It was probably the highest ratio of Southlanders to other folk that the store had ever seen. The author. The author’s travel companion. An impressive turnout of other ‘Southland deity’ journalists peppering the crowd. But there was an understandable allure – the book of the moment, Going South documents a road trip undertaken by Colin Hogg and long-time friend and former Southland Times colleague Gordon McBride.
The session took the form of a conversation between Colin and Patrick Gower. From the outset, Patrick’s enthusiasm for Going South was evident, as he immediately described it as ‘a really, really magnificent book.’ He and Colin got right down to business, with Colin talking about why he wrote the book.
‘I’m probably always looking for reasons to go south … it bugged me that Southland doesn’t really get a bad rap – just no rap at all.’ When Gordon shared distressing medical news, a diagnosis that meant his doctor gave him a year or so, Colin’s immediate reaction was ‘We should go on a road trip.’ So they did.
The conversation moved between their road trip and Colin and Gordon’s history together in Invercargill. In describing his early days at the Southland Times, Colin talked about older men who ‘didn’t have names, they had initials’, and insisted on writing their copy with fountain pens. ‘They hadn’t even gotten to biro, let alone typewriters’.
Every day there was a poem on the front of the paper, written by one particular member of staff – who was sponsored by the local bakery. Patrick was very taken with the idea, and bakery sponsorship quickly became a recurring topic through the conversation (along with some apparently appalling ‘apricot pillows’ served at one meal).
Colin described the book itself as ‘difficult’. ‘It was easy to write – it wrote itself – but it was emotionally hard.’ Mortality and the fragility of life and community form an integral part of the book, summarised rather beautifully by the Sam Hunt quote used as its epigraph: ‘the world is held together / by cobwebs’.
They talked a bit about the ‘southern man’ idea, and the ways in which the contemporary experience of Southland men might differ from how it was when Colin was growing up. Colin talked about the ways in which his own father was very much in a disciplinary role – called upon to deliver a needed ‘thumping’ even when ‘all he wanted was a beer and a Pall Mall.’ He also described Southland as having an inferiority complex – ‘it explains the continuing presence of Tim Shadbolt!’.
Questions roved around favourite corners of Southland (‘Riverton’), music (two CDs each – resulting in Warren Zevon, ZZ Top and a couple of mixes) and perceived opinions about Southland (‘You grew up amongst rednecks, but there’s a lot of good things to be said about rednecks.’).
In an echo of the road trip itself, the event was full of both laughter and poignancy. There’s no doubt that the audience members were inspired to do a little Southland soul-searching of their own – whether only in the pages of Going South or a trip of their own afterwards, we’ll have to wait and see.
Words and photos by Briar Lawry.