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The Spike [or Victoria University College Review 1961]

Wikitoria, the Way to My Heart

Wikitoria, the Way to My Heart

After three weeks of hectic holidaying aboard the P & 0 liner Oronsay, I arrived at Wikitoria on 1 March 1960 and knew at once that here was the pleasant paradiso of my dreams, where I could rest and while away my Fulbright year in peace and intellectual vapidity. My first stop was Weir House. Had I realized I was coming to an underdeveloped country, my shock at the primitive conditions of this hostel (euphemism for paid borstal) would not have been nearly so great. The long, dank corridors reminded me of the days when I was employed as a spy by the Roman government to inform on early Christian worshippers in the catacombs. The food made me realize at once that America had been sending its Care packages to all the wrong places and I immediately cabled the outgoing administration to beware the Ides of March. On the bright side, I found the acoustics enormously successful in magnifying and reverberating every sound with remarkable high fidelity.

The men at Weir are a much better lot than Kiwis have a right to be, considering their insularity. Bright, ambitious, argumentative, sexually adjusted, they will soon page 47 learn to play the game by the established rules. They will learn that every good Kiwi must jealously prevent his neighbour from doing any better than he does. They will learn that intelligence is a poor substitute for prejudice, and that the path of least resistance leads to happiness, mental health, and progress. They will learn that women are unintelligent persons whose place is in the kitchen decorating pavlovas, while the well-informed men talk about rugby in the lounge over their gallons of urine flavoured bitters. Already they are on the right track. Alcoholism, it seems to me, has more devotees than panty-raids have in the States. And the first two-thirds of each academic year are spent 'getting fixed up', while the final third of the year is spent cramming.

Most students at Wikitoria work part of the time that they are not swotting. This usually means that they can be found strolling along Lambton Quay in midmorning, or just emerging from the eleven o'clock pictures (in time for the two o'clock session, from which they emerge in time for the five o'clock session, etc.) or merely staring blankly out of the window at La Scala. For this they earn between five and twenty pounds per week, depending on whether they are accountancy or law students.

The minority who swot in the library do so, I am convinced, because it is there. However, they should be credited at least for their non-conformity in the face of the community need for mediocrity. It should also be noted that they surmount formidable obstacles. Librarians, I mean. Incredible women, who are both incoherent and greedy for outrageous fines, librarians all wear army shoes and spend the major part of their time rearranging the books out of sight so that they can never be found in less than three-quarters of an hour. The library, too, is acoustically near perfect.

Students pursue a variety of papers, all of which are marked by learning off archaic interpretations by rote. No one dares question the assumptions of the lecturer, who seldom invites disagreement with his ideas or with the status quo. The encouragement of original thinking by a few stimulating people is more than counter-balanced by the frustration the students see in these men, who are usually thwarted and unsatisfied in their academic ambitions. But who cares, as long as the great steamroller of equality rolls merrily along paving everybody down smooth ?

When tired with all this, the students seek refuge in that incense-perfumed bordello known as the Common Room. There they may be seen staking their future earnings at Trentham on games of chance such as kick-the-head-that-opens-the-locker and chase-the-women-with-crude-remarks. Smoking is permitted, and most young men roll their own cancer or swipe some from their cobber', which is defined as anyone offering cigarettes. American cigarettes are preferred, and many a Japanese seaman has been smuggled through Wikitoria as a student to supply the rest with cigarettes, transistor radios, geisha girls, and free passes for the Japanese Floating Freighter. All catering is supplied from the 'Cafe', a converted bomb shelter specializing in rubber sausages, ersatz coffee made from burnt peanuts, and, thank God, ice-cold Coca-Cola.

The University is run by a special marsupial bred for the purpose, marked by a body which resembles one of the floats from the James Smith parade, a neck which is constantly craning with discomfort from an unbelievably stiff white collar, and a page 48 nasal voice which is at its best when uttering insults. Generally inept, it is kept for the confidence it engenders that somebody is really in charge.

Extra-curricular activities are almost unknown, except for sports, at which Kiwis excel. One group does more than its share of work, and, until 1961, under abysmal conditions. I refer to the Dramatics Society. Last year they dared to stage Oedipus Rex, proving their intrepidness. Little did they realize that Oedipus Rex, dealing as it does with patricide and incest, is a highly indecent document, according to the Act of 1910, as amended in 1954. It is a wonder the Solicitor-General did not remind them that a fourteen-year-old boy could be maimed for life by seeing such filth actually portrayed by live actors on a stage. This year they not only rehearsed and performed a salacious French play at Wikitoria, they also sent it to Christchurch for the Arts Festival and Winter Tournament. Although Keep It In The Family made audiences laugh to tears, it was clearly pornographic, dealing as it did with an Electra complex, an Oedipus complex, homosexuality, narcissim, sacrilege, and notions contrary to the Establishment all in one act. The fact that the cast performed splendidly as an ensemble not only fails to excuse the work, but makes the effect of such offensive matter even more dangerous. It was ascertained that after students had seen the play they re-enacted scenes to their friends, and they repeated some of the ideas read to them out of Lolita, bits of which were interpolated into the play to heighten its undue emphasis on sex and its tendency to corrupt and deprave. Lord knows how many people were hurt by this play. Next year, they plan to do Much Ado About Nothing, which is guaranteed to offend nobody. At last they have learned their lesson, and Queen Victoria rules again in the house named to honour her memory.

During the evenings students perform a variety of activities. Wenching is always popular, and for the occasion the men beat their pens into ploughshares; the women, their curlers into pruning hooks. Marriage is frowned upon, of course. Since sex is the only thing that brings men and women together in New Zealand, it does not take long for young people to find out that sex need not be trammelled by marriage. When marriage is finally contemplated (or required) it is usually justified on Shavian grounds: 'a maximum of temptation coupled with a maximum of opportunity'. This works for about seven years, after which infidelity and divorce become ever more pleasing prospects.

Other evening activities for students include going to the pictures. The double-feature is unknown at first-run houses in Wellington, and the audience sits through at least two newsreels, one cartoon, and a short subject on river drainage, produced for no apparent reason by Pacific Films. Then there is the interval, also known locally as Time for a Capstan'. (Capstans are a tasteless, poor drawing, unfiltered version of the cigarette.) At the beginning of this vital and dynamic programme, a theme is played which causes everyone to rise, and the image of a frightfully recherché and overdressed young lady is flashed on the screen. Adorned like the statue of a Spanish Virgin Mary or the Yuletide tree in Rockefeller Centre, she is worshipped locally, and her photographs may be seen daily in the centre pages of the teleprinter jumbles which pass here for newspapers. The feature film is usually a syrupy melodrama from Hollywood, which was at first intermittently interesting only because of frequent and page 49 Irrelevant interruptions of sex and violence. However, the film censor has taken care of most of that, so the film now is totally uninteresting, allowing the patrons to pay complete attention to each other.

Following the pictures, half the student crowd catches a bus or retires to private quarters for a nip of sex, while the other half haunts the Coffee Bars. A typical Coffee Bar serves an absurd concoction which is black, bitter, and drained from an Italian machine. It is libellously labelled 'American coffee'. Drinking tea, therefore, is supremely chic, but only if it is ordered with conviction. On hand are boys and girls, or boys and boys, or artistes and subjects. Conversation topics range all the way from nothing to nothingness. In addition there is usually a performer of some kind, who is known to be a true artist by the poor quality of his (or her) musicianship. The décor is predominantly formica and false Picasso, interlarded with album covers. Something to eat is usually provided, with whipped cream made fresh in celebration of each visit of Mr Nash to New Zealand. On occasion, events of major significance have been known to occur in a Coffee Bar — as, for instance, when ex-King Peter of Yugoslavia was forced to wash two hundred dishes, because he had been caught smuggling in fish and chips. Or on another occasion when a vocalist electrocuted himself with his guitar. The proprietor of all this is usually a distant relative of a former ruling house of New Zealand whose demesne or isle de France has been reduced to this cleaned up hole-in-the-wall, where students revel through the night.

The next morning the student is ready to return to the relentless cat-eat-bird world of struggle in New Zealand. That is, unless it rains, which happens more than occasionally during the winter in Wellington. On those days, with sunglasses to blot out the shimmer of the droplets, reefers between his toes, and reclining on a chaise-longue — upholstered in some material out of which he will soon pick the stuffing — the student wonders whether he should not give up the rugged life and settle down to the more sensible way of life of the sheep farmer, just as his father and his father's father did before him. Such thoughts must not be dwelt upon too long, or the student may ask whether his father's father was indeed only a gentleman sheep farmer. What was it he use to hear about his grandfather's pioneering and individualism? No matter, he must make his own future. But perhaps he should not be a sheep farmer. Perhaps he ought to write poetry and collect fifteen bob a week for every brat he can procreate. That would be better. Or perhaps he should get a job and earn enough to take a trip abroad, never to go home again. But that would be a serious mistake. For New Zealand is his country, with its rolling and fertile hills, its incredibly beautiful blue or star-encrusted sky, its even-tempered climate. He could never be happy elsewhere. Where he would have to work. Let him stay on in his land of the long white foam rubber cloud, and send his children and his children's children to Wikitoria, where the values for which he fought and died are forever enshrined.

Even I am not unaffected by Wikitoria. I, a foreigner amidst all this alien corn, drop a tear at the thought of leaving thee, O Wikitoria. For thou hast, like a disease, found the way to my heart.

Harvard Hollenberg