An honourable hour off school in Dunedin

I  dashed out to take just a single photograph of a building – because the sun was shining so gloriously –  when I spied a more seriously worthy ‘photo-op’. One digital click later I recorded a special moment in our seasonal preparation for Anzac Day. Two very polite and well-spoken young ladies wearing the uniform of New Zealand’s oldest state secondary school for girls, Otago Girls’ High School, had exchanged their first hour in the classroom this Friday morning for the honourable title of New Zealand Returned Services Association ‘Official Collector’.

And so it was that they were ‘standing guard’ over a collection box and a tray of poppies, fulfilling a role that dates from the first ‘Poppy Day’ in 1922, six years after the establishment of the RSA in New Zealand. The first watch of the day was almost over so when the ‘relief’ arrived, I found myself in conversation with four, uniformed, young ladies.

Typically, their inherited personal histories reflected war service: one never knew a grandfather because he was killed when her father was three; another knew a grandfather who had served in the Air Force. They had studied the First World War poets as prescribed in the New Zealand secondary school English curriculum and readily volunteered their understanding of the symbolism of the poppy.

I don’t imagine for a moment they expected their photo to be taken by a random passer-by, nor to have been engaged in further conversation. And I certainly wasn’t the only one to reward their hour off school with such comments as ‘Keep up the good work’. As the first two collectors posed in the mid-morning Dunedin sun, with dignity and respect for their part in Poppy Day, I smiled through the camera. The cafe and bar, outside which they were stationed, is called “Alibi (genuine)”.

This morning, these young ladies had the most honourable alibi of all.


They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow…

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

“For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon (1869-1943) stanzas 3 & 4

Feedback from ‘Emigrant Voices under Sail’ seminar

Here’s what the participants had to say …

“It was exciting to participate in something so new and fresh that was equally so very personal.”

“It was jam-packed full of information that was relevant to ME.”


“It opened my eyes to just what went on in 19th century emigrant voyages.”

“The diaries were made alive and real.”

“Suddenly I understood the trauma of these journeys on a different level.”

“These were my ancestors … you begin to admire them as heroes.”

“Excellent resources – imaginative and practical at the same time.

“Very professional and well-paced delivery – excellent presentation style.”

“I loved how you brought the diaries alive at significant points on the journey so that we could share them with each other.”

“It was wonderful to share and experience other people’s diaries … to learn intimately of the differing ways others approached this hugely significant piece of New Zealand history.”

In response to “What did you most appreciate?”, participants replied:

“Comfortable and relaxed atmosphere; informal, interactive presentation style; wide knowledge of the presenter; her ability to incorporate queries and discussion.”

“A first-class piece of work: an excellent day.”

“One of the best learning experiences I have had.”

‘Bursting Up’ and giving birth

There’s a case to be made for celebrating a rather different sort of birthday today, 19 April : that of the family farm. It’s an idiosyncratic element in our nation’s growth and development; one that boxed well above its weight and, in the face of some fairly hostile odds such as distance from export markets, effectively demonstrated to the ‘developed’ world what efficiency could really deliver. Or so it once was – things a have changed a bit in recent decades.

Be that as it may, recent history cannot detract from one of the most significant political events in New Zealand’s rural history – the Liberal government’s Lands for Settlement Act , 6 October 1892 – by which the vast tracts of land under the control of wealthy, and thereby powerful, individuals could be ‘burst up’ into smaller economic units. Those who would otherwise have been denied the ability to farm in their own right found more equable access to land.

The first of the great estates to be subdivided in this way was the late William (‘Ready Money’) Robinson’s 84,755 acre “Cheviot Hills” estate, in North Canterbury. Negotiations with the Robinson family began almost immediately the act became law; by January 1893 they were unofficially complete; on 19 April, 1893, negotiations were deemed officially complete. In exchange for £304,826 (currently equal to an inflation adjusted $52,926,897.22) Richard John Seddon’s Liberal government enabled the settlement of 178 families, amounting to some 900 people, on land which had formerly sustained the employment of fewer than 100 single men.

Although the formal agreement is dated 19 April 1893, the disposal and occupation of “Cheviot Hills” land extended throughout the remainder of the year and into 1894. By far the greatest proportion of the former estate was initially either leased in perpetuity or leased for grazing; relatively little was freeholded at this point. Subsequent Liberal land legislation modified and amended the terms and conditions by which land was acquired and farmed.

For those of us who are the inheritors of a now diminishing experience, ‘raised on the family farm’,  we have the Liberal leader and Premier, Richard John Seddon and his (Scots Highland) Minister of Lands, John McKenzie to thank. I have a lurking suspicion that my late grandfather, Harry Coleman, understood the politics in a particularly appreciative manner, for he inculcated my childhood with the importance of ‘King Dick’, by which the imposing figure of the Rt Hon R J Seddon was affectionately known and by which title his biography by R M Burdon was published in 1955.

In her biography ‘Ready Money’ (2006), great-granddaughter Margaret Wigley expresses William Robinson’s legacy, thus: “The sale of Cheviot Hills …  set New Zealand firmly in the direction of the small independent family farm, rather than large estates paying income to absentee owners and heirs as has happened in other parts of the world.”

This fourth generation daughter of a small independent family farm remains grateful for the bursting up of the big estates, ‘King Dick’ and an instructive grandfather.

By Dr Jennie Coleman

An unlikely combination? One impressive woman, a birthday coincidence and dogs

While searching for references to sheepdogs in our colonial history, and frustrated by less than rewarding findings, I happened upon today’s date – 14 April. It’s a date which always seems to leap out at me because it has special significance: it’s my birthday! As with most life events, there’s quite a story attached and the night of my birth is no exception. But I’m disinclined to tell it here because  I’d rather use this ‘birthday blog’ to re-tell a tale of far greater proportions . It’s about one woman’s journey which began on this day in 1861.

Mrs Henrietta Teschemaker, twice widowed, arrived in New Zealand with her sons Fred (20) and Tom (15) in 1854. Eventually, the ‘boys’ took up Haldon Station in the Mackenzie country, stocking it first with cattle and then with the sheep for which this inland region of the central South Island is now famed. Their efforts to build anything resembling a house fit for their mother to live in met with mixed fortune. Sod huts and chimney constructions notwithstanding, together with the equally immediate needs of sheep yards and woolshed, a new house was eventually started during the summer months in early 1861. Their mother ‘s arrival was imminent.

And so it was that Henrietta Techemaker, now in her sixties, left Christchurch on 14 April, 1861, for Haldon Station in the Mackenzie country. To understand the rigours of such a journey one critical aspect of Canterbury geography must be understood: braided rivers. Every one of them had to be forded and in every one of them peril lurked. In his chapter on Haldon in ‘Early South Canterbury Runs, Robert Pinney isn’t sure whether she rode – side saddle of course – or was driven in one of those small horse-drawn vehicles known as a dog cart, at least as far as ‘the Ashburton’. On the other side of the Ashburton River she was met by Baines, the mailman, and driven in his cart as far as the Rangitata. But the Rangitata was in flood – running high, as Pinney describes – so much so that the punt which normally served as a ferry had broken away.  It was four days before the river subsided its rage sufficient to allow a safe crossing.

If one river was in flood, then so too were the others.  It took a further two days to cross the Orari and Opihi rivers to get to Timaru. Here our intrepid traveller was able to rest in comfort for two nights with her friends the Le Crens, before setting out on a long day’s journey from Timaru to the Percevals at Albury Station, not arriving there until after dark.  The following day being Sunday, Mrs Teschemaker rested. On Monday she proceeded further inland, crossing Burke’s Pass and then on to  Stericker’s Sawdon Station, on the eastern side of the Tekapo River. On the morning of Tuesday 30 April, the seventeenth day of her journey, Henrietta Teschemaker set out for Haldon Station where she was reunited with her sons.

But what of the dogs, promised in the title? The Teschemakers, being Dutch, constituted an ethnic minority among the significant Scots majority of the Mackenzie country. The shepherds who kept boundary and worked on the stations in these parts were, in large number, Scottish immigrants and many had brought their dogs with them – the Border Collie ancestors of New Zealand’s current working dog population …  yet another story in our unique rural history.

By Dr Jennie Coleman

Political influence on an infant: the Walter Nash effect

Oral culture has everything to recommend it not least because so much of our personal history and so many of our experiences are enshrined, and thereby perpetuated, in story. For as long as I can remember – and even longer – this simple story was told …

When I was just 11 months old, my parents took me on holiday. That meant they had to take my pram as well, which in turn meant they had to take the little grey truck to cart me and my clutter about. For a night or two, may be more – can’t quite remember now – we stayed at the Fox Glacier Hotel in South Westland. One of the fellow guests was none other than the then Labour opposition leader, Walter Nash.

In typical whimsical, tongue-in-cheek, throwaway manner, my father apparently said to my mother, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we were seated at the same dining table as ‘old Walter’?” Someone must have overheard, because that is exactly what happened! And at that very table, an apparently very genial, well-humoured, child-friendly politician played ‘peep-bow’ through the flowers with me.

End of story? Well, almost, but not entirely.

Every story has a context which, when thoroughly interrogated, delivers  multi-layered, multi-dimensional and multi-coloured understandings. And this one is no exception.

The little grey truck I can actually just remember. In today’s parlance, it would be a ‘ute’. Not quite a Holden or a Ford, but certainly an assertive declaration of my father’s ‘farmer’ occupation. I’ve since checked up: this little grey truck was an International, Series ‘D’ model.  When I saw one of identical pedigree, beautifully restored to immaculate glory on display at a vintage tractor rally a few years ago, I went particularly gooey in the marshmallow portion of my inner person and thought most fondly and romantically of my first holiday, Fox Glacier Hotel, flowers and Walter Nash.

But there’s another level of association with this simple story that pertains to the treatment of eczema.  For those of us then afflicted with such a skin condition, the only known treatment was a hideously greasy, lanolin-based ‘ointment’.  At this point politics and medicine collide. Walter Nash’s  esteemed presence was sufficient to provoke my mother to declare she was not taking a greasy-faced child down to breakfast any more. So, from that point on, there was no more smearing of eczema with greasy ointment. More significantly, from that point on, the eczema simply disappeared. At this point I must now publicly declare my enormous gratitude to the late Sir Walter Nash for healing me of eczema.

Always fired with enthusiasm and passion to share New Zealand’s unique and amazing history, I’ve just reacquainted myself with one of this country’s foundational social historians, the late Keith Sinclair, and his biography of Walter Nash.  Simply titled, “Walter Nash”, and published in 1976 by the Auckland and Oxford university presses, its chapter titles from Nash’s time as Labour Party secretary (1922-32) roughly parallel successive phases and markers in both Nash’s political career and my father’s life.  But that is an altogether different set of stories …

I retain more fond memories of the Fox Glacier Hotel to which we returned some four years later on a family holiday. By then I had a gorgeous, impish and fun-loving younger brother, but our antics of this time are not really the stuff of blogs. As for flowers, they’re best left on the Fox Glacier Hotel dining room table, usefully serving the needs of Walter Nash and me.

By Dr Jennie Coleman

9 April 2010

The Meaning of ‘Boy’

In all honesty, I had no idea what to expect: the story line, the location, the actors, the director, the theme and its subplots were all total unknowns; no preconceptions, save the fact that “Boy” is a New Zealand film.  And of that I was abruptly reminded by the opening shot’s unique, quirky, and unmistakeable sound: the Patea Maori Club’s ‘Poi E’. It fairly jolted me upright and to attention.   Ah huh; got it – 1984. Then a road sign comes into focus: welcome to the Whanau-a-Apanui region of eastern Bay of Plenty.  Whoa!  Instantly an iwi kaleidoscope swirls. I think Dalvanius Prime, Patea, South Taranaki – Ngati Ruanui, composer of the ‘Poi E’ music; and his collaborator-cum-mentor, Ngoingoi Pewhairangi, Hick’s Bay, East Coast – Ngati Porou, composer of the ‘Poi E’ lyrics.

So I’m happily transported back to a 1984 New Zealand which, as it happens, I didn’t actually live in. Predictably, I was on my OE doing rather less than predictable things which included, amongst other unpredictables, postgraduate study. It just so happened that the Patea Maori Club were in town – London, that is – on their own kind of OE, a World Tour. We met up, as kiwis do when they’re away from home, and they took me on the ultimate in unpredictable journeys. They embraced my academic enquiries, quietly, with dignity and respect; they shared and instructed so that I couldn’t escape learning and understanding. They and their song, the ground-breaking, history-making, 1984 Number 1 New Zealand hit single, ‘Poi E’, became the subject of my London University Masters degree dissertation.  Neither of us saw it coming – it just happened.

Amongst the enormous amount of learning and understanding I digested was the pervasive influence on Maori youth of the time by the likes of Michael Jackson and breakdance. And sure enough, this same fellow features largely in ‘Boy’ – well, in the film’s dialogue, to be more precise.  He’s ever present, at a multitude of levels. And it’s here that things begin to synchronise …

Just as the ‘Poi E’ music video  – shot in Patea – includes street scenes, so too does Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ vid; the difference being that the former is shot in the reality of daylight, straight up, no tricks or quirks save breakdancer Joe Moana, from Tainui, in the concrete Aotea waka, whereas Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ is dark, menacing, macabre, with all manner of mutating trickery. Just as the ‘Poi E’ music video ends with a full cast on stage performing their poi-cum-action song, so too does ‘Boy’ – but with a difference of course. Yes, it’s still 1984, but ‘Boy’ is here more like ‘Thriller’; breakdance, costuming, lighting – Michael Jackson really has come to town, as promised so many times in the dialogue.

I’m not a film critic, so my reflections on ‘Boy’ are no more than reflections. That said, however, this latest expression of New Zealand film making, directed by Taika Waititi who also takes the lead adult role, must surely invite some lofty accolades. If you’re hell-bent on spoiling the delights of surprise and simply must read a review of ‘Boy’, then here’s where to find one.

Despite my lack of familiarity with the location and setting of ‘Boy’, every scene brims with the familiar. Waititi cleverly offers us a comfortable framework on which we must then hang the less comfortable. Yes, there’s violence, but it’s not ‘Once were Warriors’ graphic. We don’t have the gruesome, gory stuff visually imposed, but we know it’s taken place, nevertheless. Nor are social issues ignored; they’re dealt to as well, often with the subtlety of idiosyncratic humour. Arguably, the film’s greatest strength lies in the script, delicately poised between what needs to be said and what is best said in the silence of well-directed, utterly credible acting.

Almost every possible dramatic contrast drives this film: pathos and humour; fantasy and reality; tragedy and triumph –the latter often expressed in an unexpected twist; surprise and predictability, although even that takes on an unanticipated direction; boy trying to impress girl who’s invariably older, wiser, more knowing and more responsible, across all ages.

Here, ‘Poi E’ meets ‘Thriller’, with just a hint of Billy T’s ‘Came a Hot Friday’ and Jane Campion’s ‘Whale Rider’, although ‘Boy’ has dolphins rather than whales.  For this interdisciplinary academic ‘Boy’ served an entirely unanticipated purpose – to reflect on what we’ve done,  how we’ve done it, why we’ve done it and, most importantly, for whom we’ve done it.

Coda: or should that be a reprise of the opening scene? The Whanau-a-Apanui welcome sign brought to mind another research paper I submitted “…in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the London University masters degree …”. A young, inspiring, talented and enterprising musician by the name of Ngahiwi Apanui graciously gifted his time to share with me the cultural and musical bases of his pop group “Aotearoa”. During the interviews I recorded with him at Victoria University, Wellington in 1985, the voice of a then undergraduate in law added support – these days his proper title is the Honourable Justice Joe Williams.

If you haven’t seen the film, then the word ‘potential’ hasn’t yet acquired its proper meaning.

By Dr Jennie Coleman

7 April 2010

Otago Anniverary Day observations

Yesterday was supposedly an official holiday, just one day short of the actual anniversary, today, 23 March. The suburbs were eerily quiet and Dunedin’s CBD exuded a calm, relaxed atmosphere. Our regular lunch cafe was closed, as were many businesses. Only the optimistic donned white shirt and tie but the Dunedin City Council was serious in its Anniversary Day observance  – parking meters were in Sabbath mode – that is to say, not trading. Predictably, and in best Presbyterian response, all street parking spaces were full.

Even the hallowed grounds of First Church, that enduring testament (pun not intended) to the foundation of the Free Church settlement of Otago in 1848, were well patronised with ‘worshippers’ of a sort.  A heavily committed game of ‘touch’ (rugby, that is) between a glorious mix of age, size and gender brought a wry smile to the face of this regular passer-by and, co-incidentally, descendant of Presbyterian early settlers to Otago. One cannot help but wonder quite how the settlement’s spiritual leader, the Reverend Dr Thomas Burns, would have viewed this 2010 observance of Anniversary Day.

At least some of the regular flock was in attendance. More impressively, they were young – at least under 25 from my opposite-side-of- Moray Place perspective.  I’m sure Burns would have nodded in appreciation, before he frowned, first in disbelief then at his own lack of understanding. Not only were these ‘worshippers’ engaged in a form of sport yet to be invented in England, but the people themselves were of Pacific Island descent. For some decades now, this local immigrant group has worshipped in greater numbers at First Church than the descendants of Burns original flock. How ironic, that on 23 March 1849, the settlement’s first anniversary, Thomas Burns railed against the profanity of sport. Such festive celebrations kept all but some 60 pious souls from the service of thanksgiving he called that day.

By Jennie Coleman  23.03.10