Calder At Large

Peter Calder on life in New Zealand

Peter Calder: Intoxicating tales of good old days

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With Ten Guitars ringing in her ears a veteran publican recalls the six o'clock swill and drinkers' cunning lurks.

Maureen Gordon remembers a coal-truck driver who used to pop in for his first beer at 9am. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Maureen Gordon remembers a coal-truck driver who used to pop in for his first beer at 9am. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Even its most regular habitues would not have fond memories of six o'clock closing. The six o'clock swill, they called it - the frantic, bladder-busting beer-guzzling that took place before the police arrived to make sure licensing hours were being observed.

The men arrived soon after workplaces closed and drank where they stood, on carpets sticky with spillage, as a tobacco smog built up above their heads. The only women were behind the bar, working furiously to keep up with orders.

It was, by all accounts, not a pretty sight. One eyewitness recalled drinkers "three or four deep, and drinking not as human beings, but often like animals, fighting to get it and passing handles over each other's heads".

Six o'clock closing, introduced in 1917 as a wartime measure, had been retained largely as a tactic to pacify prohibitionists. Then, 46 years ago on this day, it was all over.

In a referendum held three weeks earlier, the vote had gone two to one in favour of extending licensing hours until 10pm (by a similar margin, voters rejected the idea of extending the parliamentary term from three to four years).

Maureen Gordon, the publican at the Kings Arms in Newton, Auckland, is slightly bashful about admitting that she was in the business in those days. "I never discuss age," she says in response to my impertinent question, "but I suppose I'm one of the few left. I'm not sure whether that's a good or a bad thing."

With her husband Peter, she had just started in the hotel trade the year before the change. Their first pub was The Jolly Farmer in Drury, so the city workers' swill was not something she had to endure. But she has her own stories of those days.

"We had a huge hedge that all the trucks used to hide behind. We would have the coal-truck driver from Huntly drop in at 9 o'clock in the morning to have his first beer. And when he'd come back in the afternoon, he'd have a bit of coal left over and he'd say, 'Do you want a bit of coal?', you know. They were good days.

"The groups would come over from Pukekohe.

"They played that Ten Guitars so many times every time I hear it now I think 'Oh, God, not again ...'."

At the time of the changeover, Sunday opening may not have been legal, but it was far from unknown.

We've all heard stories, most commonly set in Westland, of pub patrons pouring out into the car park, leaving jugs half drunk and cigarettes smoking in ashtrays, while the local cop satisfied himself that the pub was not trading, and pouring back in again when he'd gone.

"We didn't open Sundays," says Gordon solemnly, before leaning forward. "You can't put this in the paper, but customers would come to the back door on Sundays with their flagons. They were good days."

The veteran publican says she "couldn't settle" in the country and she and Peter, who died 20 years ago, came into town to manage the now-demolished Carpenter's Arms at the foot of Greys Ave. Her conversation is sprinkled with references to pubs now gone (Gleesons in Hobson St) or renamed (The Suffolk in College Hill).

Opponents of the end of six o'clock closing predicted dire consequences. A poster of the time warned of "more drinking and brawling, more night-time crime". It would take a particularly rosy-eyed view of present-day Auckland to find that they didn't have a point.

The liberalising of liquor laws has always been based on an assumption that it will lead to a more civilised European-style drinking culture. But 199 years after the first Pakeha settlers arrived here, we still have a long way to go.

I stayed once in a large town in Italy, in a B&B next to a building site. The crew of maybe half a dozen - all big blokes with callused hands - took a Friday afternoon off, presumably to celebrate some special occasion.

They brought nice food and good wine and sat in the shade of a makeshift gazebo, chatting, eating and drinking for six hours. The drone of their conversation punctuated by occasional laughter barely disrupted the quiet of the afternoon as I read a book.

At one point, I realised they had all gone home. I had not heard them leave. It would be hard to find such a building site - or any other workplace for that matter - in this country today.

- NZ Herald

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