A year or so ago my son Thom, who is a writer, suggested I should be filling my days by writing an epic novel based on my family. Though I am not a novelist --- the proof of which is the six novel manuscripts that I have completed but that remain hidden away in drawers and files, unwanted by any publisher --- I did begin to research my family, a subject which quickly took on an almost compulsive interest for me. I even began the novel, although, as usual, it did not advance very far.
This represented a rather abrupt change of direction for me, because, as Thom had asked me repeatedly, if I had such a cheerful, games-playing childhood as I have always claimed to have had, why did I decide to cut myself off almost completely from my family when I left New Zealand at the age of 22? I had never produced an adequate answer to his question. And the best answer I have come to since is that I grew up in a family whose father and the most powerful of my four brothers were concentrated on a business in which I had no interest. I didn’t like their rough business methods, disagreed with their assumption that their business was the beginning and ending of life, and I decided to get as far away from them as I could.
That has had the unfortunate consequence of robbing my own family of four children of any close relatives, except very spasmodically, and especially to have never known grandparents, which are almost universally acknowledged to have a strong influence on their grandchildren.
The earliest of my ancestors I have been able to trace were born in the Scottish highlands around the end of the eighteenth century. On the male side, my ancestors were from Northern Ireland, and appear to have been part of the considerable Protestant \\\emigration from Scotland to Ulster, that subsequently fanned out to colonize many parts of the Commonwealth. My grandfather, Samual Richardson, was the fourth of seven children of a Robert Richardson of whom I could find only that he gave rise to a family of exceptionally courageous adventurers. Of the seven, born between 1847 and 1872, four died in the United States, Canada or New Zealand, and one other had been to New York and California and had returned home, where she died. Samual was 22 when he arrived in New Zealand in 1878, having braved the terrible experience of the three-month journey from Britain, which was invariably accompanied by heavy seas, frequent storms, and, especially for immigrants overcrowded into tiny ships, the most uncomfortable conditions of on-board life imaginable. He went immediately south to the small village of Wyndham, where a friend had already settled, and took a job ploughing for a local farmer.
I think I might have established a sort of connection with my grandfather from the fact that we both left home at the age of 22, never to return. Indeed, it is said of my grandfather that he never wrote home. I had a letter many years ago from a man living in Canada who told me he was convinced that my grandfather and his were brothers, as turned out to be the case. This man confirmed that neither brother kept in touch with their parents, but he went so far as to visit my family in New Zealand to make the connection real.
Without too much delay young Samual was able to become a driver for the stables that ran coaching services to meet the trains in nearby Edendale, and to the small coastal village of Fortrose, where he had dealings with a butcher and farmer, John Anderson, whose wife, Agnes, was a Scottish girl from a family, six of whose seven children, as well as their mother, ended up in New Zealand, having joined the huge Scottish emigration that populated the southern part of the South Island. Samual met Sarah, Agnes’s sister, and married her when he was 26 and she was 20. Eventually Samual took over the coaching stable, and had established a successful business, and a sterling reputation for his business dealings throughout the district, when he died unexpectedly in 1897, at the age of 42, leaving Sarah with a family of five children.
My Dad was 10 when his father died. But Sarah took over his thriving business, added to it a funeral parlour, and did not die until 1935, at the age of 73. I was seven by that time, and must have met my grandmother, but have no memory of her.
I do remember clearly, however, her sister, Agnes, Aunt Aggie, as she was known to everyone, whose husband John Anderson, twenty years older than she, had left her with a profitable butcher’s shop and farm, and a family of two boys and two girls to bring up. This woman, Aunt Aggie, is still alive in my memory ---- 68 years after I last saw her --- as one of the most beautiful people I have ever met: unfortunately her eldest son had taken to drink, had a fondness for the horses, and had managed to largely dissipate the family fortunes. But to visit her was always a joyous occasion, from which we returned to the city not only full of the authentic Scottish scones she baked, but with plenty of farm produce that she always laid on us --- eggs, butter, cream and occasionally meat --- although I always had the impression she could scarcely have afforded this generosity. As long as I knew her she wore long, black frocks down to her ankles, and retained a lovely Scottish accent and beautiful, soft, speaking voice. To me, she seemed the epitome of gentleness; and I always thought it a cruel irony that her life had been so misshapen by the misfortunes of her later years. She had a lifetime employee, an old man called Bill Thomas, like her, a gentle old person who stayed on living rent-free in her house long after he was capable of doing any work. Later, I was happy to learn that our frequent visits to Aunt Aggie were occasions on which my Dad was able to help her out financially, to the limit of his capacity.
The Southland plain on which I was brought up was originally shunned for settlement, because it appeared to the newcomers that most of it was swampy land difficult to penetrate. Today, it is regarded as some of the most fertile land in the country, home to highly productive farms.
Wyndham is still a distribution centre for the local farmers, never a village of more than 400 to 500 people, which is set between three small rivers that have been known to flood occasionally. My father, a carpenter by trade, made farm gates and cow byres for the local farmers, until, under the influence of my second eldest brother, Harold, one of those people who could succeed at whatever he applied his mind to, he raised his sights and began to tender for bigger jobs. He built the dairy factory in Wyndham in the early 1930s leaving me with the memory, as a five-year-old, of falling off the back of his truck into a coal-black puddle on the building site, and breaking my arm. My mother was at first reluctant to take it seriously, but I kept on howling my head off, and they then took me the 26 miles to the neighbouring city, Invercargill, to be admitted to hospital (a large extension to which was actually built by my dad and brothers a few years later). I was scared to death when left alone there overnight, I remember, but all was forgiven when my parents arrived the next day to pick me up and take me home.
I have vivid memories of Wyndham, because I returned there during my school holidays for several years, staying with my aunt whose husband kept one of those General Stores that stocked everything under the sun, and was a veritable marvel for any small boy who entered it. My uncle, the owner, was another of these gentle village people, known to have helped many of his customers with easy credit, probably much of it never repaid, during the years of the Depression. I spent a good part of each holiday in the back storeroom, perfecting the art of throwing up peanuts and catching them in my mouth, by which expedient I must have gotten rid of a good part of any profit they ever made on the peanut.
My father was a simple village carpenter who, rather mysteriously, in his early twenties went to the North Island, and stayed for a year or two in Cambridge, a more settled small town in the Waikato district, 83 miles south of Auckland, the major city. He played the cornet in the village band, and through this, presumably, came in contact with the Boyce family, whose father, quite a drinker if the stories about him are true, ran the village pharmacy. He had 11 children, five girls and six boys, and according to the tales handed down through the family, this was a family of English origin that rather prided itself on its cultural awareness. I believe it must have been through the band that my father met my mother.
I also doubt that this family --- which, as I discovered from my brief acquaintance with them, was full of snobs --- would have been overjoyed that one of their daughters was marrying a village carpenter from, gasp! --- wait for it --- the South Island! It was always a bit of a mystery to me why my Dad brought my mother south to live this village life, when she had been brought up to believe herself above such a backwater. I know that her sisters-in-law, married to two of Dad’s brothers (and a right pair of harridans they were!) made life difficult for her, although I am prepared to admit that she may have been partly the cause of it, from having some superior airs. It was only after a diligent search of the facts that I discovered the reason for my Dad’s strange decision: he married my mother on April 7, 1912, when she was 20, and the birth of my eldest brother Doug was in July 24 of the same year --- a mere three months later.
I have taken some satisfaction in learning this, because I had long ago decided that my mother’s excessive puritanism, rigidly imposed on us, had resulted in my entering manhood in a fairly screwed-up frame of mind about women, which dominated my life --- deleteriously, I must say --- for many years. And this gap between the fact that she had been a naughty girl, and the rigid puritanism she tried to impose on us --- drinking forbidden in the home, strict and stern watch over anything that might be construed as sexual experience --- supports what I have always believed, that such censorious people, usually motivated by religion, are, at bottom, total hypocrites.
That may sound like a harsh judgment: but in fact, when I think of the life my mother was condemned to, in a house of rambunctious men none of whom --- including me --- showed her much affection, or gave her any help in her onerous duties, my final judgment is that she had was more to be pitied than criticized.