Karyn Hay: still a rebel
"How cool is this?" Karyn Hay exclaims as she moves through the rooms of a mansion that has been preserved exactly as it was in the late 19th century.
Well-known as the iconic presenter of the 1980s TV music show, Radio With Pictures, a documentary producer, and now a RadioLIVE evening talkback host, Hay has just completed her second novel, The March of the Foxgloves.
It is a story of 'triumph over obsession and humiliation' set in colonial Auckland and Tauranga in 1893.
"This is picture perfect!" Hay continues, circling the large ballroom where a slanted mirror above a fireplace reflects her movements.
Auckland's Alberton with its 18 rooms, Indian-themed architecture, and airy verandas, was built in 1872. A century later, the unmarried daughters of its original owner, Allan Kerr Taylor, gifted it almost unchanged to Heritage New Zealand.
There are pink ruched curtains, red chaise longues, overstuffed chairs, Victorian dressers, and crammed bookshelves. Tables are laid as if waiting for guests. The dining-room wallpapers are hand-blocked William Morris prints. The kitchens and scullery are reminders of a socially-stratified age without labour-saving devices.
The explosive climax of Hay's novel occurs at a fancy-dress Cinderella Ball, and she has brought a hanger of authentic Victorian men's formal clothing to Alberton in which to be photographed.
"If I'd been invited to that ball," she says mischievously of her top hat, jacket, waistcoat, starched collar, and cufflinks, 'this is the costume I'd wear.'
The March of the Foxgloves centres on Frances Woodward, a feisty 'New Woman' who has fled the stuffy hypocrisy of Victorian London in the wake of a scandal to make a new life in New Zealand.
Frances is also an adventurous young photographer.
"Women were starting to, in today's terms, 'get a voice', and they were just starting to work," Hay says. "Photography was something that women took up in their droves when the Kodak came out… It was a huge craze.'
She compares the fashion to our own obsession with the iPhone. "The early Kodaks also had their numbers – one, two, three, four… Everyone wanted the new model. They were relatively expensive and you'd have to be well-off to own one.
"We think of history as with people who were entirely different, but often that's a misconception… We have the same motivations - and foibles, of course - and the same ambiguities."
Hay's novel also has a back story that involves the 19th century trade in erotic photographs, blackmail, and a love affair gone wrong. She vividly recreates Frances' attempt at a fresh start as a photojournalist in New Zealand, her first experiences of the streets and sights of Auckland - and a visit to the Bleakley family in Tauranga.
"Well, let me suggest I chose the name Bleakley for a reason. Eamon Bleakley is a bit of an arsehole, really. His wife was no longer in love with him and was in love with someone else and they have three children with rather fanciful names. And it is chaos, controlled chaos.
"In those times, we tend to think that the children did what they were told, that they were seen and not heard, that they went upstairs to the nursery. They might have done that in London but they didn't do that in colonial New Zealand."
Even casual fact-checking of Hay's book reveals the strong current of reality that lies below the surface, from the exact dates the real Hayes Circus played in Tauranga to omnibus routes down Parnell Rise.
Perched on the edge of the Alberton chaise longue, Hay opens a red box containing postcards, photographs, magazines of the era, a small exquisitely printed calendar, an original circular Kodak print, and copper templates for embroidery initials.
"This is Wilson's Photographic Magazine…" she says, pulling a Victorian magazine from its plastic sleeve. "It is just so nice to hold… And this photograph is from 1889. That was the state of the roads then. Imagine a whole entire circus travelling up and down the country on those…. That's Tauranga, First Avenue and Cameron Road. The roads there were white, covered with shells from Mt Maunganui. It's a wonder there are any left on the beach.'
But her investigation wasn't only confined to places and characters.
The March of the Foxgloves comes in two editions: the paperback and a mauve hardcover special special edition printed in the tradition of luxury Victorian 'under the counter' erotic literature. It includes a postcard section featuring Melbourne burlesque artist Miss Sina King, photographed by Vicky Papas Vergara, and sketches by John Constantine.
It is an artefact created by a true book-lover.
Hay was raised in Waitoa, near Te Aroha. "I very much relate to Janet Frame's childhood, that isolated childhood, if you like, on the very, very edge of town. I grew up in a little dairy factory town, at the back of the dairy factory actually.
"It was heartland New Zealand. It was Frank Sargeson's New Zealand... and I totally relate to Frank when he stood on the top of Te Aroha mountain and saw that everything in front of him was all that he had known in his life to date. And that's how I felt at that time… There was this yearning all the time to break out of that. And it was books that allowed me to do that."
After completing school, Hay took a cadetship with Radio New Zealand and sold advertising for commercial radio stations. However, her real break came with her job as host of Radio with Pictures.
"I was just watching it one night and thought, 'What is this crap?', and fired off a note to say so and they fired one back to say, 'Well, if you think you can do better, here's your audition date'."
Needless to say, she got the job, and her air of rebellious cool would become synonymous with the era. Radio with Pictures was obligatory viewing because it presented new music clips in a country where it was still hard to get current releases. Her 'What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get!' attitude was another attraction.
She didn't fake a BBC accent when most announcers did. Her New Zealand vowels were unmodified. Her opinions were her own.
"I look at presenters today, and I think the difference is that I wasn't trying to be famous. Today, everyone is trying to be famous. They would kick you in the guts to be famous. We were trying to put out something that mattered.
"Everyone I worked with was a musician and had an absolute passion for what they did. And that is the difference. It's the difference between working with people and doing something because you feel it matters and working for self interest, because you want your face on the telly."
In the late 1980s, Hay began a relationship with Andrew Fagan, lead singer of The Mockers. They would eventually marry. She still laughs about a first encounter that had him sitting on the grass at her feet at a concert. Then the pair went to London, where they lived on a series of canal barges, including one named Moonlight Smuggler.
"It was a very difficult time in some ways because we were complete paupers," says Hay. "There was one week when we lived on mushrooms from the fields alongside the Thames, where we were moored because we had no money. We very nearly killed ourselves. I think we found some plums that were growing on a wild plum tree too, but we didn't realise that mushrooms in the UK could be poisonous."
'What I do know is how to live on a small amount. It is difficult when you have children, but not absolutely impossible when you've got such a great backyard - the canals and the grass, the ever-changing water.'
Hay and Fagan have two sons, who Hay mentions with some reticence. "There is Seth. He is learning to be a pilot in the Royal New Zealand Air Force. He's just turned 21. And we've got a younger son, Fabian, and he is 17 or 18 in March and he is in his last year at college.'
As for Fagan, he is away, and has been for much of the year. He has had a long-standing fascination with the sea and has circumnavigated New Zealand, sailed solo to Australia, and down to the sub-Antarctic Auckland Islands. He now works on the MC Claymore II, the ship which provides the essential link to the remote Pitcairn Island, travelling there five times a year.
Five nights a week, Hay hosts her talkback show for RadioLIVE. She is passionate about the role.
"It has got to be the hardest job in broadcasting and I have done everything in broadcasting. I liken it to the finishing school of broadcasting. That's because if you can do talkback you can do anything. It is like tightrope walking. Music radio is just so easy because you have a song to go to - all this inane banter and then you are into the song - that doesn't happen in talkback. There is dead air if you don't talk.
"To me, it is an art form in itself. I will facilitate this without agreeing with everything you say, without allowing you to run off at the mouth about everything. I will facilitate this so that we, as New Zealanders, can live in a democracy that allows you to have your voice, that a politician or someone who is dictating policy can hear."
It all sounds terribly grown up and sensible, however, scratch Hay's surface and the rebel is still easy to find.
"You do change as you get older," she laughs. "With responsibility, you sometimes have to get along with authority. I still have an unsettling relationship with it. I feel that for part of my life I have done my duty. Now I'd actually like to get back to having more problems with it."
* The March of the Foxgloves by Karyn Hay (Esom House, $32) is out now.
- Your Weekend