Monday, 17 March 2014

For the University of St Andrew's 'Loch Computer' project, I was asked to write a short text about my 'sense of the balance in (my) existence between remoteness and connectedness'

Remote is a function of our brains, not a geographical fact. Perhaps we are longing for times when the world was flat and infinite and remote is always just out of sight. It's only recently that 'how can a plane disappear?' seems like a reasonable question. Living in Shetland I constantly meet the kind of folk who yearn for the edge, yearn for 'remote', so much that they invent it where it doesn't exist. Please take care. We're in trouble when we let 'remote' mean something like forgettable (out of sight, out of mind) – especially if it's defined as such by people with the power to exploit such a place.

I've tried to identify some of the things I think I need to be happy where I live. Company of compassionate, informed, egalitarian and mindful folk. Company of makers and musicians and scientists and explorers. Company of wild creatures doing their own thing despite us. Sometimes to give up and go to the pictures. Good wireless speeds; mangos; an alternative place to work than home, interrupted by people I do and don't yet know. Places you can walk out of the view of houses. The ability to get to my family if I need to. The possibility of elsewhere from time to time. People ever coming and going, by cruise, research vessel, helicopter, pelagic ships and whitefish boats, yacht, ferry, plane. And the world's junk washing up on our beaches. With most of these needs satisfied enough of the time, where I live is not remote. Places change and people's needs change, and so 'remote' is not an absolute – but what 'remote' is also not is a fixed geographical location.

Foula, from the Westside

'A row of cottages called New Zealand – because they were so far from anywhere – was built' (Tim Dee, Four Fields) I was there, recently, as far from home as it's possible to be. And found myself weirdly at home in a place somewhat like Shetland.

I stayed overnight on Kapiti Island with the poet Glenn Colquhoun. Glenn can see Kapiti most days from the coast near his house, though it disappears in fog, as Foula does, from my back yard. Jetlagged, I tried to sleep on the warm deck of our cabin, but the ponderous footfall of a kleptomaniac weka startled me awake. It dipped its beak into my mug of lukewarm tea. The beach was covered in blazing oval mirrors – upturned iridescent paua shells. In ten minutes at ten in the morning, my white Northern nape began to burn. I had sort of forgotten about the hole in the ozone layer until I burnt underneath it. We ate tough, gamey chunks of paua, fried in a bit of flour; a large kaka lurked in the trees, ready to raid the cheese and biscuit platter. We worked our way along a cliffside track through flax, bending back the stiff blades for each other, and eventually reached – in older-growth bush, the ruinous whaling station. Kakariki, powdery greenstone, that were prising seeds from flax pods, shattered from the sharp leaves. And we saw kiwi and spoonbills; massive blue takahe on the brink of extinction. 

Gratuitous picture of a Takahe, by the lovely folk at Kapiti Island Nature Tours

The whole world grew out of here; the heart of the whorl, though the globe has infinite such crowns. But as we packed the trunk of Glenn's car again, back on the mainland, it was immediately as if we'd never been there. Kapiti vibrated and fizzed, the same fictional blue as Foula. The wind had picked up, and we'd narrowly missed an indefinite stay on the island, or an expensive helicopter trip. It takes less than half an hour to get to Kapiti but it's impossible to reach by boat when the wind gets up. The island hovered slightly above the shattering sea, ready to plane off, like Laputa.

Leaving Kapiti

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Commonwealth Poets United trip to New Zealand

waving to friends in Iraqthe sunrise, and the first of 26 episodes of Big Bang Theorymorning in Dubaias close as I could get to the end of the runway in WellingtonCuba StGregory O'Brien
thoupInternational Institute of Modern LetterskitWaikawa Beachlooks like the skerries off Fitful Headpoet, hustled by weka
blowfishpaua, circular saw shell, poetryGlenn Colquhoun, reading at ValhallaIMG_5291South Crater, Tongaririo Northern CircuitEmerald Lakes
i like these guys. A kind of gentianArgentinian woman, showing me how far she can spread her toes. Far.pukekoBill Manhirebiggest fish supper everubiqitous flax

I wonder what long haul air travel across time-zones does to body, soul and mind. The world is a scalp with two crowns. Coming home go back in time and brush its fur the wrong way. Halfway between Melbourne and Singapore abandon hope of arriving ever. The guy in the seat behind me has unfairly long legs, and big feet which intrude into my footwell. I wake from a two hour sleep, find his feet between mine and kick them violently and deliberately until they retreat. Long legs and I avoid each others' eyes as we get off the plane in Singapore. Terrible to travel through the equator for the first time and not even get outside, which is why Changi is my new favourite airport: they let you smell the air. Upstairs and out into the cactus garden. It is midnight and 26 degrees. The sky is stifling, orange and smells like a wood-fired oven. Under the clear skies of Kapiti Island and the Tongariro Alpine Circuit, Orion was upended as if diving for pearls below the horizon. Here I couldn't find my way to a single constellation: the fainter stars obliterated in smog. I clapped the flask-shaped trunk of a ponytail tree. A friend of mine quotes a friend of hers: 'the soul travels on horseback'. So what happens while your soul is catching you up? Empty, you fill up like a well, mostly unmediated by language. For a while language is a almost purely sensual phenomenon: birds, places, rhythm, phonetic novelty and familiarity. (To 'whakapapa' is to 'redd up kin'. It's pronounced 'fokkapapa' or so, and was the name of the village I began my walk through the mountains.)

With big thanks to all the folk who put me up and in touch and showed me around: Frances Hendron and Robyn Marsack, Bill Manhire and Marion, Greg O'Brien and Jenny Bornholdt, Chris and all the students at the International Institute for Modern Letters at Victoria University, Glenn and Olive and Amey, Dinah Hawken and Bill, James Brown, St Benedicts and St Catherine's Schools, Radio New Zealand, Unity Books, the nice folk I met on the Tongariro Northern Circuit and the Shetland Society of Wellington!