1 Nov 2015

Smart Talk at the Auckland Museum: City of Shadows

From Smart Talk at the Auckland Museum, 4:06 pm on 1 November 2015

The Auckland they grew up in was a city of shadows

The theme of exclusion from mainstream society binds the three contributors to an edition of Smart Talk at the Auckland Museum. For Ella Henry, a street girl and drug addict in the 1970s who was befriended by James K Baxter; Sarikha Rosli, a former stripper turned mother and blogger; and Michael Stevens, who grew up gay in an era when it was illegal, being outside societal norms meant experiencing the darker and more hidden aspects of the city.

“I’d run away from home, and eventually I ended up in a dark place,” says Ella Henry, recalling her time on the street. “It just happened to be at the corner of K Road and Symonds St, where there was a very convenient, nice, quiet little cemetery. Not the dark scary one down the valley before they built the highway. So I was sleeping in there, and I woke up the next morning and I could hear somebody praying, just a couple of headstones away. And it was this old fella. And he had the biggest meanest set of beads I’d ever seen in my life.”

Henry thinks she must have made some noise because the man turned around and looked at her, and said “You must be hungry. Come with me.”

In an era before awareness of paedophiles and serial killers, the teenaged Henry just followed this “old guy with the beard and beads” across the bridge to Boyle Crescent, where she met a whole group of people who were just like her. “We were 15, 16, 17-year olds, who were literally children,” she says. “And we just found each other.”

The figure who had brought her to breakfast was none other than James K Baxter, famous both for his poetry and his sense of connection to society’s outcasts. After a while some of them accompanied Hemi (as they called Baxter) on a truck belonging to one of the boys, to Jerusalem, a tiny settlement on the banks of the Whanganui River.

Back then it was a three-day drive. The trip involved panhandling for petrol in Te Awamutu along the way, and then the group ended up by the river in the communal living space which Baxter had set up. Henry found her time there affected her profoundly.

“I found a whole other part of who and what I am as a person,” she remembers, but the call of the city lured her back and before long she had returned to what she describes as the maelstrom of her life in Auckland. “There were so many enticements,” explains, reflecting all the same that “Jerusalem will always stay in my mind.”

Like Ella Henry, it also took time for Michael Stevens to find his tribe.

As a young gay man growing up in the late 70s and early 80s, he knew he was illegal, and felt that he was a deep disappointment to his parents. Despite having gone to King’s College, and coming from a very establishment background, Stevens’s discovery of his gay identity completely cut him away from that world.

But he did find a group of people to coalesce with, because they had in common the sense of being rejected, being cut off from the mainstream. Then, he says, you were an outlaw every time you went to bed with someone, So it tended to make the rest of the law seem ridiculous to him.

“Why would you care,” he asks, “about the laws around drugs? It all becomes meaningless.” And some of his exploits were decidedly risky.

Stevens recalls that as a prank he once he did what his university friends called “the milk run.” On this expedition, he explains, “You had to have sex in each public toilet: from Albert Park, down to Customs St, up to Durham Lane, and whoever got back to Albert Park first was denoted the winner.”

Occasionally the then-hidden world of the Auckland gay experience intruded in to daylight. The result wasn’t always comfortable, according to Stevens. “If you encounter someone from your night-time life in the daytime, they may not want to know you or acknowledge you.”

For Sarikha Rosli, working as a young stripper, the opposite situation could be just as awkward: “People from your daytime life showing up at night and you’re naked and they’re your teacher?” she asks. When this occurred she felt like saying “Sir, what are you doing here? There’s school tomorrow!”

About the participants

Noelle McCarthy

Noelle McCarthy Photo: Supplied.

Noelle McCarthy - Moderator

Noelle McCarthy is a writer and broadcaster based in Auckland. She's a well-known voice on Radio New Zealand National, as the host of 'Summer Noelle' in the holidays, and a regular fill-in on various shows. She's written for a variety of publications in New Zealand and Ireland, including a regular books column for Metro magzine.

Ella Henry

Ella Henry

Ella Henry is known to New Zealanders as an academic, a former Human Rights Commissioner, a businesswoman, and as the dispenser of sound advice on Māaori Television's 'Ask Your Auntie'. But she has another story - that of the 16-year-old girl found on K Road by James K. Baxter and given the shelter of the poet's community, along with others whom society didn't care to know. She has, in a real way, looked at life from both sides now.

Sarikha Rosli

Sarikha Rosli

Known on the scene as 'Miss Whiskey', Sarikha Rosli, writer oftheknockedupstripper.com, has lusted for adventure from a very young age. This desire is what led her on her chaotic journey through the underworld of Auckland’s adult entertainment industry and fetish scene, where she has witnessed both the dazzling and the dark sides of many notorious strip clubs, in Auckland and abroad, uncovering some of the industry’s darkest secrets. Whiskey has now abandoned her extravagant and devious lifestyle, trading in lappies for nappies, vanity for Christianity and snogging for blogging… but not without a tale or two to tell.

Michael Stevens

Michael Stevens

Michael Stevens has been an active member of Auckland's LGBT communities  for over 30 years, first as an activist, then as a sociologist at the University of Auckland, and now as a social commentator, and also a professional diversity consultant and programme director at the Rainbow Tick. He is a third-generation Aucklander, with a love of his city and a particular knowledge of some of the seedier and more exciting byways of the Queen City's past and present.