Captions

Along the waterfront in Wellington the council have put a pink line about 5 centimetres wide on the footpath.  If you follow it you will come to little information boxes that point out different features of Whanganui-a-Tara. Sometimes it explains a sculpture, and sometimes a landmark.  At one point it gives the the story of Ngake and Whātaitai and how they formed Wellington Harbour.  There is one that shows where the waka used to land, and another that explains how the area was once full of kaimoana and tuna.

Because most of us don’t understand the land we walk in anymore it comes with captions.  We can look at the view, and then look down and find out what it means.  What it meant.  On this concrete strip there was a shore of sucking mud, and a silvery flat filigree of rivulets coming from the tall, thick reeds behind, and then the steep banks covered in bush.

Not anymore.

I came to the boat shed by Freyberg Pool.  The pool sticks out from the shoreline, and there are tall windows down each side of the building.  Inside the windows there are a row of running machines where people come and run, and check their fitbits, and run, and check their music, and run, and then go and change, and maybe grab a coffee and head to work.  Just under them, under the running machines, outside the building and below the windows, is a path so that people can walk around the outside of the pool, and lying there are two people sleeping.  Their bare, dirty feet stick out from under their dirty, cheap children’s blankets.

They’re brown feet of course.

It reminds me of standing in Te Aro park and looking at the hoardings on the Opera House advertising Madiba.  The picture shows the silhouette of a man – Mandela – with his fist raised: power, resistance, solidarity.  And underneath the hoarding, in front of the glass doors into the foyer, a man and a woman with all their things in a shopping trolley.  Sitting on cardboard.  Waiting out the day.  You know what colour their skin was.

We went sailing.  A group of students and some sailors and me.  After we had learned to tie some ropes, and had some lunch, and pulled on our overalls, and jackets and lifejackets we got on the sailboats and went out into the great harbour of Tara.  The students are from a class especially constructed.  They are intelligent, funny, talented students who need some love.  We all need love, of course, but most people can pretend they don’t.  Here the love is more open.  The drama too.

I put on sunscreen and the students laughed at me.

“What are you doing, mister?”

“I’m white.”

“You need a bit of colour.”

I ignored them and tried to look dignified rubbing SPF 50+ into my bald spot.

On a sail boat in the middle of the harbour everything looks different.  Being there makes the land you grew up on strange again.  I can see how Ngauranga looks like a gash, the kind a mighty tail might make as it thrashed and propelled a taniwha through the water and towards the harbour entrance.  How Mākaro Island is bigger than it looks from the shore, and has a good beach and bush along its steep cliffs.  How vital Tāwhirimātea is to the life of Whanganui-a-Tara.  If you have the rope in your hand for the mainsail you can feel Tāwhirimātea’s  pull, and how the boat seems always to be wrestling against your hand, and him, and the pitch of the wave.

Sail boats are counter-intuitive to me: it’s better if they’re tipping; you shift the rudder handle in the direction opposite the way you want to go.  I understand.  I steer the boat, for perhaps an hour, but it never feels right.  It is a constant act of concentration to adjust the rudder in the correct direction, and sometimes my mind flips back and I am wrong-headed again.  I once went in a very little sail boat with Cathy in the Marlborough Sounds.  The combination of the wind hitting the sail, and my ignorance of the rudder capsized us.  I remember hitting the water and then surfacing.  I could see my glasses floating on the surface when I reemerged and I plucked them out of the sea and slapped them on my face.  I could see and breath again.  How quickly I had been dumped out of both.

Back in the meeting room where we learned to tie the ropes, and after the sailing, I studied the information boards on the walls.  Pictures of boats and people going back a hundred years.  Not further.  Wellington Harbour.  Somes.  Ward.  A picture showed a group of people at the 1999 Port Nicholson Regatta.  It looked like a fancy dress party.  Everyone smiling.  Holding a drink.  The large, portly man in the middle of the photo was wearing a grass skirt and had painted his whole face and body black.

There’s the show, and the running machines, and the regatta, and there’s the sleeping rough, and the shopping trolley.  There’s Somes and Ward and Wellington Harbour, and there’s Matiu, and Mākaro and Whanganui-a-Tara.  There’s being in command of the wind and the waves and the rudder, and there’s being dumped in the sea.  No sight, no breath.  A history paved over, with a caption in the master’s tongue telling you what is gone.

And it’s not even gone.

 

 

This Time Around

This time around has it gone so grey that my faith can’t hold out?
Haven’t you heard there’s a somber wind gets my head away now
***
I don’t wanna try no longer your songbird singing the darkest hour of the night
I don’t wanna find that I’ve been marching under the crueler side of the fight
It makes me want to cry
The Time Around, Jessica Pratt
There’s something about a windy, spring day.  It’s unsettling.  The way it whips snatches of sound from far across the neighbourhood right to your ear, or makes it hard to hear conversation just a metre away.  A windy, spring day has the same scattered, frustrating feel as sweeping leaves in a gust.  Your thoughts and ideas will not form and instead side with the constantly resisting wind.
*
I notice who is at the edge of the scene when I walk to work.  The edge of the scene in Newtown, or down Courtney Place.  The centre is held by the cars.  The noisy, assertive cars are taking people to work and school in the morning; bringing them home in the evening.  On the footpaths people walk to school or to the bus stop to go to work.
*
But the centre cannot hold.  Peripheral to the road and the footpath is the man who sits in the doorway of the derelict shop in dirty clothes with thick, grimy hair.  I think he’s 30.  About 30.  He looks angry, and sometimes gets up and walks to the corner where a set of traffic lights rotate, halt and release the streams of traffic.  If I walked another way I would pass two people who sleep in the doorway of another derelict building, a few doors down from the office of the local MP.  They string up a rope and hang a blanket between them and the footpath and we –  the ones in the centre of the scene of life – can all pretend that they aren’t there behind the blanket.  On either side of the road in front of the Newtown Mall there are usually beggars.  They ask for money, and being ashamed I try not to walk past them.
*
Not that all the people I see begging are Māori, but most are.
*
I see them.  I see you.  I know what you mean.  I know how you make me feel.  I know what history looks like when it wears a human form: it sits in a car and drives to work;  it sleeps in a doorway and begs.
*
I’m sure a society based on injustices cannot be just.  I’m sure that an ideology that separates people from nature can never halt climate change.
*
I remember the man with no hands at an intersection in Delhi; a bucket over one stump beating on car windows while the passengers looked stiffly ahead.  I remember the girl, who must be a woman now, begging for food outside the bookshop in Hanoi.  I remember eating fish and drinking wine at a Michelin star restaurant in Paris.  I remember buying a Paul Smith tie in Osaka and enjoying the compliments I receive every time I wear it.  I’m reminded of the end of the world every time I roll the recycling bin to the curb.
*
A door slams somewhere and a dog barks.  There are leaves skittering across the concrete path.  A song goes around and around on the speaker,
*
I don’t wanna try no longer your songbird singing the darkest hour of the night
*
This time around.