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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

‘It may not be the new sensation, but it’s the nearest thing to heaven….’

 

Something exuberantly innocent about this song

 One of those online discussions that you get into, or rather arguments I should say, this week featured the pros and cons of National Radio’s “Matinee Idle” programme.
I’m a defender of the programme. I enjoy it. It’s often a bit naff, and to be frank I don’t want to listen to it for long stretches. But it’s fun.
The comparison I use is that it is like one of those old motor camp lounges. These may still exist. I hope they do.

They’re the sort of places that are furnished with ancient, dishevelled chairs and lounge suites, out-of-tune pianos, a rich supply of books, many of them Reader’s Digest versions, slightly dodgy novels from the likes of Harold Robbins and Sven Hassell, probably a few new-agey books on meditation or transactional analysis, plus the occasional gem such as Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Scoop’ or Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse Five’.(Don’t laugh: I’ve found both these in motor camp lounges)

There will be books about World War Two – of course there will. The large ones about tanks will have pages torn out, and perhaps drool stains.
And there will be one of those ancient Ultimate radiograms, probably stocked with scratchy recordings of the Beach Boys Golden Greats, Trini Lopez Live at PJ’s, the Howard Morrison Quartet, and various 20 Solid Gold hits volume Umpteen compilations.
On wet days, and even and the occasional dry days, there will be some kids either playing on ping-pong tables, or some sort of go-round-the-room-by-leaping-around-the-furniture-so-you-don’t-touch-the-floor games on the ancient long-suffering furniture.

Someone will have “Spiders and Snakes” or “Fernando”  going on the stereo. There will be some kids trying to bash out ‘Chopsticks’ on the old out-of-tune piano.

That’s the Matinee Idle vibe. It suits the Kiwi summer brilliantly  like a battered, over-worn jandal.

Okay, I’m sounding completely nostalgic here. The list of examples  outlined probably betrays my own age, a 1970s childhood. It’s been much on my mind the past few weeks, partly because summer always seems to engender at least some wafts of nostalgia.

Someone once called this the “L & P Tinted Spectacles”  view of Kiwi summers. I can’t claim credit for that phrase – I wish I could, it’s brilliant – but I’m inclined to engage in the behaviour, while being aware of the pitfalls.

My earliest memories of summer are of the ground. I suspect this is not unusual: one is rather close to it at that stage of one’s life.

Drought-hardened ground, often with Onehunga weed, particularly noticable as childhood involved going everywhere in bare feet. The pads toughened up by the end of summer, which was useful for going to school: a half mile walk up a gravel road at the start and finish of each day.

There was the hard dry ground of the farm in summer: being taken over to either the hay shed or whichever hay paddock was being worked at the time.

The dirt tracks, usually graded at the start of the season because they would have become so puggy during winter, flattened by the tractors towing the hay tedder and baler, and then the truck carrying loads of hay.

The sounds, too: the rattle of the old tedder we used when I was young, a converted International make which had originally been towed by horses.

The hay baler, with its spurt, spurt, spurt, engine pushing out the hay bales and which always managed to sound more urgent when there was a rush on – either because of looming rain clouds or simply because there was so much to get done.

First time I heard the word ‘message’  was about haymaking – I was about four, and was told Grandma would be coming down ‘with a message about the baler’ – and Mum would have to take it over to the where Dad and Grandpa were working. I had to look out and tell her when Grandma was coming.

I wanted to see what this ‘message’ thing was. I pictured something physical and was disappointed when, in the event, nothing was actually  handed over.

The smells, of course…freshly made hay smells uniquely sweet, but not in a sickly way. It has an uplifting freshness, even when – as when I got a bit older – you’ve been hauling the bales around all day.

The hay smells though are mingled, in the hay paddock, with other aromas: old fashioned baling twine has its own, grease-like smell, and of course there’s is also the smell of grease itself, from the continually working hay tedder and baler.

‘..across the fields of stubble where the bales, they had been….’

Grease, to me, always smells no-nonsense , businesslike. It’s a very practical smell.

Summer holidays, usually a week, sometimes 10 days, one landmark  year a whole two weeks at Camp Morley on the shores of the Manukau.

It’s still there but very different now: all Lockwood chalets.

Back then it was four buildings, two family sized units in each. The buildings were old army huts from World War II – I think they’d been used by the Americans in New Zealand. at the end of the war they’d been put on barges in Onehunga and shipped across the Manukau.

They were pretty basic. Everything in them was second hand.

Ancient beds, with sagging wire bases. Didn’t matter after a while: a lot of the time we’d camp out somewhere along the beach. It tended to be roughly the same families at the same time every year and we all got to know each other pretty well. Friendships – and alliances and rivalries – built up over successive summers.

After dinner: the whole camp would usually join in a huge game of longball which lasted until the sun went down, sometime after 9am.

There were no TVs in the camp. Some of the caravanners would bring in portables but this was widely regarded as kind of copping out on summer. It missed the whole point.

It was on the southern side of the Manukau, across from Mangere Airport. The year the first jumbo jet landed – 1971, I think, one of the first years we went there – the entire camp sat along the edge of the foreshore to see it coming in, One of the older kids (i.e. about eight or nine) running up and down and yelling ’the jumbo jet! The jumbo jet!’ As it came in low towards Mangere.

Being the Manukau, the tide went out a long way. At low tide, in the distance, were two rocks. A couple of kids walked out to them one day and came back reporting there was a whole lot of bombs out there, and the rocks were in fact very large slabs of concrete.

No-one believed them, of course, but enough curiosity was roused for a general expedition the next day.

This produced about half a dozen little bomb-like things, in various stages of corrosion and general dismemberment. Full size they were about the length and diameter of a fully grown guinea pig.

One of the adults at the camp – a Territorial in his spare time – took one look, turned puce and phoned up the Ardmore Military Camp (it dates this piece that there still was a camp at Ardmore).

A couple of Serious Uniformed Blokes turned up in a landrover. Looked at the bits of bomb spread out on the footpath by the temporarily abandoned home made go-Karts, chuckled, and suggested they had once been smoke bombs, probably, but 30 years previously. They were no risk to anyone now, at least not explosively.

Lurking on the edge during all this was a lad, about 17 I’d say, who worked on the farm next door. He was hanging around because – as was plain to me even at that age and with my tendency to be oblivious to these nuances – he had a huge crush on one of the girls.

He mentioned, to the army blokes, there was a bomb-like thing over at the farm. it was propping up the door to one of the sheds, he reckoned. “Oh, go and get it, we’ll have a look,” says one of the Army guys (they had relaxed, and someone had made them a cuppa and had brought out the biscuit tin.)

The lad returns, 10 minutes or so later, with this missile-shaped device: bigger than the ones hauled out of the Manukau mud, about a foot and a half long  and in pretty good condition.

The army blokes leap up from their tea with some urgency, carry it delicately out to the middle of the field where we played longball and indicate, with some  degree of excitement, that everyone should keep away for a bit.

A bit of historical research turned up a few facts: there had been an air-base further along the spit of land the camp was on, and both the blocks out at low tide, and the concrete building in the paddock next to the camp, had been used for target practice during World War Two by squadrons based there.

The following year, a bunch of us announced we were going to go along and find the old airbase site.

It was a big expedition, set up with all the focus and serious determination small boys can bring to such projects. We packed lunches, drinks, and set off at low tide to find the base.

Operation Seagrove – ‘Seagrove’ being the name of the base – took a couple of attempts, but like good keen young Kiwi lads, we eventually knocked the bugger off.

That is the other thing summers are for, regardless of your age. Expeditions, voyages into the unknown, whether the “unknown” is river, sea, mountain or other natural spaces, or the inner spaces explored by new books, or old books re-discovered.

Summer break gives the rest of the year some perspective. It involves taking some distance from the day-to-day. This often involves an indirect route, but indirect routes, on such intrepid journeys, only add to the depth and experience.