Tuesday, 25 February 2014



Michael Bott

“Daaaad, are we there yet?” That old chorus, familiar to all parents on trips with their children, now came from the back of my car as my three children, all under ten, complained in unison about the time it was taking to travel from Taupo to Wellington in the old Peugeot 504, as it glided along the State Highway.

Desperate to buy silence, what could I do for a diversion?  Outside the rain has morphed from drizzle to solid driving rain, snow will be falling soon. The mountains in their snow-capped glory are now obscured in a thick cloak of cloud. Taihape is still some time away. Mmmm, I know! Yes a story.

“Hey kids, do you know anything about your great, great, grandfather Edward Fraser and how he used to be a shoemaker or cobbler in Glasgow?” “No,” came the reply. “Great, and very convenient I thought.” As I looked in the rear view mirror, I saw smiles forming on their faces.

“Well a long time ago, way back last century, people in Scotland, like a lot of places came to New Zealand by sailing ship.” “Why dad?” “Well a lot of people were desperately poor, and so would sell all they had, for the chance of a better life in this new country, New Zealand.”

To try and encourage settlement, scrub and bush covered land was balloted to settlers who could purchase land cheaply, break it in, plant pasture and farm stock.

Well Edward was like that, he owned a small run down stone building in Glasgow, from where he used to earn a living making shoes. Glasgow in winter was extremely cold, money was tight, and he realised he could barely make enough money to himself and his new wife, Esmé, your great, great grandmother, let alone provide for the children when they came along. So after discussing it with his wife, they decided to sell all they had to buy a passage to New Zealand and hopefully have enough to buy some land!  So they did just that.

After bidding farewell to their parents and family, realising with heavy hearts that they would probably never see their faces again, they boarded the sailing ship, and went beneath the deck for the long voyage to New Zealand.

They had so little money, that they had to sell almost everything they had. After paying for their passage, and putting aside money for the land ballot, all they had left, apart from the clothes on their backs were a small knapsack and a pair of largish tweezers.

Anyway, after arriving in Wellington, they won a ballot and wound up with a modest block of land in the middle of the bush in place that would later be known as Dannevirke. They couldn’t afford transport, and so Edward and Esmé had to walk to their property along crude tracks and muddy dirt roads all the way up the Hutt Valley, over the Rimutaka Hill and through the length of the Wairarapa to their section. Along the way they would talk with other settlers, swap stories and Edward, would make repairs to peoples shoes. In return they were given food and a roof over their heads.

Eventually they made it to their block, for a second they gulped as they looked around them, and all they saw were huge trees and dense dark green impenetrable bush. But being nuggety and not easily put off they began breaking small branches, and making a rough bivouac to provide slight shelter from the rain that began to fall.

The next day they awoke at daybreak and your great, great grandparents began to clear the land, using only their own strength and the only tool they had, that pair of tweezers.

This was their life in this new country of promise – back breaking hard toil. For food they ate fern roots. Using the tweezers, bound onto a tree branch with flax fibre, Edward found he could fashion a crude spear that he could use to bring down the odd pigeon, skewer bush rats and spear slippery eels from the nearby streams. At night they would sleep on fern branches, with their shared body heat for warmth.

After three years, your great, great grandfather despite his efforts had just cut half way through a totara tree with his tweezers, but Edward didn’t give up, he kept going. He wanted to provide a better future, made with his own hands and sweat for his family.

At night Esmé would call him in to the bivouac for dinner, usually for a meal cooked on an open fire of sooty fern roots and rat or whatever meat was to hand. Edward was slow in coming in, he would be out chipping away, determined to at least bring down one tree within five years. Despite being desperately poor, Esmé did not mind, as she told her children in later years, “we might have been poor, but I had the best shaped eyebrows in the district!”

One day a party of marauding Maori were going through the bush. They crept stealthily through the undergrowth, taiaha and mere firmly in their grasp. They were on the run from troubles up country and did not take kindly to settlers, especially the ones they saw before them now.

Edward looked up and saw these strong half naked men before him. The only weapon he had were those tweezers he had bought all the way from Glasgow. He was going to fight, not just for himself, he had added incentive, he had to protect his Esmé.

The warriors advanced on him determined to attack. Bravely Edward fought them off with the tweezers, savagely pinching their skin. A taiaha would swing, Edward would duck and swerve then deftly move to deliver a savage savage pinch to the cheeks, thighs, anywhere he could target on the bodies of his attackers. After half and hour of intense and desperate fighting, the marauders gave up exhausted and badly bruised. As they beat a dejected and bruised retreat into the safety of the bush they cursed as they went, “that plucking fakeha!”

Friday, 14 February 2014



By Michael Bott

Many years ago when I was a teenager I used to cycle home from school and would often call in on some friends of mine, the Turnbull’s. Jim and his wife Marjorie were English, their family had grown up and moved on, and they lived in an old house that Jim, who was an architect, had extended and painstakingly restored.

When I used to call by they were in their youthful 70’s. Their offspring, like most children eventually do, had flown the coop, established families of their own and would only return for Christmas and the odd occasion.

Jim and Marjorie had a huge garden, full of old rhododendrons, bay trees, fruit trees – groaning with fruit in season and a large kitchen garden with raspberries, strawberries and gooseberries and rows of neatly ordered vegetables.

Anyway after school probably once or twice a week I would call in, park my bike in the car port and go into the kitchen for a glass of milk or a cup of tea and a piece of slice or a biscuit from the tins and would either help in the garden or just talk with Mrs Turnbull about how to take the laterals out of young tomato plants, or about a piece of poetry or anything.

As we talked I would marvel at the old furniture, paintings and books that festooned the walls and tables. Jim and his wife came from very old stock and over the years had inherited and or bought pieces of furniture from “the old country.”

One day, an old welsh dresser turned up in their living room, I marvelled at it. It was intricately carved with lion head handles, scrollwork and rope edging. The wood was heavy and dark with the grease of hands, long since passed.  This was a novelty to me. When I was a child, anything that was old was “got rid of”, and old carved kauri or oak pieces from family that had passed on, were taken to the tip, to be replaced by the latest mass produced chipboard and plastic veneer offerings. “Where did that come from?” I asked. “That’s an old dresser that comes from my mother’s house. We’ve had it for over three hundred years” Mrs Turnbull replied. “She’s brought some of the larger items with her and come to live with us. I was then introduced to a small shrunken Welsh woman who looked almost as old as the dresser.

Mrs Evans was small and wizened with dark eyes that sparkled with mischief and life. She was the first person I had met who was 100 years old. Seasons came and went and my visits also included time with Mrs Evans. We would read to each other, play backgammon and I would listen enthralled and Mrs Evans would tell me about living through the War, “making do” on rations and of hearing Churchill on the radio.

Over the next two years we became good friends. As I visited I became aware that the passage of time was moving quickly for Mrs Evans. I watched her shrink even more than I first thought possible and by degrees she stopped venturing out and in the end began to spend her days resting in her bed.

When I was small time used to travel, I thought, very slowly.  Christmas, the event by which I marked time, took an aeon to come around again. As I have grown older it seems to come around in the twinkling of an eye. So I guess for someone as old as Mrs Evans was, though she moved at glacial speed, time must have felt like a roller coaster.

I have a clear memory of Mrs Evans resting in her old carved double bed. It was autumn and the leaves were turning a thin parchment brown and gradually falling to the earth. I was reading her "The Hand of Glory” from the Ingoldsby Legends:

ON the lone bleak moor,
At the midnight hour,
Beneath the Gallows Tree,
Hand in hand
The Murderers stand
By one, by two, by three!
And the Moon that night
With a grey, cold light
Each baleful object tips;
One half of her form
Is seen through the storm,
The other half 's hid in Eclipse
! ….

As Mrs Evans rested, her eyes shut in meditation a thin stream of spittle formed on the corner of her mouth and travelled to her chin. She laughed as I read. Suddenly she stirred and produced a small cellophane bag containing nuts from under her pillow. “Here have one,” she said. “They’re really rather good.” I gratefully took the bag, grabbed a couple of nuts and placed them in my mouth and began to chew. “You know”, she said, “Some friends sent me these lovely toffees from home, I suck the toffee off, but my teeth can’t handle the nut centres, so I save them.”