The Monday Excerpt: Joanne Drayton’s biography of Hudson and Halls has been shortlisted for the 2019 Ockham New Zealand national book awards. In this extract, Drayton recounts their life in 1960s Parnell, Auckland.
When Peter Hudson had first arrived back in New Zealand he stayed in David’s flat in St Stephens Avenue. Then they bought a cottage together at 103 Brighton Road, Parnell, and quickly infused it with their flair for outdoor grandeur as well as interior design. Initially they stapled fabric to the wall instead of wallpaper to get the effect they were looking for. Their lounge was like a Matisse painting in which the rich swirling patterns of burgundy-coloured wall coverings were carried through in an identical curtain fabric so that everything merged with optical intensity. In New Zealand in the 1960s this was a daring concept. The house was “piss elegant”’, recalls Murdoch McLennan, who was a frequent visitor at Brighton Road, but it was tiny. The space “was configured in such a way that they actually lived in one room. The rest of the house functioned: kitchen, dining room and all that sort of thing … but their bedroom was tiny and they had two small separate beds in that room and that was it.”
Outside, their ostentatious style continued with classical architectural forms and Greek statuary down the path to a pool – an echo of Theydon Hall with its driveway lined by classical Greek sculptures. Brighton Road was the small-scale manor house of David’s dreams. The pool was their own flashy addition to make sense of a narrow back yard abutting a precipice that swept down into a gully. For years Peter and David were referred to as the “gully girls”, perched as they were on the edge of this urban chasm. After parties they would often lob empty wine and spirit bottles from the pool area into the distant pit. “Whoever bought that section down the back … they would have to have been digging for days to get through the bottles,” Murdoch recalls. But it was “the cutest swimming pool, I think, in all of Auckland, or that I’ve ever seen in Auckland. It was tiny … nobody would ever get in the pool because there was so much broken glass around. I think a couple of bathing beauties might have dived in but no one would ever have touched the bottom of it … because of the shards of glass.”
Peter and David’s cottage became a place that was transfigurative for them, and freeing from the humdrum conformity of early 1960s Auckland for others. Six o’clock pub closing was still in place. There were after-pub parties, which meant drinking could continue in clubs and private homes, but for most New Zealanders the consumption of alcohol ended with the call for “last drinks”. Eating out was rare and reserved for the weekends. “There were few restaurants apart from hotel dining rooms,” writes Richard Matthews, a friend of Peter and David’s. “The latter served nursery food, mostly mushroom soup, a little bit of fish and roast of the day … Later came the period of deep fried, crumbed, frozen scallops immersed in hot fat. If shaken, you could hear the shrunken scallop rattling in its case. This delicacy was usually followed by trifle or ice-cream sundae with a pink wafer on top. Other dining experiences were fish and chip shops and pie carts where you could dine on a pie with khaki peas and mashed potatoes.”
Brighton Road was the perfect place to entertain, and Peter and David had the culinary flair to pull it off. The occasion began for most people with drinks, but if you became a friend the parties could get larger and more elaborate. Michael Williams remembers: “We did a lot of socialising and they were wonderful hosts, of course, and you’d kill not just for their cooking but for their wonderful company. They were bloody funny and interesting guys.”
Thanks to their hospitality, guests forgot the drudgery of their day jobs and were transformed. Brighton Road was transgressive, and just being there helped party-goers loosen up, especially when revelries were mixed with large amounts of alcohol. In this atmosphere of tolerance, Peter and David’s sexuality became to a large extent irrelevant. They didn’t discuss it; they didn’t make an issue of it.
But the heavy drinking that went with these evenings of food and entertainment created stresses between David and Peter that occasionally ended in fights. After Michael and his wife Kate moved into a flat around the corner, they were among a number of friends who sometimes found themselves lending a sympathetic ear to one or other of them. “I can remember occasionally they … had a tiff and they’d come down on the Saturday morning and sit on the end of our bed and we’d do a bit of an arbitration. One would say, ‘This cunt did this or that last night and I’m really pissed off about it …’”
Possessiveness was the cause of many of their rows. They were territorial and protective when one of them appeared to wander. There were many temptations among the attractive young crowd of people, both straight and gay, that they invited into their home. Flirtation became a frequent cause of conflict between them. “Johnny Ray the singer was in town,” recalls Michael Williams. “He was an American singer … and gay, and he used to cry all the time … when he was singing. Anyway, through the network, Johnny Ray had been given the contact [details] of Peter and David in Auckland and there was a bit of a party there one night … There was a very attractive man in the Johnny Ray entourage that David had been flirting with a bit … and I’ll never forget … [Peter was annoyed and grumbling] and the following day David was pretty sort of casual about the whole thing and finally he … utters the immortal line: ‘I don’t know what he’s bitching about. He turned out to be a closet heterosexual.’”
But attraction and envy went both ways. Sometimes it was Peter causing difficulties. “They were fiendishly jealous of one another,” remembers Murdoch McLennan. “Peter would fall madly in love with somebody, but as far as I know nothing took place. There [was this Kiwi] guy living in England called John Fields who … was one of their very, very closest friends. Wonderful guy … And I know that especially Peter was madly in love with him, but I’m positive nothing went on. No hanky-panky.”
Peter and David saw their home as a stage set for the fun, laughter and the fury that not infrequently erupted between them. It was important, therefore, that Brighton Road be exactly the way they intended it to be. So when some interior decor didn’t turn out the way they wanted, they refused to pay. The case then went to court. “God, you can imagine they were in a royal bloody tizz about giving evidence,” recalls Michael Williams, who was now a qualified lawyer and representing them. “The pre-match hosing down I had to give them to make sure we didn’t have a drama queen performance in the witness box was a considerable piece of work … I remember it was about Sanderson’s wallpaper and they had been promised it would be Sanderson’s and it wasn’t.” As it turned out, David proved a model witness and they ended up winning their case.
…There was an active homosexual subculture in New Zealand, but this was not Peter and David’s exclusive or even probably first choice for socialising. In Auckland, you could meet like-minded men and women at the Ca d’Oro in Custom Street, “the Shakespeare, on the corner of Albert and Wyndham streets … the Star, on the corner of Albert and Wolfe streets, and the Occidental in Vulcan Lane”. Many of these places had a public front door but also a private entrance. “The underworld right down to the clubs were hidden underneath buildings with little windows that opened up to make sure you weren’t the police … at six o’clock the city just died. It was rather beautiful. There was a calm in the evening … apart from the gay pubs and clubs.”
Peter and David navigated their silent way through this minefield of consequence and punishment. They lived together but said nothing, and there was no affectionate contact between them in public. “I never observed any physical intimacy – any sort of a pat on the back, or a peck on the cheek, or anything like that.” remembers Murdoch McLennan. But no one who visited them at home could have doubted the fact that they were lovers.
Hudson & Halls: The Food of Love by Joanne Drayton (Otago University Press, $45) is available at Unity Books.
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