Keep On Driving

We were in the car, golf clubs rattling around in the back, on our way north to the driving range at Silverstream. Bella was behind the wheel. I turned to her with a stupid grin and said, “So, when was the last time you went driving?” I then laughed for a while, and I seem to remember that she laughed too but memory has a funny way of serving ego before truth.

Her last time hitting golf balls was in February. My last time was in January with my brother Rua, and the time before that was the previous January, also with Rua. Both of those times were at Chisholm Park Golf Club in Dunedin, which has world-class views over the cliffs and down to the Pacific Ocean, and both times I was surprised to learn I could still swing that shaft of metal over my head and whack the ball far enough to lose it. Used to play golf when I was kid, you know. Procedural knowledge is an extraordinary thing, especially when the procedures are embedded at a young age: hitting a golf ball 200 yards, kicking a soccer ball with power and accuracy, riding a bike. Do it enough times and something clicks in your brain so that years down the line, the knowledge can be called back in an instant.

Chisholm Park Golf Club | Dunedin | Seaside Golf Course
‘Tomahawk’ at Chisholm Park Golf Club

I remember going to the driving range in Hamilton for my 11th birthday (or thereabouts) with brothers and mother. At one point, they stood behind me and watched as I played a few shots and said, “Barns is quite good, isn’t he?” I was the mocked ‘sporto’ of the family, forever bowling a tennis ball against the fence and shooting hoops while my brothers got quite good at the guitar and went off to university. Nothing ever really came of golf — I essentially stopped playing when I was about 14 — but that moment of approval is enough for it to have been a worthwhile part of my life.

The ping of the ball off the tee, though. For all the madness golf can bring, that ping makes it worthwhile, too. I stepped up at Silverstream with my bucket of 118 balls, a six-iron, and a driver with a clubhead the size of my fist. First ball, I swung without really thinking, just hoping to connect. Ping. It flew off into the distance, straight as an arrow. I was sure it had sailed past the 250-metre mark and away over the back fence into Tiger Woods territory. ‘Still got it,’ I thought to myself.

Of course I hadn’t hit the ball that far, as the next 117 shots proved. Still, I was amazed at how forgiving the driver was, how it didn’t seem to demand you make it go ping instead of clunk to allow the ball to fly straight for a fairly long way.

Silverstream Golf Park
The driving range at Silverstream

After a while, I started using the six-iron to try and hit the ball into a derelict car at the 50-metre mark, which appears to be an obligatory feature at many driving ranges. Got it on about ball 103, I believe. Bella missed the moment but I insist it really happened: one bounce and in through the smashed back left window. She was probably focusing on ironing out her own technique at the time, which I suppose is fair enough.

(By the way, her name isn’t Bella. It’s Isabel. Two things led to my foisting this nickname upon her: 1) her distaste for the Twilight series, of which Bella Swan (played by a dead-eyed Kristen Stewart in the films) is the main character; and 2) her admission that once, after learning her name was Isabel, a guy asked if he could call her Bella. “No you may not, sir.”

Presumably I have enough other qualities for her to tolerate my being ridiculous all the time.)

Silverstream Driving Range at Night
Isabel with an iron

“How’d you go?” asked David, the silver-haired, craggy-faced man at reception. His blue (it may have been red) pullover said ‘Manor Park Golf Club Centenary’, and I guessed he would’ve been around for about three-quarters of that. He gave a tentative smile as I handed him that absurd driver, commenting on my surprise at the powers it had afforded me. “Yes, you’ll find that the modern clubs are a lot more forgiving than the old ones.” He seemed like a man who knew a thing or two about a thing or two, so, having given him an opportunity to talk, we simply stood and listened.

David’s life story is easily structured around his golf handicap. He said he got down to scratch after a couple of weeks as a young fella, which seems impossible to me given how long it takes — and how many balls you have to hit perfectly — for the finer points of technique to be proceduralised. Maybe he was a superhuman, or still is one. Or maybe his memory had embellished things somewhat. He then took a long break to build a house, which he might well have designed and built himself. Then back into it for a few years, lowering the handicap once more, a notable figure on his club’s fairways. He didn’t say how he became a tetraplegic — though I think he alluded to some time in the military — but the long recovery process put him out “for a couple of decades”. It only showed in the odd halting movement.

Finally, a few years ago, David got back amongst it for presumably his last golfing stretch. “I struggle to hit the ball now, but playing with those young fellas, I’m still keeping up with them—” he raised his thick eyebrows and opened his eyes wide “—and even out-driving them sometimes.

“But anyway, you’re always playing against yourself, and trying to beat the course. There’s always something to overcome. You know? It’s all in your head.”

Bella drove us back to Wellington in the dark. We listened to a selection of 90s hits on Classic Hits FM, delighted to find we are finally old enough to hear formative childhood favourites on a radio station that always looks backwards. Accompanying them in my head were David’s simple but far-reaching words, and the lifetime of experience and imagination behind them. I wonder what else he has yet to overcome.

Music, An Anchor for Memory

Right now I’m listening to ‘Province’ by TV on the Radio and it’s hot and humid, but the feeling inside and around my body is bitterly cold. The sounds of music and exploding crackers are pretty much constant outside from the three separate temple festivals going on near my house in this little tourist town in rural India, but through these headphones, the song takes me back to an inner silence deeper than most I’ve known.

Return to Cookie Mountain, TV on the Radio’s second album, came out in 2006 and I bought it the same weekend it was released. It was the middle of winter and I was living in Christchurch – yeah, that place that got hit by a big earthquake a month ago, but not as big as the one in Japan, but still pretty big.

I was living in the centre of town, in a building which apparently no longer exists, and working just a few minutes away next to the city’s main landmark: Christchurch Cathedral, and its Cathedral Square. I walked that 750 metres to work and back hundreds of times over a year and a half living in that flat, and while the brilliant blue skies and pleasant, dry and warm summers were wonderful, I’ll always remember Christchurch for its winter.

Christchurch winters aren’t desperately cold by global standards, hitting probably -5°C most nights in the July that Return to Cookie Mountain came out. This was cold enough for me, though, having grown up in the warmer North island, but luckily there was a trade-off: of the hundred bone-chilling nights of each year, one (or maybe two if we were very lucky) would be covered with real snow.

To warm that chill in my bones in the evenings, I’d take my CD player and listen to something as I walked. The walk to work was only a song’s worth, or half a song if I was listening to Orbital, and while I sometimes had my earphones in as I walked in the door of the souvenir shop I worked at, I usually felt like I was being a bit gratuitous. I mean, how hard could it be to walk five minutes without a personal soundtrack to occupy me, to handle the world outside my home without cutting out its sounds and replacing them with something which seemed more like part of me?

The walk to the video shop, however, was different. I would go to Alice in Videoland every Thursday evening to drop off last week’s rentals and pick up new ones. Wednesday and Thursday were my days off back then, my weekend, and I could hardly think of a better way to spend an hour than browsing the shelves at Alice’s. And being a full fifteen minutes away, I could fit in three songs, making the CD player a much more reasonable option – and for a good month or so, those three songs were the first three tracks of Return to Cookie Mountain.

I’d throw on my long black jacket, shove the CD player in the inside pocket, lock the flat behind me and press play as I got out into the street. Shuffling my gangly, poorly conditioned limbs along those gold-tinged, immaculately paved streets with TV on the Radio in my ears was pretty much perfect. I’d go into and through a near-empty Cathedral Square and as I came out the other side to cross Colombo St; a gust of icy wind from the Port Hills would throw my hair up and cool my face, and I’d wrap the front of my coat closed to ward off the cold.

Right about then, Province would start up. And I’d listen to it, Adebimpe, Malone and Bowie wailing about love in harmony as I walked on down High St Mall and then High St, past that cafe (whose name I’ve forgotten) I ate at with Ed and Rach, past Helen’s design studio, the song closing out just as I stepped off the street and into Alice’s – ah, heaters – the new releases there, as always, to greet me.

And I never forgot that feeling, somehow, without ever thinking about it. The music gave me an anchor on which to hang the cold, the coat, the flat and the paving stones, the cathedral and Alice’s, all those feelings enveloped by the sounds in my ears. On those 15-minute walks, ‘Province’ took on its own private meaning for me, one which I didn’t realise at the time: it would be the song that took me back to a certain time in my life, a particular feeling, the subtly indescribable emotion and physicality of it.

It’s simple, really. The memory is stronger than the song, but as an element of my life which remains constant however far I get from the memory, the song is what brings it all back. That’s to say, I can listen to ‘Province’ today in my hot house in India and it will still be the same ‘Province’ as it was four and a half years ago on the cold, dry, clean streets of Christchurch. The memories, dormant in this magnificent organ called a brain, come flooding back as clear as ever when I hear those simple chord progressions struck firmly on the piano.

It isn’t classical conditioning, but I’m sure there was something I concurrently studied in psychology classes that matches up. I see songs like ‘Province’ as an anchor on which I hang my memories, and it may have only been a flash of a millisecond back in 2006 where I felt the music, the cold, the city and everything else that stayed with me, but sometimes that’s enough to bring it all together and cohere into a memory that stays with you for the rest of your life.

Now, tell me your musical anchors.

(My brother wrote about this ages ago, so check out his post too. I give him the credit for getting the idea out first and for being an inspirational older brother who inadvertently plants ideas in my head.)