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Colin Hogg: Why my mates matter (and keep on ending up in my books)

Colin Hogg. Photo/Supplied

With his second book about Sam Hunt proving a hit, Colin Hogg ponders why so much of his writing career has been inspired by his mates.

A mate of mine asked me why I keep writing about my mates. I wish he hadn’t. I’d only recently noticed the pattern myself and now I realise it goes back further and perhaps even deeper than I’d imagined.

Mate is one of those words New Zealand men throw around like lawn seed. I’ve never much liked men I barely know calling me “mate”. It makes me think that they can’t remember my name. It makes me feel that if every man in New Zealand wore a name tag, it would read “Mate”. Which feels like the start of a Fred Dagg skit, so let’s not go there.

My 10th book (recently released, not for softies) is called Sam Hunt: Off the Road, and it is, as it happens, about a mate of mine. It’s the second book I’ve written about Sam, the well-known poet and national treasure. My first book about him, Angel Gear: On the Road with Sam Hunt, was published 30 years ago.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

It was the process of writing that first book at the end of the 1980s that made us mates and we’ve been mates – off and on – ever since, which is what led to my writing this second book about him, though only after a lot of dithering.

Talk of another book would come up now and then between us, though we always told each other we should never embark on such a foolish enterprise and that, if we did, we’d likely fight about it and that could be the end of us as pals. A new book would come from a quite different place than the last one, a much more informed place, now that we were old mates.

When I signed on, in 1988, as Sam’s road manager for a tour and for the purpose of writing that first book, I didn’t really know him very well at all. It was our first date, really. It could have gone either way. Thirty years later, it’s another world altogether.

With Sam Hunt in 1988. Photo/Gil Hanly/Supplied

But I went ahead and wrote Off the Road anyway and Sam read it and said he was happy and it hasn’t been the end of us so far, though, as mentioned, the book hasn’t been out long and anything could happen.

We’ve fallen out before, spectacularly, about unusual things, but you’ll need to read the book to get any detail of that. It’s too painful for me to repeat here.

Off the Road grew out of mateship, out of the crunchy humus of our 30-year friendship, which afforded me unusual intimacy with my subject. But writing the book was complicated by that closeness, too.

It was hard to consider boundaries, until we decided there really weren’t any. There were some misunderstandings, early on especially, and I decided to make that part of the story if it was going to get to any sort of truth. Mates, like other human creatures, do fight sometimes.

As a result, the book is not really a biography, or a hagiography. It’s too combative for that. But there is love in there, too – as there is at the heart of any enduring friendship between mates, which is one of the things you realise when you get in tight on the underlit subject of long-distance male friendship.

With Gordon McBride. Photo/Birgit Krippner/Supplied

My previous two books, as it happens, also featured mates. In 2015, there was Going South: A Road Trip Through Life, which I wrote in response to my longest-still-standing friend, Gordon McBride, telling me he had terminal cancer.

We’d known each other since the late 1960s when we started as cadet reporters together on the Southland Times. As the title of the book suggests, on the back of the awful news, the two of us went back home to Southland, chasing the ghosts of the past on a road trip. That book was a love letter, I suppose, to my dying friend.

I’d wanted Gordon to come on the next road trip I planned – in America – after I became agitated at all the fun being had over there with legal cannabis while, here at home, such things remained (and remain) fairly strictly forbidden.

But though Gordon made it to the launch party for Going South, he wasn’t here for that next book, which I called The High Road. I took another mate away with me on that trip, someone I simply called Bruce, whom I’d known for 40 years.

For the purposes of that book, we travelled together to four stoned states of America, him driving and me taking notes. I cast him in the story as a put-upon foil, even cruelly mocking him for notably gaining weight during our time away, due entirely to our steady diet of legal weed, craft beers and bar snacks.

With The High Road travelling companion Bruce Scott. Photo/Supplied

More tangentially on the topic of mateship, years earlier I wrote a book called A Life in Loose Strides, which was about Barry Crump, the legendary New Zealand writer who made a big thing about mateship, though not with women so much. But Crump was an alpha mate, of course, and not the sort of mate you could ever really relax with.

The one time I met him, for a magazine interview, he turned the occasion into a life-threatening all-day drinking and smoking contest. Crump had a powerful need to be the biggest mate in the room and I was lucky to escape that encounter. He was a few years dead when I helped make a TV documentary about him and then wrote the book.

In further confessions of mateyness, I’ve done a bit of travel writing over the years and I’d sometimes take mates along for the company, for someone to kick up with in the house bar in the evenings, though I’d generally keep them out of the story, often for good reason.

With Going South, though, in the face of the imminent loss of my friend, I now realise that I abandoned good reason altogether and turned my attention more fully to the mystery of male bonding.

In a way, the theme continues and intensifies with this new book about Sam, which wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t – that word again – mates.

Barry Crump. Photo/Supplied

I didn’t set out to reveal as much about our relationship as I ended up doing in Off the Road, which isn’t a follow-up to Angel Gear so much as a bookend. That earlier book was set at the beginning of a friendship, this new one is a last scene, set at the end of the road.

And if that last bit sounds a bit dramatic, that’s because it is. I may still be looking for the next reason to hit the road at 68, but Sam, four years older, isn’t even remotely interested any more. Hence the Off the Road bit in the title.

Because of the book, the two of us talked about things that perhaps we wouldn’t have talked about just as mates. We got into the darker stuff that comes with late-life mateship, which is a different thing altogether from the younger, more light-footed version.

And the other thing, perhaps, to note is that Sam isn’t an everyday sort of a mate to have. He’s the sort of mate that half of New Zealand might also think of as being some kind of a mate, thanks to his nearly 50 years of being famous up and down this small country.

The new book embraces things we don’t usually talk about – not just about getting older, but about being old, about loneliness and aloneness and the difference between the two, about drinking too much and about death.

We differed on death – one of us a fallen Presbyterian (me), full of fear, the other (Sam) a drifted Catholic really quite keen, at times, on the idea of dying. I think he sees it as another gig and, as usual, it’ll be a pain getting there. But the saving grace for us always, I think, is the humour, which seems like quite a large part of any functioning mateship. Sam and I mostly make each other laugh and, mostly, we always have. There’s quite a bit of that in the book.

There’s also a certain amount of what some people I know like to term “mischief”. By that, they may mean the drinking and smoking that floats through the series of encounters that form the framework of the book.

But getting a bit bent together, having a few drinks or whatever, is often at the heart of what makes a mateship, after all. We’ve always found that sort of thing slightly unavoidable. In recent years, for health reasons, we’ve tried to limit our direct exposure to each other.

But the best mateships should probably come with a health warning. In my case, something like: “Every hour spent in the company of Sam Hunt will shorten your life expectancy.”

By about an hour.

SAM HUNT: OFF THE ROAD, by Colin Hogg (HarperCollins, $49.99)

This article was first published in the February 16, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.