Graeme Cairns: A man of colour

Stuff just piles up at thehomeof Graeme Cairns, inside and out.
1 of 2BEN CURRAN/Fairfax NZ
Stuff just piles up at thehomeof Graeme Cairns, inside and out.
An old hippie truck for an old hippie.
2 of 2BEN CURRAN/Fairfax NZ
An old hippie truck for an old hippie.

It was 1979. Golden, hippy days stretched forward and back and Graeme Cairns passed through them in a house littered with things.

They called it McGillicuddy Junktion. Not because it had been swallowed up by the three men who lived there -  and their curious objects - but because it was surrounded by 14 acres of junkland on Percival Road in Ruakura.

Cairns was 21, in his hippy prime. Leader of Clan McGillicuddy (the party wasn't formed until 1984). His hair long, his beard silly, his thin chest covered with an old-fashioned cotton singlet, his bottom half in lightweight khaki army surplus pants, feet loyal to roman sandals.

It was his fourth year at university and he was consuming madness.

A goat roamed Junktion Section with an apple on both horns. Over near the trees stood the rescued remains of a kitchen from a house fire. Everything was the charred mirror image of how it had been and it sat in the garden as an art installation Cairns named The Unfortunate Incident . It stayed there for two years, looking black and weird.

A mirror leaned next to the front door with a sign saying please straighten your tie, and National Radio blared forth from speakers on the deck in an attempt by flatmates to become smarter after consuming well-informed vegetables that listened and grew in the gardens below.

Oddballs and social rejects and artists and philosophers visited. The most colourful of them had rooms.

The place smelled like beans simmering in a pot.

And Cairns sat in his bedroom surrounded. By things.  Floor to ceiling.  Scarves, driftwood, pottery, posters, photos, a plant growing in a toilet, a stack of handmade candles (the remains of a botched-hippy business), kiwifruit prunings, a whole lot of wax paper bread wrappers with pretty-as-hell artwork, a Victorian chair, a globe that had been dismantled and turned upsidedown and put together again, shelves filled with antique bottles and curios and old looking books and hippy crockery, a desk lamp, the 52 books Cairns had read that month.

He had an essay due and had written 9000 words. His topic, THE POLITICAL SOCIALISATION OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE BY THE AMERICAN GOVERNMENT DURING THE VIETNAM WAR AND WHY IT EVENTUALLY BROKE DOWN, left him reeling and he had a calling, of sorts.

He sat in that busy room and worked out a plan.

One, complete his degree. Then tidy up. Then get a proper job. Then shoot Robert Muldoon.

''I wanted to present myself differently, so I couldn't be dismissed as another stupid, dirty, deranged hippy who got irritated. I wanted to be a respectable, well-educated, normal, mainstream person who, in spite of all that, had realised Muldoon had to go.''

Two things saved them (Cairns and Muldoon).

Cairns realised the process of getting a real job was impractical - he was too immersed in hippydom.

And he was due to set off on the first McGillicuddy travelling road show and the house truck engine needed conditioning. This meant fresh air and a return to equilibrium. He learned a lesson he's kept coming back to his whole life.

''If you do only art, you go a bit mental. If you do only physical activities, you get a bit dull. I think a combination of the two is very, very useful.''

Graeme Cairns is a combination of many things.

It's been 34 years since the wild consumption of books and assassination fantasy, but everything between then and now and the days before and even the days ahead heaves with colour. Today he's wearing a tidy kilt. He does have scruffier ones for around the house, but he prefers heavy tweed for his firewood cutting garb, knee breeches for cycling - ''trooosers are much better for a bicycle'', and if he's swimming, he prefers wearing nothing at all. Everything is a costume.

He's an ego. A laird. A gentleman and jester. He serves tea from a tray in a room throbbing with strange memories. He laughs in delight, in loud bursts like Santa. He gets excited and spit flies. He jumps to his feet. Speaks in punchy sentences that end in exclamation marks,  ''I don't know, I haven't bloody decided!'' 

''I was legally dead! I was legally dead for 12 hours!''

''It was terrifying! What was I thinking!''

He makes up words.

''Think! Action! Pssscchhttkk!''

''We've done that, tick, let's end it, ssshhhtkkk, finished.''

He likes to conduct speeches with drawn-out vowels that make him sound like Henry Higgins.

''I'm very, very pleased not to be involved in politics anymore. The moment I stopped, I cheered up enoooormously, being happy to have my hands washed of that awwwwful procedure.''

His career in politics ended in 1999 when the McGillicuddy Serious Party had exhausted its ideas. It had done everything the members could think of doing. Mock battles and manifestos and campaigns with funny names. The party was all about fun and its members had stopped having it.

The final parody lasted six months. The party rebranded itself as a dangerous millennial cult with Cairns at the centre proclaiming all sorts of nonsense about the coming of the end and then admitting to his followers he'd got it all wrong.

''I tried to be so obviously dodgy and so stupid that I'd block the carriageway for other cults out there and cast an unfavourable light on anyone even faintly like me.''

The end was marked in Garden Place. He wore sackcloth and was tarred and feathered and he beat himself and hacked at his hair. He put himself in the stocks. A sign saying LIAR was hung around his neck. People watching were invited to throw rotten fruit. But it was December and nothing was ripe, so it hit hard and bounced off him. Hippies travelled from the Coromandel to take part and at the end, Cairns walked away with his first haircut in 25 years and umpteen McGillicuddy memories and the knowledge he would never go near politics again.

''I've always hated politics. It's talk, not action. I like action! I think it's a creepy, horrible business. I'm equally suspicious of the moralising,  I-know-what's-best-for-you left wing, and the greedy, insensitive right wing and all the other loony factions. I don't trust any of them.''

Needless to say, he doesn't vote. Or fill out a census form. He goes to great lengths to avoid the latter. 
''Recent Censuses have been fairly innocuous, but I don't think the government needs to keep that much scrutiny in a centralised way on its citizens. The more we tell them, the easier it is to be controlled. I know I'm starting to sound paranoid here ...''

So he studied the statute. It said every person living in New Zealand on a certain day between certain hours has to fill out the form. Using his powers as an ancient shaman, he went into a trance and invited the spirit of the dead to come and possess him. He was overtaken by the spirit of an ape. In Garden Place, in a loin cloth, covered in mud, in a bamboo cage. Tests were done to see if he would return to human form, but he stayed ape. And he occupied court for an entire day, calling up eye witnesses and experts in spirit possession. He lost.

 Then he filled the form out in Latin and off he went to court again, and he lost again, then he appealed and won.

He filled out the form in delight. English or Maori? NEITHER! Reason? CAIRNS VERSUS STATISTICS DEPARTMENT.

Next Census, he decided to challenge where New Zealand ends in an upward direction.

''I hovered above Garden Place in a hot air balloon saying, I'M OUT OF NEW ZEALAND, COME AND GET ME, YOU BASTARDS!''

And for the next, he feigned death. Hit himself on the head with a hammer, inhaled incense, drank some very strong beer in which he claimed there was old radiator water, got into a huge chest freezer where he stripped down to white body paint and a white loin cloth. The lid came off. Cairns looked like death. Tests were done by a doctor (of chemistry). A light shone into his eyes, a scalpel jabbed into his foot, his name was called. No response. Dead as death. He was popped into an old ambulance belonging to a mate and off he drove in a mad dash from Garden Place and he can't believe it to this day, but he escaped court again.

''I can tell you now that I was not legally dead. The Census is not that important to me. But I did raise some issues.''

Cairns has raised the roof since Rotorua Boys' High. He describes those years at school as ''incredibly draconian and severe, which I think was a really good thing because it kept girls out of the equation, so we could get up to some reeeallly weeeird stuff ... Philosophical art projects that would've been considered way too uncool in the co-ed system. Building and doing and saying ridiiiiiculous things. The more ludicrous and farcical and absurd you could be, the cooler you were.''

He was cool. Rode an old bike between classrooms. Wore a vintage uniform. Had long wavy hair and long fingernails that he painted different colours.

And after repeating a year in senior school in a desperate attempt to escape real life, he got panicked with the questions from adults: What are you going to do! What are you gong to do! It pushed him around like wind and it chased him out of town.

He describes university life and his first flat on Heaphy Terrace as coming home. Like McGillicuddy Junktion, it was a social hub for eccentrics and it was at this house that an underground fringe art scene was formed. He took to the front of the place and painted the word CASTLE across the front. When he wasn't attending lectures, he'd give his own impromptu ones on the kerb outside the flat.

The madness goes on. To mock nonviolent battles against tramping societies and groups with nothing in common except propinquity. To Christmas parades where the McGillicuddies crucified Jesus and worshipped the sun. To Siberian and North American dance and drama rituals. To religious re-enactments by women and gay men that upset a Pentecostal church group and meant they needed police protection. To anti-consumerist pop-up zones during Christmas. All these staged events with colourful names and costumes and characters and the Laird Graeme Cairns at the centre of it all, constructing his own culture.

''I'm not frightened of doing unpopular, uncool, cantankerous, irritating things and have hundreds of people go, Oooooo, there's that guy. Urrgghhh, you dick! I don't mind that at all! I find it quite entertaining! I'd rather be hated than live in a bland society.''

Hamilton with Graeme Cairns around has never been that.

These days you'll find him at his house in Te Pahu, opposite his toothbrush fence, working in paddocks, hands dirty and full of cuts. Or rehearsing with the Big Muffin Serious Band, where he plays all sorts of strange instruments, and he sings. Or doing the accounts, or performing street theatre, or building in the shed. He's busy. The phone rings down a dark corridor covered in posters and it doesn't get answered much.

His surroundings are much the same as the Castle and the Junktion, except he owns part of this place. 
There's no National Radio - ''too much information!'' - but he does enjoy the jazz programme if he can keep himself awake for it. The place smells like beans and beer brewing.

His bedroom is covered floor to ceiling. With things. A rack filled with tartan scarves, art from people he knows, hats and kilts hanging on nails, a jester's hat, an antique chair, a clan McGillicuddy flag, LPs, posters, a penny farthing bike hanging from the wall, a photo of his grandmother aged 16 and his mother as a baby, and more photos of friends and performances, antique wine bottles, coloured glass, a banjo without strings, a sewing machine, eight ukuleles, a desk covered in stuff and that same lamp from the Junktion where he read those 52 books. 

Grumpy Old Men, featuring Graeme Cairns, was released this month and is available at Poppies, Whitcoulls, Paper Plus and other book stores for $34.95. 

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Waikato