James (Jim) Crook Interview
Today is the 23rd of November 2016. I’m interviewing Jim Crook of Clive. Jim, would you like to tell us something about your family?
Yes, Frank. I was born in Petone. My parents had split up by the time I was born. I was born in 1932, and by round about 1934-’35 I think they’d separated. My father had been a Catholic, my mother wasn’t, but we were put into … my brother and myself, my older brother Ronald … were put into a Boys’ home at Naenae – St Thomas’ Boys’ School. It wasn’t an easy life and I still have double thoughts about that place – but however, we survived.
It was [a] pretty wild life. I went to seven different primary schools in the time I was in Wellington … St Thomas’ Boys’ School, Taita School, Johnsonville, Mt Cook, the Catholic school at Te Aro and the Catholic school at Thorndon, and the Thorndon School. So my schooling was not the best.
Did you play sport while you were at these schools?
No, very little sport. Very little sport – I’ve never been a sportsman as such. But at Naenae I did play soccer one day in the middle of winter, miskicked the ball and chipped a bone in my leg … in my upper leg, and went to the Hutt Hospital. The doctor there said “the chip has gone back into place, but don’t play sport”, which suited me right down to the ground actually. I was quite happy about that.
The different schools – yes, I remember it was during war time a lot of it, and I remember at Mt Cook School we had air raid shelter practice … marching into the air raid shelter. I remember my sister, Audrey, who was the eldest member of the children – she was very religious, marching me off to school on a Sunday morning down in Wellington. On the way home we were two blocks from home and the air raid sirens went. It was a practice, so we were marched into a [an] air raid shelter and we had to stay there until the All Clear was given – it was just a practice.
Wardens went round at night checking for lights shining out of windows of houses. We lived at 32 Arthur Street in those days, which is now part of the new expressway out of Wellington.
Yeah, that’s about all … I lived with my grandmother at Naenae. My grandmother and grandfather – they were the Cottles – they arrived here in 1908 on the ‘Ruapehu’. He eventually took ill and he spent his last thirteen years of his life in a wheelchair. His bones were fragile. But it was a good life there with my grandmother, and I was the runt of the family at that stage and I was fed Lane’s Emulsion every day, a big spoonful of Lane’s Emulsion. Whether that’s had any effect on me I don’t know, it’s hard to know.
But down there my mother met Stan Crook, who was a signwriter from Hastings. My mother had been part of the Services’ Club where they welcomed soldiers in and they had dances every Saturday night. And Stan I think was engaged, or almost engaged to a lady in Napier. That was broken, and mother and Stan took up [a] pretty close relationship, and that was good.
At this time of course we were only home in school holidays or occasionally weekends. We lived out at Naenae – I was there for seven years. I think they had Mass every morning – I was trying to think whether it was every morning or every second morning. Things like Easter Friday would be three times a day … confession every Friday. I don’t know why young boys under those conditions had to have a confession, but we usually made up something. We’d go – oh no, in later life I dropped that. I’m still wondering what the sin was we were supposed to have committed when they talk about the ‘original sin’. But however, all that’s gone by the board, and I have no religious leanings at all.
My sister, Audrey, that I mentioned before who used to take me down to the Church on a Sunday, carried on with her religious beliefs. Bit of a worry to the family because she wanted to marry a man who was a non-Catholic, so she wrote to Rome to get permission. She was living in Hastings – we lived at that stage at 812 Albert Street in Hastings. Audrey wrote to Rome, and they said “yes, you can marry him, but not in the Church”. So in 1948, I have pictures of them getting married on the front lawn in Albert Street where we lived. This lasted about three years and the priest kept calling around and saying to her “well, you may be married in the eyes of the law, but not in the eyes of the Church”. So, she left him. And this carried on for some years until Ron finally converted over and became a Catholic, and they re-hooked up again. Mmm.
Yes, I know it was very strong, the Church, those days.
Yeah, yeah. In those days … we’ll go back to Wellington in 1945 when my mother was meeting Stan … and he was a great man – a very great man. And he was in the Camouflage department in the Army – because of being a signwriter, the Army put him in the Camouflage department. And lucky for him he didn’t go overseas, he stayed there painting all the vehicles, tents and whatever material they wanted.
Eventually they got married and I have their wedding photos. And they shifted back to Hastings where Stan was a signwriter. His father, E W Crook, was also a signwriter here. And they bought the house at 812 Albert Street. I still stayed on at Naenae with my brother, Ron. He left – he was a year or two older, so he left the last year I was there in 1946 – I was there on my own. Pretty lonely life, but you learn to act for yourself, you learn to look after yourself, but I started to resent the Catholic side of the … the whole lot. When I came to Hastings and I lived in Albert Street – this is round about Christmas 1946 – I had met my mates around town, and our neighbours and that, and they were all going to Hastings Boys’ High School. So I said “right – I’m going to the Hastings Boys’ High School”, and enrolled in there and they said “what name do you want to go under? Do you want to go under Crook”, which is Stan’s name, “or Hodgkinson”, which was the family name. So I settled on Crook.
I was chatting up a girl on a bike one day in Victoria Street … I saw a car drive past with two priests in it. I had a rather prominent birthmark on my left elbow. They’d been round home looking for me to enrol me in St John’s College. And I said “no, I’m going to Hastings Boys’ High School”. They said “well no, let’s go and tell your mother that you want to be at St John’s College”. And I said “no, no” … she was in the Home having my half-brother, Peter … Peter Crook, from Havelock North. So … “better hop in the car, you’d better talk to the Bishop”. Like a fool I got in the car, left my bike on the side of the road, left the [chuckle] girl on the side of the road, and they took me down to the Presbytery where I got a real drubbing – I would not go to heaven, I would go to purgatory forever, I’d burn my soul and whatever else they want to talk about. And after about half an hour – “are you going to join St John’s College now?” I said “no”. And they said “oh, well that’s the end of it – you’ll be excommunicated”. I was fourteen at the time.
That’s incredible, isn’t it?
It is, isn’t it?
Anyhow, I started at the Boys’ High School in 1947, the first year there and only year there. Coming from Naenae Convent Home, we’d never done any work – I’d never sawn wood, hammered nails or anything like that. Didn’t know how to ride a bike until I came to Hastings. So on the second Tuesday morning … Tuesday morning was woodwork … and I couldn’t understand what the teacher was saying and what he meant, and he turned round and he said to me, “what are you, boy? Are you dumb, stupid, or what?” So I wagged every Tuesday morning for the rest of the year. I would not go to the woodwork class. One thing at Naenae, you had to look after yourself and you learnt to stand up for yourself. Nobody was going to talk to me like that. So at the end of the year – I was fifteen – I never went back to high school, and I said “they’ll never ever get me back here”.
But I was wrong. I had different jobs … telegram delivery boy … any number of jobs. People were screaming out for staff and you could leave one job one day and start the next day, and next week go to another job if you wanted to – whatever. I guess I would’ve had about [chuckle] fifteen or twenty jobs in that time … unsettled … hadn’t ever settled down.
My mother said to me “Kelts are advertising for an apprentice boy – why don’t you go and apply?” Quite strange, because my father had been a mechanic … married to my mother. So I went round to Kelts – M J Kelt – and they interviewed me. And the question arose “how long have you had at high school?” And I said “one year”, and they said “oh, well all right”. They said “come back in about three weeks’ time”. I went back three weeks later – nobody else had applied for the job. So Mr Kelt … [?Murdo?] John Kelt … put down two years, and I was accepted. And that was the making of me. To have an apprenticeship for five years, go to night school three nights a week – that was the making of me – it was the chance of my life, and I made the most of it. So I was very pleased about that, even though I didn’t like perhaps going to night school so much because I’d rather spend time with my girlfriend. Yeah – I was very pleased. Do you want to stop it there.
One of the reasons I wear white socks today – and I get ribbed for it but I don’t mind – the last twenty years I’ve worn white socks. Always wear white socks, because during the war we were shoe shine boys in Upper Cuba Street, and the Yanks were in town, and they all wore white socks. I know, because when I tried to clean one of the American sailor’s or soldier’s shoes I got nugget on his white socks, and I got ribbed for it – I got told off for it. But that doesn’t matter.
My sister Audrey met an American boy, and he was young and he was a very nice guy. My mother would chaperone their meetings. And his story was very sad because he got captured by the Japanese. He was on a ship, a prisoner ship where they were all locked down below in the cells. An American submarine saw the Japanese ship and torpedoed it and the Japanese wouldn’t let the men out. Now I have this American’s … one of his badges, his lapel badges … I still have it today, and I wear white socks. And I get quite emotional when I think about it. I do.
But going back to sister – how religious she was. We used to go up town and go into the Catholic shop there, and we used to shoplift all the holy pictures they had there … about a postcard size. When we went back to … this‘d be in the school holidays when we were home and my mother was working, so we were free to do what we liked. When we went back home we had to do something with them. We climbed over the gate … the side gate that went round the backyard … and on the top of the gate there was a recess with a four-by-two there – we used to put the holy pictures in there. Well one day Audrey arrived home with a friend, they didn’t have a key to the house so she said “climb over and we’ll go into the backyard”. He climbed over and saw these holy pictures and passed them down to her. “Oh”, she said, “the nuns have been calling and leaving me holy pictures”. [Chuckle] If only she’d known where they came from, yeah.
There were times … we had great times there, and Upper Webb Street, all round Cuba Street … the upper end of Cuba Street. We used to go down to Selfridges and Woolworths and shoplift whatever we wanted. It was all done … not serious intentions, we didn’t regard ourselves as burglars. But I must mention one day – I see in the latest Memories magazine – somebody sent a letter to Hitler. Well, we did the same thing. Five or six of us in a group – we weren’t a gang – in a group, and I being the youngest, someone said “let’s write a letter to Hitler”. So we wrote a letter and addressed the envelope, ‘Adolf Hitler, Germany’. We had no stamp to put on it. So being the youngest I was sent to go and post it, “but be very careful, because there’s a man waiting inside – he will read the letter and grab your hand if he can, and you’ll be prosecuted, the Police will be called”. So I stood back about two or three metres and popped the letter in. [Chuckle]
And the other thing that came up that comes to mind when we talk about the Americans being in Wellington … the jeep. A lot of jeeps around … a lot of army traffic … a lot of jeeps around, and one of the gang said “you see the jeep – you see all the levers on the floor?” Now I know now, the gear lever – you’ve got a high and low ratio and two- or four-wheel drive. But he convinced me that if the jeep was driving along the road and a car stopped in front of him and he couldn’t stop in time, he could pull the lever and it would jump over the car in front. And I believed it.
And talking of Upper Webb Street, we used to raid a man’s apple tree and he used to run out and chase us off. So we came there one day, and … brilliant idea that I had … well why not stand back and see if he’s home by throwing a stone at the door. Three guys throw three stones. Oh that was accepted. So – bang, bang, bang – three stones on the door. The trouble was the first stone went through the glass panel on the door, and [chuckle] he was home. He started chasing us and we all ran off, we knew to split up in different directions but he followed me. I was home, said to my mother “I feel ill”, she says “go to bed”, and I was in bed before he knocked on the door. [Chuckle] But he came and he knocked on the door and we had to apologise and whatever. But they were funny days, but they were good days in some ways, I liked them. They were growing up … and we didn’t think we were doing anything wrong, we didn’t think we had bad intent.
We used to go over to Eastbourne for a picnic for the day on the ‘Cobar’. The only guy that got sick was me – seasick, I used to get seasick something terrible. But they were good days, and I still drive down and around Eastbourne when I go down there. Ah dear, yes.
Coming back to Hastings. I arrived back in Hastings in December 1946, that was the end of the school year. I was going to turn fourteen on Christmas Day. That’s when I started in February … early February … at the Hastings Boys’ High School. Jonah … Isaiah Jones … was there – I used to like his class, and Floyd was the science master – I liked him. One or two there I didn’t like, but yeah, I got on pretty well but I didn’t enjoy the schoolwork. And at the end of the year, the exam results – twenty-seven in the class, and I was twenty-sixth. I was second to last in the class, and when I looked at the guy who was last I thought ‘I’m not as stupid as that’. [Chuckle] And yeah …
But life was for living. Stan, my stepfather, taught us to go bike riding. I biked up to Lake Tutira, spent the night under … just canvas, and got a ride home actually, from there. I biked to Palmerston, caught the railcar back home the next day. But generally life was good with Stan, he took us out swimming to the swimming hole, taught us to swim and did lots of things for us. Only had him seven years, he died of cancer aged thirty-seven. It took me forty years to get over Stan’s death, because it was the first time in my life I’d had a father.
And talking of my father, he was a mechanic. It wasn’t ‘til I did genealogy that I started taking an interest in him. I had heard that he’d had a 4 Square grocery shop in Auckland so I started trying to track him down. He’d been out to see us once or twice out at Naenae College with his new wife, but my mother and sister said “don’t have anything to do with him”, so I just stood there with my head down. When you’re young it’s the sort of thing … you believe your parents. But I tried to find out where he was, and I looked at all the grocery shops in Auckland – couldn’t find him – no, couldn’t find him. I found out eventually that he lived in Te Awa Avenue in Napier, at number 78. But about eight years later I built a house at 238 Te Awa Avenue, which is quite amazing. I was still trying to find out about him, and I couldn’t find out very much at all, still thinking at that stage – I didn’t know he lived in Te Awa Avenue – still thinking he was in Auckland, when there was a memorial notice in the paper a lady put in, and she was the lady that lived at Te Awa Avenue, 78. So I rang her, and she said yes, he’d died at age seventy-two in the Napier Hospital of a heart attack, or heart …
So that was okay, I sort of didn’t quite know where to go from there. And two or three months later a Funeral Service – a lady put an ad in the paper that they still have ashes of people that had been there over twenty-five years, so I rang them, and yes, they had my father’s ashes. I put the phone down, I couldn’t talk, I was just that overcome with emotion. Yeah. So I went back two or three days later and picked them up, and I’ve got them here. So, you know it’s just part of life isn’t it. It’s just the way …
It is, and it completes the circle, doesn’t it?
It’s just the way you go.
Okay, so from then on I served my time at M J Kelt & Co, the five years. And they were Citroen agents and I loved Citroen cars, and I got very involved with them. After my time was served I went and worked for Jack Toms, who took over Stacey’s Garage. Bob Stacey had a garage down by the gas works in Railway Road. Jack Toms took it over – Jack was a great guy, and still run [it] in the name of Stacey’s Garage. I was there for probably eighteen months or so, but I had a lucky escape with my life there, in that my mother, who had learnt to drive against everybody’s best wishes, had a ‘37 Hillman and she said “there’s a rattle underneath” … she wants to go to Wellington, so “will you take it down to work?” Mechanics didn’t work on Saturday mornings in those days. So I took it down to work, parked out on the road ‘cause I didn’t want to go inside with people coming for petrol and things like that … parked out on the road and climbed underneath it. I’d been underneath for about two minutes looking at the exhaust or a rattle … looking for a rattle. Jack came out and said “I’ve made you a cup of tea”. Normally I wouldn’t have a cup of tea, but when Jack said “I’ve made you a cup of tea”, you had it. I climbed out of the car, walked about ten paces – a ‘39 Chev coming from the south, from Wellington, coming onto the Southampton corner – swerved and hit and killed a power cyclist, went on to the footpath, hit the back of my mother’s car, turned it right round and tipped it on its side. But we never got our cup of tea for about twenty minutes, half an hour later, because the car was upside down with kids screaming on the road, and we had to get crowbars and get them out. But that the lucky escape of my life. Yeah.
From there … when I was with Jack Toms at Stacey’s Garage, we used to service the Hawke’s Bay aerial topdressing truck. And that seemed a great life to me, I’d rather be truck driving. I got my heavy traffic licence under CMT, [compulsory military training] in Linton. That was a great thing. Oh! They had an old ex-army four by four, and we used to service it. And I said to Des, the driver, I said “if you ever want to change your job, let me know”. So he came to me one day and he says “I’m shifting to Wellington, do you want to change your job?” I said “yeah”. “Well come and see Basil”. Now Basil was Basil Fox who worked for John Hills, and he used to take us for night school on electrical wiring, so I already knew Basil. And I called round to his house, and we talked and talked and talked, and I got the job as a loader driver for the topdressing industry. And that was the greatest roughly three years of my life. It was great. I hadn’t been to a pub. [Chuckle] I was married, but I had never been to a pub at all, and they took me to three pubs in one day … on one windy day when they couldn’t fly. [Chuckle] But we had a great time, we really had a great time.
Those topdressing days played a big part of my life. I was married and I had children, lived in Warwick Road. Brian Schofield built the house, Bill Parker was his foreman, and it was in the county in those days. The rates were £2 a year, rubbish collection once a year, had our own well and septic tank. But I had plenty of time because the westerly winds played a big part in the pilots not being able to fly. But we did get all round the country and all round Hawke’s Bay, and we were managing or averaging forty flying hours per month. I wrote an article for the newspaper, and they changed it to forty flying hours per week, which was impossible.
But however, Basil Fox, Glen Patterson and myself made up the team of Hawke’s Bay Aerial Topdressing Company. We didn’t know, or I wasn’t aware at that time, that Sir Keith Park was a shareholder in the company. And we were told one day to get all dressed up and go round to the Hastings Club. Knocked on the door, a man came to the door and asked us what we wanted, and Basil said “we’re here to see Mr Park” … he wasn’t ‘Sir’ in those days I don’t think. He shut the door in our face and went away. He came back about three or four minutes and asked us in, and I met and shook hands with Sir Keith Park. Yeah. Of course Basil and Glen did the same, they did their[s] first. Everything was in order – Basil first, Glen second and the loader driver third. I knew my position and I was quite happy with it – I loved it. I drove round mostly out of Hawke’s Bay, and I loved the job.
But times changed. Basil and Glen … Basil first … left the company and Glen Patterson took over. And then Basil and Glen got together and formed a company called Airswathe, but unfortunately it only last about three months. One of their big problems was they hired a Tiger Moth – it was pretty old and decrepit – they hired it for a certain amount of time. Another better Tiger Moth came along so they cancelled the insurance on that and tied it up to the fence by the golf club. Along came the westerly winds and blew the plane into the golf club, and they had to pay for that plane. The company was wound up after three months, which was a shame, and the new pilot took over and I just couldn’t get on with him – all that magic was gone. The three of us had spent so much time together and it was great days and I just couldn’t get on with the new pilot.
The new pilot in my mind … by this time we were flying a Piper, and I was still sitting outside above the wing, outside of the Piper, in the hopper. We left Waipukurau at night, the street lights were on it was that dark, we had no lights. There’s no lights at Bridge Pa, and it was pretty dark when we landed there and I thought ‘no, I’ve had enough of this guy – Bob’, that was his name, I won’t mention his surname, and I gave the job away. Oh yeah, I liked that job, you know … but however, I carried on.
And then I went and worked for Des Hill – I went back to the garage. I’d go driving for a couple of years, two or three years, then go back to the garage, update myself, driving again and so on. And I got a job with Des Hill in Lawn Road Garage at Clive, and I liked it there, it was good. By then I’d bought my first Citroen, a 1930 Citroen, twelve horsepower – they used to call them Y15, but the twelve were the same shape but only twelve horsepower. I worked there for probably eighteen months … two years. And because I lived near where the Pakowhai Shingle Carriers had their base, which was in Kenilworth Road, and I lived in Warwick Road and I was a mechanic, they wanted me to come and drive for them – be a driver not a mechanic, be a driver.
Ah yes … time to change again, so I … Graham Stewart who was the Manager of the Pakowhai Shingle Carriers at that time, pulled up outside Des Hill’s garage and came in and asked me, “come on – do you want a job?” [Chuckle] And I said “yes”, so I managed to go and I finished up driving for Pakowhai Shingle Carriers. Which was good.
Was Eric Taylor there when you ..?
Yes, old Pinky? Pinky was there. And it was a great job, except that Tom Bowes who managed the place … managed the shingle works, which was a general haulage company, and Pakowhai Shingle Carriers did all the carting for them – Ted [?Tom?] Bowes was a good guy. He always talked sense – might have been a bit tough on you but it made sense in the end, and when Ted left to start his own shingle works at Fernhill, the Stewarts took over running that place as well. When he went to pieces again I was getting a wee bit dissatisfied. I managed to stay two years on the flat decks delivering shingle, then they bought the first concrete pre-mix truck into Hawke’s Bay which was an S Bedford, and the younger boy Stewart drove that. Business improved. They wanted me to drive the second one which was a TK Bedford, which I did. Went down to Otaki and drove it back, and started mixing shingle, and that was a great job. It taught me so much about pouring shingle … shangle … whatever, concrete, making concrete – things I had never learnt in my younger days, which people today I think would learn reasonably well. But the brothers always argued, and I can’t stand arguments.
I came back from holiday one Christmas from Wellington, we’d been living in a house right up in the trees … in the pine trees. I got a dose of asthma, so on the way home I was very disgruntled with myself and I thought ‘another year of arguing – no – time to change again’. Jobs were so plentiful in those days you could do this. So I pulled the mower to pieces and I went into the local mower shop there … Garden Equipment … and Fred Heaps was running it as a salesman.
You were going to say something about Willow Flat [and] Putere?
Yep – I’ll go back to the topdressing days. When Bob McDowell was flying, we had a job right at the end of Willow Flat Road – just can’t recall the name … it’ll come to me. Anyhow, the instructions were, “go into the Willow Flat Road, take the first turn to the left and that’s the farm”. Okay – Haliburtons … Haliburtons’ place. Okay. Took off, and got up past Tutira and turned into Willow Flat Road. And the instructions were, “if you get to the sawmill you’ve gone too far, you’ll have to turn back”. Okay. So the first track I went into where there’s no gate, I drove round it – it was a farm track – there was nothing, and it was getting worse and worse and worse – right alongside the river. I managed to back out and get back on the road again and carried on, and carried on, and carried on until I came to the mill. I was lost at that stage. So I asked one of the chap[s] at the mill, “how do I get to Haliburtons?” He said “go down past the mill, and you’ll … so and so, and so and so”. I said “I was told not to go past the mill”. “Well”, he said “if you don’t go past the mill you won’t get there”. Okay, into gear and off. ‘Bout half an hour later I’m still driving, crossing over bridges made of logs and whatever … pretty crude … and I started climbing a hill. And we had no radio telephone in those days so you’re on your own. I was really well past the time that I should have been at the airstrip. Half way up the hill the fan broke off and went through the radiator. It was a hot day. I took the generator off and put it on the roof of the cab of the truck – another army truck – so if they’re looking for me and flying over, they’d see … hopefully they’d see that and think … yeah. I had an apple with me and I started walking back towards the mill. Hadn’t gone a hundred yards and I thought I heard a car. I stopped … no, no. Started walking again, heard a car again – Good God. So I waited, and a car came around the corner. And what was happening, it was the farmer, Haliburtons – they’d heard the truck coming up and then stopped, and they were waiting for it. And nothing happened so they’d come looking for me. And of course …
Yeah, yeah, yeah – I was very pleased about that. So they towed the truck up to the airstrip. I took out the radiator and gave Bob McDowell the generator and fan, all he needed to get replaced, and I sat on the airstrip just idly putting on and hauling up the bucket … the hopper, for the front.
Coming up the side of the airstrip was a pig. God! Here’s my brothers going miles in the hills pig hunting – this is the way to do it. So I waited and he kept coming closer and closer down the fence line, just on the airstrip. And he got closer and closer and I thought, ‘ah, I’m going to have this guy’. I already had the bucket on ready to go. I knew I had no radiator and no water, but I knew I could go about a hundred yards. So when he was close enough I sat in the cab, pushed the starter, charged down the strip towards the pig. Nearly got him … he jumped through the fence – I missed him. Okay. That night at dinner, ‘cause we stayed there … had to stay there overnight … I said to the farmer, “nearly got your pig today”. He said “hope it wasn’t our pet pig”. And I said “oh!” I changed the subject. We both had a lucky escape, the pig and myself.
But anyhow, getting back to Pakowhai Shingle Carriers, and then the lawns were long. The brothers were arguing and I’d had enough of that. Took my mower to pieces, walked into Garden Equipment – it was Bob there, he was the boss, and Eric and … I forget the other brother’s name – it’ll come to me … had been running the shop. But the elder brother had been doing all the work, and – I know this is personal, I shouldn’t say it, but Eric was the one that was dragging the chain all the time. And the elder brother had a gutsful and he said “no” … just that day I walked in, and they said “do you want a job as a mechanic?” Well I weighed up the fact that I had three years with Pakowhai, arguing, arguing, arguing … “yes, I’ll take it”. I’d been dealing with them, buying lawn mowers and doing them up in my spare time. So that’s the start of my life into the mower business. And it worked out all right – they were a bit backward I felt as far as their bookkeeping and things go. I don’t know whether you want some details on this or not?
They built a new shop down the corner of Karamu Road and St Aubyn Street – it would later become Valhalla Dance Floor. But anyhow, it was a mower shop there, it was quite good. But Eric was too slow on the uptake of what he needed. He might have been a good mechanic, I mean, and turner and fitter, which he was – he’d spent his time at … learnt his trade at Tomoana Freezing Works. It doesn’t make you sharp there. So anyhow, people would come in and say “I bought a mower here on hire purchase three months ago and I’ve never heard from the finance company”. And Eric’d say, “oh yeah, I’ll look into it”. When he walked out, Eric would say “silly bastard … didn’t know where he bought the mower from”. In actual fact he had bought it from the company I worked for – they’d taken the lunch box home with all the hire purchase papers in it, they’d slipped down behind a dresser – four or five hire purchase agreements there. [Chuckle]
So it made me realise that if they could do all that and still stay in business, there must be some money in it. I was on good relations with all the reps. They used to talk to me and deal with me a lot, and I finally decided that I would get out on my own.
I looked around for a place, and Cudby’s Garage was empty, the old garage. Across the road was Cudby’s Service Station, but this was Cudby’s Garage, the old garage. I started making enquiries about that, then I heard that the place on Heretaunga Street West had been rented … ‘oh, damn, I missed that one’. But anyhow, it wasn’t that building, it was another one opposite, down further. So I went back and I got hold of John Holderness who was the solicitor acting for the Family Trust that owned that place. He said … and I’d made up my mind, £5 a week I think I could stay in business – I had £800. And he said “will you pay £10 a week?” And I said “yes”, because I’d been looking so much, and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. So … yeah, signed up.
The business went very well. At the end of three years I bought the building; another three years I added forty feet on the back of it, and then it got too small, we had no back entrance. So I bought off Basil Le Prou the section in 512 West Queen Street. He had Heretaunga Motors, and he was going to build a tyre re-treading factory there but I don’t think the Council would let him do it. So he sold me the section … so much deposit and £400 a month until I paid it off. And once I paid that off, I put the building … Cudby’s building that I was still in … back on the market, which sold to somebody in Havelock as an investment, and I leased it back month to month until our new building was built. The new building was built and it went very well … good, nice. I had to put another forty feet on that, [chuckle] and then another twenty feet or so on the grinding room after that. But I had run the business for twenty-eight years. Yeah. The changes in retailing, in those early days of retailing, the manufacturer set the price. If you discounted the price, they wouldn’t supply you stock. It couldn’t happen today. I was Masport’s main customer for Hastings.
People say to me “you’re not going to hold Morrisons?” I said “no, I like the quality of the Masport and Lawnmaster”. And that was good, and I was told later by a very good friend who was the Masport rep at the time, that I was tenth on the list of Masport suppliers. I said “you mean service dealers”. “No” … for New Zealand. That’s how big the business had got. Anyhow, apart from all that, then Masport made a model called a President, and the blades were so thin the handles would break, when the handles were bottom of the [?] they’d break and pull out.
At that time Victa were coming into New Zealand, and as a mechanic I look at everything very hard. And they came into the shop with a Victa and the motor in pieces, all cast iron cylinders whereas Briggs & Stratton were aluminium; ball bearing main bearings, whereas all the others are sleeve bearing, [??] bearing, that type of thing. It was great – it was two stroke, and it had a decompressor and it was good – it was the first Victa Mark I to come to New Zealand. So I took on that agency and did very well out of it.
Then like all manufacturers they make a model change, and the new one wouldn’t put the grass in the catcher. We used to take them down to the racecourse, and they flew a guy over from Australia. “Show me your lawn”. I said “well, this is lawn here.” And this is what I find when I go out to farmers or orchards – they want to mow grass that high. So went down the racecourse and he said “I’ve never seen [chuckle] grass like this in my life”. So they redesigned it all again. It improved it but didn’t really fix it. But yeah … it’s still a good mower, wonderful engine.
I had a Victa once too – that first model was a cracker.
Yeah, it was the best. So, that’s about all.
Private life – I met my first wife probably at a party I think it was. Went together for six years and got married. We had five lovely children, stayed married for twenty years, but yeah, it went sour. Probably more my fault than anybody else’s. And I was running the mower shop at the time – well, I was in business at the time.
My present wife, Louise, came into work in the office and she updated me on things, because she’d worked in the IRD, she’d worked in the bank. And she wanted a bookkeeping machine and this and that, and we got it all for her and next thing … clattering away all night.
And then … but it upgraded everything. And then we went to computers of course, and until I sold out in 1993, computers were the main thing. And that’s about all.
Lou and I have been married thirty-two years now.
You’ve had some other interests in life as well and one of them I’d like to touch on and that’s your involvement with the history of Clive. Tell us something about the book.
Well the book … I was wanting something to do, I wanted to get my teeth into something, and I wanted to find out more about Clive where I was living. I knew Gordon Leonard from many, many years ago – Gordon used to live at Clive and he was a great mate of my brother’s and mine. And we put together this team and we formed a Trust, Charitable Trust, and we got to work. Don Sorenson – every meeting was held here. I sat here, Tom sat next to me, Don there, Myles the secretary … Myles Girvan, the secretary … Gary [Baines] sat there. And Gary brought along a friend one day who was Craig MacErlich, to a meeting – he hadn’t said to anybody “oh, I’m bringing someone along”, and we thought this was a bit tough, unannounced. Craig was a gold mine. He lives here, his parents lived here, his grandparents lived here, and he became one of the main contributors to the book. He knew so much. And he’s very good. We all got on very well, we’ve never had a bad word said.
And the book launch – Judy Siers took charge of the printing and the laying out, and she’s a very hard lady to work for. She has to be, and she was very good and thank God we had her. She insisted on this, and this, and this … “where did that man come from?” “What’s this?” She said “you sent me a photo of the Black Bridge. Out the side are those three recesses where people can take …” I said “oh, I was working at Des Hills at the time when they built that bridge”. And people said when they built that bridge, they drove cattle across there … “what are you going to do for us if we’re caught on the bridge?” So they put these little recesses out the side – they were chained off. “What’s the name of those recesses?” she said. So I went back to Hugh … out here at Omahu, all the concrete works, they did all the precast workings … and he sent me the complete plans of the bridge. So if you want to build a bridge, I’ve got all the plans. Hugh Lattey. And they’re called pedestrian refuges and that’s mentioned in there. “You mentioned this”, she said, “what’s it called?” “Go and do this, and go and do that”.
And I took all the photos of the Clive monument and things like that. And at the time – I’m not poetic, but I had written a poem for my grandfather that was killed in World War I. Never met him of course, but he was a Hodgkinson … Walter Hodgkinson, and that’s all about him there. And Judy – she said “that’s got to go in the book – take out the name ‘Hodgkinson’, and it’s got to go in the book”. So it’s in the book – I’m pleased about that.
The big flooding in Clive in 1897, phew! The things that happened there. Well a lot of people came from England in those days, and they came to New Zealand hoping to make their fortune and whatever it was they needed to make. And I felt for these people sitting on the roofs of their little cottages watching the land and their sheep and their horses go by, washed away. So pen to paper [chuckle] as I tend to do, and I wrote a small poem. I’ll read it out if you like.
This is because I felt for the people sitting on the roofs of their houses – they’d come from England to make their fortune. I do bring a bit of religion into the … because that’s the way they were.
Lord, what have we done to deserve such sorrow?
Our land washed away and our animals too
We pray for your love and sunshine tomorrow
Alone in despair there is nought we can do
Mother England, Mother England, why did we forsake you?
To come to this place, such a desolate plain
Where the rain never stops and the river floods quickly
Our lives are at stake, we have nothing to gain
Delusions we carried of making our fortune
The new country it seems is not want of us
Dreams out of control by a wandering river
And so it remains Lord, you have made it thus
But I must continue to gather the pieces
My children are safe and I must abide
My Lord, give us strength to carry our duty
I know we can bear with you at our side
Looking back on the dark life the early days rendered
Time’s now abundant and precious once more
How we suffered by flooding and other disasters
Wretched memories now faded, a part of Clive lore
It’s interesting to hear that because for a man who battled with the church, or the church battled with you as a young person …
But that’s the way they were thinking.
And you’re writing as [in] the third person, and I think that’s wonderful.
[Chuckle] But that’s from their point of view … put myself in their shoes.
Oh, that’s amazing.
Oh no, I’ve written a few there.
The book – you printed how many copies?
Oh, well what happened – how many copies were we to build – two thousand roughly people live in Clive, so many houses – if we got five hundred, and we wanted one in each house it kept the price down to $35, so people would buy it. We couldn’t really decide and it was getting close to closing off date for the printer – he wanted to have [a] date, and how many. Judy came to our rescue once again. As we got closer to the date we had to come up with the number of copies we needed and so on. Went back to Judy Siers and she said “why don’t you advertise ‘Clive Book Coming On Sale, people who pay now guaranteed to get a copy’. We had six hundred and sixty people paid in advance. So we made it a thousand copies, and that really was great.
We had the book launch with the Mayor of Hastings, Lawrence Yule, there. The place was packed right out. People would come in to pick up their book, and drive out because there was no parking. That’s in the Clive Rugby rooms. It was a mad, mad wonderful day. Yeah. And the Clive book now has been established. The Hastings District Council bought copies and so on. They’re available … but we sold out, and as far as I know there’s no more being printed at the moment. The Trust had disbanded because we don’t have to put in an annual return every year and so and so and so.
You mentioned that you’re a street representative for the tsunami warning in Clive. You’re not on the local Clive ..?
Committee group? No, because I am a person that’s a loner. If I go to Council or committee meetings I’ll sit and listen, and if there’s twelve people there ten will get up and talk about everything else bar what is needed. I want to be in a position where I make the decision, yes or no, and I live by it. Right or wrong, I’ll either learn from it or it’ll be successful. I’ve done it all my life.
Jim, you mentioned that you’ve had some involvement and time with stock cars … could you tell us something about that?
I got involved in stock cars when my brother had a mate who was building his own stock car, and they were just about going to start it up, get it ready for the season … want to come down as a mechanic and just run my eyes over it and see if everything was all right. It pretty well was actually except they had the throttle round back to front. When they thought they were idling it was the full throttle; when they pushed their foot down it went back to idle. So we rearranged that. I was invited out to the trial and … the Speedway has a trial, a Saturday put aside … and people can try their cars out. So I went out, and they said “would you like to drive?” That was – I was hooked – I was totally hooked. I’d been so wrapped up in my mower business, running my mower business I needed a break, something different. And so yeah, I became a one-third owner in that car.
And the next season I built and raced my own car. In fact I built and raced three of my own cars, and I was part of the Hawke’s Bay team. And we raced in Meeanee of course; Gisborne, which was a long drive up to Gisborne, but they’re very good up there. And up there … it happened [in] one of the events that I’m a little bit embarrassed about. Every time we went there the number one driver was the fastest car, hence why he was called number one. And he used to give us a real hard time. So this particular night we were up there and number one was going about half speed. ‘Ah, he’s having trouble’, I thought. ‘Right, let’s give him a smack every time we go past him’, which I did and put him into the wall a few times – that was great, I enjoyed that. After the meeting, after the night was over, I said to one of the chaps, one of the Gisborne boys, “what’s wrong with your number one driver? He’s going a bit slow tonight”. “No, no”, they said, “it’s a new driver – he’s only got one hand”. Oh jeez [chuckle] … oh God, I felt awful. Anyhow, they said “no, no – he wanted to be treated like everybody else – he would have loved it”. So I guess that’s the saving part.
We raced at Palmerston North which is the fastest track in New Zealand. Big bad Charlie Bernstein was down there, and man – there was trouble there.
Anyhow, then we used to race at Te Marua, which is Upper Hutt. And I enjoyed it all. I actually became part of the – some Aussies came out and they came to Meeanee, and they wanted a driver here, the top points leader. I wasn’t the top driver, I think I was second or third down, in points. And I was given the job of being the driver, representing the New Zealand team, from Meeanee. We didn’t do very well, but I have got the advert in the paper saying that I was in the International team of stock car drivers. All part of my life – it gave me a great … great easing of pressure off my mower shop work – I could really relax. And people think it’s funny but the most relaxed I felt was sitting on the starting line, about ten, fifteen cars there all revving up, waiting for the white flag to drop, or whatever flag it was to drop – that’s the most relaxing time of my life, I really enjoyed it. It soon changed, but you know – at that moment it was great – I loved it. I run [ran] the car – I had family of course, five children and a business to run – and I said I’d run it until I got knocked up. I got badly bruised in Palmerston. I came home, I said to Tubby Warner who’d sold his car and he didn’t have a car – I says “come and pick this car up, it’s all yours”. Had a Valiant motor in it and everything, he couldn’t believe it. And Tub used it and raced it after. So that was good.
What about your children – what are they all doing these days?
Yes, I have a son, Brian, and he’s the eldest. He’s a mechanic, a truck mechanic. He’s gone to Australia and worked over there, but his love is gold mining. He got a truck and a bulldozer, and I’ve got photos of him there over in the desert in Australia, and they’re gold mining. They’re going through the old tailings from the big gold mining factories [mines] and they’re making enough out of that each day.
Is this in Western Australia?
Yeah, Western Australia.
Close to Kalgoorlie?
I’m not sure … I’m not sure, but it’s out in the sticks.
My next daughter down is Sharon. She works in offices and things like that. She’s married – I’ve got two grandchildren to Sharon and Scott, and I’ve now actually got a great-granddaughter from one of their sons … from one of my grandsons.
Carolyn is a teacher, she’s in Auckland teaching.
And then there’s Diane – she’s done office work, she’s done hotel management, she’s been all round the world. She did a hotel management course in Trentham. And all these girls stick together – they’d go … split up throughout the world and they’d keep in contact, and they’d say “hey, we’re looking for a so-and-so, there’s a position here – there’s one here if you want it, I’ll hold it for you.” And they’d go all round the world like this, it was really, really great.
My youngest daughter, Angela, I lost her eighteen months ago through cancer, but she is the highest qualified of all of us. She’s got all the certificates, got all the degrees, got everything. And she died aged forty-seven, eighteen months ago. There’s only me, the old fella – I still keep going.
Good on you.
Thank you Jim, I will finish the interview at this stage and just wish you and Louise happy days, and we’ll catch up with you again some time.
Thank you very much Frank, and it’s been a pleasure.
Original digital file
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Interviewer: Frank Cooper