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Always Song in the Water by Gregory O’Brien


What an extraordinary book. How varied and fascinating it turned out to be; poetic, informative and charming. I love to find a book that tells me things, that gives me stories that I can pass on to others. My family know when I find a book like that, I am forever interrupting them and reading them passages.


The subtitle of this book is ‘An Oceanic Sketchbook’ and that is a pointer towards us understanding that this is a collections of both words and pictures. Gregory O’Brien is both poet and artist, biographer and non-fiction specialist. The first half of this book takes us on road trip to Northland and the second on an ocean going voyage to Raoul Island in the mid-Pacific. After our initial road trip, we depart Auckland’s naval base in the company of artists, writers, broadcasters and a politician all on board a Royal New Zealand Navy patrol boat. This is where the interesting information starts, because Raoul Island is still part of New Zealand, as are various sub-Antarctic islands to the south of our mainland. The result is that only one seventeenth of the territory that makes up New Zealand is dry land. It is five days steaming north from Auckland before the ship leaves New Zealand territory.


The Northland road trip, takes O’Brien back to Dargaville where he worked as a journalist on the Northland Times. The trip has many encounters, one being with a roadside vegetable stall converted into a bookshop. All books are priced at a dollar. I love the randomness of the titles that are picked out; ‘Sheep, Part 1’ and ‘Chemical Methods of Weed Control’ sit alongside Shakespeare, Coleridge and an introduction to Arabic poetry. How did those titles get there? When O’Brien starts to talk about the love of old Faber and Faber book covers, I feel that I am in the company of an old friend.


On seeing the old racecourse at Dargaville, O’Brien recounts his meeting with Australian author Gerald Murnane, whose books so puzzle me so that I am never sure if I am holding a masterpiece in my hand, or if I have somehow missed the point. The description of Murnane fits my impression of the man. ‘He existed in a state which I can only describe as self-imposed, self-regulated exile – with a firm gaze into the middle distance.’ Perfectly captured in a single sentence.


As we move through O’Brien’s recollections, I see more and more references to authors and their works; T.S.Eliot, Joseph Conrad, James Baxter and then Janet Frame, whom O’Brien obviously knew quite well. Fascinating stories emerge.

In the 1980s, O’Brien signed up for a tramping weekend in the Waitakere Ranges and after hours tramping through knee-deep mud arrived at the University Tramping Club hut. Entering this ‘god-forsaken single room structure surrounded by dark, impenetrable bush…I discovered that it houses three upright pianos.’ Apparently emergency training exercises often used pianos, dropping them in by helicopter but invariably leaving them behind. They are a feature of huts up and down the land. This all happened close to the beach where ‘The Piano’ was filmed. O’Brien recalls a comment from Janet Frame that New Zealand is a land of piano tuners. Another of her comments drew attention to ‘pockets’ of poetry in the world, just as there are pockets of depression and wealth. She refers to ‘areas breeding poetry like a rare plant which the nation eats to satisfy an extra appetite, enjoying the pleasant taste without thinking too much of the dangers of the “insane root”.’


In a letter that Janet Frame wrote to O’Brien in 1994 she stressed the ‘colour of distance’ and the need to move away. ‘I am too interested in place and the way I have lived in different places and, later, written of them or used them as a background. I was living in Stratford, Taranaki, when I wrote ‘Living in Maniototo’; and in Auckland when I wrote of the area around Levin; and in New Zealand when I wrote of Suffolk…Absence, for me, is the first necessity of presence.’


There is so much to say about and enjoy in this book, that I have not even touched on the second half, which charts the voyage to Raoul Island and beyond. Allow me to give a little taste: ‘While the experience of the ocean is liberating, the ship itself is confining; during daylight hours the artists can choose between the claustrophobia of the windowless interior and the agoraphobia of the pitching deck. Between Auckland harbour and Tonga we do not sight another vessel apart from the Braveheart, a research ship crammed with scientists, moored off Raoul. On the bridge of our ship, the executive officer tells us that Captain Cook’s maps of these seldom-travelled and little-chartered waters are still, two centuries on, the basis of voyaging through this aquatic region. Hardly any mapping has been done since then, he says, and electronic navigation systems are surprisingly unreliable on account of the undersea volcanoes which play havoc with the vessel’s directional equipment.’


The second half of the book talks about Pacific islands and their history, but also about art and collaboration between artists. We also hear a good deal about whales. When my daughter read the title of the book, she said ‘That doesn’t make sense’, but it does when you talk about whale song and say that there is ‘Always song in the Water’. Until recently it was believed that there were two main groups of migratory whales that approach Raoul Island with entirely different sonar language. At the island, the whales adopt a new shared language, unrelated to either group but which all can understand. Leaving Raoul they revert to their former language. Better understanding has refined the story so that it seems the language of both groups is in a constant state of evolution and adaption. Each season songs change, and Raoul is the place where songs are exchanged and learnt. I learn that ocean sounds can travel for thousands of kilometers. Humpback whale songs off the coast of Mexico can be heard off the coast of Alaska.


What a wonderful book for all its stories, poems and paintings. I urge you to read it, there is so much to learn and enjoy.


Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Published by Auckland University Press, RRP $45

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