I said to my hostess in Auckland, “I’m going to vanish into the far north for a few days and write a story for the BBC short story competition.” She nodded understandingly. “You need to aloof yourself.”
“Aloof myself! Aloof qua verb! Can I use that?” She said yes. I don’t think she meant I was behaving like Mr Darcy, before he was humbled by Miss Elizabeth Bennet; merely that writing is, after all, a solitary pursuit. So off I went.
Mind, it comes at a cost. I spent a night in a town whose main street might have been a Hollywood set for a Western. Once I’d written a thousand words I took myself off to the movies. They were showing The Shape of Water. Strange, but good. In the USA of the Cold War a bizarre creature, half fish, half man, is captured in the Amazon and brought to a government installation for nefarious scientific investigation, and general abuse by a sadistic gaoler armed with a baton that delivers electric shocks. The creature – “the asset” – is befriended by one of the institution’s cleaning ladies who happens to be mute. Well, it’s not the first time a gal has fallen for a guy in a wet suit. When she realises that her fish-man is due for the autopsy table she resolves to break him out. While he is on the run (can a fish run?), he slips into a movie theatre and, sitting in the stalls entirely alone, tries to make sense of the film on the screen.
The really strange thing was, I was the only person in the movie theatre. I sat alone in the deserted stalls looking at a fish-man sitting alone in the deserted stalls… Like being in a hall of mirrors really. It was at this point that I resolved that I should no longer be aloof. Back in Auckland on Sunday morning I went to St Luke’s Remuera. As part of Lent, the minister preached on the extraordinary episode, which appears in all four gospels, of Jesus getting mad, making a whip, overturning the stalls of the racketeers in the temple, driving them all out with their hens and chickens, and generally wrecking the joint. He must have known that wasn’t going to go down well. Maybe he wanted to make quite sure he was going to fulfil his destiny.
The Auckland to which I have returned feels to me a little bit like the temple in Jerusalem. I suppose it is inevitable; it has just become a little more like the rest of the western world. It has become expensive. The house prices are absurd. Dining out can be a costly business if you are not careful. Do I really want to pay $36 for a piece of snapper? What is happening is that the gap between rich and poor is widening, and the wider the gap is, the less inclined people from both ends of the spectrum are inclined to smile, and the more miserable everybody becomes. This disparity, just as in the UK, is reflected by the immense strain put upon the Health Service, of which I mean to write more next week. I venture to say that the Health Service in New Zealand, however, is far more robust than the NHS.
But I still think New Zealand is a friendly, open, welcoming, and amazing place. I think if I were to make a scene in the Auckland Sky Tower after the fashion of Our Lord I might be arrested but I wouldn’t be summarily bumped off. The long-suffering police would probably decide I had a mental health issue and take me to hospital where my ex-colleagues would aver they always knew I’d lost the plot, and section me. Instead, I’ve returned to the glorious far north where New Zealand still offers the sense of being a nation at the frontier. Here, the Maori are not much impressed by glitz and consumerism and big price tags. They recognise them as false gods. They would take the side of the fish-man against his upwardly mobile oppressor who fulfils an ambition and buys a brand new Cadillac.
Meanwhile the annual BBC short story prize is up for grabs. Excuse me while I aloof myself.