leave no word unread.

“I love this city, the hills, the harbour, the wind that blasts through it. I love the life and pulse and activity, and the warm decrepitude… there’s always an edge here that one must walk which is sharp and precarious, requiring vigilance.” – Patricia Grace, on Wellington

 

When you start a new job, it always takes a few days to work out which way you’ll walk to get there every day. Like a dog turning in circles before finally settling down, you work and re-work circuits, looking for not only the shortest distance but perhaps the one with the most aesthetic pleasure or convenience. Do you pass a supermarket or dairy? Is the view nice? So as I began work at the restaurant, I experimented, trying out various routes through the central downtown section. My friend Aimee, though, walking home together one night, took me along the waterfront, bypassing the crosswalks and crowds. Taking this way again the next morning, I noticed in the daylight a large stone slab that was attached to the side of a pedestrian walkway that bridges over a busy roadway. On the concrete was inscribed a quote:

“Then it’s Wellington we’re coming to! It’s time, she says, it’s time surely for us to change lanes, change tongues, they speak so differently down here.” – Vincent O’Sullivan

It was the oddest of locations, if you’d asked me, for such a literary memorial. But then there was another, on the Queen’s Wharf, just where you board the Dominion Post ferry. Clearly there was some connection between the two, but still, I had no direction. It wasn’t until I began planning a visit to the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace that I came across a photograph online of yet another stone slab bearing a line from Mansfield’s story, The Wind Blows. A caption – finally! – gave me the information I long desired, pointing me to a Wellington Writers Walk that exists all along the waterfront, these concrete blocks bearing witness to the city’s influence on its literary-minded residents.

The walk supposedly came into being in 2000 after the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Society of Authors brainstormed over potential ways to create a memorial to the writers of their community. What resulted was a series of so-called “text sculptures,” designed by typographer and graphic designer Catherine Griffiths and unveiled in 2002 as part of the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts. If the stones I’d found already were anything to go by, the websites weren’t far off when they described the stones being located in surprising nooks and crannies.

More research led me to different sites which gave me different numbers – some said eleven such stones existed, some said fifteen, and the only links to a map of the walk wouldn’t open in my browser. This matter of a map seemed important if I was to partake in such a walk. Although I’d seen two of the stones myself, just where were the others hiding? The next day, having visited the Katherine Mansfield House that morning, I decided to continue with the literary theme of the day and complete the walk on my afternoon break. Sunny skies and not too breezy of a wind promised good conditions for tracking down these elusive stones. But preparatory visits to the Central Library, Te Papa Museum, and the I-Site all failed to yield any map or guide. A blind search it would be. All I had to go on was a tip from a Te Papa volunteer that the first stone was “just around the back to the left” and to “just follow the waterfront” to find them all. Nothing like vague directions to get the journey going.

It was at the end of a long, wide sidewalk behind the museum that I came to my first stone, featuring the words of none other than Katherine Mansfield. It seemed a fitting beginning, starting off with one of the country’s most recognized and renowned writers, before delving into the works of perhaps lesser-known souls. I found the imagination of whoever chose where to place each stone nearly rivaled that of the writers themselves. Tucked along stairways, on rocks, against walls, the obscurity of each location only increased the satisfaction gained from each discovery. I often approached them as if coming onto a desert oasis – in the distance, I could almost detect the block of stone, looking only ever so slightly different from its surroundings, yet could never be entirely sure until directly in front of it. And although most plaques were obviously concrete slabs, a few of the markers were instead metal letters adhered to benches – “Benchmarks,” as I later discovered they were named. One such read:

“From Brooklyn Hill, ours is a doll-sized city; / A formal structure of handpicked squares and bricks / Apprehensible as a child’s construction/  Signifying community…” – Louis Johnson

In the first run along the waterfront, I came across only seven of the markers and ran into a colleague around the corner from the restaurant, filling her break with reading and sunbathing. I could tell she was a bit annoyed at having her little spot found out but I assured her, “Don’t worry, I won’t be long. I’m on a treasure hunt,” and carried on, determined. As if lost in a city, at which point you turn the car around and make yet another loop of the same block, certain to spot the street number or store name that second time around, I did the same. I retraced my steps and found myself back at Te Papa, ready for round two.

Many of the sculptures were located just slightly out of the everyday view from a sidewalk. You had to walk just this way, lean your head only slightly to the right, or walk just ever-so-much-closer to the edge of the wharf to stumble upon each marker. I began to take pictures not only of the stones themselves but a wide-angle shot as well, placing the stones in the context of their surroundings, noting how far they fell below or outside normal eye-level. And with each new stone, it was a quiet moment, this journey of discovery being quite the personal affair. At the moment I found Bill Manhire’s quote by the water, I was surrounded by loud teenage boys diving into the water, climbing out on ladders, and a large, cheering crowd ahead of me, gathered for a final day of competition in the world unicycling championships. 

 

I kept track of the stones I found on my hand, ticking off little hashmarks as I went along. Slowly the count grew, almost doubling. As if finding your keys at the end of a long search in the place you first looked, I was surprised I’d missed several of them the first time along the waterfront. In all, I found thirteen.

I read the words of Maurice Gee, whose short stories and novels led him to be named one of ten Arts Foundation of New Zealand Art Icons in 2003. I read the words of Michael King, the historian and biographer awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for literary achievement in 2003. One of King’s seminal works, the Penguin History of New Zealand, was published just before his death and I’ve yet to walk in a New Zealand bookstore without seeing this title on the first shelf to greet me. And then those of James Baxter, who seems to be as well known for his poetry as for the controversy surrounding his poems. As such, the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature records that Baxter was often “at odds with a society unable to stomach its disturbing reflection in his work.” Towards the end of his life, he even founded a spiritual commune called Jerusalem near Wanganui, with a straggly beard and barefeet to match his eccentric beliefs.

And so the more I learnt of these figures, the more I began to think of the literary traditions of New Zealand as a whole. The writing I came across on the walk was as brilliant and well-crafted as anything I’ve met along the way of being an English major and long-time literature-lover, so why isn’t it seen more often on the international stage?

While looking into a book on Somes Island, where I hoped to journey via ferry the next sunny Saturday off, I came across another Kiwi author, David McGill. In an interview with the New Zealand Book Council for their Writers in Schools program, he addresses the question of whether it’s difficult to earn a living as a writer in New Zealand: “Yes, writing cannot pay well in New Zealand because there are not enough people to buy books.” Was that it?, I began to wonder, feeling myself caught in a chicken-egg conundrum, of sorts, curious as to why New Zealand writers aren’t more often featured on New York Times lists or The Guardian book reviews. Is it truly because the market is so small? Does a limited market in turn limit potential universal influence? Or rather, have writers of a questionable caliber influenced the size of the market?

I remember conversations with my Christchurch-born friend in London, telling me, “I came here to write,” hoping to find the connections and opportunities there greater and more fruitful in a city whose population is three times that of his entire home country. As the plaque for Bill Manhire reads, “I live at the edge of the universe, like everybody else.” Is it really the fault of a poet that he was born in a location as obscure as Invercargill, New Zealand, and thus his chances of publication and recognition on a global scale diminished? Either way, the walk – in all of its wild-goose-chase-tendencies – succeeded in its task of leading me further into the depths of a nation’s literary history. It’s perhaps not as easy to get to know as it was in England, not quite so recognizable on the surface as say, Dickens or Shakespeare or Austen, but one equally rewarding.

That night, of course, the online maps loaded instantly, and I came across information I had somehow missed before. Apparently fifteen plaques exist and four benchmarks, having been installed later in 2006. But in the end, as annoyed as I was that I hadn’t been able to find them all in the first go, it made sense, too. I liked the way it worked out, the idea that there were still plaques awaiting my discovery, literal stones left to turn, words left to read.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “leave no word unread.

  1. Jen Skalbeck

    LOVED this! Thanks for including the pics too; felt like I was taking the walk along with you. I love discovering those delicious little tidbits of writing chosen to grace memorials throughout a city.

  2. “World Headquarters of the Verb.” LOVE THAT! Isn’t it ironic that your last stint in NZ is in Wellington, where great writers wrote! Is it a coincidence? No, providence! God is so good. He has unfolded His path so beautifully. I really did feel as though I was walking alongside of you, as if looking for Easter eggs! I KNOW you will find the other plaques! Did you take pictures of all of them? POST! POST! POST! Love it!

  3. i wish you HAD been taking that walk with me, jen! you too, mom 🙂 an Easter egg hunt is the perfect analogy for the walk – that’s exactly what i was looking for to describe it. of course i took pictures of all the ones i found, and when i’m eventually able to get to uploading the barrage of photos i’ve taken since november, they’ll be in there 🙂 love and miss you both!

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