Summer reissue: Dylan Cleaver on tackling a unique ghostwriting assignment.
First published on July 2, 2o23.
So there we were, two sons of the ’Naki – one prodigal and one expat – on a road trip from Ōpunake back to New Plymouth. I was driving, refamiliarising myself with the lonely ribbon of road that cut through dairy country, with the country’s best surf breaks on the left and the proud maunga on the right. Carl was in the passenger seat. We were riffing about two subjects entrenched deeply within the hearts and psyche of locals: rugby and farming.
Only one of us knew how to play the game with any proficiency and only one of us had ever had cause to pull a breech-birth calf from a heifer, so only one of us, the passenger, was really talking.
The driver listened intently, making mental notes that would be, later that night, converted into old-fashioned paper notes.
The conversation might have been one-sided but it flowed easily until somewhere near Ōkato, when it started circling back on itself, tripping its way down blind alleys and on occasion wandering completely off track.
This was not the first time I had been exposed to the phenomenon, but I was still wrestling with the appropriate response.
Do I tell him to stop talking and take a rest? How do you do that in a way that doesn’t sound patronising?
Most of the time we did our interviews in places where there was an easy solution. We just stopped. Sometimes we would be at a cafe in Warkworth, a halfway point between my home and Mangawhai, where he’d spend time visiting his three children with ex-wife Natalie.
He’d jump in the car with partner Kiko, their daughter Genevieve and Finchley the dog, and head back to Mangawhai. Kiko had a better sense of time as it related to energy than Carl and I, and would give signals – sometimes subtle, sometimes not – that the session should be drawing to a close.
Carl would tell me that the way to imagine brain energy was that we all started the day with a bucket of water. Most people, despite losing a bit to evaporation and a bit more when we hit the odd bump in the road, had plenty left to get us through the 16 hours or so that constitute an average waking day.
He started the day with a bucket of water, too, but his had holes in it.
When it emptied, Carl would crawl into bed, flop onto the couch or just sit and stare out into nothing. I never saw him like that, but I instead got him in moments like the one in the car, when his water, his energy, was draining fast – when a part of him knew he tried desperately to stay on task but his brain couldn’t keep up and started putting his thoughts in the wrong order.
“Where were we again,” he’d keep asking, apologetically. We were, at this point in his story, in Toulon, a place where Carl was, in terms of his ability as a tighthead prop, at the peak of his considerable powers. It was also, as I would learn in confronting detail, where his life started to unravel.
The day had been a long one, as we drove south to check out Carl’s boyhood haunts in Ōpunake and the family farm at Oaonui, before heading back up the Surf Highway to his flat above his tourism business, Chaddy’s Charters, near the port in New Plymouth.
It had been a great day for me as I grew to understand the environmental factors that helped create the prototype modern tighthead prop, and although Carl enjoyed being a tour guide – “that condemned house there was where Dame Malvina Major lived, but it fell into the hands of meth cooks” – it was a draining day for him.
So on the way back, as he talked about the injuries he played through as a matter of pride at one of the world’s great rugby clubs, he started to teeter between moments of great clarity and moments of impenetrable fog.
I felt guilty, not so much for helping tip Carl into this state, though I guess I should have felt bad about that, but for taking so long to understand that this was “real”. This was his life now: a leaking bucket. On good days the water drained slower than others, but there was no puncture repair kit that would fix it.
This was why there was an urgency to his storytelling that I hadn’t fully appreciated until now. What he could remember today he might not necessarily be able to tomorrow. He was in a one-man race to make sense of his life.
So I let him keep talking, keep fumbling around while attempting to connect his thoughts in a coherent way. Yeah, I felt terrible about it, knowing we were going to have to traverse the same ground the next time we met.
Here we were in Taranaki, our home province, yet we were somehow lost in Toulon.
Carl is a worrier. He worries about things both big and small. All sorts of things. He worries about misremembering events, although his recall, especially accessing childhood memories, is really good. He worries that his erratic and sometimes contradictory thoughts would be reflected in an erratic and sometimes contradictory story, even though it’s the contradictions that make humans so interesting.
He also worries that people might think he is dumb. He knows the clichés he’s meant to live down to as a front-row forward. Although he played a lot of his career living up to macho stereotypes, he wants people to realise there is more to him than that.
He worries about what his loved ones think of him now he has revealed the extent of his neurological and mental health issues.
Carl worries about the ending. Not just of the book.
I worried too. Sometimes my concerns were personal, like when I heard Carl, an alcoholic, had been drinking.
I worried that the drink-driving charge would send him into a spiral he would find difficult to emerge from.
Sometimes, selfishly, my worries were purely professional. I had a manuscript deadline fast approaching and there was still so much still to do.
Carl had a powerful and moving story to tell. I knew this from the moment he said no aspect of his life was out of bounds, especially the parts he would dearly like to erase. His story was all there, nearly fully formed, bursting to come out.
I worried that the only person who could screw it up was the “dumb ghostwriter”.
It’s why I have been reluctant to write this piece. What I initially thought would be an evening’s work has turned into a torturous few days of writing, deleting and re-writing.
On one level the commission appealed to my ego. In my heart of hearts I believe Head On to be a significant piece of work and I’d like it to get the attention it warrants.
But it’s not my book.
And ghosts don’t talk.
Or to quote JR Moehringer, who has put words on pages for Andre Agassi, Phil ‘Shoe Dog’ Knight and Henry Windsor: “Within the text and without, no one wants to hear from the dumb ghostwriter.”
So I gave Carl a call and let him know what The Spinoff had requested. How would he feel about it if I wrote about some of the unique challenges we faced when putting his story down on paper?
Unsurprisingly, he agreed straightaway. Unsurprising because Carl says “yes” to a lot of things.
He’s been doing a lot of heavy lifting to promote his story. He appeared on Sunday. He chatted on the radio with Mike Hosking, and Jason Pine, and Kathryn Ryan. He’s had calls with the Otago Daily Times and Woman’s Day. He’s posed for pics with Stuff.
It’s taken its toll. Sunday was particularly taxing. You could see it in the programme, which I found tough to watch. The filming wiped him out for three full days, he would tell me.
With that in mind, this feels like the least I can do.
It is the least I can do.
Yesterday, Carl dropped by on his way back to Taranaki having driven up the day before to attend his kids’ Matariki breakfast. One had written him a letter asking him to come. How can you say no to that?
He looked well, sounded great, signed some books. We went and had a coffee and Carl shared some ideas he had for connecting New Zealanders with similar struggles. A number of former players, some of them teammates, have contacted him since he appeared on the telly and his book hit the shelves, recognising in themselves some of the problems he is enduring.
It has energised him. The holes in his bucket remain, but he’s not just sitting around waiting for it to empty.
It was a timely visit because I had no idea how to finish this story.
The ending worried me… it doesn’t so much any more.
Head On: An All Black’s memoir of rugby, dementia, and the hidden cost of success (HarperCollins, $39.99) is out now.