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The Survivor

The Dominion Post, January 17, 2004

Poor sales, even death, couldn’t stop Geoff Cochrane.
“When I go to church nowadays, I find it disappointing,” Geoff Cochrane says while we eat lunch at his mother Patricia’s house in Levin. “You never went as an adult,” Patricia retorts. “But I did want to join a monastery . . . for non-believers.” 

Cochrane, 52, began to lose his faith in the chapel of the old convent (now an art school) in Island Bay almost 40 years ago. He was an altar boy: “Puberty arrived, certain temptations started to beset me. The upshot was, I began to take Communion sacrilegiously.” 

These last two sentences are from his book of prose pieces, Brindle Embers, published in 2002 by Gerald Melling’s Thumbprint Press. Part fact, part fiction, it is a remarkable collection. It was not reviewed and only a few dozen copies sold. His two novels (the first, Tin Nimbus, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize) and three volumes of poetry, published by Victoria University Press in the past 12 years, though lauded by fellow writers, didn’t fair much better. 

Now to go with the publication of his eighth poetry collection, Vanilla Wine (VUP), there is an “evangelical push”, as novelist Damien Wilkins puts it in his revealing interview with Cochrane in the literary magazine Sport (31), to introduce him to a wider readership. 

Art dealer Peter McLeavey, a Cochrane fan, says of his poems: “They are simple and complex at the same time. The emotions of love and loneliness, those two poles of our existence, are drawn with words that are weighed, burnished and polished. His words give me comfort. And like all good art they have, at their centre, a mystery. Something waits in the shadows; unsaid, untouched, just out of reach.” 

Cochrane and I have a history. We were drinking buddies in the 1970s and 80s in Wellington pubs that no longer exist: the Foresters’ Arms, the Carlton and the Grand. We drank recklessly and religiously. He introduced me to writers such as T S Eliot and Samuel Beckett, and I published his second slim volume of poetry, The Sea The Landsman Knows. These times had their ups and their downs. 

In 1986, Cochrane clinically died during an asthma attack and developed a “massive neuropathy” (caused by his alcoholism) of the legs. He had to learn to walk again. I recall visiting him in Keneperu Hospital (though he has no memory of this) and was shocked to find him in a wheelchair: burnt out at 35. But as they say in AA, miracles do happen. He took his last drink in 1989 and now walks for miles. 

We’ve kept in contact spasmodically over the years: meeting for lunch and trading bits and bobs of writing through the post. He honoured me with a dedication in his second novel, the highly-original Blood, published in 1997. Apart from its obvious literary merit, it has some spectacular writing on sex and a very sexy cover. I can’t understand why it wasn’t a bestseller. 

But Cochrane harbours no bitterness. His disgust is reserved for people who abuse children. There is a heart-wrenching little poem for Lillybing in Vanilla Wine: “How cold and wet the wounding scoria./Clutching the khaki action figure,/the child squats in the culvert -/is crooning there some feeble, wordless song/of fairy bashings, starry chastisements.” 

It’s the day after Boxing Day. Patricia is working in the garden. We’re indoors drinking coke. Some of the family have gone to Wellington, to Te Papa. “I preferred the old National Art Gallery,” Cochrane says. “It had mystery.” 

Geoff is the oldest of seven children; then comes David, who has Down Syndrome and is a resident at Kimberley, then Mary, who lives in Australia (there’s a corker poem dedicated to her in Vanilla Wine), Stephen, Clare, Peter and Phillip. Their father died in 1998. 

Cochrane stays at his mother’s house for a week each year, though he made trip from Wellington more often the year his father died. “The nurses have left him with a bare bottom./There is the penis/with which he fathered me./His useless legs have taken on a yellow, waxen look./This is what you get./Yes this is what get/for simply having lived.” – from Whispers (Acetylene, 2001). 

The Cochranes moved from Island Bay to Levin in 1970 when his father took over the TAB agency there. Geoff stayed in Wellington, though he spent some time in Levin in the early 1970s. “I used to work in a factory, and I’d buy myself a half bottle of gin and shack up in my bedroom. I taught myself to write sentences, shuffling them into various pitches of concision.” 

“I’m simply a maker of things. If I didn’t make poems and stories, I’d paint pictures. If I didn’t paint pictures, I’d fashion wooden toys, coating them in bright enamels.” – from Vanilla Wine. 

Cochrane lives frugally. He rises early. He writes and walks. He is content. He has recently moved from a flat in Berhampore to one in Vogeltown. “You must visit,” he says as I take my leave. “I have a view of seven hills.” 

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