Sunday, December 6, 2009

On Pickled Houses, or My Weekend in Auckland


Frank Sargeson's fibrolite cottage on Esmonde Road, Takapuna.  The only clue this building is significant from the footpath is the large green sign (slyly out-of-shot left in my photo).

I'm always in two minds about visiting the houses (turned-museums) of dead writers. [I wonder sometimes about bigger cities, known to attract writers, like Paris and New York... whether in five hundred years there'll be any inner city real estate left or it will all be writer's museums.]  On the one hand it feels like one of those superficial tourist activities that require a cold shower and a colonic afterwards.  Rather than preserving a writer's environment, museums tend to pickle: they turn the everyday grotesque. What's the queue for?  Oh, Kafka's toilet.

On the other hand, it's human nature to be curious about the lives of writers. The most popular questions from the audience at book festivals are always the 'How do you write?' ones (Do you write in the morning or the evening? Do you type or write long hand? Pen or pencil? 1B4 or 1B5?).  Even for writers who know the tedium of a writing life, it's inspiring to see the seat, the desk, the light fixture, which helped create some lasting fiction.

So I don't visit these sorts of places often, but then again, Frank's place was not my first.

The most recent, in fact, was Pablo Neruda's house, La Sebastiana, in Valparaiso, Chile.  You can read about it here.  Basically, you couldn't get two more different places if you tried.  I mean, Neruda named his houses (!)  and three of them have been turned into museums.  Frank Sargeson's bach on the other hand feels make-do, provisional.  But it also feels lived in.

On the kitchen bench there's two and three-quarter bottles of Frank's favourite drop, inexplicably no longer in production.

Three black berets hang from pegs in the hall.  The hair brush by the single bed is still clogged with hair.  Frank's coat and gardening implements are poised by the door.

A newer radio sits on top of a homemade one, the names of Auckland AM stations written in pencil on the spectrum.

Everything is not quite as it was before Sargeson died in 1982.  There's a medal pinned to the wall which he gave away to a niece (and the family returned after his death as no one seemed to want it *sniff*).  Photos of writers hanging out in the house post '82 are pinned to the wall, along with old rates notices and a takeaway menu dated 1979.

But it smells like it should. It smells of books, old books, well-leafed and sun-faded books. It's old and dark and ramshackle.  It's Frank's place. And it's wonderful.

Bonus Info:
The NZ Book Council's Frank Sargeson Page
A travel piece about the cottage by Judith Doyle
Mary McCallum on visiting Frank's place with her son

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