The past is another country where they do things differently.
That's the saying - and I realise how true it is whenever I
think back to the manse and its visitors. When I was 8, two
missionaries came to stay at the manse, bringing their
travelling slideshow about life among the heathen.
That year we also had a fire-and-brimstone evangelist, two
dog-collared Presbyterian ministers, a bespectacled relieving
schoolteacher and, of course, regular family like my cousins,
who stayed in a tent pitched on the side lawn and stashed
cream buns under their camp stretchers for midnight feasts.
It was a country manse, and guests were common.
There were no motels then, and as hotels sold alcohol,
ministers' homes were used as stopping places for people
travelling the land in the service of the Lord.
Years later, when I first heard the remark that New Zealand
country towns of the '50s nursed the last gasps of the
Edwardian age, I considered the comment clever but unlikely -
and then thought about the manse and the people who came
there. It was a large weatherboard villa, with a red iron
roof, a lawn tennis court, vegetable gardens, and a
tree-house with a secret cupboard.
It sat at the edge of a mining township with paddocks and
bushland beckoning across its back fence - the sort of place
where small boys catch eels, trap possums, and shoot Indians.
Overnight visitors meant being allowed to stay up late. We
sat with the missionary visitors, listening to their tales of
leprosy, bible shipments, and triumphant conversions - but
bursting to get to the important stuff.
''So were there lots of headhunters where you went? '' I
''No. There aren't many headhunting tribes left,'' said the
''Perhaps just a few unsaved souls in Borneo and the
''But when you went into the jungle to convert the natives,
didn't they throw their spears at you?''
''Well, were there pygmies with poison blowpipes?'' ''No.''
''So nobody actually got kill . . . got martyred,'' a small,
disappointed voice concluded.
''Well, Sr Ada had a dreadful bout of dysentery.''
A country manse was a social centre. Its main home business
was the daily visitors who arrived to plan joy or share
problems. With my brother and sister, I giggled at the
romantic ''lovebirds'' come to make arrangements to do
something very naughty.
And looked round the door more nervously at the visitors
planning to bury people. A son was going to borstal, a
daughter was ''in trouble''. The Miss Marples organist
wobbled by on her bicycle.
There were meetings for church elders, the women's guild, and
men's and women's fellowships. Parishioners arrived to make
plans for flower shows, harvest festivals and fundraising.
And they brought elaborate food plates for the afternoon teas
and suppers, which I believe were the highwater mark of true
New Zealand cuisine.
The manse's children were princes of the leftovers - sponge
cake, cheese scones, savories, pikelets, and delicately cut
sandwiches. We drew the line at asparagus rolls.
Each Saturday afternoon, the house turned silent when my
father closed himself in his study to write his Sunday
sermon. He was a Knox College man and, wrapped in his
bachelor of divinity robes, wheeled out the writings of
apostles and ancient church philosophers to shed wisdom on
the problem of the week - floods or famines, the Cold War
with Russia, or the lamentable behaviour of the bodgies.
The sermon written, he chose the four hymns for the service -
always four - trying for at least one which matched the
events of the day. He Who Would True Valour See would cover
the visiting missionaries, while a missing fishing boat was
certain to get For Those in Peril on the Sea. Presbyterians
have a reputation for grimmer religion but, truthfully, this
wasn't present in the daily life of the manse.
Grace was said before meals and there were prayers at
bedtime, but apart from that God wasn't hugely bothered. The
hellfire was left to the visiting ''gingermen'' evangelists
who held the licences to terror. They were effective. Soon
after one ''shock and awe'' evangelical visit, I was put in
hospital to have my tonsils out.
This was tricky. I was certain that when the doctor opened me
up, the cat would be out of the bag. He would discover my
heart was black with sin. Somehow I got away with it. It's
been a while now, but still nobody much notices.
John Lapsley is an Arrowtown writer.