Duncan Greive interviews Steve Braunias on the occasion of his new book, The Scene of the Crime.
Steve Braunias is my favourite New Zealand writer. Maybe that makes me an imbecile, I don’t know. I haven’t read hardly any of our fiction, because I barely read fiction. There might be better people out there in other forms. But of everyone I’ve read, he’s the one I like best.
I like him because almost everything he writes gleams with wit, intelligence and a very particular mischievousness. He’s from an era way before personal brands, but his is rock solid: you know exactly what you’re going to get with him, every time. It’s a pleasure, a treat, funny and sad and unpredictable and of such an extraordinary quality that you imagine he could have written anything for anyone, had he so desired.
That he didn’t – that he stayed in New Zealand and wrote for and about us – is to his great credit, I think. I don’t know whether he stayed out of fear or contentedness, and forgot to ask. The cool thing about Steve (he hates ‘Braunias’, as I recently discovered) is that he made it seem fine, even heroic, to stay here, and not feel the need to be validated by some other town or country.
There are so many things I could say about him. Here are a few:
- He’s the best, most exhilarating and courageous public speaker I’ve ever witnessed.
- For such a towering intellect, he often affects idiocy, to what end I’m still not sure. But it’s fun.
- He’s capable of boundless rage, sometimes real, more often (I think) for effect.
- Related: I was terrified of him for a long time, but am no longer. I remain uncertain about whether that is rational.
- He has fallings out with people, but mostly makes up with them again.
- He’s extremely generous with praise and time, which are essentially the only currencies writers have left in 2015.
- The Wintec Press Club, an extraordinary tri-annual event he runs on the banks of the Waikato, shows all of the above.
- Here is a picture of he and I in the aftermath of the most recent one, taken by Steve Newall. I like it.
He’s just published a book called The Scene of the Crime, which contains a dozen stories he’s published over a number of years, each edited, adapted, updated. I haven’t actually seen a copy yet, but can confidently say it will be my favourite book published in this country this year, just as Madmen was last year and Civilisation – his masterpiece, I think – was the year before.
The below is a faithful, barely touched transcript of an 80 minute conversation we had last week. It is sorely in need of an editor, but I think anyone who’s read a bit of Braunias would naturally be curious about the man’s life, so I’ve decided to leave it all on the table and let you all navigate your own way through it. If you just want to read about the new book, I think there are two questions about it, right at the end.
I guess I just wanted you to tell me, just give me a little vision of your childhood. I feel like I know your professional output reasonably well, particularly in the last five years, but I know nothing to where that was forged and the extent to which you attribute your childhood and forging it. So just paint me a picture.
I grew up in Mt Maunganui in the 1960s. But I’m one of these people who doesn’t remember almost anything about their lives between the ages of zero and around about 54. I don’t know why that is.
The reason I ask is that we get give this vision of ’60s New Zealand as this affluent place, a reasonably homogenous society, maybe bi-cultural, but not even really that. But kind of a cultural wasteland, particular in the provinces. And yet you come out of there and become what you are today. That is what I’m curious about – what shards penetrated your childhood and helped you become you.
Well, I thought Mt Maunganui was a really rich place to grow up in. It was always sort of fascinating. A lot of that was to do with Allan Bates’ bookshop, which is where I spent a large part of my imaginative world. I bought magazines and comics – they were the only thing I read until I was about 20 or 25.
I had weekly subscriptions at Bates’ Bookshop and I was football obsessive, so I got Shoot magazine, Goal magazine. They joined forces later on and it was called Shoot Goal, which I thought was a beautiful symmetry. And World Soccer magazine which came in once a month, and a comic called Tiger, which came in once a week. They were all coming in off the ships from England. So they were all three months old.
That was a great way to be. You were conscious of it, that you were receiving information that had been withheld. So you were always kind of living in a strange past. And England itself seemed completely mythical. Added to that, the comic strip stories were fictitious, so I was being fascinated and obsessed with the adventures and kind of dark themes running throughout the lives of people who didn’t exist that happened three months ago, in another country, with completely different weather patterns and completely different language too – they didn’t talk like us.
They always had this sort of chorus in Roy of the Rovers, which was in Tiger, a Greek chorus – the voice bubbles coming from the crowd. You would think, who said that in this crowd of 50,000? And someone would make a really tart, sour remark and you would be wondering about the identity of this person.
What was the trigger then for you to transition from an avid consumer, and what sounds like quite a thoughtful consumer of comics and magazines, into anything else? Where did you work? Where did you go to High School? Where did you work beyond that?
I went to Mt Maunganui College. There was no transition. The magazines that I was reading, particularly World Soccer, that was the intellectual’s bible. There were particular writers who I followed avidly. I’ve still got all those back issues at home. I had a sort of a code for articles I really liked, which I pencilled in beside them. The best ones had the word CLASSIC in capital letters. I would re-read these a lot.
The best writer was a guy called Brian Granville. He was a novelist, he had a really distinguished career as a writer, and for this guy to be writing about football in a very bilingual way, he would often break into Italian phrases. I’d no idea what they meant, but it was absolutely captivating that someone had the gall to do that. And write in really long, labyrinthine sentences and have incredibly high pitched opinions about so many things.
You know, he was a great critic. He was like a literary critic from the New York Review of Books transplanted into a magazine about football. Just fantastic! I often repeat that line from John Updike who says a writer is just a reader turned inside out, so I was reading Brian Granville and this made me want to write. And reading the comics gave you ideas about character and mystery and narratives. Comics like Roy and the Rovers, but also the Phantom was huge. A sense of fun and wit and playfulness.
I remember one of the teachers said to me, ‘You never read books. You’re an idiot.’ I knew instantly, instantly that he was wrong. I mean, he was kind of right, I should have been reading books. I’ve always been quite a bad reader of books in many ways, it has taken me a long time to catch up with things. But I knew he was wrong because the world of comics was intoxicating.
There is also something as well that is attractive about comics and magazines in that they’re their own worlds, that people like your teachers or your parents were completely oblivious to. By consuming them you have this kind of authority within a very confined sphere that most teenagers don’t get to have.
I certainly became a real authority on the world of Roy of the Rovers. I could name line ups for seven years straight without blinking an eyelid.
Could you still?
Yes. Yes. I could do the classic line up easily. A lot of the names ended up as characters in a lot of fictional writing I do as a satirist – Tubby Morton, Jumbo Trudgeon.
So you mentioned that quote about the writer being a reader turned inside out. At what point did you start to write?
I was always writing. I was writing fictitious match reports from football games and taking terrific deliberation in the choice of words and sentence structure and length of sentence. And there were particular words that kind of glittered like jewels, and a lot of them came from Brian Granville.
He had the word ‘verve’, which to me was… My daughter says to me, ‘These are my favourite words.’ And her favourite word for the past two or three years is the word ‘lunch’. I ask her, ‘Why is that?’ And she says, ‘I love the way it sounds – lunch’. I loved the way ‘verve’ looked, with the two v’s, and the fact it was such a short word.
What happened to those match reports?
I burnt everything. Diaries, really detailed accounts of feelings and stuff. Maybe another reason why I have no memory of my life. I burnt all my memories.
Did you train as a journalist?
Yip, I left school and went to Victoria University and had a really remarkable academic career which lasted six weeks.
What were you attempting to study?
English. Didn’t understand. Didn’t know what they were talking about. I dropped out, got a job in a factory, saved enough money to buy my first typewriter. I went into town and bought two books – The Trial, by Franz Kafka and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, and I learned to type by writing out the first three chapters of each book.
Why those books?
I would have read about them somewhere in a magazine. Gee they were great. I was real lucky in my choice – real lucky.
The Trial is extraordinary.
Well I re-read it earlier this year for the Mark Lundy trial when I was in Wellington attending the trial. I had no memory of the book actually, so re-reading it was like reading it for the first time. It was a lot darker and more intense and miserable than I recalled. I thought it was a black comedy, but it was really horrible.
Then I got into journalism school in 1980 and that was the start.
Journalism school in Wellington?
Yes. Wellington Polytechnic
What was the training like?
The training was good. I was lousy. I’m a very slow learner and I just didn’t know what they were talking about. In a class of 50 I was the only one who didn’t graduate, which was really upsetting at the time.
It has really held you back.
It kind of did.
I barely graduated journalism school. I wrote out my short hand in longhand and was just fast enough to be able to translate it, just. But I also felt like through it I had this sense of that there were only tiny slivers of the course that were for me. Like, I’m never going to be a news reporter. Not that it doesn’t interest me, or I don’t think it is valuable. I just can’t imagine doing it. So I would just do what I had to and really concentrate on the feature writing stuff. I mean, was there an element of that for you? Did you know that you were going to be a different type of reporter?
I guess. I couldn’t tell a news story. I had no nose in news. I didn’t have the hunger for it, or the gall. I just didn’t have what it takes whatsoever. I was just kind of a dimwit.
The feature writing course, that was appealing and I kind of got saved there in a way. I got first place in the feature writing thing, and it was marked by a guy from the Listener magazine, called Karl du Fresne. He became a bit of a shocking, right wing, redneck, reactionary goose. It was a bit of a shame that my saviour was someone who was writing opinions so inimical to me, and so awful to read.
You can’t pick your saviours though.
True. Anyway, that gave me a lot of confidence and I thought, well maybe this could work out. But yeah, I regret a lot about that year. I wish I’d learned how to report and write news. One of my missions now, for the past five to 10 years, is that I really want to do news reporting or news writing. I have kind of come late to journalism in many ways.
What prompted that and how did that differ from what you have been doing?
Well the Star-Times took me on. I had been at the Listener for six years doing a lot of writing. A lot of columns. Editor of the book section and things like that. A lot of profiles. I absolutely loved working at the Listener. But when I went to the Star Times that was completely different and it dates from my first morning there. I went in for a news conference with all these people and they started talking real fast about the news agenda and what was happening. I had no idea what they were talking about. They were talking about – what is the hospital acronym for the health board?
DHBs. I’m thinking: ‘What is a DHB?’ How do they know, these people – how do they know these stories? And they just seemed incredibly swift, really switched-on. And determined as all hell. I thought, well I’ve got a lot of catching up here to do. I felt really on the back foot. I thought I need to be up with the play, I need to meet this standard.
Someone had mentioned that a trial was about to begin. They knew all these things – how did they know? I still don’t know. And they knew there was a trial about to begin of Antonie Dixon, the samurai sword killer. I said, ‘Can I go?’ And they all turned to me and said, ‘Okay.’ I sat in that trial for seven weeks, I think, and I was writing about it weekly in a way which they hadn’t quite had before.
Everyone was fascinated by him – an appalling person, with peculiar behaviour in Court which had become iconic, and of course the sheer nastiness of the crimes with the sword and also with the sub-machine gun. I wanted to write about the situation in Court, what the trial was like, who the people were – the prosecutors and the defence lawyer, Dixon himself, the jury and that whole weird contained feeling of a courtroom. But it was still news.
Absolutely. The same ingredients essentially as everyone has access to, but you were just combining them in different ways.
Yeah, I spent a lot of time doing what I considered to be reporting, which was loading it with facts, loading it with information. It wasn’t sort of a woolly, light-hearted and meaningless sketch, it was totally realistic and everything was based on fact. It was taking these facts and details and crafting a narrative out of that each week.
Tell me about how were the ‘80s for you? Kind of an extraordinary decade to be living through, let alone living through as a writer.
I changed my obsession from football to music. I was just really consumed by music. So that was sort of going on in the foreground and background of my life through the whole 1980s.
Wellington bands. And they seemed to have a particular kind of meaning to them. I think it was very much tied in with this whole… this real threat of nuclear annihilation. And things seemed to be always on the verge of some apocalypse, some dreadful breakdown was always imminent and you were living in a last days kind of frame of mind. It was kind of exciting.
I was growing up in London during that time and I remember the CND graffiti everywhere, the anarchy symbols. As a kid you are only peripherally aware of this stuff, but it did send to me a sense that there is a chance that we are living in end times. It made you consider your actions more.
I feel like that has returned a little lately. 9/11 and Wikileaks and so on. So when you say you switched your attention, did you also switch your focus of reading and writing?
Yeah, very much. It was the great music journalists of the time, Nick Kent, in particular.
Plus I had this group of friends who were really important to me. There were serious matters of what music we liked. That said a lot about you as a person and there were lines being drawn. I found that really challenging and exciting and I was really lucky that there were people like Bill Direen who was a close friend during that time in Wellington.
He is a writer as well, right?
He has done so many things. He was in the theatre and I acted with him in various productions that he was putting on. And he had a band called The Six Impossible Things, which was real exciting. I just loved it
But professionally for ages and ages I was just mostly this unemployed dude in Wellington. Occasionally I would find work. I went to Greymouth on the newspaper there for about a year, which was great, I loved working there. I was a Court reporter and that was terrific. You go to a town where you know nobody but people were really friendly. I loved it there. I shouldn’t have left actually.
So you resigned?
I left and came back to Wellington to be an unemployed guy again. I had a job at a radio station in Palmerston North for nearly two years. I loved working with tape – huge big reels. And working strange hours, sometimes until 2am starts at 5am, that kind of thing. That was fantastic. Again, you didn’t know anybody, you met lots of really cool people. Left that, unemployed guy again, and this kind of cycle continued.
Around about 1986 I was 25, and I was working some deadbeat job in a factory and I applied for a job writing about television programmes in the TV listings page in the Listener. I went along to the interview and I had some cuttings from an underground street magazine called TOM, which stood for The Other Magazine edited by Gary Steel. Him and I and all these other people like David Cohen worked real hard on it. No money of course, but that was our passion and the thing we wanted to do. So I was doing that for years while I was unemployed.
Best thing to do is make something when you’re unemployed.
I wrote so much, and wrote so badly.
But you learn.
Hopefully! And so I gave the Listener some cuttings from there. And they said, ‘listen there is no way you could write TV listings, you don’t have that skill. But this stuff looks interesting and promising’. And so Helen Paske, who was the deputy editor, gave me a chance as a freelance feature writer. That was the best break I’d ever had.
Had you been sending any clippings elsewhere? I guess there probably weren’t that many publications?
Oh no, there were loads of publications. It’s just that none of them wanted me to do anything, except one of the Sundays. I would take trains all around the Hutt Valley on Saturdays to watch, takes notes on, interview and write 300 word reports on golf.
You would walk for miles and it was always raining. Trudging along and then asking some stupid questions. But if you could get the spelling of their name right, if you could do that you were 90% there. And then going back to the clubhouse, or the railway station, writing it all up in long hand, going to a phone box and phoning it through. I think I got 25 bucks. I did that for years and years. They were the only people publishing me.
So at the Listener, do you recall what your first published feature was?
Absolutely! There was a huge farmers’ march on parliament. Something like 10,000 farmers were marching. Something to do with tariffs. They were going to march from Courtenay Place, I think it was, right through the middle of town, disrupt traffic and make a huge point.
Like what the French kind of do now and we always criticize them for it. Well, Mike Hosking and Leighton Smith do.
Never listen to radio.
Anyway, I followed the farmers and talked to the farmers while we were tramping along all throughout town. I would just leave one group for another and ask what their name was and where they lived and what they were doing. I would sort of overhear stray things as well. And yeah, I wrote that and the magazine liked it, and published it. That was a great moment. I remember I wrote it living in a flat on the Terrace. I had a typewriter. I had all my notes and everything and I started writing it from 6pm and I wrote it until 8am without sleep.
I had this sort of thing when I was typing then, that I couldn’t bear to type a page which had a mistake in it. So if there was a typing mistake in the last line I would have to rip it out and type it afresh, so every page was perfectly typed. I took these beautifully typed pages with me on the bus to the Listener offices at 9am. Waited in reception. They had a pair of beautiful glass doors with a frosted image of a bird in a waterfall and the word ‘Listener’, all frosted. And you would wait outside the frosted door. The whole thing: would the frosted door allow you entry into this world of adult journalism or not? And it did.
25 sounds young to people, but it feels fucken old when you are 25, if you’re not doing what you want to be doing.
Everyone else from my course had good jobs but I was nowhere, I was nothing.
I was the same. I went to journalism school late – 25. I had just thought that life wasn’t going to happen for me, you know? I just remember that feeling so intensely and this thing boiling inside me and it wasn’t getting out.
Your farm story – would it be recognisably a Steve Braunias piece?
It’s probably a bad piece of writing. It’s probably quite clumsy, probably quite obvious. A lot of false notes, gratuitous. But it would have been worked on really hard and I was always quite good at choosing quotes.
I had a pattern, which I followed for years and years, where I would type out the interview trasnscript, and each answer I would snip out with a pair of scissors and place across the floor. I would imagine the kind of writing I had to do in between each quote. And so I would place them all in order, all on the floor, and go ‘right – so you have to write two paragraphs here to connect that quote to the next one’. My whole policy was, follow the quotes – this is what you have gone out to do, you have done an interview, that is what you have to follow, that is the substance of this story. So follow the quotes around the page.
A great process.
It kind of worked, yeah. The whole floor was covered with scraps of paper all neatly cut out. I thought it was very mathematical. It probably looked stupid and that dread word, zany. But to me it was just a basic arithmetic.
So the Listener, I read your Wikipedia page and I don’t know to what extent it is accurate. New Zealanders’ wikis tend to be a mix of fact and fiction.
I read it a year or two ago. Mostly nonsense I think.
Just tell me the story of your 86 through 96.
Freelance writing for the Listener, and that gave me confidence to approach the Dominion and some other titles like that as a feature writer. They accepted my work. So I was doing that while working in this factory rolling up rugs and carpets. So yeah, real hard worker –working at that during the day and sometimes weekends, journalism when I could. Both really avidly.
Around about 88 I became editor of a weekly newspaper called Capital Times, which was sort of an entertainment guide. That was great. I didn’t have a lot of budget, so I wrote a lot of things under pseudonyms. I had a theatre critic called Hec Piggott, a music critic called Reverend Ozzy Jessop. Very opinionated people. I didn’t agree with anything they wrote. And I designed the whole thing as well.
Where did this publication come from? Did you inherit it?
Oh yeah, it had been going for years and years. David Cohen had been the editor. He quit to do something, he recommended me for the job and I absolutely loved it. It came out once a week, it was really fascinating – particularly the design part of it. What I would do is that I would design the stories first with the photographs and they would leave certain amounts of room and you would do a word count. I would say, ‘great I have 800 words to write on this, I have 2,100 words to write on that’. I loved that sort of discipline. So for years and years the first question I always wanted to know with a story or an assignment was how long is it? Not when was it due or any other question – how long is it? And that would tell you so much about the kind of pacng you would try to achieve, the kind of approach you would have.
I was at that paper for two years. Finally at the age of 30 I took my first overseas trip. I read one of those books, Asia on a dollar a Day and I took it literally. I think I just read the title. I had $1,000 and I thought I’m going to be away for two years! I came back in two months.
I was completely broke. I was unemployed guy again. My cat got fleas. I was too poor to buy flea powder. And we stayed in this flat and the fleas were so thick, masses of them jumping above the carpet, it was like you were hallucinating.
One guy took pity on me and said, ‘come to this concert’. We went to this concert and Helen Clark was sitting in front of us. As the house lights went down, the lights went up on the stage, and I could see the fleas jumping from me on to Helen Clark’s head. I just sat there sweating with shame.
When was this?
It was 1990. It was at the International Festival of the Arts. I was so ashamed. I sat there sweating with shame.
And was she in Parliament by then? She would have been.
Something or other in the Labour Party. After about 30 minutes seeing her go like this [he scratches behind his ear] scratching her head. Dreadful.
And Gary Steel saved me! He was the editor of a music magazine called RTR Countdown. He said, ‘come up to Auckland, I’ve got a job for you for three months’.
And I never went back. Packed up my cat, got an advance from Gary to get flea powder, and came to Auckland.
Gary saw me right, it was a great job. He flew me around the world watching Guns N’ Roses in LA and all this sort of thing. Often in Los Angeles, the States, Britain, Europe. And I did that for three years.
But as time grew on I thought, you know, this is silly writing about Kylie and New Kids on the Block at the age I was – 32. I thought should be really writing for adults.
And so I quit. I wanted to learn how to write. I started reading a great deal. Really good quality journalism, great non-fiction. I really studied what was going on and made my own hamfisted attempts to learn from that. I was reading a lot of Graham Greene.
I went freelancing for five years. It worked out real well, a lot of writing for the Listener and Sunday Star-Times, and titles like that, for five years.
You could live as a freelancer?
I did real well, there were so many magazines and so many newspapers. There was so much money around in journalism then! I made really good money.
And I’m assuming that you could have been a staffer somewhere.
No one was offering, I must say.
But you also weren’t actively seeking it?
I wasn’t actively seeking. I was probably regarded as someone who people didn’t take seriously as a journalist. A lot of it was pop culture writing, so I was still writing about Kylie and GN’R, but now it was for the Sunday Star-Times or the Listener. And a lot of TV writing and just stuff I really loved, and I actually gravitated towards those subjects. But I was writing about them at least in a more considered way than I had been for Countdown, and just learning a lot too, about pacing and about narrative and things like that.
This time that you are describing sounds like potentially some kind of pinnacle of, you know, of journalism and of opportunities to write in New Zealand.
Because it was so rich?
Yeah, because there was a lot of money, there were a lot of publications and those things tend to create quite a good healthy environment for your practice.
Yeah. It created a lot of work. It is interesting to wonder whether it created or led to a lot of good work. You have to question that.
So you are not the kind of person who would point to that era as some kind of Holy Grail versus today?
Because there is a lot of depressed conversations today about the state of journalism, particularly in New Zealand.
Oh these are cogent arguments and a lot of them are utterly valid. It is not the entire story though, you know. We never had it so good and we never knew it for years and years. And to a large degree, you know, we were squandering the opportunities. People back then were quite rightly bemoaning journalism and saying, ‘Where is the investigation?’ And you were always being criticised by readers saying, ‘Where is the journalism? Where is the truth? Why aren’t you telling the truth?’
There has always been really great journalism done here, news-wise, feature-wise, investigations as well – but for the money that was being poured in, I don’t think the returns were that great.
I mean, I look at the current batch of particular feature writers. I just call them writers. Greg Bruce, Jessica McAllen, Aimie Cronin, Naomi Arnold. The standard and the state of writing in this country is abnormally high.
I don’t recall it being this good for a long, long time. I really don’t. There was always someone as brilliant as Diana Wichtel, who is still brilliant. But there weren’t a hell of a lot of other people, a great deal of many others, you know? The Herald always had a fairly poor record for literary journalism. The Sunday Star-Times, the Dominion, all these great news publications – they were not noted for great writing.
The writing versus the reporting, you know, they are quite different.
The great thing is to try and mould them together.
Exactly. When you can do that it is the sweetest thing.
If you can. Anyway, at the end of that five years as a freelance, Bill Ralston employed me at Metro. I was there for 2-3 years, something like that.
What was your position? Feature writing?
Feature writing. And again it was a golden period, financially. The advertising! So much that you had to turn it away. It was huge! Bill and I were often having these long lunches on the Metro expense account and I was forever dropping – not on purpose – my cell phone into buckets of Champagne. ‘Oh well, we’ll get a new one.’ There was just so much money!
Yeah, and we had this huge staff. A lot of writers on the staff. We enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. We had a terrific time and a lot of good work was being published, but when I rejoined Metro many years later with Simon Wilson, the first couple of years there in particular when I was working for Simon I thought, ‘hang on. This magazine – which now has kind of two writing staff, me on a three day a week contract and Donna Chisholm who we shared with North & South – this is better!’
It was better than the Metro that I worked on with the writing staff of eight or nine. I honestly thought that. I thought the writing was better, I thought the stories were better. It had a greater sense of mission and purpose. This is not to demean what Bill was doing; he put out a really good magazine. But I thought Simon was having more of an impact.
That sense of mission and purpose is so important in a publication.
Yeah! And he had it, he lived Metro. He was an inspiring character in that way. He meant it. It wasn’t a gig – he meant it.
I think that element of his character – that this was going to define his life – if you can go into a gig with that sort of mentality, it doesn’t leave you a lot of room to just put something out and say ‘we’ll try and do better next month’.
No, and it is going to lead to trouble with other people. He was sort of semi-maniacal.
But in the service of something bigger.
Of course, yeah. Most people really appreciated that. He could be a son-of-a-bitch to deal with for a lot of people. I don’t think Simon and I had many fights or tiffs. We got on real well. As I say, he was an inspiring character and I thought it was a really good time for New Zealand journalism, the service that he was providing.
It was really important. He was kind of like holding things back while the industry was being destabilised week-by-week. He was putting out a terrific magazine full of really good stories, good writing and he guided it. He was all over it. Terrific editor, definitely one of the three or four best that I’ve worked for.
Who are the others?
Cate Brett, Sunday Star-Times. Just marvelous. I respected everything she ever said or did. Finlay Macdonald at the Listener. He is the man. He was just the man. Had such an intellectual serenity about it, the Listener, for those years and he provided that.
Was Finlay your editor during the period when you were books editor?
So you left Metro to go to the Listener?
Yes, I did. Yes.
Left Metro on good terms?
Yes. I was senior writer at Metro. Went to the Listener as deputy editor to Finlay. So the two of us were working together to commission and assign and edit the magazine week-in, week-out. He was doing most of that work.
Did you have aspirations to edit the thing? Does that appeal?
Yeah, I did. But I was crushingly aware of my limitations: my news sense was poor; I didn’t know what was going on in the world; I didn’t know what was going on in New Zealand. Politically I was naïve.
I couldn’t have told you – I can’t tell you who is in the Cabinet. All this kind of thing. When I do this Secret Diary column – I will go days without reading the news, and it will come to Thursday – ‘my god, what has happened? Who has been wretched?’ So you are suddenly trying to catch up on the Herald and see what has been happening. You will come across this name of a politician and you’ll go, ‘who the hell is that?’ Very stupid. I’ve always been a dim-witted person.
Absolutely. So you left the Listener in 2005?
Yeah, end of 2004 it would have been.
Was Finlay still editor?
No he had left and Pamela had come in, so I worked for a year with her as editor.
How did you find that?
Not great. It was so long ago and my memory is so faulty so I can’t really remember too much about it. I remember I was keen to leave. I am not even sure why though. I was still writing things I really enjoyed, I just didn’t like her much as a human being and you’ve got to like your editor. I was crazy about Cate. Finlay was my best friend. Simon was awesome. Bill Ralston and I are still real close. You’ve got to really like them and I just didn’t dig her as a human being.
I guess at this point, broadly you are kind of a cultural writer. Is that correct?
Well, light entertainment, mostly. Light entertainment for years and years. Certainly up until when I left Countdown. For that five years, beginning to stray into other kinds of journalism and then a big break, another huge break I had was 96. Paul Little, who was the editor of Metro, appointed me as a columnist and he was the first person to give me a column. I really loved that and I took to that and I fancied it hugely. It seemed to really speak to me. I hadn’t been much of a column reader or anything, but I found that really attractive and that was great. I was so incredibly grateful to him for doing that. That really changed my writing, it changed my career, it changed my journalism.
It is a whole big solid strand of your career. You do seem to kind of take hold of them and those pages are like a little republic that is yours. What is it about the column that has excited you over the years?
Well after I was columnist for Metro, going to the Listener and doing a weekly there – the main thing there was the weekly deadline, and the sense of this being a kind of a saga which may or may not have an ending. Calling on your life, calling on what you genuinely felt about your life and about people in it, your family and about situations, genuinely felt so that they weren’t, you know, facile, meaningless, knockabout commentaries. ‘Oh, a funny thing happened to me on the way to the bus stop this morning’.
It has no resonance, you are not really meaning it. It seemed to me that with a column it required you to write about things quite realistically and in ways which might be lyrical, they could be really sad pieces, unresolved pieces, unfinished pieces. But also doing a range, so you weren’t just writing about yourself, you were writing about all sorts of other things and having a range of subjects. I ended up writing a lot about history as a columnist, James Cook in particular.
I also wrote up a lot of crime trials. I would just go for a day and just pick a trial, pick a case at random, which is the way a lot of this book is. I just wander into a courtroom. Not having any kind of news agenda. Just go to really sad and heart-breaking trials and just be there for a day, coming in maybe halfway and leaving before it was finished, and then evoking that and finding out what else it was possible to do in a column. That was a huge part of my life and a huge part of my thinking for around about ten years, until it all ended.
So let’s talk about that. I want to talk about two things, I want to talk about the scandals – of which I think you just referred to one – and I want to talk about crime and what attracts you to it as a subject. So: scandals. I know about one, are there others?
Probably. I can’t remember them.
You referred to it in the text that you sent me. I am going to find it. Where are we? ‘My ancient career with its scandals and nonsense’. So let’s hit the scandals and nonsense.
What I remember was the one that deservedly led to me being red carded at the Star-Times as a columnist.
Oh yeah, totally at fault. A stupid rash thing to do. I received an email from a reader, which I took exception to.
It sounds like she was coming on to you, vaguely.
She was probably not at fault, whatsoever. I’m just a bit of a hot head. Reacted badly. And of course a lot of the appeal in sending the email was the satisfaction I had in forming the sentence to reply to her, which was, ‘Oh I get it: you’re a cunt.’ And I read that back and looked at it on the screen and thought: that is nice. It is pleasingly monosyllabic. And I pushed send.
So it’s nice that its acquired this notoriety, then.
I thought it was a minor literary achievement. I have always been a huge fan of the monosyllable and its capabilities and its capacities. And of course I should have just pushed X and deleted it.
I pushed send. It turned out that she was the Crown Prosecutor for the Gisborne Police and she, accordingly, prosecuted me in the Court of the Sunday Star-Times. Laid a very upset complaint with the newly appointed editor, some guy who was a complete nobody and should never have been given the job. Out of his depth.
Notwithstanding the fact that he was inexperienced and not up to the job, it was a stupid thing to do and I was totally at fault. And yeah, I got the red card. And that was really upsetting, because as I say, writing a column had been a huge part of my thinking for ten years.
A couple of weeks later I was talking to a friend called Chris Barton about it. Bemoaning my fate. And he gave me this fantastic piece of advice which totally picked me up off the floor. He said, ‘oh well, you are just going to have to reinvent yourself’. A great thing to hear! . And Simon Wilson, without knowing what had happened, got in touch.
Was this before it became public that you had been fired?
Yes. He said, ‘what are you up to these days?’ I wrote back something like, ‘I’m a bit up in the air at the moment Simon’. And he wrote back saying, ‘oh – are you saying that you are in the market for a job?’ And I wrote back saying, ‘Well, yes – yes I am’.
And he offered the job. Incredible! I couldn’t take it for about a year because I was taking a year off to write my book, Civilisation. So he kept the job open for 10 months or something like that. The rate changed in the meantime. At first it was a certain amount of money to work for four days. Then he says, ‘I’m sorry but I don’t have that money anymore.’ I said, ‘Well, how much have you got?’ He told me, and I said, ‘well I’ll work for three days’.
Chris Barton’s advice and message came to pass. I reinvented myself as a person who was writing long-form feature writing and throwing myself into it and totally absorbed by the practice of it.
It was almost right at that time that I dimly suddenly started to become aware of this whole long-form movement. It had probably been going on for years. I thought, ‘oh my god – what is going on? This is interesting. And oh it is all about narrative, is it? I like that.’ And wondering how to do it yourself. The timing was just superb for it. Being with Simon the timing was great. ‘You can write as much as you like, as long it is not rubbish’. And we were often conferring about stories and interviews and things like that. A fantastic guy to work with.
And yeah, I think he said to me at one point, ‘I think I am getting the best writing that you have ever done.’
And you would agree with that?
Yes, but I hoped that whenever I finished at Metro I would still continue to write OK things! And of course, it finished abruptly and really sadly.
I didn’t want to leave Metro. It was a real shame. It was real sad. Not Simon’s fault at all, the magazine couldn’t afford the wage bill and had to get rid of me and Donna. But yeah, that was really upsetting as well. Of course I remembered Chris Barton’s advice, you have got to reinvent yourself.
The Herald came calling. Shayne Currie was really great. I wasn’t able to tell anyone because of the conditions of the disestablishment that that had happened, so I had to approach him under false pretenses and say that I am looking to maybe leave Metro, would you be interested? And I made that call to him and to Fairfax. Shayne said ‘let’s have a drink tomorrow’. Fairfax said: ‘put it in an email’. They got back to me eight weeks later and said, ‘what can you do for our digital platforms?’
Oh my god.
Shayne was great. ‘Let’s meet’. And we met the next day at the Shakespeare and he said, ‘what do you want to do?’ I hadn’t given it much thought. I only had one thought really and I said it to him, I said: I want the Lundy trial. His eyes widened and he could see the possibilities of filing daily from this trial.
So he took me on and it was great. He totally saved me. 54 years old, on the scrap heap – scary. All of journalism collapsing. No bridges. It wasn’t that I’d burnt bridges, there were no bridges. There was nowhere to cross. The Herald, one place I’d never worked, and they were there and thank God for that. I’m incredibly grateful to Shayne. I never want to leave the Herald.
Well that brings us neatly to Crime. The Lundy trial. Why did you pick that?
I loved the whole notion of being able to write daily from this captivating trial.
Did that come out of Madmen in a way? Because you were filing all these very different things and it just felt like everyone was just waiting for the next installment of that, to use your word, ‘saga’ to come out. Did that sort of reignite your interest in daily writing – aside from long-form – quite a different sort of skill?
Yeah, I hadn’t made that connection. That was a project unto itself, that political campaign. I had had in the back of my mind for a while that I wanted to report on a campaign daily. Then the 2014 election began and it was crazy.
You will never get a better one!
The campaign to end all campaigns had come up. I remember I was in the middle of writing it, and realizing it would make a good book, and approaching all these book publishers, and being told ‘no’. No by all of them. And I remember thinking at one point, ‘why don’t you wait until the next campaign?’ Then I thought to myself, ‘Are you kidding, this is the biggest one’.
I will go to my grave with this being one of the greatest campaigns anywhere in the world at any time.
That was the best campaign in my life. I thought, ‘this is the one’. So I published it myself.
But yeah, maybe you are right? That whole thing with filing daily – I loved that rush of it for the political diary.
And similarly for the Lundy trial, I was in Wellington. They would put me up in a variety of hotels and the system we had worked out, is that I’d be in Court and leave at around about 4pm. Rush back to the hotel where the laptop was, because I was just in court with my 3B1 notebook. Rush back to the hotel, put on a pair of pajamas, close the curtains and you had two hours to file.
I just loved the excitement of it. And how you could also create a kind of environment where you were thinking patiently, where you were being thoughtful, where you were being slow and considered, even though it was two hours and the clock was ticking.
I absolutely loved that. And writing about it in a certain way, the usual sort of daily court reports – which are very hard work, by the way. These court reporters, that is hard work. That is extremely hard work what they are doing. But writing in a different way was tremendously exciting, so by the end of it, by 7pm and pressing send and getting it off to the Herald in Auckland, you would just be totally racing by the end of it. And sort of stagger into town and have a Chinese meal, and then go back the next day.
The whole rhythm of the trial taking place. Lundy’s last chance, I suppose. Everyone was thinking what a miracle it was that he got a retrial and it was all thanks to this guy Geoff Levick.
And there always are those guys who just get bugs in their head, right?
There is often those guys and then there is often also a journalist.
Mark Lundy had Mike White who did an incredible job.
Mike White’s crime writing is extraordinary.
Amazing. He did this North & South story which was based on Geoff’s incredible detective work, years of stuff. And that reopened the possibility of going to the Court of Appeal. Attracted lawyers as good as David Hislop, and they won the appeal.
So much was at stake: it wasn’t like ‘this is number two trial, there might be number three down the track’.
There may not be – chances are there won’t. So much was at stake. The crime was so horrific. The trial – even though it resembled the first one – it was markedly different. The Crown played it a lot straighter, they didn’t play it as graphically as they did in the first one, where they put up huge pictures on the screen of the victims and their injuries, to the extent that people in the jury and journalists were needing counselling. You are only going to get one verdict when you show that horror: this need to punish.
So it doesn’t matter if it is the right one, you just want someone.
Exactly. And look, you know maybe the jury got it right? Maybe they got it right, I don’t know.
I wondered about that, because there was this sense from that final piece where you talked about the time you had spent with him and so on, was of the sympathy for Lundy…
In many ways the sympathy was for Geoff. That was the guy I liked. It was hard to warm to Mark Lundy. He doesn’t make it easy.
No, his explanation…
You mean the escort? It is not likeable.
No! And you could never tell whether the fact that he would reveal that about himself was indicative of an honest man, or whether… There was almost this thing that it was too horrible for the human mind to grapple with: could he do that and then do the murders and then pretend otherwise? Because that was almost beyond anything that we could imagine – and that was almost like a defence. Surely no one could do both of those things.
Well this is the thing. I remember speaking to a detective at that trial. All off-the-record sort of thing. I said ‘what do you really think?’ He said: ‘oh yeah, he did it and I gather you have spent a bit of time with him?’ I said: ‘yeah I have’. He said, ‘look Steve, you mustn’t ever be surprised what people are capable of. People are nice 99.9% of the time, but anyone is capable of this and you must never be deluded into thinking he is too soft. People do horrible things’.
The second case was much stronger than the first.
The first trial had the psychic! They didn’t do that nonsense in the second trial. They didn’t have the graphic pictures, they didn’t bang on and on about the escorts, they did the evidence and they prosecuted it rigorously and with very straight lines. Bar the appearance of the jail house snitch.
Yeah. I’m sure they wouldn’t bring him back if they could do it again.
Crazy. It was a farcical thing. He was ludicrous. Incredible day in Court, a fantastic day in Court. I am glad I was there for that.
You are watching history. You are a witness to history which is what journalism always is, down to who has got the best pies at the AMP show to a crucial day at a murder trial. You are witnessing history and an incredible privilege and a pleasure to do it. There is all these responsibilities about it as well, accuracy, public good and things like that. Absolutely vitally crucial. But you can never underestimate what personal fun you can get out of this. You know, like that guy Nick Davies who was here from the Guardian, he wrote a very serious story about hack attack and Murdoch press freedoms and all this and all that. And he would talk about this in a very passionate and intense way, but what really made him come alive when he talked about was when he talked about it in terms of, what a great yarn it was. You know, it is just a great yarn.
And that comes through in his book as well. Have you not read the book?
I haven’t read it, no.
You have to read it. Newscorp were like the Mafia. Murdoch is extraordinary – they crept into all the key pieces of society. Davies tells it very straight and breathlessly and periodically allows himself to laugh with glee or to gasp – and that is I think, what you were just talking about.
Great yarns, yeah.
And just the pleasure of experiencing something and getting to reveal it.
He had a good time doing the story. He had a really good time. His enjoyment and appetite for it, and the fact that he has still got this and he is a chap in his late fifties, that is bloody inspiring. There is not many people of a certain age left in journalism. Donna Chisholm has always been a great role model for me, someone who is totally engaged with it and never lost an iota of engagement with all her work. I always point to her mentally and go, ‘well Donna is still doing it, keep on going’.
So look I want to sell the book and we’ve got I reckon about two minutes. Tell me if this is the right question and if not I’ll ask a different one. Winston Peters’ style.
New Zealand’s criminality, I think, is different. Fundamentally different from the criminality of Australia and the US. It is weirder. We never had a serial killer, maybe barring Minnie Dean. We had spree killers but not serial killers. I think that is fascinating, because Australia is riddled with them. Same with the UK, same with the US. It is not just a population thing. You control for that – you’d expect a few. It is different. I guess when you were writing this book and assembling it, did you have had a sense of our national criminal pathology?
That is a great question actually. In many ways I think of this book the same way as my book Civilisation, but with murders in it. Yeah, the New Zealand pathology of crime is very gothic, it is very shabby. It is low rent mainly and there is nothing sort of epic about it.
One of my favorite stories in the book is the one about Derek King, the guy on Constitution Hill who was charged with sexual offences with underage street kids for three to five generations. 30 years.
That was an extraordinary story!
And what a shabby little crime that is. A shabby little crime. It has particular New Zealand elements to it.
And the position he had and continued to occupy throughout and the public place and the private behavior.
That is right, the themes of privacy and private lives in New Zealand. You sort of go along with barely a thin veneer, and beneath it is seething rages, abuses, violences which go on. I think the book is picking up on that and you sort of compare it to the crime of Bradley Murdoch – the guy who killed Peter Falconio, Joanne Lees’ partner in Australia. That crime has no relationship to a crime in New Zealand. That has particular Australian characteristics, which are almost unrecognizable here. Almost unrecognizable. Our ones are a ‘type’.
Australian crimes have scale.
Our ones have a tight, intense, seething geography about them. The classic crime that we have always will be the Crewe murders. What was Arthur Allan Thomas’ alibi? Cow number six.
The Scene of the Crime is out now on Harper Collins, and available at The Spinoff Review of Books’ sponsor, Unity Books.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.