The Commissioner for Enlightenment:
Alan Brunton talks to Chris Bourke, September 2000.
Chris Bourke interviewed a number of contributors to Big Smoke: New Zealand Poems 1960-1975, edited by Alan Brunton, Murray Edmond and Michele Leggott (Auckland UP, 2000). His two programmes about the anthology were broadcast on National Radio at Labour Weekend, 2000. The interview with Alan Brunton took place in Island Bay.
Originally published in brief #28 (Spring 2003)
AB: ‘. . . and a managerial society, a culturally blocked society that fed the trends towards protest. At the deepest level, what was at stake was a revolt aimed at harmonising and unifying a culture with its own new basic principles.’ That’s what I have to keep in mind.
CB: Right. So where had you come from before you started university in Auckland?
CB: Hence this concept of the Big Smoke?
AB: Auckland was the Big Smoke for Hamilton. Maybe the revolution was born in Hamilton. We had a Marxist study group in high school that was pretty radical. I think there were about ten members, and once a week we met during the afternoon, we read some Marx and some Lenin to each other, and did a little metaphysical political study. So, you know, radicalism was native to our gang.
CB: You were already writing?
AB: No, we weren’t encouraged at all to be expressive. We were encouraged what to say and when to say it, how to stand, you know, military training. The first part of high school each year was military training. Carrying a gun, target practice, pow pow pow pow pow, everyone shooting at each other. Being confiscated being taken out of the infantry and put into the medical corps was my ultimate fate in high school. And then university in Auckland.
CB: How did the scene strike you when you first got there?
AB: Coming from Hamilton, which was around thirty thousand people when I left there, and going to Auckland was like going to New York. It was the big smoke, the streets were dark, after ten o’clock at night you got a little nervous because everyone who was left on the street looked kind of shabby. And then you were always getting lost, so it took me a while to orient even where I was. Being introduced to alcohol in a big way, because I come from a very puritanical background. The Kiwi hotel was probably the central point, halfway between the hostel and the university.
CB: Who would you see in the Kiwi, what did they look like, how did they dress?
AB: You’d open the door off the dusty street into the Kiwi hotel and the first thing would be the red carpet on the floor, the beer-stained red carpet. The bar with a couple of lights over it, tables with four stools around, just like Once Were Warriors. And there might be half a dozen people at eleven o’clock in the morning, and that might include Colin McCahon, Hamish Keith, Michael Neill, Dave Mitchell, people like this, and you’d idle away, fritter away an afternoon in conversation and drink. I don’t remember there being a jukebox there.
CB: How welcoming were they to student-age people?
AB: You would wonder who they were. Because someone like McCahon was a real mean-bitten looking guy with a sullen look on his face sitting at a table, frequently by himself, nursing a jug and slowly sipping the beer out of the glass and the glass going down so slowly. And I never thought of just bowling up and approaching these people. For one thing, I didn’t have a real idea of who they were. There was a magic and charisma about them, but just what they had done I wasn’t too aware of.
CB: So the Literary Society was your ‘opening’?
AB: No, it was people like Mark Young and David Mitchell, who were older and had come from Wellington, a much more beatnik and bohemian background.
CB: Where did you come across Young and Mitchell?
AB: Reading at the Barry Lett Galleries. The pub would close at six o’clock and then there would be a poetry reading at seven-thirty. So, naturally, after the afternoon in the pub, everyone would put a dozen bottles on their shoulder, stumble down the hill then halfway up the other side to the Barry Lett Galleries, to have a bit of jazz and a poetry reading. And invariably, on the walls there would be McCahon’s latest paintings. On sale for fifty dollars, seventy-five dollars a square metre or something, very cheap. But they were all one, two, three, four and there was a mysticism at a level I hadn’t learnt to deal with. How you could make a painting with one to zero, ten paintings of black, white, grey. Very mystical. Anyway, Mitchell and Young would be quite out of their heads, reading poetry in this setting.
CB: And what gave you the self-confidence to join in?
AB: My first literary love was theatre, a performance thing. So in my first half-year in Auckland, at the university, they staged the Ubu plays, Alfred Jarry. 1965. This word ‘pataphysics’ appeared, and you would spend some days chasing that down. And this was coincidental with the first translation of Alfred Jarry, who was the great bohemian of the 1890s in Paris. In his first play, Père Ubu, the first line is ‘merde’ which shocked Paris audiences in the 1890s. And in Auckland in 1965 to go to a show where the first word someone said was ‘Shit!’ was pretty radical. Ionesco was being done, a lot of surrealist stuff. So the theatre was where I thought experiment was happening.
CB: Where was that going on?
AB: Through the university; there was a very strong Drama Society. Michael Noonan, Philip Thwaites, two quite famous names. Two guys from Dunedin who ran the bookshop at the campus in Auckland, also ran the Drama Society. Michael Noonan was one of our first film screen-writers.
CB: Sounds like that was the key distributor of a lot of the overseas publications with all the fresh ideas.
AB: It was in a little tin shed behind the old stone block. My first year there I found Thomas Pynchon, V, just by thinking, ‘wow, what a groovy cover’.
CB: When did you start reading, where was your own writing going? Were you starting to publish?
AB: No. I was looking so much and reading so much, the writing was all on little bits of paper. But it was definitely, for reasons I don’t know, directed towards the apocalyptic, the atomic bomb, the explosion. I don’t think it was falsely induced; I had a genuine apprehension of these coming events, the end of the world, partly from the background, partly because that was the major myth of the time.
CB: Was conscription an issue for you?
AB: No. The Labour party finished compulsory conscription when they were in, 1957-60, and then the National government brought it back, in ’67 maybe, to man the volunteer army that would be in New Zealand while the professional army was off fighting in Viet Nam.
CB: Oh, I didn’t realise it went on ice for a good few years.
AB: One generation had a little respite. The Mark Youngs and the Dave Mitchells had a respite because they were too young in ’57 to ’60 so they didn’t have to go into the army. But it was brought back by Holyoake. It was done by lottery. Every so often, once a year maybe, like Lotto is now, this big barrel would turn and some identity from the community would plunge his hand in and pull out a number. And if it was your birth-date, you were conscripted. Fate. A dreadful feeling.
CB: Even if you were a university student?
AB: You had to go, yes. Because it was spaced out over two or three years and you did a month, eight weeks maybe, over each break. Learnt to drive a tank, shoot guns and so on. So it was a very nervous time. I don’t know if it was every three months, but at a certain interval you stopped. When it was my turn I stopped. The day was dull, waiting for this radio announcement, with this distinguished person who might say ‘14 October’. And that would mean I’d be in the army.
CB: Big Smoke makes it clear there were all these various issues and various forms of the arts, music or graphic design or the poetry or prose, and the issues gave them a reason to be connected.
AB: My attention was shifting from performance, or becoming more inclusive within the performance. I wanted to do the writing, I wanted to write something that would be performed, either by myself or by other people. I wanted to write slogans, chants, have people on stage yelling out stuff. Minister of propaganda for the revolution was maybe in some ways how I saw my role. Whatever the revolution was, if I had to dress each day I thought I might as well be the minister of propaganda. So there came a time when we tried to initiate that fusion of the arts you were talking about, to bring everybody together. It was a 1960s ideal, and maybe it came from the Beatles who made record covers – their artwork, their appearance – so important. Coming from design school. So the art student thing was influential through the pop music, even up to The Who, Bryan Ferry, people who came out of art school. So it was a very visually conscious style, taking away from the words the value of the monumental word. Performance was a natural outcome. What do you do, you stand up, only you know how to say this weird stuff that you’ve written down. There was a total freedom to do that, it was encouraged.
CB: And street theatre was the perfect outlet, the perfect expression of the protest. The early CND, they weren’t doing that.
AB: The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament had big marches, starting in 1960. Almost coincidental and alongside and perhaps the same people as the anti-apartheid movement, a very Christian Communism, coming out of some Auckland intellectuals. Phoebe Meikle, Willis Airey. The History Department at Auckland University was pretty radical. It was also putting out the first books on how the country should develop itself, there was a radical agenda being set up by the intellectuals. So we reached the more hedonistic ’60s with a sort of dropout beatnik generation in between. There’s also an intellectual ideal: let’s lead a life of the mind. That might sound pretentious now, but when you’re living in a totally mindless society, to have this part of you un-engaged in what was going on was frustrating. I think the frustration boiled over at some point. The magic moment, was it 1956, when Europe was forced out of the Middle East and Suez and the only way to travel to England was through Panama and the Caribbean, picking up on that music, those drugs. Immigrants coming to New Zealand had a great time in Jamaica and Panama before they got here. Travel. When I was at Auckland University, Michael Bassett, who later became one of Lange’s ministers, constantly taught us that the big questions in history are roads and bridges. Just roads and bridges, he would say, you’ve got to follow the roads and know who built the bridges. I was fascinated by history. History was going to be my big subject but I got taken into English because the people were more interesting.
CB: I talked to Stephen Chan the other day about guerrilla theatre. Tim Shadbolt as the perfect clown front-man to put across slogans the minister of propaganda might be writing.
AB: Maybe. But Shadbolt could write his own material, he didn’t need someone like me. When I came to Wellington in 1968 I was involved in a very different scene. That had something to do with Rosie Scott, who had done the same trip. We had not met the requirements at Auckland to go on to do a masters, so we shuffled down to Wellington. It was good to get a change. 1968 was a year for street action, people marching down the street once a week. Hundreds of students marching through the street, for what reason no one knew at the time, but it was enough to inflame passions. One of the defining moments in my life was being a part of the demonstration at the opening of parliament in 1968, right up the front with Rosie Scott at the bottom of the steps going up to parliament. It was good-natured for a while, a lot of drugs going around: this bunch of freaks and policemen with the white helmets on in a line, maybe for two or three hours. The noise is building, the army has arrived to do its traditional march-past and no one can move the crowd. The army shambles away, climbs back into its trucks. They announce that the Governor General has arrived, no one makes way. For once there was total ill-discipline in the country. The Governor General had to enter parliament by a side door. This is shortly after the government and Keith Holyoake had cooked up the whole Viet Nam deal, so it was intense. Holyoake appeared at the top of the steps and looked around with that regal Caesar-type look he used to put on and waved twice to the thousands of people who were pretty cooked by this time, and there was instantly an uproar and movement up the steps. The push was so intense, from so many people, that we were halfway up the steps, and there was this moment Holyoake looked at the crowd and total fear came over his face. It was just like that film of Ceausescu when he suddenly realises that it’s all over. That was an intensely satisfying moment and was about as close to a power-play as I wanted to be.
During that year I switched my attention to writing, and coincidentally there was a thing that Jack Body organised for the Contemporary Music Society called ‘Young Aucklanders in the Arts’. The university was going to take official notice of a number of people so we went to the big smoke. I met Jack Body for the first time, and Russell Haley. Ian Wedde, whom I’d known, was on before me. This was July 1968. I travelled up in the train, left Wellington with Michael Jackson, who was a very interesting guy. He’d been an anthropologist in the Congo for some years and had some weird stories which took a long time to drag out of him. We got to Paremata, the door burst open and in leapt this guy I knew, drunk out of his mind, raving, cooking, Sam Hunt. So we had an epic trip up to Auckland to this ‘young artists’ gig and arrived with a certain amount of solidarity. Chris Else was involved, and Ngahuia Volkerling. Francis Batten, who went on to found Theatre Action and to revolutionise theatre, gave me some idea of alternative theatre, the way of doing alternative theatre. So it was an intellectual push; you wanted your mind to be occupied, you didn’t want your mind to die. Your freedom was going to come from thinking free, thinking big things.
CB: Centred around the universities, but it’s a whole other intellectual life going on, nothing to do with classes. That was for careerists. (Laughter)
AB: I guess the campus operated in those days as a genuinely isolated, closed-off sanctuary for whoever went there. No one interfered with the university, it was like going to the seminary, that’s where the idea came from. The teachers sat there without looking at you for an hour, mumbling away about Paradise Lost. You took notes and then they wandered away. That was as much contact as they wanted with you. There was just freedom, total freedom. Part of this is not intellectual but kids getting the advantage of free education, working class kids. I was always being whispered by my family to be a bank teller. My family thought that the essence of respectability and survivability in society would be if I was a bank teller. Wear a shirt and a tie and the family would be respectable. But then it was possible through various kinds of government assistance to go to university and you met the free working class, who were not doing apprenticeships or delivering milk. They were being taught some fairly radical stuff, and they were ready for it.
CB: So the festival that you headed up for in ’68, did that cause you to go back to Auckland?
AB: That year in Wellington was miserable and sexually frustrating for me, in the sense that I was learning about intimacy and love in a big way through separations and reunions. I think that is probably normal in someone of twenty years or so. Time to make commitments and decisions, immense pressures. I remember being visited by someone selling life insurance, and being so freaked out that I rushed into town the next day and offered to pay one-and-sixpence, fifteen cents a week into a pension fund. Then the next week thinking ‘what have I done!’ My weakness.
So every third weekend I would hitchhike up to Auckland, where I had certain interests, and to visit my friend Jim Stevenson who was running the student arts thing by this time. Then we would hitch down together to Wellington where his girlfriend was in the New Zealand ballet. So there was a year on the road, in between crashing in Auckland and sampling the new psychedelics. There were a lot of American sailors in Auckland which is where the drugs were coming from. And a certain idea of how to carry yourself walking down the street. For the first time you could walk down the street a little loose, you know, without that sort of military gait, there was a bit of freedom going on.
I got my masters degree and then Joan Stevens, who was my New Zealand literature teacher, said: ‘If we invite him into the department or have him anywhere near the department, I will resign’. (Laughter) So I was cast adrift. I went to Auckland, wandered around the university and tried to gather some interest in my pursuit of literature, but it was clear that I was looking for income while I did other things. Auckland wouldn’t let me do a PhD so I drifted into the Literary Society, which was set up by Jim who was running the arts funding body of the Students Association. AUSA had people like Prebble on the committee. When you turned up wanting money to hold an events operation or put out an avant-garde magazine, there was Prebble sitting there, already in a suit and a white shirt and a tie, going ‘wehweh wehwehweh’, practising, practising. Trevor Richards, who went on to do HART, all of these people were in student politics at the time, especially through a very interventionist Christian group on campus. A lot of Lange Labour government people (and Lange himself) came from the Christian Society on campus, which was quite radical then. Religion underwent intense changes in the 60s, starting with Catholicism and Vatican II – saying the mass in the vernacular had immense implications for New Zealand, and gave rise to a debate about just what the vernacular of the country is. What is the true language of New Zealand? There are reverberations all these decades later.
So the idea came about to do performance, to make literature a performance. Somehow out of this whole Christian-Marxist mix came the idea to be active, to be doing something. You had to be constantly doing something. So the Literary Society, this was the soft point into society we chose to make our inroad. It all had to be done to the template of course, there’s a certain self-awareness as to what’s happening. Jim and I finally, after the ’68 year, settled in Boyle Crescent in Grafton, near Grafton Gully, just beside the hospital, across from the park. The house had just been abandoned by a group of junkies who had followed Mark Young, who was living there at number five. Young had been the first major drug conviction in New Zealand. The law against hallucinogenics had just come in, July 1967. There was maybe one year, eighteen months, when it was legal to indulge in hallucinogenics in New Zealand, while the government tried to sort out what on earth was going on.
CB: Anybody I talked to from that period while it was still legal was involved with the art school scene.
AB: The architecture school was pretty radical in the 1960s in Auckland. The architecture club under Bruce Cavell, who I had the good fortune to work with on a couple of projects, put on some great constructivist-type concerts, that I guess had maybe come through Jim Allen who had returned to New Zealand in 1968. Maybe through construction, the idea that New Zealand art was about construction. You built things, this would be the New Zealand art, it would all be constructed. Bolt bits of wood together, that first movement of what it is to be New Zealand, that vernacular question again: what’s the vernacular? I first saw Phil Dadson at those concerts. He used to wear a little pork-pie hat and a nylon coat, and sit very forward on his stool at the piano. Pure Mingus.
CB: So Boyle Crescent, the junkies had left?
AB: Someone had died in the wash house out the back, and it was deserted. So Jim and I and Jon Waite moved in. Jon had been living at home with his mum, who was having a passionate affair with Hone Tuwhare, and Jon wanted to get out of the house for a while, So we moved into this empty place at 5 Boyle Crescent. We never furnished it, it was just the mattress on the floor, a Kerouac-Cassady on-the-road experience, with little portable record players, Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan records.
We planned to set up the Cultural Liberation Front, for some ill-defined purpose like overthrowing society or changing consciousness or reinvigorating the imagination. We called a meeting to be held at 5 Boyle Crescent. Tim Shadbolt and his first group turned up, Jim and I were there, and Russell Haley turned up. And that was all. (Laughter) That was what we’d advertised as this revolutionary cell, you know, we would change imagination. After about an hour we realised that Tim Shadbolt didn't need us and we didn’t need him. He had it all worked out, what he was going to do. So we separated and we planned that … the ultimate irony would be if this came from the Literary Society. It was the perfect cover for anything you wanted to do because all you wanted to put on was an event, a celebration, something like that; that was what you wanted to do. The multimedia idea was coming in as well of course, straight from San Francisco. Huge media circuses, which Jack Body went on to develop as the Sonic Circus. So there was no perfection in an artform, there was something that was immediate, spontaneous and quick, and that would be for one night. That’s what we started to organise. Multimedia dance drama shows on the campus at Auckland University, with lights by Phil Alpers who used to import these oil gizmos that you could make oil slides with. You got two glass slides, put some oil in the middle and clamped it shut. Phil Alpers got those from some warehouse in San Francisco that had advertised it in an alternative magazine that had reached Auckland somehow. Mark Young, Michael O’Donoghue and Michael McGhie did the Picasso play at one of those nights, a real coming-out for them. And just complete mayhem. Katerina de Nave, who was running the film club, was showing films on the side of the building, Jean-Luc Godard and such. People could walk into the concert, come out, catch a bit of the movie, leave the movie, go back to the show. Very environmental in some ways.
CB: Musically what was going on?
AB: Through this sort of organisation of events, and part of the culture being taken over by people making the culture, literary performance or whatever, there was also a strong interaction with the downtown rock and roll scene.
CB: So the rock and roll scene was connected?
AB: Rock and roll was what you were living, but it was taking longer to connect with the rock and roll scene, which was coming out of South Auckland, almost like today. Larry Morris, people like that, were South Auckland kids and it was taking a little while to connect with them. Don’t forget, coming out of small-town Hamilton, to move towards that … But what made it accessible was that it was all concentrated around downtown. The clubs were together, so there was a move towards going to see the bands, especially when something like The Underdogs happened, that authentic blues sound. Groups had conquered the pop sound but were looking for that genuine bluesey sound that was local.
CB: I thought The Underdogs would be the equivalent of the underground scene.
AB: Yes. The whole idea of the Big Smoke was that an underground was possible. You're constantly looking for the underground, you’re looking for the Cotton Club, looking for authenticity is the way you’d say it.
CB: So in Boyle Crescent you were inventing the underground?
AB: No, in a way we wanted to be the elite, we wanted to be the Praetorian Guard of the Cultural Revolution. Maybe. I don’t know, it’s just the image that you took at the time.
CB: You’re also saying that it was the perfect front.
AB: Because through our cell-like organisation … for these events we needed bands. We wanted to go beyond jazz, we wanted the electric sound, and the only way to get it was to go downtown and start checking out what was happening. So The Underdogs came up on campus. The connecting tissue was David Mitchell, who knew the downtown scene and hung out there. The Underdogs were interesting because you thought ‘where do these wild guys come from?’ The first time you saw someone walking around Auckland with hair down below his shoulders and a space around him as he walked down the street. (Laughter) ‘Who’s that weirdo, what does this mean?’ I remember, within my first eighteen months at the university in Auckland, sitting in a history lecture, maybe there’s six hundred, seven hundred students sitting there, and Julian Rosenberg walked in for the first time. This was 1966, and he was just back from ‘mod London’. Everyone was seated waiting for the lecture to begin, the door bursts open and Rosenberg walks in with his long, long hair and his silk and velvet totally mod look. And there was silence. It was a very intense experience and that was a moment when, in six hundred young minds, something changed.
CB: Did the Cultural Liberation Front put on a lot of events, or was it a concept?
AB: It was a concept. You wanted to live a concept on that level and at the same time be a secret society. It was definitely a cell. You were putting into action what you’d learned through activist workshops.
CB: There were activist workshops?
AB: Out of my study group at high school, I arrived at Auckland maybe a little socially green, but I was politically acute. So the first thing I did in Auckland was to join the CND. It was run by Richard Northey who was later a Labour MP of course. A very intense sort of Führer or People’s Leader type. I don’t know if he was a Maoist at that time or not. Each Easter a train would leave Auckland, which was supposed to be packed with sympathisers, to go on a CND march. My first Easter I did that. Got on the train, chug chug chug chug, Taumarunui, hot pies, tea, about fourteen hours through the night. My first conscious trip through New Zealand. I’d done it a couple of times when I was eighteen months and semi-conscious, but this was my first adult trip through the country. We got out at the other end, at the railway station here, and someone said ‘Oh, you’ve got to get on this other train to Featherston, and then you walk back over the hill to Upper Hutt carrying banners’. (Laughter) We were being filmed by a TV crew, which must have been one of the first live documentary events in New Zealand television, 1965, to be out on the road filming us. So we staggered over the Rimutakas, totally beat, into a camp that was held at the Upper Hutt railway station. I guess through the union; or the movement somehow had found this space. There were radicals from all over the country, but we were all seventeen, eighteen, just coming out of adolescent problems moving into adulthood.
CB: It’s hard to understand now, ‘I’m eighteen and I’m a communist.’
AB: Since 1989 it’s not been hip to go anywhere near communism. In New Zealand 1956 was when the Communist party collapsed, when Russia rolled into Hungary and people like Hone Tuwhare left the party. But communism went on through radical Trotsky-ite phases. In the late 1960s the Progressive Youth Movement. I always thought it was Spartacist but it was Trotsky-ite. By that stage my idol was Rosa Luxembourg, and that brief moment in Germany when Toller the playwright declared control of Munich. (Laughter) For once a playwright was in control of the city, and he lasted three weeks, was it?
CB: Yes. The PYM, they were on the news several times a week.
AB: They were burning flags. I think that political street theatre here in New Zealand began with them, and through the radical folk music.
CB: Names like?
AB: It was Dave Calder, and the Hamilton County Bluegrass Band. What you always got here was an intense copy. There would be that question: is this group of people playing a violin and a banjo in this vaguely bluegrass way dressed in short-sleeved shirts, looking vaguely cute all with glasses …
AB: Yeah. What they do, are they sweating or what? Then they’d get a TV series. TV was very accessible in those days. They’d be sitting on hay bales and doing this music. This authentic? I don’t think so. But because the records were available people wanted to do the authentic, do the blues … jug band music. There was this sort of blowing ‘whoo whoo whoo’. Windy City Strugglers were the Wellington example. There was always a banjo in a protest ploinke ploink ploink. What finally happened was that the folk club collapsed and was taken over by the blues club. Suddenly you were getting the bass sound, the drums and bass sound being made locally, in the bluesey, non-white, non-commercial way.
CB: So you’d have Alistair Riddell and Original Son Band in Auckland?
AB: Exactly. And Henry Jackson was the true innovator. He was the first blues musician that I heard.
CB: Al Hunter’s first gig was singing with Henry Jackson in Killing Floor.
AB: There was Moller’s farm out in the Waitakeres. On Moller’s farm once a year there had been a folk festival but it turned into an R&B festival as well. Marti Friedlander was the official photographer. Apparently she has stacks of photographs of people wandering around in the woods. (Laughter)
CB: Were the poetry readings happening at these events?
AB: Through Ron Riddell we met the Original Son Blues Band which was also performing at Moller’s farm. He encouraged people to stand up: ‘if you’ve got a poem to read, stand up and read it.’ Everything had to be happening at the same time, music had to be involved. Ron Riddell was wanting to move into poetry because this is what was happening in San Francisco. Allen Ginsberg read and then The Grateful Dead played and then Stan Brakhage showed some films and then Ken Kesey handed out acid and then Big Brother and the Holding Company came out. That’s how you set up a show. Ron introduced us to his young brother Alistair who was fifteen, sixteen, a guitar whizzkid. The first event the Cultural Liberation Front had was a poetry reading with the Original Son Blues Band.
CB: At Moller’s or in town?
AB: No, that was at the university.
CB: Were they regular? I mean, Boyle Crescent must have been a mess, really.
AB: There was nothing there, we kept nothing there and doors were completely open. The authentic sign of belonging to the movement was an open door. This was the utopian sign, you had to put up with people coming in saying ‘I want a cup of tea’ and claiming some allegiance through the fact that they had long hair and looked a bit scruffy. You had a social obligation. If you’re going to walk around looking like that, you had to put up with the consequences. You might have to be beaten up, or threatened. New Zealand was relaxed, these things didn’t take too long to relax out of people wanting to beat you up in pubs for having long hair.
CB: This idea of liberation?
AB: We had an annual capping day parade through town, through Auckland. Each graduation day was the parade. We had grown up with parades, the Mooloo parade through Hamilton each time Waikato had to defend the Ranfurly Shield. The parade was quite an important idea. In Auckland it was the capping parade, which was slowly degenerating into a performance, into a show. Queen Street was going through its first renovation, and the crap that used to be thrown out at you from these buildings, nuts and bolts and flour bombs mostly, would be coming from your generation up there, eight floors up, building some of the first skyscrapers, hurling garbage at you while you were being paid to be at university. What can I say, it was ideal.
CB: Because you were doing a teachers thing.
AB: Yes. I was a working class kid who had survived because of the Savage Labour welfare state, and being paid to go to university if I would come back and teach in a high school for two years. It seemed like a reasonable bargain. Until I got to the end of my university days and I had to face the fact that I was going to have to do this teacher thing which was a real blip in my life, it wasn’t what I had in mind at all. I went to training college and Lesley Kaiser was in the same class. This guy comes in to tell us how to teach and says: ‘Open the windows. The first thing you must do when you go into the classroom is open the windows because adolescents fart a lot during class’. (Laughter) This is teacher training! After a couple of weeks they send you out into a high school to have a look at the reality. I was sent out to Otara College in South Auckland. I hadn’t changed much, I was still beardy and quite long hair and quite casual. So on the second day I’m sitting there in this college in South Auckland wondering what I’m going to do, because the head of the English department there had heard of Noam Chomsky and transformational generative grammar, the revolution in how to study grammar at that point. He said: ‘You’re going to teach this’. So I just had to get my Chomsky together, and then they said in the staffroom that morning that the upper classes were going to see a film of Romeo and Juliet, I think it was. Maybe the Nureyev-Fonteyn film. You bussed off to see Shakespeare at the movies. The headmaster looked at me and said: ‘Mr Brunton, you will go and do the haircut inspection’. So all the boys were lined up, and I had to walk along the back and point to whoever had hair hanging down over their collar. They weren’t going to the movie, they were a disgrace to the school. It dawned on me that the revolution was the haircut, the base of the revolution was how you looked after yourself, how you appeared. Sounds obvious, but at the haircut level it’s Chuck Berry, it’s the hairdresser. He learned what style was. That was quite a revelation. I just walked away and said: ‘No, I’m not going to do that, I’ve got to get out of here’.
CB: I didn’t realise you’d taken this time out before … you interrupted the literary endeavour.
AB: Yes. Freed One came out in July 1969, which was immense; the concept had been achieved. Then suddenly it was, oh we’ve got to do a follow-up, a second number.
CB: Before you went away?
AB: Before we went away. The second number was second night, it was no longer what might be possible. It was a follow-up, reinforcement.
CB: Could you describe the revolution of Freed One, what the idea was, what the breakthroughs were with it.
AB: The idea of the Cultural Liberation Front was to free the imagination. There was intense influence from the Days of Rage in Paris in May ’68. There was a mix up of American and European ideas. From Europe was coming a very masked, costumed surrealistic revolution that urged performance. It had a literary background in some ways, whereas the revolution coming from the USA had a music background, was spontaneous. To us. We didn’t realise that people like Janis Joplin were coming out of the South Texas blues tradition and that that music was two or three generations old, and that they represented an achievement of their own folk culture.
Freed One & the magazines and newspapers coming out then were very intense to look at, all bright yellow ink on sort of dull newsprint, or pink ink. Oz, the Australian thing, was a part of that; these things were coming freely into the country. There was also a magazine from Wellington called Cock that Chris Wheeler was putting out. It was being printed on various presses around Wellington because since 1951 presses had to be registered, under the emergency regulations, and that regulation had not been withdrawn. So people were anxious about what they printed, because the police would come round and shut you down if they didnt like what was there. There were secret press operations happening. We wanted to do that but we also wanted an idea of aesthetic refinement, mainly from the art school thing, maybe from a sort of louche temperament that someone like Mick Jagger personified, or Bob Dylan. People who seemed to be authentically in charge of their own lives and their own product. No compromise, except in a very ironical way of course. The persona, the way of acting, was becoming quite important to us. Freed was to be the literary reflection of this. My attraction came round to poetry when it happened that people like Bob Dylan were singing their own songs. Part of my revelation of first going from Hamilton to Auckland was to meet a very sophisticated girl from London who had Bob Dylan records, including the first one, the guitar one, that has great songs on it. There was an idea of a poet. I thought that Bob Dylan at the time was genuinely poetic. I still do. And it was a way of expression. So this was what we wanted to do. But there was also an idea of refinement, something that went back to the cell imagination that wed taught ourselves. There would be a group of people who would be working on this metaphysical, mystical level. The transcendental was vaguely important. That was why you were giving up rationality, seeking some madness, there had to be some ultimate point to all this. (Laughter) There had to be some other possibility, and that was going to come out of the group. I think it was a political template. The cell group in charge of guiding the imagination of the people. The commissioner for enlightenment. Its Soviet style, when Lunacharsky was Commissioner for Enlightenment under the first Soviet government. Always seemed like: Thats what Id love to be, the commissioner for enlightenment. At an age where I had no wisdom to impart. Trotsky wrote Art and Revolution, Mao wrote on how the artist was to be guided, and a hundred flowers should bloom. Some of the great poets you were reading in translation were coming through the political papers. Ho Chi Minh in North Viet Nam was a poet, you read his poems. Leopold Sengor in Senegal, the liberation leader, and Agostino Neto in Angola are just some of the names I can remember. They were surrealist poets whod gone from the French colonies to Paris in the 1930s. They didnt go to class, they hung out with the Surrealists; and when they went back to the colonies there was a definite idea of liberation. Aimé Césaire from the Caribbean in the 1930s, the idea of négritude, black is black, be black and be proud. He was a surrealist poet. A lot of this was being translated and being sold in the political bookshops. Not the literary bookshops but in the political left-wing co-operative bookshops was where you would find the poetry of these people. Poets from Africa, the rest of the world, the international literary movement fed in through the international political radical movement. Im sure thats why people like Hone Tuwhare had such an early sense of the humanist possibilities of a non-regimented, non-hierarchical society when he wrote great poems like O Africa. The people in Africa, a sense of revolution and change, and it all crystallised for him around 1957 in No Ordinary Sun, and that became one of the talismanic poems of our period. He used to come to those readings and read it.
CB: Was Baxter at Boyle Crescent around that time? You talk about ‘avant Baxter’, was that another period at Boyle Crescent?
AB: No, we were there. You’re keeping us on the line here. We had that meeting. The Cultural Liberation Front decided to set up a series of events, big multimedia concerts with a band, films. The guy next door, Trix Willoughby, was helping us get the music side together. One day Trix came over and said: ‘I’m moving out, too many people crashing at number seven, I’m getting out’. So he left, and because he used to collect the rent for the landlord, something like five dollars a week for each house, no one paid any rent for a while. About three or four weeks after Trix had gone, tap tap tap on our door. Open it, there’s this grubby little guy standing there with no shoes on his feet. Looked like he just walked from Wellington and he said: ‘I’m James K. Baxter, Brother Jim. I’m now taking over these two houses in the name of the people and you have to pay rent, and we’ve decided that your rent will be seven dollars a week.’ I was standing there with Jim and we looked at each other, and Jim suddenly reached in his pocket. My friend Jim takes seven dollars from his pocket, gives it to Brother Jim. James K. Baxter signs the rent book: ‘$7 – Received, James K. Baxter’, gives it to Jim Stevenson, and it’s days before I realise: Jim Stevenson’s got this priceless autograph on a rent book from James K. Baxter, Boyle Crescent.
This freedom that Brother Jim had established at number seven attracted a lot of people very quickly. A lot of very freaked out people who were on pills. Chemical poisoning. The two scenes co-existed, but they needed room to expand and it was time for us to get out of Boyle Crescent so we shifted over to the other side of Parnell and left the commune to fend for itself. It was like the way that the student protests came in waves from wherever they were coming from, over eighteen months or two years, and then they stopped, and everything stopped. Then the waves that started to come were more violent, much more commercial. First there was someone like Shadbolt having his Jumping Sundays in Albert Park, which was very liberating and people ran around in Gandalf costumes, Lord of the Rings was happening, people were all dressed up, and people playing recorders and throwing licorice-allsorts at everybody else and a bit of face-paint on and the sun would be shining. But because it was liberating, people were coming from all over the place. Working class youth, Maori were coming, activists from a lot of small sectors were arriving to mix together. And inevitably a sort of violence came along as well that I never quite understood. It just got very big.
CB: That was a great description of the Jumping Sundays.
AB: (Laughs) For Jumping Sundays the first production, because we felt as the Literary Society we had to make some presence at the Jumping Sunday –
CB: Take a booth!
AB: I cyclostyled, no it was roneo-ed; I cut a stencil painfully with a typewriter, hand-used stencil corrector, close it up and print it off, a one page sheet which I was going to distribute at the first Jumping Sunday. I did 200 of these pwah pwah pwah pwah turning the handle, bringing them out the other side, and walked out that afternoon, Sunday, out into the park. And was set upon and crushed, all these 200 pieces of literature I’d created disappeared into the crowd instantly and I was left with the one, which I’ve got one copy of. That was the giving to the revolution. (Laughter) I never did it again. I don’t want to encourage that sort of behaviour.
CB: The Agnew visit is really big in Bullshit & Jellybeans, early 1970, violence.
AB: There was a moment when the police were chasing students away from the Intercontinental Hotel, and a lot of student protesters moved across the road into the Old Government House grounds, which Auckland University owns. The police followed the students into the grounds and were beating them up. First time I’d seen long batons being used on other people. An enraged police force beating up students in the gardens in the university grounds. The next day the students protested to the university administration about letting police on the campus, and the administration replied that it was perfectly legal in their opinion for police to come onto the campus to ‘follow up criminal activities’, i.e. political protest. So the isolation of the campus we talked about before, was suddenly broken in a big way. You lost your sanctuary once the police were permitted by the administration to go onto the campus to follow anyone for any reason. And the first undercover agents were turning up on campus. One was exposed working in the Political Science Department, because he would walk around saying: (nasal voice) ‘What do you think of the government?’ (Laughter) ‘Think we should go down and throw a few bombs?’ He was exposed fairly quickly but who knows how many other agents there were operating on the campus. In terms of paranoia, that was the literature you were getting, the films you were watching. You watched Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper going down the road, Billy and Captain America in Easy Rider. At the end of the film they were shot for no reason. There were other film-makers, like Monte Hellman, Two-Lane Blacktop. Pure existential movies, influenced by Antonioni, and the French New Wave were part of it. But always at the end you got shot. There was Billy the Kid; you died young. It was serious when you said you didn’t want to live beyond thirty. That was the Romantic, that was a re-run of Goethe and the youthful suicide. If you didn’t kill yourself through pain of being in love, you weren’t authentically in love (laughs). There was only one way to go, that authenticity.
CB: But it was true too, there were guys wearing white shirts and very thin ties down here who had hair shaved up the sides of their heads and they didn’t like the clowns who were spouting slogans. And the Bower brothers were actually doing things with dynamite.
AB: I remember the first explosion in Auckland when someone went out and threw some dynamite somewhere in Parnell, and that was in 1969. There were other events but that was the first one I was aware of. Because it was a night in 1969 when I first met Sally, and she’d had a birthday party. I took her the record of the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed, which was a totally radical record for the time. It was physical, it was sexual, it was biological and it was really sneering music. A real ‘this could be the last time’ feel about it, that record. It was a great party and the usual indulgences happening. I left the party in Remuera Road at about two o’clock and started to walk home in a complete happiness, I was a totally happy person that night, I felt some sense of achievement about my life. I walked through Newmarket, and I walked down Parnell Road, and I was down near the Hearst’s chocolate factory. There used to be that big grey wall and suddenly coming up Parnell Rise towards me were flashing lights. The police are coming up the hill and they all screech to a halt right beside me! I’m really jumpy by this point what’s going on? Hoping there’s nothing in my pockets, a primal fear; you’d get six months for having a few grams of marijuana in your pocket. That was quite a fearful thing, you felt (throat-cutting sound). So out of vans come guys behind torches, with dogs. The dogs are crawling all over me, I’m thrashed around to the wall, hands up against the wall, total top to bottom search. Orifices, cavities are searched, they’re yelling and screaming something at me I don’t recognise. Who knows how long that goes on for, with these (makes slobbering dog noises) licking. OOHH! And suddenly it all stops, they go away. And I had no idea where they came from, what they wanted, what on earth was going on. Suddenly the police had just descended on me out of nowhere. So I get home finally, I’m living in Adams Terrace, not much further from the Hearst chocolate factory, and they tell me that there was an explosion at the RNZAF base, a little camp thing there in Parnell, just a couple of corners around at the bottom of the hill. There’d been a dynamite explosion. It was tossed out as a torch that I guess in the fantasy of these guys was going to ignite the mass revolution. They’d finally had to meet the consequences of their own beliefs and their own theories. If it was a matter of authentic belief in the theory you had to go out and ignite the flame that would start the revolution.
CB: Here’s all this radical political stuff, but out of Freed came some serious operators in New Zealand literature at the time. There were some key players.
AB: It was a good run, wasn’t it. Turned out to collect some of the authentic people I guess, and you need a lot of authenticity to survive. It’s kind of embarrassing to look back on.
CB: The poetry?
AB: In a way, yes. The problem with the poetry was we were trying to absorb too many influences all at once and there was the challenge that modernism had left you with, which had run out. TS Eliot, Ezra Pound had all collapsed in the 50s, had nothing more to say, but this baroque style that they had achieved, and the intensity and the multiplicity of what they were writing was also a challenge. At the same time your conscience was telling you it’s time for a change. Blowin’ in the wind. You wanted to do it on a different level of writing. Those pressures were coming on you. They were also political choices in some ways.
CB: What was the theory behind making poetry noisy?
AB: Be loud and be proud. Or the fact that you were yelling out over rock and roll music. The idea of someone yelling slogans at you. You wanted to do slogans, wanted the stuff to come back at you, call and answer. Whether it was in ancient Greek or some bit of Milton that you liked. You’d stuck all these things together you’d like to hear thousands of people yelling out. Anyway, I did the two issues of Freed. My attention had begun to move away from high literary occult arts into taking up the interest that was of course widespread at the time, in the Far East. That suddenly swung into view, through American influences, gurus, a book coming in and you were suddenly aware of, certainly of Viet Nam of course but also of India, Burma, Malaya. That’s the reason I went to Australia; in the back of my mind I was heading for India and living out somewhere there. Siddharta, the Hesse book, was a huge influence on me. The idea of walking beside the river with your bowl, dressed in a robe and nothing else was happening in the world, it was your world. This became a very interesting idea to me. I met a guy in Grafton Gully, whose name was Gary. I met him in 1968 and he spent a whole winter with his girlfriend making woven bags, ketes, which they sold the next summer and that financed a trip to India. Gary lived in Parnell as well. Parnell was a sort of central part of the revolution. Grafton Gully was played out, had gone into drugs too much, it was too near the gully, it was too broken up at that point. Murray Edmond wrote some great poems about living there. The drug thing was part of that heaviness we talked about. There were heavy drugs, there was heroin going round and people were dying, every couple of weeks someone was dying. The Ministry of Fog was the sound of that world. Remember The Ministry of Fog? They had the first Jimi Hendrix record that I can remember hearing.
So Parnell was this separate movement. Gary Andrews had long red hair and was Celtic, like me. He went away to India, and every so often he would send back a pair of Tibetan boots to Auckland, and these Tibetan boots had eight-inch leather-enclosed soles on them, huge platform boots. Which upon opening would be full of Nepali black hashish. There were quite a few months when the whole of Parnell was totally happy and joyous. And the stuff just kept on arriving via the post office. Anyway, under that influence, one of my first major hashish visions, like Baudelaire I had a vision of the Orient … the Freed concept had been achieved. You didn’t need a whole lot of documentation, you’d made that performance, produced an avant-garde magazine that no one would ever understand or be able to interpret for a hundred years. But it would lie under its rock and eventually, like the Nag Hammadi Library would be found by a shepherd digging a well one day. It’ll be cosmic, it’ll be Steven Spielberg. (Laughter) So I went to India.
CB: What was the reality like when you got there?
AB: I left Darwin, all my friends were going to Thailand and I thought, no I don’t want to, I want to get further out than these guys, I’m going to go to Calcutta.
CB: Did you get to walk by the river?
AB: I went from Calcutta, which was amazing. First day I walked out and there’s a body on the footpath right outside the Salvation Army. Where do you stay when you’re poor, you stay with the Salvation Army, it said so on the little bit of paper someone had given you in Darwin: ‘Stay at the Salvation Army dadada in Calcutta’. A dead person lying on the street, just starting to ooze the bodily waste, and people there standing looking, and that was the first thing I saw in the East. It was like the Buddha enlightens you, on the Buddha’s turf the Buddha sends a sign: ‘Beware of Maya, it’s all illusion’. Okay, I’m ready for the next lesson. Went to Kathmandu, spent several months there, then finally time to come down from the mountains to the river, to the Ganges, to Varanasi or Benares where we stayed on a houseboat moored right beside the burning ghats where the bodies were being burned and thrown in the river. And the second morning I’m on this boat watching these bits of dead body floating down the river with little wisps of smoke coming off. Everything is going down the Ganges, there’s amazing music, amazing costumes, the devas and the shamans sing their songs. I’m sitting in my boat, there’s a knock on the door and I’m grabbed from behind and this guy in a French voice says: ‘Gary! Gary! Gary!’ I said, ‘No, I’m not Gary’ and he says: ‘Yes you are, you’re Gary Andrews from New Zealand’ ‘No! I’m the next one’ (laughter) ‘I’m number two’. So the East was a series of enlightenments and revelations. But after a year I got tired of it and went to London.
CB: So how do you live for a year in India?
AB: This is 1970, we were living for a dollar a day. That included hotel, food, travel and whatever indulgence you wanted.
CB: Amazing! We’ve covered a lot of ground here in and around Big Smoke.
AB: I think the political vision is an important part to remember. When people ask: ‘Is Big Smoke nostalgic?’ No, it’s not nostalgic. It’s giving notice to a moment of deep thought, and imaginative thought too, visions. It’s interesting that Wellington’s whole economy exists on the filming of Lord of the Rings at the moment. We need that. Peter Jackson’s budget has been the salvation of Wellington over these last two years. But the book of the 60s that formed your imagination, that was Lord of the Rings. You were elves going off to do battle in the big bad world and seeking wisdom. It sounds ridiculous on one level but on the cartoon level I think you could understand it. Why else did people run through the streets dressed up like witches and elves and painting their faces? Not one or two but hundreds, thousands felt this freedom.
CB: That’s a really interesting thing because as a ten-year-old I was picking up a lot of the slogans or seeing the images. There’s none of that now, it seems to have been squashed out and the only god is capitalism. A friend of mine said if you’re not into money now, you’re deviant.
AB: (Laughter) You’re just no use. You can’t participate.
CB: If your god isn’t money now you’re a deviant, in New Zealand.
AB: It is strange irony that the right wing, I hesitate to call it a revolution, readjustment in New Zealand began with the Lange government. That was mostly people who were on campus in the 1960s. Okay, now why did most of those people in that Labour Party in the 1980s admit they’d all been to the University of Chicago? A large number had been to the University of Chicago. Roger Douglas, the new history teachers, the new teachers in the universities. Because we’d just turned towards America. Guys who came in to lecture in grey slacks and blue blazers with silver buttons and, sort of relaxed, vaguely Playboy, sort of American style, a bit loose. A new thing was happening from these guys as well. Back from the University of Chicago, Milton Friedman’s school. They had all sat at the same base that Reagan’s economists had sat at. They all learned the University of Chicago thing.
CB: That university scene where they’re preaching this really far right …
AB: Jimmy Swaggart stuff.
CB: Greed. Survival of the fittest.
AB: Freedom! You had Desmond Morris, this was also around, The Naked Ape was happening, Ardrey’s book The Territorial Imperative. It was coming from Viet Nam.
CB: But these economists were getting their early training at a time when all this, when the youth politics was about socialism.
AB: The road had forked, there were two ways you could go. A theory had just arrived in time for each of them. A theory had arrived for systems. You could study systems, grammar, high-level linguistic grammar, system flow chart, communication grammar, which was feeding into advertising, design, communications, television. This new way of doing grammar, of putting things together had arrived and you could follow that quite coldly. There’s no morality attached to that. Or go the other path …