I went on the Year 11 Geography trip to Martinborough on Friday. My role was to be an adult. On any school trip the correct adult to student ratio has to be maintained. I think I held up my end of the bargain although I did feel flashes of immaturity in the Martinborough playground. We left at 7.30am with 60 girls and came back at 3.30pm with the same number. Coming back with the same number of students you leave with is the first way to judge if you have had a successful field trip. The Geography teachers running the show felt other things had been achieved too.
The buses chugged up the Rimutakas with their wipers on and then down into Featherston with them off. When we stopped in Martinborough’s square we stopped by the toilets.
The toilets – I was told later with a mixture of wonder and civic pride – were driven into town on a truck from Auckland. They are ferociously modern cubicles that open one by one onto the street with hands free locking, a self-cleaning system and piped music (what the world needs now… should love, sweet love really be encouraged in a public toilet?). The girls were impressed, confused (“how do you lock the door?”), and frustrated: having two toilets for 60 people is pretty slow going.
Behind the toilets was a park in which dogs could be fined $750 if they tried to use the playground equipment. We waited at the park picnic tables for a man called Mate to come and speak to us. Mate turned out to be a short fellow, with a cloth cap, who had lived his whole life in Martinborough. He marched up and shook our hands. Afterwards someone asked him about his name: “My grandfather called me it the first time he saw me after I was born, and he died four months later so it stuck.” It was a story he must have told a thousand times but he seemed delighted to share it with someone new.
“On my first day at school,” Mate went on, “I walked up to the teacher and said: ‘My name is William James but everyone calls me Mate’ so I was Mate at school too.”
The school he was describing in the 1950s had over 400 students, and a very nice uniform. We saw the uniform hanging up in the museum later: dark blue blazers, caps, tunics and crisp white shirts, all made in New Zealand – over the hill at Petone.
The girls grappled with their clipboards and assessment papers and took notes while Mate explained how a small Wairarapa town had shifted from dairy and sheep farms into olive groves and vineyards. It was the car that killed and resurrected Martinborough, Mate suggested. Once people could afford cars they went shopping over the hill in the Hutt, or down in Masterton and it began to kill off all the shops. The 1970s were bad time for Martinborough. Thankfully there were DSIR chaps in the 80s who discovered – more or less accidentally – that the soil was perfect for grapes, and yuppies in Wellington who wanted places to go in the weekend where they could get a better class of drunk.
The 1970s were the melancholy, long withdrawing roar of an old New Zealand. As Mate described the Martinborough of the 1970s he recreated the sleepy, small town stolidity of my school boy holidays in Mosgiel with my Gran. Bootmakers, and shoe shops, butchers and grocers, bakers making 400 loaves a day and department stores (“they sold everything from a needle to a haystack” Mate told us). There were sawmills with 50 workers, and dairy factories, and engineering companies, and a movie theatre for 200, billiard halls, and three barbers for men’s shaves and trims. The girls murmured in wonder at this fact: three hairdressers for men and one for women? The past is truly another country.
Without the ubiquity of the motor car, and with the steady income of a guaranteed British market for all their goods, the small rural towns of New Zealand must have been self-assured, independent pockets of industry. The insularity and conformity balanced by certainty and self-reliance. No modern town now can survive by being insular, and Martinborough has certainly changed in that regard.
There were four weddings in Martinborough the year Mate got married in the 60s. He reckons Martinborough now does about 100 a year for out-of-towners. “In 1970 you’d have to look up ‘Conference Centre’ in the dictionary, now there are about 12 places in town where you could have a conference.” If you wanted a pint, or a steak-egg-and-chips in the 70s you could go to three places. Now there are around 25 places to eat in the town (although it was unclear if any of them did a good steak-egg-and-chips).
After Mate finished talking he let us into the Museum; an old wooden cottage by the fancy toilets.
I have a soft spot for museums in small towns. I think it might be because they remind me of the sheds at my Gran’s old house on Forfar Street in Mosgiel. They were sheds full of spider webs, tulip bulbs, defunct tools, grimy, smudgy corners and lovingly maintained gardening equipment. They were a great place to hang out when you were a little boy, and the Martinborough Museum, I am happy to say, is a good place for larger boys and girls to hang out.
Small town museums often have mannequins bringing scenes from the past to life, but there is nothing like a mannequin to make something appear dead. The Martinborough Museum has mannequins. A few in the living room dressed up for a night on the town in flashly, floor-length black numbers, and one in the master bedroom who was slumped over and cut a rather glum figure in her cucumber coloured hat and dress. Perhaps she was feeling a bit down about the freakishly large plastic baby in the crib. Or maybe it was the girl from our school playing with her curling tongs.
“How do these work?” she asked.
I regarded the black, metal clamps with horror.
“Maybe you put them in the oven to get them hot.”
The girl looked disturbed. “And then… put them in you hair?”
Although they looked a lot like instruments of torture I’m sure they were perfectly serviceable curling tongs, and could also be used to remove teeth, or cut through metal.
Small town museums are also usually cluttered with things. Every surface of every piece of furniture is teeming with the bric-a-brac of the past that no one has the heart to throw away. Sometimes the museums are swamped with items that are crammed into spaces by theme (mountains of books in one corner, piles of cameras in another), with a few handwritten labelled cards propped up next to a couple of items. Neat, copperplate handwriting on a yellowed pieces of paper taped to the wall.
I admired the wallpapers and carpet of the cottage, especially the pretty flower pattern in the main bedroom. Mate popped up in a few places around the house to tell us about telephone switchboards and show the girls what a washing machine looked like 50 years ago. Looking at a washing machine from 50 years ago explains everything you need to know about why being a housewife was a full-time job.
I used to “help” my Gran with the washing sometimes. My Gran’s process for doing the washing in the 1980s was a lot more automated than it had been in any previous decade of her life but it still took a lot of time. It involved washing the clothes, then hauling all the sodden clothes into a separate tub to be a spun, and then pulling them all out to be hung on the line to dry. If the weather was wet the clothes could be put out on a big, wooden frame that hung in the living room. The big wooden frame was suspended from the ceiling on a pulley system (the room has a very high stud), and could be lowered to chest level to hang the washing and then hoisted back up to the ceiling to catch all the rising heat from the fireplace. It was ingenious really, but an object of social embarrassment to my mother as a girl. I suppose it would be pretty awkward to have people over for a cup of tea while your entire family’s underwear was gently waving in the air above you.
Mate came for a coffee afterwards. The girls were sent out onto the streets of Martinborough to make a land use map and we went for a break in one of the 25 places to eat. This place was fashionably wine and food orientated with big tables and wifi. I don’t know what the mannequins from the the museum would have made of the place, but Mate seemed happy enough.
When he got up to leave he thanked the lead Geography teacher. “I was so happy to get your call,” he said. All the other schools had stopped coming he explained, and he thought he was past his use-by date. “Really,” he said “it was wonderful.” He wiped a finger under his eye to suggest it had moved him very much. “From the heart.”
Mate popped his cloth cap back on his head: “if the cap fits!” He smiled, and gave us a salute. It was tempting to salute him back. He did a great job and I suspect he always has from the time he was boy in the grocer, to when he went out to be a carpenter, or when he worked on the switchboard, or got in behind the fledgling museum.
Earlier one of the girls asked him if he had been for the changes that started to happen to Martinborough in the 1980s.
“There were those who were agin it,” he said. “But I was for it because it would bring jobs, and then the young people would stay.”
It didn’t surprise me that Mate was for it.
I don’t imagine Mate has been agin much his whole, long life.