Category Archives: Bio

Eyes Right- Tales From The Waiting Room

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You can do what you like to me. Anything at all. But not my eyes. Don’t touch my eyes.

The waiting room in the hospital Eye Department is bereft of all visual stimulation. I surmise that the plain eau de Nil walls, armless DHB standard issue chairs and unisex white clothing the staff wear are all post-ironic. The other poor sods awaiting their fate either stare despairingly at their iPhones, pick without conviction at the ragged pile of vintage magazines or have mumbled conversations that, even from a distance, somehow convey equal measures of ennui and terror. I smile as I’m reminded of the Netherworld reception room in  Beetlejuice’. But the guy sitting next to me doesn’t have a shrunken head. Although he may well be dead.

As I progress through the hierarchical system of nurse, junior doctor and specialist, I’m directed to an alcove to await the next episode of ritual humiliation. There are seven others sharing the tiny space – my knees almost touching those of the noisy woman opposite. She seems to know everyone else in the tiny space and is leading a morbidly animated discussion on the various ghastly outcomes that may be visited on us. The bit about ‘injections straight into your eye’ gets my attention and promotes some nausea, palpitations and prickly heat. It’s like sharing the tumbril with a bladesmith, keen to describe the efficacy of the guillotine.

The young Englishman, Tim,  with the Oxbridge accent is rather jolly. He’s strapping me into a machine that is a kind of clinician’s Space Invaders. He’s going to laser my eyes. Usually, when rigid with fear, I deploy humour as a counter-measure. Tim notices the rictus that I’m trying to pass off as a calm smile and asks, ‘What’s funny?‘ I describe the Hammer Horror alcove experience and suggest that there should be a sign above the waiting area describing it as ‘Sartre’s Waiting Room’.  ‘Ah yes’, he says, ‘Existential hell.‘ That’s what a University education does. It robs me of the opportunity to explain and amplify the startling brilliance of my wit and wisdom.

Telling a Head of Department why his appointments system is hopelessly inefficient and offering to ‘come in and fix it up’ is most likely not a good idea. And it probably explains why I sat around for another hour before my appointment was kept. The impatient patient.

Author’s Note. Thanks are due to Josh Stuart for helping me back into the groove, as well as suggesting this topic as the means of re-entry.

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Storm Warning

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I’d seen it before. His face darkening. Glowering. I don’t mean in the theatrical sense. There were no histrionics involved. No actor could build the layers, manufacture the almost imperceptible tautness at the edges of the mouth, flex and purse the bottom lip in ways that suggested appraisal. Critical appraisal.
The eyes worked in tandem with the nostrils. The black, necromancer’s pupils pulsing in time to the sibilant breathing. The long mesomorphic levers – his arms – resting on the seat in front of him, somehow creating a perfectly balanced composition. He was both beautiful and dread in his stillness.
I’d seen it before. I knew what would happen. The first recognition of unbidden intrusion met with calm civility. A friendly smile and a suggestion of equanimity. All the while, the eyes appraising, the gestures encouraging.
Some time passes. Enough time for his words to be either heeded or ignored. He looks over at me. There is concern there but also resolve. And by now the darkening has wrought an almost metaphysical change. Then it happens. He’s out of his seat and turned to face his tormentors in a single movement. ‘I only ever ask once’, he says quietly to the man he holds in mid-air by his coat lapels.
I’m shaking – scared. But the man and his companions leave and they’re not waiting outside the cinema as I worried they might.
‘I think Bob Mitchum would have approved’, he says to me. ‘And Charles Laughton too.‘ He smiled as he guided me onto the bus home. ‘We won’t tell mum though, eh?

Author’s Note
When I was about 11 or 12 years old, my father took me on a long bus ride to a cinema to see ‘Night of the Hunter’ – a movie he had keenly anticipated seeing. Shortly after we had taken our seats, a half-dozen or so ‘teddy boys’ came and sat behind us. Dad dealt with the situation.

The Best Way to Kill Bernie

Puffing and staggering my uncertain way through 20 or so lengths at the Hydrotherapy Pool this morning, a couple of fellow travellers, thrashing around, caught my eye. ‘I can’t keep my balance,’ one of them said to me, winsomely I thought. I smiled at her, wolfishly I thought. ‘Then you should put more water in it’, I countered. Given our location and the 8am showing on the Pool clock, I estimated this piece of wry irony might elicit a smile – or possibly a chuckle. The singular absence of such a reaction, I took as either a sign of no sense of humour or a sign of a very well-developed sense of humour. My equanimity, at least, was firmly in place.

And that’s what I’ve been working on. Balance. For the last month or so, I’ve been turning up at the Wellington Regional Aquatic Centre in Kilbirnie, 3 or 4 times a week, and doing things in water that I can’t do on land. That sounds a bit Benny Hillish, I know – but what I mean is walking, running on the spot, star jumps and a range of other movements not possible for me to achieve out of the water.  I have a condition called peripheral neuropathy  and my legs contain only the fond memory of full mobility. I’m trying to help my body recover those memories and maybe, just maybe, be able to take a few steps without sticks, or a handrail, or a helping hand. To do, even if only for a few seconds, what I did, thoughtlessly, just 10 years ago. If I can do that, who knows where it may lead? A walk around an art exhibition and then back here to write a damning review perhaps? A walk over to the Lighthouse to see a movie and then back here to write a damning review perhaps? A walk through to Cuba Street for a meal in a posh restaurant and then back here to…no wait. Just a walk will do, thanks. That would be okay.

I’m getting lots of help and encouragement getting to, in and from the Pool. Pat, Josh and Hannah are all involved and one of them is always with me to ensure I don’t do a Mr Bean. There are many others at the Pool that succumb to its 34 degree pleasures, pursuing a sense, maybe a hope of well-being. It’s a community asset. A taonga. Certainly worth writing about.

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Spectres, Socialism & Salami

 

We’d been to Blackball before. About 20 years ago when Josh and Hannah were 13 and 8 and family holidays were a big part of our lives. Pat’s sister, Elizabeth, and her husband, John, had bought the old Police Station there and offered it to us for a week in summer. We had taken the ferry and driven down the West Coast from Picton before turning left at Greymouth.

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There are a number of townships in this part of the world, around the West Coast and Buller, that were once thriving and bustling communities. Some, like Lyell, a gold town, have completely disappeared – leaving only a commemorative plaque and some interpretive information to mark their former glory. Back in the day, when the coal was a needful staple of life, Blackball was something of a magnet for the men who could wrench it from the earth. And right behind the Police Station, I discovered a Rugby League pitch, still marked out, complete with a small stand. Blackball, it turned out, had had a champion League side and supplied several of the players for the New Zealand team. Mining and League had developed a symbiotic relationship here just as it had done in the UK. Not surprising then that the Labour Party has its origins in the Blackball of 1908 and that in the mid-1920s, The New Zealand Communist Party shifted its HQ there also.

Exploring the town in the 1990s, the years of neglect and the population of only 300 or so were ample evidence of how history had treated Blackball. Even so, closer inspection revealed a community that somehow reflected a spirit that shunned the mainstream and the conservative but embraced the alternatives; The Blackball Hilton was the perfect embodiment of how that worked. The local hotel, situated close by Hilton Street, adopting the name of the international hotel chain and attracting threats of legal actions that served to create the kind of notoriety much admired in New Zealand. Today, somewhat sadly  – but with a touch of pride – the sign outside the hotel refers to ‘Formerly the Blackball Hilton’.

The whānau had warned us that the Police Station was haunted. Not rumoured to be haunted, you understand. But haunted. Family members had experienced unnatural phenomena. Things had gone bump in the night. Their accounts were so detailed, so earnest that my Catholic training almost had me packing bell, book and candle. But my rationalist persona was scornful of such nonsense. And so it was that on our second evening, around 10pm, reading in bed, we were startled by the sound of heavy furniture being dragged across the wooden floor of the bedroom adjacent to ours which was occupied by Josh. Pausing only to reassure each other that we’d both heard the noise, we dashed across the hall and opened the door to the bedroom. Josh was sleeping soundly and his bed and the Edwardian wardrobe were undisturbed also. But it was a warm summer evening and the temperature in that room had dropped sufficiently to cause me to shiver. We checked the rest of the house and the immediate environs but could find nothing that might explain what we’d experienced.  Well, you know, maybe there are more things in heaven and earth…….

And so, last week, Josh and I were back in Blackball. It was a must see on our South Island Adventure and we dropped by on our way to Greymouth. First stop was the Police Station which seemed hardly to have changed. But the pitch markings and the stand were no longer in the field behind the house.  Looking around, there are some signs of gentrification. Sewage has been connected and some of the old miners’ cottages have been bought up by Mainlanders looking for holiday homes. The swimming pool and bowling green are still there. And, of course, The Hilton, somehow enshrining the spirit of Barry Crump and every Good Keen Man wanting pavlova on the menu. The big success story, though, the Blackball Salami Company continues to flourish and our purchases added to its $1m annual turnover. An achievement made all the more astounding knowing that the previous owner, Peter Lamont, had murdered his wife in 2009.  But communal resilience is something that West Coasters are noted for. I wish Blackball and its residents well. It’s not just the salami that has a unique flavour.

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A Brief History Of Conversation

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How about those two?
Well okay. But I don’t fancy yours much. But I fancy mine.

My name? Alan. What’s yours?
Gloria.
G -L-O-R-I-A…G-L-O
Never heard that before.
Yeah. Sorry. Where you from Gloria?
West Ham
What’s that like then?
What’s what like?
Living in West Ham
Where you from?
Roehampton
Well West Ham’s probably just like Roehampton ‘cept not as fucking stupid.

What’s yours called then?
Hazel.
Go on.
No really. Never guess what her surname is.
Go on then
Oakes. She’s Hazel Oakes
Fuck off.
Seriously. Showed me her driving licence.
She’s got her own car? Could be called Danny La Rue for all I care if she’s got a car.
Yours got a car?
No –  just an attitude. Probably came in Hazel’s anyway.
Wanna lift then?
You….

How about a quick one then?
Do what?
How about a quick dance?
Right.
What did you think I meant?
You’d be bleeding lucky. No chance.
I’ll settle for a dance though, Gloria. I bet you’re a lovely mover.
Oi! What you doing?
Sorry. That’s my tobacco tin, Gloria. Fancy a roll up?
That’s efuckingnough from you, West London. Here’s my number. Call me next week.

Chicks, eh Mike? Never can tell. You off then?
Yeah. They’re dropping me off. You got some do re mi for petrol?
More front than Blackpool, you. Go on. Here’s a quid.
Cheers. I’ll tell Gloria you’re Sean Connery’s stunt double.
Fuck off.

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Now Hear This – Podcast Interview

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Recently I was interviewed by Wellington writer, critic and broadcaster, Simon Sweetman for his Off The Tracks podcast. It was a wide-ranging interview and we covered a lot of ground over a few hours. I think it worked out well and readers may be interested to hear, amongst other things, a first-hand account of 60s London. I’m attaching the link and will take this opportunity to thank you for keeping faith with Wise Blood in the past year and trust that you and those you love enjoy the holiday period that’s fast approaching.

http://offthetracks.co.nz/sweetman-podcast-episode-11-alan-stuart/

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Peter McLeavey

Sometime around 1977, Pat and I were introduced to Peter McLeavey by Wellington bookseller, John Quilter. We had expressed interest in contemporary New Zealand art and John told us about Peter’s gallery in Cuba Street and the significant role he had played in supporting local artists, particularly Colin McCahon.

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So one Saturday morning, we had our first interview with Peter at the gallery. I say ‘interview’ because it went a little like we were applying to adopt an orphan. Peter was courteous, even courtly, but clearly wanted to tease out sense and sensibility. As was always his practice, he talked little of himself but of his artists. And although McCahon’s presence loomed large over the meeting, Peter produced from the Tardis storeroom a series of works by other artists as the subtle questioning continued. Spectacular canvases from Ian Scott, brooding scapes by Toss Woollaston, the playfully arcane work of Lois White and, finally, a triptych by McCahon.
We looked at that work a few times over the following weeks but neither our budget nor our capacity to face up to The Good News Bible each day allowed us to take the plunge. We preferred the lucid economy of Gordon Walters and the conservative precision of Lois White. We were, of course, absolute beginners but happy to jump in the game and learn.
Over the next years I got to know Peter a little better. He liked to talk about family – mine and his. He liked to talk about movies; he once delivered the most telling, accurate one line assessment I’d ever heard. I told him that I’d seen ‘Schindler’s List’ just recently and with that gentle certainty of the man who has final cut, he told me; ‘That film was made for spiritual tourists.’
I think Peter was an instinctive educator. An elegant, determined thinker who enjoyed collaboration – able to share and shape but without a hint of didacticism. He could be coaxed to tell you about his latest show but he’d much rather that you told him your thoughts and opinions.
My enduring memory of Peter is seeing him at The Dowse Museum’s Arts Ball, hosted by James Mack, back in the 80s. The theme for the evening was ‘Flight’ and I encountered Peter, dressed in formal black tie, grinning broadly, as he swung on a rope suspended from the ceiling. I greeted him when he resumed his feet and enquired as to how his apparel for the night met the brief. He fingered the lapel of his dinner jacket, raised an eyebrow and said, ‘Winged‘.
Over the last few years, I haven’t seen so much of Peter as I’d have liked – neither one of us being as light on our feet as we once were. But I hold my memories of him in high value. He made a difference to our lives for the better.