Fiona Farrell interview

by andrew.mcnulty / 29 October, 2011
Christchurch writer and poet Fiona Farrell adds a post-earthquake chapter to her book on walking.


"Last year I was writing a book. It was about walking: a travel book.” So begins The Broken Book, a new collection of essays and poems by Fiona Farrell, a ruminative journey through French villages and crocus fields, along the hawthorn hedgerows of childhood, into the frantic kitchens of early motherhood and the “safe place” of the blank page, into the close bush of Banks Peninsula and down Dunedin’s Baldwin St, “The Steepest Street in the World”, hand-in-hand with a fuschia-popping two-year-old.

Gentle, insightful, the essays ramble through time and place, encountering the small strangenesses of other countries, the foreignness, as LP Hartley insisted, of the past. But note the opening line – it was about walking.

September 2010. Farrell was in Christchurch, three chapters into her book, when a 7.1 earthquake pitched and roared and “ripped up the map entirely”. She called family and friends. She tidied. She went for a walk. “It was necessary. To find other people. To begin to get a grip of what had happened ” It was also a relief. No one had died. The city was largely intact. “There was a kind of innocence. We didn’t know there would be another big earthquake or thousands of aftershocks.”

With the travel book on hold, she had started work on a collection of stories about the earthquake when, stopping for lunch in Dunsandel on her way to Dunedin, the ground shook again. It was February 22 and the car radio began its terrible inventory: people dead in Cashel St, the Cathedral collapsed, city workers trapped in the CBD. She did a U-turn. She went home.

Now it was the earthquake book that was put aside. She added a fourth chapter to the walking book, a chapter about quakes and cordons and extraordinary bravery. Then she inserted 20 new poems, breaking the text apart with images of cracked tiles, shattered chimneys, unshuttable doors and “a brkn cty / all its wds r / smshd to / syllbls.”

“(The poems) are arbitrary. Dropped in. Breaking the flow of the book,” explains Farrell. “I wanted to show how your rhythm and pattern get broken. It is like there is a complete crack.” We are at Vic’s Cafe in Christchurch. As with every venue still operating post-earthquake, it is full of chatter and steam. We congregate, we will life back into the city.

“The way we were before the earthquake is different from the way we are now. The rhythms change, the routines in your life change – you go to buy a pair of shoes and the shop isn’t there; if you plant new potatoes every spring for Christmas, this year you don’t. And you have this empathy with other people who have been through things.” Farrell describes a phone call from a cousin who rang after September to tell her he had lived through the Wahine disaster – he hadn’t told her this before. The vocabulary, too, is different.

“You talk of people being earthed, grounded, steady and settled. Then you have all the bad words – rattled, unstable. That is how you feel. Those metaphoric words become very real. It’s unsettling. You can only take shock in teaspoonfuls. I can have a tiny bit then I have to shut it all down, then I have another little bit. You slowly inoculate yourself against shock. But it is nature. It is an appalling thing and I don’t want to be Pollyanna-ish about it but you know it’s not planned, it’s not like being in the Blitz.”

Yet Farrell is also angry. Angry at what has become, as she wrote in the Press, a “free market, market-driven earthquake … an endless tussle with private business”, angry at the pace of reconstruction, angry at a city’s dependency on insurers in Brisbane and New York “while all around you hear the bright voices of people cracking under strain, people living in broken houses, people losing jobs … children disturbed and unable to sleep”.

Novelist, poet, playwright and this year’s Robert Burns Fellow Farrell comes from a long line of walkers. In The Broken Book she describes her great-great-grandfather pushing a barrow over the Kilmog hill to fetch flour and sugar from Dunedin, the Irish paupers on her father’s side walking the green lanes with a spade and “four or five raggy children”, her mother’s hurried nurse’s gait, her daughter walking the length of the South Island. And now her grand-daughter, splashing through puddles in gumbooted feet.

As a child Farrell preferred wheeling through Oamaru on her father’s bicycle. As a young adult she favoured the “swift swoop” of the car. It took a year in Menton, exploring the ancient tracks and mule paths, small villages clustered around closed chapels and olive groves to discover the unique pleasure of treading gently through the landscape.

“I do love walking. I think it’s just the simplicity of it. You are not making any impact – you’re not noisy, you’re not drawing any attention. You can pass through a town without making any kind of ripple. There’s that feeling of being an observer, almost an anonymous person, fading into the landscape but watching it and listening to it very closely.” The feeling too that if an earthquake did hit and she couldn’t drive, “I could just set off and walk and somehow I’d get where I needed to go”.

Each day she walks. From her home in a remote “pocket bay” on Banks Peninsula (a stopover on a popular walking track), she walks past sheep yards and gum trees, though the walnut grove planted by a Frenchman in the 19th century, to a waterfall overhung by fuschias. On the way she plots furious letters to the editor: “Yours sincerely, Outraged of Otanerito.” At the waterfall she stops, she stands, a “deeply inconsistent woman in a woolly hat” thinking of all the people dear to her and “wishing them well”.

Each year she and her partner, Doug, go on a walking trip, travelling for hours by plane and train to walk “through a beech forest with bluebells or along one of those old French mule paths”. Absurd, she writes. “Pointless. Perfect.”

In The Broken Book she describes a walk in the Cévennes, along cobbled pathways between stone-walled fields, noting the small Madonna carved out of walnut, a tiny chapel with mermaids on the lintel, dark-eyed sheep, copper-coloured chrysanthemums. They pass through fields of puy lentils, they startle a small black boar in a chestnut wood, they see a herd of cows being driven down the main road of Le Bouchet-Saint-Nicolas, they watch an oompah band made up of dreadlocked hippies and children like “tangled angels”, always with that curious feeling “of watching a drama with no idea of plot, context, subtle sub-text”.

It is a form of pilgrimage, this passage through the landscape, a ritual practised for centuries by those seeking cures or absolution, enlightenment or weight loss. Rather than follow the more famous route to Compostela (“I am simply not Catholic enough”), they take the route to Saint-Jean-du-Gard, tracing the steps described by Robert Louis Stevenson in his Travels with a Donkey, not from admiration for the author – an “irritable little Scottish writer” who horribly maltreated his donkey, Modestine – but for a photograph of a hillside village with a humpback bridge.

In Menton she abandons a Mansfield symposium to visit the Winter Palace, once part of a chain of grand hotels catering to the tubercular, now nestled against the Riviera Palace “like two massive cruise ships”. She imagines the rows of deckchairs, the “whiff of mortal decay like the green stains on a bath”. She recalls her mother’s brother, reckless clever Rob, TB flying like “a swift little bird” and nesting in his spine.

The Broken Book has its own textual scaffolding, from the school earthquake projects, WELLINGTON, NAPIER, MURCHISON written in Letraset capitals, the “Big One” still waiting in the wings “like some heavy villain twirling his moustache”, to Voltaire’s poem about the 1755 Lisbon earthquake sending cracks “through the entire edifice of European thought”. (Portugal’s King Joseph I refused to ever enter a building again.)

She quotes 12th century pilgrim monk Aymery Picaud – the inhabitants of Navarre, he cautions, are “full of malice … depraved, perverse, despicable”. Browsing (a drifty word, she writes, “full of purposeless pleasure”) the shelves of the Cork City Library she finds The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare, the oldest poem comprised in Irish. She is diverted by the old-fashioned belief in spes phthisica, “the feverish and giddy hope” of the tubercular once believed to have inspired the bright creative energy of Katherine Mansfield and French poet Jules Laforgue.

And Rousseau, his Thoughts of the Solitary Walker, gentle rhythmic reveries read by Farrell as the earth “arched and horribly shuddered”. It was with Rousseau, she says, that she found her way back to her book on walking.

“When I’m reading travel books I like the tale of the journey. I can’t stand certain travel books, people in Tuscany, eating this, drinking that – I don’t find them satisfying. I like that sense of personality.” This year there will be no overseas walking trip. Their flat is red-stickered. Their Banks Peninsula home has a five-centimetre gap between the kitchen and bedroom – a tattoo, she says, not unlike an appendix scar.
But maybe next year, maybe Norway.

“I’ve got an old Baedeker guide about walking in Norway. It advises things like what you should wear – a tweed suit and stout walking boots. I’d like that – to go round the fjords in a tweed suit and stout shoes.”

THE BROKEN BOOK, by Fiona Farrell (AUP, $34.99).

RNZ National's interview with Fiona Farrell on Saturday Morning with Kim Hill here:
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