• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Mystery man

A date with Helen Clark's would-be lover, Richard Meros.

I think it was Katharine Hepburn who said she didn't care what the papers said providing it wasn't true, but even so, you really have to draw the line somewhere. A few years ago, I was surprised to see myself name-checked in the political column of a Sunday newspaper as having been the possible author of a randy little philosophical tract, On the Conditions and Possibilities of Helen Clark Taking Me as Her Young Lover, that had just been published pseudonymously under the name of Richard Meros.

What could this possibly mean? True, I had interviewed the country's premier one hot summer afternoon in the recent past, the memory of her presence yet vivid: the yellow skirt and white blouse, red roses tastefully arranged on the office table, a liability to thoughtfully press her slender fingers together while favouring me with a slightly wolverine smile as she considered her responses. But any erotic potential in this parliamentary encounter had never consciously registered, much less spurred 86 pages of such phosphorescent imagining:

The proximity to which I seek shall be meek. I will be your taxi driver, your botanist, your able shoe-shine, thou coco-cabana boy on your next undisclosed journey. I will be that desire you have lost; the one that smells the sun rise, sees the hand's warmth, hears the eye's weep, the sensualities you tasted once, but have forgotten. I will be the mist you curse from your windscreen and the very wealth that binds you as you strive for it.

I will be naked and splayed.

The erotica is ... well, unconvincing, but presumably that's partly the point of the exercise, a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the collective love affair that many people in the local media at the time seemed to be having with Clark.

Or so it seemed to the Guardian, cautioning as the British paper did in its brief notice against the work's graphic sexual descriptions and scruffy aphoristic exuberance. Like the bit in the treatise about a young lover on a bicycle ride being a better model than a turgid soul chained to his keeper's settee, or the line where Meros threatens to deal with his critics by biting them on the nose ("and if your face is already bitten from, then the truth of this will be proved a priori").

Incidentally, I'm not as young as I once was. This is important because, according to the Guardian, the author's age was "less than 30 but more than 20", which, when you think about it, seems a reasonable enough assumption for such a work and the most likely explanation for a work containing so many references to the pop singer Morrissey.

Asked by the same paper why he had insisted on anonymity,- Meros indicated he was anxious to guard the delicate sensibilities of an ageing grandmother as well as duck any possible defamation suit brought against him by the subject of his book.

On that last point at least, his fears were to prove unfounded. Earlier this year, Creative New Zealand (which is to say the agency acting on behalf of Arts -Minister Clark) funded the one-man powerpoint performance of On the Conditions and Possibilities that is currently touring the country, playing to appreciative audiences and spurring a fresh round of guessing games in the media about the real identity of Meros, with the finger of suspicion now usually placed on actor Arthur Meek.

Meek, it has to be said, has played the game for all it has been worth, granting interviews in which he has coyly suggested he and Meros are indeed very close, even allowing himself recently to be quoted in one, published in the New Zealand Herald, in which he spoke as Meros. The cheek of it.

Matters, however, cannot be left there. While it's correct to say I never had authorial relations with that man, Mr Meros, I was to enjoy journalistic relations with him, and quite recently, too.

Indeed, at almost precisely the same moment one man in Auckland was -suggesting to the Herald that he was -Richard Meros, another man who had once been wrongly accused of being Richard Meros was seating himself inside the studio of Wellington -student radio station VBC for an interview with the youngish man who -actually is -Richard Meros.

Now aged "between 25 and 35", the Otago-born student-author of this -decade's runaway underground publishing hit has studied subjects from philosophy to business law and music.

Conceived during a late-night session listening to Van Morrison's ancient hit Young Lovers Do during a study-abroad trip to Minneapolis in 2004, On the Conditions and Possibilities acted "like a safety valve to siphon off less academic writing" while Meros was completing his master's thesis at Victoria University.

Alas, neither activity has yet brought the author substantial financial benefit, but with sales of the treatise having passed the psychological milestone of 400, he remains hopeful. Meros is currently unemployed, or as he puts it, "gaining fiduciary buoyancy from the entertainment industry with forays into the beneficiary industry".

"I am fascinated by the more colloquial uses of language in things that are often official and numerous," he explains, puffing energetically on an ever-present pipe, "like memorandums and completed application forms."

Small surprise, then, that he is currently working on a book provisionally titled Complete Written Correspondence between Richard Meros and Creative New Zealand, the first volume of which is to be based on a series of his applications for CNZ funding. Like On the Conditions and Possibilities and Meros' last book, Richard Meros Salutes the Southern Man (2007), the coming work will be published by the "firm but fair" Wellington-based publishing collective Lawrence & Gibson.

"I'm interested in people who are not used to institutions who attempt to communicate with those institutions through means that aren't expected or accepted by those institutions, and what the results of these interactions spawn," Meros says.

"Another example of this would be a personal letter I received from Pete -Hodgson, in 2003, in response to a non-commissioned portrait I painted of him sitting like a cross-legged guru in his newly refurbished office with a ticker-tape of sayings coming out of his mouth ranging from lyrics from Madonna and [neo-Marxist funk band] Gang of Four as well as his own speeches.

"The great thing was that he wrote to me that he recognised some of the quotes as his own, though possibly all of them were his! I was also very moved, in 2003, watching Mr Hodgson trying to leave the Otago Museum, and the automatic door not registering for him, and this crystallising for me something to do with how fleeting and silly power is when confronted with a) eternity and b) machines."

With a general election looming, and the polls suggesting the incumbent prime minister could have a bit more recreational time on her hands after the 2008 poll, does Meros still believe he has any chance of being taken seriously, or at any rate romantically, by the premier?

"Do leaves consider what happens when the wind picks them up?" he replies. "Do sheep consider where the farmer sends them to?"

He pauses for a moment, his brow corrugated in thought. "To be taken implies I am a peach, and she simply plucks me as if she were a cheeky orchard worker," he finally says. "But there is no utu for the peach, for the leaf, or indeed for the sheep."

Whatever would Katharine Hepburn make of that?