Carnival anarchists, Martin Edmond

Goneville: A Memoir
Nick Bollinger
Awa Press, $39.00,
ISBN 9781927249543

This Explains Everything
Richard von Sturmer
Atuanui Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9780994137609

The authors of these two books have a few things in common: they were both born in late 1950s New Zealand (Wellington and Auckland respectively); both performed in bands in the late 1970s (Rough Justice; The Plague); each has written a book that might be categorised somewhere within the wide and capacious genre called, absurdly, non-fiction. There, however, the commonalities end. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how more different two books might be; nevertheless, one further similarity might be noted: each is, in its own way, excellent.

Nick Bollinger is a bit leery of calling Goneville a memoir; he does allow that, like the classical epic, it includes history; otherwise, he is inclined to stress its essayistic qualities. Really, it is a story of the 1970s in Wellington, in particular, and, even more particularly, within what has come to be known, equally absurdly, as the music industry. The genealogy of the bands Bollinger was involved with in his youth begins with BLERTA and then segues into two other memorable Wellington outfits, The Windy City Strugglers and Mammal; the common factor here is Rick Bryant, and it is Bryant who, in 1977, summons young Bollinger to his house in Karori and asks him to join the latest incarnation of his current band, Rough Justice. Two hilarious, broken, mad, yet immensely dignified years on the road follow.

But this is not simply a book about Bollinger, nor even about Bryant – deserving as he is of having his giant story told. It is also the best account we have had so far of the life of the mercurial, innovative and highly influential Graeme Nesbitt. He was a Hutt Valley boy who, as a promoter and a manager, made an enormous contribution to the ways in which alternative forms of entertainment became, if not exactly mainstream, then at least widely known, and widely loved, in 1970s New Zealand: and, inter alia, mostly because of Dragon, whom Nesbitt managed in their early years, in Australia too. Nesbitt was a revolutionary: implacably opposed to the status quo, utterly determined to transform it into something more liberated and more liberating. He was one of the carnival anarchists: a phrase coined by Bollinger’s father, the legendary Conrad Bollinger.

I remember first encountering Nesbitt, as he was usually called, in 1976 at the Wellington Town Hall, where he was setting up the sound system for the Red Mole production Ace Follies, a satire upon Robert Muldoon, which played in the Concert Chamber over a week in August. The curious thing was that Nesbitt never saw the show. He was on day release, doing time in Wi Tako prison for drug offences, and due back at Silverstream before the nine o’clock curfew. As far as I know, he never missed that deadline. He was, in that as in so much else, a man of the utmost fidelity.

His good friend Bryant has, as everybody knows, also done time for drug offences: in those days, the dealing, and the smoking, of marijuana was considered a political act that would make a material contribution to the alteration of consciousness we all desired and, mutatis mutandis, may even have achieved. Apart from his iridescent blue micro shorts, another thing I remember about Nesbitt is that he never complained. His focus was invariably prospective: the next show, the next way to find a purchase upon the transformation of the means of production.

Bollinger contrasts Nesbitt with another promoter of the times, Richard Holden, a man I never met and hadn’t heard of before. Holden was the architect of the pub circuit which many bands in the latter part of the 1970s played, going from beer barn to beer barn up and down both islands, belting out set after set of rock ‘n’ roll covers mixed in with, in some cases increasingly, original compositions. This pairing of promoters allows the essayistic side of Bollinger’s considerable intelligence to oppose the drug culture with the booze culture, with their attendant (or not) politics, and so to bring the argument to a head in the violent confrontations that took place before and during the 1981 Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand.

While this movement, or thematic, gives a strong framework for the book (and incidentally makes of Bollinger an heir to some of his father’s intellectual preoccupations), it isn’t the most interesting thing about it. Goneville works best as a chronicle of the times; rich in anecdote, it is a repository of brilliant character sketches of people who haven’t always received the credit they deserve for the contributions they made to what was an electric, eclectic and, yes, transformative period, during which alterity became, as it were, the new normality.

Bollinger’s recall is acute, his accuracy is exceptional, he is funny and wise and his tributes to a host of wonderful people – Bruno Lawrence, Corban Simpson, Charley Gray, Peter Frater, Tina Matthews and the Wide Mouthed Frogs, the brothers Kennedy and many more – are reliably generous, yet never sycophantic. He is also a very good writer, and there are three riveting interludes in which he explores more purely musical themes. I read this book at a sitting and will certainly read it again. It is an indispensable social and musical history of an extraordinary time and place.

Memoir doesn’t seem quite the right word, either, for Richard von Sturmer’s This Explains Everything. For instance, two of the three sections of the book were composed according to Oulipo-type restraints, which is hardly characteristic of the unvarnished truth-telling assumptions that mostly lie behind traditional memoir. Besides, von Sturmer is an idiosyncratic writer, whose prose consistently approaches that fabled frontier where form and content can’t really be distinguished one from another. What he makes is exceptionally durable and, at the same time, resonantly enigmatic.

The title of this book – which is also the title of its third part – is a conundrum. That part does not explain anything and nor does the book itself; rather, in a manner both evocative and irreducible, it exemplifies. Everything in this book is only itself: a logos of unique appearances. I think this is why the two typos I found therein struck me so strangely: Regan for Reagan and Kimberely for Kimberley. I looked at each for a very long time, as if discovering a word I had not seen before. I’m a former proofreader and thus inclined towards pedantry; but I mean this remark as a compliment. The book rewards a high level of attention.

Part one was apparently in gestation for a long time. Entitled “The Dream of My Father”, it is, in 21 sections, with a prelude and a postscript, a discontinuous and imagistic account of the author’s father Paul’s life, character and times, articulated with unfailing courtesy, gentleness, subtlety and great love. It is also, and inevitably, an account of the author’s own growing up, as an only child, on the banks of Pupuke on the North Shore of Auckland. That mysterious volcanic lake, while hardly alluded to, somehow becomes a major character in the story of father and son; both of whom, we are told, suffer from a medical condition called achondroplasia. This, too, is not explored in detail, but forms another strand in the deep kinship between them: like their habit of wearing capes when on their lakeside evening walk of the family dog.

Part two, “One to Seventy-Five”, structured around the path of a serpent from an old, tin, snakes and ladders board von Sturmer inherited from his father, constitutes a widening of the family circle to include something of the lives of Paul’s own father, Ernest, and his brother, Caryll. A spectacular and highly theatrical sepia cover photograph memorialises this threesome. Ostensibly, the focus is upon a trip old Ernest made prospecting in Western Australia during the Depression; but because Caryll became the custodian of Ernest’s tale, much of it actually takes place at Uncle Caryll’s house in Dee Why on Sydney’s northern beaches.

This house, and especially its interior, is beautifully evoked, and somehow comes to seem intermediary between the harsh desert landscapes of the Kimberley and the maritime or mudflat landscapes of Great Barrier Island and the Manukau harbour, respectively, where von Sturmer so often roams. The fourth, almost unseen, term in this exchange is Rochester, New York, where he and his partner Amala for many years studied at the Zen Center. There are other glimpses of North American landscapes: the arid scapes of Arizona where the Zuni live, for example.

The allegedly revelatory last part is made up of what might be called mirror texts, in which the one on the right hand side of any given page is a response to, or a riff upon, the (intuitive? inspired?) other on the left, and is required to end with the same word. This part is the most playful and, to use a much debased word, poetic, in the book. There are lyrics, songs, koans, haiku, tanka, reveries and dreams, but the dominant mode is the prose poem: at which von Sturmer excels.

It is difficult to overpraise the writing in this section or indeed in the book as a whole. The author’s emotional intelligence is acute, his use of language unerringly precise, his sensibility so disciplined, and yet so flexible, that I am tempted, in spite of what is said above, to admit that the book does indeed explain everything. The only thing that prevents me saying so is the thought that everything is, enfin, as we all suspect, really nothing.

And that allows me to record a fifth commonality between these two fine books: they recount their remembered pasts in such a way as to make a future, not just more to be desired, but more likely to occur. Which is the highest praise.

Martin Edmond was born in Ohakune and lives in Sydney.

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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
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