Wonderful world of The Wizard

CITY ICON: he needs no introduction yet The Wizard feels few Christchurch people understand him.
CITY ICON: he needs no introduction yet The Wizard feels few Christchurch people understand him.

You might have thought The Wizard gone and forgotten in post-quake Christchurch. But at 80, he is raring for his comeback, as JOHN McCRONE discovers.

The familiar double-ended Volkswagen is parked at the entrance of New Regent St, a natural drawcard for curious tourists.

The familiar figure in his pointy hat and black gown is sat by himself in a street cafe, quietly sipping a coffee, waiting to see if enough of a crowd will form to begin one of his confronting harangues.

PROTEST: The Wizard's career took an immediate left run with the student uprisings of 1967.
PROTEST: The Wizard's career took an immediate left run with the student uprisings of 1967.

Yet for all his familiarity, The Wizard - now 80, supposedly gone to Oamaru yet still attempting to operate here in post-quake Christchurch, still earning his $16,000 a year council honorarium - seems out of place.

The Wizard of Christchurch, or Ian Brackenbury Channell, better known as Jack to his friends, first burst forth on Christchurch in a giddy blaze of prankster controversy in the mid-1970s.

A wild-haired renegade from the Australian student counter- culture, no-one realised how carefully planned his assault would be. Within weeks he was turning local decorum upside down.

HAUNT: The Wizard, at home, disrobed and still full of fun.
HAUNT: The Wizard, at home, disrobed and still full of fun.

After casting a public spell to bind the bowels of an officious assistant town clerk, the poor fellow was having to assure readers of The Press that in fact his bowels were functioning perfectly well thank-you.

Likewise a city councillor - a Baptist foe of the self-proclaimed prophet - found himself promising the council chamber that the circumference of his head remained unaltered. He had measured it after The Wizard did a balloon-popping spell to shrink it down to proper size.

Christchurch took some time to work out what had just hit it. But then The Wizard had his official heyday in the 1980s as the city fully embraced his eccentricity.

There were his daily Cathedral Square battles with the Bible Lady, the recurring story of his games to avoid the national census - part of a refusal to have a driver's licence, passport, social security number or anything else that might undermine his status as a "post- individual" living work of art.

A large supporting cast of trainee wizards, anti-wizards and Alf's Imperial Army - a gaggle of retro-dressing engineering students in red jackets and pith helmets - developed.

The Wizard came to mark Christchurch on tourist maps the way the bubbling mud pools branded Rotorua. Eventually Prime Minister Mike Moore elevated him to Wizard of New Zealand.

Then came the 1990s and 2000s. The Wizard remained a Cathedral Square fixture, a prime tourist attraction, but the city itself was modernising, moving on - time to get corporate and leave past silliness behind.

And now the earthquakes, with the Cathedral down, the central city a field of rubble. Faster than people realise, a whole new city identity is about to be forged around plazas, convention centres, IT districts, designer shops and designer bars.

You would expect even The Wizard to recognise he is past his sell-by date. A refugee washed up in New Regent St, he can only be going through the motions now.

But no. Catching him later at home - an old Avonside villa untidy with papers and possessions, set behind high hedges in a splendid garden - The Wizard turns out to be in feisty mood, the scene set for his second coming.

"I feel poised on the brink of a very interesting period. I'm getting old, but I'm really coming alive again in a big way," he exclaims.

In his view, the Government-led rebuild of Christchurch is going to prove the final last gasp of something. The world has wound itself up to the brink of a debt- driven environmental and economic crisis. The global system is surely about to collapse.

The failure to restore the Cathedral, the abandonment of heritage, the imposition of an ambitious architecture of growth on the city - the stadiums and other out-sized anchor projects that are neither needed, nor can be afforded - The Wizard sees all this as a foolhardy betrayal of Christchurch's roots as the "well- made Anglican paradise".

The point about Christchurch, the reason why he settled here, is that it represents the distilled essence of English genius and empire. "We are the true Britain. The spirit of Britain is here, not there any more - they're Europeans now."

Britain was also founded on the myth of a wizard, he adds slyly. "Merlin, to give them their independence and counter the God man in Rome."

Yet rather than reconnecting with this past, the rebuild is turning out an exercise in bloated disaster capitalism. A stunned citizenry has allowed it to happen, says The Wizard. But perhaps with himself to act as a catalyst, old Christchurch can reassert itself against the forces of mammon and greed.

The battle is now on with the election of a new council he believes. An old ally, Vicki Buck, is deputy mayor. The Wizard is also ready for his own personal revival with a documentary about his life in the wings, and even his first proper manifesto - Mein Kopf - soon to go to the printers.

Yes, grandiose talk of course. The Wizard cheerily admits he likes nothing better than to be the centre of any drama. However he is keen once more to take up his position as the city's prophet - its unserious speaker of serious truths.

If only people would in fact take him a little bit more seriously, complains The Wizard, as we settle into the small armchairs of a front room dominated by a grand piano.

The house is empty apart from a snaggle tooth cat. His partner Alice Flett - his perennial fiancee and long-suffering other half of his post-modern sexual theories - is busy earning the family crust as a teacher at Hagley College.

The Wizard says even his fans mistake his carefully developed philosophies, like ALF (Action for Love and Freedom), as if they were indeed simply an excuse to dress up in weird clothes and poke some fun at society's pomposities. So it is interesting to sit down with The Wizard and find what makes him tick.

As he recaps his life, the pattern quickly emerges.

Young Ian Brackenbury Channell was born into a world so happy, so secure, that for him rebellion became not about tearing down the existing order but instead going deeper into its heart to bring out its essential playfulness. So at root, The Wizard says, he is a good old-fashioned Tory.

He grew up in England - rural East Anglia and then the suburban fringes of London - in a lower middle-class family. His parents, Emy and Arthur, were both teachers, his father a firm socialist and his mother a tolerant and supportive soul.

The Wizard's memories are of a storybook 1930s English childhood of conker trees, medieval ruins, Punch and Judy shows, messing about on the beach with a bucket and spade.

Even when War World II came along, all remained right with his world. A bright and athletic child, he won a scholarship to a posh preparatory school and felt he fitted right in with the toffs. Manners and character mattered more than swotting or striving.

Likewise when he joined the Second Petts Wood scout troop. He gloried in the essential uselessness of learning to splice ropes, build camp fires and recognise muddy animal tracks. It was play, but it also connected to the social truths of mankind's hunter-gatherer past.

At school Brackenbury Channell was the nuisance, the kid wanting the limelight rather than the sullen rebel. He read voraciously, but only what interested him. "Education is wasted on this boy," was the eventual judgment of his frustrated teachers.

After National Service - learning to be an air force navigator in Canada - Brackenbury Channell spent a few years back-packing as far as Iran before studying sociology at Leeds University and finally getting into some serious theory.

There he encountered the writings of Marshall McLuhan, Talcott Parsons and others - the fermenting ideas of the 1960s counter-culture which was shortly to explode.

"What really shook me was realising I was an actor playing a set of roles in a structure called a social system," confesses The Wizard.

"Before that I'd thought I was an individual being with a mind of my own. But now I could see that I'm an actor in a drama with other people and we've all got our parts to play. It was my enlightenment. I thought wow, what do I do now?"

It was liberating because it meant he was free to adopt a character for the sake of its possibilities without needing to completely believe in it himself. "I could explain to people that I wasn't going to tell them the truth but that I had some very interesting ideas and so off I'd go."

For a while it looked like Brackenbury Channell was on the path to being an academic - a sociology professor as his sister did become. He got a first job as a lecturing "culture commissar" at Perth's University of Western Australia.

But then he shifted to Sydney's University of New South Wales just in time for the student uprisings of 1967 and his career took an immediate left turn.

The Wizard drags out old newspaper clippings and photos from the era. The post-war baby boomers had come of age, releasing a youthful surge of energy right around the Western world. In the United States and Europe the students were rioting.

Somewhat older and considerably more Tory by instinct, Brackenbury Channell plunged into the shenanigans erupting also in Australia, but with the intent of being a restraining voice - playing the part of a shamanistic "counter- counter-culture" figure - to divert the angry feelings into good-hearted fun.

He talks of it as deliberate application of his sociology research. There was conflict and he was going to pioneer techniques to resolve it.

This is when his hair grew long, his beard shaggy. He started to dress outrageously. He fast found local fame when he launched his Fun Revolution on the Sydney campus and got himself elected "dictator" of the student union.

Brackenbury Channell held daily rallies in the quad. His supporters wore dress suits and Victorian military uniforms to mock the more po-faced Marxist, feminist and anti-imperialist student radicals. What better way to counter unwitting silliness than presenting it with a deliberate silliness?

"I would protest their protest meetings. We handed out 'slavery for women' buttons to the feminists. The difference was that I had a good family start and never developed a hatred of older men, or saw women as goddesses or witch figures. I didn't want to rebel."

Getting into his newfound role, he persuaded the Vice Chancellor to appoint him the university's official wizard. The title struck the right note of 1960s pop surrealism mixed with social authority. "The older wise man."

With any pretence of an academic career becoming a thread almost snapped, in 1971 Brackenbury Channell moved on to Melbourne where the student union there made him their unpaid wizard. Melbourne University went along with his games, allowing him to preside as cosmologist over a Department of Levity in the old pathology lecture hall.

As a final step - to underline his essential seriousness, his commitment to his reinvention as the useful social fiction of The Wizard - Brackenbury Channell got himself accepted by the National Gallery of Victoria as a living work of art to be loaned out on public exhibition. The abandonment of his given name, passport and all human documentation completed the conceit.

"At the time, I needed that title badly to show I was a self-created being, that I was no longer a rational member of a rational society with rules about economic activity, but that I was now operating in a special zone that was aesthetic. That was about the sheer pleasure of being alive."

So The Wizard arrived in New Zealand as a fully formed idea? I hadn't realised. It indeed explains how he hit the ground running.

The Wizard says by 1974, his life in Australia had turned sour. Despite his efforts, the radical students won the campus battles. But as he predicted, they proved to be just the next generation of power-hungry opportunists. Within a few years they were dumping their Mao badges and turning into Labour Party candidates, he huffs - the new establishment.

Feeling also Australia was too Americanised for his tastes, The Wizard started looking around for a more congenial stage for his act.

After visiting to see the Commonwealth Games, he decided Christchurch - a sleepy, conservative, English-style cathedral town - was the perfect fit. He could employ his brand of cultivated silliness to provoke the city to life.

So The Wizard began by formally presenting his credentials to the council and police - letters from Australia attesting he was a recognised wizard and work of art.

Then for instant impact he took on the Anglican church right on its doorstep. His first appearance outside Christ Church Cathedral was as a half-naked John the Baptist, garbed in animal skins, holding a shepherd's crook in one hand and a white plastic telephone handset in the other for quick calls back to God.

Thundering about the evils of usury, the perils of Americanisation, the need for state religion, the necessity for men to inspire obedience in their coven of women, so began the next stage of his life as a metaphysical provocateur.

Surprisingly often in our conversation The Wizard makes reference to the artist Andy Warhol, another product of 1960s pop culture and fellow living work of art.

But for The Wizard, Warhol is emblematic of everything he is up against in the modern world - the "smooth, shiny-faced tribe of narcissists, psychopaths and spin doctors" whom he believes have taken over.

"Warhol had extraordinary ability, but what did he actually do with it? He was the ultimate expression of what modernism is all about. Passive, neutral, narcissistic, autoerotic. An icon who didn't say anything for fear of being understood. A magnet for negativity.

"There were all these awful things going on around him while he stood in the middle doing nothing."

The Wizard clearly views himself as the anti-Warhol trying to achieve the very opposite in Christchurch. In his coming book Mein Kopf (My Head), he says there is going to be a chapter all about the Tories versus the Weirds - the Western educated intellectual rich democrats.

So is this a coherent political theory or a self-justifying vision of how he would like life to be? The Wizard is frank about how some of his ideas did not work out so well in practice.

His anthropology-inspired belief that men are naturally polygamous rather than promiscuous led him to set up a harem of "love slaves" in Christchurch. He almost managed three on the go for a while, until Flett retreated to Australia to out-wait this experiment.

However The Wizard does think he stands for some kind of old fashioned truth in a city like Christchurch where the feudal institutions of church and monarchy can still function as comforting fictions.

He says between the commercialism ruling the central city and the leftism of the university, there is the bulk of ordinary folk in Christchurch who just want the benign good life of a transplanted slice of Tory England. Post-quake, he sees a need to stand up for those values. There is a job for him as social catalyst.

"I would say stopping the industrialisation mania and economic determinism would be a useful thing to do right now - slow things down a bit.

"The situation that's developed in Christchurch reminds of the universities in the 196s. So you might see me rise again from my somnambulant position where I couldn't do a damn thing because I had become so marginalised."

This is why he has made the restoration of the Cathedral a touchstone issue. It is why he has also now adopted New Regent St as his new haunt - pitting its heritage architecture and struggling small businesses against the glossy corporatism of the Re:Start container mall.

So he has a plan of attack. But it depends upon gathering a sufficient audience. The truth is that at the moment, in a near-empty central city, he is only managing to fire up the occasional passing Australian tourist and other stray out-of-towners.

But still, even without a crowd to work, The Wizard believes Christchurch remains his place. He has often threatened to retire yet keeps returning because he feels integral to the city's identity. He at least can't imagine it functioning without him.

To sum it up, The Wizard offers another of his well-honed lines.

"People say to me that your brain is going flat out all the time. Well, it does. But it's like a gyroscope. It's spinning but very stable."

Then he signs off with one of his gravelly, self-mockingly post-modern, laughs.

The Press