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