One day in Wellington in 1974 I entered a small anonymous doorway on Cuba Street and climbed the narrow, twisting stairs to the first floor landing. If you went straight ahead you were in the Bett-Duncan Studio Gallery, where I saw my first Clairmonts. Turn left and you’d end up in the two small white rooms of the Peter McLeavey Gallery. The first time I ever did that there was a Milan Mrkusich show on. From memory I’d say just half a dozen works. Three big ones in the first room, the one with the chaise longue in it; three smaller ones in the other, where Peter had his office.
The Mrkusich paintings were abstracts. Colour field was the term. You could lose yourself on those swirling, scumbled plains of pigment; but there would be small grey or otherwise monochromatic triangular corners that held the field in place, as it were. It wasn’t work that was easy to write about and I was standing there wondering what I could say of it when a small man with white hair and black glasses, wearing a baggy woollen suit, came out of the other room. He had cotton wool in his ears and a puckish look on his face. Is it art? he said then, before I had time to frame a reply, disappeared; only to return a few moments later: But will it sell? he asked. We laughed. And that was how I met Peter McLeavey.
He was the first person who ever told me I could write. It was on a subsequent visit, one of many; he was referring to a review I’d published in the student newspaper, Salient. Although it was just a casual remark, not expanded upon, occasionally repeated, there was no doubt that he meant it. For me, just twenty-two years old and lacking confidence, it was of inestimable importance. A sine qua non moment; one of those things that changes your life. It was like being confirmed in my vocation.
So here I was, thirty-eight years later, climbing those stairs again. I looked down at them, noticing how the grey and pink patterned linoleum had thinned over the decades, how there were dark profiles like landscapes in places where it had worn away beneath the metal strips that held it in place. The smooth wooden banisters, the round top of the newel post where I always put my left hand as I turned to go along the narrow landing. Nothing had changed . . . except it had. Peter wasn’t there.
I remembered someone saying his daughter did most of the running of the gallery these days. This young, smiling, blond woman, talking about the Biennale, must be her. She said her father didn’t always come in but today he was . . . are you an old friend? She made a phone call, talking about, not to, her father. He’ll be here at 1.30, she said. Can you come back?
I went down town for lunch: a plate of pumpkin soup, a glass of red wine. Wellington was full of ghosts. I kept seeing men who looked like my father. That bowed back, those hunched shoulders, the large head set forward on the neck. They were always walking away down some side street or other, which somehow made the illusion more plausible. My father would have been a frail 92 if he’d still been alive so it couldn’t have been him; it seemed the generation of men below had thrown up individuals just like he was. The way they walked. The way they dressed.
More disconcerting were the youths who looked like I once did, awkward in their fashionable clothes, their eyes moving quickly from side to side, taking in everything . . . or nothing. I used to imagine coming in from Upper Hutt on the weekends and looking for the beatnik cafes I’d heard about: the Monde Marie, the Gay Paree. Even if I’d found them I would have been too shy to go in. Folk music, duffle coats with wooden toggles, sloppy joe jerseys, must already have been, in 1969, passé. I was better off drinking beer and gambling with my friends after playing in the Saturday rugby game for the First XV. Listening to Abbey Road at parties anywhere between Silverstream and Brown Owl.
At 2.00 pm I returned, climbed the stairs again, entered the familiar door into those two little white rooms. There was a young photographer with a serious camera on a tripod, a Hasselbladd, documenting the works. Don’t mind me, he said. Peter was sitting in a chair before the window wearing a small soft black hat on the tousled white hair of his head. His eyes lit up, he took off the hat and held it over his heart. I spread my arms and bowed the way I imagine courtiers bow to monarchs in Shakespearian courts. Or real royal ones. It was quite a moment, both heartfelt and parodic. Just like the is-it-art-but-will-it-sell exchange all those years ago.
It was only a minute or so later that I understood Peter wasn’t well. He didn’t get up. He didn’t talk much either; when he tried to say something a deep ragged cough was likely to tear from his chest. There was a bentwood chair next to him with some papers upon it but when he attempted to pick up the top sheet, he couldn’t. His fingers fumbled away at the yellow edge for a while then he gave up. I was still standing like a goof in front of him. It was strange. The photographer caught my eye again. He was very young. He smiled and shrugged. Don’t mind me.
We exchanged information. Peter had read my book on Colin McCahon, whose dealer he had been. Liked it. Someone had made a film about him, Peter, that is. That’d be John Maynard, I said, though I hadn’t seen the film. It was Maynard, in Sydney, who told me McLeavey had Parkinson’s Disease. I said to Peter that Murray Bail had sent me a fan letter enclosing the envelope that once held a letter McCahon had written to him, McLeavey, in December, 1982. This because in my book Dark Night, which Bail had read, I remark upon the resemblance between McCahon’s handwriting and my father’s. How is Murray? asked Peter. I don’t know, I said, I’ve never met him. There was no return address.
I asked Peter how old he was? I was curious; I’d never known. He said he was 76; born in 1936. You were born in Raetihi, weren’t you? I suggested. Ohakune, he said. We lived in Ohakune. I knew this already, knew that his dad had worked on the railways. They’d moved around a lot, just like we had. Yes, I said, but the Maternity Hospital was in Raetihi. I was born there too. He nodded. You’re quite right, he said. Quite right.
I’d recently come across, online, a set of black and white photographs taken of that hospital in 2008. It was derelict; now demolished; Ruin Porn. Most of them didn’t have much of a charge for me but the first in the series does. It shows the front entrance of the Maternity Hospital, with the face of an out-building off to the left, across an area of that grainy asphalt common in earlier eras, especially in country car parks. The rough, sealed surface is being invaded by lichen and it is, most likely, raining.
It wasn’t so much the photograph itself as the associations it calls forth: the red painted roof, the white gleaming stucco exterior walls, the hiss of the hinges on the interior doors, the way the lino sank softly under your feet as you walked down the corridor. Nurse’s shoes squeaking slightly, the swish of the skirts of her starched uniform, the smell of disinfectant and perfume. The red that went along with their white.
Overall, a sense of a hallowed space, clean, efficient, error free; almost like heaven. Where do these memories come from, how early are they? I don’t know. I was born there in 1952, returned aged six months when my mother, who was still breast-feeding me, had her torn abdominal muscles sewn up. My three younger sisters were all born there too so it might have been any time up until 1959 . . . I told Peter about the photo but couldn’t remember the photographer’s name. He waved his hand; it didn’t matter.
All this time the other photographer, the one in the room, was taking works off the walls, hanging them in front of his camera, taking pictures, returning them to their place. One had images of spacemen? cavemen? aliens? stencilled over a print of Millet’s Reapers that was rotated 90 degrees. That’s the biggest selling print of all time, Peter said. I looked at it. We had one in our house in Ohakune, I recalled. Yes, you would have done, said Peter, and laughed a bubbly little laugh.
I felt ridiculous standing in front of him so I went over to the chair, picked up the papers and sat down. Peter took them from me and put them on the desk beside him where his daughter’s laptop was. He seemed relieved. Would you like one of these? he asked, finally succeeding in picking up the top sheet of ochre paper. It was a thank you note for those who had congratulated him on his recent award of the Order of Merit. Typewritten, with a mistake gone over in the old style, using the correct key to make the wrong letter right. A U instead of a V in Aro Valley.
There was an image, a photo of McLeavey in 1964 on the bare concrete outside a house in Mortimer Terrace. The white hair, the big black glasses, the toothy grin and prominent ears. He was wearing a duffel coat with wooden toggles, a tie, and had two paintings leaning against his body: a McCahon and another I didn’t recognise. He told me who it was by but I have forgotten. He wrote my name in blue biro at the top of the typed message, signed it at the bottom with his own, folded it in half and gave it to me.
I said: You were the first person who told me I could write. The first to encourage me. I’ve always been grateful for that. I haven’t forgotten. His eyes glimmered behind his spectacles. He cleared his throat. The voice, when it came, was just a whisper: my gift to you, he said. It wasn’t long after that he offered his wraithy old hand for me to shake, indicating, thereby, that it was time to go. See you round, he said.
photo by Mark Coote