Posts for ‘1956 – 1960’

Fives

I was once an international sports star. You may scoff at this but if being an international sport star is the same as being the best in the world at an established sport, then the claim is, arguably, justified. The sport in question is AGS fives. If you now want to point out that fives isn’t exactly played world-wide, I can only say neither is baseball and yet the American’s claim they have a World Series.

Fives, according to Wikipedia, is a British game, played at Eton and Rugby and a few other old public schools. The article completely ignores the long tradition of fives at Auckland Grammar School. I don’t know how the poms play it but I’ve learnt enough about their version to believe that ours was a distinct game in its own right, as different as rugby is from rugby league.

Fives is played with a ball – a tennis ball in our case – that you hit with your hand. Our rules were similar to those of squash, except that the court had only three walls, not four. Each shot had to hit the back wall and had to be returned either on the volley or after a single bounce. I have a feeling that a side wall had to be struck too but I might be wrong about that.

There were a dozen or more courts ranged along a six metre high wall that marked the boundary between the school and Mount Eden Prison. The side walls of each court were stepped, about four metres high at the back and descending in two scoops to around three metres at the front, the open side of the court. Each side wall ended in a squarish pillar and there was trim along the top of the walls, too. These features provided little nooks and angles that the skilful player could exploit to achieve unexpected rebounds and ricochets. I believe that the original game in Olde Englande was first played in the spaces between the buttresses of gothic churches. These would have provided the opportunity for similarly cunning shots.  

For a while, in 1958, I was a skilful player, one of the best. I was not as good as Alan Winton but he is the only person I can remember beating me regularly. I achieved my eminence by the usual means – hard work. For three years, I played fives at morning and afternoon break and at lunch time too. I played before school when I could and, during my fifth form year, when I was allowed a little more autonomy, after school for an hour or two as well. At one point, I played with my leg in plaster after I’d broken it falling off my bike. I played so much that, at times, the palm of my right hand swelled up so that I couldn’t close my fist properly. When I was in hospital recently, a doctor asked me what the two lumps in my right hand were at the base of the third and fourth fingers. ‘Calluses’ I said. I didn’t add that they were from playing fives fifty years ago.

It was a strange obsession. None of my classmates, except Alan, were interested in the game. They were all too focussed on their studies or on proper sports like rugby, soccer or cricket. Fives had no future, no meaning outside the immediate context of the school. I don’t know whether I liked it despite its obscurity or because of it. It certainly meant more to me than most other things the school had to offer in those first three years. In the week or so before the School Certificate exams, we were let off classes so that we could study. Along with a few other ne’er-do-wells, I spent most of the time playing fives. My marks, in consequence, were way below expectations, except for Maths, which I didn’t need to study for.

A year later I moved into the sixth form. For the first time we were allowed to spend our breaks in our form room. A few of us invented a game of cricket played with a piece of broken desk, a ball made of screwed up paper and the gas heater as the wickets. Another useless game that I got quite good at. I don’t think I ever played played fives again.

Men of Passmore’s II

The second of the Passmore’s blokes to make a particular impression on me was Jack. He was a small, lean man, precise and neat, with a long, lined face and dark eyes. You would have called him dapper if he had spent more money on his clothes. He had straight black hair, parted perfectly down the middle and he was always dressed in a pressed white shirt, with sleeves rolled up to the elbow and a pair of grey-green or tan trousers slung from his hips and flopping loosely over a pair of black shoes.

Every day he would get off the bus in Symonds Street and drop in to the dairy at the top of Newton Road to buy his cigarettes – ‘coffin nails’ he called them. He smoked a brand called Clarence. The packet had the same black cat as Craven A but the background colour was a restrained dark green instead of a garish red. With these tucked into the breast pocket of his shirt he then walked down to work, steady, unhurried, with a slightly splay footed gait.

Jack seemed a man at ease with himself. He lived his life on the principle of efficiency, expending as little energy as possible to achieve the result required. During the busy times, when everyone was running around frantically to unload a truck or serve the queues of customers waiting for their beer, Jack would barely raise a sweat. He upped his pace, certainly, and he did as much or more than anyone else but he always looked as if he were in cruise control.

I can still picture him, leaning casually on his handcart with a burning cigarette in one hand and a glass of beer – always Lion Red – in the other and telling some anecdote in a calm, rich, measured voice. Now and then he’d take a puff on the smoke or a sip from the glass, which he held in the tips of his fingers and not the clutch of his fist.

I don’t know much about his background except that his family had come from Scotland via Nova Scotia and had finished up on a part of the West Coast so remote that his father’s birth was never registered. He had not served in the War. He had some job with government at the time. He had been married but was no longer – divorced, I guess, although I never got a hint of that story. He had a fifteen-year-old daughter who he was bringing up on his own. I was quite keen to meet her but she turned out to be rather a large, blousy girl with none of her father’s dark, good looks or calm presence.

I am not now sure why Jack impressed me so much. Perhaps his air of confidence and calm deliberation was such a stark contrast to my own adolescent inner turmoil. There was a serenity about him that belittled all the middle-class aspirations I was subjected to. I envied him. In a way, I still do.  

Jack got sick towards the end of my time working for Passmore’s. He became irritable and short-tempered. Between one set of holidays and the next, he died. It was the coffin nails that got him, although I did hear that he refused to admit it even to the end.

Toothache

Men of Passmore’s

Growing boys need good male role models. The models I had, in my teenage years at least, were the blokes I worked with at Passmore’s liquor store. My teachers were too remote to serve the purpose and the only other man around was Ernest Hadath, the husband of my mother’s best friend. I didn’t see Ernest very often whereas I was at Passmore’s every Saturday.

There were half a dozen permanent storemen, with a whole slew of casuals who came and went as the seasons turned. Some of them I barely remember now but others made enough impression to be with me still, fifty years later.

Bill was the oldest, pushing sixty when I first started. I remember him mostly for his bad jokes, delivered with a liquid splutter, and for the raw onion sandwiches he made himself for lunch.

Mac was married and kept tropical fish. He was a sturdy, extravert with wavy dark hair and a pommie cockiness that led to certain retaliation. We teased him constantly and he gave as good as he got, which wasn’t hard given the banality of our witticisms. I can recall, for example, all the schoolboy packers singing in chorus:

The McCartneys are coming. Hurrah! Hurrah!
The McCartneys are coming. Hurrah! Hurrah!
The McCartneys are coming. Hurrah! Hurrah!
They’re pissing all over the bathroom floor.

 Mac took this stuff in good part, dismissing it with a grin and a toss of his head.

George was blond and balding. He spent a good chunk of his time outside the store doing deliveries and fancied himself as a ladies’ man. He had a touch of vanity that made him seem a bit stand-offish or maybe it was just that he lacked the self-irony that the other blokes had and took himself far too seriously. It seemed like he couldn’t be bothered with the likes of us.

It was John, the head storeman, who made the biggest impression – on me, at any rate. He shared the name with my father, who had died seven years before, and he looked like my father, too – tallish, with very straight blond-brown hair and a lightly freckled complexion. His job gave him an authority that I could easily interpret as paternal so it was natural for me to feel a special bond with him. There were disjoints to the picture, though.

My father was a teetotaller and had spent World War II working in a classified occupation. John was an alcoholic who had seen some brutal service with the New Zealand Army at Cassino. He was a damaged man. In that, he reminded me of my maternal grandfather who had served on the Somme in World War I and suffered shell-shock. Both men gave the sense of something suppressed. In John’s case, whatever it was never actually got to the surface, at least not in my presence.

He spent a fair bit of his time in an office tucked away in the back of a store, doing paperwork, I suppose, although he also had the company of a bottle of something a lot stronger than beer. As the day wore on, his face got a sweaty look and his eyes began to glitter. Three or four strands of hair would gradually work loose and slip down over his forehead. If something annoyed him, he’d just smile – a tight little smile – and the more annoyed he got the wider and tighter the smile became. I am not sure what would have happened if he had ever lost his temper. I doubt I would have wanted to be there, though.

WWII is part of the psychic landscape of my generation. Many of us have fathers or uncles who were involved in it. I’ve written about it directly in a story called The Sphinx and it lurks in the background of several of my novels, such as Black Earth/White Bones, in which the main protagonist’s father is an alcoholic veteran, living in the psychic aftermath of the Italian Campaign. When I write such passages, I think of John.

He had left Passmore’s when I went back there for a brief stint at the end of 1972. The last time I saw him was in 1965, when I was working as a postie. He was making a delivery in the same plush Parnell street where I was delivering mail. We chatted for a little while. He seemed more relaxed than he had been as my boss. I was glad he remembered me.

Awaiting the tomatoes. And the beans

Passmore’s

Charlie Passmore was a war hero and an Auckland city councillor who had begun his business career in the early fifties with a coffee bar in Victoria Street called Coffee Time or so I heard. He moved from there to the liquor business, setting up a wholesale liquor store towards the lower end of Newton Road. Somewhere along the way he married a woman with the family name of Dewar, who just happened to be heiress to a whisky empire. I guess that helped.

In those days there were three main ways you could buy alcohol in New Zealand – over the bar in a pub, in a bottle store or through a wholesaler. Wholesale meant a minimum of two gallons or a dozen 750ml bottles. The drink of choice was beer. My guess is that beer made up more than 90% of Passmore’s sales and that up to two thirds of that 90% would have been one particular brand – Draft Dominion Bitter or DDB, made by Dominion Breweries. In summer, between four and six on a Friday evening, Passmore’s could sell a 1,000 cartons of DDB, something over 8,000 litres. This wasn’t a measure of how drunk people got in the old days but a reflection of the fact that there weren’t many wholesale liquor outlets. Charlie was onto a good thing.

The system at Passmore’s was primitive but efficient. The customer first took his empties, in cartons or crates, to the empty bottle dock. The storeman there counted them up and gave him a credit docket, which he took round to the office. Here he gave his order to one of the salesmen, paid the difference between his order and his credit and headed back to the store. Meanwhile, the salesman had shoved the order – hand-written in a duplicate book of perforated, yellow paper and then torn out – through a slide in the door between office and the store. By the time the customer got round to the store, the storeman had picked up the order and had the carton of DDB, or whatever it was, on the counter waiting.

I worked at Passmore’s, part-time, for four years through high school and early university and then for another brief period towards the end of 1972 before Anne and I went overseas. At first I was a packer, then storeman and, finally, I did a stint in the office. In the early days I worked Saturdays and school holidays, with a break after New Year, when things went quiet. I earned time and a half for eight hours on a Saturday at around 7/6 an hour, which, after tax, gave me something over £4 for the day. This was a huge sum. In my previous job, working for the local greengrocer, I had got 5/- or so for pedalling a push-bike with a big basket full of deliveries round the streets of Mt Wellington for a couple of hours on Friday night and more on Saturday morning.

The packing now seems like an oddly trivial job. It was based on the fact that a carton of beer, which held a dozen bottles, could be sold for more than half the price of a crate, which held two dozen. Packing exploited this gap in value. At the empty bottle dock, cartons were emptied and their contents put into crates. The good quality cartons were then reused – filled with full bottles taken out of crates, which then went to be filled with empties. And so on.

It was boring work. Hardly surprising that fourteen-year-old boys spent a lot of time fooling around. We talked and we joshed each of other and we sang the hits of the day: Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley, Wake Up Little Suzie, Purple People Eater. From time to time one of the storemen, John or Mac, maybe, would come along and remind us we were supposed to be doing a job and we would get serious and pack beer for an hour or so. Now and again, a couple of us would get into a competition to see how much we could really pack in a day if we tried. I think we got up to 300 or 350 cartons apiece. Days like that were rare, though, and I am sure that a lot of the time we didn’t do enough to earn our pay. It is only now, looking back, that I understand why we got away with it. Before the company began hiring the likes of us, the storemen had to do all the packing. This was not an arrangement they wanted to go back to, so no doubt everyone told everyone else what a good job we were doing.    

One of the odd things about Passmore’s was that Charlie allowed his staff to drink on the job. This practice seemed to have arisen in the days when he worked there himself, which he no longer did by the time I arrived. His attitude seems to have been that if he didn’t give the blokes a few beers during work hours, they’d steal it from him anyway and he’d have no control over it. In consequence, during slack periods, the storemen would spend a lot of time standing round, smoking and yarning and drinking beer. In busy times they worked their butts off.

In addition to serving the customers, making up orders and dealing with the empties, the storeman’s job consisted mostly of moving beer around inside the store. It got delivered on trucks which backed into the loading dock on Newton Road. A ramp allowed you to wheel your handcart right onto the tray of the truck, pick up the cartons or crates four at a time and wheel them back down. At Christmas time, when space was short, the beer got stacked six high, if it were in crates, and eight or even twelve for cartons.

Getting the little tray of the handcart under four crates of beer wasn’t easy. You had to tip the handles forward and twist the cart so it was at a slight angle to the crates. Then you drove the corner of the tray under the bottom crate by pressing on the back of the handcart axle with your foot. Another twist and more foot pressure straightened the cart and got the tray right in. Lastly, you had to brace the cart with your foot against the axle while you simultaneously hauled the handles of the cart back with one hand and the crates, with your grip on the top one, with the other. If you were good, you could do the whole manouvre in one smooth movement lasting no more than three or four seconds. If weren’t, things could go drastically wrong. The pile of crates might fold, with the bottom three going forward and the top one back. Or all four might topple to the side. It wasn’t easy to right them if they started moving the wrong way. There is something impressive about 96 bottles of beer and their attendant crates falling off the side of a flat bed truck into a concrete loading dock.  

In the end, I took a lot of pride in my ability with the handcart and in the precision with which I could toss a carton of beer two metres or more into the air and land it on top of a stack in a gap barely wider than the carton itself. These skills were useless in my later life but there was something about doing a physical job and doing it well that mattered at the time and still matters now, looking back. Perhaps the biggest thing that Passmore’s taught me was respect: for myself and, more importantly, for other people, ordinary working people.

As for Charlie, some time around 1960 somebody died over in Scotland and his wife came into her inheritance. Charlie went off to become Laird of the Manor, or whatever it was, and was never seen again.

Foxgloves are almost done but the lilies are in full flight.

Connections

We arrived in Auckland in early March 1956: my mother, my eight-year-old sister and me, aged 13. We had come up from Wellington on the Limited and stepped out onto the railway platform, bleary-eyed, on a warm sunny morning. My mother knew no one in the city except a distant cousin, Gladys, who was there to meet us, as arranged, with a lemon in each hand so we would recognise her.

Gladys had two children, a girl my age and a younger boy. Well, they weren’t exactly her children. They weren’t her husband’s either. I think their mother was her husband’s first wife. It didn’t feel like a happy family. One or maybe both of the kids slept in a caravan in the backyard and there was uneasiness, which I did not understand. Perhaps my mother felt the same way. She never talked about it but she and Gladys soon stopped seeing one another. I regretted this because I liked the girl, whose name might have been Sandra. She was quite attractive in a way I was just beginning to find interesting.

We moved into lodgings in Tui Street, Point Chevalier, and my mother found a job with T&G Insurance. Through some connection that I don’t recall, she met a couple called Mawer, who came from our home town, Hull, in East Yorkshire. The Mawers were good to us but I don’t remember them all that well. I picture him as a small, nuggety man, going thin on top, a builder, I think he was, but that could be quite wrong. I have no picture of Mrs M at all, except maybe a vague blondness.  

The only thing I do know is that they complained a lot, especially Mrs. Everything about New Zealand compared unfavourably with ‘back home’. They were what some people would call whingeing poms, in other words. Even to a bewildered new arrival like me it seemed a bit over the top. Surely, New Zealand wasn’t all that bad?

Maybe my mother didn’t mind so much or maybe the Mawers were just better company than Cousin Gladys because we saw quite a bit of them for a while. They had a son, Barry, who was at Mount Albert Grammar. He and I got on well together. I can remember us climbing the pine trees near his house and him introducing me to a mate of his, whose name was Bob Harvey. I have sometimes wondered if this was the guy who grew up to be mayor of Waitakere City, who I know was also a pupil at Mount Albert and of about our age.

It was through the Mawers that I got my part time job with C.S. Passmore, the wholesale wine and spirit merchants in Newton Road. Barry was already working there. It seems odd now that fourteen-year-olds could be employed in the liquor industry but it must have been acceptable then. The job was a big deal for me and not just because of the money. It made a huge difference to my socialisation, thrusting me into the company of working class blokes who I would never have met otherwise.

This is the way life works. There are connections, like Gladys, that lead nowhere and others, like the Mawers, that move you on to something that changes you. 

About eighteen months after we met them, Barry’s parents did what the blokes at Passmore’s would have suggested, given their complaints, and buggered off back where they came from. I was sorry to see Barry go and wondered why it was necessary. Our family was well acclimatized by then.

The story has a curious postscript. Eight or so years ago, a guy I didn’t know turned up at the launch of my novel The Beetle in the Box. We got talking and he introduced himself as Barry Mawer. He had married a Kiwi girl and come back to New Zealand. By chance he had been walking past Unity Books and had recognised my name in some notice about the launch. I didn’t ask him what his parents though about him coming back here. I wish now that I had.

Zachariah Dylan Baillie. Joy