Southerly by David Haywood

270

Who was George Hildebrand Alington—and why did he give away his “Girl child 23 months old”?

In restoring our earthquake-damaged house, I’ve come across a few interesting old items.

In the attic we discovered a group photo of the Avonside Tennis Team of 1929: ‘Matches Played, 8; Matches Won, 8’ (a successful year for them). And demolition of our chimneys unearthed an unusual brick with animal paw-prints in the clay—identified by me as ‘small dog’ and by Ian Dalziel as ‘gigantic rat’.

Then there’s this letter:

Above: Letter of adoption of child, 1893 (click image to enlarge).

The text reads:

[Stamp: 24/11/93 G H Alington]

Methven, Canterbury
November 24th 1893

I, George Hildebrand Alington of Methven, hereby agree that in consideration of Mrs George Coleman adopting as her own my girl child twenty-three months old, I give up forever all claim to the said child and guarantee that I will do all in my power to prevent the mother of the child knowing where the child is or annoying the child or Mrs Coleman in any way or claiming the child—the said mother having given up all claim to the said child for the sum of (£20) Twenty Pounds.

Signed by the said George Hildebrand Alington [his signature]

In the presence of John Holland, Clerk in Holy Orders

[Unintelligible name], JP.

There are also two receipts:

Above: Dated: 21st December 1892. From: W.H. Wynn Williams. Twenty pounds on account of: Mrs E A Winter RE: Alington. Signed: Stringer & Cresswell [Christchurch solicitors] (click image to enlarge).

Above: Dated: August [?] 23rd 1897. From: Mr Geo Coleman. Five guineas cost of adoption of child + disbursements. Signed: Skerrett & Wylie [Wellington solicitors] (click image to enlarge).

I admit to being slightly shocked when I discovered this letter. As a father myself, I can’t imagine giving away my child—particularly at 23 months old when she would be scampering around and quite capable of holding a conversation. And then there’s the slightly unpleasant promise to hide the location of the child from her mother. Not to mention the twenty pound payment to the child’s mother, with a receipt dated 11 months prior to the letter of adoption.

The inclusion of another solicitors’ receipt dated five years later shows that some sort of official legal adoption has now taken place. Does this mean that my discovery of these documents is via the family that adopted the girl? Or was the receipt forwarded to the biological father, who kept it carefully in his records?

Alington is a distinctive surname. The adoption letter was penned over 120 years ago; so I didn’t think anyone would mind me investigating the matter. Here’s what I discovered about the child’s father:

George Hildebrand Alington
born: 1850, Lincolnshire, England
married: 1893 to Winifred Beatrice Dumergue (1873-1958)
died: 1905, Ashburton, New Zealand
children:
1. Winifred Louisa Alington (1894-1980)
2. Hester Maud Alington (1895-1983)
3. Edward Hugh Alington (1896-1986)

George Hildebrand Alington was married in the same year that he adopted out his daughter. His new wife, Winifred, turned 20 the year she was married, whereas George was aged around 43. Both were from rather posh backgrounds; the National Library holds archives of the family but makes no mention of George fathering a daughter prior to his marriage.

The proximity of the adoption and George’s marriage raises some interesting possibilities:

  • Did Winifred (or her parents) demand that George’s daughter be adopted as a condition of marriage?

  • Was Winifred unaware of the daughter—and the adoption a method whereby George disposed of the evidence of past indiscretions.

  • Could it be that John Holland (Methven’s Anglican vicar who witnessed the adoption letter) refused to allow George’s marriage until the daughter was safely settled with a respectable family.

  • If George’s marriage took place after the adoption of his daughter on November 24th, 1893, then when exactly was his first ‘legitimate’ child born in 1894 (her birth certificate is held by the National Library but not available online)? Did this have a precipitory effect on the timing of the marriage and adoption?

There is also the matter of the child’s mother and the payment of the twenty pounds. This was a large sum of money in 1892—a typical carpenter in Canterbury only earned £23 per year. A payment this large possibly has a whiff of hush money about it.

It’s also interesting that the payment receipt is made out to W.H. Wynn Williams (a very prominent Cantabrian who once held office as Provincial Solicitor), but signed by Stringer & Cresswell, an unrelated firm of Christchurch solicitors. Presumably W.H. Wynn Williams was acting on behalf of George Hildebrand Alington, and Stringer & Cresswell on behalf of the child’s mother. But the plot thickens when we see that Williams has paid “on account of Mrs E.A. Winter RE: Alington”.

Could Mrs E.A. Winter be the mother of the adopted child? Although given the ‘Mrs’ then perhaps it’s more likely she would be the grandmother. On the other hand, an article in an 1887 Christchurch Star makes mention of a Reverend E.A. Winter speaking at Saint Luke’s Church. It’s possible that he had a wife who dealt with these kinds of matters. Was Mrs Winter connected to an orphanage where the child may have been placed out of the way of her father?

Taking the child’s age from the adoption letter we can calculate her date of birth: between 25th November and 24th December, 1891. According to the Births, Deaths, and Marriages database there were no children born with the surname ‘Winter’ (or ‘Alington’) in that period. So perhaps the Mrs E.A. Winter named on the receipt was unrelated to the adopted child.

It should, of course, be an easy matter to find the child’s mother’s name (and the child’s birth name) by inspecting all the birth records within the date range. Unfortunately, however, the Births, Deaths, and Marriages database doesn’t permit unnamed or wildcard searches.

Investigations into the child’s adopted family have been less successful. There were several George Colemans in Canterbury during the mid-1890s: a Justice of the Peace in Christchurch, a farmer in Ashburton, a military captain in Ashburton, a prominent member of a Canterbury Tramway Board (these last three may even be the same person), but no mention of a daughter. There was even a George Coleman in Wellington who was sentenced to two years hard labour in 1898—could this be connected to the child’s official adoption in Wellington in 1897? I hope not.

And so the trail goes cold.

After finding the adoption letter (and the information about George Hildebrand Alington), I had visions of playing a minor role in a family reunion: introducing the Alingtons to their previously unknown cousins. It’s disappointing that I haven’t been able to help that along very much.

From the limited evidence it’s difficult to know what to think of George Hildebrand Alington. Perhaps he loved the child’s mother, but her parents forbade marriage, and George did the best he could—giving the child’s mother his life savings and making sure the baby was safely adopted. The promise to keep the mother away from the child being inserted in the letter only at the adoptive mother’s insistence.

On the other hand, perhaps he was a moustache-twirling cad who contrived to remove the child from the mother, paid off her relatives, and then used his connections to dispose of his illegitimate daughter on the eve of marriage to a wealthy young heiress.

I mentioned that the Alington family were quite posh. A mildly interesting discovery was that the girl in the adoption letter is actually a verifiable relative of the current royal baby. Oh, if only the mighty financial resources of the Womans’ Weekly could be directed to solve this mystery—and to pay wheelbarrow loads of money to Births, Deaths, and Marriages for the certificates that could reunite the Alingtons with their long-lost (nearly) royal relations.

UPDATE: Read discussion thread (below) to see this mystery solved -- more later...

78

How I Became a Grumpy Old Builder (in Microcosm)

So when I first embarked upon the mission of relocating our house from Christchurch's Residential Red Zone to Dunsandel—and the subsequent repair and restoration work—I had a grand plan of writing all about it.

According to my plan, as each task was completed, I would illustrate my achievements with magnificent photographs, and provide a light-hearted commentary of my rapid progress, tribulations (minor), and ultimate triumph.

The problem with this plan, however, is that I have not yet fully finished anything on the house. I reach about 95 per cent completion on any job, and then circumstances force me to move onto the next-most highly urgent task. For example, the outside of the house is painted to a weatherproof level, but not all the same colour—because I only had time to paint the three-quarters of the house that genuinely needed painting. Similarly, the driveway and paths around the house are almost completely cobbled, except for the last few square metres, when my 38 tonnes of cobblestones (shifted from our old section in Christchurch) ran out, and no similar ones could be easily obtained.

Inside the house almost every room is finished—but not entirely. I have a missing piece of dado-rail here; a lost escutcheon there; one remaining door that needs stripping and varnishing; and (until recently) no system for hanging a hand-towel in the lavatory; and so on. Nothing, you understand, that affects the weather-tightness, structural integrity, or basic liveability of the house, but just (what seems like) hundreds of minor details to fix.

After the first year, my life as a reluctant builder began to take on a Sisyphean quality. It was a relief to relocate to the UK for four months, during which time my builder's grumpiness began to evaporate, and I was able to complete a few pieces of writing (there are half-a-dozen essays still to appear on Public Address). The night before we returned to New Zealand, Jennifer made me vow to develop a more relaxed schedule for my building work, setting aside time for writing each week, and thus becoming a less grumpy husband.

The instant we arrived back in Dunsandel, of course, my sincerely-made promises flew out the window. A misunderstanding with our house-minder meant that the lawns had not been mown for the many months that we were away. After a twenty-six-hour journey, I had to immediately fire-up the lawnmower, and spent the next four days getting it under control.

Above: The lawn doesn't appear to be that long—until you realize the blue bar is the top of the goalposts from a child's football set.

Then there were shelves and drawers required for the children's rooms. And new beds (standard boughten beds being too long to fit the Edwardian-sized gaps in the bedrooms) as well as several hundred trees to plant, and yet more painting of the exterior, and various bits of complicated joinery to remake, and how come we still can't hang a hand-towel in the lavatory? Et cetera, et cetera, endlessly, endlessly.

One of the slow-making aspects of working on an old villa is the timber—mainly rimu and kauri—which is hard to work (certainly compared to pine), hard to source, and horribly hard to colour-match to existing joinery. And the paint schemes aren't very time-friendly either; try fiddly bevels and finials at any decent rate of knots.

Above: It doesn't look that complicated, but there's a lot of work in merely painting this gable (photograph taken some time ago; I've finished most of the exterior now).

And who would have guessed that reproduction Edwardian taps have round shafts that can't easily be fitted into the square holes of original Edwardian basins? And, furthermore, who would have guessed that they don't sell the round-to-square adapters in New Zealand?

It turns out that if you don't want to glue the taps into the basins as the local plumbers do (which seems like a slightly bad idea to me), or tighten the hell out of backing nuts onto 100-plus-year-old porcelain, then you have to make your own adapters—and, even though that's a trivial job, it makes a minor task into a medium-sized pain in the neck.

Above: The only benefit in making your own round-to-square adapters is that you can incorporate a snap-off alignment tool (left tap).

Then there are jobs such as tiling, which were carried out in a completely different manner in Edwardian times. Old-style tiles were laid very close together—without the large (and easy) grout lines of today. For the fireplace hearths, my plan was to reuse the original tiles that had been painstakingly removed by my friend, The Lovely Ian Dalziel™, and myself. Unfortunately, however, my plan turned out to be a bunch of complete crap. A few tiles had shattered on removal, and it turns out that you can't make broken tiles look like unbroken tiles no matter how hard you try. Too much entropy.

So you have to go through a tortuous process:

  1. Find similar modern tiles (takes ages).
  2. Remove backing cloth (new tiles are spaced for modern thick grout lines).
  3. Discover that the tiles are of sufficient size variation so as to make old-fashioned thin grout lines impossible (ha ha).
  4. Sort tiles in the manner of a huge jigsaw puzzle in order to get similar-sized tiles in similar rows/columns so that thin grout lines become possible.
  5. Discover that this has made colour stripes appear in the tiling.
  6. Re-do huge jigsaw puzzle to remove colour stripes.
  7. Lay tiles.

It all takes so much longer than it should.

Above: The finished fireplace hearth actually does look very like the original.

I was, however, happy to spend a bit of time repairing the hall archway. When the house was split for relocation, half of the arch was removed, and then was somehow lost. In spite of great scepticism from my proper builder friends, I was able to remake half the arch so that it's impossible to tell where original ends and repair begins. Not that it's the most beautiful hall archway in the world or anything; but it's nice to keep original bits, I think.

Above: The repaired (on left) hall archway. That reminds me—I still have to repaint the plasterwork.

Small things can sometimes be the most irritating. We were reminded of the non-existent towel rail in the lavatory every time we washed our hands. It should have been a five minute job—but I just couldn't find a sufficiently low-profile period rail to fit behind the door. It speaks volumes for Jennifer's good nature that she would spend a year drying her hands on the back of her trousers rather than (a) divorcing me, or (b) shouting: “Just buy a bloody modern towel rail from Bunnings.”

I had an unexpected breakthrough in the UK, when we visited a Victorian residence with exactly the same behind-the-door towel rail issue as our house. I surreptitiously snapped a photo with my phone. This was a major clue.

Above: The Victorian towel rail.

Back in New Zealand, a final futile search of Musgroves and The Pump House convinced me to swap my Saturday night for a lavatory towel rail. A few scraps of hundred-year-old rimu from an old schoolhouse provided timber that perfectly matched our lavatory door.

Above: Who were Andrew, Stuart Barber, and David A. What are they doing now?

An hour or so with the bandsaw, table router, and drill press gave me the rail-ends. The hidden brackets were made from bits of stainless steel oven trays. Isn't it lucky that I have a policy of not throwing out old oven trays?

Above: Rail ends, hidden brackets, and a couple of spares.

The rail itself was made from the stem of an old light fitting. Isn't it lucky that I have a policy of not throwing out bits of old light fittings.

Above: The light fitting that didn't get earthquake-damaged (top left) in our 95 per cent complete sitting room. The light fitting's identical twin ended life as a towel rail.

A few coats of my fancy varnish revealed that (as intended) the rimu is a perfect match for the lavatory door.

Above: The towel rail that saved my marriage (the angle of the photo makes the rail look a tight fit with the door handle, but actually there's a heap of room).

Sometimes, as I lie in bed at night, it occurs to me that this lavatory towel rail is a microcosm of the entire project.  A five-minute job expands into an evening's work.

Sure, by recycling bits and pieces, the towel rail didn't actually cost me any hard cash. Sure, it didn't take that long in absolute terms. But at the end of it you think: “I've just lavished three hours of my life making the perfect towel rail to fit behind a lavatory door. What the fuck is wrong with me?”

Multiply that five-minute-to-three-hour conversion rate by every job that I've done and you can see why I've become a grumpy old builder. Taken on their own, each task could be a fun wee project; taken together, they feel like infinity.

Another twenty items down my list is a whole stack of door joinery; remaking the cupboard doors that a previous owner replaced with pink MDF (while taunting me by leaving the rather nice rimu door frames). My grandfather—who recently announced his definitive retirement as a builder—has kindly shipped me his 1960s Tanner table-saw/buzzer as a helping hand. It's made in Penrose; it weighs 105 kilograms; it works about 2000 per cent better than my modern table-saw.

Above: The mighty Tanner arrives in Dunsandel.

I was particularly impressed by the beautiful condition of the Tanner's blade-guard, which apparently was only ever used when a safety inspector was due to make an appearance. It looks so very shiny and brand-new.

It's odd that my grandfather was a builder; my father started with my grandfather, but ended up with a Ph.D; and I started with a Ph.D, but have ended up working as a builder.

Life is a parabola, I suppose.

25

Sunstroke in Scotland

“Do you remember this?” asked Jennifer.

“Yes,” I said.

“Last time we were here it was midwinter and this playground was covered in ice. And you gave Bob a big lecture about being careful on the ice, how dangerous and slippery it was, and then you climbed to the top of the slide to help him. And then you slipped and fell off.”

“It’s funny how I didn’t really hurt myself that time,” I said. “Maybe because I was younger?”

“It was because of the rubber matting,” said Jennifer. “The matting they put down for little children.” She paused. “I just thought I’d mention it: the ice, and how you warned everyone about it, and then how you fell over.”

We were at the children’s playground of the Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh. It wasn’t necessarily bringing back happy memories, but it was certainly a strange and exhilarating experience to be in Scotland, and—simultaneously—to be able to see the sun (and, indeed, to almost feel hot).

This extraordinary meteorological phenomenon had yesterday prompted the government to declare a Level Three Heatwave (only one level below National Emergency). The previous night’s STV weather report had warned that “sunscreen is essential”, and advised its viewers to drink “at least two litres of water per hour—or risk death.”

“Guess what?” I said to Jennifer. “I’ve walked in the sun all day without sunscreen, or even a hat, and I didn’t get sunburnt. Also I left my water bottle at home. You know what I think is a national emergency? Being bombed by the Luftwaffe. This is just ordinary sunny weather.”

“Why can’t you be nice?” said Jennifer. “Okay, it’s not that hot. But the Scottish are enjoying themselves so much. Let them have their fun.”

We stood awhile watching our children play with my mother. Polly, our daughter, had persuaded my mother to climb aboard a roundabout; and was propelling it in circles so rapidly that my poor mum had become a mere Gaussian blur against the backdrop of the castle and the Scott Monument.

“You see,” I said to Jennifer. “My mother was bombed by the Luftwaffe and look at how tough she is. There’s no way she’d declare a national emergency just because the sun is out. No one from Glasgow would. This is what happens when you let the Edinbourgeois run the country.”

Above: Bob on playground with Edinburgh Castle in the distance.

Next to the playground, a slightly shabby-looking woman was sitting on a park bench, drinking from a brown paper bag. A young man—also clutching a brown paper bag—wandered past the bench. The woman stood up and staggered after the young man.

Shabby Woman: [Shouting while attempting to walk in a straight line] ’Zat you, Kev?

Young Man: Wha’?

Shabby Woman: : ’Zat you, Kev? S’me, Toyah.

Young Man: Wha’? [Realization dawning] No! ’Zat you, Toyah?

Shabby Woman: Aye! S’me, Kev!

Young Man: Toyah! [Hugs her drunkenly.] I love youse, Toyah—I’ve always loved youse...

Shabby Woman: I love youse, too, Kev...

Young Man: Long time no see, Toyah. It’s been a long... how long’s it been?

Shabby Woman: Why’re youse just walk’n past me, Kev? Youse was look’n at me all funny.

Young Man: I’s no’ fucken look’n at you...

Shabby Woman: Youse was look’n at me like youse better’n me, Kev...

Young Man: I’s no’ look’n at anything, Toyah. [Pauses briefly to gather his thoughts.] Why don’ youse fucken fuck off...

Shabby Woman: [Screaming] Why don’ youse fucken fuck off, Kev? I w’s at this playground first. Youse should fuck off, not me. I shouldnae have t’fuck off! [Sits down heavily on the park bench; Kev gives her the fingers and shambles off towards Lothian Road.]

There was a brief silence while the various parents and their offspring (who had been innocently enjoying the tender moment of Toyah and Kev’s reunion) returned to their playground activities. “People in Edinburgh talk posh even when they get all sweary,” I observed to my mother. “Compared to Glaswegians, that is.”

“Yes, did you hear how Kev said ‘thing’ instead of ‘hing’,” she marvelled. “It was like listening to Charles and Camilla.”

At this point, Bob, my son, began to profess a great weariness from his afternoon’s misuse of playground equipment (climbing up the outside of the tube slide; centrifuging himself into mid-air from the roundabout). Jennifer seized upon the hope of getting him to bed early, and having a few heavenly moments of peace and quiet for herself. Polly and I decided to stay with my mother; and meet our friends, Derek and Isaac, for an evening picnic.

Derek and Isaac are Aucklanders who moved to Edinburgh a few years back. The way they tell it, life is pretty tough in Scotland’s capital: outstanding restaurants, endless cultural activities, living in a palatial eighteenth-century townhouse, being paid triple their New Zealand salary for less work. It sounded like hell.

“Yeah, and people mistake me for an All Black the whole time,” said Isaac. “I get asked for my autograph. Even Derek was asked once; they thought he was management.”

“I exude authority,” explained Derek.

We chatted about Scottish politics. My mother has visited Derek and Isaac several times since their relocation; she astonished me with the revelation that my Glaswegian anarchist grandfather only travelled to Edinburgh once in his life. It’s a real testament to my grandfather’s judgement that he could dislike a city and its population so thoroughly on the basis of a single encounter—although, as he often said, it did used to be part of England.

Derek and I have been friends since we were twelve years old. Inevitably our conversation turned to the passing of the years and our various infirmities. “I groan whenever I have bend down below waist level,” I told him. “I’m worried that Polly will think that ‘Oh, Jesus Christ, my back’ is the word for picking up something from the floor.”

“You think that’s bad?” said Derek. “I’m in agony just sitting here on the picnic blanket. My joints have gone all achy.”

“You know what would help you two,” said Isaac, demonstrating why his interpersonal skills are so sought after in Scotland. “Trying to harden the fuck up.”

Having gorged ourselves to the edge of unconsciousness on their delicious picnic food, we retired to one of Derek and Isaac’s favourite cafés for a spot of dessert. They explained how they’d spent several arduous years enlightening the staff on the technicalities of producing a decent long black. It was the best coffee I’d had since leaving New Zealand.

There was still plenty of daylight left and it felt ridiculous to contemplate bed. Derek and Isaac suggested a quick visit to their digs for tea and biscuits—just in case there were a few unfilled cubic millimetres in our digestive tracts. It transpired that they had rather understated the grandeur of their house: three-storey entrance hall and staircase topped with a magnificent cupola; original Georgian sitting room the size of a tennis court; the sort of grand dining room that could be used to entertain royalty (and, indeed, had once claimed Sir Walter Scott, 1st Baronet, as a regular visitor); and, of course, a private garden across the way.

“Nice,” I said. “And I like the way the shutters fold back into the window frames.”

“It’s funny how the Scots were so brilliant at building comfortable homes in the eighteenth century,” observed Derek. “Then they emigrated to New Zealand and forgot everything, and started building cold, shitty houses that leak.”

I thought of Derek’s childhood home: a standard 1960s bungalow in Glen Eden. And also of the elegant Victorian villa that he and Isaac had meticulously restored prior to leaving New Zealand (with a level of perfectionism that I was attempting to emulate in my own restoration).

“Are you looking forward to going back to Auckland?” I asked.

“Oh, we’re not going back,” said Isaac. “We’ve decided to sell everything in New Zealand and stay here. Edinburgh has all we’ve ever wanted. We couldn’t imagine leaving now.”

My mother and I walked home in the long twilight. Polly was asleep in my arms. Our route took us up The Mound and along the Royal Mile. On High Street we saw a man who resembled David Cameron; except that he was shirtless, and had the word ‘SCOTLAND’ emblazoned across his chest in lipstick.

“Surely that can’t be David Cameron,” I said to my mother.

“It does look very like him,” she replied uncertainly.

The Meadows were populated by picnickers drinking wine in the fading light, and dining on food that looked distinctly un-Scottish. As we walked past the playground, Polly awoke with the words “put me in the baby swings” and then instantly fell asleep again.

Derek and Isaac had fallen in love with this city, and I could see how it might happen. Scotland’s capital, I decided, was rather like those mousy librarians in the movies. My previous assessments had never looked beyond her hair-bun and spectacles. Under blue sky and sunshine, the city unexpectedly shed its glasses, unleashed a cascade of glamorous movie-star hair, and gave a slow, come-hither smile.

It was, I realize, a deeply unworthy and disloyal thought for the son of a Glaswegian to have—but I couldn’t help liking Edinburgh.

98

A Blog on Behalf of an Anarchist Glaswegian

My anarchist Glaswegian grandfather was a man of many strange theories. Some of them, I have subsequently realized, were actually rather clever and forward-thinking; others still seem to be pretty daft.

Here are five of his theories that rise immediately to the top of my mind:

  1. That women should be paid the same as men. (This idea was positively heretical for most of my grandfather’s working life.)

  1. That the first words of any constitution should be: “Government shall pass no unnecessary laws”. (My grandfather hoped this would make politicians argue so much that they’d hardly pass any laws at all.)

  2. That herbicides and pesticides are dangerous to the environment and should be used very sparingly. (For most of my grandfather’s life the prevailing philosophy was “too much is not enough”.)

  3. That classical music is without merit, and listening to it will make you depressed. (My grandfather knew some depressed people who liked classical music).

  4. That the New Zealand parliament should have two upper houses each comprising citizens chosen at random to form what my grandfather called a “parliamentary jury”.

As a child and young teenager, I held the opinion that four-fifths of the theories on this list were absolutely bonkers (Theory #1 being the obvious exception). But nowadays I’m not so sure that my grandfather was quite as wrong-headed as I once thought.

I recently had a discussion with a former colleague about the lack of checks and balances in New Zealand’s parliament. My former colleague considered it a shame that Jim Bolger’s scheme for an elected senate had been abandoned. This, in turn, prompted me to mention my grandfather’s proposal for two upper houses in New Zealand. “That’s an intriguing idea,” said my friend. “You should get him to write an article about it.”

It is unfortunate that my grandfather is no longer around to fulfil this request. But after some consideration I find myself inclined to agree that his concept is worth putting down in writing. In many ways, my grandfather seemed destined to have been a political blogger; he just had the misfortune to be born at the wrong time. So it seems only reasonable that I should correct history’s bad timing by giving his ideas an airing on the internet.

My grandfather’s proposal for two upper houses arose out of his dissatisfaction with the parliamentary systems in both his native Britain and his adopted home of New Zealand. He despised the British House of Lords with its millionaire toffs, bishops, and inbred nobility; but acknowledged that it provided a useful check on the House of Commons. On the other hand, while he approved of the absence of bishops and hereditary peers in New Zealand’s parliament, he felt that the House of Representatives were dangerously unchecked without some sort of upper house.

But my grandfather also doubted the ability of elected politicians to act as a check on other elected politicians. “The inherent problem with politicians,” he often proclaimed, “is that they are politicians.” It goes without saying, of course, that he disapproved of any upper house whose members were appointed by the leader of the lower house, as effectively happened in New Zealand’s old Legislative Council.

Hence my grandfather’s unorthodox proposal for two demarchic upper houses. Here’s how he envisioned the system would work:

  1. The first upper house (or “Senior Parliamentary Jury”) would consist of 12 randomly selected citizens between the ages of 70 and 75. The age of these jurors would give them considerable life experience to draw upon when making decisions, but perhaps would also incline them to be socially conservative. They would almost certainly be retired, and so the time lost to their jury service would be unlikely to hinder their careers.

  2. The second upper house (or “Junior Parliamentary Jury”) would consist of 12 randomly selected citizens between the ages of 20 and 25. The age of these jurors would tend to make them willing to experiment with new ideas, and perhaps to be more socially liberal. They would be unlikely to have a house or children, or to be firmly established in a career; and so the time lost to jury service would not be an undue hindrance to their future life.

  3. The selection process for parliamentary juries would be the same as used for court juries, and the same eligibility criteria would apply to potential jurors as to potential elected members of parliament. In addition to this, the government and opposition would each be allocated a “challenge” with which they could block the appointment of a particular juror whom they believed to be unsuitable.

  4. In their parliamentary roles, these juries would not be able to initiate bills themselves—but bills from the House of Representatives would not be able to pass without securing a supporting majority in either the Senior or Junior Parliamentary Jury. In other words, the final passage of a bill could be blocked if both upper houses simultaneously had a majority of jurors voting against it. Only finance and expenditure bills would be excluded from this process.

  1. The jurors would serve a one-year term, so that the longest period that any bill could be delayed by any particular set of jurors would be one year. Jurors would not be permitted to serve more than one term in their lives.

My grandfather was quick to point out a number of good reasons for using jurors rather than elected politicians to provide a check on the House of Representatives:

  • Jurors don’t have to get themselves elected, i.e. they don’t have to fund-raise or have any relationship with campaign donors.

  • Jurors aren’t beholden to any political party or concerned with advancing a political career.

  • Jurors can’t be manipulated by an established government bureaucracy or civil service.

  • There are no barriers to juror selection in terms of class, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, profession, or level of education.

  • Over time, the make-up of jurors will be statistically likely to represent society (except, of course, with regard to age distribution in my grandfather’s particular scheme).

My grandfather’s choice of age as the method of dividing the two parliamentary juries is rather ingenious. In theory, I suppose, the juries could be divided by any means (such as, for example, sex or level of education) so as to make them as dissimilar as possible—the idea being, of course, that if two very dissimilar upper houses agree about blocking a bill then there’s probably a sound basis for doing so.

But dividing the parliamentary juries according to age gives an added advantage over other approaches. The match between parliament and society in terms of sex, class, and ethnicity has improved dramatically in my lifetime. But there are obvious practical reasons why those aged under 25 and over 70 will always be under-represented. My grandfather’s proposal addresses the lack of representation for these age groups while at the same time providing the intended check on the House of Representatives.

As he put it: “The House of Representatives is a reflection of present society. The Junior Parliamentary Jury would be a reflection of the future and the importance of having a good country for young people to inherit. The Senior Parliamentary Jury would be a reflection of the past and the wisdom that can be drawn from society’s previous successes and failures.”

There are certainly a couple of potential disadvantages associated with parliamentary juries: primarily due to the chances of selecting an extremely eccentric juror, or the problems associated with compelling an unenthusiastic juror to serve. But the ability of the House of Representatives to challenge the appointment of jurors would minimize the chances of the former; and the age division of the juries would minimize the latter, since both age groups are at a time in their lives when the inconvenience would be comparatively minor (and, no doubt, both age groups are also at a time in their lives when a parliamentary salary would tend to balance out a considerable degree of unenthusiasm).

Of course, there are endless minor details that could be discussed. Should the upper houses be physically situated in Wellington? (My grandfather favoured one in Northland and one in Southland.) What resources in terms of researchers or administrators might the jurors be allocated? What would be the rules with respect to jurors receiving delegations from the public or elected politicians? To what extent would jurors be permitted to discuss the internal proceedings of the upper houses? These are all interesting details; but I don’t think any of them are particularly difficult to resolve.

My grandfather always acknowledged that governments in New Zealand are elected to govern. Unfortunately, however, history has clearly shown that our governments don’t always govern as promised; and sometimes embark on radical programmes that were never mentioned in their election manifestos. Often there may be good reasons for governments to do these things; but if a government bill is rejected by a majority in two different parliamentary juries (with radically different compositions) then there’s a high probability that the bill genuinely isn’t a good idea, and that it’s to the country’s benefit that it doesn’t pass.

I’m under no illusion that John Key (or any members of his executive) will read this account and suddenly declare that New Zealand needs two demarchic upper houses. But the more I think about my grandfather’s proposal, the more I admire its ingenuity as a means of providing an efficient check on the House of Representatives without reducing the government to a state of paralysis. In many ways it’s not even such a radical proposal—after all, juries are an established means of reaching an impartial verdict, and their use has been refined over hundreds (at least) of years.

I’ve spent many hours of my life arguing with my grandfather over his strange theories. In writing about his proposal for parliamentary juries, I find myself with the same thought that often used to strike me after these arguments: “It probably is a daft idea, but wouldn’t it be interesting if somebody tried it?”

Above: My grandfather (second from left) deep in political thought.

67

Continuing After A Short Interruption

At 12.51 pm on 22 February 2011, I had just finished writing a piece about the arrival of my daughter, Polly (who had been born three weeks previously). A moment later, my computer exploded all over the room.

Miraculously, however, the hard-drives survived, and a couple of years later I’ve been able to recover the data. So here, at last, is my unpublished blog from that day just before the earthquake struck...

* * *

Two traumatic incidents within the space of 48 hours is really too much.

The first incident occurred following a visit to the barber. Bob had been exceedingly—not to say unnaturally—well-behaved during his haircut, and I suppose he had lots of parent-embarrassing energy that needed to be released.

As we were riding the lift to the parking building, he began to expound upon the strange feeling of suddenly having less hair: “My neck feels like a snow-penguin, and also like a big bag of ice is weighing on my throat, and also like my head has been chopped off by scissors...”

Our fellow lift-traveller, an elderly lady, felt moved to interject a question. “Has Daddy taken you to the hairdressers?” she asked.

Bob paused in his monologue. “No,” he said sorrowfully. “Rats ate my hair.”

The elderly lady swivelled her head in my direction and gave me a long, condemnatory stare. Possibly the sort of accusing gaze that you inflict upon a man who lets rats eat his son’s hair; possibly the look reserved for a man who raises his son to tell such outrageous lies.

Two days later and the psychological scars of this condemnatory stare were just beginning to heal when a second traumatic incident occurred. My blissful Saturday night slumbers were interrupted by Jennifer poking me in the back with an insistent finger. “Wake up,” she said. “It’s time.”

Oh dear, I thought, has it been nine months already?

The still-sleeping Bob was put under the supervision of a kindly neighbour. Jennifer and her surprisingly heavy suitcase were loaded into our car. We set forth through the dark night to hospital.

In the maternity ward, Jennifer unpacked her suitcase to reveal a laptop, an external hard-drive, a draft doctoral thesis from one of her students, and a small quantity of baby clothing. In short order, she managed to re-confirm her discovery that midwives are really annoyed by maternity patients working on laptops.

I sat beside her bed in the useless manner that I’d perfected when Bob was born. Occasionally I would hand Jennifer a glass of iced water. The midwife checked progress and made pointed comments about the laptop.

After a few hours it became obvious that events were inexorably underway. The laptop was removed from Jennifer’s reluctant hands. My useless strategy of iced water was upped to an almost-as-useless strategy of hand-holding and back-rubbing. “You probably want to consider some pain relief at this point,” said the midwife.

“I’m okay,” said Jennifer.

Poor Jennifer looked anything but okay. The birthing process was obviously reaching its final stages. Her breathing came in huge, ragged gasps; her teeth were clenched with pain. It was agonizing to watch. I’d have been swearing my head off, screaming for an epidural—but Jennifer just grimly worked her way towards delivering the baby.

Polly was born shortly after dawn. “You can cry if you want to,” said the midwife, who seemed slightly disappointed by our lack of waterworks.

I held Polly while the midwife organized the weighing scales. “I’ve delivered hundreds of babies,” she remarked. “Your wife is a very strong woman, isn’t she?” During the pregnancy there had been a few moments of disagreement over Jennifer’s intention to stay working until the baby was born. That all seemed to be forgiven now. “I’ll make your wife some marmite on toast,” decided the midwife.

It was extremely good marmite on toast. I was allowed to eat a slice—even though I hadn’t done anything.

Shortly thereafter Jennifer and Polly were wheeled down to the parking bay, and loaded into our car. Have you ever driven in Canterbury? For some reason, most drivers in our province become borderline psychopaths as soon as they sit behind a wheel. Indeed, even the most responsible Cantabrian motorist won’t hesitate to ram your car if they think it’ll shave 30 seconds off their trip. I wondered, once again, how the DHB has come up with a system that requires parents to play dodgem in the streets of Christchurch with two-hour-old babies on board.

By the end of the trip my body had never contained so much adrenaline. I was shaking like a cold-turkey alcoholic. Perspiring with anxiety, I gingerly transferred Jennifer and Polly into a wheelchair, and delivered them carefully to the post-natal ward. “Lift’s broken,” said the receptionist. “Wifey’ll have to trot up the stairs, okay?”

“No, it’s certainly not okay!” I yelped. “She’s just given birth. This is unacceptable! I’ve had medical advice that my wife mustn’t walk. I demand that you provide a lift! Our midwife ordered me to take extra-good care of her—this is an outrage!”

“Hmm,” said the receptionist. She called a nurse. The poor nurse spent twenty minutes with us, traipsing back-and-forth all over the hospital, locking and unlocking doors, until eventually she discovered a route that allowed us to reach the post-natal ward via a lift. She wasn’t best pleased.

“I could actually have walked up the stairs,” said Jennifer, after the nurse had gone. “But you seemed to think that you were being helpful.”

Jennifer and Polly were assisted into bed for some much-needed sleep. Later that afternoon I took Bob along for a visit. “We’ve moved your wife to a new room,” explained a helpful hospital midwife. “I’ll show you to the way.” Her nurses’ shoes squeaked along the shiny corridor while she engaged Bob in friendly conversation:

Nurse: And do you have a new sister or a new brother?

Bob: I have a new sister and when she’s older I’m going to buy her a gun. And I’ll have gun too, and I’m going to weld sockets on our guns so that I can tow them with my truck. Then we’re going to shoot kiwis, and their meat will fly through the air, and land in a basket. And a robot will cut the meat into slices so that we can take it home to eat. I’ve already designed the robot.

Jennifer was tucked up in bed wearing a nice white hospital nightgown. Her long hair was fanned across the pillows. She held a tiny bundle in her arms.

“Hello Mummy,” said Bob, putting his head on one side to get a better view of his new sister.

“Hello Bob, it’s very nice to see you,” said Jennifer. “Would you like to sit here and hold Polly?”

“Why is she so tiny?” asked Bob indignantly, with the air of a man who’s been handed an insufficiently large portion at a restaurant.

I had a sudden recollection of Bob attached to a tangle of tubes in the intensive care unit. “You were much smaller than Polly when you were born,” I said.

“She’s been breast-feeding really well,” Jennifer told me. “Apparently we can go home tomorrow.”

The next day Bob made a large placard for our front door: “Welcome Home Polly!” He was almost dancing with excitement as he introduced his new sister to our house. “This is the hall, Polly. This is the sitting room. This is my bedroom. Here’s where you’re going to sleep, Polly. Can you see the river? When you’re older I’ll build a boat and take you rowing there.”

“Please read us Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel,” he announced. “I’m sure Polly would really like that.” Bob retrieved the book from the shelf and thrust it into my hands.

“Perhaps you could look after the children while I get unpacked,” said Jennifer, handing my daughter to me.

Polly snuffled into my neck as I manoeuvred myself carefully onto a chair. Bob plonked himself heavily into my lap.

Our offspring were in the plural now, I thought. One child is the sort of accident that could happen to anyone—it doesn’t really conclusively prove that you’re a parent. But having two children is the final nail in the coffin of parenthood. There’s no denying it now.

Bob and Polly snuggled warmly against me. I read aloud the words, “Mike Mulligan had a steam shovel, a beautiful red steam shovel. Her name was Mary Anne.” And I thought: being a parent isn’t such a bad thing, is it.

Above: Polly arrives home for the first time.

Above: Polly as she is today.