Thursday, 1 January 2015

Chapter one - part one

This I can tell
by Robin Westenra (Seemorerocks)

Early life

1956, the year in which I was born, was a momentous year.

Quite apart from my fateful appearance in the world it was the year of the Hungarian revolution, of the Suez canal invasion, the year in which Khrushchev revealed the Soviet Communist Party Congress the secrets of Stalin’s crimes.

It was the time of life when my parents were building up a life after the war.
My mother as a bride

World War II had taken out the best years of my father’s life when he was in his prime, fighting in Crete and North Africa, including at Alamein.

My father was an introverted man.

His mother had had three lots of twins and he was unfortunate to be the oldest twin – hence he was largely unloved by his mother who during the war reportedly left his letters on the table unopened.

He must’ve carried a lot of pain from that. But for us he showed his love that the only way he could – that was through hard work to provide a future for his children.

My mother like many women of that era had had her own dreams – she wanted to become a doctor, but that was not what her parents had in mind for her. She was able to live a life of comparative leisure and to ride horses as well is to compete in showjumping until the man she was to marry came along. Hence for my mother there was a lot of unfulfilled potential and longing for something deeper all her life.

My mother had a showjumping accident in her prime and broke her neck, She recovered but was wracked by pain for the rest of her life.

My parents were married in 1944, towards the end of the war and commenced farming at te Wai next to the Westenra family farm, Camla.

Life was simple, There was no electricity and my mother churned milk for butter. The farm was next to the Selwyn river they were flooded out several times,

My brother Jeremy was the first to arrive in April 1947 follow shortly thereafter by my sister Kathy, in 1948.

I was the third child and came along as an “afterthought”.

It must have rankled with my siblings, as 8 to 9 years olds, to have their beloved dog Paddy taken away from them in consideration of the newborn baby.

My mother with her first two children, Jeremy and Katherine

The story was that when I came along my father asked his best friend, Peter Keddell to come out because he wanted to show him something on the farm. He drove Peter out to the far end of the farm and pulled a bottle of gin out of the boot of the car. After several classes and 'Dutch courage' my father finally got round to asking Peter if he would be godfather to his baby Robin.

This was the same man who when the New Zealand troops were being evacuated from Crete and bombed by the Germans, sat on the deck of the ship and without any concern of his own safety,  maintained his men’s morale by regaling them with stories about how he and his horse Burglar had won the Grand National.

Family outing: This photo shows my mother with her two eldest, my father's sister, Ann and children and two of the Keddell boys.

My parents moved from their first farm at te Wai to a second one near Pleasant Point inland from Timaru. I came along on the 30th July, 1956.

I have few clear memories of my first years on this earth but have picked up stories from my family. These are intermingled with isolated and vague memories

I do recollection going to school in Pleasant Point with a brown leather satchel and a plastic lunchbox of honey sandwiches, because that was the only thing that I would eat.
Early days at school

I was a fussy eater, or it least excessively conservative. I just loved my weetbix followed by eggs for breakfast and roast lamb with a small range of vegetables that I would even look at – such as carrots and peas for dinner.

I think that was about the extent of my diet.

With the Keddell family at Lake Oahu

I remember when our whole family was at Omarama while my father went gliding. On this particular visit he was oblivious to the fact that his family was flooded out of their tent and had to take refuge in a local hotel. I don’t remember this myself but it is a story that my family have often repeated. Apparently I loved to have my eggs and bacon first because that’s what I enjoyed and would follow that up with my Weetbix. I wanted to follow this pattern at the breakfast table in the restaurant but the Australian waitress would have none of it and said in an imperious voice “Weetbix is first!”

My Mum and Dad with Kathy and yours truly. I presume Jeremy is behind the camera

I have memories of holidays with my family at Kakanui, near Oamaru. We must have watched Peter Snell, Murray Halberg running because, the story goes, I ran about in my underpants emulating Peter Snell.

Peter Keddell and his family farmed closeby and there were many joint family outings. The two families would go ice skating at Cave. I used to push a chair around on skates.

First days at school

Then there were holidays at Lake Ohau - there Robina Keddell and her three children, William, Phillip and Stephen, stayed in an old tram, which I can remember.

The two men were absent, being at home working the farm.

I must have been a frustrating child for my mother, clinging and needy – I do remember my common plaintiff was “I don’t know what to do”as I followed my mother out once you put the washing on the line.

My brother Jeremy used to put his building skills to work by building me tree huts and even a fort that I used to call Fort Buckland.

I have absolutely no memories of the farm where we lived near Timaru until the age of five but have the most wonderful memories of the farm at Summerhill in North Canterbury we called Fermoy, situated between Cust and Oxford.

We lived in a blue bungalow made of cobb that was already then 100 years old. It had walls with 3 feet thick so that it was cool in summer and warm in winter.

It was a wonderful farm to grow up on and I loved the outbuildings including the wool shed where I helped out during the shearing season and explored the wonderful attic which had many treasures stored in it, including an old stole made a fox fur, my father’s old military uniform and many photographs from my mother’s showjumping days.

The driveway with the old sheds and the sheepdog, Star

I recall a happy and close relationship with my sister Kathy as she offered me homely advice to her five-year-old brother, such as “sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you” and “you’re not the only pebble on the beach”.

Later on, perhaps when I was seven or eight, she introduced me to the Beatles by taking me to a double feature, A Hard Day’s Night and Help!

Another favourite was Trini Lopez while Jeremy preferred Can Can and Cliff Richard's Summer Holiday.

I remember going places with her and being introduced by her to my first alcohol which is surreptitiously added something a bit stronger to my lemonade.

I am jumping ahead of myself but when TV came along in 1965 amongst all the programs were classics like Fireball XL5 and Robin Hood, I loved Danny Kaye. Unbeknownst to my parents I placed an article in the Press for a "Danny Kaye fan club". Several people must have answered for I wrote away (and received) autographed pictures.

When I entered my cowboy phase I became obsessed with country and western singer, John Hore (Grennell) and collected all the records I could of him.

The Cottrells had a son, Michael (or Mickey) who was the same age. We used to play cowboys and Indians together and hang out in the old fort that my brother Jeremy built for me, or in a tree hut

A lot of my play was solitary and dependent on a good imagination. Invariably, it revolved around cowboys and Injuns.

When I was lucky I could play with my friends Mickey or Gerard Thomson. Occasionally my friend Steve Keddell came over to play.

I don't think anyone consented to play the role of an "Injun" because the cowboys always won!

Here are the three siblings - Kathy, me, Jeremy

These were the days of a stable climate when we had beautiful summers when we swam in the pristine waters of the Ashley River or had picnics at Ashley Gorge. In winter there were plent of clear frosty mornings and beautiful days, when I remember feeding out to the sheep.

I used to go out with my father in his wonderful old truck, filling it with hay and driving out to feed out to the sheep. My father was able to put the truck or the tractor into a low gear, climb onto the back and feed out the hay. When I was a little older he would drive the vehicle as I fit out the hay.

I had my first driving lessons with my father sitting on his knee steering the vehicle as we drove around the paddock. Later on I was allowed to drive through the paddock with my father sitting alongside. I’m not sure that at some stage I didn’t drive the vehicle into something – I was sure to have.

We had an old-fashioned phone and our telephone number was 3K Cust; we were on a party line and my mother got exasperated because our neighbour Lois Cottrell would often be listening on the other end of the phone to Mum’s conversations

I have a recollection of agreeing with my two friends, Mickey, who lived in the farm nextdoor, and Neil who lived a couple of miles along the road in the direction of Cust, to run away from home on some great adventure.

When it was dark I sneaked out of the house and walk down to the Cottrells, walked into their house only to find that Michael was in bed fast asleep. So there was only one thing for it, I would have to set out on my own and so I started walking towards Niels place (a funny little pink cottage).

Something must have alerted my family to the fact that I had set off and it was picked up by car before making it to Neils place. That was the end of my adventure.


My mother riding Ginger with me on Star

The Cottrells also had an ancient pony,Star who was quite fat and tended towards founder. However she was able to give me my first riding experiences. Although he was an expert horseman I don’t recall my father ever giving me anything much in the way of instruction. A saddle was put on Star's back over a wheat sack and had bucket stirrups. Basically I was put on the horse and sent on my way. I do remember Star bolting through the trees and flicking me off on the way. I was told that one hadn’t really learn to ride until one was thrown off 13 times.

I had wonderful rides, both with my mother and with my sister Kathy who used to borrow a chestnut from down the road, called Ginger. I have photographs of my mother on the horse with me as well is a scratchy old photograph somewhere of a friend at a party, Doug Ensor and my mother was sitting backwards on Star.

Later on, when I was about 12, I was given my first pony whose name was Peter. He moved with us to our new home in Halswell, Christchurch when my father retired to 20 acres on the edge of town. In those days I was able to ride along the verges of the roads and never be bothered by much traffic.

Peter and I in the garden. I don't think we ever bothered about helmets

So different to today when you take your life in your hands if you decide to ride a horse anywhere on the roads.

The old two-storey homestead in Halswell, built 140 years ago, from pit-sawn timber, is now surrounded by the most ugly new housing development All the land and the farm buildings are now gone giving way to (not so) 'little boxes" built since the 2011 earthquake of 2011 as the city expands to the south, leaving the devastation wreaked in the centre and east of the city.

Later on, when I was at boarding school as an 11-year-old, I loved to write stories about imaginary characters such as cowboy Jim Logan. These stories reached 100 pages long, mostly because I wrote in very large handwriting. But Kathy, who had completed a short hand typing course at Pitman’s and took on a job at Kodak as a secretary typist - (she was probably underemployed) - kindly spent some of her work time typing out my stories for me.

At same time as this I set up the DHS (the Dog and Horse Society), which as I remember only ever had four members – my mother, my Aunt Barbara and Johnny Rhodes a mentally challenged friend and outsider at boarding school.

I remember one year, 1967, when my parents went on a six month overseas trip, I was farmed out to various uncles and aunts during the school holidays.

I didn’t enjoy my time with Aunt Ann and Uncle Dick so much because they made me eat macaroni cheese which I didn’t like and tried to wean me off my 3 teaspoons of sugar in my tea which I learnt from boarding school.

My mother with Aunt Barbara

Holidays with Aunt Barbara and Uncle Gerald were a different matter. They lived in a huge house (as it seemed to me) – the old Westenra family home, and had a wonderful set of stairs and ample room underneath where I was able to find objects of play including an old gramophone. I spent many happy hours under those stairs.

Aunt Barbara was invariably kind and allowed me to eat as many Weetbix as I wanted. She was also, of course, a founding member of the dog and horse Society.

Waihi School

I was sent off to boarding school at the tender age of 9, after a couple of years at the local school in Cust - as was the tradition in Canterbury farming families.

Waihi was a small preparatory school with less than 100 pupils and had a tradition of its pupils running fairly wild, building tree huts, and more worryingly, underground tunnels - (A stop was put to that quite quickly),

I was a sensitive child but I suppose boarding school was supposed to be character building.

When I was sent off from home I was still wetting my bed and I have memories of being teased about this mercilessly, as well as having to clean my sheets in freezing water on cold South Canterbury frosty mornings.

At Waihi school, c. 1967

For all that, life there was reasonably benign, at least in my memory, although in the first year I was there the dormitories were in the old wooden building and there were no showers – the boys had to share a bath with water that was cold and dirty by the time you got there. I have recollection of being caught talking after lights out and being taken down to the bathroom to be slippered.

I don’t have a visceral memory of the cold but it must have been freezing. We all wore shorts all year round, even in the cold winters. I suppose it was a bit of the old country!

There was a common room which I remember had a painting of Capt Oates from Scott’s 1912 Antarctic expedition saying “I might be some time” as he stoically walked out to his death.

In winter there was an open fire and all the boys gathered round to be as close to the warmth as possible and on these winter evenings large pots of cocoa were served out.

It was also in the common room where we were given boxing lessons by someone who came in once a week – I remember hating that.

I remember the Mayor of Temuka coming in to give art lessons,  and with my friend Matthew Turnbull painting a mural of the Battle of Trafalgar or some other sea battle.

When I arrived this coincided with what must have been the first modernisation in the history of the school with the construction of a brand-new teaching and dormitory block. The dormitories actually had proper showers.

From an early age I hated sports, except I have a memory of playing French cricket.

I have memories of tree huts and wonderful times spent outdoors. However, much of my time was spent in the library where I did various research projects such as learning the names of all the world's capital cities or the geography of all the states of the USA.

I was obsessed with knowing everything there was to know about the life and death of Capt. R.F. Scott's 1912 expedition to the South Pole.

I can still remember, to this day, some of the great events of 1968, such as the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, as well as the Wahine disaster - because I kept newspaper cuttings which I put into a scrapbook.

I lived out my fantasy life as an 11-year-old writing stories about characters such as Jim Logan, a heroic cowboy. These stories reached 100 pages long, mostly because I wrote in very large handwriting. Kathy, who had completed a short hand typing course at Pitman’s and took on a job at Kodak as a secretary to typist must have had time on her hands for she kindly types my stories for me at work.
Outings from school were always a big highlight. This picture of Kathy was taken with a Kodak Box Brownie in 1966 or 1967

At same time as this I set up the DHS (the Dog and Horse Society), which as I remember only ever had three members apart from myself – my mother, my Aunt Barbara and Johnny Rhodes a mentally-challenged friend and outsider at boarding school.

I remember poor Johnny Rhodes scoring his first rugby try, The only problem was, he ran in the wrong direction and so had the whole field to himself everyone laughed at him.

Poor Johnny. He hated so much the dreadful fish that we were served up while I was made to stay at the table until I finished my lunch of luncheon sausage and salad. I also remember the piles of sugar that went on my porridge (a habit I still haven’t completely thrown off!) and eating my sausages with butter accompaniment because I didn’t like tomato sauce.

I remember one year - 1967, when my parents went on a six month overseas trip I was farmed out to various uncles and aunts during the school holidays. I didn’t enjoy my time with aunt hand and uncle Dick’s so much because they made me eat spaghetti bolognase which I didn’t like and tried to wean me off my 3 teaspoons of sugar in my tea which I learnt from boarding school.

My whole childhood was largely a list of things that we did with the Keddell family – skating at Cave, outings from school to the Winchester show and to Waihi Gorge where we played murder and caught and cooked trout.

The Keddell boys and friends on holiday at teh tram on Lake Ohau - ealy 60's

Steve Keddell was a great childhood friend, both at home and at school. Peter, his father was my godfather and his mother Robina was a great pal of my mother's.

I often used to visit and sometimes stay during the holidays - first at Chapel Farm near Cust and then the home in Repton Street.

I associate the story of Joseph from the Bible with my godfather Peter who used to read it to us, and sharing the same bedroom as my friend Steve who was about 18 months older than me.

I'm sure I was the butt of pranks played by the older Keddell boys.

I remember my brother Jeremy would always hide his Dinky toys if he knew the Keddell boys were coming.

Exposure to pesticides

They were largely, carefree happy times.

They were also the origin of things that have later come to plague my life. In particular, I’m sure that I have suffered from the consequences of being exposed to toxic pesticides – (My godfather, Peter, recalled how they used to mix up the DDT by hand!).

Pesticides, as I have later found out tend to have long-term effects for those who are downwind and absorb into their lungs (and bodies) the smaller molecules which go on to injure the endocrine and other body systems in later year

My mother, who was already smaller and less robust than her sisters, I am sure, was exposed to chemicals just like her children. She went on, in later life to develop and die from breast cancer, while my elder brother has gone on to suffer from several strange autoimmune diseases.

With my mother and father and sister, Kathy, 1970

Right from the age of about 12 or 13 I had strange things happen such as  the onset of a skin condition, which has never left me. After exposure to water, such as swimming or taking a shower I would be driven to distraction by severe itching which would only pass after about half an hour. I suffered from many many strange and inexplicable symptoms which caused the doctors and medical specialists to scratch their heads.

I also experienced symptoms what might be called depression, an inexplicable sense of sadness or melancholy,

My parents, who must have at a total loss as to how to deal with this got the name of a Dr Ding who tried his best to treat me with group therapy, Luckily these were in the days before anti depressants like Prozac became popular. Naturally this didn't work, just like the many other treatments for my various ailments.

I now understand that this was not depression in the commonly-viewed sense and therefore would not respond to any conventional treatment.

This was, rather, a manifestation of what is called in homeopathy, a miasm which is "a general weakness or predisposition to chronic disease that is transmitted down the generational chain".

Not only was I actually exposed to pesticides but I also suffered from the results of my mother's exposure.

As the years have passed (especially since my late-40's and 50's) symptoms have got only worse.  About our years ago, after falling off my horse my health started to take a nosedive and I started to become familiar with the hospital system and have been diagnosed with both malignant melanoma (operated on) as well as sarcoidosis, an autoimmune condition.

Mostly, however my progressively-deteriorating health has been denied by the medical industry - because they have nothing to offer.

Christ's College

At the age of 13 I was sent to a very traditional school in Christchurch, Christ’s College that has educated many sons of the Canterbury ruling class and farmers to become influential, successful - but emotionally- stunted members of New Zealand Society.

1970. Halswell My first year at Christ's College, I am in my school uniform while my sister Kathy is preparing to leave for her first overseas trip and has left her job as a secretary-typist with Shacklocks. This is one of the only photos I have as I destroyed any photos connected with the detested Chris's College.

I obviously didn’t do well at the entrance examination for I was relegated to 3C, a midstream class. Even though, as I realise in retrospect, I was offered a good education and had several fine teachers I did not thrive and my more creative and imaginative side was largely suppressed. Consequently I only studied with due diligence those things that caught my imagination and I often found myself punished for minor infractions that I cannot recall any longer. I am sure that the real reason was that I was “different”.

I was punished, partially for my lack of attention to schoolwork, but also for my association with a wonderful teacher, Frank Andrews who did foster my creative side as well is my passion for astronomy. I think he was hated by my small-minded housemaster, “Potguts” Barton whose greatest love was for conformity to mainstream values.

A contemporary photo of my friend and guiding light through my years at school. Frank (aka 'Haddock') was never my teacher, but was an inspiration who my otherwise miserable experience bearable.

Consequently for some time I was barred from attending evening sessions of the Canterbury astronomical Society which were held in the Christ’s College Hall.

Obviously it was more important that I should do my three hours homework!

The boys were forbidden to walk on the quadrangle at Christ's College

I have a fairly painful memory of being sent during my lunch hour once out of the college gates and around the corner to Barton’s house where I had to ask his wife for the cane which I carried back to the House so that I could be ritually caned with all the prefects present and to come down the stairs afterwards where everyone was waiting.

No way to treat a sensitive, growing boy.

An outlet in astronomy

I found my outlet in astronomy and in stargazing. 

At the age of 14 I gave a talk to all the adults of the astronomical Society on "Stellar evolution and the Hertzsprung- Russell diagram”. 

I started a project, with my friend Greg Welch, to produce a photographic star atlas. It never came to anything but I spent many happy hours copying out information from a a star catalogue of the different constellations, as well as making some wonderful photographs of the night sky. 

Later on I was given the opportunity to give public talks on astronomy at the planetarium at the Canterbury Museum.

I developed a passion for astronomy when I was still at Waihi and read and studied as much as I could, including wonderful books by the likes of the famous Patrick Moore. I  shared this interest with another boy, Andrew Collier who was a little younger, a little more brilliant than I - he got 99% in school certicat mathematics -  and was destined to become quite a genius astronomer. 

He was,however,  a funny little boy who used to collect insects and beetles which he kept in matchboxes.

Andrew and I used to sneak out during the winter nights to star gaze and to familiarise ourselves with the constellations. 

I don’t think we had a telescope to look through but I became very familiar with the sights of the night sky. The skies were dark and very clear and I’m sure that we were able to see down to the magical sixth magnitude that are supposed to be the limit to what can be seen by the naked eye. I remember the brilliance of the Milky Way in the southern skies and seeing meteor stars and satellites crossing the sky.

The Canterbury Astronomical Society observatory in West Melton looks much like what it did 40 years ago - although there are way more trees

It was very beautiful.

Some memories become distorted by time but I’m sure my recollection is of many beautiful night skies. Now, at least in the city , it has become impossible to see more from the brightest of stars. The skies have become more polluted and affected by light and we need to designate areas "heritage areas",  such as Lake Tekapo for their dark skies.

 The clear skies that I remember from my childhood in Canterbury have gone, and,  at least here in Wellington, are less sharp and more misty than they were.

I don’t know whether it’s just age but much of the magic I felt from looking up into the heavens has gone.

Unfortunately, my ambition to become an astronomer was marred by my dislike of mathematics (taught by the hated "Potguts" Barton), mediocre marks in school certificate physics and hopeless results in chemistry.

I realised in my university entrance year, that I was not cut out to be an astronomer, so I decided, mid-year, against all advice, to give up chemistry and to take up history. I was told that it was impossible, but by the end of the year I not only passed my history examination but came second in my class.

"You're a communist"...

I was always an outsider while at secondary school but soon found another reason to stand outside the mainstream.

I had a penchant for writing away to foreign embassies for information about their countries. By far the most generous was the embassy of the USSR which sent me, not only leaflets about the huge social achievements of the USSR but also several works by Lenin.

Naturally I flaunted these books at school and the taunts came back “you’re a communist!”

Well, I thought, perhaps I am! And these comments were enough to stimulate me to find out as much as I could about Marxism -Leninism, "scientific atheism" -  and to start learning the Russian language, which I immediately excelled at.

This, naturally, was no recipe for courting popularity at a very conservative school in a conservative country and every action produced an equal reaction in me.

In short it always rankled being a 'blackball' and I started to hate the milieu that I came out of and identified with the 'people' - essentially with thee downtrodden and outsiders like myself.

Early environmental awareness

One of the results of my time at secondary school was that I did was that I received the basics of understanding of some of the problems we're facing today - put simply, overpopulation and the limits to growth.

For instance I remember quite early on, in social studies classes learning about population explosion We were taught how 2000 would be the year in which “the stork would pass the crow”. In other words,this was when the population, which was projected to reach 6 billion and would exceed the ability to feed them.

Does this sound familiar?

I was so shaken by this back then that I looked for further information and found in the school library the first book on the subject by Paul and Ann Ehrlich.

I also remember we had a wonderful liberal studies teacher, an American, Mr.Carvil Carpenter. When we did projects on the different religions - I chose, instead of studying a religion to do an project on 'atheism'. I remember distinctly reading then that Buddhism was an 'atheistic religion'. 

I also recall distinctly Mr. Carpenter quoting Jacques Cousteau about the deteriorating state of the oceans back then, in 1973.

I recall a class when one smart arse put up his hand and asked what Mr. Carpenter thought about (John) Lennon. Poor Mr. Carpenter didn't understand the question and thought he was being asked what he thought of Lenin. Naturally this produced great mirth.

Unfortunately, Mr. Carpenter, who was one of my inspirational teachers, had to leave the school very suddenly, under mysterious circumstances, which I suspect were connected with sexual misconduct.

My friend Frank Andrews, who was a biology teacher,I remember, produced a resource on a cyclostyled sheet providing anecdotes and facts of all the environmental problems of the time.

One thing that sticks in my memory from this sheet was about the effect of DDT on the eggs of baldheaded eagles in the United States. The shells, it seems, were thinning and being broken. 

Now the bald-headed eagle is under threat again.

There were I admit, looking back,many positive aspects to an education at Christ's College. But this should be available to all, not only to those that have the money to pay for it.