Three Days on Somes Island

2019 New Zealand writer in residence Paddy Richardson has been using her time in the capital to visit Matiu Somes Island, the major setting of her novel in progress, The Green of the Spring.

She’s made several day trips but in November, along with her husband Jim Mackay, stayed for three nights, and says the Randell Cottage residency, “has been invaluable in the opportunities for research and visiting the island.”

Paddy’s writing achieves an extraordinary sense of time and place. Her book Swimming in the Dark transports the reader to Central Otago, with resonances from post-war Germany under the Stasi. Cross Fingers is a crime story that takes us inside the world of the 1981 Springbok Tour protesters. And her latest novel Through the Lonesome Dark set in the West Coast town of Blackball, brings small-town relationships to vivid life, just as it recreates the horrors of trench warfare and the fears of miners drilling under Arras in WW1 France.

Now we wait to – through Paddy’s imagination and research – the harsh internment camp established in the same era on Somes Island in the isolation of Wellington Harbour, through the eyes of Otto Bader, a young mining activist of German heritage. The new book is close to being finished and should be published in 2020.

Paddy says the water was rough and cold for the journey across to Somes. She was especially struck by the wind: “It was incredibly powerful – and the sound of it. It reminded me that there was a rule that the men were not able to remain inside their barracks during the day – imagine being constantly out in those conditions. The prisoners built their own shelter huts as a result. And the men had to carry their water up from the jetty every day – gallons of it – buckets carried on a yoke across their shoulders. Imagine battling against the wind carrying that kind of burden.”

On returning to her base at Randell Cottage, only a short distance from the harbourside, Paddy reflected on the nearness of Somes to Wellington: “It must have been a constant torment, the city was close and yet they were so isolated.”

Paddy has shared a tantalising extract from The Green of the Spring in which Otto makes his own journey to the island:

When we had come up on deck, I’d been able to see Somes in the distance as a rising shape near to the horizon but now we were approaching it I could make out a long shore with craggy, low rocks to one side and a high rounded rise at the centre. It appeared smaller than I had envisaged, though I imagined it would spread further on the other side of the island that we could not see. Apart from a small group of figures I could make out on the wharf, there seemed no sign of life. I’d heard there were over a hundred men incarcerated there, as well as the overseeing military. I wondered how all who lived there could be accommodated in such a small place. The pleasure I had initially taken in the enclosure of sea, harbour and hills changed to a mild sense of panic. A hundred or so men sealed off on a small island? How would we pass our time?

Paddy enjoys the freedom of a swim off Somes Island.