Harnessed to a goose's bridle

German film director Wim Wenders once made a movie called The Goal Keeper's Fear of the Penalty.

It was a psychological thriller - in the vague existential manner of much of the new wave cinema of the 1970s - in which the fear of the goalie was a metaphor of sorts. If nothing much else, the title lingers. One day someone might make a movie called The Columnist's Fear of the Deadline.

If I were writing the script, it would take place on Monday night between 9pm and midnight which, typically, is when I scratch out this column. The sound-scape would include the initially distant murmur of The Falls, a noise not unlike muffled thunder.

It would grow steadily louder as the columnist doodled aimlessly about in the current and drifted, with time, towards the abyss and certain annihilation.

Sometimes the muse is with you and you are out of the river well upstream, thumbing your nose at the gods; sometimes, you escape by the skin of your panic-splayed keyboard-jabbing fingers; sometimes you die. And you must set the alarm clock for some ungodly hour of the morning and try again.

Smoko is at large for a few weeks. I am writing this on a plane. I have with me a letter, addressed to the editor but doubtless intended for the columnist. It arrived not long after the column made its debut, almost a couple of years ago now.

"Why are these articles entitled Smoko?" it began. "With all the advertising encouraging people to quit the habit, is this doing anything to help?

"If the article is meant to be read over coffee breaks, then he is out of touch, as smoking in the cafeterias is now prohibited. If he considers it a good habit, maybe he should think again."

The Smoko logo had been cut out and appended to the paper on which the letter writer's spidery scrawl probed in admirably direct fashion.

The letter was unsigned and, unable to respond, I pinned it to the wall beside my desk. And there it sat, a gentle chiding reminder that the privilege of having a weekly slot in the newspaper to muse or provoke, to challenge or entertain, to set off sometimes at the outset having little inkling of the destination on meandering discursive voyages of discovery, is not without its comebacks.

Nor should it be. Not only would there be little point if it simply confirmed every reader's prejudices, if it failed to raise at least an eyebrow or two, it would be an abject failure. But back to that letter. To begin at the end, long-suffering reader, no, your columnist does not believe smoking is a good habit.

Like a lot of adolescents, I tried it once - between the end of school and the beginning of university, doubtless in a vain attempt to acquire an instant patina of sophistication. To appear cool.

That lasted about three months, until the beginning of the rugby season, which coincided, in my case, with a filthy, hacking cough. Somewhere between the halfway and the twenty-five, bent over, the cold air rasping and rattling in my lungs like gravel in a rolling tin drum, I had an epiphany. Enough.

I'd be surprised if too many readers interpreted Smoko as an endorsement of the habit. My correspondent was closer to the mark in suggesting perhaps it was intended to be read over coffee breaks, although even here he or she is being rather more literal, and optimistic, than modesty affords. However, a deliberate intention to focus from time to time upon matters current in either the national or local conversation and which could conceivably be entertained during tea-break - and throwing an incendiary or mollifying two-bits worth into the debate, is fair enough conjecture.

The first smokos I ever encountered were on the small parcel of swampy West Coast land we lived on when I was about 4 or 5. For a few months we had a dragline, digging drains to make the wetter paddocks useful for more than ducks or pukekos.

The operators were hard, kindly men, calloused of hand and speech, but they always had time to pour a little of their smoko brew into the billy lid for their visitor, and deflect a young lad's boundless curiosity.

What's that? I might ask pointing at some piece of equipment or other, and they would say something thrillingly mystifying like, "A wigwam for a goose's bridle."

It made you want to go back for more.

- Simon Cunliffe is assistant editor at the Otago Daily Times.


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