Charlotte Grimshaw: Life and wild times of Charlotte

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Charlotte Dawson's death brings back memories of another, crazier time.

Charlotte Dawson lived a life untouched by domestic drudgery.
Charlotte Dawson lived a life untouched by domestic drudgery.

When Charlotte Dawson died, her friends publicly poured out their sorrow at her loss.

One recounted how kind and good she'd been, how she'd been his adviser, what fun she'd been and how much he'd loved her.

He told of a recent afternoon when she'd summoned him to her apartment on Woolloomooloo Wharf at four in the afternoon and how the fun had raged on into the night. His tone turned rich, fervent, with all the nostalgia of an old soldier summoning up the trenches. He wrote, "God, we partied hard."

I remember Charlotte Dawson, back when we were young, in Brooklyn Flats in central Auckland. Glimpses, flashes of memory: Charlotte Dawson, stoned, eating a whole packet of bacon with a pair of scissors. Charlotte Dawson with short, bleached, teased-up hair, a white face.

To my naive teenage eye she looked rarified, wild and exotic; I was yet to realise that uncommon glamour doesn't necessarily signify an extraordinary mind.

I thought she was a snow leopard; really she was just a nice, ordinary girl.

She was beautiful and unruly, as were many of the people who passed through that block of flats back then, before it was renovated and gentrified. It was a den of vice, disorder and talent. Hinemoa Elder lived in one of the basement flats. On another storey lived an artist who regularly stole televisions and pot plants and threw them out of his window. The park across the road was the site of numerous festivities, bonfires and the mysterious arson of cars.

Some of those people are dead; most have changed a great deal. Charlotte Dawson stayed eternally beautiful and youthful; it was her blessing and possibly her misfortune to remain untouched by domestic drudgery.

The addition of a dependant brings the urgent need for self-preservation. It's what all parents know: that children not only enrich life beyond anything you'll ever experience, they save you too. You can no longer party hard. If you do, the unit will begin to fall apart.

Martin Amis has a line about parenthood standing in the way of suicide, something like: well, you can't kill yourself now, because of the children. Obviously the handbrake can fail, but it's there. Sometimes having babies makes women want to kill themselves, but once you've got them and survived (and sorted out the post-natal depression), the kids can be the best anchor to life you can have.

The past is a foreign country. Brooklyn Flats was the place where we used to gather before going out to pubs and nightclubs and it was where we'd see in the dawn. We partied hard, and then I stopped.

Not because I was good, but because I was lucky. My attention got diverted elsewhere. Then I had my first child, and everything changed.

All the luck and happiness in my life has been tied up, not in the effort to preserve my youth, but in the drive to get away from it, the distancing of myself from it for the purposes of arriving at a better, happier place.

She led a rich, often successful and varied life, but in my memory Charlotte Dawson occupies the place I left behind, that dark other country full of drama and fecklessness and a million laughs, where we were crazed with rebellion and always went too far, the place I eventually hated and fled from: childhood.

Having your own children, leaving youth, you also lose yourself. There's the line by a local poet, written on the birth of a child: "I do not want myself back." There's no better cure for dissatisfaction with the self than turning outwards.

Children make you grow up: you will not be a girl anymore but you'll mind less that you don't look like one. They soften the blow of ageing; in fact, they make ageing almost all right. Life stops being all about "loving yourself" and starts being about "loving other people".

It makes you empathise - even as you're noting the fatuousness of "God, we partied hard" (as if "partying hard" is a meaningful activity, rather than a dreary road to ruin, something that needs to be grown out of quick in the interests of survival) you're utterly sympathetic to the terrible loss, to the image of the beautiful, chaotic Charlotte sitting on her balcony while the sun goes down and the rent is unpaid, and she feels she's coming to the end of things, and there's nothing she can do to stop herself flying into space.

My mind reaches back and there she is in a parallel universe, awaiting an alternative future, a second chance, a different kind of luck.

Charlotte Grimshaw is an Auckland author.

- NZ Herald

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