Some of New Zealand’s most enduring short stories, plays, poems and novels were written on, and at least to some extent inspired by, the North Shore. Today North Shore City continues to be home to many of the country’s leading writers.
Before the harbour bridge opened in 1959, Takapuna was ‘quiet, lovely and not over-populated, a beach suburb close to town, but removed from it’, in the words of poet and novelist C.K.Stead. Yet long after the bridge brought traffic, suburbia and shopping malls to the Shore, the area maintained its appeal for writers. The nearby sea, walks on the beach, strong sense of community, relaxed, informal way of life and travelling to ‘town’ by ferry are the qualities of life which North Shore writers still relish.
There is also the feeling that writers are appreciated here. As former Shore resident and children’s author Tessa Duder puts it, ‘The North Shore, through Frank Sargeson, Rex Fairburn, Kevin Ireland and others, values writers as eminent additions to the cultural identity of the Shore, and is proud of them.’ Not all places take such pride.
Long attracted to the area by its beaches, easy-going way of life and proximity to, but physical separation from, the central city, the writers who have lived or still live here have responded by making the area one of unique literary significance in New Zealand.
In the early twentieth century the North Shore was a backwater, a series of sleepy seaside settlements clustered about beautiful bays and beaches overhung with pohutukawa trees. There were large tracts of bush, scrub and open farmland, and expansive sea views. On Takapuna’s most spectacular headland there were a few grand houses, but mostly the Shore’s dwellings were rudimentary baches, close to the beach, and owned or rented by families who lived in Auckland or towns further south.
From the late 1920s onward the Shore’s tranquillity, slow pace of life and cheap bach accommodation began to attract writers. Writing is a poorly rewarded profession, and those who write have to live frugally, so the Shore’s many cheap baches were an added attraction.
These were the years of the Great Depression, and such accommodation must have been gratefully received by the impoverished writers, who sometimes used the land around the baches for growing vegetables.
On the writers’ network, the word spread: the Shore was the place to live and write. Yet even in the 1930s population pressures had begun to build. More and more of the baches were being replaced by permanently occupied bungalows, their breadwinners commuting by bus, tram and ferry to Auckland City. Takapuna was changing from a seasonal holiday resort to an affluent middle-class community.
After the opening of the harbour bridge in 1959 growth became exponential, converting the formerly detached North Shore into a series of sprawling suburbs and inflating its land values. Over the post-war period the price of land next to the sea soared, causing the beachside baches to be replaced by town houses, apartments and grandiose, two-storeyed dwellings. Further inland, roads were widened, the motorway was extended, subdivisions, shopping centres and commercial and industrial buildings proliferated.
One consequence of this development is that many homes of the first writers who lived and worked on the Shore have gone, victims of the area’s rapid urban growth and rising land values. Many of the baches and older houses have been demolished. Undoubtedly Frank Sargeson’s house would have suffered the same fate, were it not for the vision of his literary executor, Christine Cole Catley, and the forethought of the then-Takapuna Borough Council, who together ensured that Sargeson’s long-time residence was preserved as a literary museum. Some of the other writers’ houses also survive.
The main clusters of writers’ houses in North Shore City are in three areas: Devonport, Takapuna and Milford-Castor Bay.
In the words of poet and novelist Kevin Ireland, writers love the Shore because of its, ‘stunning position on the Waitemata Harbour, its superb hills, sea and beaches, its community of fellow writers and artists, and its isolation from, yet proximity to, Auckland. And there’s always the pleasure of an ocean voyage by ferry to central Auckland. My only regret is that I can’t buy duty free supplies each time I travel.’