I’ve had four such moments, let’s call them instants in time when I’ve experienced hanging between life and death, and each time it has been the same. Nothingness.
When my dad was young he went shooting rabbits around Clinton. At the time there was a rabbit processing factory in Clinton and you could make a little money from dead rabbits. It’s one of those things that makes me feel like my father was from a different New Zealand. Another is the fact that he did shearing to make money to go to university. If he had been born about five years earlier he also would have served in World War Two and his life would have taken an entirely different course. But he didn’t. He was born in 1929 and was just the “wrong” side of history for that experience. He was in fact right between two famous and influential generations: neither one who served in World War Two, nor a baby boomer.
It’s easy to forget that the parliament of New Zealand in the 1970s and into the 1980s had more that its fair share of men who had had experience of the war. Easy to forget that an MP who was 60 in 1980 would have been born in 1920 and how removed a childhood in the 1920s must have seemed from some of the debates of the 1970s and 80s. As alien as it seems to me to imagine shooting rabbits or shearing sheep, must be as alien as my existence would seem to them: tapping away at a computer, teaching students about the Homosexual Law Reform Bill at a state secondary school for girls.
I was listening to a recording made on the 25th anniversary of the passing of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill at Te Papa and Fran Wilde recalled what a horrible man Norm Jones was. I have listened to and read a lot of his speeches recently and I am tempted to agree with Fran’s characterisation, but I have become wary of anything that caricatures people so I won’t. A lot of things that Norm said about homosexuals were utterly despicable and indefensible. His language is so shocking that his speeches make handy emblems of “how far we’ve come” on that particular issue. I think they are also emblematic of another of Norm’s qualities: his honesty.
His honesty about his homophobia is not exactly commendable of course, but his honesty seems to have extended to everything he did. No one, I would suggest, ever died wondering what Norm thought about something. And so, as unlikely as it seems, I found there were times in his autobiography when I warmed to him, and found him a sympathetic character. It was a feeling I first had over those blasted rabbits.
When he was a teenager and working as a farm hand Norm’s boss Hughie (big man, small tackle) took him out rabbit shooting one night on his farm. The rabbits were prodigious and over the weeks that followed Norm shot many hundreds of rabbits, and that experience began to weigh on him.
Their warm, soft bodies trembling with pain and terror beneath my hands, yet silent in their agony until death ended both life and pain became quite shocking to me…. Some cried and squealed like babies, others screamed like adults. As I approached them with my torch their squeals of agony would change to high pitched screams of terror.
His dreams became tormented by the sights and sounds of the dying rabbits, and lasted with him into World War Two where he saw and experienced things far more unsettling. One day his vehicle went over a mine and he experienced an incredible silence in the moment of impact:
I’d be an atheist if I believed that only nothingness existed beyond that instant in time, and I don’t want to believe that and if it is so, then life itself, the entire universe and all within it is purposeless.
Although Norm recovers and takes himself back to the front he is again wounded, this time losing the bottom of his right leg and he soon enough finds himself back in New Zealand at the age of 19 with a prosthetic limb and having to go back to school to give himself the ability to get the kind of non-manual job he now needs.
Norm writes very honestly. He even writes about his honesty so honestly it makes you wince on behalf of his family,
Nothing means that much to me, not even my wife and children mean as much to me as being honest, first and foremost, within myself. It’s as the great bard himself stated it, ‘This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night and day. Thou canst be false to any man.’
Shakespeare’s famous lines can, of course, be used by arseholes to justify being self-centred jerks, but that was probably not Shakespeare’s intent. In Norm’s writing about his war and the immediate aftermath there is a surprising frankness about his fear. About wanting to piss himself with fear when under fire; about freezing up; about how hard it was to recover,
I stood on the jetty looking down at the surging tide and thought how easy it would be to step into the depths, into oblivion, into the nothingness I’d been in after striking the mine. But would I be stepping into oblivion? I had no guarantee that there would be nothingness.
At the end of this book in 1981 Jones describes himself as an agnostic and a pacifist. He expresses a lot of contempt for organised religion.
And spiritual contentment? What of it? The glib acknowledgement of one’s sinfulness, the hypocrite, the scared, the soulful and simple-minded to bathe away their sins on Sunday’s spiritual wash-day. And if they befoul themselves throughout the week? So what; bath-day again on the Sabbath.
He loves the back country of Southland and Otago, and in the 70s campaigns hard to stop the raising of the Manapouri going ahead.
He is, in short, a complicated person just like you, or Fran Wilde, or Bill Logan or Alison Laurie, and he remained so until the end of his life in 1987.
During his time campaigning against the Homosexual Law Reform Bill Jones’ views were so vociferous and have become so out of step with contemporary feeling that they have caricatured him. He deserves some of that. His views were appalling, and even his allies flinched. One of them, Graeme Lee, describes Norm at a meeting against the Bill in the Orewa Baptist Church,
Norm didn’t engage in niceties or three-point homiletic sermons. He called the homosexuals words that were not used in church communications and would always say in his speech somewhere: “I’ll leave Graeme Lee to do all the loving – I don’t love them, if they turn up at my door I’ll shoot the bastards.”
Graeme Lee, Faith, Politics and Servant Leadership (2002), p.93
Later Graeme tells us that Norm gave his heart and life to Christ. How Norm gets to Christ is quite a story.