Saturday, June 6, 2009

Fraser Colman Neil MacKay The Criterion

I started long ago to put a lot of trust in handshakes.

I think the first time I put some thought into the matter was when Fraser Colman the Minister of something other in the Kirk Government shook my hand in the Criterion pub in Onehunga.

The Cri as it was called in Onehunga had tiles half way up the wall so if you threw up it was easy to clean and the carpets, and there were carpets, oozed their age, decrepitude and tiredness.

Mostly you were allowed to stand against high tables and the ashtrays were old corn beef tins.

The reason I lived in New Zealand was to some degree the lack of ceremony of such a place, but there are pubs all over the world where people don’t stand on ceremony.

No what made New Zealand truly unique was the fact you could meet a Minister of the Crown in such a pub, with the chauffeur waiting round the corner and that you would meet and have few beers and spend an afternoon talking, all equals.

That was what was so different about New Zealand and it was the rarest thing in the world.

I had of course been shaking hands for years and was well aware of some pointers.

I had spent a few years with shearers, wharfies, building workers, sailors freezer hands and even shook hands all round at the Taneatua pub.

You shake hands after a fight to agree its over and will be forgotten.

You shake hands to seal a bargain and to tell someone who you are.

If you know the right shake either in an American ghetto or the Triangle in Onehunga you can do the special shake with out losing face and getting it wrong.

It does not do to get it wrong.

If you don’t trust the person you put your index finger up their cuff along their wrist.

No wharfie or hard case drunk can crush your hand if you do that.
It lets them know that you know this.
It also lets them know that you don’t trust them.
But that’s a better risk than having some muscled hoon crushing your knuckles to a pulp.

For if they do the protocol is that you just take it.
If you whinge and whelp you will termed a wanker and be drinking somewhere else.

You take it because you’re not a crybaby and because you didn’t put your index finger out as a sensible man might do.

The Cri was a great pub on a Saturday afternoon.

It was where you could meet Neil MacKay.

Neil was Scotsman and the cleverest man I ever met, and I have met a few clever men.

He liked a drink. The Criterion was one place you could see Neil’s practical genius at work

He had a biggish section up in Grey Street and instead of being an idiot and getting a lawn mower and wasting a good Saturday’s drinking time slaving over the business of a big section he bought a goat.

So Neil was in the pub while the goat was dealing with a big dose of kikuyua.

I know a bit about goats and was there when he announced quietly that he had solved the bloody kikuyua problem,

Neil hated Kikuyua with a passion and when he went gardening, he did a spot of contract, gardening he poisoned it with diesel, a slower death, having been careful to charge the client a fortune for roundup.

As I said I know a bit about goats so I knew he had half an acre and I knew about to the week, to the day when the goat would have eaten ever living thing about the place and MacKay smart as he was would have one of life’s intractable problems.

What to do with a hungry goat who was going to get meaner hungrier and more cantankerous as the days go by?

I was planning to, as you do the get the upper hand in a conversation; casually ask about the week after the goat got hungry, "hows the goat going Neil?"

Anyway as usual I forgot but what did start to happen some weeks later was every now an again these Maori blokes would come up to Neil with a double whiskey.

They would have a yarn and then wander off saying “good as gold” Neil.

Well I eventually asked, eventually because MacKay’s affairs were complicated and involved and sometimes it would be embarrassing to ask and not get an answer why they were buying him whiskey?

Oh, the boys, says Neil, to the Irish anyone in the pub is one of the boys and Neil knew the term, oh he says “I rented the goat to the boys. “

“It’s going good.”

It was going good all right what they call a win win win situation these days.

Happy Maoris, they weren’t wasting drinking time mowing lawns either and the Local Authority, and the really local authority, the missus, wern’t getting on their goat about the long grass.

And yes the goat.

Every few weeks the goat faced new frontiers of happiness, blackberry and delicious tucker of every kind as he made a circuit of the whanau.

Every time Neil came into the Cri all sorts of Maori jokers would come up and instead of digging a dollar or two out of Neil for the meat raffle they would buy him a whiskey.

I reckon that goat went as far as Kaikohe and might have even crossed tribal boundaries and went south occasionally.

Occasionally Neil would mention that it would be good if the goat could do a tour of Grey Street and sure enough some evening the goat would be dropped off the back of a Ute and settle into home pastures contented as you please.

Anyway what surprised me about Fraser Colman’s handshake was that he nearly crushed my hand to a pulp.

I just looked him in the eye, all the while suffering eye watering pain.

There was little you could do.

If he was a plain civilian you could do two things.

The first was curl your other hand into fist and with your less useful hand try and smash him in the mouth.

The second was that you could raise your knee and pull him towards you and crush his solar plexus on the point of it, or crush something lower.

The first was for idiots who should have better sense than to go crushing your hand and the second was for lunatics who had no sense and more importantly no mates either.

There was certain etiquette about starting a fight, you usually simmered over an insult and then after you had drunk your beer, you didn’t start a fight on a full glass, you would turn the glass upside-down.

That was the equivalent of a touching slap with a velvet glove.

Anyway you invited the culprit outside.

It might seem a league of gentleman, it wasn’t, some people went outside and were thumped with a pick handle.

But there were hardly any fights in the Criterion. Everyone had agreed that long ago and while occasionally fools might ruin the arrangement they were rare.

The Tri, The Triangle down the road was another matter; people went there assured of a good stoush most nights.

But Ministers of the Crown were another business altogether.

I was with a mate of mine a young street wise MP called Mike Moore and he and Fraser were so to speak workmates.

The crushing of Fraser's powerful hand was getting me and I was going to thump him Minister or not, mate of Moores or not. And he let go

Anyway I let the matter pass and we had a drink.

Fraser was a decent bloke, just didn’t know his strength it seemed.

I often wondered if Fraser was just seeing if I was one of the boys or a soft handed well soft handed.

Because the other thing about Labour Ministers of the Crown, was that they had calluses on their hands, thick calluses.

Oh some had gone soft but the traces were there. And you could tell a lot from a handshake.

It’s a very intimate thing a handshake.

Of course the world I am talking of was long ago.

The Criterion if its still there doesn’t have corn beef tin ashtrays, the boys if they are still there have to crouch along the wall if they want a smoke.

And the tax on beer has gone so high it and only be afforded by people who drink fancy foreign stuff at insane prices well out of the reach of the workers.

And anyway the mob that drank at the Cri have all been shuffled out on to welfare.

And the best deal they can get is a $50 dollars bag of weed from the boys in the bush.

And the boys in the bush supply the weed and with the money from their retail sales to the pakeha buy a stack of cans, a few bottles of spirits and every one gets totally rotten in all meanings of the word at long parties lasting days, at home, on their own.

And the Labour Ministers raise the taxes on beer, drive the scarcity of weed sky high and bitch endlessly about the lowered morals of the poor and never put their foot in a poor district where if they did and if the poor could afford the beer taxes they would tell them a thing or two.

There were few joys better than an afternoon at the Cri or the Kiwi when a beer was affordable by anyone and the boys had a few good jobs to do during the week.

And everyone shook hands in the most ordinary way.

As a sign of friendship

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