Posts for December, 2009

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

Footprints

‘What have you done with your life?’ asked Bardumon. ‘What difference have you made to the world?’

‘I try to leave the world alone,’ said Master Tze. ‘It has suffered enough.’

Andrew

I googled the name ‘Andrew Matus’ the other day and got four results on the first page. One was a lance corporal in the US marines who was shot and killed in Iraq on 25 January 2007. Another was someone credited with designing Swaxy, a trendy new shopping website. The third was the owner of a MySpace page with the latest entry ‘got drunk last night n thought i got locked in and kicked down the wrong door…my bad…. mood: haaaa thats fun’. The fourth, with by far the most references, was the one I was looking for – a biochemist working at The Friedrich Miescher Institute in Basel, Switzerland.

I met Andrew in our first year at Auckland Grammar School. We had quite a bit in common. We were both English, for a start, and both newly arrived in the country. He and his family had made the trip a few months before us – from Scotland, as I recall, although his online cv says that he was born in London. We were also both big fans of the Goons and of the black humour of Tom Lehrer. I remember him as skinny, like me but quite a bit shorter. He had curly, blondish hair and a narrow, pointed face, a quick wit and a restless mind. I am not surprised he became a research scientist with what seems to be an international reputation because although he was never at the top of the class he was one of the more interesting and creative members of it.

Andrew always seemed to have something new to talk about. I remember him once enthusing about this writer James Joyce and a book called Ulysses. Apparently, it was one of the most important works of the century, with all kinds of interesting stuff in it such as a section written like a play and passages in stream of consciousness, whatever that was. There were also sex scenes.

I am not sure if Andrew actually read Ulysses but I did.  I bought a copy for 20/- from The Book Centre in Queens Arcade, one of the havens of my culture starved life. I wonder now what the owner, Bob Goodman, thought about a sixteen-year-old acquiring a novel like that. Was he tempted to object or to point out its unsuitability? I am thankful he didn’t. Reading Ulysses for the dirty bits isn’t the usual way into modern literature but it worked for me. It led to The Essential James Joyce, 21/- from the same shop, which contained A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. This was to become the great novel of my teenage years. Of course. Its tale of the developing alienation of an aesthetic, young intellectual paralleled my own spiritual journey to a T.

The second book that Andrew’s conversation led me to was Tristram Shandy. This I found in the school library in the McDonald edition (complete with marbled page) and it opened my eyes to the fun that could be had with narrative. I read it so avidly at the end of my sixth form year that I neglected everything else and failed my English exam – a nice irony, which Sterne might have appreciated.  

Andrew’s eclecticism extended into other areas. Inspired, I suppose, by Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, he learned the clarinet and became an accomplished jazz musician and in his last year at school he became deeply interested in politics. He was Jewish and felt the strong appeal of the growing Zionist movement. I can remember his talking about Israel with a seriousness that he rarely gave to anything else.

We lost touch after we left school. I abandoned science for the arts in my second year at university and drifted away from all of my school friends. My last memory of Andrew is him playing the clarinet at some university concert. I had always assumed he had gone to Israel but if he did, he didn’t stay there. By 1971 he was graduating with a PhD from the University College of London and has been in biochemical research ever since.

I owe him a lot.

A Confession of Sorts

A few years ago, the poet, David Howard, called me ‘a closet philosopher’. He meant it kindly but the remark struck home. It made me realise how much philosophy had been a guilty secret for much of my life.

One reason for hiding it is the Kiwi scorn of anything overtly intellectual. Ideas indulged in for their own sake, without practical application, are a waste of time and anyone who cares about them is a wanker. Even poets have a better time here than philosophers. There is a second reason, though; one more personal.

I spent a good chunk of my childhood and all of my adolescence without a father. As the only son, I was cast in the role of ‘man of the family’ expected to take on the responsibility of looking after my widowed mother and my younger sister. No one placed this burden on me. It just came with the territory. It was what any decent bloke would have done back then in the fifties.

How to go about it? Education was the first step. I was a bright child and I did well enough at school for my mother to believe I had a solid future. I was headed for one of the professions – lawyer, doctor, engineer, accountant – it didn’t matter which as long as it was a good middle-class occupation with an upper quartile salary. I didn’t actually like this plan, although I could never have said so. In fact, I resented it deeply. In the end, I did the only thing a fifteen-year-old could do. I ran away – not into the world but into my own head. 

The key to academic success was hard work and hard work was homework. This truth was my escape. Every night during my teens I retreated into my room, spent a derisory amount of time on the things I had to do for school and the rest on what I really cared about: reading and thinking and writing in pursuit of my own intellectual dreams.

The Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, divides the development of a child’s thinking into four stages, the last of which is formal operations – the ability to think logically and to do deal with abstract concepts. I remember the full flowering of this ability in my own mental space. It resulted, during the six months following my fifteenth birthday, in a love affair with mathematics. The way in which one set of symbols, with their associated abstract conceptions, folded neatly and inevitably into another set, with different associated concepts, brought with it an intense pleasure and satisfaction, my first full experience of my own creativity. Sublimated sexuality? No doubt. But what’s wrong with that? 

Along with this passion for logic came an equally intense interest in other subjects. I discovered the Teach Yourself  books and was soon dabbling in politics, economics and anthropology. It was Teach Yourself Philosophy that had the greatest impact, though. It led me to Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy and, thence, to Descartes’s Meditations and Berkeley’s Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonus.

Cartesian dualism, with its notion of a mind or soul as a separate ‘substance’ quite distinct from the stuff of the physical world, was meat and drink to an introverted, intellectual adolescent. I can still remember the intensity of feeling with which I grasped these ideas. In the solitude of my room I was quite prepared to take the step that Descartes and Berkeley did not allow themselves, the move into solipsism. It was easy to feel in those transcendental moments that I alone existed and that the rest of the world was an illusion.

In another time and another context, experiences like these would have led to religious conversion. I am puzzled now that it didn’t happen to me. I was brought up in a religious family and I had already had what I can only call a mystical experience. Part of me wanted to attach my philosophical discoveries to the notion of God. Another part of me resisted, even more firmly. My sense of the beauty of thought remained thoroughly secular.

It also remained secret. It seemed just too private to offer to anyone else, even if I could have found a sympathetic listener. There were one or two guys at school who had a like interest in ideas but none with whom I could have shared the intensity of the feelings. Ideas don’t work like that, do they? They’re meant to be cold and unemotional, although you’re allowed to get passionate about an argument. Nobody talks about the sheer beauty of thought and the joy of just thinking – thinking for its own sake without goal or purpose.

The net result of all this was a sense of myself as something quite separate from the roles and obligations that life required of me. In my younger years I ran away from anything I was doing as soon as other people began to take it seriously. I have achieved a better equilibrium since, although I still get very nervous about labels. I wonder if we ever quite escape the children we once were.

Day lilies and water lilies, too.

Oh, Ye of Little Faith

 

Himalayan Lily and Friend

Himalayan Lily and Friend

The sceptic has to eat humble pie. My belief in the Himalyan lily was greeted with scorn last year. This year it has begun to do its stuff, although it’s not much taller than the regular lilies. Next year, I understand, it will be twice as tall, i.e. four metres