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Guts for Garters

September 3, 2019

Recollections (1)

In the movie “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” Hec, the grumpy character played by Sam Neill, in the final denouement moments of the story, threatens his protégé with the warning that, should the boy Ricky Baker outperform Hec, he would use the boy’s ‘guts for garters’. It was such an unexpected line I laughed out loud  and even in rewatching the movie I wait for the line as the movie closes. It’s such a wonderful line with deep undertones of awful violence. To use one’s intestines, presumably cleaned out, twisted and dried, as instruments by which to keep your socks up implies foul murder and wanton butchering. What’s to be done, after all,  with the rest of the body if only garters are produced? I’m surprised the line survived the editorial cut but I’m pleased it did, for it’s a line my father used and it ‘takes me back’. Back to lines which threatened unreasonable death such as “I’ll knock your block off” or lesser drubbings such as  “Do you want spiflicating?” or “I’ll belt you into the middle of next week”. That was a delicious favourite, as I imagined flying through time to find out what would happen before anyone else arrived. None of it was ever taken seriously of course but the tone was about suggesting you had better straighten up. Indeed, that word spiflicate was beyond our understanding. It was the sort of thing the old man might have made up and right through into our teens we imagined that was the case.  So it was with a cry of delight that brother Rob rushed through the school library one afternoon and declared the word actually existed in the English language. So, said the Greater Oxford Dictionary. Sadly the meaning was far more droll than the magnificent and exotic lashing we imagined it might represent. 

We are all lucky to be raised in the time we are raised. Then or now. These are the times for us, and the places we tred our hallowed ground, able to be claimed by no other person ever born across the eons of time.  Hec takes me back to a time I appreciate more and more as our starship earth shifts away from it. Away from times when we did unsafe things, planned unholy adventures, took risks. When  had our hides threatened even while the words hid a love we comprehended but didn’t always hear, and when ‘guts for garters’ was a common language. 

I was born 16 years after the end of the Second World War. If that sounds like a strange way to set my frame consider this. Sixteen years ago I was about to take my company onto the Stock Exchange.  It only seems like yesterday. Indeed, I’ve been collecting notes, reading diaries and writing summaries of that business adventure, which seems as fresh today as it was when it happened. Friendships forged then are real and vibrant today. Jocelyn the eldest was 18. To underscore the point, sixteen years prior to that I had two children, Jocelyn and Dannie. I was working in the RAAF, based in Townsville, studying my undergraduate degree at James Cook University and hungering after what that would give me – a commission into the world of the Intelligence officer. Sixteen years before that, well, you get the idea. 

So sixteen years after the Germans put their hands up, and the Russians and Americans and their friends tore down swastikas and rising suns, and shortly thereafter surly and resentful Japanese uniforms sat in the stillness of Tokyo Bay on the deck of the Missouri and signed their surrender, I was born.  For those who produced my generation the War was only a blink away and, though I did not realise it at the time the Second World War suffused my childhood. There was a vague awareness that farmers in the district had fought here and there, especially in North Africa though Casino in Italy loomed large. Sometimes I would hear these men refer to the Hun or ‘the Jap’ but otherwise their experiences were never conveyed directly to us. My grandfather startled me once with an impassioned anger against the Japanese but he never repeated it or explained himself. One of the country doctors had won an MM though I didn’t discover that until I read the detail on his headstone. Our teachers had served. They sat on their desks and read and told stories of the chase after the battleship Bismark, and the one sided but ultimately glorious Battle of the River Plate. Of Alamein. Our school fire alarm was the towns air raid siren which Mr Whitaker took great delight in winding up every now and then. We would solemnly file out of class past that tripod mounted device as it slowly wound down over ten minutes of so. An annual celebratory run up the local peak of Puketapu was Kelly’s Canter, named after the local policeman who apparently ran up there every day to keep an eye out for Japanese or German ships or subs. Whether he ever did his police duties in that time I have no idea. The most valuable contraband we had as kids were the World War 2 comics that we traded. Dad was not a fan of comics. Felt we should be reading ‘proper books’ and of course these things were deep propaganda but they captured real history among the invented stuff. Dad wasn’t the only parent who thought them poor literature, though he didn’t ban them completely like other parents did. Mr Newton exploded when he caught me smuggling a stack of them into his house stuffed under my jersey, though I suspect it was my temerity that irked him rather than the contraband. After all, he may have been inclined to read one every now and then. I bought one of those comics recently at a second hand store. I haven’t read it yet but it took me back. 

The things we heard and were taught about that war were all built on a bedrock of ‘Empire’  One primary classroom in particular, and I forget which teacher lived in there, had maps everywhere marking the Commonwealth in bold red. When that lovely old timber school burned down one dramatic morning and we were shifted to temporary premises at a local caravan park cum convention centre, somehow those maps came along too. Rescued from that flames as a priority? (That air raid siren survived the flames as well). Or were there so many in the district that they were easily replaced? The Charge of the Light Brigade was read to my primary school class (more than once) with deep emotion and suppressed fervour as the teacher relived a glory he had never lived and preached a hurrah for Empire that I didn’t appreciate for some decades was deeply misplaced. I suspect my love of Afghanistan has partial roots on those stories. Perhaps those disastrous First and Second Anglo Wars of the Nineteenth Century had their grounding in tales of the British regardless of how disastrous the result. The Boer War. Sudan. Though less of the Maori Wars than should have been the case.  And Kipling. Lots and lots of Kipling.

I have a different and (hopefully) better informed view of the politics of that time and of the blind allegiance to empire which was never repaid or respected. But at the time it was the worldview of our community and I have no reason to fall out of love of that at all. Rather there is a desire to capture something of it and to narrate and explain some of it as best I can for there is no escaping the moulding of those formative years. It helps define us but more importantly it helps colour us in, and thus to go some way to explain us. Regrettably I have little of that from a generation reluctant to talk about those times and if I’m not careful I will be guilty of something similar. So here’ s a number of pieces written as a stream of consciousness that family can consider their colouring pencils. Fill me in. Which sounds like another one of those dastardly threats. “Do you want filling in?” never made sense but the tone carried the message clearly enough. 

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