Everyone who I met on a recent weekend in Kerikeri ranged from quite nice to very nice. It's a nice place. It's nice most everywhere up in the Bay of Islands, with all that sunlight shining on all that flat, blue water in the winterless north. I thought: I should retire here. Then I thought: wait a minute, I've always hated Kerikeri.
I fell in loathing with it at first sight. It's worse than Tauranga. It's one of those elderly white chi-chi enclaves, an epitome of the New Zealand conservative impulse, an ancient National seat – the other day when I walked along Keri's main street, I glared at a billboard for the local MP, some goon I'd never heard of with a square face.
But who was I to complain? Why should I have anything against somewhere prosperous and – what's the word I'm looking for - nice? In fact I felt conflicted about Kerikeri. I spent the weekend trying to figure out a central dilemma, something which I looked at and studied from various different angles, although the physical reality of it was that it could only be looked at straight-on, right between the eyes.
It was a large object. It was in the room where I stayed. The owner brought me into his confidence. "It was," he said, "a real shithole." It used to be a motel; he brought out his phone, and scrolled through photos of how it looked. Each unit had blue railings: "Hi-de- Hi! blue, I called it. Had to go." He zeroed in one of those classic yellow glass doors that you never see anymore and laughed at it. He talked about the first night he slept in one of the units and waking up to its full horror – the mould, the worn carpets, the special desolation of all motels – and feeling alarmed he had gone in over his head. But he got to work on renovating the units to conform to the retro-vintage ideal, and put in sub-tropical landscaping. He'd made it into a success.
Something else got put in. The feature object in my room was an enormous facsimile of the cover of the Jack Kerouac novel On The Road.
It was a depressing sight. It looked like a trapped animal. Here was a truly revolutionary book, a way of life, an eternal flame of the Beat Generation, written with sincerity and yearning and power - "I'm an athletic typist," Kerouac once said; he could type 120 words per minute and he did it every minute of every hour, for days on end, when he poured out his vision of "spontaneous prose" to create On The Road. Anyway, this is how the Beat Generation ends: not with a bang but as a kind of wallpaper.
Poor old Kerouac! On The Road was a masterpiece. But it was also, I brooded, as I left my room and went for a long, lovely walk through a forest of tall gum trees on the Fairy Falls track, almost completely unreadable junk. As for Kerouac himself, the epic chronicler of criss-crossing America by car in On The Road couldn't actually drive, and ended up rotting in his mother's house, a drunk and a bigot, bitter, lost, fat, dead at 47.
What the hell's so great about that? Why was I identifying with him, and taking on the role of some heroic rebel who was somehow too good for Kerikeri? Isn't it closer to the truth that I wasn't good enough, not nice enough, for Kerikeri? I was just about old enough. "Keri's full of retired people," said the chatty accommodation owner. "You've got your retired archaeologists, your retired film producers."
Well, why not your retired journalists? I could maybe scrape up enough money for a north-facing shack or whatever and live out my days in Keri's pleasant climate before the appointment with a funeral home. There are a lot worse fates.
Or are there? What are the options? Where do we go when we're on the way out? Does old age have a future? The image of On The Road drove me outdoors - give me the Hi-de- Hi! blue railings any day, the yellow glass door – to brood hither and yon on the Fairy Falls track, walking through soft rain, then bright sunlight, past a bridge, to the falls, not a soul around, on a soundless day in autumn. Apparently the forest of gums and eucalypts were planted to harvest for telegraph poles but concrete was the cheaper, faster option, and the trees were left to grow. It made for such a nice walk.