23 Aug 2018

Nuhaka Dreaming 1: A 1950s childhood in regional New Zealand was not all conservative dullness

From John Bluck writes, 2:45 pm on 23 August 2018
Two boys playing in wrecked car, 1957, North Island, by Eric Lee-Johnson.

Two boys playing in wrecked car, 1957, North Island, by Eric Lee-Johnson. Photo: Te Papa Tongarewa

John Bluck writes:

An aerial view during the 1950s of Nuhaka, with the Mahia Peninsula in the distance

An aerial view during the 1950s of Nuhaka, with the Mahia Peninsula in the distance Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library

It never rained in Nuhaka.

But it must have, which makes this series more about a dream than a real place.

Nuhaka did exist; does still, though very differently today. They launch space rockets now from the Mahia Peninsula, just down the road. It’s the sort of place motorists pass through on the way to Gisborne, without noticing.

But for those of us who grew up there, it is hot-wired into our memories still.

And for me, 70 years on, it hangs between dream and reality.

I have a younger brother and sister who will give you a different version of Nuhaka.

But this is not a series about biography, it’s about the singularity of place, and the way culture and landscape define us for ever. The smells, tastes, colours and sounds of Nuhaka life endure for me even now, just as powerfully as the memories of the people of that place.

Perhaps that has something to do with the timing of my story.

1950s New Zealand was a watershed era, and a charmed time to be a child. We didn't have to go to war, like our fathers and grandfathers did. No one was very rich or very poor and we didn’t have to endure a Depression.

1950s-era crystal radio set. The antenna wire has a clip to attach to a metal object and improve reception.

1950s-era crystal radio set. The antenna wire has a clip to attach to a metal object and improve reception. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Joe Haupt

Mass media was not yet all-powerful, but reliant on a plodding kind of printed word and a slightly stuffy form of radio. Television was slow to arrive in our village, and when it did, you had to cover the screen with cellophane paper to reduce the snow that blotted out the black and white images. The Internet hadn’t been invented and we had crystal sets instead of cellphones, which got you into much less trouble.

But for all the labels thrown around about the 1950s being conservative, dull, even repressive, it was a magical space to grow up in. I enjoyed a freedom and a security then that I’ve never had since.

This series is dedicated to all those who grew up in little settlements like Nuhaka where life was still anchored in values and manners that had defined the nation for a century or so, and are hard to find today.

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Photo: Auckland Museum

And though I only lived there full-time for ten years and spent the rest of my life coming and going, it remained the place where I belonged; before, during and long after all the other places I lived in.

That sense of belonging stayed with me, even when I lived on the other side of the world. It was partly earned but largely borrowed from my family who had lived there for three generations before me. There was a deeply-rooted continuity between me and my parents (we even dressed like them) and their parents and grandparents. By comparison, my children belong to a different universe.

That continuity began to collapse in the 1960s and quickly disappeared as an urban, multicultural, consumer and media-driven society took over.

Yes I know you can’t go home again, but we need to know what we’ve lost as the Nuhakas of New Zealand and their way of life keep disappearing.

Telephone exchange operators in Wellington

Telephone exchange operators in Wellington Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library

For example, I can think of least five permanent jobs back then that simply don’t exist anymore.

There was the rabbiter, who rode out to work each morning with a pack of little dogs – Jack Russells and Fox Terriers – swirling around his horse; the roadman with his roadside hut who cleared the ditches with a shovel so sharp you could cut wood with it; and the encyclopaedia salesman in coat and tie who turned up regularly at your door with a lecture on how the children’s future success depended on purchasing the full set.

There was also the toll operator at the local Post Office who plugged in all the calls you made on the party line, locally and then out to foreign parts like Napier and Auckland, and was rumoured, probably unfairly, to have the inside story on everything that went on in the village.

A Rawleigh's man, Christchurch

A Rawleigh's man, Christchurch Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library

And finally there was the Rawleigh’s man who knew what was good for us when he came calling, even when there was nothing wrong with us.

In Nuhaka everybody knew everyone and everything about everybody. If someone bought a new radio, or bike (hardly anyone bought a new car), a new washing machine or had their lounge suite recovered, everybody knew within the day.

And the personal histories of everyone were public knowledge, which didn’t mean they weren’t respected.

You could be a private person in Nuhaka and remain secluded if you chose to. Like my Aunt Lily, for instance, who lived next to the bakery in the same little cottage for ever, rarely had visitors apart from a few curious children, and never went out.

People like her had an air of mystery about them that added to the layers of things unspoken and unexplained.

Nuhaka was well-layered with mysteries.

As children we basked in this place of sunshine. There might have been only a couple of hundred people in the village; two stores, a post office, bakery, railway station, two garages and a dairy factory, but there was always plenty to do, most of which we made up ourselves. Forts to be built, tunnels to dig, bike racing tracks to form, canoes to be shaped out of corrugated iron, fish to catch, slug guns to shoot.

The possibilities stretched out forever; the days were always too short to fit everything in before darkness fell and we’d trudge homewards, reluctantly. And through all those early years, there was never any sense of danger or threat from adults, unless you counted the outraged motorist who chased us home when we threw a bit of stinking eel bait through the open window of his truck as he passed us on the river bridge.

Railway bridge destroyed at Tangiwai

Railway bridge destroyed at Tangiwai Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library

Outside the oasis that was Nuhaka, there were plenty of threats in the early ‘fifties. The death penalty was still in force. During my primary school years, eight were executed, and there were four Mt Eden prison hangings in 1955 alone.

On the other side of the Pacific, the Korean War was raging, Christchurch was engulfed in the fallout from the Parker-Hulme murder, and at Christmastime in 1953 the Tangiwai rail disaster killed 151 people. A black cloud hung over the village and the Bethlehem manger that summer.

And yet that grimness didn’t linger for long.

Nuhaka recovered its cheerfulness and kept on dreaming and the sun shone brighter than ever.

Listen to the other parts of the series:

Nuhaka Dreaming 2

Nuhaka Dreaming 3

Nuhaka Dreaming 4

Nuhaka Dreaming 5

Nuhaka Dreaming 6

Nuhaka Dreaming 7

Nuhaka Dreaming 8

Nuhaka Dreaming 9