Brian Flaherty, Anne Kennedy & Robert Sullivan, ed.: Trout: Online Journal & Press (2012)
For quite a number of years, the first thing anyone adventurous enough to get off the bus at Mairangi Bay would see was a large sign reading:
I can’t claim any particular credit for this idea. In fact, I’ve often suspected that the “Jack” in question might have been “Jack Daniels” rather than myself. It did rather tickle me, though –– and it was certainly useful when giving directions to visitors.
It’s true that a satrical friend once dubbed me “the Poet Laureate of Mairangi Bay”, but I guess the point of the jest was that everyone else living there was entirely unaware of this distinction. Like most seaside suburbs, Mairangi Bay is a good place to hide. There’s certainly no question of affixing official plaques to the doors of particularly distinguished inhabitants (R. A. K. Mason, for instance, who once lived behind what was then a flax swamp, but is now a sports field, at the bottom of Matipo Road.)
Despite this anonymity, I’m interested to think that when I started my blog, The Imaginary Museum, in 2006, the first web-address that occurred to me was http://mairangibay.blogspot.com/. There you’ll find it to this day.
It’s strange to grow up in a place, and watch it change over the years, and thus gradually to become aware of a kind of ghost landscape underlying the everyday one. This buried village, for me, includes the little creek which once came out at the far side of the shops, and which is now covered by the gravel parking area of the “North Plaza” shopping centre. It includes the Salad Bowl, the dairy which once stood on the corner of Hastings Road and Beach Road, and which has now been swallowed up by “Green Gables” (or the Elephant House, as my father prefers to call it) – together with the little hill which once rose up immediately behind it.
It was the Salad Bowl I was heading for one fine day at about the age of seven, when I narrowly avoided being run down by a speeding station wagon. I can still see the driver leaning out of his window and bellowing “What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?” I also remember reaching the shop, with the five or ten cents of my weekly allowance, and being assured by the ebullient shop owner, “Cheer up, it might never happen!” The withering look I gave him was apparently so striking that he reported it to my mother on her next visit.
It seems ridiculous to feel attached to a place as garish, concreted and compromised as Mairangi Bay. It simply doesn’t stand out, even among the other beach suburbs of Auckland’s East Coast Bays. It also sounds a bit odd, I suspect, to have lived here for so long. My parents moved here to start up a medical practice in (I think) 1958, just before the Harbour Bridge opened, back in the days of the Shore vehicular ferries.
I studied abroad in Scotland for four years, lived in Belgium for six months or so. I spent a year in Palmerston North, had a flat in Takapuna for another six months. With the exception of these minor truancies, I’ve lived in Mairangi Bay all my life, for more than forty years.
It’d be nice to think that all this added up to some kind of intense regional insight: Faulkner in Oxford, Mississippi (magically transformed to his mythical “Yoknapatawpha County”), Ronald High Morriesson in Hawera, even Kendrick Smithyman and his friends in Point Chevalier concocting the “Mudflat School” of New Zealand poetry. Mairangi Bay is a lot more vacuous than that: its charms (if charms it has) more subtle.
I gave up years ago trying to explain why I could never imagine living on the far side of the Bridge, why the mere thought filled me with dread. It seems so old over there, so – divorced from the sea ... Auckland (to me) is a place that you visit, as in “going to town”, not a place you inhabit. How silly this sounds to the proud inhabitants of Ponsonby and Grey Lynn, let alone all those tree-huggers out in Titirangi and parts west!
Instead I decided to evade the issue by coming up with the designation “Old Shore”. This started off as a joke, but has long since outgrown any humorous potential it may ever have possessed. It’s a bit like charting the growth of a cargo cult, I guess.
“Old Shore”, then, in its original and purest form, is the contention that Mairangi Bay remains exactly as it was in the lone sun-soaked days of the 1960s, when children never wore shoes – in school or out of it; when all travel was by bike or bus, pesky cars being rare (and SUVs a nightmare still to come); when a towel and jandals were perfectly acceptable attire for all social occasions (including supermarket shopping); and when nothing stood between you and your morning swim but a few lines of kelp left by the storms and high winds the night before.
It’s amazing how far you can go on this simple hypothesis. Shopowners may not actually like you tracking in sand and dripping seawater over everything, but very few of them will actually protest to paying customers. Yuppies especially detest seeing you tramp past them on the pedestrian crossing first thing in the morning as they’re beginning the long commute into town, but what can they do? Kill you? From the way they lean on their accelerators, it’s clear that the thought has crossed their minds.
The great thing is, I’m so Old Shore myself (my father’s parents first moved to Torbay – or “Deep Creek,” as it was then known – in the 1930s, back when Mairangi Bay was called “Little Murrays;” long before an enterprising estate agent dreamed up the wholly spurious monicker which it now affects; basically before the invention of manned flight or the internal combustion engine), that I can assert virtually anything about the ancient culture of these parts without fear of contradiction.
It’s true, of course, that a prophet tends to lack honour in his own backyard. My own mother has expressed a certain scepticism about this whole notion of being “Old Shore.” Since she hales originally from Sydney, though, most things New Zealand lack – shall we say? – polish for her. She’s only been living here three or four years longer than me, in any case, and lacks that essential distinction of being from here: the lack of anything substantive to compare it to is, I feel, an essential part of being Old Shore.
Sometimes as I’m gassing on in this vein, waxing lyrical about the wonders of the rockpools and sand-dunes of old, the marvellous profusion of pipis along the lowtide mark on the beach, adjudicating nervous claims to be “Old Shore by proxy,” by marriage or descent, I begin to get a nervous feeling that the whole thing is getting away from me, that it’s starting to sound awfully plausible.
That ghost landscape really is under there below all the leaky homes and the ranch-style dwellings, after all. There really is a network of creeks piped under the undulating asphalt of the roads and parking areas. Every now and then I see an old photo of the bay and realise that that set of scrubby shops surrounded by toetoe and marram grass is not just a private fantasy, but once had a real, objective existence.
I suppose I miss it. That’s the truth of it. And in the final analysis, it’s the fact that I can still climb up on one of the headlands at either end of the beach, and look out over the channel past Rangitoto, with the ships floating into the Hauraki Gulf from the trackless ocean, exactly the same view I would have had in my childhood, or a hundred years before that, or a hundred years before that, which keeps me living here.
The idea of being “Old Shore” may be a load of old tosh, but living with a certain respect for the place you grew up in, a landscape with profound and complex resonances for you, your past, seems far from frivolous to me.
My Gaelic-speaking relatives on the West Coast of Scotland often refer to the rich Southrons who drive up all the prices by buying up the old crofts and transforming them into designer pads – the kind of middle-class scum celebrated by TV programmes such as Grand Designs – as “the white settlers.”
One can go a bit too far with this last of the Mohicans attitude, I guess. Who was there before you, after all? (A pretty pointed question in any part of Aotearoa New Zealand). The point is not to despise all such incomers, I think, but rather to remind them, gently, that there’s a lot to be learned, a few country deities to be propitiated, before one can roar around like a tool as if one owned the place.
Trout 17: Home Spaces (2012).
[Available at: http://www.trout.auckland.ac.nz/journal/17/17_40.html]
Trout 17 (2012)