If it’s claggy, it must be Wellington, Kim Griggs

Auckland: The city in literature
ed Witi Ihimaera
Exisle Publishing, $34.95,
ISBN 0908988362

Dunedin: The city in literature 
ed Christine Johnston
Exisle Publishing, $34.95,
ISBN 0908988451

Christchurch: The city in literature
ed Anna Rogers
Exisle Publishing, $34.95,
ISBN 0908988427

Wellington: The city in literature 
ed Kate Camp
Exisle Publishing, $34.95,
ISBN 0908988397

During a decade or so of fleeting visits home, it didn’t really matter which of New Zealand’s international airports the plane lumbered into; I’d draw brief succour from the verdant countryside, the pellucid sky and the enthusiastic embrace of the Kiwi accent. But cursory visits are not enough to feel truly at home: the subtleties of New Zealand are only proffered to those who live here.

In this city in literature series four writers – Witi Ihimaera, Kate Camp, Anna Rogers, and Christine Johnston – share their cities: Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Each of the volumes presents a selection of the literature, the short stories, poems, snippets of novels and memoirs, that each city has inspired.

Witi Ihimaera provides a salmagundi of 40 Aucklands, blending odes and epithets to the city’s landscape with a sprinkling of suburban icons. The evenings of one or two of my childhood summers are echoed in Bruce Mason’s sunset:

There we sit in the summer, while the day ends in gold explosions on the horizon and the lower borders of the sky are suddenly drenched in pink, as though a full brush had been slapped round the rim.

 

And the sun that blears northern hemisphere eyes is there too in Charlotte Grimshaw’s “View across the harbour”: “the light is too bright, all are squinting and peering and shading their eyes against the white glare and the fierce wind and in the high, high sky not a cloud can be seen.” Steve Braunias writes lovingly of the tiny miracle that is Waiheke Island on an autumn visit: “It was summer’s last shout – the kind of evening you never expect to grow old.”

But Auckland’s unremitting suburban sprawl was already weighing when James K Baxter wrote in his “Ode to Auckland”:  

You still look to me like an elephant’s arsehole
Surrounded with blue-black haemorrhoids.

 

William, the character whom Stephanie Johnson includes in the piece entitled “Going Home”, also decries its supposed beauty: “The place was just a swamp, with a series of volcanic mounds rising on the horizon. There was never a more ridiculous place to build a city.”

Nowadays only Auckland really makes its mark in the wider world as a global city, resplendent with an obese amount of shopping, sleaze and suburbia. Ihimaera’s selection reflects that: he’s included Paula Morris’ view of Karangahape Road and tale of shopping at St Luke’s, and Charlotte Grimshaw’s night out on the razzle at the Balcony. John Pule introduces “The biggest Polynesian city in the world”, and Ihimaera’s own “Jogging the Viaduct Basin” salutes “a new gay tribe” of Maori and Polynesians. Even Ponsonby style is included when Minnie Cooper shoes merit a mention in Anna Jackson’s “Coffee and Cheese with Gudrun and Ursula”.

By the end of taking in Ihimaera’s vista of the various Aucklands, I felt that New Zealand’s most populous city was, to borrow a phrase from Glenn Colquhoun, “the luckiest mongrel I know”. Just one reservation: why are all the Asians here clumped together, usually as tourists taking photos on the top of Mount Eden? Auckland stories definitely need to take a more nuanced approach to that community.

The choice of John A Lee to open the Dunedin selection stamps the city as a serious sort of place. And it has the literary heritage to back that up: Landfall’s founding editor Charles Brasch is one star, and there are contributions too from James K Baxter, Janet Frame and Alistair Te Ariki Campbell. Johnston also includes items with such quintessential Dunedin elements such as Carisbrook, scarfies, albatrosses and bagpipes. And, of course, the cold. A P Gaskell’s character in “The Big Game” can barely manage to untie the laces on his rugby boots: “My hands were too cold to grip them properly.” The widow in Janet Frame’s “The Bath” must make elaborate preparations in order to be able to get in and out of the tub with ease, including warming her night clothes inside her oven. Even Baxter, who liked the place, deems it a town “cold as a Shacklock range”. Remind me to visit only in summer.

Anna Rogers’ selection for Christchurch makes for a very satisfying journey. She adroitly meshes together the city’s history with its landscape and environs. Sarah Amelia Courage lays bare her colonial start to Christchurch life. Her room in the Imperial Hotel was infested with “rats as big as rabbits, if one might judge by the weight of them as they bounded over our bodies in bed.” Stevan Eldred-Grigg pokes fun at the city’s pilgrims and its Anglican origins, and A K Grant is merciless about Christchurch’s civic pride: for not weeding his garden, his errant Adolf Knievel Grobschart is sentenced to 5000 hours of community work “to be performed by mowing the lawns in the Botanic Gardens with a handmower at week-ends, and by weeding Fiordland on week days.”

Denis Glover didn’t think much of the settlers’ choice of site, claiming that “with unerring instinct they picked on the most miasmal part of the Canterbury Plains, bog, fog, and mud.” Ngaio Marsh, however, adored arriving via the Port Hills:

There, as abruptly as if one had looked over a wall, are the Plains, spread out beyond the limit of vision, laced with early mist, and a great river, bounded on the east by the Pacific, on the west by mere distance, and from east to west by a lordly sequence of mountains, rose-coloured where they receive the rising sun.

 

Rogers’ selection also visits outlying Lyttleton and Akaroa and samples life in the big old student houses before returning at the end to the city where, according to Arnold Wall:

Each of her streets is closed with shining  Alps,
Like Heaven at the end of long plain lives.

 

Readers will no doubt be most pernickety about the material chosen to represent their own city. That is the case with me. Why, I ask myself, has Kate Camp winnowed her Wellington selection down to just 13 pieces?

Those who have passed through Wellington as students usually have a horror story to tell of living in one of the city’s dank hollows – mine was a truly awful house in Devon Street. So, reliving that mouldy existence depicted in Samara McDowell’s “Holloway Road” was perhaps too graphic a reminder. This Wellington feels so claggy and dour. Not even William Brandt’s search for “all day sun” in a slice of real estate from his short story collection Alpha Male managed to leaven that gloom.

In a different vein, Camp does allow the reader to meander through the finely drawn streets of Kelburn with Brent Rosser, as he eyes up houses to burgle in the opening sequence of Maurice Gee’s Crime Story. And, of course, we get to attend the garden party with Wellington’s literary grandee Katherine Mansfield

A surprising, but utterly charming, entry is that by the professional entertainer Carmen, who used to run the International Coffee Lounge (“an institution that Wellington will never forget”). Her soft, formal writing belies the more informal activities – down the side alley and up the stairs – of the “homosexuals, heterosexuals, lesbians, bi-sexuals, paedophiles, masochists, sadists, transsexuals, transvestites, crossdressers” whom Carmen gathered round her. And she gives us the taste of politics lacking in the other Wellington offerings. On three occasions, Carmen writes proudly, she served coffee to then Prime Minister Norman Kirk: “It was a great honour to have had that man grace my place.” Really, that’s probably all the mention of political life this book needed.

But, for me, this selection lacks the days of “almost painful gorgeousness and clarity” that the introduction promises, days when Wellingtonians scrabble up Mt Kaukau or stand fast into the northerly at Makara, the sort of day Vincent O’Sullivan describes:

     a day when you don’t expect it,
sheer glitter ringing about
as if all the cutlery drawers of Kelburn
had been tipped out.

 

Compact hard-backs, these volumes are the perfect gift to slip into the luggage of friends heading overseas. They may be seeking more glittering lives abroad but these books will help them recall just how rich and varied our own homes can be.

 

Kim Griggs is a Wellington writer.

 

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