The old second hand shop on the corner of Mansfield and Rhodes hasn’t been a second hand shop since about 1989. When the current owners were scraping back layers of paint, they discovered a sign from the early 1900’s, “Tea Rooms and Summer Drinks”. The shed out the back still has the old brick oven. Between World War II and the 1970’s, it was a corner dairy.
The shop signage has become an enduring icon within the Newtown community. I walk past it at least twice a day and read the words “no fuel tank, no emissions, no oil wars, no regrets”.
There was a time though, when the girl on the bike and her clean-green message wasn’t there. A recovering junkie who was staying in the house at the time had painted a different message, one to help him on his path to recovery.
The Serenity Prayer
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
As it turns out, these weren’t the only iconic words that particular person had written on Wellington walls; He was also the original artist behind the long standing Ian Curtis memorial wall, “walk in silence”, across the road and up a bit from Massey university.
Since then, the wall has been used to display various messages protesting against such things as the Wellington bypass and the war in Iraq.
Andrew Ross moved in to the building in 2001 but he had lived in the area since about 1987. It was Andrew’s recovering friend who wrote the prayer on the wall.
Walking home one day, I saw Andrew in his paint splattered blue overalls and stripy woollen hat with tuffs of red hair poking out the bottom. He was cutting old “gleaned” (an interesting word with a lot of history, Andrew tells me) bits of scrap wood with an equally old looking table-saw and stacking them inside his front gate.
I thought of my dad, who was obsessed with firewood; dropping trees like a cowboy with a chainsaw, cutting logs, splitting them and then constructing perfect stacks of wood ready for burning in the winter. He would never let his family be cold, and I guessed the same was true for Andrew, who lived in the old house with his partner and baby son.
I asked Andrew if I could take a photo of him at work.
“I’m just about to cut this bit of wood. You wanna get an action shot?” he asked
I took the photo and then we began to chat as he continued to stack the wood, occasionally picking up a hammer to pull out the odd rusty nail.
I confessed that I had very little experience in photography, and that, after finishing my studies in cultural anthropology, I was avoiding the 9 to 5 drudgery of working for some government department or an equally soul destroying career. It was then that I found out that Andrew was actually an experienced documentary photographer whose work could be seen at Photospace gallery on Courtney place. Fifteen years ago, he had photographed Fish Fins, the local fish and chip shop and to this day he still got the odd extra piece of fish with his order.
Back in those days, Andrew told me, there were many more local businesses in Newtown, signwriters and printers, all sorts of stuff going on, and all great for a budding photographer.
He pointed across the road at the line of terrace houses.
“They all used to be businesses”
There isn’t much money in photography these days, but Andrew was still keen, usually focusing on architecture. He uses film cameras , has his own dark room, and was all too willing to share his knowledge with me. I get the feeling that he was never in it for the money anyway.
“Those were the good years of Helen Clarke when you could get something called the artist wage. After the Shipley years, it was as if everything was sane again”.
“You wanna get a shot of that Kitchen? It’s got some real old lino in there,” he suggested.
I jumped at the chance to see more of his house. I could see through the gate that it looked very, very cool.
The kitchen was no exception. The lino was indeed very old, and very beautiful.
“You reckon I could get a shot of you in the Kitchen Andrew?” I asked.
“Oh yea if you’re quick, I gotta be somewhere at 2.30”
He was kind enough to stand for yet another photo, placing his hand on the kettle as we humans often do in our kitchens.
It was getting close to 2.30 and I had taken up enough of Andrews’s time. I left him to finish that all-important and ancient practice of firewood preparation, but not before he showed me where to find the door bell through a hole in the gate.