For last year’s words belong to last year’s language

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For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
(Four Quartets, Little Gidding, T.S. Eliot).

I am standing somewhere in Leicester Square. It is either midnight or close to. I am inside a red phone booth. Maybe it reeks of urine, but I do not remember. In my hand is a black receiver with a mouthpiece into which I am speaking. My head is nestled into an earpiece straining to catch the words coming from 12,000 miles away. I can hear my own words echoing back at me over the voice of my mother, and then my father. Just before the three minutes is up, an operator interrupts our stilted conversation to let me know that if I wish to continue, I need to insert more coins. Three minutes is all I can afford and all it affords me, is a series of frantic hellos and goodbyes echoing into the night. It is 1972, phone calls are expensive.

Christmas that same year, I am in Edinburgh living in a neoclassical (now historic A listed) building in Leith, on the edge of respectability. My flat is dark, bitterly cold and has a bold red street facing front door. A telegram arrives to wish me Merry Christmas Stop and a Happy New Year Stop. Each word costs my parents a small fortune, the two stops included. We are not on Viber, we cannot see each other and my blue aerogrammes take a week or two to cross the dateline homewards. My Dad drinks at the local pub after work every night. He is good friends with the local postman. Sometimes, if an aerogramme has arrived before delivery the next day, the postman will take my letter and deliver it in person to my Dad at the pub.

I grew up in a modest post-war Jerry-built wooden bungalow. Ostensibly we were working-class but New Zealand was more egalitarian back then. In our street including my Dad, a carpenter, were the butcher, a baker, a painter, a chemist, a doctor, three schoolteachers, and eventually, years after I left, a Prime Minister. Most women back then were not in paid work, well not in our street. We had no telephone. If we wanted to call my grandmother we needed to walk to the top of our street, up a small hill, to a phone booth. I was born in a cottage hospital at the top of that hill. My father and I received the news of my grandmother’s death in that phone booth. My mother was with my dying grandmother. Dad and I walked up the hill to the phone booth to call for news. I recall I screamed. A man passing by in his car, heard me scream, stopped and came to rescue me – seeing me in a phone booth with my Dad, and not knowing quite what was going on. This same man, when he learned our sad news, that my grandmother had just died, drove us up to my grandmothers.

When I lived at home, I woke each morning to the sound of the BBC News, as my father washed himself in the bathroom and sang. We had a tin bath but no shower. His ablutions were a ritual of running water and a lot of sloshing. Big Ben would chime before the news over shortwave radio and the news reader had a gravitas that brooked no doubt. No one speaking in such a well-bred, carefully modulated timbre could possibly be telling other than the truth. The Cuban Crisis, Kennedy’s assassination, and his funeral, all came to us from the blue Bakelite radio above the small green fridge. The fridge I might add, was a modern wonder that had replaced but not entirely, the safe above the kitchen sink near the coal range.

My eldest brother left school to join the Merchant Navy and was travelling as a teenager to the Pacific Islands specifically Nauru for phosphate and up to Hong Kong and Japan. He returned from a trip with a portable tape recorder as a gift for me. It had a small microphone for recording and tiny reel to reel tapes. My best friend and I would visit the local shops and record our conversations with the fruiterer or the local bookshop. I would secrete the tape recorder, uncomfortably under my cardigan. I would disguise the microphone which hung around my neck with a daphne cutting from my mother’s garden. We felt like spies and thought ourselves entirely clandestine. I cannot recall any of the recordings, but I smile now to think that we thought we fooled anyone.

Many families back in the 60’s owned stylish stereograms, which appeared to be as much about furniture as about music. Some cabinets that housed the turntable also converted into a drinks cabinet. Our very first musical turntable was a wind-up gramophone and from memory, we had two records. One was Mario Lanza which may well have been quite hi-brow and the other played the Irish song The Stone Outside Dan Murphy’s Door. The gramophone was in a case that sat on the floor in the front room when it was played and then it was put away in the big cupboard in Mum and Dad’s bedroom. Unless you wound the handle sufficiently, the record would slow right down and that is my memory of the final refrain of the song which repeats the title, in a slow motion sound as the gramophone wound down. Many years later, an older sibling purchased a full-size ACME reel to reel tape recorder. We taped from the radio and had everything from Herman’s Hermits, the Beatles, Dusty Springfield, Petula Clark, Simon and Garfunkel, Sandie Shaw, Helen Shapiro, Diana Ross and Cilla Black. When I look back, we were lucky with so many outstanding female singers to listen to back then. Our influences were very much persuaded by the English pop charts early on, rather more than the American.

Then in the early 70’s, travelling by myself, I took my music with me on a small cassette player, listening to Carole King, Cat Stevens, Donovan, Neil Young and Blood Sweat and Tears, mostly American music. Later, in the mid 70’s, travelling with my now husband, we would make recordings of ourselves talking to our families on small cassettes and post these small cassette tapes home. The cassette would then be recorded over by the recipient, my husband’s brother, or my Dad, as by then my mother had died. I still recall our laughter, as we sat in a Norsk hytter surrounded by metres of snow, as my future brother-in-law back in New Zealand with a young family, regaled us with the woes of the newly instigated daylight saving. The entire one-way conversation was meticulous detail of the complications of old time and new time, the impact it was having. It made no sense to us that someone could be so disturbed by a one-hour difference in their lives. We’d just hitch-hiked to Lapland to observe the Midnight Sun. It wasn’t until we had our own family in the late 70’s and very early 80’s, that that one-hour difference when putting a toddler to bed, finally registered with us.

All my photos taken when travelling by myself in the early 70’s, including a solo Greyhound Bus trip around the USA, living in London, Newcastle, Manchester, Edinburgh and Norway, were recorded on slides. When I returned for the first time from overseas, a friend of my dear maiden aunt’s, invited me to her house along with her local friends and neighbours to show my slides. I recall how amateur my slides were, so dark and different from the instantly captured high resolution photos that an iPhone can capture. We were all in her front room, the lights out, a slide projector was whirring as photos of me in a purple midi coat standing by Cleopatras Needle on the Thames finally came into focus upon a white bed-sheet on the wall. The audience were all appreciative and I was the feted returning traveller. London, our Colonial homeland, and I had been there, although both my mother and father were born in New Zealand. Watching Helen Mirren before she was famous, at Stratford on Avon in a Royal Shakespeare production which from memory was performed outdoors by the river. But memory fails me on which particular play.
For a short time during my OE, I was staying in Nazareth Pa, USA having fallen in love with an American Coastguard sailor who had dodged the Vietnam Draft by signing up for seven years on the Icebreakers. We met at the Downtown Club in Wellington in the late 60’s and I ended up staying for some weeks with his family who were bemused by this girl from Downunder. I recall Polaroid photographs were the technology of that time, an instant image rolling out from the camera in technicolour. I kept a couple from that era, but they have faded. Then, more recently, my daughter-in-law purchased a brand-new super-duper Polaroid camera which had a brief moment in our lives, but not for very long. TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, the list continues and images of sunsets and sunrises so ubiquitous as to be rendered schmaltzy. Everyone is a photographer, and everyone can communicate almost instantly with almost anyone in the world. We are blinded by sunsets, sunrises, and airbrushed joy.

When I returned from my travels in the mid to late 1970’s, I was employed for a while with the Time Life Magazine Sales Office in Auckland. These were heady days when triple page spreads for Rothmans or some Liquor brand, kept the magazine viable. The Sales Team at Time simply wined and dined the advertising agencies at such places as Antoine’s, Le Brie or Clichy’s ensuring ongoing advertising placements. It was a time of lavish expense accounts and too, the emergence in Auckland of trendy fine dining. Time Magazine had prestige and clout back then. Possibly a time of general naivety without the Twitter trail of fact checking. I recall an issue of Time Magazine dedicated to South East Asia when Muldoon and some sheep were on the front cover. Advertising was easy to sell with a front-page story about New Zealand. Journalists and a famous photographer, Rick Smolan, fresh from his filming of Robyn Davidson trekking across Australia on a camel, came to New Zealand for about three days. Nowadays, Robyn Davidson would be more likely instagramming her own journey on a camel. I recall Rick Smolan travelling light with a camera slung across his shoulder and the straps of the camera festooned with baggage tags. Baggage tags back then were an overt status symbol. Those of us who travelled, left the tags on our suitcases, proof of our international adventures. The photographer and a couple of Time Life journalists travelled to Taupo. They stayed at Huka Lodge and wrote romantically about Zane Grey and fishing in Lake Taupo. I saw the expense account. For the price paid, I envisaged scuba divers in the lake putting trout onto the fishing lines of the journalists… but worse than that, the statistics in the primary piece about New Zealand, specifically about child mortality were somehow grossly over misrepresented. There were other factual errors and my faith in the 4th Estate began to wane.

I recall the heady afternoon, when one of the Time Life Sales Team brought in a fax machine. It was I think 1977 and the fax didn’t really take off for everyday use commercially until the 80’s. We may well have been the very first commercial companies in New Zealand to receive a fax. A small group of us waited in the boardroom with the Sales Team, our eyes glued to a compact machine on the coffee table. A fax came through from the Time Life Sydney office. Prior to that, the communications had been by telex. Back in the sixties, when I joined the Post Office as a shorthand typist, we would use up to six carbon sheets when typing a single memorandum, so that it could be circulated around the branch office. I was also responsible on shifts, for a small switchboard answering incoming phone calls and plugging the phones in manually to the extensions required.

About ten or fifteen years ago, we rented a holiday house in the Marlborough Sounds. The house had its own private beach reached by boat from Picton. We were somewhat surprised to read the instructions left by the owner of the house regarding phone calls. The house was on a party line and we were told not to answer the phone unless it was (for example, as I no longer recall exactly), long short long. Throughout the long weekend, the phone rang and rang incessantly. It was the same number (not ours) over, and over again. Finally, in frustration, my friend answered the phone. The caller was from London and furious that we had answered the phone, thus incurring her the cost of the call. She did, however, stop phoning, thank goodness, as it seemed obvious to all of us that whomever she was calling was not at home that weekend.

I contrast all of this with my solo adventures around the USA in 1972, doing a Greyhound bus trip from Vancouver Canada down the West Coast and up the East Coast including forays to Las Vegas (in those days, merely a strip and a few pokie machines). I even naively and yet safely, hitch-hiked on several occasions. Thankfully, my mother and father back in New Zealand, knew nothing of my adventures, apart from postcards that probably arrived, long after any perilous adventures. Too, there were broken hearts that I healed by myself, without recourse to instant contact with close friends and family back in New Zealand. My adventures were frequently about romance and idealised love, and I am glad in retrospect to have had these challenges to myself, made mistakes that only I know of, and poured my heart out into a diary, from which several pages have been torn and destroyed. The short few weeks when I was certain I was pregnant after unprotected sex. My mother back in New Zealand didn’t need to know and I had no one to tell. When I bled, it was a great relief. I’m glad I wasn’t in daily contact with my mother during these times. Too, when I ended up at the clinic for sexually transmitted diseases after my first sexual experience. This was a solo adventure, the penicillin worked and to be honest I was mortally ashamed. I imagine nowdays, that it might even be Twitter worthy news. That same first experience spawned a successful poem, fifty years later.

I’m on Twitter nowadays and mostly for the political links that I find. I’m fascinated by the banal, trivial and outright nasty comments that people I admire are prepared to post. Most recently Neil Gaman and his partner Amanda Palmer, stranded here in New Zealand during lockdown, enacted the early stages of a relationship breakdown, live on Twitter. My thoughts were for the innocent child in the middle of this so very personal muddle. Oh, I judged them, I did, but I could see that most people responded with empathy and compassion. And as happens on Twitter, many took sides, alas. It all seemed odd to be washing their laundry in public as my mother might have said.

I compare the use of Twitter and contrast this with the gravitas of the BBC News on shortwave radio. At least now I can verify facts, double check with several sources and make informed decisions. So I’m not wishing to go back to a time of censorship. A time when I idolised JFK and Jackie Kennedy and knew nothing really of American Politics. A time when I loved the Royal Family and went eight miles on the suburban bus to the picture theatre to watch the film of Princes Margaret’s wedding. Innocence indeed, and we also stood at the local Picture Theatre for God Save the Queen. A few dissidents in the more expensive seats at the back, often protested by sitting down, but we kids in the cheap front three rows knew nothing of politics. We were in thrall to the Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s and Paramount Pictures. Enchanted by the raising of the rich velvet scallop shaped curtain as it rose from the stage to expose the white screen. Billy Vaughan’s Sail Along Silvery Moon can still transport me to the magic of the Saturday Matinee, a sense of wonder. Yet nowadays I’m more likely to watch foreign films and arthouse movies than blockbuster Hollywood releases.

I started work as a sixteen-year-old at the Post Office, working on an Imperial 66 manual typewriter pounding the keys with up to five or six carbon copies. And today I write this essay from my brain to the screen on a Surface Pro that is so light, I carry it like a clutch bag. My travel in the 70’s was not documented on Instagram or Facebook. I have barely any photographic record of this adventure and instead I must retrieve these memories from my own internal memory bank without Facebook to prompt me, or photos from my phone. I can switch screens to check Facebook, check my phone for updates from Radio New Zealand about Covid-19 cases, use Google to verify the spelling of Rick Smolan the famous photographer I met briefly in 1977 and return with ease to place my thoughts on a screen that allows me to justify, spellcheck, delete and importantly to ‘save’, ready for emailing my entry to the Landfall Essay Competition. No doubt Instagram will remind me of the looming deadline.

Lockdown Poetry (I was there)

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This poem is not actually about lockdown, but written during lockdown after watching a video by Billy Collins… I am pretentiously channelling Walt Whitman.

 

 

I too sat in Noble’s barber shop

with my siblings for a haircut

high up on the swivel chair

 

although my hair has now turned grey

I recall the shape of my cut to this day

the nape of my neck exposed

 

A cowlick caused the problem

my fringe could not be restrained

but the feel of clippers I do not regret

 

I drank milkshakes in the Tea Kiosk

through many a paper straw

often so quickly, my head was sore

 

I queued at the War Memorial

for the Saturday Matinee on sunny

days but my friends were not allowed

 

I was called out of class

to the Murder House mid lesson

to face the consequences

 

Of too many toffee bars at

half time, the slow sweet decay

that I have paid for to this day

 

I remember Richmond Drapery

cinnamon seamless hosiery

the smell of bolts of cloth

 

Was it you and I who lay on the

hot asphalt by the school pool

peeing our maps of the world?

 

Was it you or me drinking

Cona Coffee, candles dripping

wax from empty wine bottles?

 

Were you there?

 

I climbed those blue hills with my lover

lay in those grasses upon which

the flash new subdivisions grew

 

Valhalla seemed grandiose for a

working class suburb, but the

new mall put paid to that

 

There’s a Mall my mother wrote

to me on a flimsy blue aerogramme

to my flat in Shepherds Bush

 

We all had our school feet measured

at Taylors at one time or another

secretly longing for patent leather

 

Herb was the Chemist who carefully

dispensed the avalanche of post war

Valium and sedatives to everyone

 

And everyone was married at one

time or another at the Church

of the Holy Trinity on the hill

 

Except us Catholics who of course

required a Papal dispensation

If we were wishing to deviate

 

I too was there each Anzac

and many after that too

In the bright light of Autumn

 

Where were you?

  
   

Kate Sheppard and a tinfoil mouse

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I recently read Penelope Lively’s ‘Ammonites & Leaping Fish‘, a thoughtful memoir in which she explores the meaning of memory and links moments in her life to precious objects, not valuable artefacts necessarily, but meaningful and even sentimental. Ian Wedde, too in his recent memoir ‘The Grass Catcher’ evokes memory through objects and the odours of his youth. The main object being the grass catcher. (Some of the odours he mentions are best left to be read about.) Although, I guess there’s probably not a Kiwi kid from the 50’s and 60’s who doesn’t remember the smell of freshly cut grass, and a hand mower with a canvas catcher. Or indeed, who doesn’t recall the whiff of two-stroke petrol when the family upgraded from a hand to a motor mower… and in your over-enthusiasm pulling out the choke, the mower flooded.

On reading these memoirs, I realised that my garden whenever I wander in it, evokes important milestones both happy and sad. It was over Labour Weekend, home alone with a broken wrist, somewhat sorry for myself, that I sat reading on our sunny deck and recalled it was my Aunt’s birthday.   That’s my deceased Aunty who would have been 94 this year. What made me recall her, was not just the date, the 25th of October, her birthday but that she would often come to stay with us for Labour Weekend and we would share her birthday. And that the cherry blossom tree that we built the deck around would be in full flower. Since then, we’ve chopped down the cherry tree – as it was taking up so much room on the deck but the memory of the cherry blossoms and my Aunt are intermingled.

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This prompted me to explore my garden and I found another blossom tree that forms an almost canopy on the lower part of our hillside section. The first year we moved into this house, our youngest son was six (he’s now 33) and we have a photograph of him standing under the flowering canopy with a chipped front tooth – memorable, because that very next day he was going to be page boy at the wedding of friends, fully decked out in matching tail-coat with his father who was the Groomsman. I remember being annoyed he’d broken his tooth. The couple who married, now have a daughter off to university next year. Whenever I look out our bedroom window in Spring and see the blossoms, I see our son with his chipped tooth, and then I remember our friends’ wedding anniversary.

Immediately beneath the blossom canopy is a very important memorial to our deceased cat Red who just happened to be a almost twenty year old black and white cat. Our granddaughter who adored Red, has made a pile of stones and shells in the garden as a tribute, and this includes a once shiny tinfoil mouse. The cat’s ashes are inside our house in a box, or are they? That’s another story, told in a poem and here is the link.

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Then there are my roses. They bring me both joy and a stab of grief.   Roses enjoy being hacked it seems. The possums last year were feasting on my roses, and so I cut them back savagely to pervert the possums – it seems the roses enjoyed this and they are looking positively radiantly ready to burst into many buds. This includes Kate Sheppard, named after the feisty Kiwi feminist whom we thank for the vote. My Korean daughter-in-law helped me plant Kate – a treasured gardening memory, all the more poignant as this year, she moves on to a new life, away from our family. No-one warned me that as a mother-in-law I could also have my heart broken.

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The Kate Sheppard Rose

The Kate Sheppard Rose

More violent and perhaps funnier, is the silk tree at our gate. One day, some years back now, after a fiery argument with my beloved, in fury and frustration, I attacked the silk tree – it was growing out over the path and obstructing the entrance. I chopped and chopped and snapped and attacked and I’m not sure what my neighbours thought. I felt bad afterwards and imagined the silk tree doomed, but it, like the roses, has thrived – but always to remind me of my tantrum.

Then there are the daisies that were once very fashionable in cottage country gardens. I tried slavishly to cultivate a cottage garden look to no avail. And then when we converted to a more coastal (but let’s keep the roses), suddenly the packet of seed that I sowed decided to grow. And now those daisies are considered weeds, but I allow them their rampancy as it only seems fair that they have tried so hard. They interweave with a beautiful old-fashioned red-leafed creeper with tiny mauve pom-pom flowers. The two fight for supremacy and I keep them both in check.

Too, as you enter out front gate by the almost demolished silk tree, there is a softly delicious smelling jasmine plant that entwines with the wildly fragrant honey-suckle. Both plants are now considered ‘outlaws’ as we live next to a native reserve… but the scent is so delicious of an evening that I cannot bring myself to be rid of them entirely. Inside our front gate are two Daphne bushes bringing their ‘lawful’ luxurious bouquet to our doorstep. Dare I mention my rogue (practically heretical) ginger plants. They look so striking and I’ve tried to strike them out. Alas, they resurge.

The last important memory is about our first day in this house. We inherited a beautiful old-fashioned garden and one of the main attractions were the pink water-lily dahlias. The previous occupant an older couple who had tended the garden for years with love and affection, slyly dug up some of the ‘considered rare’ dahlia bulbs and took them to their new abode. Due to landscaping and renovation, I no longer have any dahlias, but I know where they should be and they remind me of the key to the house, left in a glass bottle under the front veranda by the same elderly couple. And too the note they left us, filled with daily, weekly, monthly chores to be attended to, including the trimming and clearing of the zig-zag down to the road below. There’s a blackbird that comes to sing. We’ve named him after the dear old chap who lived here before us – although we’ve been in the house now for over 25 years, and I’m not sure how long blackbirds live…

Recently I posted a poem inspired by the tuis in our Kohwai tree. This tree was but a wind-blown seedling on the side of a clay bank that I was about to tear out while weeding when we first moved in. Something stopped me. It seemed wrong to not want a Kowhai, even though it was in the wrong place. The Kowhai now is a superstar where in springtime eight or nine tuis can be found feasting. It shades my washing line, something I lament, but the song of the tuis and the sight of the overweight kereru, more than compensates.

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So, my garden is full of birdsong, flowers and my heart’s song, a testimony to loss and new growth.

Saturday night fever and the supper waltz

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Saturday night fever and the supper waltz

Saturday night fever and the supper waltz

A friend’s blog has inspired me to write. She wrote about going to a dance recently at the local Cosmopolitan Club with her daughter. Her words conjured up tangible memories of the Saturday Night Dance at the Stoke Memorial Hall. It’s a long time ago. But reading Fiona’s blog, I was right there in my best frock seated on the wooden benches around the perimeter of the hall, waiting to be asked.

We’d spent all day thinking about going to the dance. We even went so far as to cycle to the river to swim with curlers in our hair. Sometimes (not often), we splashed out and bought a face mask from the local Chemist and sat in a hot bath to steam. We didn’t wear a lot of make-up but blue eye-shadow was big back then, I’m sure we wore blue eye-shadow. Pink lipsticks were pretty de rigueur also, or peach, or shades of pink and peach. I’m not sure we wore foundation, but I do recall pancake make-up that could be applied with a damp sponge – perhaps we did that.

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The Stoke Memorial Hall had a polished wooden floor and a raised stage where the band played. It was the days of more formal dancing and the highlight was always the Gay Gordons. My friend and I had learned to do the Valletta and the Foxtrot and the Methodist Church Hall in Richmond (even though I was Catholic). But the Gay Gordons was a wildly exhilarating way to meet almost all the boys in the hall. For some reason, the fat boys with sweaty palms were always the lightest on their feet. You might not want a ride home with them, but you loved the way they swung you around and too, their gentle soft bellies if you stumbled.

Most of the lads wore suits. It’s hard to imagine, but they did. Suits and ties to dance, or a sports jacket. We loved sports jackets. There was something quite dashing about a sports jacket, or even better, the reefer jacket with the extra silver buttons on the outside sleeve. Single versus double-breasted, a lot could be elucidated from such sartorial observations.

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We gave no thought to the terror the lads felt at having to cross the room and ask us to dance. All we knew was the terror of waiting to be asked. Naturally we reserved the right to say no, but it never occurred to us how awful that might be for the rejected suitor. Inevitably, there’d be one or two absolutely ‘must-have’ lads and inevitably, they were snapped up by the one or two ‘must-have’ lasses. This left the rest of us to make do with each other.

The Gay Gordons gave you a decent over-view of prospective rides home…

My friend and I would catch the bus to the Stoke Dance. The buses stopped running some time after ten o’clock and so we had a pact. One of us would find a boy with a car to drive both of us home. It was usually around supper time, after the supper waltz that such arrangements were confirmed. In the bright lights with asparagus rolls on side plates, or a chocolate lamington, we’d make eye contact perhaps for the first time that night with a potential ride home. In the full glare of the supper lights, potential rides home were able to be scrutinised and must have lads and lasses, sometimes faded to also-ran in the 100 watt reality. I guess that’s why the story ‘Supper Waltz Wilson’ the title story of Owen Marshall’s first short story collection, captured my heart immediately.

I don’t recall any of those rides home, but we were pretty safe, as we always went together – one ride was all we required. Whomever of the two of us was lucky enough to be liked for the night, scored a ride for their friend. I wonder what the boys thought about this? There’s no shining moment for me, just the excitement before the dance, the preparation, a kind of pageantry, and of course, the music.

Too, the Sunday post-mortem when we walked the switch-backs, sat in the long grass or swam in the river, comparing notes about the lad we wished had asked us to dance.

And how very strange that one of the most memorable songs from the Stoke Dance is an old Kiwi Folk song about the Māori Battalion – a song about war- but we never really thought about it in that light – well, I know I didn’t.

But don’t get me wrong, we did do the Hippy Hippy Shake, and Twist and Shout on those old polished floors – it wasn’t all waltzing.

P.S. I just found a link to this beautiful waltz

Working in the Sixties

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I recently had a poem published in ‘Typewriter’ an on-line journal for emerging poets edited by the delightful Elizabeth Welsh, a poet and passionate supporter of other poets.

The poem is about my first job really, as a shorthand typist with the Post Office in Nelson.    That’s quite some time ago now.   But it’s got me thinking about those times and how it was I ended up there and what it felt like.    You have to cast your mind back a bit to the 60’s when girls like me had to choose between being streamed ‘professional’ where you could study French and German and go on to become perhaps, well, ah… usually a nurse, or a teacher.   And then, if you wanted to learn to type, you had to choose ‘commercial’ and never the twain shall meet.

I wanted to be a reporter, as I recall, and I knew that I would need shorthand.   I didn’t know anything else and to boot, I had a very glamorous single (maiden or unclaimed treasure as she called herself) aunt, who worked at the Post Office.   It was my aunt who came to our house and tested my shorthand prowess which did reach 120 wpm at one stage.   It was she too, who gave me my first portable Olivetti typewriter to practice on.

Years later, when I was running my own recruitment company in the late 1980’s and the share-market plummeted, I recall meeting young women from private schools whose ambitious parents and teachers had refused them anything so ordinary as learning to type.   Oddly though, at this very point in history, the computer keyboard was becoming integral to most people’s working lives.  Being a touch typist, as I am, is a big advantage to anyone, male or female.

Yes, I learned to type at Waimea College, one of the first co-ed schools in New Zealand.   I sat in the commercial class with a bib over the typewriter keys so that now I can rattle off a book review or a blog without having to look at the keys, or to do the one-finger peck-peck that so many people are reduced to.   At one stage in my illustrious typing career (admittedly on an electric typewriter), I could do 100 wpm typing.   Indeed – I cannot vouch for absolute accuracy at this speed.     On an old manual typewriter, I think the top speed was 60 wpm to pass my Public Service examination.

Back then, in my first job, we sometimes had to type with up to six carbon copies, and that meant if you made a mistake, you had to erase all the copies one by one (Twink I think – I can’t remember) and I often ended up covered in carbon – no long-sleeved white-blouses for me as I stretched across the carbon copies.    I was always glad that I wasn’t a legal typist as they had to type perfect copy without erasures or amendments.

I wasn’t a super-star shorthand-typist because I had a tendency to day-dream.   Back then it was considered a lack of focus and I struggled with this, but now realise that probably I was bored with the content of much of the stuff I had to type and didn’t pay sufficient attention to it.   Yes, back then, I felt somewhat of a failure when I had to do”retypes” and watch my rubbish bin fill to overflowing.   I think I might have even smuggled out some discarded copy under my cardigan to avoid the embarrassment of yet more wasted paper – goodness knows what I did with it, but we did have a coal range at home that Mum cooked dinner on, so perhaps it went in there.

We used to clean our typewriters every Friday in the afternoon before we knocked off.   I had the uncanny knack of dismantling bits and pieces of my typewriter (unintentionally) as I cleaned it.   As I recall, I ended up with several pieces of my typewriter sitting in a basket beside my typewriter – and fortunately back then these old machines were so sturdy, that it continued to function, minus these missing parts.

I also operated the switchboard when it was my shift to do so.

That meant headphones on while typing and stopping mid-flight during a memorandum and transferring calls from outside to inside extensions – the criss-cross of cords as described in my poem – here’s the link.  You could eavesdrop to if you were that sort of girl, but of course I wasn’t!

From memory there was talk back then, that typists pushed the equivalent of ‘tons – tonnes’ per day, with the sheer pressure required to push the old manual keys.  I know our hands were held higher than they are for a modern electronic keyboard and you couldn’t just peck-peck.    Unless you were doing a stencil and you had to be very careful when pushing the letter ‘o’ as if you pushed too hard you cut the ‘o’ completely out and ended up with a black dot on the page instead of the lovely circular letter.

Recently, a librarian responsible for choosing books for the Catholic library service throughout Germany made contact with me.   He’d read a book review I had written for a book he had also reviewed and liked.   He had also read my blog about teaching English to German High School students.  And too, I think because of the Frankfurt book fair and the current interest in New Zealand writing.   I asked him about Catholic libraries and he gave me a very brief history which evidently go back to the second half of the 19th century.   “In those times Catholics were a (huge) minority in the Prussian dominated “Kaiserreich”.  Most of them lived in rural areas, worked as craftsmen and farmers and only a few have had an academic education, most of them were priests. Some of those academics saw the need of education for as many Catholics as possible.”  He said that after World War II, the libraries broadened their scope and now run more or less like any local library with a wide range of contemporary literary fiction, children’s literature, as well as gardening and cook books.

This reminded me of how it was back in the 50’s and 60’s in New Zealand.  I’m only quoting hearsay and legend, but it is said that many private companies wouldn’t hire Catholics and so by default many were in the public service.  My Aunt and two of her brothers worked in the Post Office and it seemed only natural that I would follow in my Aunt’s (to me glamorous) footsteps.   You see she drove an apple green, hand-painted Morris Minor, while we didn’t own a car.  She also earned more than my Dad (he was a carpenter) and she had an amazing wardrobe which included many pairs of stiletto shoes.    What else was there to aspire to?

I never regret the Commercial path that I took.    In the early seventies, I worked in London, Newcastle, Manchester, and Edinburgh as a Temp Secretary – and late in life, I’ve found my feet as a writer – typing has proved a most fortunate and useful skill.   I never did get to be a reporter, but I am now doing book reviews and blogging as well as working on my fourth novel – so yes, typing turned out to be the right thing after all.