ReadingRoom

Book of the Week: Wife swapping in Hastings

The author of a novel set in racy, racist Hawkes Bay writes about the experiences and stories that make up his book.

Ten years old and I’m walking with my grandfather to the Farmers Tearooms in Hastings. At the entrance we meet a man whose house has recently burnt down. My grandfather shakes his hand, offers his condolences, but then, he says with a chuckle, “I thought the fire was next week.”

Often over the years I’d meet the man my grandfather insulted. He was a decorated fighter pilot, very posh, and he told great stories about the fun he got up to with fast cars and pretty girls during the war. I liked him, especially after he told me to drink as much as I could at a wedding because the bride’s father, known for his meanness, would be furious his guests had cost him so much. I was 18.

The last time I saw him was at a funeral. He was 90 years old. We sat under a tree in our dead friend’s garden, sipping wine, and I asked him something I’d wanted to know for a long time. My cousin designed his new house, after the old one burnt down, and I asked why he’d chosen him to do it.

He said, “We’d met him before, you know, oh yes, at one of those parties. X [his wife] went off with him, and when the house burnt down, I said to her, what are we going to do? And she said, let’s get Y [the author's cousin].”

I asked, “How did the match making work at those parties?”

“Oh, I think that one was keys in the bowl, you know.”

“What happened if you chose someone you didn’t want?”

“Oh, you could always swap, and the promise of a bottle of whiskey always helped.”

“So, did you find someone the night X went off with Y?”

“No, no. Had a girl in Waipawa at the time. Lovely lass. Couldn’t get away quickly enough.”

*

That conversation didn’t find it’s way into my novel The History Speech but its essence - wife swapping among the well-to-do in Hawkes Bay in the 1960s - did. And I’m grateful to the old fighter pilot for being so frank, and feeding me the idea.

The book is a collection of experiences, my own and others, woven with fiction to make the story. It’s set in real time, 1967 Hawkes Bay, with a backdrop of real places and people, wefted and warped with made up people and settings.

*

My paternal grandfather, Redmond Sweet, served as a logistics sergeant in World War I. He was at Passchendaele and the Somme, and stayed on after Armistice to dispose of the horses. He was deeply scarred by the war and would disappear for days to his small bedroom in a huge house, shared with my fearsome grandmother, who told me my mother was dirty because she was Māori, and she washed my mouth out with soap when I told her that she was nasty.

On Grandad’s desk, in his bedroom, there was a photograph of a young soldier. I once asked who he was. The expression on his face told me to never ask again.

Grandad Sweet’s likeness to the grandfather in The History Speech stops with the photograph. I named the character Ralph Gibson, and gave him a story to fit the distress I encountered in my grandfather’s eyes.

And my racist grandmother inhabits several characters in different ways.

*

A form teacher at Hereworth started class every morning with reading the Dominion newspaper. This was during the Vietnam War. I remember him telling us that in World War II there was propaganda saying the Japanese couldn’t aim bombs accurately, because of their slit eyes.

My character Mr Billington was grafted from this wonderful teacher. Years later I asked a ex-member of the school board why he been twice passed over for headmaster. Because he was once a member of the Communist Party, was the answer. That found its way into The History Speech in a different form.

*

Years ago I helped a man edit his memoirs. Before he could walk his sadistic father would pin him to the clothesline as punishment, and he was sexually abused by a teacher at his primary school. When he was 14 his uncle caught him wanking his younger cousin. He was put into care, abused some more, and ended up in Lake Alice, but not before being given electric shock treatment in Hastings Soldiers Memorial Hospital.

I’m honoured that brave man trusted me with his story, and I’m sure he would approve the fragments which made their way into the book.

*

And fitting Moremore, the taniwha, into the story came from an interview with Hannah Cotter, famous for starting the first kohanga reo in Napier. As a child she saw Moremore in the Ahuriri Estuary when she was collecting kaimoana. She told me he had pink skin and was in the shape of a shark. A fictional man, Manu, tells her story as his own in The History Speech.

And the Miss Bannisters are loosely based on English sisters who lived in our neighbourhood. They weren’t lesbians, and they didn’t have a cow named Electra. She belonged to Dr Sutcliffe of Peloha, a theosophical community my parents forbade me to visit, after I told them women tended the gardens topless. I tried, but couldn’t find a way to fit that into the story.

And, I confess, it was me who stamped another boy’s initials on the pavement at Hereworth proclaiming my love. There wasn’t nearly as much drama for me as there is for my character Callum Gow - but like him, I didn’t own up.

The History Speech by Mark Sweet (Huia Publishers, $32)

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