Chapter 1 of the memoir Compass Points
I could claim I had a deprived upbringing. Seriously depressing books along these lines, especially by Irish writers, seem to attract huge audiences, so in the interests of a best-seller here’s my take.
My formative years were spent in the 1950s, by popular agreement in surveys and reviews the most restrictive and conforming decade of modern history. The place of this upbringing, Palmerston North in an inland, rural part of New Zealand, has similarly been the brunt of much derision, sometimes by eminent persons in the entertainment world such as John Cleese and Dame Edna Everage.
Then there are those endless TV dramas that focus on towns where ‘everything is so 1950s apple pie and wholesome on the surface’ but the real story is the seething dark underbelly.
I could pursue this argument for quite a while. As far as the times were concerned, the ’50s did not share the drama of the ’40s, with world war, troops returning, and Cold War commencing. Nor of the 1960s, so famous for social change and counter-culture to the point of revolution, and all that followed. As someone else put it much more creatively, ‘It was a damp patch between the battleground of the Forties and the fairground of the Sixties.’
In the early 1980s I was briefed on the latest trends in market research, with a presentation that argued that we should divide populations — or ‘markets’ as we called them in my profession of that time — into broad categories of inner and outer-directed people. What had been gaining momentum since the ’60s were the inner-directed, soon to be a majority in western societies. These were persons who wanted to be their individual selves and to project an image that was independent and self-generated, and who would spend on items that served their own particular needs and perceptions.
In contrast those that preceded them, the outer-directed, were guided by what other people around them were doing. So they conformed, and their activities and purchases were greatly influenced by ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. That, we were told, was the mood of the ’50s.
Around 1998 I was driving to a mid-afternoon meeting in Wellington and on the radio was a replay of the British programme My Music. One of those clever and funny contributors was saying that each decade has its own music style and beat and without greatly enthusing about them all he could see that each had its different merits — except, he said, for the music of the ’50s. That, he thought, was appalling, because all the songs were hammered with DAH-DAH-DAH DAH — usually a set of chords played on the piano.
I laughed and thought of course that wasn’t true. Needless to say three days later Wayne Mowat was playing one of his retrospective hits programmes on Radio New Zealand and up came a hit of the ’50s. The first easy bars of Pat Boone’s ‘ Love Letters in the Sand’, ‘On a day like today’ rolled out, to be followed, as you might guess, by DAH-DAH-DAH DAH, somewhere in the mid to upper register. And on it goes, the poor old conformist, restricted ’50s.
As far as the place was concerned, Palmerston North was, I suppose, open to a bit of lampooning. Dame Edna’s offsider Madge in the television series was a mousy woman repeatedly identified as from Palmerston North. I’m not sure what got up John Cleese’s nose, but his scathing remarks were widely reported: ‘the suicide capital of New Zealand … If you ever want to kill yourself, I think a visit to Palmerston North will do the trick … The audience was very strange to play to,’ and so on.
The city was flat, and the virtue of its site beside the Manawatu River did not translate into it being an attractive river city. The river was largely hidden and inaccessible. Palmerston North was one of those halfway places between town and city, between rural and compass points urban, and very suburban, existing primarily as a service centre for the modestly affluent rural hinterland of the Manawatu province around it. Technically it qualified as a city, having well exceeded the 20,000 residents required, but at the time it was hardly metropolitan. From the perspective of today’s multicultural world, it was distinctly monocultural. Yet it did have a teachers’ training college and a university college, Massey, which was a centre for some international-class agriculture research and teaching.
But all this downside of the decade and the place is of course contrived. This story is not like one of those frequent books about appalling childhoods of poverty and abuse, nor even impoverishment of the mind. The decade has been revised a bit more recently, and a number of commentators are now seeing it as I do, a time when levels of trust were high and communities and social capital were strong. Even its clothing and furniture have been revived — I see these described as ‘retro cool’.
Certainly it did not leave me feeling constrained or insecure. Flat cities too have their merits — they are terrific for riding bikes, and in Palmerston North tennis courts and sports fields were everywhere. The schools were great, the weather broadly agreeable, friends came easily … kids make the most of what they’ve got. After 18 years I left Palmerston North satisfied with the cards life had dealt me.
I actually and obviously predate the 1950s, having been born on 7 September 1937. My father, Len, known to his friends as Ken, had been working for the Bank of New Zealand in Wellington and elsewhere when assigned to the Palmerston North branch in the early 1930s, where he met my mother-to-be, Helen Barbara Hunter. She told me much later she did not work in the bank, but visited it each day to do the banking for the firm she did work with, and found herself after a time queuing to be attended to by the same handsome teller.
So romance blossomed and they married. Around that time Helen’s father, William Hunter, offered my father his accounting and secretarial business. Len left the bank and settled into Palmerston North for the rest of his life.
Dad was from a Wellington family of five boys and one girl. For some quirky reason their parents gave them names contrived so that the initials made words. Dad’s full name was Leonard Ivan Plimmer, forenames with no family history and selected only, as far as I can tell, to produce the word LIP. The parents didn’t start too well on this exercise — the first of the brothers, Uncle Geoff, was named Geoffrey Irving, producing GIP. But they became better with practice. The second, Uncle Max, was Ian Maxwell, yielding IMP. LIP was next, and then his renowned brother Cliff, later Sir Clifford Plimmer, who was assigned the middle name Ulrich to yield CUP. The youngest, Geith Alfred Plimmer, enjoyed GAP. Only their sister, Anna Bloomfield Plimmer, was spared.
I came to know and like very much all the uncles and Aunt Anna, even though none of them lived in Palmerston North. Geith, who lived in London as the head of the United Kingdom branch of the Christian Science church, was the one we saw the least.
Dad’s father Arthur had worked for the National Insurance Company of New Zealand and spent some time in its Australian offices. He met Jessie Townsend in Melbourne and married her there in 1900, when he was 25 and she 22. Arthur was then assigned to the company’s office in Perth, where Len was born in 1904, the third of the eventual six children, thereby qualifying to be an Australian. I never felt the fact of his birth and early years in Australia meant anything to him, but when he first joined the Bank in New Zealand he was transferred to a Sydney branch, and that period he did talk about warmly. He was a keen tramper and enjoyed the Blue Mountains inland from Sydney, and when later he purchased a plot of land in Palmerston North and subdivided it with a new street, he called this Cremorne Avenue after the suburb of Sydney where he had lived.
To trace back further, Arthur was the son of a Wellington property owner and developer John Alfred Plimmer, who married an Anna Packard and had four children. He in turn was one of the sons of the first Plimmer to come to New Zealand, John Plimmer. This first John was born in a small town in Shropshire on the English border with Wales, the son of Isaac and Mary Plimmer, but must have moved around a bit since he married Eliza Roden in Birmingham, and registered his two last children born before their departure for New Zealand in Willenhall, Staffordshire.
John arrived in Wellington in 1841 with Eliza, their four children Isaac, William, Mary and James, and a nephew also called John Plimmer. He had more children, including John Alfred, who eventually inherited some of his properties and business interests. John set up businesses relating to limestone grinding for cement and building. He moved on to property and hotel development, land reclamation from Wellington Harbour, company directorships including that of the Wellington-Manawatu Railway Company, and numerous other business roles and positions.
He also held elective office in provincial government, was prominent in the Church of England and in getting the Wellington Anglican cathedral under way, and successfully took the city council to the Privy Council over his right to compensation for his Plimmer’s Wharf and land reclamation.
He became a close friend of many of the great and good, including Premier Richard John Seddon. He was a prolific letter writer to the local newspaper, and a poet with an extensive output, none of which has found its way into the histories of New Zealand literature. In 1902, two years before his death, he was formally and with great ceremony acknowledged with the title of ‘The Father of Wellington.’
John is commemorated through the naming of Plimmer Steps in central Wellington, a statue near the base of the steps, the town of Plimmerton, Plimmer Terrace in Shannon, the preservation of the remains of his Ark, and posthumously and much more recently in the New Zealand Business Hall of Fame. There is one book about him which also reprints his numerous writings, named Life of John Plimmer, published in 1901 before his death, and a fine short biography by John McKinnon in John Plimmer and His Family, 150 Years, 1841–1991. He deserves his own full biography.
So Len, after John, John Alfred and Arthur, was a fourth generation New Zealander of English background and I obviously was a fifth, something I have occasionally felt a bit proud of. I have told my children they are sixth, and my grandchildren they are seventh generation. It says something about the newness of New Zealand, in terms of Western settlement, that this is remotely noteworthy.
There was a difficult time in Len’s family around 1911–12. They were still in Perth with now all five boys when Arthur and Jessica returned to New Zealand, presumably because of Arthur’s health, leaving the boys in care. Arthur had contracted rheumatic fever in his late teens and had a weakened heart. He died in Wellington. Jessie, pregnant with Anna, returned to Perth, sold property, packed and returned to Wellington with the family in what must have been extremely trying circumstances. They moved into a house in Roxburgh Street, perhaps her family home initially, and then to one next door provided by Arthur’s father, John Alfred. The boys were enrolled in nearby Clyde Quay School, then on the site of the Wellington Fire Brigade. The sixth child, Anna, was born in April 1912.
Jessie took in a boarder, an engineer named Jack Stark, and a relationship developed between them. John Alfred Plimmer apparently did not approve, and Jessie and Stark, and it seems all six children, shifted first to Napier and then to Auckland. There was enough money, presumably from John Alfred, to send the oldest, Geoff, to boarding school at Waitaki Boys’ High School in the South Island.
The story develops; something snapped in 1916. Jessie became pregnant and Geoff was called home to Auckland and told to take all the other five children to Wellington. The six went by train, unaccompanied by an adult, and somehow made their way from Wellington Railway Station to their grandfather John Alfred’s house in Khandallah. Anna would have been only four. It was a rum situation. Their grandfather could hardly have been delighted at inheriting full responsibility for six children. The boys, apart from Geoff who returned to Waitaki, slept mainly in an army hut at the back of the house. Their mother and Jack Stark went to live in Taranaki.
For all this, the children’s attachment to their mother was apparently not weakened by her actions, and they kept in contact with her despite being forbidden to do so by their grandfather. They seem to have not taken to him much at all. There is a story of an attempted runaway, to meet up with her in Taranaki, but they reached only as far as Johnsonville, a few miles from where they lived. But for all that they obviously developed the characters and abilities necessary for successful lives.
For Dad, specifically, it meant he lost his father at seven years of age and was separated from his mother at 12.
All this was totally suppressed from my childhood, even though my mother Helen came to know Jessie’s second family, the Starks, who lived in Eltham, very well. Len (Ken) may have too without ever speaking of it. I have found a copy of an attractive edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam with the handwritten inscription, ‘For my dear Kendy with loving good wishes and thoughts,’ unsigned and dated 10.6.44, his fortieth birthday. There is no evidence but I like to think it was from his mother — Jessie did not die until 1950.
Except for Geoff, all the boys when of age were enrolled at Scots College, a newly established private school initially where St Margaret’s College is today. My father never talked of his schooldays (nor did I about mine to my children and there is nothing to read into this) and he was not one for attending old boys’ functions. But it did produce a satisfying retirement hobby for him when he was asked to write the jubilee history of Scots College, published in 1966.
John Alfred’s unmarried daughter Gertrude also lived in Khandallah. Her place became ‘home’ for the boys and Anna as they grew to adulthood, and later she became Aunt Gertie to our family while I was growing up. We paid an annual pilgrimage to her from Palmerston North, visiting other relatives around Khandallah too, including Max and his family and Anna and her McKinnon family. Gertie had a balance of quiet dignity and warm friendliness, and when I went to Wellington to live as a university student I enjoyed visiting her occasionally for a Sunday roast. She lived until 1965, aged 86.
Len found Palmerston North to his liking. He took over and expanded his father-in-law’s firm, servicing the needs of various rural organisations including the Manawatu Farmers Union, but also the Cosmopolitan Club, for which he had a strong affection — the ‘Cossie Club’ as it was popularly called. The business changed names as partners changed over the years and during my school days it was Plimmer, Spring and Goddard. It had few direct impacts on me. Dad occasionally took me, in my pre-teen years, to his office on Rangitikei Street on a Saturday morning, where I rummaged through rubbish tins looking for stamps and familiarised myself with the operation of stapling, hole-punch, typewriting and other such office equipment.
Len acquired the New Zealand distribution rights to World Books, a British-based company that reprinted popular books of some standing, and every month distributed one printed in a standard format to its subscribers. The shelf of these at home grew steadily. I did not read them all, but they served to introduce me to the writers of those 1950s, Graham Greene, Neville Shute, Morris West, Somerset Maughan and others. Many are still in our bookshelves today.
He was absolutely clear-cut in his political views. He was a member of the National Party, reflecting his strong ethos of enterprise and self-reliance. One of his favourite sayings was, ‘If I could do one thing for every child born, I would put a token around their neck saying, ‘Nobody owes me a living’.’
He had some political ambitions, became chairman of the local branch of the National Party, and unsuccessfully ran for selection as its candidate for the Palmerston North seat in parliament in 1946 and 1949. For the latter I was old enough to go to the public selection night in the town hall where each candidate gave a major speech. I was impressed with his easy stage presence and the quality of his presentation, but he lost out to Blair Tennent, a former mayor who went on to win the seat in the general election and to become Minister of Education.
Len also spoke and occasionally wrote on public issues to other organisations: I have a newspaper record of a speech to Rotary in 1946 on the Bretton Woods agreement, urging that New Zealand should join the new International Monetary Fund.
I never felt he was overly ambitious in politics, more just quietly confident of his own abilities and wanting to contribute to the common good. After his run at central government he settled in to local body politics. He was consistently re-elected to the Palmerston North City Council, and became a long-standing deputy mayor.
His business included being secretary of the Wellington Farmers Union Mutual Insurance Association. Some time while I was at high school he was invited to become general manager. He accepted this and left his other business. He set out to negotiate mergers with other provincial farmer mutual companies, initially with Taranaki and eventually others to form the Dominion Farmers Mutual Insurance, then — in his last three years there — the Primary Industries Insurance Company. Len remained in this job until he retired. Today after further mergers it continues as FMG, the Farmers Mutual Group. Brian, my older brother, later took over Len’s secretarial business.
Despite his party affiliation, he was not overly conservative in his political views. For all his commitment to business and self-reliance, which is hard to fault, his commitment to community activity was probably one of the overarching features of his life, and more likely to take him out of the house in the evenings than his office work. He put a huge effort into charitable organisations, his workingmen’s Cossie Club, sports clubs and the basically nonpartisan city council. He was deeply committed to the Rotary Club, and in later life was honoured with one of its most senior awards, the Paul Harris Medal, for his community work. He was the longest-serving president of the New Zealand Health Camps organisation, for 12 years or so. He was chairman, president or secretary of numerous other organisations: the Manawatu Trotting Club, the local bowling club … the list is long. He was awarded the Queen’s Service Order in 1976.
He said one or two other things which give a feel for his integrity and humanity. ‘Always pay your taxes’, the same position I came to later in life, feeling strongly that society could hardly function unless everyone did that. And in respect of share market investments: ‘Always leave something for the next person.’ I’m less convinced of that and do not expect to hear that sentiment these days. Some canny investors might sell before they think a share price has peaked, but not for that reason. In a history of the FMG, published in 2005, the chapter about his years is headed, Gentleman Len.
It is hard after all this time to define how he participated in my life, not engaging much in my sport, music or academic activities, and this may have reflected any number of factors — his philosophy of self-reliance, his pre-occupation with his innumerable organisations, a view that things were going all right for me in these areas without his intervention, a feeling that these were my mother’s areas and his role was the breadwinner, or perhaps the fact that he did not himself have a father when growing up. I had and have no complaints; I expected to make my own decisions. He was a good-natured and avuncular dad, available if I asked him.
My mother’s family went back as far as the Plimmers in New Zealand’s settler history, and has a generically similar story of success, happiness, large families and times of tragedy. But the genetic strand was Scots, not English. Robert Hunter left Scotland on a ship called New Zealand in July 1842 and landed in Nelson in November that year with three children — but not his wife. She had taken seriously ill just before they departed, and at this last minute was unable to accompany her family. It is impossible to imagine sharing the decision they had to make. She never followed them to New Zealand.
One of the three, Alexander, had 14 children of his own, with the sixth, William, becoming the one that matters to this story. William was born in Nelson in 1866, became an auctioneer, and shifted to Palmerston North, then something of a boom town, where he developed the accounting and secretarial business he passed on to my father. There he married another from Nelson, Emily McKenzie, in 1899.
They had three children, with my mother Helen the youngest, born in October 1909. And so she too, like Dad, was a fourth generation New Zealander. But before she was three, in 1912, Emily died, aged only 45. So 1912 was a year of turmoil for both my parents as young children. On my mother’s side her father William remarried and lived on until 1937, the year I was born, but I sense rather than know that young Helen did not relate well to her stepmother. And so three of my four grandparents died before I was born, and I was totally unaware of the existence of the fourth, which may account for the importance of Aunt Gertie in my childhood.
In Helen and Len’s family I was in the middle; Brian was born three years earlier and Simon three years later. I have read a few articles over recent years about the significance of your place in the family’s birth order, and particularly about middle children, but could never identify any insights that helped me to place or characterise myself — not that I ever thought about it in those terms back then.
Being in an all-male family (except for my mother), and our isolation from relatives, meant that I had very little to do with females when I was growing up. Virtually all of my cousins were male too. Uncle Geoff had one son, Cliff had four sons, Max two boys and girl, Geith no offspring, and Anna four boys and one girl. Max’s daughter Elizabeth, a part of the Khandallah clan that we visited on our pilgrimages there and about my own age, was one with whom I felt a close attachment.
Len was too old to serve in action in the Second World War, but he was required to join the Home Guard, and for a time was assigned to New Caledonia to help stall a Japanese invasion. I must have been about five or six years old. His absence provided me with my first memories: Mum decided that the rest of us should go for a time to visit her sister Jean in Arrowtown, deep in the South Island. It must have been a long haul for her, by herself with three young children, getting to Wellington, an overnight crossing on the ferry to Christchurch, and a long train and bus trip to Jean’s.
I remember a small cream house built of very thick concrete or mud blocks, with great wide window sills. I became familiar enough with the street to the shops to be able to go there by myself, particularly if we needed something from the dairy.
And there was rabbit hunting. The bare yellow rolling hills of central Otago were alive with rabbits and many locals went shooting, Jean’s husband Kim Ferguson included. He and Brian and I went off, he with the gun. A rabbit fled down a hole near me, into a tunnel complex that obviously had one other outlet not far from the first hole and a third a bit further away. Kim and Brian went to the third, waiting with the gun for the rabbit to come out, and I was left to make sure it didn’t escape from either of the other two. Sure enough it did, and I was roundly dressed down for incompetence. I had my first experience of the emotion we call indignation!
In Palmerston North, we lived at 258 Ferguson Street in a large Edwardian wooden house with a quite grand veranda and ample lawn and garden. It has long since been removed and replaced with something nondescript. At one side was a large magnolia tree and on another side a huge plane tree with a rope for swinging. There was a rose garden by the front door. A high hedge separated the front from the back garden which, besides vegetables, had several apple trees. The fruit was juicy and welcome, but it was also, as home apple trees were in those days, infested with codling moth caterpillars. When as a teenager I first heard the old joke, ‘What is worse than finding a caterpillar in your apple? Finding half a caterpillar,’ it resonated.
Inside the house was a bit of what today we might call gothic, dark in parts, high ceilings, and bits and pieces of earlier styles, but it was happy enough. I shared a front room with Simon; Brian had his own. The large kitchen and the dining room beside it were the centre of home activity. The ‘living room’ was normally for ‘best’, meaning when we had visitors, but it had the main fireplace used particularly on winter weekend nights, and also the piano, so it certainly wasn’t sacrosanct.
Off the kitchen, protruding into the backyard, was ‘the porch.’ It was full of my mother’s accumulations of cloth and clothing, all of which might be useful someday, and sewing equipment. I rarely had occasion to enter it. Across the concrete back yard was a very large shed with stable doors. For practical purposes it stored bicycles and garden tools, but it had much else that lay untouched over many years.
The war threat of a Japanese invasion led to the digging of trenches, and we had ours. I can visualise it, but nothing else of that time. I must have started school. College Street Primary was several blocks from home, perhaps a mile, but in those days there was never any suggestion of other than walking. A few others on the same route joined as I went. A leather bag with two shoulder straps, resting high on my back, was an integral part of that routine.
Puddles froze over in winter with a thin layer of ice made for stomping on and cracking, but that was as cold as it got. Snow was not a part of Palmerston North, but persistent westerly winds were, accentuating the winter’s bleakness and diluting the warmth of the summer sun.
During the war years my mother bought a beach house with some money she inherited, at Foxton Beach, 27 miles away. This was the focus of long, endless summers. It was a modest place but comfortably furnished, sitting on sand, far enough inland to be sheltered from those prevailing westerlies but close enough to the beach itself to make swimming in the sea easy.
The house was a wooden-framed square sheathed in what I now suspect was the dreaded asbestos, with a reasonably sized living/dining room and three bedrooms and a kitchen off it, each separated by a curtain across the doorway. It had electricity and running water from a tank outside, but no bathroom and no hot water cylinder. Morning washes were in the kitchen using a basin of water heated in the kettle, which was pleasant enough because the kitchen faced the east and caught the morning sun.
The Foxton beach house was an enduring memory throughout my school days.
From left to right: Neil Plimmer, Helen, younger brother Simon, Len, and older brother Brian.
From left to right: Neil Plimmer, Helen, younger brother Simon, Len, and older brother Brian.
They were remarkably pleasant times, the idyllic summer holidays of the 1940s and ’50s, once we got there. Getting there was another matter. To go to the beach for five or six weeks over Christmas-January took some organising and my mother was determined to have every contingency squared off, both in terms of what we took and in terms of the condition of the house we left behind. Invariably Dad, Brian, Simon and I were ready to go long before she was, and tension ran high. But hitting the road, however overloaded the car was, was great and an hour later we were there.
Other Palmerston North families with boys of about my age had beach houses in the general area, or rented them for a period, the Eglintons (Ron and Ken, and their sister Elaine who later married Brian), the McKeggs (Bob), the Davidsons (David) included. The Foxton beach house was an enduring feature of the summer holidays throughout my school days. (From left to right: Neil Plimmer, Helen, younger brother Simon, Len, and older brother Brian.) I roamed the sandhills — sometimes with friends, sometimes with family, sometimes alone — and took long walks south on the beach and around the mouth of the Manawatu River, and learned to walk fearlessly across the crab-infested mudflats of the river estuary. The roads were mainly compacted sand, not sealed, so barefoot was the comfortable norm.
We flew kites on the beach, learned to body surf in the strong breakers, played tennis and volley-ball against the neighbour’s garage. On calm evenings, we barbequed outside on an open wood fire under pine trees and learnt to roller skate, a concrete skating rink being one of Foxton Beach’s main attractions. Bloodied knees were commonplace.
My first night outings were at skating carnivals at the rink, with blaring music and announcements, races, dancing and comedy events, popcorn and candy-floss. There was also a picture theatre in a wooden hall which we occasionally visited.
Inside we played Monopoly, Ludo, cards (mainly 500), a bit of cribbage, and read books. There was no television or piano at the beach. A ukulele lay around but I never mastered it, and a xylophone came one Christmas which was easier. When 50 years later I heard Bill Manhire read his poem ‘1950s’ with all these things cryptically set out, the nostalgia was almost overpowering: ‘Draughts. Happy Families … Ludo. Snap … Snakes and Ladders … Pick-Up Sticks … comics … My xylophone. My knucklebones … My Hornby train. My autograph book …’ I would add my skates and tennis racquet and a few other things, but he didn’t miss much.
Once, around the age of eight or nine, I determined to ride my small bike from Foxton Beach back to Palmerston North. It was flat but it proved to be mainly into a firm head wind; it was endless. One or two motorists stopped and called out offering a lift, which I declined.
Around the age of five or six I found I was made to run. Every time I was sent to the dairy, at home or at the beach, I would run. Sometimes at the beach a neighbour would pace me in his car, and call out that I was going 12 miles an hour, or whatever the speed was. I started entering class running races when I was about eight, and won them. In my last year at College Street I was the athletics champion, as well as head prefect and dux.
By Intermediate School, only a couple of blocks from home, which took students of around 11 and 12 years of age, I was training more seriously, knowing I was a middle-distance runner with most strength in the 440 yards, but also capable of winning 220 yards and shorter sprints, and with effort an 880 or mile race. I left there as the boys’ running champion and head prefect, a not arduous position marred by having to give a vote of thanks to a visiting speaker in front of the whole school assembly, but made agreeable by a requirement to have an occasional meeting with the girl head prefect.
In the second of those two years we were for the first time given subject options to choose from. One was called bookkeeping. I had always enjoyed books and reading, and thought it would be a good hobby to learn about binding and keeping books generally. Imagine finding out it was an accountancy class. We also had a period of trade training, mainly wood working and carpentry. I have always found the remnants of this that I retained useful — I can still plane across the grain without splitting the wood.
During that year I needed a bigger bike. At that time I was tall for my age. Dad said I could have a second hand bike then, midyear, or if I waited and came top of the class I could choose a new one. I took the second-hand one on offer.
Despite my father’s involvement in public affairs, for nearly ten years after the Second World War politics and big events passed me by. The trench in the front yard was filled in. There was a polio epidemic but it had no impact on my life. There was the Korean War with New Zealand troops but that too did not assert itself into my life. Apart from running I had an early morning milk round; I learnt, or at least was taught the piano; and stepped up my team games, tennis in summer and rugby in winter, which required after-school practice and weekend competition. When I moved from intermediate school to high school, cycling became a bigger part of my life.
My parents had asked if I would like to go to King’s College in Auckland, one of the country’s most prestigious boys’ private schools. I declined, being strongly averse to boarding-house living (not that I ever tried it), and feeling Palmerston North Boys’ High School was good enough. It was the right choice and I do not believe that King’s could have had a better range of teachers. Guthrie (Gus) Wilson, W.A.C. (Wack) Smith, a Mr Mitchell (Dags), Phil Skoglund (Skog, later Minister of Education) and Ian Colquhoun (Coke) taught me better than my waning diligence deserved.
Around the time of starting high school we also shifted house. Dad bought a piece of land off Park Road and subdivided it into about ten sections, keeping one of the best for us. Cremorne Ave, a short new street, was constructed to service the sections, his choice being one at the end of the street with a flat area near the road for a house, enough land in front of it to build a circular drive, and at back two broad terraces stretching down to a stream. Ross Newman, eminent in Newman Brothers Coach Lines, built on the other side of the stream, and Brian (later Sir Brian) Elwood, mayor of the city, built next door.
Dad had made an investment in Isaac Brothers Ltd, which made building blocks of a cinder concrete and was marketing houses made of these. So he had a house designed and built of this material, and plastered on the outside. Because of its construction, the house was particularly quiet and warm. It saw out the rest of my family days in Palmerston North, and numerous visits after that, while my parents remained in it for many years until old age made the house and grounds too large for them.
At this time too, in 1950 and ’51, I made several trips to Mt Egmont, usually to the Dawson Falls Mountain House — sometimes with family and sometimes with a friend. We mainly tramped through the wonderful bush on the lower slopes, but once reached the top, 8260 feet, and once Fanthams Peak about two-thirds up. I learnt just how hard and treacherous ice and frozen snow could be, and the absolute need for crampons.
As I worked my way through high school, my attention focused more on sport and other matters than study. I stayed in the A classes, within a rigid streaming system, but slipped down in the class as others applied themselves more carefully. Summer after school I played tennis two or three afternoons a week and on Saturdays interclub for the Linton Street Tennis Club. The height of my tennis career was selection for the Manawatu Junior Team, which I scraped into at the sixth and last spot. But they made me team captain for reasons unrelated to my modest prowess, and I do remember a long train trip with the girls’ team to play Taranaki.
In the winter it was rugby practice after school once or twice a week, and competition games on Saturdays. I didn’t think I was much good at that either, but my running speed found me a place on the wing and I made it into the school’s first fifteen for my last two years. That involved some travel, to Wellington to play St Pat’s Silverstream, to Hawke’s Bay to play Te Aute Maori College, to Wanganui for the Collegiate game, and other places. When an overnight stay was needed we were billeted and I found endless fascination in seeing other people’s homes and lifestyles, very different from my own in every way, from the furnishings to family relationships.
Some games were played in the Showgrounds, the city’s main stadium, as a curtain-raiser to a major interprovincial or international game. Serious mud was certainly a feature. But the old boys I still see most of, David McDowell, Glen Evans until recently, John Hiddleston and Don Trow, were all first fifteen colleagues from 1954.
Running remained my main sport. I trained mainly in the evenings, pounding the streets and often across the Manawatu Bridge and up the hill road to the suburb on the far side. For a while I had a proper coach, Mick Carter, who put time into my running that I really appreciate. He followed the pattern of sprint 220, jog 220, sprint again, which I practised at the sports grounds on Fitzherbert Avenue. Club athletics was on Tuesday nights throughout the summer. Throughout high school I could win any race I entered, from 75 to 440 yards, and usually a half mile, but struggled beyond that. I ran in the cross-country only under duress. My worst moment in that event was running in a New Zealand junior cross country in Wellington on some hill country around Scots College. It involved a never-ending flight of steps. Somehow I came eighth.
But the 440 yards became my home territory and I was able to win that every year in the school and interschool championships, except in my last year against Wanganui Collegiate when I let everyone down with a second.
A high point of my running career was the national junior championships of 1956. I ran my best time, equalling the old New Zealand junior record of 49.8 seconds — and again came second. A young man from Southland, Michael Earwaker, won with a record time of 49.5. My legs turned to jelly over the last few yards.
Another distraction from schoolwork was music. I had been sent to piano lessons from a fairly early age, first to the splendidly named J. Holmes Runnicles, who had a studio in Rangitikei Street. Tall, lean, balding, I think he was bored out of his mind teaching unwilling students sent to him by ambitious parents. I wasn’t unwilling, but nor did I practise sufficiently to make serious progress. One day he relieved his boredom by moving me aside from the piano stool, saying, ‘Of course Beethoven was only toying with this theme. He could have developed it in any number of ways,’ and proceeded to make his fingers fly all over the keyboard in variation after variation. I do not know if he had practised this before or if it was a genuine expression of his ability at improvisation, but I, perhaps 12 years old, was mightily impressed.
High school dance band, 1953
Bill Pearson, John Robinson, John Sargent, Neil Plimmer.
Bill Pearson, John Robinson, John Sargent, Neil Plimmer.
The real distraction in music was that I took to playing the popular music of the day, and formed a dance band called the Deadbeats with three high school mates, John (‘Hot Lips’) Robinson on trombone, John (‘Bop’) Coley, later a prominent artist and director of the McDougall Gallery in Christchurch, on drums, and John Sargent on double bass. Later the band became, unofficially, the school dance-band, sometimes called the PNBHS Rhythm Quartet, with Bill Pearson replacing John Coley at the drums when John moved on.
There was a steady demand for the band’s services, at dances sponsored by schools, YMCA, Bible classes, sporting clubs and other such bodies. It didn’t seem a constraint on my social life — it was not hard to have a girlfriend or find someone to walk home afterwards, even if I had been up on the stage and not down on the dancefloor where the real action was. There were also a number of school balls and social events where the band was not contracted.
I remember my first grown-up film, Picnic. I was in awe of the star, Kim Novak, and I still find the theme song Moonglow sometimes running around in my head. Before that it was Audie Murphy in westerns where the colour of the hat was always a clue to who the good guy was and who the bad, or Bing Crosby on The Road to Morocco, and suchlike.
Then there were jobs: from a young age I always had a part-time job of some sort. For several years it was getting up early and helping the milkman with his rounds. It was cold, always the need for gloves, and the steam from our breath in the half light. During my high school years I also took to mowing lawns and had several around the suburb that needed weekly attention after school for much of each year.
Dad asked me to collect subscriptions for the National Party — the local secretary give me a list of names and addresses of those who had not responded to renewal notices and I called on them with a receipt book in my own time, and collected a commission on those — the majority — who paid up. And for a time I became a groundkeeper at the Linton Street tennis courts, in charge of a large ride-on mower and a white line marker.
Yet another feature of this life was religion. My mother had been brought up a Presbyterian but showed no interest in matters of faith. Dad was a committed Anglican and it was through the most attractive All Saints church, brick in the Norman style with fine light-coloured wood carving and bright stained glass inside, and its clergy headed by an archdeacon, that I received my religious upbringing. It seemed not directly to impinge on weekday activity but Sunday School was regular, becoming Bible Class during high school years.
At aged 13 I was confirmed in the church and thereafter able to take communion. I became an ‘altar boy’, which meant donning vestments before the communion service, lighting candles, helping the minister set up the wine and wafers for the service, being near the altar during it and tidying up afterwards. Every year I joined the Palm Sunday procession around the outside of the church.
We took some Bible Class trips out of town to church functions as far afield as Wellington, normally led by a lay preacher Kevin O’Sullivan, in a tiny car cramped and noisy. At one Bible Class session we were given the assignment to report back on ‘Why I am an Anglican’. I went home and accosted Dad in the garden. He gave a classic explanation of the church’s ‘via media’ position between Roman Catholicism on the one hand and the various Protestant churches on the other. I tore up to the house and wrote it down while fresh, perhaps good training for my later career. From him and our Bible Class leader I learnt the different doctrines of the communion-type services: the transubstantiation, or the actual conversion of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, in Catholic belief; the Protestant view that the bread and wine were merely symbolic of the body and blood; and consubstantiation, the Anglican middle way of the body and bread, and the blood and wine, co-existing. It is probably all hindsight to think that even then I felt this to be bit contrived, but also it was as good an introduction as a teenager could get to the British art of compromise.
I did do some schoolwork. In my last years at school I came to like history most, and also English, with science classes, maths and algebra rather lagging. The discovery of my final year was that history went beyond dates and battles and famous people, and incorporated the history of ideas, and included hints of what liberalism and democracy and other such concepts might mean, and how hard-earned those common and accepted standards were.
In English we were always expected to learn by heart key passages of literature, and to this day I’m glad that we were: Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man, Tennyson’s ‘Lady of Shallot’, Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’, Milton’s ‘pensive nun, devout and pure, sober, steadfast and demure,’ Keats’ ‘On First Looking to Chapman’s Homer’ and late in the piece, capturing a great liking I already had for dappled light, Gerald Manley Hopkins:
Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow …
Much later I found Joan Didion uses Hopkins for the more serious things such as death: ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day’ but my recall of him is much lighter, less permanent. Perhaps ‘dappled’ is a metaphor for my life.
Being head prefect in my last year brought me to occasional meetings with the headmaster, Stan Craven. We developed a respectful relationship. Once he asked me in and said, ‘Do you know what indecent assault is?’ I answered, ‘Yes’, more firmly than my knowledge warranted. He explained that a teacher at the school’s boarding establishment, College House, was to be removed because of this. It was not being publicised but if it was discussed by the boys I could indicate that I knew about it and that it was properly dealt with. In the event it caused very little stir among the pupils.
Another time he sat me down and said he had heard that on a Saturday night bus trip back from Wanganui some of the first fifteen had been drinking alcohol. I was on the bus; why hadn’t I reported this to him? I said that I had gone to the back of the bus where it was happening, between maybe five boys, and told them they had to stop and put the bottles away, and if they did so the matter would go no further. They had stopped, so I had to honour my side of the bargain. Stan was silent for a while, then accepted he could take no further action.
Only once did I initiate a meeting. Stan had decided the school sports teams were going on too many trips away and cancelled some that were long-established and highly anticipated events on the school’s annual calendar. The hostility to this from the teams was so strong that I thought I had better let him know. I was in a good position because it mainly affected the cricket first eleven, of which I was not a member. I talked through the importance of these events not just to the players but the whole school. Shortly after, he backed down. The senior sports teacher accosted me: ‘I don’t know why you have more influence over him than the staff’, he huffed, and ‘We couldn’t get him to change.’ Of course it wasn’t me, but the constituency I represented.
School life in the 1950s was a balance between structure, routine and stability, and individuality, options and opportunities. Looking at today’s young people, in the streets and on television, I realise we were much more measured and less excitable back then, compared with the strong gesticulation and over-charged emotion and animation prevalent now. I’m sure the change stems from the influence of American television. But I have no way of telling whether we worked harder or to a higher standard. The situation today seems much more variable, uneven, with greater extremes.
Thus in December 1955 I ended my eighteen years in Palmerston North, and five years of ‘PNBHS.’ I had acquired a loyalty to the place, feeling I couldn’t have had a better education and grounding for life. I did not feel privileged in this, but rather that it was the result of capable people — parents, teachers, friends — operating in a supportive environment, and that it applied to all the people I knew in the city. But I also knew I was ready to move on.