When I was a lad, public buildings boasted portraits of King George VI anxiously observing liberalism displace the colonial cringe that had for so long stifled New Zealand's social discourse. Ladies still 'dressed' for afternoon tea, but royal tittle-tattle, recipes, and fashion now had to compete with politics, social welfare, child psychology, fresh air, calisthenics, naturism, and cold showers.
Mother bravely resisted indulging in the last three, but considered them essential elements in the upbringing of her only son, who had begun life looking like a refugee from Belsen.
One warm afternoon an odd impulse sent me straight from cold shower to sitting room, where the malignant glass-eyed scrutiny of a dozen dead foxes decorating the padded shoulders of 12 severely corseted dames; their own eyes concealed behind spotted veils adorning absurd little hats, stopped me in my tracks. Ample bosoms heaved and dainty teacups froze 'twixt lap and lip. In that instant, I knew the brothers Grimm had told it true - people could be turned to stone!
Quelling the urge to scarper, I assumed an air of artless innocence and clambered onto the copious lap of the most formidable presence in the room; my godmother. Buoyed on a cloud of powder and lavender-water I kissed her cheek, snagging the veil in my teeth. She disentangled us, held me at arm's length and boomed, "Never kiss someone when your hair is wet, child!" before dumping me unceremoniously on the carpet and plonking a dry kiss on my forehead; a stamp of approval that allowed me to ignore Mother's nervous flick of the head towards the door and assume my usual duties - handing round plates of club sandwiches and petit fours.
Later, with calculated cuteness, I fetched the coats of departing matrons and held open the front door; stoically enduring pats on my 'adorable brown botty' while Mother was congratulated on producing such a darling little man.
Mother's irritation at losing her independence by not becoming a war widow was manifested in a distinct cooling towards her recently returned husband, an embarrassing transfer of her affections to me, and an assumption that her spouse's duties and obligations began and ended with the provision of food and shelter.
She was a good, caring, and supportive mother and I thought I loved her, but I suspect it was more pity than love. In retrospect, however, it was unforgivable that through constant complaining and manipulation she should drive a wedge between father and son that lasted 40 years.
Flag-waving homecoming parades had done little to raise the spirits of battle-scarred soldiers, for whom home was not quite the paradise they'd held in their hearts through years of filthy war. Experience of foreign lands, exotic customs, and people with entirely different expectations of life, made them aware of the shroud of bigoted conformity that had stifled New Zealand since guns, disease, and religion delivered British 'Justice' and near extinction to the Maoris.
Battalion reunions degenerated into drink-fests; for to recall the truth of war was to relive the nightmare and fuel a new-found fear of others. And always the nagging question: why? What was it all for? Cancerous guilt for surviving when mates and brothers had died, poisoned joy, shattered families and bred a generation of morose alcoholics, and distant fathers in whom depression, irritability, and an overwhelming sense of anticlimax stifled the words, thoughts, and actions of love and tenderness.
My Father's experiences were not unique. After recovering from the wounds and horrors of being strafed and bombed at Monte Casino, he only just avoided cremation in a tank that hit a land mine and exploded seconds after he crawled clear. Everyone else was incinerated. But the only thing he would ever talk about was the pain of having his haemorrhoids removed without anaesthetic. He said it felt as if the doctor was shoving broken glass up his backside and he bit through four thicknesses of blankets to stop himself screaming.
By taking no interest whatever in my schooling, interests, plans, and spare time activities, Dad was the perfect counter for Mother's uncritical assumption that I was God's gift to humanity. I admired his physical strength, slim fitness, and practicality, proud that he was honest, hard-working, well liked, uncomplicated, and reliable.
But I feared his quick temper. He showed no interest in females, sport (except for lawn bowls), cultural activities, religion or politics, and never either encouraged or discouraged me in any activities. I was perfectly free to be me; whoever that might be. What more could any son ask?
The only criticism I received from him in 12 years under the same roof, was being clipped over the ears for shoddy table manners, and the occasional irritated sneer of "Professor!" when I was being insufferably knowledgeable. They were important lessons because awareness of one's effect on others and knowing how to behave are the essential skills of social acceptability. Together with the self-confidence engendered by Mother's doting, I have never felt either inferior or inadequate.
Forbidden to share in my upbringing, Dad ignored me when Mother was around. Away from home and alone together, we behaved like casual acquaintances - friendly but not curious. He was not protective and never tried to teach me anything; expecting me to learn by watching and emulating. That suited me perfectly. By the age of 10, when it was his weekend on duty, I was expected to look after Saturday morning petrol sales and spare parts at his service station while he fixed tires and did mechanical repairs in the workshop. I made no mistakes and was never paid.
If I did my jobs around the house without complaining, on Fridays I received a tiny allowance, enough to go to the flicks (cinema) and buy a small ice-cream. In my spare time, I was free to do whatever I liked - and suffer the consequences.
Our seaside town was invaded every summer by 20,000 city-dwellers seldom wearing more than shorts or swimming togs, which in those days were very brief. My string bikini raised no eyebrows on the street, at school, or at the 'flicks'.
Informality was the rule and men were expected to wear as little as possible, show they had something between their legs, and look sexy. Girls were expected to be modestly sexy in clothing and deportment. The opposite of today. Why and how the roles have reversed is a mystery, but I suspect it's the influence of right-wing religious U.S.A.
During the holidays, I had to work and save money to pay for whatever I wanted in the following year. Dad's contribution to my well-being ended with food and lodging. Mother didn't work so had no money. Although I hated toiling in a fast-food kitchen, a grocery store, sweeping up hair, and selling cigarettes and condoms in a barber shop… it never seemed unreasonable that I should work for my keep. Every spare minute, though, I spent on the beach.
Making friends was never a problem, but as boyhood became adolescence an underlying tension for which I had no explanation began to surface. I didn't want to go looking for sheilas and sit in the back row at the flicks feeling them up. And I only wanted to be part of the group if they were doing what I wanted.
The other guys seemed prepared to subject their wills to the group, and that scared me into avoiding team sports. If I was to fail or succeed it would be because of my own merits - or lack of them. This stubborn need to feel totally independent means I've never owed anyone anything.
Neighbours and nearby retired couples let me use their libraries and listen to their classical records in return for the occasional odd job. Paper-round clients left me Christmas tips. I was popular as a baby-sitter, and after getting my driver's licence on my 15th birthday, several people lent me their cars if I needed one, knowing I was prepared to drive them anywhere, anytime I was free. I also became the doctor's wife's part-time chauffeur when she was heavily pregnant with her third child in four years.
1956 began as inauspiciously as the previous 15 years. The Olympics across the Tasman in Melbourne impinged not at all until my Art teacher, a neurotic, scrawny chain-smoker, asked for volunteers to assist him to make life-sized paintings of Greek athletes to decorate the hall for the school ball. No one took up the offer, partly from laziness but mostly from fear of proximity to 'the breath of death'. It's thanks to his rotting lungs that I became a non-smoker. Eventually, a combination of pity and secret lust for the life-sized reproduction of Myron's Discobolus in the school entrance hall, led me to offer assistance.
We worked in the dressing rooms at the back of the stage and the results were abysmal. Sir could not keep the proportions when enlarging. A night of feverish fantasy prompted my offering to pose before a projector while he traced my silhouette. A night of feverish despair, prompted Sir to accept.
"Don't you wear underpants?" he snapped, hurrying to bar the doors. He was impressed with my physique, however, and the results were satisfactory. On completion, I asked if he would employ me as a 'poser' for his night classes. "Life model," he corrected primly, adding, "You are too young." I argued. He resisted. I agreed to remain mute about my contribution to the paintings on condition he gave me a trial. He conceded defeat, although after teaching me for three years, he should have realised the threat was hollow; I would never betray secrets. But teachers then, as now, seldom took a personal interest in their pupils.
Parents were no problem; Dad wasn't interested and Mother thought that as the sun shone out of my backside, everyone should have the opportunity to admire it. I presented myself at Sir's studio an hour early for a rehearsal. He explained the sequences - ten one-minute poses, five five-minute poses, one Twenty-minute pose, supper, then the same again.
My suppleness wasn't in question, nor my ability to maintain a pose without drooping - the only question hung over my errant member, which wouldn't droop! Sir threatened to cancel. Desperately, I jerked off, the show went on, and I was too nervous and busy keeping still and not sagging to entertain erotic thoughts. The proceeds from six subsequent appearances paid for a new pair of stovepipe trousers, a white shirt with button down collar, a burnt orange tie, and a fake gold tiepin. Then another art group desired the services of the only young man in the town prepared to bare all for art; adding to my coffers.
Opportunities seized lead to further opportunities, and thus it was that after 'starring' in the school play, The Ghost Train, I was approached by the director of the local amateur dramatic society, who was also an incompetent draftsman in one of Sir's 'life' classes, to take the role of Cupid in Cupid's Dart… a musical comedy.
The curtain rose revealing Cupid posed on a plinth like Mercury/Eros in Piccadilly Circus. I was stuck up there for most of the production, sharing with the audience my despair at the idiocies of mortals, and firing 'arrows' into confused young lovers to stimulate desire. Occasionally I'd leap from the plinth and spread confusion before 'flying' back up with the assistance of a concealed mini trampoline.
The costume was a brilliant pair of wings, bow, quiver, and arrows, and a wind-tossed swathe of cloth fluttering coyly across my loins. Except it didn't; it hung like a sad rag. Grandmother, who before a successful marriage had been a tailoress and crafter of hats, fired up her steamer and moulded in milliners' felt an elegant, gilded fig-leaf, held in place with spirit gum. According to the wife of the director, it was my naked bum that put so many clothed bums on auditorium seats. This second theatrical success in one year proved beyond doubt, to me at least, that the stage was my destiny!
Any qualms I might have felt about jettisoning plans to become a public intellectual in favour of public nudist, were quashed when one of the actors in the show, a professional photographer, took several photos of me in and out of my fig leaf and sold them to an overseas magazine; sharing with me the 35 pounds they fetched.
When I told Dad about the money, he told me not to waste it, but didn't ask how I'd earned it - so I told him. I think I was hoping to shock him. He nodded as if I'd done nothing out of the ordinary, said the photographer was a good bloke, and asked why I hadn't mowed the lawns.
Paradoxically, his lack of interest in me caused me to pay a great deal of attention to him. Reluctantly, I admired him while resenting his indifference.
But of course I'd have resented him a great deal more if he'd tried to organise my life!