Monday, July 27, 2009


Mischka the cat is eighteen years old and near the end of her life. She sleeps most of the day in what Douglas, my partner, calls her ‘crockpot’. This is a small electric blanket. I bought this when I was in Sydney. When this bitter and long winter started I was working in my study. I heard heart rending aninmal cries in the corridor. They were gutteral, anguished. I ran out, thinking it was a cat fight. But it was the ancient Mischka registering her outrage, her fury, that she had lived into another winter and it was causing her pain. 

In Sydney I was walking by a pet shop in a chic inner city suburb - a place where  a lot of single people live. There was an ad for pet electric blankets. Even though my restrained 1950s upbringing was screaming: don’t be so indulgent! For an animal! I brazenly went in, paid my $99.99 for the Made in China item. All my friends rocked with laughter. I blushed.

But when I got home Mischka wasn’t interested in her electric blanket. It took three long weeks to coach her to sit in it. (It is ugly. I don’t fault her esthetic judgement.) But then she took to it. And spends a lot of time there.

We popped it in the spare room. This is because poor old M smells. She’s a shocker. She has also reached the stage of dribbling a lot and her fur has started to be cemented with spittal. Her eyes also have an inner lid appearing over them. Her talons are long. You ask me - repulsed - why isn’t she ‘put to sleep’? 

Well, she has almost died several times already. She had a tumour on a nerve removed last year which sent her into fits. I suppose she is still alive because she has a fiesty indominatable spirit. She is also a sweet loyal cat who has served us well. 

We have three cats - through joining our two households together a few years back - and M is always first to the biscuit tray. In the morning she hobbles along the back corridor on imaginary crutches, rushing along. But it’s more than a purely animal need for food. She’s still blindly affectionate.

This is a small porttait of Mischka the cat. I chose her when I went along with Douglas who had shifted into his own house and wanted a cat. We had just begun our relationship. At the SPCA - in what is a nightmarish audition scene - Mischka ran to the front of the cage, presenting basically a kind of Cat Idol performance of sweetness and affection. ‘Take me!’ she all but inaudibly cried. She was a pretty little tabby, small. She was speyed of course, so that wasn’t a problem.

 It was only as we took her home she revealed her skin-curdling ability to yowl. It’s a coarse high lament, nerve-tingling. We were told she came from the Western suburbs of Auckland so her first informal name was ‘Westy Scrag’. (She came with the name of Mischka.) She was a affectionate cat - always eager to nestle on a knee or have cuddles. 

But in the first mating season D’s house became surrounded by yowling toms. Mischka was in a frenzy. D rang the SPCA: they said it was a sort of phantom heat which sometimes happens. A certain amount of time later, in D’s wardrobe, Mischka had four kittens. Douglas kept one - a male - and his sister took another. A friend took a third. The fourth was dead on birth.

So Westy Scrag had a son. He developed very quickly into a huge black and white tom - he was big from the start, just as she was dainty. I wanted to call him Rooter but D’s mother was horrified by this vulgarism and he became Buster.

Buster and Mischka shifted with D to Napier several years back. When I finally shifted in with him I brought my own cat, a long haired female of high temperament - a stray I called, for obvious reasons, Flounce. (This business of naming cats is important.) 

The three cats gradually worked out a way of being. They would spat, especially Buster the male and Flounce the Queen. But when we came back from being away, the three would be sleeping closely together, arranged like the figures on a clock.

Now Mischka is clearly nearing death the other two cats treat her with grudging respect. They keep out of her way, allow her egress. It may be simply that they find her smell offensive - or worse, a warning. Mischka comes in and sleeps by the fire. D or I lift her up and put her in her crockpot for the night. When I did this last night I could feel the hurry of her heart. I wondered whether she was rehearsing her panic for when we took her down the road to the vet. 

By now her name had changed into ‘Potato Crisp’ - because she is so wafer thin and light when you pick her up. 

Another name is starker. It is simply: the Old One

Does she know? I don’t think so. But these are definitely last days. The big question of ‘when’ lies in the air. It’s palpable, visible. A painful decision for any companion of a loyal animal. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

'Discovering' Cliff Curtis

Discovering Cliff Curtis.

I’m not sure if anyone can claim to ‘discover’ an actor. There’s all the hidden work which goes on before an actor breaks through to public notice. But in 1992 fellow director Stewart Main and I were looking for a Maori actor to play the role of a louche, wicked, sexy character in the period melodrama we had written. 

The film was called Desperate Remedies.

The character is irresistible to women and men. He’s wildly charming and charismatic. He’s also drug addicted, a sleazeball - a manipulator. In short, an incredible part to play.

Our problem was finding an actor. Drama schools were not so highly developed in the early 1990s. There were older Maori male actors like Wi Kuki  Kaa who had appeared in Barry Barclay’s film, Ngati. Zac Wallace had been a  menacing character in Utu. But Stewart and my idea of the character was edgier sexually. He was younger, sexually potent. He had to be blatantly attractive.

He also had to be Maori - he operated as a kind of sexual ‘other’ to the white characters, a kind of forbidden love - as indeed Maori were to white women and men in the later part of the nineteenth century. The film was set in New Zealand in the 1860s.

Stewart did most of the casting work for this character. We settled on a good Wellington actor. But one afternoon, Fraser - the character’s name in the film - walked along our veranda. This actor was wildly charming and charismatic. (I don’t know if he was playing the role or being himself, an actor on the hunt of a job. All actors are whores when there’s a scent of a job.) This actor was a young Cliff Curtis.

Even before he left, Stewart and I knew - by an exchange of glances -  by a kind of rising excitement in our gullets - we had found our Fraser. The problem became switching actors, a painful, difficult situation. But it was incontestable, unarguable. And I think on viewing the film again recently (after not seeing it for many years) we did the right thing. Cliff gives a brilliant performance. He eats up the screen from the moment he comes on. He lives vividly. And I think I’m right when I say he was never more beautiful.

You can probably rely on a gay director to make a male actor look his best. 

But there was a lean hunger in Cliff’s performance which is very....appetising.

On set he was always a contrast to the other actors (who were more classically trained.) Cliff, if he was entering the scene angry or in some heightened state, would rage about the ‘studio’, seething, mouthing words, building up his adrenalin. It meant when he walked into a scene, he was mid-emotion. He palpitated. He sweated. He glitters on celluloid still.

Many years later I heard there was a rumour he offered sex to Stewart and me for the part. And we of course accepted. The strange thing is - maybe even the disappointing thing is - this never happened.

He won the part on sheer charisma.

It became his breakthrough moment. After that, he was in Once Were Warriors, directed by Lee Tamihori.  And from there he became a kind of trans-Pacific actor, appearing in a number of big American films. 

When I was at Waikato University a few years back I was startled when a student said prosaically his role in Desperate Remedies was ‘racist’. I was speechless for a moment. Then I said: it was the role of a life time. Characters who are ‘bad’ offer probably more potential for an actor than any other kind of character. I was incredulous.

But when I thought about it later, I thought the student, applying a simplistic ruler to a complex dramatic art form, didn’t understand that in melodrama, everyone is flawed in some way. Or should I say - everyone in life?

If you want to see a tiny prism of Cliff’s charisma you can see the original trailer for Desperate Remedies on

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The other day I drove by the place where the missionary William Colenso lived. 

There’s a small rather ugly historical marker on the site, from the 1980s. It’s made of concrete and looks like it should mark where a bridge once was. Something utilitarian. Rather than the shattered hopes and dreams of a man who hoped to gather Maori into christianity, only to fall from grace himself. He had an illegitimate son with his Maori servant. His family deserted him, he was sacked from the church and ultimately, the mission house burnt down.

It’s the site of a tragedy then. 

But this day, as I sped past, I glanced down at it as I always do. I’m kind of checking it out. It’s not that I expect to see anything. It’s just like you rub a secret spot. Good luck.

I want to write a book of essays on Colenso. He’s a fascinating, contradictory, passionate man. A wonderful letter writer. He’s buried just along the road from where I sit writing. His bones lie not too far from the bones of my NZ ancestors. His house is just down the road - a saunter away. You could say, invisibly, he surrounds me as I sit here. My job is to make him visible - palpable. Real.

That day as I sped by the memorial was surrounded by water. It was a beautiful still afternoon, freezing cold. But the light was beautiful. Tinged with a cold sunset.

I thought again how hopeless the site was for a mission house. 

It was preordained for failure. 

But in a way I was pleased to see history living on. It was still hopeless. A Maori chief said at the time ‘only eels ever lived there’. Colenso was given the piece of land because nobody wanted it. How the locals must have smiled among themselves, seeing the missionaries trying to cope with something so utterly hopeless. The fact it took slightly less than ten years for disaster to strike is testament to William and his wife, Elizabeth’s pluck. Or madness. 

So as I sped by - and see nothing remaining of their mission - only that ugly monument still surrounded by rain and river water - I sort of salute human frailty. I also think of the book that I hope to write. 

I try and gather an impulse from the site, urging me on.

Friday, July 3, 2009

sombre indifference and a talking book

I live in a geographically isolated place, Napier. It takes five hours driving to reach Auckland, the city in which I grew up. When I was a kid we used to come down and visit my grandmother in Napier. There was one part of the road which was notorious. This was the Napier-Taupo road. It starts off being very flat then you enter a series of corrugations where the hills become increasingly moutainous, until you lose cellphone contact and there are no houses. It is very beautiful. Strangely beautiful.

When Anna Kavan drove down to Napier 

in 1942 the r

oad would have been a narrow thread of pumice and gravel - treacherous to drive on, terrifying. “ seems impossible for a poor human device, liable to breakdowns and in constant need of refuelling, such as a car, ever to make its way over the (hills),' she wrote. '....It is a region of solitude, sombre indifference, silence and grandeur. It was a place of human-life negation. It was nature at its most remotest, most formidable, and most magnificent.”

Sombre indifference. I like that.

When friends in Auckland, in the city, say to me, ‘how are you finding it down there?’ they mean: how can you bear it? A cityborn boy who likes all the things to do with cities - crowds, cafes, books, anonymity. Well, this road is one of the things I have ‘found’ down here. It does things for me. I find travelling it soothing, almost savagely soothing. 

When I came back from visiting Berlin and Vienna last European summer it was late afternoon when I got onto the Napier Taupo Road. It was sunny - the long shadows of winter - and the magnificence of the architecture of the hills, each side receiving a lamination of light, the ancient trees standing upright and seemingly picked out in gold, was as remarkable as anything I saw in Europe. As uplifting as the greatest cathedral. 

But it’s the depth of the solitude, driving. In contemporary life we hardly ever have continuous unbroken time alone. But I have a confession. I listen to talking books.

I’ve made the mistake of saying to writer-friends, ‘Oh I’ve been reading so and so’ in a voice of enthusiasm. Then I have to backtrack and say, with considerable embarassment, ‘well, I’ve been listening to...’ The literary world is intensely snobbish. It’s like the Chinese court towards the end of the Manchu dynasty: vast change is coming, has already arrived but that only makes the maintenance of old forms more important.

But the fact is I have ‘heard’ more novels driving than I have had time to read. At the moment I am ‘reading’ Andrea Levy’s Small Island which I absolutely love.  

Let’s face it, most of us started off as readers by being read to. There’s nothing more lovely. And these talking books often have superb actors. The combination of driving through magnificent landscape, in solitude, accompanied by a complete other world - aural, narrative - is fantastic. It’s the caviare of life. I feel lucky. 

Sometimes I make sandwiches so I can just keep on driving.

One trip I got in the car in Auckland and started listening to a Michael Cunningham talking book A Home at the end of the World (read by the actors from the less successful film, including Colin Farrell with his amazingly sexy gravelly voice, plaintive as a prairie). I got out in Napier it felt like, two minutes later. I had been listening so intensely. 

But this can have untoward side effects.

On my way back here last time, I was enjoying Small Island so much I glanced at the amount of petrol in the car as I left Taupo. I should explain there are no gas stations for the followng 135 kilometres of increasingly mountainous territory. The tank was quarter full. That seemed ok. It’s often enough. So I took off.

It is wintery now. We were about to head into an intensely cold patch, when winds from Antartica would dump snow all over the hills. As it was, there was low cloud in all the valleys - very beautiful. The landscape felt drenched in some spiritual aura. 

I was climbing the last of the huge hills when my petrol guage came on. ‘Empty’.

I wasn’t sure how empty this was, but it caused me to feel acutely uncomfortable. It was getting towards dusk, a low cold chill spreading over the landscape. 

I decided to go into neutral and coast down the other side of the hill. I knew once I got on the downside it was basically a series of declines before reaching Napier. But there was quite a long way to go.

Occasionally a car would zoom up behind me and I would have to go into gear, speed up or pull over, then engage the car again and get up speed so I could coast along.

I kept listening to Andrea Levy’s story. It was my good luck totem.

I began to pass the odd farm-house. Then I climbed another hill. The petrol warning light came on again, fading away for a time, then blooming out in the increasing darkness.

I decided to turn the talking book off. I was starting to not listen to it carefully. I needed to concentrate on my ‘worry’ - devote a bit of time to it, by way of allaying it.

I thought of a strange story. 

I remembered as a child we had been travelling down to Napier. It was winter and the weather was bad. There was a wash-out on the road. An entire hillside had crashed across the road. There was a narrow track made for a single car to get across. 

Mum, my brother and I decided we would walk across the track. I took my teddy - the teddy which embarassed my father because I kept him as a companion so late (I was probably nine, ten years old.) 

We left Dad to either drive across or slide down the hill, probably to his death. Now it seemed remarkable the way we all decided, as a family, that Dad would drive the car alone. 

I wondered now how Dad felt as he drove along the narrow track.

At the time we didn’t think about him. Or I didn’t.

I reflected on the strange decisions of the time.

Anyway, long story short, I began to drift down into the Eskdale Valley which takes you towards Napier. 

As it was I got to a petrol station.

But it was a warning: talking books can be bewitching. Or: imagination untrammeled, which takes no notice of reality, is foolhardy.