Nor would I have ever met Rob Allan. He lived on the other side of the world – in New Zealand.
I came across Mr. Allan’s tweets because I realised he lived in, and shared his photographs of, a place that had greatly appealed to me after reading the Booker Prize-winning novel “The Luminaries.” At over 800 pages, one might describe it as “sprawling.” It was written by Eleanor Catton, who at age 28 was the youngest ever winner of the prestigious prize, awarded in 2013. It is almost Dickensian in scope, with an array of fascinating, complex characters; it has many layers, plots and sub-plots.
The novel is set on New Zealand’s South Island and some parts of it take place in Dunedin, in the Otago region. Mostly it is set in a small town named Hokitika, on the other side of the island. The history of this area is full of a thousand stories and unsolved mysteries. The prize-winning novel is set around the time of the “gold rush” of the 1860s.
So, that is what first sparked my interest. And Mr. Allan took photographs, on his daily walks (often after the gym) of Otago Harbour, Careys Bay, Port Chalmers where he lived, and Dunedin. They were photographs of quiet, calm bays, moored boats waiting for someone to sail them, green hillsides sloping down to the water’s edge, roads up and downhill, and gardens – sheltered nooks filled with golden wallflowers. And there were the buildings – many from the era described by Eleanor Catton – sometimes solid brick or old, weathered zinc. Small homes and small businesses. Small communities, really.
He almost never posted photographs of people; and none of himself.
Mr. Allan was British-born I believe, and occasionally made dry, sarcastic comments about British society; and most importantly, he was a poet, with a poet’s vision. This is one set of his works: https://www.katsura.co.nz/store/p1/Port_Manifold.html#/ about Port Chalmers and its surroundings, where he lived.
He was a self-confessed lover of Nature, and buildings, and nostalgic about the Beatles (I think his roots were in Liverpool). He talked a lot about the weather (very British) which was sometimes foggy and dark.
So, today I thought of Rob. I had been wondering, for the past year, why he had not posted his daily photographs; I missed them.
I decided to try and find out; and a very kind Jamaican Twitter friend shared two articles about him, which made me cry. Here is one, by a fellow poet, who knew him and competed with him in the photography stakes; it was written a week or so after Mr. Allan died – which was suddenly, after a brief illness:
Among the pics were many bright & beautiful photos of flowers (along with, sometimes, local cats.) The harbour at Port Chalmers where he lived, also a favourite subject. As well, he’d seek out the odd and quirky. We had a bit of a low-key competition between us to see who was first to capture the first photo of a magnolia in blossom. Characteristically, he courteously (with tongue in cheek I’m sure) avoided the magnolias in the Gardens where he knew I always tried for the first photo. He stated that he had a secret magnolia tree location! I’m happy he ‘won’ this year in what has turned out to be his final Spring.
There is another magnificent, long and discursive piece, which my friend also shared with me (thanks again for this!) by a Maōri writer, Talia Marshall (Ngāti Kuia, Ngāti Rārua, Rangitāne ō Wairau, Ngāti Takihiku) who notes – among other insights:
Rob was the kind of gentleman used to sitting in almost empty church back rooms in Port Chalmers for a poetry reading of five people including the readers and maybe a rubber plant. Poetry and indoor plants have really taken off during the plague, and sometimes Rob could seem slightly bitter, there was just the slightest trace of arsenic in his jolly ephemeral posts. I enjoyed his sensitivities and half understood the bitterness.
I wish I had known you, Rob. I mean – really known you. I think we would have had some challenging and amusing conversations about life. We could have gone for walks together up and down those lanes on a sunny day. Perhaps we would have argued and perhaps we would have laughed (as a British immigrant myself, we had something in common).
But life is fleeting, and tweets come and go – just a moment, shared. We are there, and then we are gone.
I know you are among the stars now, Mr. Allan – walking among the stars, camera in hand. And you are in the golden, sweet-smelling wallflowers that must be blooming now in Port Chalmers. I hope you got some taste of springtime, before you left us.
You were my friend, in my mind. I miss you deeply.