Alan Dove

At the bach

These lines from Ian Wedde’s poem The Story always come to mind when after a long spell in the city I finally make it out to my bach. Struggling forward into a head wind as I explore along the high water mark, mopping at a bit of a runny nose, I can’t help remembering those last two words. What for? I love coming to this bach, but why? What is it New Zealanders love so much about their baches?

Written by       Photographed by Alan Dove

According to the Big Oxford, bach has its origins in the word bach­elor. “He’s baching,” we say when a man lives on his own for a spell, and what we mean is that we expect there won’t be a table cloth on the table, or anything much in the fridge, or fresh flowers in the vases. Perhaps recent changes to our ideas about what makes a man suggest that these days we could expect better cooking in this bachelor house than we might have once, and even some pleasantries of presentation; perhaps this meaning of baching is slipping into the past. But I think it’s true that in the early part of this century baches were houses where, even if women were present, male domestic standards were dominant. So you had rudimentary apparatus for cooking on—such as primuses—and odd furniture, and tide tables pinned to bare walls; in extreme cases, beer crates to sit on, sacks for curtains, the chimney backed by corrugated iron, a dirt floor.

These days, baches are likely to be better ap­pointed, especially if they’re built in some places in particular. Do you still say bach about the structures on the beachfront at Pauanui? Here signs warn that local ordinances specifically preclude fibrolite or other cheap building materials from being used in construction. The sections in this “beach subdivi­sion” (manicured verges, golf course, on-site runway for private planes) are expensive, and the tastefully designed buildings on them amount to second homes. “Beach house” seems more accurate—which in turn implies that baches are meant to be built on the cheap. It’s not hard to pick this up if you talk to the owners of old baches who have recently had something superior rise amongst them. “Blimmin thing cost $400,000,” is a sentence which always comes up early in the conversa­tion. “And the owners are only out here three times a year.”

Maybe that’s why we like our baches cheap, because we use them only occasionally. Certainly, a strange feeling comes over you if you take your beach holiday at an off-peak time of the year. Wandering among empty baches, with their gates locked and blinds drawn so that their windows look like closed eyes, gives an eerie reminder of ghost towns and neglected enthusiasms. If the baches are old, the grey arcs which hanging tools and safes have worn in the salt-dusted paint, the chalk-white sandshoes dried and stiff by the door, the weathered mangles on the outside tubs where bright grass sprouts up through the plughole, seem to suggest that lives have certainly been lived here. But new baches which are empty simply seem a waste.

Perhaps it’s a particularly New Zealand thing to think that a beach house should be cheap. Our post-Depression past doesn’t have such a grip on us these days, but when the older baches were built most of them belonged to families who didn’t necessarily have a great deal to come and go on. A bach, especially one by the sea, offered the promise of food for free along with the pleasure to be had from catching it. And there were no summer fashions to be keeping up with, and few expen­sive diversions to spend your money on. Here the ethos could be utilitarian, daggy even, and none would object

The classic bach is by the sea, with an outside toilet and tubs, and a galvanized iron tank to collect rainwater off the roof. At the tank-stand a cake of soap and a towel wait beside a white enamel basin. Inside, the walls are unlined, the rafters are exposed and the wiring can be seen snaking round the walls to the power point, which inevitably has four double plugs rising humpbacked from it. The floors are bare boards, stained dark by the sweat of bare feet. On the walls there’s a Lands & Survey map, a painting by a hand yet to produce its master­piece, a list of dos and don’ts. Instructions abound, as do keys on nails, and stacks of paua shells, and little piles of playing cards, usually two shy of a pack. On a high shelf books of astonishingly diverse character lie as though their search for a final resting place is over.

“Go outside and see how much water we’ve got left,” Dad says. When you tap the side of the tank with the broom handle there’s a hollow clank.

You sit on the wooden oval above the long drop and wonder if a spider will bite your backside.

You read a few pages of an old hardback novel with no dust jacket. S. Jenkins ’54 is inscribed on the flyleaf. No-one in the family has ever heard of S. Jenkins.

A morepork calls in the night, and you step outside. In the complete daikness you stare at more stars than you remembered being up there, and are reminded, now that you’re used to it, just how much light they give.

Every New Zealander has been here, has done these things. We enjoy our baches, but we think of them as common-or-garden; they don’t seem special to us. In fact, they’re as specific and indigenous as Taumarunui on the main trunk line.

My family lived on a branch of the main trunk, lower down the island, at Masterton in the Wairarapa. In 1964 my aunt and uncle bought a bach at a place called Mataikona, a strip of windswept coast north of the lighthouse at Castlepoint, and a few years later my parents bought the bach next door. All through my teenage years my extended family gathered in these two baches to talk, argue, read Christmas books on bunks, go for nature walks, introduce spouses, eat paua, mold, greenbone and crayfish, play marathon games of tenniquoits, catch up on gossip, set the nation to rights, fall out with each other, fall back in, lie outside in the darkness and watch for the orbiting satellites which could be seen moving against the fixed points of the background stars.

As we got older, my sister and I were allowed to have turns at the bach on our own. Out there we smoked drugs, lazed around for days, pretended to be children of nature: wonderful times.

But I’d always kept my eye on that bach as a place where undis­turbed work could be done. In 1983, I had a novel in manuscript that a publisher had accepted, provided I could “tidy it up a bit.” There’s a photo of me that a friend took that year, one of my favourites, sitting at the kitchen table out there, with my manuscript around me in little piles, and my back bent over the typewriter. The wind moaned in the eaves, terns squalled as they were swept past the windows, but there was no telephone or television or clock or interruption or excuse of any sort. When I think of that novel, Waiting For Einstein, I think not of the events and words it contains, but of sitting at that table, concentrating. How many times in this country’s history have baches served as the background for intense concentration and personal achievement of this sort?

The year my novel was published, 1984, the next bach along from the two my family already owned was offered for sale, and, in partner­ship with a friend, I bought it. My own stake in a place that was becom­ing heritage.

[chapter-break]

It’s only because it tries to include every word in English that the Big Oxford lists bach at all. Prior to the 1993 edition, the Shorter Oxford placed it with the foreign words in the addenda, where its origins were said to lie in the American phrase to keep bach (live as a bachelor), but that these days it is used in New Zealand. It’s not a word they’re readily familiar with in Britain. A sentence in Maurice Gee’s second novel,

A Special Flower, reads, “At Christmas the Frasers rented a beach on Waiheke Island.” In fact, Gee had intended that they rent a bach, and as the book progressed towards publication he twice corrected the “cor­rection” which had been made to his text by the editor at Hutchinson UK. But, in physical manifestation of the parental relationship England once had with this country, “beach” is what finally appears in the published version.

Of course, the English sometimes have “summer houses,” but as a rule these belong to the wealthy, the vast majority not being able to afford a house at all, let alone a second one that is used only occasion­ally. In Sweden they like summer houses, too, though these are usually beside lakes. In this country we do talk about having a bach at lakes like Taupo or Waikaremoana, but generally we think that a bach will be beside the sea.

And in the sea we expect to go swimming, and fishing, and boating, and on the sea’s shore we’ll sunbathe and paddle in pools and look under rocks for crabs and paua. We’re on holiday.

But we could take our holidays anywhere. We probably say we go to our baches because there are things we like to do when we’re there. But isn’t the main attraction that there isn’t much to do? Oh, we’ll potter with this and that, spend hours lying on the sandspit with the rod tip sawing above us, with the line arcing out into the depths—but are we really trying hard to catch anything? The most wonderful sensation at a bach is the way that time turns into vast landscapes which move past with the stately calm of continental drift. An hour spent over a single page of the newspaper and a steaming cup, the eyes drifting up from the print to survey the long line of the horizon, where nothing moves. Are those clouds stratocumulus? And so half an afternoon is spent riffling through such reference books (Arthur Mee’s encyclopaedia, an ancient Pears, a dictionary minus its binding, mostly used for Scrabble) as have ended up on the sagging shelf. This desire to satisfy random attacks of apparently trivial curiosity suddenly seems urgent and profound.

And I suspect that perhaps it is. In our baches we have the opportunity to prove to ourselves that “the adaptable man” (or woman) isn’t far beneath our skins. Armed with only our intellect, haven’t we always thought, we could solve any problem, couldn’t we, if only we had the time? And so at baches we try ourselves out as ornithologists, geologists, local historians, meteorologists, marine biologists.

My guess is, these opportunities to reaffirm ourselves as potential masters of all disciplines is a strong if buried trait among New Zealanders. Our settler past (presuming we’re Pakeha) isn’t far behind us, and even though we have often been acquiescent to authority, our distrust of experts, particularly academics, has the strength of tradition. We like to think that if needs be we could wield an axe, steer by the stars, snare a hare—that we’re only out of practice in these arts because we’re too busy in the city exercising our specialist skills to have time for these more universal ones.

Another satisfaction, an allied one that we take when we have the time, is that of calling things by their right names. At home it’s suffi­cient to say fish when the kids ask what we’re having for dinner, but suddenly it seems vital to have Wade Doak tell us if this be conger or krill. There’s more to this than mere pedantry. Here, away from the whirl of the city, we feel we can make time hold still for a moment. We can look at things carefully, linger on them, name them, get them right—not just objects, but ideas.

One of the ideas that come up again and again in conversations held in baches is how sane this kind of life is, and why aren’t we living out here full time? In 1949, A R D Fairburn ran a long poem past this notion. To a Friend in the Wilderness begins with a catalogue of woes:

For God’s sake let it rip, let go the rope, the weight is dead against you. Toss in your hand, the cards are stacked. You’re jostled off course, get off your horse. Our land

is conquered, lost: homunculus supreme sits on the world’s back: the weevil is in the sack, 

and then proffers a solution:

Listen: when Kelly went he left me his boat,

the sun is on the sea and the fish are biting,

the garden is full, the fruit begins to fall. For God’s sake chuck it, join me and share my crust,

the world well lost. Make life a long week-end.

One of the advantages of owning a bach is the way it provides a bolt-hole. This is where we’ll come, we think, to lick our wounds. If the sharemarket col­lapses, if she leaves me, if they drop the bomb, if I go mad. Here I’ll be able to survive. I’ll live off the land, take my cues from the natural world, and become sane again.

I could be happy

even when the house had fallen, its rotten eaves

tangled in blackberry; well content to sleep

under the raupo hearing the rain on the leaves

rustling in darkness; glad to sweat in the sun,

and wash my body in the sea.

I’ve had these feelings myself—but I don’t trust them. Stuck out there, with only the elements for company, I’m quite certain I’d be trying the razor on my Adam’s apple within a week.

Still, that thought keeps coming back: out here is where sanity lies. It comes up in every second conversation. It is, I sus­pect, a national delusion.

[chapter-break]

My Bach, and the others which belong to our family, are typical of thousands of others in isolated spots all around the country—at the end of a gravel road, gathering water from iron roofs, with heat for cooking coming from gas bottles. No electricity, no phones, though power poles can be seen advancing. My uncle, a doctor, origi­nally brought us here because he wanted a get-away where he couldn’t be reached by phone. Now, as pagers and cellphones spread their tentacles, that sense of remoteness is getting harder and harder to achieve. Once you could stare out the front windows of our baches all day without seeing a single car to raise the dust; not any more. In the last year we’ve had to pay for a fence to keep the cows, which have always wandered down through our properties, off the road. (Accord­ing to the council the road now has a traffic density of hazardous proportions.) In recent years our rates have gone up dramatically. Though the land is rough and the road unsealed, a subdivision has been started at the end of it: concrete kerbs, street lighting, flush toilets.

This process is happening all over the country. As our cities get more densely populated, the desire to escape them intensifies. The govern­ment valuation on baches is rising steadily, especially on those within reasonable driving distance of urban centres. Gaps that have been left in the coastline for years are being reassessed as to their development potential. Well, I suppose you’ve got no reasonable grounds for grum­bling if others want to share the paradise you’ve found—but that doesn’t mean you don’t grumble.

The problem is, more people means that the place changes. It’s not just the cars you’ve got to listen to instead of the silence. It’s that the odd bach or two doesn’t affect an ecosystem the way that a community of them does.

Take fishing, for instance. All through my childhood, a visit to the bach meant eating seafood. Each night we’d put out a small net and next morning always had something for breakfast: moki, butterfish, the odd cray. Always. In the last three years we haven’t netted a single edible fish. Of course, we blame the occupants of those baches built since ours was, or those who don’t bother to build; who come crawling across the rocks in their hundreds each weekend at low tide, armed with wetsuit and sack. We sit on our steps, behind the wobbling curtain of our gin and tonics, and mutter sour remarks about interlopers.

In fact, these day-trippers probably have nothing to do with the scarcity of fish. At night, using binoculars, we can see the fishing boats out on the horizon, with the great light of the mothership glowing like a flame which all the little craft circle round as they spread and then close the giant net. During the day the professional fishermen speed back and forth in their powerful boats—our pleasure has become their work. It’s a theme repeated wherever you glance. Once one of the kids was sent out with togs and a screwdriver to pick up a few paua for fritters; these days you need to dive deep and get lucky. Once the kids made holiday money by collecting agar, a kind of seaweed which is used for making a neutral jelly on which biological cultures are grown; these days people collect agar for a living.

It’s not that these activities shouldn’t take place. In this country we’ve always encouraged the commercial exploitation of natural resources; it’s what New Zealand is built on. But the more

desperate economic climate and the slow but steady swelling of the population mean that being at a bach gradually becomes more like being at home.

In our baches we cook more complicated meals these days, and drink wine from bottles instead of beer from flagons. Progress, I suppose.

At my bach there’s a sheep’s skull which has nestled in the tall grass behind the long drop for the past five years. For a while I had it up, sat on top of a fence post so that it didn’t get forgotten, but a guest found it disturbing and it’s back in the grass now. I glance at the post and remember—memento mori. It wasn’t that I insisted on having a prompt to morbid introspection, but the skull, whitened and hollow, traversed by the faint dark wrigglings where its pieces joined, like writing, like rivers on a map, had been thrown up by the shiftings of the sand, and it seemed unwise to bury it. Similarly, bones, collected for the window­sill, and the carapace of a crab, and the middens revealed when the wind shifts banks of sand; the past seems to come to you for inspection. Once a piece of cliff crumbled away and there, in cross-section, was the charcoal bowl of an umu. Death, the cycles that life has turned through in this place, rarely enters so tangibly into my city existence.

And the mating cries of the birds, the arrival of their eggs, the gradual feathering of the fledglings, are also cycles we have time to watch. The cycles of sun and moon, the emergence of the stars, the rise and fall of the tides, the morning and evening breezes. It’s not even that we focus on these things, but we take them in, just part of the fresh air we’re breathing.

Occasionally, the land itself seems to beckon us. Once, as a teenager, pitching with a nine iron towards a sandbank behind the bach, I hit a shank and had to search for the ball way off to the side, among rushes. It had rained heavily the night before and the sand had been moved around, or perhaps it was just the wind. Whatever, I bent down to find that, pointing at me like a finger from the sand, was a length of pounamu. When I drew it forth it was eight centimetres long, and slim, flat along one edge and gently curved along the other. A hole had been drilled in the top end so that a cord might be attached. At the National Museum the ethnologist told me that this piece of stone was old, pre-European and, when it was in use, was probably serving as a fish-threader. He pointed out a flaw half way along its green side, and said that most likely, with a piece of this size, only partially carved, it was being used for a while to see if it would break. If it broke it would be made into two smaller ear pendants, but if it proved strong it would become a neck pendant of some significance.

Pretty well every bach has a story of this sort to offer, an encounter or discovery or sighting that simply would not have occurred at home. We don’t go on holiday to seek these experiences, we don’t consciously try to “get back to nature.” We just want some time in a place that isn’t as dominated by us as the suburbs we live in.

[chapter-break]

The 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand has no mention of bach in its index. Neither does Gordon McLauchlan’s more recent New Zealand Encyclopedia. New Zealand Architec­ture, from Polynesian Beginnings to 1990, by Peter Shaw, omits the word from its glossary and undertakes no formal consideration of this form of construction.

When you look at the buildings we’re talking about, so many of them slapped together, or added to as the materials became available, or painted from pots left over after redecoration in town, it’s easy to understand why they might be omitted from serious consideration. But not everyone sees it that way. Architectural theorists have in this country traditionally seen the bach as being of great significance. Here’s architect and critic Nigel Cook on the subject. “Put simply, the bach is the only truly indigenous building type the second wave of immigrants to these islands have thus far produced.”

The members of New Zealand’s most important architectural move­ment, The Group, were obsessed with the bach as a form. They saw in it certain formal elements that they found pleasing—simplicity, open­ness—and combined influences from classic baches with ideas they drew from, among other places, Scandinavian houses, to come up with the designs for their First House, built in 1950 in the Auckland suburb of Belmont. Unlike the norm for the time, this house was without a passage, had plywood walls, exposed beams, a low-pitched corrugated iron roof and an emphasis on being open to the sunlight. The water tank, however, was inside.

It’s not automatic to include the building of baches with the “high” arts like painting and sculpture. They seem more reasonably to belong with tattooing and graffiti, as folk art. But Nigel Cook would like to see classic examples protected by preservation order and maintained—and perhaps he’s got a point. It’s easy to think that the bach will never die, but modern building inspectors and property developers might have other ideas. There just aren’t the unused spaces in the country that there used to be; try knocking up a bit of a but on the next attractive bit of coast you stumble across and see how far you get.

Paul Thompson, author of the only book on baches, estimates that there are probably 40,000 (including “cribs” and “holiday homes”) around the shores and in the bush pockets of New Zealand—so they won’t be vanishing just yet. But we have a great deal to lose if they do.
Baches represent a mood that is in danger of vanishing from this country. They were an expression of freedom: of the openness of a country with a low population, of our impulse to do for ourselves, our freedom from fear of wild animals or extremes of weather. We were slow to build cities, and then often uncomfortable in them; we felt we needed to keep one foot in the dirt. At that time we could, as Nigel Cook says, “rely on getting freedom simply by shifting to empty spaces.” Now the idea of empty space is gone—but we still seem to need to feel that we could find an escape route if we had to.

A good bach is often half-hidden behind low shrubbery or tall, unmown grass. It fades back, has the world at a distance, as we do when we bach it.

Let us be done with concrete and steel, plastic and formica and all the festoonings of luxury and comfort, all the false triptrap gadgetry of glamour . . .

. . . give me back the smell of salt and earth and iron and the sweet wood smell burned grey by the sun.

(from Shack, by Murray Edmond)

It’s easy to romanticise the appeals of the “natural” life, especially as we move from being a nation of rural dwellers to one that lives in cities. But baches can provide a holiday from the city and at the same time remind us of who we are beneath our city skins. Without a bach I would feel I was missing a vital part of the equipment I use to right myself—to set myself to rights, to write right, to get things right.

I don’t think I’m alone in these feelings. Baches help us keep one foot in the dirt, to keep our feet on the ground. They seem to be an important part of this country, to belong here; and to be part of our feeling that we do too.

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