I wasn't able to write a cycling week this week, because the truth is, I haven't cycled very much, due to this odd injury that has made my whole left leg and foot numb, though I did manage a short ride today, Sunday, riding lopsidedly along in the sun. Still, I thought that instead of trying to write something out of next to nothing, I would rehash a piece from a newspaper column I wrote ages ago, about a van ride. It doesn't really go anywhere (none of my columns ever went anywhere), but I enjoyed reliving this silliness. This was written in mid 2019, just after I'd been to the Auckland Writers' Festival.
THE VAN RIDE
I’m in a van going to the airport and I’m trying hard to make conversation. Also in the van is a famous artist and novelist called Douglas Coupland and a famous novelist called David Chariandy. We have all been at a literary festival. Even though in about twenty minutes we will part ways and never see one another again, I am feeling the need to bombard these novelists with friendliness. If only I can show them how unperturbed I am by their greatness, they will be so impressed that they will remember this van ride forever.
I say to Douglas Coupland, ‘Your talk was incredible!’
Douglas Coupland says thank you. He squints. ‘Are you the Canadian actress?’
I say no, but I can’t say the word ‘poet’, let alone ‘writer’, so I say I’m just an editor. He says, ‘I was trying to place it. I thought, Celine Dion?’
I laugh loudly for ages while he doesn’t laugh.
A few hours ago I listened to Douglas Coupland give a talk. He was wearing the same bulky red sports jacket he’s wearing now, like a character in King of the Hill. In his talk he showed many slides of his art. One of his artworks was a two-metre-high replica of his very own head, stippled with wads of chewing gum that people had stuck onto it, including a big wad of red gum on the eyeball. It was called Gumhead. Another of Douglas Coupland's projects was to chew up his own books. He used his molars to reduce the pages to pulp, then he spat them out and fashioned the pulp into structures resembling hornets’ nests. ‘My doctor said I wasn’t allowed to eat any more books,’ he said. ‘I absolutely fried my salivary glands.’
At this point of the talk, I was buzzing with joy. I thought, ‘Douglas Coupland is the most interesting man in the world.’
Here in the van I realise I have nothing interesting to say.
We drive through an intersection and the novelist David Chariandy says, ‘I like the diagonal crosswalks you have in New Zealand.’
It’s an opening for some kind of larger anthropological comment. ‘Yes,’ I say. ‘There is a wonderful, uh’ – I’m struggling already – ‘sense of freedom to a diagonal crosswalk.’ Oh, no.
We look out our respective windows.
At literary festivals, writers are flung together for a few days then flung apart again. The conversations are a halting dance between people’s best versions of themselves, and they can sweep you up in a feeling of possibility, almost love. I once talked for an hour with a writer and we complained about how you had great conversations at these things but then never spoke again, so we exchanged email addresses and the next morning I leapt out of bed and emailed my new friend, excited about the friendship we were about to embark upon, but days then weeks passed and it became clear that she was never going to reply, and we never saw each other or spoke again.
I think of Douglas Coupland’s sculpture Digital Orca – a pixellated orca leaping up over the sea in Vancouver, as if out of an old arcade game. It’s very beautiful but it has an aura of impermanence. Digital Orca is like a conversation at a writers’ festival.
In the van, Douglas Coupland is talking about the Atkins Diet. ‘My friend was all, “It’s working! I lost five pounds!” I mean, sure, but you’re also half dead!’
I’m overwhelmed. There are so many things one could say at this. I say, ‘I’ve heard it also gives you quite bad breath.’ D minus. Silently, I urge our driver to speed up, to release us.
Then Douglas Coupland says, suddenly, ‘When I visited Wellington, I noticed that the green light goes for 3.5 seconds. The red light goes for seven minutes.’
I seize upon this and begin to tell him about cycling in Wellington. I have a habit, whenever I’m trying to make good conversation, of exaggerating everything. ‘Everyone is crazy on the roads down there!’ I shout. ‘It’s chaos. Bedlam at all times.’
After I have said this, I have one wish, and it is that famous writers didn’t exist in corporeal form. I wish they existed in gaseous form only. Then they wouldn’t need to be driven to airports in vans, where you might have to sit with them and listen to yourself saying nonsense.
When we’re nearly at the terminal, David Chariandy turns to me and asks, ‘Do you know a musician called Steven? This guy called Steven took us out to the beach where they filmed The Piano and he was so kind and I want to thank him, but I don’t know how to track him down.’
I don’t know a musician called Steven. But I immediately think: I’ll put it in my column. Someone will know Steven the musician, Steven who took a bunch of writers to Piha. Someone. This van ride can’t be all for nothing. Please don’t let it be all for nothing.