Mr John Clarke

This is our father. He and I had a few problems, but we’ll let that pass.
The photo was taken somewhere in North Africa or Italy during the Second World War.

Ted was born in Wellington in December 1914. His mother had just arrived from Ulster. Ted used to say he was designed in Northern Ireland and assembled in New Zealand. Like many children of migrant parents, Ted was keen to fit into the culture of the new place. His father’s instinct was to hang on to the old place. He thought nothing in New Zealand was good enough; the culture was no good, the politics were no good, the rugby wasn’t a patch on British football. But as a boy, Ted wanted to be like the other kids. Ted played rugby. Ted was a New Zealander.
Quite early in his life, Ted developed a self which he presented to the world, partly as a way of fitting in and partly to put some distance between who he was and who he aspired to be. One characteristic of this developed self was a carefully edited history. Even people who met Ted in his eighties and nineties thought he was the product of an educated and rather comfortable English family.
The real story is considerably better.

In 1914, in the far north of Ulster, around Coleraine and Portrush, his mother Margot Hamilton, 26, unmarried and working as a nurse, discovered she was pregnant and with the First World War approaching she left Northern Ireland and travelled alone on the long sea voyage to New Zealand. There is no evidence that any member of her family ever communicated with her again. When she arrived in Wellington she had little money, no work and she knew no-one. When the time came she was admitted to the Alexandra Hospital for unmarried mothers, where she had an emergency C-section and was delivered of twin boys. The first boy was named after the father, whose name was Edward Clarke. The second boy was named Stewart, after the matron of the hospital, Miss Stewart. The births were not registered, a procedural slip which may have been finessed by Miss Stewart, and while the babies got a decent start and Margot recovered, Miss Stewart took the the little family in. She had boarders at her house and she installed Margot as a housekeeper.

In 1919 there was a flu epidemic that killed more people than had just died in the First World War, and Margot caught it. The doctors told her to leave Wellington and move north, where she could get some sea air. So she moved slightly up the west coast of the North Island, the world capital of sea air, and Eddie and Stewart were brought up in and around Karehana Bay and Plimmerton.
After the First World War, when Ted was six, he was sitting on the verandah one day when a man came in the gate and Ted looked up as he approached the house. Ted always remembered seeing his father for the first time, from the shoes up. Edward and Margot were married at Miss Stewart’s brother’s house in Hawker Street, the births were registered, Edward got work as a carpenter and the semblance of respectability began to be constructed. The boys went to the local school, the beach was only a few yards away and the family had a succession of dogs and cats. They didn’t have any money but life was good. Ted’s father was a fine fiddle player and people would often stop outside the house on their way home to listen to him. Ted had only a small repertoire of stories of his birth and childhood and they created only very general impressions. He spoke of his mother’s family in England as if they were all close, despite the fact that they were neither close, nor in England. The facts were not the point. The point with Ted was always fitting in. Having the right effect. Creating the right impression.
Ted felt less in common with his father and he certainly looked like his mother and although he argued with her about politics (she was a socialist and he was pretending to be a free market capitalist) he never stopped admiring her determination, her stoicism and her dignity. No-one knows where the boys' father was between 1914 and 1920. Ted always said he was fighting in the war but he couldn’t remember where and there’s no record of him in any of the services. Stewart thought he was jailed for his involvement with the Ulster Volunteers in the sectarian violence of 1913-19 but there’s no record of him either in prison records or in those of the Ulster Volunteers. Margot and her boys and their friend Mary Stewart remained close and there are photographs of the boys with Miss Stewart until she died. When they were young they would sometimes go into town by train and stay with her for a few days and she would make a fuss of them and take them to see things around the city. For forty years Margot worked for the Red Cross and for other charities which helped people in trouble. It had been tough but she knew she’d done well to bring herself and her boys to a new life in New Zealand.

The boys were bright, keen and talented, Ted was a good schoolboy sprinter and a very handy tennis and badminton player. Stewart, who had inherited his father’s gift for music, wanted to be a concert pianist. But when they were 14, the world was hit by The Great Depression and unless their families had money, teenagers had to leave school and get a job. Ted got a job at McKenzies, a retail company with branches all over the country. Stewart got work with Ballantynes, a large retail outlet in Christchurch where he worked for some years until after the war Ballantynes burnt down, at which point he also got a job at McKenzies.

Ted was good at his job and during the 1930s he became a manager and began to climb from branch to bigger branch; Nelson, Timaru, Napier, New Plymouth, Gisborne and Auckland before he was called up for military service in the Second World War and after training in Trentham and drafting into the 7th anti-tank unit, 66394 Clarke left New Zealand and arrived in the middle east during one the great crises in the war. The North African campaign was beginning and The New Zealand Division was sent up through Palestine, Syria and Lebanon to defend the oilfields against a possible attack through Turkey, and then they were pulled back to defend Cairo from the German advance from the west which was occurring at speed under Rommel, and there followed throughout late 1941 and 1942, some of the most significant battles of the war. Ted was in all of them: Sidi Rezegh, Mersa Matruh, Minqar Qaim, Ruweisat Ridge, El Alamein, the Libyan and Tunisian campaigns and then up through Italy, the Sangro River and Monte Cassino. In the lives of anyone in the New Zealand Division in the Second World War, these years remained vivid. In his nineties, Ted could still describe in detail these events, his own actions, his feelings and his love and high regard for those who shared those experiences with him, Tony Ballard, Keith Garland, Maurice Spence.

Except when he was at home, where he often looked like a pantomime lunatic, Ted was always well turned out. He wore good suits, brogues and a shirt and tie. He knew the prestige brands and he understood the value of a gesture which signified class and breeding. Eric Townley, another of his army friends, told me that all through the war, Ted was always clean-shaven, even in battle. ‘Your father’ said Eric, ‘was the cleanest man in the Western Desert’. One of the things Ted had with him during the desert campaign, was a small book of poetry he’d bought in Cairo, and like a lot of the men, he read and committed to memory large tracts of English verse. His standard greeting in the morning for the rest of his life was from the Rubaiyat:
‘Awake for morning in the bowl of night
Has flung the stone that puts the stars to flight
And lo, the hunter of the east has caught
The Sultan’s turret in a noose of light.’

He also loved Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark'
'Hail to thee, blithe spirit!
Bird thou never wert-
That from heaven or near it
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art’. (He loved that last line).

He also learnt, either from his father’s repertoire or from troop entertainers, great slabs of British Music Hall and he could recite all that too. He had a good singing voice, kept perfect time and he loved entertaining people. He knew bits of Sid Field, Flanagan and Allen, Arthur Askey and the Western Brothers. He sang ‘Beautiful as a Butterfly’ very well. He also recited a silly sales pitch he’d got from somewhere: ‘All wool and a yard wide, this product is wiff-waffed on both sides and bevelled all around, has hot and cold folding doors, two kinds of water, clean and dirty, it’s guaranteed not to rip, tear or bust. Recommended not by me; recommended by a better man that me. Recommended by the maker’.

On the way back to New Zealand after the war, the troop ship Ted was on stopped at Melbourne for supplies and anyone who wanted to go the theatre was invited to attend a performance free of charge. Ted put his hand up and that night he went to one of the big nineteenth century theatres in the city. He couldn’t remember what the entertainment was, but before it began, a man in a suit came out in front of the curtain and said ‘Ladies and gentlemen. We’re fortunate to have in the audience tonight, a party of New Zealand soldiers, returning from the war in Europe and the middle east. You men are very welcome here, we hope you enjoy the evening with us and we wish you a safe trip home’. The audience then spontaneously stood and applauded. Ted said this was the first sense he had of being home again and he never forgot it. Whenever he came to Melbourne he always went to the Shrine of Remembrance. He didn’t go inside. He just wandered around the huge courtyard and stood by the eternal flame for a while and then he said, every time, ‘They do this very well, don’t they? They’re very good the Aussies. If you’re ever in a war, try to make sure you’ve got the Aussies on at least one flank. They’re very tough and very smart. I saw a lot of them in the desert and they’re terrific in battle. They never give up. They never know when they’re beaten.’

In 1944 in Senigallia, in Italy, when he’d been wounded and was working at Headquarters for a while, Ted met Neva Morrison, who was from Gisborne and was with the New Zealand army secretarial corps, the WAACs. Anna and I are the children of Ted Clarke and Neva Morrison. When we were growing up they were living in Palmerston North, where Ted was the manager of the McKenzies store. He used to tell the story of employing people on staff and if they were honest and responsible people he’d hire them but he always asked them one question. ‘Who wrote Grey’s Elegy?'
Once a bloke seemed confused and Ted said 'It’s not a trick question. An elegy is just a poem. It’s like being asked 'Who wrote Grey’s poem?’‘
'I don’t know anything about poetry’, said the bloke.
‘No, you don’t have to know anything about poetry’ said Ted. ‘Who wrote Grey’s poem? Look out the door there. You see that shop across the Square. What is it?'
'Hopwood’s Hardware.'
'Right. Hopwood’s Hardware. Do you know who owns it?'
'Mr Hopwood.'
'Right. Mr Hopwood owns Hopwood’s Hardware. Who wrote Grey’s Elegy?'
'Oh’, said the bloke. ‘Mr Hopwood’.

He once got sent some kerosene heaters from Head Office. He’d asked for one. They sent him ten. They were terrible and they smelt and no other branch could sell any. Ted sold all of them. He put one out the front of the shop, turned it on so it glowed and felt warm, and he put up a sign: ‘Limit One Per Customer.’ He was a particularly good retailer.

Ted’s brother Stewart went away to the Pacific War and had also come back into McKenzies and during the 1950s he was the manager in Rotorua. They were both pretty smart boys and in 1960 they were both promoted to Head Office, Ted as the Buying Controller and Stewart as The Sales Controller. Ted was on the board of Manakau Knitting Mills and other companies in the McKenzies group, and he travelled overseas in 1962, 1964, 1965 and 1970, when hardly anybody did, including going very early into China, buying merchandise in Europe and Asia (I think his favourite country was Austria). Business was good, the company grew and eventually the parent company, Rangitira, sold the McKenzies stores, and the McKenzie Trust, which is an investment company, became the biggest philanthropic organisation in New Zealand history. The Clarke twins helped build this great enterprise.

Ted and Neva’s marriage was not a runaway success and Ted buried himself in his work and for some years refused to acknowledge that he and Neva were effectively living separate lives. After their divorce they both remarried and Ted retired and took on some consultancy work.

When he had grandchildren, Ted gradually began to drop his guard. He managed this rather well and he was wise enough to recognise the benefits.
‘These feminists’ he would say. ‘Good grief’.
‘I’m a feminist Ted’ one his granddaughters would say.
‘No, no, no,’ he would clarify. ‘You’re a very beautiful young woman.'
'Do you know what feminist is Ted?’ she would say.
‘You tell me’ he would reply, and he would then sit back and enjoy a small tutorial from which he would emerge wiser and smiling with pride. ‘I just had the most interesting conversation. God those girls are intelligent. Absolutely wonderful.’

As he drifted through his eighties and into his nineties, Ted was sustained by his great love of the family, by which he meant a slightly fantastical skein of connectedness and common interests and ethics running from his mother, whom he adored, through his children and grandchildren. He also loved his sport and music, which he took up in a big way in retirement and from which he got a great deal of pleasure. He was also a perceptive student of the human race. He had an excellent memory, a great gift for words and talk, an interest in world affairs and ideas and a very dry sense of humour. When he had an operation a few years ago to remove a cancer from his temple I rang him and said ‘How are you?'
'I’m good thanks’.
‘Was the operation a success?'
'Yes. They seem very pleased'
'Are you any better looking?'
'I don’t know about better looking but I caught sight of myself in the mirror this morning and I can certainly see what the fuss is all about’.

Ted was a dignified, gifted and remarkable man. He started with nothing and succeeded in almost everything he did. He was interested in history, language and the society he lived in. A generation later and he’d have been at university and may have had some other choices.
But Ted made the best he could of the situation he was in, as he saw it. He was unhorsed from time to time and there were difficulties. And he was troubled by these difficulties. He looked at these difficulties and in later years he tried to address them. If he didn’t deal with them or didn’t deal with them effectively, he would want to acknowledge his own failure. It was not because he did not want to. He was a loving, attentive and frequently hilarious grandfather and he said repeatedly in the last week of his life, ‘When I go into orbit, I’ll go into orbit with a smile on my face’.

Edward Alexander Clarke 1914 – 2008