Writing Wellington: Twenty Years of Victoria University Writing Fellows
1986 Stevan Eldred-Grigg
1986 Stevan Eldred-Grigg
Wellington for me first took shape on paper. Wellington—a word in my early readings. Two other words—Christchurch, Canterbury—at the same time were offered by this or that source as ostensible synonyms for the word home. Words for want of a better word. My homeland felt pretty fugitive, needless to say, seemed more readily defined by emblems, by written script, than by any lifting of eyes or fingers away from pages to find or feel for something more—or less?—palpable. Alienation, anomie, intellectual precocity blended with anal retention—more or less par for the course on the mown links, the tidily weeded and chemically fertilised greens, the stereotyped sandtraps, the nineteenth hole, mapped inside the smartish cerebral cortex of a white suburban child anywhere in the world during the decades of the fifties and sixties. Merely happened to be Christchurch.
Wellington—would it have been any different in Wellington?
Wellington, one day, would start to wriggle its meaning sideways inside that cortex. The holes on the course would sprout tufts of gorse. The gorse in turn would shoot out spikes, and bright yellow blossoms. Wellington would prove the first of a long list of placenames found in literature during my younger years and later turned into something different, something I hadn't counted on. Curnow yielded a lot of pliable linguistic parts, of course. Parts willingly grasped. Moveable signs for a young writer wanting to write away towards some sort of homeland. My first decade offered not so many pointers. The first memorable literature about the windy city to come my way was a product of commercial copywriting, a leaflet handed to me during my fifth or sixth year by an uncle who knew I was 'keen about boats and that'.
A leaflet published by the Union Steamship Company.
Wellington, thanks to the copywriter, came to mean a port. A port to be found at the end of a charted line not to be seen on the surface of our planet yet ploughed each night by two trim little liners. 'Interisland Express'—that was the name of the 'class of vessel'—while the individual names of the liners were Maori and Hinemoa. A map inside the leaflet outlined the two chief islands of the national state in the shape of tiny, meticulously inked silhouettes of the fleet owned by Union.
My picture of a port at the other end of the Interisland Express was soon complicated by new readings. Readings that came to hand during my early teens when a quickening curiosity about the nineteenth century as a possible homeland led me to look at all sorts of bits and pieces of text about colonial Wellington. 'At first I thought the shops very handsome,' I was told by Lady Barker, 'but I found, rather to my disgust, that generally the fine, imposing frontage was all a sham; the actual building was only a little hut at the back, looking all the meaner for the contrast to the cornices and show windows in front.' Mean sham blended with dark bleakness to mark the place in the work of Henry Lawson. 'The great black hills they seemed to close and loom page 43 above the town.' Arthur H Adams gritted his teeth about a 'rudely fashioned' town on a 'wounded hill-side steep.' The word 'rude' was similarly serviceable for the scripts of David McKee Wright. 'Rudely scarred', the dark hills of the capital 'encircle her pent streets'.
Robin Hyde was the first writer to fill out my portrait of the town with anything in the way of circumstantial detail. Her readings seemed slightly to shift my acquired literary—or sub-literary—sense of Wellington. I 'bonded' intensely with Hyde, as we would say in a later decade, though that intensity owed more to biography and psychopathology than geography. 'There are dark, slanting hills, and those enormous crystal-green waves which pour in, translucent hillocks,' says the narrative voice in Passport to Hell . 'If you can once be perfectly alone with the hills and sea of Wellington, you have something they can't take away from you, no matter where and why they lock you up.' Not that the narrator seemed too trustworthy to a bookishly troubled teenager inside a suburban lounge on one of the numberless orderly streets of Christchurch.
'Blowy old place, isn't it?' says a secondary character in Nor the Years Condemn. 'Windy Wellington . . . But I like the wind.'
'Smells of ships, doesn't it?' says Starkie. 'Ships coming in the whole time. I can't stand a place that smells dead.'
Working my way through other writings seemed to add little to my stock literary knowledge of Wellington. A knowledge that the capital was a lot of rusty shanties dumped onto steep, dripping, windy hillsides. Wooden houses on posts—a sort of cross between the towns of Appalachia and Ireland. Damp, drizzling. Poor. The sort of place where kids played barefoot in gutters while grey warmish clouds streamed ceaselessly across the sky—a sort of northern West Coast. WH Oliver confirmed my stereotype by versifying about 'iron rust roof slums' on 'green, sullen hills'. Ruth France afforded a creepy feeling when she wrote that the city caused her to think of death, of a caged creature, of weeping women:
. . . we have mucked
With the rake of time over the tamed
Foreshore. Battering trams; Lambton, lamed
With concrete, has only a hint of ghost waters
On the Quay stranded among elevators.
Swinging, however, from the sixties into the seventies of the twentieth century, we come to a lucid day of late summer. Sun, water, a small ship. A young man stands at a railing and scans a strait.
Myself, standing and scanning. Ready for my first sighting of the literal Wellington.
Myself, dressed in flared blue jeans and a yellow muslin body shirt, braced on board the Maori. No longer so trim, that small, honest ship. Tired, one might say. Tiredness inside her steel plates, but not my mind—my mind at full alert, aware that my sighting of the city, so far unseen, will be a sighting from out at sea, from the deck of a vessel—the traditional first sighting by page 44 any outsider of the City of the Strait. A would-be writer stands on top of a mildly vibrating promenade deck. He squints across a wide stretch of hard glittering water. At last—headlands! Yet—what? Not what I have been taught by my reading to find. The light and colours cause discomfort. White light. Bright white light. Yellow headlands—tawny? Clear air, calm air. A windless windy city. A wonderful city whose seaward slopes seem to climb an escalator of light from what one knows to be the unstable basement of Cook Strait. Water swelling subtly on all sides as the bow of the Maori cuts past Pencarrow Head. The colour of the water, all wrong. Turquoise? A true turquoise!
Wellington—brilliant! A place of beauty!
Bewilderment is what I feel, needless to say, leaning forward into the wonderful landscape, bewilderment because, of course, the texts—the texts have not told me. And now, now what sort of place will it prove to be, the literal city? What am I about to find, once our bows have rounded Point Halswell and veered towards the wharves? The would-be writer frowns, and wonders. What sort of city?
Stevan Eldred-Grigg (b. 1952) is a fiction writer, autobiographer and social historian, especially of Canterbury. Historical works such as A Southern Gentry (1980) and Pleasures of the Flesh: Sex and Drugs in Colonial New Zealand (1984) were followed by the award-winning novel Oracles and Miracles (1987), The Shining City (1991), Blue Blood (1997) and others, all drawing on the social, cultural and literary history of Canterbury. My History, I think (1994) is a memoir.