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Geoff-Marsland-16One of Wellington’s ‘cof­fee kings’, Geoff Mars­land helped kick­start the capital’s café cul­ture in the 1980s, co-found­ing (with Tim Rose) Wel­ling­ton café fix­tures Mid­night Espresso and Deluxe, and launch­ing Havana Cof­fee. He now oper­ates out of Cuban-themed premises in Tory Street, where he held court, with cigars and shots of rum all round, to writer Max Rash­brooke and pho­to­graph­er Car­oline Atkin­son – although only after start­ling them with a revved-up chainsaw.


So, what’s the story with the chainsaw?

Whenev­er I see a chain­saw, I get excited, so I like to start it up.

Right. Any­way, it’s been 25 years since you launched Mid­night Espresso.

Twenty-five years. Isn’t it amaz­ing? It’s unbe­liev­able. Where has it gone? I’ve become an old man. The oth­er night I was at this man­sion in Khan­dal­lah and some­body had the crew from the New Zea­l­and Sym­phony Orches­tra there, just as a bit of a fun­draiser. I thought, “Shit, this is amaz­ing – but I must be get­ting old if I’m enjoy­ing this.”

And you’re doing a book to mark the occasion.

Well, in the last five years, I’ve sud­denly thought, maybe there is a story to tell, and the story is the early days. It was much more pion­eer­ing, since there was no café cul­ture in Wel­ling­ton at the time. If you trace it back, most revolu­tions start in cof­fee shops. So this was the Wel­ling­ton Revolution!

Also I thought it’d be quite nice to do a book, because books are nearly extinct. A book could be a nice old-fash­ioned way to doc­u­ment something.

What’s going to be in the book?

We def­in­itely want to have a chapter in it called Bas­tards We’ve Known. Who’s on the list? I couldn’t tell you now. You’ll have to buy the book. But we’ve come up against a few, as you do in Wel­ling­ton. You know, coun­cil­lors and landlords…

So coun­cil­lors aren’t your favour­ite people?

I do laugh about the Abso­lutely Pos­it­ively Wel­ling­ton. Just like the Seav­iew Motel hav­ing no sea view, I think Abso­lutely Pos­it­ively Wel­ling­ton is a joke. One of the biggest hurdles has prob­ably been the coun­cil for us. Even small things like the park­ing make it so dif­fi­cult to run a busi­ness in the city. The rev­en­ue gathering…

A lot of the things that we’ve done for the city have been a shit­fight to do. Like back in the late 1980s, try­ing to put tables on the foot­path… We tried to put tables out on Cour­tenay Place, which you couldn’t do. So we got an old car and chopped the roof off, made hub­cap stools and everything, made a table and then we put it out­side the café, parked like a car. Then the coun­cil said we could only leave it at the meter for two hours, so we had to keep swap­ping it around the meters.

Now, all of a sud­den, you can do it, put­ting tables on the street – but they charge you.

And there was the way the whole ‘apart­ment liv­ing’ thing was handled.

The coun­cil let developers build apart­ments in the city. All these people sold their apart­ments in Khan­dal­lah and moved to Wel­ling­ton, but as soon as Night­line was fin­ished at 10.30pm, they wanted everything to shut down.

I just wanted to smash eggs on my face. We’ve built this cul­ture, now you’ve sold this cul­ture so that people can come in, and now the culture’s got to shut down. In what oth­er city in the world would that happen?

Oth­er than work, your great love is sail­ing, right?

Whenev­er I’m not work­ing I’m sail­ing. Because of the weath­er, I always end up out on my boat with the most unusu­al people. It’s like, who­ever I saw on the way to the boat. And the funny thing about get­ting on a boat is that people always talk can­didly, like they’re nev­er going back to land. So you have the most inter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tions out there. You might go out for an hour on the har­bour and they might tell you things they wouldn’t say in a nor­mal environment.


But are you still lov­ing Wellington?

I’m sort of a little bit tired of Wel­ling­ton. I’m a bit trapped here because of the busi­ness and my kids all going to school. I’m just tired of the wind, which is unusu­al for a sail­or, but finally it’s just beaten me. I love Wel­ling­ton, but I wake up every morn­ing and I can hear the wind beat­ing at the win­dow and it’s really start­ing to get on top of me. It’s repress­ive. It makes you more hardy but it makes you hunch down. It’s tir­ing me.

Hav­ing said that, I’d quite like to move onto a boat, to live.

Wouldn’t that be a bit cramped?

I quite love small spaces… I lived in a house truck before I had cafés. I have got claus­tro­pho­bia, though. I was in Cuba recently, in one of those old lifts with gates across them. It star­ted to go down and then, bang, there was a power cut, and in Cuba, when you have a power cut, it can be for 24 hours.

All of a sud­den, I’ve got the dry hor­rors, and I’m not breath­ing very well. It’s a sud­den pan­ic, like I’m going to die in a lift. In fact, the gates did open and I could see the next floor down. I thought, “Shit, what do I do?”, so I actu­ally jumped out, but I was freaked out that the lift was going to start again.

Now, some­times I freak out driv­ing through tun­nels. I find myself driv­ing through the Mt Vic tun­nel and sud­denly I have a claus­tro­pho­bia that I’ve nev­er had before. That lift thing. I hate that feel­ing of being enclosed.

But liv­ing on a boat would also be, well, quite enclosed.

Maybe I like the womb-like aspect of it. I was adop­ted, so maybe it’s like being back in the womb.

Would you ever be a politician?

People keep say­ing I should run for may­or, not that I would even enter­tain it. I actu­ally am the deputy may­or of Cuba Street. I was the may­or for years, because I was on Cuba Street, at the old Havana. Then they said I couldn’t be may­or, because I moved to Tory Street, but they knew I was a mover and shaker so they made me the deputy, which I wasn’t very impressed with, cos it’s the deputy may­or who does all the work, isn’t it?

So you wouldn’t want to be the city coun­cil mayor?

Not at this stage, no. I would nev­er say nev­er. I think it’d be hard work. And I’m more of a free agent. I’m more like, “Shit, this is good, let’s do this, and if people don’t like it, they don’t like it, they don’t have to come.” Prob­ably because I’m left-handed and hyper­act­ive and dys­lex­ic, I’m not very good with the whole pro­cess and sys­tems things. I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s do that”, and then I think, “Shit, that wasn’t a very good idea, was it?” I’m more off the cuff.

But if you were may­or, hypo­thet­ic­ally, what would you do?

I’d prob­ably have law­less days – days of anarchy, one day a week. There’d be all things like cloth­ing option­al, free park­ing, and all the ser­vices would be free on that day, like buses and trains. It’d be just one day a week, and we’d change the day. It wouldn’t be announced until that day.

It’d encour­age more free spir­its. Also it’d prob­ably make people think it’s a good thing to bring back laws. It’d make them appre­ci­ate them more.

I’d also bring back the Cuba Street Car­ni­val if I was may­or. I’d make it monthly.

How’s the hos­pit­al­ity industry doing?

Wel­ling­to­ni­ans are totally spoiled. If you know where to go, the food and the envir­on­ments and the alco­hol are totally world-class. Look at Al Brown. All he’s done is taken little bits of Wel­ling­ton to Auck­land and they’re lov­ing him up there, you know?

But a lot of people are suf­fer­ing. Say there’s 400 cafés in Wel­ling­ton, there’s prob­ably 20 doing really, really well, 50 doing OK and the oth­er 300, if they had to pay their bills they’d close tomor­row. The rents are a real killer. Rents up to $200 grand a year are not unheard of, so in some cafés, they’re just work­ing for the landlord.

Are there too many cafés in Wellington?

I don’t think there’s enough good ones. So what hap­pens is that the really good ones are really get­ting slammed. They are doing well, but it’s just so hard on everything: it’s hard on the facil­it­ies, it’s hard on the staff. Everything has to have two lives. So I think there’s not enough good cafés in the city. There’s a lot of mediocre ones.


Why are your cafés still going after 25 years?

Because they’re not per­fect. At cer­tain cafés in town, you’d want to put on your best lip­stick and go in there and feel like a mil­lion dol­lars, and everything is per­fect. But Mid­night Espresso is like people’s real lives – people’s lives aren’t per­fect, they don’t always do the dishes or make the bed, so you can walk into Mid­night, you can go in there with your bad hair day, and it’s warts and all, like people’s lives.

The area – Cuba Street – has changed in that 25 years, though.

It was dark days, when we opened. It was all politi­cians and hookers.

Which would you rather hang out with?

They all come in the same car: these days, everyone’s both, aren’t they? Politi­cians are hook­ers and hook­ers become politi­cians. It’s the same career move!

A lot of people are talk­ing about the Liv­ing Wage cam­paign, which is call­ing for people to be paid $18.40 an hour instead of the min­im­um wage of $13.75. What do you think?

I think it’s a great idea. I just don’t under­stand how people get by on the wages they’re on. It costs you $60 just to go to McDonald’s and have some­thing with your kids. And most of my staff are prob­ably nearly at the Liv­ing Wage, yeah. A lot of them are way above that.

And you think busi­nesses can afford it?

If people are get­ting paid more, they’re going to go out more, aren’t they? So it ups the ante.

Geoff’s gems

On news­pa­pers:

I’m def­in­itely a news­pa­per read­er. I’m one of those guys from the school where, if I haven’t read the news­pa­per, I can’t go to the next day.

On social mobility:

I went to bloody Mataur­anga in the Aro Val­ley. Also I got sus­pen­ded from Wel­ling­ton High and they haven’t rung back yet. Now I’ve got a kid at Scots, a kid at Welles­ley and a kid at Wors­er Bay. Work that one out!

On small children:

It was a board­ing kindy I wanted to set up when I first had kids. There’s no board­ing kindy where you can send them away for the week.

On coffee’s free-wheel­ing nature:

Coffee’s like that as a drug: it’s quite irra­tion­al, it’s got its own energy, it’s phonetic.

On her­it­age:

Her­it­age is bull­shit. When I was doing Havana bar, there were three cot­tages. One day one of them went away on a truck, and it’s now up in New­town Aven­ue. So it’s all right for the coun­cil to take one away on a truck and put it up in New­town. That’s still her­it­age. But I had someone tell me the roller door on one of the cot­tages is her­it­age. How can a roller door be her­it­age? Roller doors are 1960s or whatever.

On Wellington’s weather:

If you met a woman in Aus­tralia and said, come and live with me, I reck­on your suc­cess rate would be pretty low, d’you know what I mean? I’ve had that. I’m not blam­ing it entirely on the weath­er, though.

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