Do a 180 on life
Harry Paraha is living proof that life can flip around and deliver goods you’d never dreamed were possible. Hammered with negativity (and lots of floggings) in his childhood, Harry’s life shows that you never know what’s waiting for you around the corner. Keep at it, and good times will come.
Okay, I’m going to ask you questions now.
I’m sorry, off you go.
Can you please tell us when you were born and where you were born? But tell us about where you grew up, too, cos you kind of moved around quite a bit in your young years. So start from the beginning, dad.
Um, I was born in winter. In the winter of 1951. I was born in Hamilton, at the hospital. I was told that the first place we lived in was actually a small bondwood caravan.
A caravan? Where?
My dad was a trainee train driver. He was 20-years-old, just young. And he had come down from the country, like they all did back then, and ended up in Hamilton learning to drive trains. Steam engines. So when he met my mother he was 20, no birth control, I turned up nine months later. Anyway, they had this bondwood caravan they lived in, it must’ve been tiny.
Did you say bondwood? What’s bondwood?
It’s plywood. It’s plywood.
That would’ve been cold.
Anyway, that’s what they had. They say that my first cot was a travel case, a suitcase. Okay, and the suitcase was on top of the wardrobe, and that’s where I lived for the first few months of my life. On top of the wardrobe.
I didn’t know that.
Well, you know, these are young people who were trying to make their way in the world and were very naive. My father certainly was, my mother was a little bit older.
How old was she?
She would’ve been 23, 24 maybe. She was about 4-5 years older than my dad.
My dad was extremely naive. Very gentle, my father. So I ended up growing up about 250 miles north of there. I got shifted up there as a 2-year-old, 1-and-a-half or 2-years-old. Back in those days my mother had the depression after having a child. What’s that called?
There you go. In those days nobody talked about it, nobody knew what it was. This problem had to be solved — or resolved. So my dad got me and gave me to his older sister, and I went to live on this farm in the north, and that’s where I grew up til I was 6-and-a-half. In this little valley. Real family oriented, you know? With five cousins from two other different families.
So you went back to where your dad’s from?
I went back to where my dad grew up, where he came from.
Where Ngati Hine is from, right?
Up in the northland. And my Auntie brought me up, I thought she was my mother, I didn’t even know who my father was. I do remember meeting him when I was about five, he’d come up to visit his sister to see how I was. I do remember, I could take you to that spot right now. Yeah, anyway, there’s no father image, there’s no man image with me.
What do you mean?
Well, what’s the father image if you haven’t got one?
What about your grandfather, though?
Well, he’s my grandfather. That’s how I know him.
Did you know that he was your grandfather when you were a little kid?
To a degree, yeah. Yeah, he was papa. My nickname was Koro. Now, that actually means old man, right? So I was always this Koro, everywhere I went that’s what they called me. Because I hung around the old man, you see? So even today they call me that.
An old soul [laughs]
Yeah. Anyway, I grew up there, I spent my first year and a half getting educated at the local school. It was a Maori school, they called it a Maori school, it was called ‘The School of Native Studies’ and I was there for about a year and a half.
Did you have to travel very far to get to school?
You would walk down. The farm was up the road, it was about a mile walk. So we used to track down through the bush and through the paddocks and go to school via the next farm. That was okay. There were quite a few of us kids, you know.
Anyway, the following year, I think I’m six or 6-and-a-half, my grandfather drags me to school, we go back to the house, there’s my Auntie in tears. I don’t know what’s going on. And I think in less than 20 minutes I’m trundled off in this old car down the road into town, which is 14 miles away.
Before we go to town, what was your Auntie’s name?
My Auntie Sophie, poor thing.
What do you remember about her when you were a kid?
Um, she had two girls living there, and I had two other cousins, and then there was me. So there was five of us generally there all of the time.
And Sophie looked after all of you?
Auntie Sophie would look after us on top of having more children, and occasionally other kids came to live at the house. Sometimes there would be six or seven of us there. It was great, you know, we were first cousins. We were all pretty tight.
Would you say that you were whangai-ed to her?
Well, that’s what they call it. I didn’t know any of this until much later, of course.
Can you tell us what whangai means?
You’re an adopted child. You’re given over to someone, who in my case, doesn’t have a son. Well, I think it was more for my protection that I was living with my Auntie. Protection against my mother who had a pretty bad turn with what happened to her, you know? So I think it was mainly for my protection that I went to live up on the farm. But, you know, when you have this person that grows up with you, in the case of my Auntie — she really loved me, my Auntie.
When I got there with my grandfather, they must’ve had an argument because she was crying, and I couldn’t understand why she was crying. So, uh, as I say within 20 minutes we were gone. What I didn’t know was that I was heading back to Auckland to live with my mother and father and four brothers and sisters who I knew nothing about. Didn’t know them, never met them.
How old were you, five? Six?
Were they younger?
I think so, yes. Yes they were, yes they were. So anyway, we get on a bus and we go down to Auckland and I meet my mother for the first time. My father, who I recognised — but a limited kind of introduction, very limited. Now, because my grandfather was there, my mother was all over me. She’s gotta show why I’m there, the whole reason he’s brought me down is because this is what she wants.
My grandfather got up to leave, right, so I packed my bags and just ran off after him. So for the whole of that year, which was middle of May or April — from May until December, I was with my grandfather. I bolted. I went with him, I didn’t want to hang around.
So you left again?
Yeah. I’m not staying here, I don’t know these people.
What, your grandad was, like, ‘Alright!’
Well, he didn’t know what to do. All of a sudden I’ve got his back pocket and I’m not going anywhere without him. So we went down to this little town which was about 30 to 40 miles away, and down there was a whole community of Maoris working in the farms. Pukekohe, is it Pukekohe? Market gardens to supply Auckland.
So, we were down there as the cheap labour doing all of that. I was down there for the rest of the year, I didn’t go to school. Yeah, and then towards Christmas I went back to Auckland, but this time the old bugger left me behind. You know, I can remember him, because I looked out the window and there’s me old grandfather trucking up the footpath.
What, he snuck off on you?
Oh! Cheeky bastard.
And I was so betrayed [laughs]. Yeah. That’s what it felt like. I didn’t know the word betrayal but I know it now, and that’s how I felt. And from that moment on I would live with my parents in Auckland. Very unpleasant. My mother — well, I’ve told you about my mum and I don’t want to go into it.
But my mother’s affliction was very unkind towards me. So I took a lot of beatings, a lot of beatings. I took the blame for a lot of things I never did, and the abuse was your education, you know? ‘You dumb arse, you’re stupid, you’re this’, there was no praising. And that was all from the mother. My father really had no say in the matter, my mother was the boss. She was the boss. My father was very gentle.
Were you going to school at this point?
Yeah, as I said, from that moment on I’m doing my schoolwork, going to school, primary school.
You were in Year 2, maybe?
Hmm, I got put back a year.
Because you missed that year going down to the markets?
Not so much that, I actually knew the work at the school. I knew the work, it was simple. But, they didn’t have my education records. You know, nobody at the school where I went to, or my parents, or my grandfather thought to grab my records from the school to show them that I’d been educated to this particular point. So when I got to the city, instead of moving up to the next class they automatically threw me back a year. And that pissed me off.
What kind of student were you when you were at school? If you were angry, were you —
No, no, no, I’m pretty happy-go-lucky. You know, all through my life I’ve been pretty happy-go-lucky, but when you go home to a house like that, where the abuse is so intense sometimes, you tend not to show that to the general public. You tend to keep that in the house, you know. I can look back now, and my mother had some fantastic ways of hiding it.
Every child in New Zealand is given a child endowment from the government, one pound a month or whatever it may be, and my mother would gather this money up and take us up to, say, the local clothes shop. Deck us out in the finest clothes, and that’s how she would show us to the public. You know, the three boys would have matching clothes, the two girls with ribbons and bonnets. Looking really schmick, but that wasn’t what was going on back home, you know?
We had one law, you weren’t allowed outside the front gate. So we never got to mix with the neighbours, nothing! We were locked up in this house, never allowed outside the gate, if you got caught going out the gate you got flogged. So that was her way of censoring any kind of movement in the house. Nobody was to know. Very different to the way you guys were brought up.
Yeah, definitely. Did you have different escapes to get away from that? Like, was school an escape for you?
Oh, to me school was an escape, yeah. Nothing else. The education, after what they did to me, was — and then there are other kids there, too, you know, who were quite abusive. Racially speaking.
How do you mean?
Well, because you’re from the country and you’re naive to the conditions of the city, and you actually don’t know the social approach to certain things. On top of that is the lack of information about yourself, you know? Who are you, what are you, what are you doing here? So of course, a lot of people would take advantage of that when they realise, ‘This guy’s a dumb arse’ [laughs]. And they’d start abusing you.
I had one kid doing it to me for a year and a half, until I belted him. I’ve said the story a few times, you know, I went to school with this Paul C. He wasn’t there, I had a great day. Paul C’s not there. But, um, you know, looking back… when you see it as a nine-year-old or eight-year-old or however old I was back then, this business of survival. And I remember that lunchtimes goes 12 o’clock to 1 o’clock. I had a great lunch hour. But as soon as the bell went at 1 o’clock, it clicked in that this Paul C would be waiting down the street to belt me [after school]. Now how do I work that out?
And I remember from 1 o’clock to 3 o’clock when the bell went to go home, I was shitting meself. I can’t concentrate on school work, because I’ve got a showdown. Well anyway, so I went home and this Paul C lived about 100 yards from where I lived, and I came down the street and there’s Paul C waiting at the T-junction to belt me. I can remember hopping onto the street from the footpath, and I looked up and there he is on the street, so I jumped back onto the footpath, and there he is on the footpath. Anyway, eventually face-to-face. And he’s in my face, ‘You black bastard, you this and that’, I’ve just grabbed him.
And I dropped him. I put him on the deck, like, in no time at all. And I do remember this, him looking up at me, totally petrified. I remember that. He couldn’t believe what happened to him. And I just picked myself up and bolted, I ran home. And my father was home. He looks at me and goes, ‘What’s the matter with you, boy?’ So I told him. I said, ‘This kid’s been giving me a hard time for the last year and a half, he’s just been slapping me around, he’s been abusing me, he’s been doing this, and saying these words, you know? He was up the road and I put him on his arse’. Well, I didn’t say put him on his arse….
Did your dad give you any advice?
What’d he say, then?
Well, he kind of had a smile on his face after I said I put him on his arse! I didn’t say that, I explained that he’d hit the deck, you know? My dad was, like, pleased about all that, you know. And then about, oh, about four minutes after that conversation there’s a knock on the door. That’s Paul C and his father. And here’s Mr. C, this whitey, running off at the mouth about me beating up his son. And in those days, it wasn’t really our place to remonstrate with Europeans.
What do you mean, remonstrate?
Well, a lot of these things you have to take on the chin. Here’s Mr. C going on about me beating his son up, and my dad says, ‘Where did this happen?’ And he says, ‘Up at the T-junction’. He said, ‘Well, what was your son doing up there?’, he said, ‘I’ll tell you what he was doing. He was waiting for me, and he was going to belt me’. He said, ‘That’s what happened’. And he said, ‘If you don’t get off my porch, I’ll belt you too’.
And then he turned around and left. Now, for my father to do that back in those days – this was the late 50s – it was such a social shift, you know? And that’s that. So I’ve had quite a few of those things happen to me growing up, quite a few. Lots of them, actually. So I’m more or less the template of my family.
Did you feel, like, proud of your dad in that moment?
Ahh, not really, I thought that’s what dads were meant to do. I suppose I was proud of him, yeah. It’s his right to stick up for his family, you know, but as I said, back then you were meant to keep your mouth shut, cop it on the chin, cop the abuse. But in this case, my father gave this man the ultimatum, ‘If you keep it up, I’ll put you on your arse’.
Did you think that was out of character for him?
Yes, my father’s not like that.
Cos he’s normally a pretty gentle, chilled dude?
My father is, generally speaking, a very gentle person, you know. As opposed to my mother, in that he never belted us. But my mother flogged us incessantly. Incessantly. Yeah, if she had a bad day mate, you just, whoa. That’s what I remember, you know, there must have been good days for sure. But, um, I remember getting flogged for stealing one and three. You know how much one and three is? 12 cents. My mother had lost one and three, one shilling and threepence, that is. So, she blamed me and flogged the shit out of me, flogged the daylights out of me.
And I do remember thinking in the corner, you know, just thinking ‘Poor me, poor me’, and I came up with a plan. And I think this is what every parent should be doing with the children, giving them a forward plan. My plans as I was growing up was a day-to-day thing, because if you didn’t know what was going to happen with your mother, you don’t have a plan. The education, fuck the education. Your plan is to stay alive each day.
Do you think that they had any hopes or plans for you in the future? Did you they ever tell you anything like that?
No. Not at all. But I remember sitting in the corner at 13-and-a-half, you know when you’re that old, it’s a lifetime. You can’t wait to get to 18, you can’t wait to get to 21. You’re in a hurry to get there, yet here I am at 67 telling you life goes by so quickly. So at 13-and-a-half I’m going, ‘God, is this gonna be the rest of my life?’. And I made a plan that if I got to 15, this was going to stop. As I said to you, it felt like forever away.
Did you think any further than that?
No. I actually set my life at this 15-year-old point, that this was going to stop. And that’s the only forward plan I ever had. I’m saying to you guys now that this is what you guys should be giving to your children, a forward plan. And support for it. I’ve always done it with you, Jessie.
Well, what about — did your forward plan change after 15? What did it become? What did you want to have happen?
Well, my forward plan gave me more independence — when 15 came along, my mother thought she could beat me up again, and do it at her leisure. You see all the way through when we were growing up, she said, ‘If you run away from the house, I’ll ring the police. And when they bring you home and they’re gone’, she’d say, ‘I’m gonna flog ya. So don’t you run away’.
So 15 comes along and my mother takes at me with a jug cord, hits me across the face. So I grab my mother at 15 — my mum was still quite small, but I was in a rage. And I grab my mother, and I throw her up against the wall, and I got right in her face, and I said, ‘You do that to me again and I will fucking kill you’. And my mother shit herself. ‘You don’t do that to me, ever’. And, um, it stopped. The physical abuse from her.
The emotional abuse kept coming, ‘You dumb arse, you this, you that’, but I could handle that. But by doing that it gave me room to grow by myself, you know. There were other things that I was doing that was giving me more of who I am and what I can achieve.
What were those things, what were you doing?
Well, swimming for a start. You know, swimming gave me a lifeline to other things.
What was it about swimming?
In my suburb there was an olympic pool, and it saved my life. Because I started swimming everyday. I turned up at the swimming club and, you know, my finances were guarded by my pocket money. My pocket money was, um, two paper runs. That looked after my clothes, that looked after my school books, that looked after my theatre spending, that looked after — I never got a cent off my mother, I never robbed them, I never stole from them.
So that’s how I lived till I was 18. Off the small amount that I was making off these two paper runs. It looked after my swimming, it looked after my — I got fed and I had a house to stay in, you know, but everything else came out of my pocket.
How’d you get started in swimming, dad?
Well, it’s cos the pool was up the road, you know. In those days that’s where a lot of kids used to go during the summer. You go to the pool, it’s only eight cents to get in. So you get a shilling, which is 12 or 10 cents, and then you’ve got 2 cents to spend at the lolly shop. That’s how it works.
Now, the pool was there in the summer. In Auckland it was the only olympic pool, and we were lucky because we were right next door to it, you know. And because I was next door to it, I got into swimming. You don’t get Maoris in the pool, no mate, this is middle class shit. This is their caper. But I ended up doing it [laughs].
So you went and you joined the swimming club by yourself?
Yes I did. You have to get up in the morning and do a mile and a half, you have to get there at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and do a couple of miles, this is a discipline thing. Never mind getting beaten up, this is the way we’re going to discipline you. You do it because you, in my case, I, had a need to do something. I wasn’t good at school, I couldn’t give myself to school, to my education, you know. So I did something that was physical, something that you could see. You know, and I say this to every person, if you go and you do swimming, you can’t lie. Because you got the clock going, ‘Oh, gee, you’re 10 seconds down, what’s the matter, mate?’
Next day, bring it two seconds back or you might knock a second off, ‘Oh that’s better, son’. So this thing is with you everyday, this clock. You know, you can’t lie. So you know you’re going good if you bring your times down. You might reach a wall where, because of your physicalness or the way you’re training, that you might come to a stop with the timings. But there’s nothing like bringing it down to as far as you can go. That certainly is a visual way of learning about your capacity, you know?
And in doing that, I met a lot of different people outside of what I know. And as I said to you before, this is a middle class thing, ‘What’s this guy doing here?’ Well, I’m Harry, I live up the road, it’s convenient. The guy that taught me is a lovely man, he was an Englishman actually, his name is George.
Was he your instructor?
Yeah, and this was all amateur. This guy wasn’t charging us. He would just turn up at the pool everyday, every morning he had something to do, George. And we’d all go down there and we’d swim, and we’d do our best, it was about 15-18 of us kids. From 7-years-old to my age, 15. And it was doing this that lead me to lifesaving. See I didn’t know about any of that.
Do you think, at this point – when you started doing your swimming – that your goals for yourself shifted a bit?
Oh, a lot.
How did it change?
Well, I’ve just explained about the timings.
Yeah. But what about for your long-term future, did you have any goals?
What about dreams? Did you have any dreams for yourself?
You didn’t want to become, like, an olympian or a… ?
No, I just wanted to do my best. To be my best was the best that I could do. And, um, I wasn’t a big person. A swimmer today, you’ll see swimmers today are six foot plus. They’ve got long reaches, you know? You have to have a particular body shape to do freestyle, it has to be long, it has to be lean. But butterfly can be under six foot, but his bulk is in his chest and shoulders. It’s like that with all of the strokes, but particularly with butterfly. You don’t have to be a big, tall guy, you can be a little bit shorter. Breast stroke’s different again, you know? It’s a different body shape again.
What was your preferred stroke?
Well I started learning butterfly and I got really good at it. It took awhile, but I picked it up fairly quickly and brought the times down pretty quick. And really liked the style, it’s got a beautiful rhythm to it, you know? A beautiful rhythm.
What was it like when you were in the water?
When you’re in the water, you’re looking at the tiles and you’re more or less, um… You do think, but it’s a place where you can go and, uh, what do they say…
Meditate. So you’re actually in the water and you’ve got all that going, but you’re also meditating.
What would you think about when you were swimming?
Um, mainly about the swimming. Not so much about life in general, but mainly about the swimming. Especially when the clock’s going, you know each tile is 10 seconds, 20 seconds. Yeah, it’s like that.
Do you think that swimming helped you build your confidence up?
Well, that’s what it was doing. I didn’t realise at the time, but that’s what it was doing. Was giving me back all of the things I should’ve had.
Do you think it was like your first, kind of, idea of identity or strength or something like that?
Um, strength? Not really strength… identity? I never really thought about those things, Jessie. You know, my achievements were, as I said to you, very day to day. It started to get a bit more than that after I was swimming, you know, but it becomes more prominent when I switch off from swimming and become a lifesaver. That’s when it changed. I would’ve been 16 or 17. [he starts miming life saving actions]
What are you doing? You have to tell us for the audio.
Oh! In the old days, you had to learn six places on the six-man lifesaving team. You had to learn all these positions, you had to learn about the function of the heart, the distribution of the blood, the left and the right ventricle, the — to me they were all kind of new, but you learned. You had to explain what the heart was doing with its rotation of the blood. You do find out a lot about yourself by learning that. But anyway, you have a swim that you’re meant to do under nine minutes, 400 metres.
In the ocean though, right?
No, no, you do it in the pool. Yeah, so, I went there and I think that my time was just over five minutes for 400 metres. Yeah I can do it in my sleep, you know, no problem. So I didn’t realise, but that’s what they were looking for, they were looking for swimmers. All these surf clubs were looking for swimmers, you know? So I ended up at this beach, and it was all secret, you couldn’t tell the swimming coach what you were doing.
Well, in those days if you went swimming in the ocean it ruined your stroke. What a load of bullshit, that’s just bullshit. So it was a day like this, beautiful sunny day. This fellow picks us up, me and Richard, a friend of mine. We both thought we would take Sunday off and go up to the beach. So we go to this beach, this beautiful sea, I’d never seen it before.
Wow. You hadn’t gone to the beach before?
Not a surf beach. You go to a beach where there’s no swell. Anyway, we spent Sunday there and John would take us out and put us in the surf, and we’d do that. I’d never had so much fun. I think it was one of the most liberating days of my life.
So this was your first day, sort of, learning about lifesaving?
Yeah. This was our introduction to the beach culture, and it was most invigorating. I do remember going home and going to sleep, and it was like this… really calm, you know? And I thought, that’s me. Just that feeling of that gentleness and that calmness, that wavy feeling. Lying in bed, you can feel it. So I took that up, that’s me. Enough, let’s do this. And I got a trip to Australia. I was the youngest in a team of 26. There were four juniors, I was one of them.
How old were you?
I was 17. It was my first exposure to something completely out of what I know. Get off the plane — knives and forks in those days on the plane. Oh yeah, oh yeah. For me, you know, coming from my background, geewhiz! So I get on the plane and there were all these other guys. I came to Sydney and we were here for six weeks. And every weekend we’d go to carnivals, and during the week we’d train. But the training was always in the morning.
Did they pull you out of school for this?
No no, this was in the summer holidays.
Yes. You know I had $100 for six weeks.
Where’d you get the $100 from?
My mother gave me the hundred dollars.
She gave you a hundred dollars?
She gave me a hundred dollars. Well, she wanted to show off, ‘Oh, my son’s going to Australia’. Big deal back then. ‘He’s in the lifesaving team’. My mother didn’t even support me, she didn’t have a clue what it was, but she knew she could show off. When I got home of course, she asked for the money back [laughs].
Had you spent it?
Well how am I gonna live in Sydney for six weeks? A hundred bucks was hardly anything.
I came to Australia and it opened up my eyes. Yeah, it did make me… not so much dream about my future but it certainly gave me something to think about.
What was it you were thinking about?
If not your future, what did it make you think about?
It made me think about how I was going to handle competition in the future. And if I had the capacity and the confidence to handle it.
For example, at a carnival at Bondi Beach one day they introduced us to Beach Flags. You lie on the ground with your chin on your hands, and you lie in the opposite direction, and you have to get up and head back to where the flags are and grab one. It’s a response thing.
Anyway, I ran second or third I think. It got me in the local sports page in Auckland, it got me a mention [laughs]. Yay. Because nobody knew about Beach Flags in Auckland back then, I didn’t know. And then that same summer we had New Zealand championships in Gisborne, and in a team of four we managed to accomplish a gold medal .
Was that the beach that you used to go to?
At the end of each year, they have the combined championships of New Zealand. This particular place was in Gisborne. So we all get in the car, I’d never been to Gisborne before, I’d hardly gone anywhere in New Zealand. And lifesaving gives you that, to go here and to go there. Places you’ve never been to before. New things.
So we went to Gisborne after our trip to Australia, and there was a swimming event, it was a team thing. And I’m the last of four, there are four heats, and what they do is they count back where each swimmer in each club goes and it’s all added up. Those with the least amount of points wins first, second, or third. And when it got to the fourth person it was me.
And then when it gets going, I’m sitting down with a psychologist and he’s winding me up. This was all new wave stuff, the psychology, ‘You know Harry, you know what you have to do. Be positive about all this’, and then I’ve got another guy on the other side who won a gold medal at Jamaica Commonwealth Games only two years before, in 1966. Dave, he’s a doctor now. ‘Hey Harry, you know what you’ve gotta do, mate?’ [Laughs] I’ve got these two guys next to me in my ear.
What, so they were giving you lots of advice, they were amping you up?
They were wiring me up, yeah, I’ve never had that before. See that’s what this thing gave me. I never had any positives, as I’ve been trying to say to you kids, I never had any positive ramp-ups. But here I am all of a sudden, I have a guy on one side who’s a student doctor, he’s an intern, and I’ve got this guy with a PhD in child psychology in my head about what’s going to happen next.
So anyway, the gun went off, I think there were about 30 people in each heat. I fell over, started off at about 25th and came in 2nd. But it was enough to win the New Zealand title. So the team that I was in, the junior team that I was in, won the title that year. And that was my introduction into something completely positive. So I suppose it starts from there, you know.
A vision of the future, perhaps.
So what were you thinking at that time? You finally got this, like, positive environment. Lots of people supporting you.
Yeah, what was I thinking? Not much. My time slot was still pretty —
Pretty condensed? You were, what, like 17?
That’s pretty young.
Still young, so. Um, maybe what I’m trying to say is the difficulty in growing up.
If you could give yourself, at 17, advice from yourself at 67, what would you tell little baby dad?
Well, I ask — well, the point is, Jessie, you’ve got to look at what I’ve done with you. You know, I was always trying to be positive with you, I’ve always tried to be honest with you. That’s what I would do.
What would you say to him? You’ve got like 10 minutes, and you’ve gone back in time, and he’s sitting right in front of you. And you can tell him some advice, what would you say to him?
Um, I had a boy at work the other day. I just told him to be positive. He thinks that life is gonna go on forever. I said, ‘No mate, it doesn’t work like that. You’ve gotta make every day count. It has to be a positive thing, everything you do has to be positive. Don’t think that your life is gonna go on forever cos, you know, every day counts’. That was just the other day.
I think that’s good advice. And you’d say that to yourself?
As a 67-year-old, it’s a lot more difficult to follow that advice.
What’s the thing in your life now — so surfing kind of gave you a lot of energy and it excited you and invigorated your spirit, right? What would you say you do now that excites you or invigorates you, gets you amped to be alive?
My kids. All my kids. I’m pretty lucky like that, you know, they turned out to be pretty good. I mean really good. And um, because all of the things that I’ve been telling you about are the things I didn’t want them to have.
All the negativity. You know, the senselessness of it all. I’ve never wanted any of that for any of my kids. I remember when James was born in 1974, they never used to let the guys in [to the birthing suite]. Over the years I’ve spoken to a lot of men that have gone in to see their child being born, and it’s, well, it’s quite empowering. It’s very different to the old days when the women had the babies without their partners and then they were locked up in the hospital for a week.
This time around the husbands are allowed to go in and see this magic happen, of somebody being born. Every man having a child should have this, every man. Then they might stop holding onto rifles and all that kind of shit. You know?
Do you think that there’s, like, an activity or something that you do daily or regularly that’s just for yourself?
Oh, look if I was more successful financially and otherwise, I would have a completely different aspect, I’m sure. No, you’re asking me, I’m telling you.
But I’m talking about right now, today.
Right now, today? Today’s a good day. Today’s a great day, and tomorrow I hope. And the next day. That’s what I want.
What about the community that we have at our school? Do you find that that energises you and inspires you?
Um, there’s inspiration in learning your own language. There’s, um —
Can you tell us about what it is? Like, give a little introduction for the recorder.
Alright. I was never brought up to speak my own language, it was beaten out of us by the system. They were trying to take our power away, that’s what they were doing. So we disregarded our own language, and to our own detriment, really.
I actually liken it to the blood in the Merchant of Venice, where Shylock wants his pound of flesh. And the lawyer walks in and says, ‘Okay, we’ll give you the pound of flesh but you can’t have any of the blood, it’s not part of the contract’. Now if the language is the blood, the language is not in the contract. You can steal all our land, you can bullshit us with all your laws and your rubbish, but the language is sacred. You know? It’s not yours.
So that’s what I’ve learnt from learning my own language, and I had to do it in this country, in Australia. It’s amazing. It is amazing, you know? If there’s anything to be said for Australia it’s regardless of the minefield of shit that’s going on, it’s still a good place if you want to make it like that.
I haven’t become Australian because of the Aboriginal issue. That’s my little thing. If I saw them make the sudden shift towards the recognition of the people that have been here for over 40,000 years. The only group to do so. They’ve been here longer than the Abyssinians, they’ve been here longer than the Jews, they’ve been here longer than the Indians, they’ve been here longer than anybody else, but the abuse that they have copped in the last 200 years. I was talking to Jessie this morning about domestic abuse in this country, there’s more of that in this country than terrorism.
Anyway, point is, there’s more in the abuse side of things than there is on the terrorism side of things, yet who gets the most space? The terrorists. Why? The amount of money concerned is just so enormous. Yeah look, if I have a problem it’s with the way the West looks at our Mana. Our aspect, our viewpoint, your viewpoint, mine, everybody else that’s not entirely into the Western way of thinking. They do need to get off their arse and learn about what’s going on. Otherwise they’re going to kill this place with their plastic and their packaging.
What does it mean to you to be learning your language now with your daughter, Jess?
Very good, yeah, very cool. It was Jessie who suggested it, she went to a wedding back home, some family gathering, and was left out of the loop. She came back to me in some distress [laughs].
That is true, that did happen.
[Makes crying noises] What’s the matter, mate? ‘Oh, we don’t know the language, there were all these people there doing all these things and we were left out’. Alright, well, what do you want to do? ‘Well I think we should learn the language’. That was a shock to me, considering these are all Australian kids, I went, ‘Oh alright, okay. Okay’. So that’s what I did.
I took the other daughter down to the local place in Lidcombe, and I went to book them in. And just before it started the other one couldn’t go, the older daughter couldn’t go. So I went and supported Jessica and ended up staying. I’ve seen the change in my kids. The positive angle, the positive side, you know, through the language, through its interpretation of things that are very personal. And its interpretation of the spiritual oneness, and also of moral measure.
My moral measure has always been from the Christian view. The missionaries always told us we were heathens, we were bums, we had no idea of God, so for me it was a puzzle. Enough to stop me from having a forward motion thing, a view of the future. But I always knew that we had some kind of moral, we all have a moral. And the one thing I’ve managed to dispense is the idea that Christians own the moral. Nah. That’s what they’ve tried to tell us.
Actually the school I went to as a kid was called the School of Native Studies. What a put down. And it wasn’t rescinded, they never rescinded our language till 1969. You weren’t allowed to speak, my father would be strapped. ‘What’s your name?’, ‘My name is Taruna’. ‘No, your name is Ruben. That’s it’. ‘What’s your name?’, ‘My name’s Tāhuri’, ‘No, your name’s Harry. That’s it’. Written down, Harry. Written down, Ruben. And it shows you the power that the status quo has to implicate conditions of thought, of moral, of intent. Their intent. And you know what I’m like.
So my kids, or me in particular, I’ve got back my mojo. The spiritual essence of who we are, of who everybody is, in actual fact. And I’ve always enjoyed the way that I see things, from a spiritual point.
So the language is good, Jessie, yeah.
What does having a strong mana mean to you?
Don’t lie. Don’t lie.
So be honest?
Well, by not lying, you know, you have the strength to get things done. Mana is about having a very positive aspect about yourself, you know? Yeah. Being positive. Good mana, bad mana, we generally talk about the goodness of it all. And that’s what we’re talking about, actually. You know, a sense of wellbeing, a sense of your own proportion, and not to be self-serving.
I’m here for the present, I’m here if you’re in trouble, I’m here to help. No problem. I don’t care if you’re rich or poor, I don’t care. I’ll have your back, no problem. Next question.
Do you think that swimming helped to define what your mana meant to you?
Um, I always had it but I didn’t know what that was then. It certainly has a lot to do with what I was doing with my swimming, you know. The more I achieved within myself, the more I did in the swimming, the more I became confident in my own decision-making. Right or wrong. You know, I’ve made a lot of wrong mistakes as well as good ones. But I think by and large it’s been a pretty good life, really. Nobody has done the things that I’ve done. I’ve done some pretty crazy things.
What would you say is one of the proudest moments of your life?
Seeing my son [be] born. Yeah. That was a life-changer, seeing my three kids be born.
To my detriment, I missed seeing my eldest daughter being born. I missed out on that because of my naivety and my ignorance.
But that’s a whole other story.
But anyway, that feeling never changed for me, it never altered, from my son to Jessie. And there’s a 21 year difference. Never changed.
The essence of the whole idea. In language class they tell you this about the first breath — the whole idea of the spiritual essence that comes into the world. This birth, and it’s made even stronger by the fact that we also talk about dying, the other side. There is a unity between those things. I know a lot of people who are scared of dying!
But I’ve been brought up to believe that — you know, I went to my first funeral when I was three. I was freaked out, but I went. And as I’ve gotten older and began to understand that this is about the positive neutrality between the up and the down, the in and the out, the yin and the yang, the poles south and north, you know? And the middle is life itself. And that’s where we are, we’re there. That’s what I know about my language and everything else I’ve been taught.
I see a planet, I see the sky, I see the earth, I see the life in between. And in all of that is our spiritual wealth. Up there, down there, and in particular, where we live. It’s not for me to tell a Hindu how to think, or a Muslim how to think, or a Christian how to think. So as I’ve said to a few of these people, ‘Listen, mate. We’ve been living down here for a long time. You guys have only turned up the last 200 years, and you’re trying to tell me what to do?’
Can you tell me a story about a time when you think the universe has been trying to tell you something? Has there ever been a time in your life when you’re like, ‘Oh I think the universe is trying to tell me something’.
Always. You know, always. Whether it’s me in the water getting a really nice wave, whether it’s me lying down as this little kid in the middle of nowhere watching this bird fluttering up and down. You’re sitting there watching this bird, you know, you’re just a kid. ‘Wow, look at that’. You know, I think it’s been with me all the time, Jessie.
I think it’s that piece of your life that defeats the negativity. I do remember the bird. I remember being 4-years-old, it must’ve been in the middle of summer, and here’s this bird [makes bird sounds]. Up and down, up and down, up and down. It must’ve been looking at something, I didn’t know. But it’s just in my head forever. Seeing that. No, I think it’s been with me all my life.
Yeah. Sometimes it gets lost, sometimes, but in the times that you need it, it turns up. Yeah. Anything else?
Can you tell us your favourite Khalil Gibran quote?
Oh yeah, it’s the one about the kids.
That’s my favourite, too.
When I picked it up, when I picked up his book, I’d been saying to people, ‘Listen’. I said to my wife when James was born, he must’ve been about five or six months. And I sat Sue down and I said, ‘Listen mate, this is not your property. We’re just here to bring him up and to give him the best start in his life’. So when I picked up Kahlil Gibran’s poem about the children, everything that he had said was what I was implying back then.
So I already knew when I read his thing about the children, that they’re not your property, and in the society that we have today, so many people see them as their property. To agitate, to change, to do as they please for their benefit. Not for the benefit of the child or the universe at large. That’s the problem. That’s a great poem, a great poem. Yeah.
Do you have any more questions?
Because our project is called Stories of Strength, I want to ask you, what does strength mean to you? Can you describe a strong person that you know?
Yeah, gee. I had a friend locked up in jail, it was my — Anyway, he got busted and he got locked up in jail. And I happened to be driving through Randwick one day and there he was in the car next to me. Beep beep beep! I looked across, and it was Steve. Wound the window down, he says ‘Follow me home’, so I followed him home. I started to talk to him, we got down to talking about what happens when you go to jail. And he started telling me about forgiveness.
I never understood until he talked to me about forgiveness. You know, he said ‘There’s one thing I had to learn when I was in jail, I had to forgive. Forgive my father for a number of issues’, he said, ‘I learned to forgive’. Now he’s the only one that’s been able to tell me how to do that. Never mind the priest, never mind the vicar, never mind. But this one guy told me how to do it. It’s the hardest thing for a human to do. Forgiveness. So hard. Ask anyone.
[starts to get a bit teary].
He was so strong. He was just incredible. But he did something stupid and he went to jail. And you know, the things he learned in jail while he was there. You know, this tough guy talking about forgiveness. So maybe that’s what the Middle East needs to understand, you know. Maybe that’s what the Christians need to understand. Maybe we as Maoris need to be a bit more forgiving with the pakeha even. The pakeha has done a lot of damage.
— Part 2 —
Can you give us a positive note to end on?
Once again, it’s about forgiveness. It’s about understanding one and the other, and — I wouldn’t say it’s a middle ground but it’s most certainly about forgiving. I’m not gonna tell you not to think you know, I’m not gonna tell you who your God is, that’s your business. And I’m quite willing to go along with what you are as long as we understand one another, no problem. So I understand you, you must understand me, do we understand one another? Yes, you move on. Yes?
So information and communication, most important. We don’t communicate as well as we should, whether it’s language difference, religious difference, spiritual unwellness, or otherwise.
Thank you dad.