Local lessons

I signed up for a series of talks on the history of Oamaru and surrounding districts, led by a lively and engaging local by the name of Judy Stevenson. What a great idea, I thought. I’ll get to meet a load of people and find out all about Oamaru’s history.

I have to say things didn’t get off to a great start. Leaving aside her teenage helpers, Hoana and Irina, I was Judy’s audience of one in a room above the Star and Garter restaurant, which used to belong to the North Otago Women’s Club until they sold the whole building to the restaurateurs in early 2016.

Session one started with a quiz based on local place names. We also had sandwiches and a cup of tea. Lovely.

At the second session I was still the only paying guest. Nevertheless we started with a reminder that Maori peoples arrived a few hundred years before Europeans. I say ‘peoples’ deliberately, because tribes (iwi) reached these shores from a number of Pacific islands – formidable navigators indeed.

Then the Europeans, whom the Maori called Pakeha, arrived. The Dutch and French came and went, but the British came and stayed. Although the origins of the word Pakeha are debated, it might well have meant something simple – most likely something along the lines of ‘foreigner’ or ‘stranger’. That’ll be me, then.

In an effort to keep us interested, Judy suggested we improvise the first meeting between Captain Cook (me) and Maori elders (Hoana and Irina). As Cook and I grew up in the same county, I gave him a broad Yorkshire accent. Hoana and Irina didn’t understand a bloody word.

Come the third session there was a breakthrough. Two more people turned up. They were on holiday and thought they would pop in. We listened with interest to episodes from the early days of European settlers, culminating in the exciting story of two ex-convicts who stole a revolver, ammunition and horses before rampaging through Oamaru and up into sheep country, pursued by mounted police officers. The fugitives held workers hostage, ransacked homes for money, stole more horses and shot at a shepherd before surrendering to an intrepid police sergeant by the name of Robert Bullen.

At this point, my fellow audience members had to head for home so Judy, Hoana, Irina and I had a cup of tea and a sandwich.

The fourth session began with a room surprisingly full of North Otago Women. Singing. I backed away and found Judy in a small kitchen at the rear of the building. It turned out that the North Otago Women had kind of forgotten they no longer had unfettered access to the building.

Once the North Otago Women had left, we reclaimed the function room where we were joined by two of Judy’s neighbours, Alistair and Hamish. But what with the North Otago Women, the arrival of Alistair and Hamish and an early tea, we never got started.

As we helped ourselves to sandwiches, I asked Alistair what he did for a living.

‘Heh!’ he said, smiling at a happy memory. ‘I was a firefighter in the North Island.’

Although he didn’t say so, I gathered he was now retired.

‘I’d been a volunteer firefighter around here and when I moved north I joined the local brigade.’

Alistair had a way of pausing to gather his thoughts. ‘Heh! I ended up as Chief Fire Officer.’

‘Good for you!’ I said, by way of encouragement.

‘The things I could tell you. Heh!’ He paused again, then proceeded to tell me.

‘The fire chief was convicted of arson.’ This day was full of surprises.

‘The fire chief?’ I repeated. ‘And the deputy.’

It seems that after an empty warehouse had burned down, one of Alistair’s colleagues admitted starting the fire, using matches and a cigarette as a primitive timing device. When interviewed by the police, he told them he was acting under orders. Later, in court, he said the chief and his deputy had been worried about cuts to the town’s fire service. Their reasoning – and subsequent solution – was simple. Lots of fires: two fire engines. No fires: lose one. Solution: arson.

The three men were duly convicted and went to prison. Soon after that, Alistair found himself appointed chief fire officer.

Judy tried to restore order, but within minutes we were discussing Maori funerals.

‘I remember the first time I was chosen to present koha at a tangi – or more accurately, at the hākari afterwards,’ Alistair said.

I had no idea what he was talking about. ‘I am part Maori,’ he explained.

I learned about the tangi, the hākari and the koha, a collective gift from the mourners to the family of the deceased – nowadays, a contribution to the funeral expenses. Alistair’s solemn task was to place the koha on the floor, to be accepted on behalf of the family.

Then we got onto the subject of Maori pronunciation. This is where Hamish, a bit of an expert, came in.

Before arriving in New Zealand, I had studied a Maori phrase book. It seemed unlikely I would ever need phrases such as ‘I want a divorce’, ‘I’m dying for a shag’, or even ‘Stick it up your arse’. (Purua ki to nono, since you ask.) On the other hand, I didn’t want to offend anyone with my lousy English accent. I worked hard on ‘Oamaru’, breaking it into four sounds of equal weight – awe-ah-mah-roo. Total waste of time: everyone here says om-ah-roo. Only North Islanders add the extra vowel sound – or so I’m told.

Hamish talked about a place called Ngapara, a few miles from Oamaru. The ‘g’ is silent in both Maori and English. However, Pakeha like me get it wrong every time we say ‘nap-ar-ah’, with an emphasis on the second syllable: it should be ‘nar-prah’. I was also glad to be told that ‘Omarama’ does not rhyme with panorama (‘oh-mer-ar-mah’): it’s actually ‘om-ah-rah-mah’.

Incidentally, I have something to say about the correct way to write the sound ‘ay’, which rhymes with ‘hay’. In New Zealand English, it means, ‘isn’t that right?’ or ‘don’t you agree?’ as in ‘You’ve had too much to drink, ay?’ (To which the correct response is, of course, purua ki to nono.)

Many New Zealanders think ‘ay’ should be written ‘eh’. Where I come from (Yorkshire, in case you’d forgotten) ‘eh’ means ‘what?’ and involves a short ‘e’, as in ‘bed’, not a long ‘a’ as in ‘bay’.

I’m sure there was a point to that story, but for the life of me I can’t remember what it was. Hmm.

Meanwhile, at the fifth session on the history of Oamaru, more of Judy’s friends and neighbours sat around a table and nattered about the settlements immediately to the north of Oamaru, places like Pukeuri, Papakaio, Georgetown and Hilderthorpe. It was more reminiscence than history, but none the worse for that. Someone would say, ‘Do you remember old Joe?’ and the others would set to work to recall his surname, the incident with the pig, that terrible accident just down the road, the colour of his curtains, and how he was related to the mayor. I listened intently but couldn’t make head nor tail of the complex family connections and chronology.

Afterwards, Judy apologised for going off script.

‘It’s really not a problem,’ I said. ‘It was just like listening to my mum talk about people in her village. I liked it.’

As a boy, I had to go with Mum to the Saturday market. God, it was boring. Every step of the way there’d be people she knew. I half-heard conversations about knee joints, engagements, marriages, deaths, births and curtains.

The very worst days ended in the Remnant Shop, where Mum would browse through a dozen pattern books and a hundred lengths of fabric while chatting to the store assistant. Afterwards, she would go home and make a brightly patterned dress in tasteful shades of orange.

Back then, I couldn’t wait to get away, but I’ve mellowed with age. Now, I positively look forward to Mum’s latest gossip. I know all about her neighbours’ holidays, I study pictures of their cute grandchildren and I’m filled with anticipation whenever someone new moves to the village. Where are they from? What do they do? Are they related to anyone I might have heard of? Are they going to get rid of those hideous curtains?

So my afternoon with Judy’s neighbours was just fine. And I did learn something: many rural roads are named after the first family to build a house there, which is how roads leading off State Highway 83 include Gray Road, Gibson Road, Macdonalds Road and Cameron Road.

By the sixth session, things were taking off. On this occasion we took a rather more structured look at settlements immediately south of Oamaru, assisted by local historians Dorothy McKenzie and Margaret King. They told stories about Otepopo, Herbert, Maheno, Palmerston and the families who lived there. Margaret lives in a former coaching inn, complete with ghosts, a crack caused by an earthquake and an escape tunnel used by drunken revellers whenever the inn was raided by police.

We also learned about a wealthy Swedish settler by the name of Charles Eberhard Suisted. A giant of a man – nearly two metres tall – he arrived in London, intent on voyaging to Australia. He met a ship’s captain, got on well with him, and married his daughter, Emma. They lived for a while in Tasmania before moving to Wellington. In 1849, Suisted bought 550 acres near Palmerston – a bit more than 60 kilometres south of Oamaru – and founded the Goodwood Estate. The family lived in a stable while they waited for their homestead to be built. Today, the stable is New Zealand’s second-oldest farm building. (No, I do not know where the oldest one is.)

The Suisteds had fifteen children: twelve boys and three girls. Sadly, but not surprisingly for the time, several died in infancy. Charles built up the Goodwood Estate, taking on additional land to the north; in fact, he was the first person to graze sheep in North Otago. Suisted built himself up, too, reaching the grand weight of 140 kg at one point. He had done well for himself.

In 1857, Suisted sold Goodwood and moved back to Wellington to run a waterfront hotel. He wasn’t very good at it, however, and was eventually declared bankrupt.

That wasn’t the last of Judy’s history lessons – not by a long chalk – but Suisted’s arrival on the scene had got us to the founding of Oamaru.