Drifting Along

CHAPTER 5 – Drifting Along 1960-61

University to Nowhere

Christchurch, February, 1960: Eagerly, I awaited my first view of Christchurch, my first big city experience in New Zealand. As the steam train from Lyttleton entered Christchurch Station I first noticed, after the engine smoke, the numbers of young apprentice men, young working men, young street sellers, barely 15 years old, teaming round the railway platforms, all with fags hanging out of their mouths. And bicycles, everywhere.

There we were, three schoolmates from Napier: myself and Allan Barker, prospective science students, and Barry Mountjoy, our school Dux, prospective engineering student. I boarded with kind but stern Mrs Ashby of Bryndwr, who took in another first-year student: hard-working Philip Holmes.

I soon became completely lost at University. I found Physics and Chemistry totally beyond my ken, almost the same with Pure Maths. I was confused. Slowly I drifted into a kind of comatose dream for most of the year. Maths lectures were total chaos: Mr de la Bere would wander into the crowded theatre, in his burnt-orange socks and Einstein hair, totally unaware of the masses of darts thrown at him and surrounding him through an hour where the Engineering students lived up to their reputation. The other Maths lecturer, Dr Mary Harding, was a good teacher, but again, the darts came flying. Impossible. And after missing science labs a few times, unconvincing attempts to climb back became weaker, especially biting was biking across Hagley Park in the midst of 20 below winter frost, wearing duffel coat, Canterbury scarf, desert boots, and thin corduroy pants: it all seemed fruitless.

I drifted away from the university crowd and on to the dance floor. Latimer Hall on Saturday was an occasion I looked forward to with its old-fashioned dance band, playing standard dance music, and filled with hundreds of men and women, young and old, politely “doing the light fantastic.” There I learnt the Maxina, but also simple, mixed company social skills, and there I met Eleanor, and dated, and who became another part of that comatose dream. She was training to be a primary school teacher, a very strong Catholic, and virtuous. She became very worried about me as the final exams approached.

I did not study. I left Mrs Ashby. She insisted I study or leave. I left and lived in a student’s boarding house. Eleanor insisted I study. I didn’t. I preferred dreaming.

By Christmas I had failed: three Ds. But Barry passed his Engineering Intermediate. Allan and Philip scrapped into second year with half passes. They went home over summer. I couldn’t. I went from one boarding house to another and found myself in those anonymous worker’s boarding houses run by couples who fed you out the door. These houses were filled with single males of no fixed abode, the guys quite harmless, a way of life for the burgeoning expansion of the early 60s, besides they would give tips on where to get a job.

Eleanor gave me a Crucifix: it was a farewell token of hope from her, but she could see me falling. It was a sign that our dating was over. [Years later, my wife and I met her among our two young boys in suburbia: a religious sister, a teacher, and later to become Principal of Marian College, Christchurch.]

But me, the loser, downward plunged into silly little labouring jobs, not with any prospect in mind, but to pay the rent. Comatose. Adrift.

The Education Department of the New Zealand Government, in the summer of ’61, demanded that I attend Division A – Primary School Training College – or pay the teaching studentship $1000 bond back. I was no longer considered Division U – secondary school teacher material.

Another gloomy Christmas.

Dancing and Dating

After the miseries of 1960, one thing kept me in good spirits: dancing. Newly sprinkled about Christchurch were pop music dance halls which took over from the old jazz-based dance bands of the 1940s and early 1950s. The very beginning of the Baby Boom generation were leaving the old world behind for the dozens of pop bands playing the pop music of the late 1950s and early 1960s: there were Ray Columbus and the Invaders, Bobby Davis and the Dazzlers, Max Merritt and the Meteors, and many others imitating that of the British and American pop scene. I loved dancing, and quickly picked up the latest steps and moves. It was in one of these packed halls where I met Warren Smith, an American who was about to enter Christchurch Teachers’s College. He was “Mr Cool”, confident, handsome, tall, sporting flat-top, Ivy League jacket with vertical stripes, pinned down collar, and leather slip-on shoes. And a great dancer. We became a team. Girls surrounded him as if he were some dancing god. I just hung on – his sidekick.
Through his friendship I was able to board with him at Mrs White’s house in Riccarton: she was a sweet, kind, trusting, Seventh Day Adventist widow who took delight in caring for young men.

Back to College

Soon I was enrolled at Christchurch Teachers’s College – Division A, and in February entered my first class – yes, it was like going back to school again. There we learnt how to teach the New Maths, now filtering down into educational establishments, but totally pointless; how to write children’s reading books, and how to do bunny-hops. There were three of us failed Div U students who were in the same position as I was; and we looked down on the rest of the students – most had no U.E. and we, the big guys, had university experience.

Lock in the Teachers College Senior Reserve XV

The discipline of college did me good. I started playing Rugby again and found, to my surprise, a position as lock in the college First XV, competing in the Senior Reserve Division. At the same time in late autumn, I also represented the college in the annual softball match against the Dunedin teacher’s college, at first base, showing some of the skills I must have picked up long ago overseas in America. And with the Rugby came the priceless companionship of the team at the pub after the game, the drinking club tie, and the pride in being part of a winning team, finding myself even scoring tries.

At teachers’ college socials I found myself playing guitar and singing Howard Morrison renditions of “Granada” and strumming a little flamenco piece learnt while at high school. My singing was awful and the guitar repetoire very limited to 1950s R and R and Buddy Holly. I had learnt a couple of jazz standards on the guitar and had picked up a little of the technique of jazz chording on the piano, such that I was able to make a reasonable stab at Lullaby of Birdland and Misty. These now became my party pieces.

Capping Antics

In April, Warren suggested that we involve ourselves in capping fund-raising for the IHC. We led a pub-crawl race around Cathedral Square, me acting as Percy Cerutty, our stunt duly photographed on the front page of the Star. The next was to clean Victoria fountain – with soap suds. Warren had heard that the Council were going to empty Victoria fountain for their own cleaning routine. So, Warren phoned them in his best American accent as a visitor from USA who had flown all the way to Christchurch just to see the famous Victoria fountain, they obligingly kept the fountain going so we were then able to fill it on the day with gallons of suds, gaining another newspaper article about the fund-raising for IHC. The main advertising idea was to paint the footsteps of the famous City statues going down from their plinths to view a poster for the IHC on the ground below. After midnight on Capping Day the local police interrupted our progress with the Godley statue in the middle of Cathedral Square. While Warren carefully explained to the police our noble intentions, he still carried on painting the footsteps. Our names were taken, but the job was done. Next day, the Student’s Assoc informed us that we had to have all the statues cleaned by 11.30am that morning of Capping Day. The science department conveniently provided chemicals for teams of students to rid the statue plinths of paint. Some areas of the plinths to this day seem quite cleaner.

Dating Aubynne

And while all this was going on, I started dating Aubynne. She was in the same group as I was, but had contempt for us show-off ex-university guys. I must admit that I noticed her on the first day as she self-consciously flounced into class, with a blush of rebelliousness, that has never left her. After getting off the bus after the softball trip to Dunedin, I managed to gain a little sympathy from her – I was totally exhausted and had lost that arrogant defensive stance I had developed over the summer. I started dropping into her University lectures in Education I and Psychology I, taking her home to the Methodist Ladies Hostel in Latimer Square , and then finally taking her to my dance haunts. Dancing was not her forte, but pop psychology was. I became the object of her analysis, and a listener to her own family difficulties. She was the rebel: the black sunglasses at night, the black stockings, the blue fingernail polish: just your average beatnik student of the early 1960s. We started going to coffee bars like the Negresco and the notorious Pink Elephant. Coffee bars then were the only risque nightlife in Christchurch – one could have an illegal swig of brandy in the coffee, and the music was cool Miles Davis late 1950s, very little dancing, but occasional beat poetry – all very pretentious, and influenced by the presence of the US Navy personnel from Operation Deep Freeze. We could buy American toasted Winston cigarettes and heard in hushed tones about “reefers” being hustled in dark corners. There I could tinkle away at Lullaby of Birdland in the late hours sipping brandied-coffee, and dancing to jazz with Aubynne.

We became an item: me, the Ivy Leaguer; Aubynne, the beatnik. Our friends extended out from both sides: the dancers, the rebellious teachers’ college students, especially Brenda; and the marginal university students; all looking for the answers to life, universe and everything.

77 River Road

By the winter of 1961, Aubynne started flatting with three other college girls at 77 River Road in Stanmore: Kathy, Sue, Aubynne, and Barb. This address had a previous reputation as a “lady’s house”, but there it was where an exciting mixture of people would meet discussing religion especially Buddhism, among the poetry readings, Jack Kerouak, and incense, the occasional American sailor, the University students, and the training college girls. Food consisted of Maggi soup and toast with cinnamon on toast for dessert. Late nights and I would walk or bike home across Hagley Park to Mrs White’s. Warren Smith had left by then, replaced by a dancing mate of mine, Trevor Petrie. Trevor started dating an old friend of Aubynne: Jan Bennett, who was studying biochemistry.

Satori and Existentialism

It was at those intermidable discussions at “77” about Buddhism that I came across the concept of Satori – enlightenment. One of the group – a self-appointed expert on Buddhism, though he was believed by others to be on the “dark side” – proclaimed the nature of Satori. I declared that I had Satori. He was most upset and interrogated me at length of one of my “experiences”. After all, only the “adepts”, those on the path could have Satori.

I was walking home late one night over the Fitzgerald St bridge. The northwest wind was blowing, the poplars were heaving to one side, and the moon was striped through by the rushing clouds. I felt all of a sudden a sense of unity between all, and at the same time a sense of thisness of me and the thisness of each thing else. I would now describe it as an existential experience. Things exist, I exist, God exists. All at the same time. And with it came a sense of joy at it all. There was no way that I could not explain this experience except as a Satori. Needless to say I was not believed. And yet it can very ordinary yet prime experience, almost commonplace if one takes the emotion out of it.

Aubynne had her own existential experiences, artistic ones. She would take me to Hagley Park at night and she would sketch the tall, narrow, sinuous gum trees backlit by the city lights across the road from Little Hagley Park. And we would walk among the daffodils there… until one night old, big and tall Fr Gault of St Michael and All Angels Anglican Church walking his big black dog ordered us to leave the flowers alone. Despite this event, at times, we would discuss between ourselves the need to find a church. We both missed being out of touch, and there seemed to be nothing for us.

My Last Rugby Game

In September, we played our final competition game against the University B team for a place in the final. Aubynne decided to come see me play. University were out to get us, an unbeaten team. They made a forward rush. I fell on the ball (in those days that is what you did). I received a heavy rucking – a kick in the head. My head hurt. A very non-Satori experience. Went to pub. Downed many beers. Went to the 77 River Road. Started to get dizzy. Doctor told me I had delayed concussion. Lost all sense of time and responsibility. Stopped attending college lectures. Within a month was suspended from teacher’s college. Back to finding work in cafes and general labouring.

Aubynne and I at the end of the year decided to marry. No job, no money, no prospects. And an electric guitar on hire purchase soon repossessed.

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