Helen Garner’s hair.

‘Went and had a little haircut.’
—Helen Garner, 1986

I keep thinking about Helen Garner’s hair. Her short, scraggy, square hair. All through the three volumes of her diaries there are small (but somehow … immense) moments when she thinks of her hair. Or when others think of her hair. There she is on the cover on the third volume, her hair magnificently square, just edging now into mullet territory. She is looking out to sea from the rail of a ship, turning away from and towards the camera at the same time. I doubt she is thinking about her hair in that moment. Though maybe she thought about it briefly when she looked at the photo later.

In all of the drama and wrench and beauty and howl and fantastic ordinariness of the writing contained in these diaries, why should I be thinking about Helen Garner’s hair? Because I love this hair. The hair, too, is a part of all of that drama. And it is drama all of its own. Its stubborn squareness, its slight blokeishness, its practicality, how it must be chopped on a regular basis. It is my form teacher’s hair in 1996, my maths teacher’s hair in 1997, it is my mother’s hair and all of her friends’ hair. It’s the hair of going swimming and the hair of a rough towel-drying. It’s the hair of walking briskly from place to place. The hair of time passing and the parts of us that stay the same.

And because Helen Garner’s hair means something. It was a shocking realisation to me, that this should be so. That someone whose power is in looking at the world should ever be looked at and coolly appraised by the world. Whose hair should ever be looked at. And whose sense of self could ever be rattled by the business of getting a haircut. In one scene she gets her hair cut in Chicago in 1996 by a guy called Benny Casino: ‘As usual a haircut removed, distorted and replaced askew my self-image. When he finished I said, ‘Can I take your photo?’ This restored my power as looker.’ Being looked at – and looking at her own image – its Helen Garner’s kryptonite.

Helen Garner knows her hair means something, too, whether she wants it to or not, and this is why she feels a lot about it. Why sometimes she’s protective of it, defiant; why sometimes she is despairing, feeling herself masculine, not womanly enough. In a 1987 entry, she and some friends have a long conversation about hair and whether ‘P’ should have hers cut or not, and suddenly Helen breaks in, wondering whether all this talk about hair is neurotic, but ‘P’ disagrees. ‘“No!” said P. “It means something. A circle means something different from a triangle. The shape of your hair affects the outline of your body, where it connects with the rest of the world.”’ Of course, I agree with this and I also find it almost unbearable, because it goes both ways: Helen Garner’s hair is one of the many places where the rest of the world meets Helen Garner. Here it comes, with its unasked-for opinions and subtle scoldings. 1984: ‘Yesterday the diplomat asked me if I’d like to have my hair cut at her hairdresser, “so you won’t have to worry about it.” I politely declined, but I knew she really meant “Your hair looks awful.”

I will admit it. Many times, as I read, I would think: please, Hels. Go to a good hairdresser and get a haircut that you really like, and learn how to style it. Stop getting these bad haircuts. Don’t go again to that hairdresser who is clearly ‘freaking out’. (‘He cut it dry, a thing he’s never done before.’) You are so good at noticing beauty in the world, you even notice ‘the subtle beauty of a subjunctive, the tiny shock it administers’. A subjunctive, for god’s sake. Your powers of seeing are immense, yet here you are, missing out on the beauty and wonder of a good haircut. I can’t be alone in thinking this.

But this misses the point and only goes to show how indoctrinated I am by certain ideologies (I should point out that, despite this, I don’t even have a good haircut). It’s not about what Helen Garner’s hair looks like. It’s that she wants to be left alone with that haircut. It’s that she doesn’t want her haircut to send any message at all. She desires a no-haircut, I think, a haircut that transcends haircuts (I would argue that actually her haircut gets pretty close to this; in style it exists outside of time. I realise now that it is, and I don’t use this word lightly, badass). Why should she even have to think about the difference between a bad haircut and a good haircut; why should it make any difference as to how she is seen as a woman?

But it does make a difference, she knows, and in this she is all at sea, railing sometimes at the injustice of it, the injustice of ‘women’s position as regarded creatures’. So I come back again to loving this haircut and feeling tender towards it and wishing she could be immune to bastards with opinions. I love her hair (and her) most when she defends it. Again from 1984: ‘. . . Whatsername said, with that smile she gets when she’s about to be daringly frank, “I like your hair when it’s pushed back at the sides.” I felt like screaming, “I like my hair when it’s all shaved off! So get fucked!”’ Then, a single entry later, as if in retaliation: ‘I went and had my hair absolutely CHOPPED.’ Of course, the hair of the other woman, X the painter, is free of such violence, is fair and wavy, ‘soft hair waving about her brow’.

I have never met Helen Garner but saw her once, on her own in an art gallery, when she was visiting Auckland for the writer’s festival. She was looking at a picture (was it Fiona Pardington?), and she was in that moment just before you drift away from one thing and go on to the next one. It’s probably inappropriate even to mention her hair. The whole point is that we’re trying to rise above it. But I did notice her hair – in the way that you notice all the earthly details when you see a famous person in real life – and I thought it looked soft. I know: not that it matters.

I had a conversation with two men writers at a book launch sometime last year and we were talking about the diaries. I thought about mentioning the haircut, but hadn’t solidified my thoughts on it yet – and still haven’t, clearly: the haircut is a font of infinite mystery and intrigue and, yes, beauty to me; the things it stirs up in me keep growing and changing. But to the point, one of the writers suggested that Helen Garner would be ‘difficult to live with’. That’s a question I often find myself wondering about, more generally about writers: what would this one and that one be like to live with? But I was taken aback. Who is to say that she would be difficult to live with? Apart from ‘V’ (her ex-husband, the novelist Murray Bail), who would likely agree. But remember that ‘V’ is a man who, when Helen Garner shows him a photo of herself among the voyagers on a ship to Antarctica, studies the photo then hands it back and says with a laugh, ‘“You really have got a small head, haven’t you!”’ As someone also with a small head, this hit me on a few levels (and the part of me that’s been trained to find it funny, found it a bit funny). I couldn’t hold it straight, in my own tiny head, that someone could go to Antarctica, write the masterpiece ‘Regions of Thick-Ribbed Ice’, then be told off-handedly that they’d got a small head. What I’m saying is that ‘V’ was almost certainly more difficult to live with.

What we can definitely say is that Helen Garner sometimes found herself difficult to live with. In a heartbreaking entry from 1986, a friend shows her some photos of herself from the previous year. ‘I was shocked by my ugliness: spotted skin, lined face, ugly haircut, dark expressions. I mean I was shocked. I quailed at the possibility that I will be alone now for the rest of my life. That I will never turn back into a womanly being but will find myself stuck here in between, plain and dry in my manly or boyish little clothes. I was afraid of my ugliness.’ I was almost unable to continue reading. The loneliness of that passage, the starkness of it, all possibility seeming to be stripped away. Later, she tells us that she fears beauty too. ‘People like me, who aren’t beautiful, fear beauty because it seems to be a guarantee of love.’ The sense is that without beauty she is on shaky ground, constantly having to ‘summon up other resources’.

I thought how none of us can really be rescued from such feelings of self-loathing – how we have to rescue ourselves, over and over again. Often Helen Garner’s way of rescuing herself is to go out and be among people, turning her back and going on dancing when ‘V’ jerks his head at her. But this struggle in herself is what gives the writing so much of its beauty and intimacy. Amid all of that push and pull, she tries to get stronger than the power exerted by the gaze of others, so that her work can get stronger. At one point she tries to explain to the block-headed ‘V’ her ‘ideas about looking: how men have control of it, how in order to be an artist or a writer a woman has to overcome her sense of herself as an object, has to usurp something.’

I imagine her haircut getting even blockier as she usurps that thing. As she finally leaves her marriage, as she finally buys that blue sofa, as she writes and writes. The hair gets even shorter and scragglier, even worse – oh god, it is a terrible haircut, but now we see that it is becoming something else, something that is almost nameless and that can’t be called good or bad – as she grows in power, as if the hair were a hardy desert plant drawing upon some deep, ancient reserve, finally blooming.

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New Year’s paragraphs

Merlin, circa 1978. Junkyardsparkle, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

On Christmas Day a fly was bothering us outside near all the food. My niece Iris ran inside and got the fly swat and presented it to my brother JP, who said, ‘No, we don’t do that outside.’ ‘Yes, otherwise where would it end?’ I said. I was imagining chasing flies through the streets, down to the beach, up into the hills with a swat. I liked the idea of the outside as the fly’s house. You don’t swat the fly in its own house.

I’ve just realised it’s that time of year again. New Year! That time where I moon around in a bunch of disjointed paragraphs, with little dashes in between them, kind of complaining about things, kind of describing some things I have noticed, but most importantly of all, being vaguely disconsolate. It came around so fast.

Every time I clean the skirting boards of a house, which isn’t often, but when I do, I think about the times someone has inspected my cleaning of skirting boards. There was a flat in Newtown, around 2008. I’d spent two days cleaning and the place was now just two bright empty rooms. The landlord walked back and forth slowly between the two rooms, then he came to a stop and said in a jolly voice, ‘Did you do the skirting boards properly?’ I knew this was going to go badly and said that yes I had. And I had! I had. But he knelt down to the skirting boards, like some skirting board whisperer, and found a bit of dust straight away. I felt completely ashamed and said I’d do them again. I can’t think of any landlord who has said the words ‘skirting boards’ without a faint tone of excitement in their voice. They just cannot wait to get their hands on those things after you’re done with them. Skirting boards aren’t inherently bad – they’re like light switches, or barcodes on the backs of books – but they are the place where your true slovenly self, your life of utter filth, will be pointed out to you. There are so many boards in the world that speak of other lives and obsessions – skateboards, storyboards, soundboards, keyboards, dartboards – but skirting boards will only ever be to me the place upon which this tiny, deranged battle must play out between tenant and landlord. So I hate to clean them, but I will.

Above where I’m writing this a sparrow goes in and out of its house, a secret one in the roof of this house.

Late on Christmas Day my brother Neil in London messaged me and JP. ‘Do you remember that weird computer thing that we’d play noughts and crosses on. It was red and would make bloopy noises.’ I tried to remember, and thought I almost had it – the ghost of something red, something bloopy-sounding; maybe I could remember something of the feeling of its presence in a room – but in the end there was nothing that could be called a memory. After some minor sleuthing JP found that it was something called a Merlin, and sent a picture: yes, it was red and looked like it would make bloopy noises. It gave me a funny feeling that gadgets from the 80s always give me – half deja vu, and half a sort of simmering dread at the knowledge that all of that time is over, is so long ago, which in the trade we call getting older. ‘I remember never really knowing what to do with it,’ JP said. ‘I don’t think it was fully functional by the time it ended up in my toy orbit. But every now and then, it would beep and come to life.’

My old bora-infested desk is sitting outside with a sheet of rain lying on its top. There are so many things I haven’t finished writing while sitting at that desk. It’s been out there for a few days. We’re going to cut it into bits with a chainsaw tomorrow. The desk before this one – also wooden, even heavier, even more bora-infested – also sat outside in the rain for a few days, and I can’t remember what happened to it after that. I treat all my desks very badly. I had a thought that you could turn this current desk upside down, saw off its legs and plant a herb garden in its undercarriage, but it all seems like a hassle and the desk garden would probably just need to be left behind anyway.

When I ran through the bush earlier today the light and shade and rain together had a strange effect: for a few moments it looked like door frames, or picture frames, were hanging in the trees. The rain got heavier overhead, with the sound of something speeding up. On another day when I was running through, there was this young guy striding along through the trees carrying something in a drycleaning bag.

I had a bulimic lapse the other day. I like to call these ‘lapses’ – the sense of a failure obviously but also a kind of sinking, a sliding, a falling, that tells me something got weak and needs to be built back up. It was the first one in almost a year, the longest stint yet. This old place comes rapidly into view, like a stage set with moving parts, each sliding back to reveal the next part where I have to go and where I’ve rehearsed going hundreds of times before. I’ll pretend to myself I’m going somewhere else now; I’m only passing through, I’m going into the wings. But then I’m slowing, slowing, and pushing the door open. I’ll probably always go back there, maybe even many more times, to move through this shonky set I’ve known since I was very young. It’s weirdly, maybe wrongly comforting to think that this won’t be the last time. I can accept it, and it doesn’t have to be a disaster.

The chainsaw went through the desk ‘like butter’.

Was irrationally annoyed when I opened the new Sally Rooney to find she had quoted from Natalia Ginzburg’s essay ‘My Vocation’ for the epigraph. The bit about being ‘a small, a very small writer. I swear I know it.’ My heart sank. You can’t just bandy those lines around, I thought. You can’t just put them in a novel that millions of people are going to read! Then I realised I was just jealous and didn’t want too many people to know about that essay and claim it for themselves. Then, how idiotic that was. The love that you feel for a book always feels private, between you and the writer, and nothing can really touch it, and the love is so particular to whatever you’re looking for, or maybe don’t even know that you’re looking for, in that moment. Helen Garner, from How to End a Story: ‘My friend gave me a marvellous book called Macs for Dummies. The minute I saw a page headed “Mindlessly opening and closing files” I knew it was the book for me.’

I was thinking about this flat I went to look at in Newtown around 2004. It was winter and a tall woman in a long skirt let me in through the kitchen, which was poky and wooden and had onion peelings all over the bench. The woman owned the place and she didn’t want anyone home during weekdays: people just made mess. She led me down a hallway. The house seemed simultaneously enormous – high ceilings, this long hallway – and tiny, the rooms cramped and cupboardless and onion-smelling. One room was full of piles of newspapers and magazines and books, and armchairs heaving with stuff. I had an overwhelming sense of dust. Upstairs – I remember the woman’s skirt sweeping the stairs – there was a bathroom that was mostly bath and very little room, and a window that opened out onto the roof. Back out in the hallway she knocked on a door and opened it, and there was a man sitting at a desk. What was his name? I want to say Mike. This was the time when most men were named Mike. I had already lived with several. This one was sitting in front of a computer. He had a cup of tea and some Marmite toast on a plate beside him. He was wearing a thick cream cable-knit woollen jumper that came up to his chin. I remember thinking about the jumper and the toast, how the crumbs would get on the wool, how it would be scratchy, how necessary those two textures were to be warm. We had a brief conversation and I don’t remember what we said, but I remember the soft glow about that guy, in the small room with the tea and his toast, working at his computer – a similar one to what I had, a bulky PC, with the matching cream-coloured keyboard – how it seemed like such good fortune that in this cold house filled with other people’s things, here he was in his jumper with his toast, working on something. This was how you did it. I thought I could probably live there then. But the next day I lost my nerve and changed my mind and stayed where I was.

New Year. I think New Year is the bit in part 3 of Get Back when George says, almost with disgust, ‘Well, I don’t want to go on the roof.’ And then Ringo declares, ‘I would like to go on the roof.’ And Paul says: ‘You would like to?’ Ringo: ‘Yes, I’d like to go on the roof.’ And then eventually they go up on the roof, because there was really no other option. New Year is also like this very enjoyable argument I had with someone at a party who thought that Get Back was too long and I thought it was the perfect length: it had to be that long, I said, to show all of the chaos and silliness and lame jokes that made up the Beatles. ‘But by that logic, where would it end?’ he said. ‘Why not show all 60 hours?’ I hadn’t thought of that and he had a good point. You had to end it somewhere.

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Wicked form

I remember the boy and I standing in a trailer in his driveway. He was staring at me, waiting for me to answer his question.

‘Hug,’ I finally said. It was a bad option, but it was the least bad option. Whenever I looked at the boy – his tracksuit, his freckled face, his small mouth – I knew we’d never be friends. For one thing, he spoke meanly to his dog, and this told me everything I needed to know.

The boy made an impatient noise and came towards me. He was bigger than me and he wrapped himself around me so that I staggered backwards. It was strange to be so close to a boy who wasn’t a brother. His body was burly and smothering. Finally he pushed me away. Then we had to go back to the beginning of the game.

He listed my options again – the things I could let him do. Each time, I chose the hug, and each time he grew more annoyed. When once more I took the easy way out, he refused. In one decisive action, he pulled down his pants and undies and began to issue instructions for what I should do next. He seemed happier now that he was in charge.

I knew I should have felt scandalised – that it was wrong to feel unmoved. What I felt, though, was boredom. I tried to pretend I was still interested. The options, after all, were dirtier and weirder now, and the boy was toying with himself, as if coolly demonstrating how some new gadget worked – how you could take it apart, put it back together. But none of it had anything to do with me.

Right behind him, then, his mother appeared. She was leaning against the trailer with her elbows propped up. It was shocking to see an adult suddenly so close, close enough to touch; it was like an animal in a paddock had wandered over to stare at us. Her hazy blond hair seemed to glow against the greyness all around us – the grey stones of the driveway, the grey house, the grey sky of our neighbourhood.

The boy still hadn’t seen his mum. For a moment her eyes met mine, and she looked bored too. I couldn’t tell if she was bored with her son, or bored with me for being so silly as to get into a trailer with her son.

Almost everyone I know has a small story like that, more or less. The story could almost be funny, or it should stay small enough to be funny. The story isn’t really about any loss of innocence but about the realisation that you are beginning to take on different forms to different people. I was seven then and most of the time my body was a means of getting between home and school. But every so often it would reveal itself to me as a kind of tether, binding me to things I didn’t know anything about. Or it became a radio, emitting signals I had no control over. Sometimes, if anyone looked at me for too long, I was scared they could see deeper in, to another of my forms – my wicked form.

My brother had told me he’d once woken up in bed with the feeling that something heavy was pinning him down, crushing his chest, and the word ‘devil’ came into his mind. Eventually the feeling passed and he could move and breathe again. I thought that that must be what had happened to me: somehow, a devil had got in.

I thought it because I had episodes where certain sounds took on a physical shape. The scariest sounds were the sharp ones, like my dad typing at his computer, or a light switch flicking, or shoes clicking on a floor – I felt the edges and weights and movements of these sounds. But sometimes it was the soft sounds too, like a sheet being pulled over a bed, or my mum brushing her hair – these sounds became like whispering. They pressed around my head, getting inside me, and my heart felt sharp inside my chest. I thought the sounds were the devil making itself known. It hadn’t released me yet, like it had released my brother.

I had one other form that I knew of, and whenever it revealed itself I was relieved to find it still there – when I was nothing more than a small furred animal burrowing against my mother.

When we were older and in high school, the boy had a group of lanky, shouting friends. The boy told people that I’d done filthy things with him and would do them with anyone. Now that all of his friends knew, it was as if the boy had multiplied. He was a gaggle of boys that moved around the school chaotically, his many heads bobbing, mouths opening and shutting with laughter. He told and retold the story of what we’d done, and the story got bigger every time, and his selves kept multiplying. Now it was as if the whole school had been there in the trailer too, had watched my face closely to see what option I would take, had watched me choose things I hadn’t chosen.

One day after school, I heard the boy telling the story again, loudly so that I could hear as I walked past. I thought of that scene in the trailer, and how ridiculous it was, and I was suddenly furious that it had been so changed – that, in the telling, I had been changed.

I had stayed quiet all this time. Now I stopped walking, and screamed. I called the boys the worst names I knew. My voice was useless and shrill but they all paused, as if confused, and were quiet for a very tiny moment. Then they laughed and laughed, and began repeating the story over and over at me, and it was like the story was flaring up and rising even higher.

As I walked home, seething, it felt like something was being burned out of me, some quietness. Some belief that I would never say what my real choice was. I still had fear around my anger, deep pools of it, but the anger was clarifying. It felt like allowing myself to hold eye contact with myself, rather than looking away.

What I really thought was: this must be the devil. It mustn’t be me who is feeling this rage. But maybe it didn’t matter who was feeling it. I thought: I can turn this whole thing around. I can make my wicked form work for me.

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Bad News

In the morning there was a Linden tree
whose whole body looked on fire.
Its branches had grown in a desperate way.
It came closer, knowing I’d be trying to write something later
and that I would almost certainly want a tree in it.

In the afternoon a poet came to see me, worried
that her cover wasn’t blue enough,
but when she saw it she was satisfied.

I love to make a poet happy. I love to be afraid
that I will anger a poet and then to make them happy.

In the evening a family of quail gathered on the road
as I approached, and I could tell they had bad news.
But when I came close, they couldn’t
bring themselves to say it, and ran away really fast.
Tomorrow, tomorrow, they called. Not today

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Sometime around 2008 I met my writing teacher at lunchtime and started complaining that I didn’t know what I was doing with my writing. I was scared to keep going in case it got worse. So far, every page looked like an accumulation of wasted time. He took a big bite out of his panini and said, with his mouth full, not looking at me, ‘Do keep at it. Just keep chipping away.’ I like to think of the moment before and after that bite of panini. I was feeling completely discouraged but then, with just a mouthful of panini, everything changed, and I felt like maybe something was possible and that I would finish what I was writing. I saw that maybe I could find a way to replicate that hopeful shift at other times, at other very ordinary moments. Before panini, after panini.

Then again, the power dynamic was askew at the table. I wasn’t eating anything and my tutor was, which put me in the more powerful position. The non-eater always has power over the eater: they have total freedom to speak, while the eater must negotiate every sentence with whatever it is they’re eating. So it’s possible that he was just passing the baton back to me because the panini demanded it.

Two black swans are waddling along the path, their long necks swaying. Closer, I see they are actually black terriers with wagging tails. As I approach, one of the terriers lunges at my ankles while barking explosively and dragging its owner sideways. I hop out of the way and do the apology wave, while smiling, and carry on running as the dog continues its fuss. Since going out running again, I’ve been really enjoying taking on the role of the friendly passerby. A car backs out of a driveway into my path, and when the driver sees me, I smile and trot past. I hop out of the way of some construction workers who are blocking the footpath and smile at them as I run past on the road. The joy of being the friendly passerby is in having a small human encounter while running away from it at the same time. It’s in smugly forgiving anyone who puts a tiny obstacle in your path. And it’s in signalling to others that you’re a nice person, without really having to back it up with any evidence.

I used to think the sign-off ‘Regards’ was a bit brisk, even sour, but I’ve come around to it and now I like its frankness and ordinariness. Also, it reminds me of once when my brother JP and I were in a CD store in Hamilton where one of his friends, Rob, worked. As we were leaving, Rob was busy with another customer and we couldn’t say goodbye, so JP said to the other store assistant, whose name I can’t remember, ‘Well, give Rob my regards.’

‘Will do,’ the assistant said, and looked over her shoulder and called, ‘Hey Rob!’

Rob looked up from the counter, where he was serving the customer.

‘Regards,’ the assistant said, and turned back to shuffling some CDs.

Rob nodded and waved politely at us, and we nodded and waved politely then we went out of the store and into the shopping centre.

I keep seeing a big rat run across the road. Today there’s a note stuck to the fence near the bit of road where I always see the rat. The note is printed out and has been put in a plastic sleeve. I stop to read it, and the note is all about the rats. ‘Kia ora residents of Aro Valley. I know there are rats. This whole valley is filled with rats. Stop taking photos of them and putting them on the Facebook page. and saying that my birds are the problem. My birds are not the problem.’ It goes on like that for a while.

I was sitting on the couch when the postie went past the house in his red t-shirt and hi-vis, wearing his wraparound glasses and his hulking mail bags. I’ve been seeing him most days because I have been home reading manuscripts. Today the postie didn’t stop and I watched him plod down the hill and through the trees that lead out onto Koromiko Road. I felt a wave of horrible sadness, because my brother used to be a postie and I missed him.

As I’ve been reading, I’ve noticed something. There are a lot of silent dads in New Zealand fiction. Dads staring into the distance, dads chewing silently, dads nodding and turning away and going inside. I think that either one of two things needs to happen: our real-world dads need to talk more, especially during moments of high tension, so that this talking might be assimilated into our fiction; or we need to find new ways of describing silence in dads.

Shayne Carter ordered a steak. The steak came out huge and completely raw. Just completely raw. I don’t know anything about steak, other than what it looks like when raw. ‘What the hell is this,’ Shayne said. ‘Do I cook it myself?’ The waitress explained about how he had to cook it on the little hot plate that had been provided. When it was nearly cooked, he was to put the blob of butter on top. ‘Oh, okay, thank you,’ he said. When she left he turned to me and said, ‘God. I can’t believe I have to cook my own fucken steak.’ I agreed it was outrageous. He picked up the steak in one hand and put it on the hot plate – it made a sort of shrugging motion as it settled. Then we watched it, cooking, as the brownness crept upwards through the steak.

I wondered what my teenage self would have thought of it, back when I didn’t conceive of musicians as real people. The idea of, for example, John Lennon eating an apple, or Mama Cass making some toast, or even Neil Finn eating a pie in his car – it was too far outside my comprehension. To me they were kind of like plants, drawing everything they needed from air and light. I had a penpal who I’d met on a Radiohead fan site and she told me that in the background of ‘How I Made My Millions’ you could hear Thom Yorke’s girlfriend washing the dishes. When I listened to the song again, each little clinking sound was like cracks forming in something.

When I was about fifteen, my family and I went up to Auckland to see Neil Finn on the ‘Try Whistling This’ tour. He drank a cup of tea on stage. The audience seemed to love it, especially when, between songs, he said how good the tea was. ‘That’s a really good cup of tea’ – and everyone roared with laughter. But I was too overwhelmed to enjoy it.

I had a similar feeling when, years later, I saw Morrissey play, and he sweated through several shirts.

It took ages for the steak to cook on the little hot plate. But finally it was ready and Shayne ate it and we talked a bit about our families.

I am reading a manuscript that has a chapter with the subtitle ‘[With strings]’. I like the idea of dictating what kinds of sounds the reader has to listen to while reading your work. [With theremin.] But it wouldn’t have to be a musical instrument, necessarily. [With insinkerator.] [With rain.] [With puffing inhaler sound.] [With man jogging past uphill.] [With more rain.]

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Transcription errors in a conversation with Kris Sowersby of Klim Type Foundry

Unknown Speaker 31:54: A friend of mine, she wrote her first book by opening a book of chickens.

Unknown Speaker 32:32: Animals initial animals. 

Unknown Speaker 14:17: She’s got my lower jaw. A lot of bone. 

Unknown Speaker 47:30 The pretentious line is to say something is bridgeless. 

Unknown Speaker 37:03: What happens if you get three quarters of the way through, like a fucked up madness? All right. I’ve made a grave mistake.

Unknown Speaker 1:13:24: It must be quite a headline to walk.

Unknown Speaker 1:11:08: The sky has been tasked with, you know, spreading the word, basically saying how awful everything is.

Unknown Speaker 51:28: Because your relationship with the book is disgusting, isn’t it.

Unknown Speaker: 1:09:18 Diesel is so hard for people to talk about.

Unknown Speaker 1:09.28 It was raining those books. 

Unknown Speaker: And it’s a very indefinable, like, nebulous, quality, but you kind of know when something is dead.

Unknown Speaker: 1:32:21: You know, has anybody ever come back? This is not well. This is unwell.

Unknown Speaker: 46.51: It’s actually not all there is to you. It’s a list of yourself.

Unknown Speaker 1:33:41: How do you fill up my … my other books with this food?

Unknown Speaker: 27:34 Last night, someone showed me a poem, without telling me that it was by James Brown. And I could not tell. It was so unlike his, the workout of his nose.

Unknown Speaker 17:00 I was angry at the new future, because you’re so invested in what it is, it was missing what it could be.

Unknown Speaker 1:10:33: An abrasive Catholic upbringing. Can you hear those ideas?

Unknown Speaker 1:37:42: So it’s nice and sharp and dark. Instead of some other kind of God series. 

Unknown Speaker 20:01 The poetry crowd often surprise themselves by feeling like Karens on the margins.

Unknown Speaker 1:12:59 Just the burning … the burning hill on the afterlife.

Unknown Speaker 1:40:52: It’s always a copywriter, or an egg.

Unknown Speaker  12:18: Like if you were reading several different authors that you know quite intimately – would you be able to tell who was home?

Unknown Speaker 1.21.27: A boy who goes across the country and learns things on the way. Well, he’s gone to Norway.

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Rehashing (iv)

I promise I won’t keep doing this too much longer. Maybe one more after this. But here’s one more rehashed newspaper column from the past, this one from June this year, which still feels like a long enough time ago to refer to it as the past. A lot has happened in the past month or so for me and it feels like I really was a different person in June.

On comfort

It’s 8:44pm and pouring down – rain as loud as a recycling truck. When it rains at night I feel myself come a bit more alive, like a worm wriggling up to the surface to see what’s going on. I feel safer and more comfortable, because heavy rain means that everything can stop. You can wriggle to the surface of just this hour, just this night, and stay there. You don’t have go anywhere else in your head, not even to tomorrow. Basically I’m saying it’s an opportunity to have a good old-fashioned wallow.

But to get really, deeply comfortable – I mean, a comfort that is more than just momentarily enjoyable, like going into a furniture shop and testing all the couches without any intention of buying one – you’ve got to get uncomfortable first. The more uncomfortable the better. Sitting inside listening to heavy rain is nice, but being caught in that same rain on your bike on your way home, in anticipation of sitting inside listening to rain, is even nicer. It’s like our spirits need to be broken down, just a little bit, so we can really feel what we have when we return to it. It’s why people run ultramarathons, or dive into lakes in winter, or go to Glastonbury.

That said, there’s a risk of overthinking the discomfort/comfort equation. I once bought a new duvet that was more comfortable than any other duvet in my life. Sometimes I would be lying in bed and I’d feel so comfortable under this duvet that I would start to panic. Had I done enough for this comfort? Had I been sufficiently uncomfortable during the day? And was this duvet as comfortable as I was ever going to feel, or was there something even better out there? It was the feeling I imagine people get when they install a big fancy pizza oven in their backyard, and eat pizza all the time – great, but every so often that nagging thought: is this it? (Of course it’s possible that the pizza people never, ever have that thought. I don’t know.)

It’s like the German philosopher Hegel said: ‘What the English call “comfortable” is something endless and inexhaustible. Every condition of comfort reveals in turn its discomfort, and these discoveries go on for ever.’ Those might be the bleakest two sentences I’ve ever read. Hegel wasn’t talking so much about duvets as he was about how others can profit from the discomforts we go on discovering, and how sometimes we don’t even feel uncomfortable unless someone tells us that we are and that we could do better. Either way, discomfort – some new sense of inadequancy, some new hankering – has a way of arising pretty soon after we’re satisfied.

I watched a short documentary this week about a guy who ate only tins of beans for 40 days, inspired by a Steinbeck novel in which a poor family lives off beans. The documentary-maker ate different sorts of beans – black beans, four-bean mix, baked beans – and he ate each tin cold, with a spoon, averaging five tins a day. At the end of the 40 days he ran a 50 kilometre race, I guess to see what it would feel like to be literally made of beans and what his bean body would feel like when challenged – not very good, it turned out. Without the variety of foods he usually ate, he felt like he’d lost his personality. His sense of humour vanished, his crankiness increased. He was lost to himself. For a film about beans, it got existential pretty quick.

I think that like the food we eat we are made of the things that make us feel comfortable. Our routines, our favourite chairs, our pets, our favourite topics of conversation, our opinions – they’re not who we are, exactly, but they allow us to access who we feel we are. And if those things are taken away or upended, it forces us to adapt, which at first feels horrible, even shaming – it can make you feel sort of weak.

It’s still pouring down. A branch lands on the roof with a crash. As well as the worms, I often think about the birds when it rains. What are their feelings about rain? What do they think it is? Does a bird feel discomfort, or does it only ever endure the moment it is in, huddling and shivering, tucking in its head and puffing up into the shape of a little tennis ball? But obviously the bird has adapted to bad weather. Its body knows what to do. Even as it shivers like crazy and clings miserably to its branch, its tiny heart keeps beating, keeping it warm, keeping it alive.

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Rehashing (iii)

Today’s rehashed column is from August 2019, just after Ronnie Van Hout’s sculpture Quasimodo was installed on the roof of the Wellington City Gallery.

The Hand     

I’m going to look at the Hand in Wellington’s Civic Square for the first time. My visit feels dutiful. There has been a lot of talk about the Hand, much of it strangely sexual in nature, some of it dismissive, even disgusted. I have to go and see the Hand in the flesh so that I, too, can have an opinion.

I park my bike near the defunct library. The sun is out, the breeze is fussing. Surrounded by empty buildings, Civic Square has felt like a dead space for months. But as I enter the square and see the Hand, immediately I can see that it has changed everything. Its presence is electrifying. The Hand braces itself on the art gallery roof, like a weather vane. Perhaps in a former life it behaved as one, a finger pointing in the wind’s direction. Now it is unmoved by all weathers.

People stare at it openly, smiling. Some millennials arrive and start laughing and reeling about. The Hand remakes everything as its stage – the onlookers, the sky, the buildings, time itself. A few people are hurrying along and not looking at the Hand. The effort of ignoring the Hand radiates from them; their internal battle – Do not look at it – echoes in their footsteps. I hear a man say defiantly, ‘Well, I love it.’ Someone else says, ‘Yeah, not a fan,’ as if such disapproval could ever surprise the Hand, as if the Hand could ever be cheered by the validation of others anyway. A man ambles through the square with a ghetto blaster under one arm. His tracksuit has ‘Google Me’ written all over it. He is playing a grim karaoke recording of John Lennon’s ‘Jealous Guy’. Normally this karaoke man would be the centre of attention. Today he is a distant star. The Hand possesses all gravity now.

I sit on a bench to look up at it, feeling intoxicated. At each moment the Hand surrenders to being looked at. Its expression is that of someone who knows we are looking but also knows we will look away, that its abject existence is too uncomfortable to contemplate for more than a short time. It knows that even the weather eventually turns away.

I recall watching a video of the Hand’s maker, Ronnie Van Hout, installing his sculpture Comin’ Down on the roof of 209 Tuam Street, Christchurch in 2013. The sculpture is of a very tall man, also with the likeness of Van Hout, wearing a suit and Converse sneakers. The man points his impossibly long arm at the sky, or maybe the arm points itself of its own volition. Van Hout adds the finishing touches to the figure and clambers, grinning, back inside a window, and suddenly the rain comes heaping down, and in that moment the pointing figure seems to own the rain and the sky itself.

As I look at the Hand, trying to form an original and tweetable opinion, I realise that my opinion is simply that I love the Hand.

But love is such an animal response. I need something more. Part of the problem is that it’s hard to say what the Hand means, beyond how wretched it feels to be an outsider, like Quasimodo in his bell tower. I sit there trying to figure it out. Is the Hand saying something about the exhausting process of creating, of producing? The knowledge that no matter how hard one works, they won’t be able to escape who they are, or how they’re seen? Is it something about how simultaneously we lean towards and recoil from the grotesque? I like what Van Hout said in a recent interview with Megan Dunn – that the Hand ‘never gets to go inside to hang with the real art. He’s like a working-class schmuck at a private-school event, who feels terribly out of place.’ You could say that up on the roof he’s at that same private-school event, still jostled by opinions and stares, still denounced as ‘not real art’.

But when I look around again – people smiling and laughing and recoiling – it’s clear that the Hand has made a sanctuary of itself, like a dancing man at a party who at first looks to be embarrassing himself but then suddenly becomes pretty good. From moment to moment, the Hand offers itself up. Here is something for us to love or despise. A reason to gather, with our pitchforks or bouquets or secret proclivities. The Hand gifts us its freakishness to make of what we will.

I feel very happy in the presence of the Hand. In the sky behind it, a plane leaves white trails. I have a plane to catch soon too. The sun flickers. Under the Hand, anything feels possible.

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Looking at a house

Hundreds of dolphins are in the Cook Strait. Dolphins and dolphins. The water is leaping with them. I look and look. Their bodies gleam and fizz, silver and white. It’s more dolphin than water. I will remember this crossing forever. The man sitting beside me on the plane – the same man I sat next to on the way over – is looking down at them too. We’re at the part of the crossing where it’s only sea in both directions. I look ahead and see that the dolphins go for miles and miles. They leap and gleam all the way to the horizon, and now I see they aren’t dolphins, they’re just waves that have a dolphin-like aspect to them, breaking out in the middle of the sea and reforming and breaking.

Earlier that morning I went out running early. My bad leg was hurting and I knew I’d pay for it later but I kept going, thinking I might as well enjoy the last few moments of running when I still could. I crossed the bridge and in the river a pair of ducks were leaving their tiny ribbons of wake and a boat was moored in total stillness. Around the corner from my parents’ house a white-haired man was walking towards me. About 100 metres away I saw that it was my dad. I hardly ever see my dad walking along a street – usually he’s sitting down or padding around the house in socks. It was almost unnatural, like when you see someone standing perfectly upright as they glide down the street on one of those one-wheeled scooter things. I kept running, and the man got closer and slowed to a stop, and it was Dad again.

Usually my dreams disperse quickly but lately they hang over the whole day. And I can’t sleep well because I find it hard to commit to any one anxiety. I lie awake for hours arguing with myself over what I should feel the worst about. Eventually I fall asleep for a short time, then wake up again with some even better ideas.

Although the house looks small and barren, standing up on little sticks that keep it clear of the mud, we’re feeling hopeful. The lawn has a tree on it, and a sprinkler. A feeling of prosperity is in the air, as if some things might be within reach again. This house was formerly owned by a family of bears, the real estate agent tells us, but they’ve taken good care of the place. He shows us inside. A rapidly flowing stream runs through the house. There are giant eels and salmon in the water, though they are all belly-up and being swept along by the current. The house has no windows, and also one room is filled with green peas. To look inside we have no choice but to push through the peas with our arms held out. ‘Please be careful,’ the real estate agent says. ‘The family loved these peas, and a condition of ownership would be their upkeep.’ Before he has finished speaking, before the two of us have discussed it, you’re already promising, ‘Of course. We’d make it a priority.’ I know it will fall to me, though; I know those peas will be my responsibility. But I know that this is the best we can hope for, and as the agent says the number I reach for your hand.

I’ve downloaded this experimental app called Woebot. It’s meant to help you with your mood and so on. It’s not perfect because its responses can only go along a few particular paths, and sometimes it gets stuck going in circles. ‘Tell me in a few words why you are feeling anxious,’ Woebot says. ‘Afraid of being forgotten,’ I type. ‘Did you mean to delete something?’ Woebot replies. ‘No,’ I reply. ‘OK. Tell me in a few words why you are feeling anxious.’ ‘Afraid of being forgotten.’ ‘Did you mean to delete something?’ ‘No.’ ‘OK. Tell me in a few words why you are feeling anxious.’ I give up and say, ‘Can’t sleep.’ The bot has an upbeat, empathetic persona and it praises you for saying things that it know how to respond to. It knows what to say about ‘black-and-white thinking’, ‘self-blame’, and ‘defeat’. But the truth is that the bot is almost completely useless. At the end of an exchange it asks you to give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down for the session. Sometimes I give it a thumbs down, but I feel bad about doing it. It’s like when an engineer kicks a robot dog to see whether it can get back up. The bot replies to my thumbs down, ‘Okay. Thanks for letting me know’ and something hardens between us. The next time I open it up again, it says ‘I’m so glad when you reach out!’ as if nothing ever happened.

I meet my friend for a beer and he mentions, quietly, ‘We have a new baby in the house.’ It almost sounds like they’ve just discovered that the house has been bugged and they’re still deciding whether to go to the authorities, or just play it cool for now. My brothers and I used to be very interested in bugs – I think we assumed that by setting up a tiny recording device in a hidden place, we would immediately be privy to top-secret information. If people were ever out of your earshot, secrets would fall from them. A secret house would rise around them, secret rooms would open up, secret lives, but if you had been smart enough to plant a bug in there you would know all of it and you would become immensely powerful. Not being a spy wasn’t an option.

I get into the habit of repeating ‘Calm and safe, calm and safe’ in my head when I can’t sleep. I wake up looking forward to when I can look back and see that nothing is what I thought it was, it’s just a wave breaking.

I’m in a crowded stadium to see a band that my brother is performing in. My friend is somewhere in the audience too, but far away, on the other side of the stadium. I search with my binoculars and eventually find them sitting in a row far up in the sky. They’re sitting with their new family and a long time has clearly passed, years, and we’re both so much older, older in a way we swore we would never be. But they are so high up in the cloud that they keep appearing and disappearing, the way the South Island does when you look for it from the North Island, and I feel homesick for them. I’ve never forgotten, I have just been waiting – though, for what? Soon the band starts playing, and it’s a new sort of music, where the songs are actually just heated arguments about different subjects, set to a laser light show.

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Send in the clowns

A while I wrote something about clown collars for Metro magazine, but a month later Metro folded. I thought I’d post this here anyway – something from the Before times. I remember being a bit nervous about this piece because I thought I’d get in trouble with anti-cat people about it. But I’m pretty sure none of them read my blog, so we should be safe here.

Six months ago my cat brought in a young sparrow. I recognised the sparrow immediately. It was the same one he had brought in just the day before. I’d thought I had saved that sparrow’s life. I had scooped it up and it chirruped and flapped and looked like it might be okay. I locked Jerry inside and carried the bird deep into the scrub below my flat and released it into a small, seemingly hidden nook. It had flapped away energetically. Now here it was again. Both our nightmares, playing out again.

‘Dammit, Jerry,’ I yelled. I scooped up the bird. It barely moved. As I carried it outside, it died in my hand. I have never felt anything like it: that tiny life fading away.

That was when I knew I had to recommit to the BirdsBeSafe collar. ‘That’s right,’ I said to Jerry, now lolling like a failed pavlova on the floor. ‘You brought this on yourself.’ But I had brought it on him too. I was the one who let him roam freely outdoors. The times I’d tried to keep him consistently indoors during the day, he’d go so stir-crazy he would develop a urinary blockage. It was time to put him back in costume.

The BirdsBeSafe collar is a brightly coloured ruff, both regal and clown-like, designed to detract birds, especially songbirds, whose eyes are especially sensitive to bright colours. The idea is that the birds are more likely to notice a clowned-up cat from a distance, so they will have enough time to fly away. It looks like the collars detract reptiles too. Field studies in North America, Australia, and the UK have found that they make a difference, with a reduction of at least 50% in birds and reptiles caught, and in a 2019 study a reduction of 78% birds. They’re said to be more reliable than the old bell-on-the-collar trick, which cats can sabotage with some especially judicious creeping. I first tried the collars in 2016, as part of a short Wellington-wide study of their efficacy, and after the study finished I kept Jerry in the collar for a few months. He brought no birds or lizards home. But he kept losing the collars – he’d go out in full regalia then come home naked. I wondered, darkly, if someone in the neighbourhood was stealing the collars, and entertained the idea of fitting Jerry with a Go-Pro so that I could catch the culprit. The collars were making me paranoid. And broke. BirdsBeSafe is a US company, and ordering a pack of three ruffs and the safety breakaway collars that go inside them, plus postage, is over US$100. After Jerry lost one collar too many, I gave up. The lost collars issue was one of the reasons why the 2016 Wellington study was ultimately inconclusive, the lead researcher Heidy Kikillus tells me (though there was anecdotal success).

Still, after the sparrow incident, I was determined. I got more collars. Each morning I fussed to get the collar on properly while he waited – he seemed almost to enjoy this ritual – then he would trot out the door cheerily like a kid off to clown school. He wore the collar well. I would glimpse him around the garden, sprouting up like a weird flower. Disconcertingly, he reminded me of an Anne Geddes baby. I read that to other cats he might look more formidable, which would discourage fighting, so I hoped the collar would give him an advantage in stand-offs with Kevin, the tallest cat in the neighbourhood.

I was about to move to a new suburb, though. It was nestled right up close to Zealandia, where over forty different native bird species have been recorded. This was high risk. I kept thinking of the horror story of the lone cat that decimated a colony of banded dotterel in Eastbourne, wiping out all of the eggs and chicks – two years in a row – and how conservationists were powerless to make the cat’s owner do anything about it. I thought of the small, drab, but iconic Lyall’s wren, said to have been both discovered and exterminated by a lighthouse keeper’s cat. Forest and Bird estimates that New Zealand’s domestic cats alone kill more than one million native birds each year. (This doesn’t include feral cats, which also do great damage.) In the new neighbourhood, while keeping Jerry indoors to adjust, I saw collarless cats plodding about freely.

Many cat owners, myself included, see their cats as extensions of themselves. We don’t like to be reminded that cats are apex predators that, if we’re honest, shouldn’t be here at all. Some people take this personally and get defensive, like the wild-eyed guy in a bandana who came up to me once when I was buying cat biscuits at the dairy and hissed, ‘This bloody council is trying to take away our cats!’ He told me to check out his website, before riding away on his motorbike laden with Fancy Feasts. Underlying a love of cats is the human susceptibility to soft, podgy, friendly creatures. If Wellington’s most gregarious cat, Mittens, were a bird or a lizard, he’d be a nobody. But at the sight of a cute creature, our brains are flooded with dopamine, the same neurotransmitter involved when we fall in love, and most of us have a strong urge to pat that belly. In 2009 scientists found that when people looked at pictures of kittens or puppies, their fine-motor skills were enhanced, as if readying to hold a newborn baby.

The collar didn’t help in reminding me of Jerry’s inherently villainous nature. In fact, it humanised him further. In certain lights, it made him look like a nice man on his way to a poetry reading. Again the collars seemed effective – he brought in neither birds nor lizards, though his mouse-hunting skills were clearly uninhibited – but before long he lost a collar during a brawl. I heard the unmistakeable yowl of fighting cats and went outside; Jerry was sprinting down the driveway naked. I half expected to see the other cat parading about triumphantly with the collar on.

Jerry in clown collar

Jerry is getting older and slower now. He spends a lot of time sleeping on a bunch of tomato plants. But when awake he still surveys his territory like a nerdy detectorist, and I don’t trust him. I wish it were possible for my love of Jerry to end any argument about whether cats should be allowed here. I wish all I had to do was rhapsodise about this tiny presence who shapes my days, who follows me to the top of the driveway each morning to see me off, practically waving a handkerchief as I cycle away. Embarrassing to say it, but there was a time that Jerry’s calm, jolly presence saved me from a full-blown mental breakdown. But it is difficult to justify owning a cat when you also love and fear for native wildlife. It’s possible, obviously, to love both fiercely. I understand why some people are vehemently anti-cat, but extreme calls for eradication are, frankly, messed up. Cats are too deeply interwoven in our lives. Caring for an animal teaches us how to respect more vulnerable creatures than ourselves and to consider sensibilities beside our own; these are skills that humans need more than ever. So we have a responsibility to minimise their impact, and clown collars are really due a more comprehensive study here. Also, imagine if every cat you saw was wearing one. It would be like the greatest circus came to town and never left.

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