The Bear Regards the Boy

At the end of 1983 my mother and I moved out of the house where my father died.  He died in 1978 when I was five and he was 48.

My mother was 38.

Over the last couple of years I have realised that I am middle-aged.  I realised this when the problems and challenges of my peers changed from being about getting proper jobs and marriage and buying a first home, to divorces and illnesses and worrying about which school to send their kids to.  I am older now, I realise, than my mother was when my father died.  Being aware of this swings a different light around on the past; different things stand out and other points fall into the shadows.  I suppose what I am really saying is that we have a relationship with our own past that changes over time.  I thought that writing about 1984 might be fun.  I think it will be fun because I was 11 then, but it will also be a bit like swinging that new light around on something familiar because I am returning to 1984 now as a 40-year-old.

My first duty, I suppose, is to explain a little of who I was as 1983 ended.

My mother remarried in 1983 and, as I said, we moved house.  There are two photos of our Christmas dinner in our new townhouse in Ngaio.  The photos are notable for the dining room wallpaper which was a deep maroon with a highly patterned gold fretwork.  It was wallpaper that was possibly acceptable in the smoking room of a gentleman’s club outfitted with velvet curtains and armchairs, but quite out-of-place in a townhouse in Ngaio.  Christmas dinner photos can look slightly macabre anyway – the frozen smiles of the diners surrounding the horribly naked looking dead turkey stranded on its back in the middle of the table – but I feel an extra tension when I look at those two photos from that Christmas.  It is because of the step-father.

What it really boils down to in the end is the simple fact that I didn’t like the step-father very much.  We never got on.  That’s all.  At the time – I was a pre-teen – I felt that this was a bit shit for me.  Looking back on it now I think it must have been a bit shit for him too.

He was Hungarian and owned quite a big house on a windy road up a bush clad hill at the back of Aro Valley.  The house reflected his eccentricities: it had a flat built on at the front, and a granny flat tacked on at the back all stitched together with an odd little concrete and plexi-glass outside staircase complete with cacti and junk.  I’m not really sure why, but none of these places were ever rented out while I knew him as far as I remember.  The flat at the front of the house was the nicest and we lived there for a time.  The house in the middle was mostly empty (large, musty rooms and deserted), and the granny flat at the back was crammed full of his stuff.  It was in the granny flat that I found the poorly concealed Playboy magazines.  I don’t remember anything about the articles.

While living in the flat at the front of the house I found perhaps half a dozen locations to hide my breakfast each morning.  One of the step-father’s eccentricities involved food.  He had a thing about health food which translated into his gift for making the most inedible muesli in the world.  It was very healthy, but utterly ghastly.  It was so rich in fibre you could feel your sphincter tightening just looking at it.  I am not and have never been a fussy eater, but I sense that even Gandhi would have thrown his bowl across the room and started cussing out the chef with this dish.  I took the nobler course and hid the evidence.

It’s quite hard to hide muesli.  You can only flush it down the toilet if no one sees you going into the toilet with your breakfast bowl.  If they do see you it can look a bit odd not to mention unhygienic.  The bathroom was next to the master bedroom so even if you made it in unobserved there would be the problem of how to conceal the curiously specific sound of muesli being dropped into a toilet.  You couldn’t, obviously, put it in the bin where it might be seen or down the sink where it would turn into concrete and need to be drilled out by a plumber.  The garden ended up being the best bet.  In fact, over time it became quite a handy addition to the crumbling concrete retaining wall outside my bedroom door where it set like, well… concrete.

The step-father had many other quirks which are best left alone.  He drove a shocking old bomb at high speed and quite badly, sometimes the wrong way up one way streets.  He was obsessed with personal hygiene and often wore gloves when he went to the bathroom at restaurants but, curiously, once explained to me that he never washed his hands after going to the toilet but always did before hand.  “It’s just the same, you see?”  I had to agree but tried to avoid  shaking his hand.

On the other hand (sorry), I remember one day mixing some cement with him and tipping the bag into a wheelbarrow a little too enthusiastically.  He cried out and began waving the cement dust away from us, flapping his arms and coughing.  It seemed an odd overreaction but he patiently explained that during the war he had been in Hungary, and had been forced to work in a cement factory.  He said the dust was awful and made many people very ill.  I should have asked him more about it, but I didn’t.  It wouldn’t have changed my view of some of his character traits, but it might have helped us to bond a bit.

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In 1983 I was in Standard Four at Scots College with my best mate James (and a couple of hundred other people).  In 1984 we would be streamed into Form One.  There would be a bright class and an average to a-bit-thick class.  James and my friends went into the bright class, and I went into the other one (I was either average or a bit thick – it was never stated which).  Why you would run a high stakes test with ten year olds and then stream them is beyond me, but it is something conservatives like to do: it both creates and confirms a vision of Social Darwinism.

Nowadays Scots College is even more pretentious than it was in 1983, and a lot more expensive.  In 1983 it leaned more into the fustiness of maintaining the public school traditions of Home than the modern jargon about 21st century leaders.  It was also within financial reach of a solo parent on a teacher’s salary.

It is a point of irritation with my mother, but I will stick to my guns and say that I really did not like Scots College.  It was a very strict and disciplinarian place and I was a bit, sort of, flaccid.  This can’t be the right word, but I’m going to run with it anyway because Scots was very erect and proper and hard, and I wasn’t.  I wasn’t a rebel or anything I just wanted to bumble along like a happy bee bumping against some warm glass and it – Scots – seemed to think I should be sitting quietly at attention or, if sport were involved, thrashing about like an angry wasp.

In Standard Four James and I had Mrs. C.  I didn’t like her, and she didn’t like us.  Because James and I were good friends she called us the Siamese Twins without any mirth; her version of dark sarcasm in the classroom.  Her main appeal to a room of 10-year-old boys was that she sometimes wore long white skirts and when the sun shone behind her you could see her legs.  This excited considerable interest and led to all kinds of lewd things like sniggering quietly behind our hands, but not too loudly because if we got caught we’d be sent to be beaten by the Headmaster.

I got the strap once.  I was in Standard Three I think.  It was for admitting that I had been talking between the first bell and second bell after lunch.  There was no teacher in the room and no work to do; we sat at our little wooden desks in rows and waited.  The first bell was the signal for us to be sitting at our desks in silence, and the second bell – five minutes later – was for the teachers to arrive and begin the lesson.  It was part of the rounded education the school offered – learning to sit in silence doing nothing when you are nine – like keeping your socks up with garters, and learning to swim by being pushed in the deep end.

As I said, I didn’t like Scots College.

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Other than family and school I suppose that my life was filled with Lego, Star Wars, and TV after school.  I played soccer too.  I had quite a liking for assembling huge opposing armies of tiny plastic soldiers and then lobbing things (like bits of Lego) at them and seeing who won.  I have no idea if I was still doing this into 1983, but it seems likely.  I can report that doing this kind of thing when you are 10 doesn’t rule out being a pacifist when you are 40.  If I pleaded for anything from my mother it was probably a Stars Wars action figure, or a pack of Star Wars bubblegum with trading cards (the cards, of course, were banned at Scots).

All this tempts me to say that it was a simpler time, but it wasn’t.  Emotionally complicated family situations, and hateful institutions have been around a very long time, and have always ensured that no one has ever lived in a simpler time.  Technology and communication were simpler of course or, if not simpler, far less available and interconnected.  The lack of availability made whatever you could get your hands on extremely precious.  The only way to hear a song you liked was to buy it (if it was available) or wait for it to be played on the radio.  It was a terrible situation but it tended to burn those songs into your mind.  How many people of my generation made their own mix-tapes off their radio-cassette player, and how many of those mix-tapes featured some annoying DJ talking all over the intro (while you howled in frustration)?

It’s amazing the power those first songs have on you.  There will never be anything like them again.  There will be better songs, more meaningful songs, but there’s only one set of first songs.  They have a particular sheen.  I suppose it is because those first songs,  movies, TV shows and glossy desirable things you wanted (like a Rubik’s Cube, or a Slinky, or a calculator digital watch, or neon sweat bands) represent the awakening of yourself to the world.  It’s an awakening that is a two-edged sword.

You can notice this change in people at a public swimming pool.  Sitting by the pool while my older daughter has swimming lessons I have spent a lot of time people watching.  I realise this makes me sound a bit like a pervert, but let’s press on.  Under a certain age children play and swim at the pool with no real awareness of how they look.  They just muck about at the pool even if they are in the most ridiculous togs, or have bodies that fashion tells us are out this season.  However, above a certain age everyone is aware of how they look, and how they feel about how they look, and then how they act to deal with how they feel about how they look.  I for example have this problem between how I would like to look and how I think I look at the pool:

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I am not, suffice to say, a poolside Speedo strutter but more of a darting poolside huncher.

I suppose this awareness of yourself comes with puberty, and I suppose this is – in part – what the Adam and Eve story is about (not that we want to overreach ourselves).  Part of all of this is to do with suddenly noticing the world.  It’s like it dawns on you that the mirror you were looking in is a two-way mirror, and there is the awkward realisation that people have been looking at you, that you have a presence in the world, and that on the other side of the glass a whole world exists.  It is the beginning of being active in the world, of reacting to it.  A whole lot of shifts begin to happen that can go like this:

  • The TV show you never watched at 6pm you suddenly realise is called the News and is about stuff that has happened, and stuff that has happened can sometimes be interesting like when the Prime Minister is rude to someone (again), or someone in the royal family gets married to a posh kindergarten teacher in England, or a New Zealand girl wins Miss World
  • Movies are things you can go to and not be taken to.  You can read the page in the newspaper that has the listings and you can make a plan about what you would like to see and then you can pester your mum to let you see Tron (“no”), or Krull (“absolutely not”), or Return of the Jedi (“ok”).
  • You can tune the radio away from boring people talking slowly all day to exciting people yipping and yapping between pop songs and adverts, and you can listen to this all day and some of the best songs will be played again, and you can learn the words, and in the shop where you got Stars Wars action figures they have a whole section of magazines and some of those magazines have glossy, colourful pictures featuring the people singing those songs.

This is what was happening for me in 1984 and 1985.   In the summer of 1983 we are not quite there yet, but in 1984 I was going to go and get my first cassette, understand something  of what an election was, go on my first overseas trip, and develop opinions about important things like Cyndi or Madonna (tied), MJ or Prince (Prince), Frankie or Duran (Frankie… sorry Richard), Wham! or not liking Wham! (still love them, always have – never prepared to deny it).

So, let’s go.  The complicated business of 1984; the bear regards the boy.

Wham

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