Thursday, March 5, 2009


During my time as a student at the University of Canterbury I stayed at Rolleston House hostel. One year early on I coxed the hostel rowing four against arch-rivals College House. What happened the evening of the race lingers in my memory, no doubt assisted by a slight sense of shame. Before the race we practised regularly. Kerr’s Reach on the Avon River had not yet been cut. The start was near Avonside Girl’s with the finish at the rowing sheds off Fitzgerald Avenue. We trained for it - up early on an autumn morning we’d put our skiff into the water at the sheds and row leisurely downstream to the course where we would turn and row at racing speed upstream – for cox a lovely sensation; the misty river, the rowers in unison, the thin shell of the boat sliding over the surface, crisp air, the weeping willows dragging in the water, a duck slipping off the bank to paddle away from our intrusion, the early morning cars and cyclists a background noise behind the slap of our oars and my calling the rating.
We passed under a bridge, not much room to spare – a tense moment. We practised at speed, lining up objects to get us through without losing momentum. Never once did I make the wrong computation - a bad omen. To my chagrin, in the Capping Week race, with the two boats side by side at the bridge I misjudged space and speed; bow's oar clipping a bridge support. Flung off balance we slipped sideways to tangle with the oars of the other boat, which meant disqualification. Feeling mortified - not only had I let myself down but also the other four and the hostel, I expected recrimination and abuse, but all I mainly received good-natured chaffing - "the lengths a cox will go to avoid being chucked in the river". "You'll have to make sure we win the drinking horn."

We’d trained for that too. After hockey we would swagger off to the pub and share a jug. As a Presbyterian Ministry trainee I was supposed to practise moderation, but to the others my calling made me fair game. Sinners themselves they wanted to tempt me, urging me to "down it" so they could refill. In an unexpected way my future livelihood protected me. The others knew I couldn't afford to buy several jugs, so I'd buy one early and that served as a token. I would sit on a near full glass and watch the smoke-filled male preserve in action all around me. Beer provided an excuse to say things normally not said. After a few sips the mildest fellow would start telling a crude yarn or boasting loudly, the alcohol not even cleared from his stomach. My attendance was a form of dancing with the devil - how close could I go without compromise, each step fraying a little more the edges around my conscience. Near six o' clock closing the 'half g's' would be filled. "Time gentlemen please". We'd walk back to the hostel, supporting those who needed assistance.

Rolleston House had held the rowing drinking horn for a long time. The race on the water might be lost but honour demanded we retain this trophy. Inexperienced, I had trouble downing beer quickly, "not letting it touch the sides of your throat". Back at the hostel I practised with water or lemonade, but in the pub training was serious with the real thing. The confusion created in my head was warmly pleasant. Now it was my turn to be supported back to the hostel, where I would collapse on my bed and sleep through dinner to wake cold, hungry and sore-headed. Initiation, errors of judgement, feelings of guilt, humiliation, and exhilaration - part of acceptance into the Kiwi male world of that period.

Six o clock closing - it was another era. Like standing for the national anthem at the movies accepted as a natural part of life. Long before the call of "Time gentleman please" most drinkers tried to load as much beer as possible into their system. It was invitation to drink quickly and beyond capacity. I couldn’t afford whisky chasers, but for those who could it was a means of accelerating the process. The noise and din - also cigarette smoke - was part and parcel of the performance as were the men staggering out on their way home to waiting meals. The urinals dotted around our cities marking the end of the now pulled up tram-lines tell their own story.

After the fiasco on the river there in the Clarendon my reputation was really on the line. Cox drank last. We had a practice run, watching our opponents and drinking in time with them. Then it was the contest. We got ahead slightly, but I could see when it was my turn that we would be in trouble for my opponent was a hard-doer. Swallowing manfully, I was aware he was drawing level. As we neared the finish I flicked the last of my glass's content out and over the barman as I slammed it down empty. As the barman mopped himself down pandemonium reigned all around me - "He cheated" - "Nah, he didn't, just a bit of froth" - "You ought to be an actor mate" - "Just a drop and you make it look as if it was the Pacific Ocean" - "Yuh did it too". Rematch. "Do it again," stroke muttered. I did. More hilarity and abuse. I was beginning to feel warm and contented, the centre of attention. Stirrings of conscience, I quietened by telling that blurring organ that two of the other team were Anglican trainees. Stroke knew their weakness. My four comrades could hold their liquor better. If I was our weak link they possessed two. Rematch led to rematch as excuse followed excuse. At a quarter to six we breasted the bar for the final encounter. By the time it came my turn to drink we were so far ahead I could down mine at a leisurely canter. The trophy remained in our hands. Shouting and singing we staggered home. At the serving counter matron Sheila Fieldhouse said rather frostily, "You've had too much to drink." "Nonsense!" She was right. Hastily I left the table to lose the afternoon's celebrations in the quad – the first time that had happened. Ashamed, yet feeling some test had been passed, I was led off to my room, and tucked in with a bowl beside my head. What I had done often for others had now been done to me.

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