Posts for November, 2009


On paper, Brian Unwin and I were unlikely friends. I was 28, an introvert and a barely regenerated left-wing intellectual, the sort of tight-arse who felt betrayed by Bob Dylan’s shift to the electric guitar. Brian was twelve years older, an extraverted pommie immigrant who had served in the British Army in Korea, was an active member of the New Lynn RSA and whose favourite singer was Matt Monroe. He was short – well, shorter than me, anyway – with a round head, thinning dark hair and black-rimmed, rectangular glasses, bright eyes that looked at you and an infectious grin. Brian’s great redeeming feature from my perspective was his exuberance, a zest for life that bordered on the anarchic. It was impossible not to like the man.

Two stories sum up Brian to my mind. The first shows his instinct for survival. Apart from his time in the army, he had, I think, always been a salesman, often working free lance on commission. Inevitably there were times when he was out of work and hard up. On one such occasion he was at a loose end in Ponsonby Road, Auckland, when he happened into a junk shop. Up on a shelf behind the counter was a stack of metal boxes, each of which contained a first aid kit. Brian asked to look one of them over and enquired about the price.

‘Two and six’ (or somesuch) the shopkeeper told him.

Brian handed over the money, picked up the kit and walked out, straight into the shop next door.

‘I’ve got this line in first aid kits,’ he said to the person behind the counter and proceeded to point out the many fine features of his recent purchase.

‘How much?’ the shopkeeper asked.

‘Ten shillings.’

‘Right, you’re on.’

The shopkeeper handed over the money. Brian went straight back to the first shop and bought the rest of the kits. He then  continued on down Ponsonby Road offering them for sale. By the time he had got to Three Lamps, he had sold the lot.

The second story concerns a decision to save some money by buying a couple of chickens and fattening them up for Christmas Dinner. The scheme panned out according to plan until the time came to slaughter and pluck the birds.  Neither Brian’ wife, Adrienne, nor his kids were inclined to volunteer for the task. After two or three whiskies, Brian felt suitably primed. He went outside and called the chooks. They came obediently enough, no doubt anticipating food. Brian grabbed them both by the head, one in each hand, and swung them round in the air like a gunslinger drawing his Colts. Next thing he knew, he was standing there with a head in each hand while the rest of the birds ran off into the dark. They turned up next morning under a hedge at the back of the section, inedible by that stage.

It’s not just the story I remember but the relish with which Brian told it. He had an enviable ability to laugh at himself, a detachment and a self-irony that usually comes with the wisdom of age. In his case, it seemed to arise from a disarming innocence. I can still recall the self-deprecating shake of his head as he came to the end of some embarrassing confession and his voice, with its Yorkshire vowels, saying ‘Oh, dear! Oh, dear!’ He taught me a lot, although I envy his self-acceptance even now.

A fine day tomorrow. Yeah, right.

Pencil Sharpener

I had coffee with my friend Norman Bilbrough not so long ago. We were complaining, as we tend to do, about the state of writing and literature in this country. I told him I felt fed up with the whole business and that I had lost interest in writing for the moment. Instead, I’d started drawing again, something I do from time to time, usually at change points in my life. Norman was keen to know more. He is something of an artist himself.

‘What are you drawing?’ he asked me.

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Whatever’s there. Everyday objects. My pencil sharpener, for example.’

He roared with laughter.

I was a little put out by this hilarity. My talk about the drawing was a small but not insignificant confidence.

‘What’s wrong with that?’ I asked.

‘The Great Writer draws his Pencil Sharpener,’ he said. I saw the irony.

We went on to talk about drawing. He had been doing some too: flowers, in his case. I explained that, for me, the importance lay as much in the process as the product – the headspace that looking took me into was so different from the world of words.

‘Yes,’ Norman agreed. ‘It is a bit like meditating.’

He is right. There are strong similarities but also differences. Meditating and drawing both lead, I think, to a disengagement from the chatter of the every-day mind. In the case of meditating, though, this comes with a detachment from the senses. Drawing involves an alignment of mind and object through the sense of sight. It is as if the self becomes lost in the looking.

SharpenerSometimes, when I am in this space, I lose all awareness of meanings. An advertising hoarding, which might annoy me in the ordinary way because of its silliness or the insistence of its message, can become a satisfying arrangement of shapes and colours.

In his book Problems of Philosophy, first published in 1910 and still one of the best introductions to the modern British and American tradition in the subject, Bertrand Russell uses the example of the artist to highlight the distinction between appearance and reality. Ordinarily we ‘see’ a table as a rectangle but it does not, in fact, present itself to us that way. The shape it appears to have depends on our point of view. The fact that we can never escape a particular point of view and can only ever see the world through such appearances leads Russell to ask whether we can ever know what the world is really like. This question has nourished philosophical argument since the time of Socrates and even now still has a drop or two of juice left in it.

The paradox of drawing is that in order to produce a picture that looks real, you have to forget about how the object is and focus on how it actually appears. This requires a new relationship with the whatever it is you are focussing on, the pencil sharpener say, a relationship in which the function of the object disappears and it becomes an experience without meaning, something purely visual. In order for this to happen, the person doing the drawing must cease to be an interpreter of the world and become instead something which looks and nothing more.



Look, this is what you do.
 You make sense.

Look, you look, 
 you make sense.

This is what you do.
 You look.  

Look, you make sense.
 You do.
 You do make sense.

Look, you do look.
 Don’t you look?
 Don’t you make sense?

Look, you make sense.
 This is what you do.

This is what you do.
 You make sense.

This is what you do.
 You make

This is what you do.
 make sense.


Who’s to blame?

I first met Bob Ross at the Commercial Travellers’ Club in Remuera in the latter half of 1970. We were introduced by Brian Unwin, one of the more memorable characters in my life. Brian and I were working for Holt, Rinhehart and Winston, the U.S. educational publisher. He was the schools rep. I had the more senior job of manager and tertiary rep. This was a curious arrangement, given that I was twelve years younger than he was and vastly less experienced in the book trade.

When I had applied to join the company in April, both jobs were open. I fancied myself for the tertiary position because it involved travelling round universities. Instead, I was offered the schools job, which I accepted although I knew, at least subconsciously, that I wouldn’t stick it for long. The more senior role went to a man called Charles Strange. I barely got to know Charles because within weeks he had resigned. I never understood why exactly although I did hear later that he had decided that he could not take on all the travelling because he needed to keep an eye on his wife. What she was up to, I don’t know. Suddenly, though, I was promoted to the job I’d wanted all along. I was earning the huge sum of $5,000 a year and was my own boss, running a business with a turnover of close to a million dollars a year – all at the ripe old age of 28.

This was my first job in the book trade. Up until that point, for the previous 18 months, I had been a disgruntled primary school teacher, frustrated, underpaid and, towards the end of the period, depressed. The job at Holt had been suggested by Phil Thwaites from the University Book Shop. A year or so earlier, Phil had come up from Dunedin with Michael Noonan to start up UBS on the successful Otago model and I knew him because Anne, my wife, was an old school mate of Michael’s wife, Rosslyn, now our Human Rights Commissioner but then a student activist.

I can trace the chain back even earlier, though – to May 1963, for example, to a gathering called the Little Congress, organised by students at Auckland University. This was an intellectual and political talk fest built on the model of the annual, national Congress held at Curious Cove in the Marlborough Sounds – a precursor to the political activism that bloomed in such a spectacular fashion in the later 60s. It was here, one evening, that I met a first-year called Anne Matthews. I was drinking brandy and ginger ale for some reason and spouting about Camus and possibly McGonagall. Whether or not I made sense, I have no idea, but I must have done enough for an impressionable young fresher because Anne and I started going out together. Two years later we were married.

Why Camus and McGonagall? The connection, curiously, comes through SCM – the Student Christian Movement.

I come from a god-fearing family and when I was in my teens most of my socialising centred round the local church and its bible class. This led me, during my last years at school and my first at university, to SCM, where I met a couple of my oldest friends, John Crawford and Malcolm Fraser. We shared a certain intellectualism – call it pretension, if you like – coupled with a sense of the absurd. One of our creations was the Friends of McGongall, a literary appreciation society dedicated to the great poet and tragedian, which drew around thirty adherents including several budding academics and one future member of the Fijian cabinet.

Malcolm’s girl-friend, Frances Mullinder, had been a pupil at Epsom Girls Grammar School where she was best mates with Vanya Lowry, daughter of printer and typographer, Bob Lowry. Through Vanya I was introduced to the Lowry’s circle, my first experience of a literary and intellectual milieu, where people the age of my mother cared about books and ideas. Vanya’s sister Judy was engaged to an architecture student called David Mitchell and it was at the Lowry’s dining table one day that Dave started talking about Albert Camus. I don’t remember what he said but his enthusiasm lit a spark in me. I became fascinated by Camus’s brand of existentialism, an interest I have never quite shaken off in the many years since.

This causal chain, with one or two significant side-loops, pretty much defines my life between the ages of 18 and 30. I went from a nerdish Christian student to an atheistic publisher’s rep with literary ambitions, a taste for horse racing and alcohol and a couple of mates who thoroughly encouraged at least two of these vices.

The past is a web of circumstances through which we trace our stories, looking perhaps for reasons where there aren’t any. If I had to say what was responsible for Bob Ross and I getting together, I could nominate many causes from God to Camus or McGongall or whatever it was that Charles Strange’s wife was up to. When I was younger I sometimes felt a sense of destiny, as if my life had an inevitable shape that I wasn’t fully conscious of. I think now that one of the great pleasures of life is that it doesn’t really make any sense at all.

Rain. Welcome after the parching wind of the last few days


There were two bars at the Big I. One was an old style beer barn; about 300 sq metres of strictly functional space – the function being to dispense and consume alcohol as efficiently and profitably as possible. I remember it as a huge brown room. The floor to ceiling windows along the northern wall might have given a view of Auckland harbour if they hadn’t been fugged over with condensation and tobacco smoke. Next door, in contrast, was the Sportsman’s Bar: small and stylish with racing prints on the walls, brass fittings and faux Victorian panelling. By some system of allocation, which I don’t now recall, we used to alternate between these two venues.

It was in the Sportsman’s Bar one evening that Bob Ross and I began to develop the theory that our potential was limited only by the paucity of our imaginations and our failure to stay focussed. Given enough determination and concentration we could become anyone and do anything we wanted. Such ideas are commonplace now. Every sports shoe ad and New Age guru beguiles us with the promise of limitless achievement. Back then we felt suitably extravagant. I like to imagine we were often ahead of our time.

I think it was Bob who decided we should become pop-stars. I have a vague recollection that the name of the group was to be the Contrapuntals, which doesn’t sound all that promising. We expanded on the theme. Maybe we sang a song or two. After a while, though, the thought of a musical career began to pall. Pop-stardom was too easy. I needed something with a bit more challenge.

‘I think I’ll become a jockey,’ I said, a challenge indeed, given I am over 1.85m and was even then around 90kg.

Bob laughed.

Suddenly, though, I was aware of a man’s voice behind me.

‘Oh, not a jockey,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you.’

I turned and found myself looking down at an agitated little bloke, not much more than half my size, who began to explain to me what a terrible life jockeys led: the constant struggle to keep the weight down, the sheer physical toll that riding took on the body – all this with a spluttering energy as if he was desperate to steer me away from the worst mistake of my life.

‘I was a jockey for seven years,’ he concluded. ‘It’s not worth the candle, mate, believe you me.’

I could only nod and stare at him in disbelief. ‘Right, yes, good,’ I said. ‘Thanks for that.’

I swear he was in deadly earnest. Bob thought so too. And yet, how could he have been? Forty years on, I still think about him now and again and wonder if I was the butt of a beautifully calibrated joke or witness to a moment of surreal misperception.

North westerly gales. Plans for a magnolia tree.