Book of the Week: Speed, LSD and other thrills
Philip Matthews on a reissued counterculture classic
Ian Wedde’s legendary mid-70s novella Dick Seddon’s Great Dive seems at first to be a book almost overburdened with meaning. It’s not just a story, it’s an important historical artefact, and reading it is like uncovering a telegram from a lost continent. The lost continent is New Zealand’s post-hippie counterculture that was already vanishing or turning so our even as Wedde was bringing it to life in print. The book is physical evidence of those times, now presented, entirely fairly, as a classic by Te Herenga Waka University Press.
Wedde was established as a poet when the novella appeared in 1976. Just to add to the sense of occasion, it ran as a special issue of Robin Dudding’s journal Iceland, complete with a Ralph Hotere cover. A year later, it won the fiction prize at the 1977 New Zealand Book Awards, beating proper novels. Another year after that, Wedde won the poetry prize for Spells for Coming Outshared with Bill Manhire for How to Take Off Your Clothes at the Picnicc. Wedde was on a roll.
The novella is a product of the Otago phase of Wedde’s writing life, after he took up the Burns Fellowship in Dunedin in 1972. In her Canterbury University masters thesis, “The Poetry of Ian Wedde 1967-1978”, poet Michele Leggott described the output from this relatively brief but important era as “the Otago View”, before Wedde and his family moved to Wellington in 1975. Hindsight allows you to see the clear separation between the Otago Wedde and the Wellington Wedde, and it’s easy to guess which of the other, shorter stories in this book were written in the south and which were written in the north. Geography seemed to be reflected in style as much as in choice of subject: the writing become more difficult and experimental – more “oblique”, says Leggott – once he was in Wellington, where he went on to develop a parallel career as an art critic , culminating in the impressive double whammy of the 80s postmodern novel Symmes Hole and widely-read and influential columns in the Evening Post.
As a public intellectual, the Wedde of the 80s could seem like an intimate figure. He was on a trajectory towards a career as a cultural mandarin at Te Papa, although few would have guessed that then, and so when we look back at Dick Seddon’s Great Dive other Symmes Hole, we might find ourselves wondering what these stories were trying to tell us about the big questions Te Papa was asking in more simplistic ways a decade or two later, about things like national identity and how it is represented in objects and ideas. As well as intelligence, proficiency is another reason why Wedde might be intimidating: like CK Stead and Vincent O’Sullivan, he is one of those rare writers who is equally skilled in fiction, poetry and non-fiction.
But after you put all that aside, Dick Seddon’s Great Dive is a slim and refreshingly accessible book. The Wellington view was still ahead of him. When you think of the Otago Wedde, you might think first of the long poem “Pathway to the Sea”, if only because of the location-specific title (a translation of Aramoana) and its prominence as a title by Hotere. In this utterly marvelous and spontaneous-seeming poem, which feels both high-minded and tactile, the visionary poet begins by musing about the digging of a drain and the recycling of old timber, before the poem explodes into an almost rabble-rousing climax that warns about the environmental dangers of building an aluminum shelter at Aramoana and why “living in the universe doesn’t leave you any place to chuck stuff off of”. Despite its appearance as a topical and almost ecstatic protest poem, it also knowingly riffed on a work by American poet AR Ammons, one of Wedde’s key influences, as Leggott pointed out. (The poem was dedicated to Ammons.)
Dick Seddon’s Great Dive emerged from the same kind of world, the same kind of mind and the same kind of time. There is the same American-influenced 70s looseness in the writing. A woman named Kate is remembering a man named Chink, her partner, who drowned himself at Bethells Beach. She is writing at Port Chalmers, and her story is about the working-through of memory, or memory’s structures, haziness and occasional clarity. Chink is an immediately vivid character. He was itinerant, self-destructive, infuriating but charismatic too. He has all the counterculture’s impulsive restlessness and self-absorption in him. Movement is everything. He and Kate meet in Auckland, where hippies share old houses in pre-gentrified Parnell, but they journey south almost immediately. Later, Chink does the same journey in reverse, but alone. Kate continues thinking about his migrations, both visible and invisible.
“To the casual observer of his life must have seemed an endless series of repetitive grubby excursions, campings, borrowings, ripoffs, bad deals, specious survival techniques. To those who subscribed to the cult of Chink he was ‘on the road’: free and spaced, a gypsy freak. But those closest to him could see that Ngāruawāhia was Marrakesh. Xanadu.”
Chink was a dreamer, overlaying the observed world with imagined landscapes. He looked for ways to escape. Those lines seem to be not just a perfect summary of Chink, but of the counterculture itself, viewed from outside by a hostile or bewildered society, but from inside as well. There are layers to it. The quotes around “on the road” are important. If the New Zealand counterculture was anything, it was imitative. Blerta were our Merry Pranksters. Tim Shadbolt was our Abbie Hoffman. So you had Marrakesh and Xanadu, but also Taupo and Port Chalmers. Did Ngāruawāhia gleam in supernatural ecstasy? People in New Zealand bought the counterculture wholesale, like hippie wigs at Woolworths. But those quotes tell you that Wedde always suspected there was something thin and inauthentic about it all.
There is a whole bit about astrology and we learn the names of three books in Chink’s flat: The Connoisseur’s Handbook of Marijuanathe erotic photo book Cowboy Kate (“black holster a-swing by her creamy buttocks”) and something called Supercock
In her close reading, Leggott gave some thought to where Wedde was in this story. There is another poet, named Curtis, who shares the house at Port Chalmers. Is it meaningful that Curtis is Wedde’s middle name? Is there some self-criticism involved when Chink undermines Curtis for being a drag who won’t allow himself to be swept along in the current of Chink’s freer life? But is there something of Wedde in Chink as well? And is there something of Wedde’s then-wife Rose in the Kate who compiles the story?
Let’s say a tentative yes to all that while noting it is speculation or even biographical fallacy. The Wedde of 2022 writes in his brief introduction about these characters, who are still alive and present to him. Five decades later, he sees them as “deliberately unlikeable”. He says: “I think this is because I was trying them out – inventing them and their voices or co-opting fragments of extreme personality traits from people I knew.”
That is part of the texture of the times. There is an easy game to play in which a contemporary reader goes through a historical text, even a classic, and looks for the things we can’t say anymore or examples of quaint, dated slang. You can do that here. Money is bread. Chink is hot shit. Of course the nickname Chink itself would be problematic these days. A gay man is, and this is a phrase that hopefully no one has said in years, “a turd burgler” (in Wedde’s defence, the phrase is disapproved of). People listen to Howlin’ Wolf and the Doors. They take speed, LSD and other drugs. There is a whole bit about astrology and we learn the names of three books in Chink’s flat: The Connoisseur’s Handbook of Marijuanathe erotic photo book Cowboy Kate (“black holster a-swing by her creamy buttocks”) and something called Supercock. But when the sexual politics is dated, we have a woman’s more enlightened perspective on it. In a curious way, this is probably even a feminist novel.
In another story in the collection, “The Gringos”, a 50s rock ‘n’ roller encounters with horror the music of the 70s: “When he went back upstairs with his records carefully under his arm they’d put on Osibisa or the Moody Blues or Grand Funk Railroad or for fucksake Simon and Garwhatsit.” The story ends with Chuck Berry playing in Dunedin in 1974, which really did happen and which Wedde witnessed. Berry was “lean as a knife, lazy as calm water, mean as a wolf”. That’s good writing.
It is all of more than just historical interest. Once you get past the things that make the book seem somehow forbidding – the reputation of Wedde, the unusual stature of the book – you discover some fantastically lucid passages.
The central set piece, when the relationship is new and still contains some promise, flows from Chink’s discovery of being burgled (in the normal sense). Chink comes back to the flat he is minding for a university student – Chink himself is not a student, or anything in particular – at about 2am after a night out. He realizes, after more time has passed, that the flat has been ransacked. There is a muddy footprint left on the bed, an open window, some money missing and furniture moved around. He clears his head and after about an hour, he leaves the house, and drives his motorbike through empty Auckland streets in search of a police station, as the lights magically turn green for him.
“He opened the bike up along Symonds Street and swooped left down the hill past the Māori Wars memorial statue. Through War They Won The Peace We Know … Pax Britannica was lost in the shade of the pōhutukawa. He imagined her: voluptuous, paralytic, one arm locked upward, petrified foliage dripping from her free hand, a breasted sadhu …”
He meets Kate the next morning. This next section is from her perspective and is so piercing you might mistake it for a recollection of a memory you forgot you had, even if you never wore sandals in Albert Park. There is a powerful sense of ease and freedom.
“She walked downtown across Grafton Bridge. Some Indian couples were going slowly in the same direction. She felt happy, and loose and graceful, like the slender young Indian women in their lovely saris, though beside them, she thought, she must look clumsy and eager. In Albert Park as she went through a few people who were still lying about. The sounds of Saturday night traffic in the city rose towards her, muffled by distance and trees, but more it seemed by the warm evening air, filled with the perfumes of hot grass and flowers in the park.
“She remembers that she took her sandals off and dipped her feet in the cool fountain, shuffling them dry on the grass, before going on down through the dim, verbena and rosemary scented paths under the trees, towards Khartoum Place.”
Perfumes, saris, scented paths. Even the street name, “Khartoum”, adds to the sparkling exoticism of it.
There is a lack of judgmentalism in this account, an open-mindedness. Dick Seddon’s Great Dive is not an advertisement for the counterculture – that would have dated horribly – but nor is it a condemnation. It can leave you with the same mixed feelings that some found in Wedde’s 80s reflection on an earlier age, “Beautiful Golden Girl of the Sixties”. The title sounds deliberately Dylan-esque, like a mix of “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and “Sara”, and the poem is an obsessive and nostalgic record of the many places in which he and the golden girl had sex, and the range of conditions under which they did it (“straight, drunk, stoned, stopped, speeding, tripping”). The mood is one of erotic gratitude for an everyday miracle. CK Stead rightly called it one of the great New Zealand poems, “a poem of great joy, but also of profound sadness”, a lament as much as a celebration. Both moods are present in Dick Seddon’s Great Dive: euphoria but also sadness.
Dick Seddon’s Great Dive and Other Stories by Ian Wedde (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $30) is available in bookstores nationwide.