Tuesday, January 21, 2020

'You headed for Hicksville?'

In my earlier post on Dylan Horrocks graphic novel Hicksville (1998), I mentioned that this page of his comic reenacts a classic scene from John O'Shea's 1964 film Runaway.

John O'Shea, dir.: Runaway (1964)

The scene with the car in O'Shea's film is (you'll no doubt recall) set up north, on the Hokianga harbour, whereas Horrocks' imaginary "Hicksville" is located in Hicks Bay, near the tip of East Cape.

John O'Shea, dir.: Runaway (1964)

More than fifty years on, East Cape really is one of the last parts of New Zealand where you can recover that sense of emptiness and distance which were once an essential part of the local experience. As the poster says: 'Set in the New Zealand you know' - or, rather, that you once knew.

So, on our latest drive back home from Wellington, we decided to go the long way round. Headed for Hicksville? You betcha!

How do you get there?

Well, obviously the first thing to is to check it out on the map. I knew that the road would be pretty rough from Gisborne, but I have to say that I hadn't remembered that the route from Napier to Gisborne was so long and demanding. East Cape, with its wide open spaces and gentle curves, was quite a rest-cure by comparison!

Bronwyn Lloyd [BL]: Tolaga Bay (18/1/20)

Tolaga Bay was the scene of a particularly traumatic childhood holiday for Bronwyn, so we were duty-bound to stop and take a look at the place. It gives you some sense of the territory, I think - a few sandy footprints, a driftwood-strewn beach, a half-empty campground ...

Where should you stay?

BL: Hicks Bay Motel Lodge (18/1/20)

There's really only one answer. If Hicks Bay is your destination, then the Hicks Bay Motel Lodge is the obvious place to hang your hat.

Situated on the hill above the township, there's certainly no shortage of magnificent views. The buildings themselves seem to date from another era. They've been modernised a bit inside, but from the outside they look like nothing so much as the Christian Youth Camps we used to get sent to periodically when my parents wanted a bit of peace and quiet.

There's even a restaurant - with a bar and off-licence attached. There's not a lot of choice, really, but we did enjoy our meal there, nestled romantically in the far corner of the dining room.

Why Hicks Bay?

Dylan Horrocks: Hicksville (1998)

I've already mentioned the Dylan Horrocks connection: Hicks Bay is the approximate setting for his imaginary hamlet of Hicksville, "a quiet seaside town where the beach is sunny, the tea is hot, the locals are friendly, and everyone loves comics", as the blurb to the slightly expanded 2010 version has it:

Dylan Horrocks: Hicksville (2010)

Every detail of this town is etched in the memory of his fans: The Rarebit Fiend tearooms; Mrs. Hicks' Hicksville Book Shop and Lending Library; Kupe's lighthouse, home of the secret comics library ...

Xavier Guilbert: Interview with Dylan Horrocks (2016)

And, for a moment at least, one can almost persuade oneself that it's really (almost) all there:

JR: Hicks Bay (19/1/20)

Rarebit Fiend, anyone?

There is, of course, a lot more to the place than that. Thirty years before Hicksville, New Zealand novelist David Ballantyne wrote a dark, strange, moody thriller, set in the imaginary beach settlement of "Calliope Bay," which just happens to bear an uncanny resemblance to Hicks Bay.

David Ballantyne: Sydney Bridge Upside Down (1968)
There was an old man who lived on the edge of the world, and he had a horse called Sydney Bridge Upside Down. He was a scar-faced old man and his horse was a slow-moving bag of bones, and I start with this man and his horse because they were there for all the terrible happenings up the coast that summer, always somewhere around.
- David Ballantyne. Sydney Bridge Upside Down. 1968 (Auckland: Longman Paul, 1981): 5.
How's that for an arresting opening? It's almost as if he'd set out to beat the celebrated first sentence of The Scarecrow, published just five years before:
The same week our fowls were stolen, Daphne Moran had her throat cut.
- Ronald Hugh Morrieson. The Scarecrow. 1963 (Auckland: Penguin, 1981): 1.
If you're curious to know more, there's an excellent discussion of Ballantyne's novel and its background on pp. 162-67 of Bryan Reid's After the Fireworks: A Life of David Ballantyne (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2004).

Nor do the literary antecedents end there. Four decades later, Steve Braunias decided to play the place a visit, and this is how he begins his account:

There was an old man who lived at the edge of the world. 'When I look back on my life,' Lance Roberts said, 'I've done a lot of killing.
I met him at his monstrous house. Someone had once written that they heard screams and bleats there on still nights. Outside, the long horizontal line of the blue Pacific looked sharp as a knife. The blade flashed in the bright sun. It cut the sky in half.
- Steve Braunias. 'Hicks Bay: A History of Meat.' In Civilisation: Twenty Places on the Edge of the World. 2012 (Wellington: Awa Press, 2013): 1.

Here's Lance Roberts' "monstrous house", the old Hicks Bay freezing works, seen from the road, half-hidden by trees - then closer up:

BL: Hicks Bay (19/1/20)

And here's "the long horizontal line of the blue Pacific":

Hicks Bay or Hicksville?

BL: Hicks Bay (19/1/20)

Just a few atmosphere shots to remind us what it's like if we ever feel tempted to go back there.

JR: Hicks Bay (19/1/20)

Though, to be honest, I'd really have preferred to have stayed a bit longer. It sure is peaceful there. Edgy, yes - Braunias is right about that, but there's no point in pretending that we were even able to start on the long task of unravelling its mana and mystique.

I don't know if this trip means that I'll be able to appreciate Hicksville - or, for that matter, Sydney Bridge Upside Down - any better from now on, but there's no denying that Hicks Bay certainly is unique.

And those of you who've never explored the East Cape of New Zealand are definitely missing something: a tiny window on what the country used to be, how it felt to drive around it in my father's station waggon some fifty years ago.

BL: Hicks Bay (19/1/20)

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The Terror

The Terror
[2018 TV series created by David Kajganich, based on Dan Simmons's 2007 novel]

Friday, 28th June, 1850

A curious thing. We were in our small boat examining a piece of flotsam spotted by Abbot in the hope that it might have come from one of the ships. There was ice all around us, but being in deep water this neither obstructed nor threatened us in any way. The flotsam gave no indication of its origin, and as I inspected my pocket watch to note the time of our sighting for Pioneer's log, Abbot warned me against losing it overboard, pointing out to me that such was the depth of the water upon which we rowed that had I been careless enough to drop the watch it would have been telling yesterday's time before it struck the bottom.

Lt Sherard Osborn R. N.
Stray Leaves from an Arctic Journal, 1852

That's not a quote from either David Kajganich's TV series The Terror, or even from Dan Simmons' book of the same name. Instead, it stands as the epigraph for Robert Edric's earlier novel The Broken Lands, which also attempted, a couple of decades earlier, to recreate the horror of Sir John Franklin's famous 'lost expedition.' Franklin set out in 1845 in the two (appropriately-named) ships Erebus and Terror to find the North-West passage, and not one of the participants, officers or crew, was ever seen alive again.

Robert Edric: The Broken Lands (1992)

There's a kind of poetic trippiness about Edric's version which perhaps befits what seems, in retrospect, a somewhat statelier time (not that the 1990s felt like that to us then). Evocative vistas, carefully honed epiphanies, and a general emphasis on style above substance distinguished much of the fiction of that decade.

I do still love that idea of the pocket watch sinking rapidly into the icy water, down and down and down, far enough down to strike "yesterday's time before it struck the bottom," though. I suppose it's as good an image as any for the art of the historical novelist - painting a vision so detailed and psychologically acute that it convinces all who experience it that that's how it must have been.

Edwin Landseer: Man Proposes, God Disposes (1864)

Not that Edric was the first to attempt it, by any means. There's always been something about the Franklin expedition which has appealed to myth-makers and psychogeographers. Edwin Landseer, better known for 'The Monarch of the Glen' and The Stag at Bay,' was much criticised for his vision, above, of polar bears gnawing at the exposed ribs of frozen sailors, when he showed it at the 1864 Royal Academy exhibition.

Perhaps, indeed, that was the motivation behind Millais's even more famous painting 'The North-West Passage' - promoting a message of imperial derring-do and bulldog intrepidity more acceptable to the Victorian establishment:

John Everett Millais: The North-West Passage (1874)

It seems only fitting that the figure of the Old Salt in Millais's picture should have been modelled on Lord Byron's old friend Edward John Trelawny. Trelawny, author of the novel Adventures of a Younger Son (1831) as well as the almost equally fictional memoir Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron (1858), wrote a famous account of plucking the unburnt heart of Shelley from that famous bonfire on the beach after the latter was drowned at sea. Whether he really did risk the flames in that reckless manner is anyone's guess.

Louis Édouard Fournier: The Funeral of Shelley (1889)
[l-to-r: Trelawny, Leigh Hunt, and Byron; Mary Shelley, seen kneeling, was actually not allowed to attend]

All of which brings us back to The Terror. My own interest in the whole subject of the many, many expeditions in search of the North-West passage probably goes back as far as my childhood reading of the 'Classics Illustrated' comic below (which I'm glad to say I still own):

World Illustrated: Story of the Northwest Passage (No. 531)

A rather more sophisticated - though actually just as dramatic - account is given in Glyn Williams' more recent Voyages of Delusion (entitled, in America, Arctic Labyrinth: The Quest for the Northwest Passage):

So you can imagine that as soon as I saw those images of poor old Ciarán Hinds contemplating his end in the snow, it was only a matter of time before I watched the whole series. It might have been nice if it'd been possible to do so on some convenient streaming service, but never mind, I'm now the owner of a brand spanking new DVD of the whole thing.

The Terror (2018)

Is it a masterpiece? Too early to say, I suppose, but certainly the mise-en-scène looks brilliantly, hauntingly real - as befits any production under the supervision of Ridley Scott, or at any rate his production company Scott Free. The performances from all the various principals - Jared Harris as Captain Francis Crozier, Tobias Menzies as Commander James Fitzjames, Paul Ready as Dr. Harry Goodsir, and Ciarán Hinds as Franklin - are flawless. It also contains the slimiest, most reprehensible villain since Shakespeare dreamed up Iago as the ideal foil for his hero Othello.

I don't really want to say too much more about it, for fear of ruining the suspense for those of you who haven't yet watched it. Suspense and mystery are, after all, the lifeblood of stories such as these. Suffice it to say that all is not as it seems in these frozen wastes, and that David Kajganich's vision is probably closer to Edwin Landseer's (above) than to John Millais's.

If you'd like something more decorous and meditative, stick to The Broken Lands. This particular version of Franklin's story is as violent and bloody as anything I've ever seen on TV. It's more for fans of H. P. Lovecraft's lurid melodrama At the Mountains of Madness than for admirers (if there are any still left) of the 1948 film version of Scott of the Antarctic.

Jared Harris (1961- )

The presence, in the cast, of Jared Harris, has the effect - or so I would imagine, at least - of reminding us of his more recent star-making turn in the HBO miniseries Chernobyl. The pompous inanities and downright lies of such people as Sir John Franklin and his allies back in London seem not too far away from the rather more serious untruths promulgated in the latter series. In both cases, it would seem, if you want the craggy face of integrity, you go to Jared Harris (a long cry from his role as the most villainous villain of all in the TV Sci-fi series Fringe).

[2019 TV series created and written by Craig Mazin, directed by Johan Renck]

'Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.'
- Craig Mazin, Chernobyl (2019).

I wrote this poem some time ago, as a response to the (so-called) 'Polar-Bear-gate' scandal. It now seems to me strangely appropriate to the themes and atmosphere of the magnificent Chernobyl and the gut-wrenching The Terror alike:

Peter Gleick: Stranded Polar Bear (2010)

Stranded Polar Bear

The ripples imply
a boat’s passed by

or something larger
like a whale

the islet’s small
and artificial

like the bear

enduring exile
Augustus sent

his family
to islands

small enough
to terrify

even the young
willing to die

until you realise
it’s a fake

that bear
was never there

even his shadow
clouds and drift ice

carefully placed
to make the point

that lying is okay
when the legend becomes fact

print the legend
said John Ford

by saying it
he showed

he didn’t mean it

Paul Nicklin: Polar Bears (2010)

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Mike Johnson & Leila Lees - Booklaunch on Waiheke Saturday 14th December

Mike Johnson & Leila Lees: Ladder With No Rungs


Mike Johnson & Leila Lees:
Ladder With No Rungs
Community Room - Waiheke Library.
Saturday 14th December @3 pm.


Mike asked me to come along on Saturday to say a few words about his new book, but unfortunately I'm unable to make it. Once before, in 2007, I did make the trip to Waiheke to speak about one of his books of poetry, and this is what I had to say on that occasion.

That was a lot of years ago, though. Since then his rate of production has, if anything, increased - as you can see from the bibliography I've included below. Nor has he allowed himself to be pigeon-holed as a novelist who occasionally writes poetry (or, for that matter, as a poet who's gone over to prose ...). Both modes seem equally natural to Mike, and he's continued to produce distinguished work in each genre.

I'm told that there's a substantial new novel in the offing, and I'm very much looking forward to reading that. In the meantime, though, this latest book of poems seems quite ambitious enough. The poems themselves are short, "haiku style" verses charting the way of a soul in the world and (in particular) through relationships with nature and with each other.

Ladder With No Rungs: Blurb

Leila Lees' graphic works do indeed seem like the perfect accompaniment to Mike's words. The book would be well worth having just for those, in fact. There's yet another technical innovation - albeit quite a light-hearted one - to recommend it, though. I'm referring to the final section, where lines and words surplus to the main text have been presented in a graphic extravaganza of colour and experimental form.

This is what Mike had to say about this part of the book on Facebook (25/9/19):

Ladder With No Rungs: Rejects (1)

What qualifies a poem as a reject? My next book of poetry, LADDER WITH NO RUNGS is in preparation, with the last section entitled REJECTS. Instead of the rejects going into the trash, I suggested to Daniela Gast, our book designer, that she 'mangle them up' in contrast to the rest of the book. Like you'd screw up a piece of paper. And what a wonderful result she achieved. So these are my words, suitably mangled, Leila Lees' art work, suitably mangled, and the work of Daniela, Mangler in Chief. Enjoy!

Ladder With No Rungs: Rejects (2)

I hope that everyone who's able to attend has a wonderful time. I'm sure they will. Though I can't be there in person, I'll certainly be lifting a glass to Mike and Leila in spirit. This is probably the most delightful books of poems I've read this year - moreover, it's a truly collaborative work between artist, designer and poet, something much rarer than it should be.

Lasavia Publishing is quitting the year 2019 in style. Bring on 2020, and the bumper crop of new books it no doubt has in store for us!

on the seventh hour they lay down
to rest
their words hung in the ruby air

first ever dawn chorus
making a fuss

[Ladder With No Rungs, p.24]

Mike Johnson

Mike Johnson

Select Bibliography:


  1. The Palanquin Ropes. Wellington: Voice Press, 1983.
  2. From a Woman in Mt Eden Prison & Drawing Lessons. Auckland: Hard Echo Press, 1984.
  3. Standing Wave. Auckland: Hard Echo Press, 1985.
  4. Treasure Hunt. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1996.
  5. The Vertical Harp: Selected Poems of Li He. Auckland: Titus Books, 2006.
  6. To Beatrice Where We Crossed The Line. Auckland: Second Avenue Press, 2014.
  7. Two Lines and a Garden. Illustrated by Leila Lees. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2017.
  8. Ladder with No Rungs. Illustrated by Leila Lees. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2019.

  9. Fiction:

  10. Lear: the Shakespeare Company Plays Lear at Babylon. Auckland: Hard Echo Press, 1986.
    • Lear: the Shakespeare Company Plays Lear at Babylon. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2016.
  11. Anti Body Positive. Auckland: Hard Echo Press, 1988.
    • Zombie in a Space Suit. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2018.
  12. Lethal Dose. Auckland: Hard Echo Press, 1991.
    • Lethal Dose. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2019.
  13. Foreigners. Auckland: Penguin, 1991.
  14. Dumbshow. Dunedin: Longacre Press, 1996.
  15. Counterpart. Auckland: Voyager, 2001.
  16. Stench. Christchurch: Hazard Press, 2004.
  17. Travesty. Illustrated by Darren Sheehan. Auckland: Titus Books, 2010.
  18. Hold my Teeth While I Teach you to Dance. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2014.
  19. Back in the Day: Tales from NZ’s Own Paradise Island. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2015.
  20. Confessions of a Cockroach / Headstone. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2017.

  21. For children:

  22. Taniwha. Illustrated by Jennifer Rackham. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2015.

  23. Non-fiction:

  24. The Angel of Compassion. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2014.

Leila Lees

Leila Lees

Select Bibliography:

  1. Mike Johnson: Two Lines and a Garden. Illustrated by Leila Lees. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2017.
  2. Into the World: A Handbook for Mystical and Shamanic Practice. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2019.
  3. Mike Johnson: Ladder with No Rungs. Illustrated by Leila Lees. Auckland: Lasavia Publishing, 2019.