Wednesday, 15 August 2012

He'll be the last to know

This is a picture of cultural history, and of course also its absence and disregarded status. Until a year or so ago this site on Dundas Street was where you could walk past Hone Tuwhare’s old cottage, a surprisingly wee building to have housed such a well-built and handsomely imposing man. The street’s changed, as rental property colonises the last of the family homes and cheaper houses, and something more profitable is bound to appear in this space soon. Still, it came as a shock, the last time I was home, to be forced into seeing an absence.

I saw Tuwhare read twice, once in a bravura performance he gave in my school library, closing with a reading of ‘Monologue’ rendered so brilliantly – and uncannily Glasgwegian – it's stuck with me ever since. (I like working near a door). The other time, a more chaotic and disruptive moment in the Public Library (Marx and Engels! What about the workers?) sticks for other reasons.

Still, there was once a house here, and a link with a living sense of cultural energy. It’ll be replaced, soon enough, with something profitable for a landlord.

He sensed a sea of receding
faces picked himself up
and promptly emptied his guts
on the footpath fervently calling
for his bleeding mate Christ
who was nowhere to be seen

Later wearing a stiff mask
of indifference
he pissed himself in the bus

The two places where I learnt properly to drink – by which I mean of course to drink properly, to drink improperly, to get caught up in all the waste and rudeness and embarrassment and selfish shame of alcohol and its delusions – don’t exist anymore either. I can’t pretend a nostalgia for either the Albert Arms or the Corner Bar of the Captain Cook, except perhaps in the memory of once meeting Tuwhare there, with Bill Dean in 1999, and hearing him recite Burns. What’s replaced them – a ghastly, globalized ‘Irishness’ where the Albert once was, and yet more barn space in an ever-more dystopian Cook – point at trends in the city more widely.

Much is made of the ‘student experience’ and the life of the Scarfie, and many of the same people who enjoy blether of that kind – some, indeed, professionally – are ready in other seasons to offer a whole variety of moralisms and lessons over riots, vomit, and anti-social behavior.

I never remember the sun in Northeast Valley

Exploring the attractions and damage of alcohol – which may well be a way of describing the same experience, or the same desire – Dunedin has produced two works of real literary genius, and both of them offer  lessons beyond the aesthetic.

Carl Shuker’s The Lazy Boys (2006) is one of the best novels of the 2000s. Written before, The Method Actors, his occult psychogeography of Tokyo, but published in the period after this ‘first’ novel’s success, it’s only in comparison to this companion that The Lazy Boys can seem underdeveloped or hesitant. I read it in one horrified sitting the Christmas of 2006, recognizing – with something close to jealousy or disgust, and an agitated excitement – that a whole realm our own social world had been drawn in to representation. Shuker’s characters are the flotsam of undergraduate life, the people whose ‘talent is being wasted’ and the whole array of pubs and liquor stores that open up as young people discover the serious routines and patterns proper drinking demands:

We are sitting, me and Matt, at the foot of the mossy concrete wall that encloses the Leith River. The river is just a trickle at this time of year. We’re drinking milk bottle beer and watching the river glittering blackly in the light from the streetlights on Dundas. Matt has puked already, felt sick and stuck his fingers down his thoart, and he’s telling me this thing bitterly, thinking for some reason that I’m angry at Nick.

I’ve read that, when it was published in the United States, The Lazy Boys was received as something like a frat-novel, a boys-gone-wild tale of wild times and exhuberance. Having grown up in Dunedin, the possibility of an assessment like this staggers me: Shuker’s produced a novel of our particular South Island miseries, alienations, hangovers, dislocations. There are parties aplenty, to be sure, but that seems hardly the point.

Parties, nowadays, lead to moralising talk about riots and anti-social behaviour. The generation before your own, unlike today’s graceless versions, was always the last to know how properly to enjoy themselves, as is the case everywhere else I suspect, but the couch-burning students I passed on my junk mail runs in the early 1990s (all of whom must now be in their 40s or near enough) don’t seem, in memory, all that different from today’s self-destructive youth.

I grew up close to the university, and have no affection for the misogyny, macho affectation and swagger that passes for student culture on Castle Street, but something about the sustained outrage aimed at rioters down the years sticks in my throat. Having marketed the Scarfie experience for years, there’s a stench of hypocrisy about in the rush to condemn its obscene supplement.

Those loudest in their condemnation of anti-social behaviour have, in their own ways, profited from it handsomely indeed. The rotting flats and cold, damp rooms of North Dunedin fund many a Wanaka holiday house, and – as non-debates over a Capital Gains Tax suggest – plenty of middle class households in Maori Hill and Roslyn rely on sub-standard properties to help fund their own children’s educations. Landlords are a noticeable absence in most talk when there's a search for problems, to say nothing of soutions. The pressurised world of consumerist alcoholic binges and litter-cluttered streets is part of a particular ‘community’ economy of exploitation and exchange, not its negation.

The Slipway, Dunedin’s other work of genius, takes this part of the social world as its target: GrahamBilling’s novel – a late modernist masterpiece scandalously neglected and underread – covers a few significant days in the life of Geoffrey Targett, heir to a nearly bankrupt shipping line, and regular at the Golden Age Hotel. Student drunks reveal themselves by having to stagger home, but plenty of well-off boozers can collapse on the kitchen floor at the end of an otherwise ‘elegant’ dinner party. Billing takes this world, and estranges it through a Leith Valley -  Port Chalmers – Taieri River axis. His mastery of free indirect discourse – and with it his ability to capture something of the anxious tightening the drinker needs to keep panic at bay – can only really be conveyed through a proper, long quote:

“I know the sort of things you people go in for, all that brass and chrome hardware. Anybody would think you could fool the fish. Well, you can’t. There’s nothing like the natural way.” McTaggart’s voice was already hoarse from such a speech and to Geoffrey it was no surprise. McTaggart had sucked lemon, honey, and blackcurrant throat pastilles as long as he could remember. He felt rather less shy. It was probably true that drinking was also an act of self-medication. One was being one’s own doctor. But if McTaggart ate a tin of medicated honey, lemon, and black-currant pastilles every day that really was an extreme case of self-medication and a whole lot worse than taking a few brandies for a cold or a few gins to settle one’s stomach.

Geoffrey took out his cheque book. Here was the acid test: the quality of the writing. There were distressing times when he would forget to write the last ‘t’ on the end of his signature, creating a serious dilemma. The bank might refuse to accept the cheque, yet he could not alter the signature because that would look even more like a forgery. It was not the kind of error in filling in a cheque form that one could initial. Paying by cheque was a kind of sport.

“Targett,” said McTaggart. “You must be Geoffrey. Was that the name, or was it George or Giles?” He was such an expansive man all of a sudden, leaning back at his counter with his thumbs – yes, his thumbs – actually stuck in his waistcoat pockets, his white hair standing on end, and his small eyes glistening like the currants in the painting on his tin of pastilles. He cleared his throat with an enormous noise. “I’ve got something for you.”

“Geoffrey,” said Geoffrey.

“Of course it is. Your father used to bring you in here when you wore short pants.”

McTaggart’s posture was avuncular, Geoffrey thought in a panic.

Free indirect discourse allows Billing the chance to position us side-on to Geoffrey, inhabiting his consciousness while at the same time never quite being sure which are his delusions. His refuge, a great comfort for drunks, is a intensely felt interior pomposity and victimhood:

Why was one always forced to establish relationships with mean people who went around complaining about life? They seemed to attack only because they wanted to be associated with people more important and less dignified than themselves. If they pleaded or said something pleasant their superiors would never give them a second look. One didn’t mean superiors exactly in the same class or social sense but in some intangible sense of competence, intellectual or managerial or social. There was a status bastion at which the little people flung themselves like a dwarfish army besieging a dragon in his mountain, turning their inadequacy to advantage by holding it out like a battering ram. At the same time they held up banners showing bleeding hearts to catch the sympathy of the spectators.

Jesus what a jerk

The university has in recent years developed a set of responses to try and prevent the Castle Street riots recurring – a ban on alcohol advertising and sponsorhsip at University functions, for instance – that seem hard to quarrel with. At the same time, though, all discussions of the city's social problems seem to swerve from the essential fact: the riots, much like their weekly echoes in the street fights, vomiting and shouting all the way from Bath Street to the Gardens, are symptoms, and symptoms of a social disorder no amount of regulation will resolve.

Next year it will be twenty year since Dunedin’s police riots, when officers attacked students protesting outside the Registry building against fee rises. That event sparked a furious round of student protest and activism in response, and contributed to the effervesent and exhuberant political culture which revived across New Zealand campuses in the early 1990s.

The contrast with Castle Street couldn’t be clearer, as atomised and disoriented drinkers threw themselves against a state force with little sense of their purpose or its consequences. The point of the comparison, though, isn’t to claim nostalgia for the past but to insist on this shift as evidence of the huge cultural cost involved in that struggle’s loss. As the International Socialists insisted at the time of these latest riots – to some obloquy and scorn – the riots were an expression of the ‘student culture’ Dunedin’s landlords, pub owners and businessmen had created, not its abberation.

They represent, in other words, a sign of the desperation and alienation produced by the very anti-social, individualist logic of an aggressive consumerist, user-pays neoliberalism, precisely what the victims of 1993’s police riot were fighting against. They’re a cost, in one sense, and, in another, part of the balance sheet.

A rush and a push and the land that we stand on is ours

That cost already has its own cultural tribute, one located, ironically enough, almost opposite the erasure of Tuwhare’s home. Tuwhare’s drunks are remembered in poems alongside Communists, protesters and artists, a social Dunedin of mass movements, dissident culture and oppositional, engaged political attitudes.

Strangeways, the flat at the centre of Shuker’s Lazy Boys, isn’t mythologised as with the house in Scarfies. It is, instead, the narrative centre of the representation of a kind of conformist excess, as storyworld and ‘real life’ details collide and clash:

As I’m doing this some of them start shouting ‘meat, meat, meat’ and it’s because Marc Ellis from Gardies has arrived. He’s smiling and someone passes him a jug and I notice all the girls on the couches are looking over at him.

I pick up the half-full jug from the bar and drink a lot of it. All of them are standing side by side and they’ve all got their arms folded or their hands on their hips and they’re all mostly really big. One of them has RUNT written on his forehead. I’m leaning back on the long white counter and trying to look casual but it’s covered in beer and empty bottles and the water soaks through the back of my shirt quickly so I stand up again, take bigger and bigger drinks from my jug. A Maori guy come out a door into the kitchen and inside there’s the mirror of a bathroom and he’s got long hair and he’s wearing an Otago rugby jersey with a huge collar and when he turns around to shut the door BLACK BASTARD in big white letters is written on his back above the number 14. Over by the window is one of the girls from the taxi, the one in the pink Holiday Tee sweatshirt and tan moleskins, and she’s talking to a dark-haired girl who looks like she’s maybe sixteen and she’s wearing dark blue moleskins and a beige sweatshirt with Country Road written on it in pitch letters and they’re sharing a cigarette and laughing about something they know together.

That’s cultural history, too, and heritage, however much we might want to disavow its familiarity.



Standing in the same old place
He thought ‘I know that silly face.’
And there beneath the spirits shelf
The mirror showed his silly self.

He saw himself with some surprise
A sorry sod with headlamp eyes
AFORE YE GO the slogan read,
But he stayed on and stared ahead.

‘I cannot stand this blasted place,
I cannot stand my blasted face.’

The public bar was through the hall:
It had no mirrors on the wall.


The line ‘I never remember the sun, in Northeast Valley’ is from Janet Frame’s ‘Dunedin Poem,’ in her The Pocket Mirror. Carl Shuker’s The Lazy Boys (Penguin), pp. 97, 214. There are lots of copies of The Slipway (London: Quartet, 1974) in second hand bookshops around the country; I’ve quoted from pp. 47, 74. The final poem is Denis Glover’s, from his Since Then (1957). Hovering behind all this is Conrad Bollinger’s Grog’s Own Country (1959); he taught in the English Department at VUW before his untimely death, and seems more and more a source of inspiration.