Jan Bolwell

Excerpt from
Going Up Central

During the mid to late 1950s we pour into the Alexandra Centennial Hall on hot summer nights to be entranced and delighted by a completely new experience – the musical film. For weeks I roar around the flat Alexandra streets on my bike singing ‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat’ from the 1955 film of Guys and Dolls starring Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons and Frank Sinatra. We swoon over Grace Kelly and Sinatra singing ‘True Love’ in the 1956 film High Society. We imitate the actress Mitzi Gaynor singing ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair’ in the famous hair washing sequence from the 1958 film version of South Pacific. But my standout show off routine in front of guests at my parents’ frequent parties is another great number from South Pacific.

‘A hundred and one pounds of fun ...’ I try to capture the raunchiness of the song, swaggering up and down with my thumbs digging into the waistband of my elasticised shorts with my sailor’s hornpipe hat perched at a jaunty angle. The adults indulge my antics.


When we reach Butchers Gully we know that Alexandra is not far away. With our bodies slung sleepily over each other, we are jolted awake when Geoffrey comes over the rise of a hill and nearly collides with a mob of sheep on the main road. My father is an excellent driver, and he instantly pumps the brake in and out to slow up the car. We stop inches away from the animals. Geoffrey is proud of his Ford Zephyr car. He knows nothing about the mechanical workings of the engine, but that does not stop him enjoying a steady turnover of cars as he lets them climb to thirty thousand miles before turning them in, with the aid of some overseas funds, for a new model. The Ford Zephyrs morph into the US-designed Falcon, followed by a spate of Australian-manufactured Holden station wagons. Our favourite car by far is a red and white Falcon station wagon which is the nearest we get to a ‘sexy’ car. It doesn’t last long, as Dad complains it is ‘too light in the steering’.

Up until the final decade of his life, my father was still buying Ford motorcars. His last car though was a Mitsubishi Lancer, the only occasion he ever bought a Japanese car, and only because he wanted my mother to have ‘something easy to handle once I’m gone’.

Down the hill past the Earnscleugh Road turn-off to the left, we cross the narrow Alexandra Bridge with the swirling Clutha River below. This bridge was built in 1882 from locally quarried schist stone. By the 1950s it is no longer adequate for the size and volume of traffic that brings people into the heart of Central Otago. In 1958 a steel arch bridge replaces the old one, whose piers still stand like two elegant sentinels alongside the more modern construction. We drive up Tarbet Street, past Pioneer Park and then left into Bantry Street, which edges the park. Our grey brick crib stands starkly on its section where Mum’s plantings are struggling to establish themselves in this hot, dry climate.

Mrs Williamson (Mrs Willie to us), our neighbour directly opposite, has been over to open the windows and give the place a good airing. She waddles over to greet us in her floral cotton-print dress and cardie, a large cheerful woman with a tribe of seven kids ranging in age from their early twenties to a pre-schooler. She regards our crib as an extension of her own property and takes a proprietary interest in our lives. There is nothing Mrs Willie does not know about the comings and goings in Bantry Street. She keeps us fully informed about the transgressions of those she sees as our less than salubrious neighbours.

‘I’m keeping my eye on those Frewens. That boy Philip is going to end up in jail one day, you mark my words. Caught him sneaking around your section a few days ago. I gave him an earful, I can tell you.’

Mrs Willie’s kitchen with its coal range constantly burning is like a cosy cave we retreat to when we want to read the illicit comics she has piled high at the corner of the couch. Whereas we are sent off each weekend to the Dunedin Children’s Library to get proper books, Mrs Willie’s kids only read comics, and we can’t get enough of them. Mum yells across the street.

‘I know you’re in there. Come home immediately. Mrs Willie must be sick to death of you.’

Mrs Willie winks. ‘You can finish those tomorrow – if your mother lets you.’

Reluctantly we pull ourselves away from Casper the Friendly Ghost, Archie and Jughead, Davy Crockett, Billy Bunter, Huey, Dewey and Louie, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, and all the war comics filled with superheroes fighting Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.


The Williamson family is a source of fascination – seven children and two adults in a modest wooden house. How do they all fit in? I ponder this question and decide they must sleep in rotation. The three oldest boys, John, Rex and Billy, float in and out of the house with their Brylcreemed hair, fancy shirts and pressed trousers. Billy is the handsome and charming one. We three adore him. Billy works at the local Four Square store, and I am convinced that ‘Four Square man’, blazoned in the corner of the shop verandah, is a portrait of Billy. With his broad smile and raised thumb, sporting a bright yellow shirt and white apron featuring a big red 4 inside a green square, I have no idea this famous smiling logo is part of an advertising campaign for Four Square found throughout New Zealand. I still say hi to Billy Williamson each time I see the sign.

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