Matt McEvoy, author of The Grey Lynn Book — the life and times of New Zealand’s most fascinating suburb, is a first-time author who was kicked out of school at age 16 and made his fortune in the Dot-com boom.

1. Why were you kicked out of Sacred Heart College at age 16?

A friend and I rigged up a remote-controlled banner that unfurled across the stage at final assembly saying "Nair is a Walrus". The whole school erupted. You realise how fragile control is when something like that happens. I was politely asked to leave. Luckily I could play the piano so I got into university that way.

2. How did you get into IT?

During the Dot-com boom, I got a holiday job at a software company in Symonds St. No one was doing any work. The money was flowing and it was drinks every night, dancing on the desks. I thought, "If this is work, I'm not going back to university." I don't work that much now because I don't need to. I've made some good investments. I just do short-term contracts like setting up the Vodafone network in Qatar. My priorities are different from most people. I've never bought a car or a TV. I like to spend each winter visiting friends I've made around the world. It's good to do some work so you appreciate leisure time when you have it.


3. What motivates you, if not a career or material possessions?

Doing something worth while, leaving something tangible - a slice of culture. I'd find it funny if people bought this book as a guide to living in their nice renovated villa. It's actually about what's happening to the people who used to live in Grey Lynn. It asks "What is a community? Do you really want to put up that high fence with a security pad? Do you want to live in a rich ghetto?"

4. As a first-time author, what made you think you could write a book?

I started writing a diary when I was working in an orphanage in Peru because my photos weren't capturing the way I was feeling. That triggered my writing renaissance. I hadn't written anything creative since winning the School C English award, so I did a night course at Western Springs College. I've always lived around Grey Lynn and was aware of its rich history so I was stunned to discover no one had written a book on it before.

5. What do you love about Grey Lynn?

The diversity. Researching this book I sat in mansions overlooking manicured gardens and talked to people living on the street and the fact these people can still live side by side is what's special about Grey Lynn. I don't know how long that will last. It's more stubborn than Ponsonby which has become as bland as Newmarket. People are passionate about it. Oscar Kightley got really emotional. A lot of Samoans think of it as their traditional home. It's where their grandparents came in the 1950s and often still return for church.

6. Many of the stories are told by the people who live there. Why did you choose that approach?

I didn't want it to be a dry, dusty old academic tomb. Characters bring the stories to life. I love the eccentrics like the stray-cat lady who rides around on her bike wearing a gas mask. People said, "Don't interview her, she'll scratch your eyes out" but she was probably the loveliest of the lot. She's lived in Grey Lynn since the 1970s and it's only now the newcomers are complaining. Diana Wong's in her 80s and still living in the house she was born in. It used to be a big party house filled with her friends like Freda Stark, Carmen, Don McGlashan and the Topp Twins on their tractor.


7. What was it like interviewing artist Jacqueline Fahey?

I loved it. She's fierce, that lady. She was telling me off before I even sat down. She has a homeless guy called Eddie living under her house who she met in Grey Lynn Park one day. He hasn't been the best guest. She told him, "No women" but he still has hookers down there and when he can't pay them there'll be big fights and screaming going on but somehow they still get along.

8. Were there any surprises in your research?

A Hare Krishna terrorist who built a bomb with a fire extinguisher. He intended to bomb an abortion clinic but it went off early and bits of his body flew all over Grey Lynn. A few myths were shattered. One was that Colin McCahon had this idyllic life in Titirangi. He actually had to move to Grey Lynn in the 1950s to escape Titirangi where people threw rocks on his roof, accused him of being a communist, bullied his kids at school. Another was Sacred Heart College's shift from Richmond Rd to Glendowie in the 1950s. Sacred Heart took the name, the best teachers, the honours boards and left St Paul's to rot. The brothers, now in their 80s, are still pissed off. There's no recognition of the historic connection to St Paul's which is 90 per cent Pacific and doesn't even have a school pool. So what is being part of the Catholic club really worth? They seem to have made no effort to sort out imbalance.

9. You have quite a socialist perspective yet you also live the high life with the monied set. How do you reconcile those things?

I do struggle with that a bit. It's just realising that you have privilege and not being blinkered to everyone else. The best thing that we can do on the planet is make the lives of less fortunate people easier. Nothing else is that important.

10. Do those values come from your childhood?

Yes. My parents are both immigrants who started with nothing. Dad's Irish. He owns fruit and veg shops, built his house with his own hands. Mum's half Indonesian-half Dutch. She recently retired from managing the Tanekaha unit at the Mason Clinic.

11. You're 37. Do you plan on settling down any time soon?

Not really. I had a partner for a few years but then he ran off to join the circus - literally. So now he's swinging around on silks. I've tidied up my act a lot in my 30s. I used to cane it pretty hard, taking pills like they were like candy. But I realised that was a path which was not going to lead anywhere good, so I went to a therapist and managed to pull back. Once all the drugs and drinking are finished you know who your friends are.

12. How do suburbs like Grey Lynn retain their essence in the face of rapid gentrification?

A lot of the people I interviewed said through art. Change is inevitable. Something that's not moving is usually dead. It's about respecting the past. The owner of Gypsy Tea Room is an example of a Samoan guy who's not getting pushed out, who has absorbed himself into the changing scene. Perhaps if people read this book they might think about where they live and that they're not an island, they're part of something that's gone before.

The Grey Lynn Book - the life and times of New Zealand's most fascinating suburb, by Matt McEvoy. RRP $59.99.