Discover Auckland by following NZ writers' footsteps

By Danielle Wright

This Wednesday marks the start of the 2012 Auckland Writers & Readers Festival. Danielle Wright talks to New Zealand authors about their books set in Auckland to help you discover your neighbourhood through literature.

Many of the authors mentioned here will be appearing at this year's Auckland Writers & Readers Festival. Photo / Michelle Hyslop
Many of the authors mentioned here will be appearing at this year's Auckland Writers & Readers Festival. Photo / Michelle Hyslop

"Don't give overseas visitors a boring What to Do in Auckland brochure full of pretty pictures to have with their latte," says literary icon Witi Ihimaera. "Give them a book by an Auckland writer. It will tell them about our lives and explain better than anything else what makes Auckland one of the most dynamic cities on the planet."

Take our wild west coast. In Queen of Beauty, Paula Morris describes Karekare as, "a bad-tempered old man who didn't want you to feel at home". Its inaccessibility is pronounced. Or Maurice Gee in Going West describing how, "the coast out there crushes language flat".

There are endless options for reading about Auckland in print and the Auckland Central Library has a research centre for local history on the second floor where you can search non-fiction books by neighbourhood. Local booksellers also have expertise to point you in the right direction, some even know of literary walks in the area. Here are some books to get you started:

Blue Smoke by Chris Bourke
Published by Auckland University Press

In Chris Bourke's award-winning book about the lost dawn of New Zealand popular music from 1918-1964, many classic dance-halls and iconic music venues are rescued from obscurity. The Maori Community Centre in Freeman's Bay was "the jazziest, jumpingest place in the city, where sweaty men in zoot suits fed on Maori bread and tubs of potatoes."

"Luckily, some important buildings still exist, though only those who once spun around their dance floors can feel their musical ghosts," explains Bourke, who suggests a possible walking tour. "Start at the top of Newton Rd, where the grandfather of dance-halls, the Orange Coronation Hall, lives. From here, if you look towards the Harbour Bridge, you might be able to see Auckland's most famous rock venue, the Gluepot at the Three Lamps end of Ponsonby Rd. The long room upstairs started booking bands such as Hello Sailor in the late 1970s, and later many overseas acts performed, including Mick Jagger.

"A tangential walk to the Gluepot would take you past Trades Hall on Hobson St, where Johnny Devlin played the Jive Centre. Downtown, luckily we still have the mighty Civic, though the downstairs cabaret,The Wintergarden, is just a memory. At halftime during the films, the band at the Wintergarden would gather on a barge, which would then hydraulically ascend and come out at the Civic's stage. They would be playing a swing number, enticing people to come to the cabaret after the film. Elegant days."

Using Blue Smoke as a basis to revisit the musical landmarks around our city will bring history to life, and may introduce you to some classic Kiwi music and the characters who created it.

The Forrests by Emily Perkins
Published by Allen & Unwin

Emily Perkins' newly released fourth novel, The Forrests, is a bit like the Botswana Butchery of literature as it was hotly tipped for awards before its release. Reviews have been outstanding, gushing almost. The book follows the life of Dorothy Forrest as her family moves from New York City to Auckland. Much of the book is set in Westmere, where they settle.

"I live near Westmere and walk around it a lot - it's one of those suburbs that feels very different on foot from when you're driving through," says Perkins. "If you walk it you become really aware of the beauty there, the shifting light in the trees and the closeness of the sea. The Forrests arrive well before gentrification has happened so it's also a bit of an unnoticed suburb in my book."

Reading The Forrests is sure to evoke the essence of Perkins' neighbourhood and she tells me of hidden gems in the area: "The little park between Lemington Ave and Tirotai Cres is lovely, and it's always worth walking to the sea at the end of Garnet Rd to see what the water's doing and if the swans are there."

Auckland: The City In Literature by Witi Ihimaera
Published by Exisle

"Writers give us different points of view on our city, which makes it come alive," says Ihimaera, who edited this beautiful collection of literature about Auckland. "They show our relationship with this place and how it has made us all the feisty, passionate, opinionated Aucklanders we have proudly become. You want to know about Auckland? Well, look at us!"

In the book, Ihimaera gathered a huge variety of topics and suburbs. There's poet Anna Jackson's Coffee and Cheese with Gudrun and Ursula showcasing Ponsonby:
"I wore my turquoise Mary Jane sandals away from Minnie Cooper on Ponsonby Road ..."

Or the realism of John Pule's notes on Otara from Burn My Head in Heaven where there are "Keith Hay homes springing out of the earth like unheard-of plants."

"You can learn more about our city simply by reading Maurice Gee on West Auckland, Maurice Shadbolt on Titirangi, Allen Curnow on Karekare and Albert Wendt on Ponsonby," says Ihimaera.

"Among the current crop, you can't get better than Charlotte Grimshaw. Also, Paula Morris and Stephanie Johnson, who have written about Ponsonby, Peter Wells on Pt Chev and Robert Sullivan on South Auckland. Take one of their books on the bus whenever you are travelling the Outer Link. If you're going to the Barrier read Paula Morris' Rangatira on the trip."

Ihimaera's Pounamu, Pounamu, his first collection of short stories, has recently been published by Penguin Books in a 40th Anniversary hardback edition. More in this City in Literature series include Anna Rogers' Christchurch, Christine Johnston's Dunedin and Kate Camp's Wellington.

All Visitors Ashore by CK Stead
Published by Penguin Books

On its release in 1984, NZ Herald reviewer Susan Graham wrote of CK Stead's All Visitors Ashore: "Auckland as never before in poetry or prose" and Stead says it's "the most Auckland novel yet published by anyone," even though the characters seem bent on escaping New Zealand into a larger world. Published internationally as a Popular Penguin paperback, the book did manage to escape into the larger world, to much acclaim.

Stead lived near short-story writer Frank Sargeson in the mid-1950s, around the time Janet Frame was writing An Angel at My Table in a hut in Sargeson's garden. An autobiographical novel, All Visitors Ashore, covers the same time period.

Stead is quoted as saying: "It all felt tremendously bohemian and exciting, and helped make me think I'd made the right decision in coming home."

The book gives a new perspective on Takapuna. Stead's latest memoir, South-West of Eden, relays the story of his early life from his birth beside Maungawhau, Mt Eden, in 1932 up to the age of 23, when he left New Zealand for the first time with his young wife.

Poems

Poems about Auckland provide a snapshot of life here, and among the writers to pen them are the likes of CK Stead, Murray Edmond, Michele Leggott, Paula Green, Anna Jackson, Anne Kennedy and Robert Sullivan, to name a few. There are also entire collections about Auckland, such as Sue Fitchett's Palaver lava Queen or Flamingo Bendalingo, a collection of poems about Auckland Zoo by Paula Green and 50 schoolchildren.

Then there's Bob Orr's odes to the wharves around Auckland in Calypso or "The Clock Tower in Three Lamps" from Valparaiso, which shows how important and lasting the printed word can be in recording a suburb's history:

... Was it fifteen years ago
I wrote a poem
about a cabbage tree
between the pub
and the Police Station
in Ponsonby? The pub
is an apartment block
the cabbage tree is gone
the poem is still around ...

Places of inspiration

As well as visiting the locations of these books, Auckland has a collection of literary landmarks open to the public:

* Frank Sargeson House
14A Esmonde Rd, Takapuna

This fibrolite bach was Frank Sargeson's home from its construction in 1948 through to his death in 1982. Most of Sargeson's literary work was written there, and he also attracted almost every established or emerging writer in the country, including Janet

Frame, Maurice Duggan, Kevin Ireland, CK Stead and Bruce Mason. Considered to be New Zealand's first literary museum, it forms a monument to his life and works.

Now cared for by the Frank Sargeson Trust, the building is currently one of three literary houses in New Zealand open to visitors. You can book a free guided tour through the Takapuna Library. The other two literary houses are the Ngaio Marsh House in the Cashmere Hills, Christchurch and Katherine Mansfield's birthplace in Thorndon, Wellington.

* Michael King Writers' Centre
Mt Victoria, Devonport

This national writers' facility and literary centre is based in the old Signalman's House, a heritage house on the slopes of Mt Victoria. The charitable trust which runs it offers a programme of supported residencies for New Zealand authors, specialist workshops and literary events. It is also building a collection of resources for writers, both online and in the centre's library.

* North Shore Literary Walks

Researched by Graeme Lay, three walks around Devonport, Takapuna and Milford-Castor Bay will take you to the former homes of 55 writers with past and present links to the area. Lay's guide is wonderfully detailed and features photos of the houses, suburbs and writers. Download it from here.

Meet the authors

Many of the authors mentioned in this story are appearing at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival from May 9-13. Among them are Chris Bourke, Maurice Gee, Witi Ihimaera, Emily Perkins and Paula Morris.

A feature of this year's festival is the new Sunday Gallery Series, a partnership with the Auckland Art Gallery offering three visual sessions on art, music and fashion. Held in the gallery auditorium next Sunday, May 13, the series will feature presentations by artist Dick Frizzell, author of It's All About The Image (2011), Doris de Pont, Fashion Museum founding trustee and editor of new book Black: The History of Black in Fashion, Society and Culture in New Zealand (2012), and Chris Bourke, author of Blue Smoke (2010), which brought back to life the venues, sounds and changing dance fashions of the Auckland music scene.

Go to writersfestival.co.nz to find out more and for bookings.

- Herald on Sunday

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