Last Thursday I rode a bus up and down Point Chevalier with thirty or so local historians. Jenny Wilton, a secretary of the Point Chevalier Local History Society, had asked me to take her members on a tour of sites associated with the set of brilliant young men who swam, fished, and thought at the Point in the 1930s and '40s.
Wilton had contacted me because of Private Bestiary
, the collection of Kendrick Smithyman's writing I'd annotated and published in 2010. When I was working on Bestiary
Cerian and I were renting a flat near the end of Point Chevalier; I remember tiptoeing past the thousands of pages of unpublished Smithyman I had stacked in the hall and kitchen, stepping outside, and searching the streets and parks of the Point for the poet's sacred sites. I was guided by Smithyman's poems, and by Halfway Round the Harbour
, the haphazard but often rhapsodic autobiography that Keith Sinclair wrote at the end of his life. Smithyman and Sinclair were born in 1922; the third member of their set, Bob Chapman, was born a year later.
I found a house on Boscawen Street where the Smithyman family ran a failing dairy, and the bungalow on nearby Johnstone Street the young Sinclair shared with seven siblings. Hip-high grass grew in front of the old Sinclair home, and paint flaked from its verandah. Halfway Round the Harbour
described the stained glass boat that sailed across the front window of his childhood home; in 2009 the vessel was still afloat, but its bright sail had been dulled by dust.
If Sinclair's prose and Smithyman's verses can be believed, then the children of the Point knew a strange mixture of deprivation and plenty in the 1930s. Many fathers had been pushed out of work by the Great Depression; some children went to school with nothing to eat but stiff bread smeared with condensed milk. When Indian hawkers steered their carts down the Point's streets, shouting offers of a few pennies for bones and rags, children would dig like dogs in front yards, and their parents would pounce on the carthorses' freshly laid turds, which made good fertiliser for vegetable gardens.
Sinclair remembered that, in the weeks after the riot of 1932, twitchy men knocked on doors up and down the Point, offering watches and other treasures pulled from the smashed windows of Queen Street for sale.
But even the poorest children on the Point had continual access to the warm waters of the upper Waitemata harbour, and to the equally hospitable parklands and market gardens that fringed their suburb. They caught piper fish off the white rocks at the end of the peninsula, and ripped mussels off the black rocks of Meola Reef. Gardens and vacant houses were plundered. The Labour Party and the trade union movement were hegemonic on the Point, and their picnics, dances, and raffles were continual diversions.
When Sinclair, Smithyman and Chapman returned from the adventures of World War Two to Point Chevalier in 1946 they had work to do. In the evenings, after their classes at the University of Auckland and the Auckland College of Education, the three young men wrote poems, swapped quotes from Lewis Mumford and WB Yeats, and railed against New Zealand's literary establishment.
By the end of the Second World War a loose group of writers, journalists, and painters, many of them from the South Island, had defined New Zealand as a remote and bleak place where humans had lived only briefly and uneasily. Charles Brasch had heard our hills 'cry out for meaning'; Allen Curnow had prophesied that only 'some child born in a marvellous year' would 'learn the trick of standing upright here'.
Smithyman and his comrades weren't so glum. With its ancient pa, harbours and islands and beaches, scores of pubs, and fecund Chinese market gardens, Auckland seemed to them neither ahistorical nor bleak.
Nor did Auckland feel impossibly remote. Keith Sinclair's father was a wharfie, used to greeting ships and ships' crews from around the world, while Smithyman's father had crossed and recrossed the Pacific as a seafarer. As Sinclair explained in Halfway Round the Harbour
, the sea that almost surrounded Point Chevalier was a pathway rather than an obstacle:
At the bottom of the street...lay the mudflats of Meola
Reef. They led from the cliffs and the pohutakawa trees to the channel, to the
reef, to the Waitemata harbor, to the Hauraki Gulf, to the Pacific Ocean, to
Smithyman, Sinclair, and Chapman took to calling themselves the Mudflats Poets, and liked to contrast their work with the output of the 'Mountain Poets' of the South Island. By the time he had died in 1995 Smithyman had published a dozen books of poetry, and was represented in every important anthology of New Zealand verse. Sinclair became the country's best-known historian, and Chapman founded and for many decades helped run the Political Studies department at the University of Auckland.
As the bus Jenny Wilton had hired farted down Point Chevalier Road, bound for the childhood homes of Sinclair and Smithyman, I stood in the aisle and tried to convince the passengers that something very special had emerged from the working class seaside suburb of the 1930s.
By the time we'd turned down Johnstone Street, which runs a hundred or so metres to the eastern shore of the peninsula, I was talking about the Great Strike of 1913, when wharfies and seafarers occupied Auckland's port, and drunken farmers on horseback came to chase them away with long batons. After 'Massey's Cossacks' had broken the strike, the name William Smithyman appeared on a blacklist drawn up by employers and cops. Kendrick's father had been a member of the Auckland chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World, and was an enthusiastic striker in 1913. The bosses wouldn't offer him a job; the cops wanted to offer him a cell.
According to the story that Kendrick recounted in Imperial Vistas Family Fictions, a book-length series of poems about his ancestors, William Smithyman was smuggled out of Auckland by sympathetic foreign seafarers, and served on a series of vessels that connected the ports of the tropical Pacific. (At one point in his odyssey Smithyman senior acquired a large bag of pure opium, which he hid in a hollow tree on the Apia waterfront. When Kendrick was sent to the tropics during World War Two father urged son to retrieve the bag.)
While I was talking about antique class struggles the bus driver was steering his craft to a halt near the end of Johnstone Street, then sitting quietly and scratching his beard. Like his comrades across Auckland, he would be taking Friday off; the Tramways Union had called a strike to emphasise its demand for longer breaks and more toilets for its members. Eventually I stopped talking, and my hostages were allowed to disembark from the bus. Many of them leaned on canes; one pushed a zimmer frame; a couple balanced on spouses.
When we reached number thirty-three, Johnstone Street, I had to apologise. The Sinclair home had disappeared, and in its place was a quarter acre of muddy gravel and those scattered melancholy objects - an orange cone, a lounging shovel, a few metres of aluminium wire coiled like a sleepy snake - that warn of the imminent arrival of diggers and lorries and a very loud radio tuned permanently to 99 FM.
'I'm sorry, lad' one of the historical society's younger and jauntier members chuckled, putting a hand on my shoulder. 'We've come too late.' But another local historian, a tall thin man with a permanent smile, explained that he lived on Johnstone Street, and knew of a house that resembled the old Sinclair citadel. At number twenty-one we found the same overgrown front lawn and flaking bungalow I remembered from 2009. 'A single bloke lives in there' the smiling man explained. 'Nice, but getting on. He's holding out, I expect, against the land agents. I won't stand here too long, case he recognises me. He might think I want to buy his place.'
'There were bungalows up and down this street' a woman in her eighties told me. 'Californian. Beautiful. But the developers have gotten rid of most of them.' I saw a black, dazzlingly clean BMW purr along the street; its Chinese driver looked incuriously at us. Auckland's protracted property boom has turned the Point from a working class suburb into a westerly outlier of Herne Bay.
'John A Lee corner, that's where a few of the oldest people are living' a male voice somewhere in the crowd was saying. 'He was a great man, John A Lee. A god on the Point.'
'John A Lee was a character' a woman agreed. 'Only had one arm, but that never bothered the ladies.'
The mansion at the end of the street had once belonged to John Fletcher, the right-wing MP who was defeated by John A Lee in 1931. Fletcher had moved out, and left the house's three stories for local kids to den and pillage. Today the house has been restored, rather than demolished. 'A businessman lives there' Jenny Wilton told me. 'He had a Russian wife, but she left.'
At Boscawen Street, which runs between Johnstone Street and the park at the end of the peninsula, we looked in vain for the Smithyman family home. The cottage I remembered from 2009 had been usurped by a large beige townhouse.
I hoped for better results at Joan Street, on the western side of Point Chevalier Road. As Kendrick explains in Imperial Vistas Family Fictions, his parents ran a small dairy here for a year or two during the Great Depression. Perhaps because they lacked 'a right touch with ice cream cones', the venture failed. As we struggled off the bus again, I explained that I'd never known the exact location of the Smithyman business on Joan Street, and appealed for help.
Mist and drizzle had established a bridgehead at the end of the peninsula, and the houses and trees of the North Shore had disappeared. A Ford Escort slithered past with one headlight on, relic of the Point's past. A score or so steps connect Joan Street with Point Chevalier beach, a popular bathing spot since at least the beginning of the twentieth century. In the 1920s an entrepreneur named Frederick Rayner built a nightclub called Dixieland beside the sand. Keith Sinclair remembered Dixieland:
The height of sophistication for local youth, and delight for the children, was to go 'spotlight bathing' at Dixie. Spotlights on top of the cabaret would light up the water. The lovers, the lovely, and the lovely and young swam and disported. Some would swim out to two rafts anchored a hundred yards or so out. It was a wonderful, a primitive, a joyous scene, almost unrestrained.
When I mentioned Dixieland a man chuckled, put his hand on a female shoulder, and said, with mock solemnity, 'I have to be careful how I phrase this, because we have ladies amongst us, but historians should record that there were two distinct types of dancing practiced on this shore. Inside Dixieland there was vertical dancing; outside, in the dark, under the trees, there was a more horizontal style of dancing.' The shoulder squirmed mirthfully.
The Smithymans probably hoped to profit from the popularity of Dixieland. In 1936, though, the club burned down. Keith Sinclair's father built a chookhouse with timber salvaged from its wreck.
Several of the local historians remembered an ice cream shop that was located at the bottom of the steps from Joan Street, close to Dixieland; a woman pointed to a squat villa at the top of the steps, and recalled her mother buying cups of tea there; another woman knew that a dairy had traded from the corner of Joan Street and Point Chevalier Road.
It was almost noon, so Jenny and I asked the busman to head back up Point Chevalier Road, away from the remembered paradise of the 1930s. I persuaded the driver to pause at Unitec, whose brick buildings once belonged to the Auckland Mental Hospital. After I had described the terms that Robin Hyde and Maurice Duggan served in that institution we returned to the Horticultural Society building at Western Springs, where Point Chevalier's historians have established a den. Near a black and white photograph of yet another famous local, the lily collector and compulsive memoirist Robert Muldoon, we sat and drank tea and talked about history.
By the time I'd drained my third cup, and heard stories about long-razed dancehalls and obscure pub brawls and slit trenches dug to stop the Japanese but eventually conquered by blackberries, I realised that Point Chevalier's local historians didn't share my distress at the destruction of the physical reminders of their suburb's mid-century history. They didn't know my neurotic need to chase after unpublished manuscripts and unloved bungalows in pursuit of the past: the past lived, whole and vivid and indestructible, in their heads and in their words.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]