Oamaru — a post-industrial fairy tale

I haven't even told you about the colony of penguins less than a mile south. There was a colony of penguins. Less than a mile south of here. We saw them. Our photos showed tiny black and white blurs on the sand. But our eyeballs were delighted with the whole penguin-ness of the way penguins walk.

I haven’t even told you about the colony of penguins less than a mile south of the site of this imaginary space capsule. There was a colony of penguins. Less than a mile south of this imaginary space capsule. We saw them. Our photos showed tiny black and white blurs on the sand. But our eyeballs were delighted with the whole penguin-ness of the way penguins walk. And I still grin when I remember them.

Jack thinks he’s in the dining room working on taxes at the moment. He doesn’t know…yet…that he is multi-tasking. His photos are going to tell about Oamaru. I might pepper the post with a couple of mine, but the good ones will be his.

I wanted to visit Oamaru because of Janet Frame. It’s where she grew up and the backdrop for her novel Owls do Cry. Her story — her life’s story — is a horror movie with an accidentally happy ending. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, she had spent years in and out of mental institutions (one of which was called the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum), where she repeatedly underwent electroshock “therapy.” She was days away from a scheduled lobotomy when her book The Lagoon and Other Stories won a literary prize. If her shrink hadn’t ready the newspaper notice about the prize and put two and two together…  She was spared the operation, mental health professionals gradually came to the conclusion that her condition had been misdiagnosed, and she went on to become a prolific, beloved, brilliant writer — nominated for a Nobel Prize in 2003. She died in 2004, at the age of 79. A strange bird. A national treasure. I read Owls do Cry as we traveled and told Jack we should try to squeeze in a drive by on our way south along the coast.

Then, at some point in the trip when our paths crossed Mary and Peter’s again — I think they were coming home from a gig on the South Island, and we were on our way to Wellington and we met for coffee in Eketahuna. Mary was flapping with excitement: They had performed at the theatre in Oamaru, the coolest town in all of the South Island (at least that day it was) and it we were to add it immediately to our Not To Be Missed List.

Mary told us about the Victorian architecture. She did not tell is we would be visiting Steampunk HQ. We were only there one night. It was…well, it was like popping ’round to The Night Circus, which is one of my favorite novels of the past couple of years.

To enlarge these thumbnails click on one of them and you have a gallery of large, detailed photos. I love WordPress!

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Judicious application of a little shuck and jive

The Ashford company bought a disused factory and turned it into a petting zoo for the most luscious yarn I've ever fondled. The coffee shop served really good fresh food, too.

The Ashford company bought a disused factory and turned it into a petting zoo for the most luscious yarn I’ve ever fondled. The coffee shop — Nosh — served really good fresh food, too.

This is one of my favorite episodes of the whole trip. Not the most meaningful, not the most dramatic; not a game changer or a paradigm shifter or a religious experience. It’s just a nugget I like to roll around in my memory.

Ashburton, New Zealand, about an hour southwest of Christchurch, is a large country town that feels like what I remember of Bozeman, Montana, which I only drove through once, more than forty years ago. There’s a broad, expansive ranch country feel about it. The West. Ashburton is home to Ashford Village, which is the site where Ashford looms and spinning wheels are made. I have an Ashford spinning wheel. Found it about ten years ago, in pieces, at an artist’s yard sale for $25 and was happily surprised, once I got it home, to discover that all the pieces were there. Jack figured out how to re-assemble it, and with the help of some friends in the Fredericksburg Spinners and Weavers Guild, I learned enough to start spinning. My yarn was full of slubs, but I thoroughly enjoyed the process. I’m still at Beginner level, but I have gotten better. My yarn isn’t slubby anymore, but it’s still what expert spinners kindly refer to as “novelty yarn,” good for scarves and hats, but too uneven to knit up into anything like a sweater. That larger than life-sized orange wheel in the photograph is what Ashford’s look like, mostly.

Here's the playground.

Here’s the playground.

After lunch we wandered into the yarn shop, full of eye candy and finger candy (all the different colors and textures and types of yarn) and fiber toys (needles, hooks, row markers, cable holders, stitch counters) and playground equipment (wheels and looms). In the darkest corner of my heart I lust for a spinning wheel that’s made in Hollalnd, but it was a kick looking at these cousins of the wheel that’s in my living room and knowing that this is where it came from.

I asked the saleslady who rang up my purchase where the actual factory was and if they offered factory tours. She told us the factory was that big metal building we passed on out way through the parking lot, but she regretted having to tell us that their lawyer had advised them to suspend factory tours. The liability was just too great.

“But I tell you, what,” she said. “Pop ’round at the front office and ask if anybody on duty has time to show you around today. Somebody might. It never hurts to ask.”

So we popped ’round to the front office. We followed a lady through the front door, and I remember being struck with how classy she was. Not fancy at all. But impeccably and expensively dressed — tailored, understated, and yet so contemporary. If I could have done so without being detected, I would have just studied her for awhile. She stopped at the receptionist’s desk with some business. As soon as she was finished, I was going to ask my favor of the receptionist. But as soon as she was finished, she turned to Jack and me and said, “How might we help you?”

You know how sometimes when you’re in the presence of fame or royalty you go all Little Nell from the Country? (No? Well, I do it all the time. And Jack wasn’t going to bail me out of this one. He thinks it’s salutary for me to exercise my inner extravert sometimes.) All of a sudden I felt shy. But no less eager to see the guts of a spinning wheel factory. I felt myself adopt an “aw shucks” posture, a little head bobbing, and I said, “We’re visiting from the U.S. and I have an Ashford — one of your Traditionals — and I’m not a very good spinner but I love it and my husband’s a wood worker and we were wondering if we could see what’s going on in back.”

She said, “What is your name?”

“Uh, Megan Hicks. And this is Jack. Uh, Abgott.”

She held out her hand for a handshake and said, “I’m Elizabeth Ashford, and I would be delighted to give you a factory tour.”

Dang! What a kick. And you know what, I have such warm fuzzy feelings toward that kindness extended and the whole Ashford enterprise that I wouldn’t say no to one of their new portable wheels — the Joy, I think it’s called. Unless I go to Holland and get a warmer reception and take home a better story from the Louet factory.

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