Episodes & Studies Volume 1
THE NEW ZEALAND SOLDIER was at home abroad because he invariably behaved as though he were in his own country and safely hedged about by his own customs and prejudices. As he was cheerful, kind to children, sometimes considerate of other people’s feelings, and seldom conspicuously beastly in his cups, much was forgiven him in Rome by the bewildered Romans. In Fremantle and Perth, of course, he was understood at once and welcomed as a long-lost cousin, and in Capetown, Durban, and the cities of England his welcome, though it sometimes came a moment before the understanding, was only the more kind and cousinly for that. The East, though, found him wholly bewildering.
In Colombo the people were used to soldiers—British privates and non-commissioned officers who treated them with that blend of severity and impersonal kindness typical of the best nurses in the best families, and British officers who visited the Galle Face and the Grand Orient Hotel and didn’t treat them at all—but New Zealand soldiers were outside their experience. What was the rickshaw boy, untouchable to millions of his own race, to think of the grizzled, rather stout man, twice his own age, who tapped him smartly on the shoulder, saying ‘Hop in the back, George,’ and then set off down the main street at a smart trot? And what of the broad-shouldered young sergeant who squatted down on the pavement in the blazing sun to make friends with a black slip of a girl of rather less account in her own country than a stray chicken?
To New Zealand soldiers personal contacts were always more important and more amusing than sights—than things. For every minute spent in beautiful Buddhist temples, where saffron-robed priests intoned their liquid and almost perfect English, hours were spent in the market-places in haggling over cigars, ivory elephants, Benares brassware, carpets, carved knives, and cheap jewellery—seldom with the object of making purchases: mostly for the sheer pleasure of destroying social and racial barriers.
Anyway, with a pay of only ten rupees in their pockets, few soldiers could afford elephants and carpets, and Japanese beer cost two rupees the bottle.
This is a strong and rather revolting brew, but the Kiwi soldier is hard-headed, and, though much has been made of his fondness for drinking while on leave, in Colombo, as in Bombay, Cairo, and Singapore, he usually remembered that the good guest does not get drunk in other people’s houses or in other people’s countries. It was the same man—the same ten, twenty, thirty, one hundred men—who got drunk and missed the ship, who kept the picket busy in Cairo, whose conduct led eventually to the closing of the Fleet Club to New Zealanders.
That is not to say that the rest were model tourists. Many a returned man in New Zealand today sighs over sights missed and wonders neglected. He blames only himself that the lovely city of Perth, which he is unlikely to visit again, remains in his mind merely as a vision of amber Swan beer heady in tall glasses and a memory of a sunny hour spent resting and eating melons and strawberries among the bright flowers in the public gardens; that Colombo, so magical to E. M. Forster, suggests to him only expensive and doubtful drinks; that Capetown, where he took the view from Table Mountain on trust and spent in Delmonico’s days that would have paid better dividends on the white beaches of Muizenberg, is as much a mystery to him as Persepolis. page 27 Of all the New Zealanders who had a chance to do so, how many visited the Parsee Tower of Silence on Malabar Hill, Mount Lavinia in Ceylon, and the Museum Constantia at Capetown?
What did they do, then, with their shore leave? They ate large meals—steak, four eggs, and chips: in Capetown, juicy rump steaks and the eggs of well-bred Wyandottes; in Cairo, thin, coffee-coloured steaks and eggs, peppery-tasting, and the size of ping-pong balls. They spent much time in cafés, beer gardens, and soldiers’ clubs; they shopped (though 80 per cent of this shopping was mere haggling and ‘pricing’), and they walked endlessly along dusty pavements under hot suns, stopping now for an argument, now for a joke, now for a drink—occupations they would have described collectively as ‘having a bit of a shufti* round’. Their leave ended, they returned to their transit camps, their hotels, or their troopships, more than ever convinced that New Zealand was the cleanest country in the world, its food the best and most wholesome, its licensing laws the strangest.