Yes, he emphasised, a little country; and with inhabitants so much limited in number it was unlikely you would even hear them rattle on any occasion when the Almighty took it into his head to shake their little country . . .
– Frank Sargeson
New Zealand is a country that is blessed with a great deal of space. This makes it a big drawcard for overseas visitors, a fact not lost on the tourism industry, who commission epic landscape photographs, usually barren and sparse, depicting vast mountain ranges, the purest lakes and fjords, untouched rolling countryside, and large majestic pools of bubbling mud. You could be forgiven for thinking that no people actually live there. As a New Zealander, I have managed to see a great deal of my country. Much of this has been through the window of my mate’s brown Cortina. In its day, Steve’s Cortina transported the pair of us on a series of epic trips around the South and North Islands. Steve always drove (apart from one late-night incident in Cromwell when I mounted the footpath), and he always insisted the Cortina was in fact copper, not brown. At every new town we visited, a felt pennant of that province was added to the car aerial, and these flags rippled in the southern-hemisphere winds, most being reduced to tufty dags by the end of each given trip. To occupy ourselves while travelling through the undeniably magnificent landscape, we would sometimes play car cricket, scoring runs based on the plenitude of oncoming traffic. An approaching car, for instance, would be one run, a motorbike two, and a truck four, but a passing campervan meant the ‘batsman’ was out. Occasionally, driving in particularly sparse countryside, such as on the west coast of the South Island, we would wait bloody ages to score a single run.
Some years later, I found myself living in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and on the occasion when I attempted to play car cricket, I scored about a million runs purely in motorbike traffic before I had to pull over, cross-eyed.
One of my theories of why there’s so much space in New Zealand is grounded in the fact that so many of my compatriots are out of the country on any given day. After Germany, New Zealand has the most nationals, per head of population, living or travelling abroad at any one time. A fair counter to my argument, however, may be that most of the space they leave behind is filled, in turn, with German tourists. Despite having loads of space at home, New Zealanders love to spend time in places where there isn’t much space at all. Like aeroplanes. With backpacks crammed full of undies, T-shirts and woollen socks, they blast off, funded by student loans, attempting to bridge the vast gap between their country and the rest of the world. One of the furthest possible destinations for New Zealand travellers, and also one of the most popular, is England, some 11,000 miles away. Many English people claim New Zealand is just like England was fifty years ago, while most New Zealanders who travel to England believe its Underground system is just like it was a hundred years ago.
A few years back, Steve and I, both residing in London, flew home to New Zealand for a funeral. It takes twenty-four hours to fly from London to New Zealand, which is a very long way to go just for a church service, particularly if you need to return in a matter of days, like I did. There’s also the time difference to consider. New Zealand is twelve hours ahead of the United Kingdom (or thirteen hours, depending on daylight savings), so when you fly back to England you lose half a day of your life. Steve, however, had a one-way ticket to New Zealand. He was stretching his legs in the cargo hold. It was his funeral.
Steven MacDonald and I grew up in the small farming town of Ashburton (affectionately referred to as Ashvegas), on the east coast of the South Island. Ashburton has a population of just over 15,000 people and, like many small provinces in New Zealand, it’s a good place to get your driving licence because there’s hardly any traffic. If you have a few too many drinks in Ashburton, you can always walk home, because that isn’t far away either. The countryside around Ashburton is teeming with livestock, and there’s quite an interesting clock feature in the town centre. When we were teenagers, Ashburton was also renowned for its high suicide rate. Livestock, suicides and a clock. It doesn’t feature strongly in those tourism ads.
Steve and I became friends at primary school, staying close through high school and sharing a flat together when we moved to Christchurch. We also crossed paths again in Wellington, and when I got married in London, Steve was my best man.
Steve was an exceptional composer, musician and singer. While in the UK he worked as a music teacher, based at a school in Kent. Occasionally I would take the train out to see him, but more often we would meet at a London pub, such as the Champion in Fitzrovia, or the Effra in Brixton.
As a man, Steve took up a lot of space. He was both tall and big, and when he died he weighed in at an impressive twenty-five stone. His large head was completely bald, and from his face hung an awe-inspiring thick black beard of Rasputin proportions. He had brown eyes, and a body mass perfectly suited for heaving with said laughter. Occasionally he would don a look of mock abject fury, and to the uninitiated he must have appeared like the god of thunder himself. His size and his beard meant he was difficult to miss, and he had an awe-inspiring presence, something the Maori people term as mana. Steve had a lot of mana.
Whenever Steve got into the Cortina, it would shake like hell. On our first big New Zealand outing, travelling around the South Island, our plan was to camp each night in a two-man tent. On the second night it rained heavily, and Steve awoke in the early hours to find himself in a crater of water his own body had forged. My half was completely dry. We spent the remaining four weeks sleeping, contorted, in the Cortina.
In typeface terms, Steve was something like a 14pt, double-spaced Copperplate Gothic Light. Not bold or underlined: he was a very modest bloke. To those who knew him, Steve’s physical appearance seemed to fit his exceptional intelligence, humour and principles perfectly. With that stature, wisdom and beard, I honestly believe that Steve would have made a truly great king.
Along with two of his closest UK friends and colleagues, I had the task of sorting out Steve’s northern-hemisphere life once he’d stopped living. His student accommodation in Kent was nothing more than a tiny room, but he didn’t want for much, and he’d been putting money aside to return to South America, a place he’d journeyed to, and became enamoured with, after first leaving home. The week after his death, we went through his quarters, packing things for his family in New Zealand, distributing selected items between his friends and selling the bulk of his possessions to raise money for his school’s music department, as per his parents’ wishes. Because there were three of us engaged in the task, cataloguing every item into an inventory like documenters at the British Museum, it was a less painful process than I’d expected. What I found more distressing was having to collect Steve’s things from London University Hospital, where he was rushed by ambulance on the day he died.
Some of Steve’s clothing had been cut end to end with scissors. These items were now bound up in bulky parcels. The contents of his pockets, such as his wallet, keys and loose change, together with his watch and necklace, were tightly pressed in clear plastic bags, like the standard bank-issue type used for coins. His possessions were dispensed from a small room of the hospital’s Euston Road entrance, which resembled a downstairs cloakroom in a nightclub. In place of a numbered ticket stub, I presented my New Zealand passport, my arrival having been arranged via an earlier phone call from the New Zealand embassy. The greying woman who dealt with my collection was probably in her late fifties, and she had a caring and sympathetic manner befitting a funeral director, carefully unwrapping each bag and presenting the contents. In a way, I felt as if I were being handed another man’s things on my release from jail, and despite all the items being familiar and recognizable, it felt somehow wrong to claim them.
Frank, one of my fellow documenters at Steve’s flat, found me afterwards in the hospital reception with reddened eyes, so we walked around to the nearby Jeremy Bentham pub and drank to our close friend Steve.
The item of Steve’s I chose to remember him by was a Maori greenstone necklace, carved in a Toki (adze) design, representing power, authority and wisdom. I still haven’t adjusted the string strap, so today the greenstone slab hangs down near my belly button. If I’m running it makes a slap, slap noise on my stomach. As a short, thin person, I suppose I am the physical antithesis of Steve. At thirty, I was still getting asked for ID. When someone I know has a baby, I am told it looks, literally, like me. And my wife still laughs when we walk through a particular south London park, ever since I leapt up to grab an overhead tree branch, failed to reach the required height for a sturdy grip and landed flat on my back. Chances are, when I die, I’ll be placed in an urn, uncremated.
If you can imagine the vast quantities of ocean that stretch between the United Kingdom and New Zealand, you can begin to understand how much I drank on that twenty-four-hour flight back home for Steve’s funeral. I had a eulogy to write, and the drinks were free, so to say I got rather drunk would be putting it mildly. The problem with drinking too much is that, over time, gaps in your life mysteriously appear. Troublesome voids of space. People talk about writers as vast consumers of alcohol, but I think it’s the other way around. The way I see it, drinkers actually become writers in order to document everything they remember before they forget it all.
My suitcase was down with Steve, in the hold. Apart from a few necessities for my brief stay, the case was filled mainly with possessions belonging to him. It was as if he’d packed it himself. Among his things were journals of his South American trips, and also many printed poems, some dating back to our high-school days. There were other items too, such as his watch, his wallet, his bank cards, various souvenirs from his travels, a few reminders of home, and other personal documents and photographs for his family to sift through later. If Steve had known I’d be carting his things back to New Zealand, it’s safe to assume he would have packed something special for the customs officials to discover in my presence. Our border control laws are renowned for their strict stance when it comes to importing foodstuffs, plant life, wooden items and the like. A deep-fried shoe, therefore, may have raised some serious questions, and I would have been forced to answer bleary-eyed, melting the officials with my high-octane breath.
Coffins, like beds, are generally made to fit a particular human frame. Steve’s casket was a cross between a dining table in a stately home and a Hummer. It was specially made with steel reinforcements, and at the funeral ceremony it had to come through the side doors because it wouldn’t fit down the central aisle. Dave, one of the pallbearers, reminded me of a story from our student days. Once, in our dilapidated Christchurch flat, a few of us were teasing Steve about his cooking, and he responded, in mock god-of-thunder fury: ‘Right, for that you bastards can carry my coffin!’
Before the general congregation arrived at the cemetery, Grant, another pallbearer, poured whiskey into the grave, on to Steve’s coffin. This was whiskey from a bottle that Steve had left behind for his friends upon leaving New Zealand. It was a nice tribute, and after the ceremonies were concluded, a group of us, his old Ashburton mates, got drunk.
Recently, I came across a photo of some astronauts repairing a space-station satellite above New Zealand. You can quite clearly see the Canterbury region, just to the north of Ashburton, where the coastline juts out like a round, knotted piece of wood to form what is known as Banks Peninsular (Te Pataka o Rakaihautu). The top of the South Island is also visible, and even the distant beginnings of the North Island. The astronauts are not New Zealanders, so they probably don’t appreciate the view as much as I do. They seem very intent on their work, and I imagine they’re doing their best not to sneeze into their glass visors. Looking at an image such as that, it’s easy to imagine souls ascending through the clouds, up to the heavens, or to conjure up a romantic vision of Steve’s final journey, drifting through the black of space into another realm entirely.
Steve was a big fan of Hunter S. Thompson, and despite the thirty-two-year age gap between the two men, they would both die within two years of each other. Hunter’s cremated ashes were inserted into a fist-shaped cannon that he’d designed with Ralph Steadman, and his particles were blasted skywards from a 153-foot tower in Aspen, USA. According to reports I have read, Hunter’s ashes didn’t actually leave the Earth’s atmosphere, some 75 miles above ground level. The astronauts and the satellite in the photograph are 250 miles (400km) above New Zealand. When Steve died, however, he was projected on an epic 11,000-mile journey, and his magnificent person wasn’t compressed to the width and depth of an urn. His flight may not have had the same bells and whistles as a massive fist-cannon financed by Johnny Depp, but I take some kind of consolation in the great journey that he undertook before being laid to rest.
Steve died suddenly in Covent Garden, dropping like a stone on a narrow cobbled street called New Row. The emergency services arrived very promptly, but Steve didn’t respond to their treatment.
I’m sitting at the end of this cobbled street now, in a pub called the Roundhouse. There’s a football match on and it’s very crowded. Since the funeral, I haven’t managed to get back to Ashburton, so I’ve yet to drop by on Steve in private and say a few words. I’m glad he wasn’t cremated. But with all that space over there, it seems a shame that the only visible reminder of such a larger-than-life fellow is a modest slab of stone poking out of the ground. What Steve needs is some sort of monument, ideally situated next to Ashburton’s famous clock. A full-size Cortina statue would be more in keeping, with Steve seated heroically at the wheel. Steve himself would be cast in bronze, but the Cortina would be made out of copper. Real copper. And instead of laying flowers at the wheels, fluffy pennant flags would be added to the aerial. Perhaps I’ll write to Johnny Depp and ask for a grant.
I’ve just come back through the crowded bar with a fresh pint, only to find my table has been commandeered. That’s what happens, you see, when there’s no one to save your seat.