Book of the Week: Jane Westaway reviews Colin Hogg’s portrait of poet Sam Hunt.
Personal disclosure first. Sam Hunt and I crossed paths back in the 1970s and early 80s, in his Bottle Creek/Battle Hill/Death’s Corner days. His Minstrel-the-dog and first-son days. And at what he would probably dislike being dubbed his peak-celebrity days. He was a friend of a friend, always amiable, always entirely uninterested in me, which is what you expect from a celebrity. Even when he was holding court with his endless drainpipe legs stretched across my cottage floor.
He was somewhat more friendly with my ex-husband. So that, on the day we turned up to court to be granted our decree nisi, we relied on Hunt to formally declare that the two of us had not lived together under the same roof for two years. He passed unnoticed in the busy courtroom until, once on the stand and asked to state his full name, his voice rang out, “Samuel Percival Maitland Hunt”. The room froze and everyone started.
Due process completed, we three toasted our performances by moving directly from the court to the nearest pub.
About that time Hunt published Drunkard’s Garden, containing the poem “The men of Moonshine”. They were not now, he wrote, men like Chris Glennie, who had drunk hard and fought the law:
Another breed of man –
If breed of man he be –
has pitched his prebuilt house
on hills all to see.
One of such a lucky few –
an exclusive way of life –
he wouldn’t swap his view;
would rather swap his wife.
The ex seemed not to mind, and I resisted the temptation to inform Hunt that a) the ex was perfectly capable of drinking hard, and b) I had not been “swapped”.
It may well be, given his years of national tours and public performances, that almost everyone has a Sam Hunt story. And here – in very handsome form – is another.
I’ve never met its author Colin Hogg. But I see that in some quarters he’s hailed as “legendary”, which must be nice. I know he was a columnist for the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly during my own stint there in the 1980s, and that he’s written on cannabis, music, and road trips. He also written a book about Hunt (and himself) 30 years ago. This latest outing, Hogg told TV1, is about male friendship, which he thinks isn’t much written about “in New Zealand in a way that’s intelligent”.
So let’s get started. The book’s first sentence sees the two chaps meeting in Kaiwaka and notes the make, model and year of Hunt’s vehicle. Once Hogg is in it, the car is “booted” into the hills. The second para reads: “Each time, meeting up with my old friend still feels like the start of another adventure, probably because it is. Anything could happen and often does.”
Hogg has apparently said of a previous book of his that it “wrote itself”. I think I’m beginning to see why, and I’ve read only two paras of this one.
By para 4, the two are “very well oiled indeed” and discussing the meaning of life. And this reader is frankly dismayed at the prospect of another 200-plus pages of this sort of thing. Although there are pictures, and they take up some of the space.
On we go: “We’re talking about doing a new book, some sort of follow-up to that other one, based on a series of conversations …. And, as is the way with these things, the moment you talk about writing a book is the moment the book starts. There are no edges. It’s all joined up. It’s all the same.”
Gosh. That’s deep.
Halfway down the second page there’s mention of three bottles of Chilean red and several bottles of beer. Plus, a few sentences on: “We both get really hammered this time, countless joints shared, me on a string of strong craft beers, Sam on the rugged red wines, four bottles of the stuff down by half past five.”
This reader is ready for a nice cup of tea, and a lie-down.
Chapter 2 is a chunk lifted from the 30-year-old book, Angel Gear: On the Road with Sam Hunt, recounting school visits in Hamilton. Chapter 3 begins with “my publisher” who wants Hogg to write this book. And it recounts how the first book was also the result of publisher pursuit, albeit for a biography. The current publisher is “keen and persistent”. We’re left in no doubt that Hogg is a man in demand.
But soon – hallelujah – a smidgin of biographical material surfaces. On Hunt, I mean. And this is fairly interesting, despite Hogg’s somewhat faux-blokey rendition. But it’s soon over, and we’re back in the historic present. Too often in writing of all kinds, the present tense is a grab for immediacy that fails to deliver. And that’s the case here.
As they discuss the new book, Hogg throws in this gem for consideration by the poet who now lives alone. It concerns a commodity called the “late-life wife” – “You might need caring for and some company later on.” Form an orderly queue, please, ladies!
Chapter 4, another excerpt from Angel Gear. Chapter 5 opens on Hogg’s dad’s moustache, but then a funny bit – Hunt and Hogg going back to Paremata to unveil an “awful mural” of the poet and the long-departed dog Minstrel. They thought about returning to the site under cover of darkness to paint over the mural or toss it into the sea. Instead “we went back to my place and got thoroughly pissed.” Then an account of their two major standoffs over the years. One involving chicken flu, the other a CK Stead-related documentary. And, it should be noted, the row was not Stead’s fault.
We’re now on page 32, and Hogg is still voicing doubts about the notion of this new book. Is this meant to be narrative-tension inducing? Should the reader now be on tenterhooks as to whether the book she is actually reading will become … well, an actual book?
Chapter 6, another chunk of Angel Gear. Seven, intimations of mortality. Hunt’s. And another falling out – over this book and the intended 50/50 contract with the publisher. Some shouting and hanging up. Reproduction of an unsent email – Hogg to Hunt.
Chapter 8 and the book per se begins – with Hogg visiting Hunt. After a reference to how pissed they usually get and the hazard potential of Hunt’s stairs, a conversation “about wives … and the general lack of them in your [Hunt’s] life”, we get a transcription, with Hogg’s contributions in bold and a Hunt poem that begins “The further you look the/less you see/she said as she smiled and/went down on me.”
“I know that one,” says Hogg in bold. “It’s a goodie. The women in the audience used to titter at that fourth line.”
Chapter 9, the same sort of thing. Hunt saying stuff and Hogg responding with apperçus like “Yeah, yeah. Probably.”
Oh but wait, page 124 and the conversation is still about the book and whether or not they’ll do it. Which segues into reminiscence about “a girl” in Woodville, who was “quite comely” but whose father got in the way of a good thing.
Chapter 20, and “Things are turning a little hazy now. I blame Sam’s friend, the one who gave him the heady samples. … We’re dutifully working our way through the various weed options, scoring them out of five ….” Chapter 26, and Hogg asks if Hunt has any regrets. Hunt considers, and says he needs time to think about that one. So Hogg says, in bold, “Okay. I’ll go and get a beer.” Chapter 29, and Hogg has to put Hunt to bed, then goes out to the deck and smokes a joint.
And that’s it – I’m out of here. In bold. I’ve no objection to chaps drinking or getting stoned. What I do object to is their believing they’re brilliant company when they do. Especially on paper. Even with nice photographs between splendid hard covers. If this is intelligent writing on male friendship, give me a good old pub brawl.
The back cover claims the book is “wild, hilarious, no-holds-barred”. It could well be that the only person to find it these things is Hogg himself. Who knows about Hunt? He certainly deserves a properly written biography based on proper research and proper interviews. I’m sure these two men can be smart, likeable, even charming. But the heart of the friendship depicted here seems to be the use of enough booze, dope and women to reflect at least one of them at twice his natural size.
Sam Hunt: Off the Road by Colin Hogg (HarperCollins, $50) is available from Unity Books.