From Somebodies and Nobodies: Growing up in an extraordinary sporting family
Soon after I arrived in Christchurch, so did the Beatles – pure coincidence. I donned my dark grey dufflecoat and lurked on the fringe of a large crowd blocking the road outside the Clarendon Hotel where the frenzy-inducing mop-heads from Liverpool were holed up. Girls chanted, panted and implored the Beatles to come on out. When they appeared on the first-floor balcony the crowd screamed; two girls close by fainted and flumped to the ground. Ducks took off along the Avon and headed for Marshlands. Parents all over Christchurch knew they had failed in their duty. Interdenominational meetings were called to confront the crisis and reverse the descent of the young into irrevocable moral turpitude. Fundamentalism received a boost. The whackies became even whackier. Ngaio Marsh wouldn’t have given a toss, but in Fendalton the residents said “tut tut” and sought solace in the cocktail cabinet; the editorial staff of The Press no doubt considered a cautious, measured response was called for, and this was duly delivered.
Down in Sydenham they aired their bloomers and drank beer. In Cashmere the august kept their eyes on the Southern Alps, pure and distant on the far side of the plains. In Waltham and Opawa and New Brighton? Who knew, for what went on there didn’t bear thinking about in more refined localities. It was clear that the Beatles had to be taken seriously, and that folk singers were in danger of being eclipsed as the dominant musical force among those of my age group. From now on we would have to do more than hang down our heads and cry with Tom Dooley.
In those days I didn’t know of the droll and lugubrious English poet Philip Larkin, but Ken Carpenter introduced me to the poet who was later to write in “Annus Mirabilis” that for him sexual intercourse began in 1963, which was “rather late” as far as he was concerned, “Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP.”
I understood that the prospect and the reality of sexual intercourse was what underpinned all pop groups, and especially the Beatles. But what was that peculiar practice all about? (I did not think the brief merging of genitalia as previously experienced by me amounted to intercourse as it was meant to be.) Larkin also said the classic formula for a novel (and life?) was a “beginning, a muddle and an end”, which seemed right on the button to me, but his childhood – “a forgotten boredom” – was the complete opposite of how I recalled mine. His mix of droll wit, cynicism, satire and spare lyricism, delivered with discreet, highly skilled technical proficiency, is appealing to those of my temperament.
Carpenter liked to quote the concluding lines from Larkin’s “Talking in Bed” where he muses on how difficult it is to find “Words at once true and kind, / Or not untrue and not unkind.” The other poem he fancied was “Toads”, where work was the toad that squatted on our lives. After quoting from “Toads”, Ken wouldn’t stop nodding.
The good thing about Larkin is that no matter how shitty you feel, you can always find something in his writing to persuade you things aren’t as bad as you thought; he can always top you on the misery count. When Larkin said that for him “Life is first boredom, then fear”, I could agree only with the second bit. However, I would have totally concurred with the sentiments expressed by Larkin’s biographer Andrew Motion, who was to say that for him, Motion, from school onwards, life was “first fear and then the fear of boredom”. New Zealanders nowadays tend to describe undemonstrative people as boring, lacking “passion”. Those who appear restrained and self-contained are accused of being stand-offish, perhaps even up themselves. It’s not enough to be accomplished, you are required to be extroverted, to give ample evidence that you have “personality”. This overlooks the fact that the way one plays sport, say, will reveal one’s personality. The quality of the play should come first, and attract most attention; the rest is secondary.
Ken came home from hockey practice one night and announced that a playboy-type in the University side, Derek Wilshere, was throwing a party that Saturday at his flat in Bledsoe Avenue. That wasn’t far away, said Ken, we could walk. So, we slunk in, trying to look unobtrusive as well as innocuous. That was easy for us, the swot and the naif. There was piss everywhere, and drunken students of both sexes. The dusky, superbly proportioned Wilshere looked like the perfect athlete, healthy and vigorous. “Shere” was a surf lifesaver and later became an outstanding diver and spearfisher. He wore short-sleeved shirts and shorts all year round when others were happed up in sweaters and jackets. He wasn’t a macho prick; he just didn’t seem to feel the cold like others did. If they’d been making Hercules television programmes in those days, Shere would surely have been given a starring role.
A very good, though underrated hockey player, Shere trained hard. He had good stickwork, cared about his passing and was a devoted disciple of the “Walter Way”. He performed well as a half and a back for the Victoria University and Wellington senior sides that I captained when I was in the capital a few years later. He also represented New Zealand Universities and toured Australia with that team. In Wellington, Shere and I became close friends, and we still are.
No one at the party took the slightest bit of interest in Ken or me. Once or twice I heard Shere say, “Aw, shit, he’s puked in the bath, just leave it” or “She’s pissed again, is she? Someone had better take her home or she’ll get fucked.” I was impressed by Shere’s savoir faire. Nothing seemed to
Later, as Ken and I were walking home through the fog and mist – Christchurch at its typical worst – we found a long thick branch of a tree lying in the gutter. “Firewood,” said Ken, pouncing. We picked it up and carried it over our shoulders like worshippers lugging a cross. A passing squad car pulled over and the cops had a word with us. We explained. They nodded, looked at each other. One scratched his head. They decided we were harmless and drove off into the smoggy fog. “They could have offered us a ride home,” Ken said. “Bastards.”
Somebodies and Nobodies will be reviewed in the March 2003 issue.