From Chapter 2 of the memoir Compass Points

Pondering my first year ahead as a university student, I enrolled, through a determination to be self-sufficient more than anything else, for a teaching bursary which helped pay for my university costs. The payments were bonded, to work as a teacher for a year for each year of the payments, or pay back the money. It was a good and fair deal and I am nonplussed at the resistance in more recent times to bonding arrangements. In the event I stayed on the bursary for three years, and then taught for one and paid back the other two.

The arrangement had another advantage that remains helpful to this day. ‘Being on a teaching bursary,’ I was told on my first day at university in February 1956, ‘means you are part of the government service. You are therefore entitled to join the government superannuation scheme. A small deduction each fortnight from your bursary, giving an early start to contributions, will be worth its weight in gold in retirement.’ So in my first year at university I was already signed up to a pension scheme. It is a moot point whether this influenced some subsequent career and family decisions, but since I was committed to a public service sort of life I don’t think it did, unduly.

The desire to fund my university years and also to avoid the apparently institutional life of the main student hostel, Weir House, led to another decision, to accept a proposal from school friend Michael Hall to join him as an auxiliary fireman at the Brooklyn Fire Station. The deal was that the Fire Service would provide free lodgings and a small sum per week provided one of the two auxiliaries was on duty every night from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. This meant Michael and I had alternate weeks of three and four nights on duty, but it was easy to vary this if something special came up, for we rarely found we wanted to go out on the same night. Michael was a science student with different interests, and later had a successful career in geology in Australia, ending up as professor at Monash University in Melbourne. He survived the fire station life, or me, for two years; I kept with it for three, for the whole of my bachelor degree course.

Michael Hall and Neil Plimmer, auxillary firemen at Brooklyn Fire Station. 1956

The facilities were of a good standard: a kitchen, a shared bedroom, a shared bathroom; use of the common games room, which was dominated by a large billiards table; and a lounge usable for study. We had to keep them clean, to fire station standards. Our rooms were downstairs, alongside the main hall with the fire truck itself, while the regular firemen lived upstairs with their families. So unlike them, we did not need to slide down the pole. We did not interact a great deal with the firemen, but enough to get to know them in an always congenial relationship, and to know they would always help if needed.

During the hours on duty we had to receive the incoming calls to the station, and if warranted, ring the bells to call the fire crew to action. Then we like them had to pull on our uniform, axe and boots, and leap onto the fire truck. We just clung on the back, numbed by the speed and noise of it all. I never drove, used the mobile transmitter, or operated the siren, or such professional things. But at two in the morning just holding on was all I wanted, and trying to wake up enough to deal with whatever awaited.

The main risk was that we would be called out to a fire on the eve of an exam, but I cannot blame my average university marks on that. The most likely and most demanding of the call-outs were to gorse fires. Many of Wellington’s hills were at that time dominated by the green and gold of gorse bushes and the area around Brooklyn was no exception. In summer they dried out and fires were common. Many were far out of the reach of fire hoses and required trudging up bush-covered hills to flay them out with a type of whip that had strips of canvas attached to a round handle. Choking smoke, gorse prickles in our hands and sometimes real tiredness dominated these ventures. I have hated and respected gorse ever since, though not to the extent of being deterred from later buying a section covered with it. Then the gorse extracted a different type of price — but that is a future story. At least when we were on call out, we were paid an extra five shillings an hour.

Quite often the call was simply to be on stand-by at another fire station. The one at Newtown was the biggest in the city after Central, and if all of its three engines were called to a major fire we had to go there and hold the fort. Good pay for boring work. Somehow I usually managed to stuff some reading in my uniform for these calls, but the environment was much more conducive to talk than study.

Real house fires were not common but were the nastiest: fumes, distressed people, the works. In hilly Brooklyn the buildings were often almost inaccessible, reached up long flights of steps. I always returned wondering if we could not have saved another room or more if I’d been quicker at running out the hose or connecting and turning on the hydrant. I know one house where I felt my sleepy stumbling did cause increased damage, its blackened outlines standing there for years, an indictment of my performance I was sure, but thankfully with repairs and the passage of time I can now no longer identify it.

My course choices at Victoria University were pretty standard. I did geography and history for all three of my BA years, Classical Greek for one year because a foreign language course was compulsory, and a smattering of other subjects including English literature and psychology. History I enjoyed most and eventually took through to master’s level. Aspects of psychology teaching I felt most doubtful about — we were taught that the workings of our mind, or our self, comprised an Id, an Ego and a Super-ego, regular thinking in the textbooks of the time. It was delivered with an assertiveness that it was knowledge locked in like the laws of physics, when some tentativeness would have been more appropriate.

My classes were fortunate to have some outstanding lecturers. Professor Freddie Woods was practical, down-to-earth and a great teacher of history; Peter Munz, also a professor, excruciatingly learned but with humour — ‘in history the peasants are archive deprived’; Mary Boyd, also practical as well as thoughtful, and a mentor to whom I am endlessly grateful for suggesting my thesis topic on Samoa; and Francis West, so dry that autumn leaves are limp in comparison. In geography Harvey Franklin, and in English Ian Gordon. There was a formality and rhythm about it all. Most lectures were set pieces, without overheads or printed notes, and with furious scribbling to take down the lecturers’ themes and words. Seminars were well structured discussions taken by the same lecturer, not as today by separate tutors. Essays were the heart of each course and with the reading required for them they were by far the most demanding and time-consuming side to university life.

Most adventurous were the field trips organised by Harvey. Oh, the chagrin when my write-up of a trip through Hawke’s Bay, containing, ‘On the right side … on the left …’ led Harvey to suggest gently in the margins that for a Stage 2 geography essay perhaps I could use terms such as east and west.

Harvey had heard something of my father’s business career and once or twice asked me to get his perspective on a piece he (Harvey) had written. One was a study of New Zealand’s hydroelectricity capacity, forecasting serious future shortages. I was gently impressed with my father’s response that it assumed too much the absence of a government response and that he (Dad) conversely assumed that a government would react to such a forecast to ensure that it did not prove correct. He did not attempt to address the detail of Harvey’s well researched case.

A pleasant pattern of life developed over those three years. I purchased a BSA 250cc motorbike, and used it daily to ride down the Brooklyn Hill and up The Terrace to the university. I learned over weekends, initially with some help from firemen friends, how to strip down the engine and give it a de-carb and valvegrind.

I used it to visit Aunt Gertie in Khandallah on an occasional Sunday and every fifth or sixth weekend rode home to Palmerston North. I came to know every curve of that two-hour ride, and more to the point every straight, for they were long and flat and, as I came closer to the town, seemingly endless. I bought the solidest wet-weather motorcycling gear, since in winter rain and strong winds were the norm. I sat frozen — in both senses — in the one position, knowing if I shifted more rain would run down my neck or get through my protection somehow. Sometimes I rode too fast, just to get the discomfort of the trip over with.

I rode the BSA everywhere else too, including to church on Sundays in my first year. It was heading there — God works in mysterious ways — that I had my first real cropper, at the bottom of the Brooklyn Hill where, after rain, the tyres skidded on the wet tram tracks and sent me and the bike for a grinding slide. I was able to get up, and bike was still able to go, so I turned and rode back up the hill, stripped off and, quite unnerved for an hour or two, put myself to bed. I was lucky to learn care and caution in driving vehicles through such a minor accident.

I kept up my competitive running for only the first year. I won the university’s 440-yard annual championship, and did my part in a relay, but did not keep this up after that. Somehow training just wouldn’t fit in.

The minister at the Brooklyn Anglican Church was looking for a cleaner. I reckoned I could do that — once a week sweep or vacuum the church, polish the linoleum down the centre aisle, get rid of the old flowers for the ladies to put in a new lot and not much else. He was highly satisfied and I enjoyed the extra income. He recommended me to others: the vicars of St Mark’s by Government House and St Peter’s in Willis Street approached me and I had a comfortable business that I could carry out more or less in my own time. I was world famous in Wellington as a church cleaner — the secret was to give the lino strip a high polish so that the vicar and the choir were fully reflected in it as they made their opening procession from the back of the church to the choir and altar.

For the summer holidays I was told of a job as a fibrous plasterer, and took it. It was a one-man show and the boss, George, had a factory of sorts at Porirua, 30 minutes away, where he made his own sheets of plaster. Maybe once a week we spent a day there, first oiling the large slate tables, then mixing, pouring and smoothing the plaster over that, and then unravelling and spreading over this the hemp that was the binding. When it was dry enough the sheets had to be lifted and shifted to a vertical position in racks to finish drying and await use. That was the worst part of it — the sheets at that stage were impossibly heavy and thin to hold, and a wrong move would cause them to crack and become unusable. I can still feel the intense pressure on my wrists and fingers.

For the other days of the week we would load up the truck and head to a building site. Parts of that work were not much better — taking these huge delicate plaster sheets from the truck, usually up paths or steps, into a house. We stood on saw horses or scaffolding and we would both lift a sheet into position on the ceiling, and then I had to hold it while George nailed it to the ceiling beams. More aching arms. Then we plastered the joins and nail holes. But at least the sheets were dry and a fair bit lighter at that stage. And I learnt the banter of the builders and different trades working on the site.

I kept doing that for all three summers I was at the fire station. I could probably still fill in the nail holes now and leave them smooth.

But each January I took a few days break from this to go to a university gathering across Cook Strait at Curious Cove in the Marlborough Sounds. Students and some staff from all the universities around New Zealand attended, for days of discussion in the sun. Looking back they were remarkably well-behaved: I learned plenty of ‘dirty’ student songs at evening sing-alongs but that was about it.

But two things happened in my first one or two years that were outside the steady routines of university life, the fire station, jobs and motorcycling. I tested the ‘lost and found department’ of life. Both have stayed with me ever since. One was that I lost religion, the other that I found Rachel.

I remember the moment, in the main engine room of the fire station, when my faith came to seem pointless, my ‘reverse conversion’ I have often called it. It is hard to be precise about what led to it.

In part it may have been reading. In my last year at high school I had travelled to Auckland and while visiting my Uncle Geoff — GIP — and Aunt Faith they asked me to take any books I would like from their bookshelves because they were about to move house. I took two sets of volumes, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and the collected works of T.H. Huxley. Huxley had been a front-man for Darwin in the early great debates with church leaders on evolution, and his arguments I found both simplistic and persuasive. And I know I was troubled by the lack of efficacy of prayer. Praying for divine intervention, say when a friend was ill, seemed contrary to science and never to produce results.

My potted history of religion is that the supernatural was needed to explain events and processes on Earth that our knowledge of nature could not provide. So in the early years of human thinking, the sun, moon, fire, the seasons and much else on a long list were explained by invoking supernatural causes. As these were eliminated by new knowledge, the range of supernatural explanations steadily reduced. In the 21st century Professors Hawking, Dawkins and others have the view that there is now nothing left that science cannot explain. I’m not fussed about that: maybe or maybe not science has a good explanation for the start of the big bang — the ‘singularity’ — and for the start of life. If some things remain unexplained for me, they are mysteries of nature, not of the Lord, and I have no difficulty with a measure of uncertainty and ambiguity over such matters.

I was moved much later in life by Solzhenitsyn’s argument in First Circle about the lack of soul in the United States and, by extension, even more so in other more secular Western countries. How well can a society survive without something like a shared sense of religious history or religious values? No individual needs religious beliefs in order to behave virtuously, and indeed religion obviously can lead to much un-virtuous behaviour, but it might provide a useful gel for many societies. How well secular societies flourish in the face of rapid change, including the fast-changing role of traditional institutions of stability such as the family, church and school, remains to be seen but there are plenty of unsatisfactory auguries — crime, drugs, dysfunctional families, welfare dependence and more — that seem to be related. But if religion has a social role, it might be a reason to go to church and join in community hymn singing, but not to believe in its doctrines.

At university, my new-found position led to endless debates with friends and classmates. Notable adversaries were Gordon Dempsey, a committed Protestant, and Peter V. O’Brien, a devoted Catholic. First causes and other proofs of the existence of God, the nature of faith, the veracity of the Bible, the meaning of various texts, were all intensely debated in the Student Union ‘caf ’ in a basement corner of the old Hunter Building or out in the sun on the grassy slope in front of it, providing relief from the pressure of lectures, set books and journals, essays and exams.

I don’t call myself an atheist. An ‘-ist’ or an ‘-ism’ word implies a set of beliefs, a doctrine, like ‘communist’ or ‘capitalist’, and I have no such doctrine. I simply happen not to believe in God as this concept seems to be commonly understood and, since this does not impact on my daily life, do not feel it is a big deal warranting definition. There are quite a number of other beliefs held by various people — in ghosts or in aliens will do as examples — and I see no reason to have an ‘ist’ or ‘ism’ associated with my non-belief in those either.

Ah yes, the second part of the ‘lost and found department’ of life. I saw an attractive, blue-eyed woman sitting opposite at the long table in the library of the Hunter Building, a brick neo-Gothic construction with large stained-glass war memorial windows. Somehow we started whispering. A stern librarian came by and ordered us to stop. We decided to leave the room and keep talking outside. I found she was originally from Wanganui, a rival town about an hour’s drive from Palmerston North, but was a teacher on study leave taking mainly Education as a university course. I found over time that she was much brighter than I, achieving high marks with an effortlessness I could not match. And I found her name was Rachel.

Our acquaintanceship had to adapt to my motorbike and fire station lifestyle. The motorbike was great, especially for weekend outings to Makara Beach and such places, where we collected paua and feasted on it as an evening meal. Except there was that time when one of the supports under the pillion rider’s seat broke and I had the stupidity to quip that she might have caused it. What was blooming then wilted, and took a fair bit of more than just water to freshen up.

Around the corner from the Brooklyn fire station was an old art deco movie theatre called the Penthouse. It is still there, these days upgraded and enlarged and flourishing, and still, 50 and more years later, our favourite film theatre. And these days we eat there as well, frequenting the restaurant and wine bar which could not have been contemplated in the 1950s. Back then it had a 5 p.m. session every Friday, which we often enjoyed as an ending to the university week. After shorts and cartoons, the main film always ended about 7.15 p.m. Quite frequently I was on duty, so had to creep out of the theatre at about three minutes to seven, to dash around the corner and sign on by 7 p.m. Then Rachel would come to the station 20 minutes later to tell me how the film ended, and to have a meal which we either made or brought in from the fish and chip shop. So that too became a part of the rhythm of those university days.

There was an annual university ball, complete with tuxedos and ball gowns, held at either the Skyline at the top of the cable car or the Town Hall. Liquor was illegal, but bottles of the favourite of the age, Pimm’s, were easily hidden under Rachel’s coat and dress.

In my third year Rachel took a teaching position at Palmerston North Girls’ High School, which gave my visits here a dual purpose — and an increase in frequency. At the end of that year, I decided I was tired of university, and would make do for the time being with a Bachelor of Arts. I would get a master’s degree later, part-time, or not at all. I needed to go to Auckland to attend a teachers’ college for secondary school teachers, as part of my teaching bursary commitment, and talked through with Rachel that we would both try the big city in the north. She gained a teaching job at Mt Roskill Grammar.

And so in 1959 we boarded in Auckland, separately of course in those days, but roughly in the same quadrant of the city. We both enrolled, to attend after training college and school respectively, in the University of Auckland’s Master of Arts in history. It had a classy group of lecturers, including Keith Sinclair, the doyen of New Zealand historians, and Ralph Chapman, an eminent political scientist and commentator on public affairs. It was also a strong group of fellow students including Jonathan Hunt, later my cabinet minister, Michael Bassett, also a minister in the same government in the 1980s, and David Hamer who became Professor of History at Victoria.

It was a year notable for historians of the period by an intense debate in British historiography journals on whether the gentry in the 17th century were rising or declining, but my main focus was on a course on the United States in the 19th century. I felt I was doing reasonably well but late in the year concluded I was not giving the course justice and decided not to sit the papers.

Rachel with the Morris 8, a friend and a trial in our first years. 1959–1961

Part of my spare time was devoted to a 1937 Morris 8 sports car, which needed a good paint job — apple green — and fair bit of reupholstering. It ended up looking quite smart, and was reasonably watertight despite its canvas hood, but at times it would not start properly. That was a real problem because the garaging I had was below road level, down a moderate slope. On these occasions I had to push the car up the drive, and obviously not very far, then hop in as it started to roll back to the garage, get it started and rev it up, then brake it before it crashed into the garage back wall. But we became attached to it, enjoying long weekend drives, trips to our respective homes from the university, sometimes with takeaway food or a detour up to the top of Mt Eden, only to see the view.

Wedding at Wanganui, January 1960: Helen Plimmer, Len Plimmer, Rachel, Neil Plimmer, Constance Horne.

It was a good year, and towards the end of it, on a visit to Palmerston North, I took Rachel for a walk in the city’s Centennial Gardens and proposed. She says it was spookily dark, and so agreed. We visited Wanganui to seek her mother’s consent (her father had died when she was three) and fixed a date in mid-January in 1960. We were married in a church near Wanganui’s Virginia Lake Gardens, with a garden reception afterwards. I thought it all rather good. We both had heaps of relatives, and all of GIP, IMP, CUP as well as LIP, and Aunt Anna, turned up. An old school friend, John Hiddleston, did the honours as best man. Afterwards the party continued at Rachel’s mother’s place up Somme Parade by the Wanganui River, from which we departed in the green sports car complete with the obligatory tins tied to the back.

Knowing it would be long day, we travelled only as far as the Foxton Beach house, but the next day continued to Wellington and across on the ferry for a few days at Te Mahia Lodge in the Marlborough Sounds. After that it was to Wellington to start our new lives, me with my first teaching job.

So that is how we entered the 1960s. We now know it was a monumental shift from the conformist ’50s to the nonconformist ’60s, even today in the next century the most dramatic transformation between two decades since the Second World War. We didn’t feel we were in or were leaving a restrictive life — there was a pretty standardised code of behaviour and widely shared common values but since these were tolerant rather than red-necked, and encouraged a strong sense of fair play and egalitarianism, they were the desirable values of any decade.

And there were few signs of what lay ahead in our lives. Perhaps the popular music of the time, rock n’ roll and the twist, foreshadowed what was coming, but we had plenty else to absorb, newly married, needing to set up our first home, and with new jobs. Rachel took a position at the convenient Queen Margaret College, an all-girls private school just down the road from where we lived, me at the rather less convenient Naenae College, a coeducational state high school in the Hutt Valley, a good 30 minutes drive away.

We initially rented a house on Tinakori Road with a group of other first year teachers, including Gordon Dempsey who had been at Victoria and in Auckland with us. Un-chaperoned mixed flatting was not the norm those days, but other singles of both sexes could share the house with us because we were married. After a few months we moved along the road to a flat of our own. We have sentimental memories of it as our first home, but it has long since been demolished.

I still had the Morris 8 convertible from Auckland days and drove it to school and back every day with Gordon in the passenger’s seat. I was given good enough classes for a first year teacher — sixth form (year 12) history, fifth form geography, and a mix of social science and English classes for third and fourth formers. And to a modest extent I enjoyed the company of the other staff, but I remember best some out-of-the-classroom activity.

At that time schools still had compulsory military cadet training for boys. This took a Monday afternoon of about three hours every third week. Each teacher had to take an officer role. I thought teaching school boys to march and do ‘eyes right’, or the assembling and cleaning of .303 rifles, was not my first choice for a half day off. When I found that the head master was scratching for someone to take over the drum band, I put my hand up. There were about eight or nine boys assigned to it, none with drumming experience. I was no better but I did know three relevant things: one, I had a range of the tunes to be played indelibly imprinted in my mind from my five years of school cadets at PNBHS; second, I thought I had some knowledge of how to hold the drum sticks, from what Bill Pearson had shown me at the high school dance band (the left hand is different from the right hand!); and third, I knew again from Bill of one practice exercise, whereby the drummer played alternate sticks slowly at first and then sped up in a controlled manner into a drum roll.

These boys and I, in our prickly khaki uniforms, me a second lieutenant, with our well-used drum equipment, found a quiet corner in the grassy park away from the others doing their drill, and I taught them what I knew of how to hold the sticks. They banged away. Then came the controlled exercise. I allowed them to take drum sticks home to practise and was amazed at their diligence and competency the next time round. Clearly I was on to something, with the boys highly committed to learning drumming. Then came my first tune, tapped out with my fingers on the drum-skin. We had to master it that day and play for the end-of-day parade of the platoons of other cadets.

Well, I exaggerate to say it was like the bit in the Glenn Miller film when he takes over conducting the military band and suddenly a whole US Army straightens up and gets into step, but there was an element of that. The Head was delighted. Soon the band had a repertoire of about five tunes which they played very competently and with vigour. They all had a great sense of rhythm and timing which underpinned their performance. I can still worry that I taught them bad habits that impeded their subsequent drumming careers, but we had a fine time, getting lazier and lazier as the year wore on, my having reached the limits of any ability to teach them more.

On the last day one of them mustered the courage to ask me, the ‘master’, if I would play for them. I looked stern and said no, I did not think that would be appropriate. I failed to tell them they were all much better than I was. It was all more enjoyable than teaching about the American corn-belt to the 4C social studies class.

In this first year back in Wellington I had a second go at getting a Master of Arts degree enrolling in Victoria University’s history class. The lectures were late afternoon and I could get to them after school. There was an option of doing six papers, or four and a thesis. With my first year teaching load, four was more than enough. Somehow it fitted in and I enjoyed the papers, sat the exams and passed. At the end of the year, my main lecturer Mary Boyd suggested as a thesis that I research and write up the British Military Occupation of German/Western Samoa during the First World War. It sounded good to me, a self-contained period of six years (1914–1920) with a strong international component. During this year I came to feel that I was not committed sufficiently to a lifetime of teaching, and earlier thoughts of a different career pushed their way from the back to the front of my mind. I wanted to engage with issues related to where New Zealand fitted into the wider world that I knew so little about. Around September — 1960 it must have been — I applied for a position in the Department of External Affairs.