Indirections: A Memoir 1909-1947
Chapter One — Dunedin
for a few years before the first war, my grandparents used to take Dr Truby King's house at Karitane each summer. White and small but of two storeys, the house held only a few of our large party of family and friends; the rest slept in tents pitched here and there in the garden.
The house stands on a slope, almost hidden by trees from the narrow rock-bound promontory behind, to the east. It looks inland from the apex of a wide flat triangular isthmus whose sides are beaches and whose base is the hilly mainland. To the north lies the tidal estuary of the Waikouaiti River, running out below the promontory; on one bank of it the almost-island of the sea beach hangs arc-wise from the bold headland of Matanaka, which closes the view about two miles away; on the other straggles the small fishing and holiday settlement of Karitane. Northwestward, a steep rounded cone rises above the rough hill country, Mt Watkin. At the far end of the southern beach untidy scrubby slopes break to the sea in pale cliffs, and near them tall stacks rear up waist-deep in swells and running waves. To the south lies all Blueskin Bay, big Mt Cargill against the sky beyond it, and then beach on hill-framed beach as far as Otago Harbour and Taiaroa Head. A world of dry summer greens, cloudy blues, dun-green, ochre, white.
A little below the house, in front, a tall white flagpole had been planted, with a platform some feet high round its base. There my aunts and their friends used to climb and gaze out, laughing and singing as they dried their long hair in the sun and wind. Against the house grew big geranium bushes; their red-flannel flowers were the first I knew and the warm dry scent of their leaves, sweet and healing, came as if from an open-air page 4linen-press. The garden grew poppies too, the hairy woodland buds of shirleys with their surprised wayward look of wild things never properly tamed.*
These were of the earth and light, and I felt close to them, and to the sweet briar roses I came to know a little later, as to no garden flower since. Yet my favourite flower as a child, I used to be told, was a blue daisy with yellow centre which grew on a small bush at Manono, Grandfather's garden. I cannot remember any feeling for it; it does not make one of my chosen Karitane flowers. Lavender too, I think, grew near the house, and bushes of japonica, and airy elegant columbines; these last in particular seem to belong with poppy and geranium to the very beginning of my life. One morning early Grandfather took me to find small wild strawberries in the dew among their leaves and I tasted that sharp fresh sweetness that was the taste of the world itself, never to be forgotten. On the large white under-leaves of the rangiora bushes the girls of the family used to write letters or messages.
Outside the garden, beyond the pines and macrocarpas which sheltered the south side of the house, the road coming up from the flat passed an old cottage or two and ended in fields. In one of the cottages lived a big old Maori woman, Mrs Harper. In the whaling days, it was said, she used to carry sailors ashore from their boats; we got our milk from her. The promontory grew hilly, all rough grass, broken yellow clay, wild rocky coves, and points and bluffs beaten and shattered by the sea; a little way off-shore, other broken pinnacles of rock stood up out of the waves. A line of Maori earthworks showed plain in the grass; the promontory had been a pa fortified against attack from landward.
On the south beach, walking, gazing over Blueskin Bay towards the Otago heads, we found small rounded shells like shallow bowls with one delicate lip, coral pink or sometimes dark grey, which we called devils' toe-nails; and the more open flatter fan-shells, scalloped, with a wing rather than lip, of a darkish dull purple shade but pale in the grooves. It was often warmer for bathing in the river, but no waves fell there and the tides did not wash its beach so well; seaweed and driftwood might lie longer on its dried roughened sand.
* See poem 'Karitane', No. 2 in 'Otago Landscapes', in Disputed Ground.
I was the first grandchild in the family, and at first the only-child in those holiday parties; my sister Lel* followed in a little over two years. I know from my mother's sisters and cousins and their friends that everyone played with me, petted me, no doubt spoiled me, but I think I belonged especially to my grandfather, Grandfather (it was a proper name to me, never a mere title), as the first-born of my generation, a man-child, the promise of the family. It is my grandparents and aunts and uncle I remember at Karitane, not my parents, although it may have been my father who carried me up the outside staircase one rainy night to bed, wrapped in a rug, away from the bright fire leaping in the small living-room below, as the raindrops fell cool on my face. It is the young men of the party I remember roasting potatoes in the ashes of an outside fire near the tents beneath the pine-trees, and giving me potatoes to eat, sweet, dry and smoky under their blackened skins; my uncle Harold, and cousin Ben, and the tall red-headed high-spirited Tommy who later married my aunt Kate.
Bathing and playing on the beach, romping in hay and riding to picnics with horse and cart, getting up and going to bed, we were surrounded by the gaiety and affection of three active families, young and intelligent and still in those years almost care-free. Grandfather, Mother's father, Willi Fels, was just over fifty at my birth, and Grandmother four years younger. Mother was the eldest of her family, then came Emily, Kate and Harold. The eldest of their four first cousins, Mary, Dora, Bendix and Esmond de Beer, was some fifteen months older than Harold; Esmond had already been sent to school near London and I did not know him until years later. The four Todds, neighbours and inseparable friends of the other two families, were of almost the same age: Elespie, Bruce, Roland and Ione. Of all twelve, only Mother had yet married, in 1908, six years before any of the others.
My first memories are of a world formed by them, which was made mine as I knew it so closely knit in the small house at Karitane, under my grandparents' care.
* Lesley Brasch (1911-39)
In Dunedin the three families, four counting my parents, lived close together in London Street, which climbs the hill obliquely in three sharp spurts from Knox Church to the Boys' High School. You could climb two-thirds of the hill in their four gardens, needing to make only three short crossings of the street to get from one to the next. I could spend my life, it seemed, in those houses and gardens, scarcely running the gauntlet of the world outside.
Lowest down, on the steep rise from Heriot Row to Royal Terrace, lived the de Beers; Aunt Emily, my great-aunt, was Grandmother's next younger sister, her husband Uncle Isidore a first cousin of my father's mother. Their garden went from London Street up to Royal Terrace, cutting off two gardens at the corner where those streets met and taking in a deep gully of bush and ferns with a stream at the bottom from which they got fresh drinking water. From London Street you entered by a short drive and a path off it leading round to the front of the house. I see that drive, shaded I think by macrocarpas where the path left it, as the setting for the opening scene of King Lear, but I do not know why.
Directly across London Street from the drive opened the small wooden lower gate of Manono, Grandfather's garden, which higher up on the next terrace of the hill took in the corner of London Street and Victoria Street (now Haddon Place). On the upper corner of those two streets stood the Todds' house. It had been built in the early eighteen-seventies by my great-grandparents Bendix and Mary Hallenstein when they moved from Queenstown to Dunedin; there Grandmother and her sisters lived until they married. Kate remembered that she and Harold and the de Beer children, and probably Emily and Mother too, used to dine every Sunday with their grandparents. Bendix Hallenstein, a genial man whom everyone liked, was very sweetnatured still. He would put a little cream in his glass of red wine, and laugh. While he was alive, my grandparents, Aunt Emily and Uncle Isidore and Mary de Beer with them, used to go to synagogue on feast days; after his death in 1905, all ceased going. His house remained empty then for two or three years, for Great-grandmother went to live with my grandparents, until the Todds bought it. From their upper gate in London Street page 7you could dart in no time up and across the rather stony road to my parents' garden.
This from below looked like a high steep wood inside a small hawthorn hedge; the white house could just be seen above, through the trees. They grew thickly on the banks above the street, sycomore, broadleaf, cherry, ash, ngaio, elm, rowan, alder, southern-beech, and higher up near the house a huge wellingtonia. A narrow drive wound steeply up through them to the level ground of another terrace on which the house stood, between a lawn to the north enclosed by holly and hawthorn hedges, and a roughly triangular rose-garden to the south. Over the garden trees, which were growing steadily and cutting off the view, the house looked down to the harbour in front and across it to Otago Peninsula, and to the right over South Dunedin and out to sea.
Our house, Bankton, had belonged to the first minister of the Otago settlement of 1848, Thomas Burns, a nephew of Robert Burns; he lived there after retiring from his ministry in 1877, but I do not know whether he built it. Later it belonged to Sir Robert Stout before he moved permanently to Wellington and became Chief Justice; later still, to cousins of ours from whom my parents bought it. It was a plain two-storied house of some dignity, brick faced with stone under a grey slate roof.
This was my parents' third house. I was born higher up the hill, in a house in Tweed Street, Littlebourne, which belonged years afterwards to our friends the Skinners and was called Rustat. My earliest memory, if it is properly memory, is of crawling on one of the wide shady balconies of that house, and gazing up at the adults, my mother and a friend, who were standing watching me. They wore light-coloured dresses with long skirts; I think it was summer; from there too you looked out over houses and gardens to the harbour and the peninsula. My parents moved to Bankton before my sister was born.
When I was about two-and-a-half, a young Miss Darling came to take charge of me in the afternoons. She was one of a small group of girls who once a week read advanced literature with page 8Miss Ross, the principal of Columba College, a Presbyterian girls' school; she was doing kindergarten work (in which she made a great name for herself later), and partly on that account Miss Ross recommended her highly. Wearing a blue poplin suit I met her at the foot of the staircase, put out my hand and said 'Good arternoon, Miss Darling'. She was fair-haired, wide-blue-eyed and ardent, and she fell in love with Mother and with me at once and for good. She continued to think Mother one of the most lovable women she had ever met and me without exception the loveliest child. I think I owe to her something of whatever ardour I am capable of feeling, and my admiration of ardour in other people, in the young and in those whom ardour keeps young.
In her winter holidays in 1914 she took me to Middlemarch, because its high dry air was expected to benefit my weak chest. We stayed with two quiet kindly Miss Dawsons and walked morning and afternoon in the clear cold sunlight. One of our walks took us across the Taieri river, where the fields ended and hilly tussock grazing began, towards a rounded hillock of cropped green, strange sight in that unfettered landscape; in England it might have been a very large prehistoric burial mound. I used to think of it afterwards, from Dunedin, as the 'green hill far away, without a city wall', when I came to know the hymn, but it can have had no such association for me at the time. The picturesque phrase was what struck me, however, and I did not place the Crucifixion there as I was to place other historical or imaginative events in other familiar scenes. Each morning, hard frost scrolled the windows with white arabesques of waving plumed foliage, fantastic flowers and stars; ice formed on the water in our large bedroom jug. I used to whisper to the dog next door 'Taieri be quiet, you'll wake Miss Darling.' The hard stone road outside ran straight towards the wall of the Rock and Pillar range, near above. Eastward, far beyond the Taieri, pale broken hills scarred with black rock rose steadily to the horizon, and somewhere mysteriously on the far side of them, Miss Darling told me, Dunedin lay, so near in thought, so far to reach; road and railway took long miles and hours winding there. It was my first remembered lesson in the strangeness of space and distance.page 9
Middlemarch was doing me so much good that shortly before Miss Darling was due to take me home, at the end of her holiday, Mother wrote to say that her friend Agnes Hill-Jack would be coming to look after me there for an extra fortnight. Miss Darling was worried by this. Something kept telling her that she had to take me home. She was so worried that at last she walked to the railway station, some way off, to ring up Bankton; my father, who answered, thought it very peculiar when she said she must take me home with her, but she was so urgent that he agreed. The two or three remaining days were a misery to her. She thought that my father would change his mind, and send Miss Hill-Jack the day before we were to leave, but to her great relief this did not happen. He met us at Dunedin station, delighted at my appearance but not at all pleased with Miss Darling. She went home and at once rang up Mother, who was also delighted to see me looking so well and asked her to come not the next day but the following one, for lunch. When Miss Darling returned from kindergarten next day, she found a message to ring my father as soon as possible. He told her that Mother had died suddenly during the night. It was then that Miss Darling knew why she had had to bring me home: if she had not, Mother and I would not have seen each other again.
Mother was expecting a third child. During the night Lel cried, Mother reached out to pull Lel's cot towards her bed, and in doing so brought on a haemorrhage. There are two versions of what followed. One is that my father telephoned the doctor, who failed to come until too late. The other is that the telephone was out of order, so that my father had to walk all the way to Maori Hill in the dark cold of that midwinter night to find doctor or nurse, our staunch downright Scottish cook Jessie staying with Mother while he was away. She died within a few hours. She was not yet thirty-two. The Felses and de Beers, all except Harold and Ben, were in Europe. War broke out six weeks later.
I remember very little of my mother. I cannot hear her voice, but I can hear my father's calling her one evening to dinner as I lay in bed not yet asleep, and the sheer happiness in it that seemed to belong to them both as he called the German syllables of her name so clearly, 'He-le-ne!', raising his voice and stressing page 10the second syllable and dropping his voice again on the third. They loved each other almost as soon as they first met, and he adored her.
Mother was small but active and strong, with long black hair thick and waving and parted in the middle, deep blue very bright eyes and dark lashes, pale skin without colour. She was much loved and admired and thought very beautiful; everywhere people used to notice her, my aunts have told me; before she was eighteen the handsome Sikh police in the streets of Hong Kong would turn to stare as she passed. She was also unusually tender as well as happy, even among her affectionate warm-hearted family; she felt deeply and her face was always thoughtful. She lavished her tenderness on her children, I have been told, but all memory of it has gone from me. She played good hockey and was captain of her team, played tennis and golf, walked and rode. When she reached Doubtful Sound with her parents and her sister Emily, old Mr Murrell of Manapouri, who led the party over the rough new track from the lake, gave her name to the big waterfall near the hut, which she was the first woman to see — she was then eighteen. On the maps, the name has been anglicized to 'Helena'.
Two sets of photographs of 1913 and 1914 of Mother, Lel and me show Mother usually grave, almost troubled, even when half smiling. In one set she is standing on the gravel between house and lawn, the holly hedge and garden roller behind in the shade of the wellingtonia. We pose in front of her, Lel small and plump in a white dress showing frilly petticoats, I dressed for a party in black and white pirate costume, black skull-cap, gold ear-ring, skull and cross-bones printed or embroidered on my chest, wide sash. Mother wears a simple dark dress falling to the ground with a row of large flat buttons of the same material down the middle and a narrow black belt at the waist; her sleeves come just below the elbow; two white wings of collar lying broad on the shoulders meet at her throat under a large brooch of enamel and silver. She stands upright, arms hanging at her side, looking down a little at nothing or half smiling at the photographer, detached. So still, so grave with inward serenity, she looks a Greek statue returned to life.
Her death was the first blow to shatter the family. It also, I page 11see looking back, ended my childhood proper, shortly before my fifth birthday. I remember walking with my father and Lel into the side garden, and on the winding paths among the rose-beds. It must have been very soon after she died, when the business of death was clearly over, yet before we tried to begin normal life again. I do not recall that any of us spoke or showed emotion, but my father's silence was heavy as he steered us along the paths, between the low box borders.
a fragment of very early puzzling over the nature of things has always remained with me. I was lying in bed at night wondering how everything began, trying to go back and back to the origin of existence. Earth, the sun, the stars, the universe itself, God who made it. Was He outside the universe? Then it was not everything, not universal. And if it was not, what existed outside it? Only God? Where and how then did He exist? And did He create Himself? How could He do so? But if that was impossible, either He had always existed, or someone else, something else, had created Him. At that always, or that other, my mind grew dizzy and was baffled, it drew back, to venture out on the same inquiry another day. I do not think I ever got farther than those vast shadows, or was able to penetrate that beginninglessness. And if existence had no beginning, if it always was and is, how should it come to an end? Must it not continue for ever?
My mother's life on earth had come to an end, she had disappeared, and for ever, as I understood. Was there a time, earlier, when she had not been? Or a time when I had not been? I could not remember or imagine such times. I had a strong sense that everything I knew, and everything that existed now, had always existed, and because it existed must exist always in the future. My mother's death did not necessarily contradict this. It made existence more complex, however, added a dimension to it, and suggested that one should not judge too readily by appearances. That sense of the beginninglessness of things, of their permanence whether they are present or not, and although I cannot tell how they persist, remains with me still.
I do not know whether I dreamed much as a child. Dreams of page 12houses catching fire and burning frightened me again and again, and I can recall snatches of other dreams, but only one is still with me, because I described it at least once when I was growing up. This was a recurrent dream about a Lady Engine.* I was walking up Royal Terrace with Miss Darling. As we turned the corner into Cobden Street, the Lady Engine steamed slowly from among the houses and gardens on the shady side of the street, passed across it, and disappeared behind the hawthorn hedge that enclosed the garden of the Tower House - the old wooden house with the tower room on top, part of St Hilda's School. We stood quite near, waiting to cross the line. The Lady Engine seemed to turn, as she slowly passed, and looked down at me — to her, clearly, I was alone. It was a kindly look; not because of any smile or movement of the lips, or any tenderness in the eyes, but because she, the Lady Engine, knew I was there and gazed calmly down at me as she passed. Waiting before she came, I had been frightened, my heart beat unnaturally, my head grew tight; but now I had no fear. I stood and watched her, not moving, simply there.
I cannot tell what she was like. Being an engine she was of course dark — blue-black and shiny, and being a lady she must have had eyes and a mouth and hair, but I do not remember them. The loud hissing steam and the muscular pistons that I feared before she came into sight did not frighten me once she was actually there. I did not notice them. So she turned to me — with no movement of the neck and shoulders or inclining of the body — and slowly passed, looking, and was straight again as she disappeared. Her grave expressionless look as she passed by said plainly that she would return, and that I would be there again waiting for her, in fear before and after but impassive in her presence. Not, of course, that this had been her first coming. There was no first. I had always known her.
from the time my mother died until I left school the real centre of my life was Manono, Grandfather's house. So long as he lived it remained the foundation of my life.
* See poem 'Lady Engine' in Not Far Off
In my childhood the family — the world almost — seemed to begin with Grandfather; before him there were only the shadowy figures of my great-grandparents Bendix and Mary Hallenstein, whom our elders again and again mentioned in passing but did not need to talk about. Lel and I continued to live at home, but we must have spent part of nearly every day at Manono and we went often to stay with our grandparents or with the de Beers. Warmth of affection, gaiety and activity, charm, interest, all abounded in their houses. Bankton by contrast was shadowed by our loss. My father, I think, tried his best to be both mother and father to us; a task beyond any man probably, and to him both temperamentally and as a rising lawyer professionally and socially ambitious, beyond his power to keep up for very long; that he kept it up until about the time he sent me to boarding school, more than eight years later, seems remarkable enough.
We stayed with the de Beers not long after Mother's death, at a time when our heads had to be shaved because of some scalp trouble; to make us presentable we wore large white close-fitting cotton caps. One broken half of an aluminium comb that I Was given then and continued to use for the best part of half a century served to remind me of the occasion. From then on, if not from earlier still, Mary and Dora de Beer were as close to me almost as my two aunts, and their mother seemed another grandmother. We were as much at home in their house as at Manono. From quite early I recall the rich full-bodied smell of Uncle Isidore's cigars and how it lingered in the heavy smoke-blue velvet or brocade curtains, the red morocco slippers and silk dressing-gown he wore when smoking and talking to us after breakfast, and the fur monkey he would put on like a glove and make wag its head and grimace; his low slow thickish voice seemed another form of the smoke of his Havanas. A stout slow-moving good-humoured indolent hospitable great-uncle, he indulged his taste for good food and cigars and loved company whether of adults or children.
At Manono the years seem to run together, so that I can distinguish only a few landmarks until much later. There was constant coming and going of relatives, friends and visitors in the comfortable large house, where everyone gathered in the sitting-room and in summer on the two verandas. Both my aunts page 14married and left Dunedin, Kate the younger first. While her family were in London she and Tommy Thompson, by now a doctor, were married at St George's, Hanover Square, by the Rev. H. Parata of a Maori family from Dunedin. It was soon after Mother's death, July 1914; for their honeymoon they went to Hanover to see Grandfather's mother, and got back to London before the war broke out. Tommy was soon in the army, and Kate followed her family back to Dunedin. Emily was married in Sydney eighteen months after her to Arthur Forsyth, an Australian engineer who had been working in Dunedin; they settled in Sydney.
I remember Uncle Harold returning home for his final leave and going off to the war; he and Bruce Todd joined the New Zealand forces, while Bendix de Beer and Roland Todd chose to go to England and join the British army in order to remain privates; they had had so much artillery training in the territorials that in the New Zealand army they would have had to become officers, like Bruce. Bendix and Harold were killed in France, Bendix in July 1917 and Harold in October of the same year. The shadow of their deaths must have fallen on me too at the time, but has left no trace I can find. Nearly every young man whom Mary and Dora used to dance with in Dunedin was killed too.
Before peace returned Grandmother died, of cancer, during the influenza epidemic at the end of 1918. Never strong, she was ailing for what must have been a long time before her last illness. I used to stand beside her as she lay back in a deck chair on the front veranda, looking down the green lawns and through the trees, and stroking her forehead to relieve the neuralgia she suffered from. A parasol would be propped up to shade her eyes, of unbleached natural colour on top and cool moss-green underneath; on her hat of fine straw was a tussore silk veil of the same cool green. She wore, in summer, light soft dresses in keeping with her gentleness and sweet nature, light hats with a black ribbon, and I think almost no ornament except a brooch. Even at the end of her life, in her middle fifties, no grey touched her soft light-brown hair; none of us inherited her fine hazel eyes.
My father used to tell me later, in what I thought a brutal manner, that Grandmother need not have died, but starved her-page 15self because of some fad or other. Her very small appetite was the extent of her starvation, and the 'fad' described her interest in Indian philosophies and religions. She and Aunt Emily, her sister, who did everything together, had become interested in comparative religion. Their father, Bendix Hallenstein, who kept up a few Jewish observances all his life, had his four daughters given the usual instruction of Jewish girls. Yet their mother was born and remained an Anglican. The girls grew up familiar with the two creeds and observances; and following their own bent and some of the intellectual interests of the time, Grandmother and Aunt Emily came to things Japanese, Chinese, Indian, to Max Müller and Madame Blavatsky and Mrs Besant. With a few Dunedin friends, they taught themselves Sanskrit in order to read the Upanishads and other sacred writings.
Grandmother's interest became centred in theosophy; she used to have strange visiting theosophists to stay, to Grandfather's scorn, and Kate thought some of them probably took her in. Theosophical teaching induced her not to eat meat and other foods, which may possibly have affected her health. I was devoted to Grandmother, drawn by her love and by what I felt to be her goodness and unworldliness, and perhaps feeling her sympathy for my dawning interests; there were books everywhere, all over the house, for she was not methodical like Grandfather. She loved poetry and the arts, read Tennyson and Browning, Yeats, Lionel Johnson, IE, James Stephens, Tagore, whose books she bought. There were regular Dante evenings at Manono and evenings for Browning and Whitman.
Grandmother was strongly drawn to St Francis, and visiting Assisi once happened to meet the author of a well-known life of the saint, Paul Sabatier, with whom later she had some correspondence. She and Grandfather and my aunts came to know well the setting, the history, the legend, the works of art; a print of Giotto's St Francis preaching to the birds hung in her bedroom, and I grew up seeing the pictures and hearing and reading the stories. Grandmother read and re-read the Imitation of Christ, the Spiritual Exercises of St Teresa, Molinos's Spiritual Guide, William Law's translation of Boehme, St Peter Alcantara's Pax Animae, and other such books. Most of her copies were published by or came from the shop of John M. Watkins in Cecil Court, page 16Charing Cross Road, who specialized in religious, mystical and oriental literature. He had belonged to a London circle which Yeats frequented for a time; I remember him in bent old age as a small, gentle, kindly man peering through thick glasses; he spoke to me warmly of Aunt Emily and Grandmother, whom he had known, then, for thirty years or more.
I fancy Grandmother was more reflective and less inquiring intellectually than Aunt Emily, whose interests leaned towards history; but they shared interests and books and talked of their reading. Both belonged to the Theosophical Society in Dunedin. Grandmother took me or sent me to its Sunday school in Dowling Street for a time. My father must have protested but submitted, thinking it could not do much harm. This was the only formal religious instruction I had as a child and it left no impression on me that I can discern, so he may have been right. The teacher was a Miss Porteous; when I think of her I see curling silver hair, pearls, gauzy veils and dresses, large teeth in a wide mouth, large soulful eyes with lashes widely spaced, and enter again a general mist of sentiment and intensity woven round esoteric doctrines of a colourful, implausible, flimsy, flummery sort, Orders and Aeons and Incarnations; but this impression clearly comes from much later.
I think it was at Easter 1918 that Lel and I stayed with Grandmother at Karitane, not at the Truby Kings' but in the Joachims' cottage beside the river beach. Among the garden flowers at evening I looked for fairies and half believed I saw one. Having heard people speak of them and reading about them in books I was eager to find some and prove what already I felt certain of, that they might exist; Grandmother's attitude I am sure was not disbelieving.
It was my Aunt Kate whom I first remember reading the Bible to me, by lamplight, when I had gone to bed in Uncle Harold's small room at Manono. She was reading the twenty-third psalm, her voice warm with the poetry of it, its pellucid devotion made to glow for me by her charm and fresh gaiety and affection. What it said was both mysterious and reassuring; God was present in the world and yet no less God the creator of the world. The little of the Bible that I knew, and my very hazy notions of religion, which no one told me about while I was page 17always hearing it spoken of in passing, were for years after associated with my passionate devotion to my aunts and their love for me, and with my first images of Biblical figures, formed at Manono from coloured photographs of Michelangelo's prophets in the Sistine Chapel, the angels of Melozzo da Forli and Fra Angelico, and a Madonna and Child with Angels of Botticelli, perhaps mixed up with that of the great Buddha of Kamakura which Grandmother had brought back from Japan in 1900.
It can have been only very gradually that I began to distinguish the assurance which my loving and lovely aunts provided from that given by the twenty-third psalm and other passages of the Bible and a general, quite unformulated sense of the power of God at work in the order of things, although not of his presence. What I knew of Christianity came from the scraps I picked up, and of Judaism I knew nothing at all; no one in our family circle went either to church or to synagogue. I doubt if I knew the difference between the Old and New Testaments until I started to read them as formal subjects at school; then I learned quickly and soon topped my class; but they were taught in a dully mechanical way without insight or feeling. My father had composed a plain short prayer for us to say every night when we had got into bed, and somebody had always to hear us repeat it. Its tone and sentiments were moral rather than religious, although I did not see this until long afterwards; its God was a bare abstract righteousness who bore no resemblance whatever to the good shepherd of the twenty-third psalm.
grandfather never owned a car, although Manono had a garage and my aunts became capable drivers, as did Dora de Beer, whose parents kept both a car and a chauffeur. Cars were an aid to walking, not a substitute for it. Grandfather walked to his office and back twice every day, with such regularity that it was said old ladies in Scotland Street and Filleul Street set their watches by him. When we reached a place by car, then we would walk. But for years driving was one of my dearest indulgences. I loved to sit in the back seat of an open car, secure between loving elders, and feel the wind blowing free on my face; lulled page 18by the air and motion I would go happily off to sleep, usually on the way home.
We drove to Woodside Glen on the Taieri Plain where a stream fell down from Maungatua among huge mossed rocks beneath the beeches; to Whare Flat, a narrow valley on the far side of Flagstaff, the hill behind Dunedin, where a quieter stream rambled over the stones and changed to clear glass beside a bluff in the shelter of the warm bushed ridges, and in spring the old kowhai trees were hung with heavy dark-gold flowers. During school holidays, a family party sometimes rented the school house there, in order to explore the country round, from Chalky and Swampy up to Mt Allan and the Silver Peaks.
But I think I always preferred the sea to the hills, whether at the northern beaches or those of Otago Peninsula. From an early excursion I remember our stopping as we drove round the sharp bends of the rocky upper Peninsula road, behind Peggy's Hill, to pick everlasting daisies. Grandmother probably first told me their name, so that they came to seem her flowers, as if their leaves and petals went naturally with the ivory and dry cool green of her tussore silk veils and parasols. They grew profusely on the banks there, crawled over stones, hung down in a rough curtain half concealing bare clay scars. Their dry silver-white petals enclosed an eye of clear honey or pale lime green like a cat's, the dark green leaves, silver beneath, grew from much-jointed stems softly furred with silver, and in shrivelling turned pale brown. I pressed everlastings in books, as Grandmother and my aunts did, picked them for vases, decorated straw hats with them. Later I thought of them as my chosen flower of all the natives, as exquisite as they were common and unpretending; 'the honey eyes of the everlastings' was a phrase I stored up for years, waiting for the right poem to put it in.
* This is the spelling Braseh always used; see poem 'Pipikariti' in The Land and the People
The rough poor land above broke down to Pipikariti beach in irregular low winding cliffs, about the reddish faces of which grew straggling ngaio trees and kowhais and occasional elder bushes; thick growths of muehlenbeckia creeper here and there formed small cave shelters against the rock; below, grassy or swampy flats lay between the cliffs and the sandhills, overgrown in places with nearly impenetrable thickets of gorse or lupin. On the slopes above stood a dilapidated Maori cottage where we might see a few children, sometimes with a cow or a rather sorry horse; but if the children ever came near I do not remember that we played with them or even exchanged words. Ours was usually a sizable party, so that we had ample company; later anyway it often included other children, Eunoe, or John and Biddy Laing, between whose family and ours there had been a long friendship, and perhaps school friends as well. We boiled the billy and lunched near the cliffs, where there was wood and may have been water — to some beaches we had to take water with us. In hot weather we bathed. Some of the party explored the edges of the beach and the cliffs; at Little Papanui if not at Pipikariti penguins and seals were sometimes to be found; at the sea's edge and along the tide-marks we gathered shells and seaweed to wonder at and take home at the end of the day. Sun and sand and a salty tang of breeze to burn our faces, the scents of manuka and lupin and wood fires in the open air, tea delicately smoked from black crusted billies — these made part of family life.page 20
I grew to know most of the country about Dunedin, in all its variousness. It impressed itself on me so strongly that it seemed to accompany me always, becoming an interior landscape of my mind or imagination, unchanging, archetypal, the setting of what I read about as well as of all the life of the present. The shapes, textures, scents, sounds of all its landscapes grew into me and grew with me.
Near the horse-trough on Flagstaff where the road dips down to Whare Flat, one of our favourite spots for boiling the billy, I used to look inland across tussock declivities and bush valleys and smoke-blue ridges that led eye and imagination on into airy distances not at all diminished because they contained real places named and mapped; in their infinite possibility dream and reality became one. Or I looked south from the hills on blue days along the coast to Brighton and Taieri Mouth and to that long arm lying far out to sea at the end of which lay The Nuggets, sea and shore and islands floating together in the light haze of the air, in the sound of waves that I imagined but could not catch. Later, I knew that sea as the great southern ocean rolling for monotonous hundreds of miles round the bottom of the world, and frozen at last in the floes and bergs of the Antarctic and the deathly whiteness of the last silent lifeless continent. A grey cold sea for much of the year, it beat blindly all along the stubborn coast, shaking, undermining, wearing away, attacking the very roots of the land; on still nights after storm I could hear it, low and far off, muttering as it flung in desperation up the empty beaches. In the sea you feel and hear and watch the earth's pulse; winds come out of space, etherial breath, but ocean tides are the very breathing of earth itself.*
* See 'The Estate', xiv, 'Waking by night as often I lie in stillness', in The Estate.
The way in which I was dressed to protect me against colds and chills caused me further discomfort, and even misery. Over a heavy singlet or combinations buttoned up to the neck, and a warm flannel shirt, I was made to wear one or even two jerseys with a jacket on top of them, and overcoat and scarf when going out in cold weather, and was continually having to put more on or take something off as the weather changed day by day or during the day. For the same reason my father was very particular about the number of blankets on our beds at night, and habitually came to us before he went to bed and sometimes got up later, to make sure we were neither cold nor too hot. I am quite sure I was too heavily dressed as a child, and that more air round my body would have been better for me than those burdensome clothes and the supposed protection they gave. When I went to boarding school at the age of thirteen I discarded them and wore the school's regulation open-necked flannel shirt with no singlet in summer, and slept in an open-air dormitory. True, my asthma had by then cleared up, but it did not recur after the change; I have been remarkably free of illnesses ever since and I prefer to wear few and light clothes. As a young child I had been round-faced and plump. Asthma left me thin, with a poor chest and skinny arms; only my legs were strong.
The nursery became my bedroom in sickness, the front room upstairs on the north side of the house, opening on to the balcony. My bed was placed beside the one large window, below page 22which the corrugated iron roof of the front veranda sloped down, painted green or grey. One of my pastimes on long days in bed was to form the blankets into mountains and valleys with their fields and slopes, and into islands with harbours. On these I deployed sets of precious marbles, making them perform evolutions the point of which I have forgotten. I was deeply attached to my marbles and attributed special qualities and virtues to each, without putting any of this into words. A few handsome large glass marbles with coloured threads running through them I saw as higher powers, not for common use; I admired them but felt them to be too important to mix indiscriminately with the others. Those others were of dark brown stone with coloured flecks; they were small and insignificant, yet I felt more intimate with them, I knew each one individually, I weighed them in my hand, felt them against my cheek, pored over every detail of their texture. My chosen one of all, flecked with rare red markings, seemed to me incomparably rich and lovely; I think I had no greater treasure then.
At the same time I loved drawing maps of islands with fantastic capes and inlets, and ports on deeply indented harbours; from the capital city, a point in a square, I made elaborate railways run to lesser cities, each a point in a circle, skirting mountain ranges shown by a herringbone design, and crossing great rivers. Steamer routes connected island with island. From maps I went on to draw plans of cities, which were suggested by the plans in geography books and atlases, and also by the romances I was reading, by Henry Seton Merriman, Anthony Hope, Marion Crawford and others. To the cities and their streets, avenues and squares I gave high-sounding names, usually German or Italian, drawn from or based on those in the same romances. These indoor inventions were matched by the harbours and fortifications I made assiduously for my roughly carved wooden boats on the river banks and lake shores wherever we stayed or picnicked. My pleasure in these games lasted, I think, for a few years. But it was more than pleasure; the inventions answered some strong impulse and craving, which drove me to seek imaginative satisfaction in one activity after another until I grew up.
One that absorbed me still more deeply for a long time was page 23building grass railways. The best place I ever found for this was a steep dry bank of bare clay at Palmerston, where we spent the school holidays one May or September. On top of the bank grew tall strong cocksfoot grass, its long stalks brown and dry; the season must have been a dry one. I broke off a stalk, making a clean break, and stuck one end carefully into the clay bank. The other end I fitted into another thicker stalk, which I made sure not to split; the two had to fit exactly. I then cautiously bent these two attached stalks along the face of the bank, a few inches out, and anchored them by sticking the farther end into the clay. So I had the first loop of an aerial railway. Beginning thus, I Was able to construct an intricate network of lines running both up and down and along, with two or more loops starting from one point in the clay, and covering a bank perhaps twenty feet long by four or five feet high. Each stalk before use had to be stripped of its grass leaf, right down to the knot; I was always particular not to leave untidy strands; and I preferred to break the stalk at the knot, if it could then be used, because it broke so cleanly there. I can still recall the deep content and satisfaction of this game. I think it gave me aesthetic, imaginative pleasure of a sort I found in no other game then or indeed at any other time. I was making something visible and tangible in the real world, yet something as light, graceful and fragile as the tracery of a bird's flight, fantail or swallow, or the motions of fish in a stream. Only the arrangements of words, audible tangible words set side by side to strike out new unsuspected meanings that came from who knows where, was to give me, later, any comparable satisfaction.
during the war two or three housekeepers in succession came to run the house for my father and look after Lel and me. One in particular was devoted to us, and hoped to steer us gently towards the Roman Catholicism to which she herself had been converted; a kindly, sentimental, rather gushing, genuinely good woman whom we called B (her name was Maud Blandford) and loved in return. That we were not Catholics or even Christian did not lessen us in her eyes and I do not remember that she page 24spoke of it; but she spoke about God the Father and the Blessed Virgin and the loving Jesus, and taught us to call on St Anthony of Padua to help us find any thimble or shoe or pencil We might have lost. My father disliked her Catholicism, but respected her as a woman. After she left us, he helped her manage her affairs for the rest of her long life; it was one of his usual kindnesses to people in need of help.
Another housekeeper declared herself a martinet from the moment she walked into the house, ordering us to wash our hands before we pulled the window curtains when it grew dark, in case we dirtied them; an unheard of, insulting piece of nonsense. I think she was good to us, but she was strict, and we disliked her heartily. She left us to marry a rather down-trodden retired sergeant-major whom she bullied happily until he deserted his post by dying.
During the regimen of these good women and perhaps in various interregnums, we used to hear or overhear occasional talk about our father's state and what he ought to do about it. As a widower with young children it was clear that his duty was to marry again for his children's sake. Moreover he was still handsome, and quite young enough. There was also no lack of eligible ladies; some of whom, more guardedly maybe, were then passed in review. For his sisters-in-law Emily and Kate he was unluckily too late; but I think his pretty, charming little first cousin Brightie Hart was canvassed, and he was probably known to be fond of her.
Lel and I discussed these conversations in private afterwards. We were deeply shocked by them; or rather, outraged at the suggestion that our father should marry again and bring someone strange into the house, our house; partly I suppose because we had learned to idolize our mother, if not from memory of her then from the way in which everyone spoke of her. We were united in opposition to any possible step-mother, even to the only one, Cousin Brightie, who might have been thought suitable. I fancy we were a little anxious about Cousin Brightie, knowing our father's fondness for her and thinking her nice ourselves, only not as a mother — she was round-eyed, slightly doll-like, conventional, wore rings and necklaces and pearl earrings and dressed well; I see her colour as powder-blue. I have page 25some recollection that we even vowed to dig our toes in against any marriage and to make it warm for the step-mother. Whatever our father may have had in mind, he did not tell us or the gossips we overheard; nor did we say anything to him. As for Cousin Brightie, he was soon forestalled. When the last housekeeper came in 1918, a stranger to Dunedin - she remained with us, a lifelong friend, until we left home and my father sold Bankton — the talk must have died down. He did not re-marry.
Bankton was a pleasant house, its high rooms well lit by large windows. But after Mother's death my father shut up the drawing-room for some ten years, so that it was only half a house. The small sitting-room behind the drawing-room, which had been his smoking-room and study earlier, was darkened by the balcony above and by its yellowish-brown wall-paper and drab brown furniture. The pictures there I thought neither beautiful nor interesting; an etching of San Gimignano made the famous towers look like factory chimneys; a heavy oil of the Routeburn under snow repelled me by its cold emptiness.
Nearly everything in our house seemed ordinary to my eyes; we had not even a large number of books. By contrast, I found the pictures and the furniture at Manono and the de Beers' house either beautiful or interesting if not both, and they had a wealth of books. Yet I was fond of Bankton, of the garden and the view — that wide view north especially, which took in Signal Hill and much of the southern shoulder as well as the summit of Mt Cargill. Something magnificent and irreplaceable vanished from it when my father had the giant wellingtonia cut down; it had been visible from miles away, and seemed to us in childhood a kind of guardian, whose going left us naked and undefended. But we soon got used to its not being there; and more light came into all that part of the garden, and into the drawing-room.
My father was a keen gardener, who cared for his flowers and vegetables. At one time he used to collect the chamber pots each morning and pour their contents over the flower-beds; this caused a certain muttering in the house, but if he was aware of it he was undeterred. A gardener came once or twice a week, Cartwright (I never thought of him as having more than that one name), a rather gruff moody man whose thick black stragg-page 26ling moustache dripped from his tea cup unless he sucked it. He was apt to complain of us if he thought we had done damage to beds or plants, and my father used to snort complaints of him and his roughness or forgetfulness; he had done most of the garden work himself earlier, but left more and more of it to Cartwright as time went on. A few favourite plants he looked after with loving care. In the warmest corner of the vegetable garden, through the holly hedge, in the glass-house heated only by the sun, grew a very old Marechal Niel rose-tree whose thick knotted trunk wound back and forth all the length of the glasshouse; a few of its rich pale yellow-silken roses with their exquisite scent were my father's chosen gift when he visited friends who would appreciate them. Second to these were the daphne (daphne mezereum) and the scented boronia with its deep brown and yellow bell-cups which he grew under the balcony on the warm side of the house.
Down the garden banks, among high rhododendron bushes, azalea, laburnum, barberry, brooms, cassinias, native flax, and any number of small shrubs — my father was always adding to them — we played and sat, chased and quarrelled; Lel became a fearless tree-climber, putting me to shame, because I was always afraid of heights. On the lawn, which was too small for tennis, we shot with bows and arrows; bows of cherry, arrows of bamboo or of hine-hine (we pronounced it henny-henny), the whiteywood that grew in the Belt just outside the back gate, through the thin hawthorn hedge along the lawn.
when my asthma had passed its worst stage and I was growing out of it, I started going to Amberley for holidays, to stay with my Aunt Kate and Uncle Tom. Amberley was a long way from home and I fancy my father was reluctant to let me go; he must have reflected that even the closest relatives did not have his experience of looking after me in an attack. But the climate was dry and sunny, he was very fond of Kate, and Tommy was a doctor. So when Mary de Beer and Elespie Todd happened to be going and could look after me on the journey — I was about nine — he must have decided to risk it. Elespie, like Mary, was page 27almost as dear to me as an aunt — which she might have become if Uncle Harold had not been killed. I called her Elespie Greengrass in return for her Charley Barley and loved everything about her, forgetmenot blue eyes, sunny temper, the wavelets of happy-running laughter, and that loving heart all the Todds had. It seemed to go with their fearlessly upright independence and the crisp lines of their well-turned Scottish speech, qualities that persisted through the four generations of the family I have known; they were the salt of the earth, by whom I judged other people.
Amberley was in every way far from Dunedin. My aunt and uncle lived in a plain wooden bungalow painted dark red; passage down the middle, veranda in front. Their water came from a well in the garden with a wooden tower above supporting a windmill to drive the pump, all, like the garage nearby, painted the same dark red. Across the road the Anglican church and vicarage nested among tall bluegums, poplars, wattles and oaks, part of an island of trees sheltering most of the small township, whose single half-empty main street opened on to the north road, wide, dry, stony, and as dust-laden as every other road thereabouts. That narrow northern tongue of the Canterbury Plain spread down to the sea on one side, some two miles away, and inland a little farther to the first foothills, above which rose the fine rounded mass of Mt Grey, whose buttress ridges and dark folds of bush formed the western horizon. A slow-moving creek in a deep trench wound round two sides of the garden, separating it from orchard beyond; in the garden grew walnut and apricot trees, lemons in a warm corner, and grapes against the sunny north Wall of the house.
It was a house that rang with life and laughter. My aunt and uncle were a high-spirited sociable pair, impulsive and wonderfully charming; their red-headed small daughter Eunoe promised to take after them. Uncle Tom — Tommy to my elders — stood some inches over six feet and held his thin body loosely but with a touch of pride; his fresh likeable face seemed to match his nature; he had ruddy rather rough skin, large bony hands and feet, and was fast losing his reddish hair. He wore brown tweed suits and a briar pipe between his teeth. My Aunt Kate was lovelier than anyone else I knew. She had a natural elegance page 28that never deserted her, unmistakable; ft showed in her looks perhaps more than in her movements. Her rather long face narrowing towards the chin was beautifully proportioned; under a clear forehead, thick brown hair parted in the middle, her mild grey eyes looked out evenly, set wide apart; the long thin nose that Uncle Tom teased her about was balanced by a longish upper lip and good chin; her mouth was happy, usually smiling. Care hardly touched her, it seemed, then or later
She was tall for a woman, the tallest in the family, her neck long and her hands long with finely shaped fingers. She walked stooping a little, carrying one shoulder and then the other slightly forward with the thrust of her feet, a distinctive walk that helped to show how well she wore her clothes. I loved her cool low voice, the sentences sometimes trailing rather vaguely away with a half resigned or a querying, appealing,'I do - know'; into that voice she could put, with a tender smiling tone or a richly laughing or a deep mock-solemn one, her eyes alight, an irresistible because totally unaffected charm. (She was still elegant, still lovely although much lined, she still charmed with a gaiety that had not lost its youthful infectiousness, as a vivacious great-grandmother in her late seventies and eighties.)
Hers was a woman's house, very different in that from Bankton, and from Manono after Grandmother's death; I basked in its womanliness. She and Uncle Tom petted, rallied, indulged and spoiled me; I responded almost with adoration. I suppose I had rarely been so happy since Mother died. I was not left to play about the house and garden. My uncle's practice took him to patients far and wide, and he enjoyed taking me on his rounds when he had long distances to go. There was no other doctor nearer than Rangiora, sixteen miles south, and none for much farther north. Sometimes he had to drive sixty miles or more to an isolated sheep station, and back again afterwards; we then lunched or took afternoon tea with his patients; we might even be offered a second lunch, he having warned me laughingly beforehand not to mention the first.
Whatever house he called at, my uncle was made welcome; everybody liked him and warmed to him. In his invariable engaging manner, always easy yet courteous, he talked to young and old, men and women, rich and poor, station owner, cocky, page 29rouseabout, barman, a friend to each. In talking to Grandfather he called him 'Mr Fels', whereas my father called him 'Sir'; yet Uncle Tom's seemed the more respectful address although his attitude was more cordial and familiar. For me he was wonderful company. He treated me as an equal, neither talking over my head nor talking down, and using the off-hand slang and mild swearing which he forbore in polite company — his Irish 'bally' seemed to me a splendidly daring and emancipating word and I adopted it at once. No grown-up had treated me in that way before, nor did any other afterwards. He wanted (in his terms) to bring me out of myself, and encourage me to be more boyish and more of a sport. On one of my later visits he offered me a complete set of the Temple Shakespeare if I got into the first fifteen at school. Although he was serious, it was no great inducement. I knew well that even if I had wanted to play football I could never get into a fifteen of any kind.