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.
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.
I’m looking forward to reaching the 69th anniversary of my birth. I have no other course than to look forward to it as it falls due next Tuesday. I cannot look back on it or even askance at it as it is out of reach. Getting nearer – but out of reach. So I must look forward.
I have the same choice about next week as when I entered the post-war world of Dulwich Hospital on 13th October, 1946. Although I was extraordinarily bright as a child, I’m fairly certain that my foetal sensibility, even at the hour of delivery, would not have been up to making critical choices about what was to follow – let alone grappling with the complex metaphysics. So I don’t remember being asked, given a choice. Do you want to be born? Who would you like to be? Would you like some siblings? Where do you want to live? Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief? I wasn’t involved in any of that. At least, not for a while. And thus it will be next Tuesday. No choice. I’ll be 69. Soixante-neuf. Although saying it the French way only serves as an ironic reminder of temps perdu that are unlikely to be recherché.
Getting to be older, no one says old – they’re far too polite, means a number of things. It means changing channels when the incontinence pads advertisements appear on the TV; it means doing the Kevin Spacey thing with your eyebrows when a pollster is asking for your age group; it means desperately trying not to say, ‘When I was your age’ to people aged 50; It means not turning your youth into a memorial.
I like to think about and talk about the 60s. It was mostly a good time. But I didn’t choose to be around when all that stuff happened. I had no choice in the matter. I suppose that I chose to join in, you could say. I’ve never been one to stand on the side lines. So I have some responsibility for what happened. Just the millionth part of an iota of accountability for everything that’s happened since then.
But the God of History is who you need to talk to if you have a beef about One Direction, Global Warming and Terrible Television. She’s the one to see about your sugar addiction, your falling asleep at your day job because your second job at night and your third job on the weekends leaves you overtired and depressed, your failure to maintain a viable erection for longer than thirty seconds, your inability to understand why everyone in the room is laughing at the gag except you. Get her to explain your circumstances. and don’t take any of that ‘gene pool’ crap. It really is all down to her. She gives us the circumstances that provide the illusion of choice. Republican or Democrat? Full fat or reduced? The Embassy or The Roxy? Being born or remaining as a twinkle in the eye of the God of History that disappears as she nods off to sleep?
Yes. I’m looking forward to next Tuesday.
I’m that variety of mug known as ‘a collector’. I’ve mostly collected music, in the form of records, tapes , CDs and sheet music. There are thousands of these artefacts all around the apartment. The collecting started in my teens and has continued unabated for some 50 years. My golden period was the 90s when Wellington Record Shops owned by such people as Colin Morris and Dennis O’Brien had a large photograph of me in their shop window bearing the legend, ‘If you see this man, please usher him in.’
I like to own what I hear and like. That is, rather than just call it up on the PC. Why? Firstly because I have a fabulous, and hugely expensive so it needs justifying, 2-channel stereo. Secondly because I’m compelled to. Not by Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Oh no. But by the gene pool. My parents were collectors. Of anything and everything. Making my way from one side of their living room to the other was like a game of Twister, such was the care needed with placement of limbs, lest I disturb a ten bob resin ashtray adorned by a macaw or a 100 squid oil of a Kentish sunset by someone from the Royal Academy.
There was, of course, music growing up in South London; Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, Benny Goodman, Miles Davis, Stan Freberg, Mahler, Beethoven, Pete Seeger. And The Goons. It was all there. Everything. Everything except Rock and Roll. That I had to get for myself and listen to by myself. The first record I bought with my own money was ‘Hit and Miss’ by The John Barry Seven – the theme song for TV’s Juke Box Jury. The latest arrivals, today, are by BRMC and Tangerine Dream. The beat goes on – as Sonny and Cher once sang, although I do love Patricia Barber’s take on that song. Where was I?
Oh yes. So. Where to put all this stuff. And how to order it? You can go onto websites that will tell you. And I do mean tell, They’re quite didactic about things like sub-genres, chronology, alpha and artist order. When I read the monomaniacal ravings of the nutters that proliferate these places, I can get a little puckish. I like to ask if John Fahey’s ‘Blind Joe Death’ should be considered for filing under American Traditional, Folk, Folk Blues, Guitar or just, you know, John Fahey. ‘Ah. But under J or F?’ I hear you ask. Such fun. And I haven’t even started on Portuguese Fado and whether or not it still counts as Fado if a man is singing.
Then there’s always Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity character, Rob Fleming, who has his music collection arranged to reflect his romantic liaisons. I could do that and have, like, about 120 sections – which would be great to explain to visitors. Then when the visitors leave, rearrange them back into the original 3 sections
So here’s how I do it. I have lots of wooden CD cases all around the place. Over the years, I’ve played at storing discs by genre/sub-genre/alpha or by amalgamating all the sub-genres into one homogenous lump. The trick is never to finish anything I’ve started. That way, there may be two or three partially organised cases where, say, a Muddy Waters disc may be located. The prospects of finding anything within 10 minutes or so are significantly diminished if I have utterly forgotten exactly where the genres or amalgamations are in the apartment. This lack of certainty is greatly compounded by not having bothered at all over the last three years to introduce any semblance of order to recent additions. New arrivals are left in piles on, or by, the stereo, on the bed in the spare room or in places that only The Dark One and his minions know about.
But this chaos is positive. Creating danger out of certainty meets a creative need. I am fatigued – bored by order and safety. The joy of finding something cherished but lost, far outweighs the smug, slight satisfaction of knowing where to find that same thing without let or hindrance. And the pleasure is doubled, maybe trebled, enhanced by relief, when the disc finally goes on the turntable or in the player. I am recreating the first time.
And so I spit on your filing system. It is prosaic. I thumb my nose at your indexing cards. They smack of grey ennui. I pour scorn on your efficiency. It has no soul. Leaving nothing to chance removes the element of surprise. Duplications are evidence of life.
“You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche
The Wellington writer and critic, Simon Sweetman, recently asked his readers a couple of questions that inadvertently led to my recalling some scenes from the past. He asked if we’d ever seen a great busker. And he asked if we’d ever known anyone decent who went by the name of Travis.
In 1968, I was living in London and becoming hip. Not cool, you understand, but hip. Mods had come and gone; Psychedelia, Hippiedom and Timothy Leary were the thing. Except I could only embrace some of it. I dug the counter-culture stuff, some occasional weed and most of the West Coast Music (Specifically not The Beach Boys though, whose very name brings on horrific psychosomatic symptoms if spoken, written or seen. Imagine what it cost me to print it here) but the residual mod in me demanded some attention to sartorial sufficiency.
So here I am in a longish queue outside the Carlton Theatre in the Haymarket. I’m waiting to get in to see Lindsay Anderson’s ‘If’. Grey leather shoes with patterned toe caps, by Raoul; sharply creased, black mohair trousers and a tailored, black leather jacket with a sewn-in half belt. My concessions to the zeitgeist are a button-down paisley shirt and a conservative afro. The Gauloises cigarettes are situated precisely halfway between hip and cool.
And here’s Don Partridge, singing while we wait. Known as ‘The King of the Buskers’, he’s a familiar sight around the pubs, clubs and theatres of the West End and Soho. He sings some Dylan and his own ‘Rosie’ which he’s recorded and been on the tele with. It’s a pleasant, early summer evening and we’re pleased to have Don entertain us while we wait. The shrewdly chosen pretty young woman takes the hat round and I add some coins to the many notes. Don’s doing okay thanks.
The movie ‘If‘ is pure, anarchic counter-culture. It marked Malcolm McDowell’s debut – in the role of Mick Travis (Yes, a tenuous connection, I know. But sometimes any idea is a good idea) – a role he was to reprise in two further films for Anderson; ‘O Lucky Man’ and ‘Britannia Hospital’. The structure and surreal nature of the film are much influenced by Jean Vigo’s ‘Zéro de conduit‘ (1933) but the plot of a student revolution, led by Travis, in an English Public School is an expression of Anderson’s belief that the British cinema needed to put aside its fixation with class and be more representative of the broader community.
We discussed that in the pub later and I managed to upset a few friends with an observation that Anderson was perfectly placed to attack privilege in that way, having been educated at Cheltenham and Oxford.
What neither I nor my friends properly realised at that time though, was that I was about to resolve the vexed choice between cool and hip by moving into the more considered role of rugged left-wing intellectual. Already my frequent use of irony, a newly grown beard and the recent acquisition of a houndstooth flat cap were pointing me toward a classless society and women called Cordelia and Vanessa.
I was born in 1946
20% more babies were born in 1946 than in 1945
In schools, the pass mark for exams to achieve higher education was set higher than previously
I started work in 1964, aged 18
It was easy to get a well-paid job with prospects
We told people that we had a work ethic
People tell us we have a sense of entitlement
We were revolutionists
We were profligate conservatives
We tell the world that we were making history
History was making us
We invented Rock and Roll
Record companies and promoters invented Rock and Roll
We tore up the old rules, created new ones
Richard Nixon tore up the old rules, the traders did the rest
We created gender equality
The scientists employed by pharmaceutical companies created gender equality
We crashed through the class barrier
Wealth replaced class as the instrument of status
We liberated fashion, art, science as well as fuck and cunt
The world is dying and it will cost you a million dollars to buy a house in Auckland
It’s 2015 and all the votes I’ve cast have counted for nothing
The class of ’46 has lived through important times
And has been beguiled by them
Boom baby, Boom!
‘To us it seems that Hermes’ speech is to the point.
What he commands to you is to relax from your
self-will and seek the wisdom that’s in good advice.
Do as he says, since wrong is shameful in the wise.’
Laid flat-out in an ambulance, speeding toward hospital, spouting leads like the Hydra and uncertain data pinging its way to Mission Control is surreal. Like Major Tom, I’m in a tin can and there’s’ something wrong.
The kindly cardiologist, somehow redolent of Atticus Finch, leans in and mashes a Xmas platitude with diagnosis. ‘Season’s greetings you’ve had a heart attack.’ And now Billy T tells me, ‘We’re gonna anaethis…anesthize…emphas…we’re gonna make your wrist numb and put in a coupla stents. All right bro?’
I nod gratefully as I’ve found the wisdom that’s in good advice. My self-will has never been so relaxed. I wonder if the surgeon’s name is Victor and he has an assistant, Igor. And are they having a James Whale of a time?
Yes. I’ve seen that movie too. But never thought I’d be starring in it. It is surreal. It still is. Luis Buñuel directs Shortland Street perhaps. I don’t have a bolt through my neck and a forehead like Kelsey Grammer but I am made of clay – especially my feet. Prometheus saw to that.
In his cups, he had noted that many years ago, he once knew what it is to be poor
But that now, he knows only what it means to be poor
The intervening decades having evidenced the probity of Uncle Karl’s dictum That
Only The Working Class May Move Freely Through The Class System
His early experience had rather shown the opposite to be the case
His family, his neighbours, his street, his teachers, his school, his friends
And the Anglo-Catholic Church personified by Father O’Byrne all telling him
He should be happy in his lot – with new, improved Serf
But he studied hard and learned how to be patronised by lessers with more
Became something in the City without ever becoming someone else in the City
A man about town doing business with men from Tudor facades out of town
Liked to call him a man abeout teown and let him hear the great divide
He fell under the influence of socialists. Not the flat hat and wire glasses sort
But the sort with Orwell paperbacks and a light burning permanently in the eye
The sort who went on marches and delivered pamphlets late at night
Wanted to own the means of production and distribution
(They even wanted to democratise the armed forces!)
Barry – gentle, brutal Barry – revealed to him the mysteries of the Class System
Being both as poor as a church mouse and middle class is not a contradiction
Class is not necessarily linked to wealth and possessions, he pronounced
If you trail the English bourgeois, you’ll soon learn how to get the best for less
So he took the lesson. Or rather, the bits that suited. And moved on
Mostly because Joe Stalin was not a Good Companion and JB Priestly was
He came to believe that any revolution should be the product of need, not guilt
History is a raging inferno that has many poor boys pissing on it