Calder At Large

Peter Calder on life in New Zealand

Peter Calder: Step up for battle on the greens

More recruits are needed to help keep the friendly but tactically demanding sport of lawn bowls thriving.

Poa Mafileo (in white) aims for the jack as Lorraine Beazley looks on at the Grey Lynn Bowling Club. Photo / Dean Purcell
Poa Mafileo (in white) aims for the jack as Lorraine Beazley looks on at the Grey Lynn Bowling Club. Photo / Dean Purcell

"Don't you start stirring," says the woman. "It's too early in the day for that sort of nonsense."

She's responding to a complaint that "I'll have to spend my bus fare", by another woman, one with a frangipani blossom behind her ear, who's been asked to produce $5 for reasons that eluded me. But the serious tone of the reproof is rather undermined by the peal of laughter that follows.

It's not that early in the day - 9am to be precise, but it is a Sunday morning. It's the ladies' day at the Grey Lynn Bowling Club and the few members - there are barely a dozen of each gender these days - are about to do battle on the greens.

I stuck my nose in a couple of weeks ago at the club, which is wedged in behind the Anglican Church on the south-facing slope above Chinaman's Hill, in response to a flyer dropped in my letterbox advertising a "Have a Go Day". Jaunty Pasifika music spilled from a small ghetto-blaster and the men slugged beer from quart bottles and rolled cigarettes between ends (the term for one run of play).

Every face was brown.

It seemed like a flashback to the 60s and 70s when Grey Lynn was the Auckland home of choice for many Pacific peoples; the property boom forced them out, although the Tongan and Samoan churches remain.

"We do have a palagi," said treasurer Lorraine Beazley, when I remarked later on the makeup of the membership. "But he's not here. He hasn't been very well."

The atmosphere is far from tropical-Pacific when, at the invitation of a welcoming woman called Janet, I return the next weekend for the ladies' competition. The wind and squalls that stopped the men's competition the day before have passed, but an icy southerly nips at the ears, and the forecast sunshine is struggling to make its presence felt.

Everyone's expecting me. Several hope aloud, and in mock-threatening tones, that "you're going to write something nice about us"; the frangipani woman asks whether she is going to be on the front page and her eyes widen in exaggerated horror when I give her the bad news before she explodes with laughter again.

I later discover, the club, which started in 1904 - though its location is its third - has not traditionally been so Pasifika in flavour.

President Henry Pitomaki explains that as membership numbers started to fade in the 90s, the few brown members started to work their communities for new players.

Pitomaki first came to the club when he lived next door and "mates would sign us in so we could get a beer on a Sunday".

"It was a good watering hole," he says, "but after I started playing, the beer came second."

But times are still tough for the country's lawn bowls clubs. A generation ago, Grey Lynn had more than 200 members, Beazley tells me, and restrictions on membership - such as a lower age limit of 65 - were not uncommon.

"You'd have to book a week in advance to get a game," says Pitomaki. "But it was the old people who kept the numbers up and as they passed on, nobody came along to replace them."

The dwindling numbers persuaded the national governing body Bowls New Zealand to start "Have a Go" Day in which more than 100 clubs will open their doors to people wanting to check the sport out. They're keen to dispel the image of lawn bowls as a game for the frail elderly. Says Pitomaki: "I think some of the older folks get a bit of a shock about how aggressive and competitive the younger players can be."

It's also a game that anyone can play - they've had players in wheelchairs on the Grey Lynn greens - and physical prowess counts for less than a feel for the bias of the elliptical bowl and tactical nous.

Out on the rinks - the strips of green on which each match is played - the women go about their play with grace and silent determination. The men act as markers, standing at the far end and signalling whose bowl is closest to the small white jack and thus "has the shot".

They'll be here much of the day, trading ends and giving each other cheek. "And we usually tend to relax before we go home," says Janet with a smile. Henry Pitomaki smiles knowingly.

- NZ Herald

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