Sunday, April 21, 2013

Novel captures magic time in unlikely cultural capital

Polly, Blair (2012-07-11). Art, Sharks, and a Coffin Named Denzel. Blair Polly. Kindle Edition.
ISBN 978-0-473-21687-0

About 40 years ago, I lived in a flat in Herne Bay, Auckland. I imagine it was a very ‘creative’ period for everyone in this flat and many others dotted around the inner part of the city.

At parties we attended we met artists, writers and musicians taking new, mind blowing creative directions. This was the kind of time when you could stumble upon Barry Crump, that man’s man author, down from the coast with a bag of dope sharing a smoke with J.K. Baxter. Or you could bump into a couple of guys from school who admired your Thai-dyed lab coat and next week appeared on stage at the Uni cafĂ© in colourful outfits of their own. Tim Shadbolt could turn up and yack until the early hours of the morning in a bid to steal your girlfriend away, until he was seen off back to his wife and family out in Te Atatu.
Everybody wrote something. But I’m not sure that anybody wrote anything that really captured the cultural atmosphere or the spirit of the time in any coherent manner. We didn’t realise at the time: you blink and the magic of an era has slipped away.

That is why I think Blair Polly’s novel Art, Sharks, and a Coffin Named Denzel should be welcomed as reflecting the magic is now in the air in the world’s best little capital city, Wellington. It is true that for many years I wasn’t much of a fan of Wellington. It always felt to be a sinister kind of place; claustrophobic and vaguely provincial. The kind of place where people spied on each other, the politicians told their lies and did their best and worst to run the country.

I have had to revise my opinion in recent years. This is mostly due to the fact that both our children lived in Wellington for a few years and, as much as I tried, I couldn’t avoid the place. In an effort to keep in touch, I even subscribed to the local newspaper until it was homogenised into limpness.

What I learned was that Wellington had somehow become the artistic and cool capital of New Zealand, a country not exactly devoid of the odd cool place or two. The inner city life around Cuba Street was supported by the kind of lifestyle the old hippies and students of Herne Bay would have been proud of. I am certain I saw one or two of them on a trip south once.

Capturing the essence of this time in Wellington’s history is more than can be done through a non-fiction historical review; just as memoirs about the late 1960s and 1970s really don’t do the period justice.

Blair Polly’s novel does do Wellington justice. The story revolves around Alex, a young man who is totally entranced by his art – sculpture. He has minor success and moves out of home to live the dream. Characters are introduced along the journey to help educate him in the way of the world as it unfolds. He falls in love with Lisa a chess-playing gambler, a beauty who is distant but fond of Alex. He has greater success and is able to think even bigger with his sculptural dream.

The characters seem real – I can imagine seeing them in one of the inner city pubs. But underlying aspects of the story is a sort of bleakness. It is not so dark as to be deeply noir but sufficiently to paint the scene with a shade of reality. Lisa’s secret emerges from the shadows; interestingly enough with a sinister Auckland connection.

It is hard to avoid some predictable characterisations in such a story, yet Blair Polly has managed to do so in the most part. This book is available in Kindle but it deserves to be in hard copy, as it captures a time and place as can only be portrayed in a novel. In Auckland's case, the magic was chiselled away by city planners; the students started lucrative careers; and if the hippies didn't overdose, they joined Shadbolt out west. The planners have already started tearing Wellington apart. If the rest goes, this book may serve as an important record of a magical time.

If you want to buy this book, you can go to:
Email: bpolly@

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