Title: Songs of My Life

Author: Bill Manhire

In: Sport 11: Spring 1993

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, November 1993, Wellington

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Prose Literature

Conditions of use



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Sport 11: Spring 1993

Bill Manhire — Songs of My Life

page 34

Bill Manhire

Songs of My Life

He says: ‘Give me something significant.’

He says: ‘I’ve been patient. You know how patient. You have to grant that.’

I swear at him, first time ever, though I’ve always had the capacity.

‘Tut tut,’ says Maria, and he goes, ‘Oh oh oh oh oh oh.’

Then he said, ‘Trouble in my head,’ and fell over, and Gospel Song came and sat beside him howling.


He asks me my dreams.

Canterbury plains, inland from the Main North Road, straight line beside pines, hills and mountains on the left, 100 mph, resting his forearms on the top of the wheel while he strikes a match—Swan Vesta, you can’t even buy them now.

He asks me my dreams. 100 mph and he’s on about my secret life. But if it was there I don’t remember. I never remembered. I just woke up recalling something about a recording studio, tapes slithering round and round and sometimes I could hear a long low sigh of relief.

‘Probably a crime,’ he said. ‘Guilt about something. But I’m tired of the externals, tell me something.’

By now we were home again, sitting outside on the lawn. Long conversation, noises from the stockcar rally in the distance. Sprinkler working away in the early twilight—half an hour each evening we’re allowed round here.

‘I’m sufficiently informed,’ I said. ‘I have access. But anyway,’ I said, ‘it’s you does the songs. I thought you were supposed to tell me.’

‘I’m on compassionate leave,’ he says. ‘As of tomorrow.’

He looks at his watch, midnight already.

‘As of now.’

He walks round the side of the house, guitar on his shoulder, heading for the moonlit hills. There was wind in the garden then, Maria singing something and we went inside.


page 35

He travels with me, a pace or two behind, and his job is to write the songs of my life.

It was down by the old Clutha River
That river so famous in song
That Colin fell in love with Maria
But he didn’t make love to her long.

‘Sounds like premature whatsit,’ I said, a joke but mildly anxious.

‘Hell no, I was thinking, you know, that you took your pleasure and then just moved along,’ said my singer, his name was Johnny Flaxbush—‘because that is what a man does, or so it seems to me, anyway, Colin.’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Well, it was Queenstown. Maria was Queenstown, nice enough too, though I don’t expect to see her again. Now if you don’t mind just retire a little.’

You can’t let art have all the victories.


Later that day I stood outside the Woolworths supermarket and heard this beautiful whistling, Rose of Tralee and a couple of Jim Reeves numbers. I looked around, just this old, old lady, white hair and probably plastic teeth. They’re not supposed to do that, old ladies, but that was the best whistling I ever expect to hear.


Those were the days.

Dunedin, slate roofs the colour of marriage. Ecumenical skyline: I still like that. Spires and turrets, the tops of liftshafts.

He went by the name of Johnny Flaxbush for so long—and it never did him any harm that I could see—but one day he had these posters which said ‘Pingao’ and I guess he was hoping hard for better things.

When the sun in the morning peeps over the hill
and kisses the roses on my window sill
then my heart fills with gladness when I hear the trill
of the birds in the treetops on Mocking Bird Hill.

Whoah now! hold it, hold it right there, Johnny Flaxbush . . . Pingao . . . whatever your name is . . . those words are someone else’s words, not original to you, and not linked to the life you record, which is my life. That page 36 was a big hit back in the dawn of the fifties people called it. 1951, if I’m not mistaken.

‘Oh,’ he says, ‘someone’s angry.’


I went to Karitane, seeking the inspiration of fecundity. All my childhood friends were conceived at Karitane, that little town the couples visit when they marry. Nice place they have there, too, river mouth and soft ocean beach especially when the weather is appropriate. The singer occupied a tent out on the lawn.

His song was hopeless stuff, emotional turmoil I suppose, not to be reproduced here.

‘People down this way say “crib”,’ I said to him, correcting a vocabulary item. ‘Of course,’ said Maria, ‘“crib”, it’s quite well known.’

Yes, I admit it, Maria was with me for a week or two, just testing the water, tip-toeing in.


He sings of trouble in the body, of anger in his knee. Not quite a song of himself, but getting somewhere.

I was looking for a blonde
but I ended up a failure
got mixed up with this little brunette girl’s
untidy genitalia.

I asked Johnny Pingao not to sing this song in case Maria might hear.

‘Is there someone?’ I said. ‘Someone special?’

No answer.

‘Why don’t you hymn the splendours of this new land of ours,’ I said, ‘which we are still busy building and hymning and generally conceiving.’

‘Show me a reason,’ he said. ‘move me with your true persuasive talk.’

I gave him topics—Zane Grey’s fishing journeys to New Zealand, my developing skill on the chanter. I told him about the whole season I spent as an emergency for Zingari Richmond, a healthy team of footballers, I only ever got half of one away game. ‘Professional emergency,’ he said. ‘Good title.’

He made a quiet song then, tender nasal chuckle of mothers talking to their children. He did not make songs about my eating preferences, my page 37 celebrated meeting with James K. Baxter, my collection of triangular stamps from San Marino.

At this period I had become the sort of person people asked to be a godfather or a pallbearer. Total strangers would come up, thinking I looked appropriate.

Explanation: absence of Maria, her overseas travels, so I missed her and waited patiently, reading John Keats aloud to him, bits of Ursula Bethell.

But he composed a song about my love of vampire movies and then, by way of contradiction, added something about my love of garlic. This song was called ‘Contradiction in Terms’, he presented it in Gore, and also got some airtime on Dunedin student radio. It never really flamed though, ‘flamed’ being how we put it in those days.


‘Brothers and sisters?’ I said to him once. But he didn’t answer. His thoughts were invisible as polio.

I can still remember how those germs roamed the land, not in his songs ever, approaching at stomach height so that only adults and domestic pets were safe. They shut the town baths. My sister in the hospital, not moving much, while I was sent to the health camp at Roxburgh. Long ambulance ride through the contagious world, groceries left at the gate, and well-intentioned people waving in the distance across fences and hedges. The nervous system can only take so much noise.

Is there someone?’ I said.

‘I tell you Colin,’ he said, ‘this isn’t my first trip around the block.’ He strummed a chord on the guitar, e7. ‘And it isn’t my first block.’


Then for a few years or so I was headmaster of a large Dunedin school. That was a good school, coeducational, and I had a personal bagpiper, a girl called Helen. She was mostly reserved for ceremonial occasions, piping me in to the senior prize-giving, and because words were no part of her business, Johnny Pingao remained a happy man. He travelled with Hank Mushroom and played in most parts of the lower South Island. He came home using the word awesome. Awesome skyline, awesome trees, awesome dimensions of the heart.

It was 1961, the year you could turn upside down.

page 38

‘There are three birds in this world,’ I told the assembled adolescent children. My nickname was Lunchbox, I never knew why.

‘One is a hawk,’ I said, ‘another is a duck, and then last of all there is a hedgehog.’

I said: ‘You have to decide. Which one do you want to be? I know what I would hope, but I leave it to each of you in the solitude of your soul.’ I closed the large leather-bound dictionary which I opened on these occasions. It was open at ‘parataxis’, there in the top left corner, a word of interest to me at the time but now I admit its import escapes me.

They applauded me then, all the children, and Helen piped me out on to the Welds of play.


I looked to see why he wasn’t making music one particular morning and there was this dog—aroused, you know, moving against his knee. Nice dog, friendly dog, just restless in the desire department, the way dogs are. Well, we took on this dog and called him Gospel Song and he has been with us these last something years. Pingao saw him as a fellow minstrel, sympathetic prop. I saw him as an independent dog with his own dignity. Maria wouldn’t have him in the house.

Then I won the underhand chop for the whole of New Zealand’s South Island, working to a handicap of 27 off dummy one.

I tried lawnmower racing, not without success, but the bit I liked most was when we all sat down afterwards and had some cup of tea.

When I moved from flares to stovepipes, the words of Johnny Pingao celebrated this event. Was there a song called ‘Platform Souls’? I don’t remember.

Maria. Old hands on a young body. Otherwise, you know, totally present and correct.


‘It’s not enough of a life,’ he says. ‘I try,’ he says, ‘but there’s only so much you can do with certain raw material.’ He walks beside me for a moment, makes as if to touch my arm, then falls awkwardly back. ‘Domesticity!’ he yells, then says the word again, quieter this time, meek. ‘Domesticity. Anyway, Colin, where were you, exactly, the day that they was handing out the brains?’

page 39

Ozone hole caused
by too much rugby football,
big hole caused
by going for the line.

I got a friend
comes from Takapuna
She don’t sunbathe
when the weather’s fine.

Usually his music will release the words, but in this particular number I think you can see that it just goes ahead and traps them.


When I began my own, entirely separate singing career, he made no songs about it whatsoever. Discordant noises, the thrum of an untuned guitar, a skittery run on the clarinet which he in any case had never learned how to play properly. Jealousy flamed him and made him unattractive. The flamenco flourish ruled his life.

One day I walked out of the recording studio and into the arms of Maria and her mother and father and her seven brothers. The youngest brother pushed Maria forward with his goose wing, and Pingao sang about our wedding which was spoken of in many South Island towns.

I travelled to Antarctica, Alaska. I considered changing my name from Colin to something else, just what I didn’t know. I had a remarkable tale to tell and I was looking for someone to tell it well and listen carefully.

But when I grew interested in the bits of Lenin’s brain they have over in Moscow, Pingao was there on cue, writing a song about it. I gave him the title: ‘30,000 Slices’. He rhymed Lenin with some word I can’t remember, then crossed it all out and did a bit of quick bush carpentry with brain and Ukraine.

Then I became Professor of Russian at Massey University, a post which had been vacant for some time so they were pleased to see me up there in the Manawatu. They were ready for Gogol and Pushkin, I guess. They must have sensed it was all over for the Cold War.

While I was at Massey there came along some women in comfortable shoes, who made no impact on me whatsoever. Maria smiled and hummed above the dishes.

page 40

While there I also began and abandoned my biography of Robert Louis Stevenson. I got him almost to Samoa twice but neither time could I make myself go on. I suppose because once he got there, inside that big happy house, Vailima, he would just have to die.


I should add that Pingao has always had these things he says, sayings, which never fail to annoy me—e.g. he will say ‘Crikey’, which is a perfectly good word from time to time, but coming too often it can rile or infuriate.

He will also say ‘Tell me about it’, when you know he isn’t really interested. When I told him for the first time about Lenin’s brain, he automatically said, ‘Tell me about it,’ though as I say he was exceedingly keen to write the subsequent song. Ten minutes it took him. Likewise when I first used the word ‘sputnik’. Tell me about it. ‘Gestalt’ I remember in that way, too.

In a recent development, he will also refer to me as ‘someone’, an exceedingly annoying habit. I might be half falling asleep, this could be in front of the television news, and he will say to Maria, ‘Someone’s falling asleep.’ Then I flash him a glance and perhaps he will say, ‘Someone’s angry,’ and snigger.


‘The Duke of Edinburgh Calypso’: that is the one he sings all the time, especially since the long-term presence of Maria. He does it with loud persuasive feeling, too. There are lines in it, ‘Two paces behind’ and ‘Not even on the one pound note’, which I can never remember what they rhyme with.

Not one of his songs has been in another person’s mouth.

Sometimes of course I will give voice to them. It would feel wrong not to. Actually this one here is a good one which will do for many different situations:

Country gives you heartache
Country gives you pain
Country gives you back your heart
And lets you love again.


page 41

‘Tumberling tumberling tumberling tumberling tumbleweed,’ sings Maria.

‘What are you thinking about?’ he says. ‘Colin?’

‘About about about,’ says Maria. ‘Yes, what about?’

I try to think of something to be thinking. Maria pours another Pimm’s No. 1 Cup. They say they exist, but no one I ever met has seen a Pimm’s No. 2 Cup.

‘Sing something,’ she says.

‘Me?’ I said.

‘You,’ she said.

I looked around. No sign of Pingao. Just the dog howling in the distance—car coming fast along a gravel road.

Scandal in the elbow,
Trouble in the knee . . .

‘I will cut out your tongue,’ she says, ‘and keep it in my shoe.’

I placed my hands upon her body in a sexual manner. Gospel Song settled himself behind the sofa. Rattling in his throat.


So do I get rid of him right here this minute or keep him on a while? Might just be nearing time for that final, long farewell . . . He gets to his feet, rubbing his head. The dog looks happy, that’s a start.

‘Look,’ I say.

‘Look, look, look,’ he says. ‘Tell me something significant,’ he says. ‘I need stuff to work with, Colin. I need the right kind of material.’

‘Polio?’ I say, and he says: ‘No.’

‘Pregnant woman?’

‘No, no, no, no, no!’

He starts to say something. Twilight. Whole width of the room between us.

‘There was once three birds, this big hawk and this duck and . . .’

‘No,’ I say, ‘Stop! Stop at once, Johnny Pingao! Stories are outlawed round here, you know that. They take too long.’

‘Look, it’s a joke,’ he says, ‘just a joke about a hedgehog.’

Voice pleading, eyes pleading, dog looking breathless in the background.

‘A joke.’

Maria comes and stands beside me. ‘Tumberling tumberling . . . hic.’

page 42

A joke. Well now. A joke.

‘Just a joke, Colin . . . Like, like, what’s the difference between an egg and a beetroot?’

A beetroot? An egg and a beetroot?

But jokes are too difficult: I’m getting someone else for that.