Sport 14: Autumn 1995
James Meffan — Lie of the Land
This is a biography of my maternal grandfather, a man I never met. It is also about biography, especially family biography. The material I had gathered on my grandfather suggested a certain approach to the topic as did the way some of the material was introduced to me.
Most people I talked to who had known my grandfather talked mostly about themselves. I suppose that this is to be expected when people are asked to reminisce. Most people were also fairly reticent about remembering some aspects of my grandfather’s life. These restrictions on my information gathering became the focus for my biographical interest. I decided to look at the ways in which social context can dictate remembered detail and, further, how remembered detail can be used towards social aims.
This particularly functional view of biography also suggested a way in which the biographer is implicated in this manipulative process; my choosing among the assorted material I had gathered on and around my grandfather clearly would reflect some sort of agenda of my own. In choosing one way of presenting the material over the other (infinite) possibilities I would be revealing some social aims of my own. In writing about someone else I am unavoidably giving something of myself away.
I decided to highlight this relationship between the biographer and the biographee. This is a story about my grandfather; it is also a story about myself.
My earliest and most vivid memory of my grandfather has a snapshot quality to it. It’s sunrise and he’s crouching at the edge of the lawn where it curves out into the estuary. There he crouches, pipe in hand, gazing out into the middle distance. Eyes resting on the middle distance. Contemplative. Behind him the farm cottage chimney spreads a graze of smoke across the morning sky. The farm slopes gradually up behind the house. A solitary grey heron skims low over reflective water …
Only it’s not a memory laughs my mother. Your grandfather (her father) died twelve years before you were even born. Actually both your grandfathers died before you were born. So I can’t imagine what you think you are remembering.page 47
Like most memories, this turns out to be an amalgam of remembered and imagined images. Even prefigured images; the estuary and the heron swoop I recognised in a flash of déjà vu when, years later, I was working in a national park. There is a snapshot (faded sepia) from which I clearly drew the physical features. Only this is of my paternal grandfather in quite another landscape. There is no apparent precedent for the estuary-side farm (although my grandfather’s father-in-law had farmed on the Takaka Hill, quite near the site of my precognition …).
I suppose the reason I constructed this picture of my mother’s father was because of a dearth of any real material. Almost to the extent of omission, this retiring man is practically absent from family photo albums and old family stories: the family mythology. Where he does appear in tales of my mother’s childhood he is never the central character, scarcely more than two dimensional.
Of course this kind of omni-dispresence gave him a paradoxical life for me. His story was not fixed and reduced to certain essential representative events the way other family members’ were. Thus he did not carry the boring stamp of accepted wisdom. Apart from anything else his absence required another story, one I would have to make for myself. The story of why, of why he had been omitted. And, further, why he loomed so large in my memory despite this omission.
So what did I know of my maternal grandfather?
I knew that, in a rather flat irony, at the end of his school years he had been diagnosed as having bone TB. This led to his being placed on farms for the good of his health which in turn led to him being trained as a herd tester, testing for TB in cattle. I knew that, testing his way through Northland, he had met Marjorie Holder on her parents’ farm and had won her hand in marriage in spite of the fact that she was already engaged to someone else. That, newly wed, they lived in a house in Kaitaia, a house Marjorie already owned. That my grandfather had to give up his herd testing job and, for the first years of their marriage, live off the income from the piano teaching of his new wife.
I knew that when his father died he was left a rather pitiful sum that became the deposit on a small farm a few miles out of Kaitaia. The farm was on difficult country, half hill, half swamp, but in the midst of a highly productive area, almost all of which was owned by the family into which he had married. In contrast to the rolling dairy country that surrounded it, this farm supported only seventeen cows. And his own family (for there were page 48 now two daughters) was still being supported by Marjorie’s piano teaching. And the farm mortgage was being paid by the rent from the house that she still owned in town.
Dairy farming at that time involved milking the cows and then separating off the cream; the dairy co-op took the cream leaving the farmer either to dump the milk or use it to raise calves or fatten pigs. In those days, my uncle estimates, millions of gallons must have been dumped. He remembers the way they would daily turn the Kaitaia River completely white. Understandably, income from the cream of seventeen cows was not about to feed a family of four, let alone make a start on the mortgage. And as the family grew to five with the birth of a third daughter and the Depression of the thirties took full effect, the reliance on my grandmother’s income, as well as the help of her family, became complete.
All of this had the tone of describing someone who had failed, or at least was not of central importance in the family history. It was impossible to hear about my grandfather without him eventually being marginalised and someone else assuming the role of subject. It seemed as if he was incidental to the lives around him, as if his story was significant only as a validation of the formidable will of his wife or the stability of his extended family. Perhaps his life simply lacked the narrative drive to stand alone in the family histories; he was neither mythic nor self-mythologising enough to achieve that sort of autonomy.
The tone was, of course, also justificatory, although at the time I did not recognise it as such. And maybe much of that tone of justification has come from me. Maybe my re-editing of the events has shown up my own agenda. I have, after all, good reasons for wanting to justify the behaviour of Pat King, my grandfather.
Obviously he did have his own story but it wasn’t the right story, at least not for those times, not for that generation. There was more detail, more remembered detail about his life but it wanted some climate, some context that was not present in my youth in which to come out.
The climate of my familial relations changed significantly after my first year away from home. I had gone to Otago University as my parents had before me. I enrolled in medical intermediate and stayed in Selwyn College as my father and brothers had too. Yet what had evidently been a straightforward step for them was not so for me, in part, quite probably, because of their unquestioning precedent.
It was a time when I questioned the world and, with my suspicions page 49 confirmed in many of the fairly nihilistic books I chose to read, I liked none of what I saw. Abuse of alcohol, already well begun at secondary school, became a means to express my teenage angst. It was a form of self-expression I practised assiduously. I even worked hard enough at it to be remarked and criticised by other students at a hostel where the reputation for hard drinking was proudly protected. It seems I got it wrong; I drank too hard. While they drank to enhance their pleasure, I drank to enhance my misery.
When news of my excesses was picked up by the family network (it always is, a fact of which I was then unaware) I received a rather surprising letter from my mother. My drinking was, she had heard, at a dangerous level. Did I realise what damage I would be doing to my body? My mind? Was I aware how easily I might develop a physical addiction, become … an alcoholic? (Of course I did. If anything I was becoming alarmed at how much it was taking to achieve this desired status.) Her concern, she assured me, was not without basis. Her father had been a raging alcoholic. She had not told me before because she found it too difficult to talk about. Alcoholism was thought to be a hereditary condition, often skipping a generation. I had my grandfather’s feet …
Here then was the first real instalment of my grandfather’s story. It was told not because it was deemed interesting in itself, but because it might be educational, might alert me, both by example and by causal suggestion, to the danger I was placing myself in. It was told to avert me from repeating my grandfather’s history.
If the tone was intended to be purely educational it was more than that. Or at least it taught me more than just a warning from back down the years. In the story my mother now told me I learnt of the shame she felt; the shame at having a less than competent father in an age where getting by was paramount. Also the shame she felt at finding herself ashamed of someone whom she clearly loved despite everything. If I have overlaid a tone of justification on the earlier history, there was now an unmistakable tone of justification in this version of my mother’s.
He was christened Eayre King but all his life he was known as Pat. Pat because he was expected on St Patrick’s day (patron saint of Irish alcoholics explains my mother).
He was a gentle man. That was the important thing to remember. If he teased his daughters and their friends, if he even teased house guests, he teased them gently. And he did tease. He didn’t tease mercilessly or cruelly (although this is a point on which my third cousin Jack begs to differ), but page 50 he had a great sense of boyish fun. Of gentle boyish fun. Indeed that sense of fun had been alive and well since his boyhood. Once at school during a French test his teacher had caught him looking in a dictionary under his desk. On being asked the inevitable question—What are you doing, King?—he had promptly replied—I’m just looking up that old French proverb, sir: ‘Qui s’excuse, s’accuse.’
But sometimes, in married life, his sense of fun didn’t get beyond sitting at the table with a kind of halfwit grin fixed on his face. That was when he had been drinking.
In those days it was not common to have supplies of alcohol in the house. Certainly none of the people my mother knew kept stocks of drink around. There might be a couple of bottles of wine at Christmas or a few flagons of beer at haymaking time but that was about all. If you were going to drink you either went to the pub, or you kept a secret supply somewhere. Which was what Pat did. Both.
Whenever he went to town the probability was high (in later years became a certainty) that he would come home drunk. My mother remembers meeting him at the gate when he got home, sniffing surreptitiously for the haze of alcohol which would inevitably surround him. Remembers feeling sick to the stomach as her fears were once again confirmed. Remembers finding him catatonic on the woodpile or amongst the chickens, covered with chickenshit, a line of dribble coming from the corner of his mouth.
She remembers, most of all, helping her mother to clean him up and put him to bed like an overgrown child.
After he died they had a great clean-out and out came all the hidden empty gin bottles. Hundreds. They were throughout the house, more were in his glasshouse, they were even scattered about the farm.
As the bottles were rounded up and thrown out something of the same cleansing process was taking place in the hearts and minds of the ones he left behind. As the evidence of the extent of his problem gathered, as the huge emptiness he had felt and had passed on to his family was testified to by the growing mountain of empty bottles, the remaining family coped by shutting him out of their minds.
Yet despite his prodigious drinking, Pat had not been shy of work. He had attempted early on to drain the swampy flats, disappearing before dawn with a packed lunch and returning long after dark. He would spend long days alone out in the paddocks often up to his thighs in black mud digging page 51 by hand a great square trench. But the lie of the land was against him. There was not sufficient fall in the land to allow the water to run off. Water oozed from the walls of the trench in such volume that he could hardly keep ahead of the rising tide of stagnant swill. Some days he would come home wet to the armpits, filling the house with an earthy stench.
He dug a big sink hole at the lowest point on the flats in the hope that the water would drain away into the earth. The Kaitaia River ran nearby but a sizeable bank separated it from the flats. It would have taken more than a year’s constant digging by hand to make a breach deep enough to let the swamp water through. When the trench filled with water, became a canal for paradise ducks to land on, it became obvious that this was going to provide no quick solution to the problem of swamped flats.
In another attempt to improve the farm’s carrying capacity my grandfather was again foiled by the lie of the land. If the flats could not be brought into production, he decided, then the quality of the hill pasture would have to be improved. Which he did. He bought sacks of grass seed which were stored in the hall until it was time to sow in autumn. The new improved varieties of clover, ryegrass, cocksfoot and fescue that were being recommended not only as faster growing but also more palatable to stock, grew on the hills with all the vigour that had been promised of them. Only most of the pasture was too steep to be grazed by the cattle.
They did try however. After one night of particularly heavy rain Pat went out to find that in their repeated attempts to get to the lush pasture just out of reach, the whole herd had gone sliding down the hill, taking all the grass and most of the topsoil with them. The carrying capacity of the farm remained at seventeen cows.
Although all his life he had been known as Pat, some of the locals took to calling him Lucky behind his back.
While he sank all his effort into improving the farm my grandmother, with her older daughters kept up with the milking of the cows, starting earlier than usual so she would not be late for her early music teaching appointments. My grandmother was still the breadwinner. My grandfather’s drinking was getting worse.
What followed I can only guess about. What interests me most, intra-familial relationships, are also the most closely guarded secrets. My mother, my only reliably open source of information, was between the ages of five and ten when her father’s drinking was at its peak, when he was finally confronted about it. She remembers little and, at the time, understood even page 52 less of what was happening. More importantly, no one else who did understand what was going on was ever prepared to talk to her about it. Her mother and her older sister gave her the usual euphemistic reassurances— Daddy’s going away for a while to get better—at the time. In later years they simply developed the kind of selective and systematic memory loss favoured by nations in the face of great national shame. It was an amnesia with which I was to become very familiar when, six months ago, I paid visits to as many surviving relatives of my grandfather as I could find.
What I do know, what did happen, was that Pat King was sent to Hanmer Springs to get treatment for alcoholism. He was there for more than a year (despite one attempt at escape) but it failed to cure him. There was a branch of his in-laws’ family farming near the hospital who agreed to keep an eye on him and who brought him back when he tried to run away. My mother’s older sister was sent down to be with him for Christmas, which made my mother very jealous.
This jealousy is about the only feeling anyone has ascribed to the whole affair. It seems that even if people are prepared to delve back through their personal histories, they either aren’t prepared, or are unable, to recall how it felt to live through those times. My aunt was at an age where she must have been painfully conscious of having a father who could not be counted on to behave in an appropriate way. Yet she claims to remember very little of that period of her childhood. And of course she may genuinely have no recollection of those times. If it was a sufficiently painful time she may simply have blocked out those feelings. In that case, what call do I have to try to force some unwanted memory on her?
What of my grandmother’s feelings? What was it like to find yourself married to an alcoholic during the Depression years, especially after having thrown someone else over for him? Did her love for him survive? Did she come to hate him? Was she bitter for the lost opportunity that her life seemed to have become? Or did she merely see him as a burden to bear, a struggle to overcome through strength of will? She had after all managed to gain her music qualifications despite being taken out of shool at the age of thirteen to work on the family farm. She had gained her music teaching ticket in piano, singing and harp largely through self-teaching in her limited spare time. She told my mother that her marriage at twenty-five had come too late; she was already set in her ways. She became more and more like a well intentioned bulldozer; she cared enough about other people’s feelings to do what was right for them but not enough to listen to what they wanted.page 53
On my fact-finding trip through Northland I met a woman who had been a casual piano pupil of my grandmother’s. During the war, her husband missing in action, this woman had fallen seriously ill with quinsy, so seriously that she was unable to get out to summon help, so seriously that she had to leave her two pre-school boys feeding themselves on stale bread and butter. When my grandmother paid a chance visit she took about one minute to assess the situation. Then she packed the whole family into her Austin Seven in the clothes they were wearing and took them not to the doctor but straight home. There she nursed her sometime pupil back to health over a period of months, feeding and clothing (and probably teaching piano to) her children, then kept her living there for the rest of the year for observation.
For saving her life, the woman, Del, was very grateful to my grandmother. In the matter of her teeth however she is still somewhat ambivalent.
Towards the end of the war Del heard news of her previously missing husband, first a rumour that he was still alive, then confirmation that he had been captured by the Italians (actually her five-year-old son had foretold both events on the day before). When the news finally came through that he was being sent home, Del was once again bundled into my grandmother’s Austin Seven. Del had complained of toothache, in several teeth, so my grandmother had made an appointment with the local dentist for Del to have all her teeth out and for dentures to be fitted. The job was done despite Del’s protests, my grandmother frog-marching Del through the dentist’s waiting room and, probably, obligingly helping to hold her down in the chair until the anaesthetic extracted her tacit consent to the operation.
As it happened, the plan to have Del looking appealing for her returned husband backfired. The ill-fitting new dentures were too painful to keep in her mouth. Del greeted her husband after three years’ absence with a mouthful of swollen and bloody gums.
When you ask people about the past they necessarily remember it as a feature movie in which they play the central role. This was Del’s version of my grandmother. I have no doubt that my grandmother’s version would be substantially different. Still, in the absence of any inter-subjective verification—that is, my grandmother being unable to defend herself, being dead these four years—I must cobble my understanding of these characters together from the traces they have left behind in the memories of those who knew them. My grandfather’s story is distanced by a further remove. page 54 Because it seems only my grandmother knew him well, I have had to learn what I can of my grandmother and then extrapolate how I think he must have felt given what I know of his temperament.
So this is what happens. To get at my grandfather I have needed to understand something of my grandmother. But in order to demonstrate her personality I have had to use testimony from living witnesses. The closer I try to get to the story of Pat King, it seems, the further away it takes me. And another thing is happening, a narrative drive thing. Other stories take over not just because of the demands of inter-subjective verification but because they are simply better stories: they read and write better (they are more literate!).
There are also the demands of form. Of course there is not really a shortage of material. Even if it is all third-hand, misremembered, apocryphal, there are always going to be stories, generalisations, to make about and from the context of his life. There is an understanding to be found in the times in which he lived, in the social milieu of his parents, the highly class conscious society of Hawke’s Bay and the schooling at Heretaunga and Christ’s Colleges, against which he reacted.
There is the effect of growing up in the shadow of a sister seven years older, who blazed her way through Woodford House winning enough prize books to fill the shelves of three families, who studied at RADA in London (still Home and so impossibly glamorous in those days), and who finally outdid her younger brother even in his TB, dying tragically young to be publicly mourned by the J.C. Williams Shakespeare Company of which she was a member, as well as the Canterbury Theatrical Society which she had founded … Here again it might be suggested that my grandfather was confounded by the lie of the land. None of which answers to the form I have set down for my guidance, threatening by the minute the word limit of the piece. (Which information must be rejected unless by some sleight of hand I can cunningly slip it in somewhere …)
Form, then, is tied to my own requirements of the story. What I tell and the way I choose to tell it depends on how my grandfather’s life relates to my own. That there is a relationship can be seen in the mere fact that I have chosen to tell it at all. This question of why is answered by reference to my sympathies. My interest in my grandfather as a subject must surely suggest that something in his life, or at least what I believe to have been his life, answers to something in my own. Even if I tell the story of his life against him it is still a reflection of my sympathies. I may instead feel sympathy for page 55 those around him, who, I feel, have been poorly served by a picture which unfairly glorifies the subject at others’ expense.
The relationship between my grandfather and me was the reason I was told anything about him in the first place. Another source of information, another means of understanding him can be found in myself. I know what it is like to have the combination of well-intentioned family concern and the feeling of having failed, of non-existent self esteem, that is both a cause and a symptom of alcoholism. It seems I am as well placed as anyone for an imaginative reconstruction of his life. And after all, I have got his feet; my mother believes that it was specifically his alcoholism that came for me in my later teens.
My relationship with my grandfather was begun in an attempt to save me from repeating his history. But that was not quite what happened. Like him I was treated for alcoholism and although I would not class myself as an alcoholic now (I could stop if I wanted to) I have not stopped drinking (‘the only known cure’). After that period of intensive counselling, feeling prodigal, I offered to manage a farm owned by my parents. The farm was being mismanaged, causing financial worries and troubling my father’s health. Like my grandfather, and possibly influenced by a romantic reading of the tales of his Quixotic crusades to improve productivity, I threw myself into farm work with a manic recklessness that probably alarmed my parents nearly as much as my drinking had. In the seven years I managed the place I significantly changed the direction of its operation. In the lingo of the day, I diversified. When I took it over the farm ran only sheep. By the time I left there was a block of exotic timber trees, a herd of cattle for beef, a flock of goats producing cashmere and an orchard of nashi trees as well as even more sheep. Like my grandfather on his farm, I had put considerable effort into improving the hill pastures and even, with the help of a tractor, drained a small swamp.
There is, it seems to me, an inordinate amount of luck involved in farming. Weather and market forces, both equally unpredictable, can conspire to subvert the best laid plans. Although farm productivity was up considerably from when I had taken over, prices for most of the products were down. Cashmere prices were holding firm though, and I sank most of my savings into a high quality buck. When he was lost in a major flooding of the river, I knew it was time for me to take a rest from farming. I leased the farm out to a neighbour and a year later he was buying us out on the proceeds of the first nashi crop.page 56
In these events I offer my credentials as biographer of my grandfather: I’ve been there too. But it’s more than that. Over and above the question of similarity, of heredity even, is the question of a kind of proto-literary influence. How much of the form of my grandfather’s life did I borrow, not just in the retrospective ordering of my life, but in the invention of my life at the time? It occurs to me that histories, especially family histories, have a socialising function. In their form, which is the form of received wisdom, they carry a blueprint for the way in which a life can have meaning. They present a life, ordered and whole, and a part of a larger whole, a family mythology. In the survival of these stories through time, in their continued telling, they show the reward for conforming to received wisdom. They offer the salve of art, art which is finding the form hidden in chaos: immortality. In short, those who are prepared to conform to the narrative demands of family wisdom are rewarded by a promise of induction into the family hall of fame. Literature can have the effect of legitimising behaviour and feelings. This I take to be a function of narrative; when an event is rendered in a narrative format the apparent coherence, the imputed meaningfulness, of that format confers meaning on the event or event type.
In rescuing the story of my grandfather what am I doing but legitimising my own story? I could hide my personal interest under apparently objective selection of facts, possibly by telling the story chronologically, scrupulously identifying all sources; even then I would be given away by my sympathy, the way I choose to tell his story will inevitably give away something of my own. Instead it might be more honest to return to the language of this story’s beginning, the imaginative language of a constructed description, to tell one last episode.
After the war my grandfather returned from Waiouru to his family and farm to find the farm in a state of neglect. From the army camp in Waiouru he had organised for the cattle to be wintered on a property further north. They never returned. After this tactical blunder the family could see little point in replacing them. They cost much in terms of effort, taking my grandmother away from the music teaching that paid the bills, and returned virtually nothing. More positively, however, the sink hole had finally done its job and the bulk of the flats were now drained.
Soon after his return he began to dream of growing crops on the now reasonably drained flats. The soil was fertile, the aspect favourable and the climate warm. Moreover, for the first time ever the Kings had a small page 57 amount of capital put aside, enough to finance the glasshouse that would be necessary for raising the seedlings to be planted out early in the season. I don’t know if my grandmother supported this venture or thought it merely another harebrained scheme designed to take away her hard won security. Certainly her considerable natural scepticism and her unshakeable conviction that her husband was, at base, a fool, makes it hard to picture her giving her blessing to the venture.
Still, if my grandmother was nonplussed by the idea, she would equally have refused to dispute her husband’s decision, although more out of pride than any sense of dutiful behaviour. Through this determination to avoid confrontation this intransigent old woman (it is impossible for me to imagine her as anything other than old, more to do with her attitude than with my introduction to her in her later years) managed to keep argument out of the house. Of course she also kept communication at bay. Without confrontation few disagreements were ever resolved.
The cropping scheme went ahead. Pat would spend long hours in his glasshouse. He wasn’t lazy: he worked methodically and, although slowly, efficiently. His efforts were vindicated by the health and vigour of his first crop of tomato seedlings. Not only did he manage to plant out every productive inch of his flat land in tomato plants early that spring, he had so many seedlings left over that he soon had a seedling business on his hands. He tried selling these surplus plants at the gate but soon had to find other outlets. In Kaitaia the hardware store and the grocery store managed to sell all he could provide. By the end of the season it became apparent that the seedlings had returned almost as much as the tomato crop itself.
So the seedling side of the business was expanded. Pat experimented with different types of plants both for viability and saleability. He found seeds that would germinate at different times of the year, making it possible to run the business on something approaching a year round basis. Flower seedlings were added to the stock of plants being sold from what were now regular stands in a number of Kaitaia shops and every year a different crop was tried in the fertile soils of the farm.
Everyone remembers the year of the watermelon crop. Which year? I don’t recall. But the image is etched clearly in my mind, as clearly as anything else I’ve seen. As the long hot summer stretched on it became clear that this crop of melons would be a record beater. You couldn’t stop the girls and their friends from sneaking down to the paddock to split a far from ripe melon on the ground and scooping out the greenish insides. It made them page 58 feel sick each time but they kept doing it; there is nothing quite so enticing as the cool green orb of a watermelon as it fills out day by day under the baking sun.
And there were plenty, there were more than enough. As the time for harvest approached anyone could see that much of the crop would be heading south to Auckland; Kaitaia simply couldn’t cope with so much fruit all at once. And they would all be ready pretty much at once.
Was it a week before the date set for harvesting or the day before? I don’t know but it might as well have been the day before. The clouds had not rolled in until just before dusk but they were pregnant with rain. You could see them off in the hills, splitting their bellies and letting down torrents, torrents lit golden by the low evening light. The clouds moved slowly in, slow enough for the roar of the glutted river to reach the ears of those sleeping in the house before that roar was itself drowned out by the thunder of the torrential rain drumming on the tin roof.
The house was on a small hillock, too high for any conceivable flood to reach. The flats were off a bend in the river so in a flood the water did not come rushing through but formed a sort of eddy, taking a sluggish turn in the crook of the hills before being sucked back into the implacable drag of the river. In the morning as the black sky lightened to grey the whole family gathered at the water’s edge to watch the watermelons. Like buoys they had floated to the surface of the flood and were bobbing there in the current of the turning water, tugging gently at the mooring ropes of their vines. By midday the flood had risen, the current increased and the vines had weakened. One by one, then in increasing numbers, in whole flotillas, the melons tugged free and were pulled into the surge of the flood, the entire crop lost down the river.
Did my grandfather try to wade into the flood to save some of his crop only to be nearly drowned as melon vines and melons entangled his legs like so many ball-and-chains? Did they, for weeks after the flood, disentangle melons from high up in willow trees? Did watermelons grow wild on the banks of the Kaitaia river in following years, mocking one man’s efforts but providing free fruit for all? Of course I don’t know.
What I do know is that all the information others have told me about my grandfather has been tempered by what they want me to hear. Like inter-generational Chinese whispers, each version moves a little further from the truth. With the best intentions, like those before me I will highlight that detail that seems most salient to me, enhancing and hiding those features page 59 which accord or do not accord with requirements of my own personality. It makes a kind of evolutionary sense to allow those details that will improve his memorability, that enhance the survival chances of a man who exists now only in story.
A Note on Sources
My primary source of information has been my mother. Almost all the anecdotal information directly pertaining to my grandfather came from her. Although, as the story depicts, she was initially reticent about much of the detail, she has since proved to be the most open and reliable witness.
From a number of relatives (second and third cousins I think) and friends of the family still living in the Kaitaia region I gathered anecotes on the family’s background, their geographical and historical context. From these people I got a feel for what it was like to live in an isolated farming community during the Depression years. Del Jackson in particular was entertaining and informative. By and large, though, on the subject of my grandfather these people were more illuminating for what they didn’t talk about than for what they did remember.
The most useful written record I have of life in and around Kaitaia in the period my grandfather lived there was written by my great grandfather, Fred Holder, Pat’s father-in-law. As We Were In Kaitaia (1914–1936) is largely a record of Fred Holder’s involvement in the development of the far North. It contains one chapter, ‘My Family And Their Doings’, in which one paragraph is dedicated to my maternal grandparents’ family. I record the entire paragraph here as a fairly representative example of the balance of detail that most people I talked to gave to their reminiscences of Pat King:
Marjorie, my eldest daughter, is a most capable woman. For some years while her husband, Eyre [sic] (Pat) King, was serving in the forces and doing war work, she ran a farm of 60 acres, and milked some 26 cows night and morning, as well as going four days a week to Kaitaia—a distance of 2½ miles to teach music. She still is teaching music, and has some 40 pupils. She plays the harp, and other instruments, also is quite a top-notcher at golf, and can drive a car as fast and well as anyone. She has three daughters—Wendy …; Margaret, studying in Dunedin, is going at top and expects to be a fully fledged doctor of medicine shortly; Sally, the youngest, is page 60 working in an office at the Kaitaia Hospital, and hopes to go nursing in the Whangarei Hospital. Eyre King died early in 1952. He was doing an important work in raising plants of all kinds in his nursery, and is greatly missed. (AWWIK p 55)
On Pat King’s parents I have two books, one on each. His father, Gerald Roland King, kept copies of all the letters he sent home to his mother (home was a sugar plantation in the Barbados), over the period 1886–1889, in a letter book. Although badly flood-damaged, most of the letters are legible (although largely uninformative and singularly uninteresting). Pat’s mother, Iris Fidela Fulton, has her ancestry exhaustively traced in a book called Memoirs of the Fultons of Lisburn. This was of little use other than to clarify in my mind some of the attitudes which must have prevailed in the childhood of my grandfather.
Mention of Kiore King, Pat’s adored older sister, can be found in Ngaio Marsh’s autobiography, Black Beech and Honeydew. Kiore and Ngaio Marsh were involved in some theatre work together which is recounted in the chapter ‘Enter The Lampreys’. The work culminated in them touring a Ngaio Marsh play, Little Housebound. Marsh describes ‘Tor’ King thus:
Tor was what my mother’s generation … called ‘a thoroughly nice girl’ with beautiful manners and a ‘thoroughly nice’ background. She was also a great dear and as bright as a button … (BBH p 158–9)
There is also an appearance in this book by Iris Fidela King, mother of Pat and Kiore, which is quite amusing and informative with regard to the home life of that generation of King children:
Mrs. King was the daughter of a general and gifted with the psychic powers that frequently manifest themselves, I have noticed, among ladies with martial backgrounds. She passed her hands downwards on either side of my mother without touching her and my mother agreed that from one hand there was wafted a cooling draught of air and from the other a hot gust. Upon this atmospheric basis they raised a friendship … (BBH p 161)
On page 160 there is also a hilarious sketch of life in Hawke’s Bay.
King, Gerald R.Letters (1886–1889). Unpublished.