Protester, 'freelance politician', vagrant - the strange life of Lewis Stanton

MARION VAN DIJK/Stuff.co.nz

Protester Lewis Stanton (Hone Ma Heke) talks about why he lives on Nelson's main street.

It's after 3am on a rainy Sunday morning on Nelson's main street. The bars have just shut, and bedraggled groups of mainly young people are walking, weaving and, in one case, literally rolling down Trafalgar St. A shrieking girl is being pushed in a supermarket trolley.

Outside Farmers, Lewis Stanton's camp becomes a sort of way station for these merry and wandering bands. For some it's a place to stop and chat, for others it's a chance to throw abuse and sometimes punches.

Ella Milne and Bellarosa Lynch, both 19, stop to talk to the 59-year-old who everyone on the street calls Hone. The bubbly pair sit and crouch next to Stanton on his camp bed as he engages in vigorous conversation with a young Maori guy in a white sweatshirt.

Lewis Stanton at his Trafalgar St camp. His t-shirt shows him with his former horse Barney.
MARION VAN DIJK

Lewis Stanton at his Trafalgar St camp. His t-shirt shows him with his former horse Barney.

The visitor smokes as he gives Hone a piece of his mind, punctuated by loud slaps on the pavement. He takes Stanton to task for setting a bad example for his kids by living on the street. He says Stanton should not be using the Maori name Hone Ma Heke when he has no claim to it.

Stanton says he was given the name by Maori in Christchurch where he grew up.

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Lewis Stanton in his "wizard" gear.
MARION VAN DIJK

Lewis Stanton in his "wizard" gear.

The guy in the white sweat shirt gets angry. He is "from this f***ing whenua, where the f*** are you from?". He tells Stanton he has a right to protest, but has no claim to the land here. "Pack it up and go home," he says.

"This is home," says Stanton.

It goes back and forth like this, sometimes heated, sometimes conciliatory until the girls arrive. They ask Stanton if he's warm, and about his old horse Barney.

Lewis Stanton cooks a meal on a gas cooker at his campsite.
MARION VAN DIJK

Lewis Stanton cooks a meal on a gas cooker at his campsite.

Sweatshirt guy leaves. "I actually like that fellow," he tells a mate. "But …. it's not alright to do this s***."

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Ella and Bella say they often stop to speak to Stanton and are not bothered by his presence.

"What he does doesn't affect us," says Ella. "We choose what affects us. He has to be considered like any other human. He has a heart."

Bella, who remembers going for rides on Hone's cart at Tahuna beach as a child, says everyone is entitled to their own views on Stanton, but there was no need for abuse, even if he could be "a little s***".

Ella pipes up: "He's a Nelson icon."

Across the road at the entrance of the mid-city arcade, a group of tall, drunk men wander past. "Turangawaewae," yells one in the general direction of Hone . "Stand tall, don't give a f***"

***********

This support and abuse is not confined to the middle of Trafalgar St in the middle of the night. Everyone in Nelson has an opinion on Hone. There is no middle ground.

"Icon" is a new and unlikely addition to the epithets applied to Lewis Stanton.

In the letters to the editor page of the Nelson Mail it's more likely to be "squatter", "freeloader" or "vagrant". He is blamed for tarnishing the look and reputation of the central city by airing his grievances, and his laundry, in public, as well as costing ratepayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal and other costs.

On social media pages it is typically more wild west, with some advocating for his quick and violent end.

"Is he a tourist attraction?" asked a visitor one lunchtime before Christmas. "No, he's disgusting," said his local host.

The man himself shows no signs of being worn down. He is sustained by grievances, by an unusual supporting cast of kindred spirits and by the kindness of strangers.

In 18 hours spent at his campsite over two nights the Nelson Mail saw all these characters in action; real-life street theatre on a 10-metre square strip of brick pavers.

In the main role Stanton is an unlikely figure. He is campaigning for freedom of movement by becoming a fixture in Trafalgar St;  he is a school dropout who has designed a game using wooden geometric shapes precisely cut to form larger patterns; he is at times Nelson's most hated man, but he also has a lot of support.

Some say his lifeblood is the attention he gets, and Stanton admits that he enjoys the limelight.

"To a certain extent you have to but at the same time I was not in the limelight when all this bullshit started."

Sometimes he says it's hard to get time to himself: "You might have half a dozen people in a row that take up an hour of your time while you are trying to catch up with the politics of the day. I consider myself to be a freelance politician, but the pay's not that good."

The loose community around him is made up of people like Daniel who turns up on a Tuesday night with cardboard to insulate his street bed.

He has been homeless for eight years, but has recently been living in a house until an argument saw him turfed out.

Anyway, he says he couldn't get comfortable in a bed and he was back to support "this bloody pain in the arse".

Through the evening and night a procession of friends drop by. Nigel and Pat are regular visitors, sitting on a bench outside Farmers, checking up on his latest court case. That saw Stanton convicted of assaulting the organiser of a counter protest last November which turned violent.

Nigel has known Stanton for 34 years: "He's a good bloke, very kind-hearted. He'd help anyone he could."

Dallas, who lives in an apartment across the road, brings over a cup of tea. He mounts an animated defence of Stanton and says the level of abuse he suffers is shameful.

It's also been directed at him, a woman who told him "why don't you get a f***ing job?. I told her I live over there and pay $250 a week rent'.

"There are some nasty people here; very nasty."

Later Kevin and Wilkie pull up in a four wheel drive on the courtesy crossing in front of Stanton's camp.

"Who's rooting who, and who's not paying," says Wilkie by way of greeting. Both have known Stanton for years and are also checking in about the court case.

After midnight a cheerful, heavyset guy on his way from the West Coast to a funeral in the North Island wakes Stanton up for a chat. They knew each other way back.

"You sleep too much," he tells Stanton.

"You have got to live the dream, mate," Stanton says.

*************

For all its unpredictability, the "dream" life on Trafalgar St also has a surprising amount of regularity.

Stanton keeps  "work"  hours, and talks about shutting up his "office" shortly after 5pm.

As a Farmers staff member puts up posters advertising daily deals (20 per cent off men's underwear, socks and sleepwear), Stanton carefully packs away his free-drawn cardboard signs "Hone does not bring shame on Nelson", "Give Hone his life back and you can have your street back" and "NCC we have come full circle".

Off comes the wonky wizard hat and the purple wizard cloak made by a dressmaker friend, to reveal a t-shirt with a photo of him and Barney on it, a recent gift from his mother .

He picks up the day's donations from the pavement - $16.40 this Tuesday - around his long-term average of $2 an hour. In a diary he enters the takings on one side of the page, and 81/2 hours on the other.

The table and chair are folded away, and his bed - a complicated arrangement of foam pads, an air mattress, duvets and a waterproof tarpaulin - is made up. He's "home" in time to listen to the 6pm Radio Live news on his ever-present transistor.

Then it's off to Countdown to get his dinner. It's his one of his few trips outside the confines of the main street. The Montgomery Square toilet block and a nearby laundromat, where he also showers, mark his other boundaries. At the supermarket he runs a practised eye over the specials; $2 an hour sharpens your buying habits, he says.

He does not apply for a benefit because he would need a residential address, and he won't become a registered job seeker. He argues he had a perfectly good lifestyle offering rides on a cart pulled by Barney "and I want to be having that lifestyle back again."

On the menu tonight are frozen hoki fillets, with hash browns and a stir fry of capsicum, mushrooms, and onions. Other nights it's baked beans and bacon, depending on how much cash he has.

The meal is cooked on a small gas-fired camp stove next to his bed.  The food is surprisingly good on a warm night in the middle of Trafalgar St.

Even the awful, endless soundtrack of Eastern European lounge music from a speaker installed overhead before Christmas – a CIA-style torture that can only have been designed to get him to move – briefly adds to the mood.

All that's missing is the wine.

But you won't find that at Stanton's camp. He's a "dry alkie"; hasn't touched the stuff for more than 30 years, after announcing out of the blue one boozy New Year's Eve that he was giving up for a year. "I'm one of the lucky ones," he says. "I can go into a pub and ask for raspberry and Coke and have absolutely no desire to have a drink."  

After dinner and dishes, it's time to catch up on Facebook. He reads all the comments on his own page, and those on the "If It's Ok for Hone, It's Ok for Me" page set up to oppose his continuing protest.

He listens to a late news bulletin, boils water in a billy for his morning coffees and gets to sleep around 11.30pm (except Fridays and Saturdays when experience sees him stay up until 4am until the drink-fuelled threats subside).

But they come unexpectedly even midweek. At 2.30am on Wednesday a young man walks past with his partner and yells at the sleeping Stanton: "F*** off Hone," before kicking one of his cardboard boxes.

It sparks the flash of anger that has landed him in court several times. Stanton is up on his feet, yelling. "Come on then and have a go, you don't have the balls to be accountable, you gutless c***. What are ya?"

The kicker yells something back but does not return to face Stanton, an imposing figure with his wild hair and glowering eyes.

Afterwards Stanton acknowledges another fight could have put him back before the courts and jail, but says you have to protect your rights, your property.

"If you don't stand up for what you believe in they will walk all over you."

On Sunday morning at 4am Stanton's camp is at the centre of another fracas, but he is merely a bemused spectator as two men stalk each other like enraged bucks.

A fierce-looking blonde woman sparks it all with a comment that "some of us work to pay for our cigarettes" as she walks past.

A visitor talking to Stanton tells her she looks like a prostitute, the woman's male companions take offence, and demand an apology. Then from across the road a man with a neck tattoo joins the fray, thinking Stanton is under attack, and it's all on.

There is a burst of pushing and wrestling  before passing police patrols arrive. With a resigned and practised routine they quickly defuse the situation.

It's just another Saturday night says Stanton. Earlier in the evening he says two drunk guys tried to pick separate fights with him, one saying how much he detests him.

No-one throws anything tonight, but he has been the target for eggs, onions and chocolate milkshakes. That's another reason he stays awake till after 4.

The long vigil, however, also has laugh out loud humour thanks to "Rover", a small man with a rooster's strut,  who gives a running commentary on every person walking past. Most are "real live wires" that pose a clear and immediate threat according to Rover.

Two big Maori guys go by, sparking a tirade from Rover who stalks off in their general direction with clenched fists and a spray of "motherf***ers" - after they are well out of earshot. One turns round and Rover walks back.

"You get some good entertainment eh?," says Stanton.

Daniel agrees: "It's better than reality TV."



 

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 - Stuff

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