Twelve Questions: Murray Gray

1. How long have you worn an earring?

Forty years or so. I was also the only student at Victoria University with a tattoo in the early 1960s - a five-shilling tattoo from the Mount [Maunganui]. It's an anchor. There wasn't a lot of choice in the matter in those days. This earring is carved by Paul Annear. I have stopped attaching value to objects these days unless they are especially wonderful. Or like greenstone, which is portable.

2. What objects have you got rid of?

I made two decisions five years ago. I would stop buying CDs, and stop buying books and use a library. I no longer value books as objects which is good as I no longer have anywhere to put them. We live in a very small house - 70sq m - with a 70sq m deck. I think e-books are wonderful. I am glad the mass-market paperback industry has gone electronic. These titles are published to a formula, rarely keep any significant literary value, are printed in the hundreds of thousands, read once and tend to be dumped and pulped. I stopped selling paperbacks a couple of years ago and found myself with much more space and lost only a few sales of $5 bad writing.

3.Have you always lived in small homes?

No, I grew up in a series of great homes. My first seven years were in Fairfield, a grand house in Nelson that was a kid's dream. It was a boarding house for Nelson College and my dad was the housemaster there. In 1951 we moved to Gisborne where my dad was the Rector of Gisborne High School and we later lived in The Rectory boarding house, a brilliant two-storey Edwardian brick building with tennis courts, swimming pool and so on. Finally, just as I started high school, we bought our own house. A grand, rambling 1920s house with gigantic formal rooms, an acre on the banks of the river. I've always had big houses, with big gardens. But now the less stuff I own the better.

4.What did your parents teach you?

As a young teenager I was the only child at home. Me and my mum became a lot closer. She relished the idea of not being the housemaster's wife, de facto mother to about 60 boys, and becoming her own woman. She was born in Glasgow and came here as a young girl. She had a serious distrust of Catholics and since I was the fourth child had figured out the child-raising thing and treated me with great patience and much love, as the youngest tends to be treated. My dad was a frustrated academic. He was a keen amateur historian and always writing editorials for the local papers, giving talks at Rotary and generally had that public intellectual view in his community.

5.What did you study at university?

My masters was in educational psychology and moral development. I'm still waiting to finish my thesis. I'm interested in moral development: I think there are moral standards that aren't open to discussion - compassion and empathy, giving as much as you take. Dirty politics, the concept, is about ruling by fear. It's the politics of humiliation and to me humiliation is the opposite of empathy.

6.What kind of roadie were you?

I was brilliant. Th' Dudes were the hottest band in town and we were the hottest road crew in town. We were right up ourselves. I was the only one in the band old enough to have a heavy driver's ticket so I drove the truck around New Zealand for almost two years caring for all the kit of the band on the road. But really I was the lighting guy. I had just spent some time learning at the Maidment Theatre so I went into the rock business with a fairly sophisticated view of lighting and built up the Th' Dudes' lighting to an almost theatrical level. It was enormous fun.

7.What was your job at the Nambassa and Sweetwaters festivals?

I'd been a primary school teacher for about seven years and I was having relationship difficulties or some such and moved into this commune kind of house in town. I worked for Nambassa from that. Those music festivals were amazing. There were big bands through every hour or so and I was stage manager. My job was telling everyone when to stop. Same as the literary festival really, but musicians were harder because they can't hear you anyway. I'm the guy who hovers around the front of the stage when it's time to shut up.

8. You run the Going West festival with partner Naomi McCleary: how did you meet?

We met at Under Silkwood, a very slick bookshop I ran in Parnell in the late 80s, when I'd just started thinking about Going West. We'd both just come out of a marriage and so we fenced for a couple of years. We wandered around saying "we're never going to get into another relationship". The excuse was we'd drive around Waitakere looking for festival locations. Naomi's a 10-hours-a-day, six-days-a-week person and I'm a two-hours-a-day person. But we were very balanced - same age, both had minimal paying jobs and three Carole Shepheard prints. We were matched, though she's a very high achiever - I tell people she's a mix of Maya Angelou and Helen Clark.

9. Did you have children?

No, I don't think I ever wanted them. But Naomi had adult children when we met and now we have 12 grandchildren and two great grandchildren. I've ended up with a huge family which is wonderful. What is love? Love is knowing when to say sorry. I have to say it often, for not doing things properly or smoking too much.

10.You would have a bottle of whisky on the counter at your Titirangi bookshop: are you a big drinker?

I don't drink very often. I never get drunk. I don't like it and you get hangovers. In Th' Dudes we were a dope band. I'd rather smoke dope than get drunk. Do I still? When I can get hold of it, yeah. I started smoking dope in 1961 in Darwin when I worked as a cook's offsider for an oil company, with a one-armed Kiwi cook called Horrie. He'd get pissed on vanilla essence. Kids who start smoking dope when they are teens are stupid but I've grown up with my social circle smoking and ... they've all had jobs and families, no seeming long-term harm. But there's a lot of conflicting evidence around.

11.How is older age treating you?

Mentally okay but physically I now accept I will never climb Everest - or anything more than two storeys high. I think I'm hitting my last decade. I don't want to be 80, the way I feel now. My day stops at 6pm when the arthritis starts in my replaced knees and I can't sit still. Since I closed the [Titirangi] bookshop I spend most of my time at home, on the deck, in my big La-Z-Boy chair reading books, listening to the radio, thinking about the festival.

12. When have you been at your lowest, and how did you pull yourself out?

There is no lowest - just the eternal cycle of success and failure and the recognition that my life has been such a ball. There is always someone who needs you to be strong and caring and there is no choice but to question, consider and love, regardless of what crap you experience.

*Going West Books and Writers Festival runs from September 12-14 at the Titirangi War Memorial Hall.

- NZ Herald

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