Monday, April 13, 2015
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
It is somehow easier to imagine an alien city than the city in which you live. In your mind, and thanks to the printed page, you can wander in Baudelaire’s Paris or Walt Whitman’s New York more easily than you can wander in Auckland.
Now why is this?
Because your city is a mundane thing. You take it for granted. It is the dull everyday, the drive to work, the view out the window, the thing routinely noisy and annoying and battered by rain, or too hot and crowded in the sunshine. It does not spark your imagination as much as the stink and mystery that somebody else has caught in memorable words. Why should you memorialise the diesel fumes of your commuter bus when you can ride Whitman’s ferry or follow les sept vieillards to their rendezvous? Bland city, city filled with ads, where in broad daylight nobody in particular grabs the passer-by.
But you try. You try even if some of your efforts are overwhelmed by European imagery. Some mystery can be caught in this derivative, gulch-filling metropolis. And your efforts do have the merit of being based on personal experience.
FROM THE SKY TOWER
From the Sky Tower, it’s a planner’s map.
Each boulevard is flattened, Albert Park
is a smooth greensward with no cranky hill.
20 degrees from upright, the near roofs
are mould- and rust-specked, grimy, but beyond,
at 45, they’re architects’ templates.
On arrowed arteries, the matchbox cars
slide silent journeys past homunculi
scaled to the bath-tub yachts and bonsai trees.
Ideal city on an ideal plane
Toytown to the horizon, dropped among
volcanoes, greenery and shipping lanes.
Unreal city from a tower-top
where laws of gravity are put aside
by abseilers, whose risk is pocket-deep.
Time for those fantasies from table-top
and childhood bedspread, when each fold and crease
was a defile for ambush and broadside.
The men of Ponsonby, with shields and spears,
do war with galleys from the Howick coast
and fuel 20 books of epic verse.
Condottiere, paid by Ellerslie,
force-march their way to Northcote in mere weeks
and pillage to their mercenary code.
A Grande Armee plods up the motorway
to Remuera Borodino where
Mt Hobson is the aristos’ grandstand.
The wind that shakes the tower is a mob
of orator-enraged Parisians
called out to sack casino or Bastille.
Unreal Toytown from a tower-top.
We Harry Lime it on our Ferris wheel
with cash-value assigned to human dots.
Till down the baculum we drop at last
to noise, humanity, the proper scale.
Reality. The city on the ground.
They make us catch the bus outside the law courts now.
It can be louche. Last week some vandal had smashed
the bus timetable out of its frame. We had to pick the placard up
off the pavement to check the times, even though
we really knew them already.
You meet some interesting people there, though.
I had my bum planted on that shop-window frame
where you sit because the council can’t be bothered providing seats
and this Samoan guy came and sat next to me
and we got talking.
A city bus came hurtling down the road past us.
We could hear its gears crunching and then its brakes
going squeak-squeak-squeak when the driver had to stop for the light,
and this guy said “You’d think they’d put some money
into servicing them, wouldn’t you?”
A few moments later a young couple came walking past us,
him long-haired and leather-jacketed, her tattooed on one cheek,
and we were almost pushed through the plate glass by the pong of marijuana.
We both laughed and this guy said “They probably lit up
coming out of court.”
I looked across the road. In the tinted mirror glass of an office block,
jigsawed up in the uneven squares of the separate windows,
I saw reflected the Catholic cathedral spire behind us, on Wyndham Street.
The tinting made the sky and clouds look unreal,
you know, that ideal mirror world.
So of course I went off wool-gathering in it for a few beats.
Like, was the world better when they built that spire?
Or if not, did they think it was going to be better? And did they hope more,
and imagine their little city would one day be
a metropolis of worship and justice?
Really, of course, it was just the colour of the clouds
in the tinting that was making me go like this, trying to jump
into neverland, away from the courts and the pong and the squeaking brakes,
until I heard that familiar decelerating sound
and this guy said “Your bus”.