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As I stood on the grassy slopes of Bob’s Peak, I tried not to think about what we were preparing to do. Luckily the streets below were hidden from view, although the tiny dots of the boats out on the crystal blue lake didn’t fill me with confidence. Pius, my large and over-friendly Italian guide, checked my straps briefly, apparently trusting my clumsy attempts at fastening the harness. If I’d known that his checks would be so perfunctory I’d have taken more time over them myself.

‘Are we ready?’

His accent made him difficult to understand, and with the alpine wind whistling about my ears it took me a few moments to translate his thick vowels. Before I had a chance to answer he’d positioned himself behind me, and I felt his hand tap my shoulder.

‘Run.’

It would have been easy at that moment to sit back down on the grass and call it a day. Somehow, though, my instincts for self-preservation had been temporarily silenced. This was Queenstown, after all: the self-proclaimed Mecca for extreme sports. I began pumping my legs, my feet hitting the turf hard as I struggled against the machinery – and the large Italian – strapped to my back. At first it felt as if someone had tied me to a car as a prank, and I almost turned around to check that everything was as it should be. Then the thought of Pius’s withering look made me pound my feet even harder. We were nearing the edge of the cliff now, and with it a sixteen hundred foot drop down to the town below. My mind flitted back to those straps again. I really should have spent more time tightening them.

And then something changed behind me. Where there had been resistance before there was now a slight tug, as if Pius had sprouted a pair of wings and was trying to pull me off my feet. It was an odd sensation, simultaneously lifting me up and dragging me back, and I was almost too busy marveling at it to notice that I was suddenly a few inches off the ground. I may have been lifted off my feet but we were still traveling forward at some speed, the cliff edge disappearing beneath us as Queenstown came into view, the houses looking no larger than Monopoly pieces. After a few seconds I remembered to stop wiggling my legs, and I pulled down self-consciously on my helmet strap, trusting it to see me safely home. Sixteen hundred feet looked an awfully long way to fall.

*    *    *

At the start of the day I hadn’t intended to end up nearly half a mile above the ground, with a large Italian strapped to my back. My plan had been to bungee jump at the site of the very first bungee, the now-infamous Kawarau Bridge, and I’d driven there filled with an irrational desire to throw myself from it.

If the story of the commercial bungee started at a rickety bridge just outside of Queenstown, however, then the true origin of the semi-suicidal sport lay further north. As part of the harvest ritual on the Vanuatu Islands the young men used to build a tower of lashed-together branches, which they would then tie themselves to with long vines, before throwing themselves from the top. If they were lucky they’d have cut the vine to almost exactly the correct length, and it’d pull them up just as they hit the ground, lessening the blow and simultaneously wrenching their legs out of their sockets. If they were unlucky they’d cut it too long, the results of which you can imagine for yourself. As harvest festivals went, it was a spectacularly messy one.

Fortunately for adrenaline addicts the world over, a documentary on these rituals happened to be watched by members of the Oxford University Dangerous Sports Club in the Seventies, and they decided to stage some attempted jumps of their own. Their equipment was still primitive, but it provided them all with a bit of a giggle in between lectures, and nothing more was thought of it.

Until Kiwi entrepreneur A J Hackett happened upon a video of the Dangerous Sports Club in action, that is. While others might have wondered why these English intellectuals were throwing themselves off things with such gay abandon, Hackett immediately saw the dollar signs flashing before his eyes. Enlisting the help of friend and fellow speed-skier Henry van Asch, he began to pioneer what became the modern bungee cord. Their first tests were undertaken at the Ponts de la Caille near Annecy in eastern France, and once the equipment was ready they decided to launch their new adrenaline sport in the highest-profile manner possible. In June 1987, A J Hackett threw himself off the Eiffel Tower.

The stunt resulted in his immediate arrest by some stereotypically dour-faced gendarmes, but he was released a few minutes later into a blaze of media attention. The following year the Kawarau Bridge bungee opened, and since then over 500,000 people had thrown themselves into space above the torrents of the Kawarau River while attached to a long strip of elastic. A J Hackett was now a very rich man.

When I pulled into the Kawarau parking lot my eyes weren’t drawn to the bridge itself, however: I was too busy looking at the crowd. Some of the revenue from the bungee had been poured back into developing the jump’s facilities, which now included a space-age visitors’ center and a large wooden viewing balcony. It was here that I joined the gathered masses to worship at the altar of Hackett, fifty of us jostling for elbow-room as we waited for the poor fools on the bridge to jump. It might have resembled a public execution, but the $140 price tag told the true story. At least you got the hangman’s noose for free.

The first jumper was obviously a regular visitor, as he barely needed any encouragement to throw himself from their ramshackle platform into the crisp New Zealand air. I watched as he hung for a second in midair, before gravity reasserted itself and he plummeted towards the river below. They’d set the bungee slightly longer than normal, and his head dipped in the water before the cord pulled him up again, dragging an arc of spray behind him. He bounced a couple of times, the cord jerking him from side to side, then the crew launched their small yellow dinghy and gathered him safely in. The whole experience took a little under three minutes, including the time it took to return him to dry land. I’d expected the bungee to be thrilling, but I’d never expected it to be so brief.

As I stood watching the conveyor belt of jumpers I decided not to bother signing up for it myself. I knew that I’d be berated for it when I returned home, but the hefty price tag had sapped any desire that I might have had to throw myself from this particular bridge. Outside of Las Vegas there couldn’t be a quicker way to lose $140, and I didn’t exactly have the spare cash to throw into this churning river. Besides, Queenstown was reputedly the adrenaline sports capital of the world. Surely there must be something more satisfying to spend my few spare dollars on?

*    *    *

A quick examination of the map showed me that the Shotover Jet was located nearby, so I decided to give that a chance. I knew very little about jetboats, apart from the fact that one of them had ruined my attempts at photography at Taupo’s Huka Falls earlier in my trip. I figured that I should keep an open mind, though, and this particular company had been recommended to me by a couple in Fiji. Their literature told me that they’d ferried over two million passengers down the Shotover River, which by my calculations made them at least four times as popular as the Kawarau Bridge bungee. With figures like that behind them I had to see what all the fuss was about.

In a nutshell, jetboating was exactly as it sounded. The hi-tech boats had an internal propeller that sucked water in through the hull, then drove it out again through jet nozzles at the rear. Not only did this unique propulsion device allow them to reach speeds of forty-five miles an hour in the Shotover River’s narrow canyons, it also offered them a flexibility of movement that was unknown in regular craft. Here at Shotover the boats had two engines and two nozzles, allowing them to turn sharply, brake, and even send the boat into a 360-degree spin. It put Hackett’s little yellow dinghy to shame.

Once I’d been suited up in a full-length waterproof coat and scarlet lifejacket we were herded onto our boat, the crew ushering us through the iron gates like cattle. With the sun sparkling off the surface of the river it all looked remarkably tranquil, and I wondered if Shotover’s reputation had been exaggerated. It seemed like a nice spot for a picnic.

I didn’t have to wonder for long. Once our pilot was in place he checked that we were all securely fastened, then the boat roared into life. I’m not a huge fan of rollercoasters, and I generally believe that anything worth seeing is worth seeing slowly, but I couldn’t keep myself from grinning as we hurtled away, my back pressed firmly into the seat. Taking the bends we were flung viciously from side to side, and even in my nervous state I marveled at the company’s excellent safety record. Perhaps it only felt like I was about to be flung into the icy waters of the river.

The experience was over all too soon, although a quick glance at my watch told me that it had taken slightly more than twenty minutes. My legs were a little shaky once I stepped onto solid ground again, but I couldn’t keep an idiotic smile from spreading across my face. To my great surprise, jetboating had turned out to be fun.

*    *    *

I took a few sips of water to restore a degree of calm to my battered nervous system, then I began to consult the map again. My day of adrenaline sports in Queenstown was only half over. Now that I had the bit between my teeth, I wanted to make the most of it. It occurred to me that I’d already experienced extreme speed – what I needed next was extreme height. The bungee still looked too expensive, and it finished far too quickly for my liking, which sent me back to the drawing board. Where else could I experience the thrills of extreme heights without having to dunk my head in a river? What else was there in Queenstown to jump off, apart from the bridge?

This might go some way towards explaining how I came to be strapped to an overweight Italian sixteen hundred feet off the ground, the houses of the town laid out beneath me like a Lego set. I shuffled my butt back in the harness, just to make sure that there was no chance of falling out. On the way up Bob’s Peak I’d heard stories about a tourist whose equipment had failed, sending him plummeting into the backyard of an unexpecting resident, breaking almost every bone in his body in the process. At the time I’d written it off as an extreme sports myth, but it now felt worryingly feasible. I tugged on my helmet strap again, just to be sure.

Suddenly there was a ringing sound behind me, and for a fraction of a second I thought that it might be some kind of alarm, warning us of our impending death in an old lady’s flowerbed. Fortunately Pius’s laughter set me at ease.

‘Sorry, that’s my cell phone. It seems someone wants to talk to me. They always call at the worst time, eh?’

I managed to stutter a cursory yes, trying to drag my eyes away from a particularly solid-looking paved yard.

‘Too damn right. You feeling okay?’

I wasn’t sure that he’d heard my last outburst, so this time I gave him the thumbs-up.

‘You feel like doing some acrobatics before we land?’

To be frankly honest, part of me wanted to say no. No matter how hard that part screamed in my head, though – while pointing out the very solid ground that lay over a thousand feet below us – I still managed to give him the thumbs-up again. I figured I might as well live a little, even if it wasn’t for very long.

‘Hold on tight then.’

At first I barely noticed the change in direction, but then the ground slid away, our bodies spinning in a tight spiral that sent the world reeling past my left ear. Then Pius span us the other way, and I tried to imagine the s-shaped trajectory that we were following through the sky, if only to take my mind off the fact that the earth kept moving beneath us, and that I was rapidly losing any sense of up or down.

After a couple of minutes we resumed a steady course, and I felt a hand tap me on the shoulder.

‘That was good, eh?’

I swallowed against the dryness in my throat and managed to prize my hand off the strap long enough give a final thumbs-up. It had been good, if incredibly unnerving. Suddenly the bungee wasn’t looking quite so daring after all.

Once we were back on the ground, having crash-landed clumsily in the sports field of the local school, Pius set about folding away the parachute while I unbuckled myself from the rigging. A quick glance at my watch told me that I still had a couple of hours to spare before the sun went down, but I’d already had enough excitement for one day. What little adrenaline I had left would be just enough to propel me back to the van that had become my home over the past few weeks; then I intended to sit very still for at least half an hour, while my equilibrium restored itself. With my feet firmly planted on the floor, of course.

Pius grinned as I stepped shakily out of the harness, my feet remarkably glad to feel the reassurance of firm ground again, but still uncertain of its solidity.

‘Not bad for two heavy pricks, eh?’

I couldn’t help smiling and nodding in agreement. No, it wasn’t bad at all.

(This excerpt is adapted from the book Ka Mate: Travels in New Zealand, available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all good book retailers.)

This has been a bad month for earthquakes. The Pacific is working things out with its tectonic plates in a spectacularly violent fashion, affecting those near and dear to us in dramatic and terrifying ways. Our hearts, usually occupied by the few square miles around our own lives, become pained by the vision of devastation of those we love far away, and we struggle to make sense of the distances between us, our inability to run at a moment’s notice to the aid of the victims.

I have a love-hate relationship with images. I’ve written about them before, in a more personal context. But every massive quake or tsunami or hurricane in the era of the 24-hour news cycle becomes one more opportunity for me to dip into helpless depression, a feeling of impotence. The horror that we all experienced watching September 11 unfold internationally, I still remember with crystal clarity. I also remember the depressive episode afterward, culminating months later with me jumping in a car alone for a road trip, trying desperately to shake the grip of helplessness that had strangled me since September.

Our own Zara is in the middle of the most devastating event of her life, her world having been literally shaken to its foundation. I can only watch with grim respect as she answers her own need for understanding by writing it down and sending it to the rest of us via the wonder of internet connectivity. And in the face of this most recent earthquake, Japan’s northeastern shore being washed away by an unimaginably horrifying wave, I find myself torn in twain.

My son goes to a Japanese immersion school in Portland. Every day, he goes to school and interacts with his Japanese teachers, and a host of interns who, for one year, elect to uproot themselves from Japan to learn how to be teachers in the United States. The interns are woven into the fiber of our school: we have to do fund-raising, an impossible amount of it, every year to bring our interns here, and every year the community rises up to pull us through the financial gap. They live in our houses, they celebrate holidays with us, come to parties with us, share meals and laughs. They become family.

We’re saying good-bye to this year’s Japanese interns tonight at a party thrown for them. They will perform for us, we will give them awards, there will be Taiko drumming.

But I’m not sure it will be so celebratory.

As the first video of Japan was coming in last night, my husband and I watched the tsunami roll in over a tiny town. It was gripping and slow, the first wave having already flooded the area, the surges behind creeping up to continue the brutal work of the leader. The journalist in the helicopter above must have been dazed: every time he turned the camera to the sea, there was wave after wave, lined up like battalions, ready to smash into the already wracked earth below. On live television we watched as entire neighborhoods were washed up into the interior, cars, planes, houses. At that distance one can imagine that these are but toys, but we know with grim certainty that those cars and houses belong to people who are also being washed away.

I fight internally with myself. My need to be informed about these horrifying events, which touch people I know personally, rubs against my knowledge that if I look too deeply at the crisis, I can be thrown into another bout of useless debilitating depression. I’m not being useful if I just fall into the trap of watching the videos roll in with the same regularity as the tsunami surge to shore. I’m only creating that special fragility in my own psyche where the darkness can enter and take hold.

So my heart goes on being pained and open and broken on behalf of the victims, but I willfully turned off the video this morning when I could feel the chinks in my armor start to give way. The video is too visceral, too overt. And I wonder if we, those of us so far away, are actually experiencing shock–misplaced because the horror is not ours.

I understand the need for the images to get out. It makes our world small, and we reach with tiny hands across the breadth of the ocean. We rally our resources to aid strangers, we donate money and send rescue teams, we wish we could do more, but do whatever we can to bridge the space between. But I feel the media fatigue already. I’m turning off the video storm surge, and going to the party for our Japanese interns tonight instead, to ask them what they need, what we can do, maybe just listening to them talk.

I can do nothing else.



Earthquake

By Zara Potts

Memoir

It is 12.51 pm when the earthquake strikes.

I have just finished my coffee, am halfway through a toasted sandwich and my girlfriend has just asked me how my day has been.

As I start to answer, I feel a slight rattle. Then a sideways jolt. The floor shifts, then everything explodes.

I am sitting in front of floor-to-ceiling glass panels. As they blow out behind me, my brain finally registers that this is an earthquake. A big one. Instinct kicks in and I leap for the door. I don’t even think to cover my head with my hands, but somehow I notice that I am bleeding and wonder how this is.

I don’t notice that I have fallen to my knees down the concrete steps or that someone has run over my thigh in their panic to get out. I pull myself up and stumble out onto the shaking street. I trip again on my four-inch heels as the buildings around me start to collapse.

There is masonry flying. There are piles of bricks in the road. There is dust swarming. There is the shrill shatter of glass smashing. There are people screaming. I have never seen anything like it. The street I am on I have known all my life, but I can’t recognise it.

The ground moves and moves and moves. It feels like it will never stop.

But it does.

The screaming, however, doesn’t, and the alarms begin to match their cries.

I am so shocked I cannot make a noise. I stagger back to the cafe and find my friend. She is inside. I shout at her to come outside. She comes toward me and grabs me hard. I start to shake. We link arms and stumble down the road.

“Was this bigger than the 7.1 in September?” I ask her repeatedly. It is somehow crucial to me that I know this.

“Yes,” she replies. “Much bigger.”

I am strangely relieved. I can’t bear to imagine that there could be anything worse than this.

It’s like a disaster movie set. It doesn’t feel real. There are people crying and dazed walking by us. I realise I am one of them. As we walk among the rubble, Amanda tries to convince me to walk with her. I refuse. All I can think about is getting back to work so I can tell my boss that I am taking the rest of the day off.

Amanda leaves me reluctantly and as soon as she disappears into the crowd, I want desperately for her to come back. Instead I head for my workplace and see my colleagues gathering by the river. They are crying and shocked and trying desperately to use their phones. They see my blood and make me sit down.

I sit and someone places chocolate in my mouth. I feel like I am going to vomit. I look around and see that I am sitting opposite the police station. I see policemen filing out of the station, horror stricken.

I look at them and it frightens me to see that they are as scared as I am.

Without warning, the ground jolts again. It comes with a rumble and breaks up the road in front of us, pushing the asphalt into a hard, broken ridge.

The river is rising. The city is falling.

I am now horribly aware that I am not safe. I am not safe anywhere. Amongst hundreds of equally terrified people, I am alone. I know at this moment I have to get out of the city.

I take off my boots and start to walk.

I look at my socks and am absurdly glad that they match. They are my favourite socks, black cotton with love hearts.

As I walk, I see remnants of buildings I have known since I was a child. They are crumpled. Shattered. Collapsed. Glass carpets the streets.

There are bloodied bodies lying on the riverbank. I barely glance at them. I am resolute in my walking. I head for the park, trying to find a safe place. The park is full of people, looking at the broken skyline as the earth beneath their feet turns to liquid mud.

I try to cross a road and am turned back. I don’t know what to do. I want to walk on but I am terrified the ground will shake again. I don’t know which route to take. I think I hear someone calling my name, so I turn and see an old boyfriend, whom I haven’t seen for decades. I run to him and he hugs me tight. He feels like an angel.

I look down the road to the centre of the city. For over a hundred years, the cathedral has stood tall in the square, a proud icon of the city, beloved to all its children. Its mighty steeple has fallen. The heart of the city has collapsed. My mind will not accept what my eye is seeing.

“The cathedral, Zak —” I say, pointing at what I cannot describe.

“I know,” he says. “Let’s walk.”

He takes my hand and carries my boots and we start to walk out of the city. We pass collapsed buildings that have pancaked in on themselves. We know there are people trapped. We try not to look, knowing that people are dead just metres away, crushed among the broken steel and splintered concrete bones of their workplace.

We walk down streets that have been torn open. Cars are beginning to jam and there are clouds of dust rising up from the city behind us, while the potent smell of gas swirls in the air.

We walk and walk and walk. Sometimes we talk, sometimes we don’t.

I can only think of my dog and my family and friends. I don’t know if any of them are alive. My cell phone won’t connect, and the only practical thing I can do right now is walk.

We pass people sitting on their lawns, afraid to be inside their homes. They have no power, no water, no words. We tell them what we have seen and they tell us of lost pets, broken homes and missing children.

I can only feel fear. It courses through me along with adrenaline. I feel like I am trying to escape an invisible monster. I don’t know when it will reappear. I don’t know where it will reappear.

I want a cigarette, but I know I am on the very fine edge of panic and my brain tells me that I need every bit of air I can get. My cigarettes stay in my bag.

Finally my cell phone beeps. I check it and see messages of concern that I cannot reply to. I try and try to get a dial tone to call my mother who is safely in another city. I finally connect and it goes to answerphone. I somehow make my voice calm. I tell her that I am okay. I tell her there’s been an earthquake, but not to worry.

As I hang up, the phone rings immediately. It is my mother. Her voice is cracking as she breaks down across the line.

“I thought you were dead,” she cries.

“I thought I was too,” I say, tears flowing freely.

She tells me to wait in the car park that we are walking across. She tells me she is organising for someone to come and rescue us.

Zak and I sit on the concrete of the empty car park. There is a building behind us with a whole side missing. The car park is eerily quiet, apart from the ever-present alarms wailing their distress.

All of a sudden, the earth moves again. It rolls under us and we leap to our feet as a multi-storied car park comes crashing to the ground behind us. The ground swells under us and the noise is unbearable.

We can’t stay here, so we begin to walk again. At least it feels like we are doing something. No cars are getting through, so we know our rescue won’t be coming.

As we walk, the ground thuds beneath us. We zigzag across the roads, hoping to outrun the next jolt, taking care to avoid holes, power lines and deep wounds in the earth’s crust.

Zak has a wife and three babies he is desperate to get home to. He has a business he knows is likely destroyed. I am amazed at his kindness and calmness as we walk on, towards God knows what. I cannot imagine what he is going through. I am just immensely grateful he is with me.

We are walking faster than the cars that are crawling along beside us. Everywhere we look, cars have been abandoned as shell-shocked people leave them on the side of the road to take their chances on foot to try and get home to their loved ones.

We walk over the road between the city’s sewerage ponds. The air is thick with flies, the tar is stretched liked chewing gum between the broken seal on the road. There are deep fissures here and my heart is beating faster, acutely aware that another quake could split the unsteady road and swallow us up. We are quiet as we cross the ponds.

In the distance, I hear my name being called. It is Bon, my mother’s oldest friend, come to find me. She has a severely injured leg and is riding a bicycle. She has ridden over uneasy ground and broken bridges to find me. She sobs when she sees me.

She offers Zak her bike and he rides off to find his family. I am at a loss how to thank him; all I can offer him is a wave as he leaves.

Bon and I stumble towards home. She has rescued my dog, she tells me, and has locked her safely in her van. I relax just a little, just a heartbeat, for the first time in hours. We clamber over a broken bridge and begin to wade through dirty water, slick with sewerage and rising steadily above our knees.

My love heart socks are wearing thin and I can feel my feet tearing up with stone bruises. I know that under the water, the ground has opened and with every step I take, I close my eyes and hope desperately not to disappear into a hole.

The road beneath the water feels brittle like candy coating. I can hear my footsteps echo on what was, just yesterday, solid ground. It unnerves me.

We finally arrive at my sister’s house. She is safe. She gives me milk to drink. I tell her I am leaving the city right now. She tells me I am in shock. I tell her I don’t care, I am leaving.

She gives me shoes.

When I arrive home, I cannot even enter my house. Everything is ruined. The television has toppled, all the glass and china is smashed. I know my cat is in here, somewhere, in the wreckage. I could look for her among the broken glass but I choose to leave her. I whisper a ‘sorry’ as I take my dog and put her in the car and start to drive.

I know that I need gas and that my phone is dead and that the sky is darkening. I know, above all, that the roads are dangerous. I pray as I drive — a single, hopeful word:

Please. Please. Please.

I pass great sinkholes that have swallowed cars whole. I drive around them on loose and shifting black silt and close my eyes with every judder. I pray and drive.

Pray and drive.

Until I make it out of the city.

 

* * *

The day after, I call Zak. I thank him for staying with me. Again, I don’t have enough words.

“It was nice to have a friend,” he says.

“Wasn’t it just?” I agree.

Wasn’t it just.

 

* At the time of writing—February 24, 2011—the city of Christchurch is devastated. The 6.3 earthquake struck 5 months after the first 7.1 earthquake – bringing down hundreds of buildings in the CBD and killing many, many people. The city remains without power or water or waste water. The New Zealand Prime Minister has called the tragedy – ‘New Zealand’s darkest day.” My thoughts and love go out to all those who didn’t make it home on February 22nd.

The first thing you notice in Wellington is the wind. A full southerly buster was blowing as I drove in around the bays of the harbour, hurling the waves onto the rocks. At the hotel on Tinakori Road, shutters slapped and banged in a crazy percussion, just as Katherine described in one of her earliest stories, ‘The Wind Blows’. I recognised the way it blew the stinging dust in waves, in clouds, in big round whirls, heard the ‘loud roaring sound’ from the tree ferns and the pohutukawa trees in the botanic garden, the clanking of the overhead cables for the trolley buses. Clinging to the car door to steady myself, the street map levitating from my grasp, I experienced the exactness of Katherine’s images – ‘a newspaper wagged in the air like a lost kite’ before spiking itself onto a pine tree; sentences blew away ‘like little narrow ribbons’.

How did you become a writer?  Did you come from a literary background?

Not at all.  I was brought up on a small farm in a remote part of the United Kingdom – many of the local people had never been more than 30 miles away from home in their entire lives.  Apart from breeding sheep, nothing much else went on.  We didn’t have electricity or television at home, but my parents had lots of books.  I read and read and then began to write.  When I was about 9 years old, one of my teachers sent off a poem to a magazine and it was published.  I knew then that I wanted to be a writer but I didn’t have a clue how you became one.


Katherine Mansfield felt she had to leave New Zealand to become a writer. Was that why you left home as a teenager to go to London?

Absolutely.  I loved the landscape and the isolation of the Lake District, so it was difficult to leave, but I knew I had to go if I wanted to succeed.  Like Katherine,  I had the romantic idea that London was where it all happened!


Would you do it again?

Yes. I think you need to get away to get some perspective on your own life.  You also need ‘input’.   If you stay in a small community there’s always a danger that you become a big fish in a little pond and never really achieve what you’re capable of. And you need to find your way around the world of books so that people know who you are. The days when you could write and keep a low profile, relying on publishers and bookshops to sell the product are over – publishers expect you to go out and network to publicise your books.  We have to learn to be ambassadors for our own work.  The shy, reclusive author is at a disadvantage.


Your previous biographies have all been about women writers, including Margaret Cavendish, Christina Rossetti and Catherine Cookson.  What drew you to Katherine Mansfield as the subject for a biography?

I’ve loved her work and been fascinated by her life story since I was a teenager.  I found the John Middleton Murry edition of her Journal in a second hand book bin when I was 17, and I’ve carried it around everywhere even though it’s in pieces now.  Even then I was aware that there was a lot of myth-making, and everything I read about her just made me more determined to find out what really happened. There were mysteries, and Katherine herself was portrayed as either a rather waspish good-time girl, or a sentimental heroine wasting away like someone in a Victorian novel.  I wanted to know what she was really like.


Katherine Mansfield is a major figure in 20th century literature and has been the subject of a lot of biographies and other non-fiction books. If someone asked “Why should I read your Katherine Mansfield biography rather than one of the others?” what would you say to them?

I would say:  Read mine because it’s the only biography to be written since all the documents relating to Katherine and her husband John Middleton Murry became available in the public domain.  Katherine’s letters and notebooks have all been transcribed and printed and the diaries and letters of John Middleton Murry are now also in the Alexander Turnbull library in New Zealand.  Additionally I’ve had the help of the family who still have quite a lot of material relating to both Mansfield and Murry. There’s a lot of new information.  It’s significant that most of the leading figures in the story are now dead, so information is less likely to be withheld to protect people.  I’ve also tried to write a book that’s good to read.  I want my characters to live in the mind of the reader and come off the page as vividly as they would in a novel.


Why do you like writing biographies?

I’m fascinated by people’s lives.  You could say that biography is a kind of up-market ‘Hello!’ magazine – there’s an element of voyeurism, literary lace-curtain twitching about it however scholarly you are. But nothing beats the buzz you get, sitting in an archive, reading a love letter – perhaps Wordsworth to his wife – or turning the pages of Katherine Mansfield’s journals.  You’re touching the same paper they touched, reading the words they inked on the page all those years ago.


You write poetry and fiction as well as non-fiction. Which gives you most satisfaction?

I like all the different genres, though I’d probably have been more successful if I’d stuck to only one.  What I choose to write depends on the idea – some ideas are only suitable for a poem, other will stretch to a short story, non-fiction projects demand a much greater investment in time and research and have to be chosen quite carefully.  If you’re going to write a biography you have to like someone enough to spend a couple of years in their company.


Which writers have influenced your own writing, and which ones are your personal favourites?

Apart from Katherine Mansfield’s Journal, I also read Jean Rhys’ ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ as a teenager and it taught me a lot about getting away from traditional narrative.  The other really influential book was Italo Calvino’s ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller…..’  and for the same reason.  They taught me a lot about multiple narrative threads and parallel texts.  If you put two – or more – stories together in the right way they can double up on the meaning in the same way that poetry does.  It will sound a bit weird, but the other book that influenced me was ‘Chaos’, by James Gleick  because it demolished the  traditional way we thought about the universe and how it’s ordered.  I suddenly realised that everything – absolutely everything – is made out of beautiful numerical patterns that keep evolving and changing because they are Imperfect and Incomplete.  It seemed to offer ideas about the patterning of words in poetry and prose –  and it reinforced the conviction that a narrative or a poem has to be open ended with a sense of evolving, not rounded off and complete in a dead-end sort of way that offers the reader no way of carrying the story on. It taught me that creativity comes out of chaos.  Does this make any sense?


What are you working on at the moment?

The Mansfield biography has been very hard work – so I’m taking a rest and concentrating on fiction for a while.   I would like to publish more fiction – it’s too easy to become ‘pigeon-holed’ in a particular genre.   Just now I’ve got a couple of plots burning away at the back of my head and I need to see if I can get either of them to work.



Sometimes, when the night is silent, I think about all the places my heart has traveled. I think about the places that captured it, and I wonder where it truly lies.

Is it here, in this sprawling city that rises from water and is ringed by fire?  This city that wrestled me down onto steel and concrete roads, roads that once carried me here so endless and full of promise? This city that took my heart and fashioned ribbons from it?

“Do you want to meet the Taliban?” the Afghan lad who ran the dingy chaikhana, teahouse, on the edge of Kabul’s chaotic Grand Bazaar asked me.

“Not really!” I replied thinking young Ali was joking.

“But if you want you can, one man I know is Taliban, if you like I can ask him to see you, it’s interesting for you, yes?”

A few days later Ali called me, “Mr Ian, my friend the Talib will come to my shop today, can you come here?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

Before I left the guesthouse I was staying in I told someone where I was going and that I was about to meet a member of one of the world’s most infamous organizations, in case I didn’t return.

Before leaving home the New Zealand government’s travel advisory website had warned against setting foot anywhere near the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan; EXTREME RISK, SUICIDE CAR BOMBINGS, KIDNAPPING OF FOREIGNERS, BANDITRY, LANDMINES, these were just a few of the treats in store for anyone fool enough to ignore the advice. But at the same time the Lonely Planet guide talked of places in Kabul where one could dine on fresh seafood flown in from Dubai, French restaurants with swimming pools and jazz evenings, the marvels of Bamiyan and the ruins of ancient Alexander’s Balkh.

Afghanistan had captured me in my teens, in the days when mujahadeen fighters trundled about the country in tractors as they took on the Soviet war machine and the conflict was staple news fodder. I’d had visions of fast stepping horses in the deserts, of turbaned men in flowing robes with sword and musket defending their parched lands and the honour of their veiled women, of stone Buddhas in a Muslim land, of camels, silk roads and caravanserais. I’d always wanted to come here but heart breaking civil war had made it impossible. Post September 11 Afghanistan was once more on the nightly news and as I watched I wondered what it was really like there, again I wanted to see for myself how it felt to walk on the streets of Kabul.

Arrival in mid-summer Kabul was an aggravated assault on the senses; omnipresent flies and all-pervading dust, heat to knock you off your feet, beggars, burqas, bellowing donkeys, sandbagged cafes, check-points and Kalashnikovs, flocks of urban sheep in the streets grazing on piles of garbage, helicopter gun ships hovered over the city in constant menace, psychopathic traffic. All this set against the backdrop of a culture 5000 years in the making, deep traditions of hospitality, salams, welcomes, handshakes and friendship, endless invitations to share tea from everyone I encountered.

English was widely spoken in Kabul, dozens of guesthouses waited for residents, restaurants with succulent meals of mutton and rice with raisins had empty tables, artisans and craftsmen with shops bursting with carpets, curios and antiques. Everyone sat idle wishing Afghanistan would return to its glory days on the overland hippy trail of the 60s and 70s when it rivalled Kathmandu as the place to go. But nightly news stories of wars on terror made almost everyone too afraid to come.

Back in Ali’s chaikhana the usual old men sat sharing their pots of tea. Ali greeted me and led me out the back of the shop through a concrete yard, past the reeking toilet pit and down a narrow passage way, ‘Should I be doing this?’ But before I could answer my own question Ali opened a door and ushered me inside.

“This is my friend.” Ali introduced me to a dark skinned middle aged man who sat on the floor with a boy of about five or six in his lap, though his name was never mentioned. The Talib stood up and greeted me with the salams, smiles, handshakes I would have received from any other hospitable Afghan while Ali disappeared to return a few minutes later with a pot of tea and a bowl of pistachios. The man wore the usual Afghan anytime pyjamas, shalwar kameez, his beard was neatly trimmed and there was no black turban.

“E bacha-e shoma ast?” I asked, is this your son?

“Ne, famel-e man dar Kandahar.” No, my family is from Kandahar, he told me. The fact that he was from the notorious southern city somewhat confirmed his credentials. His mobile phone rang and from the conversation I could guess he was talking to someone about moving something to somewhere.

“He has a shop.” Ali told me. I guessed that meant he was a smuggler.

“I worked at the airport as a security officer,” the Talib told me through Ali’s translation, “I can’t read so it wasn’t easy for me to find a job then.”

“But why did you want to join the Taliban?” I asked.

“The Taliban were the government then, I was just working for the government. Lots of men joined because they needed work and there was nothing else.”

“Do you still consider yourself to be Taliban?”

“Yes,” he shrugged, “I’m Taliban.”

“During the time of the Taliban,” he went on, “Afghanistan was peaceful, it was safe, there was no stealing, no criminals, you could leave your money on the street and it would still be there tomorrow.” He showed me where he kept his cash now, in a pocket tucked well away under his outer garments. “I used to keep my money here, like this!” And he slipped a few hundred afghanis into his top pocket half sticking out for the world to see.

No one I met denied that during the reign of the Taliban petty crime and disorder all but vanished. “I would send my son,” the Talib said, “to Kabul with thousands of dollars in his bag, completely safe, but now? I won’t even send him to the market to buy a melon!” I’d heard the same kind of story a dozen times, but it was the only positive thing anyone had to say about the Taliban.

“In the west,” I told him, “we had a view that the Taliban were very bad.”

“Of course,” he nodded, “there were some who were bad like in any government, but ninety-five percent were good, the leaders were all good men but they couldn’t know what every man was doing, does President Karzai know what all his men are doing?”

“But what about Afghan women, they weren’t allowed to go to work or to school?” I countered.

“That’s not true! They could go to the Islamic schools, the madrassas! And as long as they wore the burqa they could go to work, otherwise they should stay at home!”

“What about banning women from wearing white socks and nail polish?”

“Not true! Not true!”

The conversation went on like this. Every atrocity I’d heard of he denied had ever happened, every item of idiotic Islamic law imposed wasn’t true. According to the Talib men were allowed to shave and the reports of imprisonment for not having fist-long beards were just western propaganda. He insisted the Taliban leaders had a deep and excellent knowledge of the Koran, even the halftime executions at football matches at Ghazi Stadium were myth, “No! I never heard of that happening! Just sometimes the players in the teams fought against each other!”

We were soon both becoming frustrated as each of us expected the other to see things differently. I could also sense a rising tension in Ali’s voice as he translated. In the staunch ‘shame and honour’ culture of Afghanistan did he find my accusations an insult to a family friend?

“What about the three foreign aid workers, the three women who were shot dead in Lowgar,” my final assault recalling the recent murder of the three women, Canadian, British and American, who were pulled from their car not far from Kabul and shot dead along with their Afghan driver, “the Taliban claimed responsibility but how can they call themselves men, how can they call themselves warriors of Islam when they shoot dead unarmed women who cannot defend themselves, women who had come here to help the poor, how can they be so cowardly?”

“Those women were not killed by Taliban! They were killed by criminals who said they were Taliban! Anyone can dress like a Talib and say ‘I am a Talib’!” The boy in the man’s lap looked around at the three of us nervously at the raising of his voice. He stood up and slipped outside into the courtyard to play in the dust with a broken kite. “And anyway,” he went on to justify their murders, “those women were not wearing Islamic dress! This is an Islamic country!”

“I hardly think they were wearing miniskirts and bikini tops!” I said, thankfully perhaps Ali was unable to translate this, “And besides, is that reason enough to drag a woman from her car and shoot her dead?”

We sat in silence for several minutes and sipped the last of our now cold tea.

“Mr Ian,” Ali whispered, “if you don’t have any more questions I think we can go now?”

“Sure, perhaps this is enough.”

We all stood up and I shook hands with the Talib. His anger seemed to have vanished and he smiled. He didn’t strike me as being someone inherently bad, there was simply no way to reconcile our opposing views and each of us just had to accept that we had grown up in different worlds.

Back in the teahouse Ali stood with me in the doorway and added his point of view to the already existing complexities.

“Mr Ian, many of the Taliban were not bad people, the leaders even wanted a more free life for Afghan people.” He told me how the mullahs had wanted Afghanistan to have television, to have the internet, to have educated women and foreign investment. But the real power lay with the foot soldiers, illiterate villagers who had grown up in refugee camps, men who had never learnt to read their precious Koran and who had been brainwashed into the belief that an orthodox Islamic state was their God-given birthright. The mullahs knew that if they didn’t give the men what they wanted they themselves would be overthrown and lynched. Afghans have a history of turning against their masters.

Whatever the truth, from my conversations with the people I met in the three months I spent Afghanistan it appeared that the rule of the Taliban was not the time of eternal darkness those days had been portrayed as in the western media. It was more like a shade of grey, dark grey perhaps but not utterly black.

“Tashakor Ali-jan,” I thanked him and laughed, “it was an interesting conversation.”

“You are welcome Mr Ian,” and I turned to go, “oh Mr Ian, please don’t tell anyone who you met today and how you met him, okay?”

“Of course.”

“And perhaps don’t come here for a few days, I will call you when it’s better to come back, alright?”

“Whatever you say Ali-jan.” We shook hands. He never called again.


So, why Afghanistan?

That’s something I’m always asked and I don’t really have a compelling answer, other than the country was a place I’d long been interested in visiting. I guess there was an element of trying to test myself. After lengthy and very challenging journeys in Mongolia and Tibet, I wanted see if I could cut it in a place that was actually at war. Could I personally handle being there? Aside from that Afghanistan is a country that has made almost daily headlines for the last decade and I wanted to see for myself what it was like there — what were the people like, how would they react to me, what was it like to walk on the streets of Kabul? It was something I wanted to find out for myself.

 

And how did you spend your time there?

I flew in to Kabul from Islamabad in Pakistan and stayed at a guest house in the city where I was hosted by a group of French journalists and photographers. I spent probably half of my three months in Afghanistan in Kabul but also visited the cities of Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, Bamiyan, and spent three weeks travelling alone by horse in the remote Wakhan Corridor in the country’s north-east.

 

Was it easy to get into the country?

Yes, very, I was given a one month tourist visa from the Afghan Embassy in Australia, I had to provide a letter of invitation from the French production company but other than that there was no red tape and no questions asked. Once inside Afghanistan it was easy to extend the visa, or just let it expire and pay a fee for an exit visa.

 

And what was the average Afghan like?

Very friendly, very hospitable, welcoming and warm! I couldn’t count the number of invitations for tea I’d receive in a day! No one seemed to care that I was from the west, which I guess could be painted as being the enemy, no one cared that I wasn’t Muslim, people were open and tolerant which is perhaps not what one would expect given the reputation of the Taliban.

 

Any hostility?

Definitely there was, but for the most part it’s not openly expressed, I did meet people who weren’t overly pleased to see me for whatever reasons they held personally. And those reasons might be justified — after all Afghanistan has been meddled with by foreign powers for centuries. It was rare, however, for someone to be openly hostile to me.

 

So is Afghanistan a dangerous place to travel?

Yes, it is! There is no escaping the fact that Afghanistan is a country at war and it is a country with a violent element of extremism. While I was there, there were regular incidents such as suicide bombings, kidnappings, murders of foreign aid workers, in and around Kabul and at times quite near to where I was staying. On the other hand as long as I was careful, and a little lucky I guess, I was able to travel through much of the country without incident.

 

What was the closest you came to real danger?

Travelling anywhere by car is the most dangerous thing you can do — the driving there is insane! Apart from that I was in a town in the north which came under rocket attack one night, someone having a go at the local governor. It was amazing, two rockets were fired in the middle of the night which must have woken the whole town but no one even got out of bed to investigate, I was expecting to hear sirens in the street or people running in panic but after the booms died down there was silence, the next day no one even seemed interested, just another night in Afghanistan! The other brush I had was when we were tipped off that the guest house in Kabul was to be targeted by the Taliban in a plot to kidnap or kill us. Everything was packed and moved in two hours to a safer address. That really brought home the precarious position foreigners live in there and it made me wonder as I strolled the streets of the city if I was being watched or followed.

 

Let’s talk about the horse trek….

The Wakhan Corridor was one of the main reasons I went to Afghanistan in the first place, it’s that odd little tail on the end of the country between Pakistan and Tajikistan. The region is incredibly beautiful, lying between two mountain ranges, it’s also the safest and most stable part of the country and has never been fought over in modern times, there are no insurgents there, no landmines etc. I had to get a special permit to travel there which was extremely difficult and I was very lucky to get one at all. At the entrance to the corridor I bought a local horse, borrowed a saddle and set off. Along the way I camped or was hosted in villages by ethnic Tajiks. About half way up there is an almighty gorge which I had to trek through on foot as it was too steep to ride. Foolishly, I didn’t bring much in the way of supplies and so spent three days with a very empty stomach. However, the top of the corridor opens out in to the Pamir grasslands inhabited by Kyrgyz nomads who live as herders of yaks, sheep and horses.

 

What concerns did the Afghan people express to you?

Naturally the main concern the average Afghan has is peace and stability. Many Afghans have grown into adulthood and know nothing but war; first the Soviets, then the civil war, then the Taliban and now the coalition forces. Ironically the time of the Taliban was probably Afghanistan’s most stable — petty crime was almost nonexistent — but of course the human rights abuses were extreme. I don’t think Afghans have ever expected a lot, they just want some security and a reassurance that they have a more positive future.

 

Do you have any opinions as to what the solutions might be?

The problems Afghanistan, and any other country involved with it, face are mind-boggling and extremely complex. The problems extend beyond the borders of Afghanistan itself and into Pakistan and the wider area, so solving Afghanistan’s problems is never going to be enough. One of the main dilemmas is that the nation of Afghanistan is made up of a dozen ethnic groups none of which feel any particular loyalty to any other and in fact they might have been tribal enemies for hundreds of years. One day someone drew a line on a map and said ‘OK, now you’re a country’. The problem is that you can’t have a president or even a government that is universally accepted by everyone. It made me wonder if the western ideal of democracy can actually work there? Personally I don’t have much in the way of opinions, what I wanted to get from Afghanistan, and express in Tea with the Taliban, are the opinions of Afghans themselves, whether they are right or wrong. When I was there local people talked about including elements of the Taliban in a future government, it’s not something many would want to see but as it seems virtually impossible to defeat the Taliban then many people said if including them is the answer to peace then why not? The inclusion of Taliban ministers in an Afghan government is now being openly discussed by the United States government and other coalition states.

 

Would you go back?

I always answer yes and no! Yes, because I’d love to go back to a peaceful and stable Afghanistan and travel to all the places I couldn’t get to, to experience the warmth and hospitality again. And no, because a peaceful and stable Afghanistan doesn’t look likely for some time.

 

And why write Tea with the Taliban?

I wanted to portray the country from the point of view of an ordinary traveller, like any other travel book, but set in the extreme environment of Afghanistan. Most books which have been published recently have been written by Afghans in exile or by foreign ‘experts’. I wanted to produce a book by an ordinary guy who just went there to see what it was like.  I wanted to tell the stories of the Afghans themselves as they were told to me, the average Afghan I met on the street or in tea houses everyday. I wanted to show the way local people live there against the backdrop of violence and chaos.

 

 

Last spring, shortly after my novel, Banned for Life, was published, my actor friend Jeremy Lowe sent me this photo via Facebook.

It’s noon and I’m lying on my bed listening to the lilting voices of the neighbors waver with abandonment, teetering on the verge of happy hysteria. They are intoxicated, summer, weekend voices. BBQ gathering voices.

Excitable voices.

Gay.


Literally.

Under the purple rain of the flowering jacaranda tree next door lies a picnic blanket rife with fabulous cliché.

I mean no condescension, no judgment, no malice- but there is a collection of screamingly fey voices drifting over the back fence that have infiltrated my thoughts and invited themselves into my bedroom to rearrange the furniture and borrow my shoes.

I am eavesdropping on West Hollywood gossip. The highs and lows and ins and outs of the botoxed and be-muscled set. Offers of cocktails and declarations of “Ooooooo, yes!”

I smile.

The boys club is having a ball today.

The high pitched conversation makes my mind wander.

Growing up I had a lot of male “Aunties”. Gay couples were normal in my world. Two men together never once seemed strange or perverted. It saddens me that for some people it is such an issue. It glaaddens me that so much progress has been made.

My mother and I were so inured to homosexuality that it wasn’t even something we thought about much. Or discussed.

My nanny was a tranny and we didn’t even notice.

Her name was Ngaire (a Maori name traditionally pronounced “Niery” but which my stubborn, cross-dressing babysitter insisted was “Na-Gair”).

My mother hired Ngaire in all her 1920’s glamor when I was about ten years old. I loved her from the outset. I loved her eccentricities and elegance, her regal stature, her doting, grandmotherly love for me, her ability to lose at backgammon and never draw attention to the fact that I’d changed the rules.

I remember that she was in her late fifties, maybe.

She wore white satin gloves pushed in silky ripples up past her elbows.

She wore drop waisted dresses and curled, bobbed wigs.

She asked me to design outfits for her- purple hooded capes and fancy, beaded frocks with lace sashes. Then she had them made.

She wore strings and strings of low-hanging pearls.

She was an Agatha Christie character come to life.

She was my tranny, granny, nanny.

I remember the scandal we went through when we realized we’d been fooled.

It lasted about thirty seconds.

One day my mother had several guests over for drinks before heading out to a party, and one drunken lout saw through the (probably quite obvious) ruse and announced it to us when Ngaire was out of earshot. My mothers beautiful face took on an air of shock and bewilderment, her brain tick-tocked and did the math as she turned to me with a quizzical face.

The wigs. The costumes. The deeper voice. The bashful demeanor. The white satin gloves… worn to hide the mans hands!

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We looked at each other.

It made sense.

We smiled.

We laughed and shrugged.

Then the party left and Ngaire and I sat down to play backgammon.

I won.

Rules are made to be broken.

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