Speaker by Various Artists

Where life is

by Keri Hulme

OK, it's an odd little place.

Ka Tiritiriotemoana - also known as the Southern Alps - are the eastward backdrop: there are swathes of bush in a thousand shades of green & bronze sweeping down to the settlement, and wide stoney ironsand beaches and the Tasman sea as the foreground. A large lagoon to the northern end and an iconic but now despoiled bluff to the south.

Sandwiched inbetween - a gazillion sandflies, and us.

I've lived here for nearly 30 years. I've got to know the moods and tides and hazards of the place. I've seen a lot of people come and go - some to another area, some to the grave - and learned that Okarito seduces folk. You can be a German guild-trained carpenter & joiner, travelling through on your journeyman year - and you wind up with your NZ wife & daughter in your home here. You can be an internationally-renowned photographer who camps on the beach in 1975 - and a couple of decades or so later, has a wonderful partner, home & business high on Kohuamaru. You can be a a very well-regarded psychiatrist, who began tramping in the general area in the late 1940s, and decide to retire here.

The resident population is in the mid-30s. We live in a kind of building gaggle that straggles round the two main sealed roads. We get upwards of 25000 motor vehicles through a year. We provide for them, their occupants, with a camp ground, and public toilet; a motel and various
Rental properties, and a Youth Hostel, and a couple of lowkey very environmentally-conscious lagoon tourism businesses.

Cool eh - but- other people see the place and dont think, Ah tranquility. They think, Money to be made here. Look at all that unoccupied land...

The fact that most of the land isn't suitable for building upon (it's wetland, or vulnerable to sea erosion, or home to the Okarito brown kiwi, as well as a host of other creatures) doesn't seem to deter these people. They don't appear to consider beauty, or fitted-scale operations (i.e tiny here). They don't appear to consider that humans are temporary transient beings and don't have an intrinsic right to befoul a place, and - especially- that tourist & housing booms - bust. They bulldoze ahead.

I was thinking all this crappy stuff (it's an old thought pattern here - us locals have been trying to protect what we consider to be a place for all Aotearoa-New Zealand for years) when there was a knock on the back door.

It was a dark & stormy night - no, really. The rain was slashing down. I didnt expect anyone. And when, in answer to my "WHO IS IT?" a voice I didnt know yelled back "Helen! You dont know me! But Bill of Spinal Dogs!" I knew the worst. William Gruar? HERE? Ogawd, the man was an icon in his own way. Right in there at the beginning of BLERTA; a practical builder and landsman; a mechanic and a maker of beautiful things, and an anarchist. And - not least - the author of "Spinal Dogs."

I really hope that I wont - any of my family wont - have an accident or event and become paraplegic. But - if it ever happens - my book of choice to read or offer for that position is Spinal Dogs. It is flatout noholdsbarred sharingly caringly(sort of) & searingly honest.

Last time I saw Bill it was at "Going West" in the Waitakeres in 1997. We read: we had a few drinks: I watched, and I learned that some of the things I had imagined about a paraplegic character of mine were right, and some I'd have to research further. As Bill said, We own this condition-

There was no bloody way he could get up my backdoor steps or my frontdoor steps (without a hoist) so Helen and I sorted out umbrellas and trundled out to the machine parked in my driveway. A Mitsubishi Canta (known in Japan as a GUTS - which is why Bill bought it, doing everything via the 'Net) modified for hand control of all the foot pedals. and with a stark interior: 3/4 bed; tiny galley; wheelchair, and Bill's selfdesigned extremely tested -"Y'know, did a really good demonstration, self on a dunny in France with *good* glass of wine, and took it round Europe. Only problem – hauled hunks of plaster out of an old bathroom wall in England, suckers were that tight"- shower & loo stand for paraplegic people.

And the driver's bench seat with Bill, half a leg missing since I saw him last, his face furrows deeper, darker, more saturnine, but his wit & mind as sharp, glittery yet profound, as in 1997.

Well, we spent about 3 hours drinking a litre of vodka with a tomato juice concoction and we talked the past, the present, and what may come. Helen was also an original member of Blerta, and had come to Okarito in the late 60s and loved it, and she had joined Bill as a travel companion.

At one stage I sort of pinched myself - like, BLERTA were myth in my youth & here I am, drinking vodka with them?!

At another, as lightning & thunder really started cracking round - hoowee, what are the conductance capacities of a GUTS?

And after Bill & I had talked at length about process, writing, publishing and - particularly with self-publishing - promotion of work, and the vodka was finished, and I had his 2 -new to me- works autographed with wondrously vodka-manipulated words & writing, I limped awkwardly back to my home, leaving them a key.

Next day was bright, clear, calm - Okarito is often like that. Helen had crept in and boiled a jug, made coffee,& left a note. They were headed north to catch up on others of BLERTA's crowd of mates (oddly, one of them was the son of my well-beloved erstwhile neighbours. the late Gordon and very much alive Esther Nicholls, who were building their house here the same time I started mine.)

Some people do the best whatever their circumstances. They tread as lightly on the Earth as possible. They are creative, congenial, and kindly.

And then there are the others.