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Finding home

It occurred to me one day that I did not know where my first home was, where I had lived immediately after my birth. I know the town. It is Hāwera, which lies within sight of Mount Taranaki, the name translating more or less as ‘shining peak’, as it surely is, a glorious snow-topped cone. For a while it was called Mount Egmont, and briefly, in the eighteenth century, Pic Mascarin. I am awestruck by its presence, its thunderous, presiding beauty. But although my mother had left an account of her life for me, she hadn’t included the address of the house where I spent the first nine months of my life. I had never thought to ask her. It felt as if a void had opened up before me. I think now that she needed to forget that place.

Over the years I had accumulated a sense of the town, although I visited only once or twice, on the way to somewhere else. In the days when I worked as a radio producer, the head of my department was Helen Young, known as Hennie, an elegant and wholly delightful woman who had come from Hāwera. As it happened, her father had delivered me, in his role as a doctor. Her cousin worked in our department too, and one or two other people on the same floor had connections to the town. Sometimes I wondered if I had got the job because, in a sense, I was one of the ‘family’. I understood the network but was never really part of it.

Much later, I wrote a novel called The Captive Wife. It concerns a woman called Betty Guard, who was kidnapped on the Taranaki coastline in 1831, and one of the two pā sites where she was held is Orangi Tuapeka, near the end of the road that runs past what was once Mount View Hospital, where I was born. During a research trip, I found that building, now a large house sitting in a pretty garden; it seemed like enough at the time.

My parents left Hāwera because the town hadn’t worked for them. This was at the end of the Great Depression, the beginning of the Second World War. They had returned to New Zealand from a couple of years working in Australia, because my mother wanted her children to be born in her home country. My father took a job as a door-to-door insurance salesman. Born the night Michael Joseph Savage died, I was a sickly child from the outset. When I was near death, my mother was referred to a visiting specialist who told her she was a bad mother and that her child needed to go to Karitane Hospital in Whanganui and to stay put until she was sent for to collect me. In the meanwhile, she was not to go near me. Thus, I was separated from her for several of those early months.

As she would tell it, she went nearly crazy with despair. She paced the floors of the house she and my father rented and took up smoking, lighting one cigarette after another. She could have taken to drink but she was never a drinking woman. Or, she could have taken her life, but she needed to stay alive because she had to believe I would survive. Of course, my mother’s faith was not misplaced. I did survive, in rude good health, seemingly unharmed by the experience, though I think my mother never entirely got over it. I was her only child and, except when I travelled, I was rarely far from her sight for the rest of her life. In fact, some intense mutual attachment must have been forged: I needed her to be near me in order to feel safe.

After my mother died, I wrote a poem in which I imagined the house as narrow and quite dark:

… watching their cigarettes drift

curling smoke through the nights, listening

to pounding seas on Taranaki’s wild

coast and the wail of the sickly child.

But soon I realised that the house was nowhere near the sea, even if the hospital was.


In 2019 I was invited to tour South Taranaki for a week, giving talks and visiting schools. My base would be a motel in Hāwera, in Princes Street, which runs off the main South Road. I had been invited to talk about This Mortal Boy, published the year before, and the first event was in the library, by which I was immediately charmed. It had matchwood ceilings and stained-glass windows and I could imagine my mother there, finding some kind of comfort from the elements. She had worked at a small-town library in Western Australia. There was an authors’ board on the wall too. My name was on it, as if I belonged here, and, alongside it, that of my loved friend, children’s writer Jennifer Beck. We had been to school together in the north, and now, however much by chance, we were being hailed in what some might describe as my hometown.

Not that I could really frame my parents in Hāwera. I couldn’t see them walking on the footpaths. Would my lanky father, the insurance salesman, with his carefully polished accent have fitted into the White Hart Hotel on the corner of High and Main streets? Perhaps. He would have loved the hotel’s name, echoing the places he called home – England and County Cork. I thought he might have gone in and talked to the men at the bar as he sought prospective buyers of insurance policies. But he was shy and a little awkward around strangers and he stammered when under pressure. Besides, buying a round would have stretched what I later understood were the near non-existent finances.

When I visited, the hotel was one of the few original wooden buildings left, besides the library and the old wooden courthouse, crouching nearby under a spreading pōhutukawa tree. There are several square solid concrete buildings, decorated with arches and curlicues. The translation of the word Hāwera is, I believe, ‘breath of fire’, dating back to a quarrel between tribes in which the village was razed (although I have also seen it referred to as ‘burnt place’). Owing to some devastating fires in the town since European settlement, the locals had taken to building in durable materials they hoped would be fire resistant. Because a lack of water had hampered early firefighting efforts, they had erected a 54-metre concrete water tower. It stands sentinel, dominating the townscape, the tallest building in Taranaki. Inside, there are 215 steps to the top. I haven’t climbed them, but then I never climbed to the top of Florence’s Duomo either.

I ranged around Taranaki, that sliver of land on the western edge of the country, speaking in all the little places: Manaia, Waverley, Stratford, Eltham, Ōpunake, Pātea. For the school sessions, kids were bused in from Waitara and other outlying districts, red brick and concrete towns, home to meat works and dairy farming. At some venues there would be a crowd, in others perhaps four or five people. I like small audiences, the feeling of connection, of simply sitting down and having conversations and learning about those who make their lives in a particular place. There was one library where we sat around a table and had morning tea, laid out with beautiful china and food: I learned a lot that morning about horse breeding. In another, there were four people, two a young couple who lived in a car at the edge of the university campus where they studied. And, one morning, there were eight people in a library, five of them older men. They listened intently as I spoke about Albert Black, the boy who had been hanged in the now decommissioned Mount Eden Prison. One of the men waited until question time to speak. He had been in Mount Eden, he told us, and it was just as bad as I painted it. He launched into some painful memories. One of them was being watched in the shower by female prison officers. They used to walk around the decks above, all the time, every day. That couldn’t have been right, surely? Somebody laughed. I didn’t. I agreed with him, it wasn’t right.

Some evenings, I would eat at a café on High Street. The walk back to the motel seemed longer at night, dark alleyways, green fluorescent lights showering from the recesses, shadowy doorways. I thought about Ronald Hugh Morrieson, the author in whose name I was touring. Morrieson is something of a cult figure, whose novels, which include Came a Hot Friday, Predicament and The Scarecrow, all made into movies, are preoccupied with ‘sex, death, mateship, voyeurism, violence, booze and mayhem in bleak small town New Zealand’ but also filled with ‘his irreverent black humour’. The writer cum dance band player and music teacher had left a legacy that I can’t imagine has always been welcome in the town, yet he and his work are honoured still, and I admire that. He died from alcohol-related causes in 1972, when he was fifty. I felt his footsteps behind me, as I walked the night-dark streets.

For those who prospered, the town had much to offer, as I knew from Hennie, who gave me such support when I was younger. I know of Hāwera’s history of music, and there is a sense that the place is steeped in words and song. It is the birthplace of other poets, near contemporaries of mine.

This was not my parents’ experience there. My mother had left Australia with a trunkful of pretty dresses – pale green silk, red and navy stripes – and strapped shoes. She never wore them again. As a teenager, I wore some of them until I realised I was seen as ridiculous, and the clothes were disposed of. She had been alone at the worst time of her life, divided by family rifts, too proud to call for help. My travelling father perhaps still carried his dreams.


After that tour, I began a serious hunt for the house. I turned first to the electoral rolls but there was no sign of my parents there. I realised that their return to New Zealand would have been too recent to be recorded, and before long they would have left, my mother and I to join her family further north, my father to disappear into the air force. I knew I had been baptised, and because I was sickly it had been very early on so that my infant soul would not be condemned to purgatory. The kind people at the church where I thought this must have taken place had a gap in their records, something to do with the war. They were so sorry, they said, but 1940, that year of my birth, was not there. I tried Karitane. Surely, the contact details for parents of their charges must be recorded. Alas, their records did not go back that far. I began to feel like a missing person.

I had one last inspiration. It was in this town that my father, heading towards forty, made the desperate decision to go to war. When he enlisted, there must surely have been a home address. My next call, then, was the Defence Force. And yes, there it was, that first house where I had so briefly lived. I learned some other interesting facts too, about where my Irish father had gone to school in Middlesbrough, and afterwards to a technical college where he had excelled in physics and mathematics, that he had a whole range of skills he never talked about and never employed in New Zealand, except in the air force, where he was an armourer. (He never served overseas; he had flat feet.) In a photograph taken the year of his enlistment, my father looks handsome and confident in his uniform, as if he had come into his own. It didn’t last, but I see, in that captured instant, what might have been, the person I never really knew.

I have been to see the house. It is white and plain, set back from the street. Among more modern houses it looks a bit like the Little House on the Prairie. There was nobody home when I called, so I couldn’t go inside. But the neat, comfortable room that I glimpsed through a window did look quite narrow and, yes, perhaps a bit dark in the afternoon. Maybe it gets the morning sun. I hope so, for the sake of whoever lives there, and for my mother. She never said. The mountain was clearly visible at the end of the street and, in the back garden, there was a lemon tree groaning with ripe fruit, windfalls beneath.

This house is someone’s home. I won’t say where it is because I would be betraying them; their history in that house is their own. But I know where it is. And in this discovery of mine, I discovered so much more than I anticipated.

The house. My father’s story. My beginnings.


The house at Hāwera.


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