My wife and I were married in the simplest possible church ceremony on June 9, 1950 in Dunedin, New Zealand. Within two weeks we had taken off from the country as so many young people did in those days, “ to see the world”, a voyage from which, basically, we never returned. In doing so, we not only cut ourselves off from our families, though family is supposed to be the basic unit of society; but we also sentenced our own family, when we gathered one, to a very strange upbringing. Our four children have known nothing of grandparents from either side of the family, have had no relatives within tens of thousands of miles, and, since we kept moving from one country to another, one city to another, one dwelling place or habitation to another, they have never had a chance to decide where they are from, or where they feel most “at home.”
I never gave much thought to that over the years, but one day my eldest son said, “Do you realize, Dad, I never went to any school for more than two years?” I said, no, I hadn’t realized that. Then more recently, my youngest son mentioned that he had grown up in this curiously unnatural world in which our family --- which I always had posited as the perfectly nuclear family, free from cloying entanglements --- existed. He had understood that he had missed something in life, and that I was responsible for it. Of course, he was right.
We had had a church wedding only to please the mothers, both religiously inclined, while we were both atheists who wanted nothing to do with church. After all, we figured, we’re leaving almost straight away.
We had fallen in love through an exchange of letters that went rushing from one end of New Zealand to the other, eventually every day, and which laid the basis for our lifelong friendship. Eight years after we were married, my wife discovered I was not really the man she thought she had married. Our lives would have been easier if she had been able to accept me as I really was (and am), but she never had that forgiveness in her, and her bitterness grew during the 56 years we were together until it took over in her later years. I could not, and do not, blame her for it: she was provoked, and I was sorry to have been the agent of her provocation.
As for our family, living in splendid isolation from a society around them that was forever changing because of our peripatetic lifestyle, I always looked on the bright side, and figured that the continual changes were valuable experiences for them. Our three sons were born in England, and brought up in a crowded apartment with three fairly large rooms around which they were able to ride their tricycle with abandon, scuffing the hell out of the sideboards. They had just started school when I was transferred back to home office in Montreal, a change I decided to accept because we had lost the taste for returning to New Zealand, and the class-consciousness of British society did not win our hearts. We lived in South Kensington, a toney Tory area of London, which I was able to afford only because the company paid the stiff key money for our apartment. That paid, the weekly rent was ridiculously low. In South Kensington even the state-run schools were of a high standard, and our eldest, Ben, who was seven when we left England, had learned to read as if by osmosis, thanks to a sterling little Welsh girl, Miss Thomas, who taught him to read so effortlessly that he didn’t even know he was learning the skill. That became the basis of his voracious reading habit in life, and also became the basis of my confidence that I didn’t need to worry about Ben because he had the capacity to pick up any subject or profession that interested him. He picked up a guitar at 13 and thereafter playing it was all he wanted to do.
The two younger boys were just getting going through nursery schools: the second, Robert, was gaining confidence after a rough beginning in a London County Council shelter from which we adopted him at the age of 11 weeks (he is now a criminal lawyer), and the younger, Thom, gave an early indication of nervous caution when faced with enrolling in one of England’s best nursery schools: for six weeks he stood with his mother, his arms folded, watching the other kids play before being persuaded he could join in (he is now a screenwriter).
During these seven years in which the three boys grew out of infancy, it was their mother, who had stopped working in order to care for them, who gave them that basic sense of security that children need when so young. I was usually occupied with work, quite often away, but I would read them a story most nights, occasionally rock them to sleep when they awoke during the night, drive them to school most mornings, and try give them happy holidays each summer, camping in France. I had started out not caring whether we had children or not, an opinion that changed immediately they arrived. I became closely attached to them all, and it was that, my inability to leave them, which held our family together during some rocky times in London, for the rockiness of which I take full responsibility.
Of course we developed some of the characteristics of the solitary nuclear family while in London, where apartment-dwellers in South Kensington could hardly expect to make many acquaintances. But we did strike up one friendship with a London journalist and his family which resulted in our taking our boys, and their two twins of the same age, on a holiday in Spain. This was a fairly momentous event for me, because until then I had always honoured the unwritten rule that fascist Spain did not deserve our custom.
When we finally clambered aboard the Alexander Pushkin for the return journey to Montreal we headed into a social situation tailor-made for our isolated nuclear family. We bought a house in Outremont, in a row of houses occupied by French-Canadian families, whose children --- one of whose first acts was to throw a rock through our basement window ---- were going to the neighbourhood French schools, and right opposite an orthodox Jewish family whose three children, of the same age as ours, were hustled off to their own confessional schools, and who were never seen on the street to play. It struck me this was a system perfectly designed to bring up children who would become suspicious of “the others.” Because it seemed like the politically sensible thing to do, we tried to enrol our children in the nearest French-language school, designed in those days for French-speaking and Roman Catholic students, and we found that these classifications were so closely adhered to that not only did they refuse to take our kids, but, they had also refused to take the children of some Moroccan Jewish families who lived in the neighbourhood, even though they were already French-speaking. This was the behaviour of the old-style, pure laine Church-ridden Quebecois, but they were already under heavy pressure to make way for students who would have to be taught French before they could be taught anything else. This was something English-language schools in Canada had always done.
When we enrolled the kids in the English school, we found that something (I hope my memory is accurate here) like 53 per cent of the students were Greek-speaking, some 20 per cent were Chinese, 17 per cent Moroccan Jews, and only 10 per cent came from English language homes. I got on to the parent/teacher committee, but I lost my enthusiasm when I discovered that the Greek parents believed their children would get a good education only if they were repeatedly beaten over the head. I quit, and we took the children out of school, so that Shirley, an expert teacher, could teach them at home.
The next year we applied to the French school again, and our three children were accepted, along with three children from a similarly adventurous English family. The children were put into the back of the classroom and forgotten about; our youngest came home raging, day after day, “I hate that shrimpy fuckin’ nun,” an adequate comment on the standard of their teaching, I thought. The children did learn French, but from the children in the playground. It was a tough experience for our kids and I have felt conflicted about it ever since: I put them there as a more or less political decision, but they have had to pay the price, and it is one thing for which I don’t think they can have yet forgiven me.
I lived in England for eleven years without ever feeling at home; I lived in Canada for thirteen years without ever thinking I belonged, so I was receptive when my wife, who was suffering from post-menopausal problems, as it turned out, began to express a homesickness for New Zealand. Okay, I said, why not? So we sold up the two homes we owned in Montreal --- one a cabin 40 miles north of the city --- and took off.
Perhaps the result of that supreme act of foolishness is the subject for another Chronicle. Suffice to say that I didn’t feel at home in New Zealand any more, so when we returned eighteen months later --- having spent everything we had saved during twenty-five years of wandering --- I began to feel that here must be where I was destined to stay.
One thing, however, remains to be said about the children: they all regard their eighteen months in New Zealand as the peak experience of their childhood. They loved it. They loved the relaxed schools with their matey relationship with their teachers. They loved their uncle with his beautiful farm in the high country and the four-wheelers they could zip around in. I think they even enjoyed the whole experience of feeling that they belonged to a wider family that were now real people.
The only problem was --- those wandering parents of theirs, always ready to move somewhere else, who bundled them up for one last trip across the oceans, back to Canada.
And yet, this one thing has always stuck with me from this experience: my son Ben was an outsider among the English kids whose toffee-nosed accent he adopted, but he assimilated; he was an outsider among his French high school classsmates, where he became for a time a young Quebec separatist, fully assimilated; he assimilated like a blotting paper does ink, taking in the whole New Zealand ethos, language, attitude, humour, the whole package; and finally, although for a while professing his intention to return to New Zealand, he has settled into becoming --- well, not exactly a regular Canadian. He went down to Austin, Texas, to form a rock and roll band, and he loves it there, just as he has loved every city he has ever lived in.
How about that, you’all?
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