Down the side roads of history, Alison Gray

Road Markings 
Michael Jackson
Rosa Mira Books, $US11.00 (digital),
ISBN 9780986469435


One of Buddha’s most satisfying teachings is the simplicity of mindfulness. “When walking, walk; when standing, stand; when sitting, sit; when lying down, lie down.” And, if he were teaching today, he might add, “When driving, drive”.

But this is not what Michael Jackson does in writing Road Markings. Instead he uses a 2008 road trip from Christchurch to Whangaparoa (and the flight home to the States) to explore the theme of “firstness” both in his own life and in the lives of people affected by social and historical events such as adoption, emigration, colonisation, war and illness or death. It’s a complex theme, and the first paragraph contains an approximate definition of the concept:

There are moments in life of which we later say, everything changed. Nothing was ever the same again. This is as true of our histories as of our lives … .This [eclipse] often brings us to rethink the meaning of first things, and to ask what hold our histories have over us and whether there is something about our first experiences in life that makes all that follows pale in comparison.

It is a grand undertaking, in which the trip becomes the stitching that has to hold very disparate pieces together. Sometimes the stitching provides a sturdy link; at others, it comes perilously close to fraying.

“Firstness” is a timely theme for Jackson personally – he is 72, and, as he says, “Who has not, at some stage, contemplated the possibility of piecing together the story of his or her life, summing it up, as we say, as if, despite its twists and turns, its braided course, its oxbows and ancillary streams, a life can be recounted as a story?”

This theme is also timely at the social level. It fits with the upsurge in people wanting to trace their origins in order to work out who they think they are. It is in tune with ongoing debates about Maori grievances and why, when so many claims have been settled, Maori are still over-represented in indicators of “underachievement”. And every day in the courts, lawyers and judges pontificate on the effects of an unhappy childhood or proffer the experience of trauma as an explanation for bad behaviour. But does the theme work?

Jackson’s journey begins with an intensely personal moment as he revisits the spot in the Waiau River where he and his daughter scattered the ashes of his first wife 26 years before. As he contemplates the landscape and the various strands of his life, he recalls the other rivers that flow into the Waiau – aptly named the Mason, the Doubtful and the Hope.

Heading north, he passes through Rangitata and Kaikoura, where he contemplates the lives of Samuel Butler and Henry Lawson, both of whom were uncomfortable in their new land. Lawson, in particular, became increasingly unhappy living among Maori in the small community of Maungamaunu because their behaviour didn’t match the social expectations he brought from Europe. He left for more congenial surroundings, “a wronged and broken man”. Jackson suggests that Lawson’s penchant for self-pity can be traced back as much to his unhappy childhood as to the cultural gulf. So what is the “firstness” in this case – the childhood or the social and cultural difference?

And in a family, how do siblings manage their different childhood experiences? When Jackson reaches his brother’s home in Nelson, he senses a rift between his own and his brother’s world views. Jackson has chosen intellectual and artistic pursuits while his brother has used the practical bent inherited from their father to support a life devoted to self-sufficiency and conservation. Their priorities are very different and Jackson concludes, somewhat sadly, that while “family is foundational, the bonds of siblingship and filiation are fraught and do not always last”.

There is also the question of how to distance oneself from the past without letting go entirely. Jackson recognises the tension between the desire to belong and the need to get away and explore the wider world. He meets his cousin who discovered her vocation when she left New Zealand, but now finds it difficult to return to the place she calls home, an echo of Jackson’s own situation. The importance of place resurfaces when he visits the sister of his old friend Roland Noonan. Noonan gave up a fellowship to Oxford to live in Greece, only to realise when the colonels took power that no matter how much at home he felt, he would never be Greek. He comes “home” and ends his days in a caravan on a beach at the base of the Coromandel Peninsula, a sad unfulfilled ending from Jackson’s perspective, but a good ending in the eyes of Noonan’s sister. So who is to say what our “firstness” is, whether we manage it well and what it means to make something of your life?

If individuals have to deal with “firstness”, so do families. Jackson uses the story of Joe Pawelka, a notorious criminal from the early 1900s who eventually escaped  from The Terrace jail in Wellington and was never heard of again, to remind us that we are not alone and what we do shapes the lives of others: “Pawelka’s story was as much the story of his family over several generations as his own, and as much that family’s shameful secret as part of the nation’s mythology.” The family was only able to move on once the last person who knew Joe had died.

As he passes through Wellington, the Wairarapa and Taranaki, where he was born, Jackson catches up with old friends, which leads him to reflect on the different ways people respond to such diverse experiences as war, forced resettlement, colonisation, family dysfunction and bullying. He journeys down the side roads of history and across the globe in search of answers.

One of his first hosts is Les Cleveland, who has been collecting returned soldiers’ stories for 63 years. Cleveland respects their down-to-earth, pragmatic response to trauma. He understands that for them, “to dwell on a tragedy is to risk drowning in it”.  Many, including Cleveland himself, have found solace in remoteness and open spaces, in the mountains and the bush.

Jackson is not sure he agrees with this retreat to the elemental “firstness”, the “prephenomenal ground of all being”. But maybe it does work for some people. Maybe, in some cases, landscape is a safer foundation than any human or social construct built upon it? Several visits and many detours later, Jackson concludes that it is not always morbid to return to the past. Instead it can be a way of repossessing our lives, “returning to our beginnings for a last loving look at a world that was once entirely ours”.

While that may work for Pakeha, for Maori such nostalgia brings nothing but pain. Like individuals, people from colonised cultures are endlessly searching for something they have lost but which is vital for their existence. In the case of the Maori in Taranaki, Jackson argues that “in spite of efforts to redress old injustices, we are deluded in believing that we can sink our differences and unite on equal terms – the status quo remains unaltered.” The old wounds are still raw; lives are not repossessed.

The strongest pieces in this book describe how individual people have handled the blows life has dealt them, but the concept of “firstness” remains elusive.  Some people, as Jackson puts it, reshuffle elements of the past to create a workable sense of self; some, like the wonderful Aunt Simone and Mlle Picard in Menton, struggle not to be overcome by what has happened; some, like Alan in the Coromandel, simply decide to leave the past behind and make a new start, while others, like Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, seem able to recover from loss without “acrimony, blame or the need for redemption”.

The challenge for the reader is that each character has a different kind of “firstness” to deal with and each deals with it in a different way, so there are always more questions than answers.

When Jackson climbed off the plane in San Francisco and the journey was over, I was almost relieved. My head was full of ideas, my notes had become increasingly repetitive and contradictory; the stitching was wearing thin, and I felt vaguely carsick. It is difficult to travel backwards and forwards in time, to dart about the globe and keep your eyes on the road all at the same time.

I felt that I had been to too many places in too a short time and listened to too many erudite conversations without enough motorway cruising to absorb them. And surely most of these ostensibly verbatim exchanges were contrived. I don’t believe that anyone, even academics, really talk to each other in such a stilted fashion over a glass of beer. And does anyone in New Zealand call a Norfolk pine an araucaria? I had to look it up.

So this is not a book for your average amateur genealogist or armchair philosopher, but it is full of good thinking and ideas about how people construct their lives. I eventually read it twice and was well rewarded both times. In between readings, I was grateful for Buddha’s mindfulness, for the opportunity to come back to the present, to plain language, an uncluttered mind and the chance to just be.


Alison Gray is a Wellington reviewer. 


Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in ebooks, Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
Search the archive
Search by category