I HAVE STEPPED inside a replica of Leonardo da Vinci's cabinet of mirrors, and here I am, as I have never before seen myself. The back of me, the sides, as well as the usual frontal perspective – in other words, the whole of me. I am delighted. I am vainly fascinated. Then, just as quickly, the excitement of discovery subsides. I don't look as I have always thought I did or, more to the point, as I feel I should. I quite like the reflected image at forty-five degrees, where I look like the start of something promising, and therefore its appeal lies in its incompleteness. But then I notice the back view of my head and that is very disappointing: all that grey hair, and it isn't just the grey but its fringe which, after a long and critical investigation, I am forced to concede is less the start than the end of something. I look very much like my father, whose side I had stuck to all those years ago on our ritual Saturday afternoon walk from Wellington's Petone Railway Station to the Petone Recreation Ground to watch his beloved Petone play, and there is nothing quite as dismal as the realisation that you aren't quite your own work.
On the walk from the station to the Udy Street entrance, little was ever said. Apparently there was nothing to say to a nine-year-old. But there was the smell of his overcoat, of ash and smoke from his rollies; a butt always stuck cartoonishly to his lower lip, even when he spoke. Little was said, but I felt connected by our common destination. We were off to watch Petone, as we did every Saturday afternoon through winter. As more and more people arrived out of side streets, I drew closer to his coat. I didn't want to lose him in the crowd. All I could see were coated men to the front and the back of me. Little was said, that's true. But things were still passed down. Things were absorbed. Either you got it or you didn't, and I got it.
Still some distance from the ground we heard the crowd's violent roar and I sped up. I didn't want to miss anything. Soon I would become good at gauging the noise of the crowd. A hilarity around its edges probably meant a dog had run onto the field. Dogs were always running onto the field at the Petone Rec. Or else a low-quality match, or a one-sided one, had been brought to life by an unlikely hero, an overweight prop intercepting a ball and launching himself on an improbable thirty-yard surge for the try line. The crowd wanted such things to happen. It wanted the fat bastard to score the try.
Inside the gate, the world changed to a festive place. I quickly identified the club colours of the two teams going at it on the No 2 ground, and picked up the pleasing aromas of the carcinogenic hot dogs from the van parked at the northern end of the stand, and felt a general sense of uplift and appetite that had nothing to do with wanting to eat anything.
I left Dad to climb the concrete steps to the stand and hurried on to the players' entrance, where I waited with the other kids. We sneaked envious looks at the older ball boys who were allowed to roam in the unpopulated green verge of privileged access between the fence and the touchline. For the moment, however, all eyes were trained in the one direction. From the dark tunnel under the stand we heard the sound of cleats on concrete. A slow march to begin with. The sound of cleats gathered, it grew heavier until faces up in the stand were drawn to the balustrade to look down. Then out of the gloom the giants emerged – huge, bandaged men reeking of liniment. There was the colossal figure of the All Black and Petone prop Ken Gray. He absorbed our prying eyes. His hands were huge. His eyes stared out of dark sleepless shadows. He slapped his hands, and as he passed through the gate he dropped his head and broke into a big man's jog. That he did not appear to hear the cheers coming out of the stand always puzzled me.
THAT YEAR, 1965, I travelled up to Auckland with my mother to see off my oldest sister, Pat, on a ship sailing to Europe. On the wharf we stood in a different crowd from the usual Saturday crowd. This one held handkerchiefs and wept and remembered to wave up at the excited and mostly young faces hanging off the ship rail. As the passenger liner moved out from the wharf the streamers broke and fell into the dark harbour waters. We turned away, my mother with a tear in her eye, alone with her silent companion for the 450-mile rail journey home. What an enormous country we lived in. Its grassy emptiness floated by in the carriage windows. We passed out the end of nameless towns. I couldn't wait to get back home to Stellin Street, Lower Hutt, where everything was perfectly proportioned.
Soon postcards from another world arrived in our letterbox – from Siena, Florence, London, places which didn't feel very real, let alone relevant. I felt sorry for both my sisters (by now the younger one, Barbara, was living in Rome, and with someone called Stefano); I felt sorry for them both because they weren't here. They were missing out on all my fun. They didn't know about my place on the back porch, shared with the dog, where I polished my boots and rubbed dubbin into my rugby ball. My sisters would not have known this, but in those days no two rugby balls were the same. Unlike the balls spat out of industrial moulds today, these leather balls quickly lost their shape, and their rotundity gave away their vintage; the older balls had the same shape as airships.
The dog must have started to feel shut out of my affections, because, for one thing, I just liked to hold the ball. On a trip up to the corner dairy the ball came with me. I tucked it under my arm. The ball was also something to look after, and unlike my dog it didn't chase cats or shit on the neighbour's lawn. It also provided me with hours of joy as I practised my place kicks with monastic application. I would build a mound on the front lawn, mount the ball, and line up the neighbour's lawn on the other side of the street. The key was to swing through the ball so that connection was barely felt. The payoff was as immense as it was immediate. The perfectly struck ball would lift towards the power lines, spinning end over end to land with a pleasing drumming echo on the neighbour's lawn. I don't recall ever kicking the ball from the neighbour's lawn back towards the house. My mother probably had something to do with that. So I would cross the road, pick the ball out of the neighbour's hedge, tuck it under my arm and march back across the road to our lawn and make a fresh mound.
In a world where I had little control – someone else decided when I went to bed, what I read and ate, what I wore, listened to, looked at and looked like – here was a moment where I could impose myself. By understanding the aerodynamics of the ball I could influence its flight. In factoring in these things I was building a critical faculty. I had just kicked the ball beautifully – so effortlessly I hardly felt its weight against my toe. What had I done to achieve this? Or, for that matter, what had I done to make it float so half-arsedly across the road like a wet rag?
Struck the wrong way the ball was designed to pay back in kind; it wobbled and flopped and turned itself into a grief-stricken bladder of air. But when it rose in a perfect arc, spinning elegantly from top to bottom, briefly you felt as though you were playing with the cosmos, participating in the natural laws of gravity and physics. I understood this not in so many words but experienced it as a rush of joy. It lasted until the ball began its earthly descent, but this brevity added to its beauty.
Years later a spiral punt would deliver the same satisfaction. The kicking foot swept under the ball. Instead of spinning top to bottom it spun through the air like a torpedo. Close to the touchline a spiral punt carved off more yards than the naked eye expected, first by moving in-field, thereby adding territory, before curving back towards the sideline.
It's rarely seen today. Dan Carter, for example, favours the less aesthetically pleasing and lower trajectory of the drop punt borrowed from Aussie Rules. It's useful enough into the wind, but does not hold the eye in the way of a spiral punt. Mick Williment, the Wellington and All Black full-back, during this period of my apprenticeship, had a terrific spiral punt. He had great hands as well, and a sort of front-of-house managerial air about him. I was in more than one crowd that rose to its feet in a kind of operatic mid-performance applause as Williment caught a towering punt from his opposite and slid elegantly across the sideline. Laughable when compared to the attacking flair of the Hewson-Gallagher-Cullen-Muliaina model, but during my apprenticeship years in the 1960s and '70s the sideline was the safety rail that the game clung to. A team would be happy to chew off bits of territory along the sideline. A midfield attack was considered pure folly, even irresponsible, as it ran a risk of the tightly controlled pattern of play falling apart. For god's sake, anything might happen.
The games we played on the front lawn in Stellin Street were much looser affairs. Most afternoons after school we played on the next-door lawn of Mrs White. She was a solo mum, a swollen-faced woman. Although I never heard her referred to as a solo mum, an air of fallen grace hung in her doorway from where I once looked in at a cold and bare kitchen. I don't remember ever hearing her speak, and at home she was hardly ever mentioned. She was a neighbour but not considered part of the neighbourhood. She wasn't a gardener and didn't appear to care (not that we ever bothered to ask) that we chewed up her lawn into mud – which, by the way, of all the lawns in the street was also the one that the dogs had figured out they could shit on with impunity. So usually there was some dog shit to move before we played, and these matches stretched on until well after the streetlights had come on, right up until Mum yelled from the end of the drive to come inside the house, your dinner's on the table, thus signalling the end of anything good left in the day. There was nothing to do but to wait for morning and the prospect of rugby at lunchtime, then after school on Mrs White's dog-shit lawn.
When a very famous All Black, Bob Scott, visited Dyer Street primary school, I was invited to the front of the hall in order for Mr Scott to demonstrate the correct way to pass a ball by passing it to me. It must have been during that visit that I heard that Bob Scott could kick a kerosene can from halfway in bare feet and that he did so regularly in order to harden the toes on his kicking foot. That I continued to believe this well into adulthood is embarrassing, but hardly surprising given my susceptibility to myth. (Years later, aged twelve, I visited the menswear shop owned by Bob Scott and Andy Leslie on Jackson Street, Petone. I wanted a Petone club jersey. Bob Scott made it clear he wouldn't sell me a Petone club jersey because I hadn't earned the right, since I was still at school and didn't play for the club. Instead he sold me a Petone Tech jersey, also blue – although a lower grade of blue, without any history, and inferior as such in every possible way.)
In the interests of promoting a broader education my mother had taken out a subscription for me to Knowledge magazine. Once a week Knowledge arrived in the letterbox, and I flicked through pages crammed with science and history to get to the regular Greek myth feature. It was in Knowledge magazine that I first encountered Odysseus, Achilles, Hector, Helen, and Agamemnon, who in my mind joined another list of heroes whose names included Lochore, Conway, Gray, Meads, Laidlaw, Herewini, all key members of the 1965 All Blacks.
That same year the South African Springboks toured the country and my sister Barbara, who had returned from Italy to treat us to risotto night after night, bought me a souvenir magazine. There was a photo of the Boks playing in the snow. Was it Mt Taranaki (Egmont, as it was called then) or Mt Ruapehu? What I remember was the open-mouthed fun of the Boks and the feeling of pride that their having fun at our place engendered in me. What also struck me were their names. They had an otherness that I did not associate with rugby. It was hard to believe that such a strain had taken to the game. It was also beyond the bounds of possibility that they could play it as well as we could. I was quite sure of this. The Boks were here for our entertainment, and in order for us to enjoy our country through their experiences, because look at how much fun they were having playing in the snow.
On the eve of the Fourth Test in 1965 Dr Verwoerd made his famous Loskop Dam speech reaffirming the ban on Maori players touring South Africa. Years later I would read how New Zealanders turned against their tourists as a result of that speech. I don't recall that happening at all. At least, it didn't happen in that brick house at 20 Stellin Street. I cannot recall a single conversation about apartheid either at home or at school. I only mention this in order to underline the fortress aspect of my childhood.
Keith Oxlee, the Boks' first five, visited Dyer Street School. I was a first five-eight so I felt an immediate bond. What I remember about that visit was the particular green of their blazers, unlike any green that was familiar, and the Springbok emblem, and also Keith's smile – one of those smiles whose owner just wants to be everyone's friend. About a hundred of us beamed back.
IT NEVER OCCURRED to me that I was from a very small country. I had no concept of my place in the world. The geographical space of New Zealand was hard to grasp. I knew we were surrounded by ocean. I had seen the ocean on a map pinned to the wall in the kitchen. Then there were those cities in Europe from where Pat and Barbara despatched their letters and postcards. By comparison with that world, our neighbourhood seemed vast and complex. Our house sat halfway between the golf course and the Park Avenue corner dairy. Over our back fence lay a wasteland of yellow smelling broom whose black seed cases made a popping sound in the summer heat, as well as an illegal dump which regularly went up in flames. Once we lit it for fun and hid as the sirens of the fire engines wailed over the rooftops. This wasteland was also a refuge where we hid from the golfers hacking at the undergrowth to find the little bastards who had run out onto the fairway and stolen their golf balls; they later bought the same balls back from the greenkeeper, an unshaven Fagin who never ever climbed down from his tractor seat and who regarded our thievery as a necessary evil to guarantee his own supplementary income.
In my family there was no talk of ancestry. There was no sense of arriving at the tail end of a long and distinguished lineage. At home there was no worldly expectation of any kind; none of that vocational bias that enters the genes to produce generation after generation of doctors and lawyers. There was no profession or art, unless my mother's knitting and my father's welding are to be considered. History, expectation, cultural reference points – all of those I was to find on a playing field. And it was there, as well, that I was first allocated a place of my own.
In 1964, I was one of a large bunch of nine-year-olds gathered around the tall figure of the bespectacled Mr Forward in the hope of being handed a position on the footy field. We stood full of longing beneath his outstretched finger, waiting to be picked, to be allocated a place that would offer membership and certain entitlements. How potent that outstretched finger was, how fantastically and perversely arbitrary. How fantastically arbitrary may describe the beginnings of our universe. Prior to our drafting we had sung at the top of our lungs 'Jamaica Farewell' and, to Mr Forward's keen strumming on the ukulele, we'd bellowed out 'When the Saints Go Marching In'. Now we were being sorted into flamethrowers, archers, foot soldiers and officers.
None of us knew the implications of occupying the position we so eagerly wanted to be ours. We didn't know if we were volunteering to be a human sacrifice or an officer safely positioned behind lines. When Mr Forward said he needed two props all our hands – foolishly – shot up. I was amazed to see two undistinguished fat boys picked. Now Mr Forward asked for a hooker. Again, along with everyone else, I stuck up my hand. Mr Forward wheeled about with that outstretched finger. He seemed to know who he was after. Again – unbelievably – I was overlooked. He asked for two locks and his eye shifted to the skinny Pawson twins, neither one of whom could take a step without stumbling. He asked for two flankers and a No 8. I had my hand up for all three, but by now without any real hope. Then Mr Forward picked a small kid for half-back. Just to rub it in the kid didn't even have his hand up. Next, Mr Forward asked for a first five-eight. This time I didn't have my hand up. Slowly the finger moved across the tops of our heads until, unbelievably, it stopped at me. 'That's you,' he said.
I remember feeling inwardly bitter and outwardly suspicious. I had been allocated a place that didn't have a proper word attached to it. It wasn't even a whole number, but a fraction, a diminished fragment of the whole. It suggested a very small place to occupy. I didn't realise the huge favour he'd done me until our first organised match against another school and I stood back, safely back, from the stew of bodies with their fancy positional names which insanely, as it now became clear, I had stuck up my hand for.
Letters and postcards from foreign places sent by my older sister, Pat, still in Europe continued to arrive in the letterbox, but curiously they did not extend my sense of a larger world waiting to be revealed as much as rugby did.
Through rugby I was discovering other corners of the valley hidden behind state housing. Rata Street School in Naenae, the Taita Rugby Club grounds, and the plusher treed streets around Eastern Hutt School. I was discovering variety: the playing surface at Rata Street was soggy, at least it was that day; the vast array of playing fields at Taita smelt of line paint and serious endeavour and therefore unburdened itself of some future promise to me. At Hutt Intermediate, where we played the first fifteen from an intermediate in Palmerston North, those kids seemed to be completely unknowable. I have a memory of playing Wanganui Collegiate and sitting next to a pot-belly fire drinking vegetable soup in the house where I was billeted, but I remember nothing of either the match or the journey there and back.
Much later, at Hutt Valley High School, we travelled into other territories: Titahi Bay, where we nearly froze to death while playing in a swamp lashed by a winter southerly with needling rain; afterwards our hands were too numb to untie our laces and so we stood in the showers in our gear until our blood flowed to our extremities and we were able to function again. In the city we discovered Onslow, a mixed high school like ours; its shared male and female pool of pheromones and skirt-shifted air different again from Wellington College, a boy's school with a pharaoh's army of about fifteen hundred boys, drawn from a more cosmopolitan mix than out in the valley; some of the boys we played against were already shaving and had chest hair sprouting out of the collars of their jerseys.
When we played at Wellington College we were aware, I think, of journeying back to the source. It felt established, the way the fields were framed by old school buildings and a turret jutted from neighbouring Government House. There was a sniff of authority. Even the grass felt different. There was more of it, and it was mown and groomed with enviable care. The goalposts stood taller. Our opponents were no more skilful but they had something we didn't have or had even known about until the first time we confronted its starchy presence, and that was confidence. Confidence in their own selves that seemed to be fed through some root system connected to these surroundings, which we gawked back at like stupefied tourists.
In the valley our fathers hardly ever came to the games. We didn't expect them to; our lives and theirs didn't have much to do with one another's now that they had shown us the way to the park. But in town, at Wellington College, and especially at Scots College, we noticed the sidelines populated with knitted male brow and coat. At the end of a particularly ugly game against Scots, a private boys' school, a father of a boy in the team we had just dismembered entered our changing shed to say what a disgrace we were to the spirit of the game. We rapists and murderers sat in a row of mud and listened dumbfounded and sort of amused that someone's father would go to this trouble.
But the point is, these matches took us into new regions, and into areas of cultural uncertainty. We were easily intimidated by the smell of money and authority. No one told the father at Scots he was a cunt and to get out of our changing room. And that was a surprise and we seemed to sit there with the surprise of our own muted submission. Possibly because we recognised that there was a kernel of truth in what he said: we were a disgrace. Not all of us, and certainly not me. I didn't go in for the cheap shots or underhand violence practised in the rucks and sometimes in the tackles, which referees dignified with the mild 'over-vigorous' charge. Rucking (the raking of sprigs over the body of a player supposedly protecting or obstructing the ball) was encouraged. Incredible now to think it was ever tolerated, because rucking was little more than a legalised form of assault. Few of us finished a game without long red scars down our backs. We accepted the punishment as the outcome of natural justice for the unacceptable and foul thing we had done by somehow finding ourselves between the ball and the drooling mob whose right to that ball was being obstructed.
A team was its own kind of crusading army. We brought our ignorance and prejudices into new territories. Rongotai College was about as strange and far removed from our patch as it could get. The hard ground sank beneath a sky filled with the drone of planes from the nearby airport, and air that smelt of bread. We were happier playing other teams from the valley. We knew their groove, knew the homes they lived in, knew what to expect. When we played teams from the city – especially when we travelled there – we wore our shortcomings like a beggar's rags. We knew that they knew we came from a smaller place, that they were the big fish while we were spawn living in ditch water on a flood plain.
The western suburbs were different again. Mana and Porirua tended to have a large number of Polynesians. We could expect at least one guy, if not two or three, built like a truck, and that we would be trampled near to death, but in spite of that we would triumph in the end through prissily occupied territory and solicited penalties which sometimes were handed out to us at an embarrassing rate. Whenever these teams played us at home their out-of-townness stuck to them, their colours looked wrong, completely out of place, like a mistake to do with the natural order. After the match they would slope in the direction of the railway station, in ones and twos, and larger numbers, walking in socked feet, carrying their boots in their hands, still in their rugby jerseys and filthy shorts, and silent, like the remnants of a shattered platoon returning to home base.
I NEED TO back-track here, because just before I started at Hutt Valley High School I experienced a dramatic off-field change that weirdly coincided with a positional change on the playing field.
My parents decided to retire to a small cottage set in the bush in Mahina Bay. Overnight, as it happened, it was as though we had tumbled out of the known world. There was no street. No neighbours living cheek by jowl. Instead, we lived apart, surrounded by bush, overlooking the harbour across to the western hills and the city. For some reason Dad bought a telescope. It sat on the front lawn, massively engineered, and as settled as a public monument.
At night possums clawed their way across the roof. Little blue penguins crawled up a pipe from the beach to roost beneath the water tank. On still nights foreign voices reached us from the decks of the oil tankers tied up at Point Howard wharf. My connection with place wasn't quite the same as before. A distance opened up between my life at school, my life in the Hutt and my life in the bay. A distance that was to find its equivalent place on the rugby field with a shift to full-back.
A full-back is free to come and go as he pleases. What's more, a full-back's lone-ranging is shaped by spatial considerations. He is in the team but remains outside of the close intimate chain of hands. The sudden shift of attention to him is the price a full-back must pay for his go-it-aloneness. Such examinations come three or four times in a game, more if a failing (such as an inability to field a high ball) has been ruthlessly exposed. The rest of the time the full-back is left alone, appreciated and valued as an expression of the game's capacity to accommodate a singular and free-thinking element. So, temperamentally, I felt at home. I was both part of and apart from. I could insert myself into the game at a moment of my own choosing.
There is no need to spell out the vanity of this position. At the time, though, I lived in the way that most teenagers do, unconsciously, and unaware of the shaping influences. Just as it never occurred to me to wonder why I always had to occupy a desk in the last line beneath the windows. Or to wonder why I was happiest when participating from the edge of things. I played a position where at times I was stationed half a playing field away from my teammates, behind the lines as it were. I attended a school in a community in which I no longer lived. In the hardwiring of neural pathways I was being fitted into becoming (happily) an outsider (though not a loner). The other thing to know about full-backs, as far as types go, is that they harbour ambitions that the more civic-minded prop would never entertain. It's true – I thought I was pretty good.
It wasn't until high school that I got a true idea of my abilities, and then, to my dismay – no, wait, it wasn't that, hell no, because in fact I was wide-eyed with admiration – I saw a slightly built boy a year or two older do something I had never seen before. It was the lunch hour, a few weeks into the start of the third form; my school uniform still smelt new on me, the shorts still bore their ironed crease and the newness of the elasticity in my socks left red marks around the tops of my calves. I was aware of something itching the back of my neck. It was the nametag Mum had sewn into the collar of my brand-new shirt.
Now, in the lunch hour, about fifty boys were playing missy on and off. For the uninitiated, it is a modified game of cricket. No cricket pitch or wickets are involved. Someone throws the ball to you and if you miss it or are caught then you are out and the bat changes hands. It's a simple and efficient way of involving a large number of participants. As I'm watching, the batsman swings wildly, the ball flies off the edge, and from impossibly close range a hand shoots out and snaffles the ball.
The catcher's name was Allan Hewson. Little more than a decade later, in 1981, he would kick the All Blacks to victory over the Springboks at the famous 'Flour-bomb Test' at Eden Park. (The incident is so called after Marx Jones – no relation – buzzed Eden Park in a light plane as part of a protest against apartheid. On one of his sweeps he dropped a bag of flour which struck the All Black prop Gary Knight on the head. The big prop staggered, his knees bent, and he sank to the ground. A bag of flour dropped from that height ought to have killed him. Possibly it would have killed another. Knight got back to his feet, rubbed irritably at his head, and played on.)
Until high school, I had never seen so much athletic flair and ability packed into the one person. By his fifth-form year, Hewie, as he was known, was full-back for the first fifteen. Any full-back with a nose for flair at this time wanted to play like the brilliant Welsh and Lions full-back JPR Williams. Hewie was a slighter-built version, running wingers into space for try after try, catching the ball on his fingertips, raking off territory with his elegant left foot. By his final year at high school Hewie was the best full-back in the country, and that included, as far as many of us were concerned, all levels of the game.
Hewie left school and I took over at full-back. The nicest thing anyone said about my game was to confuse me for Hewson. It was after we played Hutt Old Boys. A spectator came up to me, and said, 'I thought that was Hewson, then I thought it can't be, he's left school...' Forty years on, I remember the moment. I had reached up and pulled down onto my fingertips a failed field goal attempt that dropped just below the bar, and set off on a counter-attack. I knew exactly what to do. My instincts were sharp. But the attack went nowhere. The excitement of the crowd rose and fell with humiliating haste as I kicked off the side of my foot.
Hewson would have found a door open in that closing defence. He would have made its line look ragged and full of holes. Whereas I saw a wall of furious faces and so kicked. Another thing about that moment which seemed to crystallise all that was good and at the same time deficient about my game was my lack of inner calm. Also, I didn't have Hewie's loose-limbed speed. He never seemed to be moving at more than three-quarter speed, either. It was so effortless.
I wasn't so bad. I was good enough to win the trophy for the best back that year. But it's not quite as good as it sounds. Ours was a dysfunctional team, a mid-cycle first fifteen. The stars had left the year before. As the new incumbents, we were a bit young, a bit raw. Also, the great legacy we were meant to fulfil did not touch us all equally. A month into the season our fastest wing, Andrew Kear, decided he wasn't interested in playing rugby anymore. I couldn't believe it. None of us could. How could you not want to? Perhaps the answer lay in our incredulity. He just didn't feel the same as we did.
Tuesdays and Thursdays we practised after school – drills and wind sprints that left our lungs burning and us, hours later, high on endorphins. At practice we were brilliant. We ran off one another's shoulders, we dummied brilliantly, we changed the angle of the attack. The last man on the end of another sweet move dropped the ball on the deck with a light-fingered flourish, or slid stylishly to ground. The loosies arrived like an ambulance to the scene of an accident; next the locks, our big guys, bent over with famished eyes. Now the backs fanned out and the ball was quickly transferred. We had gone from our own line to dotting down under the sticks in a matter of twenty seconds. Hell, we were good. Of course no one ever said that aloud. But it was there, nonetheless, stuck to our faces in a film of happy sweat. We were brilliant, and never more so than when there was no opposition. From full-back I could see the problem. The open space once so accommodating to our genius was taken up by the inconvenient presence of the other team.
Actually, my start to the first fifteen was delayed a year. During my season in the second fifteen I was called up, but instead of releasing me to the firsts, John McKinnon, a gentle and thoughtful man off the field, sent my friend Paul Kerr-Hislop instead. John had propped for Hutt Old Boys; when he coached us he ran from his Point Howard home into the Hutt along the stopbank to our practice. He was still jogging into his late sixties, though by then he was a terrible sight, as he staggered with his shambolic gait into the wind on the bends around the Eastern Bays.
There was (I like to think) general surprise at Paul's call-up. Well, I was amazed. Paul was athletic, but not as gifted as I was. Touchingly, I don't think he actually realised that, and I imagine the moment he reads this he'll be on to the phone to argue the point. But the truth is, what came naturally to me, honed in hours and hours on the front lawns of Stellin Street, was more of a mechanical challenge for him. Yet the coach sent him off with the firsts messenger instead of me. A good thing, as it turned out, because physically I would not have coped. I was a bit slight – in the Hewson mould but without his speed to get me out of trouble.
That year I went to live in the city with my sister Pat and her new husband, Bob Brockie, a zoologist studying for his PhD, in a wooden shambles above the Karori Tunnel. Bob had lived in Sicily, could play the piano, speak Italian after a manner, and was a brilliant political cartoonist. Different worlds, new worlds lapped up to the doors of that house in Raroa Road. I brought a different world altogether to it.
Paul Kerr-Hislop was the only other boy from a student population of two thousand at Hutt Valley High School who lived in the city. Actually, there was another but we didn't count him. He didn't play rugby and was possibly agnostic about the game, like my sister. He tended to sit by himself on the train with a transistor glued to his ear. We didn't see him on the return trip because when school finished we went on to practice. Afterwards, in the dusk, we stood on the platform at Woburn Station, positionally at odds with the flow of school uniforms dispersing to different areas of the Hutt, waiting for the train into the city. After practice you found yourself in a sort of out-of-body state, barely able to talk, but as happy as a monk. In Paul's case, his lightness of being was further heightened by his parents' starvation policies. Devotees of the self-styled School of Philosophy, they followed a strict diet which called for weekend fasts. So on the railway platform Paul sucked hungrily at the fruit lozenges I bought if I had the dosh. I remember him eating a home roast with a relish that made him almost incandescent by the time he had banged down his knife and fork. Fortunately the starvation policies at home didn't affect his form. On the other hand, he wasn't asked to do much. He was a gatekeeper, a looker-after of the turnstile, a necessary but un-flamboyant link in the chain of events that would result in Hewie splitting the opposing backline to send the winger scorching over in the corner.
Travelling out from the city each morning, I had the full-back's exalted feeling of running in from deep. The abattoir workers in their white gumboots, most of them Maori, got off at Kaiwharawhara. After that stop the train ran alongside the harbour, and gazing across the harbour in the direction of our cottage in the bush of Mahina Bay produced the new sensation of seeing a past life neatly bookended and preserved, like something apart that I could pick up and study and put down again. The train sped on, until I was staring down into the shabby backyards of Petone and Moera and ready for my other life to reclaim me.
Saturday was the point of the week existing at all, and each one followed the same beloved routine. The joy of waking to match day. A quick look out the window at the weather. The cleaning of boots and packing of gear. Then around noon the train out to the Hutt. The pre-match routines. The miles of bandages we loved to wrap around our limbs and heads. The heart-fluttering moment before kick off. The match. The after-match – sausage rolls and beer. Then the party after the after-match, always at someone's house, and often it was someone we didn't know; word of a party had gotten around. Late on the Saturday night, and often in the early hours of Sunday morning, Paul and I would find ourselves trudging along the stopbank with our gear bags. Sometimes a fog lifted off the river but always drunken noise rose from the tin roofs of Whites Line West and the rugby league clubrooms on Strand Park. We'd missed the last train from Woburn. Now we had to walk to Petone Station. We left the stopbank to climb up onto the railway bridge to cross the river into Ava; the cold air was beginning to break down the false protective layers of alcohol; forgotten bruises were beginning to make themselves felt. Both of us were silently absorbed by the what if scenario if we had missed the last fucking train into town. Then what? In town, the last bus had left hours earlier. Near the cenotaph we took off in different directions. Paul up Molesworth Road to the fasting household, while I headed for the tree-cast shadows along the Tinakori Road stretch of the Botanic Gardens, fifteen hours after leaving for the match, bushwhacking the last twenty metres to my squalid hole beneath the house.
My sister Pat never knew the time I arrived home. She didn't know the routine. She never asked about the game. Nor did it occur to me to tell her. That she didn't comprehend the cultural pathways into my game was a given. Although, in my early days of autograph collecting (I was never an enthusiast; the autograph book had been Barbara's and passed down to me filled with its meaningless names of pole-vaulters and long-jumpers and walkers), she did manage to get me Mick Williment's signature. On other occasions she used to tease me with a boast that years earlier some famous All Black had pursued her, but whenever I demanded names she could only come up with, 'Oh, I can't remember. Don somebody...'
The violence at the parties would have horrified her. On the other hand, sharing a confidence about the casual sex available would have seen her shift to the edge of her seat to show an uncommon interest in her little brother. On one of the long marches home along the stopbank in the fog Paul had kept at bay the usual anxieties surrounding the last-train scenario, with a vivid recounting of the two hours he'd spent locked in a cupboard with someone called Jane. This is the sort of thing that would have interested Pat. But if I was to recount a sweet moment in the game where I had burst onto a ball to split open the defence her eyes would have dulled over behind a cloud of cigarette smoke that formed a dense cultural barricade. Her conversation stopper was, as it is now, to grind out a cigarette and gaze out a window.
Raroa Road wasn't a rugby household. How strange. How completely weird that they didn't know what I knew. The same applied to my older brother, Bob. He wasn't into the game. I don't know how he escaped its clutches because rugby in those days reached into the pores of everyone's existence. Bob was a boxer. He loved boxing and I'd grown up with a portrait in the sitting room of him peering over two gloves. He left home and left behind his gloves. John Gilmour and I would put on a glove each and club one another to death. I could see its attractions, but Bob didn't really know my game. Once, when I stayed over at his house, in a spur-of-the-moment sort of thing we drove over to Wainuiomata to watch Wellington Maori play Wanganui Maori. I ended up ball boy after Bob appointed me in an ex-officio capacity, and when the half had clearly run overtime he pushed me out onto the field to tell the ref to blow the whistle. For him that had been the most entertaining part. Otherwise, he didn't get it. Maybe because he was a foundation pupil at Naenae College and there was no legacy to absorb. Whatever the reason, he'd tapped into a different mythology. He knew about great boxers just as I knew about great rugby players.
As for the household on Raroa Road, it was agnostic. My sister Pat and Bob Brockie were the worst kind of agnostics. They hated the game. Allocated the priest hole under the house I was able to keep my faith a secret. It must have worked for them as well, because with my form of ardent faith I was a potential embarrassment. There were always people coming and going in that household, writers, political people, important people, I gathered, and hippies.
One night, when I was fifteen, my sister sent me off with a beautiful dark-haired hippie called Felicity. I don't think I knew where we were going until we were there – at a demonstration outside Parliament protesting against the players who were participating in the All Black tour to South Africa in 1970, an event I was hugely looking forward to. The players were all there. And of course I knew the name of every one of them. Felicity and I found ourselves standing near the frontlines, in pole position I secretly noted, to get a glimpse of my heroes. As they appeared at the top of the steps the crowd found its voice. I was amazed by its rage. I knew about the energy of the crowd from big matches. But I'd never heard rage from a crowd, apart from a chorus of indignation that follows a dubious refereeing decision. Soon the All Blacks' bus pulled up at the bottom of the steps and one by one the players climbed aboard. I remember Jazz Muller sitting down looking out of one of the windows to the rear with an uncertain smile. He wasn't a player I identified with (Jazz played prop, and so was a mere rampart beneath the glorious arches, as far as I was concerned). His face didn't quite know which expression to hold. It was caught between a rueful grin and a sadness, possibly disappointment.
As for me, the part of me I thought most secure felt smothered and abused. Worse than that, I felt as though I had been kidnapped and enlisted into a calling that was not my own. And as the crowd bayed I felt a shame that I had last felt standing on the fringes as other kids tortured ants under a magnifying glass. I could just understand the crowd's argument. It was its anger that I didn't get. Forty years on it is hard to prise open that young heart and mind in order properly to assess the pity I felt for Jazz Muller. I wonder if in seeing that trace of sadness on the All Black prop's face I sensed something had passed, something ineffable, a there-forever feeling as we might think of it at the time and in one quick unexpected moment it had passed before our eyes. Perhaps the word I am after here is childhood.
I loathed the mob. If it had real rage it would have smashed the bus. But it was a safe kind of rage, safely and cleanly exercised behind the railings, toothless finally. I could not believe in its anger. I knew about anger, but in my experience I knew it exclusively as a physical phenomenon. You hit me – I'll hit you back. That's the stuff of the street and lunchtime scraps. I didn't connect anger with intellectual indignation. At the time, I said nothing to my sister's hippie friend. We drove back up to Raroa Road in silence. I remember my sister meeting me at the door, practically glowing: 'So, how was that?'
Eleven years later, at the very moment Hewie was lining up his famous penalty against the Boks at Eden Park, I had a clearer understanding of the anti-tour protest. Its rage was as much against the place of the game in our lives. It had too much say. Also, its voice or at least the tone of its argument was scarily similar to a rugby team's inner voice: either you are with us or against us. I could no longer range on the edge of things. Some sort of tribal affiliation was being asked of me. Was I for the tour? Well, yes, and no. I supported the rights of those who wished to watch the Boks play. So did that mean that I aligned myself with the pro-tour lobby? No. Was I against apartheid? Of course. But could I join the anti-tour ranks? No – because by now the argument had become overheated, to the point where it had lost its shape. The real fight concerned the intolerance of one sector of the community for the seemingly intractable position of another. The charges relied too much on hectoring and bullying. Its language was too deliberately blunt, too falsifying and hyperbolic...its fidelity too demanding.
Interestingly, these are the same reasons why I walked away from the game as a player. I had reached the point where I only wanted to play full-back. I had turned into a sentry who cannot be trusted to patrol the castle walls. I might fade away and disappear into the forest where the enemy lurked. The enemy? It is a strange word, but the right one, because what I had in mind or vaguely aspired to was a full return to the dominion of selfhood. For that to happen I would need to leave the team environment. I would need to place myself outside of that which I had always felt a member of.
At the time I was unable to articulate any of this. It wasn't until my mid-twenties, when I was employed by a very good bookshop in the Hutt to sell books to schools, that a copy of Greg McGee's Foreskin's Lament fell into my hands. I remember reading it in a van pulled up to the banks of the Hutt River and feeling as though I was dipping into a language that had not been written before, and that in the character of Foreskin, a university student playing for a club, I was reading about myself. The recognition was jaw-dropping. In the final scene of McGee's play Foreskin rakes his foot back and forth as though rucking for something hidden (the rugby ball) and repeats Whadarya? Whadarya? Whadarya?
IN MY LAST team photo, in 1973, one year out of high school, I am clearly one of the younger ones playing for Eastbourne Seniors. From the bemused uplands of middle age, I am surprised by the surliness of that unfulfilled face. I can't imagine that I actually felt sour. What was there to feel sour about? I suspect it was a default expression – in the absence of other knowledge or experience of how to present myself to the world. Perhaps I resent the intrusiveness of the moment, and I am intent on meeting head-on the prying of the camera, suspicious, as I imagine I am at that moment, of this formal request to pass myself off in a plausible way. The older players look more sure of themselves. Some are smiling, and it is clear from the photo that they know the drill and display a dignified belief in these proceedings. There is Blackie, for example, arms folded, a rock in the scrum, who a few years later would slide off a roof to his death. There is Dickie, looking like a young pirate, whose funeral I attended just a few years ago in the clubrooms where this team photo hangs today. One or two at the back grin at all the trouble gone to. Forwards, of course, and all of them decent men. And there is old sourpuss – the youngest player, sour as a lemon. There is a late-adolescent puff about that young face. It doesn't know what it wants of the world, and it sure as hell doesn't want to give anything back, least of all a smile, and certainly nothing that might set fast into a character-defining tic.
The young newt must eventually shed its skin. The club jersey I had wished upon myself passed. A whole new representative possibility would eventually blossom from unexpected sources. I had outgrown my various jerseys; each one now felt like dead skin and shrinking by the day. It sounds immodest, even ungrateful, to plot the changes in this way, especially as modesty was drummed into me from the earliest days of my apprenticeship. You did not crow. You did not put the boot in or seek to take unfair advantage. I was taught this and other gospels by a man at the Naenae club (since absorbed by Avalon, which absorbed Taita) who used to say Sid day when he meant Saturday. As adages to live your life by they may not have the high-mindedness of Rousseau or Emerson, but they have their own truth.
LIKE MOST EX-PLAYERS of my generation I remain in touch with the game. There are very few Tests that I have missed in the televised age. There was a time while living in France and again in America that I relied on newspaper clippings sent from home to keep me up to date. I still scan the weekend's club rugby results, even though the only one that mildly interests me is Petone's. The All Blacks are a different matter.
In 2010, when they played the Wallabies in Hong Kong, I happened to be on a flight between Pisa and Berlin. It was unsettling to know that they were playing and I wasn't glued to a screen. Somewhere over the Dolomites I figured that as soon as the plane touched down at Schönefeld I would catch the express into the city and at Hauptbanhof switch tracks to pick up the S75 and get off at Hackescher Markt. I knew from past experience the filthy Irish bar beneath the tracks would be showing the match and that it would be packed with expats and stray Berliners. With a bit of luck I'd get there in time for the second half. By the time we'd started our descent I was happier. But I had failed to take into account the International Date Line. My calculations were out by a day.
There are others like me, who grew up with the same proportioned world, on the same playing fields, conscripted at a similar early age. I've seen them in cafés and bars all over the world, in Villefranche, Toulon, Lisbon, Amsterdam, London, in Avaru in the Cook Islands. They enter the establishment and cast a wild eye up at the overhead screen, puzzled at first, and now looking terribly concerned. They approach the bar with a kind of high-strung look to buttonhole the barman, who, incredibly, does not appear to share the same sense of alarm or potential for grief should the game have been missed. This fan usually comes armed with information. The game is on channel such-and-such. I want to watch it. I have to watch it. Sometimes the barman will pick up the remote and scroll down upcoming sports events, and there it is, the All Blacks match, wonderfully eye-wateringly listed, still to come. All is right with the world. Smiles all round. Blood pressure plummeting back to normal levels. And that is how it is. That is how it will always be, I imagine, to the end of my days.
When my own children were born I resolved to baptise them in different waters. I didn't want my journey to be theirs, and not because of any disappointment in my own. Rather, I thought that the place I had arrived at might be the starting point for them. I thought if they knew about the sea, how to play in it and enjoy it, and if they knew about art, books, reading, those things would be enough. And so it has proven to be. But weirdly, now that I think about it, I am guilty of displaying my own sister's snobbery towards the game. By pushing them in a different direction am I guilty of denying them the experience of the other?
My sister Pat, by the way, is now a fan. She will often try and argue with me. For example, she has a soft spot for the Wallabies. I let her go on at the other end of the line. I wait patiently, as Murray Deaker must, to endure the most rabid and misinformed of his talkback callers, before starting on my educated explanation as to why she is wrong, completely wrong, in every single thing she has just said. And then, if she persists, I reply with a stoic's silence.