Book Launch Speech Glen Eden Library 4 September as part of the Going West Festival
On a Bodgie Bike is set in 1955 Glen Eden and completes a trilogy I wrote about a stolen monstrance in response to my father urging me to write about the family hometown of Auckland. I stayed in Wellington as a student when the family returned to Auckland. Most of my 57 books are not about Auckland. It seems appropriate that this book is set in the place and year where I first wrote between hard covers, aged 12, at the behest of my father.
I am a New Zealand social historian, one who abjures footnotes and references in favour of direct quotes. Recently it is fiction but still aimed at some aspect of our social history, the view from below among the ordinary folk as opposed to the movers and shakers. Jim Henderson called them ‘the heroic ordinary’. In this new book I offer the bodgies’ perspective, though it might not be considered heroic.
I first consciously started being a social historian in London in 1968, when I jotted down a Kiwi flatmate’s colourful Kiwi slang. Up until then I had thought the Aussies and mainly Bazza McKenzie/Humphries had all the best Down Under slang. Then I began reimagining my Bay of Plenty childhood, which became my first book The Kid from Matata.
However it is in Auckland where it all began.
I was born in Orakei in 1942. My Auckland roots go deep. I am a fifth generation Aucklander on both sides. My first ancestor buried here was a Fencible, William Waddel, at All Saints, Howick, 1848. His son Mayor William Richard Waddel — my biography of him is my other Auckland book — is buried on the Grafton Bridge side of Symonds Street. My McGill relations who include a Ponsonby rope-maker and a ship-smith at the bottom of Queen Street have a big needle monument plot on the other side of the street. My parents are buried in Waikumete Cemetery, which has a big role in this book, especially the magnificent Dalmatian/Croatian mausoleums. I have come with this book full circle, a return of the prodigal son. It is inspired by my many relations who lived and died here, including my brother Michael. It is dedicated to my nephew Luke. Along with my dear daughter Kate, they I am confident are the next generation of McGill writers.
My professional lifetime of note-taking began soon after we arrived in Glen Eden and had our first holiday at Waiheke Island. I was a country boy, my primary schooling in a small village in the Bay of Plenty. This was the Big Smoke, and it was exciting and strange. I had left at age three. I was a stranger in my hometown of Auckland, and indeed my name in the Gaelic means ‘Son of a stranger’. It is the first of many diaries that I kept over the years, diaries that have proved invaluable in writing many of my books, including the other two stories about the monstrance.
Here is where I began writing, with this entry signed ‘Dad and Dave’ – the title of a long-running Australian radio serial. This little black hardback notebook is for me my Rosebud, Citizen Kane’s sledge, an object which has significance for me way beyond its quotidian entries. Examples:
Monday 10th January pm. Father arrived later on ‘Baroona’ with a pipe … Had a feed of plums. Took billy fifty yards up the road for milk. Arranged to return later for milk but, as it was raining heavily decided to leave it till morning.
Sunday, 30th January. Got up at six for 7 o’clock mass. Down to the beach for last swim. Ian and David fished in the creek and had a few rides on palm leaves … Got the half-past three ferry for city. From the city we got a taxi back to Glen Eden, and home.
These were written with my gorgeous Conway Stewart fountain pen, a symphony in green and gold glitter. I purchased it with my 1955 income tying up tomato plants down the road by Kelston college.
Glen Eden was a raw new suburb, state houses like ours built in the last seven years. Mike and I earned pocket money delivering telegrams, employed by our father, the post master. There was also income from packing naphthalene moth balls for the Routleys, who lived next door. That ended when their garage burned down, a big event in a suburb developed by Routley Senior – his name is still on the original shopping complex. Most of the roads were gravel, which did not deter us riding to Titirangi one way or out to Knock-na-gree camp at Oratia, where we rowed up river and gorged ourselves on wild grapes. There was not much else to do compared to the Bay of Plenty village, where we could fish and swim and have shanghai fights and go to hangis, gymkhanas, circuses. What we really wanted was to get into town and see cowboy films.
Chronologically this is the first monstrance story. The first I wrote, The Monstrance, drew on my OE diaries, the story tracking my own odyssey from Waiheke Island to Sydney, Vienna, Sarajevo, Rome and London. In the course of the actual diary writing, I gave away my Conway Stewart, the only gift I could offer to the family who sheltered me on a dire night in Sarajevo. The diaries attracted the scrutiny of the local police in Karljevo, puzzled that I was taking notes, both of us puzzled at the frustrations of Serbo/Croat and English. Matt does not appear in those other monstrance stories, but his younger brother graduates to a major creep while feckless Fr Ron gets creative at risk of his own soul.
The second monstrance story In Xtremis involves drug runners and obsessive religious art collectors in contemporary Auckland, with Ron and Mal not well behaved. Most of the action is on Waiheke Island, where my diary entries began. Our family enjoyed many holidays at Little Oneroa, riding lilos and reading Mum’s Ngaio Marsh, John Creasey and Agatha Christie paperbacks. In fulfilling Dad’s request to write about Auckland, perhaps some of Mum’s Waiheke holiday reading has seeped into the writing.
I have two titles for this book. The original is Christ on a Bodgie Bike. I dropped the first word for this library gig because of negative reaction. It seemed too hard to explain that this was an accurate title, referring specifically to the stolen monstrance known as ‘The Tears of Christ’. The old phrase ‘Christ on a bicycle’ has died out, though I did hear it on that period drama Grantchester, employed by the policeman. Whichever title appears, this is the same book circling back to the time and place where my writing began.
Image is of author with his ‘Rosebud’.