Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

New Zealand Mon Amour [May 8]

‘Magical thinking is causal reasoning that looks for correlation between acts or utterances and certain events. In clinical psychology, magical thinking is a condition that causes the patient to experience irrational fear of performing certain acts or having certain thoughts because they assume a correlation with their acts and threatening calamities’. (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Perhaps I shouldn’t return to New Zealand. Ever.

I visited Christchurch for their Winter Arts Festival and some time later they had a terrible earthquake there. In March this year I went to Auckland for their annual Arts Festival and last week they had a freakish typhoon there. Magical thinking leads me to wonder if there’s a causal relationship. I hope not, because I’m having a little love affair with New Zealand.

It’s not your usual Kiwi-Aussie love affair, inspired by blinding white snowfields, bubbling mud pools and bungee jumps into bottomless canyons. Dare-devilry and odiferous ponds hold little appeal for me. But after my recent trip to Auckland I’m nursing a quiet passion for New Zealand popular culture.

Gazing across the vast expanse of KareKare beach, west of Auckland, I suddenly understood why I couldn’t quite recall whether Jane Campion’s movie ‘The Piano’ was filmed in colour or black-and-white. On a cloudy autumn day, this coastal landscape where Campion set her gothic love story was rendered in metallic sheens of silver, grey and ash. The sea was much calmer than when actor Holly Hunter was carried from the surf onto the shore. Still, I was faintly disappointed not to see a grand piano perched in the black sand with a child cart-wheeling around its mud-caked legs.

KareKare beach was the last stop on my brief popular cultural pilgrimage on the north island. My fella and I had been invited to perform for four nights in the Auckland Arts Festival, a three week program of local and international music, dance, theatre and visual arts. Most nights after the show we would head to Aotea Square, a grassy space between the Auckland Town Hall and the Aotea Centre theatre complex. The square had been transformed into a Festival hub, complete with a Spiegeltent and an open-air bar for artists and audience members. Here we met up with some of the country’s most prolific songwriters and screenwriters, and I began formulating a little plan to get a first-hand look at the places made famous in New Zealand songs, films and TV shows.

Crowded House frontman Neil Finn made a guest appearance at the Festival with us one night. As the rain began falling on Aotea Square after the show, I was reminded that the lyrics of his song ‘Four Seasons In One Day’ refer not to Melbourne (as many like to think) but to Neil’s home town. So when our gigs had all finished and we had a couple of free days in Auckland, I set off with my fella to see ‘the sun shine on the black clouds hanging over the Domain’.

The Auckland Domain is a seventy-five hectare park in the central suburb of Grafton. It was created in the mid 1840’s around the cone of the long extinct Pukekawa volcano. As we puffed up the hill, past duck ponds fed by underground springs, the sun was in hiding and a warm drizzle was falling on the manicured sporting fields spread across the floor of the crater.

At the peak of the cone, beyond the century-old wooden cricket pavilion and the elegant greenhouses in the Domain’s Wintergarden, you can get practically a 360-degree view of Auckland city. Neil Finn had told us that he tries to go cycling around the Domain at least once a week, but there was no sign of him or his bicycle on this wet morning. We opened our umbrella and wandered towards the Auckland War Memorial Museum, a grand building that sits proudly at the top the Domain like a giant square crown. Opened in 1929, the museum houses much more than war memorabilia. When we got to the entrance I did a double-take at the sight of the wide stone stairs covered with leopard-print.

It turns out the Museum was hosting an ‘Outrageous Fortune’ exhibition, celebrating the local television series which transfixed New Zealand audiences over four years during the ‘noughties’. Set in the working-class suburbs of west Auckland, the comedy–drama follows the fortunes of a crime family matriarch with a fondness for animal prints, Cheryl West, who tries valiantly to get the family to go straight. (Turns out the young woman who’d collected us from Auckland Airport was a New Zealand actor who’d had an occasional role in the series for several years, playing an Auckland ‘slapper’ with a fondness for oral sex, Draska Doslic.)

We’d met the show’s avuncular co-creator James Griffin at the bar in Aotea Square a couple of nights before. Outrageously successful as a screenwriter, Griffin and his co-writer Rachel Lang had originally named the show after Hamlet’s famous ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ speech, and then decided to keep the gag running. The title of each episode was taken from Shakespeare’s play about the rotten old state of Denmark (‘Contagious Blastments’, ‘Tis So Concluded’, ‘Think Yourself a Baby’, etc.) and somehow they managed to find titles for six series’ worth.

So after we’d finished checking out the Domain we headed to Auckland’s most famous record shop, Real Groovy (these days also selling CDs, movies, vintage clothes, video games and books) in Queen St, to buy up the first two series of ‘Outrageous Fortune’ on DVD. (We’re currently half-way through the second series and COMPLETELY HOOKED.)

I also bought a second copy of one of my favourite CDs of the last couple of years; ‘Marvellous Year’ by New Zealand singer-songwriter Don McGlashan. In the decades since he made the move from being an orchestral French horn player to playing with outfits including Blam Blam Blam, The Front Lawn and The Mutton Birds, Don McGlashan has become a household name in NZ. He has written music for theatre, television, film (he composed the music for Jane Campion’s feature film ‘An Angel At My Table’), dance and sporting events, as well as producing several award-winning solo albums. Since ‘Marvellous Year’ came out in 2009 it had been getting quite a thrashing in my car stereo system, and I thought my sis might like it too. (She does, and when Don comes out to do some gigs in Melbourne in late July, we’ll be there with bells on).

It was courtesy of Don McGlashan that we got a chance to visit KareKare beach. He’d done a couple of guest spots with us during the Festival, playing the euphonium and singing his haunting song ‘White Valiant’ from the Mutton Birds album ‘Flock’. We’d asked his advice about good places to go walking (or tramping, as they say in NZ) not far from Auckland, and he’d offered to come with us to the west coast.

On our last day in New Zealand Don picked us up from our hotel and drove us through the undulating western ‘burbs of Auckland (no sign of Cheryl West or Draska Doslic, more’s the pity) all the way to the sea. Our first stop was a carpark behind Piha Beach, where we met up with Don’s friend Geoff Chapple.

Geoff is a journalist, playwright, screenwriter, musician and activist (he played a major role in the New Zealand anti-apartheid campaign against the 1981 Springbok rugby tour, and later wrote a book about it called ‘The Tour’). He wrote the screenplay for the Vincent Ward movie ‘The Navigator’ and Geoff’s also the person responsible for kick-starting a successful campaign to establish a walking track from the tip of New Zealand’s north island to the bottom of the south island. (To prove it could be done, Geoff walked the trail himself, bush-bashing half the time, and later wrote a book about it called ‘Te Araroa – The New Zealand Trail’)

So who better to lead us around the stunning cliff-tops of the west coast? This was my second visit to Piha Beach, but the first time I’d seen those wild little bays that stretch north of the surfing village where Neil Finn has his holiday house. We tramped down the hill and along the wide black sand beach, wishing we had more time so we could take a dip in the waves. But we wanted to get to KareKare before sunset, so we jumped back in the cars and headed further south.

When did you last watch ‘The Piano’? It’s worth getting it out on DVD for another look. The landscape is entirely breathtaking and so are the performances by Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill and Anna Paquin (only three Academy Awards? – I reckon the team should have taken home a dozen). The chiaroscuro beaches at KareKare stretch for an eternity and even with dozens of holiday homes dotted along the hillsides, you can still feel how strange and Other this place must have been for those first generations of whitefellas, chopping down the ancient forests on the muddy hillsides.

A week after we left Auckland Don McGlashan copped a car-door in the ribs when he was cycling home one day. He was laid up for weeks.

Dangerous times in New Zealand Mon Amour.

(A version of this article appeared in The Big Issue magazine in September 2011.)