I wrote a book. It was published by my friends. It is called Kaitiaki o te pō which means guardian of the night. A guardian of the night is how I heard one Māori man explain the job of an historian.
It occurs to me, two months after the launch, that I should probably say something about the book, and “promote” it on this site. I say “promote” because this site attracts about ten viewers a day and I imagine most of them have come here through a random link. My most popular post in terms of comments and clicks is about Flock of Seagulls. I’m pretty sure the people who read that post don’t stick around.
Rather than say anything about the book, I will reprint here most of what I said at the launch which is how I explained the book to all the people who came to the Aro Valley Community Hall in December 2018 to see the book on its way. If you want a copy you can go to Unity Books in Wellington, or follow this link.
[Sunday 2nd December]
One of my aunts died last night. Aunty Audrey. She was 71.
Each year when I was growing up I went south from Wellington to see my relatives. Sometimes I flew down to Dunedin to stay with my Gran in Mosgiel, and sometimes my mother and I took the car across on the ferry and we drove south. When we drove south there was a routine. Christchurch meant stopping to see Aunty Helen and Aunty Susan and my cousins. Timaru meant Aunty Linda and Uncle Jack. Waikouaiti meant Great Aunty Helen. Alexandra meant Aunty Audrey and Uncle Neville.
I remember their house in Alex. It was actually nearer Clyde, up Springvale Road, a two storey house, and land, in a valley that baked hard and yellow in the summer, and froze hard and grey in the winter. I can remember going to collect the eggs from the coop one morning, and suddenly developing an aversion to soft-boiled eggs when they were presented at the breakfast table 30 minutes later. Being put on a horse and not liking it very much. Going looking for tadpoles with my cousins in the concrete shutes and sluices that ran down from a reservoir. Other things too. Like the terribly unfair way my uncle treated the sons compared to the daughters, and the seeds of resentment that were bedding in for later. Each time we went to their place the Clyde Dam was progressing. Each time we drove through we wondered if it would be the last time we took the winding, narrow road up the Cromwell Gorge. I remember the Cromwell Gorge as a set of little orchards caught between the road and the steep, rocky ranges; run down old wooden sheds, and tall grass; and on the other side, complicated, jagged rocks, stepping down to the bolting, blue water at the gorge floor.
When they moved to a house outside Mosgiel quite a lot about the complicated internal family relationships had begun to unravel, but I discovered jam and cheese sandwiches in their kitchen, and managed to defeat my much younger but highly rated cousin at a game of chess much to my mother’s silent pleasure.
My Aunty Audrey was easy going. I remember her as having tired, but friendly eyes, and an appreciation for self-deprecation. But enormously troubling things happened to her a lot, and the eyes must have been tired for a reason. The last time I saw her was also the last time I saw my Gran. Seeing my Gran again had rubbed me raw, and Audrey was talking about one of the children she had raised and how he was going to come home from Australia soon. It seemed obvious that he wouldn’t come back from Australia. He had a job, and a life, and got back some of the self-confidence he had been robbed of growing up. As far as I know he never did come back, although I suppose he is planning a trip now. For the funeral. I dismissed her talk of a homecoming as naive, but it was probably hope. Probably based in some regrets. But I don’t know because I never truly engaged with her life when I grew up. Never sat down and figured it out. Which is lazy and unfair.
I try to get it righter in retrospect. That’s some of what I am doing when I write I think. Trying to look back to understand now: understand the students in front of me, the injustices in the world, the causes of the feelings I have about myself and others.
And now I must invite three people to the room who cannot be here.
The first is Matt.
When my friend – who was a friend to many in this room also – died in 2012, I was devastated. The solitary positive thing that came out of his death was my renewed understanding of the importance of connection. That sharing loss gives us a little power against death. We don’t have to be entirely naked in the face of our mortality. So I invite you here Matt because you always believed in me. You always said I would write a book. You accepted as inevitable that I had talent and that others would appreciate it. And I always thought, but never said: “Why?” I never said it because you were so confident. Because your belief was complete. And so, I need you here so that I can thank you.
The second is Gran.
I stayed with my Gran in the school holidays a lot in the 1980s and those times are a rock, and an anchor to me in a time that otherwise often felt confusing and lonely. Each day of each visit to my Gran’s had the same rhythm. The same rituals, the same quiet presence of love behind the most prosaic quotidian tasks. I apologise for getting older and thinking too much of myself. For not coming to see you more often in my twenties. I want you to know how much our time sits with me even now. When you died it was time. I was there to take the handle of your casket. But I’m older now and I still want to say, so that you hear, “I love you.”
The last is my father.
He’s on the cover of the book. Looking away. There, but not knowable. He died when I was five and I remember almost nothing of him, and nothing clear and concrete. When I became a father at 33 I went looking for him. Down south. With the people who had known him. The few who were left. It was illuminating and frustrating. As if I could sharpen the focus on the photo of him on the bridge, but not get him to turn around, and look at me. What my trip down south and my interviews did was change my relationship with him. I stopped ignoring him, downplaying and erasing him, and I let him come back. I accepted the pain of it. The confusion of it. So that I could also hear about his love, and gentleness and compassion. His death was one of the detonating events in my life, and it has only been in the last few years that I have realised that the fact of that makes me who I am.
So I ask him here today to say sorry. Sorry I forgot you. I won’t do that anymore.
I like to think that the orchards and the old huts are still there in the Cromwell Gorge. Submerged under the wide, flat reservoir waters that rose above them; that built behind the completed concrete buttresses of the Clyde Dam. I like to think that we can go back. That we can slip off the surface and plunge into the depths and see the past, and learn from it. That the past can be medicine. That it can make me better. More compassionate. More loving.
My Aunty Audrey had dementia. Her memory was unmoored. She is gone now, but I still have a duty to her. To understand her better. To make the time to see my cousins.
I remember Matt, Gran and Dad. And I have a duty to my family, friends and colleagues.
Thank you for being here. It means a lot to me. I’m very lucky to know you and I rarely say it. We’re important to each other, and I look forward to being able to celebrate your achievements with you in the future.