Civilisation: Twenty Places On The Edge Of The World by Steve Braunias (Awa Press $36)
We were, as Steve Braunias mentions in his brilliant, latest collection of 20 travel essays and reflections, the last place on Earth to be settled, and there's a sense at times that civilisation didn't altogether take, that we're at constant risk of reverting, going feral.
Braunias spent three years travelling, off and on, "to places no one went to, drawn to their banal and exhilarating New Zealandness". It was a kind of prospecting expedition, and the material he returned with was pure gold (you might quibble about how representative of "New Zealandness" Scott Base or Samoa are but, heck, just chalk it up to poetic licence).
The admirable features of this collection are the lack of a preachy introduction: you're launched straight into the guts; the unobtrusiveness of the writer: there's clearly something about his rumpty, unconventional charm that allows Braunias somehow to mix with all manner of people and to elicit from them the most extraordinary confidences; the cleverly controlled flow of information within each story to create drama and tension; the way he frames people and places from such an angle and in such a cast of light that you see them clearly and exactly the way he wants you to see them.
Braunias is slow to judge, where he judges at all. You sense he doesn't have a great deal of time for the Samoan Prime Minister, or for the coterie of artists who form Save Central Otago and whose defence against wind farms, jet-skis, hydro dams may well be born of passion for the unparalleled natural beauty of the place but which is indistinguishable from special pleading, the defence of a privileged lifestyle.
He doesn't warm to Tangimoana, nor is he susceptible to the bullshit peddled by the property developer responsible for the abortive creation of Pegasus, a bespoke township in Canterbury: "He wore black from head to toe, set his watch 15 minutes ahead, and tried to interview himself. 'Is it about money? No,' he said. I hadn't asked, but seeing as he had brought it up I interrupted him and said, 'It is so'."
But he is capable of empathising with and finding redeeming features in folk who have, at first glance, none.
For it's one thing to sketch landscapes and places. It's quite another skill to draw characters in a way that brings them fully to life, faults and foibles and all. Lance Roberts, an old slaughterman living at the edge of the world in the former Hicks Bay meat works, immortalised in David Ballantyne's neglected, now-resurgent classic, Sydney Bridge Upside Down, is a wonderful character. Heriata and Nathan, the alcoholic and hospitable residents of an Ohinemutu caravan, are wonderful characters too. As are Malcolm and Allister, stars of the deadpan, comedic tour-de-force set in Mosgiel; Jean Smith, hiding her blazing light as a country and western vocalist under a bushel of regret in Te Aroha; and Stan Stuart, the ghost of an abandoned cottage in the Maromako Valley.
Celebrations of New Zealand and New Zealandness have been done before, and done to death, particularly by advertising agencies.
The secret to the success of this collection is that their author didn't set out to celebrate anything. Braunias chose simply to listen and to observe.
New Zealand - the sum of its many, wildly variegated and deeply contradictory parts, the good, the bad and the ugly - seems to have insinuated itself on his ear.
It's a kind of rough music and in Civilisation, he plays it by ear, note-perfect.
John McCrystal is a Wellington writer.