Time – the endless stream
Gravity pulling the ages down
The tickin tocks of
Somewhat this and probably
that’s why I need to remember the
Kahikatea masquerading as Tawas
I remember clearly painting this propped up in the kitchen at our Brentwood street house – was it number 51? Trying Oils for the very first time, that lugubriously slippery, deeply pigmented richness that only linseed can give, Mum was there somewhere baking, encouraging. I must have been about 11 or so – probably at Fergusson Intermediate school in Upper Hutt. We were the second year through this brand new school named after Sir Bernard Fergusson – “another Pom who didn’t come here” as Sir Tipene once, later, described Queen Charlotte to me” although Bernie was GG that – as far as I can see is all he ever really did for NZ.
Mr. Gibson was the art teacher – Mrs Tui the music teacher, Mr. Bronze - metalwork, Mr Birch - woodwork – so there really is plenty in a name eh?
I remember becoming someone through my art and sport I guess I became or was certainly on the journey in becoming - me, started to get the hang of me as distinct, apart from the hoards, unique?, well that’s not for me to choose but one does need a peg or two for one’s hats. Distinction, leadership, and or excelling, standing out from the poppies.
Mr. Harvey was my teacher – he made me a prefect in the second year – and gave me a wonderful little book – I still have it - entitled “building small sheds and garages”. Such beautifully, carefully drawn pictures of how to build. He also told me he was a student of a little known and now long gone country school at Hukinga – on the western tributary of the main Akatarawa river. The Hukinga valley is a very steeply gorged and precipitously ravined road that I traveled over so many times in my adolescence with my later friend Roland Klocek. Roland’s father was Peter known as “the deer hunter” – because only Peter and deer would dare to go into some of that thick regenerating scrub between Upper Hutt and Paraparaumu. Peter was Polish and drove the water board land rover. He arrived somewhere around the war, I believe, with his Scottish wife. Smoked endless cigars and ate those pine forest mushrooms called bollets – for me it was my first introduction to something other than Kiwi – he was from somewhere else – a European, ancient, and distinct culture..We had so many trips into the Hukinga chasing goats up hillside, almost horizontally trunked trees with a huge mongrel dog before we could own our own rifles. We stayed many a night in Mr. Harvey’s old school house before some idiot burned it down.
At Intermediate I also painted a portrait of a woman – an idealised, imaginary torso and teachers were amazed – a little like their reactions to my ever increasing speed as a softball pitcher – I remember scaring the living what-evers out of teachers as we kids played them – the awesome power of a 12 year old having teachers ducking in fear of my speed ball. The portrait hung on the wall of the school foyer for a long time. I remember being crowned captain of the rugby and softball teams – as I was later to be crowned at Heretaunga College although I was never an easy leader – it has always seemed quite alien territory for me. Dad once, before I left high school, said I was “a leader – you will always lead, it’s just who you are.” (no pressure eh?)
The image of the two Tawas – very funny because – of course they are actually Kahiatea – two remnant, solitary, bare trunked soldiers after the war. The attrition of – slaughter of the bush – well not all of it but a lot of Barton’s bush – I never knew who Barton was exactly but his name remains in this little patch of bush between the uppers of Barton avenue (Heretaunga) and us working-class Brentwood street suburbanaries to the north. I went to primary school in our own street – Brentwood primary school – broke my leg on my tenth birthday, had 6 weeks in a full leg length plaster cast. Mum had to cut off the toes of old socks and stuff the toe piece up into the plaster to hide my exposed web toes – I was so embarrassed about showing them to my just pre-adolescent peers. Weird because I later broke my archillies tendon on my 40th birthday playing squash – such are the needs to perform on one’s special day.
Mr. Gibson nurtured me – he gave me special places to paint away from the throng of the rest of the art classes – but this could well be late primary school I think looking at the skill levels.
The bush – god it was amazing leaving Palmerston north where I had done a little excelling at school – in Barthedoor – (the very game that left my leg broken on my tenth birthday at Kim Higgenbothim’s place) – I was almost always last in, in that rugged testing and quite brutal game – the forerunner to a small career in rugby for moi. Anyway – I can recall quite clearly announcing to myself or someone, maybe a teacher, that I was going to paint my first oil painting – and this was it – and now looking at it all those many years later I can see and recall Trentham Memorial Park - the other part of Barton’s bush reserve – mainly playing fields now but then quite rough sheep grazing – where I taught my mother a little of how to play golf – I think Dad couldn’t be bothered and mum was often left at home every weekend in fact - so I started what was to be a long other career in worrying far too much about the underdog – and mum’s being a housewife, having so little confidence and skills really, to get out there and mix it in the market place after we three kids had spat the nest meant she became quite depressed – as we now call it.
So I tried to help, had learned some capacity for empathy, and as I got some of my art interest from her – I always felt a deep connection with her- a sensitivity to the world around one. I remember a now long lost painting of hers which was of a Tui – I am sure she did it as a school girl, copied from the front of a cake tin or calendar – the Tui with Kowai blossom. I still have a re-worked and reworked paint by numbers painting she did as she went over and over it – unsatisfied by the results she tried and failed damaging the paper – god the damage those paint by numbers books did to people. Makes me cry remembering this – I think the last ones she did may have been when she was living those last two and a half terrible years following her second stroke away from us all in Auckland – but trying to paint something with her left hand – well this is my memory – perhaps the paint by numbers series was prior to this but even if I am mixing my time episodes I feel so strongly the pain of her later life. Dying in the washhouse after her final heart attack only a couple or so days before their move south to Hastings to be near my older brother Ron and his family. Tragic.
So the two Kahikatea – I was given a bit of writing distinction when I was at primary school by a Mr. Smyth I think it was – who liked my diary account, retelling my efforts to study the native birds of Barton’s Bush – the Tuis, Fantails, even Kereru I think – who just loved those swollen tawa berries. I later made Tawa drupe jam from them and have to recommend it – absolutely unique yet so well known in the jam memory banks.
The two Kahikatea standing there having lost their protective skirt of bush around them – come Wahine day some few years later I recall waking the next day to not only the scale of the tragedy of the 52 deaths in Wellington harbour but also the Kahikatea having lost their provident top foliage – as they were completely un-natural lollipops of trees without their protection – the vast scale of the winds snapped our or my wondrous trees like twigs. Gone – forever after so many years and so much living.
During that extraordinary storm and as a prefect I was asked to go into classrooms upstairs where the roofs had been opened like tin cans – water streaming in and down the stairs – and all this without any high-viz gear, without teachers just a 12 year old kid in dread fear checking if all the classes were empty of kids. Then being sent home – walking about three miles? Straight into the throat of the southerly back to Brentwood street – corrugated iron flying toward us, wrapping itself round lampposts en route. Dear old Mr. Harvey trusting us to get home alive – and I am sure we all did – and no wonder those trees had little chance – it was so seriously a fury to behold.
But as I was a bird watcher my diary in the pre Wahine storm days at primary school saw this little boy noting how starlings alighted on sheep backs to pluck ticks or some-such from their wool. I used to go into the bush all the time alone and with my note book, jot down sightings of this and that, sketch, and I became a great admirer of actual tawas in the bush ever since. Tawas are the most South American swamp trees – (like Kahikatea too) their trunks swaying and growing like elephant legs and torsos on occasions – I have even photographed them completely green barked from a skin of almost lime green lichen. The more common is the almost jet black bark and the dead straight new shoots issuing from the lower parts of the trees made fantastic arrows for my bows. I would always choose Indian to play over cowboys – we got so much more sneaking up and camouflage than those silly white men with guns. I remember spending days making the variant cross bows – especially one using red rubber car tyre tubes as the propellant with a tricky trigger system – it went so far and high it got to the top of the Kahikateas. I would also make improvised bird hides of old – I think rimu – stumps hollowed out by years of rot… this little lad hiding under the small ferns inside the stump looking skyward, hour after hour to the occasional native bird scurrying through the tawa canopy – wonderful memories.
Chris Trotter lived over the other side of the park in the snotty area of Barton Ave – neighbour to Ron Trotter – His dad (I learned at high school when we cemented a now lifelong friendship) was a Country Calendar TV producer – Chris and I would go for walks in the bush – I still have photos of us – the dawn mist, taking rusty the dog for a stroll – hard light shadows cutting the bush through the mist – wonderful. We also wrote songs – mainly (consensually competitive) and about five years ago Chris sang me a song I had written and then forgotten since about 1974.
“Oh why don’t you break away
You weren’t born to obey
Come to the country
Be rained on”
What a great memory and honour.
Here’s another undated, untitled wee watercolour painting – it issued from my attending a Saturday art class while I was at intermediate. The art teacher’s name I forget now – but I can still see his face clearly – he was short and balding and such a lovely man – he was very encouraging of my painting and I can still hear him saying to me and the class “now someone here is starting to make real paintings” when he saw this impression of Moonshine bridge that goes over the Hutt river.