Going South: A road trip through life by Colin Hogg (Harper-Collins, 2016), 272 pp., $34.99
Why, when I look at the cover and start to read this book, do I think of that old advert that used to be on TV about thirty years ago? ‘Life’s a whole long journey, so before you grow too old / Don’t miss the opportunity to strike a little gold. / Out West the folks are fussin’ and the way to make ’em stop / Is to quickly draw your Crunchie Bar and fill ’em full of choc!’
Guess it was that subtitle, ‘A road trip through life’, that made me think: ‘Oh, Lord, here we go with another book about life being a whole long journey. Oh please, Lord, take the cliché away!’
Then there’s that ‘road trip’ bit, as in ‘Headin’ down the highway, looking for adventure.’ Jeez, are we ageing hipsters or what? But to cap it all, I learn early on that the book’s going to be heading for Invercargill and I get a Goodbye Pork Pie flashback to ‘We’re taking this bloody car to Invercargill!’
Sorry for all these pop media references, but here’s my problem. I’m an Aucklander, and I don’t really know the Deepest South all that well. I once sojourned in Dunedin for six months, and on weekends I’d drive to Invercargill to visit my daughter and son-in-law who were working as house surgeons in that city’s hospital. I remember the huge width of Invercargill’s main street and felt the freezing Antarctic winds come whistling across the plains, and knew the pleasure of taking shelter in a fine café off the main drag. I can also remember the trees growing at an angle of 45 degrees near Bluff, and the sight of stormy Foveaux Strait – and there my memories get a bit fuzzy.
Then there’s Colin Hogg, that journo and media bloke, setting off a different train of memories. I don’t really know the fella but I’m sure we sometimes bumped into each other at preview screenings of movies. That’s because I spent ten years in the 1970s and 1980s as the resident film reviewer of the Auckland Star, baling out a few months before the newspaper finally died. Colin Hogg contributed music reviews and did other feature work on the Star at that same time and I regularly read his stuff, though his sort of music was not and is not my sort of music. I also caught up with some of the jokey columns he wrote elsewhere about his family.
Right, enough of this contextual reminiscing. What about the book?
Long story short – when Hogg is 64, his old mate Gordon (or Gordie) McBride tells him that he (Gordie) has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and has a limited time to live. The two were young and wet-behind-the-ears reporters on Invercargill’s Southland Times way back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. So, to give the guy a good experience, Colin suggests to Gordie that they go on a road trip around their old stamping grounds in Southland and Otago. Gordie accepts enthusiastically and off they fly to Queenstown, where they hire a blue Falcon and spend a week (yes, a whole week!) driving around great metropolises like Winton and Nightcaps.
Gordie loves ingesting fatty meat and smoking, reasoning that he’s going to die anyway, so what the hell? There’s lots of stuff about eating cheese rolls and sampling mutton pies and drinking suspiciously expensive wines in the hotels and cafés and diners they visit. With his phone, Gordie photographs his cheese rolls and cultivates followers on Twitter with other shots. The book’s muddy black-and-white snaps seem to be his work. The two men share ancient memories of their time as young journos, the booze-ups they held in their flats, the girls they wanted to shag and daggy things like riotous pub crawls. And there’s a real melancholy edge to it when they visit the offices of the Southland Times and see how rundown they now are and consider how newspapers are all being downsized and are probably on the way out.
Early on Hogg talks of deferring to his ‘inner hippie for purposes of comfort and ongoingness’ (p. 37). But there are times when his blokey humour means he defers to his inner yobbo, with cracks like ‘[Cilla McQueen] seemed a lovely woman, a poet of course, and therefore a little away with the fairies’ (p. 136). (Don’t wanna seem too arty, do we?) While the petrified forest at Curio Bay moves some people to poetry, it moves Hogg to lame jokes about how the wood got petrified – maybe it was scared of the axe (p. 159). Haw-haw. Though (hypocrite me) I have to agree with him when he takes a blokey whack at one nascent cliché: watching divers at Otago Harbour, he remarks, ‘There’s a cold wind blowing, though the divers don’t agree when I mention it. “A great day in paradise”, says the talkative one, as the talkative ones tend to say’ (p. 185). Yay! Stomp that cliché, I say.
The worst of Going South are the bits that seem mugged-up – the legend of why Lake Wakatipu has a tide; the yarn of the wooden railway lines that used to go to Winton; the story of Minnie Dean. Some are predictable tourist-guide template. Seacliff and Karitane inevitably bring out stories of Lionel Terry and Truby King. Gore is just as inevitably the big trout statue and the gallery with its Ralph Hotere collection and the loot donated by John Money and the Hokonui Moonshine Museum. But even if they’re mugged-up, I’d be an ungrateful swine if I didn’t acknowledge the fun of learning that Invercargill was officially ‘dry’ for about 40 years after 1905 – and consequently had a roaring booze culture. And the tale of Dunedin’s short-lived and long-vanished Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, which I’d never heard before. Not to mention all Hogg’s tales of how ‘the great south land’ was once forested, and the dim racial memories of tribal slaughter in the pre-Pākehā ages. There are also sheer oddities, like the sight (duly photographed) of pigs’ heads and skins laid out along half a kilometre of fencing.
Some sections come close to padding. Hogg interpolates twenty pages on his Scottish immigrant dad’s long story of coming to New Zealand, and gives us a few pages of a novel he started writing but never finished. This segues into an account of his own drinking habits – it is half-regretful (‘I do know I’ve been a drinker all my life, and that it hasn’t always been such a good thing to be’) and half-boastful (‘We drank by the round, with an edge of competitiveness, but drinking has always been a competitive sport in New Zealand’). Hogg lights up a joint every so often and inflicts on us an old magazine article he wrote about his habit (which only succeeds in making him look a bit of a jerk).
There’s an odd imbalance between the two men in the book. Tales of two jokers journeying together are as old as Johnson and Boswell tramping around the Highlands and as new as the latest (ageing) hipster road story. But usually some sort of ‘inner journey’ is implied. Where’s the inner journey here? The roles of the two men are established early. Gordie is apparently the instinctive reporter, the expert at walking up to locals and talking to them. On a day-trip to Stewart Island where they hope to get a feed of oysters in Oban, Gordie’s the one who leads them from eatery to eatery asking where they can find the desired feed. He really engages with people. I guess Hogg is sitting in the car taking notes at these times. About three-quarters through, he rejoices to Gordie that he’s signed a book contract – presumably for this book – so he’s more the looker-on than the partaker-in.
Even if the pretext is Gordie’s health, we don’t hear much about what Gordie is thinking or feeling, and (let’s be brutally honest about this) despite the life-journey schtick, we don’t hear much that has been learned. Maybe the punchline is the last section where a post-trip Hogg gets reflective about growing old and quotes an ancient interview he did with Spike Milligan on the subject.
So, no, this isn’t Great Lit and it isn’t even Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, even if parts of it express that same theme. It’s blokey, jokey and (with some of the rock music mentioned) karaoke. It tells some good yarns. It’s fun. So what were you expecting?
NICHOLAS REID is an Auckland poet, historian, teacher and biographer, and runs the weekly book blog Reid’s Reader.