How Did I Get Here?

Reprise: First Posted on  by 

A year ago today, I wrote of the Australia Day Breakfast, and that it did not have my official sanction.  I am pleased to report that this year the event is authorised by a permit issued with my signature, and the Shire citizens were served safe, sanctioned sausages. The  Lions can take pride in the knowledge that they are doing the Right Thing.

In that entry a year ago, I casually mentioned that closing the event down might have been my second Great Career-Limiting Move.  Glenn suggested that I relate the story of the first.

Twelve months later, I have finally got around to it.

Considering it now, from here, it was indeed a very significant event in my life.  That one action pretty much defined my life from that time on for good and ill.  It eventually led me down a new path that culminated with me being here, now, alone, and not somewhere else, possibly with someone else, but certainly with a completely different history behind me. Some alternate universes may have in them some bum named Alan sleeping under a bridge somewhere, about to expire of consumption and exposure, and yet another Alan leading a happily united world into an era of peace and plenty, merely because of some other slight twist in the plot of life.

Whatever fanciful tales one might conjure, if I had not been the cheeky bastard I was then, I may not have become the cheeky bastard I am now.  I would now almost certainly be a completely different person.  It is a truism that we are each the sum of our own decisions, experiences and actions.  We reap the consequences in totally unforeseeable ways.  Who can know where a seemingly insignificant deed might lead? There must be any number of pivotal moments in a lifetime and it must be difficult to identify them at the time.

I am still finding out where this particular one is leading me.

In 1983, I was Senior Borough Health Inspector at the Borough of Mount Roskill. The story of how I came to be there is also quite a tale but one mostly already told.

This is the true tale of how I came to leave Mount Roskill Borough.

The Council offices were here:

I loved my job. It was varied, interesting and involved  such fun and useful activities as inspecting food premises, getting landlords to upgrade shoddy rental properties, abating nuisances, resolving neighbourly disputes, investigating noise complaints, air pollution, plumbing and drainage inspections, building inspections, pest control, even a little social work with the elderly and neglected.   One just never knew  where any day would lead.  The major thing that made it worthwhile was that in some way every day I was able to improve or maintain the quality of life of ordinary people.  

As my personal life then was in a shambles, much as it is now, and for very similar reasons, I threw myself pretty whole-heartedly into my work.  Despite working for what was then the lowest-paying local authority in the country (another remarkable similarity, come to think of it) I made a pretty good living because I happily accepted all the after-hours call out work that no one else wanted.  

Mount Roskill had its own traffic department back in those days, before traffic cops were integrated into the Police.  I had  trained with the prosecuting officers, so I was able to prepare my own prosecutions and lay the informations without the help of a solicitor.  The idea was that the Borough Solicitor need not become involved unless the offender gave notice that he intended to defend the charges.  If a guilty plea was entered, I merely had to give formal proof and the job was done.  If they defended, the solicitor took over.  Not that I took many prosecutions anyway.   I always believed in changing behaviour rather than prosecuting, and still do.

I had one particular factory on Carr Road in the industrial/ commercial area interface, which processed timber for furniture and construction.  They worked a lot with a particular New Zealand variety of wood call Tawa.  Tawa dust is a serious irritant and to some folks, an allergen.  It causes a lot of people distress if they get it in the eye or up the nose.   Others just get pissed off when it gets into their laundry or food.  Not unreasonably, I think.

When the cyclone on the roof of the factory started leaking Tawa dust all over the Borough the complaints became overwhelming.  I spent a great deal of time  (fourteen months) trying to get the factory manager to repair the cyclone, and abate the dust nuisance.  This was in the days before the more powerful Clean Air Act was enacted and all I had to work with was the nuisance provisions of the Health Act.  A useful and straightforward piece of legislation, but with puny fines.  All my encouragement, pleading, blandishments and threats made no progress towards resolving the problem.  Finally I made an appointment with the factory manager and went in for a showdown.  Comply or be prosecuted and if the fine does not faze you, maybe the publicity will, because I intend to embarrass the company.

There was a third person at the meeting, someone I had not met before.  He was the owner of the factory himself.  A well-known local multi-millionaire.  This factory was one small part of an enormous empire he controlled.  His name was Keith Hay.  I was hoping for a sympathetic ear from him and a swift order to the manager to sort things out. He turned out to be one of the biggest A-holes I ever had the misfortune to meet (he also happened to be a bible-bashing anti-alcohol, anti-gay, holier-than-thou pompous git).   He sat silently and disdainfully through my discourse on the rights and wrongs of the situation, the action necessary to resolve the matter, and the Court consequences if the company failed to comply.  Finally he spoke. “And just what is the penalty for this heinous crime?”  he asked, heavily accenting the heinous with what I assume was sarcasm.

I remember this so very clearly after all these years.  I still see the arrogant scorn in his face when I replied “The fine is $500 and a there is a further penalty of $50 for every day the offence continues”.   I knew full well that I would be lucky to get a $100 fine and a month’s worth of $10 a day, but that was not the point.

Keith Hay probably knew this too.  He certainly knew that a new cyclone was going to cost him around seven grand.  He turned to the factory manager and said “Pay him out of petty cash” and walked out.

Next day I went to the District Court and laid the Information.

I had every expectation that the matter would be defended of course, but I was prepared.  I had photographs, witnesses, documented complaints and full notes of my attempts to resolve the matter.  The Court likes fair and reasonable, and I had certainly been that.  I was confident I could not lose.   I was not at all surprised when I was called to the Town Clerk’s office and found him waiting with the Borough Solicitor.  I was surprised however when I was informed ” The charges against the company have been dropped, and the matter is closed”.

I asked if the company had agreed to repair or replace the cyclone.

” The charges against the company have been dropped, and the matter is closed”.

I was dismissed from the meeting.  The matter was closed.

I should probably given more thought to the fact that Keith Hay had been the previous Mayor of the Borough, and had served the maximum permitted number of terms.  But if I had, I would probably, in my youth, have considered that this merely meant he would have even more incentive to do the Right Thing.

A week later Keith Hay telephoned me and asked if he could pick me up and show me something.  It was more of an instruction than a request, and I agreed to meet him though he would not elaborate on where he intended to take me.   At the appointed time he picked me up in his Mercedes,  and as he drove he told me his plans for opening a jam factory, and employing mentally handicapped people to work in it.  He seemed to think that would be a good idea and would be well received by the community, the sheltered workshop people and the Government.  I wondered if he was waiting for my approval, or expecting that I would suddenly see what a Good Person he really was, and fall down in adulation.

What he had to show me was everything he owned in the area, from his stately home on Cape Horn Road, overlooking Waikowhai Bay, to his factories, timber yards and house-building operations located from my Borough through New Lynn, Henderson and te Atatu, to Kumeu.

I wondered then  if he was going to drive me to Northland to see the Keith Hay Homessites up that way.   But after Kumeu we turned around and headed back.  I was still not sure why I was there, or what I should be saying, or even thinking.  Was I supposed to be impressed or overawed?  Filled with new-found respect for this great achiever?

Not happening.

I concluded that this was his way of saying “See the power I wield, the lives I hold in my hand.  You cannot fight me.”

I have always been egalitarian, and to me,  Jack is as good as his master.  What you do is what defines you, not what you have.  As he dropped me off I thanked him for the tour, and told him I was impressed with his achievements.  I complimented his lovely home and his magnificent business empire that must be making an enormous profit.  Even his car was pretty cool.  I just could not understand why he could not afford to replace a broken dust  extract system…

After that, life at Mount Roskill was never the same.   Nothing I did was ever quite right again.  I was constantly blotting my copybook somehow.  I would come in from a drainage inspection and get called into the TC’s office.  My boots were dirty or my appearance unbecoming of Council staff.  At other times my car was dirty, my actions inappropriate, I was rude to residents,  my log books were not kept properly, and so on.  And on… I was harassed constantly.  I could not understand at first what was going on, naïve fool that I was.  These days it would be called constructive dismissal.  I tried to ignore it and just threw myself further into my work, but it was becoming increasingly difficult.  Finally even my immediate boss, John the Chief Health Inspector, joined the battle.  On the wrong side.   Should have foreseen that.   One February morning  in 1984 I told him I needed some time off the next day.  My ex (the first one) had called me to point out that we had been separated for well over the requisite time and we could now apply for a divorce on the grounds of irreconcilable differences.   I had a friend at Henderson District Court, so I had already spoken to him and he told me the Justice would be available 9 am  the very next day.    We just had to tell the Justice of our differences, and it would all be over in a flash.

I made arrangements to meet Els there despite the fact that in those days I still believed no differences are irreconcilable, but she did not agree.   I was eventually to learn  she was right.  But I digress, I was telling of my conversation with John.

John’s response to my request was “You have had too much time off lately,”

I was stunned.  Taken completely aback.  I had not had any time at all off, for any reason, for ages.

“What the fuck do you mean?  I have had no leave at all for nearly a year.  I haven’t even been sick! I was on call at Christmas,  I work on weekends,  I do all the fucking night call outs, I cover your area as well as my own even when you are here,  I have taken over Cecil’s area too, since he  left and was not replaced.  What fucking time have I had off lately – or at all?”

“Don’t talk to me like that.  I want some respect from you” said John.

“You had better fuckin’  earn it then” said I.

I began to suspect, at last, there was a conspiracy to get me to resign.   With a few further choice words I described John’s character, his abilities as a health inspector, his qualities as a leader, and his shoddy treatment of colleagues.  Too loudly.  I was pretty emotional even before starting the conversation.  Now I was raving.   Everyone in the entire wing heard me shouting.

I took the time off next day to meet Els as arranged, and finalise the divorce.  I also took a day or two to grieve again, then returned quietly to work. No one said much, except Lasca Fox, the office lady, who was her usual kindly, motherly self.    I knew by then it was time for me to move on.  I also concluded that I did not want to work ever again for a local authority.  Not after this.  This sort of shit.  Corruption and politics.

The Department of Health did not want ex local authority inspectors in those days, they trained their own.  Where could I go?  I started looking overseas and even applied for a position in the United Arab Emirates.  I got as far as being accepted as an environmental health surveyor there .  I sent off twenty-six black and white passport-size photos of myself for all the documentation I was going to need.  But things dragged on.  If they ever sent me the contract, I never got it.  No matter.  By now I had read an article in the NZ Environmental Health magazine, of which I just  happened to be editor at the time.

The article was by a colleague who had completed a tour as a volunteer with Volunteer Service Overseas (VSO).  It looked interesting.   I thought I could do that and do it well.   I wrote to VSO.  I had an English passport as well as NZ so I thought they could use me.  They replied kindly, saying they could only accept people in country for interviews but  suggested that as I was already in NZ I might like to try contacting their NZ equivalent, VSA  (Volunteer Service Abroad) .  I did.  They seemed pretty keen.  For a few months we exchanged letters about my training, skills and abilities, the positions they had to fill, and considering where I might be of best use.

The answer turned out to be Solomon Islands.  As a water supply engineer.  I signed up and in a short while went through the induction training, and headed out into the Pacific to a country of which I had never heard until then.  For two years I led a team of local workers. We toured Western Province and Choiseul communities and surveyed, designed and built small village water supplies.  I had a wonderful time and some amazing experiences.  I learned more than I taught.  I was doing something useful.  I pulled myself together,  met a young woman and married her.  At the end of my term we returned to NZ where, to my delight, I found that due to a change in Government policy, the Department of Health no longer trained its own inspectors (now called Health Protection Officers) and were in fact desperately short of good staff.  As usual when politicians gainsay the expert advice of their permanent staff, things go awry.  Good for me though.  I had my pick of three offices in the Auckland region and my career was back on track.  I was happier than ever.

For a time.

So it goes.


If you wonder what my downfall looks like:

Cyclone dust extractor

(The Town Clerk is what we called the CEO in those days)

Mount Roskill Borough  no longer exists, having been swallowed up in the political amalgamation that created the great metropolitan City of Auckland.

I was a  long way down a completely different path by the time that happened.

Author: Uisce úr

Though I am old with wandering Through hollow lands and hilly lands, I will find out where she has gone, And kiss her lips and take her hands; And walk among long dappled grass, And pluck till time and times are done, The silver apples of the moon, The golden apples of the sun.

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