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While on my trip to New Zealand I took the chance to read at one of Auckland’s Open Mic sessions. Inside-Out at Cafe One2One on Ponsonby Road is a well established monthly reading slot for local writers, and musicians. On the 14th of November 2018, as usual, I suspect, the room was packed and buzzing.

It’s quite alarming, I found, to contemplate reading to an audience as far round the world as you can get without starting on the journey home. What do they care about? What will they understand? What will amuse them? Rile them? Wind them up? Move them? And will it do it for the right reasons? How the hell does one choose just what to fill that five minute slot with? It was unnerving too, to find how similar the event was to  the Carlisle (Cumbria, UK) Speakeasy and Litcaff events I’ve been familiar with over the last dozen or so years. And amid those similarities, of course, the startling differences, of expectation, attitude, and perception, like the explosions of palm leaves that force their way through the canopies of ‘ordinary’ looking trees in what might be an English countryside. Walking on a turf headland forty minutes drive from the city, was like being on the coast near Whithorn. Crossing the fence line on the usual sort of stile, we stepped into what seemed a sub-tropical forest. Difference, and similarity in life, as in Art.

So, I’d taken a fistful of books to read from, made a dozen plans that I tore up, ended up reading one story, and one poem. The story, A Last Visit, taken from Talking To Owls (published by the excellent, but now retired Pewter Rose Press in 2012 – I have a couple of dozen copies left: Paypal me £6 GBpounds, and your address and I’ll send you one), but previously unpublished, and rarely read in public. The poem, All Things Are Connected, from Acumen‘s 60th anniversary anthology, and before that in #56 from 2006. In both cases, they seemed to understand what I was getting at. I should put that poem in a collection, if I do another.

Reading old work gets more enjoyable as I age with it, and reading new work less so! I had a new ‘work’ to read on the 14th, though, for a game they play here is to give you a fistful of words on a printed form, and ask for a piece of micro-fiction or poetry to go into the draw. Hell, I thought, why not? All Things itself came  out of a not wholly different exercise. Five of these raw pieces would be picked out of a hat, and guess what, mine was one of them! We each got a prize too…in my case Ivy Alvarez’s poetry collection Disturbance (Seren Books,2013),about which more perhaps after I’ve re-read it.

There isn’t, in my possession, an image from the reading, but if one turns up, I’ll post it! As an alternative, here’s a Kiwi forest, familiar, and unfamiliar.

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We have to imagine what we’re told, but observe what we see.

Taika Waititi’s 2016 film Hunt for the Wilderpeople was based on Barry Crump’s 1986 novel Wild Pork and Watercress. Set in the New Zealand bush both versions celebrate a strand of the Kiwi psyche, and several hundred square miles of its wilderness.

I encountered the film first, courtesy of my daughter who was living in Auckland at the time. Knowing my interest in how adaptations can change stories, it wasn’t long before the novel turned up, tracked down by my wife!

There are many ways in which, and many reasons why film makers change the stories they adapt. Technical issues, economic pressures, and the intent to put the story to the service of their own political or social agendas are the common ones. Out of the few dozen adaptations I have perused though, this one is perhaps the most unusual. The cast of the film is expanded both in numbers and in depth – the only cut is from two dogs to one, and I’m not sure whether that would be for technical or economic reasons! There are so many pigs, deer, possums (plus one Kiwi bird) and other animals killed, dismembered, cooked and eaten in the book, that I was tempted to do a headcount and list them, as was done with Peckinpah’s blood-fest Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, but really, the time required would have been above and beyond the call of this blog!

The film is nowhere near so bloodthirsty, though the two boars that are killed are killed suitably bloodily!

What the film adds are conversations and the characters to have them. Conversations from the book are expanded, new characters are added, existing characters are changed, usually to exaggerate their idiosyncrasies. Incidents are moved around, merged, or separated out. Even the two main characters, Uncle Hec and Ricky, are subtly changed, the thirteen year old part Maori delinquent seeming more competent, the tight-lipped old man seeming, perhaps less so in the book than in the film. Of course that might be because it is Ricky who tells the book’s story (apart from a chapter at the end, in which another character reflects upon the events, and speculates about the ultimate fate of the two runaways who have for a second time vanished into the bush together). An omniscient third person camera lens shows the film’s version.

Crump was hugely popular in his lifetime, and this novel was seen as his masterpiece. He too vanished into the bush from time to time and Uncle Hec might be seen as a proxy for him, both as a bushman, and as a sociopath. Writing a preface to the novel one of Crump’s sons refers to Crump as having a ‘sidekick ….. not a woman but a nine year old Maori boy’, and dates the encounter to around the time the book was first published. He refers also, to his own difficulties in relating to the eccentric Crump: ‘I never lived with my father’. ‘They were very relaxed and comfortable with each other, which is more than I can say for the old man and me;’

In fact if Hec is the proxy for Crump that anti-social streak must have been strong, and the fact that the author was described as a ‘great storyteller’ doesn’t really gainsay it. Telling stories, writing them, can be a way of distancing yourself from people as much as and perhaps more so than, one of connecting with them.

Crump’s story sees boy and uncle flee into the bush to avoid the boy being sent back into the Welfare system, and for nineteen months they evade detection and capture despite a developing hue and cry. The incidents of the story are mainly about the hardship of the trail, the repetitive killing of the game they live on, and the avoiding, where possible, of any human contact.  There’s an awareness to Crump’s book though, that is irrelevant to the film, and in the fact that, as Ricky’s narrative makes clear, survival is based, not only on the animals they hunt, but also on the supplies they find, left for emergencies in the various park huts that they visit – and also, to some extent, to the gear they steal from other ‘trampers’. Crump knew what it was to live in the bush, and presumably knew its limitations. The film doesn’t need to make the point, though it does show us the two fugitives finding, and using supplies in such huts. In fact, apart from the long period of Hec’s recuperation from a broken foot they sleep in huts probably as often as they camp out in both film and novel.

Crump’s style is described as ‘direct’ and ‘simple’, and even compared to Hemingway’s, as being ‘minimalist’. There’s a flatness to the story telling, that shows in descriptions of making a billy of tea being no less exciting than experiencing an earthquake, and vice versa. The pace doesn’t vary, the tension never seems to rise or to be resolved. Perhaps this is Crump attempting to capture the boy’s voice, or perhaps it reflects the way he saw the incidents that fill the book, and maybe how he experienced those which, presumably filled his own periods of bush-time. It’s almost as if a depressive were telling the story, certainly a detached narrator.

There was no sense, for me of any rising crescendo, no story arc, though there is a climax of sorts, just before the two fugitives decide to hand themselves in. I have often found that the ‘middles’ of stories can be more malleable, their component parts more easily switched around, than could the beginnings or endings, that it is only detail within those middles that needs to be sequenced carefully. In this story that is, I believe, especially true. The order in which the various creatures are slaughtered, the rains experienced, even that earthquake, do not seem to contribute to the development of an idea, or an outcome. That isn’t to say that there is no idea, but to find it, you have to look at the conversations between Hec and Ricky, and the reflections upon them that pass through the boy’s mind. My first reflection after finishing the book was that these conversations had been few, and relatively short, but re-reading showed that to be a false impression. In fact, Hec and Ricky talk quite often, and sometimes for a more than a page. It’s the limited depth of their conversations, perhaps, that gives the impression  of brevity and infrequency.

The incidents into which these conversations are embedded, I found as tedious, and for similar reasons, as watching somebody else’s holiday movies. If you’re into stalking and shooting and skinning and gutting and cooking on an open fire, I can imagine the story might entertain you with that for longer than it did me, but it’s interesting that Waititi chose to dump most of that stuff, having paid a lip service to it. One of the most remarkably ‘alive’ sequences of the book, comes at the end, when the sheep-station manager who has befriended the pair (and talked them into giving themselves up), describes his first encounters with them. He is graphic on their condition, which contrasts so powerfully with the story Ricky has told, that one begins to wonder if Crump had deliberately flattened that narrative voice, deliberately blunted its perception of what was really happening. It’s a technique that I could see working well in a short story, but over nearly two hundred pages of a novel, it must be a high risk strategy.

The sheep station manager, Robby Barton’s chapter is another first person narrative, and in a recognisably different voice. Here’s a sample of what he tells us about the two ‘bushmen’ after a year in the wilderness.

 

‘They were both dressed in rags tied around them with strips of torn cloth and flax……the boy’s trouser-leg had frayed off above the knee and                                 the leg was covered with old bruises and scratches……And they stank. Badly. Both of them.’

 

The film offers nothing like this description of the protagonists. They are never that ragged, that dirty, that unkempt. They are never desperate in the way that the book shows them to have been. Barton’s character and its viewpoint are not in the film.

There are two major elements the film brings to the story that are clearly not in the novel. Most obvious is the chase and shoot out sequence near the end, in which armoured vehicles and soldiers with automatic weapons pursue the fugitives, with Ricky driving a stolen car, across some sand flats. It’s a Keystone cops sort of chase, a spoof shoot out, and there’s nothing remotely like it in the novel.

The other addition is less extreme, but becomes a fundamental thread of the film’s story. This is the introduction of two characters, that will represent the pursuing authorities throughout the film. They add a humour that I didn’t find anywhere in the book. One is a world weary and cynical, though kindly, policeman, and the other is a Child Welfare Officer. They make a comic duo, with him constantly undermining, and commenting on her. She becomes more manic as the story progresses, making a comic rather than a sinister ‘baddy’, and the focus of the story, because of this duo’s repeated appearance, shifts from the two fugitives to the wider world from which they try to escape. In fact the whole film turns more towards the pursuers than the novel ever does, giving them more story time, more dialogue, and more actions – all of which have a comic tinge, lacking in the book. As a cameo role, this is most notable with the character Psycho Sam who replaces the book’s more mundane Quiet Brian. The names, and the change of names nicely encapsulates the difference between book and film, and implies the reasons for the changes.

Another addition is Kahu, who conflates separate elements of the book. She rides, with Ricky hanging on, to the house where she and her father are staying, and where there is a phone that Ricky can use to call in help for a sick man. Ricky spends the night with them, while Hec remains at a park hut, looking after the invalid. In the book’s equivalent Ricky goes only as far as the hillside above a house to yell for help, and refuses the offer to come down. In the book, the overnight stay becomes a prolonged one, much later in the story, with the sheep station manager. In the book it is he who rides the horse. Film makers extract small details that they presumably like, and recombine them in quite different ways to the original.

It seems to me that in this adaptation, the director has taken a popular story and recognised that it could not be merely transcribed to the screen. Yet he has not brought any new agenda to it, and the changes have not been for technical or economic reasons. Adding characters, and armoured vehicles would cost money, not save it, and there would have been no technical difficulty in showing the deaths and processing of dozens of animals. It would, however, have been simply boring. A way had to be found to make the story interesting: to make the events in the book into a story, because the story in the book is carried, between the events, in the relatively few exchanges between Hec and Ricky, and in the thoughts that Ricky has about their relationship.

Cinema audiences (and readers) are interested in the situations of their characters, but also in how characters react to those situations, and to each other. It is those reactions, and conversations that the film has focussed on, cutting out the detail of the events into which the book has embedded them. Crump wrote a book called Bastards I have met, and is cited by the anonymous commentator of the second preface to Wild Pork and Watercress as believing that ‘bastards’ outnumbered ‘heroes’ by 15,000 to 1. The simplistic division of people into these two stereotypes (perhaps among others) seems to underlie the story, and though the film goes a little deeper, none of the characters are more than caricatures, and even Ricky and Hec do not develop much beyond gaining a grudging respect, and liking for each other.

There are many stories in which characters are pitted against a wilderness, but few, in my experience where they are not trying to survive in order to reconnect with other people. In this story, in both versions, the protagonists’ intent is always to limit, and if possible avoid human contact, even with those whom they believe are trying to help them. Even their own relationship seems tainted with this attitude. Curiously, this element reminded me of Frank Herbert’s Soul Catcher, which I wrote about recently, for in that wilderness novel one of the features of the relationship between the boy and his Indian captor, is that the Indian distrusts the language connection between both him and the boy, and between the boy and the natural world. He is forever rebuking the child for speaking, rather than silently observing and listening. Even where the point is not being explicitly made, it would seem, language and how we use it is an issue of the stories we tell (even when we are showing them). I’m tempted to say that Taika Waititi’s story is better than the one Crump told, but that would be unfair. Crump’s told story gains from the richness of its readers’ imaginations, but Waititi’s shown one has to depend on what we see and hear. If you’d like to read more about adaptation, Take Two, how adaptation changes stories by Mike Smith is available here

Why not take an hour to watch how the British Establishment go about their business, with the excellent ‘Waitangi – What Really Happened.

What I really liked about New Zealand wasn’t the spectacular scenery. The scenery was spectacular. I liked the way palm trees and tree ferns exploded like green fireworks from the centre of what looked like ordinary forests (by which I mean, the ones I’m used to seeing). I liked the way you could look down into the craters of Mounts Eden, and Rangitoto, the former spewed of red rock, the latter of black. The dust of Rangitoto, which was as black as coal and as fine as flour dulled our shoes with a grey patina and each step we took ground out a teaspoonful more from the pumice-like scoria. And the phrase itself has such a rhythm about it – The Dust of Rangitoto – there’s got to be a ballad/poem in there somewhere!

But we have scenery. We even have volcanoes, though not dormant ones, and Arthur’s Seat is a plug that you look up at, rather than down into. At Waiotapu the hot springs were colourful and spectacular, and smelly, but the vents you could stare down into and not see the water that you could hear boiling below were, to my ears, the most spectacular (which is a mixed metaphor you might recoil at – though I rather like it). What struck me most there was the way the birds were nesting in the volcanic cliffs’ letting the geo-thermal heat do the work of incubation while they flew in and out of the rock vents catching the insects that lived even there. By the mud pools, where min-geysers (guysers, the Kiwis call them – yis!) threw handfuls of grey gloop a few feet or even only inches up into the air, and the concentric ripples of their falling back moved slowly outwards, the pool-edge bushes grew close enough to get coated in the hot, killing, grime. Life pushes in as far as it can go, and sometimes further. We’re not alone, then, in such follies.

But what I really liked, apart from the wonderful coffee, and the Asian food, all along Ponsonby Road, or on the more edgy ‘K’ road, that turns downhill towards the CBD, was the fact that in New Zealand, the drivers don’t just wait patiently for you to cross at the zebra crossings, they actually wait for you to get to them! And on the lights controlled crossings in the CBD, with not a car in sight for two hundred yards in either direction, the pedestrians wait, equally patiently, for the green man to expose himself. This isn’t waiting the way the Germans are said to, because it’s the rules, or doesn’t seem so, but seems instead to be, well, because they can, and who’s in a hurry? Now that’s what I call civilised.

While I was in New Zealand I visited the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. This museum, Art Gallery, and general tourist trap, offers a history of the founding of the modern state. That involved the agreement of Maori Chiefs, in 1840, to a handing over of power to the British Throne. It was, as you might perhaps expect, a stitch up. The translation of treaty items is shown to have varied widely in meaning between British and Maori versions, giving to one side the reassurance of empty promises, and to the other the sense of entitlement that the British Establishment always cultivates. The more I read and saw, the greater my disquiet, disgust, and shame.

In the case of land holding, for example, apparently Maoris could own their own land, but sell it only to the Government. It’s easy to see where that would lead, and did.

A Maori guide took us around the site, and fed us tidbits of information, including that the tongue, stuck out in the traditional Haka, or Maori ‘welcome’, signified that you looked tasty, and might be eaten.  As at the museum in Auckland, there were wonderful examples of Maori wood-carving, and the equally intricate tattooing. Both tell, in detail the cultural and personal histories of the different tribes, and their individuals. Linguistically the Maoris, perhaps in the way the English have been (are?), are diverse with tribal languages that overlap, but are not quite the same. What wasn’t made clear – at least in what I saw – was whether this was due to the disintegration of a single language – like that of Celtic into its Ps & Qs and so on – or was a stage in the development of a single language out of many – as happened with the creation of English after 1066.

The Haka formed part of a Maori ‘experience’, referred to by one of its ‘cast’ as a ‘show’. In addition to singing, there was a demonstration of traditional Maori fighting skills, with the wooden clubs they once used to kill each other, in what the Auckland Museum displays seemed to suggest had been a state of continual inter-tribal warfare. The ornate carving in the illustration above is on the prow of a huge ‘war canoe’ on the site – the Aircraft Carrier of its day. The metal-bladed weapons, and muskets, that European traders sold to the tribes later, weren’t demonstrated. I thought of the English Morris, and the monarchist Trooping of the Colour, but neither quite matched what we were seeing. I speculated too, as to how a demonstration of drill with the AK47 or some other contemporary icon of slaughter might go down with tourists somewhere – a Native English Reservation perhaps – in 200 years time. I hadn’t realised the extent to which the pre-European, Maori, New Zealand, despite its single, celebrated father figure, had been populated by such parochially antagonistic Polynesian settlers. The guide also told us the nick name for Australian Maoris, whom, she said, ‘could stay there’. We, I’m reminded, as I have been before, are basically the same for all our cultural diversities – not all the reminders have been tinged with such sadness.

The Haka is perhaps best known to us in the west from All Blacks rugby matches, but it took on a different hue when explained by our Maori guide. Part greeting, part defiance, part challenge, it is a cultural tradition but when seen on the street outside a bar, staged by a group of Maori youths, to intimidate some others, it carries a potent threat, perhaps even to the extent of seeming an assault.

The Maori population fell, we were told, to a mere fifty thousand, but has been on the rise again, and the provision of education, including in regional tribal languages has vastly improved. That must be good news, for if Auckland is anything to go by, New Zealand seems to be in a turmoil of new building and nascent prosperity. That Maori ‘experience’ though was rooted in the past. An equivalent might be for us to offer a Dickensian tableau to represent the ‘English’ experience. The phrase ‘Victorian values’ springs to mind, but which ones, and who would get to choose?

There’s a powerful dramatisation of the Treaty Signing: Waitangi – What really happened, on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AEOx3QyjxIs), and much other material worth taking a look at, on the Waitangi Treaty Grounds Museum website.