Take me to the January Sun in Cuba…. Maw-hawll-aul….

Vellichor: the Second Hand Book Store vibe, this one from Pegasus Books.

There is a thing I call the Cuban Meander: start anywhere in Wellington’s Cuba St quarter and wander around, dropping into any shops or cafes which take your fancy.

Or stare at the Bucket Fountain and wonder if it is taking kitsch a bit too far.

The Cuban Meander was something I started doing, in true exploratory and unfocussed form, in 1982: The Southern Cross, just off the top of Cuba in Abel Smith St, was the unofficial Wellington Polytech pub and it used to be the place to meet in the evenings for the journalism course I was on.

Technically I shouldn’t have been there at all: the drinking age was still 20 and I was, at the start of the year, a very green and young looking 17.

The pub owner was blessed with some admirable and commercially astute powers of tactical myopia when it came to pouring beers for people for patrons whose faces were apparently held together by acne. The age issue only came up when his hand was forced or he simply wanted to get rid of someone.

Mind you, one member of the journalism course did rather force the issue when he applied for a part time job behind the bar there: you had to be 20 to work in a pub as well and he assured the owner he was of age despite looking about 15.
All went well for a week or so until they were discussing rugby: the lad was discussing his own abilities on the pitch and the owner asked him what level he played at.

“Oh, the under-19s…” began the soon-to-be ex-barman.

Anyway, it used to be my practice to have a beer or two on Thursday or Friday nights and then weave down Cuba St, popping in to the second hand book and rekkid stores as I went.

Few are still there: Slow Boat was, from memory, about two doors up from where it is now but it was much more gloomy and crammed, and certainly far less well organised. Pretty sure it had had different owners then.

The Ferrit Book store was – again, from memory – about where Olive Cafe now is.

I don’t know if Pegasus Books was in Cuba St then or not. I have an idea it may have been way down the bottom, over the road from James Smiths.

Anyway, they have survived.

Cuba Street is the place for things that survive, often against the odds and certainly against whatever the current trend is doing.

I’m hardly an ‘alternative’ type of character but I love these places: they are needed because any society needs its diversity, not as a slogan or a badge of moral superiority as that term tends to be used these days, but as a simple unaffected reality.

And as for my favourite type of shop – the secondhand book shop – they are havens and laid back, non-authoritarian schools. Second hand book shops will, I believe, be the last repositories of civilisation.

Anyway. Here’s Dragon. Cuba St

Pogues. For St Pat’s Day

Pogues, for St Patrick’s Day.  As I may have written in the past, I don’t have a drop of Irish ancestry, but there’s sometthing which stirs the blood in this tune.

It’s a song shot through with emotion about the Irish diaspora, fleeing both poverty and a theocratic culture.

The mix of grief and rage is something the Irish do well, for good as well as bad reasons.

This is a live version – a bit rough (c’mon, its the Pogues), with Joe Strummer and Kirstie McColl.

For Waitangi Day….

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.

There is a ferry boat, crawling away here, if you squint hard enough


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.

Good old fashioned steam powered trains

Happened to come across this item about a place close to the origins.

The railway station featured, the main one for the Glenbrook Vintage Railway, is about 10kms from where I grew up. It’s just down the hill from my grandfather’s farm, and across the road from another relative’s farm.

The branch line closed in the mid-1960s: I have a very vague memory of watching a small engine, without any train, chugging under the bridge by the old electricity board building on Waiuku’s Kitchener Road, probably around the time the line shut. I would have been, though, only about three or so.

Bit of a story with how the railway line came to be built in the first place: in the late 19th century, the locals agitated for a branch line to be put in.

Such decisions were made by cabinet ministers in those days, and the Prime Minister, Richard Seddon, tended to award such infrastructure projects to electorates which had been farsighted enough to elect an MP which supported his government.

As the area was, at the time, part of the electorate held by the then leader of the opposition, William Massey, the locals were told to go whistle.

The government changed in 1912, Massey was PM, and he got them their railway, though not right away – World War One intervened.

I gather it never made a profit and had to be constantly subsidised by the government. According to that story linked to above, the line now manages without any such government support.

When I was a kid, after the line closed, the station premises were used by Karaka Bulk Spreaders as a fertiliser depot.

The vintage railway went in, gradually, from the early 1980s. The bit that extends into my home town, Waiuku, runs through another relative’s farm, where we used to do hay every year.

It was kind of neat – we’d be part of the show, it seemed, as the train came through.

The vintage railway is recommended, for any of you Aucklanders – or anyone in holidaying in Auckland and wanting a day trip out to the country .

I’m biased, of course, but its a great place to visit.

There was even a song about it, albeit written and recorded, oddly in 1977 – during the period between the railway being closed circa 1968; and the vintage railway opening sometime in the mid-1980s.

Warning: contains yodeling. Catchy, though.

As a bonus, here’s the Kinks, singing about trains. It’s off their masterpiece, the low-key, out-of-its-own-time, Village Green Preservation Society album, which, by a coincidence, was being recorded around the time the Waiuku branch line closed.


It begins

There is always something stark, and clean-slate-ish, about that straight 1 on the first of January of any year.

Uncluttered, and full of promise. Or, I suppose, if you are going through a rough patch, full of threat or dread.

It’s generally a time of taking stock, this time of year. That downward slash of the 1 on the first of January can be rough.

It’s worth remembering, I think, that things are seldom as bad, or as good, as they  appear.

And that however good, or bad, things may seem, the old saying of ‘This, too, shall pass’, is always a useful corrective.



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.