Gregory O'Brien, artist, poet, and non-fiction writer, took a road trip starting in Northland with painter Noel McKenna. In an extract from Always A Song in the Water, O'Brien heads to Whangārei.
COASTING – A NORTHLAND ROAD TRIP
"The Idea of North is an opportunity to examine that condition of solitude which is neither exclusive to the north nor the prerogative of those who go north but which does perhaps appear, with all its ramifications, a bit more clearly to those who have made, if only in their imagination, the journey north."
Glenn Gould, The Idea of North
THE ROAD CODE
Non-driving, my passenger assures me, is a far higher calling than being in the driver's seat. Noel McKenna and I are half an hour north of Auckland and not making particularly good time. Non-driving, he tells me, is the state of attending to everything in the world that is not driving. Accordingly, non-driving is infinitely larger than driving. And the essence of travel – I am starting to get this – is such a state of passengerism. Behind the steering wheel, the experience of going somewhere is a movie continuously playing in front of you. From the seat on the left, however, the passenger savours the ordered and disordered succession of moments and details – the non-driving experience can be alive with digressions, familiar things seen from oblique angles, all kinds of subtexts and marginalia. One thing might follow another, but then again it might not. And the potential for juxtaposition – the constant ebb and flow of this and that – is limitless.
Having shrugged off the city in our borrowed car, the two of us set forth across the plains of lower Northland. Simultaneously we embark on to the flatlands of the shared pages that follow – this account of a few days in the north.
A nervous traveller, at whose behest virtually our entire tour is conducted at 70km/h and whose most frequent remark is that I am positioning the car "too far to the left", Noel admits that he feels more at home on a bicycle, or even a train: "To arrive in one piece, the car driver must always stay focused on what is in front of them. A train is a much safer way to get from A to B. You are nine times more likely to die in a bath than in a train accident." The Road Code According to Noel.
In the graveyard just outside a small Māori church, a Brisbane Broncos flag flies above a mound of freshly dug earth. Noel senses in this marker a transtasman metaphor, as well as a tragic moment in the emotional life of the province. Chief among the reasons why Noel has been a frequent visitor to New Zealand is the fact that it reminds him of how Australia was a few decades back – his birthplace, Brisbane, most of all – with its visible bones, recognisable social pattern and sense of incompletion. Capitalist culture hasn't quite digested the place yet, even if – particularly here on the eastern coast, with its burgeoning developments – it is clearly nibbling at the edges.
We motor onwards through a thinning cloud of information – all manner of road signage, billboards and hoardings which remind us, far too often, that the Royal Baby George is now halfway through his Grand New Zealand Tour and the missing Malaysian Airlines plane is still missing. We agree that the signage in front of a roadside factory – CONCRETE IDEAS – is good advice for artists and writers alike. Along the way, we pass countless compositions Noel might well have produced himself: arrangements of nonchalant trees, grazed paddocks and verges with troughs, fruit stalls, stray dogs and, visible now in the distance, the oil refinery at Marsden Point.
Heading westwards, only a few minutes from the city, we are summoned by a roadside placard "ALL BOOKS $1". We pull over in front of an off-season fruit and vegetable store that has been converted into a second-hand bookshop – unattended apart from a farmer on a tractor one paddock away. From behind his steering wheel, the figure-in-Swanndri waves as we enter the small prefabricated structure. Noel immediately starts combing the stacked and shelved titles, from Chemical Methods of Weed Control to Sheep, Part 1: Sheep Husbandry, before coming across a book he thinks his wife Margaret, back in Sydney, might find useful: The Mother Manual. Most impressive among his $1-a-copy bundle is the New Zealand Jersey Herd Book, Vol. XXXI (1934), which dates from a time when every cow and bull in New Zealand had not only a number but also an officially registered name. A litany of these names resurfaces in McKenna's visual diary of the day: Glee, Darkie, Lovelight, Singing Bird, Topsy, Attar Rose, Persephone, Literature, Patience, Wisp, Idol, Masterpiece, Patchwork, Sunny Boy, Sunbeam, Dark Boy, Combination, Royal Rascal, Monopoly, Frisky, Palatine, All Black ...
Amid the predictable Mills & Boon romances and Dick Francis pot-boilers, we confront surprising manifestations of what we deem to be the Inner Life of the Farming Province: Shakespeare, Coleridge, Wilson Harris and Heraclitus – whose phrase "everything is a stream" we will carry with us as far as the Northern Wairoa River. I wonder how Adonis' An Introduction to Arabic Poetry ended up in this vegetable stall – or a copy of Music in the Renaissance, which once belonged to a woman whose irresistible name, Arum Jung, is written in fountain pen on the fly-leaf. I wonder if we should be compiling an inventory of all the books in the bookstall and then embarking upon a scholarly exegesis of its contents (after the manner of Lydia Wevers' 2010 disquisition on the contents of the Brancepeth Station library, Reading on the Farm). In the gaps between bookshelves, the hardboard wall has been inscribed with felt pen – a remnant of its other, seasonal life as a vegetable stall. The surfaces teem with produce-related names, prices, instructions and remarks: "WE ARE UNABLE TO SUPPLY FRENCH TARRAGON AT THIS STAGE, GINNY" or "SWEET CICELY WILL NOT GROW UP HERE. WELL IT—". The rest of that statement is obscured by a large wooden box with a slot in the top, inscribed neatly: "PLEASE PAY HERE". I post a $5 note through the cobwebbed opening.
I leave a lightly thumbed copy of Wilson Harris' Palace of the Peacock on the shelf, for the simple reason that I already own two copies and feel the book is more appropriately sited in Northland than it would be if I gratuitously took it south. I linger for a while, however, on Berthold Wolpe's cover design. During the period I lived in Northland (1978–80) the windowsills and table top in my bedroom were always adorned with his Faber books, their covers facing outwards: T.S. Eliot, Louis MacNeice, Lawrence Durrell, Herbert Read. Of all these titles, the Harris cover remains my favourite – on account of its stylised bird (which brought to mind another writer I still equate with my late-teenage years in Dargaville: the very peacock-like Edith Sitwell – definitely no hen).
Not far from the northern end of Dargaville, we pull over at the entrance to the town's raceway. I recount how, back in the 1970s, the annual race meeting had all the solemnity of a religious feast day. It shut the town down. The rest of the year, sheep grazed the grounds and members' enclosure, and the track lay like a burst balloon on the land.
The last time I stood here was during my tenure as roving reporter for the Dargaville daily, the Northland Times. I had just turned 18 and was living at the gravel end of Awakino Rd. This side of town. It was in the newspaper office that I met a famous female jockey in the company of a racing journalist whom I remember as being three times her height, at least twice her age, and with whom I suspected she was having an affair. The two had driven up from Auckland together and came to the Northland Times office on race morning so we could photograph the jockey and I could scrawl something for that afternoon's paper.
The journalist wore a full-length trench-coat and nifty hat, a pair of binoculars dangled from his neck, the morning's Herald lodged in his armpit. Some years later, when I met the Australian author and horse-racing enthusiast Gerald Murnane, I was struck by his striking resemblance to this visiting journalist, or at least to my memory of him. I was introduced to Gerald Murnane at a literary party in the home of Meanjin chief editor Jenny Lee in Melbourne, August 1990, at which time he was fiction editor of Meanjin. This was a role to which he was not, by temperament, well suited. Rejecting just about everything that came across his desk, he would publish maybe two or three pieces per quarterly issue. This fact made him a great friend of all the poets in the room, myself included, as the paucity of published fiction meant more pages of each issue went to poetry (edited gingerly by Philip Mead, also in the kitchen). After a year or two in the editorial role, Gerald Murnane scampered back into the relative obscurity he has cherished and assiduously mined, from a literary perspective, since the very beginning of his writing life.
More recently, he took himself yet a further remove from the literary world, transplanting both life and work to the rural settlement of Goroke in Victoria, which, by every description I've ever heard of it, could be a sister town of Dargaville, with 15 degrees mean temperature added, and minus the river. Square-shouldered in his all-weather greatcoat, Gerald Murnane had the demeanour of someone attending a racing fixture rather than a crowded party. He existed in a state which I can only describe as self-imposed, self-regulated exile – with a firm gaze into the middle distance.
It was only later that I discovered Noel had been corresponding with Gerald Murnane for some considerable time and in 2005 provided a drawing of a racehorse for the cover of his collection of essays, Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs. Their association was grounded, I suspect, upon a knowledge of "the horses", a propensity for various kinds of mapping and list-making and a shared cast of mind.
It was my reading of Murnane's books, rather than the nondescript encounter just related, which formed the impression of the man I find myself returning to during our Northland excursion. When I first read Murnane's The Plains, the novel impressed me as being, at various points, very suggestive of the province we are currently driving through – with its isolated figures, spartan rhythm and stretched-out sense of time. Its elastic metaphysics, as I noted on the flyleaf of my copy. As a private form of homage, the only personal email address I have ever had is wellington dot plains – this despite the fact that, apart from the Tasman Sea/Cook Strait/Pacific Ocean trifecta, there is no significant flat territory anywhere near the city in which I usually live. Murnane's books suggest he probably wouldn't care for the capital: "And when we happen to see the turbulent air swirling like water above our land at noon, don't we turn away because it recalls the meaningless turmoil of oceans." So pronounces a righteously landlocked character in The Plains: "In the hottest days of February we pity the poor coast-dwellers staring all day from their cheerless beaches at the worst of all deserts ..." As an exclamation of oceanic loathing, the passage is about on par with W.H. Auden's description of the sea as not only being "deplorably wet, sloppy and formless" but also "that state of barbaric vagueness and disorder out of which civilisation has emerged and into which, unless saved by the effort of gods and men, it is always liable to relapse".
Always A Song in the Water: An Oceanic Sketchbook
Published September 19, (Auckland University Press, $45