Posts for ‘1956 – 1960’

Ants

There were four things about New Zealand that upset me when we first arrived in March 1956: the paucity of the butterfly population, the primitive nature of the railway system, the lack of television and the fact that I had to go back to wearing short pants to school. Other than that, the place seemed pretty cool, although that was not a word I would have used back then. ‘Hot’ was the fashionable idiom and more appropriate, too, after England’s tepid summers. I remember our first walk down Queen Street – the hard, bright light of the roadway, the dark shade under the verandas. It all felt strange but I was used to adapting to new places and too young to judge the place. I just took note of the compensations like the huge golden queen peach tree in the back garden of the house were we were staying. I can only remember having eaten one peach before and here they were in such profusion they were rotting on the ground. Then I found my first weta. I had no idea what it was but it impressed me. Any country with fauna like this must have something going for it.

I quickly got used to the short pants and the lack of television. I abandoned my enthusiasm for trainspotting and I swapped my love of butterflies for a comparable interest in ants.

The land at the back of our house was flat and rough, covered in gorse and blackberry, which burned down every summer or so in a spectacular display of dark orange flame and roiling grey smoke, leaving behind a thick layer of apricot coloured ash. Beneath this layer the rocks were riddled with volcanic pipes that opened up here and there into low, dome like caves. Some of these you could crawl into – a dangerous practice I think now because the land belonged to a quarry, which did some blasting from time to time with accompanying jolts like little earthquakes. The roofs of the caves were unstable looking – cracked like crazy paving – and above ground there were concavities were some of them had collapsed.

We didn’t spend much time in the caves, though. They were too cramped. It was more fun wandering around in the open air, looking for wildlife – insects mostly, although there were a lot of skinks, too.

There were several species of ant. Some were big, slow, primitive creatures, maybe 15mm long, that lived in colonies with only a few dozen members but there were also big colonies of red ants with seething populations. These nests were everywhere. Sometimes they were only a few metres apart. It struck me as interesting that I never saw any of them in the house where some species of black ant (formica fusca, I decided they were) was a nuisance, requiring saucers of poison in the pantry cupboards. I decided that the two species couldn’t occupy the same territory – there were ants of the field and ants of the house. This thought (it might have been a rationalisation) encouraged me in an experiment

I had a copy of the classic Victorian text on the hymenoptera, Ants, Bees and Wasps by Sir John Lubbock in which he described a method for keeping ants nests so that they could be observed easily. This involved two sheets of glass separated by thin strips of wood around the edges with a few gaps  to form exits and entrances (rows of matchsticks did the job perfectly). The space between the sheets was filled with damp earth and the whole covered by a sheet of wood or cardboard to keep out the light. This arrangement was then supported by four legs standing in bowls of water, which formed little moats over which the ants couldn’t pass. All you had to do was dig up a nest and put it on top of the wood. As the dirt dried and crumbled the ants were supposed to abandon their old home and tunnel into the space between the sheets of glass to form a new one.

My only problem was where to try this experiment. The only place I could think of was the bottom of my wardrobe.

It all worked perfectly. Within a few days, my colony of several hundred ants and a couple of queens had moved in between the glass plates and built a beautiful set of inter connected chambers, the interiors of which were all clearly visible when I cleaned off the dirt of the old nest and lifted the cardboard cover.

I don’t remember now what I fed them on but they seemed to thrive. The queens laid eggs. The larvae grew. The pupae hatched into new workers. Of course, I forgot to renew the water in the saucers but this didn’t seem to matter. The ants came and went, quite happy with no thought of abandoning their new home. They didn’t infest my bedroom and, more importantly, they didn’t find their way into the kitchen either. After a while I stopped feeding them and they seemed quite capable of fending for themselves, going off into the outside world through some crack in wardrobe wall or floor.

This story ought to finish with my mother opening up my wardrobe and reacting in disgust or horror at what she found. It didn’t turn out that way. I don’t think anyone ever found out the ants were there. I could have shared the secret with my little sister but I don’t think so. I’m not sure I could have trusted her that far. My mother was too busy to care beyond a cursory glance round my room, which was usually pretty tidy. She probably felt my wardrobe was best left unexamined. Goodness knows what I might have had in there. Copies of Playboy or something.

God and Me – The Teenage Years

Around Easter 1959, the Billy Graham Crusades alighted upon Australia and New Zealand. Over half a million people attended across both countries. In Auckland, there were seven meetings, all held at Carlaw Park, which was then a stadium for Rugby League. On the first five nights the preacher was the Associate Evangelist Rev. Grady Wilson. Billy Graham preached only on the last two, the 3rd and 4th of April. According to the Billy Graham Center, 48,000 attended the first of his meeting and 60,000 the second. A total of 6,280 people ‘answered [his] invitation to record their commitment to Christ’. I was one of them.

The message was simple – if you said ‘Yes’ to Jesus, you would be born again and enter into Eternal Life – and it was delivered in a rich, baritone, through a powerful sound system to the equally amplified strains of the Hammond organ. As we went forward, bright lights shone directly in our faces. These no doubt served to show the waverers still in the stand how many of us there were but to us, shuffling forward across the playing field, they gave the impression that we moving inexorably forward into an intense, undifferentiated whiteness – God’s Glory, I suppose.

Eventually we reached a group of tents, where helpers with clipboards processed us as if we were newly arrived immigrants. They were calm, efficient, unemotional, noting down our names and the congregations, if any, we belonged to. They gave each of us a leaflet before ushering us gently out into the night. Walking away towards Beach Road, I already knew I was a hypocrite.

Religious experience has three dimensions: custom, belief and faith. Custom consists of religious practices learnt through family and community. People go to church and they pray because those activities are an accepted part of life. Belief provides a set of principles or precepts that can be used to explain the way life is and what should be done about it. Beliefs are the result and the subject of thinking. Faith, to my mind, is an unquestioning acceptance of religious doctrine based in emotional experience, a feeling that one is directly in touch with God.

Many religious people find a balance within this framework that emphasises one dimension rather than the others. Some value the comfort and support of the religious community and its observance. Others need their beliefs to give meaning to their lives and to help them steer a moral course. For others still, nothing is more important than the feeling of being close to God. Their faith is the basis of their confidence and their self esteem.

Billy Graham dealt in faith and it was faith that I wanted on that April night. Belief alone seemed powerless to ease my teenage angst because all thinking did was undermine what the bible said and what the Rev Bowden told me in his sermons whenever I happened to go church on a Sunday morning. The hand of God, the eye of God, the love of God – what did these things mean? They made no sense if you thought about them literally and yet, if they were metaphors, what were they metaphors for? Better to abandon such questioning. Better to take the plunge, the dive into faith and be born again.

I knew what faith meant. I had been in my uncle’s congregation and felt the emotional charge of his preaching. I didn’t think I would ever be moved to leap to my feet and cry out ‘Praise the Lord!’ in response but something of that transformative power would surely help me. Billy Graham might be my last chance.

It didn’t work. I felt the lift all right. I felt that Jesus Christ was calling me and that all I had to do was say yes and really mean it and I would tip, in that orgasmic moment, into a new self. The Hammond organ was blasting out a familiar hymn and, when Billy asked all those who truly believed to come forward, I went because I wanted to be one of those who felt compelled to go.

Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

The problem was that all the time I was shuffling forward towards God’s Grace a part of me was resisting, as if a small voice were saying ‘No, no, no, no, no. This is terrible. This is corny. This is completely insincere. And useless. Isn’t it useless?’

It was a crisis of sorts. It didn’t end my struggle to make religion meaningful in the context of my own experience. I kept going to bible class and arguing with the guy who took it. I went to church sometimes too. Billy Graham was the last time I flirted with emotional religion, though. From then on, it was belief that interested me, not faith.

Huia and Beyond

I am not sure why I joined the Boys’ Brigade; perhaps because it was there. The local church, where I went to bible class and youth club and, now and again, the service on a Sunday morning, had organised the troop. A young Scotsman ran it; I guess he was in his early twenties. I don’t remember his name.

The Boys’ Brigade, an alternative organisation to the Scouts and twenty years older, was founded in Glasgow in 1883. Its object, according to Wikipedia, is “The advancement of Christ’s kingdom among Boys and the promotion of habits of Obedience, Reverence, Discipline, Self-respect and all that tends towards a true Christian manliness” – all to be achieved through a blend of fun, military drill and religious observance. I remember nothing of the last two, except that, for no good reason that I could see, I was appointed NCO to help drill the eight or so members of the troop – the first of several occasions when I have been invited to take leadership roles and not known why. People seem to see something in me that I don’t see in myself. Does my height give me an air of authority? Is my introvert’s reserve mistaken for calm confidence? It puzzles me still.

One event in my Boys’ Brigade career stands out; a camp at Huia, near the Manakau Heads. We slept in tents for a couple of nights and mucked around in a creek, where a small eel bit one of my toes. I have an image of long grass and summer heat, the sunlight filtered through the crown of the bush.

Apart from the eel and an old wooden privy that was full of wetas, I remember two things about this trip. The first was that I learnt to swear. I don’t mean by this that I learnt any actual words – I had been exposed to the necessary vocabulary as a nine-year-old in my Bradford primary school – rather I mean that I discovered the curious satisfaction to be got from allowing all those forbidden words to roll easily off your tongue in casual defiance of convention. In the end, I swore so foully and so much that one of the other boys asked me to stop it because he didn’t like it. He was blond haired and blue eyed and several years younger than I was. His hesitant but firm admonition embarrassed me. It was a small demonstration of what true Christian manliness was all about.

More significance than the swearing was our trip back out to civilisation. We spent an hour or two on Huia Beach; I guess we were waiting for transport. There we met a couple of girls, Joy and Jenny, who were staying in one of the baches. They were about my age and either they were more socially assured than the girls in bible class or else I was suddenly inspired by a new confidence for I found myself talking with them in an easy, relaxed manner quite unlike my usual tongue-tied self. I was sorry when we had to leave.

When I told my friend Bob Nottage about this encounter, he wanted to know more. Where did these girls live? Was I going to see them again? I hadn’t got around to any such arrangements but we decided all was not yet lost. The next day we set out for Huia on our bikes.

It was a tough trip: around 60km one way, with roads in the last third that were winding and hilly and without tar seal. It must have taken two to three hours. It was worth it, though. The girls were pleased to see us. Maybe they were bored with the rudimentary social life of Huia Beach or maybe they were flattered by our single-mindedness. I don’t know what the adults in charge thought – they were Joy’s parents, I think – but I doubt that we would have noticed anything short of explicit disapproval. We spent a couple of sexually charged and innocent hours before we rode home again. We made sure to get their addresses this time.

It was a slow trip home and we were late. I hadn’t old my mother where I was going and she was worried about me. I guess she was impressed by the power of my hormones because she gave me an anxious little lecture, an oblique warning about the dangers of teenage sex. I should be careful, she said, of girls who ‘wanted to get their hooks into me’. This seemed to mean that I was such a desirable catch that some girl would deliberately get herself pregnant in order to trap me into marriage, thus disturbing my progress towards a suitable career. I was bemused by this.  I had never thought about sex with a real girl and I couldn’t see that one would be that interested in me anyway.

I have not been back to Huia since and I don’t think I spent much longer in the Boys Brigade either. Christ’s kingdom had begun to suffer severe competition from some powerful earthly forces. I had better things to do with my time.

Getting it Together

Towards the end of 1956 my mother bought a property in Boakes Road, Mount Wellington. We moved in on my fourteenth birthday. The house was new and it was small – only two bedrooms. It stood on a grass covered section that backed onto an area of waste ground, which is now Thomson Park.

We had the bare minimum of furniture – a Formica dining table and four chairs and three single beds. For over a year after we moved in, the livingroom stayed empty; the only covering on its wooden floors was the thick paper wrappings from the three mattresses.

Our first sleeping arrangement had my mother in one bedroom and me and my younger sister, Bridget, in the other. After a few months, however, my elder sister, Janet, asked if she could come and live with us. She had left England for Wellington ahead of us in the middle of the previous year but now wanted to be with the family. My mother obviously hadn’t figured on this possibility but she agreed. We bought another bed and Janet began sharing one room with Bridget. I moved in with my mother. It seems odd now, that we lived like this with, all the time, an empty living room, but I guess bedrooms were for sleeping in and living rooms weren’t. The arrangement didn’t last long, in any case. Within eight months Janet had found a job and a new circle of friends and was engaged. Not, not long afterwards, she got married. By that time it had become undeniable that I was beyond puberty and no longer a fit bedroom companion for either my mother or my sister. They moved in together and I got the other bedroom to myself.

One of the problems with a new house is that there are no paths or driveways. We did not need the latter because we had no car but the lack of paving to the front door and round the back of the house was a nuisance in wet weather. My mother solved the problem by striking a deal with an Englishman who lived up the street. I would help him lay his paths and he would help with ours.

His name was Lockerbie. He was a small, wiry, extraverted man and I liked his company. He taught me how to mix concrete and, I think, in the midst of all his chatter, he gave me my first insights into the mysteries of horse racing. He also had a beautiful wife who appeared rarely but often enough to keep my pubescent hormones live with anticipation.

Over an Easter weekend, we laid the boxing and the scoria base and then the concrete itself to make a path from the street to the Lockerbies’ front door. I did the mixing and the carting in the wheelbarrow. He did the smoothing and the finishing. It was hard work but I enjoyed it.

I had already laid the boxing at our place myself. It was a longer path than the Lockerbies’ by a factor of three. Mr Lockerbie delivered the mixer and the wheelbarrow and we ordered the cement and metal. He spent maybe an hour with me, watching how I mixed the stuff and poured it and smoothed it with float and trowel. He told me to make sure I hosed it down after it was set to make sure it cured properly. Then he went home.

My mother was furious that he left me to lay all our paths by myself. I didn’t mind. At least, I don’t recall minding. I was pleased with my new found skills (which I have rarely used since) and satisfied with the result. It was a good path, not perfect because I left the wooden boxing in between the slabs, but it served us well. In any case, I already knew that life wasn’t fair.

Gradually, over the following months, our circumstances began to improve. We bought carpets. We bought lino tiles for the kitchen and bathroom and, at last, furniture for the living room. New Zealand was the land of opportunity. Coming here was the best decision we’d ever made, or so my mother said.

Turning Point

A short while after my novel Black Earth/White Bones was published, I got a message from a man called Peter Goddard, saying how much he liked the book. I don’t know how other writers feel about communications like this but, for me, they are the best kind of feedback, more satisfying than even the most laudatory review. Reviewers are paid to give their opinion. They serve as gatekeepers in the publishing process. Readers are the very reason for the book’s existence. When one of them takes the trouble to write and tell you that you have done a good job, you feel affirmed in a special way. In this case, though, the message was special for another, additional reason. I knew Peter Goddard, although I had not seen him for almost fifty years. He had once been my English teacher and form master at Auckland Grammar School.

Peter is one of two teachers I remember best. (The other is Freddy Orange, our Maths and Physics master). I picture him as a plumpish man, with short, straight dark hair, going a little thin at the temples; dark eyes and a rich, dark voice. Age? It’s hard to tell but I guess he must have been in his early thirties. He taught us literature in the old style: Henry V and Romeo and Juliet, Lycidas and The Ancient Mariner, Bleak House  and Tess of the D’Urbevilles. I was just at an age when I could start to appreciate the richness and the depth of these works, although Henry V was a bit of a stretch and I shared my classmates’ belief that the best thing about John Donne was the dirty bits in some of the Elegies. More important than these classics, though, were Peter’s attempts to introduce us to modern literature. In his class, I read my first New Zealand novel – I’ll Soldier No More by M. K. Joseph – along with Eliot’s poems and Christopher Fry’s A Phoenix Too Frequent. I have a feeling there was Dylan Thomas, too, although I may be wrong about that.

I can’t say I fully appreciated all of this stuff. I did not feel I was stepping into a room full of treasures that dazzled me with their evident beauty and value. It was more like sitting down in a restaurant that served rather odd food, full of complex and subtle tastes, which I wasn’t sure whether I liked or not. Thinking back on the experience makes me wonder about the modern pedagogical practice of trying to give students ‘things that interest them’, as if the immediate, explicit reaction to a work is the thing that matters most. Was I interested in Bleak House? Would I rather have read something else, something more ‘relevant’, more connected to my own experience? I really don’t know. If you had asked me at the time, I might well have said that I did not like it very much and yet, although I haven’t read the book again since, it is still one of my favourite Dickens novels. That first encounter has stayed with me for fifty years.

That said, however, there was one moment in Peter’s teaching that did make an immediate impact. Some time during 1960, he read us some beat poetry – Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlingheti or Corso, about as up to date as you could get at that time. He then got us to write things of our own, encouraging us to abandon the constraints of normal language. The experience was a liberation. For the first time I realised that poetry could connect with my world and my preoccupations in a way that I had not thought possible. It would be melodramatic to say that I became a writer at that moment but not too far off the mark.

I had already bought myself a Smith Corona portable and taught myself to touch-type and now I started to churn out poetry. Most of it was dreadful late-teenage angst but here and there was evidence of lighter touch and the first signs of some aesthetic distance. One such piece finished up in the school magazine for that year. It was about a hundred lines long and entitled Reflections on the Condition of the Modern World. After some standard denunciations of middle-class values, it developed into a eulogy for Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, launched by the Soviet Union in 1957…

see them there below
earthlubbers
while thy flight
            (little russian ballbearing)
takes thee streaking upward into neverventured strylight
look at the wonders circling slow
moonsilver spiraltwisting
starstreaks shyskywinking
sunblaze gyrating anglewise
and old mother earth slewing slowly
from time into timelessness
look at the moon
             (little electronic pea)
see her there
ah
bleaming greencheese muin
lookuponmenot
cleave notthy sky
let not the whorle thou wouldst make
supwallow this jussleff plantet
let it peaceful lie
while i
              (the product of a meteorlogical mind)
spin
longitudinalateraly on
parallegrammatically on
the suns small grandchild
dog in the moon

In his message, Peter said that he had never thought of me as a writer. He remembered me as one of the science boys, which, indeed, I was. I was in the science stream and English was not my best subject by any means, although I had won a couple of essay prizes. What he did not realise was that in the secret life I led in the privacy of my bedroom at home I was in avid pursuit of meanings that could not be expressed in mathematical equations. His lesson on the Beat Poets connected that world with the public world of school. I came out, in other words.

I can’t remember now whether I told Peter that his teaching had made a difference like that. I can’t even remember whether I replied to his note. I always try to and I certainly hope I did in this case. If not, though, this post should serve as my thanks.