Deborah Coddington’s fetching memoir The Good Life on Te Muna Road (Penguin Random House, $40) tells of her adventures and experiences in the Wairarapa. These days, she makes wine with her husband Colin Carruthers QC; back in the day, she threw parties for Sam Hunt, Tim Shadbolt, Dun Mihaka and others at Waiura, the large homestead she shared with her husband Alister Taylor. It ended in tears…
When Sam Hunt arrived at Waiura to talk about his poetry books – Bracken Country, From Bottle Creek, South Into Winter, Time to Ride – it seemed like a big light had been switched on. Sometimes he would bring Kristin, mother of Tom, born in 1976. Sam was so gentle and full of joy, and he loved everyone – dogs, cats, Nana and the children.
Sam’s poetry collections were beautifully produced, some bound in traditional book form, others, like From Bottle Creek, actually four small volumes inside a silver cover. Sam became almost instantly famous when his books were first published. He and his poems connected with so many people – farmers, students, men, women, Maori, Pakeha – there was nothing pretentious about him or his writing. And he went everywhere reading his poems aloud.
But then he and Alister fell out and Sam’s visits to Martinborough abruptly ceased. At the time I didn’t know why. Alister gave me some reason, I can’t remember exactly what it was, something about Sam taking his poems to another publisher (which happened to be my friend Chris Hampson, when he and Sam set up Hampson Hunt). More likely it was about unpaid royalties, the same as it was with most of the other authors, illustrators and photographers who were published by Alister when he was at Waiura, then were listed as creditors when he finally went bankrupt.
Sad but true. To authors they were truly the best of times and the worst of times, but in the end it was the worst of times that won out. And even though Alister was the one who paid the bills, I can’t escape responsibility. As Jim Barr told Carol du Chateau in a piece for Metro magazine in August 1991, ‘It was like being aboard a jolly cruise ship but nobody seemed to know or care who was the captain or owner.’
Or, he could have added, who was looking out for the rocks ahead. Certainly I should have seen them. I should have known that when a property has six mortgages on it, as Waiura did, life has reached the point of insanity and a lot of people are going to get hurt. Jim and Mary Barr told me before we left Waiura, viciously I thought at the time, but they were right, ‘You have no friends now, you don’t pay your bills while your children have rich toys, you drive rich cars, you lead a rich life.’
In 1983 the music stopped. The Development Finance Corporation called up their loan. Kyoto Printing Company in Japan followed suit – or was it the other way round? It doesn’t really matter. Like a stack of dominoes, the facade of wealth came crashing down. We were forced to sell up (despite Alister insisting on telling the media he had no financial problems) and move to Russell, where he owned another property.
I’d had a bad car accident on the way home from Wellington – split my head open, broke my back – and another person was killed. Alister used that as a reason to leave, but in truth, we were financially stuffed. The creditors were winning. You can’t not pay your bills and get away with it. I was 30 years old, I had three children, I’d lost my fourth child at 20 weeks’ pregnancy and I was pregnant again. Neither this baby, nor my next attempt at a fourth child in 1984 would survive its second semester, but those heartaches were still to come. I didn’t really have any clue what to do except be brave for Briar, Rupert and Valentine, who viewed the move north as an adventure.
Shortly after we left, Alister was declared bankrupt. There’s a good reason for the Official Assignee doing that to individuals – to teach them a salutary lesson. Be careful with other people’s money. Pay your bills by return. I’ve never forgotten it.
I look back on aspects of my life at Waiura and shudder. It was singularly appalling to maintain such a lavish lifestyle while others were desperate to be paid, and if I could turn back the clock, I would. But although so many didn’t get their money, we got our karma, that is, shame. There was a large Waiura clearing sale, with both tyre-kickers and buyers coming from miles around. Journalist David Young, writing in the Listener, described it as being like an A&P Show, with cars parked all through the paddocks and people in white coats directing traffic. Somehow I knew it would be a big day, so I asked Martinborough Plunket if they’d like to do some fundraising and sell lunches – filled rolls, scones, home-made cakes. They went down a treat.
Despite the fact that we were being tarred and feathered out of town, the day had a somewhat festive air to it. But when all the purchases had been carted away and the big old house was empty, we were left sitting on packing cases. The children were up at Mum and Dad’s in Ngongotaha and Clive Paton had left with Janeen the pony, the chooks, goats, dogs and hay, driving my brother’s horse float (only to break down outside the gate of the mayor of Waituna West – when that tiny settlement had a mayor – but that’s another story).
The reality of what I was losing started to sink in. Determined not to cry, I walked out of Waiura, got in the van (Alister didn’t have a driver’s licence) and headed up the drive past everything I loved – gardens, stables, pigpens, oak trees, persimmon tree, daffodils, bluebells, flowering almonds – over the cattle-stop and out the gate without looking back.
Text copyright © Deborah Coddington 2015. Illustrations copyright © Deborah Coddington 2015