Connie Summers: The only NZ woman to be jailed for speaking out against WWIIby John Summers
John Summers remembers his grandmother, a formidable woman of her times. In the following essay, he reflects on the life and times of his art-loving and six-times-arrested, staunchly pacifist grandmother – the redoubtable Connie Summers.
In the years that I knew her, my grandmother was a tiny woman, hunched short. She wore her grey hair long and straight, and her clothes were bold: black, gold or purple. We called her Grandma, never Nana or anything like that. Adults knew her as Connie. Her parents had named her Constance. Did they know something, have an inkling? Or perhaps shape her to fit? The name could have come from a bad novelist, it fit her character so well.
A member of a Christian pacifist group in her youth, she was the only woman in New Zealand to be arrested and imprisoned for speaking out against World War II. In later life, she was arrested again, five times in fact, for protesting the Springbok tours. Both were causes she believed in until her death. When that came, years later than her own casual predictions, we farewelled her in the funeral director’s chapel. A white, carpeted room, air-conditioned and untainted by any symbol of religion. Death’s equivalent of a show home.
While I had mourned my mother’s parents in similar places, it seemed odd at first to see Grandma there, lying in her casket in those clothes, wrapped with an Indian shawl, too distinctive for that bland space. But those white walls had, by design I guess, the effect of blank canvas, and during the hours of her funeral, the room changed. Her seven children filled it, all dressed boldly too, talking loudly and giving their opinions. They sang a hymn about a dancing Jesus: “I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black. It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back.”
My father began his eulogy by observing that Grandma “was certainly not effusive, joyous, demonstrative, living life to the fullest as the cliche of modern funerals has it”. And Uncle Gwilym, who had flown in from Byron Bay, Australia, finished an emotional speech by calling on “the divine feminine archetype, the indigenous healers whose feet are firmly planted on the ground”.
It was afterwards, though, at her house, an enormous villa down the road from Sunnyside Hospital’s smokestack, that the noise and bustle of the assembled Summerses made more sense. The house was expansive, high ceilinged. There was room for their loud talk. They chatted in rooms lined with bright flocked paper, beneath an iron chandelier, surrounded by paintings: a McCahon of Nelson hills, a huge grey, weary face by Tony Fomison and, biggest of all, two metres high, a Philip Trusttum of flowers that was both bright and dark, and which bulged with slathered-on paint. Against all that colour and visual noise, the family seemed mild almost. It was the last time I saw them all in the one place, and it was my last look at that world, the world of my grandparents.
I had visited that house often as a child, usually in the evening, en route to Dad’s, where my brother and I stayed fortnightly. Grandad would come to the door, a big man in a brown suit, all wild, long white hair. He welcomed my brother and I with two squares of Dairy Milk each, and with those melting in our hands, we took our seats in the lounge to listen while he, Dad and Grandma talked. Mostly, though, Grandad talked. I sat quietly throughout, gawping at those pictures, especially one above the open fire, a Rubens print of two men struggling to lift a naked woman onto a horse.
Grandad didn’t adjust his conversation for our presence, although once, perhaps seeing we were bored, he read one of his poems that he thought might appeal because it included a polar bear. He read it standing up, his face ruddy. Suddenly, for one line, he hit top volume. I was terrified. At other times they would visit us, roaring up Dad’s driveway in their Wolseley, the brake lights patched with red electrical tape where Grandad had backed into trees or fences. When we sat down for lunch, he spooned out jam so he could eat it straight off the plate, forgoing bread.
“Now I have no duty/but to be,/ and to breathe deep”, he wrote in another poem, and when I last saw him, he was doing just that, an oxygen mask at his face as he lay swaddled in the hospital’s sheets. Although he was dying, he seemed large to me. I was told he’d been complaining about the picture on the hospital wall. It made sense that we were all there looking at him.
I missed his funeral. I was 11 then, and I spent the day at home sick. I know it was loud still – my brother told me there had been bagpipes – and like the days I knew him, he was of course at the centre, always the scene stealer with that long, white hair. Grandma had always been there too, but somehow behind, beside. He revved the Wolseley, while she fastened her seatbelt. It was after his death, the house less one occupant, that I began to see she had a personality that filled those rooms too. Not in a big way like his, but by being sharp, hard even, always there. We visited in the evening as we always had, and now she did the talking. As her hearing went, she became loud, and she used her words precisely; she enunciated. I would greet her, saying “Hi” as I did for everyone else, and as the word left my mouth it would feel too casual, moronic even. Like “cool” or “eh”, it didn’t belong in that dark, old house where she sat and listened to Parliament on National Radio and complained about the foolish things the MPs said. Once, she told us she’d heard an interview with a poet who described herself as spiritual, but not religious. Grandma showed her disapproval by simply repeating this loudly, arching her brows and allowing a pause. It was woolly thinking, she seemed to say. Her own views were hard-edged and definite.
As a student, no longer living at home, I began to visit her myself, in my own car. Not often – she was still a forbidding presence in many ways. But from time to time, I’d call and tell her I planned to come around. There was always something very matter-of-fact about this. “Oh yes, well, I’ll see you then,” she’d say. I’d bring my girlfriend sometimes, and we’d sit in chairs arranged in her bedroom, the only room heated, and shout our conversation – she was really deaf by then. “I suppose you’ll want to look at some paintings,” she said once, correctly guessing what I’d told my girlfriend on the way over, and she showed us around, pointing at each picture with her walking stick.
She was fearsome like that, cutting through small talk and niceties. Instead she might gossip, sharing an anecdote about one of my aunts or uncles. She knew everything everyone was up to. She knew that between studies I did odd jobs, everything from gardening to painting to dismantling Santa’s grotto in a shopping mall, because once she asked me to come over and help with her garden. Not for love – she insisted on paying, and when I did come around, to pull weeds and gather up the cabbage tree fronds, she came out and spoke approvingly about hard work. Her father, she said, had been a labourer in Oxford, the small Canterbury town where she was born a few months after the end of World War I. He was a socialist, a supporter of the Labour Party, who would cycle almost 50km along shingle roads to attend political meetings in Christchurch. These beliefs had almost cost him his job. Someone had told his boss he was a communist and the best thing for it was to give him the sack, but the boss had said he didn’t care: the man worked too hard for them to be bothered by his politics.
Hard work. Politics. I know now that she told this story a lot, and I heard it again, just recently, from my Aunt Bronwen. I spoke to her and to my Aunt Faith, my Uncle Llew and my father as well, asking the questions I’d never thought to ask, and quite a few I’d never dare ask, back when I stood in the yard holding a bunch of cabbage tree fronds (good for starting the fire, Grandma had said). She had always seemed too tough to me to quiz her on her past life. It was she who told you what was important. I asked her the odd gentle thing, but for the most part, I was still the kid quietly listening, peering at the pictures; sure that she was simply Grandma, in her own world. Those clothes and opinions, that house. You couldn’t not notice any of it, and I mistook my impressions for knowing, so that now when I’m reminded of her, by something in the news or a work of art maybe, I might wonder what she would have thought, and all I can do is guess. Really, I have no idea.
I headed back to Christchurch to ask those siblings some of these questions, to understand that pacifism and her politics, but also about the person she was. The person Grandad was, too – he was never far in any of these conversations, his big presence easier to summon in many ways.
My Aunt Bronwen had the most to say of the four, and we spent several hours talking. She came to the door in a black T-shirt, printed with “Free West Papua”. Like the others, she was thin, something I’ve always attributed to the Summers’ intensity, their live-wire energy. Without warning, she’d shout something outrageous Grandad once said, mimic an accent. It’s an energy I lack, and I sat umming and ahhing my questions, chewing on a cracker. I think all of the seven siblings hold similar political beliefs to their parents, left of centre and anti-war if not outright pacifist. But Bronwen, who once worked for the late Green co-leader Rod Donald, is arguably the most politically active member of the family now.
While we chatted, her husband, veteran activist John Minto, typed away at what looked like Mana Party policy. Great-Grandad was known as the “little communist”, she said, and his politics had their antecedents too. His mother once witnessed a hanging, and the spectacle, the crowd gathered to see someone dangling by their neck, had disgusted her, turned her against violence. It was the beginning of a thread that runs through my family to this day.
My Aunt Faith is the oldest of the seven siblings, and was the more subdued of the four I spoke to – no shouts, no accents. Her interests were gentler, too; an enormous loom was parked in her home, a tidy, new townhouse in a nice subdivision. But as with the others, we spoke in a room that echoed that big, old house near the smokestack, full of paintings and Morris prints, dark wood and loads of books. She told me that Grandma, one of 10 children, read the paper avidly even in childhood. She joined a socialist movement and became a pacifist in her teens. I assume she had her father’s approval for that, but Faith told me that her joining the Baptist church, and then later the Methodists, upset him. “He stopped speaking to her,” she said. “He got cross because she joined the church.” As well as a socialist, he was an agnostic. And while I’m on labels, she told me he was a vegetarian and a teetotaller, too.
Bell could hardly have included himself in that “swayed so much as most of us are by what other people think”. He was one of the key figures in a group called the No More War Movement, and as well as pacifism, he advocated for an end to colonialism in India and Samoa, and for racial and economic equality. He was a sort of vegan before it was cool – he not only refused to eat meat, but also to wear leather shoes – and was quite probably a genius, holding honours degrees from three universities and speaking six languages, including Maori and Greek.
Bell’s No More War Movement was just one of many pacifist groups described in Out in the Cold. Formed between the wars, their goals were global. The loss of thousands of men in French fields and on Turkish cliffs, and many more misshapen or shell-shocked, led these New Zealanders to question war, and to also ask themselves what they might do about it. They belie the notion of 20th-century New Zealand as a country sure of its own insignificance, importing its culture and striving without hope of impact beyond its borders. Instead, these groups met in parlours and in church halls, in Christchurch, Dunedin, Wellington, with the aim of nothing less than world peace. There was the New Zealand League of Nations Union, which advocated for that feeble organisation as a means to peace and disarmament; the Peace Pledge Union; the short-lived Fellowship of Reconciliation; and the Christian Pacifist Society, as well as Bell’s No More War Movement, whose members pledged to work for “total disarmament, the removal of all causes of war and the establishment of a new order based on pacifist principles for the common good”.
Grandma joined both the No More War Movement and the Christian Pacifist Society; the latter was led by the Reverend Ormond Burton and A.C. Barrington, a Wellington accountant. At age 20, she moved to Wellington to look for office work, and she boarded firstly with Barrington’s family, and then, after a brief return to Christchurch to organise her mother’s funeral, with Burton and his wife. While the other-worldly Bell failed to gain much support for his causes, Barrington and Burton were charismatic, energetic leaders. Barrington had toured the North Island to spread his anti-war message, enduring taunts, attacks and even the destruction of his soapbox. He was, according to one fellow pacifist, John McCreary, “essentially an aggressive man. He went out looking for argument.” Burton, on the other hand, McCreary described as saintly. He was a hero of World War I, had carried the wounded at Gallipoli, fought in Flanders Fields and was decorated by both the French and the British. Back then, he’d bought that line about the war to end all wars, believing he had helped to forever smash Prussian militarism. But the vengeful nature of the Versailles Treaty and the warmongering that followed contributed to his becoming a staunch and unyielding pacifist.
In Wellington, Grandma joined Burton’s group, walking the streets with sandwich boards painted, at his insistence, with scenes of Great War-era carnage. She worked as a ledger keeper and at the Centennial Exhibition; the outbreak of the war ruined another of her job opportunities, working for a man who imported German-made medical equipment. But it must have galvanised her pacifism. Grant tells me that as the “phony war” – the relatively uneventful early months of the war – came to an end and the fighting started in earnest, many Christian Pacifists opted to soften their protest, and retreat to study groups. A personal pacifism. My grandmother would instead side with a minority that opposed the war as publicly as they could. They did this even as the government wound the screws tighter and tighter on dissent or opposition to the war. Emergency regulations were passed. Pacifists were banned from holding open-air meetings and anti-war publications were censored. This was a mind-bending level of hypocrisy, even by politicians’ standards. The government that introduced these laws, not through parliament but simply as edicts from Cabinet, included several men who had been incarcerated for speaking against conscription during World War I. Prime Minister Peter Fraser had done time for this, and so had Bob Semple, who would draw the first ball from the ballot when conscription returned in 1940. “They did not want to be seen to be lenient on any dissenters,” Grant told me. “It was also the toughest country among the Allies in dealing with defaulting conscientious objectors, who they put away for the duration of the war in prison camps, whereas in the other allied countries – Britain, Australia, Canada, the United States – that wasn’t the case.”
Still, that hard core of Christian pacifists continued their protest. They had drawn up a roster of their names, and following this, one by one, week by week, they spoke at points around Wellington: the Basin Reserve, Cuba St and Pigeon Park. Crowds gathered to hear them, a few to heckle, and they usually only managed a few words before they were hauled off by the police and later charged with either obstructing a constable, or holding a prohibited meeting. The former came with three month’s imprisonment, the latter 12. Both Barrington and Burton took their place on this roster, and duly did their time. Burton would write of watching from Mt Crawford Prison garden as a troopship left Wellington Harbour, another batch of young lives steaming toward a foreign war. As a pacifist, a minister and, at that moment most of all, a veteran, Burton held his shovel aloft in salute.
Eight men had been sent to prison by the time my grandmother’s name came up on that roster. The only woman. Someone tried to dissuade her, arguing that she wasn’t important enough within the movement. But on Friday, May 12, 1941, she made her way to Pigeon Park. Word had got out that a woman would speak, and more than 1000 people had gathered. They watched her and a friend drag a butter-box forward, out into the middle of them all. The police watched, too. One young constable pleaded with her. “Please, miss,” he said.
“Good on you, lady,” yelled a man in the ground. Another shouted at her to go home.
She stepped up onto the box. She said, “The Lord Jesus Christ tells us to love one another…”
And that was it, as far as she got before Superintendent C.W. Lopdell, head of the Wellington Police, hurried forward and placed her under arrest. She was bailed till her trial the following Monday. It went quickly, predictably. The Evening Post reported the judge’s words, “Everyone knows the whole Empire is in probably the most serious position that it has ever been in all its long history, and everyone has to pull together if it is to get through.” She chose to defend herself, pleading not guilty and referring to the Bible. Always making a point, she also asked why she hadn’t been charged with attempting to hold a prohibited meeting like the men before her. “Because we decided to be as considerate to you as we possibly could,” was Lopdell’s response. She was sentenced to the maximum sentence for that considerate charge – three months’ hard labour, and taken away in a Black Maria police vehicle.
She spent that time at Point Halswell Reformatory, on a windy peninsula in the harbour. After each day’s work, she was shut up from 4pm until 6am the next morning, without a toilet. Prisoners were allowed a weekly bath. She wasn’t unprepared for all this: prison had been a certainty. “I took the verdict as I have taken this whole affair – with a sure knowledge of my own rightness – and the fact that it is a maximum didn’t worry me very much – I had my case packed ready for the fray.” She wrote this to her brother, in one of 12 letters tucked into envelopes stamped “On His Majesty’s Service” that, on her death, were part of a mass of papers deposited at Canterbury University’s MacMillan Brown Library.
My sister, Tui, told me about these letters, and on an autumn Friday, the campus full of red and gold leaves, a few still clinging to green, I spent the day in the MacMillan Brown’s neat, bright reading room. Ironically, it was the Friday of an Anzac weekend, between terms. Only the odd postgraduate came in to fetch another book for their neverending literature reviews, and so I sat in silence, listening to my grandmother’s 22-year-old self: “My friends assure me it will go down in history, but I’m equally sure most people will just think I was in for striking a policeman while drunk or some such thing.”
She wrote about her visitors, politics and the prison work: gardening, but also chopping wood when the weather was too wet to work in the yard. “I can’t say too much about myself at the end of an axe – I’m much better with a small fork in my hand. However, that doesn’t matter.” Although, seven days later she told her brother, “I’m sorry you can’t imagine me wielding an axe because I’m not that bad – you will be surprised at all the things I can do and a lot of those I can’t.”
Again and again, she wrote of the cold. Prison uniforms were thin, cotton things. June and July in Wellington brought wet, chilling winds, and the reformatory was on an exposed point, whipped by southerlies.
“The cold is the only thing worrying me at the moment and that has always been so... I think all are feeling the cold which has been awful this past week.”
Occasionally, she wrote about the war. This surprised me. I had a notion that her opposition to the war meant withdrawal from the issue, a position above the worldly concerns of who was fighting who. But it was clear in those letters that she had followed it closely, still the girl who read the paper. She expressed scepticism at Russia’s ability to hold off the Nazis after “too many walkover victories” and the long time it took them to defeat Finland.
She wrote of her surprise to realise that in 1941, when the war just began to ramp up in Europe, Japan and China had already been fighting for years. These thoughts were followed by a comment on the destruction and senselessness of conflict – “I don’t understand man’s terrific desire to destroy and go on destroying” – just as there was the comment, “that doesn’t matter” to follow her discussion of her axe skills, and disclaimers to those complaints about the cold: “I suppose that it is just the season of the year.”
She downplayed the hardship she had endured for her pacifism, Dad would tell me, and she later expressed embarrassment for finding prison hard, well aware that others were dying in that war. Families were losing their fathers, brothers and sons. In one letter she wrote, “But of course when winter comes spring cannot be far behind and I’m sure we will more than survive.”
Her brother wasn’t the only person reading those letters. In one, she wrote of the need for discretion; they were surely subject to the censor’s gaze. For her uncensored thoughts, I looked to a few scraps of paper on which for 10 days she’d kept a diary, something prohibited in prison back then. In it, she again described the cold – she “went to bed frozen” on August 3 – and the work. As you might expect from someone doing hard labour in that cold, she’s also especially attentive to food. On August 1, prisoners ate fish pie and spinach for their dinner, enjoying a “reasonable helping” of the pie even if the spinach was “very tasteless”. On the third, it was roast meat, cabbage and potatoes, stew on the fourth, boiled meat and swede on the fifth, and so on. It doesn’t sound too bad, although the portions must have been poor; I would later come across an interview where she spoke of waking in the night, hungry.
The diary is also where she briefly described her fellow inmates. There was a “drunk”, too weak to lift her end of a bag of potatoes, a prostitute, and “the other girl I understand removed her unborn child by means of a crochet hook”.
That picture was taken on Show Day, 1938. He was 22 by then, and had been knocking about the country, working as a farmhand and a labourer. He washed cars at a Dunedin garage. He spent two terms at Otago University and, at his mother’s insistence, did a stint at an agriculture school in Bulls. Drifting maybe, or searching. With his labourer’s wages he bought books about the great art galleries and the old masters, and he studied these in his spare hours. He was corresponding with the poet Ursula Bethell, seeking her advice on what to read and how to pursue a life of letters. He joined the Quaker church, he participated in pacifist groups, and it was through them that in the same year, 1938, he met my grandmother.
Later, he wrote of her as always giggling at the meetings he went to, and when he joined her and a Quaker friend at a street meeting, he discovered they were then too high-minded to spruik for their cause. It doesn’t sound like the old lady I knew, but his description of himself rang true enough. He wrote of taking it upon himself to preach to the crowd, and he “spouted of the harmony of the beech tree nearby, of starry splendours above that war and warmongering disrupt”.
When they next met, in Christchurch again, he’d been off labouring again and she had served her prison sentence. Although eager to see her, he was also daunted by her reputation as the only woman jailed for her beliefs. It was she who proposed within a month of their reacquaintance, and they married 20 days later. My Aunt Faith was born the following year, the first of seven children.
My Uncle Llew was the third of those children, and is well known in Christchurch now for his sculptures: fat, naked woman most often, carved from stone or cast with bronze or concrete. There were two, lolling on their brick plinths, in front of my grandparents’ house, and another sat outside Faith’s home, sticking out like a totem pole in her conservative subdivision. Llew’s own home is a fairytale place of turrets and Marseille tiles that climbs a hillside in Mt Pleasant. He and I chatted in one of its many nooks.
Like Bronwen, he was a storyteller, playing characters at times – when I listened to the recording I’d made, I’d need to turn it up and down to account for his changes in tone. It was an entertaining conversation, which regularly lapsed into art and politics, and it was later, once I’d got home, that I realised not all that much of it was actually about Grandma. It was then too, that I found he’d sent me something more via the quiet medium of email.
Once, he wrote, he’d been told to think about his earliest memories of his parents, as that would be the colour of how he viewed them. Of his father, he recalled a day by a river bank. Grandad was sitting there on the grass, reading his book while the kids played nearby. He called out to them. “Look at this,” he said, and they hurried over to see what had got his attention. There on the edge of his book crawled a caterpillar. He watched it with them, delighted.
His memory of Grandma was rather different. He had to take her some bad news – his brother had come home from school having shit his pants. He went to the back yard, and found her standing at the fence talking to the neighbour, Mrs Stothers. “What an old-fashioned name,” noted Llew. He passed on his news. “Oh, no, not again,” said Grandma.
For her, life was work, it was burden.
She did carry the very real burden of raising their seven children, of laundry and cooking and cleaning and sewing. All the work that meant he could sit by the banks of a river reading a book. Still, it is illustrative of how different their personalities could be, of why theirs was, could only have ever been, a dramatic marriage. Stubborn is the word that came up in almost every conversation I had about her. She was stubborn and she was tough, flinty and austere, checking receipts to make sure she’d been charged properly, and examining his pockets for spare cash before he left the house. If she didn’t, he would spend it.
He was a man overflowing with enthusiasms. “Passionate about the world,” Bronwen said. “The sun! And the trees! It was all pretty amazing. He would whoop up to Lake Pearson for the day and smell the wild roses.” He was an arm-waver when he got going on art or books, classical mythology, things Scottish, Christian mysticism. One story told of his looking at paintings till he was sick, desperate to intuit what made them great. That would be his education: reading, looking, letters from Ursula Bethell. An autodidact, with an almost aggressive need to share his knowledge. Knowledge that he had gathered according to his own, home-made framework. “He never knew the usual things,” my Aunt Faith said. John Walker might have broken records and won gold, but she remembered discovering, mid-conversation, that Grandad had no idea who the man was.
He believed he had an “intuitive knowledge about what made up a great painting, of what made an artwork”, said Llew. Grandad used this knowledge to review art, and occasionally he gave talks and lectures. And it was at one of these that he spoke with his usual high-voltage enthusiasm, a passion that blurred into fury. One person watching, an academic and a friend of theirs, would tell Llew that, like me listening to the polar bear poem, he found himself almost in fear. Llew later learnt that the man had a violent father and had recognised something, correctly too, in my grandfather’s volubility. “My father didn’t do anything without swearing,” Llew told me. “Jesus bloody Christ! For God’s sake! It was just instant fucking rage all the time.” On another occasion, after an argument with Grandma, he punched his hands through every single window in their washhouse, and would need to go about with his hands bandaged up as if in boxing gloves.
This temper isn’t something Grandad would have denied. “Between thought and act falls rage,” he wrote in one poem, and he owned up to it in prose too, in his wandering and discursive memoir, Dreamscape. There were two volumes to this – three were planned – and it’s in the first that he wrote of his shame when, as a young farmhand, he had lashed out and booted a stubborn calf, dislocating its shoulder. In a panic, he ran to the farmer and told him the beast had injured itself in a crush. Thankfully, the farmer quickly popped the joint back into place.
He blamed his father as the source of this temper. The man had once horsewhipped him as a child. Another story told of his father hacking apart a bicycle with an axe. My grandfather gave these examples as proof that his own rage was something in the blood, an unwelcome inheritance, as opposed to behaviour he might have learnt from his father. Whatever the cause, my grandmother would bear the consequences. He knocked her about, Bronwen said, and, by her account, she responded with stoicism, exposing his weakness, her strength: “It was almost to me like she revelled in it. She held him in her power because of it.”
“There was a certain point,” Dad said, “at which it didn’t matter how much he ranted and raved, he was just wasting his breath. She’d just decide on something.”
Later in life, talking to the Listener about her pacifism, she would give his temper as an explanation for why, despite publicly opposing war, he had agreed to serve overseas as a medical orderly and was shipped out to the Middle East and Italy: a role that would mean he wouldn’t kill. Although it didn’t preclude fighting. The only thing Dad remembers hearing about his father’s time overseas was a yarn about how he’d come close to a brawl but backed off. In hindsight, he could have knocked the guy out, he’d said. It was “some bloody macho sort of story. Nothing to do with pacifism whatsoever, in fact quite the opposite.” Grandad’s position, Dad thought, was one Grandma would have thought “half-pie”. Not true pacifism. “She would have regarded him as patching guys up to go back to war.” After all, in the reformatory she had opted for the hard work of chopping wood, rather than sewing uniforms like the other prisoners, adamant that even that was too great a contribution to the war effort.
After Grandad’s return from the war, they bought a three-bedroom cottage in Hororata, a tiny settlement on the edge of the Canterbury plains. It was basic, lacking running water and electricity. “During summer,” Grandad wrote, “field flies surged in so thickly we could take a sheet between the pair of us and, stretching it like a sail, we could usher most of them out the front door.”
My father was born while they lived there and Grandma washed his nappies by filling a kerosene tin in a nearby creek, lugging it back over a stile and boiling the water on a wood-fired stove. The plan had been for a Tolstoyan life: writing and working the land. But the two acres the house sat on were stony and he would need to work in a local box factory to get by. Still, he did write, contributing pieces on art to a magazine called Student as well as book reviews for the Southland Times, having made friends with then editor Monte Holcroft while on holiday in Invercargill.
Making connections was a knack of his. There was that correspondence with Ursula Bethell. Artists Colin McCahon and Toss Woollaston were mates from his Dunedin years. And it was his friendship with Charles Brasch, the founder of literary journal Landfall, which helped them into the home that my father, my uncle and my aunts would talk of most. Brasch, an heir to the Hallensteins’ fortune, lent them £2000 to buy a modest house on an acre at the base of the Christchurch Port Hills. They were there when Grandad started working at Whitcomb and Tombs bookshop, running their theology department, a job title that has surely gone the way of milk delivery.
It was a step up from factory work, but they were still far from flush. With seven kids to feed, they grew a large vegetable garden. Everyone remembered weekends working in it. They scavenged coke from a slag-heap in a neighbouring paddock, and they roamed the Port Hills for pine cones and mushrooms. Grandma made their clothes, even undies. “Weird-looking things,” said Llew. Grandad cut their hair. “Pretty fucking gawky.”
It sold both new and second-hand books, New Zealand histories long out of print, art books he had imported, and poetry. Somehow, through another connection, he became the supplier of New Zealand poetry to the State University of New York. They also specialised in prints, hard-to-come-by stuff like that Rubens in the lounge – it wasn’t the place for another copy of “The Laughing Cavalier”.
It was more than just a shop, though. Even now, people come up to me, prompted by my name, to tell me they remember it well, an oasis in conservative Christchurch, a salon of sorts where artists, writers and academics might congregate. “People came in there because they could talk with him,” Bronwen said. “He would fling his arms about and quote bits of poetry, history and Scottish stuff and all the stuff he was passionate about. But also, women came in there… he was a good-looking man and – in front of my mother – they would say, ‘John, just give me a little kiss.’”
He wouldn’t oblige, she said.
Patrons tended to remember my grandmother as a grim figure behind the counter, often grumpy. I can imagine that. But it was her nous that kept the lights on. She managed the finances, resisting his efforts to spend all their profits, and, on a Friday afternoon, she looked after the shop so he could write, giving him the time to produce book after book of poetry, short stories, a novel and those memoirs. The poetry I’ve read is at times beautiful, playful, obsessed with love and nature. And at times it’s overladen, as the memoir was, with allusions to higher things, the art he adored, religion and mythology. Reviewing his work, James K. Baxter would talk of his “private language”. At times, it actually is another language; some poems are in the Scots dialect Lallans: “Chiel o ane drucken Gode,/as wis ma ain maist earthy, erdly feyther.” This and those flights into high culture might be why he was a “neglected poet”. Baxter’s words again, and although he wrote them in the 70s, that status never really changed. Grandad’s poems cropped up in one, two anthologies, but no more.
It’s the shop with its space for talk of art and literature that has turned out to be the greater legacy, and the way they lived their lives too, unabashed in their love of art and in their politics. They were adding to what a New Zealander could be, living like a negative to Bill Pearson’s picture of New Zealanders in his essay, Fretful Sleepers, as distrusters of high culture and dismissers of causes. Pearson even gives “anti-conscription” as an example of the sort of thing most Kiwis would scorn.
Meanwhile, Grandad held forth in his shop amongst those prints. They organised poetry readings at their home, and raised money to buy paintings for the Robert McDougall Art Gallery. Bronwen remembered being taken out of school so she could hear, as they already had, the American singer Mahalia Jackson perform gospel. With their earnings, they began to buy art for themselves too, paintings by artists of their generation like McCahon, Woollaston, Lusk and Angus, as well as works by the next, such as Fomison and Jeffrey Harris. Art had always been his love and it became a love shared. Grandma would often choose and purchase a painting for him for Christmas or his birthday, dealing with the artist directly and, ever canny, bargaining sometimes for a good price.
Another shared interest were her clothes. He’d go with her to the shops to buy those outfits of hers, dresses that were bright or dark, often patterned, and often worn only once. She owned a baby seal fur coat at a time when they couldn’t afford a washing machine. One ensemble included a 100-year-old Chinese mandarin’s jacket. Bit by bit, they were creating that world I would remember, and when most of their kids left home they moved to the house near Sunnyside. They filled it with those paintings – they owned more than 80 original works when she died. He took out a loan to put in the parquet floor. He hung the flock wallpaper himself – much swearing was involved – and he painted the joinery white, chocolate and gold.
She continued to keep up with politics, to take stands. Her pacifism hadn’t stopped with that prison sentence and she joined an organisation for supporting conscientious objectors, again the first woman to be involved. They both protested the Vietnam War and the Springbok Tour, and in those causes, hers was the larger presence. At my Aunt Faith’s, I was shown a photograph from the tour days, showing Grandma being lifted from the ground by two policemen. You can’t see her face, but she’s easy to spot, the only protester in a fur coat. It was taken on one of the five occasions she was arrested. Grandad was arrested too, but not quite so often. “You’d be worried about him getting arrested because he’d lose his cool,” said Bronwen. Her quiet stubbornness was the greater strength. In court, Grandma quoted South African anti-apartheid activist Bram Fischer, and she said this, her own words: “Because I believe that not the law but my own conscience is what I must live by, I do not see myself as guilty.” She was let off without conviction.
There were smaller causes, too.
At the movies, she never stood for God Save the Queen. It’s not surprising that her sons were forbidden from attending cadets, but Scouts was out too because girls were barred. Bronwen remembers that when her parents learnt a classmate couldn’t afford to go on camp, they contacted the school and offered to pay.
I wondered what the authorities had made of all this. Had the spies been keeping tabs? I fired off an email to the SIS. There was a file, the acting director wrote back, but they’d destroyed it in 1994; presumably, an elderly pacifist didn’t hold much of a threat by then. She noted that Grandma herself had beat me to it – she’d asked them the same thing only a few weeks before she died.
I don’t consider myself a pacifist in the way my grandmother did. I haven’t seen reason for any of the wars that have occurred within my lifetime, but then I’m not sure I couldn’t not defend myself if attacked, nor could I ever rule out the need for force if it meant protecting the innocent (I appreciate that this has rarely been a driver of conflict, despite what’s claimed).
In interviews, Grandma said she disagreed with force even in those cases; words are all a pacifist would have. I don’t know then how she responded to the Holocaust. It was never asked. David Grant told me it had been beyond his book’s brief as in those early years of the war, they wouldn’t have known. That may be – I do note that A.C. Barrington had, unsuccessfully, lobbied the government to take in Jewish refugees – but Grandma would have learnt in the years following, and her beliefs never changed. I can only assume, then, she would have believed in opposing that with the same methods.
The feeling I would find myself disagreeing or being at odds with was likely a factor in my reticence to ask her more. I’ve inherited just as much from the other side of my family and my other grandparents, the Donagheys, in this sense. They were a couple of working-class Kiwis who worked hard to buy themselves comforts and were always careful not to cause a fuss. Really, though, it doesn’t matter whether I agreed or not. Her stance had been for free speech as much as anything. After all, she hadn’t even mentioned the war when she was made to come down from her soapbox. Merely the possibility that she might have was enough to arrest her. We may think only force would have stopped Hitler but still recognise the courage that she, Burton, Barrington, Bell and all the others had shown – the need for someone to publicly question the decision to fight and to force others to risk their lives. Every cause needs the prodding of a conscience.
Grandma always stayed away from Anzac Day, but she once gave an interview expressing her disappointment that pacifists and conscientious objectors were not given greater recognition. The jingoism of Anzac Day does persist. Politicians evoke the Anzac spirit to back our part in the latest calamity in the Middle East. But year by year, I do see that parts of that other story are beginning to be told. There are signs that our opinions are not so clear-cut. On the same day I painted and did my best to steer clear, news came on the radio telling of how a 12-year-old boy berated two peace protesters at the National War Memorial when they laid a wreath for civilians killed by our SAS. He accused them of disrespect, arguing their protest was inappropriate. To me, his response was unsurprising; I know for many the day has become sacrosanct. What was unexpected were the opinion columns I read in the week that followed, all of which warned against such shutting down of dissent or disagreement. “It is a special day – but war is only a part of our history,” wrote TV reporter Tony Wright.
The year before, peace protesters had erected a temporary sculpture of World War I objector Archibald Baxter in Wellington, showing him strung up as if crucified, mimicking the so-called field punishment he’d endured for his beliefs. There are calls for something permanent, and Dunedin is already taking that step, planning a monument to Baxter and others.
My grandmother didn’t live to see any of this, but some recognition of this past had already surfaced in the last years of her life. She was very pleased, Dad said, to see conscientious objection discussed. She would have been delighted then, although I can’t imagine her showing it with much more than a wry smile, to learn that for his first Anzac Day as Prime Minister, Bill English chose to read a passage by her old friend and fellow pacifist, Ormond Burton. Once dismissed by a judge as a crank, his words would be heard again. Very gradually, we’re willing to admit to this side of our nature, to acknowledge that for all the talk of Gallipoli as the birthplace of our sense of nationhood, there is, from the Moriori to Parihaka to World War I objectors, a long tradition of pacifism and peace-seeking in this country.
As much as I admire my grandmother’s activism, there were beliefs she held that I would not endorse, that I can never find a way of understanding. Despite her stand on the Scouts, she was conservative when it came to sexual politics and dismissive of feminism. Typical for her generation, maybe, but she applied this with the same vehemence she had brought to those other causes. When Uncle Llew began living with his partner Rose in 1977, Grandma refused to let her or her children into the house because they weren’t married. She set this rule and she stuck to it until Rose’s death. “I think I would have been treated better if I was a criminal,” Llew told me, “if I’d been in prison or something like that, than living my own personal life.” He saw very little of his mother from that point on, and she never saw the home he and Rose built together. Officially, this rule was hers and Grandad’s both, but he would sometimes sneak away to visit Llew and Rose. “It says to me he had more warmth and more compassion than my mother,” Llew said. Although he acknowledges her pacifism and politics as a major influence on his life – he was beaten in custody during the Springbok Tours – it’s fair to say he still regards her with some cynicism to this day.
Over the years, I have sometimes spoken to others about Grandma and Grandad, too. I was proud of her principles and their love of the arts, and there’s a shock value in having a granny who did time. But I rarely if ever discussed that part, her stance against Llew. It was painful to consider, needlessly cruel too, not only to him and Rose, but to Grandma herself. It was, I assumed, based in religion, and that is how she held it alongside her otherwise liberal views. Christian moralism would have been the common ground, from pacifism onward. Ormond Burton believed a Christian faith was essential to true pacifism; only it could provide the fundament needed to hold such a position strongly. But while writing this, I watched a video, an interview Grandma did for a documentary, where, sitting in a blue blouse beside the fireplace, the Rubens out of shot, she says quite plainly that she was a pacifist first, a Christian later. “There are some pacifists who are only pacifists because they are Christians,” she said, careful to make that distinction.
I’ve learnt, too, that she was never really a churchgoer. Grandad was the one with the stronger faith, and he attended Anglican services alone, to her suspicion. “Your mother thinks I go there to see the women’s legs,” he told Bronwen. “If she could only see them!”
It wasn’t religion but her own dogma and personality behind those stances. Temperament is the word she would have used. If she had been a man during the war, she once said, she would have begun her protest in the first possible place by refusing to register. But if her beliefs had been different, if she had believed in the war, she would have volunteered rather than be conscripted. Complete commitment was the only way to do things, and she was rigid in other areas of life too, a stickler for routine, always needing to know today what tomorrow would bring. She ate plainly and she seldom travelled.
“Shut up,” he said.
Grandma laughed, and I went silent, shocked, not so much by what he had said, but her reaction. I was used to the shower of praise and soft drink I got from my other grandparents, whom I called Nan and Garg. I was unprepared for Grandad’s flash of temper, however slight, and especially her endorsement. I wanted her to be warmer, more of a nana, to be easy-going, even – a phrase she would have regarded with horror. It’s something I stopped thinking as I grew older and I visited myself, able to relate to her a little more, to find interest in our conversations. And yet, I wonder now that she might have wanted it too, if only she knew how.
In the very last years of her life, she was almost entirely holed up in the bedroom of that huge house, using an oak tea trolley as a walker to make her way down the long hallway to get outside to the toilet at the other end of the porch. Once, she asked me about my other grandfather, a person she wouldn’t have seen in decades. How was he doing now that he was alone now, too? She worried that my sister had spent too much on the photographs she sent her, and she asked me about the others, my brother and the rest of my siblings.
She still talked about politics and the things she’d heard on the radio or seen in the news. She was extremely disappointed by the menswear at the fashion awards one year. Someone had bought her a new heater or some such thing, and she wondered aloud about the point. “I won’t be here next winter, anyway.”
And she talked about Grandad. She’d tell me his opinion at any mention of a book or a painting. Once, she said a cat had turned up, was hanging around. “I don’t want to send it away in case it’s Grandad.” She said this with a smile and a “Ha”, mocking herself in her loneliness.
His ashes were in that room in an oak box, waiting for hers. His name was still in the phone book. And every year for Christmas, she carefully chose and wrapped gifts, books usually, which she signed as coming from them both.
She told me she had once considered writing for publication herself. “He said if you want to write, it will be the end of the marriage.” She said this and she looked at me the way she had at those mentions of her death, expecting shock, I thought. I was shocked, but I tried hard not to show it, sure she would see that as weakness. Instead, I tried to hear it on her terms, staunch and accepting. A reaction I now regret. I could have sympathised, and I could have told her it wasn’t too late.
She was depressed her whole life, Bronwen said. She anguished over things. Dad remembered her telling him that she found herself still agonising decades later because she hadn’t bought a spade at an auction. She’d said, “I don’t know why I worry about it, it’s not important and it doesn’t matter.”
There was a vulnerability behind that toughness. “The older I have got, the more difficult I have found life to be,” she said in a radio interview, which I only discovered in writing this. Her pacifism and her causes could be something to cling to, a “bulwark”, as Dad described it. From a distance, I can see this vulnerability; it’s in her prison letters with her apologies for complaining about what must have been the agonising cold, her constant reassurances that what she had done was right. But back when I was there with her, sitting in the same room, I looked and I barely saw at all.
She did make it to the next winter. She made it through several more winters, and it was summer when I last saw her, Christmas Day. The family were there, all gathered in her room. She lay in bed, unable to get up. It was as if she had retreated even further into the house. I took my turn sitting beside her for a little while, and I held her hand. I don’t remember what we spoke about – she was too weak by then to say much. But there were gifts, like every other Christmas in the years Grandad was alive and the years since, books for her children and theirs, each one signed in her neat, round hand. Grandma, Grandad. She died six days later.
John Summers is the author of the non-fiction collection The Mermaid Boy (Hue & Cry). In 2016, he won the non-fiction category in the Sunday Star-Times Short Story competition. His short stories, travel writing, essays and reviews have appeared in publications such as Sport, Landfall, New Zealand Listener and the Spinoff. He is also a co-founder of upcountry.co.nz, an online journal for writing about the New Zealand outdoors.
This was published in the December 2017 issue of North & South.
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