Image: Jo Wickham

Perky’s eulogy

John Hayes Perkins

7 September 1935 ― 21 January 2018

First delivered Memorial Hall, Paekākāriki, January 2018

John and Betty Perkins were the first friends I made when I arrived in Paekākāriki in 1971. And, like many people here, I soon came to realise that no two people could be doing more to help create the spirit of this village we love so much.

That realisation keeps getting deeper. Last week I dropped in to see Betty in Levin and spent the most uplifting 20 minutes or so with her before she needed to sleep.  Betty’s instant warmth, her immediate interest in other people (How are you? How is Kamala? How is her garden? Have you seen Michael O’Leary lately?) seemed stronger than ever, and her sense of loss was total, calm and clear.  

She also expressed, it seemed to me, a reverence for John’s goodness.  “I hope he goes to heaven,” she said, and chuckled when I said, “Well, if you two don’t make it, Nelson Mandela is going to be a very lonely man.”

There are many people here whose associations with the Perkins family are deeper than mine, not least those who worked with John for decades in farming, in the Surf Club and other community organisations, and in horse racing, rugby, and struggles for justice in respect of land rights.  

You folk should be delivering this eulogy, but perhaps it is appropriate that your portraits of John be preceded by a sketch by a villager from outside John’s work and public service, a long-time Paekākāriki resident who can provide glimpses of just how much the spirit of the village of today was formed by the heartland values of John, Betty, and others of the generation just before my own.  

It is no exaggeration to say the Perkins’ contribution to the community came from the indomitable best of the human spirit. There is no doubting this, since John, Betty and their family served the greater good through tragedy after tragedy, all of them on top of other setbacks: floods, droughts, market failures, financial pressures, and corrosive uncertainties about the future of Middle Run farm. Their bedrock was their rock-solid priorities, their integrity, and their constant concern for others. Self-promotion never got a look-in.

I have never been tested like John and Betty have been tested, and I guess that is true of many others here. Our relatively easy circumstances were unknown to earlier generations and seem unlikely to continue. This is not the time to dwell on the perils that loom over humanity, but it seems inevitable that today’s young people will be tested in ways never known before. So, while we are here to celebrate our friend’s life and to grieve together, perhaps we should also reflect on how we might “get in behind” John’s foundational values so that their influence, so strong in his lifetime, becomes even greater in the future.

The village of the early 70’s fit John like a glove. Beach Road looked like a cross between Shannon and Reefton. There were shacks galore, plus a few homesteads like his own, the Hills’ place in Ocean Road, and the one in Ames Street where Denis Glover misbehaved. There were streets with no footpaths, and the Sand Track was a sand track. Paekākāriki was a railway village, distinctly working class and with great characters everywhere.

Glover drank in the old pub, where he was a fixture in the Ballerina Bar that, because it was lined with stainless steel, looked like a dunny.  

We all obeyed Aunty Jean, the formidable kuia of Ngāti Haumia, and we were grateful for that privilege.

I saw Miss Peach only once, but legend had it that she took her a canary in a cage everywhere she went, be it the old Post Office, one of our three grocery stores, one of the two butcher’s shops, or in the hardware, drapery or chemist.

Bill Carson was the chemist. You could hardly get in for packets of stuff stacked up from floor to ceiling, and he dispensed every day from 4 to 5pm from his special corner of the bar.

I had no sooner moved into an old shack that cost $5,700 (“You’re mad!” I was told “It’s only worth $5,000”), a shack that had grass growing through the kitchen floor, than I was invited to a party in the cottage next door that also sagged on wooden piles. The place was jumping and every person seemed like a character from a shindig in the Eketahuna of 1951.

I met Betty at that party and found she liked Mozart, opera, painting and design stuff. John was there of course and I liked him immediately, not least because he so fitted in my new and exciting Heartland habitat. His identity was as Kiwi as you can get, as we saw years later, on the last night of our much-loved, beautifully sound, and entirely irreplaceable old heart-totara pub, when he led a mass haka of sublime defiance.

No-one in Paekākāriki talked about diversityin 1971 but the Perkins family soon came to epitomise it. The culture of the Middle Run family farm was right wing, left-leaning, New Age, rural, cosmopolitan, outdoors, arty, horsey, gentle, blokey, into surf life-saving, and famous for teasing humour noted for a consistent lack of tact. And as for the talents—wow. Architecture, crutching, film-making, engineering, animal husbandry, design, mustering, party-going, teaching, scrub-cutting, politics and gardening.  You can see what I mean: the John Perkins era attracted wonderful people to our village: people who might not be like-minded―the Perkins family is incapable of being that boring―but certainly people who are, by and large, remarkably like-hearted.

John mixed easily because he saw people as individuals, not as members of a group, and he was the same person for all people. With blokes of his ilk, to focus on the male individuals requires you to honour political differences by taking the piss. He did this by offering numerous insults so cheerfully that other blokes’ totally useless occupations and deluded world-views were quickly sidelined, thereby clearing the decks for mate-ship.

I have a vivid memory of popping into the old pub and seeing John with three guys I didn’t know.  He called me over and introduced them. “This is Tom” he said “and he’s a bloody unionist. All he’s good for is calling strikes that stop shiploads of frozen lambs going to Britain.” Dick was a bureaucrat who, all by himself, was personally paralyzing several government departments all at the same time, which was probably an excellent thing. And Harry was a lawyer, say no more.  

John―of course―beamed with fulfilment when his mates blamed him and him alone for the ruinous state of the entire rural sector.

However, that pattern was broken when John introduced me, and I said in the most macho tone I could muster “and I … teach … social studies.” I followed this up with a look intended to ask if anyone had a problem with that. No-one knew what to say. Except John who, always compassionate, reckoned that my affliction warranted a free beer.

I am curious about John and poetry. I heard him read a stunning one that he wrote at a tough time. He knew Glover’s ‘The Magpies’ by heart. That poem is about the loss of a family farm, and so we have to wonder if it meant a lot because John feared the same fate was in store for Middle Run, which of course proved to be the case.

John’s heartbreak for the loss of that land, like all grief that is the price we pay for love, must be honoured.   

To illustrate John’s moral integrity, I have a triumphant story that will put paid to any illusion that John Hayes Perkins would let the last word be said by those magpies in the Glover poem, those magpies with their unfeeling mutter of Quardle Oodle Ardle etc:

Some years ago, Middle Run was one of many farms ravaged by floods, and a luxury cruise company offered Federated Farmers some cruise bookings for victims of the flood.  John and Betty’s number came up in the ballot and off they went.

The custom on the cruise liner was that passengers were assigned to a regular table at dinner time. And so John and Betty soon noticed that a handsome but somewhat plump guest was quite talkative. That person was Brian Tamaki, the founder and bishop of Destiny Church, a fundamentalist Christian community whose largely Polynesian congregation seems to subsidise their pastor’s somewhat opulent lifestyle. John, being John, would never join the chorus of condemnation. However, he did feel irked that the Bishop seemed rather keen on condemning lesbians. As John once told me, that did not go down too well with him and Betty.

So, John, being John, felt duty-bound to have Bishop Tamaki on. “You must visit us!” he said. “And I’ll introduce you to my flock.. and we’ll invite all the neighbours” he promised, not adding that in our village that means that maybe half of the females present would be lesbian.

The last night of the cruise was a party night, one that saw the ship’s photographer taking photos of couples and larger groups, to provide prints to be picked up next morning.  

There came a moment when the Bishop and John were standing side by side.  

The photographer lifted his camera.    

And the camera flashed at the precise moment when John Hayes Perkins kissed Bishop Tamaki.

That photograph exists. What a triumph! In two inspired seconds, both totally harmless, John became The Man Who Kissed Brian Tamaki.

Maybe Beach Road needs a life-size statue of Perky, with that proud inscription.

‘We have come to the end of an era’. And what an era. I have been quizzing friends about John and Betty and have been impressed by how many people remember Middle Run as a special place. Trespassing was especially popular, but you had to close the gates. There was tree-climbing, mushrooming, motorcycle trials, and treks to the high ridges for magnificent sea views. And, towards the top of the farm, a choir had sung in the perfect acoustics of that huge, circular, below-ground and brick-lined ammunition dump that the Americans built during the war.

All that, alas, has gone. Middle Run Farm is already a memory. Natasha Perkins’ previous email address had tolled the final parting bell: her address was, please take this in: lastpaddock@paradise.net.nz. And now Vodafone has ditched the paradise bit. But don’t worry, John. Your memory will last, your family has wonderful new members, and Vodafone can go jump in the sea.  

It is only now beginning to sink in that I will never see John’s wonderful creased face again. As always with grief, one way through it is to ask, well, how lucky can we be? In John’s case we have been gifted the peerless legacy of a man for all people of goodwill; a man for all seasons including the worst; an irreplaceable bloke of wit, spontaneity, tenacity and warmth; a person who personified bedrock values that are universal for all people all over the world―values that, let us hope, will be the foundation for a future in which today’s young people will survive and thrive by struggling together, in a world they must improve.

That was one bloody good life, mate.