He painted his body with blue paint to perform naked with The Plague, wrote “There is no Depression in New Zealand”, and is now a tender memoirist: an excerpt from the new book by the legendary Richard Von Sturmer.
My earliest memories of my father have to do with water:
My father and I are in my paddling pool; he’s lying on his back and I’m splashing him with water. A man leans over the fence—a family friend or a neighbour—and we raise our heads to look up at him.
A wild, windswept beach on the West Coast with black iron sand. I’m four years old and lying on my stomach in the surf, holding onto my father’s sturdy legs. There’s a strong rip, which wants to pull me away, but I know that I’m safe as long as he’s standing there.
A year or so later and we’re near Lake Taupo, in the Tokaanu Hotel’s swimming pool. I’m wearing a pair of yellow water wings and he’s teaching me to swim. The roof of the hotel is corrugated red. Mist rises from the dark hills in the background.
My father nearly died at the moment of his birth; he came out of the womb with the umbilical cord wrapped tightly around his neck. His face had turned blue and he was on the point of suffocating.
My grandmother once confided to my aunt, with some embarrassment, that when my father was two years old he liked to wander into the garden and kiss flowers.
As a young boy, every evening after dinner, my father would adjust the long wire antenna of his crystal radio to pick up distant music.… He and his older brother, Caryll, were put to bed early each night because my grandfather didn’t want to see them when he returned from work. If my father appeared, he was thrown back into his room.
For many years the two boys consumed plates of boiled cabbage and corned beef, and endless bowls of sago pudding. During the Great Depression, while my grandfather was prospecting in Western Australia, my grandmother had little money to spend on food and clothing. Parcels sometimes arrived with boomerangs and tropical shells.
Through my mother, I learnt how my father became depressed a few months after my own birth when he discovered that I had achondroplasia, and that my growth would be retarded in the same way as his. He held himself responsible.
Our car is parked in Takapuna, on Auckland’s North Shore. I’m about three years old. Through the window I see my father walking towards us, and I ask my mother, “Why is Dad so small?” She answers that it’s just the way things are. I never comment on his size again.
When I was a teenager, my father and I would walk the dog each evening. We would usually go as far as the corner dairy, a distance of less than half a mile. As my father walked very little, preferring to drive the car, this was also a way for him to get some exercise.
Before going outside, we would open the hall closet and take out our black capes, which had been specially made for us by an eccentric tailor in the city. My father’s cape had dark blue lining, while mine was light brown. To this day I am envious of the dark blue as it gave his cape an added sense of mystery.
Throughout my teenage years I loved to watch Hammer Horror films, and was familiar with the Transylvanian world of vampires and vampire hunters. My father expressed no interest in either Dracula or Van Helsing, and had initially ordered his cape so that he could wear it to his Lodge meetings. But I suspect that he felt a touch of intrigue when he left my mother at night to take part in Masonic activities; something of the fog-shrouded streets of London clung to the black material and blue lining. Whatever our individual associations were, it became normal for us to put on our capes before taking the dog for a walk.
One day, in the library of Westlake Boys High School, the younger of the Garrett brothers approached me. Unlike his pleasant older brother—a prefect and head librarian—this Garrett had a wild and slightly threatening disposition. But today, instead of eyeing me with disdain, he sat down and said how wonderful it was to have seen me and my father last night. There, in the headlight of his motorbike, along a tree-lined street, two small figures had materialized, walking side by side, dressed in capes. “It was magic,” he exclaimed, “like something out of Lord of the Rings!”
It was then that I realized how my father and I could easily enter people’s imaginations because of our diminutive size. We never talked about our shortness; it was a fact of life that nothing could change. But since we would always be out of the ordinary in the eyes of strangers, there was a tacit agreement that, on certain occasions, we could enhance our unusualness.
This Explains Everything by Richard Von Sturmer (Atuanui Books, $30) is available from Unity Books.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.