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Writing Wellington: Twenty Years of Victoria University Writing Fellows

1983 Michael King

page 24

1983 Michael King

page 25

On the Purchase of Oysters,
Terakihi and Trollopes

It was John Beaglehole who spoke, somewhere, of 'the Regent Street curve of Lambton Quay'. He was lamenting the loss of a harmony of architectural styles that had characterised Wellington's best-known thoroughfare up to the era of gouging and rebuilding that began in the late 1950s.

The comment was pure Beaglehole, apt and felicitous. It arose out of a love for his home city; and it reflected his brand of erudition, and that of his generation of scholars, which viewed so many features of New Zealand life from a perspective conditioned by a thorough knowledge of English history. That same erudition ensured that Beaglehole would have known the identity of Edward Gibbon Wakefield's patron John Lambton, Lord Durham, for whom the street had been named; and, of course, he was aware of its origin as a genuine quay running alongside the mid-nineteenth-century Wellington waterfront, before the uplift of earthquakes and the process of reclamation banished the sea some hundreds of metres to the east. It was the curve of that original beachfront that was responsible for what seemed like a glacier swerve once buildings loomed on both sides of the street.

All of this I now know and understand. In my childhood, however, I had a more elementary view. Then, visiting Lambton Quay was a matter of going to town; and Lambton Quay, I believed, was the whole of that place called 'town'. I have no recollection of venturing beyond it up to the age of nine. There was no need. The Quay contained all the places that, for us, 'going to town' implied. My father's office at the advertising agency Carlton Carruthers du Chateau and King was in the South British Insurance Company Building down the Plimmer Steps end. The Bank of New South Wales, where my father persuaded a senior staff member to put aside Victorian and Edwardian currency for my collection of old coins, stood next door. The booksellers and stationers Whitcombe and Tombs, where we bought family copies of New Zealand classics (Oliver's New Zealand Birds, Graham's A Treasury of New Zealand Fishes, and Powell's Native Animals of New Zealand) was close by.

Right alongside Plimmer Steps was the fish shop run by the Barnao family where, like all good Catholics, we bought seafood on Fridays. This last was the subject of what would now be judged a politically incorrect song that my father would sing on the way home in the car, to the tune of 'O Solo Mio'.

Bartolo Barnao
Of Lambton Quay,
He sella da oyster,
Da teraki . . .

This, I found out later, was a variant on a song sung about an even earlier fish shop owner, Nick Fernando.

And there was more. Tony Paino and Vince Criscillo's fruit and vegetable shop, bursting with an unimaginable selection of produce. The man with a basket of flowers down the Woodward Street end who called out, 'Aaa, lovely page 26 Otaki violets . . .' The DIC and Kirkcaldie and Stains department stores, where we did Christmas and birthday shopping and were served by immaculately dressed women in black skirts and white blouses. And the Quay was the last domain of that now extinct breed, the street photographer, who took our pictures in a variety of family combinations as we strode along verandah-covered footpaths.

The reason that 'going to town' provided such a sense of occasion, and that all these sights seemed so exotic, was that we lived on the then rural arm of the Pauatahanui inlet, where there was nothing remotely urban or suburban (Cambourne and Whitby were later intrusions). Getting to town, by train or by car, not only involved transporting ourselves to a different landscape; it was very often a different weather system too by the time we emerged from the second train tunnel or from the bottom of the Ngauranga Gorge and saw what Wellington and its colosseum of hills had in store for us. The meteorological transformation often seemed as complete as it would have been were we visiting another country.

My first recollections of the Quay itself are shadowy and generic—just an awareness of being in a canyon of high grey and brown buildings, of trams rattling past down the centre of the road, and of being jostled by the constant movement of pedestrians. There was a touch of fear in that experience, and a need to keep a firm hold on my mother's or my grandmother's hand. But the dominant memory is one of excitement at the sight of so much mobile and noisy humanity. The same set of feelings came back to me when I walked for the first time down Fifth Avenue, which was cavernous and crowded to an extent Lambton Quay never was—but my perspective as an adult in New York in the 1970s matched that of a small child in Wellington in the late 1940s.

My second memory is highly specific. On 15 December 1950, my fifth birthday, fulfilling a promise made one year earlier, my mother and grandmother took me to afternoon tea at Kirkcaldie and Stains. It's not the tea itself I recall vividly, though I do remember the cake-stand, its tiers of plates loaded with miniature sandwiches, scones and cakes on doilies. What I remember with absolute clarity is what we trooped to the window to watch passing in the street below us: Peter Fraser's funeral cortege.

I knew nothing of bereavements, nor of the rituals and pageantry surrounding death, let alone the death of a wartime prime minister. And so I was intensely interested. The slow procession was led by an armoured personnel carrier hauling a gun carriage. On that carriage lay the coffin, covered with a kiwi-feather cloak, a symbol of leadership whose warm earth colour and soft texture contrasted with the cold steel of the war machines.

Fraser's former colleagues walked in dark suits on either side of the carriage, divided by death as they were in life. The Labour members, who included a family friend, Phil Connolly, were on our side of the Quay. My mother identified them for me as they passed in single file. Walter Nash out front, now Leader of the Opposition, his square face set in granite solemnity. Behind him Arnold Nordmeyer, whose egglike head was so like the cartoonists' page 27 caricatures that he seemed to be imitating them. Then Eruera Tirikatene, tall, silver-haired, handsome in a cloak, not third in party seniority but in that position as chief mourner for the Maori people. Then the rest, unrecognisable and unmemorable to me. By the time they had passed, the government members on the far side, led by the Prime Minister Sid Holland, were too far off to be distinguishable from one another.

Behind the mourners came a line of black limousines. Then lorries loaded with what, at funerals, are always called floral tributes, a blaze of colour in an otherwise sombre sequence. Then an army of trade unionists marching in ranks, shoulder to shoulder. They seemed soldierlike: not because they were in uniform—on the contrary, they were variously dressed in open-necked shirts and tattered sports coats—but because of their numbers, their formation and, most of all, their grim determination.

All this was watched over by the largest crowd I had ever seen, lining both sides of the Quay, crammed on to shop verandahs, leaning out of windows of buildings such as Kirkcaldie and Stains. Strangely, there was no sound, no audible expression of emotion. The effect was one of solemnity rather than grief—a farewell to a man respected rather than loved. My grandmother, however, who lived then in the railway settlement at Ngaio, dabbed her eyes and announced that he had been a good and a great man and a friend to working people.

The years passed. I grew up. Lambton Quay no longer seemed so cavernous at street level. And I learned about other parts of the city: Willis Street, beyond Stewart Dawson's corner, where the handwritten headlines of that day's Evening Post were displayed in the street-level window; Manners Street, home of the left-wing bookshop Modern Books; Mercer Street, where Dick Reynolds presided over that marvellous second-hand emporium, Smith's Bookshop; Courtenay Place, with the best of the cinemas and Chinese restaurants; and Boulcott Street, with St Mary of the Angels, where we attended midnight mass at Christmas and Easter and revelled in the sound of Maxwell Fernie's choir.

In every sense that mattered, however, Lambton Quay was still 'town'. In the course of my rare visits to the city from boarding school in the Hutt Valley, my mother would meet me at the railway station. From there, to allow me to experience something called 'coffee bar culture', whose major features seemed to be candles in Chianti bottles and heavily mascara'd women in bouffant hair-dos and fishnet stockings, she would take me to the Rendez-Vous coffee shop near the entrance to Cable Car Lane. (It was a sine qua non that such establishments had to have French names: there was also the Chez Paree and the Monde Marie; even the one that did not was still called The French Maid.) On one such occasion at the Rendez-Vous, told that the premises had a newly opened upstairs gallery, my mother led me with our cups of coffee and plates of cream cakes into the adjacent and plush office of a prominent accountant, who was just as startled to see us as we were to encounter him.

page 28

Later still, when I was a university student in the mid-sixties, I always took the Kelburn cable car to and from town, so that Lambton Quay was invariably my point of access and egress. It was in these years that I began to haunt Roy Parsons' sparsely elegant bookshop, by this time established in the Ernst Plischke-designed Massey House. An additional attraction there was the coffee bar that Harry Seresin and his mother had opened on the mezzanine floor, which, among many other attractions, was the first Wellington eatery to make and sell yoghurt. Further along the Quay were the Parsons' shabby but enticing bookseller neighbours, Ferguson and Osborn. The business was run by the eccentric and bad-tempered siblings Harold and Vera Osborn, who seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of unopened first editions selling at their original, pre-inflation prices, and who, right to the end, parcelled all purchases in brown paper tied with string.

In those years too I evolved a routine of Friday night drinking. In the case of the crowd I had fallen in with, this meant heading for the first-floor lounge bar of the Midland Hotel. From that genteel den of iniquity other rites of passage followed: the courtship of members of the fairer sex who joined us there, or floated provocatively on our periphery (of the latter, I recall in particular a pair of blonde Dutch-Jewish twins, with plunging necklines and Stars of David on silver chains); the purchase and subsequent juggling of bottles to have in hand for whatever entertainment would complete the evening; the post-six o'clock meals at the steak bar over the road whose name I no longer recall; and the subsequent converging on taxi ranks for transport to the scene of that night's party in Kelburn, Wadestown or Tinakori Road.

Memories of later years speed up, the way recollections do as they approach the present, and are less vivid. In my journalism days, after the abolition of six o'clock closing, there were regular drinking sessions with journalists at Barrett's Hotel (primarily Evening Post staffers—Keith Gunn, Doug McNeil, Donald McDonald). And there was an entirely different school at De Brett's made up of the city's Maori professionals (Koro Dewes, Waka Vercoe, Ross White). The writers Alistair Campbell and Harry Orsman gathered for a time with musicians at the Dungeon Bar of the Royal Tavern, then abandoned it for some pub in Willis Street. Twenty years earlier, my father had drunk with Denis Glover, Jim Baxter, Tony Vogt and Lou Johnson in the old Royal Hotel on the same site.

In the early 1970s there was the welcome appearance on Plimmer Steps of John Quilter's bookshop, eventually to shift down to the Quay proper. It was in the original location that I overheard the kind of conversation one dines out on for years afterwards. A flushed gentleman in tweeds burst into the shop and hurtled to the counter, where he asked in a loud voice, 'I say, do you have any Trollopes?' There was a silence while the proprietor considered the implications of the question. Then a customer intervened. 'Wrong place, mate,' he said. 'You want Vivian Street.'

In 1980 I turned my back on the Wellington district in favour of the winterless north and have made only sporadic return visits. When I am back, I am frequently surprised at ways in which Lambton Quay has improved: page 29 the pavement cafes, the renovations of such treasures as the Public Trust Building, the extent to which even the buildings which John Beaglehole regarded as intrusions now look as if they belong. I am grateful too for landmarks and reference points that survive, like Parsons' and Quilter's. But I am also aware of the 'silences between'—the businesses and buildings that have entirely disappeared along with the trams: Ferguson and Osborn, the Cadeau giftshop, the Rendez-Vous, the Midland, De Brett's, Barrett's. The Quay is simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar to me as it sheds old skins and acquires new ones.

In one important respect it doesn't change, however. If I ever want to recapture the feeling of belonging to a town, of casting off anonymity, I do it there. In ten minutes at Bowen Street corner, or at the bottom of Woodward Street, I can be sure of sighting and talking to at least half-a-dozen people I know: old school friends, acquaintances from university, current and retired journalists, civil servants, politicians. Lambton Quay is not, was not and never will be my place of residence. But it brings me as near as I shall ever come in my life to feeling part of an urban community; and it connects my past to my present.

Michael King (b. 1945), biographer and historian, was awarded an Honorary DLitt by Victoria University in 1997. His Whina, a biography of Whina Cooper, won the Wattie Book of the Year Award. Other major publications include Te Puea (1977), Maori: A Photographic and Social History (written during his Victoria University Fellowship), Moriori: A People Rediscovered (1989) and Frank Sargeson (1995). In 1999, as Burns Fellow at Otago University, he is writing a life of Janet Frame.