Letter to Italy Sunday 7th May 1944, Auckland
My dear Gray,
Pardon the stationery but Im on duty. The paper is better quality than most stuff you can get today anyway, so ignore the associations of Form 20 and proceed to the substance of this.
Recently one of your letters remembered a thing or two about the places, the florists in Customs Street, and the Speckled Cockatoo or Rheumatic Dragon in Vulcan Lane. They’re still there. Auckland hasn’t changed since you saw it last except that its speech has lost the old purity and we grow rapidly bilingual, though I confess that I can’t follow all the dialects of our gallant allies.
. . . You can still smell flowers and earth and clean air in Customs Street, and Maclure still smells of sausages and sets out his bulletins. And after Queen St., when the petrol soaks the air, you can still go down by the launch steps and take all you want of that queer mixture of sea and pitch and the waterfront. The ferries run, and Cleopatra rides between Devonport and Takapuna with music amidships, which is after all, not so far from the prow. And in a quiet arbor in the Domain the Valkyrie rides and the loquats ripen down the hill.
A fortnight or so back I had to go into town on Sunday morning and I thought of you. I left the tram at the Farmers just as the rain started, very light and delicate but penetrating. I stood at the side door, the last under the verandah across from the car park and looked out over markets and the harbour to Northcote, with the squall blowing across Shoal Bay, and the bells starting in St. Pat’s and St Matthew’s, coming down benignly, not too solemn, very pleasant and drowsy as if the churches were sleeping in their formalism. The air was fresh and the streets were clean, and while I waited the clouds broke over the shore, coming blue with that emphatic washed blue of all its purity of colour you know, and one by one, in different streets, on different heights on the hillsides, the houses across the harbour stood up into the sun until everything sparkled and moved. I went down past the I.M.B. to the Kauri Timber Co., and eventually round to the Western Wharf.
The old ‘Lyttelton’ is lying against the wharf. Subritzky’s have bought her and are cleaning her up to make a houseboat of her. She is decrepit now with her wood-work unpainted and battered, but she’s sound. The pool had the usual quota of scows launches etc. and a sizeable schooner.
The markets were quiet that morning and deserted. I walked straight back to town and took a tram.
Those queer little shops around the place are pretty much the same, God only knows how. The antique shop in Upper Queen St. carries on, and the record shop next door with records no one will ever buy. The junk in the window never seems to change, yet presumably it does. But year after year there’s the same plate with the rosary beads looped in front of it and the fake Chinese vases and the poor furniture and the desolate dull oil-paintings to which some peculiar [credence] is given since the note says ‘Genuine oil painting’. Who will ever pay money for oils alone? The pictures are drearily bad and dull. The junk shop near the Town Hall has closed down or gone elsewhere and no cat sits at the door now. The trams go up past the Y.W. [C.A.] and I’ve looked at the names along the narrow street that curves up into Liverpool St. I haven’t been there for years. The memory is enough for me.
Alongside Parkinsons marble works in Symonds St a little shop is full of man’s destiny, rooted in prophesy, and offers anyone who cares the key to the ages of British Israel, the past explained the future determined, and Armageddon predicted in phrases just a little bit clearer than the windows of the prophet. Neither the future nor the past is bright.
Over the hill, going by the Grafton Library is a small plumbers and in it that most glorious of all porcelain thrones, a sufficient glory for any honest lavatory, not as exotic as those recorded in Reginald Reynolds Cleanliness and Godliness—an excellent book—but fine enough for me, for I could squat in simple pleasure above the dazzling butterflies and blossoms of its bowl. Come hail, come rain, you could always have a pastoral scene in the home, and a scene complete with private water, riparian rights of a particular sort. Do you know the shop? Do you know the bowl? You shall see it in my home and I promise you, you may enjoy its peculiar privilege.
They are good things to see, the little shops of our Auckland. Earth has not anything to show more fair. They are full of the essential pathos and humour of our humanity, and it is a sadness and comedy a department store can never have. What would Court’s know of the life in Kitchener St. with the shop painted green, curtains in a window that is more a window than a shop front, where heavy old plates squat in the sun falling across from Bowen St., and the card in the window invites people to knock and enter? Or what does the Herald remember of Ronald Holloway’s print shop next door, with the old hand-printed Bible in the Latin, pulled from the Press when Charles was misshaping the affairs of England and Cromwell was a squire? Or the Christian Science shop where I learnt electricity was not one of the vital fluids, and that those who keep error from their minds are safe from sin, its wages, constipation, chilblains or the pox?
The back streets are truer than Queen St. The big shops are false, the unassimilated horrors of our way of living, based on a pretence and condoned by us in denial of respect for natural values. You could meet Dr Johnson in Courthouse Lane and call him brother, and Blake could talk with the Lamb of God outside the locksmith’s whose name is Hyauison. We are still human and heirs to the past while there is dust in Albert St and the plane leaves are stowed in gutters before the University. Somehow these things will be preserved, and some will go. There will be a time when there is order in the yards around Parnell Rise, and decent houses in Nelson Street. The rain will fall then and the sun will wash over and we may, in some measure, have come into our heritage.
I’ve no gossip except this tattle about the city. It may help to keep you out of the war a moment or two and turn back your exile.
All my good wishes,
‘Yours, my old and rare’: Kendrick Smithyman’s Letters to Graham Perkins 1942-45. Ka Mate Ka Ora #5 (March 2008). Recorded 2008 by Graham Perkins in Devonport, Auckland.
 KS was using the reverse side of a ‘Voucher for Articles handed into Store for Safe Custody’
 Our gallant allies: since Pearl Harbour many American servicemen were sent to New Zealand for rest and recreation; their presence had an enormous social impact.
 Subritzky’s: well known Auckland shipping company.
 The Smithymans lived briefly in Liverpool Street when they first arrived in Auckland.
 Reginald Arthur Reynolds (1905-1958) was an English left wing writer; his Cleanliness and Godliness : or The Further Metamorphosis. A discussion of the problems of sanitation raised by Sir John Harington, etc was published in 1943.
 Wordsworth, ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’.
 Site of the Unicorn Press, run by Ron Holloway and Robert Lowry, later replaced by Holloway’s Griffin Press.
the carter on the horizon
calls out in the arms of the road,
replying to the voice of the islands.
I too, I don’t go drifting off course,
the world rolls round, I read
my own story as a nightwatchman
reads hour after hour of rain. The secret
has happily-chosen margins, strategies, tricky
attractions. My life, with its cruel
smiling habitués of my ways and landscapes,
has no handles on its doors.
I am not getting myself ready for death,
I know how things began and that the end
is a surface over which travels
one who intrudes into my shadow.
I don’t recognise shadows.
Visibile, invisibile (Salvatore Quasimodo)
Campana to Montale: Versions from Italian. Ed. Jack Ross (The Writers Group, 2006). Recorded 2008 by Graham Perkins in Devonport, Auckland.