Hard Yards

Alex Staines aged 6
Alex Staines aged 6 at Orakei Road, Auckland.

My childhood was paradoxical and at times surreal. My parents were extremely unusual people, and I was exposed to their behaviour while growing up in leafy Auckland suburbs, or at a bach by the sea in idyllic surroundings on the Whangaparaoa Peninsula. This conjunction between the sublime and the grotesque I believe predisposed me to appreciate the work of artists such as David Lynch, and Leonora Carrington.

The mistrust I felt toward my parents from an early age affected me profoundly, and coloured my view of the world. An aunt once remarked to me, with candour that was almost unheard of in my family, that she hoped I would be dim and compliant, and that she feared for my future when it became apparent that I was the opposite in nature – the rarest personality type, in fact.

I was scared of my father, who was totally unpredictable; he could be calm one minute, then erupt into rage and violence the next. This fear was exaggerated by mystery – he was like a secretive, disturbed house guest in my eyes. I did glean a few bits of information: he was born in London in 1918, had been a front-line officer in Burma during the Second World War, and worked as a journalist in Singapore, Sydney, and Auckland after the war. His mother died when he was six, he had a brother named Fred, and he hated his father for reasons that were never made clear. He was also an alcoholic – I followed in his footsteps in this regard, and also in working as a journalist. He could be fun to be around at times, but the certainty that the “truce” would not last loomed over everything.

My mother was a conundrum. She was occasionally pleasant, but usually abrupt, silent, tearful, or cruel. Much later I heard that she had never wanted children. This might explain some of her behaviour toward me.

Vic Staines historical photo
My father Vic Staines in the British Army: North-West Frontier Province (Pakistan) c. 1941.
hard yards vic staines father
My father Vic Staines (right in this trio of lads) as an NCO in the 17th Indian Division (the “Black Cats”) of the British Army. He saw action during the Burma Campaign (1942-1945), fighting the Imperial Japanese Army in the jungle alongside the Gurkhas.
hard yards vic staines father
My father Vic Staines in Singapore after the war in Hemingwayesque pose. He was chief sub editor at The Straits Times.

Domestic gothic

The claustrophobia I felt at home was intensified by social isolation. My parents had no friends. The only visitors were a few uncles and aunts who could be relied upon to co-operate, and my grandmother, the matriarch, who was treated with deference. The family values exhibited to the outside world, on the odd occasion that this became necessary, revolved around maintaining shallow appearances. Sentiment replaced emotion.

The key ingredients I needed for growth and development – for example understanding, approval, acknowledgment, encouragement, validation, harmony, and transparency – were either absent or severely rationed. Indeed, on many occasions my insignificance was made clear to me, reinforced by criticism, sarcasm, condemnation, violence, threats, and a phantasmagoria of controlling behaviour that my mother perfected. The main tactic employed was what has become known as gaslighting, a term with a literary origin, derived from a 1938 play – Gas Light, by Patrick Hamilton.

I spent a lot of time asking older people for permission to do relatively ordinary things, and being met with surprisingly violent responses. It took me a while to figure out that it was the asking itself that was the problem more than the nature of the request. It was better to be neither seen nor heard. One of the most disconcerting features of the situation I found myself in was its sheer randomness. I was unable to discern a pattern to my parents’ behaviour from which a strategy for avoiding further trauma could have been formulated.

A temporary respite came when I was allowed to spend school holidays staying with my Waikato cousin, with whom I got along famously. I remember the joyous feeling as the Midlands bus mounted the Bombay hills and descended into Pokeno; Auckland for a while out of sight if not quite out of mind. Pulling into Morrinsville, my destination, was like arriving in a magical kingdom. It was also a reprieve when my cousin was invited to stay at our house in Auckland, when my parents put on a display of relative normality for a fortnight.

Another enchanted sanctuary was Kawau Island in the Hauraki Gulf, where I was fortunate to spend several holidays in my mid-teens with my old friend Richard and his family. We fished, we went scuba diving, and generally messed about in boats.

I often sought to alleviate stress by acting the clown – my early forays into the theatrical realm were driven by self-preservation rather than aesthetics. But there was tension constantly in the air, similar to the mood captured by Norwegian painter Edvard Munch in his Frieze of Life series.

I dreamed that one day I would wake up from the Lovecraftian nightmare, and everything would be different – the people around me would behave rationally, and there would be explanations and rapprochements. Mostly I clung on in a state of anxiety, bewilderment, and frustration.

By the time I was 17, the cracks were beginning to show. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I had become depressed. Instinctively, I swung into action. I left college, where I was a leading light of sorts, and spent as much time as I could away from home, even hiding under the house of one of my school friends, though of course everyone knew where I was. Throughout this period, I received no advice or emotional support from my family. It was as if I had ceased to exist.

One day I turned to my mother for assistance; I rang her from a public phone box. She replied, “People like you commit suicide” in a voice that was cold and mocking. I shuddered in horror, and abruptly ended the phone call. This would not be the last time a conversation with my mother proceeded in this fashion. She wrote me letters, too, many of which were – according to a counselor who was privy to their contents – “masterpieces of emotional blackmail and manipulation”. I also sought advice from my godmother – a person who had been kind to me in the past – but was angrily rejected. I knew full well what would happen if I dared to speak with anyone outside the family, so never considered that as a course of action. I was unaware that such people even existed back then, and anyway would have assumed that they couldn’t be trusted either. This ingrained misconception kept me from reaching out for help until I was virtually at death’s door.

So it was final: there was no one to turn to, no one was listening. Those who are in denial often have a strong vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Obviously, I would have to find a way on my own. Out of these challenges grew a tensile emotional and mental strength that has carried me through many crises.

Talented grandfather

Painting of Winston Churchill by Edwin Arthur Ward
My grandfather Edwin Arthur Ward (1859-1933) painted this famous portrait of the young Winston Churchill. Picture credit: (Sotheby's) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

My maternal grandfather, Edwin Arthur Ward (1859-1933), born in Bradford, Yorkshire, was a highly respected English portrait painter.

Ward studied at the Nottingham School of Art before moving to London at the age of 19. Known exclusively as a portrait painter, his period of greatest creativity was from 1883-1927. During that time, he exhibited widely. Among the many venues to host his exhibitions were the Royal Academy, the Royal Society of British Artists, Suffolk Street, Society of British Artists and New Gallery which arose from the Grosvenor Gallery. His outstanding reputation attracted many prestigious clients including Lord Randolph Churchill and Sir Henry Irving. He was elected to the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in 1891. Today his work can be viewed at the Castle Museum, Nottingham. ~ Cited on the Howse families genealogy website
 

I never met my grandfather, who died almost 30 years before I was born, yet he is the relative I feel closest to. I think we would have got along famously, and he would have taught me many things, though of course it’s easy to idealise someone I never knew personally.

While Edwin’s paintings adorned the walls of relatives’ houses, and my mother owned a still life of flowers in a gilt frame, information about him was not forthcoming. My mother only occasionally referred to “daddy”. Edwin led a bohemian lifestyle. He was an adventurous and charming fellow, moved in influential circles, and travelled widely. His interesting 1923 memoir reveals a close association with many important figures in late 19th century English art and society, including James Whistler, who was a leader in the Aesthetic movement (the English equivalent of Symbolism) that espoused an “art for art’s sake” philosophy, and opposed philistinism.

Edwin had seven children with his wife Katherine Howse, and while still married, met my grandmother (another Katherine) around 1910, and fathered nine more children with her – my mother and her eight brothers and sisters.

The other Katherine

Katherine Janet Ward in Auckland 1972
My grandmother Katherine Janet Ward in her garden at Orakei Road, Auckland, in 1972.

There was a 30-year age difference between Edwin, and this “other” Katherine, Katherine Wells, daughter of a Cornwall stockbroker, James Anderson Wells, and his wife from Milan, Emily Marzetti. As the story goes, Edwin had an affair with Emily while painting James’s portrait, then spied the daughter, Katherine, who was a beauty. My parents rightfully may have been cautious about invoking the ghost of bad, exciting, old Edwin. It might have encouraged me. They aspired to live a safe, ordinary, frugal existence in the suburbs, with minimal levels of stimulation.

I grew up in close proximity to my grandmother Katherine. She emigrated from England to New Zealand with some of her children in the late 1930s after Edwin died, because the political situation in Europe was deteriorating. New Zealand was recommended as a refuge by her friend and fellow Spiritualist, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. What a remarkable man he was. Doyle had visited New Zealand several times and liked it here. My grandmother was staunch and self-reliant, intelligent, amusing, and discreet, and lived alone the entire time I knew her in a simple house on a sizeable piece of land off Orakei Road in Remuera.

Once she protected me from my father’s violence by sheltering me in her house, and stood up to him when he came looking for me. Then we drank tea and played chess. This simple act of kindness and courage left a huge impression on me.

She would often retreat in her grey Morris Minor to a caravan on land she owned on the Whangaparaoa Peninsula north of Auckland. Gran had books and antiques, loved to garden, and Edwin’s paintings were on permanent display. There was a mysterious side to her as well – she was reputed to have psychic abilities and was a member of the Theosophical Society.

The fight for selfhood

It was obvious from the beginning that I am highly intelligent, sensitive, and creative. I believe that I inherited a creative talent from my grandfather. To this, I would add courage, determination, and an enthusiasm for life that has never been quenched. Perhaps some of this fighting spirit has been handed down from forebears such as my great uncle Francis, a front-line officer during the Great War, and who was decorated multiple times for valour, including the Military Cross, the Croix de Guerre, and the 1914 Star.

I was enrolled at private schools, where I worked hard and achieved academic success. In my first years at primary school I came top in art and music. Aged six, I entered a story in an Auckland-wide competition and won. My music teacher said I had perfect pitch and should learn to play an instrument. My parents refused. By the age of nine I was composing elaborate sonnets and creating puppet shows.

My Waikato cousin and I put on horror shows for family members when we were on holiday together. These events – meticulously planned and executed – were great fun, and represent some of my most memorable creative experiences. I also participated in youth theatre for a time, something I was grateful to my parents for initiating.

There were inevitably dark clouds on the home front. I elicited several violent reactions from my father when I mentioned my intense interest in poetry. When I was 16, without asking me, my parents took my notebook from the desk in my room, and gave it to Wystan Curnow, a lecturer in English at Auckland University. Curnow duly pronounced that my creative writing efforts were devoid of talent. This finding was delightedly relayed to me by my mother.

The “Curnow incident” is one little example of the betrayal of trust that was commonplace in my home. The combination of violating a personal boundary with an attack on my love of creativity was keenly felt, though communicating this was not possible. It’s difficult to convey in a few lines of prose the effect of constantly being made aware that I was owned rather than loved; I was in effect my parents’ property. They could take whatever they wanted, and do whatever they pleased, at any time, and there was nothing I could do about it. Any attempt on my part to stand my ground, forge my own identity, or even ask for reasons for things was met with antagonism. My parents noticeably enjoyed the power this gave them.

So there I was at the age of 19, traumatised and ill-equipped to cope with many aspects of life. I was fearful and anxious, and lacked self-belief and direction. Despite this, outwardly I fought to maintain the pleasant veneer I’d been taught to glue on as a child. I was trapped. Then I discovered alcohol, that illusory panacea.

By way of a postscript

This has not been easy content to write. For example, I identify with the cult of male stoicism far more than I realised. In writing publicly about these personal matters, I was haunted by a feeling that I was betraying a sacred oath of silence – a “whistle-blower” in several respects. I ploughed ahead, because my desire to set the record straight prevailed. I sought counsel from several people I trust implicitly, and decided to omit lurid experiences that were extremely upsetting, which would have made the narrative more sensational. I want to paint an authentic picture, rather than present a catalogue of shame, or hide behind the parlance of the recovery industry.

I’ve learned many things during my life. For example, it’s a losing gambit to look back in anger and become mired in self-pity, though I did plenty of that when I was drinking. There isn’t such a thing as a drunk who faces up to his problems; alcoholism is about anaesthetising self and blaming the world for one’s predicament. It’s far more difficult – and also far more rewarding, if one can stay the course – to take responsibility for existence and move away from victimhood. I have managed to achieve this goal. Several health professionals have remarked on my indomitable spirit and almost superhuman resilience and survival skills. Facing a stark choice between living and dying does tend to focus one’s efforts.

I am grateful to be alive, and to have achieved a modicum of self-realisation. Life tends to be fateful, beautiful, and challenging – sometimes all at once. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

> Help is available

If you need help with family violence, there are resources available in New Zealand, including:

Are You OK?

Shine

hard yards alex staines
I won in the end. “... in the depths of the abyss, the despair of the heart and of the will and the scepticism of reason meet face to face and embrace like brothers”. ~ Miguel de Unamuno