Hair boy

“I’ve just returned from a trip to the United States and I can tell you that long hair in men has fallen out of fashion.”

Basil Wakelin, Headmaster, Nelson College, 1965

So thundered our headmaster at assembly a couple of months after I started at boarding school, disabusing us of any ambitions we might have to look like a Beatle.  Basil was a terrifying man and none of us dared contradict him. He had fought at El Alamein just 20 or so years earlier and, as my father was fond of saying, he still had the sand running out of his ears.

But as 1965 dragged on, it became apparent that Basil’s fashion radar was on the blink. The rules about hair were as strict as you’d imaginine in a 1960s traditional boys’ school – nothing hanging in the eyes, covering the ears or touching the collar. Some creative day boys pushed the boundaries by pulling their collars well down their backs and slicking back hair behind their ears with plenty of product – probably Brylcreem. One had a wispy blond moustache that he dyed brown in the weekends.

Being under 24-hour surveillance as a boarder, I had fewer opportunities to bend the rules. We were given a compulsory haircut every three weeks in strict rotation, whether we needed it or not. Our barber was a friendly enough old guy, but our pleas for just a light trim always fell on deaf ears.

Guy Grocott receiving his three-weekly trim-up at boarding school c. 1967
Guy Grocott receiving his three-weekly trim-up at boarding school c. 1967


Our only opportunity to express ourselves came with the summer holidays when we had a glorious six weeks or so to grow our hair, reassuring our parents that they needn’t waste money getting us a haircut – we would get a “free” one soon enough when we were shipped back to school.

This was about as long as a boarder could get away with growing their hair. It's 1969 - the same year as Woodstock. We were quite sheltered.
This was about as long as a boarder could get away with growing their hair. It’s 1969 – the same year as Woodstock. We were quite sheltered.

Of course mandating the length of our hair wasn’t the only means of controlling unruly schoolboys in 1960s Nelson. Our shoes were to be shone daily, socks kept up by means of garters (one lad suffered a potentially life-threatening blood clot from over-tight garters), the scratchy woollen flannel shirts had to be worn year round and remain neatly tucked in, sleeves were to be rolled down at mealtimes and the carving of notches in one’s belt to keep a tally of strokes of the cane received was frowned upon.

Punishments for transgressing these pointless rules ranged from sweeping quadrangles to polishing brass to washing the housemaster’s car.

Suddenly it was the 1970s, I left school and didn’t have another haircut for a good three years or so.

This was all nearly half a century ago. That a New Zealand secondary school should be battling with a pupil over the length of his hair in the 20-teens is extraordinary.

For those who have been hiding under a rock recently, Lucan Battison, a 16-year-old student at St John’s College, Hastings (a state-integrated catholic school) has been embroiled in a legal dispute with the college over the length of his hair – a battle he appears to have won for now.

For all we know, young Battison might be a pious and diligent young man who wants only to emulate the look and lives of the saints that adorn the walls of his school chapel. Or he might be a bit of a ratbag, whose hairstyle is the last straw for the school on a long rap sheet of bad behaviour. Whatever the background to this stoush, the staff and trustees should pick their fights

The author in 1971. It all turned to custard once the shackles of boarding school had been broken.
The author in 1971. It all turned to custard once the shackles of boarding school had been broken.

more carefully.  They were never going to come out of this looking good, and by sticking to their principles they have come across as petty and vindictive, particularly after their attempt to block Battison from attending the school ball. And with a 1988 photo emerging of current school trustee in the 6th form at St John’s with – you guessed it – long hair, there’s just a whiff of hypocrisy about the whole affair.

My own son attended Wellington High School, whose dress code, as such, is the polar opposite of St John’s. There is no uniform and, as far as we understood, no restrictions on clothing or appearance as long as no offence is caused. Pretty much how things work in the real world. Students embraced the opportunity to express themselves and class photos looked like fancy dress parties where everyone can dress and sport their hair however they damn well like. As far as we know the moral rectitude, academic performance and community mindedness of its students are still intact.

New Zealand is pretty good at moral panics. It amazes me that a minor matter like this, that belongs back in the 1950s, is sparking warnings from the School Trustees Association, the Catholic Education Office and Family First. They seem to think this challenging of authority is the beginning of the end and will encourage others to take on their schools. I doubt that it will. But if schools insist on imposing petty rules for no good reason rather than concentrating on educating good, well-balanced young people, then they deserve all the opprobrium that is heaped on them. There really are more important things to worry about. But then again, it is election year.

Green light

I’ve always found the Green Party a bit of an enigma. Plenty of good social justice policies that fit my lefty-leaning perspective, well thought-out ideas on energy and transport and some more pragmatic economic policies than in the past. Yet they remain stubbornly resistant to evidence-based arguments for the use of technologies like cisgenics to increase the productivity of our farming industries. New Zealand will never be one big organic farm and the Greens would make a lot more progress politically if they were prepared to compromise on this.

You have to admire their principled approach, although this would be tested if they ever find themselves in government. That said, I respect them immensely for having their courage to put forward a cohesive policy on abortion law reform.

New Zealand’s abortion laws are woefully outdated and right out of place in the Crimes Act. It is long overdue for abortion services to be regulated under health legislation along with other reproductive services, and not treated as a crime. Successive Labour and National Governments have lacked the guts to update abortion laws, mainly because both parties have their share of social and religious conservatives and are afraid of alienating part of their constituency.

Former Labour MP Steve Chadwick’s proposal to take abortion out of the Crimes Act and remove the requirement for the approval of two certifying consultants was swiftly derailed by a well-organised and shrill “pro life” movement. The Labour leader at the time, Phil Goff, hung Chadwick out to dry saying he “hadn’t thought much about it”, and his counterpart John Key showed similar cowardice. To this day Key insists the current law is working fine – something that would be challenged by any woman having to negotiate the ridiculous and paternalistic obstacles put in their path to ending an unwanted pregnancy.

Chadwick’s attempt was doomed from the start, not only by the lack of backbone shown by political leaders, but by the fixation of media and critics on the 24-week gestation limit. In fact only a tiny fraction of abortions are carried out anywhere near this point, and those that are are almost always cases of severe fetal abnormality or health risk to the mother.

Anyone who doubts the compassion and humanity of those who work in the challenging field of late-term abortion should watch the documentary “After Tiller”. It’s a remarkably heart-warming story. (Tiller was the practitioner who was brutally murdered in his church by a “pro life” extremist.)

Abortion rates in New Zealand are actually falling. There are probably multiple reasons, but the wider availability of effective long-acting contraception is undoubtedly a factor. Yet all is not well. Access is still difficult for many women and the unfair stigma around abortion remains.

Because so much stigma remains, women who’ve had the procedure don’t want to make a lot of noise about it. Yet about one in three adult women in New Zealand will have had an abortion. Unless you live in a convent or monastery you will likely have friends, colleagues or family who have had an abortion at some stage and then just got on with their lives.

A lie constantly trotted out by the pro-lifers is that abortion is dangerous to women’s physical health. A recent United States study showed that the risk of mortality associated with childbirth is 14 times that of legally induced abortion. Morbidity risk is also higher for pregnancies carried to term than for women having abortions.

Similarly, the pro-lifers will tell you that women who have had abortions will suffer from mental health problems as a result. A comprehensive research review in 2011 by the Academy of Royal Medical Colleges in the UK showed this to be another patent lie. Women who have abortions are no more likely to suffer mental health problems than those who carry pregnancies to term. If they do suffer, it is often because they have been stigmatised by partners and others.

Predictably, the announcement of the Greens’ policy was met with a barrage of vitriol by the anti-abortion lobby and dinosaur columnists like Karl du Fresne (“So what are the Greens trying to prove? Were the 14,745 abortions in 2012 not enough for them?”).

In fact the Party had to plead with those commenting on their Facebook page to play nice and cut the abuse. It’s always amused me that those who claim to be defending the sanctity of human life are capable of the vilest abuse and threats of violence. It was encouraging, however, to see as well-reasoned editorial in the Sunday Star-Times (15 June) calling for reform – no doubt they will be heaped with opprobrium in next week’s letters.

The pro choice lobby, now including the Greens, generally engage in the debates with dignity and reason and I applaud them for that.

So stick to your guns, Greens. If you do get the chance to form part of a Government after 20 September, don’t get sidetracked by genetic engineering and organic farming. This is an issue that really does affect people’s lives.

Breaking Paddy

It’s conventional wisdom these days that the downward spiral in the quality and intelligence of Hollywood’s output is directly correlated to the golden age of long-form television. The talent that goes into series like Mad Men, Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad has migrated from movies to the small screen. The best movies these days seem to come from outside the US or from indie producers.

All of which means there’s plenty of good stuff on the telly – if you’re prepared to pay for it. With the exception of the occasional good series on Prime and interesting movies on Maori Television, the pickings can be pretty lean on free-to-air television. Take out a Sky subscription including the main movie channels and the choice improves, but not much. To get the really good stuff you need to break through Sky’s double paywall and stump up the extra for Soho, Rialto and perhaps the Arts Channel.

Even then the output can be patchy, but it’s the only way you can guarantee you’ll see all the great shows that everyone talks about around the water cooler. That’s unless you want to get your hands on a box set or access the shows online through not-strictly-legitimate channels.

Normally you can rely on the mainstream media – The Listener or Sunday Star Times, for example – to give you a heads-up when anything from the quality end of the market is about to hit the screens. But not always.

My case in point is the brilliant RTÉ Television (Ireland) series, Love/Hate. Rialto has just finished screening the first four seasons back to back. A fifth season will show overseas later this year with the sixth and final season next year. I stumbled across the end of S1 Ep1 when channel surfing. Some scared looking young Irish lads were out in the forest playing chicken with guns and I could hardly understand a word they were saying. I stuck it onto series link and started watching a few full episodes. I was hooked.

It’s set in and around Dublin in the gritty underworld of drug gangs, with a core cast of a dozen or so. Given the life they lead there’s a bit of turnover in the cast. Like The Sopranos, this show looks at the whole gangster, including their insecurities, weaknesses and the banalities of family life. Again, like the Sopranos the choices made by their wives and girlfriends to ignore where the money is coming from throws up some interesting moral conundrums. It’s gritty and violent all right but also funny and thoughtful with an excellent script and well realised characters. It takes a while to get your ear attuned to the Dublin working class dialect, (“Oi tort oi told yous ta boorn the care!” – I thought I told you to burn the car) but it has its own poetry.

This show is every bit as good as The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, but with a budget of about €600,000 per episode I suspect it’s a lot less expensive to make. Most of the cast will be unfamiliar to New Zealanders, with the exception of the excellent Aiden Gillen, best known as Petyr Baelish in Game of Thrones. He’s a bad bugger in Love/Hate as well, but on quite a different level.

Fran, Darren, Nidge and Tommy. You’ll love and hate these morally complex gangsters.

Get hold of it if you can. It’s the next big thing.