The sombre tale of two Southern Men facing up to the fact – or doing their best to ignore the fact – that one of them has a year left to live.
Media veterans and lifelong friends, Colin Hogg and Gordon McBride, are chatting in the embers of a Hogg birthday afternoon, sun sinking slowly. McBride’s life, he reveals, is sinking slowly also. I’ve got maybe a year, he says. Hogg, no stranger to a road trip, suggests a road trip. McBride says the south, where their media careers began as late teenage tomfools at the Southland Times, is the only possible destination. Going South is the book, Hogg’s eighth, cobbled around that journey.
The book jacket tells us this is a road trip about memory, mateship and mortality. But this is essentially a Colin Hogg memoir riding alongside a colourful travelling tale, and Hogg tells a good story. They travel in a big blue Ford Falcon, sombrely, not so much from the ever-present cancer cloud above, as the state of the south where they grew up, how much bigger and better it seemed back then.
Their friendship has been an interrupted one, as so many lifelong friendships can be, but it is as close as two New Zealand men, especially from the south, could ever manage. So, mateship and mortality? Yes and no. This is the particularly interesting thing about Going South. The expectation is that some pretty deep stuff will be chewed over in the Falcon and hotel bars as the tongues loosen, instead, reticence rules. Which of course is quintessential Southern Man, an everything-underneath persona that sees these poor climate-chilled buggers frequently hauled off to counselling and psychotherapy by their exasperated partners, wondering if perhaps if there is a filtering colon walled in between the brain and the larynx.
Hogg explains this rather well: ‘Sometimes I wish Gordie had never mentioned his health issue to me … though of course I’m glad he did. He had to. He told me because I’m one of the people he cares about, and he knows I care about him, though we’d never say such a thing to each other. I’m not sure it’s something men care to do, and I’m reasonably happy with that, though not totally.’
Reasonably happy but not totally. And, earlier in the book: ‘We’ve turned a bit quiet, but it’s a comfortable quiet that says, I suppose, we’re at ease in each other’s company … we’re guys, perhaps of an old-fashioned sort and we’re not much into self-examination.’
I suppose, and perhaps. There is still inner wrestling and suppression here for the two southerners, Hogg still surveying the cards he’s been dealt from the dealer in the southern sky. McBride, more often than not at such moments, turns away from a question or a comment and checks his Twitter page, growing incrementally as the journey widens.
The cancer is rarely addressed. It takes 206 pages and some bad brandy before McBride looks into the camera and says ‘I’m going to die.’ And at this, Hogg writes, they ran out of words to say.
In the editing room, the Afterword, Hogg expresses surprise at his mate’s behaviour during the ensuing bucket list months – the positivism, the travel, the exhilaration. Hogg writes of this with furrowed melancholy, his own bucket list yet to form. But such a re-energised reaction to such medically forlorn news is not uncommon. I was given the same prognosis at the end of 2010, we’ll try and get you through one more year, they said, and I was surprised, nay, bewildered, how much fun and how rewarding 2011 turned out to be. I talked to others in the cancer wards and the oncology waiting rooms, and read books. It’s not unusual at all, not unusual to change the hierarchy of what is really important, just because you’ve ignored the topic, or got it wrong, for six decades.
I was looking for Going South to address this sort of thing inside the Falcon, but perhaps the geographical DNA was too strong to overcome.
Going South is utterly readable, and nails an era and an area well. It’s my own era and area too, and I read it with the reddening cheeks of memory. And a wide smile.
Going South: A Road Trip Through Life, by Colin Hogg (HarperCollins) is available at Unity Books.
The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books, recently named 2020 International Book Store of the Year, London Book Fair.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.