Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Lest we forget

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The phone rang frighteningly in the middle off the night. I picked it up with trepidation, as you do. Calls at this hour seldom bring good tidings. I needn’t have worried. It was around midday in England and a gentleman with a polished British accent announced that he was a spokesman for the R.A.F. It seems the good people in the village of Dennekamp in North Eastern Holland are unveiling a memorial to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of a bomber crashing on the outskirts of their village in Holland in 1941 with a total loss of life. My father’s brother Frank was the pilot. The unveiling is to take place on the 13th of March, sixty years to the day since the tragedy.

I was to let other members of the immediate family know and if any of us were to make the pilgrimage to the ceremony he promised we would be made extremely welcome.

It reminded me of this coming Sunday’s airshow at Hood Aerodrome and the heroic pilots who made it back, some of whom will no doubt be in attendance to watch with respect a display of some of the planes they flew that helped win the Battle of Britain. The fact that some of the planes and their pilots still endure is a testimony to their fortitude. These men and their aircraft played a huge role in allowing us to live as bountifully as we do today.

They might well reflect, however, that in the interim we have become a nation of wimps.

Last week for instance ACC announced that anyone who has witnessed a traumatic event may be eligible for compensation. Whilst I have the greatest sympathy for those folk who have observed a tragedy at first hand, I am mystified to know how throwing money at those traumatised, by whatever the event, is going to make the unfortunate images dissipate.

But that was just for starters. It was also disclosed that the precious people who work for the N.Z. Qualifications Authority had been given $2000 each for the severe discomfort they had suffered when they shifted from one centrally heated/air-conditioned office to another centrally heated/air conditioned office, just up the road. This was on top of a $1000 performance bonus for presumably doing the job they were being paid for in the first place. And not all that well according to students who rang the 0900 number to get their exam marks and were told that they had got 0! “A glitch in the computer,” explained the Qualifications Authority spokesperson as he or she no doubt downed their caviar with champagne.

Then there were the highly indignant Air New Zealand passengers who threatened, through their lawyers, to sue the hapless airline for not disclosing to them the risks they took flying in economy class and contracting a form of thrombosis that could prove fatal. Never mind that Air New Zealand reported that since its inception it had flown millions of passengers with no known clots.

An ex-RAF pilot rang last week after reading about these litigants and wondered how he and his colleagues survived World War Two. My caller flew Lancaster bombers for up to 12 hours at a stretch in cramped conditions and the thought of blood clots never entered his head - nor his legs. The Catalina crews, he told me, were in the air for up to 22 hours. He didn’t say so in so many words but I suspect neither those Lancasters nor the Catalinas had stewardess service, with drinks and nibbles, in-flight movies or stereo headsets. I’m not sure that they even had toilets.

My uncle survived dozens of bombing raids before the one that killed him and a magazine interview he gave in 1939 after a reconnaissance flight over Germany, gives us some idea of the discomfort they endured so that we might live in comparative luxury today.

“ As the temperature, increasing with our descent, approached freezing point a snowy type of ice grew on the control column, on the insides of the windows, and on the instrument panel....the visibility was I opened the window to see better. It was snowing. The navigator table and the instruments were soon covered again with half an inch of snow.

The front gunner could see nothing from his cockpit but white snow - when he came back to see us his helmet and his shoulders were buried beneath an inch of the stuff. Shortly afterwards a blinding flash, and a bump bigger than the others, took away our trailing aerial - and knocked all the snow off the instruments.”

Later in the article he said the discomfort had been shared with other planes in their group.

“In one machine the tail gunners eyebrows became frozen when the aircraft was at twenty-one thousand feet where there was 72 degrees of frost....Two of the gunners of the other machines suffered from frostbitten fingers.”

The Whitley bomber had much of its wings shot away on this trip and its safe return to England was described as “a miracle” by the newspapers of the day.

“We thought we should have to land in the sea, so the navigator went back to prepare the rubber dinghy and collect the rest of the crew. However as we got down to 500 feet the engines began to pick up and when the navigator returned to report “all OK for landing” we were maintaining height at one hundred and ten miles per hour and it seemed that we might be able to make England.”

Those brave men and women who served in the army, navy and air force could never have envisaged at the time that we, as a result of their sacrifices, would have inherited a society that today has so many creature comforts. Not that they would have begrudged us these, but those ‘so few’ might have been disappointed to know that it now takes monetary compensation to help us overcome those uncomfortable events that life throws at us from time to time.

A phone call in the middle of the night might even be worth a couple of hundred dollars. I must check with ACC.

(First published  on the 24th of January 2001)

“Older men declare a war. But it is youth that must fight and die.” - Herbert Clark Hoover 


Wednesday, 20 June 2018

The camera never lies

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My late father had a wonderful sense of humour. I remember when the young Queen Elizabeth came to Masterton in 1953 she had lunch at the Empire Hotel. Rival butcher Mr. C. L. Neate, who had only recently settled in the town from Britain, served the Empire with their meat requirements and immediately after the lunch, while the Queen and the Duke were still driving out of town to their next destination, he wrote on his shop window in white poster paint: “The Queen ate our meat.” Quick as a flash my father wrote on our shop window: “God save the Queen.” One of the national weekly periodicals at the time, concluding a story on the incident, asked: “Would you buy meat from a man like that?” Fortunately many did.

In 1961 I went to Sydney to work in a butcher’s shop that had won an award that year for the most modern meat market in Australasia, Dick Stone Ltd. at Rockdale. 

Rockdale is one of Sydney’s southern suburbs, back then buoyant and very Australian. A visit there a couple of years ago revealed the butcher’s shop has given way to a lending institution and the population is predominantly South East Asian. In the fifties and sixties the white Australia policy was hugely obvious.

The owner of the shop was Richard Setten Stone. He had three shops in Rockdale; one called Richard’s, another called Setten’s and the award winner, where I worked, called Stone’s. Each was independently managed, mine by a hard taskmaster named Jimmy Blakemore, and each shop had a fierce rivalry going with the others. When I first started at Stones, as I was unknown to the staff at the other two shops, Jimmy Blakemore would send me to spy on their prices and report back. We would then undercut them. This, despite them all having the same owner.

Stone’s had a staff of eleven butchers and we were constantly busy. There was always a sea of faces at the counter waiting to be served. One evening, at around closing time, I managed to assemble everyone behind the counter and take their photo which I sent back to Dad with a letter explaining this was the staff of the shop where I was working in Aussie.

This was too much for my father. He had a staff of about seven back then so he rang up the laundry, asked for all of our white coats and aprons to be delivered back to the shop post haste and then rushed around the neighbouring shops seeking recruits to boost his complement for a return photo. Dad managed to line up 17 people behind our shop counter. Another phone call, this time to photographer Ted Nikolaison, and the shot was taken, processed and sent to me at the shop in Rockdale. A simple note attached said: Dear Rick, thanks for the photo of the staff in the shop in Australia. Here is a recent photo of our team in Masterton. 

I opened the envelope at the shop, saw the possibilities immediately, and soon had all the staff, including Jimmy Blakemore, gathered around me to see the photo. They were all amazed, none more so than the erstwhile manager, who had justifiably been treating me like a serf/peasant type from lowly New Zealand. His attitude warmed markedly when he saw the apparent size of our family business. “What did all these people do?” he was keen to know. He was particularly intrigued by the two Chinamen, Tommy and Charlie Wong. Their fruit shop backed on to ours and they had been Dad’s first two recruits as he had sought help to increase, albeit temporarily, the number of his employees.

Back then I could think quickly on my feet so I told the impressionable manager that they made the smallgoods. I said that they locked themselves in a backroom each morning and produced, with secret herbs and spices, the best sausages in the country. People, I prevaricated, came from far and wide to taste Long’s oriental polonies. Next on his question list was the huge bear of a man in a bow tie and chef’s hat. This was George Bogala, actually the Yugoslav cook at the A1 restaurant, but I told Jimmy that he broke down all our beef. I said he could single-handedly process about six bodies of beef in a day, and that he kept a bucket of cold water on the floor beside him so he could dip his knife in it from time to time when it got too hot.

I found various jobs for the photogenic conspirators including gift shop owner Jack Whiteman, Army Stores proprietor Frank Pool, abattoir manager George Brown, plus two hairdressers, Mel Catt and George Corlett, all of whom had been press-ganged into posing for the photo. Pharmacist Wayne Snowsill had arrived when all the coats and aprons had been used up. In his chemist white smock he looked a little professional to be a straight butcher so I told the boss that he was a window dresser. This was the too much for Jimmy Blakemore. “You employ a window dresser?” he said incredulously, and now saw me in a totally, if unjustifiable, new light.

From then on I was looked upon as something of a guru in the field of meat retailing.

Jimmy would constantly ask me, as we were completing some task, if this was how we would do it in New Zealand. I enjoyed by newly acquired status and milked it for all it was worth. Once I had established myself, about six weeks after the photo had arrived, I admitted the deception. Fortunately, Aussies enjoy a good joke. Although I went back down the rankings ladder, I never descended to the bottom rung from whence I had started.

Wellington’s Evening Post published the story and cleverly captioned the accompanying photo: “Camera proves Masterton Butchery a much larger joint.”

Like my own children today I always thought fathers were of little use, but I was pleased that mine, with his incorrigible sense of humour, had given me the opportunity to excel in a country where New Zealanders had about the same credibility as the Irish have in England.

(First published on March 31st 1999)

“Everything is funny as long as it is happening to someone else.” - Will Rogers.


Thursday, 14 June 2018

Man's inhumanity to man

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The fiscal outlook for the world’s eighth largest economy Brazil looks gloomy with The Financial Times suggesting it has gone from zombie to walking dead.

I spent six weeks in the Amazon region of Brazil in 1986, leading a Rotary Group Study Exchange team. I never really felt safe the whole time I was there. I was physically assaulted on three occasions during the six weeks. I was unscathed - only my pride was hurt - thanks to people around me who came to my assistance, but I vividly remember wanting to do a papal kissing of the tarmac when I got back to Auckland airport. 

The problem with Brazil, and I guess this applies to a great many countries, is that abject poverty resides alongside audacious wealth. The two don’t co-exist and the have-nots, with little to lose, often decide to take what they want. NZ yachting hero Sir Peter Bake Blake was murdered there in 2001 and apparently died for the sake of a couple of watches and some banknotes of the near worthless Brazilian currency.

In 1986 I also found the scale of poverty in Brazil to be frightening, Back then it was claimed the majority of the wealth resided in about five percent of the populous. The biggest city at the mouth of the Amazon is Belem - pronounced Belame - short for Bethlehem, its original name. It has a population of a million and a half souls. From the air it looked like a modern metropolis with high rise buildings in abundance. At ground level it wasn’t quite so splendid. Most of the high rises were tenement buildings; concrete bunkers stacked on top of one another providing the most basic of living amenities. But the ‘favelas,’ corrugated iron lean-to shanty towns, on the outskirts of the city, were far worse and the multi-storey bunker dwellers would have considered they were comparatively well-off.

We were in Belem for two weeks before moving on to other parts in the region and while there I was billeted with a well-to-do Japanese family. They lived in a modest home by our standards, but it was pretty spectacular for Brazil. As it was surrounded by the dwellings of the poor. It was distinguishable by the bars over the windows and every evening at seven o’clock a hired armed guard would arrive, wearing a holster with two six-guns, who would parade around the house all night providing protection for the inhabitants. It was hard to sleep in that heat, despite the house being air-conditioned, and the footsteps going past the window every few minutes were an unhelpful distraction.

The poor seemed never to go to bed. No matter what time of the night you arrived home the whole population appeared to be occupying the footpaths, with the kids invariably kicking soccer balls around. Even at one or two in the morning the suburban streets were full of people. We were told their houses were so hot it was nigh impossible to sleep.

In an area that attracts few tourists we were conspicuous of course and were generally believed to be Americans, for whom the Brazilians have little respect. As you walked passed a group you would hear them say disparagingly: “Americanos Gringos!” whereupon we would hastily turn around and exclaim: “Noun, noun, Nouvelle Zealandia!” which made us much more acceptable. 

Peter Blake probably didn’t have time to make the distinction.

One city we stayed in, just up-river from Belem, was Manaus, which has the sordid reputation of being the murder capital of the world. More murders are committed there than in any other place on earth, and I understand that this is not calculated on a population basis.

There appeared to be no social welfare system in Brazil; if you didn’t have a job the government offered no handout system to get you through. Beggars line the streets, many with severe physical disabilities, and it was explained to us that this was due to polio, still rife in that country. The vaccines of the first world were unaffordable in the third world, although Rotary International programme to immunise the whole world will have meant this will not now be the case.

We visited factories where working conditions were so draconian that it made you sick to the stomach. You’d wonder where the world’s labour organisations were, but it would seem they only operate in the wealthy OECD countries.

Life expectancy was short and life was cheap. I saw a man run over by a bus one day. He died instantly, but no one ran to his aid. They all stood on the crowded footpaths and watched him lying there in a pool of blood. No ambulance came and I was told he would remain there until relatives came to claim him. I asked what the road toll was, but no one knew; no statistics are kept.

Things no doubt will have improved in the intervening 30 or so years. Inflation back then was running at 300 percent and interest rates were 1400 percent! I assume they have got their monetary system back in some semblance of order, but the poor will still be poor and the vast majority of the population will be struggling with their day-to-day living.

There is a lesson in this for us of course. Since 1986, reforms in New Zealand have hardly created the utopia promised and have most certainly resulted in a greater gap between the rich and poor. Not that we compare with the deprivation of the average Brazilian, but the trickle-down theory that didn’t work there, hasn’t worked here either.

Sir Peter Blake and the memories of him, so poignantly encapsulated in documentary films, will be an ongoing inspiration for those who follow on to complete his work which was to save species of the animal kingdom heading for extinction, but now we require some heroic leaders of his ilk to turn their attention to the human of the species.

Homo Sapiens is desperately in need of some new champions to save his own skin.

“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills to prey, Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.” - Oliver Goldsmith 


Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Forty years in the wilderness

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When I was a youngster we had a wind-up gramophone. My father had received it for winning an event at harriers. The turntable used to revolve at 78 rpm, and you had to put in a new needle every time you played a record. Needles came in little tins of 100 and you bought them at local gift shop Arts and Crafts. I remember my cousin Bill Geary moved the technology forward by building a turntable powered by electricity. He made the pick-up arm out of balsa wood. This marvellous machine played the new ‘long-playing’ records that went around at 33/and a1/3 rpm and had a needle that played over and over.

There were no record shops as such back then - the popular music industry had not yet started and so the selection was limited. I was so enthralled by the electrified player that I was unwittingly exposed to classical music, which I grew to enjoy. My favourites were the Hungarian Rhapsody part 2 and The Waltz of the Flowers.

Films influenced our lives; we called them ‘pictures’ and in my early teens my unlikely hero was Mario Lanza. I saw all his films, bought all his records (our wind-up gramophone had now been replaced by a ‘radiogram’) and I even wrote to him in Hollywood expressing my admiration. I got a letter back from his secretary with an autographed picture of the great man himself. I had this framed and hung it above my bed. My parents watched me quizzically; most of my contemporaries would have had Marilyn Monroe on their bedroom walls. (Later on, when I started to take an interest in the opposite sex, mum and dad yearned for my Mario Lanza era).

I was fickle though. A new hero emerged in the form of clarinetist Benny Goodman. I saw ‘The Benny Goodman Story’ at the Regent Theatre four times. We had a music shop in the State Theatre building back then called the Geoffrey Farrell School of Music. As I recall Mr. Farrell showed a greater interest in alcohol than he did arpeggios, but I espied a second hand clarinet in his window and determined I must have it. Mr. Farrell allowed me to put it away on layby and I was soon its proud owner. I offered myself to the Wairarapa College orchestra as first clarinetist and I’ll never forget the sheer thrill of playing in an orchestra with violins, violas, cellos, and the like.

When I left college my father sent me to Palmerston North to learn the meat trade at an old and well established butcher’s shop in that city. I found myself a clarinet teacher over there and continued my studies in that instrument.

But as Bob Dylan was to later put it: “the times they were a-changing.” A fellow named Bill Haley was making his mark with a new and exciting style of music and I put a guitar on layby at a Palmerston North music shop. My music teacher, sensing the interest was waning on the clarinet said I had to choose one instrument over the other. I sought wise counsel with my landlady. She told me rock’n’roll would soon die and that clarinet music would live on forever. I listened attentively then opted for the guitar. I went to her funeral in Palmerston North seven or eight years ago. It was too late to point out that rock’n’roll had outlived her.

I taught myself to play the guitar; I sold my clarinet and bought an amplifier and when I came back to Masterton after two years in Palmerston North I formed a rock’n’roll band with a friend named Melvin Carroll. We called ourselves ‘The Drifters’ then later 'The Signatures.’ I was the band’s vocalist and alternately played guitar, bass guitar and double bass. We were the only rock’n’roll band in the Wairarapa at the time and played regularly two or three nights a week. I was making more money strumming a guitar than I was stringing sausages.

Marriage, family and business interests intervened but a couple of years ago my wife suggested we go to Wellington to the ballet. I nearly had a fit. Me go the ballet! Then I had pangs of conscience. Hadn’t I dragged her over the years to concerts of my choice, like Neil Diamond and the Shadows? I agreed to make the pilgrimage as long as I could go in disguise in case there were other people from Masterton there. I had a reputation to maintain. I didn’t want anyone to think my pre-pubescent love of Mario Lanza had more latent meanings. In the event I sneaked into the Wellington Opera House without being seen, slunk down in my seat and waited to be bored out of my brain. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was enchanted from the minute the curtain went up. The ballet was The Nutcracker Suite and you can imagine my delight when, the orchestra suddenly burst into Waltz of the Flowers and I saw Tchaikovsky’s imagery as it was intended. I had to choke back the emotion and fight back the tears. Now I knew how the ancient Hebrews felt; I had spent forty years in the wilderness.

It’s not that the rock’n’roll we played was all that bad. The lyrics were simple love songs and the music basic 12 bar blues. As it has progressed, however, the words have got more complicated and somehow twisted in the process. There has been a sort of a darkness emerge that was never there in its infancy. Music can influence us hugely; it has a power that can either enhance or destroy. I peruse some of the lyrics from today’s offerings and can only conclude that they are concocted in depraved drug-induced minds. You hear of teenage suicides and suspect that for many, evil music had dominion over their lives. On the other side of the coin it has been discovered that classical music has healing powers and surgeons are playing it in the background during operations with amazing results.

It’s not for me to preach. I still tend to have a liking for middle of the road popular music and to date The Nutcracker Suite is the only ballet I’ve attended. But I have a belated admiration for my wise old landlady and from time to time contemplate what direction my life might have taken if my clarinet teacher had only been a bit more persistent.

(First published on 30th of September 1998)

“At every one of those concerts in England you will find rows of weary people who are there, not because they really like classical music, but because they think they ought to like it.” - George Bernard Shaw. 


Thursday, 7 June 2018

Endeavoring to hold the peace

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There was a good deal of comment that the presiding priest at Prince Harry and Meghan’s wedding asked if anyone saw just cause for the couple could not be joined in holy matrimony. It was a regular feature of weddings in “my day”; I haven’t been to a wedding for some time and it seems the custom may have been discontinued. So I thought it may be appropriate to re-run this column which I wrote back on February the 24th 1999. You may find it hard to believe, but every word is true.

Marion and I tied the knot on Masterton Show day in 1963 at around 5 o’clock in the afternoon, and after the nuptials we were greeted by my butcher’s shop staff dressed as undertakers, complete with top hats, forming a guard of honour at the church door.

They and some friends had also sent off the taxis and had replaced these with horse and gigs. We were then paraded down the main street, now full of people coming home from the show, bagpipers in front, the undertakers next and the horses and two gigs with the bridal party bringing up the rear. My new bride, who hailed from Eketahuna, didn’t know what she’d struck.

I was determined to get even at the future weddings of those who had perpetrated this and I didn’t have to wait long. Lew Milne was to marry Alison Cooke in Greytown. I was to be a groomsman. Lew was a stockbuyer for Borthwick’s and he had organised the horses and carts for our wedding from Tom Hood at Kopuaranga. Retribution was in sight.

It had always occurred to me that it would be exceptionally funny if somebody responded when the minister intoned the words: “If anyone can show any just cause why these two cannot be lawfully joined together, let them now speak or hereafter forever hold their peace.” Mind you, it’s quite difficult to find anyone who will actually make a response.

Locally no one was game.

I had a friend in Wellington named Ian Dawson who owned the Sorrento coffee bar and managed The Libretto’s, New Zealand’s foremost rock band at the time, and I rang him to see if he could find an outgoing Wellingtonian who might be able to assist. He rang back and said he’d found someone, but the price would be quite high. I agreed to pay whatever it cost.

The wedding was at 4.30 p.m. at the Methodist establishment at the north end of Greytown. The groom and we groomsmen were resplendent in white ties and tails and the little church was packed; standing room only. When the minister, I’ll never forget his name, Reverend Hornblow, made the statement I was anticipating “If anyone can show any just cause (etc.) speak now or forever hold your peace.” there was the usual pregnant silence.

Then suddenly a dapper little chap in a dark suit and thin black tie came running up the aisle; “Stop the wedding, stop the wedding,” he cried. The atmosphere was electric (electric atmospheres, pregnant pauses, don’t you just love the English language?) My expensive actor person got to the startled couple, looked them up and down and said, “Oh no. Sorry! Wrong wedding” and ran back out the other aisle.

At this juncture I expected the congregation would burst out laughing, the wedding would continue without further delay, and afterwards I would be congratulated by all and sundry for organising the ultimate practical joke. Not so. Close family members of the bride suffered discomfiture; some quite seriously. Nobody laughed, not the least the Reverend Hornblow, who stumbled through the rest of the ceremony as though it was his first outing. There was a pall over the breakfast and I was sent to Coventry by most of the guests, though I must say the bride and groom took it in good humour.

On the Sunday I sat down and wrote a long letter of apology to the brides’ parents. The Methodist vestry held an emergency meeting on Monday and considered taking me before a church court to discourage other misguided humourists from attempting the same prank. However, they saw the letter I had written to Mr. and Mrs. Cooke, assumed I was repentant, and asked that a similar letter be sent to them, and all would be forgiven. I couldn’t write that second letter quickly enough.

The Sunday News in Auckland ran the story, describing me as having “a curious sense of humour,” whatever that means. They asked for comment from prominent clergy in that city. Most were strongly condemnatory.

Jokes I played at subsequent friends’ weddings were low key and more acceptable all round.

The dapper Wellingtonian who had made the foray up the church aisle was a regular patron at the Sorrento coffee bar, an Argentinean named ‘Chico.’ They never did send me the bill. I’m not sure whether they forgot or if they felt sorry for me for all the trouble I had got myself into.

I’d like to think it was the latter. Though to be fair, I probably didn’t deserve the sympathy.

“Before a marriage a man declares that he would lay down his life to serve you. After marriage he won’t even lay down his newspaper to talk to you.” - Helen Rowland.


Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Everybody wants to go to heaven

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What’s with this word Karma? It seems to be getting frequent usage. Hekia Parata once used it, apparently suggesting that the Novapay debacle was “karma” for the teachers daring to challenge her and her ministry whenever they tried to institute change.

According to my trusty Chambers dictionary karma is a Buddhist and/or Hindu based word used to describe a transcendental retribution for something done that perhaps ought not to have been done; the theory of inevitable consequence generally.

Somehow in the increasingly secular world it has replaced the age-old belief that a mystical out-of-world figure, believed by many to be God, punishes you for any wrongdoing. This doctrine leads to that oft-heard exclamation: “What have I done to deserve this?” Why we have suddenly decided to apply eastern mysticism to what was once comprehended in plain English is anybody’s guess.

Although action and reaction is a scientifically proven concept I doubt that it extends to our personal misfortunes. I guess it’s not uncommon for someone who discovers they have a terminal illness to ask “why me?” but unless their diet or lifestyle has contributed in some way then surely it’s just the luck of the draw rather than retribution from a deity.

I recall when our contemplations of this complex ideology were sharpened by an in-depth evaluation of the life and times of broadcaster Paul Holmes just prior to his untimely demise. In a soul-searching interview Janet McIntyre wanted to know did he believe in the afterlife and did he think he was going there. Paul said he hoped he had done enough, though he conceded that he was scared.

Later in a radio interview Pam Corkery let slip that Paul was a serial philanderer, though she herself had not succumbed. Not a good look for entry into the realm of angels. And yet on the other side of the coin he brought heart-rending stories to our attention on a nightly basis, not the least being the plight of young Eve van Grafhorst who had been pilloried in Australia for having aids. Paul’s response was to bring her to our screens, show genuine love for the little girl and expose to all of us that HIV was not a transferable disease at a time when we needed to know.

And Paul certainly reached a sainthood of sorts in the various embellished Television One accolades for his contribution to their ratings; the channel conveniently forgetting that at the peak of his popularity he had left One to launch Prime, expecting further fame and a bigger fortune. Somewhat surprisingly his audience stayed with One, and Prime had to outlay a large amount of money to release him from their contract.

Further homage was paid to him when he was knighted and arose to become Sir Paul.

I met him once at a book signing at Solway Park Copthorne. Later on in the evening I spoke to him briefly and found him to be a thoroughly nice man. His claim that he “loved people” was born out when he was prepared to talk to me, a complete stranger, and genuinely show interest.

That book, his autobiography, was a best seller, but I’m not sure some of the revelations were the kind of experiences that ought to have been aired in public. Certainly in his initial courtship of Fleur Revell a dinner date was graphically described, allowing too much information and must have embarrassed the young lady unfairly. He came across as a complete cur.

I bought his next book, the award winning Daughters of Erebus, and all the time while reading it I had to stop and wonder how this man could have written such a brilliant tome.

In my view this book alone qualified him for a Knighthood.

From cur to Sir is a giant leap for mankind.

Just who is eligible for entry into the afterlife is a moot point. Certainly it would be hard for a mortal man to pass the litmus test the Bible details for admittance. However Eve’s mother reckons her daughter will be at the Pearly Gates to receive Paul and show him around.

I guess that’s karma, in the nicest possible way.

(First published on the 13th of February 2013)

“Fame is a powerful aphrodisiac.” – Graham Greene 


Friday, 27 April 2018

A tribute to an old friend

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Wayne Snowsill died on the 21st of April 2018, aged 79. This was my eulogy to him at his funeral service.

Wayne Snowsill was an extremely handsome young man. He was a couple of years older than me, but my peer group, whenever we were at places where teenagers congregated, were always envious of the fact that the girls we wanted to attract, were inevitably gathering around Wayne.

And I so it came as a complete surprise to me when I went into Snowsill’s Pharmacy one Friday night and instead of one those goddesses that normally serve you from behind a chemist shop counter, Wayne came out from the dispensary to attend to me and the first words he said were “They tell me you play the guitar”.

I was surprised, and flattered even, that he knew who I was, and even more surprised that he knew I played the guitar.

“Do you know Melvin Carroll?” he wanted to know. I did by reputation, but not personally. Melvin was another good looking young man about town. Black curly hair, with a DA at the back.

Thinking about it, Melvin was probably Masterton’s answer to The Fonz although the Fonz hadn’t been invented at the time. It was some years later that TV arrived in New Zealand and some years after that that Happy Days was screened.

Wayne said Melvin was coming around to his parents place the following afternoon to learn to play the guitar and would I like to come around and help to teach him. Of course I readily accepted the invitation; to be able to rub shoulders with these two titans of the teenage scene was quite unexpected.

The Snowsill family home was an art-deco style house at the bottom of Cole Street, next to the Times-Age building and Wayne and I spent most of the Saturday afternoon endeavouring to teach Melvin to play the guitar.

Melvin left just before I did and as we were walking out the gate Wayne said to me, “Do you think Melvin will ever be able to play the guitar? I told him no, I didn’t think he had it in him. Less than twelve months later Melvin invited me to join a rock band he was forming called the Drifters with him as the leader and lead guitar.

Melvin was now a better guitarist than Wayne and I would ever be!

Wayne and Melvin were both members of the Riversdale Surf Lifesaving Club and they insisted I join. I was as skinny as a rake and not much of a swimmer, but I joined anyway. Wayne was a good swimmer and had an admirable physique. Despite Riversdale being a notoriously safe beach he would fearlessly dive into the surf and rescue young ladies in bikinis who from my observation were in no danger of drowning.

Our form of transport around the beach was in Wayne’s open-top Model A Ford.

Wayne didn’t join Melvin’s band. He was already in a band with his brother Jack – and Clive and Colin Thorne and Darcy Christianson. Jack and Wayne both very accomplished musicians, able to play a number of different instruments; their talent I suspect inherited from their parents. Wayne’s Mum Ivy was a superb pianist and I have seen a photo of his father Bill playing the clarinet in a symphony orchestra.

There were two other siblings. Janice who as good looking in the feminine sense as her older brother - and young Gary, who was the sort of person whose photo you might see in a college yearbook with the caption underneath “Most likely to succeed.” Indeed, he went on to become a very successful businessman, domiciled on the Gold Coast of Australia. His daughter Emma is a world renowned triathlete and an Olympic and Commonwealth Games gold medallist.

Wane however did play with The Drifters when his band had a night off. He and I became vocalists in the band, Wayne could harmonise well and we sang mainly songs by the Everly Brothers, popular at the time. I’ve often thought that it was just as well the Everly Brothers never heard us, but we can’t have been that bad. The Manager of the Regent theatre in Palmerston North saw us at a function in Masterton one night and asked us if we would come over to his theatre whenever he had a teenage movie screening and sing to the young audience at half time. The pay was good, so went over whenever requested. The Palmerston manager was also the manager of the Regent in Pahiatua so we sang there occasionally as well. We performed in the gap between the front of the stage and the curtain which wasn’t very wide and we were in constant danger of falling into the orchestra pit.

One night Wayne peered beyond the spotlight at the enthusiastic young lasses in the front rows and told me later that they were only about thirteen or fourteen years old. Well you can’t win them all.

Next we tried our hand at comedy. We worked up a 45 minute routine that mainly involved miming some of Stan Freberg’s parodies. Specifically The Great Pretender, The Banana Boat Song and The Dear John and Marsha Letter.

We also wrote and sang some parody’s of our own. My Old Man’s a Butcher was based on Lonny Donegan’s My Old Man’s a Dustman.

We’re the Boys from Camp Wairarapa – this was a story about a local boy-scout troop who go camping up north and happen upon some girl-guides skinning dipping in a lake. It was based on Johnny Horton’s The Battle of New Orleans.

We took Elvis Presley’s song Are You Lonesome Tonight and made it Are You Moansome Tonight.

We even wrote a song about Riversdale Beach.

(Sing with ukelele:)

Show me the way to go home,
Said the girl from Riversdale Beach
I lost my togs about an hour ago
and they've gone out of my reach
Now I've got nothing on,
But seaweed and some foam
So bring me a page of the old Times-Age*
And show me the way to go home.

(Well it wasn't going to win any Grammy's)

We did these shows all around the Wairarapa and sometimes beyond. We played at New Zealand’s only licensed restaurant at the time, The Zodiac in Wellington, and the manager wanted us to perform there every Friday and Saturday night, but we felt the constant travel was going to be too much of an effort.

Our biggest audience was when we performed before two and a half thousand people at a conference at the Rotorua convention centre.

We used to charge twelve pounds for the act; six pounds each, usually cash - so tax free.
(I’m hoping the statute of limitations for tax evasion is now well passed.) Sometimes we would perform our act at cabarets, private parties and dances three times over a weekend. Perhaps once on a Friday night; and a couple of times on a Saturday. Therefore we earned eighteen pounds each over a weekend.

We were both working for our fathers at the time, Wayne at the chemist shop and me at the butcher’s shop. Coincidentally, our fathers were both paying us eighteen pounds a week before tax. We explained to them that we could earn eighteen pounds for a few hours work over the weekend and people would ply us with free drinks and applaud us when we finished. But for the 40 or fifty hours a week we spent working for them from Monday to Friday we got the same money, less the tax, and neither free drinks nor applause.

Suffice it to say, they were unmoved.

It was about then that Wayne and I concluded “there’s no business like show business.”

You're never going to believe this, but Wayne and I once started up a "Virgins Club." We even put an ad in the paper disclosing the meeting place as being in the telephone box in Roberts Road, however about 20 young ladies of whom we were acquainted assured us they were eligible and wanted to attend, so we had to find a bigger venue. Wayne was the secretary/treasurer and I was the patron. At our second meeting we had an outstanding guest speaker who gave a dissertation on the importance of chastity. Members were accepted on a neither confirm nor deny basis, but we eventually had to disband the club due to a paucity of suitable applicants.

Virgins clubs, bikini-clad young bathers and skinny dipping girl-guides. There’s a disturbing pattern emerging here. Fortunately the me/too movement was sixty years in the future.

It’s interesting having a chemist as a friend. On one occasion he came up with some tablets that were the precursor I think to no-doz pills. These will keep us awake and on the mark doing our performances he assured me.

We were involved in a concert in the Regent theatre in Carterton one Friday night. The packet advised one tablet at a time but we took a couple of pills each and nearly jumped out of our skins on stage. He rang me next day; “Did you sleep alright?’ he wanted to know. I hadn’t slept at all; my heart was still racing furiously. So we decided to give them a miss.

Another time he came over to shop with a miracle pill that would give you a fake tan; no need to risk going out in the sun. He hadn’t tried them himself, I reckon I was a guinea pig for Snowsill’s Pharmacy. It was a round orange pill that looked for all the world like a Jaffa. “Don’t chew it,” he said, “swallow it whole.” That was an effort in itself, try swallowing a Jaffa whole. I nearly choked. Two days later I turned bright orange.

The only person I know still using these pills is Donald Trump.

But all good things must come to an end. Stan Freberg didn’t produce any more new songs and Wayne and I ran out of ideas for parodies. Anyway most Wairarapa people had seen the show at least once - and so we put it to bed.

Marriage and families were the order of the day. Wayne was the best man at my wedding and godfather to our eldest son, then he got married himself and had two sons of which he was extremely proud. We both joined the Masterton Rotary Club to do our bit for the community and both even dabbled in religion. Wayne studied education for ministry for five years - and to cap that off, he married a priest! 

A very loving marriage has ensued.

He took communion at home with Elizabeth a few weeks ago and then just after that, communion with Bishop Justin. “Communion twice in a fortnight,” he said “I must be going up in the world.”

A few years ago we decided maybe we could bring the old comedy act out of the closet and start performing again. A great way, we thought, to supplement our pensions.

Six pounds each in 1960 must have inflated to $100 in the 21st century, surely? That meant potentially $300 each over a weekend which could put us in the lap of luxury.

Technology had moved apace in the intervening years. We used to have a portable record player hidden at the back of the stage. We then had to carefully put the needle arm in the minute groove between each track on a Stan Freberg long-playing record which was precarious, but this was now a thing of the past. Now the tracks could be downloaded on to an iPad or an iPhone and plugged into the amplifier and fired up at the touch of a button.

And so we were back performing.

We played before seemingly enthusiastic audiences at a couple of Probus Clubs, at a 70th - and then an 80th birthday of two friends, at a retirement village, at a Wairarapa College class reunion, and even a wedding. We got the message out there that we were back on the road again and waited for the phone to ring.

But it never rang. It was a quite sobering to find out that we were passed our use-by date.

They say old comedians never die, they just fade away.

Well that’s not entirely true. One died last Saturday.

Rest in peace old friend.

(*Local newspaper.)

“Life levels all men: death reveals the eminent.” – George Bernard Shaw