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Does literature exist on the other, emptier side of the Rimutakas?

In the latest of our occasional series of essays which investigate whether literature exists in the provinces, John Summers looks for clues in Greytown in the Wairarapa.

I do most of my writing on the Wairarapa line, the WRL. Every morning, every evening, it rattles beneath the hills between Wellington and Greytown with me aboard, tapping away, reading often, sometimes having a sly snooze. For several months of the year, the view is of the dark, the windowpanes so black that you don’t know when the tunnels have stopped or started. I wrote a ghost story on mornings like that, something I would never have considered before, but which seemed like the only response to peering out at that blackness.

My partner Alisa and I moved here from Wellington three years ago. For her there was a job at the local paper, and for me, small towns have always held a fascination. Like most things, this can be traced to childhood, to the time I spent in a small town on the edge of wheat fields, blowdried by nor-westers. My father lived there and, once a fortnight, I’d stay for the weekend, spending years parcelled out two days at a time. I loved it and I hated it. Dad didn’t own a TV and there was always work to do. In winter, the ground froze and his big old house was cold the second you moved away from the fire. But then there was a fire, and I spent hours in front of it, reading his books, feeling them more intently somehow, the quiet and the isolation creating blank space around each word. I liked the small discoveries I made in this town, the mossed-over gravestones behind the church, the paper road that snuck through someone’s section, and the way people had conversations not looking at each other, but at some other thing, a trailer or a pig maybe.

Literature at Fresh Choice in Featherston. Photo: John Summers.

Greytown isn’t like that. “Pretty bougie,”  someone said to me the other day, and I couldn’t disagree. You can pop into Saluté for pan fried fish with cauliflower puree, saffron mayo and micro greens. But beneath the cafes and home décor stores, it has the same bones as every small town, the main drag with a church and a dairy, a pub that sells beer in big brown bottles. The bus driver will chat at length about painting his house or growing asparagus before detouring to drop me at my front gate, and in the working men’s club, a man named Brush told me a story about assembling cars, back when that was still done in this country. The gist of this was that he was sent to Japan to learn how it was that they made 30 Toyotas a day while we only managed three. He flew there, had a great time among the cherry blossoms and he visited a factory where, when the whistle blew for smoko, the men sprinted to their break area, sucked down a cigarette before sprinting back to the production line. The “learnings” from this trip? Yeah nah: New Zealanders would stick to three. I repeat this because I suspect it isn’t a story someone would tell in the city, at least not the way Brush told me. The moral, that we’d rather take our time, would become a caution there.

Alisa and I live here in a house that had belonged to a man taken by dementia. He was probably responsible for the riverstone wishing wells in both the front and back yards. He was almost certainly responsible for the scribbled family tree I found in a wardrobe, with a branch given to Sherlock Holmes. It’s on the East this house, so that on leaving each morning, I turn a corner and there, as if at the end of Kuratawhiti Street, are the Tararua Ranges, in mist sometimes, white in winter.

“The terrifying Kiwi gothic façade of Carterton’s Royal Oak Hotel (it’s actually quite nice inside)”. Photo: John Summers.

“There is a saying here if you see/snow on the mountains, frost/is what you get, and what we’ve got.” Pat White wrote that. Poet, painter, biographer, and the friend of a friend – when we made our plans to move here, he was the only Wairarapa writer I knew of. Probably the only one I guessed. It was the country after all. Culture would mean A&P and Golden Shears, or the crafty stuff they sell weekenders. By the time we got here though, Pat had gone, leaving me to discover his lines in Masterton library, and to learn how wrong I was. One of Alisa’s early jobs was to interview Joy Cowley. That’s national treasure Joy Cowley, whose work has been read by generations, and who wrote one of our best stories, a cut-jewel, “The Silk”. Turns out she lived just up the road in Featherston.

It’s Featherston too that has launched itself as a Booktown, annually inviting local writers as well as visitors to talk about books beneath the sepia photographs of bearded worthies in the town hall. The other towns are in on the act – I once went along to hear poets Gregory O’Brien and Jenny Bornholdt read and discuss their work in Carterton Events Centre in front of an appreciative crowd who had left their homes on a sunny afternoon to sit and listen to poetry. This was no one-off either, but part of a series of events, open mikes and visiting writers, organised by an outfit called Wairarapa Word. Ringleader Madeleine Slavick is herself a writer, coming to Carterton by way of Hong Kong, and has published poems and photographs that bring that cluttered city to the big spaces of the Wairarapa.

Sunset over the Tararua Ranges. Photo: John Summers.

Deborah Coddington lives in the Wairarapa. Lloyd Jones, too, and journalists Michele Hewitson and Greg Dixon. In short, there are plenty of writers here, more than I will know. The other day I opened the latest Sport journal to read a beautiful poem by one William Connor, whose bio note told me that he is, like me, a resident of Greytown. I say opened, but I didn’t need to go that far – the cover was by Sam Duckor-Jones, an International Institute of Modern Letters student who lives in Featherston.

I’ve only really flitted about the edges of all this, still an outsider after these three years. Too busy moseying about, my chief occupation here. I like to drive between the towns spread like islands along State Highway Two, admiring the firewood stacks and junk shops, the terrifying Kiwi gothic façade of Carterton’s Royal Oak Hotel (it’s actually quite nice inside). In the Featherston RSA, beer is served to men in handles and to women in tall glasses. And I can never walk past the noticeboard at Fresh Choice without reading its ads for shit (literally), firewood and puppies, and once even: “How to grow a great beard And trim it to please the ladys [sic]”.

In the warmer months, the days go on and on and on, and finally, the light creeps back so gradually that for a moment, the trees, the lawn and the leaves look dark and potent against the day. It’s then that I like to sit in the conservatory someone has amateurly tacked to the back of the house and look out at my yard. The people behind us have let their garden overgrow and their two dogs roam, making tracks in the tall grass, and at that strange hour it seems to be overflowing, a swamp, a forest, or some other kind of old, unknowable nature coming over the wire fence and through the cabbage trees to take over, claim it all back.

Gee that looks like fun. Photo: John Summers.

I’ve always thought it was the open spaces of this place that have trained my eyes to see these things. But it’s probably just the newness of it all. For so long, I had been bored, always thinking about the next place, another place. I grew sick of Wellington, things there that once seemed surprising became wallpaper, I stopped noticing, and so, for all intents and purposes, I threw a dart at a map. We left to spend a year in a shithole beside the Jiangxi: Nanchang, China. There I got what I wanted. At once it was shocking, different and new: an old lady walked down the street with a bag of live frogs, a rat scurried across the floor of the local pool hall while a man hitched up his pyjama pants before taking a shot. But eventually, we were just waiting behind these people in the supermarket queue, paying the power bill, forgetting to buy laundry powder.

I wrote most of my book in Nanchang, a sort of memoir thing, and I wrote a handful of travel stories too. Although in a way it’s all the same, everything I’ve written has been a travel story of sorts. I don’t mean they’re all five things to do in Paris, but that they’re stories about a time and a place and encounters. Even that ghost story I mentioned earlier is about these things. This is writing fuelled by all that noticing I like to do, and it’s possibly the reason I haven’t tried harder to find other writers out here. Travellers hate the sight of their fellow tourists after all.

We don’t have a reason to stay in the Wairarapa anymore. Officially we’re here because of Alisa’s job at the paper, the need for her to commute to Masterton. But she’s moved on from that, and now gets the train to Wellington every day with me. And so even as we repaint the house and strip old wallpaper, we talk about how this doesn’t mean we’ll be here for ever. Staying put is dangerous. It ends in wishing wells and family trees. And yet, the days continue to come and go, and on the Sunday of a long weekend, when the cars are bumper to bumper down the main drag – it’s Highway Two as well – the drivers tapping the dash as they hurry back to Wellington, I watch from the footpath, standing, still here.


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