The Ups And Downs Of Jeremy James

University of Otago, Dunedin: 1st Year (1977)

 

 

University of Otago

 

In February I packed my bag and caught a plane down to Dunedin.  On the flight, by chance, there happened to be another student who I had known at Whanganui High School and who was now also on his way to Otago University.  He was not someone who I had known well but it was great meeting him again.  As it turned out, he was accompanied by his father who was going down on business and he had arranged for a hire car, so they gave me a lift from the airport into Dunedin and dropped me at the Arana Hall of Residence.

I have mentioned previously those times of transition that had brought change into my life.  Progressing up from from Avon Primary School to Stratford High School had been a change.  Moving from Stratford to Whanganui had been a big change.  My experiences of boarding at Whanganui Collegiate School and spending my holidays in Bangladesh had certainly opened my mind.  Now moving to Dunedin and matriculating at the University of Otago was to bring even more change into my life.  I like that word ‘matriculation’.  It means starting at university and joining the team.  Looking back, change was always a bit daunting, but it brought with it the opportunity to learn a lot more about life.

Arana probably had about 100 students, all of whom were male.  Most of us resided in the main block but there were also some outlying buildings, mostly old houses that had been converted into student accommodation.  There was also a gymnasium and a squash court.  Board was fully catered, and we had a large communal dining room where we would all sit down together at mealtimes, 3 times a day, 7 days a week.  Showers and toilets were communal but there were no complaints about this.  I suppose most of us had never heard of ensuite accommodation.  There was a laundry room and a hot drying room.  All students were expected to wash their own clothes.  There were also a number of small kitchen facilities where you could make a cup of tea or cook some toast etc.

Most students tended to spend their first year in one of the Halls of Residence.  After this, for the second and following years, the popular choice was to get into a small group of 4 or 5 students and share a flat (self-catered).  This was referred to as “flatting”.

In the 1970s attending university was free.  There were no student loans.  All the tuition fees were paid for by the government, provided you had passed your exams at secondary school.  The government paid you an allowance of $25 per week and this covered the cost of your board and meals.  If you had a B bursary then you got an extra $100 per year and if you had an A bursary, you got an extra $50 a year on top of that.  What this meant, was that we were all financially cared for by the state.  Some students took on part-time jobs during term time, but most just got a job in the summer holidays.  Either way, the extra money was very useful.

Looking back, there must have been students with rich parents and students with poor parents but this was not all that noticeable.  Very few students had cars, and if they did, it was often because they had taken a few years off previously and earned some good money.  I think rich parents probably did not give their children much extra, as they realised it was better to let them stand on their own two feet.

One thing that was very noticeable was the total lack of Maori students.  This did seem strange and was talked about from time to time.  We did have a diverse range of students, a lot from Malaysia and Singapore, also quite a few New Zealanders with Indian and Chinese backgrounds but no Maori.  I understand that this has now all changed and there are lots of students with Maori backgrounds and presumably the mix of students going to university is now very much aligned with the mix of people across the country.

 

University of Otago. Beautiful old stone buildings in delightful landscaping.

(picture taken in 2005)

 

For me, arriving at the University of Otago really was like arriving at paradise.  Dunedin was a lovely city and the university was very much at the centre of it.  Around the university campus there were lots of amazing old stone buildings, all set in beautifully landscaped grounds and through the middle ran the Leith River.  A short 15 minute walk away, was the middle of town, an area called “The Octagon” and in the centre a statue of the poet Robert Burns.  The city had been founded in 1848 by Scottish settlers and although I didn’t realise it at the time, all the streets had been named after the various streets back in Edinburgh.  In fact, Dunedin was the old Gaelic name for Edinburgh.  I suppose you could say that the city had a very Scottish feel to it, but for me, having not been to Scotland, I was not to know this either.

On the first day we were all gathered together in the Arana gymnasium, where we were welcomed to the university and we were told that we were in the top 5% of the country’s students.  It was lovely that we were all made to feel so special and so welcome.  Everyone was a lot older than me.  I had always been the youngest at school but here at university, there were quite a few students who had taken one or more years off and so many of them were a good few years more mature than I was.  I really did feel young but who cares, I had made it and I was going to get the best out of it.

I was still very shy but I think this was probably a feeling that quite a few of my fellow first year students shared.  For me, my previous 2 years boarding at Whanganui Collegiate School, had probably been a good steppingstone.  For many of the others, starting at Otago was their first time away from home and I suppose some of them found it to be quite daunting.  Over time, I got to know a lot of people and the one thing I do remember was just how nice everyone was.  Not necessarily warm and friendly but always pleasant and welcoming.  The other really nice thing, was that people were calling me ‘JJ’ again and the silly name of ‘Jerry’ or ‘Chirp’ from my Collegiate days was now nothing more than a memory.

I am not sure what the ratio of girls to boys was, but there were definitely more boys than girls.  20 years earlier the boys would have vastly outnumbered the girls but today I understand the girls now outnumber the boys.  It is amazing how things do change over time.

Our first week was full of frenzied activity, selecting subjects and buying textbooks.  In addition, a lot of events were organised to help us get to know each other, including various parties and a big dance (or hop) held at the Students' Union.  One memorable event was a beach party where everyone played volleyball.  But this game of volleyball was a bit different.  Rather than everyone being totally focused on winning, there was much more of a ‘let's have a good time’ attitude.  The game was very enjoyable.  Missing the ball or hitting it completely in the wrong direction was just all part of the fun.

Another thing I remember was the ‘chunder mile’, organised for all the new Arana Hall students.  This was held over at the University Oval at Logan Park, which was a grassed area with a 400m running track marked out.  We were all told that it was compulsory, so we duly appeared at the requested time.  The event was supposed to be a race, that consisted of drinking some beer (served up in a potty), eating a cold meat pie, and then running around the 400m circuit as fast as you could go.  I am not sure why it was called the ‘chunder mile’ as it was only one circuit of the track and therefore the total distance was no more than 400m. 

There wasn’t enough space for us to all start at once, so it was arranged that we would go in batches of about 10 students.  The first batch of 10, got the starter’s orders and it was go.  It really was hilarious seeing these guys trying to consume the pie and the beer as fast as they could; chump, chump, chump and slurp, slurp, slurp followed by a few more chumps and a few more slurps.  It really did seem to take ages.  Eventually they took off around the track and sure enough, for one of the guys it was all too much.  He suddenly stopped, right next to a large bin that had been specially put there for what was about to come.  He leant over the bin, dropped his jaw and had a really good ‘chunder’ (he vomited).  What was then quite incredible, was that he continued to run, and did in fact finish the race.  He hadn’t won, but if there was any gold stars for this, he should have been awarded 5.

The next batch of 10 participants stepped forward ready to start their race, but just as they were collecting their pies from the pie trolley, one of them threw his pie at one of the other guys.  All of a sudden, absolute pandemonium broke out.  There was a massive surge of people from all directions converging on the pie trolley and grabbing as many pies as they could.  Then for a brief moment, the sky was alive with flying pies.  It was an incredibly sight, total mayhem.  People running in all directions, some throwing pies, some being hit by pies.  There were also a few trying to catch the pies and then throw them again.  Within a few minutes all those pies had been very well used and they were all disintegrated into lots of pieces, a crust here and a few bits of meat there.  Perhaps even the odd bit of kidney but I am not certain about that.

All of a sudden, there being no pies left, the whole event was over.  There was a bit of cleaning up to do which I was happy to help with.  It was a great feeling having managed to participate in such a prestigious event without having to eat any pies or drink any beer.

Before long we started our classes.  I chose to do Physics, Biology, Chemistry and Mathematics.  Each week consisted of various lectures in the large lecture theatres and in between were laboratory sessions for the science subjects and a tutorial for maths.  The maths tutorial was held in a classroom with a small group of about 15 of us.  Initially I found maths quite difficult, as having been in the lower class at Whanganui Collegiate there were a lot of things that we just had not covered.  I was very lucky to meet a lovely girl called Barbara King, who was from Auckland.  She could see I was struggling, so she did her best to help me and we spent most of the year sitting together.  As it was, I picked the subject up very quickly, so much so, that by the end I was fairly good at solving all the problems.  I do remember Barbara saying to me one day; how was it that we had started off the year with her helping me with the questions, but finished the year with me helping her with the questions?

There were lots of lovely girls like Barbara and I would have loved to have had a girlfriend but this didn’t happen.  When it came to talking to girls, I didn’t know what to say and really I just wasn’t on their radar screen and most of them were older than me anyway.  I have always remembered a lovely girl called Jenny Cook, who was in quite a few of my first-year classes.  I think looking back, I liked her and she liked me, but again, I just never knew what to say.  I suppose these moments are all part of growing up as we drift through each day, learning as we go along.

A month or so after arriving at Otago, I found out that Rebecca Western (her with the long blonde hair in 2 neat plaits with 2 coloured ribbons, from Avon Primary School) was also at Dunedin, where she had enrolled to do a sports degree.  She was staying in a very old house annexed to Carrington Hall and she had the most amazing room that was high up in a tower with fantastic views out over the University.  It was lovely to meet up with her, but she no longer had her hair in plaits, and like my own hair, it was now much darker.  We had both changed a lot in the intervening 5 years, but she was still very beautiful, and she still had her lovely smile.  Over the year I often popped in to see her when I was out for a run and she was always polite and always took the time to stop and chat for a while.  I remember her favourite LP at the time was ‘Silk Degrees’ by Boz Scaggs.   She wasn’t there the next year and I understand that she married her boyfriend Mark Instone (also from Avon Primary School).

 

‘Silk Degrees’ by Boz Scaggs (1976).

 

My studies continued on through the year, and so did all the various dances and parties.  I didn’t go to all the dances, but one I do remember was the Arana Hall Ball which was held at Larnach Castle, located out on the Otago Peninsula (possibly New Zealand’s only castle).  We all travelled out by bus, with everyone dressed up for the occasion.  There was a live band in the ball room and the drink was all included in the price.  I didn’t drink much as I was not all that keen on alcohol but everyone else certainly made the most of it.  It was a very warm night and I remember lots of people out on the lawn late in the evening, some of them being very sick, having a quick ‘chunder’ in among the flower beds.  It really was a lovely evening and we all enjoyed it.

 

Larnach Castle drawn by Michael Heath-Caldwell in 1979

 

Quite a few of the guys at Arana were into drinking beer in a big way.  They would get together in groups and buy a keg of beer and then have a really serious party.  Eventually one or more of them, would have drunk far too much and would then be very sick, preferably making it to the toilet for a chunder or going outside for a chuck in the garden.  If they disgraced themselves on the premises and made a really big mess, then the rule was that they had to buy another keg for everyone else.  This was called paying for a ‘shout’ or ‘my shout’ and of course this helped to perpetuate Arana’s rather notorious booze sessions.

It was a great atmosphere living at Arana Hall and we all really enjoyed these carefree days but for one of the boys it was to lead to tragic consequences.  Jock Hedley was a real party animal and a great guy who got on well with everybody.  One afternoon, having had a few drinks, he got on a motorbike without a helmet, went off at high speed and had a fatal crash.  Everyone was devastated.  We just couldn’t believe it.  One day he was there and the next day he was gone.  We had a memorial service for him in the gymnasium attended by all the students.  It was a very sad day.

I went home in the May holidays and my mother had found a job for me joining a small gang of scrub cutters, working up in the hills on a remote sheep station.  I only did it for 3 weeks but I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I suppose it was my first real job.  We spent the 3 weeks camped in the shearing quarters and each day we would walk up and down the steep hills chopping down all the young trees that had sprouted up in the grass.  This was nature trying to claim back the land and change it into bush again but of course the farmer needed grass for his sheep to graze, hence the need for us to get out and push the balance of nature more towards the farmer’s liking.   

The other thing I remember about this job was the food.  The farmer supplied us with lamb carcasses or more accurately “a side of lamb”.  We would then take the side of lamb out into the woodshed and chop it into three sections.  The boss had a very big roasting dish and before we left in the morning, we would put a large section of lamb into the roasting dish, surround it by vegetables and then put it in the oven on slow heat.  When we got back at the end of the long day, the smell of cooked food was just wonderful.  We stacked as much as we could fit on our plates and we ate it all.  Whenever I have roast lamb for dinner, it always conjures up memories of my time scrub cutting.

As I mentioned, life at Arana Hall was great.  It really was a case of good food and good company but I do remember one occasion when we had a massive food fight in the dining room.  All of a sudden, the air was full of boiled potatoes flying in all directions and at the same time everyone was hitting the floor looking for shelter under their tables.  I must of course say that looking back I was not at all proud of this moment, but it was extremely enjoyable.  In fact, some of the potato was not cleaned up very satisfactorily and a week later the kitchen failed on a food hygiene inspection and had to be closed down for a few days while they sorted it out.

At university I didn’t watch TV very often, so I can’t remember much about political events going on around the world.  One significant event for the country this year was the government declaring that our economic zone (fishing area) would be increased from 12 nautical miles to 200 nautical miles.  This meant that all the fish in an area a bit over 4,000,000 sq.km were now owned by New Zealand.  The magnitude of this was so large that the following year the Post Office issued a set of 5 stamps including one with a map to show us how big New Zealand had suddenly become.

 

First day cover with stamps marking the declaration of New Zealand’s 200 mile limit (issued 1978).

 

1977 was also the year that the first ‘Star Wars’ movie was released.  I remember everyone talking about it but I don’t think I saw it until a few years later. 

Exams were held over October and November and during this period, completely unconnected, Guy Fawkes fireworks were available in the shops.  Exams and fireworks were probably not going to be a good combination.  Some of the students had been buying skyrockets and the other thing that happened at this time was that someone pinched all the vacuum cleaner tubes from matron’s storeroom.  The cleaning ladies were not very happy about this.  The combination of students, skyrockets and now vacuum cleaner tubes (rocket launchers) became rather explosive.  Over the weekend there was a massive skyrocket war between the main building and some of the adjacent accommodation houses.  Lots of the glass windows were smashed. 

I was away at the time, but I remember seeing this spectacular event being reported on TV.  Mr Dennison the Hall Warden was interviewed in the middle of the mayhem.  He was asked if he had the situation under control, and just as he was answering the question, one of the students threw a bucket of water from one of the upper floors.  You didn’t actually see the bucket on the TV screen but what you did see was Mr Dennison, mid-sentence, being absolutely drenched.  I felt very sorry for him.  He got a lot of abuse from the residents, that he did not deserve, as he was a nice guy really.

Another thing that happened around this time, was that some of the residents started throwing the china dinner plates, as though they were frisbees, which they obviously weren’t.  This progressed on to a lot of the hall china being thrown around and broken.  This was horrible really as it was nothing more than completely unwarranted vandalism.

Sadly, after the year had come to a close, we did not get our deposits back, as the damage to all the windows was quite extensive and all the broken china had to be replaced.  Someone had to pay for it, and it was a case of collective responsibility.  We all had to foot the bill.

 

1977: The young gentlemen of Arana Hall of Residence, students of University of Otago.

 

If you ever get the chance, do watch the film ‘National Lampoon's Animal House’ (1978).  It is an American comedy film that was produced around this time on a tight budget.  Most of the actors were unknown and the story is all about a misfit group of male students who challenge the authority of the dean of Faber College in the great USA (all pure fiction).  It is one of the few films that I have seen more than once, and it reminded me a lot of the humorous side of my time at the Arana Hall of Residence.

At the end of the year I joined the Territorial Army (4th Otago Southland Battalion, of the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment) and reported to the Burnham Military Camp for 12 weeks of training over the holidays.  Some people ask me; why did I decide to join the Territorials?  I suppose the answer was that there were quite a few students who had enlisted and they all spoke very favourably of it.  It was a good job for the summer holiday, as it fitted in perfectly with the dates.  The money was reasonable but most of all, the experience of running around in the bush and firing guns just sounded great.

 

New Zealand Army, 4 cent stamp (issued 1968)

 

Although looking back I was totally unsuited for the army, I absolutely loved it.  For the first two weeks at Burham we were kept going nonstop from 5.00am in the morning until 12.00pm midnight.  Every night when I put my head on my pillow, I instantly went to sleep.  For some people it was just too much and each morning on parade, a small group would double off to the side, sign their exit papers, hand back their kit and we never saw them again.

At Burnham we were given excellent food, the best I had ever had.  Three meals a day with bacon and eggs in the morning, meat and veg for lunch and more meat and veg for dinner.  There was a wide range and I could choose what I wanted.  I probably consumed a lot less dairy and as a result most of the time I felt as fit as a fiddle.

We had to clean our rifles and polish our shoes.  We also learnt to iron our shirts and then hang them in our wardrobe with each one facing to the left (I still do this).  Everything had to be perfect.  There were regular inspections and the corporals, the sergeant and the entire chain of management above them, spent all their time screaming their heads off at us.  Initially this was very unsettling but of course after a while we all got used to it.

The other thing we all had to have was short hair.  I had always had long hair, so this was quite a change for me.  Anyway, we were in the army now, so most of us opted to have a very short ‘crew cut’.  One of the corporals had a set of electric clippers and with the attachment in place it was very quick to do a once over leaving a perfect crop with a uniform hair length of 1cm.  With hair this short, it was a funny feeling to realise that one’s hair was all literally standing on end.  The really great thing about it, was that it was incredibly quick to wash in the shower and fast to dry.  Much more practical than long hair and I have had relatively short hair ever since.

All the training staff were soldiers who had seen active service in the Vietnam War (1964-1972) and our platoon sergeant, who must have been in his late 40s, had also been involved the Korean War (1950-1953) and the Brunei Conflict (1962-1963).  These guys were all serious people.  Initially, to me, it all seemed a bit unreal, as I thought the chances of New Zealand being involved in another war were pretty unlikely, but one of the other guys on the course said to me that we all needed to pretend that it was serious stuff, otherwise we would not really get much out of it.  He was right.  By taking it all seriously, I think I learnt far more than I otherwise would have.

We all lived in the barracks and next to my bed space was Doug Wilson who I got to know quite well.  While I was only 18, Doug was about 10 years older and was one of the people that you look back and remember.  He was a lawyer who had spent a couple of years in Wellington, working for the government at Parliament.  He had got to know many of the politicians of the time and while everybody assumes that these public leaders are all fairly bright people, he told me that he found it to be far from the case.  The MPs certainly all had very good presentation skills and some of them were very smart but some were not.  In fact he told me that when it came to making important decisions, it was fairly obvious that some of the MPs were hopeless and should never have been put in a position of responsibility.

For me this was very enlightening and over my working life I have sometimes found this to be the case.  Just because someone presents themselves well, never assume that they really do know what they are talking about.  Sometimes they will get things very wrong.

Most of our training took place at Burnham but we also spent a few days at Tekapo which was 230km away to the southwest.  This was open country and we had an exercise where we had to dig holes and then sleep overnight in them.  Spending the whole afternoon digging a very large hole was hard work but I really enjoyed it.  I did however feel very sorry for the soldier who was next to me because when he had dug halfway down, he hit a gigantic rock.  He tried to dig around it but it was really huge.  In the end he had no choice but to just fill the hole in and start a completely new one in a different place.  He was pretty despondent but we all lent him a hand later, so by the early evening all our holes were completed.

We had a night attack around midnight which was great fun.  The whole scene was lit up with flares floating down from the night sky and everywhere you looked you could see the flash of grenades and rifle fire.  We were all issued with 7.62mm SLR rifles and shooting lots of blanks was great fun.  The noise was tremendous.  We then slept, but only for a few hours, as we had to get up at about 4.00am and ‘stand to’ ready for dawn.  We were then attacked again by the enemy, just as the daylight was starting to come up.

I also remember going out on a night exercise.  As everything was very dark (no torches) the platoon commander at one stage was rather uncertain about where we were.  I heard his boss on the radio say “are you lost? – over”.   He paused momentarily and then clicked the talk button and confidently replied: “negative – we are experiencing navigational difficulties – over and out”.

The other trip we did, was to Lake Hochstetter, which was about 230km away, over on the West Coast, near Greymouth.  This area was all dense native forest and at night everything really was pitch black.  We camped in the bush and swam in the lake which was really quite idyllic.  Just imagine, other people would pay money to be able to camp at a place like this and here we were, actually being paid to be there.

This was also where we were going to be practising helicopter embarkation and disembarkation but only if the weather was suitable.  None of us had ever been in a helicopter before, so we were all looking forward to it and of course hoping for good weather.  On the day we awoke in the morning to see sun and clear blue skies.  Perfect weather.  We couldn’t believe it when later that morning we were told that the helicopter was cancelled due to fog at Christchurch airport.  Bother!  Better luck next time.

In the army we were given lots of kit and some of this stuff was really useful for camping.  You could buy all this ex-army gear from the Army Surplus Store but a better way was just to officially ‘lose’ it on exercise and then pay the nominal fine.  This was very widely accepted and everyone did it.

One of our fellow recruits was a very comical guy who had the surname of Ching.  I can’t remember what his first name was, as we all just called him Ching.  If he had been Chinese, I suppose there would have been nothing unusual about his name, but his parents were clearly Anglo-Saxon and he told us that they had originated from England.  He was short and stumpy, wore highly magnifying spectacles and he wore a size 14 boot.  This was such a large boot size that the army had to order a special pair for him.

Ching was not a highly intelligent person but he was very genuine and got on with everyone really well.  I am not sure why, but he decided that he would like to buy a mosquito net.  He spoke to the corporal who advised him the best thing to do was to declare it ‘lost’ at the end of the exercise.  Ching felt very uncomfortable about this, as he was not the sort of person who would tell white lies but in the end he managed to understand how the system worked, so all should have been fine.

At the end of the exercise we were lined up in our platoons and the sergeant major went along the lines asking everyone to report any losses.  In each case he wrote down the soldier’s name and the item concerned.  There were quite a few losses being reported and the sergeant major started to get a bit grumpy.  I suppose he thought he had better things to do with his time, rather than writing out a long list of lost items.  When he got to Ching he asked in his rather gruff voice, “what have you lost Private Ching?”  Ching replied, “My mosquito net, sergeant major.”  The sergeant major’s eyebrows rose in disbelief and he bellowed, “how the fuck did you manage to lose a mosquito net?”  Ching was not a fast thinker and had not anticipated the question, so he immediately stuttered and then managed to mumble, “It was very difficult, sergeant major.”  At this point, everyone burst out in laughter.  This was the army and laughing in the presence of the sergeant major was not done but we just couldn’t hold ourselves.  Anyway, Ching’s loss was duly noted by the sergeant major and later that week he had to pay $5 for his mosquito net.  I hope he got good use from it over the following years.

One other memory I have was participating in a 2 mile running race.  We all ran up the road as fast as we could and then at the 1 mile mark we turned around and ran back.  As I made the turn, I was actually second and as I started back, I saw all the faces of everyone who was behind.  All my mates cheered me on and I felt myself speed up even more.  I overtook the guy in front and I won (10 minutes and 35 seconds).  There were over 100 people in that race and I had beaten every single one of them.  I felt tired out, but the joy of winning was just fantastic.  This was the sheer exhilaration that I had never been able to experience during all my time at school.  It made me realise even more, how much fun all the bigger boys at school had been able to enjoy, while I had had to just sit on the side-line.

The 12 week military training finished with the Battle Efficiency test (BE).  Fully laden with a pack and webbing, wearing our boots and carrying our rifles we had to march and jog 10 miles in 2 hours and 10 minutes (13 minutes per mile).  We then had to pick up and carry another soldier, complete with all our kit, a distance of 100m.  Then jump a 6 ft ditch and climb over a 6 ft wall.  To finish off, we were taken down to the firing range where we had to shoot live rounds at a target.  This really was serious stuff and it was a great feeling to have completed it.

I should say something here about ‘teamwork’.  In the army you hear the phrase teamwork again and again.  We were all taught that to succeed you need to work as a team and as a team you need to look after each other.  In any team there are strong people and less strong people, but the key thing is to recognise that everyone is different, and each individual will contribute something.  Competition is strong but when you are in a challenging situation, the key thing is to move forward together and cross the line together.

I learnt a lot during my 12 weeks army training and at the end of the period my level of fitness was exceptionally good.  Someone had once said to me that having a fit body gives you a fit brain.  I am sure that being fit does help your brain to be a bit sharper but most of all being fit just makes you feel great.  From that time on, I have always run regularly and have kept myself in good shape.

 

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