Sunday, February 11, 2007

Savage Crescent

It's official. 2007 will be the longest year in politics ever. Key has set the agenda, channeling Norm Kirk with the underclass thing. It's got everyone talking. Helen Clark will have to pull some phenomenal rabbit out of the bag to regain the initiative in her speech to Parliament this week. Methinks the CO2 bunny will not be enough.

The MSM have it in for Labour. The knives are out, and it's not just down at TVNZ. Witness this juxtaposition of public interaction:

This is masterful stuff. While Helen Clark has been photo-opping with Sir Ed, Key has countered with... common people. Where to from here for Key's strategy? Some have missed the whole point of this Food in Schools thing. Food is not the ends, only the means. The important thing is schools. The underclass is nothing new. Here's an underclass story for you, from the Book of Trev:

"I had always wanted to be a lawyer. This desire did not arise out of any great view that law was a dedicated and positive social occupation. Our family had no money and lawyers drove the best cars and lived in the larger houses. This was obvious to a grocery delivery boy when he delivered to their homes.

I had never in my political life desired to abolish the Westhaven Yacht Marina or to prevent ownership of a Mercedes. My view has always been that I wanted a boat and good car, and the way to achieve that was to get a good education and work to get that house, boat and car. Whatever the "do gooders" in life say, I knew early that money might not be happiness but it enabled a choice of the best form of misery. My mother constantly told me that education was the way out of the working class rut.

Mary McDonald was a daughter among five others of an intolerant Orangeman and Presbyterian. At the age of 14, she left home with little formal education to work in a funeral parlour washing and laying out the bodies. Her life was one of constant domestic work both in her own home and for doctors and lawyers and other people better off in life.

There were four children in our family - my brother Leo was born in 1909 and my two sisters, Doreen and Dulcie, followed soon after. I was the junior, born eight and a half years after the younger of my sisters, Dulcie. Mum hated pomposity or people who "got up themselves". When I told her I might have been a mistake, her reply was "I tried for 8 years to have you but if I knew what you would turn out like, I wouldn't have tried 8 minutes."

No money in the home but always bread and lard, dumplings - beef tea - always something when I arrived home from school. The house was always clean to the point of perfection. The bed had in winter flannelette sheets and a hot water bottle. Looking back on it, the love and care was always there but not displayed in open acts of affection. That wasn't just our family's experience. I believe it to have been a general attitude in the years during which I was a child.

Mum and Pop had suffered in the Depression. They had owned a house in St. John's Avenue in Plamerston North, where I was born on 24th March 1933. The mortgage payments could not be met from the war pension and the house went. Thereafter was a succession of rented houses. Pop with his war wages from the Army on demobilisation had with pride bought Mum a four diamond engagement ring. Later and unknown to him, she sold the diamonds - replaced them with glass. She spent the money on us kids!

Pop would get some extra work as a carpenter, in which occupation he had been previously trained, but the pain of his shrapnel wounds would constantly be with him. He would get drunk, abuse the boss, and be out of work again. He worked for some time in 1938-39 for a building contractor named H.E. Townsend Limited. This contractor obtained a contract with the NZ Labour Government of 1935-38 to build state houses in the West End area of Palmerston North.

The development was then and still is a model of Labour Party success in the provision of Government Housing for its working class voters. The one quarter acre paradise saw the houses separately designed, meticulously built of heart rimu or brick, tile roofs, copper spouting and the best materials generally. There was to be a tool shed to keep the hand mower and garden tools in. The back yard was more than sufficient to grow a substantial vegetable garden with room left over for the kids to play in.

There were no garages attached to the houses. There was no need because the working class had no cars. The bicycle was king. There were two blocks of about 14 garages which provided in the central area in the development of the 300 or so houses. We got a State House in Savage Crescent - three bedroomed in 1939, rent 1.7s.6d per week - about one third of the week's wages.


I frequently got out of my bedroom window at night and haunted the golf courses, parks and fields and gardens on my bike. The Acclimatisation Society paid one shilling for a hedgehog's nose. They ate the duck's eggs. I would use my bike light and torch, find them , knife them - cut off the nose and take the noses to the Ranger. Some nights I would get 20 or so. A pound, at a time when a grown man's wages was 5 or 6 pound a week.

I always had a pre-school and after-school job as early as Primary School. Weighing sugar and flour at the corner grocery store - delivery boy for the grocer and printers. The empty drink bottles could be taken back to the dairy. Six got you a small bottle of fizz. A sack of pine cones from the Esplanade trees, taken round on a cart Pop had made for me, got you 2 shillings and sixpence from the "better off".

There were, of course, no police around. It was war time and able-bodied men were in the forces.The kids from West End School ran riot with Shanghais. The older ones with bub guns. Bush nuts in the Esplanade trees and war between our gangs. One kid got his eye poked out with a bamboo arrow from a bamboo bow.

There were no toys. There wasn't much money for them. As a young kid, Pop made me wooden boats for the bathtub with a cotton reel spindle. My Shanghai was of old car tube with a wooden clothes peg and the tongue of an old shoe for the pouch. We got very good with these, shooting out light bulbs and insulators on power poles.

Our family was, I think, typical of a working class family in the State House block in West End, Palmerston North. The real difference I think now was the absolute determination of Mum to better us. The Labour Government reforms had also given me a chance of education not made available to my brothers and sisters. I think they had as many brains as I had but they didn't have the opportunity.

Even at Primary School, the teachers stayed after school both to supervise sports and to help with extra work if a lad wanted or needed it. My debt in my life to my teachers and professors is profound. They not only "learned me", they gave me a taste for knowledge and reading that has proved to be a basic component of my whole existence. Miss Merriles and Mrs Gosnell at West End Primary School must have seen some worth in their pupil de Cleene, for they would give me extra work and teaching.

After Standard Four, we went to Intermediate Forms I and II. There, the kids were segregated according to Academic ability. I AL and II AL were the top classes in each year and I managed to get into both. It was competitive, not the absolute rubbish that is taught now that all kids are of equal ability and that academic competition is wrong. When Mum read my report and learned that I was 2nd or 3rd in class, she wanted to know why I wasn't first.

I remember the absolute contempt I later felt in my own caucus when our Minister of Education, Russell Marshall from Wanganui, recommended 15% or so as a School Cert pass. In his view, everyone should pass. Life is a competitive arena and the spoils go to the successful.

My teachers were well educated, well dressed. Teaching was a vocation - not just a job. While today there are such teachers in the private and better public schools, they are not in the majority. Most teachers today are in my opinion scarcely themselves literate in the full sense of being educated widely. I have met some that think Julius Caesar was a racehorse and Shakespeare its trainer. We turn loose on our children in their most formative years teachers whose knowledge and ability is abysmal.

Their unions believe all teachers are equal and should be equally paid. Recognition of greater ability, dedication and production is not permitted. These unions are disastrous. Education of our children is the most important function of our society. It is far too important to leave it to a Ministry of Education and to teachers who simply start from the thesis that all people are created equal.

I remind them that, while that may be so in the eyes of the Lord, that the best we can do in life is to promote equal opportunity. If people do not grasp that opportunity of education given to them, they should not be jealous later of those that did and have reaped the reward of such an approach. Any kid of whatever ethnic background that wants to duck school, get drunk, take drugs or generally ignore his or her opportunities has only themselves to blame for their later status in life."

My money is on the Nats blitzing the Education portfolio this year.