Hard News by Russell Brown


Another year on earth

Sometimes – often, even – grief is an ambush. You don't know what's in there until you lose something, or someone. You don't know how the experience of loss will make you feel about yourself, or what to do about it.

It was chance that brought me back into the ambit of my old friend Grant Fell and his wife Rachael at the end of 2017. Officially, Grant was clear of the brain tumours that had been the central fact of his life for three years, and I wanted to do a follow-up on an interview I'd done with him for a planned Audioculture article – which itself had taken two or three attempts to conduct, as he shuttled in and out of hospital. He wasn't answering his phone or returning messages.

Eventually, I got hold of Rachael, who told me that complications from treatment had made Grant very ill, very quickly. He was back in hospital and it wasn't good. I went and visited him, but we never did the follow-up interview. My old friend was dying.

I don't mean to pretend I was one of the group of people, led by Rachael herself, who cared for Grant for every day of those three years. I'd only seen him occasionally. But I think I did sense quite quickly that it was time for me now to step up. One of the first things I did was break the law.

Grant seemed to have benefited earlier in his cancer battle from the modest use of cannabis oil. It came in a syringe, passed on from another cancer patient who had died, but Rachael's mother had accidentally thrown out the last of it when she cleaned the fridge. Rachael and I discussed it and I said I figured I could source some more.

The experience of doing so, and briefly entering the community where these things are shared, was humbling and intriguing. As I wrote later in a submission on the government's medicinal cannabis bill, it seemed to make a critical difference to Grant's final, precious days.

When Grant left us, we were lucky to have Hilary Ord, a brilliant and experienced celebrant, to lead the small group of friends tasked with putting together a funeral service. She explained to us what a funeral for someone like Grant meant – it wouldn't be a small affair. I was tasked with quickly raising some money. We didn't announce the names of people who helped financially at the time, but I think it's appropriate to record them here. The New Zealand Music Foundation, Tim Wood, Phantom Billstickers, the Music Managers Federation and Flying Nun Records, thank you.

At Rachael's request, I also delivered the eulogy. That was a deep dig. I think it was the first time I've spoken some words of te reo Māori and not been simultaneously conscious that I was doing it: it was as if the words at the end simply flowed up through me. I almost wasn't sure what had happened.

It wasn't just about Grant, but about all of us; the kids who met all those years ago, grew up and did things. About how often we did things because Grant decided they could be done and beckoned us all in to the doing. I talked about it in interviews and in the Audioculture article – and every time it made me reflect on the way he'd changed my life.

It also made me think a lot about tribe and identity, about who we all were and what was important to us. In particular, about my role in our tribe. Outside of the bonds of family, it seemed the most enduring duty I had.

One thing it wasn't was a job. After nine years of at least 20 weeks annually of TV money, I was obliged in 2018 to reinvent the whole thing. It wasn't easy and at times I wondered whether it was even possible. I've long been comfortable with the risks of freelance life, but it was getting a lot harder. Every time editors are ordered to cut editorial budgets, the first and easiest place to do that is freelance costs. It was hard to get commissions and when I did, the word rate was hardly better than it had been in the 1990s.

We're homeowners, so we are not poor. But with two adult disabled children still at home, we're not a cheap household to run. It's not a pleasant feeling, burning through long-time savings just to keep things going. I wasn't depressed, but there was the odd despondent day. You just keep pitching.

And all the time, things circled back to Grant. I spoke about him at the Taite Music Prize ceremony, then did a little crisis PR the next day. I wrote the medicinal cannabis submission about him, then travelled to Wellington to make an oral submission to the committee. I don't think I was released until the Headless Chickens played that huge, emotional set in his name at The Other's Way festival.

There was also Public Address. I've been thinking about how much I used to do here and I genuinely don't understand how I had the bandwidth. Writing blog posts most days, moderating the sprawling discussions in the most intensive, sometimes emotionally taxing, way. Trying to have new ideas. And because it generally wasn't a living, making a living elsewhere.

This is a quieter place than it used to be, for a range of reasons. A new, more professional generation of digital publishers has sprung up. The most immediate argument now takes place on social media, and Twitter in particular. But also, I couldn't really do it any more.

I've always been good at drawing a crowd; at throwing a party. A community had formed around Public Address and it brought me wonderful new friends. But when you're the host, you're responsible when the guests – some of whom had literally been together under my roof at various times – start fighting, it's not fun. It feels like there has been a new, sharper, more polarised kind of argument abroad in recent years that the site is ill-equipped to deal with. That I am ill-equipped to deal with. Maybe it suits venues where no one is really responsible; where there is no host cleaning up the empties. In that sense, this being a quieter place has been a choice.

I also feel less inclined to general commentary these days. I'd rather write about the things I have experience with and insight on. So you mostly get drug policy, music, bike-riding, the occasional fact-check. Sometimes this year, I've been too busy fretting about not having writing work to just write, and simultaneously aware that that's a dumb position to be in.

The entry of Press Patron and its voluntary subscription platform has come a little late for any big strategies on my part, but I would like to express my deepest gratitude to those of you who have contributed. It's a significant motivation to keep going with this. I've begun to treat it as not just support for the site, but support for what I do in general. Most months, the $700 to $800 it brings in has been a crucial part of our household getting by.

Happily, things improved in the latter part of the year and I'm reasonably optimistic that I'll be in a position to ask CactusLab to do some modest work on the site. I'm not really recruiting new bloggers, but I'd like to tidy up the cruft of years, retire all our inactive personal bloggers to an emeritus section and maybe open a couple of new topic blogs for occasional contributors. I think Access has been of value in that sense and I'm grateful to Hilary Stace in particular for her care and commitment to disability issues.

It hasn't been all bad. I've leared new skills and written some things I'm really proud of. It was nice to be completely vindicated on the "meth contamination" debacle I wrote about two years ago. I've really enjoyed working a few days lately at RNZ and it looks like that will continue in the new year. I'm hugely happy that my older ASD son is working again, with good people who like and respect him, at the excellent Cotto restaurant.

I have also been cheered and enriched more than ever by the music made by people around me. Blair Parkes, Tom Scott, Julia Deans, Tom Scott, Julian Dyne, Marlon Williams, Sandy Mill, Anthonie Tonnon and others, thank you. You make a difference to us – to me. And The Beths: guys, you would not believe how many dishes and kitchen cleanups your brilliant, bouyant album has facilitated. I'm also personally pleased to have delivered on what I wrote this year after Golden Dawn closed – about making your own spaces. On Friday night, our final DJ night for the year at Point Chev's Cupid bar was great. It really felt like we'd done something. We'll be back there next year. Come see us.

I was delighted that you all voted "kindness" as the Public Address Word of the Year. Do be kind to each other, and think what kindness means in action. Have a good summer and take joy in people and places. Swim, ride, walk. Ask for help if you need it, offer help when it's needed. Be kind.

And next month, Grant's anniversary will come around, and that will be tough for Rachael more than anyone else. I'll cry, yet again, when I think about him. We'll all think again about who we are, where we've come from and what matters to us. We'll be another year on earth.

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