It's a year since I moved back to New Zealand. People ask me, all the time, if I've come home for good. (I wrote a book about this, a long essay called On Coming Home.)
There are many good things about living in my home town, Auckland, again, after thirty years, especially being close to my family. My nephew drops off a piece of furniture for us and takes away another; my niece comes around to drink tea and watch something we've recorded for her; her flatmate arrives on Christmas Eve afternoon just to hang out while I cook for the evening. There's a constant flow of things - DVDs, wine, scarves, books, stuff each of us is trying to offload - between me and my sister. We find things in the supermarket to tempt my father, who isn't eating much these days (the key: must contain meat and gravy). My brother comes by to go to the movies with one of us, or to take a walk with us along Tamaki Drive. This is all ordinary life to many people, but I've never really had this kind of experience. I've always lived too far away.
I like Auckland as well, more and more. It's not half as cold and wet in the winter as other Aucklanders think; they should try a year or two in Glasgow. Because we live right in town, on the edge of Myers Park, we don't have to deal with traffic or parking; we walk to concerts and plays and movies. I walk to work, and because the hill up through Albert Park is very steep, it's officially deemed exercise. (This means my Olympic Dream is still alive, though a sitting-down sport remains my preference.) Last year I made a number of visits to Otahuhu Intermediate School over several months, to work with the students there on their writing. That school made me love Auckland, and feel both tremendous hope and despair, because of all the spark and potential there, and because of the increasingly divided city in which the kids are growing up.
Every six weeks or so we have a salon at the flat for writers and people in the writing/publishing world. We serve no food, in order to persuade people to leave at some point. This is the difference between New Zealanders and British people. New Zealanders will leave because they're hungry. Even if they hadn't eaten all day, the British wouldn't leave until all the alcohol was gone.
Much of my writing life has been consumed this past year by other demands, not surprising when a new job is involved, and even less surprising when that job includes supervising twelve fiction writers each working on a book. I've also been working on a new initiative, the Academy of New Zealand Literature, that will launch in April, and it's a massive undertaking.
So the ghost that's haunted me for much of the last year is my own work, and I try to appease that ghost whenever I can. Residencies are an escape for me, a chance to jar myself out of routines and duties, a chance to be surrounded by foreign languages and sights and ways of seeing. I like the feeling of an obligation to work, and new things around me that may open some windows in my head, or infect my subconscious. Sometimes I get lonely, but that's not a bad thing. ('I am lonely, lonely./I was born to be lonely,/I am best so' - see William Carlos Williams.)
In the past year I've had two month-long residencies - the first in Ventspils, Latvia, and the second in Brussels. That's where I am now, writing in the soft grey light of late afternoon. (Actually, that's turned, with incredible speed, into just plain darkness, enlivened by drizzle and a whistling wind.) I've been quite lonely here - lonelier than I was in Latvia, where I had a room in a shared house of writers and translators. Though in Latvia I did have to spend some time in hospital, which was lonely, not to mention post-Soviet, in its own special way. I don't mind having long stretches alone, or eating by myself in cafes or restaurants. But sometimes my social nature rebels against all this imposed isolation, and I need to get out. Yesterday afternoon I went to some talks organised by the Bronte Society; tomorrow morning I teach a creative writing class for university students. On Thursday night the New Zealand ambassador has invited me to dinner. I've met quite a few friendly people here, from Belgium and other places; my dearest friend visited from Wales and we sampled numerous Belgian beers. So it's not exactly Siberia. It's not even that cold, though Aucklanders would be alarmed and despondent at these actual winter days.
The first pictures here are of the house in Ventspils where I stayed, then my room (where I slept and wrote), and then the name of the organisation that made my residency possible. The second group of pictures are of the building in Brussels where I've been given a flat for the month (owned by the writer David Van Reybrouck, whose book Congo I'm reading at the moment), then the room in which I write, then the organisation that offered me the residency.
I'm lucky to be lonely in such places.
In a week's time I'll be flying home, through Frankfurt and Shanghai, arriving just in time to start teaching. I need to keep writing as well, if I want to finish the stories I've started, and have my novel drafted by July, as I've planned. Perhaps I need to find a way to be lonely at home as well.