Nine sleeps to go, but I received the greatest gift my parents ever gave me in 1972: when my family moved to a tropical Island on the other side of the world
Immigration was a popular pass-time in Scotland, and families were encouraged to up-root themselves and set up new lives in former colonies of the British Empire. Canada, South Africa and Australia were popular destinations. Contrariness made my Father pick New Zealand, so we were soon jetting towards the one place no-one else was going, or had even heard of.
Our first night in the run-down cottage which was to be our temporary home, my mother sat in the middle of the furniture-less living room and cried. It was a shock, the change and challenge of building a new life all seemed so huge and she was homesick. (In years to come, she became a fierce advocate of the kiwi lifestyle and would never entertain returning to Scotland. There was always a slight gnawing anxiety that my father might want to one day, but despite always pining for the country of his birth, he knew when he had it good).
I was mad about animals, and comfortingly, my new bedroom had cartoon African wildlife on the wallpaper. Throughout that unsettled night, trains rumbled through the rail yards across the road, on their way to even stranger places.
It was March, and the next day dawned hot. People wore shorts, sometimes bare feet. They said ‘Gidday!’ Tar melted on the roads. There were huge palm trees planted along the river banks – this was a tropical island paradise!
It was all in stark contrast to the Scottish town I had grown up in up till then. Much more of an urban playground, I never really got the opportunity to lift rotten branches and gape in fascination at the variety of critters wriggling and scuttling for cover – the wildlife encountered back home was usually an angry dog who sent me scuttling for cover.
I don’t even remember climbing a tree in that concrete jungle, whereas here we had a whole wood (actually a very modest orchard) outside our own back door. And a tyre swing! Not in my most fevered imaginings could this ever have come true!
There were overgrown fuscia trees crowding the cottage, the already other-worldly flowers rendered completely alien in livid pinks and purples and an ancient, aromatic lemon tree which attracted all kinds of insects. I got bee stings from running across the small lawn in bare feet, and was terrified but fascinated at the same time by a tiny jumping spider, because I’d been warned about the poisonous katipo (and have still never seen one).
Initially, school was marginally more terrifying. I was stood at the front of the class while they were encouraged to guess where I came from. A barrage of exotic realms were flung at me, before I was buffeted by a lusty recital of ‘A funny old bird is the kiwi bird’.
I was rubbish at team sports (and still am – the promised bodily co-ordination never arrived) and was always left over after the Captains had picked their soccer teams. But somehow being able to draw made me accepted. The first time we did some drawing in the classroom my teacher got the teacher from the next classroom, who then got the headmaster to come and watch me scribble ( animals, of course) with an HB pencil on a big sheet of newsprint paper. My name quickly got shortened to its first three letters by my classmates. I was six, and instantly adopted the lingo and, perhaps to my father’s slight dismay, the accent. Every variety of the Scots accent makes a big thing of the ‘r’ sound, whereas Kiwi’s seemed determined to make it an endangered species. Fair enough – so in Godzone I did as the Godzonans do.
In the year of our arrival, at least, Blenheim had an odd post-war timelessness about it. Women wore sun frocks, men wore hats and giant wooden butterflies adorned the outside walls of houses. Some older people called England ‘home’, a Mother country they’d never been to, while younger generations didn’t seem to think much of ‘Poms’, a description I sometimes got inexplicably tagged with.
Swimming was a huge part of the kiwi lifestyle and my sister and I were quickly enrolled in swimming lessons to learn how to ‘starfish’. Huge use was made of our school pool but in weekends the destination was something which sounded to my foreign ears like ‘the town bars’. It took me ages to realise that the last word was actually ‘baths’ – a quaintly archaic term for the municipal swimming pool. Unlike Scottish Pools this one was outdoors, no cloying pall of chlorine, queasily tepid water and conditioned air or weird muffled acoustics, but swimming as nature intended - in the fresh air and sunshine. This is a passion which has stayed with me always, despite water temperature and shark documentaries. After hours in the cool blue water, my school friends and I would lie stretched out on the sun-warmed tiles by the poolside drying and browning (or reddening) at an equal rate.
Beaches were ‘down the Sounds’ (the Marlborough Sounds were actually north of us, but you went ‘down them’. 'Up the Lake’ was Lake Rotoiti, due south in the Nelson Lakes National Park
We joined another family on a holiday ‘down the Sounds’, in an incredibly run-down batch. I poured over my pride and joy – the A to Z of New Zealand animals and looked forward to ticking off as many as I could. I caught my first fish, an undersized ‘spotty’ who had to be instantly released, and cried all the way back to shore.
The sun still shone in wintertime, my Mother marveled at the way the sky could be cloudless and the sun blazing, while the temperature plummeted past zero and the grass frosted white. Mice moved into our house, another species for me to be fascinated by.
A long-gone Homestyle bakery on the other side of the railway tracks layered our chilly semi-industrial neighbourhood with the irresistible aroma of fresh bread.
Summer came again and we discovered berry fruit, not the brambles and blackberries we’d been used to, but strawberries and boysenberries. Perhaps we couldn’t always afford them, because my Mother announced that she’d heard sliced tomatoes sprinkled with sugar tasted just like strawberries, and we were going to try it. When asked for my verdict I replied innocently and with a complete lack of the smart-arsed-ness which my Mother often characterised me by: “It tastes like tomatoes with sugar on them.”
We finished our first year in New Zealand at ‘the Lake’ sharing Christmas dinner with new friends while the sun blazed outside and small boats dotted the sparkling water. We were as far as physically possible from our own extended family, and the seasonal comfort and joy was inevitably tinged with home-sickness for Mum and Dad, but my sister and I were utterly, bare-footedly, pavolva-lovingly converted.
My parents brought us from the other side of the world to find a better life, and in that one brave, scary, strange and utterly wonderful year everything changed. Anything of value I now have, or can call myself blessed to have experienced, I can trace back to that courageous decision they made, in far-away 1972.