I went past your old Church of Christ in Campbell Street. It’s now The Savage Club.
Things change, and that building had its history too. I told you how the church was established by the Evangelist Hendriksen from Australia, and how Aunt Florrie used to prompt and prod us boys to go along until we finally gave in and joined up.
Now, as you know, I’m interested in words, and one thing about that whole episode got to amuse me, in fact it sort of irked me a bit, it was the language they used. It seemed strange to me that the man who came to spread the gospel was called ‘a missioner’ or ‘a missionary’, and the whole endeavour was regarded by the Australians as a ‘missionary’ activity. In fact they were no more than a bunch of concerned Australian citizens sending someone over to New Zealand to tell us their ideas about God. When they said they were on ‘a mission’ it made me feel as if we were regarded as savages, as natives with bones in our noses. Palmerston North is only across the water from Australia — that’s hardly a missionary outreach. See, as I understand it ‘missionaries’ go to foreign lands to convert the heathen, the infidels, the pagans.
But you eventually got entered right into the church thing?
Us boys did, but Old Phil stayed aloof, preferred the old Anglican ways. After Hendriksen got the church established and flourishing, a new pastor arrived, Tyroll Baxter, and it was during Baxter’s time that Jean and I got spliced, and also your mum and Bill, but Baxter didn’t have the same inspiring way with words that Hendriksen did. Hendriksen could really move people with his sermons, get them out of their seats.
Further back in time, when I was a young kid and visiting the ancestors in Halcombe around the time of the First World War, there was another man with a talent for words. A Maori bloke, and his name was Te Punga — married a school teacher from America. The distinctive thing about this chap was his mastery of languages. He could give a sermon in English, or Maori, or ‘Lutheran’. Now, ‘Lutheran’, which was the usual church language, was actually German, because that’s what the Polish ancestors spoke when they first arrived from Prussia, so Halcombe was a place where people spoke a variety of languages, and Te Punga must have grown up there to learn both English and German so fluently. And those immigrants could sing, and music probably helps teach a language. There was no canned music in the church, it was the real thing. And we’d all join in as best we could. Different languages.
Could you hold a tune?
There was no choir, the whole congregation was the choir, and I was known to sing a bit. One of them said to me, ‘Pete, you can sing really well! It runs in your family.’ So I gathered from that that many of my Wischnowsky relations must have been known for singing. But much of it was done in German, so I expect I would have had some difficulty with the words. Brother Bill and I didn’t go in for learning German — couldn’t see the point, and it was unpopular. But Te Punga didn’t have a problem, he was a master.
Some of the locals objected to anyone who spoke German, even though our families supported the cause, and sent sons to fight and die, and one night our church got torched.
And even further back, before my time if fact, in the later 1800s, Old Phil lived among the Maoris up Hawkes Bay, and some of his old stories got repeated — ‘ad nauseum’ you might say — and one of his repeated contentions was, ‘The natives, when they came across something unusual or amusing, just have to put a name to it.’ And it seemed to Old Phil that if they didn’t have a proper word for it they’d borrow one, or make one up, so long as they could put a name to it. And sometimes there was a bit of humour in it.
One day one of them reported to Old Phil he’d seen something that was ‘a bit of a No-no.’
‘Eh?’ said Old Phil, ‘What did you see that was a bit of a No-no?’
‘We were following the chief, going up the mountain, and as we climbed up, whenever we looked up ahead there was the chief’s backside, up ahead of us, and it was bare, and when you looked up, very time, it was there, bobbing around above us, with nothing covering it, so what I was looking at was his ‘bit of a No-no’, eh?’
Language is a delight, and of course not everyone knows how to pronounce Maori words, and some efforts in that regard are amusing. I remember one bloke, an American, an ornithologist, who visited New Zealand to study our native birdlife. He was very enthusiastic and he said to me, ‘I’ve come all this way to study your Kigh Wigh bird.’
Spelling can be fun, too. I’ve been reading Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’. There’s some weird spelling in those stories.
In what way?
Very phonetic, but what amuses me is that the same word can be spelled differently on the same page, as if there wasn’t any completely right or wrong way. Even people’s names. I have some family stuff from the 1500s and there are about six different ways of spelling ‘Leyland’ — LELAND, LAYLONDE etc.
The old Yorkshire grandfather, Old Phil, used to complain about how we would spell out and sound out names, particularly Maori ones, and I guess my habit came from my father’s encouragement. He had a brother, Albert, who lived down the line in Wellington and we went and visited him. I’ve heard my Dad tell people about what happened during the train trips when I was very little. In those days the carriages often had some seats that ran along the wall of the carriage, a sort of bench-seat, and Dad got a laugh out of it because he said I’d stand on the bench seat and peer over the back and out the window and I was fascinated by the names of the stations we went past or stopped at. I must have been learning my alphabet. I’d spell out the name and ask ‘What does that say, Daddy?’ Evidently this aroused a lot of interest and comment from the passengers. To me it was all very exciting, and they were words I’d never seen before. They were like puzzles, a challenge, and I wanted to know, and the whole carriage got amused by it. I’d spell it out — ‘O H A U,’. Dad’d say, ‘That’s Ohau.’
‘P A R A P A R A U M U.’ And he sound it out for me — ‘That’s Para para umu.’
But when we got home, and even in later times, I remember Old Phil still complained about how we sounded out the names. See, he had that old English tradition of corrupting and shortening every Maori name they came across, and they’d persist at it, until it got to be the accepted way — like Para-param, or Piecock for Paekakariki.
Perhaps we should blame Chaucer?
And Old Phil Leyland.
Next story. 93. Conscientious Objectors.