Civilisation: Twenty Places on the Edge of the World
Awa Press, $36.00,
Steve Braunias is one of our very best writers. How does he do it, wonders the reviewer, as within a sentence Braunias moves from acerbic to moving, from straightforward descriptive to outright literary. This is a man who wanders off around our country and meets people. There’s something about Braunias that means people open up to him. He’s a cheerful fellow, engaging and ostensibly unthreatening. He’s also someone with whom at least half of the literary world has had some sort of energetic, sometimes painful, spat. But the inhabitants of small towns in all probability don’t know this when the friendly rooster ambles up to them on the beach, in the pub, at the petrol station or in their front yard.
A review shouldn’t be about the writer of the book but the book itself, but in this case, there’s no getting away from the man. There aren’t that many people around who would do as he did: to look at a map of New Zealand and say, “There”. “There” was never Mt Eden or Mt Victoria, Grey Lynn or Kelburn. It was places that leapt off the map because they were in the middle of nowhere. Waiouru, Winton, Wainuiomata; Mosgiel and Miranda. And although places in themselves speak to Braunias and he’s at his most poetic when describing their ordinariness, it’s people he’s best at.
He is absolutely terrific at talking to someone and capturing their essence. His genius is to then get it down on paper. Again you get the ambivalence which is somehow at this writer’s core. He takes no prisoners, but essentially he’s kind. His courage is extraordinary. While many writers would falter at the last, knowing as we all do how small this country is, he sticks to his guns.
This is not a guide for tourists, all rosy-coloured stories with a barely suppressed chuckle just off the page. This is not a celebration of a folksy country, still endearingly back in the 1950s. This is the truth, and truth isn’t always kind. But truth is wonderfully seductive and kept this reader glued to the page. This is one of those books that as you read it, you keep thinking how much you love it.
And then you think: but how would I feel, if he were writing about me? But then of course, he’s not, or, with the odd exception, not the sort of people I come across daily. I suspect for most readers this book will be evoking a foreign country, a place as distant as childhood. How strange it is to be a New Zealander and to not know people like this. And this is where the urban, literate reader can start to feel unease. However much beauty Braunias finds in his locations, the rural New Zealand that he evokes is pretty foul really. His heart goes out to the characters he meets, but he doesn’t spare them.
There are 20 places visited in Civilisation (again, all credit to Braunias’s intrinsic ambivalence in that in choosing this title he leaves us slightly confused as to whether it’s ironic or not). Twice he goes offshore: once to the Antarctic, the other time to Samoa. Neither is an experience he relishes. In Samoa in particular he finds much that irks him, and it’s all because he likes things to be fair. He sees too much evidence of bad management and misappropriated funds. He meets the Prime Minister on a bad day: the Samoan wing of my own family flinched when reading this chapter. Braunias never rants; he just does some tough musing. And he’s never loath to take an unpopular position – it’s fantastic to see Antarctica, a place I know I would hate, described as “obliterating, annihilating all signs of life … . The whole stupid, merciless place was a vacant lot.” Known for his support of the old-fashioned tearoom, the sort that brings you lamingtons rather than friands, he did like morning tea at Scott Base. New Zealanders with their mugs of tea and sausage rolls had “arrived at the ends of the earth and immediately colonised it.”
Although each chapter focuses on one place, generally – with the exception of Whanganui – small towns, sometimes a theme starts to develop and Braunias is the last person to ignore a good theme. Take the chapter on Tangimoana. Braunias begins his visit in Sanson, half an hour’s drive away: “Peter ranted about his ancient grievances for a while then drove away. Everyone drove away at Sanson. That was the point of the place.”
So Braunias also drove away. He fetches up in Tangimoana, the sand-dunes of which have seen more than their fair share of lonely deaths. Then he meets Tracy – “She was 41 with bright sparkling eyes … her bare arms in her T-shirt were black with grease.” Tracy and her husband were up on a charge of kidnapping and threatening to kill. All they’d done was to follow police advice – use reasonable force to restrain a 16-year-old town nuisance, described by Tracy as “a big kid with peroxide hair and FUCK THE POLICE tattooed on his knuckles.” When the police finally arrived it was Tracy and Marcus they arrested. From the story of the vigilantes of Tangimoana Braunias moves to other vigilantes he has known in Blackball (where they sorted out a paedophile) and in Patea where fisheries officers got between a big man and his source of food.
With each chapter standing alone, it reads a little like a collection of very good magazine articles held together by a cast of brilliantly described ‘average’ people. I read them randomly, choosing the chapter I would read next much as if Braunias chose the place. Sometimes I went back and reread, both inadvertently and intentionally. I never minded reading anything twice. I was rewarded by reading the last chapter last (Maramoku Valley, it’s up north, where the famous Going family come from, and where the Mormon church has a very firm hold). A warmly-written chapter, it was also the one in which he pauses to reflect. In that way he has, of holding the reader in the palm of his hand, he makes you feel by the end as if you’ve shared the most special of journeys. “I never came across anyone remotely famous,” he writes, and this reader thinks, Yes he did! What about the eco-warriors of St Bathans? He goes smoothly on:
The farmers and shearers, the carpenters and carpet-layers, the birders and alcoholics, the New Zealanders, went about their business in a land of Lotto and kapa haka, Harvey Norman and Dick Smith, Sky Sports and the widening gap between the rich and the poor.
Ah, his heart. There it sits in just the right place.
Many decades ago, when my sister was living in Italy, my mother used to send her care packages, which included copies of the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly. Finally an aerogramme arrived from my sister saying that if my mother really wanted her to ever come home, then to stop sending her that magazine. So this book is truly one for those of us who love and cherish this place at the edge of the world, irrespective of how bleak, how gothic, how very odd it can be. Buy it for (almost) everyone you know. But not for your kids living abroad. Unless, of course, you really would prefer them to stay away forever.
Linda Burgess is a Wellington reviewer.