A life well lived
Known by many, Mark Warren is a larger-than-life character and in his recent book
Many a Muddy Morning he recalls growing up in rural Canterbury before finding himself single-handedly managing a muddy Hawke’s Bay farm in his twenties, just as Rogernomics was introduced and the removal of subsidies would change the face of
farming forever. We take a peek into an early chapter.
In 1964, when I was about four years old, Dad was appointed vicar of Geraldine, replacing Bob Lowe, who would soon become very well known throughout the nation as a writer, broadcaster and raconteur.
Back then (actually, little has changed), Geraldine was a small country town nestled under the fertile green foothills of the Southern Alps. It was a typical rural service town, and the main street was filled with farm supply stores such as Pyne Gould Guinness, Wright Stephenson’s, Dalgety’s and the National Mortgage Company. On any given day the street would be lined with muddy Land Rovers and the odd Bedford truck, as those who farmed the surrounding district stocked up on supplies. For a small boy with a Land Rover fetish, it was heaven.
Although I was still living in a vicarage, Geraldine was very different to where we’d been living in urban Christchurch. I got in the habit of buttonholing the farmers who rolled up to church on a Sunday morning, and asking if I could go home with them for the afternoon and help to feed out or open gates for them on their lambing beat. Long-suffering Christian gents such as Tony Roberts – an easy-going, hardworking salt-of-the-earth Kiwi bloke if ever there was one – would nod, and after the service I would climb into (or onto) their car and be driven back to the farm.
In Tony’s case, the farm was in the aptly-named Beautiful Valley, one of the last lush tracts of lowland grassland before the road climbs up into the high country. After the typical Canterbury farmer’s Sunday lunch – roast lamb and veges – Tony would take me out on his Fordson Dexter tractor. It wasn’t long before he began giving me lessons in driving the thing. He had the patience of a saint, which came in handy as he explained over and over the intricacies of letting the clutch out smoothly. ‘Ease it more gently, laddie,’ he would murmur. ‘There’s no hurry.’
Or I might get a ride with dear old John Bolderstone, a larger-than-life man of the land, who would take me back to his farm with him after a church working bee on a Saturday and integrate me into his family for the weekend. John had a heap of interesting machinery on his hill-country farm – a Fordson Super Major tractor, a D2 Caterpillar bulldozer, a short wheelbase Land Rover and a Morris Commercial truck. Lucky!
I remember one occasion when I was out on the lambing beat with John and his sons, Geoff and Mark. As we approached a gate leading into a steep paddock, John stopped the Land Rover, pulled on the handbrake and got out. ‘Geoff and I are going to go for a bit of a walk around the hill to move a mob. Mark, do you reckon you can take the Landy
back home?’ His younger son’s eyes shone, but John was looking at me, at seven by far the older and more responsible child. His Mark was about four. ‘Ooh, yes!’ I said without hesitation. ‘I can manage!’ ‘If you get in trouble, just turn her off and walk,’ he said. As John and Geoff plodded off into the paddock, I settled myself into the driver’s seat, with little Mark offering advice as co-driver. It was a stretch reaching the pedals, but perched on the edge of the seat, I could just manage it. I gripped the Bakelite wheel, still slightly warm from John’s calloused hands, selected second gear – even then I knew the golden rule of Land Rovers: if you can’t get there in second gear, you won’t get there at all – and eased the handbrake off as I slowly let out the clutch.
With a lurch, we were in motion. John didn’t even look back to check how I was getting on. I crept along in second gear, surging forward in little bursts. After negotiating a few steep-ish hills, a creek crossing and the odd bog, and without hitting a single gatepost, we arrived back at the homestead, where I took particular care to park the Land Rover neatly in the house paddock. ‘Where’s Dad?’ Nan Bolderstone asked Mark when we came inside. Mark explained, his mother looking at first astonished, then outraged. When John and Geoff finally got back, she gave him a piece of her mind. ‘What do you think you were doing, leaving the vicar’s son to drive himself home on his own? He could have broken his neck!’ she said.
‘He was fine,’ John shrugged. ‘If he’d got into difficulties, he knew how to turn her off and walk home. Didn’t you, lad?’ I beamed back at him.
LEFT / Mark with his first go-cart, built of wood and hand-mower mechanicals, 1970. BELOW / A ski group, packed into ‘Truckie’, a 1956 Vanguard ute, heading off for a ski week in Tekapo, 1976.