Wellington, New Zealand. 1963
My first year at Art School. My first year of a decade of self- destruction. I was sixteen. By the end of the year, I would have successfully navigated the pre-requisite initiation into adulthood – losing one’s virginity, that first cigarette, getting a car licence and the alcohol of course. Plenty of that before the availability of hallucinogenic drugs.
I was in my bohemian pre- hippie look, thankful I no longer had to emulate the blonde buxom allure of Bridget Bardot. Op- shopping was beginning to be an alternative to mainstream fashion and I was a bit of a trend-setter with my tea-cosy hat and painted ping-pong ball earrings. I smoked the slim chic Sobrani, black or multi-coloured. You could buy singles. Perfect when short on cash.
It was still the days of , what was colloquially known as, the 6’o clock swill. At 5.45pm the call of ‘last drinks ‘ would echo out from the bar and there’d be a mad rush to buy as much as possible before closing time. Friday nights, our close-knit student group would depart for the inner city flat above the butcher shop in Tinakori Rd, carrying cartons of beer and maybe a flagon of cheap vino. With any luck, there’d be a Maori guy with a typically melodious voice, a guitar and three chords and the party would get off to an early start. Steaming newspaper parcels of fish n’ chips provided the perfect cuisine.
Someone would have bought the latest Beatles record, Please, Please Me and the walls shook with John, Paul , George and Ringo. There was a double bass from a tea chest and a percussive lagerphone ( a good use for the discarded bottle tops ) to accompany them. Richard would be in a corner executing his intricate psychedelic drawings and quirky writings or photographs that would end up pinned to the wall or stuck on the fridge . Richard, always alone, whom we all loved, whose tormented soul would finally have enough and whose talent became a precious record of a passing time.
Eventually, the various couples would disperse into bedrooms, to be greeted the next day by piles of bottles and full ash trays, always someone prone and snoring on the sofa or floor. And the boys from Liverpool would start up and there’d be bacon and eggs and strong tea. And we’d do it all again on Saturday night.
I was lucky. In my first tentative relationship with a fellow student I felt I had found my soul mate. where the rampant hormones were matched by our mutual passion for art; many Sunday afternoons spent wandering the back streets of Wellington, sketch book in hand. The Beatles’ refrain of Closer, let me whisper in your ear….. seemed to epitomise that all-engulfing state of first love. He was, for many years, my lover, friend and guide.
Monday to Friday went by in a haze of graphics, paint, print making and design. The year of ’64 would remain one of the most dynamic of the Art School’s history, producing several established artists on both sides of the Tasman. But back then, we were all finding our way through the labyrinth of youth, aspirations and experiment, revelling in our independence. Wellington of ’63 was a pretty safe pond to be swimming in. Our exodus to the other side of the world still a few years away.
From time to time, a tramp would be organised. In- Kiwi speak, tramping is bushwalking, or rather hiking. We’d pile into a truck on a Friday afternoon with all our gear – maybe a dozen of us. The boys in charge of the beer, the girls with the food. We’d be dropped at the beginning of the track and have to make it to our hut before dark. We were all pretty fit, carrying our heavy backpacks up steep rocky inclines and down slippery muddy paths. The dark shape of a hut at last appeared to whoops of jubilation and relief. The lamps would be lit, fire started, sleeping bags designated to spaces, meal prepared, beers opened.
Fifty – three years on and the survivors remain. The empty spaces resound with memory. Decades later, at a commemorative exhibition of Richard’s photos and memorabilia, I could still see the same youthful faces behind the grey hair and signs of age. Whenever I hear The Beatles I am sixteen again and it is as if the time between then and now has been just a dream of a life, barely imagined.