Gods and Little Fishes: A Boy and a Beach
Longacre Press, $39.99,
The Phoenix palms that line the main street of New Brighton, Bruce Ansley’s childhood home, have a sad air about them. They look grey and weather-beaten, he says, “like old men remembering their days in the sun; their skeletons knock in the wind.”
The author could well be one of those giant Phoenix palms he describes; Gods and Little Fishes is his unashamedly nostalgic memoir of brighter days. It’s a portrait of a New Zealand town that was once one of only two permitted to trade on Saturdays – and it’s a tribute to a childhood that shared that same sea air and good fortune.
There’s plenty for Ansley to get nostalgic about. Bottle drives, surf clubs, camping trips, school dances and uptight shops selling Summit shirts in cellophane packets: all are recalled, his rich and happy family and childhood relationships providing the framework. It’s dangerously sentimental territory, much more so than his previous account of a year spent on the canals of France (A Long Slow Affair of the Heart).
But Gods and Little Fishes works; there’s a journalist’s hard-headedness keeping soppiness at bay. Ansley’s experiences, even the most personal, become curiosities pulled down from the shelves of memory and re-examined with an older, wiser eye – often with great humour and, sometimes, sadness. When his mother is diagnosed with cancer, he notes her doctor is from the neighbouring community of South Brighton: “We’d played with his son as children, or fought with him. I couldn’t remember which but hoped for the best.”
In some cases, it’s outrage that cuts through the sentimentality. His chapter on the delights and destruction of New Brighton’s elegant Victorian pier in 1965 is a powerful essay on needless change: “I went to the beach one day and the pier had disappeared. Nothing marked its grave … It was just one of those simple acts of barbarism that went with the sixties, like local wine and railway pies.”
Ansley’s portrayal of the people of his childhood is unflinching. His flawed and remarkable parents, Hec and Jess, deserve the attention they are given; it’s Jess’s frequently used exclamation of horror at her children’s exploits (“ye gods and little fishes!”) that gives the book its title. The breakdown of Hec’s and Jess’s relationship is as shocking to the reader as it was to the large and noisy family they raised. And it’s not difficult to feel for Ansley when he visits the town’s new museum and finds no mention of his modest, community-minded parents: “All that work and effort had left no mark on the remembered history of New Brighton … . Both Jess and Hec were self-effacing. They hated skites.”
It doesn’t matter that chapters are untitled, events rarely dated. Ansley skips backwards and forwards in time and sometimes tense, intersecting episodes from the past with stories from the present, maintaining throughout a roughly chronological course. His childhood friends dart in and out of the narrative, reappearing later as disappointed and disappointing adults; the former grown-ups move on the fringes of the action, slowly and inevitably fading from view.
Where the writing loses impact (apart from the annoyingly frequent editing errors) is not where the sense of loss overwhelms; it’s where it occasionally becomes preachy. Ansley applauds, for example, the supportive community he experienced as a child. Then he can’t resist having a dig: “People now use money to stay aloof from the demands of community: cheque books instead of cake stalls, PlayStations rather than play … .”
And at times, it just gets too much. Some of the stories, like Hec’s much-loved lawnmower, are worked too hard, for too long.
Ultimately, Gods and Little Fishes succeeds because the reader can’t help but feel the same “stab of longing” Ansley does. We, too, miss wind-etched and bustling New Brighton. It’s a universal story – and we want to believe that was the way it was, even if the book’s rosy view is clearly not the only view possible. (“ ‘It wasn’t me!’ ” an indignant former schoolmate argues when he hears Ansley’s detailed account of a childhood fiasco in the boys’ toilet. “Perhaps it wasn’t,” the author admits.)
New Brighton is no longer Ansley’s home. But he lives nearby and likes to sit in the new library at the beach end of the town’s new pier. The town’s story goes on without him; something must happen to it, “because that’s the nature of things. Besides, it’s too beautiful to languish.” Those weather-beaten Phoenix palms will just have different tales to tell.
Helena Brow is a freelance writer and communications advisor, studying creative writing at Victoria University of Wellington.