Auckland Writers Festival: Suburban subjects

A historian believes every corner in Auckland has has something written about, writes Sarah Ell.
Auckland has many significant literary heritage sites, from the settings of well-known works to writer's homes and workplaces - and sites of incarceration.
Auckland has many significant literary heritage sites, from the settings of well-known works to writer's homes and workplaces - and sites of incarceration.

It might more commonly be called the City of Sails, but to sociologist and historian Scott Hamilton Auckland is "a city of text", with multiple stories waiting to be told. Auckland has many significant literary heritage sites, from the settings of well-known works to writer's homes and workplaces - and sites of incarceration.

Hamilton, whose most recent research project is exploring the social history of the Great South Road, has a passion for and deep knowledge of Auckland's literary heritage.

"New Zealand is a country saturated with text," he says. "There is a misconception that New Zealand is not a particularly literary society, but right from the beginning there was a fascination with writing and publishing."

While Hamilton believes just about every part of Auckland has a literary connection - "everywhere you go, someone's been there and written about it" - some parts are better known and documented than others.

North

The North Shore is the part of the city most commonly associated with its literary heritage, as the home of a Bohemian group of mid-20th century writers, centred around Norris Davey, better known as Frank Sargeson. Sargeson's fibrolite bach, which also played host to Janet Frame during her time in Auckland, now sits beside the busy Esmonde Rd in Takapuna, and is open by arrangement through the Takapuna Library.

"Sargeson used to leave a machete in the letterbox so visitors could hack their way through his garden to the bach," Hamilton says.

The former North Shore City Council developed a series of literary walks on the Shore (download a copy from the Auckland Council website), including the one-time homes of writers such as ARD Fairburn, Maurice Duggan, children's literature champion Dorothy Butler, Keith Sinclair, Allen Curnow and Bruce Mason, whose play The End of the Golden Weather fictionalised life in Depression-era Takapuna.

West

The West Auckland literary scene is so flourishing it hosts its own "Going West" books and writers' festival (in September). The west is strongly associated with the works of Maurice Gee, including The Fat Man and In My Father's Den (although the movie of the book was filmed in Central Otago, the 1972 novel was set in west Auckland). One of the main characters in The Fat Man lives at a hotel based on the historic The Falls hotel in Henderson.

Maurice Shadbolt's prize-winning short story Dove on the Waters is based on the story of Henry Swan, an Auckland solicitor who told his friends he was off to sail around the world in 1902, but instead holed up in a tributary of the Henderson Creek for 30 years; you can still visit the remnants of the brick arch he built in a small reserve in central Henderson.

In the inner west, Hamilton also draws attention to the historic buildings of what was originally known as the Lunatic Asylum at the Whau, later Oakley and Carrington and now the purportedly haunted Building One at Unitec. Among its inmates at various times were Frame, Maurice Duggan and Iris Wilkinson (who wrote as Robin Hyde).

"It seems almost like a finishing school for some of our writers," Henderson says. "Hyde did some of her most important work there, and if Duggan hadn't been sent there for treatment he probably would have died of his alcoholism."

Need to know?

Auckland Writers Festival, May 10 - 15, www.writersfestival.co.nz

• Hear Scott Hamilton speak on the Great South Road project in the AWF, Sunday May 15, 11.45am, Auckland Art Gallery, Lorne St.

• Scott Hamilton's blog on the Great South Road project and other fascinating diversions can be found at readingthemaps.blogspot.co.nz

• The North Shore literary walks and Auckland literary heritage brochures can be downloaded from the Auckland Council website, www.aucklandcouncil.govt.nz and search on "literary walks"

Great South Road

Hamilton's most recent research endeavour is tracing the history and stories of the Great South Road, stretching from the fringe of Newmarket into the Waikato. The road's history began with the campaigns of the Waikato Wars of the 1860s, as has become a microcosm of New Zealand's history. Hamilton and film-maker Paul Janman walked the road from its southern end in the King Country into Auckland in late 2015, collecting stories and meeting the road's current inhabitants.

And it has many literary associations: in the early 20th century, writers such as R.A.K Mason and John Mulgan used to walk the road for inspiration - and to work off their depression. "There have been generations of people writing about going up and down this road," Hamilton says.

"Much more recently, [poet] Richard von Sturmer did a pilgrimage down the Great South Road, walking the length of it through Auckland. He would stop at every park he found and write a poem there."

Hamilton's presentation at the Auckland Writers Festival on Sunday, May 15 will look at the road's history as a "road of refugees", from Maori fleeing Auckland in the 1860s as Governor George Grey prepared for war, to Middle Eastern immigrants in the early 1900s and unemployed men swagging in search of work or in relief camps during the Depression.

"There is a sense that the past is alive in the present," Hamilton says.

"Pakeha like to think of the past as something totally behind us, but there is a Tongan proverb that says 'we walk forward into the past and backward into the future'."

Hamilton's book on the road is scheduled for publication on Anzac Day 2017 - a day selected to highlight the stories of "the first Anzac casualties", members of the colonial forces who died in the Waikato Wars, after heading into battle along the Great South Road.

- NZ Herald

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