I lay a-bed this forenoon, anxiously trying to think of something to write about. At first I had the impulse to begin a piece with the sentence “I absolutely abhor Christmas,” but it required only the forethought of a moment to reject the idea, even though it may be true. For it would broadcast forth an incorrect impression of my character. Not merely that of a grumpy curmudgeon sitting in my chair glowering out at the world, to which characterization I gladly assent. But rather that of a grinch, a miserly harridan taking pleasure in nought, to which I do not confess nor agree in any particular.
Although it comes hard upon me to describe anything good about
Christmas, perhaps I would be better employed trying to remember the sunny, laughing days when, as a child and youth the season fell in the middle of summer, flanked on both sides by a December free of schooling, and a January basking in the warmth of persistent sunshine, with no overhang of the threatening classroom until the beginning of February. Oh, yes, those were the days.
No doubt someone was preparing the great summer feast of roast lamb, but as that was going on in the kitchen, I was usually on the courts playing tennis with my young friends, mesmerized even at so early an age by the short shorts and lissome legs of the girls. We were allowed to use the courts free of charge, even to wander through the golf links, hitting the ball along, from tee to tee, hole to hole, taking our time so long as we didn’t get in anyone’s way. And that is where I developed my feeling that has remained with me to this day, that it is wrong to have to pay for exercise.
Clearly the open spaces were our oyster. We roamed from public park, to football field, to cricket ground, to tennis court, wielding the necessary limited equipment --- ball to kick around, bat and ball to hit out with, racquet to supplement the net and paved court for a game of tennis, the courts always lying there, constantly available, just waiting for us to turn up. Little enough equipment that every kid could afford, leaving few of us with residual doubts that maybe some of us might be deprived by our parents not being able to afford even a second-rate racquet. Hardly any of us had our own cricket bat. They were provided by the school, or the team, and we didn’t really have them available often during the holidays. So it was off to the courts for enjoyment, pure pleasure, on those long summer days when it was still light at 9.30 or even later.
From the age of 1l to 17 I was in school while the war raged around the world. My four older brothers were called into the armed forces, and two of them served abroad, in Italy, Egypt, the Pacific, while all I did was run and jump, hit balls back and forth, race around the track, and find excuses not to fulfil the obligations on schoolchilden to do improving work for the war effort in our holidays --- thinning turnips on the farms was the favourite occupation at the time. I used the excuse that my family’s construction business was regarded as an essential occupation to pretend to be working there, and I actually did one morning of work washing windows on a newly-erected school. One of my brothers stayed at home to keep the essential business working. He was disgusted by my interest in sports to the apparent exclusion of almost everything else, decided I would never be able to keep a job, and until he joined me in the 1960s in London, was never convinced that I actually worked for a living. When I left the country in 1950, he told his sons, “His ink will run dry eventually, and then he’ll bloody well starve.” He was a remarkable fellow who could do anything superbly well that he took an interest in --- he could build his own house, make beautiful tables with tiny pieces of inlaid native woods, could catch the limit bag of fish every weekend, make the garden sprout vegetables like never before, he had a golden touch --- but these were all merely peripheral interests. His obsessive interest was in his business. For him, the rest of the world was conspiring against his business, that was his mindset. He died young, worn to death by his business.
My eldest brother was enlisted in the Air Force, but was too old--- and had too many children, eight of them, eventually --- to be sent abroad, and the other two, on varying assignments in Egypt, successively fell for a beautiful Egyptian girl, Greek in origin I believe, whose family was one of those who entertained the troops on their furloughs in Cairo, an adventure that set my young heart aflame.
Sorry, somehow or other I have been deflected on to my family, which one of my sons keeps telling me should be the subject of a great novel, but these few words are about all I want to write about them.
I was born in the tiny farming village of Wyndham, where I lived until I was seven, when we moved to the nearby city of Invercargill, which prided itself, accurately, on being “the southernmost city in the British Empire.” I was frequently sent back to Wyndham to my aunt for holidays, where I used to pretend to go rabbit-hunting, since rabbits were a plague whose lack of predators meant that they were capable of laying the countryside to waste. Of course I never caught a single rabbit, but the farming village lay between three small rivers, and had a huge recreational area set aside, so it was a great place for a kid to explore. For one holiday I was sent to another cousin who had a farm on the south coast, and there, a cousin of my own age introduced me to the wonders of masturbation, and he made some suggestive remarks to the farmer’s daughter and her boy friend, and I was sent home in disgrace, without ever knowing what I had done that was so wrong. I didn’t meet that farmer again until more than 60 years later, when he asked me if I was still a Communist.
But there you go, a kid cheerfully growing up while running and jumping ceaselessly, what did such a kid know about real life? Very little, I can assure you.