Topic: Home on the Stars by Janet Hart

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A 2013 Memoir and Local History Competition entry.

Archived version here.

“We’re going home!” my father said.

But we were at home – around the fire, drinking tea on our Southland farm, near Woodlands!

Irrespective of this, for my dad, a third generation Kiwi, going home in 1963 meant a visit to the Old Country on the far side of the world. His own father travelled home by steamship and, so the story goes, met my grandmother on English soil. To her surprise, for she left New Zealand before him for England – by sailing ship.

March 1963 saw our family ride the steam train from Invercargill, burst on to the fairy-lit world of the Lyttelton Wharf and roll and pitch our way to Wellington on the Union Steam Ship Company’s Maori. We then trained up to Auckland before boarding the Northern Star cruise liner, home for the following month on the voyage home to England.

“Go by the Stars!” said the Shaw Savill pamphlet. “Southern Cross and Northern Star.  Around the world in one-class comfort. This is a new concept of travel, solely for the pleasure of passengers.  The world is now your playground.”

The farewell from Auckland saw hundreds of arms wave, the playing of Now is the Hour and miles and miles of coloured streamers. And so my adventure began as a 10-year old, with 1400 other passengers in this egalitarian playground.

I explored the maze of the ship, raced on the deck on sports day and braced myself in the wind at the aft rail, mesmerised by the wake. I’ve still got a pen with the Northern Star floating in it and also a photo of me at the Crossing the Line Ceremony, sitting with King Canute.

The Northern Star and her sister the Southern Cross were built for transporting assisted immigrants out to the far flung realms of the Empire; but it was a yo-yo. Because heading north were homesick Brits returning home and later in the year, on the trip back to New Zealand, the same ‘ten pound Poms’ were again aboard, having decided that in fact the grass was greener in New Zealand.

These assisted immigrants told my parents of their formal interview at New Zealand House where officials checked they weren’t about to bring any nasty diseases to New  Zealand and that they were going to be hard workers.

Our sea voyage took us through the Panama Canal and after a brief stop at Trinidad the Northern Star, under the northern sky and its North Star, nosed towards England. Here, in London, my Southland sheep farming father fulfilled his dream and saw his lambs at Smithfield, ‘the finest meat market in the world.’ He had followed his lambs from  paddocks and sheep yards, down to Bluff’s Ocean Beach Freezing Works and now in London’s Smithfield Market  he saw his frozen lamb carcasses hanging – all dressed up in muslin. 

But the 1960s New Zealand lamb for sale in our Mother Country was a different story. Those grey flaps in the shops, my father said, he’d only feed to the dogs at home.

Also in London, the New Zealand High Commissioner in United Kingdom, Sir Thomas Macdonald (also from Southland) gave my parents tickets for the opening of New Zealand House. Built on the corner of Pall Mall and the Haymarket on a bomb site, this 18-storey edifice of glass and steel, rising amidst discreet and historical grandeur, created a feeling of unease in London at the time. (Today I can’t say that I’m proud of it.)

My diary records an account of the May opening where ‘I could have touched the Queen. Twice.’ I couldn’t believe how small she was. But for Kiwis, New Zealand House was a refuge, where we could touch base with home. A home from home you might say, as was The Overseas League in Park Place, overlooking Green Park. Here we stayed on numerous occasions and were always treated with kindness – like favourite cousins.

Later in our London South Kensington flat, when newspaper headlines screamed, ‘Profumo Affair!’ ‘Ex-Call Girl and Government Minister!’ I heard my mother caution my father, “Keep those newspapers hidden from Janet.”

I could only glimpse by-lines with words like Russian spies, sex and scandal before the papers were whipped from my gaze. Then I was taken to feed pigeons in Trafalgar Square, eyeball chocolate Easter bunnies in Piccadilly’s Fortnum and Mason’s window and watch the guards change at Buckingham Palace. For I had read Christopher Robin, and my mother’s diary records many a trip to Buckingham Palace.

On a serious note I should mention here that my mother with all good intentions for her daughter had cardboard boxes in tow; a year of Standard Four lessons, from the Correspondence School in Wellington. Lessons that in the end were rarely aired.

But I was homesick in London for my pony and my bookshelf filled with Three Jays novels, by the then famous author and international equestrian Pat Smythe, until for three days in July when I was in heaven at the White City Horse Show. Here Pat Smythe on Flanagan, jumped brick fences higher than I could have dreamt. Years later in London, on my OE, I rode on Hyde Park’s Rotten Row and my pony bolted, towards the rush hour traffic near Marble Arch. Without me on it.  But that’s another story.

Then came September.

“We’re going home,” my mother said. And all aboard the Northern Star again, this time we set sail south, towards the realm of the Southern Cross constellation via the Cape of Good Hope and on to Auckland.

“We’re home at last!” my mother hugged me.

The next day I heard my father tell his shearers, “I’ve just been home, home to the Old Country.”

And me? I’d sailed on a star, followed the stars, there and back, around the world on an adventure. But there’s nothing like home. Home is where the heart is and in 1963, mine was in Kiwiland’s little old Southland.



This page archved at Perma CC in October of 2016:


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