Springtime in Taranaki: An Autobiography of Youth

Springtime in Taranaki: An Autobiography of Youth

by Douglas Stewart

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Capturing the nostalgia of springtime -- picnics, dances, the drama of first love -- this gentle autobiography tells the story of Douglas Stewart's youth in a New Zealand country town, 'an almost invisible speck on the map about two hundred miles north of the great glittering metropolis of Wellington'. Brmming with mischievous humor and rejoicing of nature, Springtime in Taranaki offers us a fascinating portrait of the artist as a young man, of leaving home, and a world of innocence long past.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781742699226
Publisher: Allen & Unwin Pty., Limited
Publication date: 08/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Douglas Stewart is the subject and author of Springtime in Taranaki.

Read an Excerpt

Springtime in Taranaki

An Autobiography of Youth

By Douglas Stewart

Allen & Unwin

Copyright © 1983 M. Stewart
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74331-234-6


The Lawyer in Eltham

'Who would live in a country town?' asks the poet Elizabeth Riddell, who, like myself, left New Zealand for Sydney in her youth.

Who would live in a country town
If they had their wish?

Well, I for one would. Of course you have to leave it when you reach your twenties if you are restless or energetic or ambitious (which is what Elizabeth Riddell's poem is about); but at least one should be born and grow up in a country town, for in no other way can you so fully taste the richness of the earth and savour and experience the comedy, the poignance and the delight of youthful living.

So that is what this book is about: growing up in Eltham, and leaving it. Heaven knows, in its essentials it is a familiar enough story; but it was ours, is dear to us, and no doubt has its own minute particulars of difference.

And where may Eltham be? It must be admitted that Eltham takes a bit of finding.

It is in the province of Taranaki, on the west coast of the North Island — though there were twelve or more miles of rolling green farmland between Eltham and the nearest piece of sea at the mouth of the Waingongoro near Hawera, and twenty-four miles to the beach where we went for holidays, the exquisite horseshoe of Opunake. It is an almost invisible speck on the map about two hundred miles north of the great glittering metropolis of Wellington (as it shone in our youth) and about three hundred miles south of the almost legendary splendours of Auckland.

The best way to find it is to look for Mount Egmont, for there, twenty or so miles away at its base, watered by its streams, pelted by its storms, enchanted by its snow, we lay; and always on our horizon in the beautiful symmetry of its ancient volcanic cone, white to its foothills in winter and still at least patched with snow in summer, high over the green paddocks the lofty mountain towered.

And what a pretty little place Eltham was, with its dark-needled pine-trees and leafy plane-trees, and its hedges and gardens around the white weatherboard houses with their red roofs, nestling in the hollow between Burke's Hill and the Rifle Range. The town itself was filled at all times with the sweet breath of the mountain, and the countryside, and the waters of the Town Creek and the Waingongoro. The Town Creek (where once a poacher speared a nine-pound brown trout) flowed through its stone tunnel among the willows at the foot of the main shopping street, Bridge Street; and from the sparkling, cool Waingongoro, which gave us our water supply, tiny freshets flowed along the gutters, so that bright-green moss, as upon river stones, grew along the edges of the pavement. Horses in drays and gigs and buggies clip-clopped out of High Street into Bridge Street in my most distant boyhood and brought the country alive into the town. Their useful droppings were swept up by a nice little man, continually patrolling with a cart and shovel and broom, who to the enhancement of his glory also rang the bell and took round the plate at the Anglican church on Sundays.

It was a town that, like other country towns, woke to brilliant life on Saturday nights when all the farmers in their best shiny blue serge suits, accompanied by their wives and daughters, stayed in town after the football for the late shopping, and the Salvation Army band made a cheerful noise outside the Chinese greengrocer's or Connell's the photographer's. At Christmas it was made even livelier with fronds of tree-ferns tied to every verandah post, and Father Christmas himself, resplendent in red flannel and white fluff, driving down Bridge Street in his sledge. But for the rest it was quiet enough. Alf Ware's fat black dog was generally asleep on the footpath outside his butcher's shop, and few were the feet that trod on him.

Immortally in my mind's eye I see the shopkeepers and professional men of Bridge Street who stood like the pillars of the town: O'Hagen the chemist; Andrew Chrystal the lawyer, upstairs in his chambers in the noble two-storeyed building of the Hallenstein Brothers, drapers (which afterwards my father was to buy); C.N. Taplin, the dentist, whose auburn-haired, creamy-complexioned daughter Irene was to become so beautiful a creature; the humble, nameless Chinese vegetable man who sold us crackers and skyrockets in season and, at all times, lettuces for threepence; Alf Ware with (as well as his dog) his marvellous tomato sausages; Sammy Carson, noted for standing all day in the doorway of his shop (I don't suppose many pairs of shoes were sold each day in Eltham); Sandy Peebles, the grocer across the road, between Wilkinson's Hardware and Pat Gavigan the barber; Sheehy, the baker; Jock McKay with more hardware; Mr Beesley among his fascinating shining bicycles; Lewis, the rival baker; Nigel Connell, wrinkled and slight and sun-tanned, who, besides taking all those necessary photographs of beaming wedding groups and (a little later) babies lying naked on a rug, also did very good pastels of Mount Egmont and who spoke in some English or possibly Irish accent impossible to reproduce ('Going to Roo-a-pay-hoo to point', meaning 'paint'); Mr Fountain, eager and deferential among his menswear; Radisch, the fishmonger in whose window our giant eel was to be displayed and whose flounders my mother was so fond of; 'Forgy' des Forges, the other barber, who shaved my father; Bluett, the newsagent, at whose shop I called in such eagerness to get our weekly copy of the red-covered Bulletin (at first just to read, then in due course to see if I had a poem in it); Fred Vincent, the jeweller and mighty fisherman who always said 'fishin" and 'shootin"; Syme and Weir, solicitors; Carman, the bookseller, whose shop for some unknown reason I always associated with Coles' Funny Picture Book with the rainbow on the black cover — perhaps he kept a display of it; Ira J. Bridger, the Mayor, with his long, lank hair and his own array of bicycles and motor-bikes on the corner of the road that led to the Town Hall and picture theatre — famous men all, they were; and none more famous than my father, Alexander Armstrong Stewart, of McVeagh, Morrison and Stewart; afterwards, as the earlier partners departed, of Stewart and Hill, barristers and solicitors.

Every night of my life, when my dinner is served to me, I remember my father, and make libation to his genial shade. Like the king in one of A. A. Milne's rhymes for children, my father was not what you could call a fussy man. In fact for the most part he was quite astoundingly genial and patient and tolerant. But he did, as king in his own household, and he was always that, have a few small fads that had to be attended to. In his cup of tea, for instance, the tea had to be poured into the cup and then the milk — and not too much of it — had to be added: not the tea poured on top of the milk. And he liked the teapot to be held six inches or so above the cup, so that the tea fell from a height and made bubbles. This, he said, 'aerated' it. One of the most important of these fads was the arrangement of the meat and vegetables on his dinner plate. He maintained that, for convenience in eating, the green vegetables should be placed on the left of the plate, the potatoes on the right and the meat in the centre — or maybe it was the other way round — and when his serving was not thus organised he would remark on it: not fretfully, but for the thousandth time patiently explaining the logic of it to my mother.

But my mother used to say, with equal patience and good temper, as one humouring a harmless aberration, that even if it wasn't arranged the way he wanted it, he had only to turn the plate around and then it would be.

I have often wondered which of them was right; and sometimes when my own plate is put before me, I try to work it out. Of course if the meat had to be, say, on the right and not in the centre, then if it were placed in the centre it would never find its way out to the right; or would it? It is beyond me. I expect my father was right, for he had a beautiful, cool, logical brain, whereas logic was never my mother's strong point. She was Irish and Welsh by descent, a FitzGerald, slim, fairly tall, blue-eyed under her light brown hair, full of energy and laughter, with a fondness for mildly Rabelaisian jokes, kind, loving, quick-tempered — altogether feminine and charming. 'If you would only listen to reason!' I said to her once in my boyhood when we were having one of our rare furious rows — Lord knows what about — in the bathroom of all places.

'I will not listen to reason!' said my mother, a retort I have never failed to cherish.

It is only fair to add that she was probably in the right, in spite of this incautious admission; I was a very argumentative youth and was no doubt trying to prove to her that black was white.

My father's people, in whom he took a proper pride, were, he told us, Stewarts of Appin, which is the correct place in Scotland for all the best Stewarts to come from. In fact my Aunt Annie, a short, rotund, dreamy-eyed lady who wrote fairy stories for the Melbourne Age, said she had it from her father that we were directly descended from the lairds; but that may have been another of her fairy stories, for when in my twenties I visited our ancestral purple and yellow moors and stony mountains and rushing burns, I did not notice anybody laying down a tartan carpet for me.

I did in fact see a great drawing-room hung with crimson and white tartan curtains of Stewart 'Dress' — but that was when a pretty maidservant was showing me around the house at Appin while its owners were away; and when I called on Major Alexander Stewart of Achnacone, who was one of the three rival lairds all living in the neighbourhood and all claiming to be head of the clan, he said my grandfather had got either his motto or the name of his house wrong, for you couldn't have a house called 'Ardshiel' (as my grandfather's house in Melbourne was named) when your motto was Resurgam, because this was to mix up the Appin Stewarts, who rightfully owned the motto, with the Ardshiel or Ardsheal Stewarts, who lived a couple of miles away. He also said challengingly, 'And what do you do, my boy — soldier?' and fiercely waved his white whiskers at me; and I told him the feeble truth that I was a journalist and crept back to Australia and left the great question unsolved.

My grandfather, Alexander Stewart, first steps out of legend into history when he manifests himself in the late 1870s as a student at Glasgow University. His father had died when he was three years of age and his mother when he was sixteen, and I believe that (perhaps with a sister) he lived with relatives in Glasgow. He was reputed a brilliant scholar under Lord Kelvin, who, according to my Aunt Bess, wanted him to abandon his plans for a career in the kirk and become his assistant and successor in science. A truly remarkable array of 'testimonials and certificates' from Glasgow University was compiled later, in 1881, when, having arrived in Victoria, he applied for a lectureship in logic at the University of Melbourne. At the age of twenty-four he was thought too young for the job, and it went to Henry Laurie.

Curiously, seeing that both my father and myself were to veer between Australia and New Zealand, my grandfather's first acquaintance with the Antipodes was at Dunedin in the South Island of New Zealand, where all the Scotsmen used to settle. He was there to discuss some affair for his kirk ('probably the Free') with the Presbyterians in Dunedin. The mission accomplished — 'I remember reading', says Aunt Bess, that he'd done great work for a mere lad' — he returned to Scotland to report on it and to finish his course in theology. For a time (either before or after his New Zealand venture; I am not sure which) he was chaplain at Paisley Gaol, and on his departure the grateful authorities gave him a pair of pistols of beautiful chased steel with a nasty-looking flick bayonet attached under the barrel. My father got hold of them in his boyhood and, so he told me, nearly shot his big toe off; and so as a sacred relic of my grandfather, along with his prizes and his gold watch and the legend of his formidable personality, eventually they came into my own possession.

In Scotland his health failed and he was advised by a lung specialist to try sunny Australia. So once again he crossed the seas and became the Presbyterian minister, first at Leigh, near Geelong, then in the Melbourne suburb of Essendon. During his sojourn there he rose to eminence as Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church in Australia. In 1884 he had had the wisdom and good taste to marry Jean Armstrong of Leigh, who not only brought with her a considerable fortune, or the prospect of it, being from a family of land-owners, but was also the softest, gentlest, sweetest creature imaginable. My grandfather said prettily, so my father often recalled, that she was 'a well of sweet water' in his life. One would have called her a saint if it hadn't been for her roguish sense of humour. 'I wouldn't give you twopence for a man who didn't have a bit of the Old Adam in him,' she used to say.

She bore the minister seven children, of whom my father was the eldest. Two of them were girls: Bess (sturdy, kindly, brisk little Aunt Bess, who was to become the centre-pin of the clan), and poetical Annie; and the boys, after my father, who had the eldest son's traditional name of Alexander, were Will, Leigh, Neil and Geordie. These four were all eventually to volunteer for the A.I.F. in World War I, and all came back, though Leigh (a strange big, kindly, jovial, cantankerous man) had his leg shot off when he was riding a mule up to the front line somewhere in France. It spoilt his hopes for a life on the land. My father was always much honoured among them, partly because it was his right, in Scottish tradition, as the eldest son; partly because, as I believe, he really was outstanding in character and scholarship, in which he inherited the minister's brilliance.

He was dux of Scotch College in Melbourne and matriculated at the unheard-of-age of thirteen. Though he was later to turn to law, originally he intended to go in for medicine. He may have started his course at the University of Melbourne, for when he left for New Zealand he brought with him a little box of scalpels and probes and tweezers which we thought a treasure of great price when, crawling along the top of a wardrobe, we discovered it.

Family legend says that it was a great quarrel with the minister that made my father clear out for New Zealand; and though they were good friends later on, and my father always spoke of him with the utmost respect and with profound sympathy for the blindness that came upon him in old age, the old gentleman, short and square and bearded, was undoubtedly pretty much of a martinet in the Victorian fashion. Usually the mildest of men, my father had nevertheless a fierce, hot pride and would certainly have been capable, under sufficient provocation, of quarrelling with the Rev. Alexander.

Whatever happened, to New Zealand my father came; and was first seen as a teacher at the King's School in Auckland, then at a school in a small goldmining town called Waihi, where he met my mother. There is a pretty story that, somewhat after the style of Sir Walter Raleigh, he made her acquaintance by throwing his coat around her shoulders when they got caught in a storm on a picnic. My mother came from Wellington, where her father was a chemist, and what she was doing at Waihi, about three hundred miles to the north, I do not know. Her name was Mary FitzGerald. With her sparkling blue eyes and the straight-backed, aristocratic bearing typical of her family, she must have had considerable strength of character, or a magnetism in the warmth of her personality, for when the FitzGeralds came back from World War I — her sister Eileen, who had been a nurse, and her two surviving brothers, Maurice and Gerald — they all settled around her in Eltham, as if she was the centre that held them together. A third brother, Roy, had been killed in France.


Excerpted from Springtime in Taranaki by Douglas Stewart. Copyright © 1983 M. Stewart. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1 The Lawyer in Eltham,
2 Off to Susy Hooper's,
3 War and Peace,
4 Expeditions,
5 Eltham Public School,
6 Troloves',
7 New Plymouth Boys' High School,
8 A Liberal Education,
9 The Eltham Argus,
10 The Merry-go-round,
11 The Highways and the Byways,
12 Epilogue: The Grand Tour,

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