Language luminary

The genius gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson reportedly typed out The Great Gatsby more than once to try to osmotically absorb that book's wondrous language and rhythm.

Eleanor Catton's Man Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries is a little long for such dedication, but I am already finding its influence in everything I write.

Even short memos to the meter man have been confuddled with inimitable 1865 Cattonspeak, blank lines for profanity, frequent mentions of Chinamen, not racist, the word is on every page of the book, whores and opium, confusing stuff indeed for an electrical company employee normally required only to copy down switchboard digits.

But I daresay this influence will slowly ebb away. Everything ebbs away, after all.

The Christmas-New Year holiday was spent in Christchurch.

What perilous deterioration has befallen this not-so-much-once-great but once-nearly-completely-flat city!

Good g--f, I thought, as I looked around the crumbling edifices, roads pot-holed to the point texting became a duel, the acrid smell of opium on every corner, the only sane recourse for the teeming hordes of Chinamen working to reshape and rebuild.

Corruption and incompetence tolled from every bell, it was d--n difficult to find a decent pie.

I lingered lengthily in a bar, where men gathered sullenly, suspiciously, and tried to prise tales from my unwilling self.

Inevitably, I tumbled down their insouciant slopes, filling their minds with meandering stories, some strong and true, some weak with the timbre of tissue.

They cloaked me in questions and disbelief as my jar was filled, and in turn, I absorbed their side-tales of whores, opium and Chinese villages.

Clearly, this was a city of considerable story-telling and shaded characters, so many of them related in circumstance by even less than one degree.

My eyes and ears widened as I heard of impenetrable logic from those concerned with quaking earth and its shocking aftermaths.

Why would so many desperately-needed building consents be sewn into the cascading dress hems of Fendalton whores?

I finally left the bar on page 631 and confronted outside the people spoken of so vehemently within.

Walter Pemberton!

A man of enormous girth, whose stomach vest required almost as many buttons to contain as the posterior pants behind, which needed even more, 13 in total.

I envisioned the buttons bursting as one after a fine feed, the sound of castanets in an empty Hataitai road tunnel.

Pemberton was reputed to own eight-elevenths of the city's opium, and was a whoremonguer of the longest standing.

I saw him talking to a seagull in The Square ... Pemberton's brain was rotted by wealth and syphilis both, totally b---d, like Al Capone, whose IQ was 90, not a measurable point more.

Capone fished in his swimming pool, so riddled was his brain with Satan's vascular decree, though one suspects opium, too, played its part after seeing what it had done to the Chinamen.

Each night I dined pleasantly in this mutilated concourse, the adjacent house a teeming bordello, European cars in constant attendance, gentlemen in ironed finery squiffing their hair on both entry and exit.

One evening at table, the boy Nat, polite but unemployed, tipped the water jug all over his grandmother Margaret, her meal and spotless couture ruined.

What distress swept over the table at the work of Nat's errant wrist!

This was a holiday where riveting anecdotes were carried on every snuffling breath of the wind, from every drop of rain.

And what p---g rain there was! Rain sent from its nubial overhang at unrelenting intervals; f---g torrential, mate.

Few picnics could be had, no sooner the bambooed hamper packed with crid and rindflum pie than water was woodpeckering the bonnet of the Toyota, driving me back inside to Monopoly and the chewing of cake.

I left on the second morn of new year, the carriage brimful with strange Christmas presents and unwashed clothes, music from the minstrel Louis Reed, his voice clearly fighting from behind opium's leaky shield.

I waved goodbye to the Chinamen in their village, their retorting waves wan and resignant. This city might once rise again , but it will always, essentially, be flat.

Roy Colbert is a Dunedin writer.

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