About this time I left school.
No, I ran from school. All I would have got from staying for a seventh form year is a tiny amount more money to go to university (these were the days when you got an allowance to attend) so I didn’t bother.
First I was drafted into the Summer City program where I worked in the children’s tent with some impossibly cool old people (they must have been in their early twenties) and got to hang out with some very interesting folk. One guy in my team was unreliable and generally disliked. He was scrawny, pale and sweaty and listened to aggressive industrial music from bands like Foetus Productions. On the mantlepiece of his tiny workers cottage he proudly displayed a mummified cat. The room was painted blood red.
He was not the best person to be dealing with children and only escaped being sacked more than once because I covered for him - I guess I was an easy patsy for him. His finest moment was putting raw meat into one of the basins in the pitch-black touchy-feely tent. I can still hear him cackling with delight as he told confused children it was just wet plastic. To anyone we traumatised, I can only apologise.
Being still young and naive it took me a while to figure out he was a junky. More interesting to me than his stories about riding around town trying to talk chemists into giving him codeine tablets was his obsession with his motorbike. He was as into that as I had been to my bicycles. It was a single-cylinder yamaha 500 which often ‘broke down’ leaving him unable to come to work. The fact he lived ten minutes walk away didn’t seem to count for much, but his devotion to this thing sparked an interest in me.
After Summer City I started hanging out at a tawdry amateur rep theatre and jumped with both feet into any production that would have me. To say the quality was patchy would be an understatement - the company harboured all manner of failures, weirdos, up-staging has-beens and a spectrum of talentless hacks.
Which is to say it was a great time.
Learning to deal with the worst luvvies, the eternally hopeless and the utterly useless is a good way of learning what you don’t want to be very fast. Not coming from a drama family I had no sense of stagecraft or what to actually do, so floundering around in terrible amateur productions was like an accelerator programme.
At the same time I left home I went on the dole, or the arts scholarship as we called it back then. No doubt the hard-working members of my family were scowling into their cups of instant black coffee, but I didn’t care. I was learning about all sides of life. I met my first flatmate doing a production at Rep. She was a rough diamond from Palmerston North who had a boyfriend inside - and she wasn’t on the porch when she said this. She also gave me one of my most memorable stage experiences when, stoned off her tree, she looped back twenty pages in the two hander we were doing, unconsciously turning our little slice of middle-class comedy into an avant-garde experiment.
After six months of being on the dole I got thrown into a work scheme (PEP for the kiwis) and ended up being a ‘trainee gardener’ in the Otari plant museum. It was, like all work created by policy and the need to keep visible unemployment down, a complete joke.
My boss was a recovering heroin addict and my co-workers were Eugene, lead guitarist with the punk group Flesh-D-Vice (still going strong), a hippy drug dealer, a hard-arsed suburban neurotic mother who owned an equally neurotic Alsatian who never stopped barking and a guy covered in tats, just out of prison who wore a trench coat no matter what the weather and did donuts in the carpark for hours on end in an old mini.
The amount of work actually done each day was dictated by the ebb and flow of my bosses methadone doses, his ‘regressions’ and the runs in the hippy’s combi to go and score hash oil from his connections. A good day had a couple of hours digging in it, tops. As for the gardening it basically amounted to building paths and planting some trees. I did a lot of staring at the sky, listening to all manner of life-stories and wondering what was for lunch.
The work schemes were scandalously well paid too, so to get to work I got myself a bike. A motorbike. First I got a crappy old farm bike and then quickly shelled out for an Yamaha RD250, an old-school two-stroke that barely moved until you got to 7,000rpm, then accelerated like a maniac. On the twisty back roads of suburban Wellington it was an evil, exhilarating ride.
I debated whether motorcycles counted in this series and was going to rule them out. But then I remembered how much I loved them through this period, so it made sense to put them in. In the interests of fairness I will also put in all the cars I have owned. Which is precisely one.
I had had the good fortune to learn to ride a motorbike on an uncles farm when I was ten or eleven. My younger cousin was a mad Motocross rider and turned out to be a world class enduro rider who might have had an amazing career if he hadn’t had hemophilia as well. One of my family christmas memories is out in the back of the King Country, with grandad, grandma and aunties and uncles teeing off on the freshly-mown hay paddock, with us kids haring around on motorbikes to pick up the golf balls.
So motorbikes weren’t alien to me and I loved the fact that you got one of the best bits of riding a bicycle - scything around corners - pretty much all the time.
Back in my gardening job I was learning a lot about the criminal underbelly of Wellington, but not learning much about gardening or what I was going to be doing with my life. Good sense prevailed at the end of summer when I decided I really needed to be spending less time with a strimmer and perhaps realise some of this supposed potential that I had. I had unconsciously taken a gap year and it had exactly the right effect - get some life experience then get the hell back to education to put off having to have a life for three more years.
I sold the 250 as I went to university and bought a rattly red vespa scooter instead. This thing smelt like a lawn mower and left clouds of smoke on the road whenever you left the lights. The brakes were appalling - in the wet you might as well have used your feet. But my god it was cool.
It was also painfully unreliable and I left it beside the road somewhere after yet another breakdown and bought an old Honda CB400 off my then girlfriend’s father. He can’t have liked my much - the frame was bent so the bike took left hand bends very well and right hand bends barely at all. It had none of the rapid energy of the RD250, this was more a steady as she goes ride, but it got me around Wellington pretty well for a year - all you had to do was remember to lean very heavily when turning right.
My University career was patchy at best. I never finished my degree. I kept getting distracted from my English degree by being in plays and ‘DramaSoc’ and, after a wash out first year, decided to do no acting for a year to see how I got on. I got straight As. I even got an A for the very selective Creative Writing unit. Officially I was a smart arty wanker. Unofficially I was insufferable. In many ways I was also totally lost. My suspicion of adults and their fucked up world meant I was fiercely independent and didn’t seek advice from anyone. I was making it all up as I went along and subject to the whims of my own imagination. I can still have five great ideas before breakfast but these days I am selective about which ones I actually put energy into and then I try to do them as well as I can - this series is one of those. Back then I just did everything that came to mind and was prone to not finishing things and wearing myself out.
I didn’t appreciate until many years later that this cleverness and creativity was a mixed blessing. Perhaps exaggerated by my brush with heavy use of the green herb my mind had just kept accelerating since being ‘unlocked’ by theatre, and I was beginning to experience episodes that I would - many years later - be able to put labels like ‘anxiety’ and ‘depression’ on. I would often have so much mental energy, so many ideas in my head, that I would have to walk for hours around town late at night, staying out until that time of night where police cars slowed down to look at you as you stomped round the docks, looking for solace from the whispering ocean.
The desire to escape Wellington had me taking a risk and deciding to move to Dunedin and go to Otago University. I sold everything and left town, arriving in Dunedin at the start of the academic year. I had a pack full of clothes, maybe a couple of hundred dollars and nowhere to stay. I knew no-one, and slept under a hedge in the botanical gardens for a week while I looked for a flat.
I found a tiny room with a saggy wire-sprung single bed in a flat at the top of a long hill. The first night I was there the other flatmates got drunk and, with ebullient gusto, destroyed all the furniture in the kitchen. I thought I had entered a mad house.
Turns out they were actually a nice bunch if they weren’t drunk, and they were not students. They were local boys who knew where the best beaches were, what gigs to see, where to drink, and soon enough I was tapping into their world - going to gigs and sitting in the back of the van on long drives out onto the Otago peninsula, a staggeringly beautiful array of sandy beaches and dunes nestled into steep grassy hills.
One day I went looking for something round the back of the house and saw a discarded old 24inch wheel girls bike, battered and rusty round the edges. It might have been red at one stage in it’s long life, but now it was undercoat grey and bare metal. I was already sick of the forty minute walk to University, so I pulled the pump off the frame and tried pumping up the frayed and decaying tyres. Amazingly, they stayed up. I put the seat up as high as it would go, reversed the handlebars to make the reach as long as possible and jumped on it, pointing it down the wide, steep piste of Stafford St.
I survived, just. The bike had a single old coaster brake which was binary in nature - either off, or full on.
It became my daily ride. It was a long long way from riding a top of the range racing bike. This was the kind of bike you just left outside a lecture hall and no one touched it. It was not so much a bike you owned as a bike you adopted, like a sick and deformed puppy. Looks only a mother could love.
And I did love it. Being free of the need to achieve anything on the bike meant I could just hack around just for fun. I would take great delight in riding it home from a party, across the deserted late-night tarmac of Dunedin, just doing laps of a parking lot or the Octagon. I didn’t have any lights but I never really needed them - I just rode backstreets on the footpath and Dunedin was a small place, after midnight there wasn’t any traffic, the main danger was running over a drunk one-day-to-be-rich law student.
Often I would be hammered on cheap wine and be riding as recklessly as the bike would allow, treating it more like a BMX than a roadster. I was getting my speed and sensation fix, and on a bike that was so slow I never really stood much of a chance of actually hurting myself.
Being on a bike had the added advantage of making me faster than the dickheads who would have tried to beat me up - the kind of guys who played the rugby and would become the corporate nasties and tin-eared Audi-owning husbands of greater Auckland.
I was not one of those guys - I was trying to be as opposite to those guys as it was possible to be and affecting a very bohemian look. My favourite jacket was made of black velvet and had gold leaves printed on top. With that and a top knot (I couldn’t afford a haircut) and my signature long shorts, long rugby socks and pointy shoes, I looked for all the world like a cross between a Georgian dandy and that pile of clothes spilling out of a plastic bag at the door of a charity shop.
All of this shabby chic and self-conscious posing piled onto a tiny girls bike. I must have looked utterly - fantastically - ridiculous.
I really didn’t care. Despite lasting a whole six weeks in my degree course I continued to take Drama and soon had a whole raft of wonderful friends and acquaintances and, away from the strictures of home and being able to reinvent myself, I had a great time for the two years I was down there. I was adopted by a quartet of wonderful people (Richard, Carol, Nic and Trudy) who broadened my horizons rapidly - these were the kind of people who did Kendo and wore animal tails, who actually used Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies in life and could talk as knowledgeably about macrobiotics as the therapeutic uses of story-telling. That more than one of us suffered from an excess of ideas and the afflictions that came form it (or caused it) was a moot point. We were young and had the energy to do everything interesting, all the time.
I did a lot of performing - The most things I was in simultaneously performing or rehearsing was five, and somewhere in there I had my first short play on. I have a single photo of it below, just the set. Very 80s. Mercifully my long-term memory has decided the details of this event did not need to be kept and I can’t remember what it was called or what it was about.
But there, between the various versions of myself I was inventing and discarding, between the parties and rehearsals, was the bike. Those ten minute rides around town trying to find parties, the longer forays late at night just for kicks, these were solid territory. The old sensations, the joy of control and desire to go as fast as I could up a hill, the sweeping glide of a long downhill corner, the thirst for a solitary immersion in the environment - all this was still in my bones. Riding was something of an anchor, time out from the demanding work of being me. Unconsciously I was using the bike as a way of controlling my mind - or giving myself time out from it. If you’ve ever taken a run just to stop yourself worrying, then that was the feeling, but writ large.
My bike was becoming my anti-depressant.
And at the moment it was a very cheap brand. I would have happily seen out my Dunedin days on the girl’s bike bike had it not been for another bike shop window moment.
If you remember the last one had been for the chrome BMX that appeared in the windows of Burkes cycles in Wellington when I was an impressionable twelve year old.
This time it was in the window of a south Dunedin bike shop, a bike that I simply had to have, not because it was fast, or Italian, or called out ‘speed’ to me. No this bike was in a whole new format that had me immediately seeing cycling in a new way and thinking about many new possibilities.
The question and the promise of this bike was this - what kind of bike would you need if you were going to ride off the road most of the time?
This was 1988. What I was looking at was an early mountain bike, and it was going to dominate my riding for the next ten years.
Next: A bike found three times