Space is elusive. It’s slippery, difficult to pin down. Space is at once personal and public, material and metaphorical. It can cheer you up or get you down. Space is political. It can confine or liberate. Space is contested and hierarchical. Of the numerous permutations of space governing our lives, three defined 2015 for me.
- Interstitial Space
Accompanying me as I write, is the rough rapid beat of a hammer interspersed with the staccato rhythm of the nail gun. The musicians responsible, not visible from my vantage point, are perched high in the scaffolding that surrounds our ill-fated chimney. I am of course resigned to the intrusion, this background music has been playing in the personal and public spaces of post-earthquake Christchurch for nearly five years. That I’m present at this unsolicited performance is rather more difficult to reconcile. With an assuredly generous time-frame of nine weeks for requisite EQR (Earthquake Recovery) repairs, we moved out of our home and into rented accommodation at the end of February 2015. Astonishingly nine weeks ballooned to eight months, necessitating a second move. Ultimately, with our insurance accommodation allowance exhausted – although, squandered, is closer to the truth of it – on October 17, we returned to a partially repaired home. Gradually we have reclaimed the garage and the dining-room has been divested of excess furniture, the outliers returned to their rightful rooms. The lounge, however, remains divided territory, so disappointingly I have not been ‘unpacking my library’. No I haven’t! Twenty-fifteen was a year of living-between spaces – a metaphoric fluid shift from the intracellular space that is home, to the interstitial space – where you and your stuff don’t really belong. But it is, as Seneca observed, “the disaster of an earthquake stretches far and wide”[i] And so, as 2016 begins, we remain – like many other families in this city – in a state of disequilibrium, homeostasis not yet restored.
- Empty Space
“One day there is life…And then, suddenly, it happens there is death”,[ii] opens Paul Auster’s Portrait of an Invisible Man, written following the sudden death of his father. Auster’s narrative, the first section of his book The Invention of Solitude, is part meditative, part forensic investigation, and it was this I reached for and reread in the days following my father’s death on April 2nd, casting aside Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk, – an equally affecting account of the impact of a father’s death – which ironically, I was half way through when Dad died. That I relinquished MacDonald in favour of Auster, had nothing to do with literary merit and everything to do with utility. I needed a mirror. And on the Richter scale of grief, MacDonald’s seemed at a magnitude far greater than mine, while Auster, dry-eyed and accepting, came closer. Auster’s father was in good health when he died, my dad had small cell lung cancer, with local spread into the mediastinal lymph nodes at the time of his diagnosis in June 2014. But, like Auster’s father, dad also, had died suddenly. Swiftly, confounding even the doctors and nurses at the hospice, to which he’d been admitted two days prior, for symptom management. Abruptly, and without undue fuss, dad it seemed, had just disappeared. In the days subsequent, bereft and struggling to assemble him again for the eulogy I must write, I wondered if dad had ever really been here. And that’s not to say he shirked the responsibilities that came with marriage – he and mum were just shy of their 60th wedding anniversary when he died – and fatherhood. But, to me at least, dad was always just out of reach; inscrutable. I reread Portrait of an Invisible Man, to both absolve and console myself. That it was alright to feel as if you’d never really known your father, because, as Auster wrote, “If it is true that we can ever come to know another human being, even to a small degree, it is only to the extent that he is willing to make himself known.”[iii] I’d found Auster’s narrative more than twenty years ago. It was revelatory. Insofar as, in Auster’s portrayal, certain words, certain passages, were like windows through which I would catch glimpses of my father. Even to the story Auster recounts, when his father – described as “always a man of habit”[iv] – in the week after shifting house, absentmindedly returned to their former home, made his way upstairs and lay down in the bedroom as he typically did before dinner, all the while blissfully unaware that anything had changed. Remarkably, dad – also a man of habit – had done almost the exact same thing, but realising his mistake, somewhat sooner than Auster’s father, had stopped short of opening the front door.
Although the trajectory of their lives differed – Auster’s father was divorced and, at the time of his death, had lived alone for fifteen years – as children, both had survived significant events. And, as Auster speculated, “A boy cannot live through this kind of thing without being affected by it as a man.”[v] It was only after his father’s death, and quite by chance, that Auster discovered his grandmother had murdered his grandfather. I, on the other hand, had grown up knowing something of dad’s story. His mother died soon after his birth and his British born father returned to England. So, effectively orphans, dad and his older brother, were taken into care.
I had reached for Portrait of an Invisible Man seeking absolution and consolation, but in rereading what I really found was some perspective. Whether because of, or in spite of, the circumstances of those formative years, dad wore life with equanimity. And perhaps, in the end that was all I needed to know.
- Breathing Space
Yes, it was a holiday, but it was also a means of escape from the diet of disinformation fed to us by EQR for the past seven months. We sought refuge in Wellington for a week at the end of September. And needless to say, I resolved to visit as many bookshops as time – and family patience – would allow. I reasoned it would be an antidote to EQR-angst, a salve for the spirit. Thankfully the capital is blessed with many fine bookshops and, as I discovered, book hunting adventures boosted by a new publication, Book Wellington: The Booklover’s Guide to the Capital, designed by Fitz Beck Creative. Whimsically described, “like a pub crawl for books” by the Association of New Zealand Booksellers, the map offers the truly obsessed with directions to, and descriptions of, eighteen bookshops. Familiar with many of them, I began my pilgrimage at a favourite, Pegasus Books, situated on the Left Bank of Cuba St.
Spread over a warren of rooms, John Hoskins bouquinerie offers a rich array of books, from antiquarian to nearly new. I lingered contentedly amongst shelves that served a bouillabaisse of Poetry, Music, Art, Philosophy, Literature, Classics, Mythology and much more besides, before chatting briefly with John. A bookseller for fourteen years – Pegasus first stamped its hoof in Newtown – John was upbeat about the book business, telling me he saw no sign of a downturn.
Pointing enthusiastically towards a stack of booklets atop a low shelf, just across from his desk, he asked if I’d be in town long enough to catch some of the events at the inaugural Featherston Booktown, of which he would be part. Sadly, I would not. Nonetheless, I popped one of the rather eye-catching black and white booklets into my bag as I was leaving, at least I could read about what I would miss.
I journeyed on further up Cuba St, bound for The Ferret Bookshop, where I would, as owner Terry encourages, poke my nose in.
Opening its doors in 1979, happily, The Ferret can boast of longevity not enjoyed by its mammalian namesake. And although requisite earthquake strengthening over the past few years has twice seen The Ferret scurry further up the trouser leg of Cuba St, Terry’s eclectic collection of books remains constant. Tucking my purchase, the first UK edition of James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, into my bag, I left The Ferret and headed back down Cuba St towards Manners St and Arty Bees Books.
With acres of space in which to house more than 100,000 books, Arty Bees is, as it claims, the largest independent seller of new and used books in Wellington. If you can’t find what you’re looking for in Arty Bees, never mind, because you’re bound to find other books you didn’t know you were looking for.
But, if you find yourself truly out of your depth, as I did on a second visit with my teenage son Max, happily, help is never far away. Matt Morris, Sci-Fi sage and Arty Bees manager – although alchemist better describes what it is that Matt does. Let me illustrate. We arrived at the counter and I asked Matt if he could suggest some Sci- Fi titles. He turned to Max, smiled and asked with alacrity, “robots or magicians”, (it was magicians) “action or beautiful worlds”, (it was beautiful worlds). Then he stepped from behind the counter, and with a wave of his arm, said “follow me, young man”. And with that they were gone. After much deliberation with Matt, Max settled on Magician by Raymond E. Feist, while I jotted down names of the other authors Matt recommended; Fritz Leiber, David Eddings, and Elizabeth Moon.
We left Arty Bees carrying books and wearing smiles. “That guy was quite cool” Max ventured. I nodded in wholehearted agreement, and told him he’d probably just experienced that wondrous phenomenon, bookshop alchemy. Those serendipitous, magical moments that no algorithm can replicate because, they’re intrinsically human. And why, often when you leave one of these sacred spaces you feel in possession of a gift rather than a purchase.
[i] Seneca. The terrors of earthquakes. From Natural Questions, in Dialogues and Letters, edited and translated by, C.D.N. Costa, 2005, Penguin Books, London, pp. 112-113.
[ii] Auster, Paul. Portrait of an invisible man, in The Invention of Solitude, Faber and Faber, London, 1989, p.5.
[iii] Ibid., pp.19-20.
[iv] Ibid., p.8.
[v] Ibid., p.36.