Archive for the 'Caren Wilton' Category

Saluting Jack Perkins

Jack Perkins on the job

Jack Perkins on the job

It was the end of an era last month, when Jack Perkins hung up his headphones, or mic, or whatever it is that radio documentary producers hang up when they retire. Now 75, Perkins has spent 56 years in radio, producing Radio New Zealand National’s weekly Spectrum programme since 1972, when it was set up as a human-interest complement to the more current-affairs-focused Insight (also still running).

Portable recording gear (unwieldy though it was by today’s standards) was introduced in the 1960s, allowing radio producers to get out in the field, talking to people in their own environments. It brought a freshness and immediacy to radio, and Perkins made the style his own. ‘Radio had been a bit stuffy, it had been tied to the studio, largely,’ muses Perkins in Spectrum’s life and times’, an endearing two-part Spectrum about, well, itself, in which he chats with the programme’s founder, 88-year-old Alwyn ‘Hop’ Owen. ‘We were able to get out and get ordinary New Zealanders telling their own stories in their own voices, and that was a huge change … They were hearing their own stories fed back to them and the people in their community.’

In its 43 years Spectrum has been everywhere and met everyone, it seems – to a kākāpō-saving project in Fiordland, to the Nelson tip, up in Tiger Moths and helicopters, to rugby matches and protests and tattoo parlours and railway stations and many, many people’s lounges, from one end of the country to the other. And it has amassed a remarkable body of recording, of New Zealanders talking about themselves and their lives, and on subjects of all sorts, from long-line fishing to caravans to tsunamis to skydiving to boarding schools. It has recorded our voices and thoughts and memories and lives, and played them back to us, and preserved them. ‘We didn’t really know just how valuable in terms of social history we were going to be,’ says Perkins. ‘That’s right, you just got on with the job,’ chimes in Owen.

I was lucky myself to work with Jack in 2003 and 2004, when I was commissioned as a freelancer to do a couple of Spectrums, and was trained in the Perkins approach – which I mostly remember as a kind of stepping back, an intent listening, an allowing. In a guide for journalism students, he writes, ‘At the back of the farm, on the city street or on board the fishing boat, we talk to people in their own surroundings, capturing the activity and “feel” of everyday life – their feelings, attitudes, prejudices, stories and experience – first-hand and unfiltered – up close and personal.’ His work is often rich with layers of ambient sound – listen, for instance, to these clips from 1973 abortion protests and from a fruit and vege auction, and to the grizzled, lovely voices of these two interviewees – old mates, clearly – talking about coal mining.

I emailed Jack today, asking for a photo to use for this blog post, wishing him the best, and asking what his plans were. Unassuming as ever, he responded, ‘I feel as though I’m on holiday, it’s a bit unreal after 56 years. I’m just going to see how things go, I’ve nothing specific planned.’

You can catch part 2 of ‘The life and times of Spectrum’ this Sunday – 6 September – at midday on Radio New Zealand National.

Happy anniversary, baby

Gay liberation protest at government failure to provide time for a private member's bill on homosexual law reform, 1974 (click for image credit)

Gay liberation protest at government failure to provide time for a private member's bill on homosexual law reform, 1974 (click for image credit)

Today is the 29th anniversary of the passing of the Homosexual Law Reform Act, which decriminalised sexual activity between males. These days, with a wave of gay marriage legalisation across the globe, and politicians keen to get on-side with the gay community and be seen boogieing with drag queens at community events, it’s startling to think that not 30 years ago, consensual sex between adult men was illegal in New Zealand, and undercover police entrapped men cruising for sex on ‘beats’ such as public toilets or parks. Sex between women was not illegal, but many lesbians also joined the campaign for law reform.

I listened to some of the remarkable audio in Radio New Zealand’s 20 years out! documentaries, made to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the act, and was reminded of the degree of vitriol employed by the bill’s opponents, as well as what now seems like the extreme reasonableness – timidity, even – of the gay activists’ demands. The recordings include National MP Norman ‘Normal’ Jones thundering that homosexuals should ‘go back into the sewers!’ and a 1970 clip of Brian Edwards asking ‘Gary’ (it was an era when few gay men were willing to be identified as such) if he’d sought treatment for being gay. (He had – he’d been to a psychiatrist, who told him that his attraction to men was too fixed to be changed.) Interviewed in 1978, Chris Piesse of Auckland University Gay Liberation expressed his hope for ‘a society in which people, anybody, can express their sexuality without being hassled and put down and ridiculed for it’. Rather sadly, he added, ‘It’s a very idealistic view, but I don’t think it’s impossible.’

Most prominent in opposition to the bill was the Coalition for Concerned Citizens, which in 1985 presented 91 boxes of their anti-law-reform petition to Parliament in an overblown, flag-laden ceremony that some compared to the Nuremberg Rally. Norm Jones banged on predictably about legalising sodomy, and the organisers claimed to have more than 800,000 signatures in their boxes (labelled ‘The people have spoken’). However, many of the signatures were later discredited, and the act passed the following year, by 49 votes to 44. The second part of the bill, which would have prohibited discrimination on the grounds of sexuality, was rejected; it was another seven years before the Human Rights Act was amended to include sexual orientation. The road towards equality has been long and slow – it was not until 2005 that same-sex couples were able to legally formalise their partnerships in a civil union, and only in 2013 that same-sex marriage was made legal in New Zealand.

So I’m taking a moment today to remember all those brave men and women who came out about their sexuality despite a society that ridiculed and vilified them, who were staunch and steadfast and worked so hard for repeal of a manifestly unjust law. Happy 29th anniversary of the Homosexual Law Reform Act, everyone.

Knitting madness

Knitting pattern, probably from the 1960s (private collection, Caren Wilton)

Knitting pattern, probably from the 1960s (private collection, Caren Wilton)

When winter comes, my desire to knit kicks in. I barely think about it over summer, but as the weather cools down and the nights draw in, a kind of obsession takes me over; it seems increasingly to me to be some sort of primal instinct, some kind of nesting thing, rugging up against the cold.

Knitting as a domestic craft boomed in New Zealand during the First World War, when Lady Liverpool, wife of the governor, encouraged women and children to knit socks and scarves for the troops overseas. In 1915 she published the country’s first book of knitting patterns, Her Excellency’s knitting book, whose cover bore the ditty: ‘For the Empire and for Freedom/We all must do our bit;/The men go forth to battle/The women wait – and knit.’ Her patterns included socks, balaclavas and gloves, as well as a ‘mitten for an injured hand’ and a ‘soldiers’ shooting mitten’. Mīria Pōmare, wife of the politician Māui Pōmare, joined forces with Lady Liverpool, launching a fund to provide comforts to the men of the Māori contingent – knitted garments included, of course.

Vast quantities of knitting were produced during the war. In August 1916 alone, 130,047 items were made, and in 1919 the people of Rangataua in the central North Island wrote to Lady Liverpool to alert her to the stellar work of Harriet Gardner, an old-age pensioner who had produced an average of 1.36 pairs of socks per week over the 220 weeks of the war.

So, after all this wartime industriousness, how could you stop knitting? Knitting became a major home craft alongside sewing, and remained that way for most of the 20th century, until the availability of cheap imported clothing combined with changing attitudes to home crafts to turn women off knitting.

There’s another knitting boom these days, one with a hipster edge (‘not your nana’s knitting!’). It’s fuelled by the internet, with new devotees learning to knit from YouTube and talking to each other on the wildly successful Ravelry website. People gather in groups at the new, stylish wool shops to knit and socialise, and classes at weekend knitting retreats like the annual Unwind and Knit August Nights sell out within minutes of going on sale. Tash Barneveld, owner of Wellington’s Holland Road Yarn Company, says, ‘The most noticeable change between the knitting of our grandmothers and now is that we are at leisure to knit. Now we have the luxury to choose it as a hobby, whereas for past generations it was required to clothe families in an economical way.’

13 June is Worldwide Knit in Public Day, though knitting in public has a long history – check out these women knitting at a protest, during a lecture and in the ladies’ gallery at Parliament. And I can attest to the fact that the Wairarapa evening commuter train from Wellington is another hotbed of knitting, with me among those snatching the chance to complete a few rows.

The Dawn Parade

Cyril Wilton, at his sister's place in Tawa during the Second World War, left; and in London, 1944, right (Images: Private collection, Caren Wilton)

Cyril Wilton, at his sister's place in Tawa during the Second World War, left; and in London, 1944, right (Images: Private collection, Caren Wilton)

The Anzac Day I remember as a child growing up in 1960s and ‘70s Masterton involved my father getting up very early, rustling through the house in the dark to head out to the Dawn Parade. He would come back later, in his suit and tie – unusual for him, a motor trimmer – wearing a red poppy on his lapel and smelling of what I thought was aftershave, but was probably alcohol.

He was a Second World War veteran, a bomber pilot over Germany in the last 18 months or so of the war, probably trained to fly after the huge losses among New Zealanders in the RAF depleted their ranks. He was old for a pilot, born in 1913, just before the First World War. Fifty by the time I was born, he was 20 years older than my mother.

I sometimes went with my father selling Anzac poppies – red cones then, not the flat, black-centred circles they later became – door to door. We lived near the railway station, in a street of tidy, modest 1920s houses surrounded by streets of down-at-heel wooden villas with unkempt gardens, some of them converted into businesses: hairdressers, mechanics’ workshops, welders. We would walk around these streets, my father knocking on the doors and handing over the poppies, me carrying the bag into which people dropped their coins.

I never went to the Dawn Parade. It was a thing for men, for the men who hung out at the Soldiers’ Club. There were men’s worlds and women’s worlds – my mother and her friends, who stayed home with children and did housework and went to each other’s houses for coffee and talking, seemed to have little to do with my father’s life, his workplace with its big roller doors and its enticing, intoxicating smells of glue and paint, its oddly blind-looking cars with their headlights and windows masked with newspaper, its men in overalls, its tearoom with its long wooden benches and – oh joy! – crate of bottles of WACO soft drinks. Work was a men’s world, as were many of the other worlds my father inhabited – Rotary, the Savage Club, the Soldiers’ Club (for many years, I assumed that this was a casual term for the RSA, but Masterton’s beautiful 1918 clubhouse really was called the Soldiers’ Club), the Anzac celebrations. Women and children were only occasionally permitted in these male enclaves.

More than 40 years later, I’ve still never been to a Dawn Parade, though I’ve thought about it, mainly as a way of connecting with my father (now long dead), trying in a small way to share some of what he experienced. Numbers of people at Anzac celebrations have boomed in recent years, as the number of actual veterans has dwindled, and no doubt this year’s celebrations, the 100-year anniversary of the Gallipoli landing, will be huge. New Zealanders have begun wanting to remember.

My father, I think, wanted to forget. I never heard him mention the war. But every year, he quietly got up in the dark and went to the Dawn Parade.

I do like to be beside the seaside

Kelp, glorious kelp, fringing the Kaikōura Peninsula (pic: Caren Wilton)

Kelp, glorious kelp, fringing the Kaikōura Peninsula (pic: Caren Wilton)

We took a few days off in late summer, once all the schoolkids had gone back, and headed for Kaikōura. As the town’s name suggests – ‘kai’ means eat and ‘kōura’ crayfish – the consumption of seafood was to play a major part in our trip. We ate crayfish at a beachfront barbecue stand where small handfuls of German and Japanese tourists sat at a row of scruffy picnic tables, and (twice) at the venerable old Pier Hotel on the way out to the peninsula.

The views from Kaikōura seem to me among the world’s most beautiful, with a steep backdrop of towering mountains and a luminous sea below. And the town is thick with whaling history and Māori history and culture; Fyffe House is famously built on foundations of whale vertebrae, but when I asked our Air B’n’B host, Susan, about those chunks of whiteness in her back garden – could they be? – it turned out that their big villa was also sitting on pieces of whalebone.

So, whales. We didn’t go whale watching. We didn’t swim with dolphins, not wanting to bother the poor beleaguered creatures, victims of their own friendly dispositions and smiley appearances. We certainly didn’t swim with seals – those things are vicious! But we tromped around the end of the peninsula at low tide, when the big rock shelf is exposed, and I became mesmerised by the gorgeous stands of kelp – huge and glowing yellow – swaying gently with the waves. It had not occurred to me that seaweed could be beautiful. I was surprised, but glad, to see that the sign informing people of fishing regulations included a limit on the amount of kelp you could take per day – ‘5 litre wet volume in a 5 litre bucket’.

I remembered Kaikōura around 1990, when the Whale Watch operation was new and the town was sleepy and rather down-at-heel. It had an appealing dinginess about it, and my then partner and I stayed in the ratty old Adelphi Hotel. The Adelphi has now been irritatingly jazzed up with bright paint and corrugated iron, turned into a cheapie backpackers’, and much of what was the main shopping street (haberdashers and bookshops, no doubt, sensible shops for locals) is now a strip of bars and pizza joints, although Susan laughed at me when I compared it to Khao San Road in Bangkok.

Still, there’s seldom anything beautiful in the kinds of developments aimed at tourists, although the tourists themselves were pleasant enough – gentle Japanese couples photographing seagulls on the beach and their dinners in restaurants, chattering French families in campervans, young women sunbathing in tiny bikinis. The people-watching was good even if we didn’t want to spring the $145 for a whale-watching trip. It was expensive enough having a few crayfish dinners.