Moodie's blues

By Leah Haines

It's been a while since the former North Otago rugby hooker and police boss donned a pretty blouse and skirt. He is a tall, old bloke with a bald head and a thick, grey policeman's moustache that he never plans to shave off. To say he is fetching, in a dark blue mid-length skirt, is pushing it.

The hairs on his legs are plastered to his white flesh by sheer, 20-denier stockings. He reminds me of my matronly third-form science teacher. The one we called tarantula legs.

It's a brave man who forgoes his trousers on a crisp winter's day like this, where the grass still sparkles with dew at midday and moist air hangs over the neat paddocks of Feilding - 12 times voted New Zealand's most beautiful town.

But there's a certain sang-froid about Dr Rob Moodie, human rights lawyer, which says he's been expecting this day in the sun for a while. "Have you ever seen anything as pretty as this?" he says, fussing with the size 20 blouse with a sparrow print he picked up at an unnamed Feilding boutique. Then he laughs. "Call me Miss Alice." And he thrusts out his hand, giving mine a vigorous shake.

Almost everyone knows about the lawyer who turned up to court last week in a skirt to protest against the "male ethos" in the judiciary. He got a call from a reporter in Spain this morning.

The story's gone global. It cracks him up.

"I still don't understand why anyone thinks it is such a big deal. A woman can walk down the street in trousers and a man's swanny or whatever and nobody will bat an eye. I walk down in a dress, and suddenly the planet is blown open."

A stunt, for sure, but Moodie is comfortable in women's clothes. He wore kaftans and pearls nearly every day as Police Association boss in the late 1970s as a reaction against a similar kind of machismo.

It's instinctive when he pulls his skirt down at the back as he sits, tucking it neatly under his legs.

He is on the phone to a dressmaker. It seems his court appearance in Monday's twinset was only the opening act. A mystery frock is being sewn for which he needs just the right pair of "girlie" sandals. Thus far, a size 11 is eluding him, at least in Feilding's family shoe shops. And though he clearly doesn't want the surprise spoiled, it's obvious the 6ft-plus former North Otago hooker is planning to arrive at court next month dressed as some sort of enormous Alice in Wonderland.

I'm guessing Moodie's Alice will suggest the Queen of Hearts' brand of sham justice - "sentence first, verdict afterwards" - is at work behind the benches in Wellington.

But Moodie isn't telling.

This is really about attacking the "male ethos", he stresses, which has seen top lawyers and judges scrambling to protect the "good bastards" in the Army at the expense of a middle-aged couple called the Berrymans. He has been battling to clear Keith and Margaret Berryman's names since a coroner found them responsible for the death of beekeeper Ken Richards when an Army-built bridge at their King Country farm collapsed in 1994.

Lawyers rang to congratulate Moodie on his new clothing last week. But there may well be others wondering if Moodie, whose advocacy for the Berrymans has bordered on obsessive, has lost control of more than his lace-topped stockings.

"I've had this difficulty since I was a child," he says. "I always had a penchant for girls' ribbons and shoes. If a girl came to school with a new ribbon, I would know. I remember once I found a ribbon, and I carried it around in my pocket for about two weeks. I've always had that very strong feminine streak.

"If I had had the perfect education, I'd have done engineering, music and lots of rugby at Waitaki Boys, and I'd have spent two days a week in a gym frock doing cooking and sewing and the other things which were regarded as girls' things which I felt left out of."

Other than those private thoughts, his was a classic poor-boy-makes-good story. One of seven siblings in post-war Oamaru, he was removed from his parents because they were too poor to look after him and put into a boys' home, then into three foster homes. He has memories of his mother, but "I don't want to go into those. When I went into the boys' home my mother was somebody I looked up to. But things happened after that that made me wonder if she was making the effort to get us out. And I don't think she was. I never saw her for decades. The last real memory of my father, I was walking up the street towards the boys' home and I crossed over the road because he was coming down towards me. I didn't want to pass him. I waved to him as I went by, and I've never known why."

He died soon after.

"People say to me, 'Oh, what a shame', but I had a very happy childhood at the boys' home. I was always busy and happy."

Nevertheless, he failed at school on account of his eyesight and played rugby and farmed until his late teens, then set off to join the force.

He studied law while rising through police ranks and did extremely well at both, graduating with first-class honours from Victoria University and making the rank of inspector by age 32. But it was while working as a policeman that he really realised he was different from most men. "The feminine side hadn't actually manifested itself. I wasn't running around in women's clothes or anything. But I can distinctly remember times when I realised that my thinking and my values were very feminine because I didn't fit into the boozy mould..."

He leans forward. "Let me tell you how it worked with men and in the police in those days. There was a saying at the time, usually said with a bit of a slur because it came out when people had had a few drinks. 'He's a good bastard,' they'd say. What it meant was that he could do no wrong. Even if he smacked a prisoner or made something up on a statement, it almost enhanced his status. Of course, if you wanted to be one of the blokes, you had to subscribe to that ethos."

But the conversations never interested him. "And the good bastard thing I always found repulsive. So at that point, I was not one of the boys.

"When I became secretary of the Police Association [in 1976], I found it easier for them to see that I wasn't, rather than for me to tell them. I emphasised my femininity."

He tried it first with lacy pantyhose and pearls which fancied-up his otherwise manly garb. But when an officer complained, Moodie snapped. He phoned a TV reporter and announced on the six o'clock news that from then on he was going to wear dresses and kaftans to work.

He had more than personal points to prove, though. At the time, women were struggling to be taken seriously by the force, both as officers in their own right and as career women married to policemen. "It really was like the 1800s," he says.

So what was the response when he first turned up in a dress? There was very little, he reckons. "I was good at my job." As Police Association secretary he negotiated officers a 32 per cent pay rise in his first year. "When I finished at the Police Association [in 1986], I don't think I had one pair of trousers left."

Since then there has been little need for frocks. He farmed, and then ran for Mayor of Feilding in 1995 - and won.

It was easy to go back to trousers. He has never been burdened by the need to dress like a woman. "Mine was always a values thing. Wearing a skirt is no different from wearing trousers, it has no connotation whatsoever for me beyond that. When I see a skirt on a pretty girl, though, well," he laughs, "that's different."

It wasn't until last year, several years into the Berryman case, that he got the urge to wear skirts again.

The Army built the bridge on the Berrymans' property, but the 1997 inquest into the beekeeper's death cleared the force of blame for the bridge's collapse, instead blaming the Berrymans for failing to maintain it.

Moodie, however, has published on the internet an engineer's report which he says proves that the defence force was responsible for the collapse because of construction faults.

He says that proves the Army lied at the initial inquest and that successive judges, lawyers and politicians have tried to cover that up ever since.

He has been charged with contempt for publishing the report, charges he will try to get struck out at a hearing next month.

The injustice - as he sees it - eats him up. He's all the Berrymans have since they lost their farm and have been blamed for their friend's death. When they were ordered to pay $10,000 in costs to the defence force last year, he went out and bought a skirt and a dress.

"I told Liz, my associate: 'I'm going to be wearing skirts and dresses to court before this year is out.' I said, 'This is the bloody boys' ethos."'

It's one of the worst miscarriages of justice New Zealand has ever seen, he reckons. "A blatant case of cover-up from the top down." Either that, I suggest, or he is wrong. He sighs. "With respect, you don't understand how the male ethos works. You only have to say, for example, 'This involves the Army doesn't it? Well that was silly of them wasn't it? Never mind.' That's the way it's dealt with."

Will there come a time when this fight is not worth it? "Not for me. When they stand up and say that, I might even buy a pair of slacks to celebrate."

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