Posts for February, 2010


Here I am
          I see
          I hear
          I smell
          I touch
          I taste.

 There you are
           I see you
           I hear you
           I smell you
           I touch you
           I taste you

 Words are our begetting
           to be
           to get

       I get you
          You get me

       I am you
          You are me.


27 February, 1993

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.

The Notch

My mother lied to get me into Auckland Grammar School. She was determined I should go to what she thought was the best state school in the city and no zoning regulations were going to stand in her way. She told the man at the Education Board that, although we were currently renting in Pt Chevalier, she was looking to buy a house in Epsom. Anyone who had an inkling of our finances would have known this was a blatant lie. The school itself didn’t care, of course. It had no problem bending the rules to accommodate new pupils with good academic or sporting records. My mother didn’t know this, however. She had a good Methodist conscience and worried about what she had done.

Grammar was familiar territory, very like the school I had gone to in England – a rigid hierarchy of streamed classes finely grained through the mechanism of examinations. There were two significant differences, though. The first was that we had to wear shorts – an ignominy for a thirteen-year-old who regarded long trousers as the first step into manhood. The second was corporal punishment.

In my old school the headmaster alone used the cane and then only for the most serious misbehaviour. Rumours of a caning circulated with hushed tones accompanied by puzzled speculation as to what crime could have merited such severity. At Grammar, every master had a cane – a switch of bamboo about a centimetre thick and a little over a metre long. Some had several. Beatings weren’t frequent but, in a school of a thousand boys, there were probably a few each day.

You had to bend over with your hands on your knees or on a desk. The noise of the stroke was something between a whistle and a whoosh before it landed with a thwack and a searing pain across your backside. One stroke was the standard punishment.

The best teachers never needed to resort to it. For others it was an aid to instruction. My fifth form French master, a South-African by the name of van Sambeek, gave us ten vocabulary items to learn every week. If a boy got more than two wrong in the Monday test, he received a stroke of the cane. I have to say the system worked. Seventeen years later, in a foreign country for the first time, dealing with a sick child and a doctor who had no English, I managed to dredge up the French word for mumps from somewhere in the buried store that van Sambeek had inculcated.

There was a mystique about being caned. Other boys treated you with mingled pity and awe. It was standard practice to cut a notch in your leather belt for every beating you received. Some boys had belts with many notches. Others managed to get through school without a single one. I had two on mine. Both were gained in the fourth form (year 10 in modern parlance), at an age when I suffered from the idiocy characteristic of fourteen-year old boys. The first was a mere nick, a trivial matter that arose from a few of us fooling around in assembly. The second was more dramatic.

Our English master that year was a man called Macrae. He was a good enough teacher – he taught us about similes, for example, a lesson that resulted in a riot of self-indulgence in my own writing – but he believed strongly in the rod. On one occasion, our class was taken by a visiting student teacher, a young man who was either inept or inexperienced or utterly without charisma. He failed to command the class’s attention. My friend Bob Nottage and I were sitting together in the back row and began fooling around, making wise-cracks to each other. Macrae was on the far side of the room observing the lesson. We were too stupid to realise he would notice.

He was furious, trembling with rage. He took us both off to a disused classroom and gave us two each. Unfortunately, by choice or chance, I was first and he broke the cane on me. My second stroke and Bob’s two were delivered with a shortened instrument and, consequently, with less force. I had two fine bruises across my backside, one of which went all the way round to the right hand edge of my pelvis. I cut an especially big notch in my belt for that one and, of course, I bragged a little, with due modesty.

These days such treatment would be outrageous, in legal terms a common assault. Did it do me any psychological harm? I don’t think so. On the other hand, it didn’t do me much good either. Bob and I never fooled around in Macrae’s class again but we did plenty of fooling in other places. 

I found it hard to judge the school while I was there. After I left and became immersed in the pinko-liberal politics of university in the early sixties, I turned against it, big time. It seemed archaic, a barbaric institution, a pillar of the establishment that I despised and a symbol of The System, which incorporated everything that was wrong with my parents’ generation. When my own sons came to secondary school age, my wife and I decided against Wellington College – the local equivalent of Grammar – and opted for the co-ed, non-hierarchical Wellington High School instead. Neither of them liked it all that much.

These days my attitude has mellowed. I think a good education has little to do with methodologies and institutional cultures. Our fascination with research and technologies has blinded us to what matters most. Learning depends first and foremost on giving students the right context and opportunity. Beyond this there is, perhaps, only one thing that makes a significant difference – good teachers.

The Last Word

For L. W.

Everything that can be said
  can be said clearly.

Everything can be said.

Is that clear?

Is that everything?