Ben Brown (Ngāti Mahuta, Ngāti Korokī, Ngāti Paoa) is a story teller. His stories are philosophical and luminous and funny and intellectual and they plunge from one mood to the other without missing a beat. I spent a week in a van driving around Taranaki with him recently and our conversations changed me, though it’s hard to say exactly how.
There is something so intrinsically kiwi about Ben and his stories. If you grew up in New Zealand between the 1950s-1980s here is a place you will recognise instinctively. These stories feel like a snapshot of kiwi childhood. Kids jumping from a bridge into a river, the ‘can-do’ attitude of our parents’ generation, the distinct two worlds of Māori and pakeha that overlap in this family. This description feels like some place I remember visiting; there’s such nostalgia here: “The khaki wooden prefab was rudimentary and confined: a two-room fold out shoe box with sway-back single beds and a freestanding wardrobe in one room: and a table carved with names, places, obscenities and various years, along with two chairs, a sink-bench and cupboards, a woodstove, a cold tap, four tin mugs, four plates and miscellaneous cutlery in the other. It had electric lights.
Ablutions sulked in a dank tin shed with a concrete floor draining onto a sump out the back…”
This is home to the tobacco workers in the late 50s, descriptions of life before it became sanitised and safe. Our 21st century cutesy ‘farm cottage’ holiday-B&Bs with double glazing, good showers and that old-fashioned feel? Nah. This was real life.
A Fish in the Swim of the World is the story of Ben’s family and his love for them and it is endearing, though he’s pretty direct with his commentary and doesn’t sugar-coat much. His parents were hard-working tobacco farmers in the Motueka valleys: ma a Waikato Māori and his father an Aussie. Hard and soft lessons of childhood pepper the story. These days a young Ben would be coached through his attention-seeking behaviour, but back then he was just an inquisitive kid, not listening to much (but he was, he was!), working things out for himself, most of his antics starting with a boyish – what would happen if….? He had farm’s worth of animals, tools, chemicals, and motors to play with. If he wasn’t salting birds’ tails he was throwing his father’s tools in the river. They’ll float, right? Good stories.
The book is in chapters that meander, from his mother to father to friends and whanau, school to death to birth to marae. There’s a two-page chapter called ‘Providence’ about a farmer doing a burn off on the hill, made happy by news of the birth of his son, but ‘the breeze has changed its mood and he hadn’t noticed‘. The man ends up kneeling to his God. It’s about a perfect a short story as you can get, within a story, within a story.
The story of the Waikato Kīngitanga movement is here, and hoha kids visiting ma’s Waahi paa with the Huntley Power Station a dominant neighbour on Waikato land. There is the service of his grandfather in negotiation with the crown for land lost. The Raupatu Claim ends with an apology and a settlement. ‘The claim was the ghost of Waikato,’ he says. Still, his grandfather got a ride-on lawnmower.
Ben is an oral story-teller and his side-rambles are legendary. This comes through in the book. It’s a fluid journey. He questions everything: wonders why God set a trap for Eve and then branded her so monstrously evil that everyone thereafter has a soiled soul, yet a penitent wrongdoer can say sorry and go to Heaven? Good question. The inevitably of some things, for example why Crash went crazy–’like summer turns to autumn or berries turn to wine‘. His aunt Jenny ‘She was beautiful and bright and I thought she was the greatest thing. She was monstrous and I was afraid of her.’ Ben is ‘vexed’ by the idea of death and a lot of other things. Vexed is a lovely word. It’s not angry questioning, just a young man tying to figure things out – perhaps a bit too persistently occasionally, for his parents.
We go to Darwin with his dad ‘...frontier and exotic, caught in the Dreaming of the northern tribes, spiced with skewered meats from Asia. Pearl luggers in the harbour, men from the bush in town for a bender, beachcombers living rough, runaways and Mama-dodgers, Fannie Bay Goal, The Darwin Hotel, an opium den in Chinatown, wild buffalo, crocodiles, serpents and ‘bush-blacks’ on the outskirts, among them Kaditja men with feather feet and singing spears.‘ We get around.
I can’t even begin to understand cousin Stanley but his story spills off the page and into your heart. ‘Stanley was my brother for a while‘. Ben seems to be able to look at horrific things and find the beauty in them, make them matter.
I read this book slowly. I’ll read it again, maybe in a year or so. Again, slowly. And probably a few more times after that, just for the elegance of the language. (Good value for $30, ay?) There’s a lot here. All of it kiwi and all of it matters. If we want to know what it means to belong to this country, this is essential reading.
Ben Brown is Aotearoa New Zealand’s Te Awhi Rito Reading Ambassador. Reading, writing, stories. What a great man for the job.