C h a p t e r S e v e n t e e n
Queenstown is nestled at the foot of a range of mountains named “The Remarkables” for good reason, towering over Lake Tekapo in the South Island of NZ. Anyone who believes that faith can move mountains should come here and pray, then perhaps lower their expectations a tad.
It's where bungee jumping was invented and young and old and the occaisional twitching parkensons patient can safely jump or get thrown from a bridge tethered to a rubber band.It also hosts the famous shot-over marine jet experience where high powered jetboats tear up the Clutha inches from the rock walls that define the gorge. Additionally tourists tethered to experienced para-gliders go wafting off cliffs to soar over the town squealing. There's a summer luge run down brushed concrete tubes within the town’s borders, and come winter the nearby ski fields kick off. It's an outdoors-person’s dream, and if you like nights spent by the fire there's no better backdrop.
The local population seems at all times to be outnumbered by tourists. Every day looks like the day after Christmas, the visitors proudly wearing Kiwi clothing freshly unwrapped.
A hundred or so years back, gold was found in these parts. Now it's just flushed through the place via busloads of tourists and a large, churning backpacker population. It's interesting to visit certain cafes of an evening to witness the calm, almost post-coital vibe created by those whose bodies have faced what must have felt like certain death, jumping off some hundred-foot bridge with a rubber band attached or some cliff with an instructor attached or gone whizzing at excessive speed inches from sheer walls of rock in a jet boat.
Nick Nickolas, a Covent-Garden-forged, rollicking street magician friend and I had cavorted our way down-country from Auckland at its other end. He drove, I kept tally of the improvised commemorative crosses denoting road fatalities. He was going to get certified as a cliff jumping parachutist and I, as always, was simply at a loose end.
The structure of my life was contained within my clown’s performance and nowhere else, and I tended to be a free associating blunderbuss that my performance friends adopted for interesting company and perhaps, in their own twisted and generous and thus far heterosexual way, because they loved me. I certainly loved them, , in much the same way a leper, diseased and self serving, might get a platonic crush on a nun. My performance friends also tended to be fantastic people to drink heavily with. Leashless, the lot of them.
Both Nick and I had a couple of weeks to kill before that chestnut of a gig, The Christchurch International Buskers’ festival. We were both regulars there, had been since its inception.
The Queenstown pitch was a small pedestrian mall, full of upmarket tourist shops catering to predominantly Asian tourists buying wool-related products. The flow was pitiful—the place would be empty and then one or two people would pass down, and it was odds against whether they'd make it twenty feet before being drawn into a shop. It was a challenge, the longest slow-build test, in which you might work for thirty minutes to gather and keep a minimum of ten people for an audience. The slow build is one of my talents—I can exist in character without attention. My clown justifies its existence easier than I do, pointless boredom being more comfortable with makeup and stilts. Still I struggled, managing one or two shows an evening, earning just enough for the required liquids, beer and petrol. Marking time.
Tourists are displaced by nature. I suppose I should identify with them but I don't. My ideal is to perform in places where my gift transforms ordinary places in people’s everyday lives into something briefly uplifting, and the production of unexpected laughter in public places has been my chosen vocation.
The most profound compliment I ever received was a shy man who sought me out after my show in a large city and meekly admitted that he had not left his house for some time but had forced himself to re-enter the world that particular day. He thought it important enough to admit to me that I had made him laugh, and what's more, he was driven to seek me out and thank me for showing him he still could. Moments later hidden down an alley, I wept—I actually sobbed with the joy of mattering.
Tourists are already divorced from the everyday. To them, I'm simply ‘entertainment’, competing with all the other experiences that are strands of a quilt their disposable incomes invest in to briefly disguise their lives’ modulated captivity. Still, in Queenstown I did what I could in the county of my birth to defiantly add my tiny thread to their patterns, and in turn I forsook gratitude for amusement and got paid whatever my shallow distraction was worth.
Much like Queenstown itself this story could be a pointless, aimless distraction. Although, some crisp morning as you sit alone by the lake, gazing up to the towering mountains surrounding you with the shale that flows from them as the mountains themselves melt, on a timescale that renders our species as predominant and relevant as lint, the enormity that surrounds can make the seemingly unremitting cacophonous culturally and personally exformative static of your own bipedal computer, as it tries to grasp meaning within and beyond itself, briefly cease.
Insignificance can in its own way be liberating, and I believe within laughter lies this shared, celebrated truth. Dignity dashed, unforeseen circumstantial twists, sudden departures from routine. These are all clues.
That I can share this thought is, if anything I suppose, my point.
We are not here long.