To Rarotonga

First day in Raro on Island Time. Landed yesterday washed out from lack of sleep to our first “small world” discovery: Te Uira our taxi driver to the Edgewater Resort was in my Māori language class at Canterbury in1998-99 and was taught by Te Rita Papesch. He’s happy to be back home now but wishes there could be more to the economy, now that tourism has taken over.


Roads here (correction, “the road“) are busy with scooters: no helmets, shorts and skirts and jandals on a 50kph limit, so maybe they don’t have too many crashes requiring skin grafts. Little kids hang on to mama, shop girls buzz around with flowered garlands and along the roadside under the coconut palms framing the near vertical mountains, chickens graze. Relaxomatic mode ensues.


Scooter 1a


Had an early night to get up fresh for our first full day, with a trip on the bus to Avarua. The island is certainly ringed with tourist traps, beach hotels and cafes, dive shops, car and scooter rentals, but it looks pretty relaxed with almost nobody passing us all the way. We arrive in the main town after first circling the island’s main traffic feature: a roundabout. Not a red, green or amber light in sight.


After some brunch – coconut pancakes, yum – we head for the old palace where Eruera (Ted) Nia was laid to rest in June. We search for Ettie Rout’s grave in the nearby church but no luck there. Ted’s grave site is unmarked but fresh concrete reveals his resting place. Aere ra, e te rangatira! I say a poroporoaki and we leave him in peace.


On the return bus trip, a different driver who cracks jokes and sings songs entertains us. I guess this will be the only time I ever get to hear a bus driver sing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. Time for a swim: these new Warehouse reef shoes feel like moon boots and with my glasses off, the few reef fish seen through goggles look a trifle impressionistic. Off to the market tomorrow.


Wake to discover the All Blacks have thrashed Australia 42-8, so that’s a good start to the day; might be a replay later on the down-home-hardcase local sports channel that feels like its been produced by people who have just walked into a studio. Nice. This morning after breakfast early, we head for the town market at Avarua and catch some real local colour: not a beige anything in sight. Even my compatriot baby boomer tourists with their bad veins and white flabby bodies have come prepared, in colour – kind of.


We cruise the many local stalls selling everything from taro to paua jewelery; grizzled elders kōrero in the local Māori reo as they sit behind the tables stacked with fruit and vegetables, keeping alive a vanishing world. The local paper speaks of a reo endangered as fewer and fewer children are growing up speaking the language. English – swamping the culture with tourists like us – is as usual, the enemy of indigenous identity.


After a shirt and jandal shopping foray, we head back for a coffee at Salsa, where they will feed you on the finest coconut pancakes west of Tahiti. Bacon and banana sweetened with maple syrup: why are our fellow tourists eating scrambled eggs, like you can buy in any cafe in New Zealand?



I have spotted a poster on the window outside Vonnia’s, advertising an exhibition at the National Museum: conch shell carvings by Michel Tuffery and local artists that memorialise the 500 Cook Island soldiers who served with the Māori Pioneer Battalion in the Great War. We walk to the site and find it is closed on Saturdays, followed by a three-legged dog we have picked up in our perambulations. The Cook Island kuri is a ubiquitous, homeless kind of beast that wanders at will, like the chickens.


We head back to Cook’s Corner via the Library and University of the South Pacific: this is where higher education happens after high school. The bus we need to catch – clockwise this time – departs from this famous corner every 30 minutes, servicing the tourist accomodations that ring the island. There is no public transport apart from these rattly buses; few locals use them, preferring their scooters. I find a nice honu (turtle) pendant as a souvenir and compare tatau with the shop assistant: she loves my Pule art work and her whānau design abstracts are superb.


The bus is packed, the window is jammed so no blasts of cool air this trip; we rattle and roar from stop to stop, passengers alight at the well-appointed resorts and spas, sandwiched by the dilapidated homes of the locals, their whanau graves and the dazzling array of churches: SDA, Mormons, Catholic, Pentecostals and Baha’i. Paradise is definitely run by the godly.


Sunday dawns and it’s time for our visit to the CICC church at Arorangi nearby. This was founded initially by LMS missionaries in the 1800s and today, is one of the largest Christian denominations. We board a bus with a dozen other interested parties off for a cultural experience; for us, it’s a normal Sunday in a Māori church.


In this one of course, the dominant language in the local culture – among mature adults at least – is not English. We’re used to a liturgy in Māori back home, but here, with a few genuflections to “our overseas visitors”, they run it their way. We’re ushered to the upstairs seating by a deacon who says cameras are ok, which is great as the colour and the fabrics, the hats and and faces of the people shout life in all its glory.

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There follow prayers, notices, singing, sermons, everything you would expect, but here, it is full of a communal passion I have never experienced before, either in full blast Pentecostalism, or Moravian communities where the whole group can at times seem like one organism, effacing individuals. You literally feel in the singing as if you have entered the throne room of grace.


My fingers burn up image after image on the tiny Lumix LX70 with its massive zoom lens; any other camera would be intrusive, but this classic device is not much bigger than a pack of Rothmans. I can’t wait to share to power and the glory of this church and this people with others. Three hours later, we are still there.


This is because today is a celebration of Cook Island youth and four groups have assembled to recite scripture verses by heart, sing himene, perform skits and generally give it their all, to show the elders they are ready to take on the mantle of evangelism for the next generation. It is encouraging to see they are all Māori speakers.

Church 2


The marathon ends with some of our party having ducked out halfway; expecting an 11.30am finish, we were still in the church at one o’clock. Pity for them that they missed the feast afterwards, as this was a special day and so it was more than a cup of tea. The table was spread with all the best the island could provide and we climbed into the bus for the return journey full to bursting, body soul and spirit.


Monday morning we’re booked on an Eco Cycle tour with Storytellers: Timi our driver and guide is a local man who never wants to live in New Zealand with his parents. His grandparents brought him up and he loves it here where “the loudest noise is the sound of the chickens”.


We pick up Bob, a retired printer from Wanganui, a game retiree with a few tasty views on “the Maoris” back home (he seems unaware that Timi is a relative, since the waka left from here around 1350). We get fitted out for our mountain bikes and head inland on the Ara Metua, into the cultivations of the locals you can’t see easily from the tourism-dominated ring road that hugs the coast and the beaches.


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Timi takes us on a guided tour of taro, banana, arrowroot and many other local crops, giving us the benefit of his encylopaedic hands-on local knowledge. We discover that the government does not own the land, the people do; there are no fences and title is with ancestral family links; unused land, or that left behind by those who have gone to NZ, is tilled by somebody else.


He’s a warm and generous host and unhurried; we get to the picnic area on the beach a few minutes after noon, to a spread of rice, chicken, prawns and taro chips. Just the best way learn some local history, geography and share time with a Cook Island man who is happy to stay right here. His kids will go to Auckland for high school, where their grandparents live, thirty years after leaving. Not Timi: “the noise drives me crazy, I only stay one week”. We can see why now.


Tuesday the plan is to hire scooters and do some exploration on the back road and some other sites. Problem is, the rain has set in and it means get wet and scoot, or hire a car. Both being slightly mad, we opt to scoot and so get two Honda Lead 100cc autos from Tipani Hire, $20 a day, magic. Heading through Arorangi to Rutaki, southeast, the tropical rain sets in and along the coast, exposed to the sea, it feels like we might get blown off.


No way back now, we stop sopping at Te Maire Nui Gardens and with hot coffee, regroup. We cut our garden tour short and head back on the main road for Muri where the rich cats are sleeping still, and stop at the departure point of the waka that sailed to Aotearoa. Too wet and cold to tarry, time for a brief mihi to those hero migrants who are the ancestors of our many friends back home.


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We dogleg west to the inner road and all seems well until Jeanette is struck down by headache from nowhere that proves disabling. It’s all she can do to stay upright and slowly, we head for the National Museum in Avarua where we planned to visit the Michel Tuffery exhibition of carved mother of pearl shells that are a memorial to the Kuki Airani soldiers of WW1.


The kind museum worker sees our problem immediately and provides water and paracetamol to get us to a point where I can take Jeanette on pillion back to the resort and come back for her scooter later. I do a quick recce of the exhibition while she recovers: the backlit carved shells with the faces of the soldiers are stunning, archetypes, demi-gods, each with their own special feature.


Many have a flower behind their ear and a lemon squeezer hat; some have shovels (for trenching and tunneling); others rifles with bayonets, gas masks and all the accoutrements of modern war. They look Homeric in their eternally fixed gazes, men who left a paradise of sorts to visit hells of slaughter, fighting for a King whose principal contribution to their lives was to conquer them first.


We manage to get ourselves back to base two-up so the patient can rest in the dark, managing the pain as best she knows, until later in the day, it lifts enough for us to continue. We visit the wonderful work at Pacific Weave where an artist from Penrhyn has opened up a new store. Amazing shell and fibre work that calls out for a home, the kind of skill and beauty you can take with you that is a level above the regulation tourist tat.




We end the day with a tuna feast at the legendary Tamarind House, navigating there and back two up on the wee Honda in the rain and the dark. This would have to be the best restaurant so far, with Oceans a close second. Chunks of yellowfin in curry for me, while Jeanette goes for a tuna steak, finished off with a shared coconut ice cream.


Writing about what one has eaten – unless you are a restaurant critic – is not ideal, it seems somehow unkind, as if inviting friends to a feast and refusing them food. Last night here finished off with a marathon dream which carried on in my head as it woke me. I was giving an off the cuff presentation about Tutakangahau and Elsdon Best. It almost felt like the two of them came into the room.


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Social bonds and the rentier economy: how neoliberalism keeps boiling the frog unto death.


Two happy servants of inequality: John Key and Bill English at the cutting edge.


Listening to Bill English today in his role as Minister Responsible for Housing New Zealand Corporation and Finance Minister extolling the virtues of “social bonds”, one could almost be forgiven for missing the euphemistic wiliness of these two warm fuzzy words, so nicely linked: social, yes, bonds, yes. What’s not to like? Anything that promotes the closer bonding of society has to be good, doesn’t it?

Well, as we all know, when English says something like this in relation to what was formerly the State Housing Corporation’s stock of homes for all New Zealanders, it means privatization by stealth. Or maybe, not so stealthy: English is quite open, if we listen in stating that the private sector, including philanthropists, will be invited to invest in government housing stock and projects with the promise of a return on that investment.

There’s a lot surplus capital out there looking for such opportunities, he tells us and what could better than these private-public partnerships where those who have already creamed off large surpluses from the common weal are looking to increase their share? Yes. That’s right: this is an attraction to the rich, to get richer. It is not designed to benefit the next generation of New Zealanders looking to buy a property and avoid a life of servitude, paying over half their shrunken incomes to landlords and property investors. This is National, once more, carrying on where Labour left off (no pun intended) where the Rogernomes of the 1980s started: selling the state to the highest bidder.

Do you sometimes get the feeling that we are living in an altered reality where the obvious is avoided and PR machines make history so malleable it hardly seems to matter anymore? The obvious, to me, being that this housing stock was paid for by preceding generations of taxpayers, who since 1935 set out with the then Labour government to banish the exact situation we see returning now: the poorest of the poor denied work, health and housing by a ruthless self-interested international financial system that had collapsed under its own weight and brought the world down with it.

I don’t want this rising generation to face the re-run of history currently being played out by the activities of rentier pirates, those buying housing stock from under the noses of the poorest paid members of society and then selling that space back to them for their own profit. This is exactly what is happening in South Auckland, as a recent post on a Radio Live Website points out: since 2001, the already low level of home ownership in this area (31%) has dropped into the low twenties and is declining. Strugglers working for peanuts are being forced by absentee landlords to pay up to 65% of their already sparse income just for rent.

Instead of undertaking a massive refit and building programme for state housing, using public funds, National under Key and English is preparing the “market” for more investors to take out a profit from human need – the need and the right to adequate forms of housing within their ability to pay. Germany does, the Scandinavian countries and many others in Europe manage this mental feat quite easily: a housed, healthy, educated and gainfully employed citizenry is far more likely to be stable, productive and integrated.

Instead, what do we have? Amongst the highest levels of inequality in the OECD, massive house price inflation, McJobs that can’t keep anyone on the income they provide and a health system that increasingly operates by bumping the needy off waiting lists. The idea that making housing attractive to another group of investors is the way ahead, is like pouring petrol on a fire that is already out of control.

As for the idea that philanthropists could get involved, hullo: Charles Dickens, anybody? The workhouse, charity, the poorhouse – all those evils, the medievalisms that the welfare state arose through blood and sweat to rid us of – wait in the wings of this kind of thinking. The American author Stephen King was roasted by the rich when he went public a few years ago, saying the rich like him should pay higher taxes. The Tea Party-ites were quick to savage him: “Hey, if you want to help the poor, write a cheque!”  “I’m rich, tax me!”

King was just as quick to point out that he didn’t live in a universe where individual donations ran complex modern societies: governments had a right and a duty to raise taxes for the public good.”What some of us want,” he ripostes, “is for you to acknowledge that you couldn’t have made it in America without America!” Pay your share, in other words, and enough of the tax havens and offshore trusts.

Back here, the last thing we need in this country is having the lowest paid workers dependent on philanthropic investment by the rich, in order to get into housing. As for Anne Tolley and the prospect of social bonds being applied to welfare agencies, that has to be the bottom of the barrel. Social policy over the past thirty years – privatisation, deregulation, monetization of every cultural activity – has created that same underpaid, overcharged  underclass who now, it is proposed, will have their ills cured by more of the same.

What we need in fact, is a Bernie Sanders type of figure, a leader from the left who is not afraid to speak the love that dare not say its name: socialism, the types of policies which put people before profit and regulate financial markets, tax dodging corporations, tax havens and all other the other shady instruments by which the top 1% screw the rest of us. Of course Key will leap up to the microphone and accuse whoever that might be of being “barking mad”. He has to, it is in his interests to promote the system I am attacking, as he is a part of it, one of its products and benefactors. One of us? Give me a break.

Me, I’m more than happy to live and work in a mixed economy where the government and private enterprise take a fair and democratic share of the load; but when I turn on the radio and hear Bill English declare that more of the same is coming down the line, I have to declare that I no longer recognize people like him or John Key as representing anything a sane mind could possibly believe in, or vote for.



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Viva Nicaragua! Viva la poesia!

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On the streets of Granada, Nicaragua, life pours out its riches.

For the space of one glorious week, 14-20 February 2016, I found myself with a bevy of poets at the centre of a cultural event unique I believe in this world: the Nicaraguan International Poetry Festival, the twelfth year this amazing celebration of poets and poetry has been running. For someone who comes from a country where poetry is a ghetto event at the public level, where even in the literary and arts festivals which are run by and for the elite of the country’s literati and their followers, poets for the most part play a support role in a minor key, this was like landing in heaven.

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Francisco Leal of Chile waits to read outside the Church of La Merced on the first night.

For me to feel, for once, that poetry mattered – that it could be public event energising a whole city, a community and a people – left me thinking that when it comes to being Third World in the Arts, in the democracy of letters, we in the West qualify on all points of the compass. Of course, there was an elite group running and sponsoring the event while on the fringes, real poverty was apparent in what the street vendors were hawking under our noses as we ate our breakfasts on the verandah of the Alhambra Hotel, facing out onto the Plaza de la Independencia.

Even so, the street parade on the second day – where a funeral was held to “bury negativity” – saw every inch of the route that stopped on all of the inner city’s street corners for poetry read from the back of a truck, packed with crowds of locals cheering and laughing as the black horse-drawn hearse  made its way along, pursued by the Devil, the Grim Reaper and his minions snatching at bystanders while school children hunted down every poeta they could find, for autographs.

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One of my helpers, the immaculately attired Eddy wants a photo with this poeta.

There are a number of reasons why this state of affairs exists in Nicaragua and in many other Central and South American countries: some I’m aware of and many I’m not. Certainly the bloody colonial histories of Spanish conquest, the troubled succession of multiple dictators and despots, the arrival of nineteenth and twentieth century American capitalism and its brutal support of these tyrants all helped to propel poetry into the public arena from the age of Ruben Dario and his modernismo, throwing off classical Spanish models, through the revolts of Sandino and later, his descendants the sandinistas who overthrew and repulsed the Somoza dictator dynasty through the 1970s and ’80s, even as the exiled tyrant with American support tried to turn the clock back in a vicious civil war that mired the Reagan presidency in the Iran-Contra scandal. Poets were the voice of the people and the resistance: they spoke from out of them and to them, in a manner of which we have virtually no knowledge in the West today.

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A boy runs past a table of poets reading in La Plaza de la Independencia, Granada.

Even when the local poets read, you could see and feel a difference: there was a passion and a power in the delivery of the Latino and Spanish-speaking writers that lit up their performance in a manner that would, I believe make many Western audiences uncomfortable. We have grown used to confessing and confiding, distrusting declarations and wincing at the presence of what seems rhetorical. I had had translations done on my three poems and sat back to listen to the reading; would they be seized upon and declared, or whispered ear-to-ear as I had grown used to speaking them?

I was granted a young woman, Kenya, a soft-spoken 20-something of tiny stature who looked like she was 13 years old, yet read with a quiet confidence and maturity that really suited what I’d given Marcel my translator to decode. Given less than 24 hours notice, he managed to produce versions of three poems in English, sight-unseen beforehand in the midst of a flurry of other calls upon his time. These young people were amazing: nothing seemed to be too much trouble as they waited upon us with respect and politeness. I salute their memory now, and always will.

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Kenya reading the Spanish translation of As Big As A Father.

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Marcel, my translator, reading one of his own.

Part of me knows I may never return to this amazing country; part of me is aware I only saw and experienced a fraction of its realities and its challenges. To have been welcomed here as a poet among poets, to have met and shared ideas with other writers from Italy to Australia, to have listened to Spanish I could not understand but to have felt its liquid gold pour down on my head like the anointing oil on Aaron’s beard, to have seen the living legend, a 91-year-old Ernesto Cardenal and heard him read, seeing him mobbed and kissed and revered, is to have known the word made flesh in such a way that I can’t quite ever be the same again: viva Nicaragua! Viva la poesia!

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Reading As Big As A Father in La Plaza de la Independencia.

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Hubris as Nemesis: is this John Key’s fall, beginning?




TPPA Protests, Auckland. Photo: Stuart Page Photography.

My good friend Patrick Evans remarked to me 18 months ago that he could not see John Key’s nemesis on the horizon, the one who would bring him down.

He noted how when Norman Kirk appeared for Labour in the early ’70s, a tired 3-term National was doomed; the same applied when Muldoon followed and did for Bill Rowling; David Lange for Muldoon in 1984; then Key for an out-of-touch Helen Clark in 2007.

None of the leftwing opponents of Key have been able to burst his bubble so far; yet perhaps he is right now doing that himself? The flag fiasco and the scornful TPPA signing in Auckland this week, along with his backdown on going to Te Tii Marae for Waitangi Day speak to me of a man who is finally misreading a wider national mood.

He doesn’t get that opponents of the TPPA are not his imaginary ‘rent-a-mob haters’, but thousands of ordinary New Zealanders who feel patronised and plain lied-to.

The anti-flag change camp (of which I am a member) has now linked the two: sovereignty and trade help to define identity more than does a branding exercise, because who we are is in some large part what we can do about it. If we lose power over our destiny, we give up the freedom to make our own kinds of community.

Helen Clark misread the meaning of the Foreshore and Seabed protests and wrote the hikoi off as spun by ‘haters and wreckers’. She preferred to greet a straggler sheep of media inanity. Hubris: the kind Key is now displaying.

The man who challenged Andrew Little to “get some guts” in relation to sending troops to Iraq can’t find enough in himself, to stand on his mana and that of the office and go to Waitangi. I sense his fall has now begun.


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When lightning strikes: David Bowie and mining identity.

Paparoa's Blog



In the tidal wave of emotion that has swept the world since David Bowie’s death was announced on Monday, I have found my myself in a curious position: saluting a great artist who I never really got know, or cared enough about. Certainly I knew of his music and songs in the 1970s when many of my young druggie friends would turn up at my place and play them, but they were a good 5-10 years younger than me. They had been struck in the heart by his lightning: my electric shock had happened a fews years before in the early-to-mid 1960s when I first heard Bob Dylan and those powerful bolts of energy –  where a 14-16 year old mind is transformed by such an encounter – had already surged through me.

I was born in November 1947, in London, Kingston-on-Thames, not terribly far away from Brixton where…

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When lightning strikes: David Bowie and mining identity.



In the tidal wave of emotion that has swept the world since David Bowie’s death was announced on Monday, I have found my myself in a curious position: saluting a great artist who I never really got know, or cared enough about. Certainly I knew of his music and songs in the 1970s when many of my young druggie friends would turn up at my place and play them, but they were a good 5-10 years younger than me. They had been struck in the heart by his lightning: my electric shock had happened a fews years before in the early-to-mid 1960s when I first heard Bob Dylan and those powerful bolts of energy –  where a 14-16 year old mind is transformed by such an encounter – had already surged through me.

I was born in November 1947, in London, Kingston-on-Thames, not terribly far away from Brixton where the ten month old David Robert Jones was about to endure his second English winter in the chill of a battered post-war England. In May 1950 when he was three years old, my mother and my brother and I stepped aboard an immigrant ship to New Zealand and my ways and Bowie’s were geographically set apart. Both of us were born into a lower middle-class-cum-working class suburbia and it would stand to reason that being peers in age, I might have had more in common with him than a descendant of European Jews brought up in a comfortable middle class America of the 1940s, way up in the mining town backblocks of the Mesabi Range in Minnesota.

Not that reason or sense has a lot to do with our choices and even less when it comes to others’ moves. Even though I heard Dylan first, it could be argued I should have had more in common with Bowie by birth and temperament and even my natal culture. My parents remained English, and I lived a working class life; I was something of an outsider who didn’t fit but desperately needed to belong. But I was not in London now, I was in New Zealand and that 1950s macho culture had done its work. I could handle Dylan: he had something of the frontier about him in those early records and even when he went urban electric, he held me in his thrall.


The truth is, I’d been struck by lightning almost ten years before Bowie hit me and for some people, in adolescence, that only happens once. Sure, there were the Beatles and the Stones, I loved Procol Harum, the Yardbirds and plenty more – but it was only Dylan that made me want to be something I wasn’t yet. He woke the urgent need to write, to write poetry – and it’s never gone away. He’d been shaped by the James Dean imagery of his day which was still around when I hit high school and later, in my callow sixth form cynicism. I’d found in this man a strong ancestor; even though I lost him as I went through various incarnations in search of a self I could be – failing to escape from the bully jocks of my childhood by doing the kinds of jobs they did, to fit in – I never lost his example, his following of a road his own.

Thinking about it now, in the 1970s when I first saw the album covers of records like Aladdine Sane and Diamond Dogs, it was too weird for me and the music never took hold; it was just there in the room while we got stoned. I don’t think my Kiwi conditioning machine from the ’50s would have allowed me out of its straight jacket back then and I don’t think I’m alone. Come the 1980s, I was deeply into a conservative evangelical Christian change and so Bowie – along with a whole lot of others – was off my radio. Dylan turned up Saved too, so he was an artist from my old life that kept getting through. A return to England in 1987 and ten years there, with six of them bookselling in central London gradually shifted the gravity of  my Kiwi identity into some kind of neutral. I became more open while retaining a working faith, pivoting more and more around my recovery from alcoholism.

Bowie Daily Mail

I guess I could say I ended up in London working with a lot of David Bowies: people on the edge, booksellers who wanted to be writers, actors, musicians, artists – anything in fact but bloody booksellers. For many of us, it was all we could find to get by; but I did get to meet a lot outsiders who affirmed the outsider in me, the leftover rebel who’d dropped out of high school and university (twice), the wanna-be-poet still held down by the great New Zealand clobbering machine of Depression and World War Two experiences that had shaped our elders. I saw great writers read and heard poets you would cross rivers to encounter: Derek Walcott and Joseph Brodsky, Ivan Klima and Jeanette Winterson. I stood before Salman Rushdie as he signed a book for my son; I made a cup of tea for Tony Benn. I had found my tribe at last.

I would write drafts of poems in a little cafe across the road from my Waterstone’s branch on 121-125 Charing Cross Road, while in another cafe on the other side, Dylan Horrocks would be drawing his Pickle comics. I had published nothing for nearly twenty years, but I was home. In 2012, writing finally took me to Berlin: Bowie’s Berlin, it would turn into for me, as I traveled on the S7 from Grunewald to the Goethe-Institut in Neue Schönhause Straße for my language lessons, with his new song, Where Are We Now haunting me in the headphones – “The moment you know, you know, you know…”. David Bowie had caught up with me and I with him; this wasn’t like the Dylan lightning strikes of 1965, more the rich melancholy of a grateful old age.

And now I know this, I can return to his huge catalogue and explore;  it is always too late, it is never too late, it is always now. I’m going to start with the German version of Heroes in the link below and see if I can find a new hero by the fallen Wall, where I have since 2012 in awe and honour stood.

“Dann sind wir Helden für deisen Tag/Then we are heroes for this day”


i.m David Bowie 1947-2016

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The Blue Outboard, by Nick Williamson. Review.

Blue Outboard

Those of us poetry readers and writers around Christchurch over the past twenty years will have come across Nick Williamson’s work in a variety of venues: readings, haiku competitions, anthologies and his previous lone entry into the single volume lists, The Whole Forest (Sudden Valley Press, 2001). That lovely and lonely work – published by the late godfather of the Canterbury poetry culture, John O’Connor who died last year – has now been joined by a second small press collection, The Blue Outboard (Black Doris Press), the imprint of another Southern poetry man, David Howard. I learned of its existence through a Facebook post and made sure of a copy soon after by visiting Nick and his partner, the poet and fiction writer, Frankie McMillan.

The cover – one of Nick’s magical childlike artworks – bespeaks what is contained within. He has always been good on the shadows and lights of childhood, captured earlier in the poetry of The Whole Forest, growing up in 1950s Auckland, looking out to Rangitoto. His ability to encapsulate a moment or a mood – his haiku training – as the child viewer (typically) ponders the tall, distant world of adults, gardeners and fishers, gives these poems a lasting presence and resonance. We have been somewhere like this and he takes us back there, with him.

My father’s eyes drift towards the window.

He stares at the buffalo hill and the macrocarpa

hedge, the shimmering line of bamboo.

Time to put in the silverbeet, he observes,

and the broad beans.

(Father comes home).

This is of course a 1950s’ baby-boom childhood world that Nick Williamson evokes, turning its edges over and over in poem after poem to see what the light reveals; yet it is also outside of a specific time in its truth to universal experience. Children are ethnographers in their own right as they make their own kind of sense of themselves in their parents’ world.

He isn’t limited to any one life stage, chronicling as well his adult journeys, relationships and obsessions. He knows that less is more and has a deft touch with voice and character: “He said he was on the Sickness./Nerves”. (Repairing the head). The head in view is that of a BSA Bantam motorbike, but as his friend does a running repair in curtained lounge, cutting head gaskets from Weetbix packs, we see without being told that the subject is really the friend’s condition and not the bike, his glasses held together with sellotape, his fingers “engraved in oil”. In the background a TV blares, there is talk of a ghost and how this guy “knew Norm Kirk”. You’re back in the drug-raddled 1970s with one of its wounded.

These are poems of deep humanity and often great beauty. Nick deserves a wider  audience and as a friend and a reader, I wish it for him. We both know there’s no money in poetry but we are working now as superannuitants on a wider project, what I think Osip Mandelstam called “the eyesight of wasps”.

Nick Williamson brings to life what he sees, what touches him and gives it back in his poetry in a form others can see and feel. It’s a book you should seek out, if you care for poetry and especially poetry made in the South, in cities and towns where poetry took root in this country.

Tonight Chagall is coming

to sing a Russian hymn

& charm the blackbird in our pear

tree with his yellow violin.

(Tonight Marc Chagall)

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