David Fisher

David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Greatest NZ Stories: Crafting a new life out of the ashes of the old

David Fisher and photographer Mark Mitchell travelled the country looking for the greatest Kiwi yarns. Follow their journey in this series.

Day 2: Ahipara

"One day me and my mate got in trouble with the drug squad," starts Paddy Stuart, who's a hardcase troublemaker-in-remission from Ahipara. "They saw some plants in the window."

He laughs a bit, remembering Hamilton in 1978. He was visiting friends and there came a knock at the door.

"My mate's hiding in the cupboard. I was hiding behind the door," he says, and they hardly dared breathe as the detective outside asked for the man of the house.

No, he's not here, the officer was told. They held their breath inside. "Paddy's here," said his mate's wife. Jeez, he says, my heart almost stopped. "Shut up," he's thinking. The officer seemed not to have noticed, or thought his leg was being pulled. The front door had barely closed by the time Paddy and his mate were out the back window, legging it across the rugby fields to a car.

North, they decided, and set off. Life on the run wasn't easy, he says. They tried funding the trip north by playing pool in pubs along the way. Unfortunately, they lost everything.

Even so, they arrived in time to welcome some friends from Hamilton to the Far North. They had attended the going-away party before going on the lam and arrived in time to be a welcoming committee.

Well, that was another party. In fact, there were quite a few other parties. Sometimes there was a bit of work, sometimes an attempt to find direction. He was labouring, mainly, and there were parties. There was money saved to buy a house - then he drank the savings.

Too many parties, says Paddy, now 64. "I had no income. I couldn't get a job."

Then came a woodturning course and learning how to make wooden bowls. "No one would buy them," he says. The government-funded project started with a cluster of people who one by one drifted away. "There were too many other good things in life at the time." There were parties again, and an accident. The path to recovery led him to woodturning again.

Then, aged 48, he was asked: "Do you want to go to Canada for a woodturning conference?"

Woodturner Alby Hall, at Ancient Kauri Kingdom, put effort into convincing him and eventually he agreed, unaccustomed as he was to conferences, other countries and travelling.

"This is a serious business, going to Canada," he says. Then off he went to Saskatchewan. "People were making zany stuff," he says. There was collaboration, discussion - it was a new world.

The conference was two weeks but Paddy was asked to stay on and work for Canadian artist Michael Hosaluk. He stayed for five months. "He saw something inside the cranium that I never knew was there. It just came as a complete shock and surprise."

The magic was unleashed. Paddy stepped back off the plane in New Zealand a (mostly) new man. "What's wrong with you," he says friends asked. "Where's your bottle?" Astonished, they were. "He's not drinking," he recalls them saying.

Since then, it's been different. A friend had shown Paddy a children's book which served as inspiration. A sketchpad began to fill with designs for wooden sculptures - intricate cartoon-like models of cars, planes and ships. In his workshop in Ahipara, Paddy designed and then built animated still-lifes from dozens of interlocking pieces of wood, each carved and turned with a specific purpose in mind.

That's not to say it has all been easy. He fell back into the bottle, at one stage, waking in a pile of wood shavings in the workshop. In the past, he says his family had said: "Look who you hang around with - derelicts, drunks and convicts."

Now, though, the spark of magic has drawn others into his life that steered him away from trouble - "I thought you had the faith," said one, after the relapse. "I thought, 'that's it, I need to go back to church'." Faith helped, as did different friends.

"It's a God-given gift. I wonder, day by day, how it came out."

But it did, and it saved him.

"If I couldn't do it, I'd get all disillusioned. I'd go mad."

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