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BooksApril 4, 2016

The Monday extract: Going South, by Colin Hogg

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An excerpt from Colin Hogg’s sweet, elegiac book Going South, about going on a roadtrip with his friend, the journalist Gordon (“Gordie”) McBride. The two first met at the Southland Times in Invercargill. Hogg takes up the story in chapter one…

Shortly after turning 21, I packed all my records in my car and moved with my girlfriend and soon-to-be-wife to a job at the New Zealand Herald in far-off Auckland, and two years after that I went to London, where I stayed three years. Then I came back to Auckland and the Herald again, then the Auckland Star, where I got back into the music writing and managed to turn it into a fulltime job.

It was after I’d established myself as a record and show reviewer and rock star interviewer up in Auckland at the turn of the 1980s that Gordie took to occasionally ringing me up out of the blue in the early hours. He’d usually be half-cut in a bar in Wellington, arguing with someone about who played what on which song when and wanting me to settle the matter with my apparently unassailable knowledge of such things.

Gordon had made a smart move, I thought, getting across to television. There wasn’t all that much life left in newspapers by then, though that had been coming for a while. The truth is that the newspaper business was already on the start of the slide even way back when Gordie and I signed on in the late 1960s.

At the Auckland Star they launched a daily entertainment section, and I started writing music stuff for it and running it, too, after a while. Then they launched a full-blown daily feature section which I was put in charge At one mad point, I had a staff of 16, including several ancient and cynical veterans.

We had an unprecedented amount of fun while somehow managing to keep our work standards up, though I couldn’t help noticing increasing evidence that it came at a cost. A lot of us drank too much, and sometimes drank so much that we’d fall out or even sleep with each other when we shouldn’t have. But consequences didn’t count so much then, and, besides, we thought the good times would never end.

But they did end. It was when, somewhere behind a closed door one day, the accountants finally won the holy, never-ending war with the editorial department and set about killing the once bold and beloved Auckland Star, not all of a sudden, but by a thousand cuts. Editors came and went. I went, too, several times. Before it was all over, I’d worked for the Star three different times, and the Herald three times, too.

Eventually, I drifted into TV, too, when I figured out that making documentaries was a bit like writing feature stories. They just involved more electricity and people pointing cameras, and it took longer to make them. But the money was good, and there was still some of that precious stuff, freedom.

Sometime in the 1990s, Gordie was up in Auckland for a day and we made contact and met for lunch at one of those upmarket restaurants down on the city’s waterfront. It must have been summer because I remember it was sunny. We ate Bluff oysters and drank a lot of wine. I know that last bit because I had an alcohol-assisted rush of blood to the head and came up with the idea that we should go for a bit of a road trip together sometime, back down south. But, I emphasised to him, we needed a reason to go. Trips are always better when there’s a reason.Then I promptly forgot about the conversation.

But Gordie didn’t forget. He’s not only a rock, he’s an elephant. Independently, he decided we should go to Central Otago, and he announced this when a few weeks later he rang me out of the blue at two in the morning and woke me up.

We were, according to him, going to Naseby, where we could do some curling if we went in the winter. He’d booked a pub for us to stay at and everything. But I wasn’t so sure curling was a good enough idea, and I didn’t go in the end.

But he went anyway, taking some of his new Wellington mates, and turning it into an annual event involving curling and running up massive bar tabs.

He kept on inviting me for a few years, but after a bit he gave up and stopped asking. I had cold feet about the curling, though I didn’t tell him that. Also I felt we might get into some sort of trouble. I had kids by then, and perhaps I was trying to put bad behaviour behind me at the time. I probably remembered some of the madness we got up to when we were running together back in Invercargill, and worried that it might spontaneously combust again and there might be injuries or arrests.

But still the two of us would make some sort of contact every year or so, though we’d only rarely see each other. And the time rolled by, faster and faster, as it does, just like the old folk warned us it would, though we didn’t believe them.

Over the years, I have been married, officially or otherwise, three times, and become father to five girls and a boy, and now, incredibly, grandfather (though we don’t use that word) to four, shortly five, grandchildren. All my kids are grown up now and off in several parts of the world with their own lives.

Well, all except the youngest, who’s 16, still at school and living at home with me and her mother, who I’ve been with for 22 years, bless her. We decided we liked each other so much that we even got married a few years ago. Things seemed settled, life went on, running straight ahead, it seemed, into the rest of the future.

Then, just when I was expecting nothing to happen, everything changed, as it does sometimes.

Right out of the blue, we moved to Wellington, which was about the last thing I expected after living 40-odd years in Auckland, having up to that point enjoyed quite a nice fat career doing pretty much what I liked most and being paid quite a lot for doing it.

But I really should have seen it coming. Nothing was quite the same anymore, especially in the scribbling business I’d been in for so long. Now it wasn’t so free and easy. Now I was older, I’d been doing what I’d been doing for rather a long time and my relevance, work-wise at least, was less relevant in an endlessly relevant business.

The last bit of the good times had been quite good, though. On the back of getting a couple of series commissioned by TVNZ, I’d started my own TV production company, taken a lease on an office on fashionable Ponsonby Road, employed regular staff, made good money, had lots of business lunches, bought a Mercedes-Benz, and started wondering what my next trick might be.

Up to that point, there always had been a new trick. But then it turned out that there was no new trick. After a few years of making them, my sorts of TV shows — documentaries and series about books and such — weren’t the sorts of TV shows the big TV channels wanted anymore. I was being a bit too arty when everything was turning to reality and cooking and singing contests, the stuff of children. I could see the end coming, so I walked towards it, made my last show, shut my company down, had a last big wrap party, said goodbye to the staff and went home.

At first, I was more relieved than mournful. I thought I’d go back to writing for print, where I’d started out. But I should have looked more closely. The old business was really dying now, moving from critical to terminal, the country’s newspapers and magazines fading faster and faster, as they were around the modern world. I’d turned back only to find myself chasing an outgoing tide. Everything was downsizing, including me.

After never missing a deadline across 30 years, my column and I were dropped by Woman’s Weekly. The editor, another new one, rang and said I didn’t fit anymore because the magazine was chasing a new demographic, something faintly disturbing called the “yummy mummy”.

I didn’t know what to say to that. The editor said she knew I’d understand and I said I did, but I didn’t really, and perhaps neither did she because, within a few months, she was gone, too.

Inside a year, I wasn’t being recognised anymore by older ladies in supermarkets, which was a shame. I quite liked being recognised by them. They used to be my key demographic, I suspect.

“I know who you are,” they’d say to me up the cereal aisle.

“So do I,” I’d say right back.

I loved my elderly lady readers and I miss them sometimes, usually in the supermarket. After giving up on TV and losing the WW column, things went from slightly bad to worse at some pace, until my career had handily shrunk to the point where what was left could be put in my back pocket and taken almost anywhere, even to another city, which is just what happened.

The only good thing, it seemed, that could be immediately said about the whole deal was that I’d be in the same town as my old pal Gordon. It was my wife Philippa’s new job that moved us to Wellington, and things didn’t at first go very well. In fact they went bad fast, a bit like the winds in that part of the country.

But at least Gordie and I caught up with each other. We had lunches and dinners and drinks. We went to each other’s houses. We seemed to enjoy each other’s company in a new, dare I say mature, way, though sometimes we were still so excited at being in each other’s company that we drank too much.

Meanwhile, I tried to write my way through the changes in my life, thinking I might have a little fun with the heaviness, turn it into a column. For decades, I’d been writing about myself and my kids for the magazine that had now dropped me so unkindly, and the habit was quite hard to shake.

But no one seemed to want to print that sort of thing anymore. Or their budgets didn’t stretch to such fripperies. Or maybe the Auckland paper I offered it to didn’t want the pieces I wrote because they were about an Aucklander moving to Wellington, which was unthinkable. And the Wellington paper I offered the columns to didn’t want them because they were a bit rude about Wellington, which was unacceptable. It was a hopeless situation.

Still, I’d always found that writing had saved me in some way, even if it never got out to readers.


Going South by Colin Hogg (HarperCollins) is available at Unity Books.

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