Review: Angel Gear (1989)

[Colin Hogg: Angel Gear (1989)]

Colin Hogg. Angel Gear: On the Road with Sam Hunt. Auckland: Heinemann Reed, 1989. 114 pages.

Going on the road with two stoned boozers who utter ‘cunt’ often and refer in jest to bestiality isn’t a smooth ride in neutral gear. Colin Hogg offers no apologies and at the outset warns us, the readers, that offence of sensibilities is bound to occur. Despite its brashness, Angel Gear is a beautiful and unique take on New Zealand’s iconic poet, Sam Hunt. It appeals to the soul through undulating poetry and nostalgic snippets of Hunt’s past which punctuate Hogg’s often erratic narration of Hunt’s poetry reading tour in the heart of North Island in the late 1980s.

Essentially, Angel Gear is a book about a travelling man. As Hogg, Hunt and Minstrel (the inspiration for many bow wow poems) travel through the rural North Island from Huntly to Rotorua, and the towns in between, there is a parallel travel story through Hunt’s life. Through Hunt’s own semi-biography (of sorts) that breaks up the pages of narration, we get a sense of his childhood, of loves lost, of friends killed, and events that have made him who he is. We visit the places and spaces of New Zealand that Hunt has called home from Castor Bay to Pukerua Bay, in the Green Shed, Bottle Creek and Last House South. A sense of travel resides in Hunt as he recalls a time he hitch-hiked back from the Bay of Islands ‘... I remember that being a good feeling. The same feeling of adventure, not knowing what’s going to happen next and knowing you’re going to take it all in.’ Angel Gear has that feel; stick your thumb out and see what ride you get.

This road trip drives us through small-town New Zealand where the economic climate is as harsh as the rural landscape, and according to Hogg, the look of the folk they meet along the way. The layout of the book lends itself as a picture story-book. Black and white photos give visual references to the enigma of Sam Hunt.

Hogg diarises their journey, noting the time and date of each day – often up early after hard nights getting ‘ripped’ – perhaps to remind himself of some sort of reality. He offers his own social commentary on schoolteachers, the strained economic climate, and small towns. Hogg’s view is through a cynic’s bloodshot eyes and quite frankly, he’s not that kind; ‘old before their time, especially the women. All trackpants and saggy arses.’; Morrisville is an ugly town, its saving grace is the fact that its pies are good; the clock tower in Te Awamutu is ugly too; ‘[u]pstairs in the theatre bar, a clutch of giggly and grunty Waikato oxen stumble in late.’ Americans, Japanese, Chinese, schoolteachers, small-town folk, radio station receptionists, even ‘bloodless old couples [that] rattle around in the foyer’ all are victims to Hogg’s cynical depiction.

At times, Hogg manages to be ‘managerial’; but just comes off as a man along for the ride who stumbles into bed in a daze at the end of the night as he floats on ‘a well-established balance of alcohol, dope, painkillers and Berocca’. The snippets of conversation Hogg conveys have no real beginning or end. They are bits of a world. However, Hogg captures the interaction between Hunt and his crowd, which give shape to the poet.

Zac wants to know: ‘Who cuts your hair?’ Sam: ‘My makeup artist when I’m pissed... You have to kick the shit off your shoes and make your own fashion. I cut it.’

The harshness of Hunt is softened by Hogg’s observations. He shows us the romantic Hunt, ‘Sam drags me out to look at the moon – a razor-sharp sickle’ the philosophical Hunt, ‘when there’s no more time for dreaming, there’s no more time for living’ and the humble Hunt ‘”I’m no major poet” says Sam. “Just a man telling a story.”’ Their conversations are recalled with a jilted flow; subject matter matters not, they are fleeting anecdotes that Hogg has been privy to in their wanderings. Hogg writes of the night after Hunt’s last performance of the tour where ‘strange talk’ arises on ‘the loss of Sara, death, suicide...’; here Hogg reflects ‘talk about the no-man’s land between the stage and the page’ and we get the sense of what first prompted Hogg to go along for the ride as he ‘wanted to know more about the loneliness’.

Despite the loneliness, there is also intimacy and plenty of girls who ‘oooh and ahhh’ over Hunt. They surround Hunt for autographs. He is world-famous in these country-towns, implored for autographs, guest spots on radio shows, he’s asked repeated questions, but always has an answer (of sorts) and does not deny the one who asks –

Lois is asking Sam new variations on all the same old questions, and Sam is doing likewise with the answers.

The book is sprinkled with vulgar language and they even joke about bestiality, which made me feel physically sick. One chapter has ‘farted’ in the title; so, no, we’re not on a road trip with a couple of gentlemen. Chauvinistic is one word that has been used to describe Hunt, of which he denies and defends in his biographical prose by saying ‘what some people have branded as overt chauvinism is in fact very little altered from what’s been taking place in song and in chant and in poetry ever since women and men have stood on this earth looking at each other and reacting to each other.’ However through a feminist’s eyes chauvinism runs through the veins of Angel Gear as Hogg recounts one teacher at a performance offering them

‘... our glamorous brunette to look after you,’ he ushers forward a good-looking airhead.

Hunt at one point creepily admits ...

that little girl in the front row at the school, I’d give a year of celibacy for her...

Hunt though, believes in passion, and is not ‘interested in androgynous nobodies who come from nowhere’ – men with their balls cut off. Despite this, Angel Gear has an endearing quality, and it lies in the places of small-town New Zealand and most of all, it lies in Hunt’s reflections and in his poetry.

The performance of his poetry is what has put Hunt in category of his own in the New Zealand poetry scene; it’s his face and voice has made him so recognisable. Ironically Hunt takes his poetry back to the literal classroom of which he was kicked out of and performs his poetry in schools and theatres of the heart of the North Island. Through Hogg’s observations and Hunt’s own words we understand that the performance of the poems is what is important to Hunt:
‘the performance thing for me is a filtering process. It allows you to listen to the poem’... ‘I find it hard, the idea of someone writing poems and not listening to them’.

Hunt’s voice is one of his defining features; so to read this book, is to hear the echoes of his gravelly melodic voice. The reader of Angel Gear needs to speak the poetry out loud or at least out loud in your head. Otherwise half of this book will be lost to you.

Angel Gear may not go down so well in politically correct circles as it offers profanity, vulgar behaviour of two old men leering at young girls in amongst a cloud of dope smoke. However, the juxtaposition of Hunt’s reflections and his poems redeem it. The poems can resonate with us all. If you want to find out more about the poet in a unique way that is neither ‘literary treatise’ or biographical ‘wank’, go on the road with him and his sidekick observer, Colin Hogg. Angel Gear captures a few drops of the essence of Hunt - an eclectic mix of crazy, nostalgia and magic. Sam Hunt is a man that is a celebrated part of New Zealand culture because, in Hunt’s words ‘[t]hey need people to wake up and howl at the moon. That’s my job.'

© Tami Wyness (2009)

1 comment:

Ross MacNicol said...

Good stuff Tami, you write with sympathy for a time and place. Sam Hunt is more important to NZ than Richie McCaw or Jonah Lomu and when he finally comes to the end of the Foxton Straights he will be eulogized by people who have ignored him for years.
I ve seen him on these tours while I was an "alternative" student and later seen him link with school kids while I worked at Okato College and Patea High, he's all class and can jump between young and old, Pakeha and Maori. Go well thanks for the review, I am just buying this book on Trade me.