12 February 2019

The weirdness of memories

At Leon Kinvig hut in the Pohangina headwaters in November 2018. The pen is a Lamy Al-Star with a Fine nib, the ink Noodler's 
El Lawrence, the notebook a Moleskine extra-large cahier. This combination works better for me than any other — so far.

It was the middle of the week and early in the morning, yet I almost walked away from Jacko’s café because even at a quarter to nine more than half the tables in the main area had been occupied and I expected the remainder to be taken soon. But I didn't want coffee or hot chocolate; I wanted tea, passable tea, tea made with leaves, not tea bags, which are inventions of the devil, and I knew at Jacko's I could get tea made with leaves, and the secondary seating area still had enough free tables, so I ordered jasmine green tea and picked a table near the window.

The tea arrived a minute later, meaning it would have been steeped in boiling water and therefore ruined, but I’d given up being a tea snob and no longer asked them to use water well below boiling point. I used to visit regularly, and they’d quickly and happily learned to let the water cool, but that was the problem with Jacko’s — the café was too good and therefore too popular, so I seldom had a chance of getting at least a full hour to write without feeling guilty about monopolising a table that could have been taken by more lucrative customers. I’ve never felt comfortable adopting the café-as-office attitude. Consequently, I stopped going to Jacko’s when I couldn’t find a time I could be confident of an hour’s relaxed writing, and by the time I started visiting again the staff had changed and I didn’t want to start over with the request to let the water cool.
Rainbow over the back hill, the last sunlight of the evening just leaving. Mown
areas beginning to recover.

That’s one reason I chose jasmine green tea — because its strong flavour meant no one except a native green tea drinker would notice the difference, would notice any subtleties missing from the green tea, and, to be honest, nor could I.  Like my liking for instant coffee made with milk — if I wanted to sound less like a bogan, I could call it café con leche and say it was the norm in much of South America when I'd travelled there — my taste for jasmine green tea brewed badly could be rationalised by considering it a different kind of drink, more akin to a herbal infusion, the way South American café con leche was fine if you didn't expect coffee. Mostly, though, I’d given up asking for the tea to be brewed at a better temperature because I didn’t want to be an arse.

I sat at my table and sipped my jasmine green tea and jotted down three ideas I’d thought of as I’d driven to town. First, shortly after I'd driven through Ashhurst, I’d caught a momentary whiff of freshly mown hay, the scent no doubt accentuated by the heavy drizzle saturating everything including the faded-yellow stubble — all that remained of the once-lush paddocks — and the first idea I jotted down was the way that that mown-hay smell reminded me of two things. The first was one of the few facts I’d retained from my second-year plant physiology course; namely, that the smell of cut grass came from a class of plant secondary compounds called coumarins. Why on earth had I remembered that when I’d forgotten so much far more important information? (In the same class I’d also learned how confectionery manufacturers got the soft centres in chocolates, but why had I remembered that trivial fact, which had also only the most tenuous link to plant physiology?)

The second reminder was of the smells of midsummer, which of course meant Christmas and therefore reminded me of the smell of freshly cut pine branches (the poor person’s Christmas tree; we, being poor, spent significant effort sorting through the heap of branches to select the one that looked least like a hacked-off branch and most like a murdered baby tree). The memory of that pine smell, mingled with the hay scent, was so strong that I could easily have believed I was actually smelling it, that I’d just driven past a roadside stall selling Xmas trees (I hadn’t, but the sense was that strong). I’d read somewhere that humans can’t remember smells the way we remember sounds or things we’ve seen, but that struck me as nonsense. The recollection of particular smells, like ripe apples in a pantry or sun-crisped wrack among tide pools, was as vivid for me as any piece of of music or sight of a landscape. I'm not talking about what a smell evokes — that's something else entirely, and although smell seems better than the other senses at evoking strong memories, I'm talking about remembering the actual smell, almost as if I were smelling it anew.

Mad summer blackbird delousing on a Christchurch, lawn; last days of 2018.

The pine smell memory in turn reminded me not just of Christmas but also of a fountain pen ink I’d recently tried: the Sailor Tokiwa-Matsu, a beautiful, muted green tinged with blue but protean in the way it adapted to different papers and varying light. I wouldn’t be abandoning my favourite ink (Noodler’s El Lawrence) any time soon, but the Tokiwa-Matsu could easily have seduced me if I could have justified the expense and if it had at least some degree of water resistance (it had none at all). The thought of losing months of handwritten journal entries because of some accident like a bad spill of improperly brewed jasmine green tea or a spaniel wilfully pissing on an unguarded notebook (anything is fair game for a spaniel), ... well, that's one of the main reasons I use the El Lawrence.

What struck me so strongly about these memories was how they linked in ways that were so unpredictable that the links could be understood only after they’d happened. A smell reminded me of another smell, a midsummer smell, which reminded me of two apparently unrelated things: Christmas and ink. On another occasion I might have ended up remembering something totally different: not Christmas and ink but India, for example, or nearly drowning, or the wilfulness of spaniels. Someone  else noticing that cut-grass smell might have — would have, surely — been reminded of something utterly different, like nearly losing a finger to a lawnmower, and that might have triggered other memories, like the disinfectant smell of a hospital ward, the excruciating sting of a local anaesthetic, the weird, unsettling tug of stitches being tightened. I suspect the strangeness of memories mostly consists in the way they can be triggered by almost anything.

The second of the three ideas I wanted to jot down was about the T-shirt a friend had been wearing — a plain black T-shirt that read, ‘There are two types of people: those who can extrapolate from incomplete data’. I don’t know what had prompted the memory of that T-shirt, and I also couldn’t remember why I wanted to remember it, and that led me to wonder why we’re so bad at remembering. Maybe if we remembered everything, or even most things, our heads would be so full of unimportant memories that we wouldn't be able to retrieve what was what important? This reminded of something another friend had once said. We’d been chatting over a beer at the Celtic after our team had once again failed to win the quiz night, and he’d said, ‘It’s not my fault! I have an encyclopaedic memory — it’s just that I’ve lost the index.’

The third thing I wanted to remember? Well, I’d been driving and didn’t want to pull over to write it down, ... and I’d forgotten it. If the book of my mind had stored that topic, the index had no entry.


The small gorge in the Pohangina headwaters between Leon Kinvig hut and Ngamoko hut; midsummer, January 2019. Home to one
of the biggest eels I've seen — judging from its size, it's likely to be older than me. Long may it live there.

Photos and original text © 2019 Pete McGregor

24 December 2018

Bending like a reed

At the City library the low afternoon sun was flashing from a sign that hung, swaying in a cool wind, over the footpath. The angle of the reflected light was such that it hit me — and, as far as I could work out, only me — at exactly the right angle to blind me, as if I was being questioned by a military interrogator who was convinced I was a spy or terrorist, or who just liked being a sadistic arsehole. I had to turn my head and close my eyes and lean to one side and trust that in a few minutes the sunlight would have slid off the swaying sign and I’d be able focus my attention entirely on Thom, whose talk, entitled Bend Like a Reed, was the reason I was sitting there with a dozen other people, listening.

I recognised three: the elderly woman who perfectly fitted the adjective I didn’t want to use because it sounded patronising (namely, ‘sprightly’); the young guy from Bruce McKenzie’s bookshop; and the dishevelled Poet, who slumped in the chair in front of me, spilling out of the ragged green jersey that looked as if it had shrunk in the wash but was still too big for him. The right sleeve had an enormous hole that must have driven him mad every time he pulled the jersey on and ended up poking his hand through the wrong hole in his sleeve. Mind you, I found it impossible to imagine the Poet being driven mad by anything, because I’d never seen him animated; if anyone wanted to explain ‘phlegmatic’, The Poet was the perfect example.

The sun did eventually move off the sign and stopped blinding me, and I could begin to concentrate on Thom’s silhouette and what he was saying. He mentioned his late colleague, Scott, whom I’d met several times and who was a good friend of a good friend of mine, and he referred to a point Scott had made about writing and the importance of ‘the abyss of mystery’, and gradually I began to understand what he was saying — or I thought I did. If I did, what Thom was saying reassured me, because I thought the same thing, and to hear Thom affirm it gave me some hope that maybe my own approach to writing — which seemed in so many ways to conflict with the conventional advice about writing — might not be as wrong as I thought.

If I understood correctly, what Thom was saying was that it’s important not to know — at least, not too clearly — what you’re writing. Perhaps what he was getting at was that good writing is an act of creation, which, almost by definition, must be spontaneous in the sense of happening at the moment of being written. If you know what you’re going to write, the writing is no longer an act of creation — it’s already been created.

The following evening (the evening I wrote the draft of this, in other words), I made my way to Barista, bought a coffee and sat down to write. I had no idea what I’d write about, so I began anyway, and soon after I’d jotted down some notes about being blinded in the library at the start of Thom’s talk, the sun slipped through the cafe windows and, reflecting from the varnished tabletop, dazzled me. I shaded my eyes, bent like a reed over the abyss of mystery, and carried on writing.

1. About Thom Conroy

Photos (you can connect them with the text if you think hard enough): 
1. Willow in wind and drizzle, Pohangina Valley
2. Waipawa River headwaters, Ruahine Range

Photos and original text © 2018 Pete McGregor

22 November 2018

Bird skull stories (2)

So you’d like to hear another story about birds and skulls, and maybe bird skulls, would you? I could tell you hundreds of stories about birds — shall we start there? Yes?

Years ago I was walking alone down the headwaters of the Pohangina River in the Ruahine Range, a place of small tough mountains and wildness; a place of snowgrass fields on mountaintops, and whole mountainsides of leatherwood, which is the toughest plant you'll ever not want to try getting through; a place that can delight you with its warmth and sunshine and lovely old kaikawaka trees all gnarly and moss-hung, and small steep creeks that promise all sorts of surprises and hidden special places, and its special birds like karearea the falcon, and titipounamu the rifleman (the tiniest bird in Aotearoa), and ruru the morepork whose call at night is one of the most beautiful and melancholy of all owl calls, and most of all, whio, the blue duck, who you won’t find anywhere in the world in the wild except in those high, rushing, New Zealand mountain rivers. Only a few thousand of those wonderful birds survive in all the world, so what sheer joy it is to see them, especially when you’re alone in those places and you sit down to watch and they begin to settle and relax and think, oh, he’s OK, he’s no threat, and they climb out of the river onto a rock and preen their feathers and stretch their wings one at a time, and then they slip into the water again and swim right past you, so close you have to put the binoculars down and pull yourself together again.

But that's a different story. Let’s get back to ours, shall we?

There I was, walking alone down the Pohangina in the early morning when the sun, still low, was making the toetoe on the slips glow gold, so the reflection on the dark pools and shallow rapids looked like molten brass. I had all day to walk down the river to the next hut, and because it was summer and the river was low, the water felt only cool, not cold, and I was enjoying wading across and back again, so I took my time walking and looking around.

At a big pool in the shade with rapids downstream and a small cliff on the opposite side, I stopped to watch the colours on the water. I took off my pack and got the camera out. In the branches of a beech tree leaning out over the cliff and overhanging the pool, a little miromiro began calling and flitting about. I photographed the reflections then packed the camera away, and then, as I began to re-tie one of my bootlaces, the miromiro came flying across the pool, straight toward me. I stood up, and it landed in the shallow water — at my feet.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The little bird splashed and fluttered in the water right next to my boots, and I wondered whether it was in trouble and whether I should pick it up out of the water.

What would you have done?

Maybe wait and see, you say? That’s a good answer. I wish I could say that’s what I decided, but to tell the truth, I only did that because I was so surprised I didn’t know what to do. I just stood there, astonished, while it splashed at my feet.

Then it flew up out of the water with a flicker of sparkling drops and flew back to the tree on the far side of the pool.

Maybe it was having its morning wash? But why did it come right up to me, though? The water was shallow for several metres either side of me, so it could have had its bath further away, not right at my feet.

Do you think it liked me? I hope so.

Maybe one summer you, too, will walk alone down a river like that in the early morning, and a little miromiro will come down to splash at your feet. I hope that happens, but if it doesn't, maybe something else strange and inexplicable and wonderful will happen to you instead, and when it does, I hope the joy will flow through you the way it flowed through me, that day a long time ago, alone in a clear, bright, summer river in the early morning in one of the Earth's wild places.

1. This is Part 2 of the Bird Skull Stories
2. I know this one's not about skulls — not explicitly, anyway.
3. The facts in this story are true. This happened to me.

1 & 2. Miromiro on the No. 1 Line track (the first is a male; the second is a female). I didn't photograph the miromiro in this story.
3. The Pohangina River near Leon Kinvig hut, November 2018. Tthe pool in this story is about an hour further downriver.

Photos and original text © 2018 Pete McGregor

24 December 2017

Bird skull stories

Magpie skull
‘Tell me a story’, you say, so I think of the first thing that comes to mind and wonder how I can turn it into a story. First, though, you must tell me whether you want a true story or something made up, with fabulous characters that might not even exist, that not even a David Attenborough documentary could show you — creatures even more astonishing than the mantis shrimp or Vampyroteuthis infernalis, the vampire squid from hell — creatures that might live in Moominvalley with strange names from Tove Jansson’s imagination (although some real creatures have wonderful enough names, like the shortarse feelerfish, zombie worms, and bristlemouth fish, which are more numerous than any other animal with a backbone).

To return to your request for a story, though, let me start by telling you what happened as I carried the rubbish down the long driveway in the warm, wild nor’ west wind one morning not long ago. This actually happened; we can decide later whether to diverge from what happened to what might have happened. But now I see you’re impatient to hear the story, just like I was when I was your age. All right, then.

So, I’d carried the rubbish bag out to the gate, and as I took it the last twenty-five metres to drop it next to the neighbour’s bag, I noticed something old and dead lying in the weeds next to the letterboxes. Magpie, I thought, and on the way back I stopped to look more closely.

The remains of the bird had decayed to nothing more than pale bones and feathers, the quills still stuck in desiccated skin. The form of the body had gone; everything looked a little mixed-up except for a dry wing that had retained most of its shape. But, sitting on the almost-mummified remains, was the magpie’s skull.

Wind and rain and sun and time and insects had cleaned the skull almost perfectly, stripped it of nearly every trace of dried flesh and skin. The lower part of the beak had gone, but the upper part remained, still partly covered with its tough sheath, although even that had dried hard and begun to flake off. I looked at the skull with its beautiful sad lines and curves and the huge hollows where its eyes had once looked out on the world, and I wondered many things. How had it died; what had killed it; how did it come to end its short life? (Magpies don’t live long compared to us.) How had it ended up in those roadside weeds? Most probably, it had been a young bird struck by a car and someone or something had carried it or just tossed it off the road. I hoped it hadn’t been injured and had flapped and dragged itself there to die, but the way of things isn’t always as kind as we wish. Let’s not think about that too much, though, because I see that might upset you. (Good — I’m glad you find the pain of animals difficult.)

I picked up the skull. As I said, it was clean and old, so I wasn’t worried about getting my fingers covered in bacteria and objectionable smells and other pestilence. The skull was so light I could hardly feel it. I guess you could say it felt as light as a feather. (Later, I weighed it and found it weighed just two-and-a-half grams: about as much as a teaspoon of tea leaves. Now you know how much a bird’s skull weighs when the bird that lived there has gone. Isn’t that something?)

I didn’t know why I picked up the skull and took it back to the house and set it down on a sheet of white paper. Maybe I didn’t want to leave it there to get trodden on or blown into the oozing ditch or smashed to bits by a weedeater when someone decided to tidy around the letterboxes. Maybe I wanted to keep something beautiful. Maybe you have some ideas?

Ah, so you think maybe it was just a cool thing? You might be right, and you’ve taught me something, too: I thought kids stopped saying ‘cool’ years ago when saying ‘cool’ became uncool. So kids still use it? Thank you.

Whatever the reason, I did pick it up and take it back with me, and here’s where we need to decide what to do with the story. Shall we stick with the truth, or shall we make something up?

‘Both’, you say? There’s a thought, and I have to hand it to you — you’ve trapped me cleverly into telling you two stories, not just one. But maybe you’re right to do that, because everything has more than one story. Sometimes I think anything has as many stories as you can imagine, and as many true stories, too, if only you had a way of discovering them.

1. Possibly part 1 of a series
1 & 2. Magpie skull, Pohangina Valley, December 2017

Photos and original text © 2017 Pete McGregor

13 September 2017

New life from old things

  A fierce wind was whipping the shrubs around, but only an occasional half-hearted gust swirled into the shelter of Greg's small, glassed-in porch. Each time, the nylon cape he’d fastened around my neck to keep the hair clippings off my clothes floated up, and I had to hold it down. The inconvenience was minor, but the glare from the sun on the white weatherboards dazzled me, forcing me to squint, and my eyes began to hurt. Greg had put on his dark wrap-arounds. He stood in front of me, scissors in hand, not cutting my hair, while he explained how he’d fix the cables on my mountain bike.
   ‘When it’s in a low gear, y’can slip the cover out of its …’
   He paused, not knowing the name for the little nubbin that held the cable sheath in place.
   ‘Then y’can slide the cover along and get some sandpaper and sandpaper the crud ‘n’ shit off it’, he said.  He looked determined that no crud or shit would survive his sandpapering.
   ‘I’ve got some special stuff y’can squirt down it to lubricate it. Y’can’t use oil, ‘cos that makes the inside go all gummy’.
   I thought of the many types of lubricant I’d squirted into the cables over the years and kept quiet, guessing sandpapering and special stuff wouldn’t be enough and the whole set-up would need replacing. I didn’t mind paying for new cables, but Greg liked restoring things, particularly bikes, and buying new parts was a last resort.

   When I’d arrived, he’d been tightening the nuts on the front wheel of a little BMX bike. The spanner slipped off the nut he was tightening and fell on the ground, and he’d left it there while he shook my hand, and then we’d gone out to my car to retrieve my bike.
   ‘Ah, that’s what I like to see’, he’d said when I’d lifted the hatch. ‘A bike that’s seen some use’.
   It had certainly seen that, and even though I’d known Greg wouldn’t worry about seeing a filthy, rust-scaled, beaten-up bike, I felt mildly embarrassed about its ruinous state.
   He asked me what I wanted fixed. I hadn’t thought much about it, other than wanting new brake pads and some work on the chain and gears. I just wanted it safe and running smoothly and had assumed he’d figure out what needed to be done.


   We propped the bike against the wall of the house and got on with the haircut. He’d snip away briefly then stop to yarn about something, then snip some more. I always allowed over an hour for a haircut with Greg and made sure I didn’t have to be anywhere important anytime soon afterwards, just in case the cut took longer than usual. It usually did. The haircut was mostly incidental, though; time yarning with Greg was the real reason I went to him. That, and his aptitude for restoring old things.

   His campervan sat on the small rectangle of front lawn, taking up most of it, and his ancient caravan sat in front of the van, taking up the rest. He told me how they’d been to Raglan recently in the campervan and had got there and back with a hundred additional kilometres of exploring, all for just a hundred dollars’ worth of petrol. He pronounced Raglan as ‘Ragland’. I didn’t know if the pronunciation was deliberate or a Greg joke — ‘Rag-land’ — but I didn’t want to embarrass him if it wasn’t, so I took care to avoid saying ‘Raglan’. If his pronunciation was unintentional, though, he’d have laughed and turned it into a joke anyway.
   He stood with the sun shining on his bald head, with his greying stubble and dark glasses, with an impish half-smile, not cutting my hair, and he told me how he’d been slowly working on the campervan, lining it with plywood and smearing sealant around the windows to stop the leaks. He’d fitted the sink with a gold tap, too, he said, and he pointed at it through the grimy window. It was a standard chrome tap, and I laughed with him.

   ‘Y’know, I’d rather live in that than this house, Pete’, he said then, and he was serious. ‘It was pissing down and I was thinking, yeah, I don’t know about driving all the way back from Ragland in the rain. Not too safe, y’know. So we parked up at a campground. Plugged it in and, y’know, I LOVE the sound of rain on the campervan. Even better than listening to it on the roof of a house’.
   He was remembering the night they’d spent snug and dry with the rain coming down somewhere near Ragland.
   ‘You’re all cosy, and, it’s like you’re in your cocoon’, he said.

   The sun was glaring on the white house and the shrubs were thrashing in the wind, and Greg was somewhere else, behind his dark sunglasses with the rain pelting down on his little campervan in the Ragland night.
   Then he came back and resumed snipping at my hair, gradually tidying up another old thing.

Photo: The bike, in much better nick after Greg had worked on it.

Photos and original text © 2017 Pete McGregor

26 August 2017

Eating weetbix at the speed of light

You’re not sure how it happens, but one day you’re assembling your breakfast — bran flakes, a couple of spoonsful of rolled oats, raisins — and you reach into the giant packet of Weetbix you’re sure you bought just a week or two ago, all seventy-two biscuits, which you’ve been crumbling into your bran flakes and rolled oats and raisins at the rate of just one a day just two or three times a week, and you realise that suddenly, unexpectedly, you’re several layers down in the packet, approaching the halfway mark, and the maths just doesn’t add up.

The only explanation is that you must have bought the packet months ago, not weeks ago, but surely time can’t be passing that quickly? Maybe your breakfasts — your breakfast times, that is — have been too enjoyable. Einstein once explained relativity in relatively simple terms by pointing out that when you’re with a beautiful woman, time flies past, but when you’re sitting on a red-hot cinder, the moment goes on forever [1]. It’s an analogy most of us can relate to, at least in part and adapted to personal preference and experience.

But, had I really been having that much fun during the course of my Weetbix-depleting dawns? If time had speeded up as I sat at the kitchen table, reading what had happened overnight in the world, or — if I’d risen late enough — looking out the window at the violet dawn  and the blackbirds tugging their breakfasts in long, elastic, resisting threads from the soggy pasture, then who had been eating the missing Weetbix? Had another parallel version of me been crumbling Weetbix while I looked out the window and thought of birds and beautiful women?

If I wanted my life and my Weetbix to last longer, would I have to find a red-hot cinder to sit on?

Another thought crossed my mind. If I could eat breakfast faster than the speed of light, time would start to move backwards and, presumably, my Weetbix box would begin to fill up. With sufficient practice, I could eat at the speed of light, in which case time would stand still and I could survive on just one Weetbix until, … well, the end of Time.

None of it made any sense, which is such a common feeling for anyone trying to understand pretty much anything about modern physics that it was a completely unsurprising feeling. Besides, I’ve always been the slowest eater I’ve ever met, and the only way I was ever going to eat at the speed of light was if I existed in a parallel universe. That might have made perfect sense to Richard Feynman, whose theories were instrumental in developing the idea of parallel universes and was probably the only person who could explain them intelligibly [2], but two things meant I was unlikely to be able to get my head around the concept that I might meet myself somewhere, sometime parallel to where I happened to be. First, Feynman was a genius and I’m not. Second, and sadly, Feynman died many years ago [3], so I’d never get the chance to sit down and talk with him and hear him explain incomprehensible concepts comprehensibly — unless, of course, I met him in a parallel universe in which he hadn’t died.

Modern physics isn’t something most of us can pick up easily. For a start, you need to know the maths, and that’s a long and arduous apprenticeship. The effort might be worthwhile, though —advanced maths is, by all accounts, an end in itself, a reward in itself. Bertrand Russell described mathematics as having a ‘supreme beauty’, ‘sublimely pure’ — but he, too, was a genius. A different kind of genius, admittedly, but he shared Feynman’s genius at mathematics, so he was well placed to pass that kind of judgement. I’m not, so I have to rely on belief that he was right, and belief, as any competent scientist will tell you, is dangerous and not to be trusted.

But, if you don’t have the mathematical training and flair, you have to rely on translations from mathematics to everyday language, and only a handful of writers have those twin skills of advanced mathematical competence and great facility with written language. Thank the cosmos that we have at least a few of those — Brian Greene is a great example, as is Stephen Hawking (although some will disagree with that assessment [4]) — but when you’ve finished reading their works and you still have questions, it’s not like you can figure it out for yourself. The analogies those interpreters have to use do a good job of explaining what they’re trying to translate, but here’s the problem: ordinary mortals like you and me can’t confidently extrapolate the analogies. In other words, we can’t know whether our extrapolations are valid. You’d have to ask the translator, and because few of us will ever get the chance to query Greene or Hawking, we’ll never know whether they’d nod and agree or shake their head and say, ‘No, the analogy doesn’t work for that.’

So, for the time being, I’m forced to keep wondering why my Weetbix are disappearing faster than apparently explained by the Laws of Physics, and I guess I’ll just have to enjoy them while they last — while, that is, I have time.

1. I’ve taken liberties with the phrasing of what Einstein said, but because the quotation appears to have been indirect, I’m comfortable with my liberties.
2. OK, I’m taking serious liberties with the history of the Many-Worlds Interpretation, mainly because I don’t understand it, but the main point is that if anyone could comment sensibly on it, that person was probably Feynman.
4. Until Thomas Piketty published ‘Capital in the 21st Century’, Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’ was considered the least-read best-selling book.

I had no idea about what photographs to include (there's a challenge for better photographers than me: make weetbix look interesting), but then I thought, well, birds don't wonder about these things. They just get on with it, and if there's maths to be done, they just do it without a fuss.
1. On the other hand, maybe tui are solving complex abstract mathematical problems when they're singing. Their songs are so astonishingly complex that anything might be possible. And yes, that's its tongue.
2. Sparrow getting on with its day.
3. At Massey University, the waxeyes and other birds have been feasting on the spring nectar.

Photos and original text © 2017 Pete McGregor

26 June 2017

An Indian summer

In November 2016 I flew to India with clear intentions and low expectations. Among the intentions I could list talking to more people and photographing them more, pushing myself harder to do the things that didn’t come easily to me, and — particularly important — doing my utmost not to get crook. The expectations were related and mostly negative: I expected to get crook, and I expected much of the travelling, particularly the inescapable haggling, which I hate, to be hard. I expected to be scammed, hoped it would be minor and infrequent, and intended to accept it with at least a little grace and some compassion for myself for feeling like a fool — which I also expected.

I knew, though, that accomplishing easy things is rarely as satisfying as accomplishing difficult things, although I was pretty sure that the delights of adversity aren’t as awesome as Nietzsche cracked them up to be. If I’d truly believed him, I’d have skipped the bottled water, drunk the parasite soup masquerading as the jug of water on every dhaba table, and spent most of my almost-four months in India clenching my quivering sphincter and desperately searching for the closest toilet.

No thanks. I could think of more enjoyable ways to spend my time in India, and the pursuit of self-improvement through the wilful cultivation of intestinal parasites wasn’t one of them. Besides, self-improvement seemed to me to be, well, selfish or self-obsessed. One way of looking at life is to see it as a choice between two ways of looking at life: the inward-looking, solipsistic search for the self, or the outward-looking, compassionate delight in encountering The Other.
Other people, other things — anything, that is, other than one’s self. Seeking the Other seemed more interesting, less selfish, and potentially more rewarding than searching for my Self.

In any case, I wasn’t going to India to find myself, partly because I wasn’t lost, but mostly because, … well, to tell the truth, I didn’t know clearly why I was going to India: I just had to. I had unfinished business there, although it wasn’t business and had hardly started. I had people I wanted to see; places I wanted to visit. Some of those places I’d failed to get to on my previous trip in 2014, when illness had stymied my plans; others had arrived on the list as I’d thought about what I wanted to do in India this time.

Mostly, though, what I wanted to do was just bum around and live in India for a few months.

I got to many of the new places, and of course they bore little relation to how I’d imagined they’d be. I’d expected that. Imagination’s fine if you’re writing fiction, but it bears little relation to the way a place feels when you get there, even if you’ve had help from the best non-fiction. 

That includes photographs and films, too — they’re seldom any better than imagination, because they’re necessarily so selective in what they show. Life is often humdrum, and the photographer’s temptation is to show instead what’s not humdrum, which therefore turns out to be not a true reflection of life in the place being photographed. Some photographers deliberately resist this temptation, but even those who practise this so-called democratic photography — pioneered by William Eggleston [1]— can’t truly show you what a place feels like simply by documenting what’s in front of the lens. What matters is behind the lens, and I don’t mean the camera.

What photographs do best is not that they show you what to expect, but that they remind you of what a place feels like. They can only do that after you’ve been there, and only the best photographs can do that, and there are far too few of those. 

Writing suffers the same shortcoming — like photos and films, it fails miserably to prepare you for your first meeting with a place. It does better at reminding you. Writing can remind you of a place in two ways: when it’s read, and when it’s written. The first point is obvious enough if the writing’s good enough, but people who don’t write probably never realise the second point, even though it’s at least as true. As I write, I often find myself remembering things I didn’t know I’d forgotten. Try it for yourself: try writing about something that happened when you were a kid. Stick with it until the flow comes, and you’ll see what I mean.

It's harder for photos, though, because they're hopelessly trapped by their requirement to show something — literally, visually — and, most of the time, that turns out to be the wrong thing. Only excellent photographs transcend that constraint. Their power lies in their ability to evoke in us something non-trivial, something more than a simple ‘Wow!’ and, if they do it well, they might just manage to put the viewer on the right wavelength.

And the greatest photographs go even further; their power lies in our inability to pinpoint the feeling they evoke; we know only that what we feel is profound to the point of being overwhelming. Even if you can eventually find a few words for the feeling, that’s partly the point — you struggle to find those right words. Often they’ll be wrong, and all you can do is shrug and say, ‘That’s not what I meant at all.’

If you don’t believe me, go and look at the photographs of the late Stanley Greene, who photographed in places that have become bywords for horror and atrocity: Rwanda, Chechnya, Iraq, and others. Look at this photograph. Words can add nothing to that photograph, but if they could, the best would be from Greene himself. ‘Since the death of her child,’ he wrote, ‘Zelina often stares at something far away, elusive. She says she is already dead herself, if only time would hurry up.’

Sometimes I wonder whether I could have photographed in the sort of situations in which Greene worked, but it doesn’t take me long to accept how lucky I’ve been to have not been given the opportunity. The price he paid is one I doubt I could have borne.

Fortunately, my trip to India was nothing even remotely like Greene’s tours of duty, and my photographs were mostly reminders of the wonders and joys of life rather than its horrors and grief.

Still, as I’d expected, much happened that I didn’t expect. I went to Nepal, forced out of India by the cash crisis that paralysed much of India less than a week after I’d arrived. I survived a good two months without getting crook. I found excellent food — and even beer — in Bundi, where, ten years earlier, the best food I’d eaten had been a slop resembling cabbage stewed in hair oil. I once caught a flight that turned out to be almost on time. The Western Ghats, infamous for their regular and copious rain, turned out to be so dry that no one was seeing any animals in the famous places. And I found Kochi a delight and wished I’d spent more time there.

I returned to New Zealand with a lot of photographs (but not enough), three hundred handwritten pages in three A5 notebooks, and an upper respiratory tract infection. I hadn’t achieved everything I’d intended, but that was always going to be a long shot, and I’d managed what I’d most intended: I’d bummed around India for a few months and lived there.

1. For contemporary examples, look at the excellent work of Peter Black, Maurice Lye, Bill Knight, and gstuartnielsen. Apologies to any of the aforementioned photographers who might dislike the label ‘democratic photography’ or consider it doesn’t fit their work. Like all labels, it’s nebulous and probably inaccurate, but, for all you others, you should look at these photographers’ work anyway.

1. Father and son, Kochi.
2. Tomato wallah, Pahar Ganj, New Delhi.
3. A corner of the corner of the world I call home.

Photos and original text © 2017 Pete McGregor