Saturday, 18 November 2006

A Fish in the Swim of the World, Ben Brown, 2006

A FISH IN THE SWIM OF THE WORLD Ben Brown, Longacre, Dunedin, New Zealand, 2006, 174 pages, paperback, NZ$34.99 ISBN 1-877361-41-0

Ben Brown is too young to write his memoirs, so he has written something much more interesting – his memories. When I began this book, I was puzzled because his tales kept reminding me of something. Then the penny dropped. This book captures the exact tone of that lovely moment at a wake when people pass round family photos and the stories start to come out: happy or sad or sentimental but always typical of the deceased.

A Fish in the Swim of the World is not a history book or a biography – it’s a setting-down of memories that have been passed around, cherished, retold and polished. Ben Brown begins with family memories, his parents and grandparents, then his own young self.
Here’s his father, born in Quorn, in the Australian outback, recalling his own mother, “No one holds a grudge like the Irish, Dad used to say, leaving unspoken the notion that no one held quite so many grudges as his mother.”

Here’s his Maori mother as a child at Waahi: “Ma was fiery when she was a kid. She was intense. She got her way. She played marbles for keeps, beating all comers and hiding her prizes on an island in the middle of the Waikato River. She’d swim out there with a bag full of marbles clenched in her teeth to bury them.”

Here’s his grandfather being buried on Taupiri Mountain. “They had to move Balu’s legs to make room for him. Uncle Balu lost his legs to diabetes sometime before the disease eventually killed him. They’d put his legs in for his mother to look after until he needed them again.”

Here’s Bob himself, weeding tobacco in the Motueka Valley: “I dreamed a lot when I should have been working. Some of those rows were two or three hundred yards long! It was hot. It was dusty. What else was a kid meant to do but wander away in his head and go swimming in a pool of his own making…I was away somewhere between the end of my hoe and the edge of the universe.”

Whether it’s Darwin before the Japanese attack, bullying in Te Aute College, or just the hard scrabble of farming, Brown’s writing is always atmospheric and interesting. So far Ben Brown has been known for his children’s books but now it seems he might have invented a whole new literary form, or perhaps revived that classic form, the good yarn.

Trevor Agnew

First published in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand, on May 6th 2006

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