The Existentialist

I first met my friend Malcolm Fraser fifty years ago at an SCM camp. I was in my last year at school but I think he might have already begun university. It was my first encounter with SCM, which over the next two or three years was to become a major influence in my life. Malcolm and I were talking about it recently and speculating on what an unusual institution it was.

In those days there were two sharply distinguished Christian groups at Auckland University. One was the Evangelical Union, which was attended by those based their faith in emotion – the Baptists, for example, or the members of the Church of Christ. The other was SCM (the Student Christian Movement) -a loose ecumenical association of people whose religious beliefs varied from the fervent to the sceptical and who were bound together by their common interest in a set of generally liberal ideas that ranged over philosophy, religion, literature, history and politics. I guess, in some sense, we were all Seekers After Truth in a way that now seems oddly innocent.

For me SCM was like coming home. Nothing I had experienced at school or at my church bible class came anywhere the congeniality I found among these people. For the first time I felt I belonged somewhere. Part of this feeling came from the fact that many members of the group were disaffected. There was a general questioning of established attitudes and values – common enough among university students and other young but much rarer in the context of an organized group that was not dedicated to any specific social or political agenda. Religious belief provided a general background to our attitudes and judgements but those beliefs were as likely to be a target of our critical thinking as they were assumptions.

It seems to me now that the roots of this odd arrangement sprang from two sources. One was the Enlightenment as it became manifest in the nineteenth and early twentieth century criticism of orthodox theology – the work of Strauss for example and later Schweitzer, Bonheoffer and Bultmann. The other source was Existentialism, which drew a religious flavour from the work of Kierkegaard and Jaspers but had a full secular flowery in Heidegger, Sartre and Camus. In the early sixties, Existentialism was the spirit of the times and its influence pervaded our intellectual life.

Indeed, Auckland University had its own resident existentialist. His name, as I recall, was Carl Pearson and he was an expert in Heidegger. I don’t know that he was all that happy in the Philosophy Department at Auckland, which otherwise seemed to be an arid battleground between the Logical Positivists and the language philosophers, but he was certainly popular around the campus. I never attended his formal lectures but, now and again, he would give a talk to a more general audience. The room would be packed, with people sitting in the aisles and standing at the back. He was a short, dark-haired man and he smoked a pipe. This he would pack at the end of his talk as he took and answered the first questions. He never actually got to smoke it though. He would put a match to it while he listened to a further question but he barely had time for a puff before he had to give the answer, which was usually expansive. By the time he got back to it, he had gone through half a box of matches and the pipe was dead and cold.

I don’t remember the content of any of Carl’s talks but somehow I must have absorbed from them an intellectual spirit or a style of thought that has stayed with me ever since. Existentialism, it seems to me, is a set of philosophical views that take as their starting point the experience of the individual in the business of life. This is in contrast to a detached, objective account in the manner of a scientific theory. The difference can be seen with reference to a subject like death. From an objective standpoint death is just one fact among the many things we observe in the world. From the standpoint of the existentialist death and particularly one’s own death is the most significant feature of one’s existence. How can it be that I should cease to be?

In this broad sense, existentialism has always seemed to me the right place to start.

Meaning and the Fly

‘If there is no meaning,’ Bardumon said, ‘then nothing matters.’

‘Who said there is no meaning?’ asked Master Tze.

‘You did,’ said Bardumon.

 ‘There is sense and there is nonsense,’ said Master Tze. ‘And they belong together.’

‘How can we tolerate such a state?’ asked Bardumon.

‘Be glad that you know the difference and embrace them both,’ said Master Tze.

Car

The Austin 7 was a car with idiosyncracies. A harsher critic would have called it a death trap. One problem was that there were no hydraulics. Clutch and brakes operated on cables, similar to the brake system on a bicycle. This was fine except for the fact that the cables tended to stretch. Over two or three months the clutch gradually stopped disengaging when I pressed the pedal. Its tendency to grab was compensated for by the worn clutch plate but it still began to graunch painfully. I solved the problem by teaching myself the gentle art of double-declutching – press the pedal, slip the gear into neutral, release the pedal and press the accelerator to get the revs up, press the pedal again and slip into the new gear. I am not entirely sure how this works but it seems to or it did on my car.

The brakes were another matter as I found out when I went for a warrant of fitness. Back then, in smaller centres like Papakura, there were no specialised testing systems and the warrant was based on a visual inspection and a test drive. I was worried that the bloke doing the test wouldn’t be able to manage the clutch but he did all right with that. A graunch or two and he got the car moving and took off down the road, leaving me waiting anxiously for his return. He was back in about five minutes, driving quite slowly, I noticed. When he got out of the car he was white and shaking.

‘It’s got no brakes!’ he gasped.

I guess I hadn’t noticed how bad they were because I had got into the habit of braking on the gears. I drove home and jacked the car up and managed to tighten the cables. I was too embarrassed to take it back to the same garage (there was no coordinated system back then so no one knew I went to a different place). The bloke I took it to finished the test by accelerating across his gravel forecourt and slamming on the brakes. He then got out and examined the resulting skid marks. The length of these seemed to satisfy him and he gave me the warrant.

A less dangerous peculiarity of the Austin was its engine, which had the size and power of a large sewing machine. The compression was so low that I could easily turn the permanent crank handle attached to the front with one hand. At one period in our relationship the car took to stalling whenever it went into idle. This was okay until the battery, too, started to give up. At traffic lights, I had to wait for the green and then leap out, run to the front, swing the crank and then dash back to scramble in behind the wheel and take off before it stalled again. Once or twice I didn’t make it.

None of this constituted the biggest embarrassment I suffered with the car, though. That came as a result of the headlights, which were the size of soup plates but had all the luminance of a couple of candles held at arm’s length. They were effective enough at showing the presence of the car to other people but useless at lighting the way for the driver. Most of the time this didn’t matter because there was enough other light around but one night they got me into trouble.

I had been at a flat somewhere near Western Springs and I lost myself around Fowlds Park on my way home. Trusting to my unerring sense of direction, I headed up what looked like a small side street. The area around the car was pitch black but up ahead of me the roadway was clear and well lit. I kept on towards it. Suddenly there was great thump and the front of the car dropped down six inches or more. Before I could stop, the rear followed it. Puzzled, I headed on towards the lights. Another thump and the front wheels lifted again. Unfortunately, the rear could not be persuaded to do likewise. I backed down and tried again. No luck. More shuffling around in a rising panic quickly convinced me that, wherever I was, I wasn’t going to get out so I did the only thing a craven coward could do under the circumstances; I fled. I took a bus into town and another one out to Papakura. I arrived home ten minutes before the cops.

It seemed I had inadvertently driven onto the Rocky Nook Womens’ Bowling Green and one of the members who lived nearby had heard my performance and called the police.

The consequences were milder than I felt I deserved. I was taken down to the local police station where I made a statement in circumstances that were rife with cliche – an old Imperial typewriter with keys like coat buttons, a constable who typed vigorously with two fingers and who, in his report, used words like ‘proceeded’. There were no legal consequences, though. I had to pay to get the car towed home but it wasn’t damaged beyond a few loosened joints. The biggest problem was the mess I’d made of the bowling green, an estimated 25pounds damage – several hundred dollars in today’s money. I was lucky with that too, though. One of the bowling club ladies took pity on a poor student and paid it for me.

Thought you might like this one, Maggie

                    On Edge

‘Don’t burn for it,’
Said Mr Snood.
‘You yearn for it
And it’s no good.’

The T is square,
The X is rayed,
And I don’t care
What William made.

The winds of change
Blow hot and cold.
Beyond their range
The nights unfold.

The long-lost days
Of summer spent
In little ways
Of discontent.

But Mr Snood
Can turn a trick
That’s nice or lewd.
Or cold. Or quick.

The Deep End

My stepfather, Harry Clifford, was a country boy at heart. He was born in a Suffolk village and came to New Zealand, aged 18, where he started work on a farm near Raglan. The Depression made him realise he needed something more reliable than farm work so he got himself a job at Kingseat hospital. He stayed there for the rest of his working life and finished up as one of the senior nurses. I guess, back then, dealing with mad people was much the same as herding cows.

Harry was a good-hearted, generous and practical man with a no nonsense Kiwi approach to problem-solving. I remember him telling me how he learnt to swim. Apparently, the farming family he was working for in Raglan took him to the lake in Hamilton, threw him in and watched him flounder around until he got the hang of it. Harry told this story with a certain relish. On some level, as I later found out, he approved of it.

When he and my mother got married, we moved into his place, a large brick house just behind the main road in Papakura. I was then in my second year at university and suffered some inconvenience trying to get home when my social life required me to hang round Auckland’s coffee bars late into the night. Often I had to run for the last bus. Sometimes I missed it and had to hitch hike. One night, though, the hitching didn’t work and I was left standing in Great South Road with my thumb hanging out as a thick mist came down. Nobody was going to stop for me in those conditions. After wandering along hopelessly in the heavy, wet air, I came to a used car yard. One of the cars was unlocked for some reason so I curled up in the back seat and got a few hours fitful sleep. The next morning, while it was still dark, I caught the first bus out to Papakura and got home just as Harry was leaving for work.

I think it was this experience that convinced him I needed a car of my own for which, of course, I would also need a driver’s licence. We talked about the possibility but I never really expected anything to happen. Next thing I knew, though, he announced that he had found me a car. It belonged to one of his work mates and was on a property somewhere near Kingseat.

I am not sure how we got there – maybe someone gave us a lift- but we finished up in the middle of nowhere with no means of getting home other than the car we were inspecting for possible purchase. It was a 1938 Austin 7, painted grey. We looked it over and Harry gave the owner 75 pounds in exchange for the keys.

Of course, I expected him to drive it back and for us to commence my driving lessons in a safe environment – like an empty carpark on a Sunday morning. I was wrong.

‘Here you go’ he said, thrusting the keys into my hand. He opened the passenger door and got in, leaving me standing there, bemused and wondering whether I should panic or not.

I had never been behind the wheel of a car before but I was not entirely helpless. I knew how things worked pretty much; I knew some of the Road Code by heart and I had spent quite a bit of time lying in bed at night and visualising the process of driving, how the left foot and the left hand combined to change gear, how the right foot moved from brake to accelerator to start the car moving. So, I slipped the key into the ignition, put my foot on the clutch and turned the key. The motor started smoothly. My hand went to the gear lever.

‘That’s first,’ Harry said, waving his finger at it. I slipped the car into gear, pressed down on the accelerator and let out the clutch. The car started moving in the right direction. And that was it – my first and only driving lesson. I got home without mishap and parked the car in the driveway.

‘You’d better call the council about a licence,’ Harry said.

The appointment was for 11.45am on a Friday. The test consisted of me driving round the block. One stretch was along Great South Road through the centre of town. I had to turn right at some traffic lights. I made all the right hand signals but I also stalled the car. Twice. We continued the circuit and I pulled up again outside the council offices. The traffic cop who was taking the test started writing on his clipboard. I was sure I’d failed. If I hadn’t he would be asking me questions about the road code, wouldn’t he? I waited glumly until he handed me a thick piece of pale green paper. I stared at it – my licence.

‘These old cars,’ he said. ‘You’re best to double-declutch them, eh?’

I am not sure if his slack approach was due to the low standards that generally applied to country drivers in those days or to the fact that he had a lunch date he didn’t want to be late for. Or maybe he figured that letting me loose in a car with an absolute, foot-to-the-floor top speed of 60 kph wasn’t going to do much harm. It’s just possible, though, that he was a mate of Harry’s and that he’d had a quiet word spoken in his ear.

Whatever the case, even I knew that I wasn’t much of a driver. I couldn’t park. I couldn’t start on a hill and my three-point turn was close to shambolic. What was I to do, though? In the end, I just got on with it and taught myself. It probably took me a month or so.