The vi­o­lin­ist’s Queen St lament

Central Leader - - NEWS -

It was a random act of kind­ness which would have moved even that great ex­po­nent, the late Princess Diana – and it went around the world.

When a New York po­lice­man gave the once-over to a home­less man hud­dled against a cold wall, he no­ticed the man’s bare feet.

An im­me­di­ate re­sponse. Un­like the usual im­age of the Big Ap­ple’s tough cops – he went away, bought the man a pair of boots and knelt to help put them on.

This act of hu­man­ity was snapped by an amazed tourist and pho­tos set it loose on the web­sites of the world. It ‘‘went vi­ral’’ – as they say th­ese days. It caught the imag­i­na­tion of mil­lions.

The web­site viewer here (my wife) added it to my bulging mes­sage files – as you do.

And for some rea­son, I was back more than 50 years.

When I first found Queen St – a coun­try boy un­used to the oddities of big city life – a well-known/lit­tle-known char­ac­ter walked the street seem­ingly to­tally out of touch with the peo­ple around him.

Few seemed to reg­is­ter his one unique fea­ture. He was play­ing his vi­o­lin end­lessly and pas­sion­ately as he walked.

Queen St of those days saw noth­ing odd in that.

The pop­u­lar le­gend was that his wife had died in the blaz­ing wreck of their home while he saved his vi­o­lin – and never for­got his wife’s death and how she died.

New­com­ers like me were riv­eted by him – this tall, un­for­get­table, com­pletely ab­sorbed fig­ure walking briskly through busi­ness­men head­ing for con­fer­ences, young lawyers – for­mal pa­pers in hand, head­ing pods of brothers-in-law self­im­por­tantly to­wards the old Mag­is­trate’s Court or the Supreme Court dra­mas over the crest of the hill.

Auck­land’s com­mer­cial big names idly passed the time of day on the way with fel­low mem­bers to the North­ern Club, past hec­tic shop­pers remembering some­one’s birth­day at the last minute, teenagers in their first job chat­ting nois­ily on street cor­ners.

There was one fig­ure wear­ing an im­pres­sive Hom­burg hat, ap­par­ently once a coun­cil iden­tity of note, who of­ten held court with other old one­time dig­ni­taries in the sun on Fort St cor­ner.

It was his ver­sion lime­light.

Mo­tor­cy­cle gang mem­bers lined up along­side their shin­ing mounts street out­side Queen St 246 that they re­garded as their patch.

I sus­pect that it be­came theirs when the Ker­ridge

of old or­gan­i­sa­tion was un­wise enough to sched­ule a lon­grun­ning mo­tor­bike epic in one of the the­atres there. The movie dis­ap­peared, the home­town bikies didn’t.

Later, a brave univer­sity stu­dent parked his lit­tle brother’s trike at the end of the row, took out one of his mother’s best clean­ing rags and solemnly mim­icked the rou­tine which the patched men of heavy metal lav­ished on their steeds for most of their day be­fore they roared off to lord knows where ... shades of James Dean.

There were words said and the fear­less trikey very wisely never called again for an en­core.

Pre­sum­ably, he earned the stu­dent ver­sion of a gang patch for ac­cept­ing such a dare.

What would have been the big­gest ex­am­ple of a turf war on Queen St was fought some­time in the early 1950s when a self-ap­pointed posse of com­pul­sory mil­i­tary/trainees came to Pa­pakura camp bear­ing some grudge and staged a raid on the bik­ers.

It was quite a dust-up as the newly fit CMTs tried out some of their new fit­ness and skills.

They were seem­ingly not con­scious that, but for their birth date match­ing the date drawn for ser­vice like Lotto, they might have been on the other side of this noisy guer­rilla war­fare.

A one-time na­tional cham­pion boxer, mea­gre prize­money long spent, head­ing to work on the wharves was ac­ti­vated end­lessly as play­ful tram drivers rang their bells when they sighted him.

Old reflexes sur­faced. He’d heard that sound so of­ten in the ring and he im­me­di­ately set­tled into a fighter’s pose, lead­ing with his left, cross­ing with his right.

Peo­ple – and an­other weird me­mory.

More than 50 years ago, a young Auck­land Star re­porter – not me – came back from an as­sign­ment with a colour story from Her­ald Is­land.

Colour, in­deed. He had text and pic­tures of a man on the is­land who had the body of his em­balmed wife in her cas­ket in their front sit­ting room.

I was un­wise enough to ask the writer what health con­sid­er­a­tions were in­volved. He quoted the mourn­ing hus­band’s re­ply: ‘‘There are some prob­lems with ants in the sum­mer.’’

One colour­ful Auck­land city iden­tity from a long chain of foot­path celebri­ties died in re­cent months. That war­ranted a news item for TV3.

Sim­ply known as Mar­garet, she had clear ter­ri­tory – K Rd, Pon­sonby Rd and its en­vi­rons. She ap­par­ently lived in a Par­nell unit and trav­elled from there and back by bus most days for 27 years.

In her long grey fur coat, with sharp eyes, she had im­pres­sive pres­ence and used this for the wants of her day – cigarettes, spare change and ca­sual food. Woe be­tide any­one who had those needs put on them and could not or would not pro­vide.

A woman of few words, she used them all at full vol­ume at such mo­ments.

Her con­tacts had an in­stant feel­ing that they didn’t want to cross her – and usu­ally didn’t.

Th­ese who at­tended her funeral may have in­stinc­tively made sure they were well pro­vided with pack­ets and not-so-small change be­fore they left home in case the re­ports of her death were a base­less ru­mour – they weren’t.

I thought too of the im­pos­ing, bearded, heavy­coated and surly night ten­ant of the one­time tram pas­sen­ger shel­ter at the city mouth of Grafton Bridge.

For years, he made it very clear he dis­liked be­ing wo­ken and hav­ing to move each morn­ing.

And I re­mem­bered my first con­tact with home­less.

I was ap­proached one af­ter­noon on Syd­ney’s cen­tral rail­way sta­tion by a very well­spo­ken char­ac­ter car­ry­ing a brief­case.

‘‘I am very sorry to worry you but I ap­pear to have left my wal­let on my side­board at home and I haven’t a bean on me, nor my rail pass. I won­dered if you could help me.’’

I took in at a glance the grubby, worn, long un­washed shirt, untrimmed hair, shoes close to col­lapse. I sym­pa­thised with him with­out a hint of dis­be­lief.

I helped. He shook my hand warmly and we went our ways.

I’ve never for­got­ten him, just as I re­mem­ber Auck­land’s man with the vi­o­lin and won­dered who and why, where from and what lay ahead and be­hind them on the of­ten heed­less streets of their cities.

Es­pe­cially at Christ­mas. When the vi­o­lin’s out­put had a par­tic­u­lar qual­ity – for those who heard it, that is. Did you?

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