We have very much ran out of ways to illustrate the Surrey Hotel

Inside the Surrey Hotel: a writers-residency award winner reports (Plus: YA fiction writers now allowed to enter!)

As the deadline fast approaches for entries to the 2018 Surrey Hotel Steve Braunias Memorial Writers Residency In Association With The Spinoff Award, Wairarapa essayist and 2017 winner John Summers presents his diary of the prize – a five-night stay in Grey Lynn’s Surrey Hotel.

I arrive overdressed. I got up at 5:30am, and wore my overcoat against an almost frosty Wairarapa morning. And now here I am, the same country, except that it’s hot and seamy. The coat is entirely unsuitable, a wool monster. For the next five days it will stay in the Surrey Hotel’s bright white wardrobe, the only thing I bother to hang up. It floats there black and mocking, a reminder of the need to eventually go back to cold old Wellington.

*

The Surrey is later than late Tudor. There are Dickensian sitting rooms with wingback chairs, brass doodads, and toffee-stained wood. Two plaster bulldogs guard an electric fire. There are signs to warn of highwaymen and signs that point out the spa. The ye olde thing continues in the upstairs bar, the sort of cosy nook where you’d enjoy an ale in a pewter tankard, smoke a clay pipe after a long coach ride, content now the horses have been fed and stabled, the Mazda parked away.

Someone has been let loose with this idea, and they’ve succeeded. The hotel is a work of folk art.

*

I’m a cheapskate, always intent on making the most of things, not missing out. I use the little sachets of tea, chocolate and coffee that come with the room, drinking the coffee with the complimentary milk and sugar even though I prefer it black.

After a day of attempted work, I run the bath and soak while drinking one of the beers I chilled in the in-room fridge. Beneath the sink I discover an electric frying pan. It has a dial labelled “self control” and I imagine turning it up to five and stirring a bright mess of eggs in its non-stick pan. I buy a dozen at Countdown and manage to eat three that night. I eat three for lunch the next day. By day four I can’t face another and I head out in search of food.

Stinginess goes part and parcel with indecision. It’s a way to decide – choose cheap. I duck into a bakery for a sausage roll and sandwich. Bending for a paper bag I see that the place is filthy, the floor splattered with bird shit, but it’s too late, I’m committed. The staff are watching, waiting with tongs ready. Back in my room, I discover the sandwich is egg.

THE SURREY HOTEL: QUITE LATE TUDOR STYLE

Antony Millen stayed here, as one of the 2016 winners, and afterwards he wrote that “the person you are at home is the same person you will be during the residency.” He’s right. Your writing personality is your personality and my parsimony extends to words. Too circumspect to put things on a page, too careful of wasting ink. I have my feints. I open a document for each new paragraph until my computer is shuddering with files. I switch from laptop to longhand. “You can’t work in shit,” a factory foreman once told me – he’d caught me standing shin deep in shavings to operate a lathe – and thankfully he can’t see me now, surrounded by crumbs and screwed up sheets of refill.

These tricks only take me so far though. I write a meagre paragraph. I stand up and walk around. I make a cup of coffee. I drink a glass of water. I stand at the balcony. A man walks past, singing to himself. I don’t catch the song but waste a minute listening.

*

Steve Braunias is in the bar. He talks like he writes. I imagine it’s a matter of dictation, putting a bucket beneath the tap. I’m convinced that it comes easier to everyone else.

Later that night I eat noodles in a food court with my friends Thom and Maree. It’s years since I was in Auckland, and they’ve been here for two years now. They are still noticing things. I say I’ve seen a higher proportion of older people dressed like very young people – a man in his 50s slinks by in pale jeans, a hipster’s glasses, with a beanie perched on his head.

“Also really young people who look really rich,” Thom says. He tells me about a bar where everyone was good looking, TV good looking.

“You were there,” I say, not an accusation, just curious whether he counted himself among the beautiful.

“Yeah, and I felt really uncomfortable about it.”

*

In the Surrey dining room, a group of older men at the table behind me are drinking and shouting their conversation. A family opposite gives them dirty looks. Both groups are there for a nice night out, but we all have our different ways of going about it. I’m just happy for the distraction. Back in the room I have 4000 words, lumpy and obvious. I’ll read it all again later and decide it’s not quite so bad, it could be something, but at this point I’d rather listen to someone else’s thoughts.

“The biggest bloody marijuana joint you ever saw,” one of the men says. He’s already been shushed, but quiet is physically impossible. He has a gut like a bellows. He roars. It must be tiring.

“I was rolling around on the floor trying to get fresh air,” he says. I’m sure it’s the same man who, a minute earlier, announced that, “I’ve never even seen marijuana in my bloody life.”

The family go and are replaced by a couple. “I think he liked the quirkiness of it,” one of them says. “Because he’s a quirky sort of character. He stayed here and finished his novel.”

HOW TO MAKE THE AUTHOR WHOM THE AWARD IS NAMED AFTER LOOK PERFECTLY FOOLISH

A man gets on the bus, stepping from the wet pavement in his socks. He jabbers at the bus driver, completely out of his mind. The only word I understand is GoldCard, but still the two of them argue. Eventually he’s turfed off. What a fucking mess, I think. Not him, but us, this place. I suspect he’s come from the boarding house Steve warned me about, a gothic horror where rooms are considered no better than homelessness. A little further down is a dealership of gleaming Maseratis, while right beside it is a brutalist church, the stained glass glowing at night in shards of blue, gold, red. This is a chance to feel smug about my town, so tidy and compact and quiet. It would disappear into this disorderly hulk. I love it here.

*

In St Kevins Arcade I pick up a copy of John Cheever’s journals. Someone drinks a martini on every page, and it’s full of the most incredible, well-turned prose, full of beauty, surprise and despair. I flick and flick, and my delight fades. I feel despair myself. These are just his jottings. Why do I bother? I look around the bus as if the other passengers should share my disbelief. Finally, flicking on, I take some slight hope from this entry: “Waking this morning, I think the book so poor that it should not be published. I think, an hour later, that it can’t be so bad. I shall scythe the orchard.”

*

I start writing the minute I get home.


John Summers worked on an essay about Norman Kirk which is published in the latest issue of North & South. It’s not exactly what we had in mind when we chose him as one of the runners-up – writers write books! – but it’s a jolly good essay.

Entries are open until June 21 for the 2018 Surrey Hotel Steve Braunias Memorial Writers Residency In Association With The Spinoff Award. In breaking news, writers of any discipline – including the formerly forbidden forms of YA fiction and screenplays; repeat, we have changed our minds, and are all good with writers of YA fiction and screenplays – are invited to email a brief outline of their project to madeleine@thespinoff.co.nz.

The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books.

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