We’re Not in Tokoroa Any More

There is a rugby match today, All Blacks versus Lions. I will make cheese scones so I can eat them with a beer. It is a way of watching the rugby with both of my parents present. It is a way of keeping them going, of keeping ‘my’ New Zealand going.

I was born in London to a New Zealand father and a south London mother. They made a family after the war and in 1967 they moved back to New Zealand. She had been as far as Anglesey before then, stationed there during the war while in the army, he was a prisoner of war for four years in Germany and had never stopped dreaming of home. He was going back, she was going forward, at a time when the journey was six weeks by ship, airmail letters took a week to arrive, when phone calls needed to be booked in advance and the cost was prohibitive. Middle of the night phone calls could never mean good news. She was 46 and brave, he was 46 and I watched him cry – my father who never cried – as the ship sailed along the east coast. At Wellington Harbour my mother saw the painted wooden houses on the hills, turned to my father and said ‘It looks like Butlins, Tom.’

We stayed with my nana in Martinborough, and she told me of for being scared of a weta. Then we stayed with cousins on their sheep farm near Atiamuri, and when my parents found work at the pulp and paper mill of Kinleith, we moved to Tokoroa. To the first house my parents had ever owned. Then we got a dog. When I tell people I grew up in New Zealand, they ask about the scenery. They’ll tell me about their amazing visit to Te Papa, or this gallery, that film. They will speak of great meals, stunning hotels, beautiful views. But they won’t speak of my new Zealand, they can’t. It’s not where the tourists go.

At Wellington Harbour my mother saw the painted wooden houses on the hills, turned to my father and said ‘It looks like Butlins, Tom.’

Sometimes, when I meet yet another Aucklander in London, I think it’s not where New Zealanders go either. I mostly meet Aucklanders in London. Or people from Christchurch, Dunedin maybe, Wellington sometimes, very occasionally Hamilton. Almost always a city, hardly ever small town New Zealand, rural New Zealand. Demographically that makes sense, but it also means that there is something missing between us, national boundaries can never matter as much as personal geography. When we are from is as important as where, and where we are from is invariably defined by when. My New Zealand, the one of my growing up, my childhood, the one I walked into, sea-leg shaky, two months before my fifth birthday, is as much a place of when as of where.

When I give talks I sometimes ask if anyone in the audience has been to New Zealand. Half a dozen people will put up their hands, and I say, ‘You’ve been to Rotorua, where the boiling mud pools are?’ They nod. ‘You’ve been to Taupo? Big lake, mountains?’ They nod. They are proud of these nods, they like to know these places. I tell them that they drove through my town. Often I’ll have the same conversation with New Zealanders in London. Many will have driven through my town, on their way to somewhere else, that happens when you grow up just of State Highway 1. But for some of us, especially in the 60s and 70s, childhood was all about small town, even New Zealand cities were kind of small town back then. Tokoroa, with it’s high Maori and Polynesian population was a special type of small town, and I was lucky to be part of it.

This means that my New Zealand isn’t gorgeous baches with elegant art to enhance the view, it’s not dinners in Wellington or theatre in Auckland, it’s not even the Southern Alps or vibrant, post-earthquake Christchurch. Much as I love the Pacific, and miss the land with a true ache, the mountains and the ocean are not my New Zealand either.

My New Zealand is my mum making pikelets and the just-made raspberry jam that goes with those pikelets, raspberries my dad grew in the back garden. It is the smell of a roasting joint (hogget, my uncle is a sheep farmer) while watching the rugby, my dad’s bottle of Waikato on the table, mum running from the kitchen, tea-towel in hand, whenever he’d roar ‘Pass the bloody ball!’ It is the ANZAC Day dawn parade, listening as my dad, the RSA president, intones, ‘We will remember them.’

My New Zealand is the particular smell of candyfloss, watermelon and teenage passion, at the A&P show, cut through with pine woodchips from the chopping competitions. It is knowing today will have a high blue sky, all day, because the sharp frost is minus ten degrees and the smell of the mill is strong, and only a southerly brings those sunny winter days, and that stink. It is walking past the pub on a Friday night and crossing the road because a fight will spill out any minute.

It is the Samoan choir at church one week and the pakeha/palangi one the next, all nations sitting side by side in the pews. It is a feed of pipi brought home by the Gilberts next door, Arawa both. It is loud, late parties down the road, tents in the back yard and the ringy-dickey guitar strum of a neighbour’s cousin, playing long into the night. It is going to school with kids who are Maori, Niuean, Tongan, Samoan, Cook Island, Swiss, Dutch, Welsh, Swedish, Scots, Irish, German, many of them speaking English at school and their other languages at home. It is all of our dads and most of our mums working at the mill. It is watching my dad take salt tablets to replace the fluid lost in an eight-hour shift on a non-functioning boiler, and the new burns all over his hands. It is climbing Titiraupenga on a YMCA camp, Pohaturoa with the neighbours, swimming across Whakamaru at fourteen – just to see if I could. It is listening to my union-man dad argue ferocious Labour/National politics with his farmer brother. It is Little Theatre and Operatic Society plays twice a year being all I know of theatre, and then taking the long bus ride to Auckland with my mum to ‘see a show’, home at two in the morning, thrilled from the city as much as from the show. It is borrowing books from the library because although we had books at home, that one bookshelf-full went fast and there was so much more to know, to read and even if we’d had the money for more books, there was nowhere to keep them in the tiny weatherboard house that looked like all the others. (‘Butlins, Tom.’)

My New Zealand is short drives to the lake, longer ones to Papamoa and Maketu, decades before beaches became designer cafés and flat whites. It is the long winding journey down to the Wairarapa to the cousins, stopping in at Marton to see Aunt on the way (she was an aunt, they called her Aunt), eating her girdle scones that have never tasted as good, anywhere, since. It is also, years later, my Aunty Pat (a different aunt) sitting in the carport with her flagon of beer, saying, ‘Have you seen what they’ve done to your nana’s pub?’ My nana owned the Martinborough Hotel in a time of six o’clock swills. Aunty Pat didn’t sound as if she thought the shiny new was much of an improvement.

It is going to the bach with the cousins when I was little and going again just this year, eating crays that taste as good as ever, with beer and wine that might be a bit fancier, but the singing and guitar-playing and the view from the Cape Palliser bach still wild, that sea never-changing, ever-changing. It is the bach built by my uncle and grandfather on land our family never owned, land that will soon revert to the owners, leaving them to parcel it up and sell for a vast amount. That view is worth a vast amount. Fair enough too, but we’ll always have the sepia images of my nana and granddad first camping there, and then building a two-room bach where nana cooked on the fire. It’s a four room bach now and no more flash. I bless my cousins for leaving the formica intact.

My New Zealand is dad getting me out of bed to come and look at the Southern Cross and hear again how he would look up when he was a PoW and dream of seeing these stars, this sky.

It is my south London mother, already a great baker, using the Edmond’s Cookbook to ‘get it right’ for her kiwi friends.

It is knowing how to pronounce Tokoroa long before we became ‘multicultural’, when that was just who we were, saying it right because it sounds better that way.

It is knowing where I’m from. Woolwich and Tokoroa. Not Britain and New Zealand, but Woolwich and Tokoroa, south London and south Waikato. And knowing that most of the things I describe above only exist in memory, in a scent I almost catch and then lose again – damp bush, lake weed, potato fritters, frost and wood smoke.

It is knowing where I’m from. Woolwich and Tokoroa. Not Britain and New Zealand, but Woolwich and Tokoroa, south London and south Waikato.

It is knowing that these are the good memories and there are darker ones I choose not to commit to paper.

It is knowing that these good memories make me sad when I fly in to Auckland airport, because I cannot have them again, people have died, times have changed, the world is different. And yet, a potato-topped pie can still do it. The smell of orange chocolate-chip ice cream. A flighty fantail. You can never go home, but there are tastes of it, scents of it, sometimes. And sometimes will have to do.

There is a match starting soon, I need to get the scones in the oven. The roar of the crowd, the beginning of a commentary, beer in one hand, plate of hot cheese scones. The haka. Yeah, that’ll do.