On New Year’s Day I published in the seventh of these Chronicles an account of my family, and the various pressures we have lived through since the day of my marriage 67 years ago. I expected a stronger reaction from my four children than I received, but my youngest son, Thom, made up for the indifference of the rest. While apparently appreciating the piece, he said it contained enough material for five novels, and described me as “a born skirter”, by which I took it he meant I have always had a tendency to skirt around personal issues, rather than confront them head on. Indeed, he told me the other day it was like pulling teeth to get me to talk about my personal life.
I cannot deny this, have, in fact, written quite a bit about it in previous efforts along the same lines as these Chronicles, which have remained hidden away, in the classic formulation, in various drawers. So I am happy to use this opportunity to try to explain why or how I grew up as I did.
I have tended to put the responsibility on having been brought up in a society of Scottish origin, heavily influenced by Presbyterian mores and within that, in a family not given at all to expressing its emotions, except in regard to their conduct of the family business, in which I never had any interest. My mother, in particular, was a censorious woman, who hated alcohol that she would never allow into the house, and always had a “hands off” attitude towards any mention of sex. In fact, I never remember discussing the subject with her or my father.
1. Shy, teased, and entranced
I was brought up in a small village called Wyndham, out on the plain, a distribution centre for farmers. The youngest of five sons, my memory tells me I was mercilessly and continuously teased, especially about girls, and that this had a devastating effect on the rest of my life. (This could be an over-dramatization of what actually happened: any teasing seems like a monstrous thing to a small boy)
At Wyndham primary school I was so entranced by a five-year-old called Dulcie that I tried to ride her pony and fell off into a gooseberry bush to ignominious laughter from the mob. My brothers were ready around the family dining table to pillory me as the most disgusting of libertines, and thereafter, at the very mention of Dulcie, or any other girl, I would blush to the roots of my hair, giving the mob their sign to move in.
2. I become a city kid
We moved to the nearby city of Invercargill when I was seven, and I became enmeshed in the all-male world inhabited by one of my games-playing brothers. When I was still in elementary school I developed the habit of going to the evening practices of the High School Old Boys cricket team, of which my
brother was a member. They treated me very well, giving me a bat every few nights, and I developed a fanatic interest in the game of cricket, whose history I began to study, and whose great players I adored. When other kids were making normal friendships with girls, I was totally absorbed in cricket, and because girls were a taboo subject (unless I wanted to be deeply embarrassed) I developed a belief that it was less than manly to have anything to do with them.
At the same time, when I played tennis at the local clubs (which we were allowed to do without charge) I found myself in the company of girls from my primary school, who pranced around in their shorts, exhibiting their legs in a fashion that, even at their age, was never anything but totally self-aware. The particular girl I fancied was called June. I was always ready to put up with her pathetic feminine waving at the ball and giggling because I was so entranced by her legs. She was naturally flirtatious and one day we climbed into the loft at the tennis club pavilion. I felt I had been drawn there by an act of her will. We sat in the confined space and I put my arm around her, felt the flesh of her upper leg intoxicatingly against my hand, leaned over and kissed her briefly on the lips before she drew suddenly away with a giggle and began to scramble for the ladder. Christ I was an innocent! It was the first time I had ever kissed anyone except my mother and I couldn’t even remember that. I was to daydream about kissing June for months after.
This was not exactly a normal, or even healthy way to approach women. I didn’t embrace them as playmates: I became an entranced observer of their bodies. In the process I became always a sucker for a good-looking woman, a habit that stayed with me throughout my life, and led to much stress, and even trauma. As well as pleasure.
3. First time in long pants as Wyndham joins yet another war
My first clear memory of my second decade involved a return to Wyndham for a ceremonial occasion in the Town Hall, a building next to my Uncle Ossie’s elegant white wooden house that stood in a huge and bountiful garden, and which stood cross the road from that wonderland, his old-fashioned general country store, in which I spent days when on holiday each year. The occasion was to farewell some boys who had enlisted for the Second World War. I remember it particularly because it was the first time I had ever worn long pants. I was covered in confusion and shame to be seen dressed up so by the whole village.
Wyndham had been founded in 1869 under a flurry of patriotism for the Empire, getting its name from Sir Ash Windham, a military hero of the Crimean war, who was credited by The Times correspondent on the spot with being the only leader to put some oomph into the battle, with the result that all Wyndham’s streets were named after events in that war. We had lived on Redan street, which led into Balaclava, Alma, Inkerman, Nightingale and so on. Like most villages in New Zealand, the village had given its handful of young men to go as soldiers to the Boer war, and, of course, to the First World War, so these recruits of 1940 were stepping into a well-worn tradition, although, with hindsight, one might well ask why the hell such boys, living in this rustic backwater, should ever have been required to go to South Africa to fight the Empire’s unjust and unnecessary wars.
The animosity that I remember being shown in my family against Joe Louis when he first fought Max Schmeling, had obviously been replaced with animosity against Adolf Hitler and his Nazis, and the New Zealand Prime Minister, the well-loved socialist Michael Joseph Savage had declared, in the first days after Hitler’s attack on Poland, “Where Britain stands, we stand,” (What a statement! Did Britain stand by New Zealand twenty years later when they decided they could make more money by joining the European Community? No, of course not--- they ruthlessly cut New Zealand loose). From that moment few if any voices were raised in New Zealand against participation in this greater and, I guess, more justifiable war.
4. I get a girl friend at last, amid persistent blushes
At high school I blossomed as an athlete, and games became my preoccupation. When I arrived at high school I was astonished to find that all the strong, athletic, admired boys of the upper classes were enthusiastically going to city dances at the weekends, a pastime I considered beneath me. I never did learn to dance, but it wasn’t because I had no interest in girls. On the contrary, I was secretly obsessed with them, but, I guess, afraid to get too close to them. I got into the habit of going along the street to play tennis with a family who had their own private court, and who were always in search of a fourth player for doubles every weekend. The men they gathered for the game were older, but I could more than hold my own with them on the court. The family in question had three children, a son and two daughters, and although they were Roman Catholics (and by that very adherence earned the disapproval of my mother) and went to the Marist network of confessional schools, I became very friendly with all of them. The boy, a year or so younger than me, was a brilliant swimmer, at one point won a New Zealand title for schoolboys, and later in life (much to my surprise) became a priest. The younger girl was the better-looking of the two: in fact, she was a raving beauty, but she was unathletic, and seemed to have no interest in a jock like me. Her sister, however, was a different kettle of fish, as we used to say, a sophisticated, voluptuous girl, a good tennis and table tennis player, and a born flirt.
Pretty soon I was going along in midweek to play table tennis with this girl almost every evening, which we did in a room we had to ourselves, interrupted occasionally by lightning visits from her father. Between games we sat on a large, comfortable sofa, eventually necking and spooning, from which, in the event of one of Dad’s surprise visits, we usually managed to recover sufficient decorum to pass muster. It would be good to be able to say that one thing led to another, but it never did, my hands never strayed into forbidden regions of her extremely desirable body, a true measure of my innocence well into my late teens. I preferred to drive myself into paroxysms of desire, rather than to actually do anything, a recipe for entry into Masturbation Heaven.
Eventually it was accepted that she was my girl-friend, and we went to movies together at weekends. When that became known at school, one of the cheekiest of my teachers, who was very friendly with me because we worked together on putting out a little newspaper about the school’s news, would make veiled jokes in class about behaviours that might be expected from someone “who lived like you live”, bringing me to such mortifying embarrassments that I would be overcome with intense, guilt-ridden blushing. Olive, older than me, had already left school, had plunged into a life where a mere schoolboy could not follow, and our relationship withered and died, perhaps because her family was no more favorable to the idea of their daughter’s connection with a Protestant than my mother was to my friendship with a gang of Catholics.
Although our society was relatively free of racial prejudices (perhaps because our community was so homogeneous; even Joe Louis eventually became a hero, when he knocked out the German Schmeling), ours was a city in which Catholic-Protestant antagonisms were as lively as a ferret, and just as ferocious.
5. Where did this Presbyterian sense of guilt come from?
Two or three years later, in my late teens, when I had left school, I was at the seaside and found myself wandering along the shore with June’s old friend Anne. Somehow we’d got separated from the people we’d come with, and afterwards I wondered if I had been responsible for that, or whether perhaps Anne had plotted it. Anne had been Ron’s girlfriend for as long as anyone could remember, and it was taken for granted they would marry. I was already seventeen and still devoid of the least sexual experience but I imagined she must have had plenty. She certainly the prettiest girl I had ever been alone with. She had a sharp sculptured face, narrow eyebrows that looked like they might have been plucked the way the film stars did it (a powerful symbol of sophistication beyond anything I was familiar with), her skin glowed and her body was lithe and emanated a powerful sexuality. In the dunes among the cutty-grass she suggested we sit down to rest, and before I knew what was happening, she was lying on top of me and I was kissing her furiously. We stayed there kissing all afternoon and when we stood up I found that the half of my body that had been in the sun was burnt, whereas the other half had been sheltered by her body lying on mine and was still pale. As we stood up I said, “What about Ron?” She answered, “don’t worry about Ron.” I can’t remember what happened when we rejoined the others or even after we got back to town, except that Anne dumped Ron, who was devastated.
Anne became my first real girlfriend, throwing away Ron and his business opportunities and assured wealth, for this guy who was just a cub reporter on the local newspaper. Though so pretty and with such a powerful sexual attraction, Anne was a one-man woman from that moment and I imagined myself envied by everyone. We went to the movies on Saturday nights and I went round to her home and we played table tennis and in between games lay on the couch kissing. Everywhere we went we found places where we could kiss without people seeing us but she didn’t want to go any further and, although I never formulated this as a thought, I realized years later that I carried within me during all these years until my marriage, a feeling that there was something wrong about going further. My imagination was inflamed but I was able to contain myself because every night in bed I was active and eventually lay exhausted and panting. I hoped to hell my brothers didn’t suspect me or my mother didn’t find anything in the bed. It was a vile thing to do, I believed that (another proof of my innocence), but I couldn’t stop myself.
When my mum and dad went to England on holiday I went with Anne on holiday to nearby Stewart Island. We took separate rooms in a boarding house. I got a letter from my sister who had found out we were together and expressed her shock, but that didn’t bother me, since my sister had developed into a busybody, catching it from our censorious mother. Out in the countryside lying beside the lake we fiddled around but never dared to go too far. One day Anne opened up her legs to me and I thrust my inflamed cock into that spot for a few seconds, then withdrew it quickly, terrified of what I might leave behind. I didn’t know anything about what happened when someone lost her virginity, and I had no idea whether she was a virgin or not and it wasn’t of any interest to me. So what if someone else had been there before me? She was beautiful and everyone must have wanted her.
After a few days Anne had to go back to the city to work. But a girl arrived from Dunedin, Frances, and after walking out with her a couple of times, I timidly kissed her and she consented, giggling. She was not beautiful like Anne; she was larger and brainier and had soft flesh and a soft voice. But she was more proper than Anne, and suffered from the customary nervousness about sex and I didn’t try anything before taking off for home. I never mentioned Frances to Anne, which, later in life, developed into a habit.
After a year I got a job on a paper in Dunedin and took off protesting my undying love for Anne. A month later my sister wrote me to report she’d heard that Anne had been carried out of a party by some young buck who turned out to be the farmer she eventually married.
The last episode was a ludicrous phone call I made to her in which she poured over me a bath of bromides about the various stages of young love, the moral of which was that I had missed the boat. Not that I really cared.
This was the sum total of my sexual experience and sexual knowledge when I ventured into marriage at the age of 22. My marriage occurred after an exchange of frenzied, passionate letters across the 1,000-mile length of the country. Not much wonder my poor wife eventually found that I was not the man she thought she had married. For really, she knew little about the real me, who always guarded so closely the facts of my ignorance and inexperience.