Bill Andersen

- Paul Watson

Paul Watson is a CAFCA member and the Southern and Central Region Secretary of the National Distribution Union. Ed.

In writing this it‘s difficult to condense into a few thousand words the life of Bill Andersen. I am assisted in this process by material that featured in our union’s December 2004 edition of The Express (a publication circulated to all members) that came from an interview that our union’s publicity officer had with Bill only a few months prior to his death. My personal views of the man are also featured here. I worked at a very close level with Bill as part of the national leadership of the National Distribution Union. I regarded him as a good friend and comrade.

Bill was born in 1924 - the year Lenin died. There is something poignant and quaintly historical about those events as Bill’s subsequent politics evoked much Marxist-Leninist thought. To begin with, Bill, as he was known, was named Gordon Harold Andersen by his parents. He was the youngest son of the late Hans and Minnie Andersen. His father was an experienced seafarer who had emigrated from Denmark and settled in Grey Lynn, Auckland.

1940s: A Graduate Of The School Of Hard Knocks

After attending primary school in Panmure and then Otahuhu College, at the age of 16 Bill left to follow in his father’s footsteps and went to sea. He got a job sailing on coastal vessels and there began his first experience of unions. This, of course, was during World War 2 and he became pretty quickly introduced to union politics when the Seamen’s Union attempted to hold a ship up over conditions on board but were not supported by the Federation of Labour (FOL) President, Fintan Patrick Walsh. Walsh believed it was not on to be taking industrial action in wartime. This would not be the first time that Walsh and Bill were to have differences.

In 1942 Bill got a job on the Pamir and set sail for San Francisco. The Pamir was an unarmed sailing ship taking a load of wool to America. It was during this voyage that further issues arose over seafarers’ conditions and Bill got into a bit of strife on the trip. Before docking in San Francisco he got severe appendicitis and was admitted to hospital. When he went back to the Pamir they wouldn’t re-employ him as the employer saw him as a union troublemaker.

He continued sailing in foreign-going vessels for the rest of the war and visited lots of different countries and saw poverty he had never seen before, especially in the Middle East. Such suffering convinced him something was radically wrong with the social and political order with so much wealth on one side and so much misery on the other. These experiences were to be the catalyst for his study of Marxism and subsequent Communist beliefs.

When Bill came back to NZ he sailed the coast as a ship’s fireman as his eyesight wasn’t too good. He was involved in holding up a ship in Westport and was expelled from the Seamen’s Union, which was still under the control of Fintan Patrick Walsh. In late 1948 Bill got a job at Auckland’s Westfield freezing works, working two seasons as a mutton butcher. It was there he led a strike over mutton butchers being paid less than beef butchers. They never took him on for a third season.

Kings Wharf freezing chambers was his next job and in 1949 the carpenters were in dispute. Despite the railway workers supporting them some butter was railed into the wharf. Bill and two others refused to unload it but they got the sack as they were a minority. The work on the wharf was hard and dirty. In those days they unloaded asbestos in hessian bags and Bill would recall often going home itchy.

1950s-70s: From Locked Out To Locked Up

The 1951 waterfront lockout was the next struggle and Bill was elected on to the 1951 lockout committee and had the job of getting all the printing done and worked closely with Dick Scott (who a few years later years published "151 Days" the famous book on the lockout). It’s interesting to note that Bill was one of only two unionists who stood up and supported Dick Scott when Walsh sought Scott’s expulsion from the 1954 FOL Conference, because of what Walsh called "vicious propaganda and vile words" against the Labour Party and FOL.

A number of militant unionists were blacklisted following the 51 Lockout and Bill was one of them. He found it difficult to get a job so he and a mate started cleaning shops. By this time Bill was married with children and the cleaning wasn’t paying the bills so he got a job driving for Winstone, working with 120 other drivers. He soon created an impression among his workmates as a confident dedicated unionist. For example, upon receiving news of his death, a retired Winstone worker felt compelled to write a letter of condolence to the family and express his admiration and appreciation for the work Bill had done back then. He hadn’t seen Bill for some 50 years.

Bill was elected on to the Drivers Union Executive in 1953 and became a union organiser in 1954. He was elected Secretary of the Northern Drivers Union in 1957, which meant the end of the Rightwing leadership. Under his leadership the Drivers Union fought for above-award conditions, sick pay, average rates for holidays, ruling rates and were involved in national issues like the $20 campaign*. The Drivers Union became a democratic union with rank and file meetings and member decisions running the union.

* Average rates or average weekly earnings for holidays means a week’s holiday pay based on an average of your total years earnings divided by 52 (which could often be greater as a result of working overtime hours during the year) than just being paid an ordinary normal hours weekly wage for holiday pay. Ruling rates were the percentage wage rates set by "the lead Award negotiations" during bargaining rounds (pre-Employment Contracts Act). The Drivers were often at the forefront of the wage round and their settlements tended to always set the ruling rates for other unions’ bargaining that followed. The $20 campaign related to support (in the form of a levy) from other unionists to help combat the intervention in the industrial dispute by the 1975-84 Muldoon government in locking out the Kinleith Pulp and Paper Mill workers. Muldoon lost – the trade union movement won.

Perhaps one of the finest moments of solidarity in his life occurred in 1974 when the Seamen’s Union was in dispute and held up the ferries from Auckland to Waiheke Island. The seamen had asked the drivers not to deliver oil to the boats and they duly obliged. This action led the late Justice Mahon to issue a court order for the ban to be lifted. The Drivers Union refused to lift the ban so Mahon had Bill arrested by court order and he got locked up in Mount Eden Prison. His arrest caused outrage and many unions around the country were mobilising for a national day of strike action.

In fact 20,000 workers marched up Queen Street in Auckland in protest at his arrest. The (Labour) Government eventually got involved and Tom Skinner (FOL President) was sent to see Bill in prison and it was in Mount Eden that the Seamen‘s claims were met. The settlement was presented to a stop work meeting by Tom Skinner and, once endorsed, a court hearing was held and Bill was let out.

Bill’s commitment to social justice wasn’t just reflected in union activity. His support for the tangata whenua was strong and unwavering. This was demonstrated over many decades. From support in the late 70’s during the Bastion Point struggles to the foreshore and seabed issue today, Bill demonstrated a clear and deep understanding for Maori and their battle to win back land and have decent housing, health and education (indeed, I last met Bill at the foreshore and seabed hikoi, in Queen Street, in October 2004. Ed.). Similarly his support for the Pacific Island community earned him great respect.

1970s & 80s: He Was Muldoon’s Bete Noire

In 1986 the Drivers Union amalgamated into the Northern Distribution Union and later Bill was elected President, a position he held up until his death. Bill was involved in helping all sorts of organisations. If people were being dealt to, no matter what the cause, Bill was there. Whenever there was a picket on you could guarantee Bill Andersen was offering advice behind the scenes and would often turn up to those pickets and stand in solidarity with the workers in struggle.

When recently asked what he thought was the most successful struggle he had been involved in the answer was the Kinleith Pulp and Paper Mill strike in 1980. That dispute lasted for three months involving, from our union, engine drivers, store workers and drivers taking action. The strike broke Muldoon’s 1980 wage and price freeze. The strike was very successful as it showed what rank and file involvement could do.

He was also on the national executive of the Federation of Labour and for many years President of the Auckland District Trades Council. He was active in all levels of the trade union movement and was involved in many progressive campaigns including opposing US imperialism in the 1960s and 70s war in Vietnam. Bill always had been a member of a Communist party since he returned from his seafaring days overseas (he started in the former Communist Party of New Zealand, then went with the pro-Soviet Socialist Unity Party when the Sino-Soviet split occurred in the 1960s. He had a very high public profile as a national leader of the SUP. Following the 1990s demise of the Soviet Union, and the "collapse of Communism", Bill became a founding leader of the Socialist Party of Aotearoa and remained so until his death. Ed.).

In the 80’s Muldoon and Bill often clashed publicly. The Auckland District Law Society in 1971 even organised a public debate between two of them on "Unions and the Law ". Bill once stood against Muldoon in his true blue Tamaki electorate in a general election. He gained less than 100 votes. When Muldoon publicly gloated about this result Bill’s retort was "Well, Mr Muldoon, you stand for President of the Northern Drivers Union and see how many votes you get!!".

Muldoon was a scaremonger and ran a smear campaign on Bill and other militant trade union leaders. An article in Truth (which was then a formidable national weekly, devoted, in equal parts, to scandal and hysterical anti-Communism. Ed.) said that Bill was like the bubonic plague. Prominent business people vied for the spotlight on this bandwagon. The late Bob Owens, for example, from Owens Transport, said the only way to shut Bill Andersen up was with a .303 bullet. He received some hate mail as well but some of it Bill found amusing and kept. One bogus 1981 letter, purporting to summons him to an appointment for an "optrectomy operation" at Auckland Public Hospital, is a beauty. "The purpose of this delicate operation is to sever the cord that conects (sic) your eyes to your rectum and hopefully get rid of your shitty outlook on life".

1990s- 05: Leading The Struggle For Unions To Survive

My close personal association with Bill has been relatively short, only since the mid 1990’s. It was in this period that the union movement in Aotearoa was sorely tested. The Right had introduced the draconian Employment Contracts Act (ECA) in 1991, a number of unions amalgamated and with Bolger‘s National government re-elected in 1993 we experienced an incredibly difficult and challenging time.

It was a period where Bill worked tirelessly to organise, consolidate and buffer our union against the effects of the ECA. He saw the vital importance of enhancing education and training of workplace activist delegates, building broader links with progressive organisations and working with the Centre Left political parties to campaign against all that was oppressive and anti-union in that vicious legislation.

Bill worked actively to secure a number of amalgamations in the 90’s to form what is now the National Distribution Union (NDU) of some 20,000 members. The South Island Clothing Workers Union. Northern Apparel Workers Union, the Wood Industries of Aotearoa, and NZ Food and Textile Union were just some examples. Also after a period of NDU disaffection with the NZ Council of Trade Unions (NZCTU) leadership, resulting in disaffiliation in the 1990’s, Bill supported reaffiliation under the CTU’s new leadership and direction.

Organise, Organise, Organise

Bill’s dedication in advancing the interests of the working class was unswerving. He had that particular ability to forcefully advance reasoned argument in an objective way and he was absolutely dogged in his determination at times. A characteristic I found particularly attractive (and many others have recently commented on this) was his clear, calm objective thinking and his genuine interest in encouraging and promoting in delegates, members and officials the critical need to organise, organise, organise.

He constantly reminded us, whether in delegate training forums, National Conference meetings, delegate conferences or at stopwork meetings somewhere, of the importance of thinking, objectivity and carefully and calmly taking in all the facts and drawing conclusions from those facts which hopefully developed the best possible tactics and strategy in any given situation. He disliked arrogance, subjective thinking and personal attacks.

Bill was truly a man of the people who took a genuine interest in what was happening in their lives, their families, kids’ sport (particularly if it was rugby league) and was compassionate and generous towards others in times of need. For example an NDU organiser told me recently that Bill phoned her every day for several weeks to enquire into the welfare of her father who was seriously ill at the time. He did the same with me when my mother was critically ill in 2004. He also gave a lot of unqualified financial support to those in need and, as I understand, to a point at one stage where his own financial viability was close to being seriously threatened.

Bill’s loathing for all for all forms of oppression and exploitation was centred in his politics – he was a dedicated Communist and an amazing humanist. His love for people was as strong as his distaste of the social & economic inequality of capitalism. He worked tirelessly for social and economic change.

Bill was also an incredibly hard worker. Prior to his January 2005 fatal heart attack he was still working extraordinarily long hours. Hours that unionists 40 years younger would find difficult to sustain (he was a couple of days short of 81 when he died. Ed.). A tribute to that fact was made by a long-serving delegate at a union seminar in 2004 where he said: "I have never seen a harder working trade unionist than Bill Andersen", and he was absolutely right.

It has to be said Bill was not the shining example of a good work/life balance – in fact it was the reverse - work was his life and life was his work. Sadly Bill was also a victim of ageism – there were some who thought he should have retired long ago – for my money, however, he was a taonga – a living treasure that continued to offer our union huge historical experience and perspective, and inject fresh ideas, strategies and tactics right up to the very end – and those contributions will be greatly missed.

He Wasn’t A Dour Old Commo

Before finishing this I have to mention to Bill’s great sense of humour. One example of his wry wit was when he and Finance Minister, Michael Cullen, were talking with each other at a CTU function in Hawkes Bay in 2004. A press photographer interrupted them and asked if he could take a picture for the local newspaper. Michael nodded and Bill turned to the Minister with a smile and said: "Are your sure about this – this could mark the end of your political career!". The humour didn’t end there though. The photo duly featured in the paper along with an article, which referred to Mr Bill Andersen as National President of the Engineering, Printing & Manufacturers Union (which doubtless produced apoplexy in the Engineers’ Union, which is definitely not headed by Communists. Ed.)

Lastly I want to say that Bill Andersen was a good friend and a comrade - a good and decent man - an inspirational workmate and mentor to many of our staff. He will be sadly missed and he is a great loss to the working class. I finish with a poem written for Bill and sent to him anonymously some years ago by a person who encountered him at an airport terminal. I believe this poem captures nicely the essence of Bill Andersen.

To Bill

Met a friend called Bill the other day

At the airport out of town, a five minute plane delay,

He ambled across to me in his own quiet way,

And we greeted each other in the old Maori way,

On this wintry afternoon, we both talked, sat down,

And he seemed quite at ease, barely a frown

We embraced each other’s ideas, hopes and aspirations

For our time was short, due to other destinations.

He’s too far ahead of his time, I could see

As this giant-hearted man sat talking to me,

On into dusk, two generations, two cultures, reached out to each other.

And I knew in my heart, when Bill’s gone there won’t be another.

As I said, I met a friend called Bill the other day…

One brief, warm meeting, changed my whole outlay…

Bill died on January 19th, 2005 and was survived by his two sons, Karl and Glen and daughter Rochelle and his partner Jennifer Francis.

Bill Andersen was never a member of CAFCA. Indeed, in his heyday as a national leader of the pro-Soviet Socialist Unity Party (SUP), I actively opposed what he stood for. Having visited both the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union in the 1970s, I had no doubt that he had backed the wrong side in the bitter ideological divide which split the Second World (remember the Second World? I should add that as the People’s Republic has regressed to being just China, proving that one party dictatorships and capitalism are a perfect match, my opinion of that country has changed drastically). And as for the SUP’s domestic policy, which was to dampen down any popular movement that threatened the electoral chances of the Labour Party (which it saw as the best hope for workers), the less said the better. It exemplified all the worst characteristics of the trade union bureaucracy. CAFCA had only the most passing acquaintance with the SUP.

But in the 1990s, following the demise of the Soviet Union and Bill moving on from the SUP, my opinion of him improved markedly (as opposed to my view of his former SUP and union colleague, the lamentable Ken Douglas, which has worsened considerably). Bill contacted us and wanted to listen to what we had to say. This was done through the Workers’ Institute for Scientific Socialist Education, which ran seminars and built a base among progressive unionists. On a couple of occasions WISE hosted me at meetings, in Auckland and Hamilton. In the course of driving me back to Auckland from the Hamilton one, Bill and I had a wide ranging discussion, which impressed on me his genuine interest in learning from past mistakes, putting aside political differences, and building a broadbased popular movement. Having finally met him, decades after first becoming aware of him, I liked him and we got on well. He was open minded and had a good sense of humour. He never stopped strategising and he was always looking for people with whom he could productively work. He would regularly ring either myself or Bill Rosenberg, looking for information or to discuss things.

He was the President of the National Distribution Union (NDU) up until his death. This is one of the two unions (the other being the former Seafarers Union) with whom CAFCA has had, and continues to have, a good working relationship. The NDU buys the biggest number of each issue of Watchdog; both Bill Rosenberg and I have spoken at seminars for its officials and delegates. Bill Andersen was unashamedly an old style trade unionist, one who recognised the central reality of class struggle, and who set a militant tone for the NDU. I remember his pride in showing me the union’s "Battle Bus" (for use at picket lines) at its Auckland national office. He was unafraid to get out on picket lines and get himself arrested, even well into his 70s. He was a refreshing reminder of what unions had been, and should be again, in an age when far too many of them concentrated solely on the struggle to survive in a hostile world, and/or took to fighting each other for members. Or, worst of all, abandoned their principles to seek "partnership" with employers or a safe sinecure as a Labour MP. Politics was his life and he lived it until he died. Bill Andersen’s death really does mark the end of an era. Ed.


Death in the family: Don Horton

- Murray Horton

It is no exaggeration to say that I would not have been able to even contemplate taking on the job of CAFCA/ABC Organiser if it had not been for the support of my father, Don Horton, who died in February 2005, aged 86. When the situation arose, back in 1991, for me to leave the regular workforce and take the leap of faith to do this on a paid basis, I did so secure in the knowledge that I had a freehold house, courtesy of him. His generosity was on a scale that frankly astonished me, when I tallied it all up after his death; it was completely unsolicited and it carried on for many years, right up until the end of his life.

Not that he was in any way supportive of CAFCA, which he always routinely referred to as "Cat’s Fart". Politically we were like cat and dog for many years, but as we both got older, there was a fundamental recognition, not just that blood is thicker than water, but of the right to agree to disagree. And we had enormous fun needling each other. In fact, our political views got somewhat closer the older we got (you can interpret that any way you like). He was an intensely private man, to the point of being virtually a recluse for the final quarter of his life. We gave him a private funeral in respect of his wishes ("I don’t want any of those big long speeches"), he would definitely not be happy to be featuring in Watchdog (that’s all right, I’m pulling editorial rank here) and he would be mortified to be sharing space with Bill Andersen, whom he always mixed up with Jim Anderton ("they’re all the same").

Donald Charles Horton was born in July 1918, in a house in Wellington’s Island Bay. World War 1 still had several murderous months to run. His middle name came from an uncle who was killed at the Somme and whose body was never found. It was only in late 2004, when tens of thousands were lining the streets of Wellington to welcome home the repatriated Unknown Warrior, that the old man mentioned that there was a mathematical chance of the occupant of that coffin being my great-uncle Charlie.

His father (who died several years before I was born) was an Aussie from Queensland who came to New Zealand in the early years of the 20th Century looking for work. So I’m a quarter Australian, and perfectly proud of that. It’s a country and people for whom I have a lot of time; it’s just its politics on a wide variety of issues that I find abhorrent. The old man knew nothing of his Australian ancestors, and it wasn’t until the late 1980s that a Queensland relative doing the family tree tracked us down. Turns out I’m descended from a fair dinkum convict ("so there’s two criminals in the family" was his conclusion), who made good and is honoured in the city of Toowoomba, which he helped to found. I went over and met these long lost rellos, which included a number of old bananabenders who looked unnervingly like my father and who were prone to pronouncements such as "I don’t mind the Ities, but I can’t stand these Vietnamese". The old man would have fitted right in with his trans-Tasman whanau. But his family had told him nothing about the convict ancestor. That whole episode of British/Australian relations was known as The Stain by polite society, ashamed of their "criminal" background. For the record, my ancestor (whose surname, incidentally, was Orton) was sentenced to "seven years transportation beyond the seas" for the crime of stealing a coat worth 16 shillings. He was 16 years old.

Don was the middle of three kids (he outlived both his siblings) and grew up in a working class family in a succession of rented homes in Wellington. He told me that the Depression never affected him personally nor his family (his father was a skilled worker, a compositor, in the printing industry). He got office work when he left high school. It was a working class Labour family, with the mandatory photo of the sainted Michael Joseph Savage on the wall. He reckoned his mother, a tough old product of Victorian Christchurch, told him that he had to vote Labour because his father did (the same applied to wearing a hat, apparently).

War, Capture, Escape

World War 2 most definitely did affect him. He was of the generation that was slaughtered in their tens of millions by that central event in 20th Century world history, and it is the survivors of that war that are now dying out steadily. He didn’t wait to be conscripted but volunteered, and was duly shipped out to North Africa with the 19th Battalion to help defend the British Empire in the desert. He had all the standard experiences of a New Zealand soldier in a totally foreign culture (it was the only time he ever left the country), complete with all the racial prejudices about "wogs and gippos". On one day trip he circumnavigated a fair chunk of today’s Israel and Lebanon by taxi, stopping to float in the Dead Sea (a "great big wog with a gun" stopped him crossing into Jordan via the Allenby Bridge). His experiences of the "Holy Land" confirmed his lifelong aversion to all religion (he’d never even been baptised, which was unusual for his generation. But he made sure that I was, and sent me to [Anglican] Sunday School and [Presbyterian] Bible Class - whichever church was closest to where we were living at the time - just to have 50 cents each way. The only outfit he had any time for was the Salvation Army, to the extent of including them in his will).

Inevitably, being in a war meant that he was expected to do some fighting. In the build up to the Battle of El Alamein the Kiwi infantry were sent off into the desert with the promise that Pommy tanks would be along shortly to provide support. The next tank he saw was the German one which captured him. Just like in the war comics, his captor said: "For you the war is over". He had the relative good luck to be handed over to the Italians and held in prisoner of war (POW) camps in northern Italy. The nature of his internment can be gauged from the stories he told me about the guard who got the POWs to hold his rifle while he picked apples for them, or had assignations with his girlfriend. One day in 1943 the POWs woke up to find that all the guards had fled, as a result of the overthrow of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime, in Rome. The Nazis were quick to step in and fill the vacuum; the old man was among those who exercised their initiative and shot through (those POWs who stayed in the deserted camps were rounded up by the Germans and shipped to camps in Germany). He had the biggest adventure of his life, spending days on the run in northern Italy, being sheltered and hidden by all manner of Italians, from peasants to nuns.

Finally he crossed the border into neutral Switzerland, which was playing host to stray soldiers and airmen from both sides. Officially the likes of these escaped Kiwi POWs were interned, but they were basically completely free. For instance, he learned to ski. The war raged all around Switzerland and occasionally intruded – the Americans bombed the wrong side of the border, because Germany was blacked out but neutral Switzerland left all its lights on at night. In 1944, the Allies liberated France and he was amongst those sent to Marseilles on the first train into that port. Shooting was still going on as scores were settled between the French Resistance and their countrymen who had collaborated with the puppet Vichy regime. From there he began the long sea journey home (arriving back to find that his father had died while both his sons were overseas). He survived the war unscathed, apart from the conjunctivitis that he contracted in the desert, which earned him a partial war pension for the rest of his life.

For many men of that generation, the war was the central event of their lives. It was certainly the biggest adventure of my father’s life, but he certainly didn’t dine out on it, or even dwell on it. It featured in the blazing rows we had during the turbulent first few years of my life as a political activist, but only as part of the bigger picture of a clash of two generations, two very different views of the world. He quit the Returned Services Association not long after the war, and was adamant he wanted it to play no part in his funeral. He did belong to the Ex-Prisoners of War Association for a lot longer, I went with my parents to its dances and social functions and I grew up on a diet of its newsletter, POW Wow (get it?). Christine Dann is well known to Watchdog readers. Long before I’d ever met her, I knew her father, Brownie Dann, a longtime leading figure in the Canterbury branch of the Association.

Just a fortnight before his death (from terminal kidney failure; it was a heart attack that actually killed him) he reluctantly asked to be shown through a rest home. The one recommended to him by the geriatric health system assessor was Christchurch’s war veterans’ home. I admired his fighting spirit – he got out of there as fast as his walking frame would carry him, declaring it to be "a Gothic castle full of zombies and old buggers sitting round all day talking about Alamein". The only other person to attend his funeral was his neighbour of 23 years. She was surprised to see the photos of him in uniform, as he’d never mentioned that he’d been in the war, let alone an escaped POW. It goes without saying that his attitude to media publicity was diametrically different to mine. The opportunity arose, in the last couple of years of his life, to be featured in a Press article about the dwindling band of escapees from Italian POW camps. He turned it down flat. This is not to say that the war did not affect him. One of my most memorable Christmas dinners was in 1982 when he met an old friend of mine visiting from Germany, and it soon became apparent that this was the first German he’d met since WW2. The old man definitely did not follow Basil Fawlty’s injunction of "Don’t mention the war", one thing led to another, and he went home early. Oh dear.

Marriage: Never A Dull Moment

Following his demobilisation from the Army, he went home to mother and got a job with the Government (he worked for the public service until he retired), plus he did a year of night lectures at Victoria University as part of the education opportunities made available to ex-servicemen by the Government. He met my mother, Vera, in one of the offices where they worked together. She was seven years older than him, had been married twice before and had a teenage daughter, June (see Watchdog 102, May 2003, for my obituary of my half-sister. It can be read online at They got married in 1949 and I, their only child, was born in 1951 (the old man put it thus: "Your mother had two miscarriages and you were the third"). When I was a couple of years old, we moved out to the first home he’d bought, out in what was then the farflung suburb of Linden (between what was then known as Tawa Flat and Porirua).

My parents really were like chalk and cheese, and I was the product of this odd couple. He devoted his life to security and respectability, a conservative in the true meaning of the word, a man who abhorred "emotionalism" (he expressed affection by giving money, very generously). He was quiet and reserved, Mum was the opposite of all of the above. She was "emotionalism" personified. She had had a pretty rugged life (for instance, her first 21 years were spent in institutions and foster homes, some of them horrifically abusive). She was 39 when I was born, and she suffered what is now called post-natal depression. This apparently triggered the mental illness that plagued her for the rest of her life, namely bipolar disorder (it was called manic depression in her day). She died (of cancer, the legacy of chain smoking) when I was 21. In nearly every one of those years she averaged several months in either Porirua or Sunnyside mental hospitals. She had the whole gamut of treatments available in those days, some of which she feared and dreaded (such as electro-convulsive therapy, better known as "shock treatment"). She was committed more than once, taken away by the cops to be put up before a magistrate, the whole horror show. In fact she was a committed patient when she died. So, having a mentally ill parent was part of my daily reality. When I was a little kid, I was farmed out to relatives in the Hutt Valley for months on end (the first place where I ever met Maori, incidentally, in the very white bread New Zealand of the 1950s). In 1960, Don was among the "Founding Fathers" of the Christchurch Regional Office of the Department of Education, so we permanently shifted to Christchurch. I was nine. Throughout my high school years he was my solo parent for months of every year.

Living with mental illness is no picnic for the family and I certainly have plenty of memories to vouch for that (including one or two half pie suicide attempts that she made, via overdosing on some of the vast quantities of pills that her doctor prescribed to keep her doped to the eyeballs). When she was depressed, she was basically a zombie. When she was manic, she was away with the fairies, expressing herself by lavishly spending the old man’s money (usually on presents for me and her grandkids. The old man was nearly bankrupted twice. Thank God she died before credit cards were invented). But when she was well, life was a barrel of laughs. She was tremendous fun to be around, and when she was good, life was good.

I have many happy childhood memories of the old man reading countless books to me (when I asked him to read me the Bible, he got as far as The Begats in Genesis, then we both lost interest). He took me to weekly rugby matches at Athletic Park in Wellington and Rugby Park in Christchurch (in the days when you could see All Blacks playing club rugby as a matter of course) and to the cricket at Lancaster Park in summer. Both of them went to the races, the pictures, there were parties and dances. He did the things that respectable pillars of society do, some of them quite memorable. For example, he was the foreman of a murder trial, one which couldn’t agree on its verdict. This involved a man charged with murdering his wife. It was a very different society then – the jury in the retrial found that he’d been provoked by his wife, so he walked from court a free man.

In light of his final quarter century of self-imposed solitude, it is salutary to remember that he used to regularly go to the pub after work, and that our Christchurch family home hosted quite a few parties, where the old man got pissed and sang. But there was going to be no happy ending for Mum, and frankly her death was a relief for all concerned, her most of all. Whenever I asked him why he didn’t do anything about getting remarried, he simply said: "Once bitten, twice shy". But there had never been any question of divorce, despite the enormous strain that Mum’s illness caused in their marriage. I asked him this once, and he was surprised, saying that he’d married her for life and it was his duty to stand by her through sickness and in health, exactly as he’d vowed on his wedding day.

Suffice to say that he had a very different attitude to mental illness to me. He was ashamed of it, and kept it as quiet as he could (in those days, the words "women’s troubles" were sufficient to describe a multitude of conditions). In 1987 the Official Information Act was amended to include medical records. I applied to Sunnyside for Mum’s, not out of mere personal curiosity, but because in a certain percentage of cases, bipolar can be hereditary. However I was told I needed the permission of the executor of her estate, and the old man turned me down flat. "Let sleeping dogs lie, you’ll only use it in some article" (he was right, now). When I mentioned the hereditary aspect, he replied with a certain brutal logic: "If you were going to be a bloody looney, you’d be one by now". I dropped the subject and respected his wishes until he died. I have since read her Sunnyside file, which was a gruelling but fascinating experience. I should add that there is no evidence that any other family member, including me, has inherited this condition. So, although I can be accused of being a looney leftie, I am not a leftie looney.

War Of The Worlds

Of course, this was not taking place in a vacuum. This was the 60s, that most mythologised of decades. We started off fighting about the usual Big Issues of that era, namely haircuts and music. I’ll give him one thing, he could put on a bloody good row. I can remember at least one punch up. Then, in my final years at high school and on into university, I changed from a supporter of the Americans in Vietnam and the Israelis in the Middle East, and of rugby links with South Africa, to holding quite the opposite points of view. He was a respectable public servant, who voted National and was horrified that his blue eyed son and heir had transformed into a longhaired bloody nohoping Commo bastard. I became a leading public figure in the Progressive Youth Movement (PYM), which struck dread into the hearts of all "right thinking people" (which was a commonly used phrase in those days, without a hint of irony). The old man devoted considerable energy into thinking up insulting combinations of words to fit that acronym – my favourite was "Pimply Young Men".

Even his job put him at odds with my friends. In those days, trainee teachers were bonded, and if they didn’t meet their bond obligations upon graduation, the Department of Education (in the person of my Dear Old Dad) took civil court action against their surety, who was usually their father. He was involved in court action against a string of very high profile figures (such as the daughters of a judge and a National Cabinet Minister, and the wife of a future Labour Minister), not to mention personal friends and comrades of mine. He was a very zealous bureaucrat. Just within the past few months, when I told one friend (and a veteran CAFCA member, to boot) that the old man was dying, she replied: "I’m sorry to hear it, but that man persecuted me for years". So now you know from whom I inherited my zeal to hunt down overdue CAFCA members.

The last straw for him came when I was arrested, for the first time (protesting the 1970 visit of US Vice President, Spiro Agnew) and he got rung late at night by the cops to say that I was in custody in the Auckland Police Station. When I arrived home soon afterwards, he presented me with an ultimatum: "Get a haircut, get a job, get married, get out of this stupid outfit with whom you’re involved – or get out by Wednesday". I got out by Wednesday. My crying mother gave me the taxi fare and held the door open. I was 18. I told my girlfriend that I needed a place to stay for a fortnight, and proceeded to stay for 18 years (as she never failed to remind me). In those early years he was definitely not happy about me being a high profile political activist, with a tendency to get arrested on a regular basis. On one occasion he, quite seriously, suggested that I should change my name. I replied that as my middle name is Donald, I’d be happy to be known as Don Horton the shitstirrer. He never raised that subject again.

But once we were no longer living under the same roof (and we never did again), we got on much better. My political activism was simply factored into the lives of all of us. For example, Mum died in 1972, the day after the most volatile of PYM’s annual protests at the ANZAC Day wreath laying ceremony. He was furious at me, but life went on, because blood is thicker than water. I asked him for a loan to go on a student delegation to China, my first overseas trip (in 1973) – he replied that he didn’t lend money, but gave it to me instead, because he knew that it meant a lot to me. For several years after I left home I had a key and retained full use of my old bedroom there, for study and work purposes. In those days before internal (infernal?) assessment, when the end of year exams meant everything, I did all my third term swotting there. My long-suffering partner was resigned to me disappearing back to the suburbs for days on end when I was supposed to be living with her.

We even maintained a civil relationship during the extraordinary days of the 1981 Springbok Tour, when we were very much on opposite sides (to the end of his life, he referred to John Minto as "that hatchet faced bastard" and Trevor Richards as "that walrus faced bastard"). For the First Test, I did my stint of battling the cops’ Red Squad thugs outside Lancaster Park, then at halftime ran all the way to his flat to watch the second half of the game with him on TV.

He Definitely Was The Retiring Sort

In fact, 1981 proved such an exciting year for him that he decided that he needed a good long lie down. So he retired and, that same year, moved to the Riccarton flat where he lived out the rest of his life (never spending a night away from it until we had to have him rushed to hospital, in extremis, in the winter of 2004). He took retirement very seriously indeed, it was his fulltime occupation. It’s a time consuming business waiting to die. Whenever I asked him "Who’s going to win the election/the World Cup/whatever?", he always replied "I’ll be dead by then". But he surprised himself and kept on keeping on, becoming the longest lived of his family. It was only when he had achieved his goal of living to a greater age than his mother that he very rapidly went into decline and died within a few months. There was nothing more for him to achieve, he didn’t take kindly to my suggestion that he hang on until 100 and get a telegram from Queen Camilla (he hated the Royal Family and their entire class with fervour).

Whilst waiting to die, he decided that he might as well enjoy life in the interim. Nothing too flamboyant, mind you. He kept himself to himself, he was ferociously independent, and he was very happy to keep the world at bay, dealing with it strictly on his own terms. But he stayed very much in touch, and was very well informed, at least by the mainstream media. He subscribed to Time for 40 years (he tried Newsweek briefly but gave it up as "too Leftwing") and, for decades, he read the "anti-American Listener". He listened to the radio all day, so was a regular source of information for me. He had a very keen sense of humour (I still remember Becky’s amazement when he sang for her, falsetto, "The Yingtong Song" from his beloved Goon Show) and often scouted out quirky TV comedy shows long before I’d ever looked at them or heard of them, shows ranging from The Simpsons to Father Ted. He was always a fan of the oddball in any such series, characters such as Sharon in Kath and Kim. But the comedy character he most identified with was Cleggy from Last Of The Summer Wine, the character who strove mightily, and always unsuccessfully, to keep madcap adventures at bay. I’ve been asked by friends where I got the raconteur’s ability to make a story out of a mundane occurrence – the answer is from him. He lived a life that was boring to outward appearances but he could turn the most mundane event (such as the odd doorknocking visit by stray Biblebashers) into a fullblown comedy. The old bugger was a natural! If he’d allowed himself, he could have been the life of the party.

Visiting Day

For the past several decades, partners, friends and colleagues knew never to schedule anything for me on Saturday afternoons. That was visiting day, a completely ritualised process involving a generous portion of top shelf (his being blind in one eye meant that his doubles were more like quadruples), and several hours of non-stop conversation about everything. Extremely detailed analyses of rugby and cricket (I got into the habit of reading the Sports section first in the Saturday Press so as to be fully briefed for these discussions). And very free and frank discussion of national and international politics. No holds were barred, he was my most stringent critic – when we got right down to the fundamentals of power and money, he would burst into his favourite song, to the tune of "The Red Flag": "The working class can kiss my arse, I’ve got a bludger’s job at last". He was an old Tory, and Piggy was his hero. But in his last decade, his politics changed back to his Labour roots. He voted against MMP in the referendum, but being given two votes, he used them inventively. In 1996, he voted National and Jim Anderton ("the only honest man in politics" – he was revising that opinion by the 2002 election). When the Shipley coup dumped Jim Bolger, he decided that National was now too Rightwing for him, and in the 1999 and 02 elections, he voted Labour and Anderton. He was astonished when I told him that his Wellington brother had taken to calling him "that socialist in Christchurch".

He was an old style conservative, a Muldoonist, indeed he supported Helen Clark because she was the first Prime Minister to remind him of Piggy. He strongly believed that the State had a vital role to play in a civilised society and hated Rogernomics and everything that flowed from it. He always referred to David Lange as "that fat bastard who ruined a perfectly good education system" and Sir Geoffrey Palmer was immortalised as "the bellowing cold fish". The last conversation I ever had with him was about Don Brash’s Orewa speech. He thought Brash had had a charisma bypass and added: "I’ve been listening to these let‘s-bash-the-bludgers speeches all my life". So, no, he didn’t have a deathbed conversion back to National.

And he was capable of surprising. He was not a sexist. The public service had led the way with women employees, women bosses and pay parity, so that stuff didn’t frighten him. Apropos of nothing one day, he said: "abortion should be a woman’s right to choose" (I think his views on that were determined by his intense dislike of the Catholic Church. Father Ted captured exactly all his stereotypes about Catholic clergy). Nor was he a homophobe. When I told him, several years after the event, of the actual reason why my first partner left, he responded: "Is that all. I thought she left you for another bloke", then added as an afterthought, "I met a couple of them once". She remained very fond of him for the remaining 18 years of his life and made a point of contacting him whenever she was in town. She cried when told of his death, describing him as "a man with a boyish sense of fun who tried to pass himself off as a crusty old bureaucrat".

Both A Pigheaded Old Bugger And A Gentleman

Other big changes came into his life, courtesy of me. In 1991, he was delighted that after 18 years of "living in sin" in my first relationship, I was going to get married. But when told that it was to a Filipina, his response was "a bloody wog" (and a "Mick", to boot). But that unpromising beginning was soon forgotten. He was an emotional racist, not an ideological one. At the very end of his life he actually made a speech including the immortal cliché: "they’re just like us, really". In no time at all, he was besotted by Becky, and she became inordinately fond of him. It was fascinating to watch his reaction to this Asian in his life, and see him on his best behaviour, struggling to remember the correct names of races that had hitherto been referred to only as "the horis" or "the chows". He was astonished to have an Asian daughter-in-law who became a rugby fanatic and could engage him in extremely detailed discussions on the respective merits of Andrew Mehrtens (her hero) versus Carlos Spencer (villain). His guard slipped during the blood lust of televised sport and he never failed to describe any prominent Polynesian sportsman (Jonah Lomu, David Tua, et al) as "a big dumb coconut". He was never sure whether to be flattered or suspicious when the Manila in-laws seamlessly absorbed him into the whanau. Becky brought a lot of joy into his life and shook up the old stick in the mud – she remains the only Horton to have ever learned to drive – and he doted on her. Fundamentally he was a gentleman and she brought out all his old world courtliness and every time she visited him he put on a little party for her – wine, special cakes, the best china (when I visited solo I got a whisky, a cup of coffee and three bikkies to eat out of my hand). During the terribly strained final few months of his life, when he and I were fighting on a regular basis, she was the good cop who smoothed things out, and cared for him at the most basic level (the last day we saw him alive, he was happy because, for the first time ever, she gave him a haircut). I told her that I wanted $1 for every time she used the phrase "like father, like son". It was Becky who found him, peacefully dead in his bed (just the way he so fervently wished to die), and she was more upset about it than I. She misses him very much.

Fortunately, when he was diagnosed with terminal kidney failure, it only took a few months. We had a sort of cockeyed understanding – I don’t do caregiving very well and he hated dying. He took very seriously Dylan Thomas’ poetic injunction to his own dying father: "Do not go gently into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light". My old man did rage very well, mainly at me, I raged back and we all had a bloody good rage. He remained triumphantly non-PC to the end, loudly proclaiming in a crowded hospital ward: "All the nurses here are fat". Naturally, his Chinese roommate was rechristened "Charlie Chan" (actually they got on famously, primarily because they didn’t speak a word of each other’s language).

His specialist agreed with my description of him as "a pigheaded old bugger" but said that had positive aspects because of the ferocious will to live that was part and parcel of it. His life of routine stood him in good stead when he was dying. He did a full week’s shopping, on foot, the day before he died, despite being down to a skeletal 50 kgs and being hardly able to function (the only thing that would have annoyed him was that he died on rubbish day before he could put his bag out). But the last time we saw him alive, a few days before his death, he was happy and relaxed, exactly as we remembered him before he got crook. He was adamant that he wanted to die in his own time, in his own home, on his own terms. He did exactly that and was very proud that "I’ve still got my marbles", right up until the end. Most of us would hope that we could do likewise.

I am only too aware of what I have inherited from him, both good and bad (you’ve probably discerned some of it by reading this). It goes without saying that we never said "I love you" to each other. Come on, we’re Kiwi blokes. But equally, it goes without saying that we didn’t have to, we both knew it. We never said it but we were very proud of each other, warts and all. I miss him terribly, and find myself still thinking of numerous things that I want to discuss with him.

So, I found myself an orphan at 53 (the same age at which he became a widower). At the time of writing, we’re organising a family plot, which will reunite my parents after a generation apart, and eventually we will join them there. I tell you, it’s a bloody peculiar sensation selecting your own grave. I remain to be convinced that there is an afterlife but if there is, I hope there’s free to air rugby and a decent supply of top shelf, as we’ll have a lot of catching up to do. Here’s mud in your eye, Dad. See you later.

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Foreign Control Watchdog, P O Box 2258, Christchurch, New Zealand/Aotearoa. April 2005.


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