WHEN I WAS A CHILD, a man who was a war veteran came to help my parents on the farm. At meals he’d entertain us kids with his trick of pushing a pencil through a shrapnel hole in his ear which he did when Mum wasn’t looking. For reasons of politeness she encouraged us to pretend anyone with war wounds (of whom there were a number in those days) was perfectly normal. Oddities, missing bits and funny habits (such as the shell-shocked man who wept occasionally for no obvious reason) were overlooked and people were judged mostly on whether they could work hard and be useful, whatever their mental or physical state.
Privately we were fascinated and a bit disgusted – both at the same time – by the man with the hole in his ear. Being simultaneously fascinated and disgusted is a very happy state for kids, as I recall. When we were sent to help him in the vegetable garden we (little brats) grew bored with thinning the carrots and begged him to try to push a carrot seedling through his ear hole. It was a dirty trick. Carrot thinnings are neither clean nor of routine thickness. I hope he didn’t die with the carrot still hanging out of his ear. Today he’d hardly have stood out as all manner of weird things are stapled into, punctured through and grown into ears.
Another guest repeatedly fell soundly asleep at the dining-table, mid-mouthful. What a prize spectacle for us five children, bored by the adult conversation, when our beady eyes noted the tell-tale signs of a looming drama: head drifting back, mouth slackening and fork clattering to the plate. Powerful snores punctuated the conversation as the adults raised their voices to cover the embarrassment of boring a guest to sleep. We loved it, especially when his wife jabbed him mercilessly in the ribs with her spiky elbow while pretending nothing was amiss.
Now I’ve grown up a bit but people are still endlessly fascinating and this is why NZ Life & Leisure’s latest crop of ordinary New Zealanders doing extraordinary things makes me all goosebumpy. Robert and Robyn Guyton and family of Riverton in the far south grow more than 100 edible crops in their food forest and save heritage fruit-tree seeds (see page 92). Graeme Williams, an East Coast farmer whose roots stretch as far back as the original missionary settlers, and his partner Derry Stovell run Mangaroa Station on simple principles which mean happy, fat cattle but busy, busy Graeme and Derry. They laugh a lot and write each other poems and Graeme’s are broadcast far and wide on radio. Don’t they just make your heart sing, these people, full of joy and so pleased to be alive?
A great piece of wisdom for a happy, uplifting life is to surround yourself with positive people. Hanging out with misery-buckets will drag you down, nothing surer. Tossing in a good handful of eccentrics is a life-lifting thing. Wairarapa chef Anthony North (page 122) disappears into hedgerows to forage for edibles when he could just rest on his periwinkles as the hard-working chef at his restaurant Wakelin House in Greytown. But no, he’s out grubbing around in the undergrowth, looking for slippery jacks. And is anyone more wonderfully bonkers than Blair Somerville, organic mechanic of Papatowai. Where? What? Exactly – see page 108.
If it’s a great big grin you’re after, turn to page 36 and the beautiful Pati brothers of Mangere (training now in Cardiff) and mother Juliet will gladden even the coldest heart. This pair of tenors and their Samoan immigrant parents come from “humble beginnings” but are on their way to the world stage. Pene says that when he saw Amitai win gold at the Lexus Song Quest, “knowing how we have fought our way, dare I say it, to the top, it was a testimony that anything is possible and anyone can become great”. Go well, Pati brothers; may your stars soar.