Steve Braunias reviews a collection of dreamy, baffling, beautiful postcards.

Richard Von Sturmer’s postcard collection as laid out in his charming illustrative book Postcard Stories is dreamier, stranger, more baffling, more exotic, and plain better than my postcard collection, but he lacks my eye for the banal.

I’ve assembled a magnificent collection of postcards over the years which belong to the unifying theme of most of my work: the weird and sometimes exhilarating boringness of New Zealand life. Two cars parked on a wide street outside an ugly building in Invercargill. The lifeless study of a satellite dish in deserted countryside near Warkworth. Best of all, a view of Collingwood at low tide, the flat, scorched sea floor stretching out in an agony of death, the whole scene like a vision of Earth after climate change has exterminated every last cell. I was so captivated by this postcard that I went to Golden Bay, found the exact spot where the photo was taken, and tried to evoke that special emptiness in a chapter about Collingwood in my book Civilisation.

Von Sturmer has tried, and wonderfully, lyrically succeeded, to evoke the special magic of his postcards. In his introduction, he writes about “the allure of a bad postcard”, such as the one of Boulder Field in Pennsylvania. “The image confronts you with a panorama of rocks – acres and acres of rocks, all the same colour and roughly the same shape – stretching far into the distance….There is no way you would want to set foot in the park. And this is what makes it a ‘bad’ postcard; it defeats its own purpose; it renders unattractive what it attempts to promote.” Which is a half-way very decent description of my Collingwood postcard, except that it achieved the purpose, and brought a visitor to the shores of that actually lovely and idyllic place.

He concedes the appeal of boring or banal postcards, but his own tastes run deeper. “I prefer to view postcards as cells in a giant, universal brain.” And: “I like to dream with postcards.” Also: “When it comes to buying a postcard to add to my collection, there must be something about the image that draws me in and brings forth a small reverie.”

Postcard Stories is a record of these dreams. It reproduces 100 postcards from around the world – his favourite locations include Pompeii, Cairo, and the Suez Canal – and sets them to the music of sparse lines of poetry, and occasional text.

Flyingdales Moors

There is a wonderfully sci-fi postcard of Flyingdales Moors in Yorkshire. It’s a beautiful expanse of heather and cotton grass, sheep, curlews, moles, spiders. It’s also a military radar base and part of the US Space Surveillance Network.

Death Valley

There is a postcard of tracks made in Death Valley, California. Von Sturmer’s dreamy caption:

Between the two poles

of politeness and disrespect

rocks are moving

of their own volition.

There is a postcard (the main illustration to this review) of Hotel Bellevue in the mountains of Switzerland. Here is a prosaic version of it by a visitor from Singapore, on Trivago: “It turned out pretty basic. There was a TV, soap and towels in the shower. That’s all…The best thing about it is it’s location! I had wanted sunrise on Pilatus and this is the only hotel. The views were amazing and so was sunrise lighting up Lake Lucerne.” That’s very useful indeed but I prefer Von Sturmer’s poetry:

Here is their spaceship

But many linger on the entrance ramp

reluctant to leave behind

all the places they loved to visit,

all the places of the earth.

The Pancake Rocks

My favourite is the postcard Von Sturmer found at his local hospice shop. It shows the philosopher and spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti sitting on the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki. It was at least his third visit here; he gave public talks in 1934, and again in 1939, when he was given a mayoral reception in Auckland, and relaxed with the Tidwell family in the Waitakeres. It seems his visit in 1979 was private. Von Sturmer writes, “No essays, diary entries or letters have surfaced to document this trip, so we do not know what profound thoughts passed through his mind as he seated himself on the strange rock formations and listened to the crashing of the surf on the desolate beach below.”

We don’t know. We have no idea. But we can gaze at the postcard – a great mystic, his hands folded, wearing a warm black suit on the famous tourist attraction – and wonder.

Postcard Stories by Richard Von Sturmer (Titus Books, $35)

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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