Archive for the ‘History – Observations’ Category

Christmas Days Past

Sunday, December 25th, 2005

It’s funny, but I can’t remember many of the presents that I got as a kid.

But I can remember the sights and smells of Christmas Day. Particularly the smell of a brace of chickens draped in bacon roasting in the oven. Back then, chicken was something of a treat, and tasted more gamey.

When they arrived at the table all crispy golden, the smell of the steaming stuffing as my father carved them would have me drooling – well almost. There would be squabbles and sulks over who got a leg, but I preferred nice slices of breast meat, and eagerly searched for some of the succulent skin with that crispy crunchy bacon attached. A dollop of herby stuffing set things off very nicely indeed.

There would usually be ham freshly sliced off the bone, especially if there was a big group sitting down to lunch. The ham would have been baked in the oven in the days leading up to Christmas, filling the house with wonderful smoky smells. It was a work of art, draped in pineapple rings held in place by toothpicked cherries, the skin scored and studded with cloves.

Simple salads complemented the meats. The standard of the time was iceberg lettuce finely sliced and dressed with sliced tomato and boiled egg. There was always a tomato and cucumber salad steeped in malt vinegar – another staple of the time. And, of course, boiled new potatoes.

A creamy “highlander” mayonnaise made from condensed milk, egg yolks, mustard powder, vinegar and salad oil whisked together added a savoury flavour to the salad. It was also excellent spread on bread, instead of butter, to make chicken and stuffing sandwiches with the leftovers.

For Christmas lunch, the large dining table in the rumpus room would be set, and the clan would gather. My grandmother, who sometimes had a glass of sauterne might mark the special occasion by having a Pimm’s. Remember the label? “Pimm’s No. 1 Cup.”

The banquet would begin, and so would the talk. Stories, memories, humorous events, talk of family and friends. And on it would go. All afternoon. Sometimes we’d finish lunch with a homemade Christmas pudding and we’d eagerly search through our plates to find the thruppences that had been put in. The winner was the person who got the single sixpence.

People would disappear to assigned duties as the dishes were washed and dried, while others popped out to visit neighbours and friends. The group would re-form as evening drew on and the leftovers were brought out. Sandwiches would be made with thinly sliced Findlay’s bread, taken straight from its bright yellow waxed paper wrapping. The evening meal was a relaxed, informal event, enabling everyone to make the most of the opportunity for a chinwag while people were gathered.

The only interruption to the torrent of chatter was a pause to listen (and later watch) the Queen’s Christmas Message to all her loyal subjects.

As we packed up for bed, two of us would be thinking of the wishbones, we’d gotten from the chickens. The impatient ones tried them immediately, others tucked them away in a high place where they could dry out ready for an emergency when we had a special wish that needed them.

I Blame My Mother

Wednesday, December 21st, 2005

She was a Wellingtonian. Born and bred. Through and through.

Perhaps it was her stories about bustling electric trains to the Hutt Valley in the 1930s, the mysterious “opium dens” in Haining Street as she scooted past on her way to Wellington Tech as a teenager, or the building projects that her father worked on in the capital.

My first visit to Wellington in the early 1970s sealed my fate. Seeing the “skyscrapers” of Lambton Quay, munching a burger at Big Tex on the corner of Cuba and Ghuznee Streets, walking along the invigorating waterfront, a night spent up at Carter Observatory watching a lunar eclipse, a ride on the train up to Coastlands for the novelty of Saturday shopping followed by lunch at The Fisherman’s Table. I was hooked.

And so I moved here in 1979, and can’t escape for long.

Back then Wellington was a government town. Property magnate Bob Jones poked the borax at its grey shoe brigade of civil servants and backed Carmen for mayor. An SIS spy featured in the press for having a pork pie and a Penthouse in his briefcase while on assignment. Hip flasks were smuggled into Dr John’s Disco to help invigorate the soft drinks. Worcestershire sauce sprinkled onto buttered white bread was the entree at one of Courtenay Place’s many chinese cafes. And on the way home to Mount Vic. along Vivian Street, Carmen would be touting for trade “Hi boys, how about a coffee?” at 3 a.m.

Leaf through any of Pat Lawlor’s excellent books on Wellington, and you’ll realise Wellington’s long history as a sociable town. Even in the 1970s and 1980s it was a place of exotic eateries and bars. The Acropolis in Dixon Street was often something of a riot, and you had to be there early if you wanted to order their stuffed vine leaves. More sedate dining could be had at the Vienna in Manners Street where the star dish was tournedos rossini – tournedo steaks wrapped in crispy bacon.

The California Steak Bar in Willis Street offered prompt service, leaving plenty of time for a leisurely drink upstairs at the nearby Carlton Hotel before closing time. One knocked on the front door of Orsini’s Restaurant in Cuba Street to be let in past the cramped pianist. Candle-lit tables were shoe-horned into every available space, and street light entered via shuttered windows. After a show, the old world Midland Hotel was a favourite stop for a late night drink – the first floor bar offered tea and coffee in silver service with crisp linen napkins.

Windows on Wellington, located on the 20th floor of the Williams City Centre was a place where staring into her limpid pools competed with staring at Wellington’s sparkling jewels laid out below us – fantastic venue, shame about the menu.

If an evening dancing in Chloe’s at The 1860 was your thing, then you could always still get a feed at the somewhat gloomy Camelot restaurant in the days of 10 o’clock closing with such fare as pate steak or a “Sir Loin” dish. Then you could carry on to Slack Alice nightclub on Plimmer’s Steps.

Many of these establishments have disappeared over the years, along with the streets like Sturdee and Farish which served them. The Mexican Cantina’s original location in Willis Street is still in use – by Ye Jun. The clientele is more sedate, but I’m certain that the carpet is original and the steps are just as steep.

Wellington has long been a place where people from all over New Zealand came to because there was work. What a melting pot! And yet, its a windy old rat-hole. The winters can be damp, and the summers are mild – not baking hot like in Gisborne. Those frequent southerlies slice through you like a knife. The threat of a big earthquake hangs over us like the sword of Damocles.

But then its a wonderfully compact city. Crammed onto the edge of a harbour of magical beauty. Houses stuck to the sides of steep hills as if glued there. Populated by people of every race and creed. Commuting to work is a doddle if you’re on one of the railway routes.

No matter how grim the work-day morning, you pop out of that first railway tunnel and hurtle over the top of the motorway at Ngauranga Gorge and hear out-of-towners gasp as they get a quick glimpse of motorway mayhem before they plunge into the second tunnel; and then “pop” out the end and down the slope toward Wellington. There she is: sparkling in the morning light, tall buildings cheek-by-jowl with the hills looming above them.

Sometimes Lambton Harbour is like mirror glass, tinkling in the sun. Sometimes she is angry, whipped up by 10 metre swells outside the heads in Cook Strait. At other times she is mysteriously filled with fog, like a gigantic cappucino. Never is she dull.

And when family or friends visit, and you take them “down town” on foot, looking at the architecture, monuments and art works which are at every turn, you know why you live here.

Sipping a cup of coffee in the street while a former Prime Minister walks past on his way to a board meeting at Bullshit Castle (aka POHQ). A politician perches on one of the seats for a meditative smoke while locals look on as they chew the fat over a brew. If Peter Jackson’s got something on the go, then there will be a movie truck parked somewhere shooting some film. Buskers buzz away in the background, and perhaps you’ll get a wind-up from some of the street theatre associated with the Festival of the Arts. Tourists off the cruise liners chatter away in their own lingo and peer at maps in the summer.

The peace might be shattered by a protest march down the main streets to Parliament, or by Victoria University students following a pipe band in their capping parade. Traffic halts for some formal parade of soldiers, sailors or airmen commemorating an important event, and the city takes on the appearance of a garrison town with military uniforms at every turn.

Wellington is a town with heart. Its a living, working, capital city with all the attendant baggage of modern day life. There’s malcontents, troublemakers, burglars and muggers like any other big town. But there’s even more Wellingtonians to balance the equation – people who care and love the place.

And more of those Wellingtonians are writing about its history. Full marks to NZ Post in Tawa for prominently displaying “The Streets of Tawa” by Bruce Murray right beside the tills. This Tawa Historical Society publication is just out, and is the perfect stocking-filler for giving to local bookworms.

And that reminds me – I haven’t yet bought Clyde Quay School’s historical calendar for next year. Where would we be without these people who are preserving our past and bringing it alive?

Windy Wellie – it’s Home.

Happy Holidays

Friday, December 16th, 2005

“Hooray! … Hooray! … Hooray!” Cheers carried upon the breeze from Tawa School yesterday afternoon reminded me of younger days when I too experienced that exciting moment when school was over for the year. Six glorious weeks of Christmas Holidays were ahead of us. No more school until February.

The last day of school was an important day. Plans to meet friends from more remote locations had to be put in place in advance. As we walked across the soccer field toward the college bike sheds, arrangements for expeditions and forays were made. We all knew that the next few weeks would be busy with family stuff but, once those baking hot January days arrived, there would be bike trips to Gray’s Bush, day trips out to Hexton along the back Ormond Road crammed in the back of a mini van if a driver could be bribed, forays out to Valley Road, visits to mates in Kaiti, soccer games to be watched at parties in Childers Road, expeditions to the gun emplacement (and later the observatory) on Kaiti Hill.

The making of fruit wine would be experimented with. My peach and apricot concoctions usually went mouldy but, with the enhancement provided by many years of memory, I recall one talented fellow-brewer making a stunning beetroot wine that rivalled a modern-day pinot noir. Electronic projects would be built, letters written, books and magazines read and exchanged.

Our trusty bikes would get us about Gisborne and its environs. For many years I had a super-modern Fireball with smaller wheels, banana seat and “easy rider” handlebars. This was the ultimate in style, with funky racing-car gear lever mounted on the main bar, and whitewall tyres. The carrier was mounted on the front, and steering was heavy when the saddlebags were loaded with loot for a day’s outing.

The banana seat was set far back to produce the “easy-rider” effect which had its downside in wet weather. The rear tyre pumped a jet of water up the back of the bike and, with a tail-wind, the jet sometimes overtook the rider at intersections. One of the first modifications was the attachment of a mud-flap to reduce the “camouflage” effect given to my back by muddy water on wet days.

The bike was so popular that everybody wanted to ride it, including the mother of a mate over in Kaiti. Until that time, I had thought her a friendly but sedate lady. Not so. When riding my Fireball round her backyard, this 50-year-old would whoop and carry on like one of us kids. I remember her first attempt to ride the thing – sitting far back on the black banana seat wobbling about the yard, with her husband collapsing in a heap shouting “Wooo mama, what’s that thing sticking out the front?”

Bleeding edge technology has its down time, and the Fireball had its share of gearbox troubles. On those occasions, being vertically-challenged, I’d requisition an old black lady’s bike from the stables so that I could keep up with my mates. Her name was Henrietta and she had amazing balance. One of my favourite tricks was cycling along Gladstone Road at high speed, arms folded, wobbling the seat. This would set up slow oscillations in the two diagonal bars to the front forks causing the front wheel to waver this way and that. My own private roller coaster. Young and bullet-proof, and there were no cycle helmet regulations in those days!

Henrietta, though an old model, had the remarkable innovation of a fork lock. Depending on how the handlebars were set, once the lock was engaged any miscreant stealing her could only travel in a straight line or circles. She was never stolen on any of our outings! The bike’s long gone, but the fork lock key NGN30 still survives.

Though my parents frowned on the practice; at the end of a long bike trip, or any bike trip for that matter, it was always necessary to speed up as I rode up the driveway, hurtled down the side of the garage, bounced over the storm drain and skidded to a halt on the earth floor of the stables. Henrietta had her own stall, the horses were long gone.

As was Judge Jones’ buggy which had lived in the coach-house adjacent to the stables. That was the woodshed in my day. A place of labour, where wood was stacked, later to be collected for the fires inside the house, and the kindling was chopped. These and other chores were the source of pocket money which financed a steady diet of Kwench bars, boots and shoes, aniseed wheels and hard jubes. More durable booty was often hidden somewhere in the woodheap to escape the predations of brothers who were experts at finding caches of goodies in more orthodox locations.

Happy holidays. 🙂

Raoul & Campbell weather stations remembered

Tuesday, November 29th, 2005

“Raoul Island, Raoul Island, Zulu Mike Echo Two Two
This is Wellington ZLX59
Transmitting one two one five two decimal five listening Wun Three Fife Eight Zero.
How do you copy, over?”
[response]
“Roger and Good Afternoon Raoul. Have you merit 4 this way with light QRN for November. Standby for Wellington Traffic, Over.”

Another weather sked begins.

Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, New Zealand’s outlying weather stations at Raoul Island in the Kermadecs to the north and at Campbell Island in the Southern Ocean were staffed by meteorologists. Weather readings were taken and encoded into blocks of five (from memory) digit numbers for transmission to “the Weather Office” at Kelburn in Wellington.

Every three hours, technical operators from the Overseas Radio Telephone Terminal at the Wellington Transmission Centre would set up a radio link with the island to allow the met. men (and later women) to relay the weather data by voice to Kelburn. On a good day (or night) if radio propagation suited, the islanders could make telephone calls to family and friends after they’d relayed the weather data.

It was a strict routine. Every 3 hours, at 10 past the hour. With each successive contact, the islands would alternate – If Raoul was first at 3 p.m. then Campbell was first at 6 p.m. and so on. Staff at the island holding second place could make private telephone calls but only after relaying the weather data to Kelburn. The weather data “must get through.” Business first, pleasure later.

When radio propagation was poor, an island was allowed to miss a scheduled contact, but people started to get jittery if they missed a second contact 3 hours later. In atrocious conditions, say during a solar outburst, when the radio conditions were abysmal, the technical operator would sometimes communicate with the island and take the weather data by using Q codes, the phonetic alphabet and clearly enunciated numbers where five was pronounced “fife” and nine pronounced “niner” etc. The data would then be telephoned through to Kelburn. Such situations were rare.

The Radio Terminal was located at the Wellington Transmission Centre through an historic anomaly when I worked there in the 1970s and 1980s. Toward the end of the period, the service transferred to Wellington Radio (ending a long dispute, I might add) but during my time it allowed me to take part in radio operating – something of an unexpected treat.

There were many humorous and dramatic events during my time there, and I hope to write up a few of them at some stage. Reprovisioning of the islands and crew changeover were always interesting times, and the odd scheduled contact would be missed. Other old friends would suddenly pop-up in “met territory” when perhaps one of New Zealand’s warships, for whom we also ran telephone schedules, would be visiting Raoul or Campbell.

An unexpected holiday was once declared when a yacht crewed by women called at Raoul Island. Much to the displeasure of the “brass” at Kelburn, met. work took a back seat to other pursuits while a “holiday” was declared, and the few weather skeds that took place involved more than a few shlurred words. I also noted that the pops and squeals that were normally associated with single sideband transmissions took on a different tone. 🙂

The occasional visits by the frigates Waikato, Otago and Canterbury to Campbell Island were also time for celebration, with the added bonus of litter – particularly in the form of the stubby beer bottles that were issued as part of the crew’s rations. These were pressed into service to hold Campbell Island Brew – an acquired taste. The staff at Campbell sent us one (it was well-travelled by the time it was ceremoniously handed over at the radio terminal in Wellington) and a group of technical operators assembled for a “formal tasting.” The cap was lifted and the noble beverage was carefully dispensed into eagerly held tasting glasses. Silence ensued. “Ah. Hmmm.” “Different.” “Good God!” “Hint of oranges..” “Three week old …” Well, never mind. I’m sure you get the picture. Meteorology was their speciality, not brewing. And anyway, the firewater that was produced depended on what was available on the island at the time. Fire was the important result in the cold winter months….

Nowadays, of course, automatic weather stations have replaced the teams of meteorologists at Raoul and Campbell. Raoul continues to be of interest to vulcanologists and seismologists owing to its close proximity to the Kermadec Trench, and is something of a dive spot. Campbell is visited less often, but is home to species of interest to conservation authorities. Scientific expeditions still use the accommodation once used by the pioneering met. folk.

In a Word

Monday, November 28th, 2005

An email arrived this week from an English relative who is proof-reading some of the chapters of my current book. He picked me up on my use of the word “stoush.”

I hadn’t realised that stoush is one of those words peculiar to New Zealand and Australia, and quickly confirmed (with the aid of the trusty Oxford dictionary) that it was indeed antipodean slang meaning “hit, fight with” and its origin was uncertain.

Well, “particularly nasty weather,” I thought. How many other New Zildisms have slipped into the text? Having taken a squiz at the dictionary to see if my English was crook, I sculled the coffee that I was drinking (it was smoko time), and realised that my use of English wasn’t too flash after all. What a dag!

As to the stoush. Well, I’d been rattling on about the Napoleonic Wars being the culmination of a centuries-long stoush between the English and the French. In my mind stoush = war, fight etc.

But in my rellie’s mind stoush meant zip. But, it was close to the Scots “stushie” which has a very similar meaning.

Maybe stushie climbed into the vernacular and became stoush during the pioneering days of the nineteenth century. If so, its a timely reminder of the rich heritage of the English, Irish, Scots, Maori, French and many others who have contributed to the building of our nation. We may forget them on a day-to-day basis, but they still pop up in our mannerisms, language, rituals and beliefs.

Anyway, I’d better rattle me dags and get on with the housework. Mum’ll be home from her girlie-session soon and she’ll give me ninga-ninga and throw a hissy if the dunny’s not clean, and then I won’t be allowed to pop down t’ the boozer for a Mac’s with me mates.

I’ll put that Peter Cape CD on while I get the electrolux out – I like that “Taumm-ranoooi, Taumm-ranoooi, Taumarunui on the main trunk line”… song, eh. The older sheilas like it, too.

Funny I should be thinking about icons and heritage at a time when they’re slowly disappearing. Even Vegemite. Jeez. Not made here any more, so Kraft tell me. Only made in Aussie since May. ‘Nuff to make ya spit the dummy!

The Departmental Laptop

Friday, November 25th, 2005

The Capital Connection is a long-distance commuter service that runs between Wellington and Palmerston North. Every weekday morning, the sleepy-eyed commuters clamber aboard at Palmerston North just after 6 a.m. and the train sets off on its two-hour southward trip to Wellington, stopping at most stations to Paraparaumu, from where it is non-stop to Wellington. In the evening, it takes them home again.

When I first started catching the Capital Connection in 1997, we nick-named it the Crappy Connection. It consisted of geriatric railway carriages hauled by whatever (it seemed) diesel locomotive could be spared by Tranz Rail. It was prone to delays and breakdowns, and many memorable hours were spent sitting in the carriages wondering how late we would be today. There were several diesel locomotive breakdowns (were we too heavy?) and at least one memorable occasion where the loco ran out of puff part-way up the hill, and we had to reverse back to the nearest station. Not an enjoyable experience on a busy commuter line where we believed the signalling system was in desperate need of maintenance.

But railways staff are resourceful. The guards whom we came to know by being regulars tried to keep us informed, and the diesel loco drivers reacted quickly as well. I well-remember one incident which resulted in our limping into Paekakariki Station on the northward trip home with a loco that had “burst its boiler” (so to speak) climbing up the Pukerua Bay Hill. Miraculously, within just over an hour, a replacement locomotive was scrambled and shot past us on the southbound track at Paekak. Station. In no time, it had been coupled up to the front of the train and off we went again to cheers and claps from the passengers.

On more than one occasion, the powerful electric commuter units have shunted the Capital Connection (minus diesel loco, of course) to a nearby haven. The Ganz Mavag electric units, purchased back in the 1980s (from memory) must’ve been one of the best investments NZ Railways ever made. Initially they were rather unpopular as they had the habit of steaming passengers with overzealous heating systems designed for the cold of a Hungarian winter. Now showing signs of age, they have undergone several interior refurbishments and are currently suffering an identity crisis as they prepare to be rebadged (yet again) in a new episode of our rather bumpy railway history. Despite this, their hearts are in the right place, and the powerful electric motors handle our steep Wellington terrain very well.

But back to the Capital Connection. Despite the breakdowns, the provision of a basic bar service and the virtually non-stop service to Paraparaumu resulted in patronage increasing. In November 1999, refurbished British Rail carriages were used to replace the old rolling stock, which continued running on other long-distance services. Boasting electric doors, air-conditioning, easy-access dunnies and an improved bar with free coffee, the Capital Connection really took off. The loco problems continued, but at least we had the comfort of a drink, easy-access dunnies and the lights stayed on more reliably. (Those tunnels are VERY dark when they forget to turn even the emergency lighting on!)

Over time, passenger loyalty has continued and the service reliability has improved. Not surprisingly passengers get to know each other quite well on such a long trip, and friends regularly sit together, and social events are held both on and off the train.

As I live nearer to Wellington, I no longer catch the Capital Connection but see it whizz past regularly. The British Rail carriages still look odd perched on their bogies which allow them to run on our ridiculous three foot six narrow gauge railway. But it has proven that railways that receive good patronage can attract investment. And soon, the other long-distance commuter service, the Wairarapa train, will receive a long-overdue upgrade.

Every so often as the Capital Connection zooms through the local station with its unique sound, I am reminded of one particular evening back in the late 90s. We were sitting on board it waiting for the shriek of the guard’s whistle when one of our regular fellow-passengers bustled aboard at the last minute. Under one arm he had a computer VDU and a beige computer box under the other. Puffing and panting he managed to navigate the aisle to his usual seat with his friends and unburden himself as the train jerked into motion.

One of his mates looked up from the Evening Post. “Ah, the departmental laptop!” he quipped. “You’re on call-out?” and he returned to his newspaper as we all roared with laughter.

Save It or Lose It

Monday, November 21st, 2005

I was listening to WorldFM last Saturday night, which featured a replaying of the Cape Canaveral launch commentary of the Apollo spacecraft mission in the Apollo-Soyuz joint mission back in 1975.

Back in the last days of the Cold War, this was a tremendous step forward in co-operation for the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The mission also marked the historic final launch of the Apollo Command and Service Module which had successfully ferried American astronauts to and from the moon and the Skylab space station. It wasn’t that which particularly struck me but the audio quality of the commentary and what was said.

The launch commentary had been recorded via shortwave radio by the well-known New Zealand DX-er, Chris Mackerell. Hunched over a receiver on the 15th of July in 1975, headphones on, cassette recorder at the ready, he had managed to capture the sound of something which we are all rapidly forgetting with our modern communication systems – the sound of human voice fading in and out of an eerie assortment of pops, squeaks and wails. Although shortwave radio is still widely used, it is heard less often by the ordinary public.

Nowadays we have a wide choice of television, AM and FM radio services to keep us abreast of world events. But even as recently as the early 1990s, it was necessary to resort to shortwave radio to hear unfolding events on the far side of the planet, if the few local radio stations and TV channels of the time weren’t showing interest.

The American commentator at the Apollo launch provided a fascinating mixture of his own observations and official NASA audio feeds. There even seemed to be one of those NASA squawk-boxes (familiar to us from Tom Hanks’ Apollo 13 movie) running in the background.

Notably lacking was the modern intervention of NASA’s marketing department with some trite line about “recapturing the moon” etc at the moment of the launch. Instead, we heard the countdown and the voice of one of the controllers at the Kennedy Space Centre ad-libbing as events unfolded.

It went something like this:
Controller: … the batteries are on-line…
… T minus fifty five …
… cabin is now pressurised …
… (followed by the usual last 15 second countdown)
Commentator: I can see the flame at the tail…
Controller: … it has cleared the tower …
Commentator: At one minute fifteen the flame is, oh, about 5 centimetres long [Did I mis-hear that or was he broadcasting to a French audience??? – even metricated NZ wasn’t quite using those measurements in the heat of the moment back then]
Squawk-box: peep! burble burble peep!
… peep! Roger peep!
Commentator: The escape tower has been ejected …

Real seat of the pants stuff made all the more real by the man-made and natural interference that was upsetting the signal.

Sometimes we forget that we, too, are a part of history. Whilst there is a laudable resurgence in recording the lives of our parents’ generation, we often forget to save some of the things that intrigued US during our lifetime, and in the hurly-burly of ordinary life they get pitched out when we move house. But some of this material will be of interest to our children’s generation when we have moved on.

There are several repositories in New Zealand eager to help us conserve material of historical significance. For example, the Alexander Turnbull Library will happily consider conserving photographs of notable events, interesting sequences or themes. The New Zealand Sound Archive will give help and advice on saving those snippets of recorded memories.

Save It Now – or it will be lost to later generations.