Sunday morning dawned a little finer and we breakfasted then checked out of our misty hideaway. First time I’ve ever stayed in a place with a helipad! Recommended if you have the readies. We were heading in for the day’s events and my reading of The Lost Pilot at midday. I was nervous as always but excited, just glad the book was finally getting a chance to be read in public as we’d missed out on the Auckland and Christchurch gigs for the memoir.
It was going to be a bit of a swan song too as the book goes out of print with this final event and lives on solely as an e-book in cyberspace. The realities of modern publishing dictate that when a book slows down in sales to a crawl, then warehousing copies for orders that might trickle in slowly just ain’t going to happen. I wanted to make it a special farewell event to my dear friend, this book that is way more than just my writing at work. Whatever happens now the life and the journey that provoked it goes on.
Hideaki Nishida of Osaka with his copy of The Lost Pilot. His uncle died in the attack on Dad’s ship.
So we kicked off the morning with Robert Sullivan introducing four of his MIT poetry course students: Michelle Bolton, Amber Esau, Annaleese Jochems and Kirsti Whalen. Amber had just the night before won the packed house Poetry Slam and each of them gave a reading from their works in progress. It’s heartening to see the kind of support and encouragement writers starting out can get in the world of letters today. We had to come a different way in the 1960s and onwards – not better, not worse, just different. The potential and the sheer talent on display was impressive.
The following session on yachtsman Johnny Wray’s classic seafaring book – South Sea Vagabonds with Andrew Fagan and Debbie Lewis discussing Wray’s homebuilt yacht, Ngataki – was delightful and kind of scary. Debbie now owns the vessel and as a solo mother with her son in the 1970s had sailed all over the Pacific, the Indian and South Atlantic oceans in feats of seamanship that were to say the least, epics of courage and steely determination.
After another delicious morning tea came a much anticipated session with Tina Makereti and Selina Tusitala Marsh discussing Tina’s new book Where The Rēkohu Bone Sings – a novel set on the Chathams/Wharekauri. This was a rich and fascinating account of Tina’s journey towards the book and her experience writing it, including visits to those windswept islands where her whakapapa calls to her. I was on next and it was a bit hard to concentrate at times but breathing deep got me through.
As my name was called I got up and walked up the steps to the lectern: thirty minutes to make this story count. I had given Wayne on the sound booth a Powerpoint to run behind me with images from the book on a continuous loop, thinking that this would give the audience another entry point as I read. I made a start with a mihi to my God, to the dead of the attack and to the living present, mana whenua, manuhiri – then began.
I’d chosen four short readings and practiced the timing: opening with my Dad’s death sentence; on to a section on the kamikaze and a poem, The Departed; a section on my host Neil Hall and our lost fathers; finishing with the epilogue where in a kawe mate at the sailors’ marae in Devonport, I carry my dead into the meeting house, my sailor parents and the six kamikaze. It was hard at times as the emotion hit me and I knew I had to hold it together for the people out there listening. As soon as I finished the last word of the final mihi to the dead, Murray cut the lights and there was silence. A perfect ending.
What happened next was evidence enough that literature can carry emotion from heart to heart if we steel ourselves in its making and its telling. I was to meet a number of people who not only wanted to have a copy of the book signed, but also to tell me their stories. More than that, the first couple that came up to me as lunch was served and the people began moving about were both weeping. Sean (whose name I did not find out until I asked him later) hugged me sobbing for at least a whole minute while his wife Victoria stood beside us, her tears flowing. It turned out her father had been a Spitfire pilot in the Battle of Britain – young and fresh like those kamikaze pilots most of them, sacrifices to war gods on both sides.
It is always a privilege to sign books, as if it were not enough just to write them; to inscribe to an individual is something special, whatever the cynics might say. It has more to do with our need for connection with each other: everyone who asked me had some link to the war and its losses. Like Tyl, who was at the war’s beginning a young German boy born in Kobe in 1937, growing up in the German embassy compound in Shanghai during the Japanese invasion of China, spared the horrors of his peers, Allied children captured with their parents, by virtue of the Germany’s Axis accord with Japan. He later was taken for a ride in a C-47 transport by the incoming victorious Americans, transport pilots who had flown over the Hump from Burma to supply the Communists and the Nationalists. Histories miraculous and ironic.
We were ready after that to take off for a while and share a coffee with Margaret before sitting in on the marvelous and entertaining session given by Robin Robilliard on her life at Rocklands farm in Golden Bay: Hard Country. Then it was time to get the taxi to the airport – or at least, order another as ours had been pinched – and fly home into the gathering evening, going south from the pleasures of Going West.