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Sport 17: Spring 1996

Dennis McEldowney — Some Folk Singers and a Theologian

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Dennis McEldowney

Some Folk Singers and a Theologian

In 1960 Peter Cape, in his mid-thirties, was supervisor of religious programmes for the New Zealand Broadcasting Service. On Sunday he was assistant priest at the Trentham Anglican Church. During the week, in whatever nightspots were available in Wellington at the time, he sang to a guitar ‘folk songs’ he had written himself, ‘Down the Hall on Saturday Night’, ‘Taumarunui’, ‘The Okaihau Express’, and the rest. He was sometimes joined by Les Cleveland, a collector of genuine folk songs, especially from World War II, and by a young solicitor named Ken Bryan. An occasional, somewhat incongruous guest performer was an Aucklander, Willow Macky, who had, like her friend Gloria Rawlinson, survived a reputation as a child poet and now wrote and performed her own rather willowy songs.

My entrée to the fringe of this group came through Ken's wife Josette, a beautiful young woman with a slightly bluish tinge to her complexion. We had both been patients at Green Lane Hospital (not at the same time) and had written books about our experiences, though in my case the Green Lane episode was only part of the book and in hers the whole of it. My operation at Green Lane was successful but her condition was judged inoperable; my book was published and hers was not: two facts which made me feel guilty and Josette possibly resentful. In spite of it we remained friends of a sort, and it was at the Bryans' flat in Upper Hutt that I met the folksingers. I never heard them perform in public—I was still, at that time, less mobile than Josette. My acquaintance with them led to my hearing Peter Cape discuss theology over dinner with a friendly but baffled minister of the Netherlands Reformed Church, to whom he afterwards sang and played his guitar; and to the only time I was ever driven at night, at speed, over winding and hilly roads by a seriously drunk driver.

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To start with the theologian: Pieter de Bres was brought to New Zealand by the Presbyterian Church (which in Europe would have been called ‘Reformed’), to work among the Dutch immigrants then arriving in large numbers. It is confusing that a ‘Reformed Church of New Zealand’ had been established by people who had belonged in the Netherlands to a fundamentalist breakaway called (the Dutch equivalent of) the Re-reformed Church. This also appealed, for mainly ethnic reasons, to some Dutch people who were not particularly conservative in their theology. But many were also linked, by Pieter and three or four colleagues, with the Presbyterian Church.

After he had been here for a year or two, Pieter concluded that he could work most effectively from an established parish, made his availability known, and in due course was ‘called’ by the Upper Hutt Presbyterian Church. On an early pastoral visit to one of his elders, my father, he got his eye on me, as someone who had an ability with words. Thereafter, every Saturday morning for five years, he brought along his sermon for me to vet. Our conversations soon ranged far beyond the English of his sermon, into history, sociology, theology, politics; and occasionally became arguments. Pieter was later a liberal theologian in the Geering mould. He was not so at this time. He was a neo-orthodox Barthian. One of the tenets of this tradition, to summarise ruthlessly the many volumes of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics (which I have not read), was to concede what biblical scholars said about the human and flawed authorship of the books of Scripture, and to carry on as if nothing had changed. What had mostly not changed was the high Calvinist conception of an absolute gulf between God and man, a gulf that could be bridged only from God's side.

Yet Barth had admitted the enemy through the back door, and eventually, for many, the absolutist theology collapsed under the weight of the Biblical scholarship. While it held, however, Barthians were noted for being uncompromisingly principled about things that mattered. Most of the German Protestants who resisted Hitler were Barthians, including the most famous of them, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Pieter himself, his family and his in-laws, joined the Dutch resistance, specialising in hiding Jews. Pieter's principles sometimes led him into strife in Upper Hutt. He was invited to address the Anzac Day page 30 service, and delivered an anti-war, specifically anti-Cold War, message. RSA members muttered that he ought to be shot. Barth appeared at second-hand in most of his sermons—hence some of the arguments. In 1960 he was forty-five.

Pieter and Leni and their many children (eight eventually) took to life in New Zealand like ducks to water, but many things puzzled Pieter, as often of Anglo-Saxon origin as specifically New Zealand. How could a person claim to be both a Christian and a Freemason? What was the logic of English prepositions? Why do we live in the world but on earth? One of his greatest puzzles was the Anglican Church. The Presbyterian Church, for all its ethnic differences, he could feel at home in. He could understand if not approve of Roman Catholics. After all they and the Protestants shared the Netherlands, uneasily but peacefully, in about equal numbers. He could even appreciate Methodists. His father-in-law had been a missionary in South America for the Moravian Church, which had similar eighteenth-century evangelical origins. But the Anglican Church he couldn't place at all. What was the point of it? What on earth was the use of it?

So when I invited him to dinner with Peter Cape it was rather in the spirit in which James Boswell invited the high-tory Samuel Johnson to dine with the arch-radical John Wilkes, to see what would happen, not least for the benefit of his diary.

The ‘Victorian’ villa (built about 1910), in which I lived with my parents, was the best they could afford when my father retired. Previous owners had made a number of alterations, but had never got around to trying to remove the villa look, as others had done, by boxing in the verandah and flattening the gable. Perhaps they had run out of money; perhaps they had even liked the villa look—an eccentric thought which occurred to me only because I was secretly beginning to share it, despite the strictures of Ernst Plischke in his book Design and Living (1947), which had hitherto been my architectural Bible. In any case, the finials and the verandah fretwork had been removed, so perhaps it was lack of money that prevented further improvements. My bedsitter, where Peter and Peter and I ate our dinner on our knees, still had a twelve-foot stud.

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The food was provided by my mother, but she and my father discreetly retired to eat and read and listen to the wireless in the added-on sunporch at the back. At first the conversation was halting—as it was with Johnson and Wilkes. I did most of the talking. Eventually Pieter mentioned one thing Anglican he did approve of, a column of mildly radical opinion in Church and People, signed ‘Clavis’. Peter looked modestly self-effacing, which confirmed the suspicion I had already formed that Peter was Clavis. I had indeed been relishing the fact that his vicar, a conservative Canon called Smallfield, had been sounding off about this dreadful column to my father. Pieter's commendation of the column sparked the conversation, though by making it Pieter felt he had been polite enough. From then on he asked sharpish questions which Peter good-naturedly parried. After they had skirmished on a number of topics, Pieter settled on the archaic language of the prayer book, and the barrier this placed on evangelism. Ah, yes, Peter said, but the service is the beginning of a setting apart of the people of God, for which a special language conveying a sense of the numinous was appropriate. Pieter could see his point but thought it selfish. At a later date he would have said elitist. Neither foresaw that in a short time the Anglican Church would be agreeing with Pieter rather than Peter.

Why had Peter wanted to be a priest? Pieter wanted to know. Peter told his story, of a childhood which had nothing to do with the church, until at the age of fourteen or fifteen he became a Scout and went to a church parade. The service was Anglican, and the general confession blew him away. (‘We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us.’ I wondered about that adolescent.) He continued going to services, tasting a variety of churches but always coming back to the Anglicans; and from that point had his heart fixed on the priesthood, although it was some time before he was even confirmed because he dreaded being asked why he had not been baptised.

But why, if a priest, not a parish priest? Pieter asked. I had my page 32 private suspicion that Peter had perhaps been too unorthodox, not in belief but in behaviour, to be a success as a parish priest; but Peter responded with a spirited defence of the place for a priest in secular life. Not that his current job was all that secular anyway.

Then, when we had finished our salmon pie and fruit and icecream and had exhausted divinity, Peter went out to his car and brought back his shining new guitar, bought from the last royalty cheque on the sale of his records, and soon had Pieter thoroughly bushed among the sheilas and bints and jokers and boozers. I wondered whether Pieter had been able to make anything of Peter at all; but when he brought along his sermon the following Saturday he said he had enjoyed the evening, ‘though he is perhaps a little conscious that he is Peter Cape’.

It was a less staid gathering, though not all that less staid, to which the Bryans took me a couple of months later, on a wet, cold Saturday in July. Josette rang after lunch, proposing that I should go with them to a party at Noel Hoggard's in Pukerua Bay. ‘The party will go on all day and all night,’ she said, ‘but we aren't intending to stay long.’ I was tempted, and they arrived for me shortly afterwards. The Bryans always had interesting cars. Their previous one had been a pre-war Rover or Riley, I can't remember which, with pre-selector gears. In this precursor of automatic transmission, you selected with your gear-change the gear you were most likely to want next, and when the time came changed down or up by depressing the clutch pedal. No doubt you could train yourself to do this as quickly as a conventional gear-change, but Ken in traffic seemed to be relying on second sight. Now they had an aged but spectacular red Fiat, in which Ken sped us down the valley, over Haywards Hill, and around the Paremata Harbour, while I was already regretting my decision to come. Parties weren't really my scene.

Noel Hoggard was a public servant, a widower or deserted husband according to the person you spoke to, who had at least one daughter. A shed in his back yard housed a treadle-operated printing press, which he called the Handcraft Press. On it he printed, one opening at a time, hand-set pamphlets of verse. More importantly he edited and printed a long-running little magazine, also set by hand, page 33 which changed its name from time to time. By 1960 it had settled into its last and best-known name, Arena. Hoggard had the distinction of publishing the early work of many writers who later became recognised names, a few of whom, notably Louis Johnson and Kendrick Smithyman, remained faithful to him. His authors that year included Marilyn Duckworth (who had however already published a novel), Peter Hooper, Jack Lasenby, Renée Taylor. Yet ungratefully I concluded that his ability to pick future winners was not due to acute discernment so much as to lack of it. If everything went in something was bound to be of interest. Ungratefully? Well, I was one of the young writers whose work he printed. (I wrote short stories in those days.) Normally, a writer discovers an editor's limits of taste and tolerance from the submissions accepted and those rejected. I never had a rejection slip from Noel Hoggard, even for the most callow work. I never had a letter of acceptance, either, but in due course everything was printed—without payment, it goes without saying. I began to wonder whether anyone received rejection slips from him. Presumably some did, since he only published the magazine two or three times a year, and each number had only twenty-eight pages. But on what grounds I could not judge. I had never met him.

Hoggard put so much time and work into his magazine that one could hardly object to his enjoyment of a few perks which came with it. He took pride in the number of overseas little magazines for which he exchanged Arena. Piles of them in every corner of the house were the first thing I noticed when we arrived. And he enjoyed giving parties. He lived in a small house, probably originally a weekend bach, high on the hill above the sea.

Several people were already there, but if I had looked forward to meeting some of my fellow contributors I was disappointed. There were none. His mother and daughter bustled around with food. I talked to the Coles, John and Christine, but they soon went. I talked to a woman I had not met before and discovered we were both writing children's books with the same plot (neither ever published). This added to the gloom I was already feeling, seeping in from the dark afternoon. Les Cleveland strummed a guitar as if he was bored with strumming a guitar. We trooped out through dripping bushes to page 34 examine Noel's press in its shed by the light of a torch.

Ken and a friend decided to liven things up by going off to fetch Denis Glover. They were away for a long time, partly because Denis insisted on his wife coming too, and she had to be coaxed from a bed of sickness. Denis was in his usual state, as I sometimes thought he knew he was expected to be, and carrying it off with his usual panache. Ken was by now in the same state, without the panache. This worried me not a little, but Josette had made one glass of sherry last the afternoon, and I hoped she would drive home. I had to go with them, anyway. There was no way I could get myself from Pukerua Bay to Upper Hutt late on a Saturday afternoon, or at any other time. The trouble was that I was not drinking at all, except lemonade, because I was taking medication which alcohol did not agree with. As I watched other guests rocking on their feet, including the woman who was writing my children's story, I reflected that it was a mistake to stay sober when everyone around was getting drunk. Our host so far was not affected. He kept unobtrusively in the shadows. In the shadows he remains in my memory: I have little impression of what he looked like.

After early darkness had fallen, Josette managed with difficulty to prise Ken from Glover and we set off, Josette driving. Ken sang, he laughed, he fiddled with the controls of the car, he said how wonderful it was that Glover believed it was the duty of a writer to communicate. He induced Josette to take the narrower, less frequented secondary road around the northern side of Paremata Harbour. Josette had not been that way before, and did not know what was beyond the range of her headlights. Ken begged to be allowed to drive: sitting there was so boring. Josette drove doggedly on, but when Ken urged her to go faster, faster she did her best to oblige. Finally, after nearly driving us into the sea at a bend she had not anticipated, she let Ken take over. He roared us over Haywards Hill at a speed I could only guess at, because the speedometer was not working; yet fairly steadily except for the corners he cut. He was marginally safer in the driving seat than nagging from the passenger seat. At Silverstream he stopped to be sick over the fence into the playing fields of St Patrick's College, and Josette resumed the wheel. It was only about eight when I arrived home.

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The Bryans' marriage did not last, though I doubt whether the party at Hoggard's much influenced that outcome. Josette moved to Auckland. Denied a high-tech cure, she took like Katherine Mansfield to alternative medicine and alternative religion, and indeed lived longer than she was expected to, although she was still in her forties when she died. Ken had his brief moment of fame when he drove away from Raetihi, or some such place, where he was practising law, and disappeared; neither he nor his car was ever seen again. Peter Cape, after a fling at directing films, became a freelance writer, published a series of books about arts and crafts, and died in his early fifties. After Pieter de Bres retired from the ministry at the age of sixty-five he studied for a law degree, and spent the rest of his life as a voluntary solicitor for a community law office in Christchurch, until he dropped dead in the street just short of eighty.