Tuesday, April 12, 2005

La dolce vita, Pt 1 - Seagulling in New Zealand

I was born during the Second World War, a few weeks before Pearl Harbour was bombed, although for many of those weeks reports of the war in Europe were carried in the inside pages of the local paper. The small town of Hokitika – about 5000 people, isolated by its geographical location on the west coast of the South Island of New Zealand, was still enmeshed in the recent pursuit of Stanley Graham, who eventually became a local folk hero, & who, before being fatally injured by the search party, killed seven people beginning with a local policeman who had been called out to investigate an armed threat by Graham against his next door neighbours.

I obviously have no memory of that, nor of the war. So distant, & only my uncles there. But I do have memories of the ration coupons that were issued during & for the few years after the war so that purchases of imported foodstuffs such as tea & oil & sugar could be made. A treat for me in those days was drinking a cup of Bushell's Coffee & Chicory Essence, though as my taste buds developed & I was exposed to unadulterated – not too much anyway – coffee, I gradually realised it was a foul brew. But still available on the local supermarket shelves, though Christ knows who would want to drink it in this day & age.

Sugar, although refined in N.Z., was imported from plantations in Fiji, worked by the descendants of indentured labour brought in from India & whose presence & eventual ownership of much of the commerical wealth of the Islands, is the root cause of the ethnic tensions that have lead to a couple of recent coups & uprisings.

We didn't use much sugar, mainly for cooking, never in coffee & tea, though whether this was because of the rationing or my parents' upbringing I have no knowledge. But I had two memorable experiences connected with Sugar during my time in N.Z.

The first was when I worked on the wharves in Wellington during my school holidays. Changing my birthdate on some documentation meant that I could get an identity card to work as casual non-Union labour, seagulling as it was known after the manner of the distribution of work, everybody clustering around in a hiring hall & hoping that some scrap of employment would be thrown their way. It was well-paid work; the basic rate was good, but on top of that were the penalty rates that the Union had negotiated – dirt money, danger money, freezer money, scrap metal money. Handling scrap metal sounds both dirty & dangerous: it was neither. The wharf crane would bring up a skipful of scrap, attached by a hook at each corner. The hold gang had twelve people in it, six pairs. In turn, each pair would unhook two of the corners, the hatchman would wave at the crane-driver, & then the crane would draw the skip up again, but hooked only at the one end, so that all the metal would come sliding out & into the hold. Six pairs, six skips an hour. Do the maths.

On top of the basic rate & the penalty rates, you'd also get bonuses for turning the ship around in quick time. Sometimes these bonuses were as high as three times the basic hourly rate. Well-paid. Easy work.

Most days anyway. The two bad days I had in what probably amounted to six months cumulative work both involved 140lb sacks. Both were cargoes that the permanent workforce stayed away from – nothing to pilfer, & continuous & hard. The first day was coal, packed manually into the holds of a coaster. No such thing as pallets, or safe-working weights in those days. Grab it out with your fingers, drag it to a rope sling, stack it with maybe 20 sacks & then whistle for the crane to lower its hook. Coal dust everywhere, broken fingernails, shithouse work.

But not as bad as sugar which came the same way. Bags would burst & grains of sugar would rain down on you, mix with the sweat, get in your hair, your eyes. An hour or so, & if heat had been applied, you'd turn into a toffee apple.

My second dealing with Sugar came in Auckland in 1969, my last year in New Zealand. To add to the many bits & pieces I was doing to support myself, I decided to bring out some small / thin books of poetry.

The first two came out without hassle, sold well enough at a $1 a pop. Collectors' items now. The third was to be a poem by James K. Baxter, probably the best-known N.Z. poet of the time & still revered. It was called Ballad of the Stonegut Sugar Factory, was a none-too-complimentary account of JKB's days working there, & had a cover done by one of the local painters – Pat Hanly possibly – that had the title replacing the normal text of the 1 kg bag of sugar produced by the monopoly sugar refinery.

I got a proof copy in the morning, read it through at the printers – yes, they were thin books – told them to go ahead & do the run & went off, taking the proof copy with me. I went back in the afternoon & discovered that they'd pulped the entire run. Apparently the owner had come back, seen the book, recognised the usurped design on the cover, read the poem, freaked out, contacted his lawyer who in turn contacted the lawyers for the sugar company – now known as CSR, then known as Colonial Sugar Refineries which says it all – who threatened to sue the printer if the book came out. I was told never to darken his doorstep again, a pity, because he was a good printer, & who knows what other books might have followed.

I went off with my copy to see my lawyer – don't ask why I had legal representation – who read it & said there was not much he could do because even though there wasn't much in the claim, there was an awful lot of money & power behind it. Fool that I was, I left that single copy with him when I left to consider my options.

The Ballad came out some months later, not through me, but published anonymously as a broadside without any cover. I left the country for other reasons about the same time. Occasionally I wonder where that single copy, which would truly be a collector's item, ended up.

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