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Wednesday, April 27, 2011


We had lunch with friends yesterday - another Easter ritual. Often during the day they complimented us on how great our daughters are - funny, clever, articulate, and good company. It is gratifying as parents to get immediate feedback on your children - particularly when you've seen what is being commented on and know that it's not the biased praise of grandparents or the guarded language of teachers.

My friend Richard has nine children - that's right - count 'em, nine. Over the time I knew him he was voluble about their achievements, their talents, their beauty. Increasingly his pride in them and love for them cropped up in our conversations. He was quick to deflect any suggestions that he was at least partly responsible for this. Similarly he ignored any implication that because of who he was with them they were able to be who they became and are becoming.

He had a number of projects going at any one time and his heightened sense of what was right and wrong, what was fair and unfair often lead him to a point when he abandoned his dreams. Sometimes only temporarily. In his expression of his hurt and fury at the insult or slight he perceived he could cause damage of many types.

The world of ceramic heritage or industrial heritage research in New Zealand is very small. Despite the lack of depth and breadth there are piranhas and parasites aplenty lurking in the shallow pool. Most people seeing a sign saying "Caution Crocodiles In Area" would find another swimming hole. Richard said "What's a caution crocodile? I'll jump in and sort the feckers out!" He'd be correcting the spelling on the front of the bulldozer as it came at him.

As he encountered petty tyrants, ego-driven politicians, grandiose self-appointed experts, rag and bone merchants masquerading as curators - the whole motley conga line of bottom-feeders that lurk anywhere discards can be turned into lumps of cash [see the Australian mining industry to watch these Gollums run wild and free] he never took a step backwards. He won many a Pyrrhic victory. There's a scene in a Monty Python movie of a knight still fighting after he's lost all his limbs - Richard would've regarded that knight as lacking commitment.

In his youth he ended up under lock and key in what is known now by various euphemisms but was known back then as the naughty boys' home. These places hung over 1950s and 1960s New Zealand like a vague threat - a bogey man. They were and to a lesser extent still are presided over by sadists and staffed by bullies. Early on his fellow "clients" realised he was a fighter who had or at least displayed no fear. Then and throughout his life people used to getting away with things because of their size or because of delusions of having real power learnt that he didn't stop fighting until he was physically unable to. He was known in borstal as "Boxer".

Once when television was still a novelty and only broadcast things people wanted to see Richard and one of his daughters were watching a boxing match from the pavement outside an appliance store. I think he said it was a title fight. A large man pushed his daughter aside to get to the front. Richard interceded on her behalf and the large man with his ego bruised as well decided he had an appointment somewhere else. The small crowd's attention had switched from the TV to Richard's explanation of streetside etiquette, he taught in the action method. The crowd applauded and the large man, like many large men do, scurried off looking smaller than the wee girl he'd pushed aside. Today he'd be saying "I'm the victim here. I'll sue". In the simpler morality of those times he was wrong, he was punished, balance was restored. [NB - this is my garbled version of what I recall of a long ago phone conversation - it is no more accurate than a Wikipedia entry].

Richard's simple black and white moral code and the manner in which he expressed it could result in conflicts that ended up in entrenched stand-offs. He was often right but the broad armory he could draw on to support his view meant a lot of collateral damage was possible. The fight often became about the fight and how it had been enacted. He left a trail of upset people all believing "I'm the victim here". It's a handy out for them because the trigger for his grievance gets lost in the distress generated by the people hurt by the way he responded to his awareness of some act of bastardry. His behaviour rather than theirs becomes the focus. He is the problem not the revealer of it.

In his version of the Emperor's new clothes he leaps down from the tree, kicks the Emperor in the shins and calls the crowd gullible fools for believing the spin doctors. In their shame they turn on him. He is satisfied but exhausted and alone. His family and friends pick him up, dust him off and carry him home to live and fight another day. St George having slayed the dragon or Don Quixote having charged the windmill?

He designed a tour for me of the signifcant sites of the West Auckland fired clay industry - he called it Clay-otearoa. Witty but mostly a bad pun - again. This tour was part of a larger dream for long overdue acknowledgement of all aspects of cultural and industrial heritage preservation. The most significant site has all but disappeared under a property "development" that proceded regardless of the legislation intended to preserve New Zealand's cultural heritage. By then Richard was dying, exhausted by his struggles and his unwillingness or inability to pick his battles, to channel his energy, to identify which victories would earn more than they cost. He wept over the fate of Limeburners Bay but had to walk away.

Aucklanders will get a chance to see the results of some of Richard's efforts when Crockery of Distinction opens at the Gus Fisher Gallery next November. His more prosaic research collection may sit alongside the flamboyant displays representing the brief periods when Crown Lynn's output married solid production values with cutting edge creativity. Ironically it is the commercial failures atypical of the company's mainstream wares that most excite the appetites of the hoard accumulators. The icing on the cupcake rather than the meat and three veg.

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