Indirections: A Memoir 1909-1947
Chapter Four — Waitaki
at the beginning of 1923, a few months after our visit to Australia, my father sent me to boarding school, to Waitaki. My schooling up to that time, it seems as I look back, had given me little interest and less pleasure. I had companions both regular and casual, some of whom I respected and admired, but I made no close friends. And for some of the boys I was thrown together with and could not avoid I felt, hardly admitting it then to myself, an uneasy aversion which was well justified and which I still feel. Others, and especially a neighbour of ours, led me into games and exploits for which I had little taste; but I was passive and willing to be led, or rather unwilling to disagree and take a stand. I conformed, and kept my thoughts and fears to myself.
None of my early teachers made any good impression on me that I can recall, either by arousing my interest in their subjects or by their quality as persons. I think I owe some sense of respect and affection to the Sisters who ran St Hilda's, the Anglican girls' school, whose kindergarten then took small boys too. I believe I was deeply repelled (without being able to define the feeling, still less to account for it) by the raw mean ugliness of the Presbyterian boys' school to which I went for three or four years. The ugliness of the school was related to the ugliness of some of the relationships I met there. It was a new school founded after the war and built when architecture in New Zealand was at its worst this century. The building belonged to no style at all. Tastelessly combining red brick, white roughcast, and concrete given a whitish sanded surface, they had neither proportion nor dignity nor self-respect; they existed only in their meanness of spirit. Doors and windows, corridors and rooms, all shared the same quality. Such buildings — and these still exist, working page 57their intangible malign influence upon later generations of boys — are a public evil, more dangerous because more lasting than bad films and plays, being silent and unsuspected.
The school grounds hardly mitigated the effect of the buildings. Their setting offered possibilities which were never realized. The petty suburban street on one side might have been screened by trees; instead, its mean bungalows seemed to set the ethos of the school. On the other side, Balmacewan golf links ran across green slopes towards the strong rough flank of Flagstaff, but there too the suburban spirit of the golf club seemed to prevail over the strength and freedom of the hills. Bluegums and other trees belonging to an earlier private garden had been left standing, but the boys had to play chiefly on a squalid cinder patch among raw clay banks and slopes where grass struggled for roothold. I believe I loathed the place and was constantly depressed by it; I am repelled whenever I think of it.
Waitaki, by contrast, quietly composed and healed. It worked well-being; it was a world, a cosmos. The long low irregular front of the school, facing open lawns, shrubberies and trees, has some slight architectural pretensions of a modest solid kind. At the north end stands the earliest building, the Rector's house with the dining rooms, in a plain modified Tudor or Elizabethan style, two-storied, of rough-faced white Oamaru limestone partly overgrown with ivy, prominent ornamented gables, and rather steep roofs of corrugated iron painted red. Each gable marks a slight projection of the façade; beneath one broader gable a bay of windows is thrown forward, tall narrow and rectangular like the other, paired windows. Two similar blocks complete the front, the centre block being of one storey, and the south block rather larger than the north. They form a unity in style and by virtue of the uniform white stone and red roofs. It is a front which does not try to be more than it is, dignified, plain, quiet.
It has indeed a rather hard look above the white gravel drive, because in summer and at other times too the clear Oamaru light often glares; but the play of light on the projections and recessions of white stone surface under red roofs gives it a certain animation. That hardness confronts, across the flat coastal strip about half a mile wide (then almost entirely green), the first low inland hills; yellow clay under thin grass where the original bush page 58has been burned off, and a silhouette of straggling gum-trees; Buckley's and the other hills that we ran over on cross-country-runs but otherwise rarely approached. Immediately outside the school grounds, parallel with the front but just hidden from it by the trees and shrubs, runs the main railway line from Christchurch to Dunedin, sloping a little towards the south (or so I fancied) at this point nearly two miles from Oamaru station. The expresses thundering past at high speed were a sight we loved to watch when we could; they seemed to bring the world very close, so that although apart we were not out of touch with it.
But these front grounds were not for the boys' use; they were approach and formal setting. The school proper began with the buildings, and almost everything within and behind them was our beat, schoolrooms and corridors and dining-rooms, the gymnasium which then served also as a hall, the courtyards, bathhouses, swimming pool, dormitories, and the playing fields extending to the sea. School life centred in a small courtyard surrounded by two-storied buildings except to north where the old low wooden lockers stood, so that it was sunny and hot in the middle of the day. In the warmest corner, a few steps and a door led in to class-rooms, the band and orchestra room, the library, the prefects' studies and, upstairs, the masters' study. In the lockers opposite where each boy had his own small cupboard we kept our clothes and special personal possessions; next to them stood an old shower house, and beyond this the back entrance to the dining-rooms, and also to the Matron's room and sick wards and the Rector's study, all upstairs. Here by the library steps we gathered during the morning break and at any free hour to exchange news and views, to jest, gossip, argue; here we gathered before meals, waiting impatiently for the bell to ring, when we crowded forward, pressing into the narrow passage that led to the dining-rooms.
North of the Rector's house lay the dormitories, in an enclave surrounded by macrocarpa hedges and separated from the front drive by macrocarpa trees. Two small and three larger dormitories were set round a rectangular lawn, and one other, the largest of all, lay just beyond them along the northern boundary. Standing about four feet above the ground, they consisted of a page 59framework of light Wooden uprights supporting the roof, and in place of walls and windows, canvas shutters whose wooden frames let down all round into a ledge. So in warm weather when the frames were down we slept half in the open; when they were up, air blew in between the top of the shutters and the sloping roof. The dormitories, long and narrow, were built to take one row of beds set at right angles to each side, with a good space down the centre. You entered at one end only across a landing behind which a small store-room contained blankets and linen. Against the store-room wall, just inside the dormitory, slept the prefect in charge. The two small dormitories were kept mainly for younger boys. All were named after positions on Gallipoli which the Anzac forces had made famous in 1916: Sari Bair, Chunuk Bair, and the smaller Lone Pine, Anzac Cove, Quinn's Post. I remember Chunuk Bair best; its shutters opened behind into a macrocarpa grove, soberly cool and airy in the heat, sodden and dripping in wet weather; the overhanging trees sighed in the wind. There in my last two years I had much long intimate talk with friends, under cover of general talk, or while others slept, even by day, although the dormitories were then out of bounds.
The area of buildings, which took in as well the swimming pool, tennis courts, vegetable garden, and a no-man's-land of half-waste ground, ended in a straight line running from the south to the north boundary. Beyond this, and a foot or so lower, lay the level playing fields. They were large enough to contain six football grounds. Trees lined the northern half of the west side and the north and south boundaries, but formed a proper windbreak, of the usual pinus insignis, only along the north boundary; most of the other trees were straggling macrocarpas. Eastward, the land broke off irregularly in clay cliffs five or six feet high above a narrow beach of grey heavy shingle. This flat coastal terrace south of the Waitaki River, an extension of the Canterbury Plain, narrows finally about fourteen miles from the river into a long tongue bounded by the hills which enclose Oamaru to south and west.
Waitaki school stands on this tongue nearly two miles from the centre of the town. A strong sea current works northward along the coast, driving the heavy shingle to scour the beaches page 60and break down the poor clay of the terrace, which it is steadily eating away; its encroachments have been noted ever since Oamaru was settled in the eighteen-fifties. Several rows of macrocarpas had been planted along the edge of the cliffs, beyond the playing fields, in an attempt to bind the poor clay soil and so resist the sea's inroads. The trees had grown, but they had given little protection to the foreshore; many had been undermined and had gone down with the cliff, and others would follow. At one point two or three rows of trees remained for several yards, forming a ragged grove; then came a complete gap for a roughly equal distance, until again a few trees together or a single survivor clung forlornly to the ground and struggled to hold the line. No new trees had been planted for a long time, or if planted had entirely disappeared. The contest was too unequal; short of a sea-wall, which the Oamaru newspapers spoke of from time to time, it seemed that nothing could be done to resist the force of the waves. Many of the trees had been worn flat on one side by the pressure of the prevailing wind; trunks and boughs had been twisted, foliage darkened and matted or thinned out or almost stripped away. Their roots protruded through the bare beaten clay like the bones of starved cattle and hung out naked from the cliff face above the dark shingle. On some, thin scales of lichen were growing and flaking off again; their dark ochres and sullen greens added a note of sombre richness in the gaunt shadowed alleys and corridors of the grove. Bitter trees rimed by the salt spray, they were doomed without hope.
But I walked there always with joy, in secret exultation, threading my way alone or with a friend between the trunks, bending to avoid a low branch, responding to each rise and hollow of the ground where grey pebbles were trodden into the clay among fallen sticks and dull strips of bark casing. The ruling north-east wind off the sea moaned through them and on rougher days stung them with spray; when sea and wind raged together one could hardly hear oneself speak. Where no trees remained the rough ground of the foreshore was grown with coarse lank dry grasses and low matted thickets of brownish gorse, among which small hollows offered warmth on sunny days and protection from the cold easterlies; on Sunday afternoons we would sometimes take rugs and books there and hold picnic feasts on cakes sent from home or sweets and biscuits bought in the town.page 61
Beyond the south boundary lay John's Paddock, rough grazing land bounded by gorse hedges where friends and I used to hit golf balls about rather aimlessly; farther off lay small farms with orchards, some of them fair game for night raiders after fruit; here and there grew shapeless hedges of box-thorn, and then along the railway line, which ran parallel with the foreshore, the untidy outskirts of the town.
From the north boundary, marked by a row of half-grown pine-trees between two wire fences, one looked out across a sea of flat fields towards a farther shore of gum-trees and willows standing up against the sky; low behind them, the coastal hills drifted north, to vanish in the direction of Pukeuri. Islanded there, the abattoir buildings with their tall chimney formed the one conspicuous landmark in sight. The wind blowing from that direction sometimes brought a decided abattoir smell. This was a real boundary; few of us had trodden the territory beyond it and we carried no map of that territory in our minds. We did not know what the trees concealed, but their strong soft shapes against the sky were endlessly suggestive. Red sunsets burned there fiercely and slow, inland, over the Waitaki; or lemon skies, green-barred, with turquoise pools, drew the darkened trees closer and sharper. There came those honeyed warm airs that woke all the fragrance of the pine needles on which we lay; from there a norwest arch low in the distant sky spanned all the visible landscape, so that while the dark vault overhead thickened and grew heavy with its burden of cloud, the scattered trees, the coastal range, the lonely abattoir buildings, lay steeped in a bath of exquisite pure light of the palest yellow, warm, insubstantial, subtly transfiguring. The sound of sheep bleating from paddocks out of sight, and of cows being gathered for milking, the barking of dogs, and voices that called we did not know what, drifted in to us out of the empty dusk.
The foreshore and its grove and gulls, the north boundary, gave me more poems than all Waitaki besides.*
* See the poem 'Waitaki Revisited' in Disputed Ground
The name of the school, pronounced English-fashion with the stress on the second syllable, was in itself eloquent. That hard, assertive, even aggressive second syllable rang with the strength and independence which the school was believed to instil into its boys; the sound of the name breathed that quality whenever it was spoken among people familiar with the school. I wish I had known at the time that the name, when used of the Waitaki river, means 'sounding water'.
My father I suppose sent me to the school with its reputation in mind, thinking that Waitaki would, as he said (it was one of his lasting cares), make a man of me, while its open-air dormitories and bracing climate were expected to improve my health. The school was also reputed to give a good education. Frank Milner (always known as The Man) had the name of being a scholar as well as a trainer of character — an all-round man, decidedly, and a 'character' himself; a gentleman besides. He was the most singular headmaster of his time, a public figure known far beyond his school as a ready, eloquent speaker on topics of the day, both admired and disliked. A handsome confident man at once forceful and thoughtful, his dignity and ease of manner marked him in almost any company as a thoroughbred among draught-horses. He became Rector at the age of thirty, and had made Waitaki a national school with a reputation for scholarship as well as sport. I think it flattered parents to be able to say they knew him and had a boy at Waitaki. In my case, there was precedent for sending me to the school my Uncle Harold had gone to less than a generation before. And two families of our oldest friends in Dunedin had boys there already, both a little older than I was, Jim Gilkison and John Laing.
Jim's father was a lawyer with historical interests who later wrote two books of anecdote about early Dunedin and Central Otago, an individualist gentle and eccentric and caring little for worldly position and advancement. His mother had gone to page 63New Plymouth High School with my father, where they were joint duxes in their final year; to me she was one of the ornaments of her generation, a lovely and intelligent woman of deep feeling with a musically rich low voice that I hear still. John Laing had parents who seemed to have come together by some witty ruse of nature to complement each other; an intimidatingly large dour red-faced Scotsman of a father incongruously called Jack, and a petite vivacious laughing mother all quickness and charm, a Kathleen half Irish and half German: her mother had been one of four Miss Sproules from Sligo. Mrs Laing had been a fast friend of Mother's from girlhood; my two aunts had kept up the friendship, which was a family one going back to the sixties in Queenstown between Mrs Laing's parents and Grandmother's, the Hotops and the Hallensteins.
Lel and I had always known the Gilkisons and Laings; now Jim and John adopted me, so that their friends, all older, were ready to lend me that kindly tolerance which means so much to a new boy. John and I — he was one year ahead of me — became good friends, partly for family reasons but also because we genuinely liked each other at that age before particular interests and aptitudes divide boys according to their kinds. John was a big long-limbed fair-haired boy with an open face and easy manner, who managed his school work creditably if no more; I see him as a youthful, not yet over-developed Michel-angelesque figure, a less raw-boned David with comelier hands and feet, handsome beside the swimming pool. A good cricketer and competent footballer, he enjoyed school military exercises too and, later, the six-week periods in camp for compulsory training. His father, a censorious severe businessman, forced him into a bank, where he was always restive; he found his bent and happiness at last in training men at an Officers' Training Corps unit during the second war, before he was killed.
For a year or two we walked regularly to church together on Sundays, two miles each way on the hard gritty white-gravelled road into Oamaru; returning everyone walked his fastest in order to get changed out of suit, collar and tie before midday dinner. The subject John and I most talked about on those walks, I remember with surprise, was clothes; we examined in minute detail what boys and masters wore, and especially the page 64socks (until you went into longs you wore school stockings) that were almost our sole means of showing individual taste when we dressed up in our Sunday uniform of grey suit, white shirt and school tie. It was very bold, among us, to wear the horizontally striped socks we called ringworms, especially if the stripes were pronounced in colour, and only older boys conscious of their appearance would dare to be seen in them; but every pattern and shade of sock was a matter for exhaustive analysis.
My first two years at Waitaki were not exactly happy ones, but they were not unhappy either. I was feeling my way into boarding-school life, instinctively casting about for friends, very slowly finding a place for myself. After a year I moved up into the Third Form and the senior school, a far wider field. The friends I gradually made were not in my form; some were older, a few younger; some were abler and well ahead of me, some slower and behind. I was never in forms where I had to measure myself against boys of unusual ability, so that I had no incentive to work hard. I Was able to keep well up in the form in several subjects without hard work; the school did not teach one to work; it offered, in fact, a very mediocre education. But I must qualify. The senior mathematics master, D. S. Chisholm, and the science master, C. M. Littlejohn, were very good teachers and undoubtedly men of ability and character; both became headmasters of other schools shortly after I left Waitaki; their subjects were simply ones I was not capable of learning. The junior mathematics master with whom I began seemed a flat-footed rather stupid martinet and was generally disliked; he had a brisk military walk and way of speaking, an elliptical head with blond cropped bristling hair, he dressed uncommonly well in brown suits mostly, his shoes shone with a military tan, and his nickname was Eggs. In the three mathematics and in chemistry and physics all I could manage was to scrape along somehow and pass exams with a few marks to spare, as I did eventually in matriculation.
The teaching of history was a travesty, although we used a reputable textbook of English history, Warner and Martin; we were required chiefly to learn dates, which I found easy, so that I fancied the subject interested me. I liked our manly young page 65history master, Carl Zimmerman, good cricketer and handsome upright figure, blue-eyed with pale skin and black close-curling hair, who had indifferent health and perhaps some tender susceptibilities under a rather quick-fire manner and uncertainty of temper. The teaching of Latin can have been no better than that of history; I see the Latin master as a dim shambling creature whom no one treated very seriously. I had lost ground in the early stages of Latin in Dunedin, missing school through ill-health, and I lost more at Waitaki. It ought to have been easy for me to catch up, but the Latin master, Gwee, took no trouble to see that I did so. Nor did he give me interest enough in the subject to spur me to work on my own; no one did that in the Third Form. So my Latin remained patchy and ill-founded. What the subject might have been, how it was possible to teach it, I was shown on one occasion when Gwee was absent and the Rector took us for a few lessons. Through my awe of him I gathered that he saw Latin not as a dead language but a live one, in which real men spoke to each other, wrote about real events, and described what they themselves saw and handled and took part in — chariots and horses, weapons, encampments, debates, decisions, marches. But the veil descended again, and I was left as before in a fog of dead words and rules.
French was better taught. I think we were given a fair grounding in the language; but I cannot say it was made interesting or that I was attracted to it as I might have been by a spark of warmth and imagination. The junior French master was known as Tracker because he was said to wear rubber-soled shoes when making his round of the dormitories at night; very unfair. As for English, my best subject, I doubt if our teacher was very good, but I liked him and had no trouble in doing well. He was a shy smiling apple-cheeked rather prim young man — of course we thought him ancient — whose name was Crimp, and whom we called Freddie. He always wore butterfly collars (several masters wore them: it was still very correct), from which his tie arched discreetly down inside his waistcoat; just occasionally he sported socks of a modestly unconventional colour or design; he always seemed conscious of his clothes and blushingly sensitive about them. Once or twice when the class in collusion fixed all eyes throughout a lesson on his unusually bold tie or socks, page 66he changed them before he appeared for the next lesson. I forget exactly how he taught. He took us through the parts of speech, parsing, analysis, construction and correction of sentences, from one of the standard grammar books of the time — it may have been Nesfield. I found this interesting enough and took it in my stride; in a rough and ready way I mastered it - I think the only subject I ever mastered at school; but when I had to re-learn in order to teach it some ten years later, I felt I was grasping it as a whole for the first time. Freddie Crimp set us essays on subjects that invited purple passages, which we readily obliged with, modelling them on the more conscious pages of Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey, which was still for him one of the great exemplars of style. He gave us more recent books to read too; I think the most advanced work in his repertoire was that of the essayist Alpha of the Plough (A. G. Gardiner), a writer already shadowy as a relic in the mid-twenties. But I heard that Mr Crimp caught up rapidly after my time, and brought later generations of Waitakians to Yeats and Eliot, and to the New Zealand writers of the thirties. He was a kindly good-hearted man whose mind if cautious was still partly open; he was the one form-master for whom I learned to feel affection, although I knew him only in class.
Education proper began at Waitaki in the Sixth Form, where the Rector taught English, Latin and history. It was plain from what friends told me (for I did not reach the eminence of the Sixth myself) that he was a born teacher and fine scholar with a genuine love of literature, whose eloquence was well able to communicate his enthusiasm. Those who learned from him received a thorough training, and a very personal one: education as he conveyed it was not a matter of subjects laid out dead and anatomized and cut up small for inspection, but a living interest passed from mind to mind; learning was not mechanical memorizing, but quickened curiosity, sympathy, understanding, and to understand was to love. He saw education as centred in humane letters, the foundations of which were English and Latin literature.
English literature was to be open to every boy in the school page 67library. It was a meagre enough library, smaller and poorer than Grandfather's collection, but it contained some of the standard English poets, historians and novelists (novelists from Scott and Thackeray to Wells, Bennett and Galsworthy), and a miscellany of recent works of all kinds. The boys were encouraged to use it; they were expected to take out one book a week at least, a minimum which numbers of them never exceeded; some may not have read the one book they took out. As well as books the library included many magazines and newspapers. It was a range which might breed confusion or teach discrimination, but for most boys it was their introduction to the world's variety show, and served to encourage a number of diverse interests. I spent countless hours in the library, reading and browsing. If some of it was time wasted, I learned there too to find my way among books and magazines and to know what I wanted from time to time. I also read a few long books that I should never have read later, notably Sven Hedin's big Trans-Himalaya, prosy and yet fascinating, which gave me a lasting interest in Central Asia.
Waitaki had another kind of library, an informal one, that was taken more for granted than the library itself: I mean the pictures on every wall, in class-rooms and in corridors, on staircases and landings. A good many were photographs, of distinguished old boys and of former masters, of fifteens, elevens, prefects and the like, going back to the school's earliest days: its history was always to be present to us. And there were others of famous visitors, such as the Prince of Wales, admirals and soldiers, governors-general and prime ministers, which gave us a sense of the school's importance. But far outnumbering these were the prints — there must have been some hundreds of them — of paintings well-known and obscure which The Man had collected and framed at his own expense and given to the school. The prints (many of them Medici prints) would not be thought good ones today and many of the paintings must be out of fashion; but they formed a wonderfully rich pasture for boys to browse in. They familiarized us with scores of famous works, and by peopling the worlds of history and literature for us they made those subjects seem alive and close at hand; we lived in the air which they inhabited or which the painters had imagined for them.page 68
The Man's taste was generous without being - I think — really wide or instructed; and he must have had to be careful not to hang pictures which might give cause for complaint by-foolish parents and a parochial board of governors. Hence there were no nudes and few Italian Renaissance works because those, I dare say, might have been thought offensively Catholic. But The Man seemed to prefer northern to Italian work. His special liking for Turner and Corot, the later, poetical Corot, was easy to see: there were Dutch portrait and family groups of the seventeenth century and English ones of the eighteenth, works by the Barbizon school (the impressionists and post-impressionists had not reached New Zealand then), by Gainsborough and Constable and Crome, by the English water-colourists and the pre-Raphaelites, and by Watts, Millais, Leighton, Alma-Tadema, Sargent, Whistler. In the library and elsewhere hung portraits of English poets and novelists; in the orchestra room portraits of great composers. In the south wing hung a group of pictures of Scott's last expedition, with a flag and other relics near at hand, which The Man set great store by; but I did not melt then towards the frozen south and did not want to read about its heroism and misery of cold; it took another generation — John Caselberg, Andrew Packard, Graham Billing — to make me see its splendour.
I had special affection for a small class-room next to the library (I think I spent my Fourth Form year there) on whose ink-stained walls hung prints of The Fighting Téméraire, of Millais's Ophelia floating and singing among the weeds and flowers of the willow-shadowed stream (which coloured much poetry for me at the time), and other pictures that just elude memory. I spent many hours out of school time reading, daydreaming, talking to friends by the winter fire and I think writing poems in that bare yet friendly room with the speaking presences on its walls. Memory makes it darkish, windows on two sides but no north window; I fancy it was lined with horizontal tongue-and-groove boards stained brown. It was small enough to be intimate; being just inside the door from the library steps it was almost at the centre of school life; consequently it came as near as a class-room could to seeming a citadel and a home.*
* See poem 'Waitaki Revisited' in Disputed Ground
one picture that I studied minutely, being often left alone with it, was of a large Dutch family group seated in a landscape, which hung outside the Matron's room; a rather stolid painting by Franz Hals of a decidedly stolid family, it weighed oppressively on my spirits, and helped to give me some distaste for Dutch work. Its heaviness increased my apprehension and suspense when waiting; its gloomy brownness sorted well with sickness and medicines. The Matron's room, at the top of the stairs that led up from the dining-rooms, on the way to the private wing and The Man's study, was one of the social centres of the school. Because of her position, the Matron was a kind of intermediary between the boys and the Rector and staff.
Miss White ('Dolly' if you wished to be familiar — but not in her presence) was a comfortably mature but still youngish woman; her face had the firm full soft lines of some of Renoir's women, pale skin over well-proportioned features, fine eyes; a ripely classical face; she was lovely without knowing it. We felt rather than saw her to be attractive, and linked her name with that of one of the eligible younger masters. She had a great fund of tenderness which she wisely guarded; she was not to be made use of, and can seldom have been fooled; although neither sharp nor suspicious she had won from experience enough quiet shrewdness to cope with almost any boy. I grew very fond of her, as did several of my friends; we trusted her and came to count her as a firm ally and I believe she felt some extra affection for us, although without any favouritism. She dealt every day with the usual cuts bruises sores infections and sicknesses; a small crowd waited for her attentions on most mornings before school, and again in the late afternoon; for some who felt they were hardly used her room was a refuge of sorts. There big and small, newcomer and prefect met, not on terms of equality indeed, but in a fresh relationship, as patients dependent on the same outside, feminine help. Miss White called every boy by his Christian name, in itself a softening touch, for the masters used surnames only, unless they got to know some senior well on the football or cricket field; and the boys used surnames more than Christian names, even to their friends, except in private or among small groups. This last was a matter of custom rather than strict convention, but it was generally followed, as page 70one noticed by contrast in the Matron's room. Near at hand were the sick wards, quiet white rooms not much in use. Very rarely I visited a friend bedded there with some minor complaint; once or twice in my four years I spent a few days there myself. On one of those occasions, I think in my second year, a younger boy whom I scarcely knew was brought into the neighbouring ward after being hit on the head by a cricket ball; from time to time he moaned quietly to himself in unconsciousness, and I learned next morning that he had died during the night.
The admired ornaments of the school were less the prefects as such than those good footballers and cricketers who happened to be popular for their own sakes; but personal popularity, and prefectship too, usually went with skill in games. Brains alone, ability in school work, brought no respect; boys who happily combined brains and skill got most of their mana from the latter. But a decided mana seemed to attach to certain dynasties, in cases where the first of a family of brothers or cousins had distinguished himself enough to be remembered, if only from hearsay, and later ones showed at least a spark of similar quality.
Several dynasties flourished in my time; there were Douglases and Trotters, Hazletts, Menloves, Blundells (whose family owned the Evening Post in Wellington), Macallans, Nixons. The four Menloves, whose father farmed in Central Otago and whose mother was a daughter of Sir John Roberts, a well-known Dunedin figure, were richly brown-skinned, soft-featured boys, strong and fearless; I remember George, who must have been in my form, his red cheeks under the permanent tan and warm smiling mouth, hard-fisted, rather low-voiced, full of banter, a lover of the sun; we spent long hours lying together beside the swimming pool and basking in hollows among the gorse on the foreshore. Joe Harper (as happened in such dynasties, he had taken over or been given his elder brother's name and I don't remember that he was ever called by his own) was a form-mate whom I sat beside regularly in hall, the morning assembly of the whole school in the gymnasium before classes began, when we sang a hymn, repeated a prayer, and the Rector with the staff behind him on the dais made announcements for the day. I liked Harper rather impersonally because we worked together and thus shared certain interests, and because he interested, page 71indeed fascinated me, being of a different species from myself. He in return saw me as of another species from his, but one for which I think he felt chiefly scorn, mixed a little with pity, if he knew pity; he didn't like me, but perhaps he didn't dislike me either; he was curious, as one is sometimes about those one has to work with, but I didn't interest him — he may not have felt much interest in other people. He was a dashing and heady forward who reached the first fifteen, and one of the best boxers of his time; he lived in action. He was never meant for conventional small-town life in Christchurch, but rather for adventure or soldiering in some remote outpost such as I read about in The Wide World, where that fanatical quality of his would be called into play and all the strong force of his nature could blaze unhindered out of those jewelled, naked eyes, which sought unknowingly, maybe, for eyes of a power equal to their own, and would find it only in death. A few years later I heard without surprise that he had been killed in an air crash in England (a reckless devil, a friend wrote).
Peter Shand belonged to still another dynasty, but did not seem to be running true to type, except that he was large, big-boned, strongly built. He held his broad shoulders very erect and walked as if aware of how he looked when Walking. His combination of seriousness and waywardness, of gaiety and melancholy, made him a delightful and unpredictable companion. He wore at times an arrogant scornful look; he was decisive, with strong tastes and dislikes, rough when necessary, unafraid and well able to look after himself; he was not a capable footballer and cricketer for nothing, when he took the trouble. He had a circle of devoted friends; no boy in the school was more courted. A few of those friends might seem to be hearties and nothing else, but some romantic streak drew them to Peter.
One of them, Tony Gough, older than the rest of us, a prefect and a rioted footballer, grew so deeply attached to him that it affected his work and even his games; he lay awake in the bed next to mine most of one night when Peter was ill once in the Sick Ward. Peter treated him now with affection, and now neglected him. Tony used to confide in me and I think in others; he had to talk about his distress, and ask our advice. He was a tender-hearted sentimentalist under his tough exterior. At nine-page 72teen, the oldest boy in the school, he had not yet passed his matriculation; he used to bewail the fact to me in his simpleminded way as we stood in the sun on the library steps talking about Peter. I couldn't help being fond of Tony, and he knew that my attachment to Peter did not make us in any way rivals.
On Thursday afternoons when we were free to do as we wished, it was rather the thing to go into Oamaru for afternoon tea or ices at one of the two or three tolerable tea-rooms in Thames Street. Peter and Tony often went together, sometimes on Tony's motor-bike; or one or two others, including myself, might be asked to join them. Peter and I when alone talked a good deal about poetry and showed each other what we were writing; I remember one piece describing the westward landscape from the school windows — pale fine tussock on the hills glowing silken like his hair — that I wrote when his fascination held me most strongly and I believed that I almost worshipped him. He began to write because I was writing; I doubt if he had written poetry before or perhaps even thought of doing so, yet his love of it seemed real enough.
We also, in a group which included a few of his circle and other people as well, read plays and acted them. We used for reading and rehearsal an intimate small room at the top of the staircase in the south building where were were reasonably sure of being private — there too James Bertram drew a pencil portrait of me. At the Dunedin Exhibition in 1925 Waitaki put on an evening's entertainment, the most important item, in our eyes, being a one-act play in which we had leading parts; Grandfather gave us a party afterwards at Manono, since I was the only Dunedin boy in the cast; towards the end, I remember, my father came in and rather damped the merriment.
With another friend, Dougal Abbott, my relationship to Peter was reversed; he was the steady and I the wilful, moody friend; although I treated him at times very unreasonably he showed no resentment, but was only puzzled and patient. Dougal was a steady rather unimaginative boy who spoke a little slowly, as if keeping his words separate, but he spoke well and pleasantly, so that one saw he came from a good home. We were good friends in a perfectly straightforward way and I behaved towards him like a foolish girl, refusing sometimes to page 73sit with him or speak to him for two or three days, and enjoying his discomfiture. It was an act on my part; maybe I was imitating Peter and wanting to show my power as he did.
Every stage of life we pass through, with the web of its ties and relationships, and with our contemporaries, elders and juniors graded in the particular hierarchy belonging to that stage — each one nevertheless appears to us, in an absolute sense, as the world, with our own activity and sensibility as actor and observer at the centre of it. To children, the outer world seems at first a mere projection of their inner world; only gradually do they learn that it has independent existence and affects directly, intimately and constantly all that they feel and think, all their wishes and activities. In adolescence at last they find that they are required to order their whole lives in conformity with the arrangements and demands of that outer world; it then becomes very hard indeed to reconcile and adjust the claims of inner and outer, and many people, perhaps a large majority, never strike a satisfactory balance between the two.
To me at school, Waitaki was The World. Or rather I should say that in my world, which was in fact wider than Waitaki, the school occupied a central and self-subsistent position. There were boys and staff, and there were outsiders. Life was full and complete as it was, and I thought of no other stage or way of living. The boys round me were persons as fully and completely as one adult is to another; if I felt in some of them powers still only latent I did not feel that they were undeveloped, for that sense of dawning powers in them strengthened their reality as persons. In our doings, interests and relations we exercised and expressed ourselves to the uttermost; we were straining out beyond ourselves, discovering and colonizing our own natures in discovering those of others similarly engaged; that common and mutual exploration engaged all our powers. To look back on the earlier stages of one's life is often to find them empty and poverty-stricken; but that is the view of the unimaginative outsider. As a rule each stage is self-satisfying and when it looks ahead, or even behind, it does so to increase its sense of life in page 74the present. It may even wish life to be arrested and stand still, feeling that it will then be more abundant in the present. I remember thinking to myself once at university, in a moment of happiness and absorption, 'This is what life is: it will always be like this', although I knew well that I had little longer to spend there, and that the life I was leading was an exceptional, privileged one, which only a few people could ever hope to lead. Waitaki too absorbed me entirely. I do not think I have been happier since than I was in my last two years there, when I was beginning to find out my own special interests, had made friends for myself, and found a place of my own in the school.
Both at Waitaki and later at Oxford, I wanted to make a certain space round myself within which I could lead my own life. This is not everyone's aim. Some feel no need of it. To others it comes without their seeking; others again may want it, but to a very modest extent. There were boys at Waitaki who to my eyes seemed to live in a natural self-protective aura, unaware. One was Patrick Elliot, a much-loved and respected senior whose modest pride and candour — he was a natural aristocrat in manner and bearing — seemed a kind of goodness. Others were Ian Milner, The Man's eldest son, and Archie Douglas, swimmer and cricketer, son of an Oamaru doctor.
In most respects I was entirely conventional, and accepted the school's mores without question. But I had to work out a way of living which should be my own — would allow me to breathe and grow, that is — and yet fit in to the life of the school. This was made possible partly by chance, for I possessed none of the qualities which usually give a boy his own special place, particularly in a fairly tough school like Waitaki. First, as I have said, I got to know several older boys as friends, which gave me a certain independence. Then early in my first year I became one of the two junior school editors of the school magazine, The Waitakian, which came out twice a year, and for which I wrote as required scrappy paragraphs reporting debates and other non-sporting matters. When I moved up into the far larger senior school I was too insignificant to have any further connection with The Waitakian, and my name appeared in it officially no more. However in my second year a friend senior to me, I have forgotten who, happened to complain one day page 75that everyone in his form had to write a poem, and he couldn't write poems. 'I'll write one for you,' I said at once without thinking, and gave him one called 'The Wind'. Incautiously, he copied it out and handed it in complete, for it was longer than it need have been. When his form master read it he said, 'You didn't write this, X. Who did?' The truth came out, the poem was sent to The Man, who had it printed in the next Waitakian; and thereafter, each time the magazine was being put together, he would tell me to go away and write a poem for it. Of a poem written later for The Waitakian I noted in a diary at the time that 'The Man does not like this as well as "The Wind". It is fifty times better.'
Once at least I escaped in this way the Saturday afternoon 'slushy' or forced labour in the school grounds for which The Man used now and then in winter to round up boys not more importantly engaged — not playing in football matches, that is. So I was marked out, as a kind of clever oddity I suppose, but it gave me a modicum of freedom. I hated rugger (Waitaki did not play soccer) because I was fearful of getting hurt, and I was hopeless at cricket, with too little natural aptitude to be worth instruction and coaching. But I was ready to watch, and interested when my friends were playing. It was exquisite pleasure on a warm summer's day to sit with friends on the grassy bank, backs to the school buildings, and watch good cricket being played on the wide field before us, with the sea beyond. The calm hissing sigh of the unseen small waves falling on the shingle could just be heard. In the clear-white of the players' clothes, in the deliberate leisured movements with which the game evolved over the green pitch, with crack of ball on bat in the stillness, easy voices calling, the occasional outburst of clapping (curiously small and brittle in the hollow air) at a fine stroke or ball, the murmured talk of the watchers, I found a deeply satisfying elegance and grace and sense of formal perfection which no other school activity offered.
I hated compulsory military drill in the cadet corps (there was a lot of it) more than anything else; everything associated with it was repugnant to me. I could run, not well but passably, and enjoyed the cross-country runs that took us up the near hills across the North Road.page 76
One activity in which I took part readily and rose above the average, although not far above, was debating, which The Man did all in his power to encourage. Junior, intermediate and senior debates were held on Saturday evenings; The Waitakian sometimes reported them at length. The Man usually took the senior school debate. He was a masterly public speaker himself, speaking fluently and copiously in his fine deep voice. But he was too much given to oratory, too ready sometimes to impress parents or the public, and sometimes merely to raise a laugh from simple-minded boys, by his love of ponderous but rather empty latin-isms; he was tempted to turn a splendid gift into a trick. We admired, enjoyed, laughed at and often went in awe of the power of his tongue. He could use it to castigate. He could be scornful. But I do not remember that he was ever cruel.
He would stand before you reflectively when speaking to you alone, firmly upright and a little below average height, his handsome Roman head with the prominent nose and mouth that seemed to smile to itself a little abstracted, the dark eyes far away, slightly chafing his hands, and strike an exploratory chord or two, as it were, with a 'Well, you know, Charlie', before launching into several minutes of unbroken talk, which might be either quite serious or else touched with exaggeration and gentle bantering and which stirred you and made you laugh too and left you a little bigger than yourself. The school loved his talk, even if occasionally bored or irritated by it; it took a sort of proprietary pride in The Man; no other headmaster cut such a figure as he did; his forays to other towns seemed to us in the nature of triumphs, which we followed with keen interest.
It was in collecting material for our debating speeches that we chiefly used the solider journals in the library, such as the Round Table and Foreign Affairs. We ransacked them at such times and quoted authorities with no great judgement or discrimination, I suspect, and with little sense, in my case at any rate, of the ominous reality of the subjects. But the role of the League of Nations, the Japanese threat in the Pacific (the yellow peril was a perennial theme of debate), the necessity of the Singapore base, the White Australia policy, the future of the British Empire, were matters of deep concern to The Man, who wanted to make us too think about them. I had not heard them page 77discussed among the family and I was only just beginning to read the daily newspapers, so that they were novelties to me. How little debates had taught me of the true state of the world I was to find out when I went to England. That does not mean that they were a waste of time. Quite the contrary. They were a valuable part of the education which Waitaki offered. Most of us would have been far more ignorant and at sea in the world without them.
One evening while I was speaking in a senior debate, in my third or fourth year, The Man suddenly stopped proceedings. From the low dais in the big classroom where the Rolls of Honour hang, the usual scene of those debates, I had been only half aware of an undercurrent of subdued talk and tittering at the back; it had not affected me in the least; I was quite unaware that it had anything to do with me. But now The Man turned to speak to those who were making the disturbance. To my complete surprise it appeared that they had been laughing at my way of speaking. The Man reproved them by saying, in effect, that there was no reason why boys should not speak as if they were educated, that it wasn't for everyone in the school to spend their lives tilling the soil in the fastnesses of rural Southland beyond the banks of the remote Aparima. The reproof was intended, but the rhetorical jest was designed to soften it. I don't think I was conscious then how I spoke, although very conscious of how other people spoke, at least if they spoke well; and it was true that about that time or a little earlier I had decided I wanted to speak in a way I admired in my aunts, and also in two cousins whom I had got to know lately when they came from school in England. The Man's intervention may have made me self-conscious about my speech. When I first heard my voice on the air I could not believe it was mine, and still I feel vaguely disturbed when hearing it because it seems to bear no relation to the self I am familiar with from within.
What finally won me freedom both to do what interested me and not to do what I disliked was a chance that I can only see as lucky. In the middle of my third year an abscess developed in my right leg. There seemed to be no cause for it; it simply page 78came. I had to go home, my leg was operated on, and after I had convalesced for some weeks a second operation was found necessary, when the bone had to be scraped. This took place in a nursing home only a few minutes walk from Bankton, near the top of Royal Terrace, a big old stone house which had belonged to the Burnetts, a well-known part-Maori family.
My room holding two or three beds looked out towards the bush of the Town Belt, with no houses in view; nearer, beyond the garden wall, a semi-circle of tall Lombardy poplars and one or two aspen poplars lined the curving road. It was spring as I lay and watched those trees day by day putting forth their new veil of leaves, delicate vibrant wings formed out of the inert mass of the trunk. I have never watched trees so closely before; they became a large part of my life. I thought, talked, dreamed perhaps and tried to write poems about them. I forget whether I related them to another group of poplars which I used to pass in Heriot Row when being taken for walks as a child and in which I had first seen opossums; old trees with knotted trunks even then, they formed the garden wall of a house that I was to live in myself many years later, after they had grown old and rotten and been cut down. But I am sure I related them to the brilliant desert poplars and wide-branching airy aspens of Central Otago, which I knew already. Since that spring, poplars and aspens have seemed to me among the most beautiful of all trees, and symbolic in combining superb power and reach with leaves so finely hung that they breathe and dance when no other living thing registers any motion of the air.
I was reading Keats then, in an old square pocket selection which had been Mother's; the frontispiece reproduced Severn's tender miniature of the young poet as he looks up from writing, with chin on hand and far-away eyes. I was deep in his spell, he was the first poet I came to know as a person. Mary and Dora de Beer had just given me for my sixteenth birthday Sidney Colvin's big life, and now I wanted a complete edition of the poems. With a little delay I was given one, but there was a story behind the delay, which Mary told me long afterwards. My father was worried by my absorption in reading and writing poetry; he was afraid I might be getting false ideas about my future; I was old enough now to be thinking seriously what I page 79was going to do in life. I was not simply his only son, I was the eldest grandchild in the family and the two other boys of my generation were much younger; none of the de Beers had married and Esmond, the youngest, was now thirty and marked out as a scholar, to the scandal of those who thought like my father; so that a good deal seemed to turn on me. He said as much to the family and asked them not to encourage harmful tendencies by giving me any more books of poetry.
One Sunday evening over supper at Manono the question of the complete Keats I had asked for came up. My father wanted to forbid my having it. Trying the indirect method and by way of a diversion, Mary said teasingly, 'But, Hymie, if you don't let the boy have it, he'll get a complex.' This was a glance at my father's deference to all things scientific. Scientists were lawgivers, for him, because they dealt in facts and their facts were the only realities that counted. His attitude to science was, or seemed, as naïve as that of a fundamentalist in religion. He gave it his total adherence, and tried to understand it by reading a number of the better popular books on different sciences. So he took Mary's sally seriously; and I got my complete Keats.
Some months earlier my aunt Emily had given me Methuen's Anthology of Modern Verse, an extremely popular collection then and my introduction to Rupert Brooke, Flecker, de la Mare, early Yeats, Edward Thomas, Hardy, Sassoon, Owen and others; not long afterwards Grandfather gave me the Oxford Book of English Verse, strangely ignoring (it seems) my father's wishes. But later in the year when I had returned to school my father wrote to me about the danger of deluding myself, and drifting, and wasting my life; I must not imagine that I was a born poet. I did imagine it, but I could not be sure, and wished I were a Tennyson, who was so clearly a poet born, a poet with a message. For as my father said to me once, some years later, 'If you're a poet, you must have a message. What's your message?' Silence. 'You haven't got a message! All right. Then you can't be a poet.' I was crushed utterly. The answer, the only answer, that the poetry is the message, did not come to me until long enough afterwards to be of no use; and I doubt whether I could have delivered it with sufficient conviction in face of his assured scepticism.page 80
It was on conscious scientific premises too, very probably, that I was introduced to sex; but really because we understood each other so little that my father could not talk to me about it directly. He said to me one day that he wanted me to go to his office with him; as so often, he gave no reason, which as usual made me fearful and apprehensive. Without explanation he sat me down in a corner to read some squalid little book on elementary biology, which he no doubt assumed would teach me those facts of life that he did not feel able to tell me about; a wonderfully scientific procedure. I was frightened and mystified: the book meant nothing to me: I was not in a state of mind to take in coolly what it said, all the less since this was apparently intended to convey more than met the eye. So far as I remember, my father did not repeat this experiment, nor did he ever refer to sex again. The subject was obviously unmentionable, one that people like ourselves did not talk about, associated with shame and guilt; and so it became for me henceforth. I was all the more repelled by the schoolboy smut whose crude ugliness reduced it to a dirty little secret.
When my friends discussed sex they did so openly, but lightly and glancingly, admiring someone's swinging tail or brave knackers or referring to a love affair, assuming that the whole business was well-known and could be taken for granted. I was too ashamed of my ignorance to ask for enlightenment, and too confused, guilty and apprehensive to be struck by the contrast between their attitude and my father's. The fog I moved in was pervasive. Grandfather used a mysterious, baffling expression when he wanted to relieve himself: he spoke of going to 'pumpshe' — or that is how I always heard it. What the word really was I could never make out; was it a German expression from his youth? or a family one? but I heard no one else use it; and since one did not speak about such matters I was unable to ask (although he, no question, would have told me with a laugh, unembarrassed). It was only in middle age, after Grandfather's death, that I came upon the old phrase 'to pump ship', and at once understood him.
When I returned to Waitaki I had still to take some care of my leg and was excused both military drill and games, and left page 81blissfully free. The future which troubled my father did not exist for me; I believe I hardly gave it a thought. The present was so full and so deeply satisfying that I had neither time nor wish to think ahead. Work of course formed the centre of school life, but I lived increasingly in a climate of friendship and poetry.
I recall the names of friends with whom I was intimate for months or even years, yet their faces do not come back; and I recall familiar faces I can put no name to. I think of a number of them with affection, but we have long moved into different worlds, and if we met now we should meet as strangers. My relationship with other friends was of a kind that nothing effaces.
Our lives were given an extra dimension when The Man's only daughter Winsome left school (she had been boarding at Archerfield in Dunedin) and came to live at home before going to university. She was the eldest of the family; Ian followed, then two younger boys. Their home was a sad one. The Man had married a lovely and charming woman whose family had a history of mental instability; they were very much in love and he had ignored advice warning him against the marriage. The warnings had been borne out. Mrs Milner had become unstable herself, a prey to melancholia. Her state of mind was unpredictable. The Man was too preoccupied with the school and his other activities, and perhaps too impatient, to be able to nurse his wife through her low times, and Ian proved to be the only one of the family who could help her; so that she and The Man came more and more to rely on him.
How much private life the family had, I as an outsider, and a mere boy, could not judge, although I was often in their house and came to know Winsome and Ian well; it was my impression that they had very little, during the school year. Ian and Hugh, and John the youngest later, boarded in the school like anyone else; The Man sometimes seemed to treat Ian rather harshly, as if to prevent any suspicion of favouritism, and even because Ian was abler, but also gentler than most shrinking boys; also perhaps to conceal his affection for one so lovable. Infantile paralysis struck John in my third year, when he was quite young, but in time he made a good recovery. Owing to Mrs Milner's unreliability of mood The Man went his own way, and seemed to shut her out of his life, she was often unwell and I think kept page 82a good deal to her own room. She could not be counted on to help receive the distinguished visitors whom The Man enjoyed entertaining; but with her great natural charm she always appeared to me and my friends very kind, gentle, rather vague; we thought her lovely and pathetic.
Into this somewhat subdued but fairly orderly household Winsome brought a charge of raw electricity. She was a high-spirited intense girl equally devoted to riding, swimming and tennis, and to poetry and romance. She saw whatever interested her in a romantic light; when she was reading history later at Canterbury College I remember her quoting to me with typical ardent relish Guedalla's phrase 'the gas-lit tragedy of the Second Empire'. She walked in long strides like a man, badly, her shoulders hunched forward suggesting inarticulate passionate determination, but her small shapely head with delicate Roman nose, sleek brown hair parted in the middle and dark eyes that glowed smokily were all woman. She spoke in a low deep voice, rather far back in her throat, rolling her words meaningfully. Although she lived in the private wing, and in the front grounds which were normally out of bounds to us, we saw her as she strode along the drive in riding breeches, she played tennis with some of the seniors on the private court set among willows near the railway line, and soon she was taking part in the life of my group of friends.
As a matter of course she met prefects and members of the first fifteen and eleven. The hearty extroverts among them did not draw her for long. But the tough-and-tender, sentimental Tony touched a romantic maternal chord in her; his deceptive cragginess held more interest and appeal for her than the average personable boy offered. This led to further conferences, notes and assignations. Peter she already knew, through his family, and he alone I fancy of our circle suffered no attachment to her. She drew all the rest of us; it would have been surprising if we had not felt her attraction. We were able to meet her briefly in Miss White's room or in the passage outside, close to the private wing; and we could meet more easily in the Sick Ward if any of us happened to be unwell, as I was several times for a few days before my leg settled down again. There I had many visitors, Winsome among them, and we were free to talk, quote poetry, page 83and play poker and five hundred; Winsome or sometimes Mrs Milner would bring us supper. But Winsome's visits were stopped later thanks to the interference of a junior master. My thoughts were full of her and in one way or other we managed to meet often; I wrote letters to her, sent her the poems I was writing all the time (I often wrote during prep in the evening), she encouraged me and lent me books (Shaw, Galsworthy, William Morris), we talked about books and friends.
One of The Man's regular activities was his Literary Class, the lectures he gave for the w.e.a. He lectured on English literature, choosing subjects like Yeats and the Irish Renaissance, the Brownings in Italy, Mark Rutherford, Child Verse, Robert Bridges; and on drama — the drama evenings I remember were usually every second Wednesday in the winter term. He used to take a few interested sixth formers, and myself, not only to hear his lectures, which he illustrated with readings — he was a fine and to me sometimes a thrilling reader — but to read for him and to enact plays. These had to be rehearsed; if there were women in the cast Winsome and friends of hers took part and rehearsals were held in the Milners' drawing-room; so we read plays by Galsworthy, Synge, Yeats, Drinkwater. Sometimes we boys bicycled into Oamaru and had supper there afterwards by ourselves; at other times we drove in with the Milners, Mrs Milner too accompanying us occasionally, and then we might return to their house for supper, either to a more formal one with the adults in the drawing-room, or a more intimate one upstairs in the old nursery. Peter, Ian Milner, Desmond Greenslade, Luke Hazlett, Trevor Evans, the Bertrams and I and one or two others went regularly to the Literary Class; and there I could count on meeting Winsome.
A fresh phase of my life began when James Bertram and I met. He came to Waitaki with his elder brother Bruce in my second year; although a year younger he was two years ahead of me, because of my childhood illness and his exceptional ability. His parents were New Zealanders who had been living in Sydney; his father, a Presbyterian minister, had now been called to St page 84Paul's church in Oamaru, where I generally went on Sunday with John Laing and other friends. James and Bruce began as day boys and became boarders in my last year, when their parents moved to Auckland.
James was a new kind of boy in my experience. A little shy and withdrawn at the start, he was soon taking part in most school activities — he was a good cricketer and footballer, he spoke unusually well in debates, he drew with assurance and won prizes for drawing, and topped his form in English and other subjects. Besides writing both prose and verse with extraordinary fluency, he had an innate feeling and insatiable thirst for poetry which I had not met before; it seemed the strongest passion of his life. It gave our friendship an emotional, romantic tone which set it apart from other friendships, as James in my eyes was set apart from other boys by his special gifts. Because he was so much my senior at school, larger and more assured, and in every way so much more capable than I, he always seemed to me older, an elder brother, and a little protective towards me, for which I loved him the more. He had immense appetite not for poetry alone but for all he read; and he read fast, understood quickly, where I felt myself slow and laborious. He had either been better taught than I throughout school, or had worked much harder, because he seemed far more solidly grounded in every subject than I was. Coming from a manse too he grew up with a sound grasp of Christian belief and practice, an intellectual and moral foundation which I lacked and continued to feel the lack of.*
* For a later view of Waitaki and this particular relationship, see poem 'To J.B. at Forty' in The Estate
Ian's pride was of that inward silent deeply-rooted variety that goes with instinctive knowledge of good and evil, immediate recognition where one's duty lies, and unquestioning acceptance of responsibility. He had everyone's respect and trust, and was loved by many who knew him very little. He was one of those who hold society together with no thought of doing so, and are quite unaware of their influence. He was hard-working and exceptionally able, a sound cricketer, a fine swimmer and at most other sports a good general all-rounder; as if on purpose, he seemed never to allow himself to shine. His love of poetry burned more quietly than James's; he was a good debater, with a steady interest in public affairs. He and James became a David and Jonathan in devotion, more so after I left. James often wrote to me about him. He was anxious about the burden that fell on Ian of looking after his mother, because The Man relied implicitly on Ian's understanding and his willingness to meet all the demands made on him; his school work and indeed his health, if not his own stability, seemed likely to suffer from the strain. Ian's innate humbleness appeared to us Franciscan. Neither of us had met it before.
When James and I discovered our common love of books, especially of poetry, and encouraged each other's writing, the world took on a new aspect for me. My aunts and Mary and Dora had always been interested in my poems and sympathetic, page 86and The Man had wanted me to write, but rather for official purposes, to help fill The Waitakian; until now, no friend had shared my absorbed love. Peter's interest was for him, I felt, an interest, one among many, and might not last; for me, poetry was the air I breathed; it was not a subject I might give my attention to for an hour, or even a day; it compelled my attention through everything I did; it possessed me. I had never been able to speak of this before and perhaps I could not now say as much explicitly; but James and I understood one another, we knew where our thoughts dwelt and what our hearts were set on.
I forget what dreams we indulged in and whether we imagined a future in which we should play large parts; for myself I believe any future I may have imagined was simply a means of enhancing life in the present; I was too ignorant of what normally follows school life, being very immature for my age. For James it may have been different. He was more practical, and probably a good deal closer through his parents to the facts of adult life. Grandfather assumed my interest in the family business and my father wanted me to follow him in the law, but I shrank from any talk about them and about my future, while my distance from my father cut me off from much of the world. I did not know what I wanted; but already I was pretty sure what I did not want.
James shared his love of poetry with his mother, and he began taking me home with him to Sunday dinner after church. There on the south hill, looking over Oamaru and the sea, we talked and quoted and read and planned, kindling one another's enthusiasm; and Mrs Bertram, loving-hearted and tenderly fervent, dreamed for us a future in which we would be powers for good in the world, I as a poet, James perhaps as a teacher or even a statesman.
It was not I think simply a literary future that Mrs Bertram foresaw for us. Our friendship was not exclusively literary. The tendency of debates at Waitaki, and of The Man's own interest, was not just to promote acquaintance with international affairs. He believed ardently in the British Empire and in the League of Nations; for him they were the twin pillars of world society; and he therefore supported both the Navy League and the League of Nations Association. But the Navy League came first, a branch of it had been formed in the school and its doings were page 87reported among school activities in each number of The Waitakian. The Man kept in touch with the headquarters of the League in London and made sure that any of its representatives who visited New Zealand should visit Waitaki; governors-general, naval attaches, commanders of squadrons and ships, masters-at-arms, all came to talk to the school, to be feted, and to be impressed by the earnestness of its devotion to the cause and by the forceful personality and eloquent zeal of its Rector. To spread interest in its work, the League and its branches promoted essay competitions for which it offered prizes, some to be awarded in every form within the school, others to be competed for by any school in Otago and any school in New Zealand. James and I being good essay writers had regularly to enter for these competitions, in which he generally won a prize. Writing such essays became a matter of course to James, if not tome; but the reading and thinking entailed began to give him ideas of his own on international affairs. He and Ian Milner, and one or two others, rapidly developed in this way, and before they left Waitaki they were taxing The Man with the logical impossibility of supporting both Navy League and League of Nations; logic that failed to move him. That was in the future. But it was not wholly fanciful of Mrs Bertram to see James, at least, taking some part in public affairs in a few years time as one of a number of young men with constructive ideas and determination to improve the state of the world. The war was only seven years behind, many people still looked forward in hope, and a great opportunity seemed to be waiting for our generation.
I seemed at that time to be leading several distinct lives, with a different friend or group of friends. I did not deliberately keep one friendship or relationship separate from another; this happened of itself, so that I became involuntarily the centre of a network of relationships. My sense of this has grown and deepened, in such a way that I have often felt myself in later years to be no more than a focus or meeting point for a number of otherwise unrelated worlds.page 88
The process began, I feel sure, in my need to protect myself from my father. I had to have a life of my own secure from his scrutiny and his withering criticism. Often at week-ends when I was home for the holidays he would return from a day's golf, flushed with success, to find my sister and me quietly reading inside. I suppose we greeted him coolly or uncomprehendingly, and in my case I am sure with some reserve and disquiet, which may well have made him feel that his prowess and success were not appreciated and have quickly damped his exuberance. His first question, an almost invariable one, on weekdays or at weekends, I anticipated with hollow heart; this was the question that would be put to me at the Last Judgement, and the result was pre-ordained; then as now I would be found wanting. 'Well, and what have you been doing today?' My father's tone was cold, critical, disappointed, disapproving. He had been out in the fresh air, taking exercise, showing his skill, mixing with other men, proving himself in the world. This was what was expected of a man, as a good member of society. But we, and more particularly I — it was obvious that we had not been spending our time in any such worthy, healthy, profitable manner; we had been stuck indoors with our noses glued to books, and eating between meals, no doubt, and taking no exercise. If we tried to explain, if we'd been out with friends, or had gone walking on Saturday afternoon with Grandfather and the de Beers, or dined at Manono on Sunday, or played at home in the garden, it was always an inadequate, inferior, unworthy occupation. 'I see', he might answer, all the unspoken criticism that we already knew by heart expressed in the dull flat tone of the phrase.
While Lel shrugged the matter off, answering lightly, untouched, I could never help shrinking. The question struck at some deep-seated sense of guilt in me which once wakened left me raw, heavy with shame, incapable of defending myself. It was not that I was made to look wrong in my own eyes, but that I was proved wrong in the eyes of the world, of all external authority, as represented by my father. I have never since been able to face external authority of any kind without feeling that I am again in the same situation, which is indeed the relationship in which I must always stand towards external authority; that I have been judged beforehand, that I am proved guilty by the page 89very fact of having to appear before authority, whether it be school-master, tutor, professor, doctor, bank clerk, barber, policeman, official, passport officer, head waiter, commissionaire. My father's question regularly put an end to my content or pleasure in what I happened to be doing. It left me ill at ease, yet did not deflect my instinctive urge and determination to lead my own life as best I could, hidden, alone, in silence.
Before we were given our weekly pocket-money at home we had from an early age to make a kind of confession, telling my father what bad things we had done during the week, accusing ourselves, so that he might judge whether we deserved the money. Lel often treated this as a game, playfully, coaxingly, standing between my father's knee as he sat and putting her head of dark curls on one side as she smiled at him from under her lashes. But for me it was deadly serious. I was, again, being judged. I could not, in such circumstances, invent misdemeanours when none came to mind, as Lel did; I could not tell the things that really mattered to me — my father would not have understood — but only those surface infringements of rule, custom or manners which bulked large no doubt in everyday life yet in most cases took on no special meaning for me. When I genuinely had nothing to confess, it seemed to me that I was still being accused. So the practice entailed all the bad features of confession with none of its benefits. It was not true confession, it brought no relief and no absolution.
My life at Waitaki, the part of it that meant most to me, was entirely hidden from my father. I could not possibly have spoken to him about it. It would have conveyed nothing to him, yet would have shocked him. He knew several of my friends, meeting them either when he visited school and took us out to dine in Oamaru or go picnicking, or when one or other of them came to stay with me at home in the holidays. But he did not know them as I knew, them, and I am certain that he had no inkling of the strength of the relationship that bound me to Peter and to Dougal, to Tony, to James, to Winsome. A few years later, when it was clear to James and me that ours was a friendship of the deepest and most lasting kind, he was foolish enough in a moment of heat to speak disparagingly of it as a temporary, ephemeral relationship without reality, which was not to be page 90compared with family relationships and would soon mean nothing to me. That was blindness of a sort I could not forgive; it convinced me that my friendships belonged to a world far from his, and that I must make my life in that world, outside his knowledge and control.
My father wanted me, and Lel too, to live by his light, under his direction, to live in short not for ourselves but for him. He knew best what was good for us; if we had ideas that disagreed with his that just showed how ignorant and foolish we were. He used to complain, to me and to others of the family, that when I was with him I shut up like an oyster, so that he had no idea what went on inside me, what I thought or what I wanted. The reproach shook me, at first: guilty again. But later I found some satisfaction, even if guilty satisfaction, in thinking of it. My desperate strategy had been successful, then: I had preserved my life, my real life: it was mine, and mine alone. But I had shut him out only because I was forced to, instinctively, in self-defence; he had made it impossible for me to be free and open with him, to be myself. It seemed to me later that because of this I had had no childhood. In middle age, when I came to understand the loss to us both, I knew simply that I had had no father, and he no son.
The various lives I led at Waitaki were of course not separated from one another in the way that my outward life as seen at home was separated from my whole private life. They touched and overlapped at a dozen points and yet were undoubtedly distinct. They might have been distinguished according to the hours of the day, simply by time and place, as: early morning, bath-house; then hall; school; baths or foreshore in the afternoon; library later; tea; prep, or Literary Class and supper, or debates, all in different places; dormitory. It was astonishing to be able to pack so much variety of social life and communication into a fixed daily timetable; but five minutes with one group of friends, ten minutes with another, and the day grew big with meaning; momentous exchanges could take place in next to no time. Time and place alone cannot then distinguish adequately, although they are essential to the full distinction that would have to be made.
It might have seemed two quite different parts of me, almost page 91two persons, for example, that danced under showers with friends in the evening and sat stewing in hot baths early in the morning with boys who were decidedly not my chosen friends. Every boarder was supposed to take a hot shower once a week. The hot water had to be turned on for two nights running, and we were called out from prep in turn; as one boy came back rubbing damp hair with a towel another would go out. The bathhouse contained one large room holding three or four baths set in the middle and a line of showers against one wall, and as well two smaller compartments holding only a few showers each. On these nights the whole house soon filled with steam, from the concrete floor up. It eddied round the lights and their white china shades so that the glare they gave off was dulled in the moving clouds and seemed to drift unevenly over the baths and through and above the showers along the back wall. A dozen bodies were twisting and turning, stretching up, bending down, crouching, jumping, soaking in the jets of hot water that streamed over them and off them. Bodies white, pink, brown, some turning to salmon or lobster as they grew hot in the water and steamy air. Laughing, shouting, talking we soaped and scrubbed, gasped, swallowed, goggled, spluttered. Those who had finished or knew their time was up snatched towels and rubbed themselves dry.
On the morning after shower nights, enough water was usually left for a few hot baths, and boys who woke early would fill the baths and lie in them for an hour or more until the bugle summoned us at 7 o'clock. Two, three, four or more would cram into a bath, sometimes able to soak luxuriously, sometimes almost shivering when only a few inches of luke-warm water remained. It was younger boys who indulged in this pastime; I do not remember that seniors joined in; it was unusual even to see them there at that hour of day, and I recall the surprise one morning of seeing a powerful piratical footballer come in for a shower, and the vine tendril of dark hair that curled up his belly from bush to navel. I must have given up going after my second year, when I had found friends and no longer cared to spend time with just anybody.
It was one of the virtues of Waitaki that within its fixed timetable life was not over-regulated. This meant that nobody was page 92forced to work hard, or not before reaching the Sixth Form. But those who wanted to work had time and opportunity, and while generally looking down on swots unless they were also good at games, the school was tolerant enough not to penalize them. Some very able recent old boys were held up to us as examples; and in James and half-a-dozen others Waitaki now had a group of boys that any school might have envied. I did not shine in a regular way, except at English, and I was of no importance in the school, even in my last year being only a fifth-former slightly above the average at work but playing no games; I must have seemed the clever eccentric rather than the really gifted boy who worked steadily and whose present performance promised greater things to come.
We prized our freedom most, perhaps, because it gave us time to sit in the sun. We were sun-worshippers. The Oamaru air is clear, but winters there are sharp and cold easterlies spoil many a fine day; the sun was never too much with us. We loved baring our bodies to it and to each other; we admired sun-burnt bodies and despised white ones and spent long hours carefully darkening our skins with the aid of creams and lotions. The school uniform of navy blue serge shorts and open-necked grey flannel shirt gave us opportunity. On parade in summer, while sleeves had to be rolled up above the elbow, only the collar button must be undone. But it was not the thing to wear a singlet under one's shirt; in winter one put on a jersey over it; and shirts were usually worn unbuttoned, open to the waist. We did not wear clothes to hide our bodies; and, naked, we were fully clothed in nakedness, which was perfectly natural to us.
We knew one another's bodies from summer hours of swimming and lying in the sun by the baths, where we wore nothing, better than we knew one another's minds. It was the humorist Morry Sands with his grinning monkey-face — broad mouth, small eyes twinkling out of crevices of skin, flat ears — the capering charming light-of-spirit Morry, who first made me aware of the Tightness and sufficiency of nakedness; lean, agile flat-bellied, narrow-waisted, he took such comical pride in his angular suppleness beside the baths as he stretched, bent, somersaulted, turned Catherine wheels, walked on his hands, all of a piece from head to foot, the light foam of his young bush page 93the same shade as his sallow-brown skin and lank brownish hair, that he seemed clad in transparent armour. For years after I left school it seemed to me that I did not know my friends properly until I knew their bodies too, from swimming and sunbathing with them.
The sun itself clothed and armoured us as we soaked ourselves in it, sleek as cats. It was with one luxurious sun-lover, a long brown sleepy-eyed fellow who swam easily and strongly and played in the first eleven, but rather idled his way through school and seemed to our sharply critical judgment an empty mind, lazily self-indulgent, that Winsome fell disastrously in love in my last year. The affair dragged out, an unhappy attachment, almost an infatuation, which all of us who knew felt could not end well. Winsome was obsessed with the notion of fate, believing that any happiness one found must be paid for in suffering and deprivation. She injected her mood of fascination and foreboding into all she read, heard, and spoke of. The jazz songs to which she introduced me then still, when I hear them again, bear that heavily charged mood of hers. At Amberley during the September holidays I played them over and over by the log fire in the big living room, 'Barcelona', 'Picador', and 'Valencia' which seemed particularly hers, as I read my newly acquired copy of Flecker's Collected Poems, which she too loved, the dark romantic Flecker who wore a chrysanthemum over one ear and made us free of a fantastic eastern Mediterranean world that existed only in his poems. The holiday passed in a glow of picnics and walks, long drives with Uncle Tom, parties, a dance, over and through it all the loving gaiety and charm of my aunt in her roomy house (enlarged since I first knew it) with its handsome rugs and deep chairs, its pictures and books and gramophone records, its plentiful country food. I was still living in a boy's dream, the present my whole world and no thought for the future.