I finished reading Shayne Carter’s autobiography Dead People I Have Known (Victoria University Press). It’s an excellent book: reflective, honest, occasionally moving, occasionally funny. It also contains the best descriptions of music since AMADEUS.
I saw Carter perform one time, a Dimmer farewell gig at Bodega in 2012. Bodega is now closed, its central, eyeline-spoiling pillar a collective sigh in the memory of Wellington’s gig-going faithful.
From my vantage point at the extreme right of the room, I gripped the bar on which my beer bottle rested while Carter ripped through one face-melting, feedback-laden guitar solo after another. He seemed in a mood to indulge his fingers more than his voice that day, and that was fine with me. I barely remember him speaking, let alone singing.
What I do remember is his body doubled over in submission to his guitar. His fringe hung down over his sharp-featured face. His lips pursed out in a demonic grin. He must have spent half the gig in that pose.
“The facial expressions,” my friend and I agreed over a beer a few months later when the subject of Shayne Carter live came up. “The facial expressions.”
Years later, she would edit his book. And I would borrow the book from another friend, whose photos are in the book. Just so you know how small New Zealand is.
And I say again, it is an excellent book, worth reading even if you couldn’t name a single one of his songs. It’s almost as good as his facial expressions.
I was at Waikanae’s famous Fed Up Fast Foods fish ‘n’ chip shop with Stephen when I first encountered Cheezy Weezys.
I felt like they should have been advertised on an A4 printout in all-caps Arial Black, like all the other speciality items, but there they were on the big menu alongside hot dogs and spring rolls, as if they’d always been there.
We speculated as to what Cheezy Weezys might be. I suggested six or seven strips of mozzarella, battered and deep fried. Stephen proposed a scoop of chips with plasticky orange cheese squirted all over them from a bottle.
A subsequent image search proved Stephen right. Given they were called Cheezy Weezys, he was always going to be right.
But we didn’t order the Cheezy Weezys. I decided not to risk it, which is unlike me, because I usually try any old rubbish if it’s junky enough.
In the ensuing weeks, Cheezy Weezys seemed to be everywhere. I assure you, I’d never seen them on a fish ‘n’ chips menu before that rainy evening in Waikanae, and I’ve eaten a lot of fish ‘n’ chips. But there they were, again and again without fanfare, about $5.20 a pop.
Last weekend, when we went away to Foxton Beach, I cracked. Not only did Mr Grumpy’s have Cheezy Weezys, they also had Curry Chips, Cheese and Gravy Chips, and Blood ‘n’ Guts Chips. I ummed and aahed and eventually decided on Blood ‘n’ Guts Chips.
This is what they handed over:
That’s a scoop of chips, tomato sauce, sour cream, and grated cheese from one of those ready packets with loads of de-caking powder at the bottom.
Needless to say, my fascination with novelty hot chips is cured.
I pressed the button fifteen minutes ago when Tara’s tramadol wore off, four hours since the previous dose. A big, angry wound in her abdomen is giving her acute pain. One of our twin infants dozes in my lap, the other in a cot. Tara lies in bed, brows knitted in pain and exhaustion.
It’s about 2am.
There’s a speaker right outside our room. Every couple of minutes, the call bell dings again.
We’re waiting on one of the two overnight duty midwives to come and assist us. After a few more dings, she arrives, and we ask for more pain relief. Of course, she says, and promptly leaves.
Another fifteen minutes pass. In one of the other two dozen rooms served by two midwives, someone else presses the call button. Ding.
Approximately thirty-five minutes after I initially hit the button, the midwife returns with the tramadol. Tara ingests it and waits for it to take effect. Eventually, after a full hour of agony, she gets some relief.
Ding goes the call bell, on through the night and day, summoning health professionals that don’t exist.
This is far from the most gruelling episode of our six-day hospital experience when the kids were born, but it’s one that stays with me. It’s symptomatic of a system that is desperately under-resourced.
You look back on times like that and think, well, we got through it. And people are more than willing to tell you it’s just something you have to get through. Some people, anyway.
But I’m sharing this tiny story today because a much worse case of maternity ward understaffing and negligence is beingwidelyreported. A baby died after a labour and birth in which everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Individuals made mistakes but the system overall is accountable.
And if so many people are ringing the bell to say that the system is inadequately resourced, that midwives are constantly at breaking point, that having a baby outside business hours loads significant risk into an already risky process, that the trauma of their hospital birthing experience haunts them for years, why are we still talking? Is anyone listening?
It’s been cool and damp in Wellington today. Cue a dozen overheard conversations in the office about it being a typical Wellington summer, i.e. over in a flash and barely there to begin with.
In reality, the sun has shone bright in blue skies recently and will shine again soon. But in order to belong, you must sign up to the mass delusion.
Christmas time is however ending. I know this because everywhere I go, I see millions of brilliant red pōhutukawa stamens collected in drifts on the footpath, like the spreading alien tendrils in War of the Worlds.
The pōhutukawa is also known as the New Zealand Christmas tree because of its vague resemblance to holly and its seasonal blossoms. When the flowers die, their crimson threads fall to the ground in clumps, the blood of Tawhaki under our feet. They’re beautiful and then they’re gone. They are our hair that has fallen out.
You can be sure they’ll be back next spring, though, until we’ve burned it all down — back from the underworld, leaping for the heavens, caught in flight on evergreen branches.
It’s 9:45am on a Wednesday and I’m sitting at my desk in the office, eating a rather unsatisfactory bowl of wheat biscuits. Late breakfast — second breakfast, in fact, as I grabbed a chocolate twist from the railway station supermarket on the way to the office. The chocolate twist is a) a regular payday treat, b) a foot-long monstrosity of croissant pastry and brittle, plasticky chocolate, and c) bloody delicious if you have an appreciation for coarser pleasures. Where I usually eat some wheat biscuits at about 8am for breakfast, payday treat chocolate twist stodges up my belly until at least 9:30am, at which time I grudgingly add more stodge.
Anyway. Unsatisfactory? What is it that makes this particular bowl of wheat biscuits unsatisfactory? Well. This may take some time and effort on both our parts but I will attempt to explain.
My office is cold. Two clothing layers at least. That makes chilled milk from the fridge less palatable than it usually might be, like smoking on a hot day: why drink liquid fridge when you’re already shivering? So today, I had the idea of pouring some milk from the bottle into a mug and heating it — just a little! — in the microwave. I’m a genius, I thought to myself as the microwaved blared radioactivity and loud beeps at me.
I poured the milk from the mug into the bowl of wheat biscuits (which also contained yoghurt, un-microwaved, but that’s not important right now), and marched out of the kitchen with an excited grin on my face.
By the time I’d reached my desk, the wheat biscuits were already beginning to disintegrate. Too quickly. I should have known I was in trouble. The first bite made my error plain: I’d overheated the milk very slightly from ‘glacier’, through the intended sweet spot of ‘council swimming pool in summer’, to to the unfortunate ‘lukewarm’. The entire bowl was sullied. Oh, I’ll eat it, don’t worry about that, but I’ll also come on here and complain about it.
It brings to mind a shocking experience in my youth. Staying the night at friends’ houses was a frequent joy of childhood, and it was always interesting to compare the breakfast routines of other families with those of my own. Often, my friend and I would emerge from slumber to an array of branded cereals, some in tall, airtight receptacles, and a jug of milk alongside them on the dining table. I would wonder if this was the weekday standard or a special effort from mum for a weekend visitor (me). It certainly bore no resemblance to the one or two cereals in the dark pantry at my own home.
One time, I stayed over at the farm house of my friend Chris, he of his own trail bike and air rifle, both of which terrified me. Two aspects of this breakfast were particularly unusual.
First was the jug of raw, unpasteurised milk on the table, ultra-fresh from the milking sheds a few hundred metres away. I decided on wheat biscuits and placed two in my bowl, thinking it a potential faux pas to take my usual three or four. Then I began to weigh up whether or not I was all right with consuming milk of known provenance. It was fine to open the cartons delivered at home by the milkman every Monday and Wednesday; that was Milk, its mysterious origin obscured by industry, conveniently expelling any thought of actual animals from my head. But this stuff had been inside a cow just a few hours before I sat down. I wasn’t sure I could deal with that.
As I hovered on the brink, the second unusual thing happened – the shocking thing. Chris’ mum picked up the just-boiled kettle, that strange, noisy object that occasionally furnished me with hot Milo but otherwise meant nothing – I wouldn’t drink tea or coffee until my twenties. Then she carried it over to Chris, who had also taken two wheat biscuits, and poured boiling water all over them.
My eyes went wide. This seemed abhorrent. I was sure Chris would object. But he didn’t; he just reached for the sugar (another item you’d never see on our breakfast table). I couldn’t believe it. This is normal? To obliterate all texture from the wheat biscuits and transform them, instantaneously, into mush? This is what you want?
I was so confused and appalled, I didn’t see what was coming. Chris’ mum came to my bowl, kettle in hand. Then she poured boiling water all over my wheat biscuits.
To be honest, I don’t really remember what happened next. I think I copied Chris exactly: a spoonful of sugar, then the milk (if I wasn’t going to object to molten wheat biscuits, I couldn’t very well draw the line at raw milk). I imagine we downed our piping hot sludge and headed out on the dreaded motorbike, the air rifle slung over Chris’ shoulder.
Chris and his family sold the farm and moved away soon after. We didn’t keep in touch.
The high-concept premise seems like a gimmick at first, but it earns its big climax and all the editing trickery along the way. The ‘mental time travel’ idea is both a way into the story and an effective means of pushing it forward.
The characters are well-realised people, from youngest to oldest, and their conversations feel authentic, whether they’re meeting cute or arguing, whether or not they’re generations apart. You really feel an emotional investment by actor/director/editor/writer Weal in all of them, even in the smaller supporting roles, and he deserves extra credit for that, especially as he is the star of the film and in nearly every scene. It could so easily have been a straight-up vanity project. Perhaps he realised the quality of the talent opposite him and decided to give them room to do their thing.
Wellington looks marvellous. We already knew that, but Duncombe’s cinematography shows it off in style. Because this is a no-budget film, I also have to mention the sound quality, which is impeccable.
This is a rare film that takes mental illness seriously, to the point that large chunks of dialogue explore its effects on and place in society. A character with mental illness is treated with consistent respect, despite at times being a potential danger to the people around him. Not just a plot device after all!
The only thing I would change is the title. Being a New Zealand film, and hence a product of British English, it should be ‘Chronaesthesia’. But I’ll give them a pass if it gets them an American distribution deal.
I don’t much care for TV news now. But when I was a kid, I would be in front of the TV every night at 6:40pm without fail. That was when the sports news was read by Clint Brown, or Bernadine Oliver-Kerby, or Peter Williams, or whoever was in the chair that day.
Sometime in 1993, at the back end of the sports bulletin, there was a brief item about a loose forward from Wesley College named Jonah Lomu. Low-angle footage showed him rampaging to the try line from about half way, first bulldozing his opponents out of his path, then skinning them with speed incongruous with the number 8 on his back. I was eight years old and thought to myself, “Bloody hell.”
A couple of months later, again at the end of the sports news, he appeared once more. “Jonah Lomu from Wesley College continues to make waves in the Auckland first XV competition.” Or something like that. It was like an action replay of the earlier item: Lomu gets the ball around half way, Lomu charges through his hapless markers, Lomu sidesteps the fullback, Lomu outruns the covering defenders. Lomu scores.
A year or so later, after a barnstorming performance at the Hong Kong Sevens in 1994, Jonah Lomu was in the All Blacks. A year after that, following his famed exploits at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, he was the biggest star in the history of rugby union. Of course I watched all that in rapture, even if that 1995 final didn’t work out the way I (or Lomu) would have hoped.
The next time I really paid close attention to Jonah Lomu was during the 1996 Hong Kong Sevens tournament. This was long before the days of managed workloads and sabbaticals for All Blacks, even for critical first-team players like Lomu. He showed up for the tournament with his normally sleek black hair dyed brown and braided (at least, that’s what my memory of the live telecasts tells me). The new hairstyle made him look older and rougher, more a tank than the speeding bullet of old.
Lomu’s role in the team was no longer that of ‘superstar’. The NZ sevens hero of ’96 — the guy I would run outside to imitate in the back yard — was 20-year-old Christian Cullen, and Lomu worked more to set up tries for his younger teammate than to score them himself. In one match, against an opposition so helpless they might as well not have turned up, Lomu threw an American football-style pass from the left touchline to the right-hand side of the field, where Cullen cantered in for another five points. I sat there, mouth agape, as replays confirmed Lomu’s feat. How could he do that in a rugby match? Surely there’s some sort of law against it?
Before the tightly contested final against Fiji, the broadcasters showed a package of Lomu sevens highlights from the previous year, when he had that familiar jet black crop of hair. They then cut to Lomu live, braids returned to that classic Lomu hairstyle, playfully sidestepping a Hong Kong Sevens mascot with a huge smile on his face. With his hair so short and his grin so wide, he looked like a schoolboy. New Zealand won the match and the tournament, almost single-handedly because of Cullen, but Lomu lingered in my mind: the cool guy who would chuck the rugby ball from one side of the field to the other, and who would muck around with the mascot before a huge final. Everything in his stride. (You can see snippets of the American football-style pass and the pre-final cavorting in this highlights package.)
One more memory. In 1997, my mother, who was almost entirely indifferent to rugby, somehow secured us tickets to a highly anticipated Blues vs Hurricanes Super 12 match at Eden Park. These were the days of the great Blues: Sean Fitzpatrick, Zinzan Brooke, Michael Jones, Olo Brown, Robin Brooke, Carlos Spencer, Joeli Vidiri, Lee Stensness, Brian Lima, Adrian Cashmore, and Jonah Lomu. But the Hurricanes had Christian Cullen and a talented young winger named Tana Umaga. The match was one of the great Super Rugby games, ending 45-42 to the Blues. I think even my mother got a bit caught up in the spectacle.
That — 1997 — was the year after Lomu was diagnosed with the kidney disorder that would dictate much of the rest of his life. He spent most of the Super 12 season off the field, and he failed to score a single try. But he was in the team for that Hurricanes match. The media was full of doubts over whether he would ever be the same Lomu again, both speeding bullet and tank. There was plenty of speculation among the public, too, about whether we’d seen the best of this great All Black. So whenever he received the ball, there was a hush of attention around the stadium. But he didn’t do a lot with it. Normally, he’d just take the tackle and secure the ball for the next phase, rather than trying anything Lomu-esque.
Then, at one point in the second half, the ball was thrown wide to him, deep in the Blues’ territory. With a slim chance to beat his marker — Umaga — on the outside, he suddenly blew past him and sprinted forty metres upfield. It seemed to happen in an instant: one moment he was sizing up his marker, the next he was being tackled in the opposition half. What had we been thinking? Of course he still had it. He might not be quite so damaging any more, but he was still Jonah Lomu.
We all knew he didn’t have long. But dead at 40? So soon after yet another busy slate of promotional work at the 2015 Rugby World Cup? I guess he wasn’t the type to give much warning.
The truth is that Jonah Lomu has only intermittently been a part of our lives for over a decade now. His status as rugby-s first global superstar ensured media and promotional work around World Cup time, but for every four years in-between, there might only be the occasional news item about his private life or his treatment; the kind of news item that appears well before 6:40pm in the nightly bulletin. Now that he’s gone, he will be the first item, and the second, and the third.
Almost every New Zealander knows one Jonah Lomu moment, which involves Mike Catt. Others, especially those of us in our early-to-mid thirties, might remember quite a lot more. Lomu was our hero, in the sense that Achilles was the hero of Greece: he did things that none of us would ever be able to. I find it hard to believe that someone who loomed so large during my childhood is dead. Bloody hell. At least we have our memories, and we’re charging through them now, crashing into them, sidestepping them, sprinting past them, as we try to keep the legend alive.
When you pay your $4.50 in a cafe, that gets you ownership of a frothy drink to consume, and temporary use of the vessel it’s served in. It doesn’t entitle you to any kind of hall pass to treat the cafe staff as you please. You don’t temporarily own them, or any part of their body.
When you’re elected Prime Minister of New Zealand, that gets you stewardship of the nation’s legislative system and representation of the nation’s people and interests on the global stage. It doesn’t entitle you to ownership of the nation, or any of its people. You cannot go about the place doing as you please just because you’re Prime Minister. You are a servant of the people, rather than having them in your power.
If you’re a man, you are the beneficiary of centuries of patriarchal dominance in society — especially if you’re a white man. Your experience of the world is different from that of women, who have been oppressed for centuries and continue to be oppressed in obvious and subtle ways. (Take a look outside the gender binary and the oppression gets even worse, as it also does for those who are not light-skinned.) A penis doesn’t allow you to treat women in a way you would not treat men, or to exert ownership over them in any way.
There’s a different kind of ownership. It entails owning up to your mistakes and vowing not to repeat them. It entails respect for yourself and for those you meet. It entails owning your masculinity consciously, even though centuries of patriarchal dominance mean you’re rarely reminded of it — certainly not in the way women are reminded of their oppression on a daily basis. It entails a responsible approach to one’s place in society, especially if you’re at the very top of the pyramid. And it entails taking responsibility for the consequences of your actions.
In New Zealand, John Key is now a central part of the narrative of ownership and entitlement by the rich, by the powerful, by white people, and by men. That narrative needs to change. I might once have said it needs to change from the ground up, that the culture of male entitlement and abuse of power is best addressed at home, at work, and — yes — in the local coffee shop. But perhaps a top-down approach is better, especially while the topic is hot. Some ownership of the issue by NZ’s most powerful man, and one of the most cultishly supported figures in NZ’s political history, would be welcome.
As a child, I would often think about turning 20 in the year 2004, 30 in the year 2014, and so on. While 20 seemed within reach, I didn’t imagine I would ever actually turn 30; it seemed too distant and grown-up a number to attach to myself.
But now I am 30. I’ve breached the asymptote. And I’ve come out the other side feeling much the same. I constantly refer to myself as not being a ‘real grown-up’ or ‘proper person’ yet, perhaps because I still don’t have kids or a mortgage or a clear career path. And yet I am in my thirties, and a lot more of my thoughts are taken up with long-term planning. After all, I am sure I want kids, and a house, and a satisfying career. I just don’t feel quite ready for them yet. The itch to travel still tingles, and I expect I will scratch it before I embark wholeheartedly on any of the above legacies. Round up a few other 30-year-old New Zealanders and see how many say the same thing.
A lot of what follows is about me, but for much of it, there’s someone important beside me.
Sports & Leisure
Indoor footy remained integral to my physical well-being in 2014, as it was in 2013 and 2012. But it became one of many athletic pursuits rather than my sole half hour of proper exercise each week.
Early in our relationship, Tara explained that she used to be just as sloth-like as me and passed endless wasted hours on Reddit. She wasn’t happy, so she started hiking, tramping, and scuba diving instead, replacing idleness with a thirst for new outdoor experiences.
When you spend so much time with someone who has so much energy, that thirst will become part of your life, too, and you have a choice to reject or embrace it. After a few weekends of farewelling Tara as she headed off on another expedition in her trademark yellow cap, I embraced it. I went tramping in the Tararua Range, hiking in the Orongorongo Valley, swimming at Titahi Bay, stand-up paddle boarding at Port Nicholson, and wire-walking at Porirua, all things I would have hesitated to even attempt in the past. Now I marvel at how much the world has to offer, and I occasionally wonder how much I’ve missed over the years.
It wasn’t that I was necessarily afraid of any of these things. It was just that it all seemed to take up so much time. But all I did with that time, sunny day or no, was sit on the computer and chastise myself for not doing any writing. I’m finding that as a general rule, it’s better to be outside.
On an international scale, the success of the Black Caps (New Zealand’s national cricket team) in 2014 has been a great source of joy and even made me shake my head in amazement at times. It began with a one-day series win in January and a glorious fightback to draw the Basin Reserve Test in February, both against India. I was there for the fifth one-dayer, and I watched nearly every ball of the Basin Test, including the one Brendon McCullum dispatched to the backward point boundary to reach his triple century. Those five days were probably my favourite five days of the year for they also encompassed a super Valentine’s Day out at Wellington Zoo, a successful and sunny dinner party on the deck with Tara’s family, and an Italian dinner with Tara to celebrate six silly months together.
My favourite album of the year was Morning Phase by Beck — great song after great song — and my favourite 90 seconds of a song this year was the final 90 seconds of closer ‘Waking Light’.
Those 90 seconds feel like the meandering calm of Morning Phase finally breaking the shackles and bursting out into triumph — but it’s still tinged with all the uncertainty that preceded it. Morning Phase seemed dark and depressed to me at first, but with each listen, I found it more and more beautiful, even as an underlying sadness remained. Beck seems to aim for ambivalence rather than assuredness with this album. I think that’s why I like it so much.
I also enjoyed Lost in the Dream by The War On Drugs and rediscovered Floating Into The Night by Julee Cruise. I didn’t give Syro or a whole lot of other new albums enough of a go. There was a lot of music I missed, largely because I now live with someone who has different tastes in music. And music is one of many areas of life subject to renegotiation when someone moves in with you.
In 2014, Tara introduced me to songs by Auditorium, Cloud Cult, Avalanche City, Sam Cooke, Semisonic, Disney heroes and heroines, the a cappella stars of Pitch Perfect, Hanson, and some Mutton Birds albums I hadn’t previously heard. I’ve liked some of these songs, and she’s liked some of the ones I’ve played for her. Our shared command of Spotify has been an interesting and enjoyable challenge. Rewards have included butchered harmonies and spontaneous living room dancing.
We played board games while watching the NZ general election results roll in on TV, the sound muted. We shook our heads and swore repeatedly, and once the frustration faded, a week or two of disbelief set in: how are we so out of touch? I thought the Greens might bump up to 15% of the vote, and in the wake of Dirty Politics and Key’s relentless jiving, I assumed National’s vote would decrease. Instead, National romped to the biggest party vote since the start of the MMP era, and we on the left are still sitting down and having a think about it all.
My opinion is that in New Zealand, as in Australia and maybe in other parts of the world, people want strong leadership more than they want strong policy. In other words, voters want someone who will get things done, regardless of what those things are and whether they are in the voter’s own interest. The left in NZ didn’t seem to offer that.
As the dust settled, I made a vow to broaden my horizons outside the white liberal bubble of central Wellington so I have a more accurate picture of New Zealanders’ overall political sentiment. I haven’t done much about that, but I hope the Labor and Green parties have.
The only film I saw twice in 2014 was GONE GIRL, largely because it was such a phenomenon that I knew multiple people who wanted to see it. That isn’t to say I didn’t like the film; I really enjoyed it, and in some respects — especially the ending — it worked a lot better than the book. It was interesting to read the book after seeing the trailer, then watch the full film after reading the book, meaning I had the actors in my head as I read but didn’t know what was going to happen. My conclusion is that Ben Affleck was perfect for the role and Rosamund Pike, who actually had to act, outshone him. And Carrie Coon outshone them both.
But I have to go with ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, which left me buzzing with ideas and appreciation of cinematic craft. I hadn’t liked the Jim Jarmusch films I’d seen previously — they seemed too self-consciously aloof to let me in — but this was a delight in every way, from Tom Hiddleston’s centuries-old ennui to the incredible music, most of it by Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL. I didn’t think it was possible to get me engaged in a story about vampires, but ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE did it by grounding them in the real world: what it would it really be like to live for hundreds of years? How would you survive? What would you learn about life on Earth? This film answered those questions, and asked a few more. I loved it.
I bought a new phone in 2014, a Motorola Moto G. It’s pretty good so far. And my main computer keeps overheating and powering off, which sometimes makes me very angry. I still get angry at inanimate objects, technology more than anything else, and it’s still embarrassing to the point of making me feel like a spoilt little kid every time.
Deno started a book club in 2014, and because I like Deno and want to read more books, I joined up. So far we’ve read some interesting books and repeatedly pushed back our deadlines, which I assume is what most book clubs do.
For the first time since 2006, I spent none of the calendar year outside of New Zealand. Instead, I got to know new parts of my country — Paraparaumu, Porirua, the Rimutakas, Taranaki, the Tararuas, and more — and revisited old favourites like West Auckland’s beaches.
Travel experiences became more about the adventure itself than the destination, and more about the company than the sights (although the sights were often exceptional). Tara witnessed just about everything I witnessed, and she usually instigated the trip. She is the lead explorer in our relationship and pushes us steadily on to the next adventure as soon as the last one is over. Her family call her the Labrador, partly because she goes a bit crazy if she doesn’t go for a walk each day.
As I am now 30, more and more of my friends are getting married. I was even best man at a wedding — that of my oldest friend Stephen, who married Cayley in March. That was a good day.
More and more of my friends are having kids, too. I’m watching them grow up photograph by photograph, video by video, nearly always smiling and happy. Their childhoods are being edited into a selective stream of joyous firsts and daily moments of delight. That sounds a little cynical, but I think it’s a privilege to be able to see those kids at all. I would rather see them all a lot more often and get to know them as people, rather than as two-dimensional flashes of colour, but my Facebook feed is the next best thing. And their parents — my friends — are changing too. A little more weight behind their eyes, a little more openness in their smiles.
I already had a family, but in 2014, I gained another family. Cathy, Jeff, Richard, Ruth, and Kazu have all become an integral part of my life in a very short space of time. We play a lot of board games — preferably ones that involve protracted arguing and shouting, like The Resistance — and we go on walks, picnics, tramps, swims, and holidays. Here I thought you weren’t supposed to get on with your in-laws. I fear these positive relationships in a new area of my life come at the cost of my relationships with family and friends; that the time and energy I’ve used to forge new bonds is limited and needs to be doled out more carefully. Finding a better balance of time spent with people important to me is the biggest thing I have to work on in 2015.
Through it all is Tara, there at my side — or stopped behind me, more likely, to run her hands through long grass or shift a snail from the pavement to the bushes. She adds so much colour to my world and somehow lightens each of my steps — into cold river water, into the vicious slope of another hill, or into the woods with twenty kilograms on my back. She is the constant source of love and intellectual stimulation that sustains me. With Tara, more than in any other part of my life, I am lucky.
The film opens with Jean Watson, eighty, her face creased with river-like wrinkles, wandering around the streets of Kanyakumari and lowering herself into the ocean as dozens of young Indian boys (and a camera) look on. My first thought — I couldn’t help myself — was ‘I’ve swum in that ocean!’ And I had, a strange trip in 2009 during which my then-girlfriend was groped repeatedly and I lacerated my feet on sharp underwater rocks. It’s a beautiful location, revered by many as the point where three seas meet, but my memories of it aren’t entirely positive. No such problems for Jean Aunty, though, who wanders through it all with the same inscrutable expression on her face, and who emerges from the water cleansed and energised, ready for the next challenge.
I hadn’t heard of Jean Watson before seeing AUNTY AND THE STAR PEOPLE, and I expect many New Zealanders won’t have heard of her either, despite her many published novels, her long romance with Barry Crump, and her considerable humanitarian work in India. Watson is one of life’s observers, regularly found at the extreme right or left of group photographs, peering into the camera with the same watchful eye she casts over her surroundings. She is an intrepid, self-effacing realist, moving through life without fanfare; even in a South Indian village, where any foreigner is met with prolonged stares and chatter, she seems capable of blending into the background. Her decades of involvement in improving young boys’ and girls’ lives in India prove that you don’t need to be romantic to be idealistic; she sees the world as it is, not for what it could be, and tries to make it better.
Watson is the chief benefactor of Karunai Illam, which was set up in the late 1980s and which offers orphaned children the value of routine. Rather than being left to scratch around the streets on their own, or bounced from orphanage to orphanage, Karunai Illam gets them out of bed and brushing their teeth at the same time every day before filling them up with a hot meal and sending them off to school. These are children for whom deceased parents are merely a fact of life. But they look healthy, and happy, and show an abundance of curiosity about the world.
In fact, given their aspirations to become doctors and engineers, it’s slightly frustrating that so many of director Gerard Smyth’s questions to the girls revolve around marriage. This feels like a missed opportunity to gain more insight into their deeper thoughts. But marriage and reproduction are also a huge factor in the kids’ lives, an inevitability for many, and probably at a young age; it’s understandable that it might be at the forefront of their minds. And apart from this, Smyth does a fine job of taking us inside Watson’s two worlds: her anonymous writer’s life in Wellington and her status as life-changer for hundreds of children in Nilakkottai.
Apart from Watson and the kids, the other person seen most often in AUNTY AND THE STAR PEOPLE is Joy Cowley, an old friend of Watson’s and — through her innumerable and widely popular children’s books — a friend to almost every New Zealander. Where Watson’s insights are plain-spoken and straightforward, Cowley’s are effortlessly elegant and warm. She has a gift for language and, apparently, great reserves of empathy and generosity. She is a joy to spend a little time with. I can’t wait for the film about her.