Letter from Auckland, Iain Sharp

For dedicated literati, there’s no better place in Auckland to gulp down a cappuccino or hot chocolate than the Kerouac Deli in Vulcan Lane. It’s just a stone’s throw from Unity Books and the Queen’s Ferry, which are respectively the hub and the pub of Auckland’s literary gossip. Yet, as you sit and sip and ponder such literary arcana as the likelihood of Fay Richwhite’s taking over the GFW (Gone For a Walk) award and the identity of Michael Gifkins’ hairdresser, you can’t actually be seen by the throng of idlers and tattlers round Unity’s display table or by the 60s survivors and 50s philanderers who still board the Ferry. In a fractious world, invisibility is often a blessing. More pleasing still, if any of your literary foes come swaggering up or down the lane, you can spy them first from one of Kerouac’s outside tables and be gone before they can collar you.

Other Auckland coffee houses have bookish names. A small establishment called Ferlinghetti’s has recently opened in Lorne St, and soon, no doubt, we’ll also have Burroughs’ Naked Lunchbar. What makes Kerouac’s unique, however, is the little shrine to its eponymous hero on a shelf by the door. A sullen portrait of Jack sits in a fancy marbled frame next to some wine bottles and a new paperback edition of On the Road.

Intriguingly, there’s also a copy of Octavio’s Last Invention, a book whose worth has been much disputed in recent months by its author, Michael Morrissey, and ‘Metro’s’ reviewer, Michael King. I was frankly bewildered by Octavio’s presence in my favourite quaffing place until friends explained to me that the volume contains a whimsical piece about Kerouac’s hitching from Putaruru to Baxter’s grave in Jerusalem.

I wish I were less bashful in matters of self-promotion. I would like to add a few copies of Rambling Jack, the magazine published by Greg O’Brien in the mid-80s, to Kerouac’s shelf. The problem is, Rambling Jack had a rotating editorship, like the current Auckland magazine Printout, and 1 was responsible for the second issue. This is the most pertinent number, because it includes an imaginary conversation with Kerouac and Ludwig Wittgenstein written by C K Stead. Of course, in the leaps from unkempt bohemian rhapsody to quibbling professorial precision, Karl was really commenting on the contrary pulls within himself.

It’s about time, by the way, that Aucklanders named a few coffee bars after local writers instead of foreign beatniks. Stead’s, for instance, could be an uncompromising, rather quarrelsome joint, with the menus scrawled, perhaps, on the backs of cancelled copies of the Treaty of Waitangi. We could also have Hemi’s (for poseurs with martyr complexes), Darcy’s (for ambitious little poetasters) and Rex’s (for cheeky chappies, homophobes and misogynists).

In the meantime, we can be proud, I suppose, that there’s an Auckland tavern called the Shakespeare, where patrons can knock back an in-house brew named Macbeth’s red ale (‘bloody, bold and resolute’) and ingest tasty items known as ‘Shakespeare dogs’ – sausages in rolls with cheese, onions and mustard. Every Monday night, there are poetry readings in the ‘bard lounge’, which sports a big, hopeless mural of Will, the swan of Avon, and his drinking mates, who seem to include King Lear as well as Ben Jonson. Fortunately, there’s a more interesting fresco on the back wall, by the fireplace, which shows the fermentation process all the way from the malt hopper to the beer taps.

It’s very civil of the management to provide an open fire in winter, but not nearly enough Auckland writers have availed themselves of the opportunity to burn their manuscripts. Instead, bards of varying calibre arrive on Mondays clutching clipboards, folders and school exercise books full of reveries and laments about their lovers, mothers, pets, gardens and so on. There’s not enough seats, so they all wander about like a 70s party.

Amazingly, apart from the summer holidays, there has been a poetry reading somewhere in Auckland every week for the last twelve years. Un-literary revellers who come to, the Shakespeare for the happy hour between five and seven pm are sometimes too pissed to escape before the poets appear at eight. Naturally, they protest against their cruel fate. Otherwise the audience is eerily, even absurdly, attentive.

The last time I was trapped in the Shakespeare after the happy hour, I spied a poster advertising Accident, which was described as an ‘alternative anthology’, a term I usually equate with ‘reject barrel’. It was a wonderful poster, however, featuring a train crash which satirised Bruce Foster’s perplexing photograph of a railway carriage on the cover of the Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse. An overly ambitious attempt at unravelling the perplexities of that photograph earned me the first of my now frequent appearances in Metro‘s Pseuds Corner.

Accident is a fine name for an anthology too. Not long ago, Fergus Barrowman commented on a pseudish article about New Zealand literary journals, which I’d contributed to (of all things!) an Indian literary journal. Brushing aside my zealous little theories, Barrowman explained to me that really the contents of the literary magazines are determined by the editors’ sloth or energy at any given time. Accidental, in other words. I suspect Fergus is right.

If you’re a young reject, it’s probably heartening to appear in an alternative anthology, but I can think of better venues to make you literary mark. The New World supermarket in Devonport is one that springs immediately to mind. Within a few streets of one another in this seaside suburb live Graham Adams (author of the Listener‘s Bookmarks column), Geoff Chapple (author of the Sunday Star‘s Lit Synch column), Kevin Ireland (bon vivant and former president of PEN), Michele Leggott (poetry editor of Landfall) and Warwick Roger (prickly editor of Metro). These people must buy groceries like everyone else. Why not follow one or more of them into the supermarket, take off your clothes, tie a zucchini to your head and bellow your latest epic poem or novel at the top of your lungs? With a bit of luck, you’ll become a legend overnight.

Literary Auckland is really very small. Activity is confined to the central city area, Parnell, Ponsonby, Grey Lynn, Mount Eden, the lower slopes of the Waitakere Ranges and a few bays on the North Shore. Elsewhere barbarity thrives, and you’ll find nothing in the shops but 500-page blockbusters about lubricious oozings in jacuzzis or disembowelments by bogeymen in backwater Maine. North of Castor Bay, you can travel all the way to Siberia without encountering anything literary, unless you bump into Fiona Kidman on a nostalgic tour of her childhood haunts. In the other direction, the Hard to Find bookshop is the southern limit of literacy in the Auckland province. After that, it’s just bovine wasteland until you reach Waikato University, where the scribblings of the Sassenachs and their slimy former colonies have been jettisoned in favour of a heather-hugging, haggis-heaving Scottish Department.

The fact that you can slip so easily into the barbarous zones after delivering your flinty verdicts should encourage readers towards greater stringency. In the suburbs and surrounding countryside there are hundreds of pubs, coffee bars and pool rooms where you can hole up for a few months with very little fear of confronting a querulous John Cranna, molten Michael Morrissey or tearful Witi Ihimaera. Then, when it’s all blown over or been replaced by a fresh outrage, you can come sneaking back to Kerouac’s.


Iain Sharp is an Auckland journalist.


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