Continuity and Change

Around this time of year whenever I smell woodsmoke from the chimneys of suburban houses I think of my grandmother.  For some reason it is a smell I powerfully associate with Otago.
I walked down Cuba Street last Saturday morning with Eleanor looking for number 214.  In the first decade of the 20th century there was a boy growing up at 214 called Pat Lawlor.  I have been reading two books he wrote: Old Wellington Days (1959), and More Wellington Days (1962).  Most of both of these books are based on the author’s boyhood diaries.


I slept in an upstairs room in our house in Cuba Street.  When night came the lights from passing cabs and bicycles would filter through the venetian blinds in revolving slats of white.  The music for [my bedtime came from] men who whistled, homeward bound, or from the “Sallies” in the Home across the way as they sang their evening hymns.  Best of all was Saturday night when, at Veitch and Allan’s corner, the brass throats of the Salvation Army band would sound their prancing melody of simple joy.  Those heightened perceptions would soon soften as the fingers of dream-time would touch my mind, and with it the solvency of candlelight and the muted clop-clop of horses passing by.


The photo below is the view from 214.  The house where Pat Lawlor grew up is not there – it’s been replaced by Booth House.



Booth House belongs to the Salvation Army which seems to have crossed the road but stayed in more or less the same place on Cuba Street.

Further down the street, just within range of my vision, was the Salvation Army Home, surrounded by high walls, over which I could catch tantalising glimpses of “Sallies” and their charges parading the ground.  Now and then, but mostly on Sundays, they sang sacred hymns set to popular melodies.  They had one very devotional tune based on “I’ll be Your Sweetheart”.  Later this home was pulled down to give place to The People’s Palace we know today.

Lawlor wrote this about one rainy day in 1901.  Here is the rest of his description of the view from his bedroom window.

Fifty years ago it was a various panorama of non-hurrying people on the pavements, and on the street cabs, gigs, horses and one or two of those new fangled things called bicycles.  All so interesting, particularly on a wet day when the grey spears of rain came slanting from the sky. 

Stronger notes of colour were to be found in the occasional street musician including an organ grinder with a monkey, butcher boys on horses, “rabbit-oh’s”, “milk-oh’s”, honey-men with their cans on their shoulders and chinamen with vegetables slung from a wooden yoke.

The organ grinder, a wee Italian with a mangey looking monkey was the top-liner for me.  He came along once a week and the operatic airs he churned out (“Maritana”, “Traviata”, and “Faust”) were a glory to my ears.  The monkey, dressed in crimson trousers, with a little cap on his head, one would never tire of watching.

He was attached to the organ by a chain which gave him a hopping circumference of a few yards, to keep at bay the ever growing crowds of children for he was a warlike little fellow.  When the organ was moved on I would watch the stable of Hepburn “the cabby” just opposite.  Hepburn was always coming and going and had a grand wave of his whip for his two carefully groomed horses.

While aspects of Lawlor’s childhood Cuba Street have remained, what is really noticeable is how much has changed.


I’ve read the first part of Remembrance of Things Past four times.  I couldn’t tell you what the other 50,000 pages are like, but I like the first 50 pages.  Apparently a better translation of the title is: In Search of Lost Time.  I like this title.  It matches the first fifty pages better.  At the end of the first chapter we get this book’s most famous scene.  The narrator dips a Madeleine biscuit into some tea and then takes a bite.  The specificity of the taste transports him back across time:

And as in that game in which the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little pieces of paper until then indistinct, which, the moment they are immersed in it, stretch and shape themselves, colour and differentiate, become flowers, houses, human figures, firm and recognisable, so now all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water lillies on the Vivonne, and the good people of the village and their little dwellings and the church and all of Combrayand its surroundings, all of this which is assuming form and substance, emerged, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.

The day after my grandmother’s funeral I went to Mosgiel with my mother and her sister.  We walked to the house where my mother’s family did most of their growing up, and where I visited as a child, and then we walked around the other quiet streets.  Each of us were walking through a different landscape.  I was walking through the streets of my childhood in the late 1970s.  Each day of the holidays I would walk with Gran from her house to the shops and we would check her post box and buy the dinner supplies at the supermarket.  My mother and her sister were walking through the streets of their childhood and adolesence in the 1940s and 1950s.  Their landscape was an almost vanished one.  We walked past a row of suburban houses with net curtains and they described the depot where the farm eggs were collected.  We walked by a field and they saw the house they walked  past to school, or the lane down which a childhood friend had lived.

The house that I dream of when I think of my grandmother continues.  Pat Lawlor’s Cuba Street remains.  The rub in being human is change.  Change that let’s you get older and find some perspective, change that tears down the haunts of your childhood and fills them in with carparks, change that gives you the discovery of love, change that takes away the people you love.  Continuity and change are feuding brothers never out of each other’s tearing, sustaining grip.  They are in the woodsmoke drifting through the suburban air and transporting me back to the garden of my grandmother’s house.

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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō

3 thoughts on “Continuity and Change”

  1. I love the way memory works. I asked my mother about a trip she made to Wellington when she was a teenager with her aunt. She stayed in a hotel on the Plimmer Steps in the 1950s. Of all the things that you could remember about such a trip she remembered the handsomeness of a particular man staying at the hotel.

    The poignancy of this kind of memory comes quite unexpectantly in the middle of Citizen Kane when one of the charaters recalls seeing a woman once on a ferry decades ago, and never seeing her again.

  2. When I was about seven which makes it 1959 I stayed one Saturday night at my Uncle and Aunt’s place in Cuba Street. They were building a house at Owhiro Bay and so had rented a flat on the first floor above a Chinese restaurant. My cousins related how earlier a big rat had come down the passageway and bitten one of them. This terrified me and as a result I was unable to sleep that night, imagining that the rat would jump on the bed and bite me.
    The next morning we went to Sunday Mass at St Mary of the Angels in Boulcott Street. During the sermon I fainted, falling forwards and cracking my head on the pew in front of me. This was the first and only time that I have fainted and I still remember the wavy, hazy feeling that made the church seem much larger and the altar that much further away before a total blank. I awoke outside the church sitting on the steps being fed water out of a moss-stained glass.
    Whenever I am in or near Cuba Street I recall this and think that the only animal I have a distaste for is the rat.

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