Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley

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You never know how things will turn out.  Grand plans often end up rather differently from how they were envisioned.  Sometimes, on the other hand, those plans come out more or less right, different of course from the original thought, but more or less as you had hoped it might be.

Going to Danyl’s book launch last night felt like the latter.  Somehow it seemed right that we were all at Danyl’s book launch, and that it was at Philosophy House.  In the summer of 1991 I’m pretty sure this is what we expected would happen out of our writing group.  Not as late as 2013 perhaps; not married with children, and certainly not working for “the man”, but the essence of the thing – a published novel, a book launch – was achieved as we had expected.  The joy and glow of the occasion only proved how rarely, in fact, what we hope for is actually attained, and how wonderful it is when it happens.

Philosophy House is the grandest building on Aro Street.  From the street it is imposing, and it only becomes more so as you climb the wide steps that sweep up to the front doors.  The heft of the three storey mass of brick and plaster is a little undercut by the yellow earthquake notice stuck to the front door (“The drill,” the publisher said at the start of his speech, “if there’s an earthquake, is we go back out the front doors as fast as possible”).

Danyl was just inside the second set of doors shaking hands (just to the left of the statue of Ganesha playing some tabla drums).  He had been freshly laundered and clipped and was looking content and extremely pleased to be standing at the second set of doors (just to the left of Ganesha) shaking people’s hands as they arrived at his book launch, which is about how I would feel.  When we arrived the main hall was already full of people and the wine counter and the Unity book table were thick with customers.  The main hall of Philosophy House is a very odd room: grand, and gracious but unquestionably odd.  Odd because of the eclectic mix of decorations –  Botticelli paintings and pictures of an Indian guru sit unhappily next to each – but principally odd because it appears to have a large trapdoor built into the ceiling.

Because there were instructions not to explore the building most people at the book launch went and explored the building.  It was a building of rooms filled with circles of chairs and blackboards.  Behind the main hall was a large lounge where philosophical texts could be purchased (mostly sort of religious rather than philosophical), and beyond that a kitchen where Unity staff were marshaling nibbles and wine glasses.  I was told that upstairs there were more rooms where people could sleep.  It is these little cells that were what pushed the original inhabitants out of this building in the end.  Originally built to accommodate and train the unmarried man in the ways of salvation the building became impractical post World War Two when most of its trainees were already married with families and didn’t want to squash into the little rooms anymore.

Philosophy House was first opened on Thursday 2 April, 1914 as the Salvation Army Training College and William Booth Memorial, and this building’s transition – from training ground for soldiers for Christ to home for vague, wishy-washy, philosophical abomination – is in itself  a good example of visions not ending up how they are planned.  Hung inside the building I noticed a little photo of the building’s opening splash (just down the hall from the framed texts about the fundamentals of economics).

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Here is the official party on the steps before a seated throng of feathers and top hats, a little wind at the Union Jacks, the odd parasol up to block the sun slanting in from the west straight into the eyes of the brass band.

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The Honourable Fisher, Minister of Customs, spoke first, and ended worthily:

“To General Booth the devoted soldiers of his Army have dedicated this Memorial College.  The very atmosphere of the building is hallowed by his spirit.  His life is an inspiration to all men.  He has blazed the path for you, his officers and soldiers, to follow.  May each and every one of you profit by the noble example of unflagging self-sacrifice that he has set.”

As Prime Minister Massey, and others, nodded along (or off), there must have been plenty of men and women feeling the heat of the autumnal sun, plenty of mums shushing their kids, and plenty of kids who were chaffing at all the standing around in starched collars and leather shoes that pinched.  Sitting on the brick walls at the fringe were barefoot boys loitering about,

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a collection of empty prams left at the bottom of the steps,

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and two little girls, all dressed up, with Mum, looking out at the funny looking man down on Wordsworth Street with all his camera equipment.

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It’s the boys at the edges that suggest problems with the Salvation Army’s vision.  The boys on the edge don’t look like they’d be too interested in being saved.

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And a letter in the Evening Post suggests that there were indeed some members of the crowd in need of salvation:

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I’m afraid I’m on the side of the criminals, and the loiterers over the fence on this particular occasion.  Looking at the row of men in phony military uniforms, with phony military titles, talking about their phony cadets and phony army I feel a deep sense of unease and distaste.  In a few short months World War One would begin, and characters like Prime Minister Massey would rail in Parliament against shirkers like Quakers who conscientiously objected to war (the Salvation Army, I am sure, were more enthusiastic joiners).  So, I am sorry for the elderly gentleman and his lost glasses, but I am happy at anything that struck against the pompous, worthiness of that particular occasion.

Almost one hundred years later the main event at the former William Booth Memorial Training College was the launch of Danyl’s book.  A quite different affair from the one described above.  Fergus Barrowman, the publisher, made a speech, and then Danyl spoke.  It seemed a long way from the time when we  used to hang about in floaty pirate shirts and imagine we were going to be wildly successful authors.  He wrote imitations of The Wasp Factory, and I wrote imitations of Hemingway.  Neither of us were very good.  Mainly because we were very young and as ignorant as swans.  I have no doubt that the spirit of William Booth disapproved of the whole affair last night, but he’s had plenty to disapprove of over the last forty years in that building since his name was chipped off the front, and his soldiers sold him off.

I’d like to think that the grubby, little, barefoot pickpockets won in the end.  That they were with us last night, skulking down the hallways, peering into the little rooms, drinking the wine, and raising a glass to the wonderful, and wholly irreligious, Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley.

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John-Paul

I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō

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