Festival organiser Martin Wilson brought magic to Wellington streets

Martin James Wilson: environmentalist, musician, festival organiser, frisbee thrower; b August 1, 1959; d August 11, 2022

“Hello all my beautiful worms. How are you today? Hiding from the light as usual.”

That was Martin Wilson – die-hard environmentalist, event organiser, guerilla worm farmer – sweet-talking his charges.

Wilson, who has died aged 63, spoke softly and encouragingly to those worms he farmed illegally in great big bathtubs at an unused bus stop in Aro Valley.

He knew the Wellington City Council would probably shut him down. It did.

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But a year later in 2019 he had another crack at doing his bit for the local environment, spending $1500 of his own money and many hours of toil on a community compost at the bottom of Holloway Rd.

They weren’t just piles of kitchen scraps. They were engineering feats accompanied by an excessive amount of instructions on how to use it.

Wilson was forced to shut down his 'Worm Hotel' in 2018.


Wilson was forced to shut down his ‘Worm Hotel’ in 2018.

The council initially threatened to can that too, but acquiesced at the 11th hour after Green councillor Iona Pannett stepped in.

The illegal worm “hotel”, the guerilla compost site – it was all about mitigating the impact of greenhouse gases produced from landfilled organic waste.

Wilson was an out-and-out Greenie. He was just doing what he thought was a good idea, encouraging people not to send rubbish to the dump but to compost their kitchen scraps and mown grass, recalled one mate.

He was a great advocate for taking individual responsibility for addressing climate change. A great thinker who might pen 4000-word emails on one idea or another.

He had his supporters, and detractors too. A group of Aro Valley residents feared the compost heap would “lower the tone” of the neighbourhood, Wilson said in an interview at the time.

The smell and look of it was undesirable to some.

“[But] if we are facing a climate emergency we may need to act a little more strongly than these minor inconveniences,” he said.

Compost and worms were the stuff worthy of column inches, but Wilson also made his mark on Wellington with the festivals, fairs and events he ran from the early 1980s.

Wilson set up a composting area at the bottom of Holloway Rd in Wellington.

Robert Kitchin/Stuff

Wilson set up a composting area at the bottom of Holloway Rd in Wellington.

Wilson, who owned events company Capital Productions, was instrumental in setting up and running a craft market in Civic Square, the Karori Fair, the Newtown Festival, the Khandallah Fair and a whole load of events in the Aro Valley, from the annual fair to movie nights.

He ran the Birdman Festival in 2008 at Frank Kitts Park and set up and ran the Kilbirnie Festival, of which he was at the helm for 19 years.

In 2015 he lost his contract after a falling out with retailers’ group the Kilbirnie Business Network.

Wilson ended up running a separate festival at nearby St Patrick’s College on the same weekend.

He was a cheerful and generous fellow. He was also confrontational and at times polarising.

He found bureaucracy endlessly frustrating, ditto some of the stallholders and others he worked alongside.

He liked things to be done his way and made that known to those who differed.

He even made a list of those he didn’t want at his wake, held at his local drinking hole, the Southern Cross. When one person on that list turned up they were swiftly evicted. He would have loved that, remarked one friend.

After a falling out between Martin Wilson and the local business community, the Kilbirnie Festival split into two rival fairs.

Cameron Burnell/Stuff

After a falling out between Martin Wilson and the local business community, the Kilbirnie Festival split into two rival fairs.

Known by some as the unofficial mayor of Aro Valley, Wilson was always doing something in the neighbourhood, recalled one resident. Often it was something fun for kids. He set up water slides in the park, put on activities around Halloween, set up sound systems for kids to sing karaoke at festivals.

Over the years he sat on the Aro Valley Community Board. But he was often at loggerheads with his own community on one issue or another, including a spat around the rebuild of the Aro Valley Community Centre. He lost that one.

He engaged with people with an open heart but with fixed ideas for how things should be done – be it with personal relationships or with organisations and those he worked with. It meant that sometimes those relationships fell over. He got fed up with people, and from time to time, they got fed up with him.

But he believed in community, and that fairs and festivals allowed people to break out of the day-to-day mundanity of life.

To be able to transform a shopping centre into a carnival was magic to him.

Wilson lived in a gig economy. He never had an office job, as far as most could recall.

He hired out sound and festival gear, from trestle tables to sound systems. If you saw a big white tent at a festival in the 90s there was a pretty decent chance it was Wilson’s.

His environmental ethos ran deep.

He insisted stallholders only use biodegradable packaging and was known to shut down anyone who used plastic.

Wilson ran the Khandallah Village Fair.

Martin Wilson/Stuff

Wilson ran the Khandallah Village Fair.

Wilson was the third of three sons born to Diana and architect Derek Wilson, an environmentalist and activist who published on both subjects. He came from a family who believed in strong debate and social justice.

He was a pupil at Khandallah School, Raroa Intermediate and Onslow College.

In 1979 he travelled to London with girlfriend Patrice Diamantis. They lived in a squat and Wilson made a crust working at the Portobello Market fixing bicycles and selling bits and bobs at a stall, believing that eventually there’d be a buyer for whatever you had to sell.

Their eldest son Joel was born there in 1981. The following year they returned to Aotearoa, where second son Jesse was born in 1984.

Wilson was devoted to the music scene, both playing in bands and managing them. In the 90s he ran raves in Wellington warehouses.

He played guitar in a bunch of covers bands – The Rocking Strollers, The Vas Deferens, Spice Girls and Jimi Hendrix tribute acts.

They played all over town and up and down the motu.

Pip Payne, left, one of the Holloway Inmates band members, and Aro Valley fair event producer Martin Wilson. Wilson ran the annual fair for years.


Pip Payne, left, one of the Holloway Inmates band members, and Aro Valley fair event producer Martin Wilson. Wilson ran the annual fair for years.

He was part of the Wellington inner-city bohemian scene of the late 70s and early 80s, an entrepreneur during the uprising of rock music at that time, according to son Joel, who often went on the road with his dad.

He went to university late but made up for lost time by being a student for almost two decades.

He studied politics, international relations, anthropology, psychology, geography, development studies, environment studies, public policy, commercial law and economics.

He got at least one degree.

Wilson would tell his mates: “The longer you study, the less likely they are to ask for the money back.”

In 1990 he moved into 45 Holloway Rd, the house his father designed and built, and became a fixture of Aro Valley.

Having parted ways with Diamantis, he met Laila Faisal in 2001. They were married in 2008, the same year their daughter Jaime was born. They separated in 2015 but remained friends.

A pirate ship flown by Mo Altahan and Scotty Hunter leaves the ramp in the 2013 Birdman Festival run by Wilson's Capital Productions.

Craig Simcox/Stuff

A pirate ship flown by Mo Altahan and Scotty Hunter leaves the ramp in the 2013 Birdman Festival run by Wilson’s Capital Productions.

In 2013 Wilson stood, unsuccessfully, for council in the Onslow-Western Ward, garnering 607 votes.

Someone started a “Martin Wilson for Mayor” campaign, spray-painting the slogan on footpaths and fences, which initiated a number of people urging him to make a run for the top civic office.

In among the festivals, fairs and civic ambitions, Wilson also became an ultimate frisbee fanatic.

He was mad for the sport and became president of the Victoria University Flying Disc Club, taking a dwindling membership of five to more than 30.

He introduced the sport into Wellington schools and coached new players.

A few weeks after his death the club established an annual prize in his honour for the team that showed the most spirit and fair play.

Diagnosed with prostate cancer 10 years ago, Wilson’s oncologist gave him five years. It finally caught up with him last year.

He had elected assisted dying, but was judged not competent to make that decision, which infuriated him no end.

It became a moot point because he passed away the morning he had chosen to die.

He didn’t want a formal funeral. Family and friends gathered at Makara Cemetery the following day, where he received a natural burial.

Dressed in his trademark red T-shirt with a yellow star and wrapped in a shroud made by Laila, he was buried as Don Franks, an old mate and Holloway Rd troubadour, sang You Are My Sunshine with a small choir of friends.

Live music, right to the end. A graveside gig. Fitting.

Sources: Stuff, RNZ, Simon Wilson, Joel Wilson, Laila Faisal, Gareth Rouch, Iona Pannett, Nick Pannu, James Hollings, Linda Beatson.

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