Nelson Arts Festival
Bruce Ansley & Peter Bush, Founders Granary, Page & Blackmore Readers and Writers, Saturday.
Several things stood out in this last session of a fortnight of literary feasting.
First was the difference in the demographic between this audience and other events.
No surprises that most of the capacity audience at this ‘Southern Man’ session were male, many with greying hair. They’d come to hear Christchurch writer Bruce Ansley and iconic photographer Peter Bush talk about the making of Mesopotamia Station – A Fabled Land.
A large number of fans were female, however, of all ages, and they also avidly drank in the stories that rolled out. Stories and drink were two other features of this session.
Ansley entertained and informed with his account of how he came to write the story of the High Country sheep station and its owners since 1945, the Prouting family. The easy camaraderie between he and Bush developed through their trips to the station beyond the Rangitata River during the couple of years working together on the book was obvious as the yarns bounced between them.
It was craggy photographer Peter Bush, though, who held us spellbound as his husky unhurried voice recounted story after story of his ongoing close friendship with the Prouting family and the place, that began with an accidental meeting more than 50 years ago.
Perhaps best known for his lifetime of rugby photography, Bush also recorded on film his many visits and experiences on the station, and spoke affectionately of the annual muster of merino from the high peaks and nights spent in shepherds’ huts, sometimes in literally freezing weather. That was his introduction to the musterers’ rule when the warming whisky bottle came out at night – you drink your whisky straight, the water is for the sheep and dogs - a rule he came up against more than once on the trail. Likewise, some of the harsh realities of the life.
The age of big musters on Mesopotamia is history now that, under tenure review, the Department of Conservation has taken over the highest land.
At the start of the session, Ansley and Bush looked startled when they came on stage and saw the size of the audience, their biggest so far.
By the end, all we needed was a fire and sleeping bag, startlingly clear stars in a black sky, plus maybe some whisky, and we would all probably be there still. That’s the spell of the High Country and those who tell its stories.