Thursday, February 19, 2009

Wally Brown (1)

Myself, Wallace Brown and my father. Lyttleton Harbour 1962?

Memories from the past often seem to me like the night sky - much of what has happened to us has faded from our consciousness or receded like galaxies beyond the sight of the naked eye. But some memories shine like bright, bright stars on a moonless night. These memory stars pierce our consciousness not only because the events have been seared deeply within the biological apparatus of the brain but because they have also been written upon our hearts. As a young sailor I had experiences that form great memories of a sailing friend of my fathers - an interesting and kind man who included a keen young boy not as a passenger but as one of the crew.
Wallace (Wally) Brown was a character whose yacht Murare (Maori for Tramp or Wanderer) my father crewed on for nearly 20 years. I liked that because it meant that I got to go sailing often with my father and Wally, and it provided a good contrast to all the sailing I did in my P Class yacht.
Wally lived in New Brighton Road not far from the Smith Clans house. If someone had ever come and asked me for directions to his house, this is what I would have said. "Continue down Pages Road East towards the sea. When you come to the New Brighton Bridge turn hard left and follow the river along New Brighton Road. You will soon see his house. You can't miss it - it has a very tall white ships mast, resplendent with a yardarm and gaff and rigging on the front lawn. There will probably be a flag flying somewhere on the mast."
I remember Wally flying a flag at half mast on the death of President Kennedy in 1963 - and when I think of that I think of what a piece of originality that mast in the garden was, and how unlikely in such a conservative place as Christchurch in the 1960s.

I loved old Wally's house. It had a small attic window in the roof belonging to a little attic room - very comfortable and shipshape it was to - it was small and warm and cosy just like a small yachts cabin - every real home should have one. On the back of the section was the quintessential and archetypical blokes shed. The shed was laden with tools, timber, dinghies, masts, old sails, boating gear and paraphernalia of such abundance that it all hung like grapes on a vine in a bumper year - the very roof sagged with it all.
I have many, many memory stars about my sailing days on the Murare. Here are a few of them that shine brightly for me all these years later and make me smile.
If you look in the photograph you will see that my father and I are wearing jackets to keep out the cold Easterly wind. Look closer at the photograph and take a look at what Wally is wearing. He has on a jersey (sweater) with a lot of holes in it - but don't be fooled, he has on three or four jerseys. As Wally said, "Why throw away something just because it has a few holes in it. I keep all my old jerseys and wear them on the boat. Holes in different jerseys are never in the same place so if I wear three or four of them all the holes get covered and I keep warm and save the price of a new one." - such words were the wisdom nectar of an oracle to a young impressionable sailor like me and is probably why to this day I find it hard to throw anything away.
The good ship Murare was small by today's standards but made a good little weekend yacht for exploring and racing around the bays and inlets of Banks Peninsula. She was a good little sailor with only one vice - and that was the engine.
The engine was an old 'Rugby' engine. It was fitted with a direct drive shaft - no gearbox. This meant that there was no reverse gear and no neutral. When the engine was going the propeller was turning. If you wanted to stop going forward you turned the engine off.
This mechanical fact made for some interesting and exciting entrances onto the pile moorings in Lyttleton harbour. A very fine judgement had to be made as to when to turn the engine off and let the momentum of the yacht move her with just the right amount of forward speed onto the mooring. If the wind was blowing hard and the water was rough this judgement became critical. Too little speed and the boat would end up getting blown off course, too much speed and you were liable to overshoot the mooring and crash into another moored yacht. It was a manoeuvre that took much skill and many were the times when there was a lot of grabbing of ropes and shouting and pulling as the crew attempted to slow the yachts speed. I remember a lot of action but no disasters.
There is another story that would be hard to forget because it was told every time I went on board. Wally would be making a pot of tea. He would give me the teapot and he would say. "Throw that overboard me lad" - then there was a pause - a pause that became a familiar part of the ritual - "Just the tea leaves mind, NOT the whole teapot" - then came the punchline always delivered with a smile and a chuckle - " Once had a young fella on board and I said to him, throw this overboard meaning the tea leaves and he threw the whole bloody tea pot in the drink! lid and all." That was the cue for me to laugh and I would laugh gladly, happy to be talked to as a shipmate and friend.
There were many stories that he told - about being gored by a bull, crossing the Tasman Sea as a young man on the square rigger 'Huia', of working as a trouble shooter with the MED Electricity Department - " If that electricity meter in the hallway of the house had got smashed the way that fella said it did, a large piece of wood must have flown off the axe, turned right angles in mid air, flown up the hallway and turned right angles twice again, bloke musta thought I was bloody daft or something!"

But there is one story that I have left to the very last. It is one of the best things about Wally Brown, or so it seemed to a young boy, obsessed with sailing, a devourer of books about sailing and raised on the fictional tales of Arthur Ransomes 'Swallows and Amazons' books. You see my shipmates - Wally had an island all of his own. A real island. A living and breathing New Zealand small bach kind of Island - A small sailor boy gasping in wonder and delight island. A real fair dinkum island that taught me that reality is always better than the fantasy, no matter how slick a fiction writers skills.
The Island is still there in Port Levy which is one of the long deep bays on Banks Peninsula in the South Island of New Zealand - And that island has its own story which I will tell you about in my next post.


Delwyn said...

This is a lovely long story with many stories within. Its nice to hear you again. A busy week at school no doubt?

When you said that memories become imprinted in our minds and even in our hearts and that's what makes them shine - a good metaphor, Now think about this. Memories are also powerfully stored in our bodies and I bet that you can remember the feel of the windcheater you were wearing in the photo and the rough weathered skin of Wally's hands, maybe even his particular smell. If you try hard you can smell the tea Wally just made and hear his voice telling you not to throw the teapot overboard...

Janice said...

That really was a lovely story, tillerman; you have a way with words that is quite lyrical! I liked your last story too, about circumnavigating the little island; especially enjoyed the picture of you making that extraordinary face whilst trying to get rid of some aspect of, what was it now, a sagging jawline? I would have thought, what with you Kiwis hanging upside down all the time, that most of your excess face material would be up around your forehead somewhere, but I guess it doesn't work that way.
Ah well, don't waste time reading my meanderings - get busy and write some more of your entertaining thoughts.

Alden said...

Yes Delwyn it has been a busy week indeed and the signs aren't good for the weeks ahead.

I think you are correct about smell. Our sense of smell is not as good as our animal cousins on this planet but it is still something very powerful for us and particularly evocative. I remember in my first few years of teaching how freshly mixed powder paints in fat pots with big brushes bought back to me such striking images, such memories and associations of my own first years of schooling.

Alden said...

Thankyou Janice for your encouraging words about my writing I appreciate your comments.

The idea of kiwis hanging upsidedown is an interesting one.
There is a certain personage called the Christchurch Wizard (do a google search on that one) who amongst other things has promoted a new map of the world which is the same map turned upside down.
Of course the point that is being made is one of begging the cosmic question i.e - Exactly which way IS up? who really is at the top? and where is the bottom?
Of course us kiwis know the answer to that question despite my sagging jowls.

Katherine said...

Great yarn Alden Crump-Smith. Looking forward to the next chapter.

Kathryn said...

You are a wonderful story teller, Pal. I even remember that house with the flag pole in the front garden, along New Brighton Road.
And I even went sailing myself on Lyttelton Harbour once, just once! And reading your post brought memories of that back to me. Also memories of riding my bike up Pages Road and over the bridge into New Brighton, so many years ago.

Keep on writing, I am loving it.

Mr. Kinder said...

Wonderful story! My school week's been so busy that I didn't have time to READ your post till Saturday, (today).

How lucky to have a Wally Brown in your life! I love the lesson about the jerseys. I'm the same way, hate to throw stuff out. It's good for the earth and my household budget to be that way, too, because I think longer and harder about acquiring anything in the first place.

I can't wait for the coming installment about the fair dinkum island.

Splendid writing!

Alden said...

Thankyou Katherine, your mention of Barry Crump made me think that perhaps I should team up with Scotty and do some of those Toyota TV Advertisements - could do with a Ute for all these boats and gear.

February 23, 2009 1:18 PM

Alden said...

Thankyou Kathryn - I think the flag pole was a bit of a local landmark. I have driven around that way a few times in the last 10 years. The flag pole is gone, and I can't find the house - maybe its gone just as a large number of houses have disappeared on Pages Road between where I lived and you lived to make way for a city ring road - nothing ever stays the same for ever does it.

Alden said...

Dan - Yes I think everyone should have some old characters in their lives to teach and inspire them. I think these sorts of people have always been around - I was just lucky to cross paths with one of them.