Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Berhampore book

I passed it many times at the school office, but it was years before I actually read the names on the honour roll. Then I saw it, right there, in beautiful slanted gilded lettering: Iris G Wilkinson, 1918. Fourth ever dux. Second ever winner of the Trentham scholarship. Yet to become Robin Hyde but – I could readily imagine – already excelling as a writer and speaker, and probably in other disciplines as well. A talent that was nurtured, briefly, at the same school that my children would attend nearly a century later.

Local history has a way of reaching across times at unexpected moments, creating a frisson and charging the utterly familiar with layered meanings. Our neighbourhood had its luminary. There will be others. But that particular connection stayed with me and I hoped to revisit it some day, beyond the simple act of reading The Godwits Fly on the recommendation of friends and finding traces of that passage in the place she called ‘Oddipore’ before moving here from Newtown. Then the School turned one hundred years old, and the opportunity came in the form of another brilliant book.

The story of a suburb is the story of its people, and people stories need to be skilfully woven together so they don’t resemble a catalogue of names and facts that will only be decipherable by those who lived through them. This is the most striking merit of the history of the Wellington suburb of Berhampore edited by Kerryn Pollock and Sadie Coe: not just the quality and breadth of the research, but having made the material resemble organically the life of a community.

At the entrance of Berhampore, Adelaide Road is flanked on one side by a sports ground, on the other by a retirement village. At different times in the past, these used to be, respectively, a plague hospital and one of the countries pre-eminent rugby venues. Everyone knows about Athletic Park, but that the nation was bracing at the turn of the 20th century for an epidemic of bubonic plague came as a surprise to me. The threat never reached Wellington, so the hospital – built against the opposition of residents – served briefly as a treatment centre for other infectious diseases, then later for the wounded of WW1, before being converted into dwellings and then demolished. There are ghosts on both sides of that road, however: for in 1981 around Athletic Park and the rest of Berhampore it was the ‘night of the batons’ as the Springbok Tour drew to a close and thousands of protesters converged on the suburb.

Woman reacting to police violence, Wellington, New Zealand - Photograph taken by Peter Avery. Further negatives of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: EP/1981/2968A/12-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

The two chronicles, of the hospital that never served its purpose and of the day the police formed barricades with bins filled with gravel, speak of the knotty and occasionally dark history of this predominantly working class suburb and of its diverse and changing immigrant population. This character is reflected in Berhampore’s various nerve centres: the school, the orphanages, the social housing, the small strip of shops. Along these centres the people lived complicated lives, frequently marked by hardship, while many around them took leave to accommodate growing families in bigger houses elsewhere. Lately there have been signs of gentrification, but there is something resilient about the local lack of affluence, and it’s difficult to imagine that the face of the suburb will change decisively, or permanently. After all, isn’t the principal local historic landmark a social housing complex? Designed by Gordon Wilson in the international style and completed in 1939, the Centennial Flats were the first multi-unit dwellings built under the Labour Government’s groundbreaking state scheme.

The Centennial Flats community hall

Across the road from the flats is the path that leads up to the school. It has been our family’s single most remarkable good fortune, to have ended up living across its fence: for I struggle to imagine another school that could serve the needs of our children more willingly or with greater passion and skill. That single connection is essential to our survival, as it was to various degrees for generations of families before us. One of my favourite recollections in the book comes from artist Fifi Colston, who attended Berhampore school in 1969, fresh off the boat from England.
We were English, arriving in a country that had a strong ‘Go Home Pom’ message at the time and I could have wondered what I’d stepped into age eight if I hadn’t gone to Berhampore School. […] On my first day I was asked to talk a little bit about myself and I remember saying, and you have to imagine this in your best Hermione Granger posh voice with a strong long A… ‘At the moment we live in Berhampore, but we’d like to live in Para Mata’ and everyone laughed. The Samoan kids laughed, the Yugoslavian kids laughed, the Chinese kids laughed, the raggle taggle bunch of kids from every part of the world in Berhampore laughed. I was just another kid with a funny accent getting the words wrong. I wasn’t a Pom or an oddity. I was just accepted.
Colston goes on to remember how she ended up moving to another school ‘where everyone was white and no-one was your friend and everyone said ‘Go Home Pom,’’ a reminder that acceptance is not just a behaviour but a form of cultural expression and that, where it exists, it can become the essence of a place.

I like to think of our neighbourhood as that place, and I hope that its essence won’t change, even as the residents come and go. Those are the people stories that this book is best at telling: that of the gruff George Huss, a German immigrant and a cobbler, who helped institute the first school road patrol in the city in 1936; that of our beloved school caretaker, the late Reuben Walker; that of our friend Bushra Alkhafaji, a refugee of many countries who finally found her home in Berhampore; or, yes, that of Iris G Wilkinson, later Robin Hyde, who thought the people odd and then became one of them.

Berhampore: Stories of a School and Suburb, edited by Kerryn Pollock and Sadie Coe. Wellington: Ruru Press, 2015. The book is available for purchase for $40 from the Berhampore School office or by emailing berhampore100@gmail.com

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