Notes & Queries by David Herkt


Confessions Of A Sleepwalker

I have been more than fascinated by the much-publicised recent case of New Zealand’s sleep-driving woman. I’ve followed maps of her route intently. She drove from Hamilton to Otara, and Otara to Mt Maunganui. A total of 302.8 km. I was interested in the fact she managed to text friends. I am disappointed no report contains the content of her texts. I was interested in the fact that, in her case, the event was described as a side-effect of a sleeping pill. The fact that she had no memory of the event was another point to ponder.

It also had more than a few resonances as I am an occasional sleep-walker, sometimes with consequences.

It has happened every few years since I can remember. Nothing seems to link the events. They do not seem to reflect stress, alcohol, drug-use, or situation. They don’t seem to reflect psychological state.

Any beginning is lost in childhood where parents are always dealing with confused children in pyjamas in the middle of the night. My own first sharp memory of a sleep-walking event was around the age of 11. I woke up standing in my pyjamas on the grass in the backyard by the mandarin tree. I had unlocked the backdoor and walked into the yard. I remember the moonlight and the glossy leaves of the tree. I remember the chill. I let myself back into the house, relocked the door, and refrained from telling anyone about it. I recall another a few years later when I woke up just sitting in the darkened lounge on the sofa as if I was watching TV.

Any nocturnal wanderings around the house were facilitated and concealed by the fact that my parents and siblings had long been used to the fact I didn’t quite keep normal hours. At High School all my homework was done between 10pm and 1am. Moving around a sleeping household is something I’ve always done. Sleepwalking, however, is an entirely different thing.

Unless you are woken in the middle of things or observed by someone else, it is easy to pass under the radar.  For me though, there often remain nagging odd slices of unexplained memory, when you know something has happened, but just what remains a mystery.

I am a 100% sure I must have taken a nocturnal wander down a road in Sandringham because I have an odd memory of a street, the streetlamps, and a feeling that is only explainable to me if I were sleepwalking. In my experience, small vivid stabs of sensation sometimes remain from the event: the feel of cold night-dew on bare-feet, a rotary clothes-line in moonlight, the nimbus around a streetlamp, and in one case, the feel of piled painting canvases being riffled through in a spare room.

My partner woke me one morning six years ago and asked me if I had enjoyed the egg-sandwich. He had come to the kitchen to make breakfast to find a mess. In the night, I had apparently buttered four slices of Vogels bread, broken a raw egg onto each of them, spread the egg with a knife, taken a bite out of one, and put both sandwiches in the bin. When I tried to recall the event, the only thing that remained in my memory was a certain cold unpleasant feeling in my mouth.

These little flashes of memory generally remain to be puzzled over. They can only be linked with things if some-one else has observed you or you've woken in the middle of it all. The memories always possess this odd aura, as if they are coming from deep-down or a long way away. They are muffled memories.

My partner has observed it once. He’d finished a late work-shift at 1am and watched me walk to the kitchen, pour a glass of milk, not drink it, and return to bed. When I asked why he didn’t wake me, he said that he had said ‘hello’ but I had ignored him, completed my odd half-task, and then walked past him, unseeing, though my eyes were open. Then I was once staying with a friend and was woken by him asking what I was doing. I had opened the wardrobe door and was riffling through coat-hangers as if I was looking for something. I was sound-asleep.

For some reason doors seem to play a big role in things, including my most embarrassing sleep-walking episode.

I was on a work-trip to Sydney, staying in a new just-opened hotel. On the second night I woke up naked in a very long passageway with lots of doors that had no numbers on them. I had no idea where I was. If anything it resembled one of those nightmare or madness scenes in a 1950s B-grade movie; there was a corridor to vanishing point and locked and unnumbered doors. I spent some time wandering along  featureless corridors with their numberless rooms before coming to an elevator.

I did remember my room number and my floor, so I punched in the floor. It transpired I was actually two floors away from my own room. Whether I’d got the lift or had walked down a stairway to get there was a mystery. Naturally when I got to my room, the door was firmly locked. I went to the utilities room on the floor, hoping to find a towel or something to wrap about my waist, but I was out of luck.

So I had to get the lift to the brightly lit foyer, cross it unclothed, tell the startled night-clerk that I had been sleepwalking and didn’t have my key, could I have a duplicate please… I also asked him to check my room-number because at that stage everything was in doubt for me. It was only the next day that I discovered there were two floors of the hotel that were still being constructed to the extent there weren’t any numbers on the doors and no corridor décor. The B-movie scenario was explained.

For me personally, these events and the others I recall feel strange. They feel like another world where things have different rules. There is a sense of fuzzy compulsion about them, like the pull of the moon.

I have only ever seen another sleepwalker once, if that is indeed explains the event. It was a very hot airless summer night in Melbourne and I couldn’t sleep. I went out to the second-story balcony of our old row-house in North Carlton where there was a hammock and made myself comfortable. It was around 3am.

There was a movement on the other side of the street. A woman in a short nightdress was wandering along the footpath. Something about the way she was walking told me then and still does now, that she was a somnambulist, a sleepwalker. The weirdest thing though was that she was being followed by a man, around twenty paces behind her, who seemed to be furtive and keep to the shadows.

Whether he was her husband or partner keeping an eye on her, a passing person who had spotted her and was assessing what was happening, or an opportunistic voyeur, I will never know. I remember the curlicues of the wrought iron lace-work of the balcony, the airy suspension of the hammock in the heated air, and this odd event on the other side of the street: a woman in a short nightdress walking straight along the night-pavement, a man following.

And that’s the nature of the thing. Sleep-walking is strange. It is strange to experience and it is strange to observe. The usual rules of logic, experience and perception are broken. To the sleepwalker, it is both fascinating and frightening. "I have done something but I was not I when I did it." To the observer, it is a human behaviour out of the ordinary and not quite explainable by ordinary rules.

As people, our being in the world is so much larger than our conception of it. Sleep-walking is one of those things that tell us that fact. And I have not really done justice to the very odd flashes of memory that remain from a sleepwalking episode. It is another world seen through different eyes. I do not have the language for it.


 [Image: La Rue du Tramway (1938) by Paul Delvaux. ]


Waikato Railstop Dawn

Trains shifted through my childhood nights. I’d hear them in the distance approaching across the Whangamarino Swamps, a rumble that gradually increased in volume and strength.  They’d roar past in the dark through Te Kauwhata Station, with high-pitched whistle-shriek or the flatter blare of an electric horn, before slowly fading to the south.

They provided a timetable for my dreams. The Night Limited would pass swiftly in the midevening, about the time I was sent to bed. Glowing blinds were drawn down in carriages, concealing the passengers and mysteries of sleeping-compartments . Then later in the night, there would be the rattle and clank of slower goods-trains with their tarpaulin-covered wagons or longer closed trucks moving through the midnight, their steel wheels clicking over rail expansion-joints with a drowsy pulse. 

Many trains were still hauled by black steam-engines then, the J and K series, pistoned and smoky, with their single bright headlight illuminating the rails. Other trains were pulled by the newer boxy Diesels with their grunting whine. Sometimes the trains were loneliness and distance personified, sounding now nearer, now farther, a rumble on the edge of audibility. At other times they were they were comfort and reassurance, offering presence and human agency in the blackness of the country night.

But trains weren’t the only thing that came down the line.

In 1962, when I was seven, there were prison escapers.

It was an era of prison escapes. Young men in New Zealand jails plotted liberty with the help of forged keys. They climbed prison walls on ropes made from sheets. They escaped from guards on trains, jumped to the tracks, and disappeared into the scrub. They went bush with frequency. Their escapes were covered with devoted radio and newspaper attention, peopling more mundane lives with the idea of hunted criminals on the run.

The archetypal representative of the prison escapee of that era was George Wilder.

He was 24, fair-haired and grey-eyed, a burglar with a dislike of confinement. In 1962, Wilder had scaled a high wall at New Pymouth Prison and remained on the run for 65 days before being recaptured

During this first escape, he jumped goods trains, stayed for a time at the Rotorua lakes where he broke into baches to steal clothing and food, was tracked to Waitakares where Police found a make-shift camp in the bush, stole a Vauxhall and fled to Wellington, back to Taumarunui in a Jaguar, Taupo in an Austin A50, before being finally run to ground in Whakamaru. 

There had been hair-breath escapes, cross-country chases, and day-by-day newspaper reportage.

His second escape a year later in 1963, over the blue-stone walls of Mt Eden prison, cemented the legend. It was an era when Police would still set up roadblocks around towns and check cars, but there were always alternative routes.  Again Wilder and his companions hit the railway lines and evaded capture.

His companions would soon be returned to jail, but Wilder eluded the cordons for 172 days. The newspapers reported trademark thank-you notes when he stole food and the fact that he cleaned-up the baches and huts in which he taken refuge before leaving. His ability to evade police, sometimes by minutes, fascinated the public.

Finally, a ranger check of a remote hut, 3 kilometres off the Napier-Taupo Highway at Rangataiki, raised suspicions. When police finally found him, Wilder was in a sleeping bag listening to music on a transistor radio. He’d travelled 2,600 kilometres and committed more than 40 crimes.

For me, though, there had been two other escapees with more personal importance.

 In June 1962, Ian Brown, 21, and Peter Turner, 20, escaped from the Waikeria Youth Centre, outside Te Awamutu. It was the beginning of winter. There was heavy rain. It was cold.

They’d gone south at first, to Otorohanga, stealing fresh clothes and abandoning their ex-military prison issue. They also stole a car. Moving north through the rainy Waikato, the car was seen and reported to Police in Huntly. The manhunt found it abandoned a few kilometres north in Ohinewai.

My father had a truck-depot and workshop right by the railway tracks in Te Kauwhata. Between sale yards and the Whangamarino swamp on the edge of the town, it was safe from observation.  My father also kept the family caravan there. That night the caravan was burgled. Tins of food and two sleeping-bags were stolen.

For a seven year old in a small town where nothing ever happened except sale-days, the annual A&P Show, and a circus which sometimes wintered over, this was an event of some significance. I remember imagining the pair crossing the swamps at dawn, wet sky curdling with light to the east, rail freight-cars clanking between the willows and toitoi, and damp red railway signals flaring in the morning mist.

Perhaps this is what all these words are really about, two young men on the run along railway tracks in a fitful New Zealand winter morning, imagined by a seven year old.

Brown and Turner were tracked from Te Kauwhata, north along the railway, by a dog-handler and a German Shepherd. I can almost hear the dog whining nasally as they crossed single-span railway bridges over dark creeks with the sound of ducks lifting up in alarm from the still pools under the willows.

It was a rail repair-crew who finally reported them, two days later, near Mercer. After a brief chase through the paddocks of a near-by farm they were both recaptured.

We eventually got the sleeping bags back. Mine had a cigarette burn in the blue-gray cloth outer and somehow that burn-mark was imbued with all the romance of the outlaw, of young men on the run, sleeping criminals, law-breaking, police-chases, and the pure usefulness of homely objects on a rainy night in the swamps which stretched, still undrained, from Huntly to Meremere.

But that was the past.

All gone now. Different world. Rail was destroyed unjustifiably by New Zealand’s fiscal madness of the 1990s. The long Whangamarino swamp has been partially drained by mercenary agricultural schemes, a bare remnant of its great foggy sprawl. Escapers no longer reach for folk-hero status, having become somehow meaner and less interesting, a pure product of contemporary society, more pathology than myth, more urban than rural. But it is still the railway lines and the journey of hunted men through the gone dawns in the vastness of a misty Waikato swamp that continues to possess me, in a country that has so few real legends.


The Rejected Selfie

I had the recent experience of being requested to provide a self-image for an international  art magazine, one of those nicely laid-out publications of leading-edge contemporary art, filled with thoughtful commentary, exhibition reviews, artist profiles, and lots of full-page gallery advertisements.

I loathe requirements to provide self-images. I always have. My first facebook self-image dated from the beginning of facebook, and was only recently replaced, after complaints of misrepresentation, by another more relevant to my current appearance.  Even this second facebook image had been taken under obligation, with much wailing on my part, by a New Zealand Herald photographer to accompany a story.  

In the last five years, to the best of my recall, I have only voluntarily delivered two other self-images to the internet. I’d taken one in a mirror after a 24 hour bender, in boxers and a tee, and posted it, with attendant psychology, on my facebook account. The other was a pleasant image taken by a casual photographer at a gallery opening, which I mostly enjoyed because of the other person imaged in it. Images of myself occupy next to no space on my hard drives.  I seldom facilitate their creation publically and I usually don’t perform them in private.

So after the international art magazine requested a shot to be run very small on their contributors page, I gave them an image of myself I actually liked, a selfie – of sorts. I posed it against the large fake Colin McCahon painting in the lounge room. It said a lot about me, I thought. The background was considered (imitation New Zealand art) and the pose dominated by that careful splash of the reluctant subject’s palm. It said ‘no, I’d rather you read my work than look at me.’ There was a little Hollywood, a little media-history, and if you were a palm-reader, all my life was there to see.

I sent it off.

I received the following email:

Hi David,

Thanks for the photo, but we will require you to submit another head shot (without face obscured).

We require this asap as we are heading to print very shortly.


So I surrendered and sent them my lo-rez copy of the Herald shot, really the only ‘authorised-looking’ image I have.  I could live with that image, I figured, if really required.

I also thought lots about the fascism of the obligatory self-image in contemporary life and the odd contradictions inherent in the editorial policies of cutting-edge art magazines. It also coincided with the fact that I have been puzzling a lot about selfies as a genre and a style of self-presentation lately.

The very first selfie in photographic history is Robert Cornelius’ ‘Self-Portrait’, taken in 1839.

 An American, Cornelius had specialised in chemistry at school and worked for his father’s silver-plating and metal-polishing business. Cornelius had been approached by a local inventor to help with a daguerreotype, a process which involved making silver light-sensitive and fixing the result. He discovered his own interest in the technique.

Cornelius’ self-portrait was taken outside the family store on Chestnut Street, Centre City, Philadelphia. He had pressed the shutter and sat in front of his camera for more than a minute. It was labelled in his own hand: ‘The first light picture ever taken, 1839’,  His slightly side-on glance, with its angled almost suspicious air, amply befits the first man to initiate a photographic genre which would come to preoccupy the contemporary world.

Even in contemporary terms, it’s a very good selfie.

It was also part of a long art tradition, since mirrors had first made a self-portrait possible. The true history of the mirror and its effects on our psyche remains to be written. It seems impossible for us to conceive the fact that for most of human history, the vast majority of people had no idea what they looked like. There’s a good portion of contemporary neuroses gone in a flash.

But the self-portrait is seldom just a record. Self-portraits are also self-presentations, with much attendant drama, from Durer’s Christ-like pose to Van Gogh’s bandaged ear

Staging the self seems to come directly after the first experiment. Staging is learned, a combination of tradition and desire. Whether self-portraiture is always aspirational is a moot point, but aspirations go in many directions. There are desires to look mad, bad or dangerous to know, just as there are professional or socially-elevating ambitions.

In 1840, a year after Cornelius posed himself before his camera, the French photographer Hippolyte Bayard photographed himself in ‘Portrait of a Drowned Man’. It was a public and trenchant illustration of his anger at not being accorded the same respect as his contemporary, the photographer, Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre. The tableau was a serve at an art-establishment which Bayard felt had neglected him.

It was a selfie with a message. It was the first image of what would become a preoccupation of photographic self-portraiture – self-drama - where the depictive act is ramped up way beyond an act of record to make a point.

Jump-cut to 2013.

On a daily basis, my Internet feed inevitably contains a number of selfies, taken by people I know. Multiply this ten-fold for the ones I see of people I don’t know.

The first recorded use of the word ‘selfie’ was by photographer Jim Krause at a seminar in 2005 (“That's not to imply that it's "wrong" for your arm or hand to show up in a selfie.”), but has now become ubiquitous, and something that has shaped camera design. While cameras with short-focal lengths and instant delivery, like the Polaroid had made selfies easy, it wasn’t until the smartphone revolution in the late 1990s that the means to instantly take and share a self-image became a reality. One of the major uses of a smartphone camera with a second forward-facing lens is to facilitate selfies.

Astronauts take selfies on spacewalks. President Obama’s daughters were taking selfies at his second inauguration. Selfies are an obligatory part of a media-celebrity’s twitter tweets or facebook posts - with occasional monkey, bestie, or fellow party-guest thrown in. Instagram hosts more than 90 million images hashtagged ‘me’. There are any number of internet sites that offer tips on taking a good selfie: ‘For the most flattering photo, hold your phone slightly above eye level and away from you at a 45 degree angle.’ The Ugly Selfie is a popular meme where deliberately unattractive or distorted images are chosen to be foregrounded and even used as profile shots.

The place of selfies in facilitating sexual contact in the 21st Century also cannot be underestimated.  Dating sites are hotbeds of sexual selfies, and it has taken to extremes by gay males, still our most reliable weathercocks of sexual trends.  On images found on gay hook-up sites and apps, the iPhone has virtually become a secondary sex-characteristic, a product held high in all those selfied images: me-neck-to-thigh-with-erection-and-iPhone. Apps like Grindr mean that one can be fed the nearest truncated-torso’s location for the possibility of immediate gratification. Face-shots are something to be asked for, something that comes later, a fact interesting in itself. A whole history of face dominance gone in a flash.

The role of selfies as representation is also somewhat subordinate to their signification in various systems of exchange. To not have one is to be unable to fully participate in social media activities. Not having a selfie is just like not having an obligatory photographic portrait image (passport, ID, PR). People with selfies want to see yours. They want the happy party, the autobiographical record, the fun-with-selfie-conventions, the ugly selfie, the carpe-diem, the fashion statement, the pose… Your selfie is you. Being and recording have become one.

But my selfie was rejected by an international art-magazine…  I can’t figure out what it signifies. I’m probably vaguely proud of it.  I don’t know what that says about me or the magazine, but I’m sure it says something, just as the rise and the rise of selfies in contemporary media says something about us as a culture.

Are we all narcissists? Are selfies a demonstration of anxiety, where we need the validation of an image to hold the fort against the great dark forces outside? Are selfies just another economic or technical angle on an increasingly mediated life? Are selfies the logical consequence of the invention of mirrors? Whatever. They aren’t going to go away anytime soon. A few weeks ago I watched a four or five year old insouciantly take a selfie by the bucket fountain in Wellington’s Cuba Mall  He had all the angles down pat.



If you ask, Paul will tell you that when he was born he didn’t breathe and it took a long time before he did which is why he has a disability. For a time he seemed to want to tell the story with frequency. It was the beginning of everything. It was what made him different. It was a strange and wondrous event. It needed to be told and repeated.

Paul is intellectually disabled. He doesn’t quite know the detail of the bodily responses that were involved, the death of brain cells from oxygen-deprivation during birth and the effect this has had on his thoughts, emotions, and mobility, but he lives with the consequences: his odd walk which emphasises his right side, his strange stiffness, his learning difficulties, his staring facial expressions, his confusions, and his relative lack of emotional control.

He has short self-cut hair which he dyes black, unwilling in his mid-forties to let the grey streaks show. He has brown eyes. He tans easily. He has had all his teeth out and has refused false teeth. He was rejected by his family and he was raised in homes for the intellectually disabled until he decided on self-sufficiency and repeatedly pestered those concerned until finally it happened.  I would describe Paul as my friend, but it is much deeper now, after fourteen years, than friendship.

I talk to him on a daily basis. We discuss weather, shopping, TV, politics, the news, and his neighbours. I see him every few weeks. We have bitter fights with regularity, which are frequently loud and unpleasant. Paul is also gay, which leads to some commonality of interest and at times a source of drama, for Paul is nothing if not a drama-queen, and his sense of theatre has been honed by endless hours of soap-operas on TV or DVD.

How did I meet him?

It was the budgies that did it. I worked for a while establishing a database for a volunteer gay and lesbian telephone counselling service, and because I had also had counselling training from a long time before, I found myself more involved. Paul was a frequent caller. The manager who ran the service regarded him as someone who couldn’t “progress’ so he got what I regarded as a fairly short shift - his problems weren’t interesting or solvable.

Paul was phoning more out of loneliness than any other issue. I found I liked talking to him, and often did so but he had budgies and the plight of his birds, as he explained it, unable to really move or stretch their wings in their too-small cage, eventually got to me.  

I purchased the largest cage I could afford but I had to ask my partner, John, to deliver it because by the rules of the service I was permitted no ‘real-life’ contact with our callers. Somehow, at the job’s end, when I no longer had to obey the rules, Paul continued on in my life.

Paul lives in a state-provided house in one of Auckland’s most deprived areas, a dumping ground for the unloved, unwanted, the crazy, and the poor. I had to research the suburb for a TV research job once and the statistics are unenviable – number of people on benefits, proximity to liquor outlets, rate of arrest, rate of violent crime. One Guy Fawkes coincided with an inorganic rubbish week and driving through Paul’s suburb, the streets piled with discarded household junk outside unloved houses, was like entering a war-zone: sky-rockets were being fired horizontally across roads, teenagers roamed in gangs, and bunches of crackers sounded like automatic gunfire. It is not somewhere that is going to be a 100% Pure New Zealand advertisement.

At the age of three, Paul had been placed in what would become a series of homes for the intellectually-disabled. Recently we revisited one on his initiative. He wanted to see it again. Now it is partially-abandoned. There were bleak bathrooms, wards with stripped-down beds still in place and crammed together so it was barely possible to move between them, long institutional corridors with lifting carpet, and a dry swimming-pool filled with broken furniture.

Paul was eager to see the place in which he spent his adolescence. The words tumbled out of him. ‘This was my ward. My bed was down there. That was where I was raped. That was where I got punched. I used to sit on that step and eat my lunch. A girl went up into that tower and wanted to jump off. They used to wake us at half past six and we’d have a bath. We were very happy here.’

The disjunct between his descriptions and his state of mind was a revelation.

But when I first met him, Paul was lonely, unhappy, and frustrated, with anger-management problems. He had been arrested and convicted for threatening violence. There were other police visits including the day when a neighbour had complained about him, dressed in woman’s clothing, walking outside their house with a kitchen knife in hand.

He was also being ripped-off financially with frequency by a number of commercial organisations which saw an intellectual-disability as something to be exploited. The worst was a TV rent-to-buy company which was still charging him two years after he had paid them off. There was a woman who sold furniture at rates far beyond its valuation. There was the man who offered to inspect and upgrade household goods who never returned them. There was also the sales-person for a large communications company who upscaled him and sold him an expensive phone-plan and a top-of-the-line mobile phone which he couldn’t afford. They weren’t the only ones.

All of these problems required sorting out, complicated by all sorts of weird ethical decisions about the boundaries of Paul’s freedom to choose versus his exploitation, not to mention the boundaries of my own role in things. Gradually I found myself, for better or worse, enmeshed in Paul’s life.

I also found Paul intellectually engaging. For example, when I first met him he was obsessed and excited by the whole concept of fiction. He initially thought TV dramas were exactly the same as the news, which was not an uninteresting concept. For Paul, an afternoon soapie was real people’s lives. It was real life happening in real time and he wanted to know “what happens when the TV just goes off them, you know, afterwards?”

Explaining the concept of fiction and acting to him was a revelation. It was intellectually stimulating. It was a philosophical problem: ‘You mean they aren’t what they are?’ It was thrilling. One saw the splendid lure of the Big Lie of Fiction played out in someone’s mind. I suddenly saw the wonder of saying what was not. It was like being present when the first lie was told in history, making a thing that wasn’t. Being there at his discovery was something that I still value. A huge chunk of human culture came home to me in that instant.

But all this fiction and drama has run-on effects. Once Paul had to be put under for a hospital anaesthetic for a minor operation and I accompanied him into the operating theatre. It was like putting down a Tennessee William’s heroine who had been raised on TV dialogue. Paul was Blanche Dubois at the mercy of strangers, straws were clutched, every word he uttered could have been scripted by an Academy Award team (“You can’t just leave me here with these people!”) and he swooned perfectly as the anaesthetic hit home.

He has given me much to consider, including just how innate is gaydom?  Paul is somehow naturally gay. He has never really socialised with gay people, so his personal delicacy, his effeminacy, his preference for purses, the hair-dye, and his sense of ‘gay drama’, have not come from a gay milieu. It seems, in his case, gay came first, before acculturation.

He also has unsuspected talents like an extreme facility with dates. Paul must be the only person I know who remembers the Prime Minister John Key’s birthdate, along with that of the late Paul Holmes, Helen Clark, and his budgies (“It’s my budgie’s four and a half year birthday today”). It has a downside though – Paul likes things organised in time, and weeks, if not months in advance, something hard to live up to if you deal in lesser schedules. Paul is happily organising events for a date months in the future, which he knows will be a Tuesday.

It was an allegedly simply thing, to provide the Differently-Abled with a bit of company and someone to sort out problems for which he didn’t know the answers, but it turned out anything but simple.

There was the $1000 debt to a sex-line company where Paul had utilised his fairly omni-sexual voice to engage in sexual banter with heterosexual callers, who thought they were talking to ‘Pauline’. Unfortunately Paul was being charged by the minute. There was the institution of a toll-bar (which Paul still insists on referring to as a ‘tow-bar’) to prevent further occurrences, which he promptly got around by changing his phone number which meant that all previous service-qualifications were removed. He might be intellectually-disabled but he isn’t stupid. Another $800 debt he had to pay off to a sex-line company from his benefit seemed to finally cure this problem.

There was also the ‘flatmate wanted’ ad which Paul ran in a paper which offered free listings. ‘Flatmate wanted by gay intellectually disabled man’ was an unsuspected source of complications. For Paul it operated as the equivalent of a ‘sex-offered’ ad which I hadn’t realised. It was surprising the number of men who responded and came around to “look at the room”. “It was terrible - he had a baby-seat in the back of the car,” Paul said of one brief sexual encounter with perfect sly delivery.

He was reluctant to stop the ad running, despite the complications which ensued, and who could blame him? The ad provided sex, human contact, and drama. But eventually even he realised the consequences were sometimes not entirely pleasant. There were his emotions, there were the odd requests (his foray into cross-dressing was a direct result of one ad-respondent’s interest), and there was the sheer lack of safety.

Then there is Work & Income New Zealand. Paul is on a benefit due to his medical status. He is also on his third trespass order, preventing him going into his local WINZ office, something which is a relief. The complications that resulted from WINZ losing files, repeatedly mispaying him, failing to institute changes, not communicating, and being generally incompetent are hard enough for the averagely-abled human, but were a source of angered frustration for Paul and he would generally express this by threats.

Paul was generally right about their failures just as he was right about the money owed to him. Still, I relish his being banned and I would almost recommend it as a strategy to any long-term WINZ client. Anyone who has stood on the wrong side of the counter at his local WINZ and watched the swanning staffers on the other would agree that it is an experience that does nothing for mental equilibrium. Being banned means the benefit continues and the computer-flags on the files mean WINZ stays away. Being ignored comes as a great relief.

In addition to these factors there were the more personal ones, primarily Paul falling dramatically and competitively in love with a friend of mine.

I had introduced them both in person. We had all visited. They also spoken on the telephone. But it went much further than that. For Paul, it was love at first sight and for a couple of years I had to deal with jealousies and dramas ramped up way beyond Mills & Boon levels.

But there was more. My friend, who worked in the media, had been himself diagnosed with ADHD and ‘poor impulse control. He had a mobile phone-list of numbers that ranged from Government Ministers to TV personalities and the local garage. Throw in conference line facilities, a prankster’s impulse, Paul’s number, and you get the picture.

The phone would generally ring in the mid-afternoon, when the ADHD kicked in, and I would find myself party to a call where Paul was being patched through to the famous and the unsuspecting. At first I found this ethically-challenging, but the calls didn’t seem to hurt Paul, in fact he was generally stimulated and entertained.

I did explain Paul exactly what was happening because for a while he assumed these were just old-fashioned ‘crossed-lines’, but the knowledge didn’t seem to alter things. And let’s face it, he was just sitting there, locked into a State Beneficiary scenario in a bleak suburb, with just the TV and his budgies for company, in an increasingly uncaring world. Calls like this were an entertainment. In fact they were Entertainment Gold with a cast-list better than most high-quality TV chat shows.

Over the years, I’ve heard Paul in conversation with a range of people: the late Paul Holmes, John Banks, the Prime Minister John Key, various government ministers and press-secretaries, city mayors, Charlotte Dawson, more than a few multi- millionaires, currently-rating radio personalities, Michael Laws, sport-celebs, and many more. Throw in the occasional Indian proprietor of a garage or a young wheelchair-bound blogger as ring-ins and you get the picture. It has continued now for six or seven years, and has been global in its reach. Paul has conversed with many of New Zealand’s rich and famous. He’s talked to the news-makers and the tabloid trash.

It was like some sort of Rorschach Test, where you could judge people on how they handled an unexpected call with Paul (“Actually, it’s Paul here”). John Banks, Paul Holmes and Michael Laws were explicitly crude and obscene in their dealings with their unknown caller. On more than one occasion they had all told him to ‘fuck off’ unpleasantly, with a few other unnecessary epithets (“you cunt”) thrown in. It was interesting because these men were the very few that did so.

Charlotte Dawson nicely took fifteen minutes out of her life while filming a reality TV series on a Pacific island to discuss Paul’s budgies with him. Paul’s phone voice surfaced in a DJ’s mix in a nightclub. One morning I unexpectedly got to hear Paul’s voice being broadcast on bFM. The then Breakfast host Hugh Sundae was playing a voice-mail message left on his unanswered phone which had caught Paul in mid-conversation with someone else and because there was always a tendency for Paul to slip into sex-line mode, Hugh got “I’m going to get candles… and get undressed…and rub you all over with oil...” in his odd gender-unspecific monotone.

Frequently there were a number of people on the line, all somewhat confused by the circumstances and just why it was happening, but silently hanging in there for the content.

Paul himself was resolutely unimpressed with the majority of his callers, even when I re-explained just what was occurring, and named some of the people to whom he was talking, explaining who they were in the scheme of things. He sniffed when I mentioned John Banks. He just thought Holmes was rude. His tendency to vote in opposition to National was confirmed by his contact with party luminaries.

I treat Paul as much as possible like I’d treat anyone. I demand the same care from him as I would demand from anyone else. It isn’t a sensitive new-agey type friendship. I figure a good fight is as valuable a part of a relationship as anything, so we argue often, and as equals. I remind him to care for his budgies properly (“Have you given them some greens?”) and he fibs about whether he has done his cleaning or not.

You do have to be aware of just who Paul is and there is always his frustrations of quite literally being exiled from ordinary life and being alert enough to realise it, and he does not deal with change easily. You can’t alter a plan with Paul without a huge fuss. A time is a time and a scheduled date is a scheduled date. But somehow no matter how annoyed you might get with him (frequently I've had to delete 40-odd nasty voice-mail messages) and how abusive he might have been to you (“You little shit, I’m going to kill you.”) have to pull back a little and see things as they are.

When Paul is abusive, you can almost invariably hear what has been said to him played back. Sometimes it isn’t pleasant to hear the voices of one’s fellow-beings in Paul’s words and locutions.  It is the things that have been done to him that you are getting done to you. It is the words that have been shouted at him, that are being shouted at you.

A couple of weeks ago John and I picked up Paul to go to a beach. En route, Paul, who was in a grumpy mood anyway, decided the Titirangi hills were making him car-sick and had an attack of Blanche Dubois again. He was faint. He was dizzy. He fanned his face. “Can’t you see I’m very, very ill.” We had to abort the planned trip and no amount of logic or stopping the car for a rest would dissuade Paul from this course of action.

I was annoyed but when we neared Paul’s home, John suggested going down to the nearby Mangere Otuatua Stone Field’s beach to eat our picnic lunch instead. “Damn you, you little bastard,” Paul said grumpily, while adding “yes” in a grudging undertone. 

I find that simple hour at a not particularly attractive Manakau Harbour beach a really pleasant memory. The tide over the warm tidal flats was full-in. A few rounded cumulus clouds were suspended in mid-air. The scrubby unprepossessing shore was deserted except for a few Pacific Islanders flounder-fishing at the far end. The sea and the hills across the Manakau looked just like that Colin McCahon painting ‘French Bay, 1956’, layered in fractured horizontals of white and blue. Small fish leapt audibly in the shining water.

I sprawled on a rug while John and Paul paddled in the water. Paul was laughing and chatting, the Titirangi drama forgotten now, John was generally agreeing, and as they waded out of real earshot and the sense of their words was lost, what l really recall is the sense of happy contentment in their voices, the relaxation and trust, the sound of the slight waves, and everyone’s small plain pleasure in a shared human instant.


In The Face of Global Terror: 9/11 Cakes, Costumes and Lego

Like almost everyone in the Western world, I remember 9/11 vividly. I woke in the morning to the rolling TV coverage and the collapse of the Twin Towers on repeat.  Terrorism met the Age of Spectacle in a purpose-planned event.

Part of the reaction came from unexpected areas. There were 9/11 jokes circulating within the US by the 12th September 2001 and recorded on a Dutch website by the 13th. There were howls of outrage when an American comedian tried a 9/11 gag a month later at a Friar’s Club celebrity roast for Hugh Hefner. “Too soon,” members of the crowd called out.

9/11 is part of contemporary consciousness. Twelve years later it still holds resonances that cannot be escaped but they are not all funnelled into an authorised mould, hallowed by the memory of the dead. Even in the United States, echoes of the September 11th event have moved into areas of vagrancy, far from officially prescribed reactions.

But how soon was too soon for kids in Twin Towers costume? When is a 9/11 cake safe to bake? What about a Twin Towers Lego model? An Indian man with a 9/11 pictorial shirt?



1. 'Once in Royal David's City...'

February 22nd, 2013

“Purim has begun, and just like with Halloween, children around the world are proudly parading around in their inventive costumes. This is one of the best times of year for our youngin’s- dressing up, going to parties, playing with friends, and playing make-believe… but what about the poor kids that are used as models for their parents distasteful creative endeavors?

Enter Ilay and Nehaoray, seven-year-old twins from Israel whose parents “playfully” decided to dress their children up in famous twin costumes: the Twin Towers. Not only are the kids dressed as the famous New York City buildings, they are fashioning the structures while on fire… with the planes sticking out of the side right near the children’s eye holes.”




2. Controversial Cake


Oct 3, 2002

“This is the controversial fruit cake that Perth Royal Show officials don't want people to see.

Entered in the cake section, it depicts the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Centre.

Last Monday the show's chief executive, Bruce Rathbone, had it withdrawn from competition.

"I was asking people what they thought of the show and everyone was really positive, except they kept telling me how offended they were by the cake, especially people with young children," Rathbone said. "One father had real trouble with his children after September 11 because they were so traumatised by the television footage. The fruit cakes had brought it all back for them."

It was created by a man calling himself John, a former Sydney academic now living in Perth, who reluctantly spoke to Spike yesterday.

"I prefer to remain anonymous," John said. "The story is not about me. I don't have to put my name to something to make a political statement. I was a little bit surprised by the reaction and I didn't think the cake would hit the press the way it has. I was hoping to stimulate some debate about what the image of September 11 means to us while people are thinking about going to war with Iraq.”

"It is an iconic image of our time. I think a fruit cake is perfect because people aren't expecting to see that when they are looking at cakes. I wasn't trying to be a smart arse ... just trying to make people think."

The cake, the first John has baked, took several days of trial and error to get right.

"There are four fruit cakes in each tower with dowling rods through the centre. The towers are coated in strawberry jam and I applied the icing to the jam to make it stick. The plane is made out of icing and the wings were attached with spaghetti. The hardest thing was getting consistency of colour."



3. Frosted Memorial


“This year's winner in the Food Network's Most Offensive Cake contest. Posted on January 13, 2009 at 5:45pm EST “



4. Lego 8-Bit



“Here is a never before seen preveiw of my Lego world trade center ones just been hit the other got hit about 5 muinites ago and fully smoking.”



5. Costume (With Empties)


23rd December 2008

"twin towers costume"



6. Block By Block (With Hand-Held Planes)


“Uploaded on Mar 7, 2009

“A stop motion animation on the events of 9/11 in New York City.”



7. And Suzie Was Shocked


October 30th 2008

"Well, Suzi was looking for Halloween costumes online yesterday, and she stumbled across a shocking sight.  I'm not shocked because somebody else thought of wearing 9/11 themed Halloween costumes.  I am shocked because:

They wore them out on the street.

They were 9 feet tall.




8. Disrespect

"Do you need another example of how far down the memory hole 9/11 has become?

A website entitled The Dirty posted the photo above taken at a University of Arizona Halloween party of an airplane crashing into one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Notice also, the plastic figures of people falling from the "building."

"...when the girl was asked if she thought she would offend anyone she replied, “No, it’s cool, my aunt died on the 64th floor, and it was a conspiracy anyway.”

I'll bet you made your aunt proud, you dingbat!

Is it any wonder that jerks like these may have also voted for Obama, and been the key to his win?"



9. Brickworld 2007



“I set myself apart from other WTC builders by making mine the 9-11-01 WTC.  The impact section did not turn out to my liking, and up close looks like a donut.  Sadly, that is also the section that took the longest to create.

The black/red/yellow/orange impact area took the longest because it required me to study photographs closely.  It was depressing, and I unintentionally took weeks off from building.

My Lego World Trade Center breaks down into about 7 pieces -- plus the removable antenna and fountain sculpture.  Here she is all packed up and ready for our trip to Chicago.  Yay!  Attending BrickWorld's 2007 debut event 720 miles away was a last-minute decision.  I spent 8 months building these towers, and completed the smoke and top sections in just the last 8 days.

First night at BrickWorld, ready for viewing.  This photo by Joe Meno. The BrickWorld display card is facing to the right with my name, sculpture title, and "creator's thoughts."

This is a great shot that captures the image I was aiming for.  It is distant, the way the towers were viewed in reality, and accurately portrays that iconic image of that day.”



10. My Twin Tower Cake


"Uploaded on Sep 13, 2011

Twin tower cake re-enactment”



11. And The Shirt...



December 22nd, 2011

“We get that people use their clothing to make statements. But we don’t like this one, not one little bit.

We don’t know who, and we don’t know exactly where or when, either, but someone made a simple men’s shirt and used a photo of the World Trade Center towers exploding on September 11, 2011 as a print. We hate to assume that this shirt in particular was meant to glorify the moment, which still haunts and angers so many people all over the world, but we can’t imagine that the shirt was made in tribute to those lost in the attacks, either.”