Alan Loney: The Falling (2002)

Jack Ross, ed.: brief 24 (July 2002)

Alan Loney, The Falling: A Memoir. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2001. ISBN: 1 86940 250 2. [viii] + 130 pp. RRP: $29.95.

Alan Loney: The Falling (2001)

My name is Robert Hale, or, if you’d prefer, my name is Alan Loney. [3]

Alan Loney’s latest book, a memoir of a childhood friend killed in the Tangiwai disaster of 1953, begins by explicitly disavowing ventriloquism. “Robert Hale” is asked to speak for himself, in this instant frozen from his fall into the raging Whangaehu river, but the “writer has not even made any pretence at ‘character’, at how adolescent boys might talk or write.”
It could be that the writer lacks the ability to create those believable characters we are supposed to find in novels [11]

Working out just what point Loney is making takes time, and for this reason it seems sensible to parallel his book with the recent TVNZ Documentary New Zealand film “The Truth about Tangiwai,” directed by David Sims, and broadcast on TV1 on the 22nd of April this year.

Loney [p.15] gives us the derivation of the word ‘Lahar,’ and a description of the effects of a volcanic mud-slide. The documentary introduces us to two young climbers who measured Mt. Ruapehu’s crater lake shortly before the eruption, and warned of its imminent overflow.

Loney [p.55] invokes the memory of Cyril Ellis, who “ran down the line towards the oncoming train, waving his torch at the looming headlight in front of him, and ‘who saw the plunge’.”. The documentary investigates and debunks this story, much to the chagrin of some of those interviewed.

Loney [pp.7-8] talks of the perfect condition of the train, and the frequent inspections of the bridge. “So that’s it. No blame attaches.” [9] For him “disaster” means just that: misalignment of the stars. The documentary goes into great detail about a misalignment of the bridge’s central pillar caused by an earlier flood, and rebukes the complacency of railway engineers and officials.
I went in, sat in a pew, put my notebook in the little shelf where the hymn books used to be on the back of the pew in front of me, and ‘lost it’, weeping, all over again. [73]

While researching his book Loney revisited a lot of places: his friend’s grave in Auckland, the site of the disaster (at the precise time of night it took place), and (here) his old home town, Upper Hutt. It’s a remarkable piece of writing. The grief it records seems naked enough, and yet those inverted commas around ‘lost it’ remind us that this is an intensely guarded self-revelation. “Lost it’ might also remind us of Dante, the selva oscura [dark wood] where he found himself smarrita [lost] in the first canto of the Divine Comedy:
My friend is Greek, a poet and a healer. He says we all have to undertake the journey to the underworld in this life to prepare for death. The journey’s name is nekuia. In Home it is Odysseus’s journey to the underworld … In Virgil it is Aeneas … In Dante it is Virgil who is Dante’s guide … [41]

The thing to emphasise about passages such as this is that they are not meant as adornments, attempts to find an analogy to Loney’s secular quest for the details of his friend’s story. The descent into the underworld is the book’s subject. It is Tangiwai that serves as the analogy to Avernus and the land of the shades: “For me, well, I am still there, or at least finding my way out” [41]
So why, dear Robert, am I telling you this? Well, I know now what I did not know then, which is that I envied your death. [115]

This is the smoking gun, the crucial revelation. Working out the implications of this fact, the fact that, in a very literal sense, “I have to die that I may live,” is the burden of the “tract” Loney has written.
the death I have to die is the life I wanted to lose in envying you the death you died. [115]

The TVNZ documentary ends as any good piece of investigative journalism should – with a bringing to book of culprits past and present. The disaster becomes little more than a vindication of past criticism. And it is undoubtedly appropriate that these facts should be known. “‘Getting it’ is getting the message, taking the information into ourselves’ [14] says Loney. His book ends with its protagonist still magically suspended above the river:
I think I just saw some of the glass slivers, that have been hovering in the air, move. I cannot of course be sure. As if I am about to fall out of this falling, if you see what I mean. [129]

I learnt more about the events of Tangiwai from watching the documentary. But it left me with a sour taste in my mouth: a sense of futility and wasted effort. I learnt something about being alive from reading Alan’s book. His fastidious honesty, and courage in facing grim facts about himself, seems a far more fitting memorial to the 151 souls who died that night in the turbid waters [Whangaehu] of the river of tears [Tangiwai].


brief 24 (2002): 78-79.

[865 wds]

brief 24 (2002)


  1. Thanks for your comments. I am about to re-read The Falling which is one of the best books I have read. In early 60's I went to Alan to learn to play drums (the proper way; by reading music) but I was in a hurry and went out to play rock n roll. With the result that even today I'm limited in what I can play. I thank him for his lesson. "Learn the rules before you break them." I hope we catch up one day. Aroha Andy Anderson

  2. Thanks Andy - your comments are much appreciated.