Alan Duff: Pride just as foolish in any era

Grandfather’s pithy columns warm reminders of 50s Kiwi childhood.
There his column ended, still to echo in this grandson's mind 60 years later. Photo / Getty Images
There his column ended, still to echo in this grandson's mind 60 years later. Photo / Getty Images

My grandfather in one of his 1955 Listener columns took up a question asked by an English columnist, what is a farmer doing when he leans on a gate?

Oliver had what would be called a lifestyle block of 21ha outside Christchurch..

Many of his columns were observations of his handful of sheep, most of them pets, his milking cows, sheep dogs, birds, of the smaller life forms like maggots, beetles, of trees blown down by nor'westers, of the stockyard sales he so loved to observe of farming mankind and their beasts for sale.

As children, our young Duff clan took turns at going to Landsdowne Valley for the Christmas holidays. The contrast to our home life in Rotorua was extreme and yet we felt entirely at home. We were among the few kids lucky enough to fly on a plane.

Anyway, he answered the question as a New Zealand "farmer", saying that the man would be thinking of the gate not lasting much longer and what would be required to repair it.

And if the gate faced the road, looking at an approaching cloud of dust wondering whose car it was; "... how long he will stay if it is Smith; how much he will give away if it is Jones".

There his column ended, still to echo in this grandson's mind 60 years later.

He once wrote of his three Maori grandchildren standing to attention and saluting at God Save the Queen being played on the radio. That was me and my two older brothers, who I assume I was apeing. There is a CBE, an OBE and MBE in our family. I now think they're a bit silly.

Once, Oliver Duff wrote he'd sooner go hungry than cook. He spoke of "food faddists and food fanatics in the last country in the world that ought to produce them: the green leaf and soya bean philosophers; the slimmers; the fatteners; the vegetarians; the eaters of white meat but never of red; the whole-mealers, half-mealers, and apostles of raisins and nuts.

"Fear of food is fear of God, a blasphemy of timidity and blindness that I place among the unpardonable sins." This grandson agrees with that aversion to the foodie cranks and nutters. Granddad had a thing about, well, lots of things.

Like someone eating with just a knife. Private schools. The snobbery in Canterbury and Hawkes Bay of farmers who considered themselves of superior stock.

Who would have thought that a bunch of Hawkes Bay farmers would be pretty good mates of this writer, and though I see a residue of that false assumption, they are as good a lot as any I have known.

My grandfather had no time for the Canterbury sector proud of being descendants of those who came on the "first four ships". I think it's a stupid pride too. If my father was an All Black and my mother a Silver Fern, what does that make me other than their child who might or might not achieve at sport?

Yet I am married to a descendant of a man considered a Canterbury founder. There is an avenue in Christchurch bearing her family name. No, I won't name it. Not trying to embarrass or challenge anyone.

Just making a point. In this case, that my wife has less snobbery in her than some of my Maori relations who think we're descended from ariki lines. Who cares about either?

I remember Granddad refusing to pick up a lamb chop to eat what remained of the meat he couldn't cut off. He thought it vulgar. We young ones from Rotorua thought this belief was stupid; all that sweet meat wasted.

He allowed us to strip his discarded bones as long as he wasn't present. If he could have seen our Maori relations eating boiled pork backbones he'd have had a fit.

He wrote a column asking, with not some small social anxiety, how did one address a judge on the street, socially? I don't think the problem exists now. The social and class demarcations of 1950s New Zealand have long matured into a more egalitarian society for which we should be glad.

My grandfather's book of Sundowner columns in selected form is kind of my Bible. I still have dreams he is alive, if missing a few marbles, even though he died in 1967.

A quarter of my existence is him and I am most grateful.

- NZ Herald

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