Moving to New Zealand’s biggest city came as a very exciting culture shock to an Innocent Country Boy™ whose urban experiences had previously extended only to Eltham and Palmerston North.
I managed to secure a place in a flat about two blocks away from Eden Park and became a bus commuter. This was a flashback to my high school years where a long ride on a bus each day was a key component of getting to and from Stratford High School. Summer afternoons after work at Eden Park were also something special, usually involving me and a few dozen others either watching Auckland or New Zealand teams ply their craft.
The Farmer was, in those years, New Zealand’s most successful agricultural publication. An A4 bound magazine, it had over 30,000 paid subscribers and was published on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month. It was well backed by advertisers. It was a goldmine for NZ News Group.
Its staff were extremely skilled and experienced and all had served The Farmer for many years. I was greener than the Taranaki grass I had been raised on, in that respect. Like David Carradine’s Grasshopper, I had much to learn.
These were the days where smoking at work was acceptable. Indeed in the case of journalism I think it was something that seemed to be a mandatory part of the training regime. We had Adler Gabriele typewriters -- not a plug nor an electron in sight. We hammered out our stories onto copy-paper sandwiches, with a carbon paper filling cutting a copy of everything we wrote. Changes and layout instructions were marked onto these by hand before being sent off to the Star building for typesetting.
A couple of our production team were Buddhists. I’d never met one of those before. At lunchtime they used to get visited by their mates who had shaved heads, sandalled feet and who wore flowing saffron robes. They were all top blokes who enjoyed a chat. I learned a lot about meditation. One revealed that the worst thing about meditating outdoors in Nepal wasn’t the cold, rather it was the weight of the snow on his shoulders.
One of the production team was also a part-time homoeopath. So too was his “wife”, who was also a very “out” lesbian. I’d never met one of those before, well at least not one of the “very out” variety. Her partner was a former New Zealand womens shotputter, with ginger hair stylishly coiffed into a Number 2 cut. Quite memorable, she was. The first time I met her she was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “women need men like fish need bicycles”. Like Annie Lennox, who was I to disagree?
The chief subeditor had been in the business since Johannes Gutenberg set up shop. He was unwavering on points of style and reinforced his views by whacking the backs of my knuckles with a steel ruler. For that reason I too have some immutable style points which I have emblazoned deep in my consciousness, and probably my unconsciousness. I may also even have some scars on my knuckles, slow learner that I am. The first thing I notice on a menu or cafe’s specials board are the typos. Apostrophes will be the death of me. Same deal for Americanised English, particularly the word ass instead of arse. The split infinitive is NOT a grammatical error. And so it goes.
Within a month of starting with the Farmer I had writer’s block mastered. I was always amazed by and envious of my colleagues who could sit at their typewriters all day and hammer stuff out. Page after page after page. I required a few cups of instant coffee (real coffee hadn’t been invented back then) and collegial conversations to get my days underway.
However after a few months I had been appointed to the role of “North Island feature writer”. This was one of the coolest jobs I’ve ever had. One week out of every four was spent on the road visiting people in remote places who were doing really interesting stuff. Usually at least two such folk were visited each day, sometimes three a day on easier country. The other three weeks of the month were spent writing up these stories and setting up the next road trip. I had a work car -- a Honda Civic -- and became a connoisseur of country hotel breakfasts. The Riverina Hotel in Hamilton could not be beaten on that score. I also got really good at drinking cups of tea and eating scones at farmers’ dining tables.
I discovered people farming breeds of sheep I’d never heard of before, got to the end of the North Island’s longest no exit road, played with big machinery, learned about blueberries and other new exotic fruit, watched napalm being applied by helicopters at dawn, saw first-hand a Gotcha Gun being used to snare deer from a helicopter, and met some great new entrants working their arses off to make a go of their farms. I also managed to get to the South Island on occasion and got some great stories from the last ever Department of Lands & Survey ballot farm draw in the Te Anau basin. The early 1980s were a pretty special time for agriculture in New Zealand and it was great to be able to observe and write about these.
The North Island’s longest no exit road runs up the Waitotara River valley, from the Waitotara township to Ngamatapouri. This is about a 45 km journey, but it takes forever. Well, probably a few minutes change out of two hours one way. Anybody who is interested in scenic countryside, “hard” hill country (vertical to overhanging in places), swing bridges or geology should do this trip. Seriously.
Auckland in the early 1980s was pretty cool too. Exotic takeaways, ethnic food, cocktail bars and it was well placed for the occasional spot of scuba diving. It had its own traffic cops and interesting weather. The first thing I bought in Auckland was a clothes drier. There were also 26 wet weekends in a row at one stage -- and yes, I did keep count. That’s the main reason I took up squash, as an indoor sport had a climate reliability factor. My club also had a mixed sauna, but that’s probably another story for an Innocent Country Boy™.
Eventually new doors opened and I moved away from the Farmer and subsequently away from Auckland. I have a curiosity that makes me walk through new doors.