Helped Peter build a fence.
Looked at Jeff’s car. $700.*
* It was a 1967 Holden Special station wagon. It was old and it was almost, but not quite, fucked!
Swim at Valley Pool
My diary entries for the next few days are pretty run-of-the-mill. But rest assured, dear readers, the adventures are about to start! In the meantime, here’s some background information about my life before we set off to travel…
BACKSTORY. Part 5: Australia. In June 1987, at the end of my first season as a shepherd and casual musterer at Dry Creek Station, I went to Australia for two months. I had relations who owned cattle stations in Central Queensland whom I wished to visit, and family friends in the southern state of Victoria.
It transpired that three other shepherds that I knew were also travelling to Australia to compete in the rodeo circuit there. By coincidence, we were all on the same flight to Sydney and although I had reservations about travelling with these three rogues, who had acquired reputations as hard drinkers and hard fighters, I agreed to travel with them up to Queensland.
On the day of my departure, June 12th, my brother drove me to Christchurch. With a few hours to kill before going to the airport, he went off to attend to some business. I went to visit Linda Key.
I had met Linda earlier in the year at Dry Creek. Her mother, Helen, a widow, had married the station’s owner, Brian Beattie, in the late seventies. Her first husband, Robert Key, Linda’s father, had been killed in an accident. The Key family had owned Mount Crichton Station, near Glenorchy, at the head of Lake Wakatipu, a famous high country station in a remote and beautiful part of the South Island. Following her husband’s death, Helen sold the station and moved to Dry Creek.
Linda had spent her teen years at a prestigious boarding school in Christchurch then attended Christchurch Polytech. But she occasionally came home to Dry Creek, often with groups of her friends, and it was here that we had met. We had become friends and even though relationships between staff and family were generally frowned upon in the High Country, I had resolved to ask her out. However, the opportunity to do so hadn’t, as yet, presented itself, so on the morning that I was due to leave the country for the winter, I mustered up my courage (pun intended) and walked down to the Hereford Hotel where Linda worked as assistant manager.
I had always been painfully shy around girls. They scared me. I’d never had a steady girlfriend and the relationships that I had managed to cultivate were always somewhat tenuous and short-lived. But now, for the first time in my life, I decided to face my fears. I had nothing to lose. I was going to be out of the country for weeks so if she laughed at me and told me to fuck off I could simply flee. And so, bristling with feigned confidence, I presented myself at the hotel’s front desk and enquired if I might speak to Linda Key. My fear of rejection, was, however, unwarranted. She wasn’t there. She had phoned in sick that day. Deflated, and quite relieved, I left a note saying something lame about being sorry to have missed her and that I would be staying in Queensland for the next few weeks. As an afterthought, I left the address of the station where I would be staying: Mena Park, Blackall, QLD 4472. We drove to the airport, met my three compadres, and flew to Sydney.
The first week of the trip was…well, it was quite an adventure. The three fellows I was travelling with, Barry “Ginty” McGimpsey, Robert Kitto and Larry Williamson, were somewhat lacking in etiquette and played the “Cowboys in the Big City” role to perfection. My diary entries from those few days perhaps best illustrate the chaos:
FRIDAY, June 12. Spent the night in King’s Cross*. What a fuckin disgusting hole that is. Sluts and druggies and deros everywhere. Got a smack in the head from a deadbeat watch-seller for giving cheek. Got a taxi out to some house in Manly where our gear was. Slept the night in a chair.
*Sydney’s infamous Red Light District
SATURDAY, June 13. Went and saw Barry’s cousin in Crow’s Nest* whose name is Sharon. Pissed up all day. Saw a car crash outside her place. Went to a pub for a few drinks and drank wine all day at her place. Tea at a place called the Curry Bazar was horrible. Went to a party in Manly. Utterly boring. I hate this place.
*an inner suburb of Sydney
SUNDAY, June 14. Overcast. Looked around Sydney. Went up the Tower*. Pissed up. The boys and I decided to buy a car. I’m not all that keen but what the hell. Spent all day in seedy bars in The Rocks. The noise, the traffic, the people. It’s bloody awful. Pissed up in a couple of pubs in Manly and had a burger at the Cadillac Restaurant.
*The Centrepoint Tower.
MONDAY, June 15. Wet. Pissed up. Went to zoo. Zoo is good but because it’s in Sydney I didn’t enjoy it. Went into downtown Sydney and looked around. I was really up-tight by now. Had a few beers at Centrepoint then over to Shale Pub in Manly. Met a couple of helicopter mechanics and had tea with them. Walked home by myself along the beach in the rain. Felt very lonely and homesick. Want to leave here so badly now I can hardly stand the thought of another day here.
TUESDAY, June 16. Wet. Bought a car for $500*. No key so spent half the night trying to hot-wire it. The car was in some suburb on the far side of Sydney from Manly. But it’s our way out of this fuckin shit-hole. Larry drove us back to Manly over the bridge**. Packed up our gear and were set to go but to my utter dispair we coundn’t get the cunt to unlock. Stuck in this shit-hole for another night. Why did I stay with these bastards?
* A 1976 Holden Kingswood stationwagon.
** The Sydney Harbour Bridge.
WEDNESDAY, June 17. Fine. Packed up The Brown Beast* and fucked off out of Sydney. At last. Escape!! Went as far as Qurindi** and stayed with a friend of Anna Harper’s***. The city goes on for miles & miles. How do people live here? We travelled country roads to Lydell Power Station where someone had a spare key for the The Brown Beast, Tommy¹. Went to the Royal Hotel in Qurindi and got in touch with Anna Harper. Went out to her friend Lisa’s place with another friend, Vicky. All 3 girls are Kiwis. Chris Rea² was playing on the stereo when we got there and I relaxed for the first time since getting to Aussie.
* The car was a dreadful brown colour.
** A farming town in Central New South Wales.
*** An aquaintance of Kitto’s from home.
¹ Ginty called everyone he met “Tommy” for some reason so the car also had that appellation added to it’s name.
² My favourite singer at the time.
THURSDAY, June 18. Mild (Hot, even). Left at 8:00 and headed north. The old girl boiled just out of Qurindi but we found water at a nearby well. Drove to Bogabri* to pick up Brigette Greenslade. She is an empty-headed blond bint. I don’t like her. Got away at about 2:30 and drove. Boys are pissed. Car boiled again but we stayed mobile. Drove on into the night through roo** country. I prayed we’d get to Blackall by morning and recited The Man From Snowy River*** in my head to stay awake. The car shit itself in the middle of nowhere between Surat and Roma¹. The bottom pully² flew to bits & we were stuck. The boys were blotto³. We camped in the car.
* Another NSW farming town.
*** The epic bush poem by AB “Banjo” Patterson
¹ Small towns in Outback Queensland
² The bottom flywheel pully on the engine which drives, among other things, the cooling fan.
³ Passed out drunk
FRIDAY, June 19. Hot. Woke up in the bush. Sort of mist hangs round the trees. I got a ride to Surat in a truck-load of ice-cream. Got a mechanic to come out & put a new pully on the Beast. $60*. On the road again. The boys topped up and wasted by 1:00. Stopped at Morven pub and the boys were thrown out. Ran out of gas at Augathella**. Hitched into town, got some gas & a ride back with the cop. Boys nearly shit when I pulled up with the cops. Finally got to Blackall¹ at 6:30. Jesus what a relief. Met Terry Vail² at Tattersall’s Pub. Larry threatened the owner and the boys were booted out. They headed for Cairns³. Slept in the back of Terry’s truck then at his girlfriend’s place.
* The boys contemplated bashing the mechanic and fleeing without paying. I talked them out of this idea!
** A Central Queensland farming town.
¹ Blackall, a farming town in the centre of Queensland was my destination
² My cousin
³ They were going to compete in a the Cairns Rodeo.
Ginty, Kitto and Williamson disappeared in a cloud of dust down the road out of town. I never saw any of them again. I spent a few days with my relations at Mena Park. The station comprised a thousand square miles of dead-flat scrub, interspersed with stands of bloodwood, scribbly gum and mulga. The station ran merino sheep and Brahman cattle. It was shearing time so there was plenty going on and I was able to work with the station hands, mustering sheep on horseback and driving out to distant parts of the property to check on water supplies.
From Mena Park, I had arranged to go and stay at Evora, another sheep and cattle station, owned by my second cousin Tom Hunter. Evora was located an hour’s drive from Mena Park along a rough 4WD track graded through the red dirt of the Outback. I stayed there for a week, helping out on the station, which was slightly bigger than Mena Park and also ran merinoes and cattle. Every day, Tom and I would drive out to a different bore (water supply) to check that everything was operating properly.
In the Australian Outback, water is the key to successful farming. The carrying capacity of the land is defined not by the amount of feed it can grow but by the amount of water available for the stock to drink. The Great Artesian Basin, a vast underground aquifer containing billions of litres of water, lies beneath much of Central Australia. Deep wells, known as bores, are drilled into the ground to access this supply of ancient groundwater (some of which fell as rain millions of years ago), which is pumped to the surface by windmills. These skeletal frames of steel, with their whirling tin blades and triangular tail-rudders, are the iconic image of the bush. For me, these long drives to isolated bores, with their cooling ponds (the water from the aquifer is almost boiling when it reaches the surface) and long rows of drinking-troughs, were the perfect antidote for the dramas of travelling with the cowboys.
From Evora, I planned to travel by bus and train all the way down the Eastern Seaboard of Australia to the town of Bairnsdale, a provincial town in Gippsland, in the state of Victoria. My brother had spent a year in Bairnsdale as an AFS exchange student and the family that he had lived with had invited me to come and stay. I wanted to see Gippsland with them, take the train over to South Australia to see the Grampian Mountains (named after the same Scottish mountains that Grampians Station had been named for), and explore the Snowy Mountains, where Banjo Patterson had set his epic Outback poem The Man From Snowy River, which had helped keep me awake during that seemingly endless night drive in Queensland.
All of these thing I would do during my time in Australia that winter. I would meet people from all over the world, live in backpacker hotels and YHA hostels and become, as it were, a traveller. But before I left Evora, something happened which changed my life.
I had arranged to catch an overnight bus from Blackall to Brisbane. On the afternoon that I was due to leave, a stockman from Mena Park arrived with something for me. It was a letter. It had arrived that morning in the weekly mail delivery to Mena Park and he’d driven across the rough track to bring it to me. Another twenty minutes and I would have been gone. The letter would never have reached me and my life, perhaps, would have taken a different route to the one that has brought us, dear reader, to this point. I still have the two pages of neatly-written foolscap that the envelope contained. It had been posted on the 23rd of June in Christchurch, New Zealand. It was from Linda Key…
Linda interviewed by Expo wanker*
*she had applied for a job at the Expo site.
My diary entries for the next few days are pretty run-of-the-mill. But rest assured, dear readers, the adventures are about to start! In the meantime, here’s some background information about my life before we set off to travel…
BACKSTORY. PART 4: The Shepherd Years
At Dog Kennel Corner, where Burke’s Pass opens onto the wide Mackenzie Basin, I turn onto the Haldon Road and drive south through a gateway of low hills. Merinos graze behind rabbit-proof fences as the road steps out across the barren expanse of the Whalesback Flat towards the distant Grampian Mountains. Rows of stunted pines, silver and olive against the beige background of the hills, lean stiffly downwind, their trunks permanently deformed by the blustering nor-westers.
The road crosses Red Hut Creek and, a few kilometres further on, the Mackenzie Stream. Both are dry, their beds strewn with lichen-covered rocks, matagouri and desiccated foxgloves. A battalion of pylons marches across the Whalesback and disappears into the Mackenzie Pass. Nearly twenty years have passed since I have driven this way. But apart from a few kilometres of newly-sealed road, nothing seemed to have changed. The sky is still huge, the landscape still empty and the wind still dominates it all.
I first drove down the Haldon Road in November 1981. I was eighteen years old. My cousin had jacked up a job for me at Grampians, a 38,000 acre station with a reputation for its tough, hard-drinking shepherds. A heading dog sat on the passenger seat of my Morris 1300. I had a huntaway, a crate of beer and a pair of hob-nailed boots on the back seat, and no idea what lay in store for me. I had long dreamed of being a high country shepherd. But as the snow-capped Grampian Mountains grew closer, I wondered if I belonged in such a gigantic landscape.
I had spent the previous eighteen months working on a sheep farm in Cattle Valley, half-way between Fairlie and Geraldine. I had lived alone in an old cottage, ridden a motorbike (a Yamaha Ag175) every day, driven an old Nuffield tractor…and learned almost nothing. The farmer and his spoilt son had seen me as nothing more than a slave to be used and exploited. The son, Richard Scarlett, had gone so far as to tell me that they owned me. Asshole. But the experience had primed me to learn and had equipped me with a desire to become a high country shepherd who worked in the mountains on proper farms, not shitty little farms “down country.”
The manager of Grampians, Peter Kerr, had hired me as a temporary shepherd for a three-month trial. On my first morning, he had given me the nickname Fungus and set me to work moving sheep around the woolshed and yards. It was shearing time and there was a lot to do. I fitted straight into the gang of shepherds, worked hard, listened and learned. After I’d been there a few days, Kirby (as he was called) sent me and another shepherd to kill muttons for the cookshop. At Scarlett’s I’d never been taught the proper way to skin a sheep. When Kerr turned up at the killing shed to check on our work he found me hacking the skin off my mutton with a knife. The proper way to do it is to punch the skin off the carcass with a closed fist.
“Jesus Fungus,” he shouted. “It looks like it’s been run over be a fuckin’ train.” From then on I was assigned to kill dog-tuckers (skinny, old sheep killed for dog food) until I learned
to skin a mutton properly. Eventually, though, I became very, very good at killing muttons and even now, 38 years later, I can still skin, gut and prepare a sheep in under seven minutes.
Beyond the Snowy River – another dry gulch, spanned by a white-painted bridge – the bitumen gives way to gravel and the memories come flooding back. Although I haven’t thought about them for years, the fences, cattle-yards, hay barns and paddocks are indelibly imprinted in my mind. I spent countless hours walking along this stretch of road behind mobs of sheep and herds of cattle. My constant companions during those days were my dogs: Jill, Toy, Mick, Bess and twenty or so others whose names are still as familiar to me as those of my children.
Off to my right, sleek Hereford-Angus cattle mooch on swampy flats dotted with clumps of willows. Lucerne shimmers in the wind. A steel hay barn stands sway-backed and lop-sided at the corner of the Hoppy Paddocks, a dozen small fields where we trained our
sheepdogs and shot rabbits by the hundred. And through it all runs the chalk-white line of the road, slung between hollows and over rises; a road of memories drawn across the landscape and through my mind.
The driveway up to Grampians leaves the road beside a slender Lombardy poplar and climbs to the foot of the hills. It is eerie to see the station buildings again after so long. The woolshed and sheep-yards, the shearer’s quarters, the cookshop and shepherd’s quarters: they all look just as I remember them. The buildings are a little threadbare perhaps, but not old. Like me they are just older.
Ross and Claire White live on the station in a neat gable-roofed station house framed by willows and poplars. They moved to Grampians the year before I left, when Ross took up the position of the station’s Head Shepherd. We spend a pleasant hour drinking tea and reminiscing about musters and dogs and shepherds who came and went. Outside, the wind bustles dust and leaves across the yard. Cloud shadows play on the hillside beyond.
Although I had only been hired for a three month trial, a bit of good luck saw me taken on permantly at Grampians. Well, good luck for me at least. No so for Stuart Falconer, another of the Gramps shepherds. (The Grampians, incidentellay, are named after a range of hills in Scotland. But we shapherds always referred to the station as Gramps). We were driving home from the Burke’s Pass pub in the middle of the night after shearing finished. We were all drunk, including the driver, the station’s Head Shepherd Jeff T. On a long stretch of gravel we encountered a Hereford bull jogging along in the middle of the road. No amount of tooting or engine-revving would encourage him to step aside, even though we were moving quite fast.
“I’ll get him, Jeff,” said Falconer, who was sitting beside me in the back seat holding a quart bottle of beer. And with that, he leapt out of the moving car. There was a heavy bump, the car lurched and someone said, “fuck, we ran over Stu.” Jeff backed up and there he was, sitting in the dirt rubbing a bleeding and obviously broken ankle. He was still holding his beer in his other hand though.
So with “Missa Faarkner”, as we called him, out of action, I was taken on full time. I worked at Grampians off and on from 1981 until 1986. Many of the formative events of my early adulthood – getting drunk for the first time, the death of my mother, losing my virginity – took place during those years. But looking back, I never really fitted in as a shepherd. Although I was good at my job (I would do it in various places for fifteen years), and I did my best to fit into the work hard/play hard lifestyle of the shepherd, my mind was always elsewhere. I longed to see the world and while my workmates were boozing in the quarters I would often be lying on the hill behind the woolshed staring up at the stars, dreaming.
Beneath the timber and tin roof of the Airstrip Barn, set back off the road beside Station Creek, I sit on a bale of meadow hay listening to the voice of the wind. An arch of cloud stretches from one end of the sky to the other. My mind drifts back to a warm October night in 1985 when my girlfriend and I lay here on a blanket, listening to Bryan Adams in the enveloping darkness while our lives changed forever. It was the first time for both of us and although her name doesn’t need to be recorded here, I remember her and that is all that matters. I smile at the memory, leave the barn to the caress of the wind and drive on.
The road passes Curraghmore and Streamlands – small stations pressed against the flanks of the hills – climbs to a wide saddle and descends to Grey’s Hills Station. The shepherd’s quarters, next to the big old woolshed, were the venue for raucous parties in which the shepherds and tractor drivers from all along the road would drink, fight and swear. My rear view mirror frames the station buildings dissolving into dust. Shingle rattles against the underside of the car and I turn the stereo up a few more decibels.
Music was my window on the world while I lived down the Haldon Road. We had no TV at Grampians; newspapers arrived once a week on the mail truck. News of big events such as Chernobyl and the Challenger Disaster took weeks to filter through to our corner of the high country. Like all good shepherds I listened to country music. But I had a secret addiction to rock music and it was through the stereo in my Holden ute that I learned about the world beyond the hills: about drugs and love and oceans and passion and war.
When I left Grampians, I went to work at Dry Creek Station, a 38,000 acre property in the Orari Basin, north-west of Fairlie. As well as my work at Dry Creek, I worked as a casual
musterer, that is a contract shepherd, on a number of other properties. This was my dream job. I had a holden ute, a saddle and a team of dogs. I was young and free and alone in a mountain world…
TO BE CONTINUED…
My diary entries for the next few days are pretty run-of-the-mill. But rest assured, dear readers, the adventures are about to start! In the meantime, here’s some background information about my life before we set off to travel…
BACKSTORY. Part 3: Five Months on the Yang-tsze
“Deep in the mud and deluged with rain, Shanghai hardly presented on the 11th of February, 1861, an appearance to justify the appellation of “The Model Settlement”, which it, nevertheless, so well merits in the far East.” With this sentence, my great-uncle, the soldier, explorer and ornithologist Thomas Wright Blakiston, opened his account of his journey up the Yangtze, which he gave the cumbersome title Five Months on the Yang-tsze; with a Narrative of the Exploration of its Upper Waters, and Notices of the Present Rebellions in China.
Thomas was accompanied upriver by Lieutenant-Colonel H.A. Sarel, 17th Lancers, Dr. Alfred Barton, and the Reverend S. Schereschewsky, of the grandly-named American Episcopal Board of Foreign Missions. To Thomas and his friends, it was a lark, a bit of a jaunt upriver, looking for adventure and a bit of derring-do. It was also a trade mission of sorts. The Rev. was no doubt looking for souls to capture. The Colonel had an eye for military opportunities. And Thomas, the budding trader and merchant, had a notion that he could find a new trade route over the Himalayas to India.
One hundred and thirty years later, on Wednesday, October 5th, 1994, my wife, Linda and I entered China via the Khunjerab Pass from Northern Pakistan. It was our second time in China: we had made a short visit in 1992, travelling from Guangzhou (Canton) up to Guilin and back. This time we were going in at the deep end. Ahead of us lay two months of gruelling travel which would take us from the easternmost corner of the People’s Republic right out to Hong Kong. Along the way, we wanted to visit the Tibetan minorities at Lijiang, and re-visit the Kaast landscapes around Yangshou.
At the time I was unaware of Thomas Wright Blakiston. I had no idea that my ancestor had been one of the first Europeans to travel up the Yangtze, to map the river, and to write a book about his experiences which would remain the standard text to the Yangtze
for several decades. Writing now, it seems somehow incredible that our two strands of history, Thomas’s and mine, were drawing together, albeit in opposite directions. For the purpose of this narrative, I have combined my diary entries as we travelled east, with those of Thomas, travelling east up the Yangtze thirteen decades earlier. At Pingshan our stories collide and I join Blakiston sailing downriver and into the pages of history. My story begins with four of us crossing the Khunjerab Pass. My diary from that journey takes up the story.
Tuesday, October 5th – And Finally, the Khunjerab Pass. Rather than being a well-defined saddle or couloir, the Khunjerab is more of a wide valley, sloping downwards into China. It is hard to equate this high, lonely place with the teeming masses of the People’s Republic. A large herd of yaks graze the brown, boggy alpine pasture: a sort of international herd free to roam at will between the two countries.
At the very top of the pass the last Pakistani outpost stands windswept and cold. Workmen are busy repainting “A Tribute to Zhoe Enlai” carved on a concrete monument. The Khunjerab Glacier flows down the steep valley behind the border post. With its surrounding mountains shrouded in cloud, it looks vaguely threatening: a white maw within which hidden dangers might lurk.
There were four of us making the crossing of the Khunjerab that day. Linda and I were travelling with Blue Henderson and Kerry Graham, two friends from New Zealand whom we had met up with in Lahore. We celebrated our arrival at the summit, of one of
the highest road passes in the world, with cigarettes and hugs. At 15,000 feet the air was clean and cold. In front of us lay the Pamir Range and China; behind us lay the Karakorams and Pakistan.
A jeep-load of Pakistanis pulls up. The men are cheering, ecstatic to be getting out of what they call the “Evil Empire.” They take photographs of us and ask where we are going. When we tell them China they seem genuinely sorry for us. Back in our rented 4WD we descend from the summit of the pass to the first checkpoint in the P.R.O.C. The cheerful guards there harass our driver, Kamil, good-naturedly and ask us for coins from New Zealand. They are dressed in People’s Army green and have a cosy Porta-cabin to live in. After inspecting our passports we are allowed to move on down the road which follows the course of a small eastward-flowing stream.
Clusters of yurts and rough dwellings are scattered along the roadside and shaggy Bactrian camels glare disdainfully at us as we pass. The landscape is cold, bare and brown: an un-imaginably inhospitable place in which to live. Shepherds tend large flocks of sheep and goats but there doesn’t appear to be anything for the animals to eat. The summer pasture is gone, grazed down to the earth.
The road runs along the centre of the valley, past small side streams and tiny shimmering lakes. Snow-covered ranges overlook each side of the valley and away in the distance, lit by the afternoon sun, another range of taller mountains seem to block the valley off. We pass a small village where some kind of horseback tag is being played. Amid a cloud of dust stocky ponies ridden by wild-looking men race around on a dirt field. The tattered carcass of a dead goat is being fought over by two teams, each team vying to complete two circuits of the field while carrying the late lamented animal. Further on we stop to watch two donkeys fucking on the side of the road, causing great hilarity amongst the assembled locals.
The landscape whirls by outside. There are crystal streams, wild horses, camels, donkeys, dogs chasing the wheels of the Toyota, PSB officials in green uniforms with shiny buttons. At Pirali, a cold, wind-swept cluster of buildings with snow blowing up from the north, we stop for a passport check. Two American cyclists are there and they ask us for a ride to Tashkurgan. We are quite happy to let them sit on the back but our avaricious driver wants fifteen dollars each from them. We leave them pedalling forlornly into the headwind.
We arrive at Chinese Customs at 4.30pm local time. As all China is in the same time zone it is intriguing to imagine that it will also be 4.30 in Beijing even though it as a quarter of the world away. The immigration formalities are quick and perfunctory: Health Declaration, Entry Stamp, a walk through the deserted Customs Hall. “Welcome to China” a sign reads in English.
Later, in Tashkurgan we check into a decrepit dorm in the old wing of the Hotel Pamir. The wooden floor has holes in it; the toilets are stinking open pits piled up with shit. But the town is nice, possessing a kind of Wild West atmosphere reminiscent of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. Fierce Uigur men ride their stocky ponies along the poplar-lined main street. The air is dusty and cold. Beyond the edge of town, snowy mountains loom forbiddingly. Locals apparently warn visitors not to venture into these mountains but they sometimes do and they often disappear.
We eat in a dingy Uigur café where short, dark-skinned men with hazel eyes and strong hands noisily slurp noodles, smoke and drink tea. The food is delicious, especially after the bland offerings of our last few days in Pakistan. Further up the street, we buy a bottle of wine then sit at an outside café table eating dumplings dipped in chilli and drinking the wine. As we retire for the night a cold rain begins to fall from a black sky.
Such was our first day in China. We were four Kiwi kids a long way from home, submerged in a sea of foreign faces and customs. In his time it was the same for Blakiston.
“On leaving Shanghai,” he wrote, “we were four Europeans, four Sikhs, and four Chinese; but one of the latter falling sick was sent back to Hankow. The three remaining were a Chinese “writer”, or as often called a “teacher”, to the missionary gentleman of the party; and two “boys”, as servants are called in the Far East, Messrs. “Quei-quei” and “Bin-quei.” The Sikhs were Sepoys of H.M. 11th Punjab Infantry, Havildar Kumal Khan, and Privates Zuman Shah, Fuzil Deen, and Mahomed Buksh, with whom we had been allowed to augment out party by the Commander-in-Chief Sir Hope Grant.”
Blakiston’s expedition had been organized informally and its participants had had to come up with all the funding from their own pockets. Their reserve of cash for hiring porters, food and for the purchase or hire of craft in which to navigate the river, comprised Mexican silver dollars and small lumps of silver known as taels.
“Each of us carried 450 taels of silver in this form equal to about six hundred dollars, and, for fear of loss from shipwreck or other mishaps, we distributed the amount among our different packages. Mine was tied in old socks, and kept various company; one lot was in the next compartment of a box to my sextant; another lay snugly between two dangerous bedfellows, a bag of No. 1 shot and a tin of “Curtis and Harvey” [gunpowder]; while the remainder was distributed so as to equalize the weight of each box as nearly as possible, along with nautical almanacs, logarithm tables, flannel shirts, quinine, fish-hooks, and writing paper.”
A month after leaving Shanghai, Blakiston’s party, with its escort of Navy ships, reached Tung-ting Lake. The lake marked the end of foreign protection and it was here that the party’s naval attendants left them. From here on, Blakiston and his friends would be on their own.
“We had sent letters [with the returning ships] informing our friends that we had fairly started for Tibet, and that everything looked propitious; they were dated ‘Yo-Chow, entrance to Tung-ting Lake, 150 miles above Hankow, 16th March, 1861.’”
The expedition now shifted its focus to the demanding task of employing boatmen willing to take them upriver, through the Three Gorges and into the vast interior beyond.
It seems odd that the origins of Blakiston’s Yangtze explorations should lie in something as innocuous as tea but, nevertheless, it was this simple beverage, brewed from the leaves of Camellia sinensis, that would ultimately open up the hitherto unexplored inner regions of China and allow men like Blakiston free access to the country. The tea plant itself is a native of Southeast Asia and tea brewed from its dried leaves has been drunk in China since perhaps the 28th century BC and certainly since the 10th century BC, from which time written records of its use survive. It was first brought to Europe by the Dutch in the early 17th century. After the introduction of tea there in 1657, England became the only European country of tea drinkers rather than coffee drinkers. Tea is drunk by about half of the world’s population; China, India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Japan are the main producers.
Tea was the root cause of the trading conflicts between China and Britain known as the Opium Wars (1839-1842). The tea grown in China had become such a popular drink in Great Britain that the Chinese rulers were making vast profits by selling it. But the Chinese Government, fearing an uprising if Western ideas about democracy and modernization took hold, were unwilling to allow the Chinese people to buy products they wanted from the British. China would have rather not traded with the British at all, but they were willing to sell the British tea only if they used the port in Canton.
The British decided that in order to balance their trade they had to buy and sell to China, not just buy. They decided to sell opium, a drug grown widely in India over which Britain had complete suzerainty. Tons of opium was exported into China and before long a large portion of the community was hooked on the drug.
Eventually, the Chinese government outlawed the import of opium, not only because of the debilitating effects of the drug but because of the silver leaving China to pay for it. In 1838, the Chinese government ruled that anyone dealing in opium would be put to death. Government officials were ordered to confiscate and destroy the opium held by foreign firms and refused to pay compensation.
The British, miffed that their little scheme had been scuppered, sent a flotilla to blockade Chinese ports and to destroy the hopelessly outgunned Chinese navy. The conflicts continued until 1842 when the Treaty of Nanking was signed. The treaty stated that China would pay the British an indemnity, gave British control over Hong Kong, and to establish a fair tariff. It also allowed the British merchants to trade in five ports instead of just one.
A year later, Britain added a supplement which was called the British Supplementary Treaty of the Bogue. This supplement allowed British citizens in China to control their own land without being subjected to Chinese laws. It also guaranteed the British any other privileges China bestowed on any other nation.
Then in 1844, China signed the Treaty of Wanghia with the United States and the Treaty of Whampoa with France. Both of these treaties expanded the extraterritorial rights and allowed these nations to maintain a separate legal, judicial, police, and tax system in the treaty ports.
In 1858, after the second Opium War, the Treaty of Tientsin was signed. This new supplement allowed the foreign diplomats to live in Peking, allowed foreigners to travel through China, opened China’s major rivers to foreign navigation, allowed Christian missionaries to promote the Christian faith, legalized opium, and 10 more ports to foreign trade and residence. It was the caveat of free travel anywhere in the country that allowed Blakiston and his companions to sail up the Yangtze.
Concurrent with Blakiston’s adventures was one of the most tumultuous periods of recent Chinese history, the Taiping Rebellion. During the mid-nineteenth century, China’s problems were compounded by natural calamities of unprecedented proportions, including droughts, famines, and floods. Government neglect of public works was in part responsible for this and other disasters, and the administration of the ruling Qing Dynasty did little to relieve the widespread misery caused by them. Economic tensions, the military defeats of the Opium Wars, and anti-Manchu sentiments all combined to produce widespread unrest, especially in the south. South China had been the last area to yield to the Qing conquerors and the first to be exposed to Western influence. It provided a likely setting for the Taiping Rebellion to begin.
The Taiping rebels were led by Hong Xiuquan ( 1814-1864), a village teacher and unsuccessful imperial examination candidate. Believing himself to be the son of God, and Jesus’ older brother, Hong formulated an eclectic ideology combining the ideals of pre-Confucian utopianism with Protestant beliefs. He soon had a following in the thousands who were heavily anti-Manchu and anti-establishment. Hong’s followers formed a military organization to protect themselves against bandits and recruited troops not only among believers but also from among other armed peasant groups and secret societies.
In 1851 Hong Xiuquan and others launched an uprising in Guizhou Province. Hong proclaimed the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace, or Taiping Tianguo, with himself as king. The new order was to reconstitute a legendary ancient state in which the peasantry owned and tilled the land in common; slavery, concubinage, arranged marriage, opium smoking, foot-binding, judicial torture, and the worship of idols were all to be eliminated.
The Taiping tolerance of the esoteric rituals and quasi-religious societies of south China – themselves a threat to Qing stability – and their relentless attacks on Confucianism, which was still widely accepted as the moral foundation of Chinese behaviour, contributed to the ultimate defeat of the rebellion. Its advocacy of radical social reforms alienated the Han Chinese scholar-gentry class.
Having captured Nanjing and driven as far north as Tianjin, the Taiping armies failed to establish stable base areas. The movement’s leaders found themselves in a net of internal feuds, defections, and corruption. Additionally, British and French forces, being more willing to deal with the weak Qing administration than contend with the uncertainties of a Taiping regime, came to the assistance of the imperial army. Before the Chinese army succeeded in crushing the revolt, however, 14 years had passed, and well over 30 million people were reported killed.
By 1861 the Taipings were on the run, harried on all sides by the Imperial Qing forces, aided by their foreign allies. On their voyage upriver so far, Blakiston’s party had passed unmolested through a large part of Taiping-controlled China. As they entered the province of Sichuan they began encountering junk-loads of Imperial troops bound for various battle-zones. They also began meeting groups of rebels unconnected with the Taipings, whom Blakiston described as “rather than being insurrectionists with any fixed object in view, we should be inclined to call them unconnected bands of robbers.”
As they sailed further upriver, the current strengthened and rapids began to appear. The explorers hired gangs of “coolies” to haul their boat upstream.
“Some five and twenty naked and half-naked are dragging us along at a smart rate by a long plaited bamboo line…See how they have to scramble along the precipitous rocky shore! Sometimes on their hands and knees, at others with foothold only for their toes, or on sloping smooth rock where their grass sandals only keep them from slipping into the foaming current below. Now we see them high above us, running along on the verge of a precipice, and shouting like a lot of madmen; then they are down again and clambering round a point of rock which projects out into the river, and where some little cautiousness, which they seem to have among them, causes the leaders to get past the impediment first without the line, and than, it being thrown to them they run on again with it, and leave the others to get round as best they can; then they all come up, and, hitching on the cords of their breast-straps to the towing line, away they go again like a pack of hounds in full cry.”
Blakiston gives away very little of himself or his emotions in his writings. It’s safe to assume that he would have been the same in life. The English are notoriously un-emotional and the Victorian Englishman kept his emotions so fully in check it’s hard to believe they were capable of any emotional outburst greater than a loud “hurrumph” in agreement to a point raised in debate.
However, in Chapter Five of Five Months on the Yang-tze, Blakiston lets slip a paragraph on his belief in God and his preference for the open, unexplored places as opposed to what he calls “the busy haunts of mammon.”
“On Sunday the 7th of April, having been hauled up the Kwa-dung rapid in the morning, where a small island of rock stands in mid-stream, we continued on for a few miles up a rocky portion of the river. The weather was dull and rainy, and lowering clouds hung in heavy masses below the mountain peaks, veiling much of the scenery in that uncertainty which leaves scope for the imagination to picture forms and features to suit his own taste, often more grand and beautiful than the original.
“Divine service was performed in the afternoon; and one could not but feel that we were in a situation, and under circumstances, where the word of our Maker had full force; and I have ever felt, when amid the wild solitude of Nature, that I have been more inclined to center my thoughts on religion, and to give expression to supplications for mercy at the hands of the Great Author, than when cooped-up in closely crammed churches among the busy haunts of Mammon. And I will even go so far as to say that divine service performed in camp by a plain chaplain, in the open air, surrounded by men whose profession is that of blood and strife, has more effect on me than the most impressive of our cathedral services.”
In 1994, our little party of four travelled for weeks to reach Chongqing. Our route took us from Tashkurgan to Kashgar – where we attended the Sunday Market, reputed to be the largest one-day market in Asia – and on to the city of Urumchi. From there we rode trains east across the desert to Lanzhou then south to Chongqing. It was here, in this smoky concrete city on the banks of the Yangtze that our paths intersected with that of Blakiston’s, albeit thirteen decades apart. On Sunday the 28th of April, 1861, his expedition anchored off the city’s Taiping Gate. And although the name meant “Gate of Peace” Blakiston wrote “there was no peace for us.”
The following day, Blakiston and his party were invited to dine with Monsieur Vincot, a French missionary living in Chung-king. During the day, however, an incident occurred which put the lives of the expedition in grave danger. A group of soldiers from the local militia invited themselves aboard one of the expedition junks. Perhaps they were merely curious about the foreigners; perhaps they had a more sinister intent. In any case, when asked to leave, the soldiers refused. Blakiston takes up the story:
“…one of them strongly objected, and seemed to argue that, China being a free country, and braves [militia] being used to roam about and do pretty much as they chose, he did not exactly see why he should not remain on board. As he had refused the polite invitation to “pass over the side” [disembark] in a proper manner, the Doctor quietly took him up and dropped him into the river, to the no small amusement of the bystanders, who, as he mounted the bank wet and dripping, reviled him with all sorts of choice epithets and slang…”
Though amusing at the time, the incident sparked a good deal of resentment among the militia and word was passed to the party that, should they attempt to visit M. Vincot that evening they would all be killed. It was decided that defensive precautions should be taken. The two junks were lashed together, the gangplanks withdrawn and a red ensign hoisted. Armed to the teeth with rifles, pistols and swords the party prepared “to give soldiers, townspeople, braves or whoever might be our enemies a warm reception.”
In the end, no attack was forthcoming. Blakiston sent word to the local Mandarin to provide sedan chairs to carry the party into the city for a parlay. None were forthcoming. With typical British arrogance, Blakiston considered it “beneath our dignity” to walk into the city for a meeting so they decided, instead to set sail upriver once more.
At Chongqing in 1994, we also set sail, but we headed downriver…
Monday, October 30th We were awakened by a succession of attendants trying to evict us from the second class room we had mistakenly been put in the previous evening when we had boarded to boat. We refused to budge –perhaps we too behaved like arrogant Europeans – until the captain guaranteed us beds in 4th class which, by now, was full.
With the assistance of an interpreter, we thrashed out a deal whereby we could have unlimited access to the second class lounge (there is no First Class in egalitarian China) during the day, free meals, and beds near the door of the fourth class cabin. It was a shameless bit of Western cheekiness: we had, after all, only paid for 4th class bunks, the same as everyone else down there. But as the boat sailed we reclined in the comfy chairs of the lounge feeling pretty smug.
Tuesday, October 31st Linda and I were awake early, helped in no small part by the squawking of the “sound system” which began playing martial music at 6am. Outside, it was cold and grey but we had entered Qu-Tang Gorge, the first of the famous Three Gorges so we got up and went out onto the deck at the bow of the boat to watch the spectacular scenery on both sides of the river.
The river flowed fast and sullenly beneath sheer cliffs of grey stone. A biting wind blew up the river but after a while, a few rays of warming sunlight began penetrating the gloomy depths of the gorge and the wind died down. The gorge stretched ahead of us into the blue haze, cloaked in scrubby vegetation above the water then rearing up in sheer cliffs of broken, naked rock.
As the day progressed the gorge widened, then narrowed into the second gorge, Wu Gorge, then widened again into the broad lake formed behind the Gezhouba Dam. The boat entered a gigantic lock, big enough to hold four ships the same size as the rust-bucket ferry we were aboard, and, after about 20 minutes the water level began to fall until we were fifty metres lower. The lock’s huge steel doors swung ponderously open, like theatrical curtains drawing back to reveal the second act, and we sailed out onto the lower reaches of the Yangtze.
Once clear of the dam, the river widened into what seemed like a vast lake. Large, poisonous-looking factories along the riverbank spewed out a miasma of smoke, juxtaposing curiously with yellow patchworks of rape fields. The air once again became thick with the same blue haze we had seen all over China.
We spent all evening playing cards in the 2nd Class lounge and a comfortable night in our 4th Class bunks. Sometime during the dark hours before dawn, we passed through the last of the Three Gorges: Xiling Gorge.
Wednesday, November 1st A steward woke us at 6am –the martial music was strangely absent – and we stepped out into a blue/grey dawn. The river was a sheet of polished glass and the air was cold and fresh. Mist wreathed the water and through it, on the riverbanks, we caught occasional glimpses of poplars and people. Sky, land a water seamlessly merged into one until the orange disc of the sun showed through the mist beyond the trees, throwing shafts of golden light across the water.
We docked at the dirty town of Yangshuo, where factories were tirelessly spitting out toxic clouds of grey and black and the river was a noxious soup of rubbish and waste. By 10am we were on a bus headed south towards the karst landscapes of Guilin. Our Yangtze voyage was over. But for Blakiston and his party, their adventures had just begun.
Sichuan Province, during the time of Blakiston’s expedition, was a stronghold of the Taipings. As the party sailed further inland they became increasingly aware of their tenuous position, far from any outside assistance and vulnerable to attack from not only the Taipings but from other rebel groups operating in the region.
Blakiston’s original objective had been to sail upriver as far as possible then to travel overland via Tibet to India. The party arrived at Pingshan on the 25th of May, 17 weeks after leaving the coast. The captains of the junks now refused to go any further. The expedition, it seemed, had gone as far as it could.
Blakiston tried in vain to procure horses to carry them over the mountains but there were none available. There were now two choices: to carry on inland on foot or to return to the coast. But while the expedition debated the pros and cons of each option, events transpired to force their decision.
“The skippers had been previously threatened by the townspeople, that unless they took us away they would lose their heads. The south-east angle of the city was in easy rifle-range of our boats and we had observed soldiers gradually collecting at that point all that morning. We now received a polite message from the city that the gallant defenders would forthwith open fire on our junks.
“After a long while the first gun was fired, and then commenced a regular cannonade of gingalls and matchlocks in our direction. Going aft…I found the captain and our China boys huddled together in the Captain’s cabin in great alarm. We were ourselves all ready to reply to the fire and pick a few fellows off the walls which would no doubt have decided the battle in our favour immediately; but we waited, before doing so, to allow of a shot or two striking the boats. This, however, did not take place; and although the firing, and an immense amount of noise, were kept up for an hour and a half, not one shot was observed to strike near us, and we did not hear the whiz of a single bullet. When the firing ceased, we were left under the impression that during the whole time there had been nothing more dangerous than powder expended; but, as our ensign was flying, it was in any way a gross insult to the British flag.
You pompous git! “A gross insult to the British flag”? How typical of these men, so far from their own country, to be outraged that someone would take a pot-shot at their flag. It was OK for the country represented by that flag to engage in shameful acts such as addicting the population of a country to opium in order to stimulate trade. But if the people of the same country should have the temerity to fire across the bows of a boat flying a tiny red rag, well…the scoundrels!
According to Blakiston, a strongly-worded message was sent to the Prefect of Pingshan demanding an apology but by then the die was cast. The locals had seen enough of the expedition and, on the evening of March 28th, a large crowd of locals descended on the riverbank, intent on murdering the entire party.
“Our first impression was that the whole population of the city were sallying forth en masse on our boats. The Doctor, who was on board the large junk, rushed ashore to reach his own vessel, but he found that the hawsers, having been cut, it was already clear of the bank, and he only just managed to get on board by springing off the stern of the larger junk.
“Now was a scene of confusion on our junk. We all rushed to the gangway, rifles in hand, and one of our party was on the point of shooting the fellows who were helping get the gangplank in, taking them for some of the attacking party; sepoys covered the gunwales with their fingers on both triggers of double-barrelled guns; the captain, white as a sheet, was rushing about distractedly with his hands over his head, blowing out lights, and upsetting everything in his way, until he was finally upset himself by a cuff on the head from one of us, and retired into a corner to ruminate on the chance of losing his head. Hubbub and confusion reigned supreme from the old captain to the one-eyed cook.”
Under fire, Blakiston’s men managed to get their junk away from shore and out into the river. The other, smaller, junk with the Doctor and a Sikh sepoy aboard also managed to sail out of harm’s way. But in the confusion one member of the party, Mr Schereschewsky, had become separated from them. Blakiston ordered the junk to be moored on the farther shore – this order was not obeyed until a pistol had been pointed at the steersman’s head – and resolved to return to rescue his comrade at dawn.
At first light, Blakiston, armed with a revolver and sword, and one of the Sikhs, armed with a pistol and rifle, set off in search of Mr Schereschewsky. After a two-hour walk along the river bank, they encountered Doctor Barton along with his Sikh and the missing Schereschewsky.
After such a narrow squeak, the party decided to let discretion be the better part of valour and retreat. For their part, the boatmen were happy to head back downstream and set about making the voyage as rapid as possible. And so it was, that on the 30th of June, 1861, Blakiston and his party reached the mouth of the Yangtze and Shanghai.
“Thus ended our cruise of “Five Months on the Yang-tsze.” Blakiston wrote at the conclusion of his book. “We all felt sincerely how much cause we had to thank God, who of His merciful goodness had preserved us in our far wanderings, and had carried us through the difficulties and dangers which had beset our path. And if under His guidance our journey shall have been the means of adding to the knowledge possessed by Europeans of this portion of China, and of thereby advancing the future progress of Civilization and True Religion, I, for my part, shall feel that we have been well repaid for any little privations and difficulties, and that we have not laboured in vain.”
Mucked around home all day.
BACKSTORY. PART 2: The Flaxton Boys.
I was born at 11:20AM on February 19th, 1963. It was a Tuesday. It was the last month of summer in the Southern Hemisphere. According to “The Internet”, I had been conceived on May 29th the previous year!! That same February day, Seal Henry Olusegun Olumide Adeola Samuel was born. He would go on to become the British singer Seal who would write a song called Crazy with includes the lyrics: “in a sky full of people only some want to fly; isn’t that crazy…”
My father, Norman (Norm) Blakiston, was 64 years old; my mother, Mary, was 36. But you already know that story. This is the story of me from that day on.
We lived in a big old house at 28 McKenzie Street, Geraldine. The house had originally been a boarding house. It had big rooms, high ceilings and a long hallway, six feet wide and thirty feet long, running down the middle. Myself, my brother Joe (fourteen months younger than me) and our friends would build blanket forts in the hall on wet days and throw marbles at each other. We had our own rooms and there were enough spare rooms for us to have winter and summer rooms: warm rooms in winter and cooler rooms in summer. The red, corrugated iron roof amplified the sound of rain and one of my favourite sounds is still the sound of rain falling on a tin roof.
Our house stood on an acre of land in the centre of Geraldine. There was a hen coop, an orchard, a couple of fields where we kept our pet lambs, and a big oak tree where we built a rambling tree hut. Across the road, the Waihi River chattered in its bed of stones, hemmed on both sides by willows and sycamores. We tickled trout, built dams, rafted the
brown floods, and swam in the green pools of the Waihi (it’s pronounced “why-hee”). On the hill beyond the river, Talbot Forest (the Bush, as we called it) was a venue for wargames, hide and seek, and clandestine cigarettes.
Geraldine in the 1970s was a backwater. It serviced the local farmland; old folks retired there. In summer, the sun would melt the tar on the main street and the grass would be burnt brown for months. Winters were harsh, or seemed to be, and I remember biking to school in shorts even in the hardest frosts. There were WW2 veterans in our town: battle-scarred, lame old men with haunted eyes. Women wore floral dresses and men wore hats. Geraldine was the same as every small town in the southern world. It was a colonial town, out on the edge of the British Commonwealth.
I was a Cub Scout. I hated sports. I ran in the cross country team because it allowed me to get away by myself. I was never a team player. I was a frail, sickly boy. I got bullied a bit at school but nothing serious, nothing scarring. My friend Steve Keats was a runner too and we started climbing hills to keep fit. That was the beginning of my love for the hills and for the wilderness. Our heroes were mountaineers – Chris Bonnington, Sir Edmund Hillary – and our bibles were accounts of epic climbs and disastrous expeditions.
My mother was a church-goer; my father wasn’t. He set store in a man’s self-reliance. He hated pretence and people who considered themselves above others because of birth or money. He was a man’s man. He’d been educated at a prestigious boy’s school and could quote Shakespeare and speak Latin. He swore like a fucking trooper and used to say that he hadn’t learnt a new swear word since he was seven. And, like his son would be, he was a loner.
Mum went to St. Mary’s Anglican church most Sundays. Anglicanism is a very English faith: quiet vicars, ornate churches with stained glass windows, a subdued, reverential communion, no fire-and-brimstone sermons. Both my brother and I were “confirmed” meaning we were able to take communion (that is, drink the blood of Christ and eat his body). It all sounds so weird and arcane now. I didn’t believe a word of it. But we went along for mum’s sake. We both did altar boy duty on alternate Sundays once a month. You dressed in black vestments which smelled of body odour, and helped the Vicar out with the communion. I would sit in the carved wooden chair at the side of the altar and pick out rock-climbing routes across the vaulted wooden ceiling. We worked out that if you volunteered for the early 8AM service (which no one wanted to do early on a Sunday) you’d be out of there in forty minutes. The 10:30 service lasted an hour and a half!
My father died in June or July 1977 when I was fourteen. He was 78 years old and suffering from diabetes. He had also been a chain smoker for his whole life so who knows if it was the smokes or the sugar that killed him. He had always known that he would die while we were young and I can remember him telling us “not to fret” because he had enjoyed his life and had done his best to set us up to enjoy ours.
I left school in August 1980. I had a job on a farm about half an hour’s drive from home. Actually, I never officially left school: I just never went back after the August holidays. I joke with people that every morning, a teacher at Geraldine High School is still calling for me in the roll: “Blakiston…..is he here today?…..No?…(puts an x by my name)….absent….again…”
I worked for a year and a half on the farm in Cattle Valley, then got a job as a high country shepherd. I worked at Grampians Station on and off for the next four years. In between times I went to Agricultural College and earned a Diploma in Agriculture. But I still went home most weekends. It was too easy not to. All the things I was familiar with were there.
My mother died in 1982 from breast cancer. Joe and I inherited the house from her and put a tenant in it. He was the cook at the local pub (hotel/bar) and single, so we would still turn up there at weekends, get drunk and crash out. Colin, the tenant, looked after us, cooked us greasy meals and kept the fridge stocked with beers. I was living my little dream of being a shepherd, with a pick-up truck, a saddle, a team of sheepdogs and no ties to anything…
TO BE CONTINUED
Mucked around home all day then caught a 6:50 bus into town. Had a drink at a pub then tea at the Milano Restaurant.
BACKSTORY. PART 1: The House of Blakiston.
I come from Geraldine. Someone had to. My hometown, Geraldine, on New Zealand’s South Island, doesn’t have any notable citizens. We can’t lay claim to being the birthplace of a great politician, or an eminent scientist, or even some famous deviant, serial killer or chef. The closest thing Geraldine has to a celebrity is Jordan Luck: frontman of the band The Exponents. And even then, Mr Luck is actually from Woodbury, five miles west of Geraldine. He did, of course, attend Geraldine High School, my alma mater. He was, in fact, a year ahead of me, and his sister, Tamsin, and I were in the same year. But although The Exponents are an iconic New Zealand band, their fame, unfortunately, hardly extends beyond our shores.
Furthermore, the South Island of New Zealand doesn’t exactly occupy a prime position on the globe. Our island is close to the uttermost end of the Earth. It’s about as far south as you can go on the planet. Go much further and you start to go north again. Beyond Bluff, the southernmost town in the British Commonwealth, next upright creature you’ll run into is an Adelie penguin. That’s how far south we are.
As well as coming from the arse-end of the planet, I also come from a long line of travellers: restless souls who roamed the globe searching for adventure and a better life. Some of them were seekers of political change, such as John Blakiston (1603-1649), whose signature appears on the death warrant of Charles the First, executed by Cromwell and his henchmen – of which JB was one, the traitorous bastard – during the English Civil War.
My great-grandfather, Charles Robert Blakiston came to New Zealand in 1860 having first tried his luck in the Australian goldfields. When he arrived in the settlement of Christchurch (which is today New Zealand’s second largest city) he traded a horse for a plot of land which he subsequently sold to the fledgeling city for a fortune. He ended up a successful lawyer and member of the New Zealand Provincial Government. His son, Arthur John Blakiston, born in 1862, managed a high country sheep station for forty years and lived long enough to be photographed holding me as a five-month-old baby in 1963.
Another of my great-uncles, Thomas Wright Blakiston, was an eminent explorer, soldier and ornithologist. He fought in the Crimean War, was on the Palliser Expedition which mapped the border between Canada and the United States, explored the Yangtze River during the Taiping Rebellion, and lived in Japan’s northern-most island, Hokkaido, for 21 years. There will be more about TWB in later posts.
Then there was Lionel Blakiston, Thomas’s cousin. Lionel was a British telegraph engineer who emigrated to Rhodesia in the 1880s and was subsequently killed in the Mashona Uprising. Upon hearing that Mashona tribesmen had taken a group of women and children hostage, he rode to their rescue, bringing them home to friendly territory but getting mortally wounded in the process. A street in Harare, in present-day Zimbabwe, bears his name along with a school, whose coat of arms is that of the Blakiston Family: a cock gules above a bar argent.
In 1760, my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Matthew Blakiston was elected Lord Mayor of London. He lived for that year, as all Lords Mayor did at the time, in the Mansion House, a grand, collonaded residence opposite the Bank of England. His wife, Emily, is the only woman ever to have given birth in the Mansion House. Lords Mayor were usually older men for whom the post was the final, crowning achievement at the end of long, successful careers. Blakiston, however, in keeping with a family trait of marrying and producing offspring late in life, was still in the process of creating a family when he became Lord Mayor and his son, Matthew, was born at the Mansion House that year.
For his efforts as head of the City of London, Matthew Blakiston was created a Baronet in 1763, exactly 200 years before I was born. He died in 1791 and was buried in the graveyard of St. Martins-in-the-Fields.
The Baronetcy is a hereditary knighthood: a “Sir” rather than a Lord, and not a peer. Although the term “baronet” has medieval origins, the modern Baronetcy was established in 1611 by King James 1 as a method with which to fund his Irish wars. The idea was that any man who could provide the Exchequer with the money necessary to keep thirty soldiers in the field for three years would be granted a Baronetcy. The title would be handed down from father to son, thus ensuring a continual supply of cash to fund whatever war happened to be going on at the time.
This proved to be a nice little earner for a while; at least, that is, until the sons succeeding to the title began to run out of money. Just because the title of Baronet had been granted to a wealthy great-grandfather didn’t necessarily guarantee the family fortune would still be intact for his great-grandson to invest in dubious overseas campaigns. The Baronetcy, therefore, lapsed in its role as a revenue supply for the army and became simply another hereditary title.
The Baronetcy awarded to Matthew Blakiston was passed down from father to son for seven generations until it hit a dead end. The 7th Baronet, Arthur Frederick Blakiston, a decorated First World War hero, member of the first Barbarians rugby team and Master of the Wylie Valley Hunt, died “without issue” (i.e. without children). It seemed that the title would become extinct. But the tireless heralds at the Royal College of Arms, keepers of the arcane language and symbols of the realm, were on the case. They traced the male line to my father, Arthur Norman Hunter Blakiston, who acceded to the title of 8th Baronet in 1974.
Dad never set any store in airs and graces. A privately-educated, university-trained solicitor he was nevertheless a rough diamond. He called a spade a fucking shovel and to him, a man’s worth was proved by his actions, not by his breeding. The title of Baronet was the absolute antithesis of the egalitarian principles he lived by. But he was a perceptive man and he realized that one day, his eldest son might have a use for the title, so he reluctantly accepted it, and that was that.
He seldom spoke of it. His friends occasionally ribbed him about it. My mother’s friends began calling her Lady Blakiston and our house became known as Sandybrook Hall, after the family seat in Ashbourne, Derbyshire. At school, I was sometimes teased about it. My best friend, Keats, used to call me Sir Bastipol Bock for reasons known only to him. But it was nothing that caused even the remotest bit of hurt and the perpetrators would soon tire of hassling me and find some other unfortunate to pick on.
My father died in 1977 when I was fourteen. He was seventy-eight years old. Students of arithmetic will notice that he would have been sixty-four when I was born and they are right. He was sixty-five when my brother Joe came along. That same family peculiarity, of having children late in life, that had seen Matthew Blakiston’s wife produce the Mansion House’s only baby, had surfaced again.
It meant that instead of being born in the 1920s, as would have been the case if dad had taken the usual route and started a family in his twenties, I grew up in the 1970s. It meant that instead of being a fan of Bing Crosby or Cole Porter, I was able to become a fan of Pink Floyd, Genesis, My Chemical Romance and John Denver. It meant that instead of having to go off to World War Two and have my brains blown out for King and Country as my Uncle Jim (my mother’s brother) did, I was able to watch the Gulf War on CNN. It meant that I would be able to be a part of the technological revolution created by the internet and social media. And it meant that in the year 1988, instead of being a grandfather of seventy-something years, I was able, as the 9th Baronet of the City of London, to set off out into the world…
TO BE CONTINUED