Festival organiser Martin Wilson brought magic to Wellington streets

Martin James Wilson: environmentalist, musician, festival organizer, Frisbee thrower; b Aug 1, 1959; d August 11, 2022

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

That was Martin Wilson – die-hard environmentalist, event organizer, guerrilla worm farmer – glossing over his charges.

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Wilson, who has died at the age of 63, spoke softly and encouragingly to the worms he illegally farmed in large bathtubs at an unused bus stop in the Aro Valley.

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

* Get going: Wellington worm farmer told to move his illegal operation from the bus stop
* Don’t let public events go to waste
* Thousands enjoy the sun and fun at Kilbirnie Festival

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But a year later, in 2019, he had another attempt to do his bit for the local environment by spending $1500 of his own money and many hours of labor on a community compost site at the end of Holloway Rd.

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It wasn’t just piles of kitchen scraps. They were feats of engineering accompanied by an inordinate amount of instructions on how to use them.

Wilson had to close his Worm Hotel in 2018.


Wilson had to close his Worm Hotel in 2018.

The council initially threatened to do the same, but relented at the eleventh hour after Green Councilwoman Iona Pannett intervened.

The illegal worm ‘hotel’, the guerrilla composting plant – it was all about mitigating the impact of greenhouse gases arising from landfilled organic waste.

Wilson was a greenie through and through. He was just doing what he thought was a good idea and encouraging people not to take the trash to the landfill but to compost their kitchen scraps and mowed grass, a pal recalled.

He was a big proponent of taking individual responsibility for tackling climate change. A great thinker who can write 4000 word emails about any idea.

He had his supporters as well as his critics. A group of Aro Valley residents feared the compost heap would “lower the tone” in the neighborhood, Wilson said in an interview at the time.

The smell and appearance of it were undesirable to some.

“[But] When faced with a climate emergency, we may need to act a little more harshly than these minor inconveniences,” he said.

Compost and worms were column-worthy stuff, but Wilson also made his mark on Wellington with the festivals, fairs and events he’s fronted since the early 1980s.

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

Robert Kitchin/stuff

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

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

He directed the Birdman Festival at Frank Kitts Park in 2008 and founded and directed the Kilbirnie Festival which he directed for 19 years.

In 2015 he lost his contract after a dispute with retail group Kilbirnie Business Network.

Eventually, that same weekend, Wilson held a separate festival at nearby St. Patrick’s College.

He was a cheerful and generous guy. He was also confrontational and sometimes polarizing.

He found the bureaucracy infinitely frustrating, as did some of the stallholders and others he worked with.

He liked things done his way and made that clear to those who disagreed.

He even made a list of those he didn’t want at his wake and held it at his local drinking spot, the Southern Cross. When a person appeared on that list, they were quickly evicted. He would have liked that, remarked a friend.

After a dispute between Martin Wilson and the local business community, the Kilbirnie Festival split into two competing fairs.

Cameron Burnell/Stuff

After a dispute between Martin Wilson and the local business community, the Kilbirnie Festival split into two competing fairs.

Known to some as the unofficial mayor of Aro Valley, Wilson was always doing things in the neighborhood, one local resident recalled. Often it was something fun for children. He set up water slides in the park, organized Halloween-themed activities, and set up sound systems so kids could sing karaoke at festivals.

Over the years he has sat on the Aro Valley Community Board. But he was often at odds with his own community over one issue or another, including a dispute over the rebuilding of the Aro Valley Community Centre. He lost that.

He dealt with people with an open heart but with firm ideas about how things should be done – be it in personal relationships or with organizations and those with whom he worked. This meant that these relationships sometimes fell apart. He was sick of 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 everyday life.

Being able to turn a mall into a carnival was magical for him.

Wilson lived in a gig economy. As far as most could remember, he never had an office job.

He rented out sound and festival gear, from trestle tables to sound systems. If you saw a big white tent at a festival in the ’90s, chances were it was Wilson’s.

His environmental ethos ran deep.

He insisted that stallholders only use biodegradable packaging and was known to shut down anyone using 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 issues. He came from a family that believed in strong debate and social justice.

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

In 1979 he traveled to London with his girlfriend Patrice Diamantis. They lived in a squat, and Wilson worked at Portobello Market, repairing bicycles and selling odds and ends at a stall, believing that there would eventually be a buyer for anything that needed to be sold.

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

Wilson devoted himself to the music scene, playing in and leading bands. He threw raves at Wellington warehouses in the ’90s.

He played guitar in a number of cover bands – The Rocking Strollers, The Vas Deferens, Spice Girls and Jimi Hendrix Tribute Acts.

They played all over the city and all over the motu.

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


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

He was part of the bohemian scene in downtown Wellington in the late ’70s and early ’80s, an entrepreneur during the rock music boom of the time, according to son Joel, who was often out with his father.

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

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

He has at least one degree.

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

In 1990 he moved to 45 Holloway Rd, the home his father designed and built, and became an Aro Valley fixture.

In 2001, after breaking up with Diamantis, he met Laila Faisal. They married in 2008, the same year their daughter Jaime was born. They split in 2015 but remained friends.

A pirate ship flown by Mo Altahan and Scotty Hunter exits the ramp at the 2013 Birdman Festival, hosted by Wilson's Capital Productions.

Craig Simcox/Stuff

A pirate ship flown by Mo Altahan and Scotty Hunter exits the ramp at the 2013 Birdman Festival, hosted by Wilson’s Capital Productions.

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

Someone started a “Martin Wilson for Mayor” campaign by spray-painting the slogan on sidewalks and fences, prompting a number of people to urge him to run for mayor.

Between festivals, county fairs and civic ambitions, Wilson also became the ultimate Frisbee fanatic.

He became obsessed with the sport and became president of the Victoria University Flying Disc Club, which shrank membership from five to over 30.

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

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

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

He had chosen euthanasia but was found incompetent to make that decision, which infuriated him beyond measure.

It became a moot point because he died the morning he chose 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 signature red T-shirt with a yellow star and wrapped in a Laila-made shroud, he was buried as Don Franks, an old pal and troubadour of Holloway Rd, sang You Are My Sunshine with a small choir of friends.

Live music until the end. A gig at the grave. Fitting.

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

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