Geoffrey Alley, Librarian: His Life & Work
Chapter 18 — Thou Thy Worldly Task Hast Done
Thou Thy Worldly Task Hast Done
Upper Hutt, in 1980, was a very different town from the rapidly growing borough of some 5500 souls to which the Alleys had moved in 1946. It had been declared a city in 1966, when its population had reached 20,000, and had already passed the 30,000 mark. It had two state secondary schools, established in 1954 and 1962, and other appurtenances of city status, including a well-housed public library. Road and rail communications with Wellington had been vastly improved, while the rail link with the Wairarapa had been transformed by the construction of an 8.8 km tunnel. It was separated from its big sister, Lower Hutt, by the Taita gorge. The gorge was not a very fearsome one but suggestions that Upper Hutt should become part of a larger city were as likely to succeed as suggestions that New Zealand should become the seventh state of Australia. Ebdentown Road, at the end of which Alley's two semi-rural acres bordered the river, was destined to be renamed Ebdentown Street, after Alley's time there.
Alley's forays during the 1970s into the current politics of librarianship are really more significant in illuminating aspects of his own character and as reminders of the strengths he had deployed in his heyday, than in any effect they had on the course of events – except that it would have been helpful if he had been able to be more benignly interested in what his successors were trying to achieve. The old dog growled and sometimes barked, but no one minded very much In fact, his life became increasingly focused on his family and friends, and on the estate which he had created in Ebdentown Road. For Jean Whyte, who was a very special visitor for both Geoff and Euphan, Ebdentown was a place of peace and rest. 'I spent a lot of time in the hammock in the garden,' she has written, 'and it seems to me now that the days were always sunny and autumn-warm. Plenty of books, fruit from the garden always on the table and no television. Geoff taught me to play cribbage, and we listened to the BBC news and FM music. … Gradually I saw that Ebdentown Road was joining suburbia but the house and its owners remained apart, belonging more to the city than the suburbs but with many attitudes that were essentially rural.'1page 437
By about 1978, when Alley was 75, Whyte thought that the garden was getting too big for him to tend alone. She was undoubtedly right about that, but, as is the way with the owners of fairly wild gardens, it was still possible for him to enjoy many of the fruits of his earlier labours. It produced fruit and vegetables in abundance, and the roses held pride of place in the decorative area. Neighbours were welcome, and especially children, droves of whom, from a nearby school, would flock to see Mr Alley, who would lead them round the garden until is was time for them to go home. Euphan told Joy in 1975 that Geoff 'greatly enjoys the multitude of children who "come down to Alley's"',2 and she reported to Jean Whyte one day with some amusement that a small boy had said to her, 'Gee Mrs Alley, it must be great to be married to an old, old, old All Black.'3
Ruth's book for children, Carrie Hepple's Garden,4 which she wrote in the mid-1970s and dedicated to her father, is (allowing for the change of gender) a lovely and affectionate picture of Geoff the Gardener, with his old cat and his grave and welcoming reception of young children. One midsummer evening, we are told, 'they're playing ball on the tidy lawn,/ throwing it over, under and back,/ when suddenly/ smack/ the ball sails over the wall, into Carrie Hepple's garden.' Although they are afraid of Carrie Hepple, without knowing her (except for her 'glittering stare'), they go through to find the ball. First they come across the cat (Old Sausage):
'Oh crikey! What's that?
Carrie Hepple's cat.'
Still, sleek and lounging
(They say he's always scrounging)
Not a strokable cat –
too old, too growly and spitty
for nonsense like that.
His eyes, green and golden,
watch them pass,
as they wriggle and rustle
through the long dusty grass.
And then they meet Carrie Hepple, who is not at all fearsome. 'Allow me to show you a curiosity or two,' she says:
It's a curiosity to me,
and it may be to you,
that the seeds of nasturtium came to the
gardens of England
in 1502. From Peru.
She then explained about love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena), and she offered them, before they went, a hermit ('You may have four') from the crock by the door:
'A hermit's the name of a special bun'
says Carrie Hepple.
'I make them occasionally for fun.
Off you go now, there's good people.'
As they went, the children forgot the ball, but:
'Mind your eyeglass!',
a voice comes from over the wall,
and the ball comes back, flying high as a steeple.
'Oh thank you, thank you Carrie Hepple.'
Euphan's letters to Joy at this time were those of a lively and witty person, but to some extent their tone concealed a continuing and worrying deterioration in her health, which had never really recovered from the illness she suffered in London in 1969. Joy, who described her as 'a gifted letter writer', thought that in her 1970s letters 'she carefully did not expose her true feelings'.5 Other members of the family were concerned that the household régime that Geoff established was too oppressive, though he would probably have thought it was protective. He had always made most of the decisions on household management, as well as undertaking major tasks like the bottling of vast quantities of fruit, but during the 1970s he took over all the cooking and other chores, even to the extent of running Euphan's bath and the baths of visitors. In June 1978, when Euphan's condition had deteriorated markedly, he wrote to Joy, 'I'm really quite extended since E has decided to opt out of everything,' and in September, after she had had a spell in hospital, 'E is making some physical progress – but hasn't mended mentally!'6
During one of her later visits to Upper Hutt Jean Whyte said to Alley, 'You came back [from Canada] – I wasn't sure that you would,' and his reply was, 'How could I not, and leave poor Euphan here where she would not have coped alone?' Whyte's comment on this was, 'But there was more to it than that: more than their shared care for their children, or his confessed homesickness for New Zealand scenery. They looked after each other.'7
By the end of the 1970s Rod was established as a teacher and researcher of political science at Victoria University, and Pat as a surgeon on Auckland's North Shore. Judith and Malcolm Tait moved in September 1978 from page 439Hawaii to Cleveland, Ohio, where Malcolm had been appointed to a professorship in music education at Case Western Reserve University. Also in September 1978, Ruth came from London to visit her parents, whose problems she found more worrying than she had expected. Writing to Joy, she said that her mother's condition 'is certainly a mysterious one … she has been left with stiffness and frankly rheumatoid hands but I become more than ever concerned that there is a separate and parallel mental state operating alongside. She is extremely listless and apathetic and makes no spontaneous effort to engage in day-to-day life around her … Dad has the routine to beat all routines in operation but the house is ill-equipped to cope'.8
Rod had been able to go to Ebdentown Road in August 1978 to enable Geoff to go to Christchurch for a jubilee reunion of the 1928 All Black team, which was organised to coincide with an Australian rugby visit. 'All 15 of us out of 29,' he told Joy on 28 July. But relief of this kind was infrequent until Euphan had increasingly frequent spells of hospitalisation, especially in Silverstream Hospital, which specialised in geriatric care.
Jean Whyte was present in 1981 when Euphan fell over outside the kitchen door. Geoff 'went out in response to her rather weak scream,' wrote Whyte, 'and I followed. She was on the ground and possibly stunned. He motioned for silence, felt her pulse, head and limbs and then picked her up as though she were a feather, put her to bed and called the doctor. … She stayed in bed tended by Geoff for several days, then he started carrying her out to sit in the sun.'9 Shortly afterwards Euphan wrote to Joy, in very shaky handwriting, reporting on her birthday: 'Roderic and Liz and their family came bringing offerings – many of which the children made themselves, dear souls.'10 Joy annotated the envelope of this letter, 'Last letter', and Euphan's lively commentaries ceased at this point.
Geoff 's older brother Pip died on 12 May 1978, the first of their generation to go since Eric was killed in 1916. Pip was one of the shorter Alleys (5 ft 8 in., which younger readers might recognise as 173 cm), solidly built and, according to Euphan, 'Geoff in half '. After an initial career as a government and local body engineer, he was from 1946 to 1966 on the staff of the University of Canterbury School of Engineering, where he became notable for his work in stabilising soils both for roading and for house building, but he did not get on well with the university administration.11 Like all his brothers and sisters a supporter of Rewi's work in China, Pip became well known as Rewi's special agent in New Zealand, and a member of the Communist Party to boot.12 One of his extracurricular efforts, doomed to failure, was to stand against the prime minister, Sid Holland, in the general election of 1951. His indifference to the effect of such honest but ill-timed gestures on conservative administrators would have been a factor page 440in his remaining a senior lecturer to the end of his time at Canterbury, and his activities did not enhance Geoff 's relationship with the National Party government of the 1950s.
Pip's death was a sad reminder that families move on, but for Alley the death of Alister McIntosh, his most important mentor, guide, model, and friend, who died on 30 November 1978, was a terrible shock. As a young man, McIntosh had forecast the kinds of library development which occurred during Alley's time. He had been influential in the choice of Alley to head the new Country Library Service in 1937, and, although he was already on his own path to unequalled eminence in the public service, he was always available to help at critical stages of Alley's career. His later chairmanship of the Trustees of the National Library was not simply a recognition of his standing in general, but a natural conclusion to a long, but not always publicly obvious, association with library development in New Zealand. Alley said of him that 'he could represent, he could make the right representations, he could give the right counsel, the right advice … he could warn, he could be cautionary. He was never tiresomely didactic, that wasn't his style. And of course, above all he was trusted.'13
The time had now come for Alley to lose one after another of his old friends and colleagues. Arthur Sandall, one of the participants in the Metcalf seminar of 1958, was an early casualty, in August 1974, but the main stream began with McIntosh. A year later, on 24 December 1979, Clifford Collins died, followed a fortnight later by John Harris. As university librarians at Canterbury and Otago, Alley remembered them as 'such a very functional working pair that one always thinks of their working together … two different but united and dedicated librarians'.14 Hector Macaskill, his successor as national librarian, died in February 1980, and J.H.E. Schroder, the teacher who had influenced him so strongly, in July of the same year. Stuart Perry, whose contribution to the success of the campaign to establish a National Library had been comparable with Alley's, died in October 1980. Collins, Harris, Perry, and Alley himself had all been members of a Christchurch cohort which had had a powerful influence on library development in New Zealand, and Schroder was also a Christchurch lad.
In November 1983 Keyes Metcalf died at the age of 94. Metcalf, who had continued working as an adviser and consultant to libraries and library authorities until only a few years before his death, had the kind of professional outlook that accorded with Alley's and the kind of quiet, self-confident temperament15 that Alley would have aspired to. Alley was in awe of him in the same way that he was in awe of Alister McIntosh, and yet Metcalf himself saw Alley as one of the great librarians of the world, as he told the Carnegie Corporation in 1959 – Elinor Metcalf wrote to Alley, page 441after Keyes's death, 'You were one of the people on whom Keyes counted, and he always looked forward to seeing you or hearing from you.'16
Graham Bagnall, the librarian whom Alley chose to create the National Library Centre which became the core of a future National Library, and who was Alley's right-hand man when the National Library came into being, died in April 1986. Coming from different ends of the library spectrum, they had many shared views which sustained them as they worked together in sometimes unfriendly environments. When Bagnall wrote that 'history is too important to be left to academic historians',17 for instance, this was a thought that would have struck a chord with Alley, though he would have expressed it differently.
At the end of 1980 and the beginning of 1981, Alley recorded a series of taped reminiscences of people (and one institution, the Carnegie Corporation of New York) who had been important in the context of his own career. They ranged from James Shelley, his professorial mentor, to Graham Bagnall, and included two politicians, Peter Fraser and H.G.R. Mason. The title given to the set of three cassettes was 'People, Growth and Change in New Zealand Libraries, 1930–46', but for many of his subjects his reminiscences covered 20 or 30 extra years. In recording the tapes, and in typing transcripts, he was helped by Helen Sullivan, of whom he wrote in an acknowledgement, 'As a practising librarian she stood for much that I have tried to bring out in recalling the people here talked about.' After the first set of transcripts had been produced, Jean Wright, another Country Library Service stalwart, travelled from Christchurch to Upper Hutt to help him revise them and, in some cases, to modify his judgements. Alley later wrote a shorter version of his comments on some of his subjects, which was published in New Zealand Libraries in March 1983 with the title 'Some People Remembered'.18
These reminiscences, which have been quoted frequently in the present work, have been a valuable resource in the absence of the careful and continuing record which Alley never produced, but they need to be treated with caution. In some cases Alley's judgements were unfair, and in others he repeated accepted stories which do not stand up to scrutiny. In the case of John Harris and his difficulties with the United States administration over his Carnegie Fellowship, for instance, records in the University of Otago archives refute some of Alley's statements. Nevertheless, the reminiscences are valuable in revealing what Alley himself thought about the people and events of his time. Two of his close associates have commented on Alley's deep-rooted sense of disappointment with everyone, including himself,19 but this does not intrude into his reminiscences. Nevertheless, the reminiscences are not unduly celebratory.
More unfortunate than doubts about some of Alley's statements is the page 442fact that, after recording his reminiscences, he destroyed some of his source materials. When he was director of the National Library Service, and then national librarian, he kept a number of important files, especially ones that were less operational than personal/professional, in a cabinet in his office, and many of those who worked with him had a rough idea of which drawer certain documents might be in. These files have disappeared without trace, and it seems certain that the cabinet ended up in Ebdentown Road. A cabinet matching its description was shown (locked) to Jean Adelman when she visited Upper Hutt,20 and he told her later that he had burned many of the papers that were in it. Pat Alley also had a memory of files that were purged or burned after the tapes had been recorded.21 Other files, not kept in the cabinet, survived and were later retrieved by members of the family. Most people have weak spots, and an underdeveloped archival instinct was one of Alley's.
As his thoughts turned to the past, Alley's interest in current library affairs became less intense. He did respond in 1980 to a letter from Jean Whyte, who had written 'in a state of euphoria' about the appointment of Harrison Bryan as Australia's national librarian – 'Good, very good, about H.B.'22 – but by 1985, when the General Assembly Library was detached from the National Library to become, as the Parliamentary Library, part of the Parliamentary Services organisation,23 he was no longer fighting old battles over again. After the changes sprung on the country by the 'Labour' administration which took office in 1984, the National Library, in the words of the Alexander Turnbull Library's historian, 'adopted the new state sector culture with enthusiasm, focusing increasingly on management and policy development',24 and it is hard to imagine that happening in Alley's time – but the significance of what was happening took time to become obvious, and in any case the Alley time was over.
Alley's interest in rugby continued, in a desultory way, into his old age, but he was never one of the old players who stayed in the public's rugby eye. He did, after all, have a busy career outside rugby, and he was also instinctively hostile, in a way which might be explained by his Irish ancestry, to any sort of establishment which he felt should be reined in, so that the links he maintained tended to be personal ones with old comrades in arms. According to Pat, he would get angry with people who complained that he did not put much back into the game. He reckoned that the players were the people who put everything into the game and that it was not for others to reproach them.25 As we have seen (in chapter 12) he had been a member of a deputation which in 1960 tried, without success, to persuade the prime minister (Walter Nash) to call for the abandonment of an All Black tour of South Africa if Maori players were not considered for selection. In 1985, when legal action was taken, successfully, to prevent another tour taking page 443place under the auspices of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union with no Maori representation, he contributed fairly generous financial support towards the cost of the court case.
In his last years Alley's physical condition became more and more difficult for him. His great body had taken a lot of battering, especially in the car accident of 1960, and the large property, so important to him earlier, had become a burden. With Euphan in hospital for much of the time, he carried on with the help of neighbours and with much support from Rod and his family, as well as having some spells in hospital himself. Writing to McEldowney in 1985, he said, 'I'm an arthritis victim – osteoporosity, a devilish thing to have,'26 and when his old friend Jim Burrows rang in 1986 and asked how he was making out he said, 'I'm still clinging to the wreckage.'27 Elma Wright found him withdrawn and somewhat unsociable when she saw him in town, but very chatty when she took him meals on wheels: 'probably the effort of getting about took all his energy and concentration'.28
Euphan's last years were spent in Silverstream Hospital, where C.E. Beeby's wife was also being cared for, and Beeby, who had been director of education at a time when the National Library Service was a somewhat awkward member of his department, has said that it was only when they were both visiting their wives there that he had really got on to friendly terms with Alley.29 Alley's last public contribution to the wealth of nations was to write a submission to the hospitals advisory committee to support the retention of Silverstream Hospital as a valuable community asset for geriatric care. 'I am well qualified to make this submission,' he wrote. 'I am well into my 84th year. I have recently been a patient there and for the last two years I have visited my wife who is a patient there.'30
Pat was in Wellington on 25 September 1986 when Geoff died. He had seen his father during the previous day and, seeing that things were seriously wrong, had got Rod and the GP to come. In a letter to Rewi a week later he wrote:
He died as he had lived. Quickly and with dignity. Roc and I were with him and his end was, I think, as he would have wished. At home at dawn and at springtime. No pain or fuss or mess and thankfully not in hospital.
I thankfully had a good few hours with him before he suddenly became unconscious. I told him of our visit to Beijing and what a wonderful host you were. He was interested to hear all about it.
He had in fact been much better up until the last day. His last transaction that we know about was an order (paid for of course) for superphosphate sulphate of ammonia and seed potatoes!31
The funeral service was held on 29 September at St Michael's Church, Kelburn, on one of the brilliantly fine Wellington days when the town and the hills and the harbour sparkle. There were flowers from Ebdentown Road. The pall bearers were Rod, Pat, Paul Richardson, Peter Scott, John Roberts, and Lance Jackson. Elizabeth Alley read three passages chosen for members of the family who could not be present: the song from Cymbeline ('Fear no more the heat o' the sun') which Geoff had quoted in 1937 in his first address to an NZLA meeting, for Euphan; a passage from Emerson for Judith; and Robert Frost's 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening' for Ruth. Deborah Tetley (Euphan's niece) played the Sarabande from J.S. Bach's flute sonata in A minor. A recording of Janet Baker singing Cassini's 'Amarilli mia bella', which Geoff would ask Judith to sing for him, was played. C.E. Beeby and John Roberts spoke of their association with Geoff. The hymn was Tallis's 'The Spacious Firmament on High', and the Recessional was from Bach's 'The Bellringer' chorale. 'It really was a lovely funeral,' Mary Roberts wrote to Rewi, '– that sounds like an awful cliché but in this case it is true.'32
Euphan died peacefully in Silverstream Hospital on 10 July 1987. When Malcolm Tait saw her in May, on a visit from the United States, she clearly recognised him but was unable to speak to him.33 Rod was with her when she died, and one cannot help feeling that there was some significance in the fact that her old friend Dorothy Davies died at almost the same time. The funeral service for Euphan, on 14 July, was held in the same church as Geoff 's and was planned on similar lines, including tributes by Rod and Pat, readings by Elizabeth and Pat, a flute solo by Deborah Tetley, a recording of Kiri Te Kanawa (Chants d'Auvergne), and 'The Bellringer' chorale.
So the old Ebdentown Road establishment ended, to be later absorbed into expanding suburbia, the Alley connection being preserved in the name of a footpath between some of the houses. It was a remarkable venture in its time, but now, Cymbeline can speak for both Geoff and Euphan:
Fear no more the heat o' the sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages,
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney sweepers, come to dust.