspace and physical space.
He’s kind of a rock muso version of Maurice Gee.
Today the threats those concrete blockhouses were built to face are gone. Behind them, the flat area dug out to house soldiers’ barracks is partly overgrown with lupins.
Sheep may safely graze there. Children play noisily and happily in the old buildings once built by khaki-clad soldiers in deadly, fear-filled earnestness of an overwhelming threat.
Just over the hills, the Makara wind farms whirl, while under them, a stream of mountain bikers, all sweaty and multicoloured exuberance, whirl their pedals in a kind of mock tribute.
So: here’s the Mutton Birds, doing ‘Along The Boundary’, live. Bit rough, but its still a great song.
Kaikoura is a favourite region. I’ve had numerous escape long weekends there in recent years: it’s pretty much perfect because there are plenty of walks.
And I love that Coast Road.
The coast road.
If you have a writerly urge is part of the way you cope with life and that includes events like this one.
It can seem a bit self-indulgent, but what the hey. If you can’t be a bit self-indulgent on a blog, where the hell can you be a bit self-indulgent?
(Genuine question. As a slightly uptight, culturally Presbyterian, Kiwi farmboy, this is an area I probably do need some tips about).
…..Yes, *slightly* uptight. Don’t want to get too carried away about this or anything).
It’s included, in younger and fitter days, some great tramping trips, including climbing the magnificent Mt Tapaonuku back in the late ’90s, and several trips over the Kowhai Saddle, up Hapuku Valley and down through the other side.
Second time on that saddle was a landmark in a different way – going down towards the hut in the dry riverbed, I had one of those ‘hmm..will that collection of rocks hold my foot…yeah should be all right’ moments of hesitation.
And, seconds later a more dramatic moment involving turning a 180 degree turn as the rocks gave way and I struggled to hold my balance. One of the blokes in the group, who was ahead and below me, rekkined afterwards I’d hovered for several seconds and he thought I was going to be ok, before tumbling down the rock slope.
Looked magnificent, he said. Poetry in motion, or something.
Perhaps one of Ezra Pounds more deranged Cantos’, maybe.
The left knee has never been the same since.
Much more sedate visits since, including an immensely productive writing week in an old farm cottage last January.
But it’s a great part of the country: a mix of relatively sedate dairy land, the dramatic Mt Fyffe and the Seaward Kaikouras generally, and that magnificent, and now closed, road.
When I looked onto my digital photo file, I found nearly 200 photos of the region, about half from that road.
First visit was 1990, hitching through from Christchurch with a German marine biology student who had come out to see the whales. I hadn’t heard of Whale Watch at that point – it had been going a couple of years, if that – but word had spread and it was going to be the high point of her trip.
I’ve since done the Whale Watch thing myself: it’s great, though I found the dolphins we encountered more spectacular. About 500 of them, on the port side of the boat, and with the ones furthest away jumping higher, in great spirals, as if to say ‘Wee!! Look at us!!’
The same trip, we did the ultimate Kaikoura meal – crays from Nins Bin, and fried chips. Washed down with some Marlborough Chardonnay (Grove Mill, from memory).
The Kekerengu Store, ideally situated as it is between Kaikoura and Blenheim, is a compulsory stop-off point – the staff and owners are great hosts, the coffee packs the requisite punch and I’ve sat there, written up a journal or edited stuff I’ve been working on.
The shingle beaches – too dangerous to swim off, but wonderfully rugged and desolate. You look out, east, and feel you are on the edge of the world. Somewhere out there, half a hemisphere away, is South America.
It’s a great place to go, to gather your thoughts, and in that isolation locate and settle yourself.
Here’s hoping the geology can also settle itself.
So, the British political class is demonstrating what happens when your entire cadre of politicos loses touch with the rest of the population and its small spherical glass toys at roughly the same juncture.
UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is like the crazed last bloke in a row of tenement houses overdue for demolition. Everyone else has gone, the cranes are waiting but he’s barricaded himself in with enough water and tins of spam and beans to last for months.
If anyone comes for him he’s got a surprise for them.
Meanwhile, on the Conservative side….Boris Johnson is like a character in an episode of Midsomer Murders. The slightly dodgy rich bloke, favoured son of a troubled family who you probably have pegged as the main suspect when people start turning up dead. Then he is found, about half way through the episode, in Cawston Woods, naked beside his Volvo and with a cryptic note pinned to his chest by an old regimental dagger.
It generally turns out that while he didn’t kill anyone, his follies and weaknesses led to the murderer doing what he/she did.
Michael Gove, to switch analogies completely, is the slightly creepy but bright kid in the class who seems basically harmless until he is found one day supergluing razorblades to the bottom of the waterslide.
Stephen Crabb, the Welsh guy with the weird attempt at a beard, has dropped out early. He’s the bloke who believes homosexuality can be cured, which doomed him on two counts, one being a lot of Conservatives know damn well it can’t be and the other because anyone using the word ‘cured’ in a party still – just – led by David Cameron is guilty of bringing up painful memories.
That leaves the two finalists. Andrea Leadsom seems to have imbibed the aspirational principles of the Spice Girls at a formative stage of her intellectual development.
That leaves Theresa May. Too socially illiberal for my tastes, but she’s sensible and a bit boring and at this rather worrying stage in world political affairs sensible and a bit boring is a pretty good thing to be.
And, mentioning the Spice Girls, as I did, above, somewhat to my own surprise… It’s 20 years since they released ‘Wannabe’ and, rather like when Kennedy was taken out by the Atlantans, most of us can remember where we were and what we were doing when we first heard the song. (I was on a tramping trip to the Tararuas & it came on in the bus. Everyone else had heard it before).
The Spice Girls are remembered as capturing the hopes and dreams of a generation and changing the face of music forever. Remember fondly as ‘The One Who Married Beckham’, ‘The One Who Left’, and ‘Uumm the Other Three’, their music was emulated by many, lesser, artists.
One of my favourite lyrics of any NZ song. Captures something of the great Kiwi OE, without being too overt about it.
Sitting in a foriegn setting,
Bands in backgrounds always play
Their phoney lonely cacaphony,
It didnt have to be this way
Some place alone,
And noone known,
So far from home here.
I really didnt choose to leave you,
To tear myself away so long,
To travel and unravel all the fabric we’d sewn,
So now somethings wrong,
And the world we used to know has gone,
Some place alone,
And noone known,
So far from home here.
Years of awkward confrontation,
I’d like to set your mind at ease,
I’m stuck here in these muddled ages,
I find the words won’t please.
Where could we dwell
Within our past alive and well?
Escape from all thats hard to bear
To where the child as you were creeps near
Scary things arent always clear
To hide in fiction and nostalgia
Can be eerie too
You cannot drive and steer rearview.
And noone known,
So far from home, here.
Oh Ok, another one from what I call my Burning Train Years.
It’s a great song although I have no idea what it is supposed to be about and the pictures don’t really help.
Shimmering, atmospheric jangly and slightly melancholy stuff. I’m a sucker for it.
Love the bass line in this. It just sort of says the whole song’s theme.
‘Bittersweet’ is such an over-used term, but here it fits. A lovely song about disappointment and heartbreak. I love the little bits of detail like ‘you knew I had to come here/you knew there was no work at home’ and the poetic bit at the end of the last verse:
‘Is that the sun that’s rising on you now? And did it shine the day you changed your mind?’
Remember seeing them live in Wellington in around 1995….a bunch of people in front of us said, more or less together as the band came on and plugged in ‘Hope they play “Ngaire” – and then the band opened with it. It set off a magic night.