Hokianga Revisited 1997
Graham Kemble Welch 10/6/1997
Graham Kemble Welch wrote "Doctor Smith - Hokianga's King of the North" which was published in 1965.
Early in 1945 I was a House surgeon in Wellington and Ann was a student in Dunedin. We were engaged and I had arranged to swap jobs with a friend who was a house surgeon in Dunedin so that for obvious reasons I could go down there and Ann could go on with her course to graduation. Just before the wedding we heard that the arrangement had fallen through, but we got married anyway. Ann was flatting in Dunedin with Janet McCall Smith whose father was the director of the Hokianga Medical Service and towards the end of the year when I needed a new job it happened that Janet told Ann that a Medical Officer in Hokianga had resigned and her Father needed a replacement. I applied and was appointed.
The Hokianga Medical Service is unique - not fairly unique or sort of unique, but unique. What really appealed to me was that the people of Hokianga didn't pay anything except their taxes for full cover of their health problems. This was done because Dr. Smith (who had what I thought was a marvellous dictum that "it's bad enough to be sick without having to pay for it too") had bullied the Hospital Board to apply to the Government to set up the County as a Special Area. There were quite a lot of Special Areas around New Zealand which were set up to get doctors to go to places where the population was too small - and usually too scattered - to support a normal practise. Doctors who went to one of these areas were payed a salary which gave them quite a good income no matter how much (or little) work they had to do.
The Hokianga didn't really fit this pattern because Dr. Smith had decided that the Hospital Board would run the whole show and pay for and control both the hospital and what is now known as the primary health care in the community. It was a fully integrated Health Service, which included the functions of district nurses, public health nurses, Plunket nurses and anyone else who was needed.
The hospital staff and the medical staff were recruited and payed by the Hospital Board; the nurses were selected by the Director of Nursing and seconded to the Hokianga Medical Service.
However in those days the Hokianga wasn't very well known to the public of New Zealand - and maybe even now some of you aren't thoroughly familiar with it, so I'll just give a wee lecture.
Imagine a map of the North Island and run your eye up to Auckland - where for most of us the country stops. Now go 200km North and on the left-hand side - that's to the West - is the entrance to the Hokianga Harbour. The locals just call it "the river" and that's what it is - a drowned river valley running 70 kms. inland to Horeke, which is the site of the first shipbuilding yard in New Zealand, and to the West is the place where Samuel Marsden conducted the first Christmas service in N.Z.
Kohu Kohu is about 40 km. from the entrance and even there there is an 11ft. tide - one of our visitors who was a very strong swimmer wouldn't believe there could be much current and came back from her swim quite shaken because she found herself being swept away and for a while thought she mightn't make it back to shore.
The remoteness and even the unlikelihood of the place were brought home to me when I went to the Govt. Tourist Bureau and asked the travel agent for a ticket to Kohu Kohu. He looked puzzled, referred to some reference material and came back announcing that there was no such place! I assured him that there had to be because I was going to live there. The outcome was the Limited train to Auckland, a train to Whangarei and then on by train to Kaikohe - many tedious hours!
As we chugged to a stop Kaikohe looked like many another small town - except that most of the people around were Maori. As I got off the train I heard one Maori woman who was carrying a flax kit (I'd never before seen one used as an ordinary piece of luggage) saying to another "Look there's Dr. Smith" and I saw a great unkempt figure striding towards me. He had a bald sunburnt dome, with a fringe of grey hair about 9 ins. long at the back and hangs down over his collar like the locks of a Lincoln sheep. His eyes were deep sunken and shadowed by his jutting brow and he had a big sharp-cut nose. His accent was strongly Scottish and usually spoke with a deep quiet voice. His smile can be most charming.
He was wearing a suit of grey flannel, which sagged and draped like an old pair of pyjamas and in fact I later found that his suits were made by the Hospital seamstress from an old pyjama pattern. His shirt was spotless white and open to his waist, his feet bare and sticking out of open leather sandals.... a most dramatic and impressive sight.
We chucked my baggage into his car and set off. This was soon after WW2 and petrol rationing was still in force and there were severe restrictions on tyres and car parts. It was almost impossible to get a new car so I was terribly impressed to see that Dr. Smith had a very large new Buick! I was astonished by the condition of the interior which I wrote "looks about a lap ahead of the junk dealer" We drove through in the evening and my impression was of a foreground of tussock and low foliage, predominantly red-brown, sloping up to steep-sided hills, quite close and dark blue. Dr. Smith was showing me the sights of local interest and at about every tenth house he said, "that's the local whore-house" and about a lot of people whose farms we passed he said "he's a scalliwag". I was surprised that I recognised a couple of names as people whom my parents knew. I asked Dr. Smith in what way were they scalliwags. "Well, it's like this d'ye see, I suppose they came here to get away from some trouble or other and they thought they could behave however they liked. What they liked was to live at the Rawene pub and get into mischief - but I wasn't going to put up with that nonsense because it was a bad influence for the district. So I told them that if they didn't behave I'd knock their heads together - and I would've too!" he concluded with a triumphant smirk.
A bit furher along the road he asked me what I expected to do about transport around the district. I explained that I couldn't afford to buy a car, so I had accepted the Health Dept. offer to provide one on the same basis as the district nurses. He was really perturbed about this and after a brief interval of sort of snorting to himself burst out "I won't countenance that ... no that won't do at all!" then almost at once he said "of course you must do as you wish!" I got thoroughly confused. It turned out that after a lot of arguing he had managed to get the Dept. to agree to pay the doctors 400 pounds a year and they provided their own transport. This way he could get whatever car suited him instead of relying on a semi wreck supplied by the Department. My arrangement threatened his position, so I said that of course I'd go on the allowance. He then told me that he'd already arranged for me to hire a Ford Prefect from a garage in KohuKohu.
In the evening we got to Rawene and the doctor's home. This towering shaggy despot lived in old and shaggy house with a deep verandah around it. My letter says there was a big garden in which the hand of man had not stirred for generations, so that the house was becoming lost in the trees and an understory of honeysuckle and rambler roses. Electric power was rather inadequate in Rawene so that the whole place looked gloomy. We went into the living room and in the murk I had a confused picture of book-cases piled high with books and journals, and an array of huge old delapidated chairs with some dogs lying on them, other dogs thinking of lying on them and others just getting off them. There was a chesterfield against one wall and on the floor a birdcage with a pink and grey parrot in it. G.M. used to swear that he had had this bird for many years and when he was in private practise and needed the money, but couldn't stand asking people for it he had trained the parrot to say as patients left the surgery "that'll be ten and six!" - but I must confess all I ever heard it say was a raucous screech. Then I saw Mrs. Smith, a small woman with a roundish face from which grey hair was combed back close to her head. Her voice is very quiet; she chain-smokes and seems to spend most of her time reading.
Dr. Smith took me up to the hospital which is a long low building slung across a ridge with a vast outlook around a half circle. In the foreground is the narrow harbour wrapped around the point on which Rawene is built. To the West there is a distant view of rugged and sombre mountains behind Pangaru. Looking around to the North there is the cream factory and a long wharf walking on rickety piles out into the harbour. This is officially called "The Long Wharf". Then to the East the harbour vanishes between interlocking hills on its way to Kohu Kohu making a narrow millrace - called The Narrows. On my second day Dr.Smith took me aross to The Long Wharf in a launch which was a water-taxi There we were picked up by one of the two nurses stationed in Kohu Kohu and driven to the village along the narrow winding road cut into the edge of what must have been a gorge before the sea swept in. The nurses lived in a big old bungalow with deep verandahs looking out across the water to Ivydale. That was part of our area - it was less than half a mile away straight across - but about 70 by road.
Kohu Kohu was built along a narrow strip between the beach, and the hills, which rose suddenly a couple of hundred feet. It had been the site of one of the larger Kauri mills and Charles Heaphy painted a scene of the bushmen at work there. By the time we arrived the mill had long gone - burnt down, as seemed to be the fate of various enterprises once they were finished, and strangely often just before the insurance ran out. The doctor's house was at the Northern edge of the town, sitting on a small terrace reached by a steep foot track up the cliff from the beach or by a winding drive up to a collapsing garage above the back of the house. It's an old bungalow with a great view fom a wide veradah out over the mangroves and the sea to the morning sun.
Once I had been shown the house we had tea with the wife of the manager of the Bank of N.Z. but we couldn't stay long as I was now on duty and nurse Murray had to take me on my first official visit to one of the Clinics from which the service was run. This was at Miti Miti, 40 miles away on the West Coast and to get to it we had to go through Pungaru, which is the major Maori community on the North side of the river. There we went to a little house on the top of a hill where Mrs.Blair was sick. Mr.Blair is a power in the district and the consultation took place surrounded by local worthies. I recommended some treatment, which included having an injection. A lot of talk went on in Maori and at the end of it Mr. Blair said his wife would have the treatment. Nurse later told me that Mrs. Blair had said "Well, he looks like a nice young man - I'll have his injection!"
We went rattling and bumping down the road until we got to Mr. Kendall's house where it stands bleakly above the high water mark on the wild West Coast - and it is wild! - forever pounded by great rolling waves coming in from the Tasman Sea to break on the huge sweep of white sand that vanishes into haze whether you look to the South or peer into the North. Inland there's nothing to see but empty hills. It's a scene of desolation that over the time we were there Ann and I came to love and now think it's one of the most romantic places you can find.
As we pulled up the nurse explained to me that the two horses with reins looped over the fence meant that some sick person along the beach had sent for her - one horse was for the messenger and the other for her. The story was that a 7mth pregnant woman was bleeding a bit - nothing too bad and no worse thanwhen she'd been pregnant before but she thought she ought to see the nurse. So we had our tea (fresh caught mullet, fried and very good with roast kumera) and then the nurse set off and I was left with Mr. Kendall - a fat man with local mana whose wife had died some time ago. The members of his family were out in the kitchen - a collection of children, a housekeeper and a maid. The old man was listening to his radio so I just sat with him and we made a few remarks to each other. Nurse Murray had said she'd be about an hour and I was starting to get worried about half an hour after that (because the place was only a mile away) when she rode up. Someone had left loose wire coiled in the paddock. It was invisible in the dark. The horse got tangled up and it had taken some 20 minutes to get it free.
It would be better to have the woman in hospital and we were due for a clinic in Pangaru for a clinic the next morning so we would take the woman in our car to Pangaru and the other nurse from Koke would come and pick her up and take her to the Long Wharf along which she would be carried to the launch, which hopefully would be waiting and so to Rawene and the hospital.
After this was arranged Mr.Kendall asked if I'd like a beer so I said "yes" and he went away to get it. While he was away getting it Nurse Murray leant over and said "That means you've been accepted - I didn't expect it so soon". That was my first encounter with an aspect of life in Hokianga that as I re-visit the memories I realise I was ignorant about and bad at - I'm talking about the symbolic significance of apparently normal words or actions that actually held symbolic meaning.
While we were having our beers I discovered that the weird screams and squalls under the floor were coming from the penguins, which had made their homes there.
The next morning we had a massive breakfast, paid 6 shillings each for bed and board, loaded the patient into the back of the car and set off for Pangaru where we transferred the woman and she was off to Hospital while I faced my first clinic. Nurse had warned me that a lot of locals would come in just to see the new doctor so I was not surprised to see about 50 people sitting on the lawn of the Coopers' house; but I was quite shocked when we were called over and I discovered it was to be an Official and Ceremonial Welcome.
First I was introduced to everybody and then we had to wait for Mr.Cooper to appear. The delay was due to his insisting on wearing a tie and to do that he had to get his collar on - but it was one of those old stiff ones and about one and a half sizes too big for him - he'd had a terrible struggle getting it on. When he did appear he was ill shaven with a most villanous squint. I was introduced to him then Nurse and I were sat on chairs at the focus of a semi-circle of Maoris and Johnny Blair ("The greatest villain in the district" whispered Nurse Murray) got to his feet holding a Taiaha and started to orate at me in Maori, translated by Mr.Cooper. The gist of what he said was - "Welcome to you, our new doctor. We are pleased to see that you have come to us with Nurse Murray who is the only Nurse to really understand our ways. All the other nurses have stayed about 6 months and then gone away, but she has stayed on and is interested in us and when we are sick we send for her. She comes and says 'don't you think you should go to hospital?' If she said we had to go to hospital we would not go, but she asks us don't we think we'd be better in hospital and we find ourselves saying yes, and we go. Welcome to you doctor. Your predecessor, Dr. Jacobsen went away quickly, before we could say goodbye - but we think he liked us and he used to put his hand on our arms and say `you will get better' and he'd look at us and say `you will get better' and he said so often `you will get better' that we had to get better. In the old days the doctors who came here used o cut us a lot and we did not like it so we went to the Tohungas and they put their hands on our head and said `you will be better' but we often weren't. Now the doctors do not cut us so much and we like it much more and a lot of us get better. Welcome again doctor. Most of the doctors who come here only stay a little while and then go again but we hope that you will stay with us a long time and get to know us and help us a lot."
He sat down, and then I had to reply.
There had been no warning, I'd never made an address, my mind was sort of numb, but I started off "Mr.Blair, Mr. Cooper, Mrs. Cooper, Ladies and Gentlemen" - then it got difficult, but I had a brain wave and went on "I saw Dr. Jacobsen in Wellington and he said I was to give you all greetings when I saw you because he went away before he had time to say goodbye". Fortunately I had another inspiration and chattered on "You've told me how Dr. Jacobsen held your arms and said `You will get better' and how the tohungas patted you on the head and said `you will get better' and you get better - well I don't know if my touch is as powerful as all that, but I hope I can do some good amongst you". Then I remembered that Nurse Murray had said Janet Smith held a unique place in the regard of all the people up here so I thought I'd cash in on it and I continued "I've known Janet Smith in Dunedin for a number of years (there was a loud murmur of approval at the mention of her name) and ever since she told me what it is like up here I've wanted to come - and now that I've come I think I'll stay!" and I sat down.
Then Nurse Murray said a few things and so we finished.
There was still the clinic to do - but there were very few genuine patients - and we set off on the return journey, which involved another reception at a smaller settlement with a smaller clinic, and we eventually got back to Kohu Kohu at about 5p.m. I had a much-needed cup of tea with the nurses then walked through the village to the little old pub where I was living. There were three permanent residents there. One was a young clerk who worked for the Bank of New South Wales. He was a very cheerful lad and heaps of fun. His main claim to fame was that he was genuinely the heir to an Irish title and if he survived would become a member of the aristocracy. The others were Mr. Phillips and Mr. French who was famous as "a remittance man". He had committed some terrible indiscretion or even a criminal offence in his native land (which by a co-incidence was Ireland) and since his father was the Lord Chief Justice of that country the scandal of a public revelation had to be avoided at all costs so he was shipped off to the furthest corner of the Empire (there's nowhere to go beyond Kohu Kohu) with a regular small allowance to preserve him without the totally unacceptable possibility that one of his family should actually work.
Everyone in the district was quite convinced that this was a very true story.
These two courtly characters had lived in the pub for years and didn't agree on a single thing. For instance when I asked one of them what Kohu Kohu meant he assured me it was "foggy" and I could easily believe him because most mornings a heavy mist or fog rolled across the water, making the mangroves into fanciful shapes, but the other one said nonsense!. He pointed out the low mud-bank a few hundred metres off- shore. "That bank used to be a large island" he said, and on it was fought a great battle between two local tribes. One of them was almost wiped out and as their remnants fled they vowed, "We will be back - Revenge! Revenge!" which in their language was "Kohu! Kohu!" I rather preferred that version.
In the evening I was leaning against the door thinking of this and that when a big heavy man came by and asked me if I'd like to come for a stroll while he fixed his motors. I went along with him - first to the crumbling shed that was the local powerhouse, which he owned. In it there were two elderly diesel motors for driving the electricity generators and he was going to shut down the small one and start up the big one to cope with the evening load. Ann and I discovered later that although our house had an electric stove we couldn't afford to drive it because the power cost the equivalent of $1.00 a unit. We did turn on the electric lights but it was a weird experience because the lights brightened and dimmed in a regular rhythm as the generator surged around.
Once the power was flowing we went on to the picture-house, which Mr. Keys owns and operates. We checked out the lights (his wife sells the tickets, there is no usher) and then made sure the projector was working (he's the projectionist)
After that he said he was going to mix his dough for baking in the morning so I asked if I could go with him, as I've never seen a baker at work. He seemed quite pleased to have me admire him for a while and then I went back to the pub, hopped into bed, and so ended my second day as a full-time salaried officer of the Hokianga Medical Service.
After a few days getting oriented I went back down to Auckland and met Ann - well, I had met her before - this was more of a rendezvous. We had no money - ours was the era when House surgeons were paid 5 pounds a week - and we had decided to furnish our first home from auctions, except for our bed, which was waiting in Kohukohu. I had bought the very latest in wire-wove bed-bases, sawn a length of 4x2 heart totara - nothing but the best! - into 4 suitable lengths and using specially sturdy nails had fixed one length to each corner. Back to the auction. We spent from 11a.m. until 4 p.m. bidding selectively and at day's end had acquired 1 kitchen table 1 dining table 2 kitchen chairs a Morris chair a chest of drawers a folding table (for playing cards) an enamel basin a soap-holder to hang on the side of the bath an enamel ladle a fish slice and 6 tumblers.
The whole lot cost us £2/5/6.
We had a few days like this, getting in supplies, then arranged to have them shipped to Kohu Kohu, and set off back to the North.
By now we'd been married 7 months but had been together only in the holidays. This was the start of our married life, in a district that was almost a fairy story to us, it was so far away - and we knew no one. When Ann first saw our house she noticed few things that had escaped me, such as that it was built about 1890 of kauri and in front it was on piles so tall that you could walk under them - and when we first did, we came out with our legs covered with fleas that revelled in the dry dust. We discovered later that the piles had sagged so much that in one of the rooms anything on wheels (such as a pram) that was left without a wedge, rolled steadily into the fire.
I had already begun what became a regular routine of going out to clinics in the various areas and then attending calls or seeing people who came to our house or the official clinic in the nurses' house on the other side of town. It's far from true to say that Ann had nothing to do but after the first few weeks, when the novelty of driving around with me and seeing the sights and the people and getting to know the Nurses had worn off, she was left alone a lot and I now realise that it never occurred to me that she might be lonely - in those days the chap went out earned the money (that was me) and the wife stayed in and minded the home (that was her) I didn't give it a thought - that was how things were. I can share with you that that is something I have revisited.
Mind you, the conditions of ordinary life were almost unbelievably exotic and in themselves provided a distraction. We couldn't afford either a refrigerator or to use the electric stove, so Ann cooked on a wood-burning one, and sometimes I left enough wood for her.
We got there in November and already there was such a severe drought that the tank that collected rainwater off the roof was less than half full. This tank became one of the really important things in our life, as it was all the water we had. We kept a close watch on what went into it and were very quick to get out the occasional drowned rat. (There was also a 40-gallon drum that someone had put in as a feeble supplement and once we found a morepork, which had somehow managed to get drowned in it). The trick was to make sure that washing things and having baths didn't leave you with too little for cooking and drinking. Letters to the family in Summer time were full of news about how much water was left - or how much had been added by any shower of rain, and how many baths that would represent. With care we managed for the first summer, but by the next one there was the worst drought that had been seen in memory and there was no water left for baths. Even at the end of March there had been no rain and it looked as though Ann would have to stay in Rawene because she had just had our first baby and there was no way to wash us - let alone nappies - and, would you believe, disposables had not been invented? Rawene had a constant piped supply (at least it was constant except when the pipe broke - but Dr.Smith made sure it was quickly fixed) so that was a possible, but very inconvenient, solution.
However - back to Kohu Kohu where life was starting to seem quite normal. We were even accomodating to the fact that the milkman lived up the hill above us and hand-milked a few cows, then carried the milk around in a bucket and tipped some into our billy. Even though the delivery was early in the morning the milk was usually sour when it arrived - and when we bought meat it was often greenish and smelt. So domestic life did have its problems but we were getting to know some people and have an interesting time. There were card evenings, a sports club and even on one occasion the induction of a new Anglican Minister. The Bishop of Auckland was to come up with a small retinue and volunteers were called for to put them up for the night. We decided to offer and for fun I put in that our bid was conditional on getting the Bishop - to my embarrassment we did and for a couple of nights we had this awfully nice chubby little man as our guest. I had never expected to call any one "my Lord" but I gave it a couple of tries, and then gave up because it didn't seem right. I had expected to have a few interesting theological discussions - but all that we got were dissertations about the problems of financing the Church ... (much worse than a Hospital) ... and what a trial it was trying to keep the young curates in order.
In due course we had our new Vicar running the parish and he was a charming Maori called Munga Cameron. Some time later I was with Dr. Smith and we met Munga. After a little chatting I was astonished to hear G.M. (as I came to think of him) saying, "Ah well, the trouble is that the Maori mentality is no good at abstract thought - they're no good at it at all! I think it must be something genetic - some problem like that d'ye see!" I was full of admiration when Munga replied quietly, with wide eyed innocence, "Ah, doctor that's a very interesting thought - do you know, it might explain why I have difficulty grasping some aspects of the Spiritual nature of the Holy Trinity."
At this time I was still having problems with the mechanics of professional life, especially with my transport. Hokianga roads in those days were invariably narrow, winding and unsealed. In the Summer you went everywhere in a pillar of dust and in the Winter you hoped to hold the car on the road although at any moment it was likely to slide away, and often go over a bank, for Hokianga is a very hilly place. These clay and metal roads weren't corrugated in the ordinary sense of the word - as you went along you fell into a pothole, bounced out of it and landed in the next one. The general jarring was more than the little Prefect could handle and after a few weeks its big-ends gave up. This was while the shortages of WW2 were still in full force; petrol was rationed; parts not available and new cars a sort of mirage. The garage owner from whom I was hiring the vehicle and who had assured me it was in first class order just looked out over the mangroves and said "Well! there's nothing I can do! There just aren't any spare parts!" I wrote to my parents "It looks as though I'll either have to get a second-hand car or a new job - I can't stand the strain of waiting for the phone to call me off to a case and then having to find transport to get me there. Yesterday I was called to a place 20 miles away and couldn't get a taxi - one was out working and the other had itself broken down - so I rang three different people whom I thought might help, but each said their car was not in a fit state to be used, and eventually I got the policeman to take me. As we went along he was telling me of a car that he had sold and two days later the gearbox dropped out. Another one he bought for his son and it burned out three gearboxes in succession, each within 50 miles of the previous so-called repair - so they had it sort of fixed up again and sold it to someone else as a really reliable vehicle.
This policeman was one of the old school who was well on into his career and was still a constable. He'd been at KohuKohu for many years, knew every one and claimed to know everything that went on in his district. If there had been some illegality he was always sure he knew the culprit and would arrest them, get them to Court, and usually get them convicted. He told me that it was usually young chaps who didn't have a clue about the Court system so he'd give them a training session in which they learned that they'd be standing up before the Magistrate and the policeman would tell the Magistrate what they had done wrong. Then the Magistrate would ask "Did you do that" and they were to say clearly "Yes, Sir". It was a system that worked very well until one day after the charge was read before a new Magistrate he asked "Do you plead guilty or not guilty" and the answer came back - "Not guilty". I don't think the policeman ever quite regained his faith in human nature.
Another expedition that I had to make while my car was useless was to the farthest end of my district, on the road to Whangarei. I had to take a launch to Horeke, which was the end of the water in that direction, then a taxi until the road ran out in a river where a girl was waiting on a horse. "Is this the horse for me?" I asked and when she said yes I asked where I was to ride. "Here" she said and slipped backwards out of the saddle onto the horse's rump, leaving me to drive. With the double weight and the rough road we could only amble along sedately in the teaming rain. I saw four rather sick kids in various places and then set out on the return trip. This time I didn't have the girl on the back - it was the schoolteacher from that district. The horse belonged to him and he was on his way to the nearest store. I decided that I could walk faster than the horse so I got off and wandered along chatting to the man about things in general. He'd come to the district only a few weeks before at the beginning of the school year and before that had been at a sole-charge school somewhere out of a place called Nelson, which meant nothing at all to me!
I won't go into a lot of detail about the various transport problems that I had but for all the time that we were there this was the background - there were 2 main categories of hazard -
(1) Stock on the road - pigs and horses
Pigs were the worst because they were sausage-shaped and if you hit one it rolled along underneath the car and often carried it right over the edge.
Horses I had more experience with. You'd be hurrying along at night, come around a corner and there would be a horse taking its rest in the middle of the road. It was the horse or the bank and I always chose the bank - which was bad for the car; but the alternative would not only have been bad for the car - it might well have been death for the horse.
(2) The roads themselves - Some part would fail and I'd lose steering or brakes and go off the edge, or a tyre would blow out or puncture even though it had just been repaired or replaced - and one time there was a variant on a Saturday afternoon when I was coming home to Kohu Kohu along the edge of the harbour and I had to pull over to avoid a lorry coming straight at me. It was after heavy rain and the outside edge of the road gave way, the car toppled sideways and I thought I was going right down into the drink - but the chassis caught and I teetered on the edge. There was a roar of laughter from the truck and a yell of "Don't worry doc.- we'll have you out in no time!" A very happy team of footballers piled off the back, formed a ring around the car and without even a puff lifted it back on the road, saw that I could get going and raced away.
About this time we had got a plump and jolly girl called Katie to help Ann a bit and to be some company in the house - and then G.M. said he wanted Ann to go down and help in the Hospital. It was pretty obscure what her job was to be (and I now believe that G.M. hadn't a clue what she was to do - but that he really wanted to give her company and purpose - he was more sensitive than me.) It developed that she recorded the clinical histories of all the new admissions - and wrote up the ones who were already there; then she had more and more to do with looking after the babies (feeding, cleaning and clothing them); and eventually sitting with the sleeping mothers who were having their babies; then doing odd-jobs for G.M. (typing out anything that he wanted duplicated and working the filthy old Gestetner machine that produced more or less smudged copies through the stencil); then on occasion driving him through to Kaikohe on expeditions. She used to catch the ferry from Kohu Kohu to Rawene with the shool children at 8a.m. and come back with them at 4p.m., which made her day more interesting.
The Gestetner copies were in much demand for our fortnightly staff meetings which were a feature of the service. We all - Nurses, Doctors, the Hospital Matron and any Sisters who were free and Ann gathered in the Matron's sitting room with Doctor Smith. We sat around the walls and he stood at one end of the room and the meeting was on.
He had various themes that he liked to keep fresh and one was the importance of an audit of the Service's performance - or in other parts of the country of any Hospital's performance. "How" he would ask "can you tell if you are doing any good if you don't know your outcome?" He pushed this obviously sensible idea whenever and wherever he could and at one time the Auckland Hospital Board did just that, nominating a very senior surgeon and equivalent physician to monitor what was going on in their Hospitals and report back to the Staff Committee and the Board. The scheme was very soon abandoned and G.M. always declared it was because their results were so bad.
He and his scheme were very unpopular with the medical establishment and the B.M.A (as it then was) actually ran advertisements in the N.Z. Medical Journal advising doctors not to go to the Hokianga. I was astonished some time later when a salesman came around asking me to join the organisation and extoling its virtues - I'm not sure what to think when I revisit that!
To get back to the meeting. He had great ideas about everyone taking part and asking questions and talking about any problems they had out in the district - but his head was always so full of ideas that he'd either thought of himself or read about and he was so impatient that he wasn't good at letting other people have their say. They'd begin and he'd listen for a moment or two then start prowling to and fro across the floor and suddenly burst out "Yes - that's all very well, but d'ye see there's this article in the B.M.J. that says.." or "Rex tells me" (that was Rex Fairburn) ... or "Frank says" (that was Frank Sargeson) ...or even "Now, Whitehead says ..." and that was Alfred North Whitehead, the guru of philosophy who was dearest to G.M.'s heart. In spite of his apparent arrogance these meetings were very important for keeping up the team spirit that gave us all support - especially the nurses who lived in their little comunities where each one had a house with clinic attached, and a full-time maid paid for by the Hospital Board - but they were always set apart. They always wore their tailored brown jackets (with nurse's medal pinned on) and their pleated brown skirts - and they were always on duty. It never crossed anyone's mind that they could marry and keep their job! They could always call on support from one of the Medical Officers, but they were in the front line and they were the leading edge of the whole system.
When we went there the population was 10,000 people spread out across the County, about 60 miles across. There was one doctor on the North side of the harbour and one on the South, who also ran the Hospital - and I mean ran it - there was no question then of managers with authority above the Medical Superintendent. "Farmers", said G.M. "are very good at farming, and grocers are very good at grocing - but neither of them, d'ye see, are any good at taking out an appendix or treating pneumonia or anything else to do with treating sick people."
The main activity in the area was dairy farming and every day lorries would converge from all over the County onto the dairy factory, with their loads of cream cans.
There was no way the farmers from South Hokianga could get their cream on their lorries acoss the harbour to the butter factory on the water's edge opposite Rawene, so every day there was a sight which meant nothing to the locals - but to us it was a marvel to watch. A truck with its load of cans would drive up to the wharf where a launch was waiting. Two chaps would leap out. One would get up amongst the cans and the other take position on the edge of the wharf above the launch. The one on the truck would lift a can as though it was a pillow, swing smoothly and let go, then swivel back and pick up the next one. The man on the wharf would catch the first can and swing it to the man in the boat then smoothly back and catch the second can. The man in the boat caught the first can, twirled it into its final place and without a break swung back to catch the next one. It was all done with perfect timing and a natural grace that no ballet could surpass. We never tired of watching the show go on, and never saw a can dropped. It was brilliant!
That was one of the changes when we went back after many years - in the cause of efficiency all the community based cream factories had been closed down and tankers made mass collections and delivered their loads through pipes to the centralised factories and the water-front ballet was no more.
I won't go into the demography and sociology of it all but that change altered the whole pattern of life in Hokianga and the population fell to 4000. It's climbing again with people coming back from the cities, but when we were there last year the countryside looked derelict with many of the houses unpainted and in poor repair.
There are topics that I really do want to revisit - one in the sense of rethinking, the other a physical going back.
It is 50 years since we went to Hokianga. I grew up in Wellington and never heard the words. My parents always said we all got on really well together. Mind you that was easy when we virtually never saw a Maori and certainly never spoke to one. Sometimes my mother would speak of someone who was "a good type of Maori" and we were terribly impressed when we went camping up the Wanganui River and my father would stop and go over to some brown farmer leaning over a gate an ask him about the area and talk to him just as though he was an ordinary person. That was my background and I didn't feel strange in Kohu Kohu. In the hospital Bedggood maintained total segregation - not on racist lines you understand but because Europeans wouldn't feel comfortable with all the visitors that Maoris had, and their boisterous behaviour - and the Maoris would be miserable if they had to conform to the low-key European customs - it was all done with the single objective of keeping everyone happy. When Ann went out to Kaikohe and had a look at the Plunket rooms she was amazed to see two doors - labelled "Maori" and "European". No one was protesting.
A local-body election came up while we were there and there were rumours of some Maori candidates. If they were successful they would be members of the County Council, but by a process that I never quite understood, when the County Council had finished its meeting the same men (goodness me - of course there were never any women!) shuffled a bit in their seats, looked around and declared that the Harbour Board was now in session. When that was finished they started up again as the Hospital and Charitable Aid Board - and it was this that upset Bedggood. "If Maoris win seats there'll be Maoris in charge of the Hospital! ... giving me orders! I will not put up with that! I'll leave!" Although she was a bit extreme Bedggood was pretty representative of the European attitude - but none of them would acknowledge that they were in any way racist.
When we went back that had all changed - the Secretary to the Board was a Maori - the Plunket Society still had two doors, but no labels and there was no institutional racism to be seen - although I had no way of telling what was in people's thoughts.
Revisiting my own experiences, I had no way of knowing about Maori ways or customs - I don't think it occurred to me that there were any. I suppose I should have worked it out for myself and found out how to behave but I never thought of it and no one thought to tell me. I still don't know how many feet I put wrong - but one I do know about happened in Pungaru, soon after I arrived. I was in the clinic after the last patient had gone when two young men came in, carrying a brace of plump pheasants. They made a little speech about how nice it was that I had come and they did hope that I liked pheasant and would I accept these two. I said how much I enjoyed pheasant (I'd never tasted it) and how kind it was of them and how much I thanked them for it. They handed over the birds and then there seemed to be a painful pause. I racked my brains and thought that I had heard smewhere that if you were given something you must give something in return - but I'd had no warning and had nothing to give. Then I remembered that I did have some money in my pocket and pulled it out and offered it to them. The goodwill vanished, they turned on their heels and stalked out and I never again saw them or another pheasant or any other gift from that community. It still makes me feel awkward to think of it because I believe I had ignorantly and in good faith offered them a gross insult by turning their gesture of welcome and good will into a sordid commercial transaction.
I don't think there is any point in going into further detail - but I hope you can see what I mean.
It wasn't long before I thought I'd do a lot better if I could speak Maori - even though G.M. had been there since 1914 and didn't speak a word of it and said he didn't need to and didn't want to - but I did ... not that it did me any good ... I couldn't find any one who would help me.
I painted quite a lot in Hokianga and I used to send most of them to my mother, who was a member of the Art Society in Masterton and used to take them along to the "criticism evenings". She used to delight in letting me know how they were excoriated for "garish incompetence" so I told her that I thought that these ones were at least more quiet - but I supposed they would still upset the other menbers.
The purpose of telling you this is to use this quotation from one of my letters.
"This is not a country or a people where there is or are delicate blends and matches - it's all contrasts, intense and raw."
Here are some extensive ramblings as a codicil to GKW's story by Dick Rawson:
In Jan 1947 immediately after graduation Peter Grayson (later pres Orthopaedic Association) and I drove my 1931 Morris Minor tourer from Dunedin to Rawene in North Auckland and were greeted by GMS dressed exactly as described by GKW and I remember visiting his house and walking up the road to the hospital with him. His daughter Janet had stayed for a year in our Dunedin home - 1944/45 - being a close friend of my medical student sister, Evelyn (killed in a riding accident when doing 6th year). GMS was treating fractures using tightly rolled issues of the Auckland Weekly, so we were told. GKW was then pathologist at Whangarei hospital where we visited him on our return trip.
Next GMS shifted to Waikanae to set up a mini private hospital there where I saw him again on a visit to see Janet who because of marriage and a baby had stopped her medical studies in 5th year to set up a shoe shop!! (a decade or so later she resumed, graduated and became a leading student advisor in Brisbane). I have photos of Janet and her WW2 RNZAF husband who flew Dakotas around the country calibrating instruments. I also have class photos of GKW's wife Ann who because of her student marriage (unprecedented in those days) became a fulltime wife and stopped medicine.
I spent 3 months+ at Rawene to April 1950 working in GMS's "special area" system with visits to outlying districts with a nurse by car, horseback or launch and have a heap of stories. Dr Hubert Smith - unrelated - had taken over - ex Health Department and clueless eg sore throats were treated by local infiltration of the uvula before amputation with a tonsillectomy loop ! I remember doing 6 consecutive birth inductions using a bolus of 5 mgms pentothal IV then quickly gloving up and puncturing the membranes with forceps etc etc
Janet died in Nelson last year (2009) Her son Bill Irwin runs a computer business and there is a daughter Evelyn named after my sister. You will notice that Janet's second name was McCall - shared with her uncle Alexander McCall Smith, the celebrated author (Botswana) and the Emeritas Professor of Medical Law at Edinburgh University.
Graham Kemble Welch graduated from Otago University medical school in 1944 then spent two years at Wellington Hospital. He then spent 3 years in the Hokianga (1946, 1947, 1948).
The following three years were spent at Hammersmith Hospital in London specialising in pathology before returning to New Zealand.
He retired from medical practise in Nelson in 1982.
Graham Kemble Welch died in Nelson, New Zealand on