Going South: A Road Trip Through Life
The premise of this book is simple. Well-known journalist and influential rock music critic, Colin Hogg, was in deep discussion last year with mates at a birthday function when his oldest friend, Gordon ‘Spud’ McBride, another journalist, took him aside and quietly informed him that he had just been diagnosed with cancer, and that it was terminal. He had a year to live; maybe a bit more. Taken aback, Hogg blurted out that they should embark on a road trip. Back south? inquired McBride. “Yeah,” Hogg responded.
“Back south” meant Southland (and parts of Otago as it transpired), where both men began their journalistic careers on Invercargill’s Southland Times some 46 years earlier. They knew each other well, having started together as cadet reporters on the paper around the same time and flatted together from the age of 17 until McBride got married just two years later.
What accrued from that brief birthday conversation was this book: a journey that encompasses memory, mateship and mortality. It’s a tale of engagement, not only between the two men as they discuss their lives and reminisce about their experiences, as McBride wields an enormous rented car round Southland’s roads, but also a good measure of “self-engagement”. Hogg reaches into his “inner self” for the first and I daresay the only time in his writing life, analysing his own story through musings on his childhood, his father (including an inserted mini-biography), his smoking and drug-taking, his early attempts at writing fiction, such as the beginning of a novel set in Invercargill about a chiropodist, his ambivalence about growing up in “a cold melancholy town at the ends of the earth”, his later career as a journalist “up north” and as a television host – and his relationships with folk from the south he had known both then and afterwards. The story is redolent of the hedonism that was the hallmark of many late 1960s youth parties: excessive drinking, altercations, and tortured love affairs. On reflection, there is catharsis going on here. Through the medium of his mate and his illness, Hogg is exorcising some long-hidden angst about who he is and where he’s been.
In more reflective mood, there are sorrowful moments as Hogg muses quietly on the illness of his friend. The gregarious McBride, in contrast, as Hogg recalls, was full of life as he engages, as he always had, with as many folk on the road as he was able to, took a bunch of photographs, some of which are grainily reproduced in the book, and proudly explained himself and the journey in an ever-growing sequence of tweets on the internet. Interspersed with the present, Hogg offers up little historical vignettes of the places they visit, sometimes with quirky material unlikely to be found in any of the standard history texts. Whether it is accurate or not seems less relevant to its “natural place” in the order of things, as the story progresses. Not unnaturally, on such a journey, nostalgia plays a major thrust in the dialogue as they revisit places dear to their youth, but Hogg is careful to avoid any kind of cloying sentimentality that could have ruined the story’s atmosphere.
They return to the newspaper’s offices, now run by a “temporary” editor without much personality it seems compared with the crusty, “old school” Jack Grimaldi, the newspaper’s editor who was Hogg’s boss within those “fag-stained” walls covered by bad art works. It was formal, befitting the times. All, apart from Hogg’s close contemporaries, called him “Hogg”. There were other characters: the newspaper’s long-time poet FWG (Fred) Miller, a Southland institution, whom Hogg describes as a lovely man “with a finely honed instinct for a free drink and a slight air of the old comedian WC Fields about him, though much less rambunctious and a great deal fonder of children and gardening.”
Outside the newspaper offices, Hogg provides us with delightful anecdotes about interesting locals who crossed his path, including the gaudy and eccentric Arnold Brooker who cycled the city streets proselytising his brand of Christianity, complete with jester’s cap and blanket with the word “Jesus” emblazoned on it, which he wore as a cape. McBride’s sense of cheeky fun saw him persuade Brooker to take his bike up the newspaper’s rickety lift and ride it around a shocked Grimaldi’s office, complete with a model church attached to his carrier. Personalities abound. Frank Stapp, a local concert impresario who was responsible for bringing the Rolling Stones and the Pretty Things to Invercargill makes an appearance. In his other life, he was a humble railway guard.
But the book is more than a story about recovered mateship. Sadness pervades the story as they pass through settlements whose heyday has long since departed. Abandoned dairy factories which skirted the small towns and represented Southland’s prominence and wealth as a series of agricultural communities, sit forlorn and broken down. Likewise, schools, shops, factories and hotels have long since disappeared. Some memories on the countryside journey remain strong. The two revisit Glenham, a small, largely forgotten settlement close to Wyndham, where McBride grew up on the family farm. Gordie enthusiastically visits his sole surviving relative, 90-year-old Uncle Bruce, in the district and even more excitedly, “on a nostalgia roll”, as Hogg describes it, bounds into the local school to revisit old academic glories where he was dux. He is saddened when he learns that the old school has burnt down, and the honours board along with it, but is heartened when delighted teachers give him an impromptu tour of the new building. In Wyndham’s main street, McBride stares at a shop in the largely deserted main street, and explains, with mist in his eyes, that he bought his first Joe there. Joe as in condom. Who’d have thought?
Hogg is an insightful and clever storyteller; the script flows seamlessly off the page. Sentences are often brief, yet full of meaning, often implicit. There are moments of intuition, as Hogg both digs deep into his own memory of his life in Invercargill as well as giving poignant voice to the spoken anecdotes of his mate as they travel through the countryside. Likewise, there are moments of whimsy as Hogg recalls their fumbling attempts at social interactions as teenagers, moments of self-effacement as they relate foibles of their youth, and moments of sheer joy as they rejoice in each other’s company, both then and now despite, as Hogg more than once recalls, their different and contrasting personalities and the divergent paths they pursued as journalists after leaving Invercargill.
Indeed, the real strength of this book is the ongoing relationship between the two. How close am I really to him? Hogg asks himself at the beginning of the journey. While they disagree and occasionally argue, he admits towards the end that they do care about each other, and that’s what is most important. McBride spends much of the time striking up conversations with all and sundry in their path, whereas the more introverted and analytical Hogg stands back and observes. The latter comments on his mate after another boozy and smoky evening – a rerun of many such nights of their history. He admires McBride’s gregariousness. At one point, he writes: “what a helplessly engaging person he is, fully endowed with that nosey old reporter that I can do, too, but with him it’s natural, an instinct that kicks in the moment he encounters anyone at all. Everyone really.”
Amusing to this Invercargill-raised reviewer are scatterings of tongue-in-cheek commentary as the now “worldly” Hogg comments on the conservatism, read “backwardness” as he sees it, of Southland in the late 1960s, and hereafter. Consider this comment on the car in which they travelled:
It was Gordie who organised our rental car, a nice big Falcon. Not too blue. Not pastel blue, thank God. Once, on a trip down here I got stuck with a bright yellow rental. A compact. I felt like I was travelling around in a buttercup. You don’t want a brightly coloured car in these parts. The locals might think we’re metrosexuals.
The Falcon of course was a “real bloke’s car”. The two were subconsciously “fitting in” with the perceived Southland of yesteryear. It was Gordie’s decision. Indeed, he drove round in a souped-up Mini in his Invercargill youth. In contrast, the impecunious Hogg had to make do with a Vespa. But this was not Mod country. He was hooted and scowled at by the local gang, the Antarctic Angels, as they roared past on their Nortons and Triumphs.
It could be that, with the many tangents that Hogg embarks upon in the story, the script might seem confused and appear unfinished. Somehow, and I think this is due to the ease with which Hogg moves effortlessly from one to the other, there is a remarkable coherence. In his afterword, once the journey is over, Hogg tells how he returned south because he felt the story remained unconcluded; there was still something to settle, something to put right – possibly, as he contemplates, something even to apologise for. He had written a few “snarky” things about Invercargill and that the best thing about the city was that he left it. “I might have wanted to make up for that,” he muses.
On his own, it’s different. It is odd being there without his mate: “There was a lot less laughing for one thing.” He stops for cheese rolls, one of Gordie’s staples, alongside the mince on toast which had been his standard breakfast fare during their time in Invercargill. His biggest revelation this time is meeting an “old friend” from the earlier days who had never moved away, and who nervously admits to him, after a long “Southland” pause, that he had had quick sex with an early girlfriend of Hogg’s at his flat after the latter had driven off for something to eat. Hogg ponders that it must have been memorable for the old friend, but he himself had no recollection of the time, nor of the girl. He left town the following morning. At least he thinks he did. When it comes to Invercargill, he can never be entirely sure.
David Grant is a Wellington historian.