A Gisborne Childhood autobiography
I attend my new school
Weeks have passed at the holiday camp. We Grettons all feel as dejected as new arrivals in a refugee camp. The East Coast sun and sea bakes and salts us into the condition of ginger bread. We children whine that it is too hot to play in the sea.
now attend our new schools. Scott and I attend Makaraka primary school.
Each school morning in the back seat of Dad's car, we hug each other
and feign terror. We are really frightened, but in that play we act out
our fears and they don't suspect.
The worst moment is when we pass by the whisky advertisement. The beaming school master with his mortar board and bony nose under the bottle is the splitting image of Mr Dow, our new head teacher.
On our first day at school, the boys had laughed when I said my age was ‘Neine’. The bony skinned legs of Arthur figure large in my memories of that day. That must have had something to do with raw male power and energy.
The first days at Makaraka school, we boys played about like little school boys. Despite his awesome visage, Mr Dow appeared to be a kindly gentleman. My scholarly skills were mostly of tolerable standard. My reading skills remained out of orbit. Spelling skills shuffled behind them. Mum had saved me from Mr Bear's muddled numeracy teaching.
For a year every morning before school, she had given me a rote lesson in numeracy. Ever since I have known my times‑table with the efficacy and speed of almost a pocket calculator. But my hand‑writing problems were detected by Mr Dow and the other children within a day or two. I recall childishly hiding my handwriting from Mr Dow with my hands, and then blubbering uncontrollably. He apparently became so worried about me that he rang up Dad at Lytton High school where Dad now taught.
I suppose you might describe Mr Dow as like an old fashioned don. The children called him Pop. Whenever he said something that discomforted us, the girls would call out in chorus, ‘Oh, Pop’. He would beam back. I suppose he identified Pop with father. My suspicions are the children named him after Pop, the Mr Wolf in the Disney comic. The beaming Pop in the comic was in relentless futile pursuit of fat little pink pigs.
One morning a boy misbehaved in religious class. The Presbyterian Minister visitor must have complained. There was a hush in the class when Pop gestured the boy to his big desk. There were gasps among the girls, and the miscreant boy machoistically puffed out his chest when Pop pulled out his strap. I trusted that Pop would exercise his customary forbearance.
I was overcome instead with fear and horror when Pop leaped into the air as he delivered the blows. The other children seemed to have known this would be an awful spectacle. The class continued in subdued spirit. I was reminded of our chooks after Dad had wrung one of their necks.
I recall gazing out of the school room window at the dreary climate in a despair I would not feel again until I was a redundant statistic in adulthood. The gloomy chill of the classroom fitted and contributed to my mood. The school building harked back to a grim pedagogical era when the children were expected to thrive without light and warmth.
It seemed to be this time that I started to chronically wet my bed. I was ten before I grew out of it. One of my childhood memories is reading Nikos Kazantzakis' – The Last Temptation between soaking sheets.
I won't say anything more about Mr Dow's physical punishments. I think they were infrequent, but I seem to remember all of them. His was a large class full of unruly farmers' children. He was a thorough and stimulating teacher. We were all ears when he read to us through the year a novel about the crusades. In the middle of gory battles, he would stop and say:
I shouldn't be reading this.
We would successfully call out:
Go on! Go on!
From about the time of that first strapping, a defiant swagger spread through the school among his senior boys. Classes ended in Standard Four, and the children went on to Ilminster Intermediate. In class we were lambs, out in the unsupervised classroom, we were wolves.
Maybe I could describe us as like the archetype characters in the novel Lord of the Flies. Arthur was Jack. There was a Piggy, he was an Irish boy, Jimmy. I think I was Simon, the mystic. Most days while the big boys played footy, I watched spellbound the metamorphoses of monarch butterflies on a swan plant.
There was Ralph, the good leader. There was also Roger, the dark sardonic boy who in a flash of inspiration inspires the boys to found a boys' republic. He is then seduced by his own dark temptations, and is the one to pull the lever to murder Piggy. Something in me tells me that might have been me.
Arthur was the son of a local drunk, and of a hard-working Maori woman. He had two twelve year old henchmen. They were Bill and Doug. They had a falling out. Bill was taller and mean, but Doug was a trained boxer. He soon had Bill's nose bleeding. Bill began to blub.
Arthur sensed my sardonic glee and was angry. He and his ring never assaulted me beyond the odd slap. I was the only unpopular boy spared. I perhaps was the only one to have the instinctive intelligence to withdraw when the scene got nasty. All the others would grovel ever more for Arthur's favour. Arthur sharply ordered the boys to fetch Jimmy. He was found and dragged to Bill. Bill rediscovered his dignity in heavy blows on Jimmy's face while he was held by the other boys.
I mentioned a ring of boys around Arthur. That was sometimes literal. When a boy offended Arthur, he was ringed by a mob who each vented blows or missiles at him. That ring is described in Lord of the Flies in The Murder of Simon.
Jimmy, through the year, was subjected to ever more lurid punishments. He was rolled through the grounds in a tractor tyre. He was covered over in a sack, and suffocated by a pyramid of sprawling boys. I truly believe I did not take part in any of that. I just smirked in the background. I think I did vaguely pity Jimmy.
Every morning at school I would stand at the gate, and desperately hope Arthur would stay away from school that day. When he – rarely – did, we played like children. Then my heart would sink when I saw him coming in style surrounded by a coterie of admiring boys. Always at his side was Jimmy. Jimmy disappeared the next year, and resurfaced at intermediate school a running champion and a giant.
Once Pop saw an incident directed at me outside his classroom window. He summoned us boys and asked me what had happened. In the gaze of my classmates, I stoutly denied anything had happened. He released us with the loud sigh that he could do nothing while the school yard code of silence ruled. I knew if I admitted anything, I would be psychologically and physically done by the boys.
Twice in that year, I resorted to physical action to protect myself. Arthur was verbally assaulting me in his expert manner of making scapegoats. I suddenly could no longer bear it. I threw my fist at him. He was startled, and struck back. I suddenly discovered he was a weedy fighter. I was winning. Then I saw he was desperate, and would do anything to beat me. I only wanted him to leave me alone. I was tired, and afraid of his lust for power at any cost. I lay down and allowed him to torture me.
The second time was a public event and left a huge impression. A Maori boy in the lower class became suddenly fixated on me. He promised that tomorrow he would do me. I made light of it. But the next morning in the front yard, he suddenly laid frenziedly into me. At the same time, the bus children stepped into the school grounds.
The indignity and shame of being made a public spectacle to gratify him and others suddenly filled me with fury. I was no longer afraid and helpless. I lashed my school bag across his head, and appeared to be knocking him out as he struggled to reach me.
The fight stopped suddenly when he was too dazed to level more than feeble blows. The children watched with mouth‑dropping, eyes‑shining awe. The fight was talked about for weeks, and my fighting strategy became a legend. I was mortified to think that even the bus driver stayed and watched.
When I entered the corridor, I began to bawl. Pop Dow was dismayed at my distraught and furious state. To my middle‑class astonishment, Pop seemed to be sympathising with my assailant. Then Pop turned to me.
Bags are not for hitting people!
Then he turned to my assailant.
And you – keep your fists to yourself!
We had moved into our new house and orchard farm. On the evening of our arrival, Scott and I walked from neighbouring orchard friends, the Lewises, to our new home. An old truck drew up beside us. A young Chinese man opened the door. In broken English and smiles, he gestured to us to sit beside him. We had been instructed not to take lifts from strangers. I vaguely thought we might be held for ransom. We thanked him politely, and he drove off. When we got home, we would have mentioned it. There was no fuss. The universal assumption was then sexual abuse only ever happened on the media planet.
We were all hugely excited to have escaped from our refugee camp. We could now again eat at a real table, and sleep in real beds. The morning light would remind us that we were plonked down into a bare paddock beside a country highway. In Dad's family history in this country, you built your estate alone and with your bare hands. Therefore we looked upon it all in the light of nostalgia and romance. Mum's family history was the professional and business urban class. In those days, women were expected to follow their husbands' dreams, and not complain publicly. I think Mum was as excited as any of us. Only Dad knew about the graft. Twenty years later we would come out of it intact and wealthy by the skin of our teeth. Gretton is eponymous in Anglo-Saxon for grit. We would need that heritage. Yet it could have also destroyed us.
I suspect the following morning we were sleeves rolled up into the task of building the Gretton estate. I recall at first a potato orchard. Maori authors have fond memories of whanau life among the potato bushes. I can only recall back breaking dreary work, and getting into a fit of fury. Then we laid out with pegs and ropes our citrus orchard. We adopted innovative methods. We planted not trees but trifoliata shoots. These grew luxuriant fruit but remained dwarfish bushes. Their fruit was easy to pick from the ground and plentiful. The down side was they provided no shade and little aesthetic view. Our aesthetic side of the estate was the exotic tree orchard Mum planted at the back of the house. Our faces to the world would be granite, our hearts would be hidden away. They would beat all the more violently and cryptically in their isolation.
Mum and I found the best part of the day at the orchard was the early evening. Then for a brief hour, the sky was blotted out by legions of birds who flew over the orchard and took shelter in a distant column of pine trees. For almost a year we kept one old pine tree inside the orchard. But its deep roots and shade made it an overstayer in the garden of citrus bushes. So Dad hired a Manutuke chainsawer. He expertly cut down the tree, and it died with a heavy crash taking half a dozen citrus bushes with it.
A New Zealand childhood has become cliched into halcyon sun drenched days where children swam and played untroubled by dark thoughts. I was the opposite. The sun was my childhood enemy. When it blazed forth, that was the signal for farm work or going outside into Arthur's tyranny. I loved the drizzly days. Then I could sink into my reveries with or without a book. Even today, I love the sound of rain falling on a tin roof.
After the planting of the potato crop and the citrus trees, work became less urgent. Scott and I decided simultaneously that we would like to explore one Saturday morning. It was a cloudless sunny morning.
You can walk along the stop bank, but you are not allowed
to cross over to the river, said Mum.
You stay on the stop bank, said Dad.
The rule about the river had been drummed into us since we had arrived. We lowered our heads and nodded. The Lewis children had the same rule. Dad was going on about the river. Argument was pointless. When Scott and I were putting on our gumboots, I whispered to Scott.
When we pass the big poplar trees, we'll go to
Scott said not a word but nodded.
As we trod along the stop bank, I kept glancing behind my shoulder. I led Scott past the poplars and across to the river. The wide slow dirty Waipoua allured us like dusty travellers. There was not a soul to be seen except for us. A cake of yellow mud lay many metres between the river bank and the dried up river. Driftwood lay over the mud. Across the other side of the river lay Matawhero. Last century that had been a thriving colonial settlement, now it was a typical New Zealand village. That is there was an historic Church, and several farms and orchards, and not a soul in sight.
Ninety five years before, Te Kooti's gang had crossed the river, and eliminated every person and building in Matawhero except for the Church. In their track to the river that night, they had likely crossed over bush land that would become our orchard. But memory of that atrocity had long faded from our district. I only knew about Te Kooti from the holes in the walls of the historic Church. When we attended there for Sunday school, the local boys told us they were bullet holes from the guns fired by the settlers sheltering in the Church. The western cinematic images had long ago embroidered and spoilt the oral memory.
The legacy of the Te Kooti gang was no clusters of mid-nineteenth century colonial buildings graced the landscapes of the Poverty Bay district. Her architecture went no further back in time than the late Victorian. That was within living memory. I believe the dearth of a visual past beyond our own time impoverished us all.
We crossed down from the stop bank, and squelched our gumboots into the yellow mud. The air was as silent as a cemetary. We were still a bit nervous about Dad. We hurried back over the stop bank to home, and guiltily washed our muddy gumboots at the outside tap.
the following Saturday, we returned to the river. Dad and Mums' commands –
‘You don't go to the river’,
– and our obedient nods were all five minutes back in time. This time we had provisions and the three Lewis children. I recall sanguinely sitting on the bank, and watching Scott and Clive sinking to their knees in the river mud. It never crossed our minds there could be actual danger. When grown ups ranted on about the dangers of water, that was the signal of its mysterious and alluring elements.
Sunday school and Church services were Presbyterian, and for me a torture that just had to be borne. My starched clothes were an uneasy bondage, and my breakfast always seemed stuck in my teeth. The greatest story in the world had become platitudes of good behaviour for children or unintelligible adult ruminating.
One story sticks in my mind. It was in a Sunday school brochure about a monk who single-mindedly ended the Roman gladiatorial contests by intervening between the gladiators. He was murdered by the spectators. But then he was made into a Saint. Our Sunday school teacher earnestly told us that one day each of us would have to take a principled stand against public opinion. They would condemn us, but one day they would secretly be glad we did. Nearly twenty years later, this Sunday school teacher and farmer cut down the fence of the Gisborne rugby grounds. I am sorry to say he was mercilessly slated by the district for years. I am not sure his pious assumption of public gratitude is also correct.
Friday night was my spiritual transcendence. The weekend lay before me, and we went to late night shopping in town. I was passionate only for the library rooms and for the fish and chips. At our kitchen table, we ate together the fish and chips from newspaper packing. Its salty savoury taste somehow mixed with our joys of togetherness, and new adventures through our new library books.
One night I, without great enthusiasm, started on a book about a lion, a witch, and a wardrobe. Its author and title were unknown to any of us. At bedtime, I took the book to the boys' hut, and woke up at the first glimmer of sunlight to complete it.
Narnia intoxicated me. When I recently looked back at the Narnia books, I saw they are atrocious reading for children in everything except they are works of genius. A cult of violence and conformity runs through them. It is not to be wondered at that I would day dream of Narnia in Pop Dow's class.
One Saturday morning, I came into the house for breakfast, and it seemed that everything had changed. Mum, Dad, Paul and the live-in school girl from Hicks Bay were going about with their eyes like saucers and their mouths like fly-catchers. The only sounds were,
Ooh, aah, I can't believe it's happened.
I seemed to be a ghost, but I finally got out of Mum that President Kennedy had been shot dead by someone from a window. I was bemused. I had no idea who President Kennedy was. They were acting as if nothing would ever be the same again. We listened to radio broadcasts. It stuck in my memory that the New Zealand reporter said he had been shot in the head, and the American reporter said he had been shot in the brain. That was the first time I noticed the New Zealanders' hedging away from communicating a stark reality.
I have heard that the world is divided between the generations that remembered the Kennedy assassination and the ones who don't. As usual, I was in a twilight zone. I remember like yesterday, but didn't have a clue who he was. I have never heard of anyone else to share that club.
Another death the same day didn't figure at all in the New Zealand media. If I had known, I would have been bereft. C.S. Lewis died.
Jack Kennedy loomed now gigantically over my life. I discovered he was a hero and a great man. The live-in Hicks Bay girl told me in choked awe that his widow took the ring from her finger and put it on his. I never encountered that story again.
It was an exciting time. More people seemed to be getting mysteriously shot in Dallas every day. The murder of Officer Tippit secretly intrigued me. I had been lately reading the Norse Sagas. When Balder was murdered and went to the underworld, the whole world mourned for him. He went accompanied with a dwarf sacrificed at his funeral pyre.
I claimed at the start of my memoir to possess paranormal powers. In 1963, two strange events happened. I first became aware in class. Mr Dow said he had something important to tell us. Even though there had not been the slightest hint, I looked at him, and knew he was going to promise us a trip in an aeroplane. A few days later, our class took a chartered flight. That might have been a coincidence of a child's wild imaginings and reality.
The second time was a public event with witnesses. I read a children's page about a card party trick. I misread it, and completely believed I could read a card by reading signals in the gestures and faces of the card holder. I was supposed to have a partner who would know the card and deliver to me the appropriate signals. I was not in the least surprised when I correctly read the cards of Mum, Dad, Paul and visiting Grandma. They demanded I explain the trick. When I told them, Mum blushingly explained I had got a simple instruction wrong again.
Then everyone started treating me very guardedly. Dad said we would have lunch then Lloyd can try again. I was hugely excited. But to everyone's deep disappointment, I now got every card wrong. Then Dad called it all off. Paul cheeked me for several weeks that I was now so stupid as to imagine I could read his mind. I stoutly maintained the truth. Mum also now told me I had imagined it all. My retentive memory does not play me those sort of mind tricks. Mum several years ago said she didn't want to frighten me with feelings of being possessed.
I have an abnormal gift at reading into people's minds. But I need a child's simple faith to do it so literally. A child in a middle-class home who so illogically misunderstands instructions must be mentally under eight. I was nine. Yet that year, I read Oliver Twist.
Paul brought home the 1963 Boys' High School magazine. I recall only one feature. Paul read it first in bed, and in profound emotion handed it to me. The next day we gave it to our parents and the live-in Hicks Bay girl. It was a prize winning short story. Its themes and lyrical words left in all of us the feelings that we had encountered a truth never before told. Paul told me that the Hicks Bay girl wept. Its depiction of family abuse predated Once Were Warriors by almost thirty years. Mum was so excited she looked unsuccessfully for a photograph in the magazine of the boy author, Witi Smiler.
One morning, Dad said that Paul and I had to clean out the hen coop. As I got hay fever, that did not delight me. But my attention was aroused when we were told to keep an eye out for rats. Within a few minutes as we were pulling over the hay bales, a huge rat bolted out. In my mind's eye now, it was as big as a small dog and as swift and devious as a cat. It was trapped beneath our feet. Paul picked up its devilish tail, and swung it to dash it against the wall. Its beady eyes glittered with hate and fear, and it reared up its back and bit my brother's finger. He dropped it with a yelp, and it disappeared into a hole. Its ferocious and unexpected method of attack, and its razor teeth shook us both. The cut was almost to the bone.
We returned to the house with our bloodied trophy. Mum promptly bandaged it. Dad said grimly,
After morning tea, we'll be at war.
It didn't cross anyone's mind Paul should go to the doctor. In those days, we were more sturdy or more ignorant.
Now Dad and Paul entered the battle field with sharp spades. Mum, myself and my younger siblings patrolled the perimeters outside the coop. Soon there was much scampering and triumphant shouts. A dark feral body shot out under the wire and headed for the stop bank. Scott pursued it, and whacked it with his wooden spoon. Paul poised his spade for a mighty throw. Dad shouted in horror,
Don't throw it! Don't throw it!
Paul gave chase. He and the rat climbed through the fence to the top of the stop bank. Then our ears were gratified with the dying squeals of agony of the unfortunate rat as my brother chopped it into pieces.
Now we could examine the coop littered with corpses.
They are so sleek and fat, exclaimed Mum with a
touch of awe and admiration.
That's where our poultry profits have gone, said
Dad as he began to toss the dead rat into the incinerator drum.
That's granddad, said Dad.
I immediately recognised granddad as the one that had bitten Paul.
Over lunch, our strategies and assaults were discussed and crowed about. But I remained nervous and disquieted. I could not erase my memory of the hatred in the faces of the defeated dead rats. I had completed my reading of the cycle of Narnia books. I had also just read Animal Farm. Narnia and Animal Farm were mixed up inside my head. I have never heard of an academic comparative study of Animal Farm and Narnia.
But my recent literary magpieing have compelled me to think my childish thoughts were not so outlandish. In both literary creations, the animals wage a successful rebellion against human ownership. They set up animal utopias, but they are corrupted by greed and evil within the animal world itself. The qualities of the animals are closely paralleled in Lewis' and Orwell's creations. Alas, the rats receive short consideration in both as neither blessed to be a talking animal by Aslan nor to be a social conscience animal by Orwell.
But the seed of doubt had been planted. I frankly wondered how the rats must have felt when their home was invaded by the Grettons. I concluded they must have believed as strongly as ourselves that the hen coop was their domain. Given the chance they would have murdered us as mercilessly and thoroughly as we had murdered them. I began to hate and fear them with all the pathology of a colonist hating the natives.
I later encountered two rats lying in a hollow outside the coop. One ran off. I picked up a log and began to strike the other's haunches. It took deep breaths though its poisoned entrails and stared malignity at its tormentor. I fled.
Another time, Paul said he sensed there was a rat concealed beneath a dead tree stump inside the coop. I sensed its presence too as a creepy feeling that beneath the bale there watched an evil soul. My brother wrenched away the stump, and my horror swelled when a rat dashed out. He was as surprised as us and soon got away.
These rat wars must have happened in 1964. I recall the excitement in the classroom of both Mr Kennedy and the children when I gave my morning talk about what I did that week at home. The children much preferred it to my earlier morning talk about the childhood of Abraham Lincoln. Later, a boy mocked my estimation of the size of the rats. Arthur stoutly defended me.
Mr Kennedy replaced Pop Dow in 1964.
Mum had come to me, her face full of dismay.
Oh, Lloyd, I have such sad news.
Mr Dow is retiring at the end of the year.
I said nothing. I was overcome with the most huge sense of deliverance.
Mr Kennedy was fat and jolly where Pop Dow was thin and grim. Pop ruled by fear, Mr Kennedy by shame. He told us within a few days that bullying was unforgivable. We boys all had red faces at that moment. Physical punishment was the cutting edge of shame. Boys wept when they got it. In Pop's class, they had sauntered to its more terrific vigour.
I knew for sure that times were changing when Arthur peed in the boys' changing shed. In Pop's era, after the school swim the boys would stand in a circle in the changing shed and solemnly spout. You could call it a literal demonstration of a piss-up after a club function. My sensitive stomach and dislike of communal rituals would not allow me to join in. One afternoon, Pop smelt the aroma. He must have concluded this was an imbecilic act. He mildly questioned the dullest boy, and then ordered him to wash out the shed. My own suspicion is it was a nervous response to the macho environment of the school. This time, in the new era, none of the other boys would join in and they asked Arthur to stop.
It was in this year that it was discovered – to everyone's surprise – that I had a gift for theatre. At the annual fancy-dress ball at the memorial hall, I took the lead part of Mr Fox in the school play. Winnie Chan played the part of rabbit. My allusions to my velvet paws the grown-ups seemed to find extraordinarily amusing.
That ball, I thought, blotted out the public memory of the previous year's disaster. My poor coordination and inexperience had made me a tiresome blunderer in practising the folk dance routines for the ball. I sensed disaster, and secretly didn't want to go to the ball. My hopes were nearly fulfilled when the costume was delayed. But then Dad conjured up a dazzling traditional Chinese costume. I was soon preening myself inside it. But none of us realised a Chinese nobleman in Makaraka was the reviled chinaman. In the hall, a bubble of hostile prejudice accompanied me. Soon I could stand it no more, and sat down for the remainder of the night with my parents.
The next day at school, the children vented all their contempt at me for being both a chinaman and a mummie's boy. As we had gone into the ball, a young Chinese man's eyes had lighted up at this evocation of his homeland. Makaraka school had the children of several Chinese market garden families. I had been bitterly disappointed they were not yellow like my school crown. Their children's hands were raw from the market gardens. They ate huge cream doughnuts which gave me great envy and a sense of the luxuriant orient.
My impression was they suffered little from racial hostility in the school. Our social studies curriculum had nurtured us that the peoples from other lands were the same as us. But every atrocious racial epithet was jocularly tossed at them by their school mates. It puzzled me then why this usually bubbly lot never used them among themselves. We never thought they might be upset by them. This Chinese generation moved from peasant to professional in one generation. I have heard a rumour that Chinese New Zealanders fill the ranks of today's Treasury officials.
1964 was a salad year for me. Public ignominy was much less frequent. Bill and Dale had gone. In my last public encounter with Bill, he had peed over my legs at the urinal. Now he was reduced to shaking his fist at me from the school bus window. I cheekily replied in kind. I had now a residue of guilt about Bill. A primer girl had slipped and hurt herself at Bill's feet in the school corridor. The big girls had immediately charged Bill with hitting her. I had seen the entire incident and knew Bill was innocent. The little girl now insisted to Pop that Bill had indeed hit her. Bill, deeply hurt, maintained his innocence. I secretly took great delight in Bill's unjust punishment. That took the form of Pop saying quietly to Bill,
You hit a little girl. How could you do that?
Now I was even forming friendships with other boys. The macho swagger had gone under Mr Kennedy's kind but firm tutelage. By the end of the year, I even sang in class a duet with Arthur. We both collapsed in giggles. But there seems to have been some nostalgia for the old order. A tag in the school yard had entertained children for years.
Old Pop Dow is a dirty old cow
Now there was a new tag underneath the old.
Almost as bad as Kennedy
By the end of the year, I had transformed myself into a bright energetic child, full of delights and hinting at promise. My school report was full of optimism at my progress. Next year, I would be starting intermediate, and already there were shadows. I would have to wear shoes and socks with my uniform, and I had not yet mastered tying my laces. That was an unthinkable backwardness. I would have to attend classes in wood‑work, metal‑work, and arts and crafts. I knew at once there were tempestuous dangerous seas ahead of me. Now is the opportunity to tell you about Nan.
Nan was Mum's mum. She belonged to a generation of women both deeply practical and naive about the more cryptic aspects of life. Convention had denied her a coveted legal career. Her fine tuned legal mind grilled itself upon the miniature of life. If one could imagine Judge Cartwright in Edna Everidge's style and dress, one might conjure up Nan.
I recall watching the Springboks play the Maoris on television in her flat in central city Wellington. That would be 1965. I was holidaying with her. Several years earlier, I had accompanied her from Hicks Bay to Wellington for a holiday. She had been more indulgent on the first visit. The second time was something of a disaster. My difficulties – looked upon indulgently at home – were to her of overwhelming significance.
However, I had demonstrated I was not beyond improvement under her firm guidance. She was in Gisborne when we heard that shoes and socks were obligatory at intermediate. That had been a problem on my first visit to Wellington. She would get grumbling down on her hands and knees to tie up my laces, and then break wind to my mirth. Now in Gisborne under her eagle eyes, after repeated demonstrations, I mastered my shoe laces. My problems are compounded by my being left handed. But she was patient, and I was a willing pupil.
At my second Wellington visit, I had the good fortune to be befriended by Brian O'Brien, and enjoyed his cultivated work and pleasures. Nan took me to visit another elderly lady even more regal and ancient than herself. They both looked fiercely at me when Nan told the family joke how I had been too engrossed in a book to notice the telephone ringing to announce the safe arrival of my younger sister, Mary. I squirmed. Somehow the communication had been lost that I had been trying to make sense of a party line. That old lady friend may have been Nan's mother‑in‑law. She was working‑class Irish Catholic, which had been a family scandal.
Other memories of Wellington are the intensity of emotion at the Springbok Maori game. Pop Dow had tutored his pupils about South Africa. When I had expressed my childish disgust outside school, I had been inculcated with the common opinion that the South African whites were doing no more than preserving their entitlements. Now the countervailing sentiments were coming to a head at the Springbok Maori game. I recall the nervousness in the commentator's voice, and the angry faces of elderly Maori spectators. However, it all ended happily. The Springboks won, the Maoris weren't humiliated, and the delighted crowd rushed on to the grounds at the conclusion of the game.
I also recall describing to Nan with relish the graphic incidents of the Roman sack of Carthage. I had discovered the Wellington Public Library. She became hostile at my preoccupations with babies flung into the flames from rooftops, and a city population marched out in chains into slavery. She told me I should not be bothered with the past.
My parents had no time for Keith Holyoake. But when I said I wanted to throw rotten eggs at him, I squirmed under Nan's lecture that he was doing his best for the country, and must be spoken of with respect. After about a week with Nan, I had had enough. When Mum came visiting, Nan suddenly reverted back to the indulgent grandmother. When she went to kiss me and I knew Mum was looking, I turned my face away from the old hypocrite.
When I had returned to Hicks Bay after my first holiday with Nan, I nonchalantly told my parents I had seen Maori tattooed heads in a glass case in the Wellington museum. Despite my protestations, my parents flatly insisted that couldn't be.
At the end of 1964, Paul and the live-in girl left home. I was now the head child of the household.
The first day at Ilminster Intermediate was suddenly upon me. The school bus drove the Makaraka children to the new school. I accompanied them. I recall standing in a nervous Makaraka circle in the school grounds while hundreds of children milled around us. Another childhood world now enveloped me.
Ilminster Intermediate had recently opened. It was jerry architecture. Under the midday sun, it dazzled with fresh white paint and newly sowed grass.
Dad had firmly me told me I must never say I live at Manutuke. I lived at Matawhero.
If you say Manutuke, you will be sent away, and you
will have to go to the Maori school at Manutuke, said Dad with
This conspiracy was meaningless to me. I judged my fellow pupils according to how they treated me. An electronic bell rang, not our familiar ding dong but a screech. We were ordered by the form two pupils, who looked pityingly upon us, to assemble at the front of the assembly hall. A body of forbidding sullen adults entered on to the stage in front of us. I recognised with a shudder Pop Dow.
Two elderly gentleman arrived from the back of the hall. One was tall with a mane of silvery hair. His face resembled the benign cast, but with a hint of fire of Mr Dick. The other was short and hinted at a rat like vigour and intelligence. The two elderly gentleman ascended the stage. The tall one stood behind a podium in front of us children. He welcomed the school back to a new year. He introduced himself as the headmaster, Mr Beetham. His voice was as distinguished and grave as his appearance. But we quickly noted a strange quirk in the great man. As he intoned, spit flew from his mouth and dribbled over his chin.
Mr Beetham's spit was a conversational bone after every assembly to the children. The opinion of the teachers always was unknown. A story, possibly apocryphal, soon circulated among the first formers. When the school opened, Mr Beetham had the habit of pacing the stage and spitting on the heads of the pupils below. School counsellors employed to pass a message to the headmaster were unheard of in those times. The boys could do nothing because any insubordination could be responded to with a belting. But the girls who expected softer discipline plotted a solution. At the next assembly, as Mr Beetham leaned over the heads on the girls' side of the hall, the ringleader put up an umbrella. I don't know what happened to the girl, but Mr Beetham learnt his lesson.
Mr Beetham read out the new classes for the first formers. My name was read out in the first class. The primary school classes had been broken up. One pupil from Makaraka, Lynn, accompanied me to room two.
My new teacher was Mrs Gordon. She plainly gave the impression she didn't like us, but we would progress under her firm tutelage. When the bell rang for play, I quickly rediscovered my male classroom mates from Makaraka. I must now have been far removed from the nervous tongue tied boy in his first year at Makaraka. I recall fooling around and chattering unself-consciously with the boldest of the Makaraka boys. I recall our most striking feat was when we burst open the cubicle door in the toilet, and discovered a teacher. We fled, and for several days waited for retribution.
The hangover from Makaraka ended after a few days with crushing finality. Arthur and I were watching a vigorous footy game in the school grounds. We both expressed an eagerness to join the combatants. A form two boy from Makaraka came over to us. He invited Arthur to join him in the game. I went to follow them. He turned to me and said with brutal candour.
Lloyd, you get out of here.
I ran away to join my new class mates. This form two Makaraka boy was the class dullard whom Pop assumed had piddled in the changing shed. My first childhood passed at that moment. I once could run with a football, and recite or sing to an audience. Now I had entered the society of big boys. I could not do both. At least not without an identity problem. My coordination difficulties put me beyond the pale of a sporty type, and at least spared me that.
I think I quickly had the reputation of a bright boy in my new class. I once saw a report, on a class talk by me, on Mrs Gordon's desk. It was positively glowing. But the shadow of the specialist classes loomed close.
Now I shall tell you about Noaksy, my metal work teacher. My first thought is he graduated out of the anus of Doctor Beeby. Having quickly discovered an unsurpassed incompetent, his relish in humouring the boys knew no bounds. The boys delighted in laughing contemptuously at someone who had fallen so quickly from a height that they might have envied. I reverted to the standard three trap of blubbering at the wretchedness of it all. It took the personal intervention of Dad to get the man off my back.
Arts & crafts and wood‑work were also devastating. But those teachers at least did not single me out. When Scott went through intermediate, he told me Noaksy had groaned at once at his surname. The arts & crafts teacher said he had only ever known one pupil who made no progress at all. Scott said he was sure it was me. I secretly concurred.
In the specialist classes, the boys and girls were unthinkingly segregated. We did arts & crafts together. In the other specialist subjects, the boys did metal‑work and wood‑work classes, the girls did cooking classes. If I had been allowed to do cooking instead, I might have not humiliated myself. But a retirement to the girls' classes was unthinkable.
When Noaksy relented, the scars of my hurt rapidly healed. The other boys seemed to forget when I had been the classroom idiot. I made casual friends. But there still remained no bosom friend.
A bird passes over an ocean with no doubt it will get safely to the end, but with the resignation of the long traveller. 1965 was that sort of year for me. We sang in the assembly hall, and my heart uplifted at the first time it heard the song, Greensleeves. Mrs Gordon left. We assumed she had had a breakdown. We assumed that when every woman teacher left.
We did a course in New Zealand history with Mrs Gordon. I paired with my best friend, a Maori boy, Bruce, to write a play about Te Kooti's invasion of Poverty Bay. I recall a morning flight, and an evening return to find burnt porridge. After Mrs Gordon had carefully given a lesson on the Treaty of Waitangi, it flashed through my mind that the treaty could not have been honoured. The Pakehas now had most of the land. But I knew Mrs Gordon well enough not to undermine her.
Mrs Gordon was replaced by an elderly lady we soon nicknamed grandma. Mum, Dad and I travelled to Napier to see the Maori production of Porgy and Bess. I was deathly ill with an infected throat, and terrified I would be left behind in the hotel on the night. I got to the performance. I recall we audience applauded at the finale with a fervour akin to a religious revival. I suspect we were a liberal audience, and the applause was touched with guilt.
We Grettons outside our books and imaginings inhabited a hard prosaic world. Television on the Coast was a brash newcomer. The intellectuals – a small group of mostly school teachers – were still proud of not succumbing to its sedative charms. I can say charms because television was then an offspring of the somnolent Nanny State. We did not have television. We were all great readers. The movie houses rarely showed cultural films. Gisborne's proudest architectural treasure was then its opera house.
Earlier in the twentieth century, Gisborne had been a part of the Australasian circuit of professional musical shows. They no longer came. But local enthusiasts each year staged in the opera house a pantomime and an operetta. These shows in the early 60s still carried the pre-television legacy of civic events. You could almost say all the towns' middle class participated as show people and audience. The Grettons were stage struck, gratefully absorbed into their magic. Stage tricks and song and dance numbers were faithfully preserved in our memories for years. My skin still tingles and goes hot and cold when I hear some songs from those shows.
When we saw the pantomime Aladdin in 1964, I watched with furious envy the boys in pig tails and painted slanty eyes singing and dancing to When China Boy Meets China Girl. No one thought for a moment of racial sensitivity. I just longed to jump up on the stage and join these precocious lucky children. I had sighted my bosom friends.
When I spoke with large sighs about my longings to Mum, she said brightly,
You could join Junior Unity Theatre, I'll have
a word with June Hall.
I was incredulous. I had no idea such things might be attainable for a backwoods kid like me. A few days later, it was all arranged that I would cycle into town on Saturday morning to Junior Unity. My life would turn a thespian leaf.
I was given a crowd scene role in a one act play for family and friends. I recall a pipe, a table and chair, and a glass of ale. Mum found a newspaper advertisement for elocution students. I attended private tuition lessons with Mrs Taylor. Her lessons were in her home that overlooked the sea shore. Her home seemed to taste the flavour of the sea like the interior of a shell. Her husband sported a waxed moustache. They seemed to adore each other in an ostentatious way, and I adored them both.
They had a little boy son and a baby. The little boy, a scruffy freckled soccer fanatic, could do no right, and the baby could do no wrong. After the first lesson, I took a stroll on the beach with the boy. I was much disconcerted when he hunched down and did a big pooh on the sand.
One evening, Mum read out to me from the newspaper. The Junior Unity director, Mrs Skyrme, would be directing Peter Pan in place of the end of year pantomime.
You could play Peter Pan, said Mum brightly.
I could not imagine myself ever the star attraction. To appear even as a shadow in the opera house would fulfil all my most ethereal longings. Mum rang up Mrs Skyrme, and found out the date of the audition. Mrs Skyrme said I could audition for the part of the younger Darling boy,Michael. We found out I would be competing for the part with Hugh, Mrs Skyrme's son. He was two years younger than me, and was also in Form One at Ilminster Intermediate. The competition between us now immediately made him a subject of suspicion and negativity in our household. It was suspected that he for his own sinister ends did not pass on the Peter Pan text at school. Mum and Dad rushed over in the car to deliver me the text when I was walking through town to Mrs Taylor's elocution class.
Hugh was a good friend of mine. With all the other Ilminster Junior Unity students except me, he was in the top class. Form one and form two each contained one top class, average classes, and one bottom class. Our placements were assessed in end of year primary school tests. I languished down in the ranks of an average class. The bottom form one class, room ten, I shared a voyeuristic fascination in. The top form one class, room six, I felt a furious envy towards. This envy did not appear to be shared by anyone else, and the room six children were unfailingly modest about it all.
My envy I do not think was just an unpleasant vanity. My partners from Junior Unity were all in there. I could communicate with them with an ease and soul mateship I could not in my own class. In my own class, the boys were rougher and worshipped sport. For several weeks at playtime I used to peer through the room six class window, and pleasantly fantasise how I could still win entry. I was bemused that their blackboard lessons seemed no different from ours. I was alarmed and retreated to my room two class mates when Hugh hinted my phantom presence was being noticed.
When the 1965 Springboks team visited our school assembly, everyone - teachers and pupils - beheld them with wonder. They towered above any adult we knew. Our questions and their answers were awe encountering impeccable and salubrious manners. We children followed their trek through the country with a devotion bordering on a religious fervour. I noticed Mum and Dad were once affected by a Gisborne Herald photograph of an elderly Maori honging a Springbok. They wondered if the Springbok felt a touch of guilt – which was an absurd thought.
There is a Gisborne Magazine photograph of the Springbok parade down mainstreet (Gladstone Road) in 1965. I stand in the middle of a crowd, my face radiant with the plebeian excitement. Beside me, bare-footed, stands Clive Lewis. The other Pakeha boy is by a strange chance my Ilminster tormentor. He had clawed my face and left a scar for several weeks. Another day, he had pursued me across the Wairere pool. I had nearly drowned myself in my terror to escape his ducking. I was told later the boys in his school bus had laughed about it all the way to school. The Maori boy in the photograph is dressed immaculately against the July cold. In those times, Maori children in town dressed often more fastidiously than their Pakeha mates. The unsightly skin sores of so many of the malnourished Hicks Bay children vanished in the better living conditions in town.
When the Springboks played Poverty Bay in miserable weather, Gisborne was deserted for the sports stadium. We all assumed that as normal. The Hicks Bay and Te Araroa footy matches had been no different. I think I can still remember the score– 33 : 3 to the Boks.
When Mum and Dad took me to the Peter Pan audition, we were all by now convinced I would have the part of Michael. Mum took one look a the well scrubbed boys with their Peter Pan texts outside the theatre door, and her voice trailed off. I felt at once a heavy heart that dreams were only meant for sleep and daytime reveries.
I was dropped off at the theatre. I performed my audition with painstaking attention to Mrs Taylor's instructions. Dad now said nothing. Mum kept nervously repeating that ‘Sound Of Music’ ditty, I Have Confidence In Me. I was now nearly sure I would not get the part. Some days later, Hugh approached me in the Ilminster grounds. I would be sharing the part of Michael. We would be alternating on six performances. My joy at that moment knew no bounds.
I was soon caught up in the flurry of rehearsals. Dad issued me a private warning to keep quiet in the school bus and in my class about Peter Pan. I instinctively knew he was right. Earlier in the year, I had gone to a ballet troupe performance. The next day at school, the girls in my class had discussed with shocked voices and anxious glances my attendance. I had been deeply mortified. But the boys in the class had taken it in their stride.
The performances of Peter Pan would cover the performers with public glory. The preparations would be a secret matter, and any public exposure a source of public anxiety and suspicion.
Before the production, Peter Pan had been one of my reveries. A soft story version of the play had been purchased for me when we first came to Gisborne. On a night time visit to our Uncle Harold, Dad's brother, I had withdrawn my attention from the family circle and conjured up the complete saga. On my uncle's couch, I floated away to the Never Land, fairies accompanied me, I waged war with the pirates, and I flew home for supper. One or two of my six Thompson boy cousins were also there. Lindsay, the eldest, sung a stirring rendition of Mr Fox Went Out On A Summer Night into our Uncle's tape recorder. The Thompsons were our duck-shooting marksmen cow-cocky cousins. We all thought the song very apt. Paul confided to me that he wished he were a Thompson boy.
Uncle Harold in his youth had been the shining academic light in his Gretton cow-cocky family. Therefore in the characteristic New Zealand way, he was a general object of derision. His gifts of language and witty personality were taken entirely for granted. In the 1930s he belonged to the Victoria University circle of left wing students. I had known for many years about his incompetence as a tank driver before it was mentioned incidentally that he was an army general's language interpreter in the North African and Italian campaigns. After the war, he was a French language high school teacher in Taupo.
I like to think he was a sleeper for the Communist Party waiting for the revolution. Everyone else finds that thought an amusing idea. When he died, not even death notices recorded it as he had gone into exile in Holland with his Dutch wife. Folk singers still sometimes sing his 1930s University tramping club songs.
I have recently read the text of Peter Pan. Its sentimentality sickens
me. Its bloodless violence startles me. It is truly propaganda to prepare
young men and women for war.
Peter Pan says, ‘To die will be an awfully big adventure’. Captain Hook boasts of ‘An imminent holocaust of children’
As the twentieth century has progressed since the play's opening night in 1904, both statements have been tactfully removed. Of course all I knew was it would all be an awfully big adventure and no child would die in Never Land. That universal assumption came awfully close to being wrong. On a performance night, a giant hook from the flying equipment crashed to the stage, and just missed a lost boy in Never Land.
The year of 1965 was drawing to a close as rehearsals were in full swing. I now first heard about the Vietnam war when Mum and I went to baby sit for our neighbours, Pat and Eileen. These English ladies owned a sweet pea farm down the road.
The three farms, the Lewises', the Grettons' and the two English ladies' on the highway past the Waipoua bridge towards Gisborne made a sort of hamlet. Common transport passed it in a single gasp of breath and spotted mere glimpses amidst the trees and manicured shrubbery. We had sealed off our property from the road with gorse and poplars. Our hamlet contained dramas and intrigues that would have delighted William Faulkner. The children's and their pets' play was the lubricant of our hamlet. When the children left, the hamlet ceased as its residents slipped away into their private and secret spheres.
You may have been puzzled by the reference to baby-sitting for the English ladies in 1965. There is a simple explanation. The ladies adopted two little girls from the Gisborne orphanage.
In the ladies' lounge, there flashed on
the television screen images of the war that have since become iconic.
Television was still absent from the Gretton household.
Mum said pointedly to me,
The Americans are burning down people's homes and
destroying their livelihoods.
I looked at the Asian faces on the screen, and suddenly with her words they became real stricken faces. Mum and Dad were strong against the Vietnam war. They seemed to be a minority of two.
Vietnam was forgotten when Peter Pan blew
his magic dust over households all over Gisborne. We Peter Pan children
began to think ourselves an elect in the town. I don't know whether
people in the town did single us out. When Mr Skyrme (who played
said apologetically to Dad, ‘I do this so they will let me go
fishing’, I was dismayed.
I sincerely believed Mr Skyrme, the town vet, breathed Peter Pan as I did.
I studiously practised my lines every day. Dad, several nights each week, took me to rehearsals. Dad was so keen. But he was not so keen when Mum insisted he carry me around on his hands and knees as Nana the dog.
At last, the performance nights and matinee were upon us. Hugh performed on opening night. He visited me in the corridor of room two, and spoke in awe of opening night. When the Darling children had jumped from their beds to fly in the first scene, they had not become aloft, instead skidding sorely across the floor. I was learning fast the magic of the theatre were brief moments in the midst of many hours of sweat and anxiety. Tonight would be my first night of performance.
The moment of my dramatic entry was upon me at last. The curtain opens upon the night nursery of the Darling family. In a state of near panic, I wait behind the edge of the curtain with Mrs Darling. Nana, the nurse dog, is the sole actor on the stage. She crosses past the curtain to fetch me. Mrs Darling helps me on to Nana's broad back. She whispers to me,
Just act like this is a dress rehearsal and you will
be all right.
I feel at once calm. Nana carries me into public view. The eyes of Gisborne are upon me, one small scared boy. I open my mouth and the words fly out. I am conscious they have all the correct cadences and tones.
I won't have a bath. I won't I won't.
I finish my lines. Now I am dumb in white knuckled terror.
We are meant to be through the bathroom door and off the stage. Instead,
we are still moving along the middle of the stage. Mrs Skyrme frantically
waves to us from the curtain. Nana continues her silent journey to the
stage window. We pass through it to off stage. In a near fainting state,
I am dragged off Nana and rushed to back stage. I hear the familiar voices
on the stage. My hands are shaky. Gillian Skyrme, daughter, ties up my
pyjama pants. I hear my cue line.
Someone says in a loud whisper,
The bathroom door is flung open, and someone pushes me on to the stage. I open my mouth. The words seem to rush out on their own volition.
Now, John, have me.
The past mishap of Nana losing her vision is forgotten. The play is in full flight.
On my next night performance, my parents come. On the matinee, the entire hamlet comes to see me. I am the centre of adulation, so I think. I am Michael, the adorable youngest child, Michael the flyer, Michael the fighter and killer of pirates, Michael who returns home at last to a joyful reunion.
When 1965 closes, I am a child full of optimism and good memories. Noaksy is tamed. We even share the odd joke. I have friends, both Hugh from room six, and classroom friends. I may even be generally popular.
Mr Beetham's eccentricities were now very familiar and tiresome. He often made everyone stand at the end of assembly to leave, and then suddenly he would launch into another lecture. While we were close to fainting in the heat, he would lecture to us that all life's rules could be reduced to one maxim, have consideration for others. On a famous occasion he ordered a special assembly. After an impressive speech, he ordered a miscreant girl onto the stage. Between wrenching sobs, she said she was sorry. I found out later she had said ‘Bloody’ to the art teacher.
On our last day in the school year, Mr Beetham visited our classroom. He read out a list of children directed to new classes in 1966. Each child when named stood up reluctantly. To my great relief, my name was not called. We lucky ones would go together into the form two class. Our 1966 teacher was named. To my astonishment, he was Mr Murray.
Mr Murray taught the top form two class. By some twist of fortune, he would that year teach our average class. Our impressions of Mr Murray in 1965 were rather scary. He wore dark shades, and carried around a cool bearing. He could quell six hundred miscreants with an angry word.
When we visited his class later that last day, he sat writing at his big desk. He appeared not to condescend to even notice our arrival. We sat down at the vacant desks, and stared anxiously into space. Then he rose majestically and announced.
I am Mr Murray, welcome to my class.
When we returned to school in the new year 1966, Mr Murray held us in such thrall that we could hear the ticking clock when he was outside the room! There were over forty in our class. The spell finally broke when Mr Murray demonstrated he was human. He enjoyed practising his wit on us. He had wasted much time explaining to us a simple procedure for collecting our school lunches. He very seriously took the presumption we could be very average. When at last he had finished, he asked as an aside while parading down the aisle,
Agnes, do you know?
NO! said Agnes emphatically.
The startled look on Mr Murray's face made us all burst into laughter. I said us all but I didn't.
I have an odd quirk that unexpected comic incidents that evoke amusement only add to my nervous disposition. After everyone else has forgotten the incident, I am suddenly overcome with uncontrollable convulsions of hilarity. As in the case of Agnes, these bouts of hilarity can last for years even decades. Only now that I think about Agnes, do I realise its full significance. She was making a subtle point that he should not assume a Maori girl in glasses was stupid, and was passing the joke back to him. I should have known. I used to practice the same tactic on Nan.
After that comedy, the class and the teacher settled down to a warm and productive relationship. We found out that Mr Murray loved to tell stories about his boyhood. He had an intense nervous nature, and in his youth had been troubled with a stutter.
He was my only teacher who engaged his class in creative writing. This was a new experience for me. I had never thought of transmuting my reading into writing exercises. My handwriting skills had limped along while my reading ones scaled ever new startling heights. I don't think I have yet mastered a balance.
We first wrote about the story of Mr Pickwick falling into the ice. Then we had to invent our own story. I made up one about a Londoner being interviewed by the radio about the loss of his family in the blitz. Mr Murray, in great excitement, read it aloud to the class. After that, a girl sniffily told me that I could not have written it. She had her ring of girl friends to support her. She was preparing for a Hawkes Bay boarding school, and must have thought I was too scruffy and backward for literature.
Later in the year, I had the pride of another literary piece read out to the class. That was about a man abandoned in the Egyptian desert who survives and intercedes in court to let the guilty men live. The sniffy girl had her story about being lost in the desert read out also. Where my story was sparse, hers was weighed down with brilliant imagery. Shades of Frank Sargeson and Katherine Mansfield perhaps in room eight.
The one unhappy memory of room eight is Mr Murray shouting at me as I sat dumb with new maths. My compete stupidity with numerary except for arithmetic had its genesis here.
The glimmerings of sex became familiar to me again at Ilminster. In form one, a girl from another class used to taunt me regularly. She even shouted names at me out of the bus window when I was walking to Mrs Taylor. One morning, the form one pupils had a dancing lesson. When on the one occasion the girls could choose the boys, I was astonished that she promptly claimed me. She danced with me with a very grown-up intensity. After that she left me alone.
In my class in form two, I paired with Penelope. We always sat together. I asked her did she like another boy who hung around her. She fluttered her eyes, smiled sweetly, and said no because he was a Maori. That racial prejudice made me blush. I quickly forgot about it in the warm glow of her charms. It was all play acting by me, but I must have acted it well.
Mr Murray ordered us to separate to other parts of the classroom. He announced he couldn't stand any more watching Lloyd and Penelope gazing all day into each other's eyes. We both thoroughly enjoyed the attention. There was also in that year an incident of homoeroticism. A boy in my class took me and a few others into the boys' toilet to look at each other's penises. He was a year older than us and more advanced.
In form two, I had my denouement at junior unity. The play was a comedy of manners, and was set at a garden party. While all the other players were immaculate in party clothes, I was MacIsfield, a rustic gardener. As the rehearsals progressed, I started to believe I was on to a revelation. I could draw upon hidden reserves within me that would transform the child actor into his character. I seemed to instinctively be able to mimic adult behaviour that I remained intellectually ignorant of. I began to feel I was holding a secret that only I and one or two others knew about. My family remained ignorant about it. I could see as the performance night drew near that they thought the play was to be a ho hum children's affair. I did not enlighten them on this, and waited for the performance to startle them out of their apathy.
On the performance night, the record player behind the curtain played God Save The Queen. It conked out in the middle of its effusions. My play was in the middle of three one acts. The audience of family and friends was good humoured and responsive. They included the Gretton family and the Lewis children. My role was to pretend, for a bribe, to be a lord. I get found out, and am chased around the garden by a shrewish grandmother. When the chase scene comes, I have all the pathos of an old working man subjected to abuse by his superiors. The audience laughter becomes hysterical. I expertly judge the pauses and the moments of bumbling agitation. In the final climatic moment when I am frozen with terror, the audience is convulsed. Above them all I can hear Clive Lewis' screams.
At the supper after the show, we thespian children modestly joined in a pillow fight. Everyone in my hearing was very cool about my performance. But I am nonchalant. I was secretly thrilled to see Penelope in the audience. She avoided me. The next day at school, I asked her did she enjoy the show. She just gave a mysterious smile. A quote from the play now slipped into the Gretton household to describe bumbling. MacIsfield gets worse and worse, I don't know why we keep him.
I look now back and know my performance carried a cruel element that
Penelope may have grasped. The bumbling MacIsfield, under stress and
confusion and public ridicule, was me!
Many times I would, as a boy and adult, be MacIsfield. But in real life there would be no applause or even forgiveness, instead humiliations, dismissals and career reversals.
My form two ended with delicious Summer days. Mr Murray gave me a glowing fulsome school report. Only Noaksy left a sour graduation note. He wrote, A very poor effort this term. I was thrilled to tell my parents that I had come seventeenth in a class of forty two.
I went strawberry picking with Mum, and she extolled the joys of high school Latin. Lytton school had third and fourth form Latin classes. I was enthused that we might study a language that had left so important an imprint upon the world. A few days later in town we met Mrs McGranaghan. Mum was sniffy when she found out that her daughter, Lynn, would also be enrolling in the Lytton Latin class.
Lynn was a farmer's daughter. She had accompanied me in all my school classes since standard three. My sister Becky, in the primers at Makaraka, had been terrified of her iron rule when she relieved for the infant teacher. We senior boys would, with slighting comments about her weight, induce her to burst into tears when she bossed us. Now when I think of Jenny Shipley I think of Lynn, as when I think of Winston Peters I think of Bill. Everyone, including myself, agreed Lynn was a fine girl.
I am now going to talk about a subject that already is making me twitchy. I can most kindly describe it as Gisborne's best kept conspiracy. This is the business practised generally by the Pakeha families to keep their children away from what was known as Maori schools. It seems to have been kept from the knowledge of the Gisborne Maori community. In my primary and intermediate school years, there was a furious secret war waged by the Gisborne old boys to stop their historic Gisborne Boys' High turning into a Maori school. The teachers and parents at Lytton were equally dedicated to making their new school a grammar school. That would have made Lytton an almost exclusively white school. The Gisborne old boys ran the city's political establishment. The old boys won. Today Lytton is, in the parlance of the Maori, the secondary school of Gisborne.
The issue was considered to be of such importance that in the first years of Lytton, parents arrived at the gates to enrol their children in the early hours of the morning. Zoning rules were then imposed to keep both Lytton and Boys' High a mix of white and brown. There was also a Girls' High which was also involved in the conspiracy but aroused less fuss.
As with the best conspiracies, its leaders and their motives can never be flushed out. If they would elucidate their motives, it might go something like this:
We are not acting for racial reasons. We and our children
have Maori friends and they are welcome at Lytton. We merely wish to
give our children the best education we can afford, and to protect
them from the bullying and rough influences of some Maori children.
In this era, there was on the Coast two self-contained life styles of the Maori and the Pakeha. They occupied the same space, but practised a self-imposed segregation unimaginable today. The only other racial group were the Chinese, and they kept entirely to themselves. At Junior Unity and in Peter Pan, I do not recall a single Maori actor. There were the Milligan girls but I did not think of them as Maori because they didn't show it. Their mother played the piano accompaniment in Peter Pan. Her mother was an old family friend at Hicks Bay, and was married to a rich Pakeha farmer. I was only vaguely aware that she was Maori.
On the Coast, if you lived the Pakeha life style, your darker ancestry was conveniently overlooked. Those who physically could usually concealed it. I recall at high school an argument between two boys over whose family lived first on the Coast. That was always an important issue of prestige. Someone else interposed one must have been first because he had Maori ancestry. The boy never denied it. He became very red faced and very silent.
The Maori children enjoyed sports and popular music with their Pakeha mates. Few participated in academic pursuits. In the top classes I noted one Maori boy. The bottom classes were full of Maori pupils. In my form two class, we used to listen to the beautiful sad melodies issuing out of the bottom form two class. My average classes had a number of talented and clever Maori pupils. The top ten of my form two class were mostly Maori girls, including the dux.
On the Coast, the most popular local pop song was, We Are All As One Under The Sun. We enjoyed the same beaches, most of the same facilities. But at some subtle point we went divergent paths. The Maoris to their maraes and their kinship ties, they were mostly invisible to us. The Pakehas to their cultural and academic pursuits, they seemed to be mostly invisible to them. This divergence is not so glaring now but by no means dissipated. Like most children, I never thought there was anything anomie about this segregation of my upbringing.
The only occasions I can recall when racial prejudice was publicly manifest were the real estate classified newspaper advertisements. Mum would crossly read out notices that Maoris need not apply.
When I first visited Wairoa, I looked around and instantly was rendered paranoiac. It was an urban environment, and Maoris seem to make up most of its population. My world till then had been: Pakehas ran the cities, Maoris ran the country side.
Crime scarcely touched our lives. We wilfully left our property lying around. We could leave valuable equipment over night on the beaches without a thought about theft. In my childhood years, the criminals never assaulted innocent members of the public and only stole their property. They would run away if they were found out. On the orchard we felt so safe we never locked our doors at night.
By the late 60s, there were symptoms of a new violent social environment. A traffic officer was seriously assaulted on the road. The Mayor was assaulted at his home by someone with a grievance about Maori land. But we did not see anything more than isolated acts by bad individuals. The traffic officer was unpopular. Many school children cheered the crime.
We lived a mile away from the Maori community of Manutuke. That was the birth place of Te Kooti. Our hamlet never bothered the Manutuke Maoris, and they never bothered us. When I brought the tea to the Maori women tomato pickers on our land, I used to stay to enjoy their ribald humour. Sometimes Maori families would gather puha from our land with our permission.
When we first arrived on the orchard, I had a good lesson about manners. Dad and I had gone to the Manutuke store. As I waited alone in the car, I saw a Maori bushman sitting alone at the store. His heavy somnolent face appealed to me. He must have noticed my looking at him because he fixed a cold stare at me. I fixed my dark flashing eyes on his face, and tried to stare him out. For several minutes our eyes locked. Suddenly, he leaped up and stormed to the car window. My childish faith in a safe world vanished.
In mortifying terror, I crouched under the window. If Dad had come out of the store at that moment, he would have exploded in outrage. But there was only the bushman and myself in this little drama. The bushman returned to his seat. Dad came out of the store and got into the car. We drove back to the orchard. The incident was so outside my experience that I immediately doubted to myself it had happened. Therefore I told no one. Only very recently have I considered I had very nearly induced in 1963 a racial incident.
There is one subject of my Ilminster days that I have kept for last. It has its own flavour, and dogged me through the two years. I took the school bus to intermediate. I began by catching it from Makaraka school. There was a big fat high school boy who caught the bus at that school. He fixed his pubescent aggression on to me. After I had had my head put into the lavatory, I asked Dad to drop me off at Lytton so I could catch the bus there. That seems to be a sensible solution. But I had unwittingly broken the school yard code. I had called on a parent to protect me from a school bully.
When I first waited for the bus at Lytton, I played innocently with the other waiting intermediate boys. But when we got on to the bus, the story sped fast and I found myself surrounded by smirking contemptuous boys. From now on, I would become the bum end of the bus. The bus was them and me at our worst. The girls occupied the front half of the bus and the boys the back half. The cockpit was the rear single back seat. The top high school form, the sixth formers, had imposed the rule that only they might occupy the cockpit. These boys had climbed to the top of the school evolutionary ladder. In our eyes, they did indeed strike an imposing pose. Any inferior pupil who intruded upon their space was promptly cast out. I recall their numbers being reduced to one, and this hulking boy putting his hairy leg across the seat while young tired standing children looked on.
I look upon again those adolescent ghosts, and I see the germs of the business round-table. Our non-ethical and competitive education was breeding these bloods well. Across their faces already there was that hoonish look of my generation.
Look upon us and lose hope, their faces say.
We have nothing but supreme contempt for everything suggestive of human needs, human transcendence, intelligence itself. We shall rub your noses in your own humanist illusions. We are the suits. and you can never get rid of us.
When the high school pupils left the bus, the intermediate boys promptly aped them. But only I was excluded from the cockpit. That infuriated me, and I once tried an ambush to the cockpit. To shouts of outrage, I was tossed out. I wept invisible tears. Once, Arthur brought in some girls for a kiss and cuddle in the cockpit.
I have often wondered whatever happened to Arthur. I suspect he is now a quiet family man. But if there is ever a revolution in this country, I shall look for his name.
My first hurdle at secondary school was crossed. I was not one of the Pakehas zoned to the Maori schools. We all saw them as luckless. One morning, I arrived in Dad's car at Lytton. Dad still taught there. His car saved me from more school bus experiences. I felt almost grown-up in my new high school uniform. I discovered my form three Latin class had Hugh, and many of his class mates from the top class at intermediate. I felt I had come home. But I was dismayed to see Michael also. He had imposed the cock seat rule with rigorous vigour. My loathing of him was only equalled by his contempt for me. He feigned not to notice me. I think he was my Peter Pan stage character in real life.
When we sorted out our seating arrangements, Hugh sat beside me. I was deliciously happy. I quickly formed friendships with several of the boys. Hugh soon moved to more exciting friends. I paired with a tall boy I remembered from the top form at intermediate. He spoke with gravity, and rarely laughed and fooled around like a boy. His relaxation was cross word puzzles. His memory and skill with languages and numbers seemed omniscient.
One morning, I looked down and went aah. He looked up at me questioningly. I didn't admit to what had shocked me. Inside the back of his leg below the calf was a gaping hole. Now when we walked and talked together alone in the playground, I was aware of the source of a rotten stench. Maurice and Lloyd must have become a familiar pair at the school. I remember we were always together. At playtime, we walked about and talked solemnly while everyone else messed about. We were sometimes called the intellectuals.
Then after a few weeks of this contentment, a dark cloud descended upon me. I first became aware of it in a maths test. I suddenly found I had no idea of the answers. Mrs Lee asked them from a number of children. I ducked my head and noticed they knew them all. When I got home, I took my maths book to Mum and told her. She listened, and assured me I would understand the questions. I was relieved. I dislike dealing with problems when there is an easy way out at that moment.
Mum suddenly and unexpectedly left for Wellington. There was four year old Mary left behind. I had to take her across the icy paddock to Pat and Eileen. I misunderstood instructions. Her feet froze and she wept bitterly. The ladies were very nasty at my foolishness. Mum returned in a dreamy state.
Now it was exam time at school. I soon saw I was in a personal catastrophe. My marks in nearly every subject put me at the bottom of the class. I was devastated. Somehow I was not connecting with my subjects. The one exception was English. In the assignment marks in that subject, I recall I was at the top of the class! But in the exam, I had to write a letter of complaint to the local council. I didn't have a clue. Until then, it had been all English and Scottish poets and authors. My first term result was 197 marks out of 600. I had come bottom of the class. Maurice came top, Nicola came second, Hugh came third. I felt I had been cheated out of my English result. The English teacher apologised to Dad.
I joined the drama and the violin clubs. I had started on violin lessons the previous year. My teacher was an elderly lady luminary in the Gisborne music scene. Mum had a vague idea the violin might help my digital dexterity. Noaksy was also a leading violin light in the Gisborne music society. I had privately told Noaksy, and he had looked at me very impressed.
I also joined the junior Lytton choir. My initiation is interesting. The previous Lytton music teacher had had a drinking problem, and had started the choir on a notorious footing. When we third formers were asked to list our club interests, only one boy wrote down choir. One afternoon, the acting head master, Mr Porter, came into our English class. We pupils sprung to our feet at the presence of the great man. He said, 'Who watched the black and white minstrels last night?' We innocently put up our hands. Then he promptly wrote down the names of all the boys with their hands up. The next day in morning assembly after the spiritual song and the Lord's prayer, a list of third form boys were summoned to go to his office. We waited anxiously outside. Then he led us in one by one, and extolled to us the charms of the junior choir. We could not resist them.
We had at last got television in 1966 after Mum had received a bequest. The television was brought into the sitting room in the evening from our parents' bedroom where we watched some children's programmes. My parents still seemed slightly guilty and nervous about this plebeian monster. When popular shows were on, a tea towel was wrapped over a silent flickering screen. Scott and I had become obsessed about the black and white minstrels, and used to uplift the tea towel whenever Mum and Dad were out of the room. On that one occasion they had weakened to our fervent pleads, and the result was I had to join the junior choir. My only satisfaction was Michael had been caught out too.
When I arrived on the first day of the drama club, I recall creating a disturbance by pulling out of the ground a long worm. We were plunged immediately into the inter-school drama competition.
Our one act play was Bernard Shaw's ‘Passion, Poison and
Shaw had written a parody of the old fashioned melodrama. I was given a major part; Adolphus Bastable, the murdered dandy lover.
I was made lead violinist in the violin club because I was the only experienced player. Maurice was a member, and after a few weeks replaced me as lead violinist. After some weeks of screeching practice, our first public performance was booked at the memorial hall. Our play competition would also be staged there.
Our much loved opera house was no more. On a Saturday morning in 1966, Gisborne had suffered a devastating earthquake. Three years before, there had also been a large earthquake during Easter week. We older Grettons had been at a transfiguring moment of witnessing in a public domain a Maori re-enactment of the Christian Passion. At a moment of Christ's agony, the ground moved. No one seemed anxious. At the conclusion of the performance we calmly went home. No one's heads at the performance had yet been filled with televised images of disasters and mayhem.
The 1966 earthquake stirred waves of rolling ground. I couldn't comprehend at first. Mum and I ran into the house to rescue the children while the earth still rolled. We found the younger children were calmly thinking Dad was jacking up the house. Later we went for a drive into town, and saw the windows of most commercial establishments lying in fragmented heaps. Everyone was enjoying the sights, and there were many strollers and scarcely a policeman in sight. I do not recall a hand raised into the exposed goods. Nor did we expect a public disorder.
The Mayor practically blamed the media for the earthquake. The shop fronts were quickly repaired, but two public monuments were damaged beyond immediate repair. Now the Gisborne Memorial Soldier stood with his back to the city. His dignity was returned after many months of patient waiting. The Opera House was now deemed an earthquake risk, and many thousands of pounds were needed to restore it. At once a battle descended over the city for the people's hearts and minds. The arts devotees piously pleaded for a restoration. Those old walls still stand, they said and applauded.
Most of the city fathers checked fretfully the municipal revenues. The rates would have to go up, and many a struggling family and commercial establishment would be squeezed for a minority interest. When the clamour had exhausted itself, the bulldozers and battering rams moved in.
It was a seminal moment. The nineteenth century notion of public urban wealth was giving way to modernisation. People's cultural pursuits would be now exercised inside small draughty halls and living rooms.
Arthur Miller had explored the modernisation of an American town in his Death Of A Salesman. Willy Loman woke up one morning, and discovered he was suddenly a nobody and a stranger in his hometown.
I consider the most vivid allegory of the spiritual impoverishment that besets a townspeople undergoing modernisation is the cold war science-fiction movie, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. In that movie, the established townspeople are all stolen away, and replaced by alien pods that hatch their zombie duplicates. Was that the prophetic vision of the couch potato?
In Gisborne, the destruction of the opera house was accompanied with much public agony. After its destruction, a slow change came over the city. Old couples broke up, delinquency and crime became rampart, old friends became strangers. But most people were materially much better off. The growing anxieties were treated as clinical problems and personal inadequacies.
My linear memory of my public performances in 1967 have now become blurred. Our violin club performed at the memorial hall. We became a music legend by performing out of synchronisation. All to be heard was discordant cat gut scraping after each announcement of an old familiar melody. But we miraculously gave a flawless performance of Drink To Me Only.
Passion and Putrefaction was performed. I burst upon the stage (a lady's bed-sitting room), waggling my hips, wriggling my arms and wrists, and winking my eyes. As in previous roles, I seemed to instinctively pick up the role of the character. The stereotype of the homosexual I was totally ignorant of. Tiny weedy Hugh played the part of a policeman which aroused the greatest jocularity.
After our night's performances, the Gisborne newspaper editor gave his assessment to the audience. After faint praise of the overall performance of Passion, he said,
I must mention one performance, young Adolphus.
He then spoke of my artful interpretation of my character, and skill in staying in character even while outside the main action. As he spoke, Hugh gave me a friendly poke.
My catastrophic school term results had just arrived. I recall feeling somehow absolved by the lime light. A disastrous departure from reality of course.
I was the child who, when not responding scholastically, went into a quiet repose. I could be overlooked and was. Maybe today, I would have been sent to counsellors. The scholastic situation was serious but not hopeless. Maths and the sciences were a write off. But I still had time to focus on the arts subjects, enough to have given me middling results, and got me through School Certificate. But I was cursed by a temperament of evading dreary reality and taking up daydreaming roles.
My parents and I considered my moving to a lower academic class. Mr Porter told me he thought I was happy in 3 L. I agreed. I had suddenly discovered I would miss my new class mates when I saw after school hours some 3 L girls skipping on some important mission. It seemed the price of my general contentment was being the class dunce. When Michael discovered I would not be leaving, his disappointment was acute. His cohort expressed disappointment also. Everyone else kept a decent silence.
I recall one performance in the school choir before I sneaked out of it. It was the school term breakup show. The Seekers had just become hugely popular. We small boys and girls assembled on the school stage, and shyly sang The Carnival Is Over to our school mates and parents. After us, the senior choir sang songs from Oklahoma. I was sure they were the stars. But Dad later said their voices were harsh, ours hit the notes with soft sure tones.
After the choirs, Maurice and I got out our violins and played a melodic duet to the accompaniment of the music teacher, Mrs Dunsmore. I had had eye trouble, and had not practised for several weeks. Maurice had been dismayed that at a back room rehearsal a few minutes before our performance, I could not hit a single note. Now we stood with a sense of another imminent violin disaster behind a grumpy Mrs Dunsmore and before a hushed expectant audience. Mrs Duunsmore played. We put our bows to the strings.
In another miracle that has so often rescued me, our sounds came forth as if we were cool accomplished players. The applause was thunderous. The audience may have heard rumours that we both were of fragile health.
As a final bow to 1967, I performed as a boy courtier in the Unity Theatre's children's play Puss in Boots. Mr Skyrme played the part of a magic cobbler. I envied the Skyrmes. They seemed to me to far outpace the Grettons. They appeared to move through life with the easy grace and charm of floating swans. Mr Skyrme drowned seven years later in the sea. We had six performances of Puss in Boots. On the final night at the memorial hall, only eighty three people came. Now that seems an astonishing number. But it induced in all the theatre people a doleful sentiment that it was the end of an era. Theatre in Gisborne was no long a social cultural event but a club interest. After the performance, we partied sadly into the night and crept home. That was the last time I would perform on a Gisborne stage.