To Niew Zilland

A few weeks back I made my first visit to Brisbane’s international airport.  Although I was only going across the ditch to New Zealand, I was pretty darn excited because, I realised, it was the first time I’d been out of the country in three years.  Such is the reality of being a povo writer: travel is limited.

This was my fourth visit to NZ, the latest being 10 years ago when H and I backpacked from Auckland to Christchurch, struggling en route up Mt Tongariro (or rather, I struggled, being very unfit at that stage) with a swag of people, including a couple dressed in exactly the same outfit of pale trousers, shirt and hat.  We had waited for the bus to the mountain in a café with yellow tabletops decorated with ski boots with a candles stuck in them, while a song by Mel C played on the radio.  Later, I met my first misogynist in a hostel in Westport (which was otherwise very nice), bought a fabulous handbag woven from packing tape, got attacked by a tui and whacked it with said handbag, and helped H push grandma’s car through a street in Akaroa because he couldn’t work out how to get it into reverse.

We are half Kiwi, as Mum hails from Christchurch, so each visit finishes in that city with a stay with Gran.  This time I flew into Wellington for the annual conference of the Association of the Study of Australian Literature, the first time it had been held overseas.  However, to my chagrin, the plane was delayed for four hours, so I finished reading my novel and had to buy another, and then I missed the opening talk by Martin Edmond.

Martin is a writer of non-fiction, poetry, screenplays, biographies and blogs.  I used to read his blog about being a taxi driver while I sat on the desk at UCL Library, in between checking out books to students.  My father had been a taxi driver of an old black Woolsley in Sydney before he met my mother and took her back to the farm (with the car which, unregistered, loaded with dust and with faulty seatbelts, was used to drive sedately through paddocks or to visit our aunts and uncles on the property), and I discerned in both him and Martin the same rapport with people of all walks of life.  My father tried to teach me this affinity, but sadly I picked up his latent snobbery instead.

The next day at the conference (at which I finally arrived after walking into another conference altogether, full of lawyers) I introduced myself to Martin, and found that he recognised me from my blog, and there came that peculiar but enchanting moment of meeting someone who knows a substantial part of your history before you’ve barely opened your mouth.  He was a lovely person, and later emailed me his talk, which detailed an intricate network of artistic, literary and mercantile relationships spanning the Tasman.

The conference itself was wonderful, especially for someone who isn’t affiliated with an institution but still craves academic stimulation.  I met fellow scholars on Rosa Praed, caught up with someone I hadn’t seen since my Honours year at Wollongong, gave a paper on Georgiana Molloy and her children’s graves, learnt about the representations of islands and homesteads in Australian literature, listened to a sophisticated ecocritical reading of That Deadman Dance and Carpentaria by Jane Gleeson-White (who has also blogged on the conference extensively herehere and here) and, at the dinner, sat next to Richard Hill, of the Treaty of Waitangi Research Unit, and found what I could hear very interesting, but sadly this wasn’t much as he had a beard and a low voice.

At the same time, the conference was a little unsettling, as I was a writer of fiction circulating among people whose job it was to pull fictional texts apart.  Surely, I thought more than once, writers don’t put all this stuff into their work?  And then I mused to my father later, on the phone, why on earth people dissected texts and artworks like this, and wondered if literary critics could see something in texts that writers themselves can’t see – a part of their subconscious, perhaps, and the way they interact with culture.  As always, I remain torn by the critical and the creative, and wish there was some way of balancing them.

Wellington, despite its drizzle, was a pretty city, and I wish I’d had longer to explore its bars and cafes (in one of which, French and red, I sat to read and collect myself before moving on to the conference dinner).  I had looked at Katherine Mansfield’s house on the previous trip with H, but I would have liked to have seen some gardens, especially after hearing Sarah Jane Barnett’s wonderful poem on the precariousness of gardening on Wellington’s steep slopes. On the other hand, the brief stay was probably just as well, as the boutiques were gorgeous and I am currently destitute.  I did walk into one shoe shop, and successfully walked out without extracting my credit card, which was no mean feat.

After the conference I caught the ferry to Picton.  The sun came out and the water was dazzling.

Picton, too, sparkled despite the biting breeze, and I had time to find a coffee and watch the locals sitting outside the café in the morning light, before catching the train to Christchurch.  Again, the scenery was spectacular, the train very civilised (unlike the rattler H and I had caught from Greymouth to Christchurch a decade before) and I realised I’d forgotten how pretty and dramatic New Zealand is.

Christchurch, however, was a sad heap of rubble.  Buildings were still being torn down because they were unsafe.  My aunt took us to lunch in the suburbs, which were being utilised by businesses that had lost their buildings in the centre, and said how people were so stressed by the earthquakes and aftershocks that their immunity was low and they kept getting sick.  I felt one tremor while I was there, the night before I flew out.  I had just fallen asleep, and thought my Shake Awake, my vibrating alarm clock (necessary for those who can’t hear alarms) had gone off, but I found it was 11.30pm.  In a painful conversation with the taxi driver the next morning (he had an accent and I hadn’t had enough sleep and it was 5am and he was chirpy as) I discovered it was a quake of 4.5 that had made my bed shake like it was possessed by poltergeist.

My grandmother is 90 in October.  I always remember her birthday because it was the same as Sue Ellen, my Cabbage Patch Kid’s, given to me for Christmas when I was 7 (and which my sister ruined almost instantly by tearing the doll’s nappy).  Grandma likes to fuss, and I detest being fussed over and prefer very much to do my own thing, so after the first day, in which I was limp with exhaustion after so much listening at the conference, I began to get a little frustrated, and tried to subsume said frustration in reading.  I resisted eating in the dining hall with the other biddies (recoiling at the thought of all those deaf people, myself included, trying to have a conversation), but was made to go to morning tea.  I consequently finished four novels, and managed not to get into an argument with Grandma about the Maori’s water rights.

It was delightful to follow the sunrise home from Christchurch on the plane, and I was thoroughly pleased to get back to the warmer climes of Bris Vegas, albeit burdened with several bottles of Marlborough sav blanc, which is pretty much the only wine I drink.  I’m now gearing up for my book publicity.  My website (C/- H), is nearly ready to go and I have half an outfit worked out for my launch.  I am, however, lacking shoes to match.  A new (perfectly justified, naturally) purchase may be in order.

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