Te Paki Stream is very dry, thanks to the prolonged drought. I came here on Sunday morning, kicked off my shoes and sloshed down what water remains, past the enormous dunes to the broad expanse of Ninety Mile Beach, where I touched water. I must have come early, because in the forty minutes it takes to reach the ocean, I never saw another soul. This is how I remember this special place, as it was when I first visited, more than 30 years ago. When I turned and walked back to the toi-toi grass on the dunes I thought I saw a tall young man, in shorts and T-shirt, being questioned, interrogated perhaps, by two men incongruously dressed in city suits, carrying with them an air of officialdom. But it was only a mirage, from part 2 of the trilogy, The Seven Trials of Cameron-Strange. Actually the proper title is The Seven Trials of Alastair Cameron-Strange, but the publisher persuaded me to drop the “Alastair”. Too many notes, Mozart.
By the time I started heading back from the ocean, the buses had arrived and were lurching downstream, mountain bikers as outriders, while people were hurling themselves off the tall gleaming mountains of sand on tea trays, a bizarre kind of luge. There was recently a fatality when somebody tobogganed under a bus. It was a (characteristically New Zealand) “accident” waiting to happen. But then, an “accident waiting to happen” is not an accident. On Saturday there were seven road deaths in New Zealand. Appalling. The killer is speed. Is there any way young New Zealand men could be persuaded to abjure the machismo of speed? Safety is a culture. You adhere to the speed limit because you know the culture of safety diminishes adverse events. Aviators understand this. Here, road users do not. In New Zealand the effect is compounded by a general laissez-faire culture of risk-taking. The same newscast which announced the Saturday road toll also announced various other mishaps on land, sea and air. Last time I was here, a youngster came to grief diving off a high wharf on top of his pal down in the water below. The general opinion was that youngsters must not be deterred from diving off wharfs. I took the ferry from Russell to Paihia and was intrigued to find the vessel was in the command of a ten year old boy. Last week I was on the same ferry and I was similarly intrigued, amused, and bemused, to read a notice on board:
In the event that the skipper becomes incapacitated…
There followed instructions on how to manipulate the levers to bring the vessel under control, and how to radio the coastguard for help. It occurred to me that perhaps te airline companies should issue similar advice during the pre-flight safety briefing. You might say that the scenario of both pilot and co-pilot being simultaneously incapacitated is vanishingly unlikely. Isn’t this why they must never eat the same thing for lunch? Then again, there could be a catastrophic loss of cabin pressure. “If the aeroplane has a nose down attitude, pull back on the control column until straight and level flight is regained. If resistance is encountered, switch off George. George is located… To issue a Mayday call…”
Just outside Kerikeri, I had lunch with a friend and ex-colleague. She and her husband have recently purchased a section, about six acres, with a simple but extensive clapperboard bungalow, and adjoining piscine, for the price of a modest tenement flat in the west end of Glasgow. That price wouldn’t get you anything in London. Nor in Auckland, for that matter. Yet there they are, splendid house with a pool, lush grass parkland, surrounded by trees bearing avocado, persimmon, pears, nectarine, and macadamia. You can’t grow macadamia on Canary Wharf. What can you do? Buy and sell money. London is “an important financial centre”. I have no idea what that is.
Picked up Sin by Josephine Hart (Chatto & Windus, 1992) in a second hand bookshop in Russell. I’d already read a trailer for Sin in Hart’s first novel Damage. (I feel Dge should be pronounced after the French fashion, perhaps because the film starred Juliette Binoche, a femme fatale who destroys a feckless and very troubled Jeremy Irons. Sin boasts another ogress in the darkly beautiful Ruth, hell bent on her own and everybody else’s destruction. I get impatient with the hapless men these terrible ladies devour, those who cannot recognise monsters for what they are and cut them dead. If they did, the women would instantly recognise their cover was brulée, and move on swiftly in search of other prey. Still, I remember being arrested and deeply impressed by the haunting opening page of Damage – I read it with that sharp shock of recognition that it itself describes. And if Damage and Sin come together as a single nightmarish vision, then maybe the closing page of Sin attempts to provide a palinode and to alleviate the unremitting bleakness.
Meanwhile I find myself in Waipapakauri – ACS territory. He strolls, deep in thought, around Lake Gnatu, under the canopy of Manuka trees and beside the freshwater rush, Kuta Eleacharis sparelata. At the entrance to the Waipapakauri Hotel a sign says, “Bikers – no gang insignia in the bar”. I wondered if I should take off my Middlemore Hospital T-shirt. My old stomping ground Middlemore was constructed in South Auckland in 1943 when New Zealand anticipated an invasion by the Japanese. Two years previously, after Pearl Harbour, a military airfield was developed here in Waipapakauri. The threshold of one runway is crossed by State Highway One, and the only remnant of the aerodrome is a shrine comprising a simple plaque at the foot of a carefully preserved three-bladed propeller at the side of the road.
ACS would certainly pause here. He is at home by Lake Gnatu, where the wild turkeys cross the road between Rotokawau and Ngakapua Road. He went to school at Paparore, by Sweetwater. Call it absurd, but he, and his small coterie of loved ones, are alive and well – at least to me. I see them now strolling down Rosemay Lane, beside the lake.