The latter days of my schooling and the greater part of the university years that followed are something of a blur, the way that details of periods of extended boredom and mediocrity are a blur.
When I was about sixteen, my parents – for reasons that still escape me – decided to pack up and move to a satellite suburb some forty kilometres from our old neighbourhood. At the same time, they encouraged me stay on at my current high school, on the basis that I was ‘settled’ there and it would disruptive to my study for the upcoming School Certificate exams. This arrangement, they claimed, wouldn’t be too arduous, since I could get a lift with them when they drove in to work, which they did every work-day.
This proved to be more arduous than it sounded. I had to be up at six for the trip to where they worked, catch a bus from there to my school, then make the reverse journey each day. My parents were diligent workers, and often didn’t get away from their business by six in the evening, which meant we weren’t home till seven. With homework and study on top of the travelling, I was in a constant state of fatigue; I never succeeded in ‘getting used to the travelling’ as they’d said.
The social effects of the move were catastrophic. It effectively put an end not only to my interactions with the local girls, but to my entire peer network. My parents had no interest in transporting me for social purposes to the city outside their customary hours, and public transport to our new residence – ironically, on the verge of the nation’s main highway – was virtually non-existent. The nearest train station was at Paekakariki, some five kilometres away, but there was no linking bus service and the trains were infrequent, slow and unreliable, with the last service on weekends at around 11.00 pm. My friends from the old neighborhood, now in their mid-teens, usually didn’t hit the streets until ten, and the serious parties didn’t start till around eleven, so although I was able to do a bit of couch surfing at peoples’ places for a while, this soon exhausted my welcome with their parents. Unable to maintain frequent and regular contact with my former network of friends, I found myself increasingly estranged from the nexus of gossip and shared experience that were the essence of our previous familiarity.
I therefore became, of necessity, a bit of a loner. I’d managed to secure a ‘steady’ girlfriend, which helped to diffuse my sense of being in social purgatory, although the two of us were most comfortable with our own exclusive company, at least for a while, so my contacts didn’t expand all that much. I must admit I was grateful when I got my accreditation to university, which I hoped would expose me to a different, stimulating social environment. Based on reports from my older brothers and their mates, I looked forward to ‘liberated’ women and social activities, the prospect of opportunity.
I launched into my studies with some gusto; but this enthusiasm soon faltered because I had no idea where my academic passion might lie, or if I possessed such passion at all. I’d harboured an inclination to be a vet, but it certainly wasn’t a ‘calling’. The buzz went out of this ambition when Harvey, the rat I’d been using as part of my Behavioural Psychology project (and of whom I’d become quite fond), turned up disemboweled and spread-eagled in a tray of formaldehyde in the Zoology lab.
So I opted for Social Science instead, which – while it didn’t, as my parents pointed out, have great employment prospects – at least offered opportunities for meaningful conversation. I’d found this aspect of university life increasingly appealing: the Vietnam War was still cranking up, but the argument over its justification had already begun, and there was a mounting and vocal determination among the student body to bring it to an end. The talk by the government of bringing in a draft to bolster the country’s military commitment was a touchstone; the demographics of Uni students made them particularly at risk of conscription. The speakers at the lunchtime rallies voiced their concerns with moral authority and impeccable logic. Most of us had seen the images of napalm and atrocity, so we didn’t need much convincing.
Gradually I found myself becoming increasingly comfortable with the ‘radical culture’ of the university. The Sociology Department to which I’d academically committed was notorious for its left-wing leanings, as were the other departments – Geography, Anthropology, Psychology – that clustered around it. Impassioned oratory – theoretical or pragmatic – was respected and applauded, especially when its essential elements were broadly anti-establishment.
I wasn’t an overly conscientious student, but in my final two years of study I absorbed enough of the writings of the great social thinkers to have formed a notion of the dynamics of economic history, and enough from the basic concepts of behavioural science to form a strong conviction that there was a lot wrong with the way we lived, not only in the so-called ‘Western liberal democracies’ in which I lived, but elsewhere where people lived with extreme poverty and oppression. It was a problem that needed fixing.
Thus persuaded, I donned the livery of the Left – faded jeans, army surplus shirt and jacket, Black Panther emblem on my dilly-bag – and began a crusade against injustice. What that meant wasn’t exactly clear to me in the detail; my guides were the writings of Marx and Fromm and Weber, with a bit of Tolstoy and Tolkein thrown in. I went as far as attending a meeting of one of the radical far left parties – the Socialist Alliance, I think it was; but I left as soon as I became aware of someone taking photographs from the back of the room. The legacy of Muldoon’s right-wing government still permeated the political climate in New Zealand at that time, encouraging an adversarial and paranoid mentality. Subsequent revelations of the number of files kept on individuals by New Zealand’s security organisation during that era have convinced me I was right to be suspicious.
The draft began during my second year at Uni, and became increasingly pervasive: the age of conscription was lowered to eighteen, and the size of each intake, determined by a lottery of birth-dates, grew larger. Like the numbers on a Bingo sheet, the dates selected fell closer and closer to my date of birth.
A couple of weeks after I finished my degree (and therefore became eligible for immediate conscription), I had an uncomfortably close call when a selected date fell a day before my birthday. It was time for a holiday, and I took one. At that time there were no passports or visas needed to travel between Australia and New Zealand, so I packed a bag, put my faith in a limited offer of accommodation from a friend of a friend, and boarded a flight to Sydney.
It wasn’t just the threat of the draft that made me want to leave; there were several other ‘push’ factors in the mix as well – a brief, torrid affair with a close friend of my soon-to-be fiancée; dissatisfaction with the political landscape in my home country; a general sense of disconnectedness and lack of direction, lingering anomie.
The metamorphosis began as soon as I stepped out of the plane. “You leave the engine running for a while?” I asked the flight attendant. She looked at me oddly, then grinned. “That’s the air temperature, sir. Welcome to Sydney.”
Welcome indeed. It was a warm, summery Sunday afternoon, and I wanted to see one of the famous Sydney beaches. I took a bus not to Bondi as most New Zealanders did, but to Coogee. I thus avoided the pitfall of cultural ghetto-ism which seems so common among ex-pat populations everywhere. I’d come to get away from the familiar, not fall back into it. It was a decision which, like the decision to ‘cross the ditch’ itself, profoundly changed my life.
There are times in your life when, just for an instant, you feel like you’ve stepped into somebody’s painting. Coogee beach that afternoon was like that: a canvas of clear blue sky, blue-green ocean, Persil-white surf and shimmering sand. And everywhere… Oh, god, the bodies! I’d never imagined such a plethora of glorious flesh, never seen so many beautiful women. My heart soared. I was free! This is where I would make a new start. Everything sang in perfect unison: stay!
So I did.
Categories: My Story