Authors: Derek Hansen
To the memory of David Sharp who, with one phone call, put me back in touch with my past, renewing old friendships and beginning the process which resulted in this novel.
At times this novel straddles the line between truth and fiction and occasionally trips over onto one or other side. However it is important to note that all the characters in this novel are inventions although, inescapably, some of the schoolmates I describe are a composite of kids I grew up with. This is unavoidable because our class was typical of most classes and they are a necessary part of an accurate portrayal of the times. There are exceptions. My closest pals, Eric and Max—and indeed the whole Arbuthnot family—are real, as is my own family. I can’t imaging writing this story without putting them in it. Captain Biggs is loosely based on Captain Potts although his portrayal in this novel is somewhat larger than life. Former Prime Minister Sidney Holland and Dr Satyanand are historical figures mentioned in passing. The events described in this book are products of my imagination.
My home is a shop. All my friends live in proper homes with a front yard and a proper front porch and a front door with coloured glass around it.
N EXTRACT FROM
Sometimes the best intentions can bring you undone. To this day I’m convinced that I did nothing wrong, yet I still managed to bring the world tumbling down around my head and the heads of those nearest and dearest to me. People who had shown me nothing other than kindness and affection made no effort to hide their contempt. I even had long-standing family friends reviewing their relationship. Most of my pals stood by me but there were many who didn’t. I was devastated. I was only twelve years old, my voice hadn’t even broken, yet I’d caused an upsurge of hatred and prejudice that I’d never suspected existed—certainly not in a quiet, working-class suburb in Auckland.
New Zealand was just so far away from anywhere it seemed immune to the sort of things that afflicted the rest of the world. The country was one big farm. We tended our cows and sheep and exported them in instalments: as bales of wool, as pieces of frozen lamb and as packs of butter. We observed the world from afar and claimed to learn from others’ mistakes. On the surface at least, we were a friendly, tolerant, democratic people who took care of each other and rejoiced in the good fortune of being New Zealanders. The trouble is, when everybody shares the same attitudes and opinions there’s little tolerance for views that don’t conform. That was what I discovered when I was twelve. One day I was loved, the next reviled. It was the shock of my young life. For almost a half century I’d managed to put the bitterness and disappointment behind me. But then one day, motivated by a council cleanup, I decided to clear out the storage space beneath our stairs. And exhumed the past.
I’m not sure if Einstein came up with this theory but it’s true nonetheless: rubbish expands to fill the space available. God only knows how long things had accumulated in the darkness beneath the stairs, being pushed further and further into the narrowing spaces under the lowest steps. The number of cartons had grown and the amount of rubbish become so compacted that, like a black hole, it had begun to exert its own gravitational field.
Sorting out what went and what stayed wasn’t all hard
work. I must admit I found a morbid fascination in opening cartons filled with the detritus of my past life. Occasionally little treasures surfaced. I found a copy of
—the Mt Albert Grammar School annual—in which my first-ever published story appeared. Of course I took the time to read it and cringe at its naivety, but it brought back pleasant memories as well. I didn’t realise at the time that it was just finger food before the feast.
The story in
(1960) wasn’t the first story I’d written—far from it. Writing essays had been both a favourite assignment and pastime right throughout my schooling. I was never content with what I’d written and elaborated on the stories later. I did this, God help me, for no other reason than that I got a buzz out of writing. Many years later when I worked in an ad agency in London, Alan Parker, who was a copywriter before he went on to make his name directing movies like
, made the point to me that good ads aren’t written but rewritten. He could’ve been talking about my essays.
When I returned home to Auckland from London I was stunned to discover that my parents had kept my essays. They were an embarrassment because I’d become a highly regarded copywriter with a string of international trophies to my credit. (As if they mattered.) My parents had kept the essays in the clear expectation that I would treasure them. I couldn’t just throw them away. So what did I do? You guessed it. I put them in a carton and that
carton inevitably found its way to the narrowing space beneath the stairs, a time bomb waiting for a much older me.
It was amazing how something I’d thought so embarrassing could become the most wonderful of discoveries. The stories were in chronological order and, in effect, an intermittent diary of my childhood. I read them one after the other, absolutely spellbound.
Most people around my age have black-and-white Kodak prints to remind them of their early years and bring back memories. I’m lucky to have around a dozen, including school photos, that have survived our shifts in countries and homes. They provide a glimpse of the boy I was, a worried-looking, skinny little kid with a James Dean wave in his hair and a sensitivity to bright light that resulted in a perpetual frown. The photos provide insight into my family, the cars my father drove, the homes we lived in, the clothes we wore and I think you can even read into them a sense of contentment and hope. The photos are unequivocal in this; the older I appeared the better off we seemed. I guess this is usually the case when you start off with nothing. But as inspiration for memories, the photos pale into insignificance alongside my much-worked-over essays.
Reading through them was like prising open the lid on things long dead and buried. Thousands of forgotten moments burst free like a cloud of friendly little ghosts.
‘Remember me?’ they shouted. ‘Remember me?’
I could recall not just forgotten people and events but how I felt, how things felt, the flavours, the smells, my hopes and my fears. A smile settled on my face, and it was certainly filled with warmth for what was, in the most part, a wonderful childhood. But not all the ghosts were welcome. It was not a liberal age. Implicit in these stories were the rules by which we lived and the holy blackmail designed to keep us all—kids and parents—on the narrow path of righteousness. For reasons you’ll come to appreciate, all my closest pals attended the Church Army chapel.
Looking back I feel nothing but affection for the Church Army and the boys’ club that kept us off the streets for three nights a week but, believe me, Big Brother has nothing on the God we were encouraged to worship. That God observed our every deed, heard our every word and read our every thought, spawning the belief that we couldn’t get away with anything. And if something bad happened to us, it was what we deserved because we must have done something wrong in thought, word or deed. We were even convinced polio was God’s punishment.
In truth the essays are no more accurate as a record of the times than the Kodak photos with the perpetually smiling—or in my case, frowning—faces. No one is happy all the time and the smiles merely reflected moments when the realities of everyday life took time off. Essays I’d written as a ten, eleven or twelve year old
had been rewritten and rewritten again, continuously evolving up until the time I left for England. I added characters and changed endings. Perceptions I had as say, a twelve year old, were muddied by those I had at fifteen, eighteen and even in some cases as a twenty year old. But the funny thing is, the light of some of the original thoughts still shines through. It’s a writer’s thing that even after all these years I can recall much of what I originally wrote. The inconsistency of style and varying levels of naivety also give clues as to when various passages were written.
There is another similarity between the stories and the Kodak prints—the morality expressed in them is also black and white.
The sentimentalist in me rescued the essays but the novelist in me saw their potential. The events of that year sit like a bruise upon my memory. Perhaps I should appreciate them as a wake-up call, my introduction to the realities of life. As I begin this novel I can feel old wounds reopen. Note I use the word
as opposed to
because I intend to continue the elaborations and distortions begun in the rewrites so many years ago. I plan to exercise my right to invent and exaggerate without restraint. I am a novelist not a historian and the story will always come first. That said, a novel is often all the better for having solid roots in actual events.
Finding the right beginning for this novel was easy.
Seventeen essays have survived from those early years. I’m happy to use them for the most part as source material, memory prompts and to begin chapters. However, the oldest of the essays, first written when I was a nine year old in Standard One, presents a compelling argument as the place to begin. The subject for the essay was ‘My Home’. The original version no longer exists—that would’ve been written in pencil in an exercise book. The copy I have is written in blue-black ink on the pale blue paper my mother used when she wrote home to our family in England. The writing is neat but not uniform. The letters are fat where I dipped the pen into the inkwell and thin where the ink began to run dry. I recall being given a gold star for this essay, which was all the encouragement I needed to continue to tinker with it. Along the way the innocence and naivety of my original words have been lost. This remaining copy smacks to me of a fourteen-year-old trying to write like a clever nine-year-old. However, the sentiment and sense of yearning have survived all the surgery and that is the part that matters.
Finding the right ending is not so easy. In fact it is never easy. As I look ahead to the final chapter I know that ultimately I have the power to decide how this story will end. I have a number of options. I could tell it how it was. I could end the story how I would’ve preferred it to end, given the wisdom of hindsight. I could give it the altogether different ending that’s lurking in my mind. This is a part of writing I cherish. I love being
omnipotent. Every author is God to his or her characters. While I like things to end well that doesn’t mean they will or that they should. Unlike many novelists who wait to see how things turn out and then start to shape their ending, I insist on knowing how my story ends before I begin writing. It amazes me that some authors can begin a journey of many months, and even years, without having a destination in mind. Yes, I have options, but I’ve done my homework and put in the time. In my heart I know where my course is headed. The destination has already been decided. Can one small boy confront self-righteousness, blind prejudice and suffocating parochialism and win?
At the very least, he ought to give it a try.
To put the essay in the right context I feel I should first tell you a few things about the young me. I thought my family, being English, was different, and that all Kiwi families were the same. I wanted nothing more than to be like everyone else. It wasn’t easy being a misfit and I waged a constant struggle for acceptance. But while I was determined to demonstrate conformity, it seemed to me my parents were equally set on moving us in the opposite direction. Looking back it’s easy to say the differences were superficial, but at the time they were what defined who I was. When I was nine years old, I wrote this essay and made my complaint official. It is a plea from a very young and injured heart.