The black and white world
My old PhD supervisor Ian Carter liked to argue that the first movies were not shown on a silver screen, but rather on the windows of trains. The passengers on trains and in early automobiles experienced the reality they passed through as a sort of film, with each piece of landscape being a new 'scene' in an exciting if plotless drama. Supposed pioneers of film like Eisenstein merely found ways of simulating what train and car passengers had already been seeing for decades.
I grew up in the suburbs near the southern edge of Auckland, and I associate the journey up the Great South Road with my own journey into adolescence and into adulthood. As a kid I would catch a Cityline bus up the Great South Road, past places with strange names like Otahuhu and Wiri, to the movie theatres, spacies parlours, and comic shops of central Auckland. Later, as a teenager, I'd make the same journey to the bars of the central city on Friday and Saturday nights, returning with a turbulent stomach on the eleven-thirty bus. Eventually I enrolled in university, and moved permanently up the Great South Road.
Because of this personal history I sometimes see a journey away from the city down the Great South Road as a journey into the past. As one suburb gives way to the next I recognise places of significance, and these historic sites become more and more frequent the further south I get. It is as though some film of the past is playing backwards.
Last Saturday I annoyed Skyler by pointing out a series of significant sites on the Takanini Strait, the long and rather ugly stretch of road that connects Manurewa with Papakura. As we passed the turnoff to Conifer Grove, New Zealand's first gated community, I told Skyler about the thrills of stuffing circulars into letter boxes on silent thoroughfares with names like Syntax Place, and when I spotted a semi-derelict warehouse I was reminded of endless bloody games of Laserstrike.
At the southern end of Takanini Strait, on the right hand side of the road, behind a row of tall oak trees and a field of tallish grass, is another site of significance: Selwyn Oaks Retirement Village.
I have never visited Selwyn Oaks, but as a small child I always seemed to know someone - a classmate's great-grandfather, or a friend of the family, or a distant relative - who was an inmate there. Selwyn Oaks was a place where the past was kept. The men and women there - mostly I heard about the men - had lived through what I imagined, on the basis of my preliterate examination of encyclopedias and history books, was the 'black and white' phase of history.
In the black and white era the average man lived a simple, predictable life. He came of age, walked into the bush with an enormous axe, swung the axe, built his own house out of logs he had felled, cleared a farm around the house, and later left his home and his farm to fight black and white Germans in the black and white mud of black and white Europe. His black and white wife stayed at home and darned black and white socks besides a black and white fire.
I'd hear stories, from schoolmates and from relatives, about Mr So-and-so at Selwyn Oaks, who had killed two hundred and eighteen Jerries during the battle of Jutland, or Mrs So-and-so, who had darned the socks of every member of some early incarnation of the All Blacks. My five year-old self was intrigued by these stories, but also slightly afraid of their mighty and ancient protagonists. I wondered what the inhabitants of Selwyn Oaks did all day, now that they had been coaxed out of their handbuilt homes into a retirement village, and been made to exchange their ancient gumboots for fluffy slippers. What would happen if they escaped from Selwyn Oaks, and were restored to their former influence? I didn't particularly fancy a return to the glorious past, with its dour faces staring out of black and white photographs.
Now that I'm in my mid-thirties, and thus staring down the barrel of retirement home life, I have a much more sympathetic view of the inmates of Selwyn Oaks. I suppose that, for many of them, the transition from a fairly raw rural life to an urban retirement village must have been difficult, and that a certain amount of self-mythologising might have helped them cope with their changed situations.
Here's a poem which I might try to weasel into the film which Paul Janman and I are making about the Great South Road:
Eeling at the Retirement Home
The gong sounds
again. To remake the summer
of forty-four, the gorse burning
in slow motion
under Maketu pa,
to make a morning moon
as full and sharp
as the peephole he cut
into the wall of the shithouse
at Drury School,
to save a childhood as long
as the eel that basked
on the mud at the bottom
of the pool at the bottom
of the waterfall at the bottom
of Maketu pa:
he steps over thistle-sentries
into a shallow ditch,
tugs at the handle
of the carving knife he kept
there. That blade is still as silver
as water on the fall.
He cuts off the head. He cuts the tip
of the tail. Lunch is served
while he sleeps. He stows the knife,
hurries back, tears out the backbone
by hand. The longer the eel has been dead
the more slippery it becomes.