Department of Mathematics and Statistics

A Necessary Balance: Alec and Harry Aitken 1920-1935
P.C. Fenton

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1.   Family background; Winifred

I spoke with Margaret Mott, A.C. Aitken’s daughter, several times during a visit to Edinburgh in June 1996. We sat under a tree in her garden on warm, clear days, or drove through the countryside, talking. On one occasion she turned to me abruptly and asked what it was I did not understand about her father’s relationship with Elizabeth, his mother. Elizabeth had died when he was fifteen. She is mentioned once in his writing, part of a memory of mythic intensity:

... my father descending a ... scree at “Lover’s Leap”, Otago Peninsula, while I with Mother waited above on the turf, hearing his “Coo-ee” reverberate up from the funnel and echo round the great overhanging amphitheatre of basaltic organ-pipes.1

I had wondered that he could claim as he did that he was unable to remember details of her life. We had talked about her the day before but Margaret plainly felt I was on the wrong track and the conversation drifted to other things. When I revived the same themes she cut me short. He loved her, she said, and he would not speak about her. I sought an explanation that would have had him emerge into another air, in which a mother’s death becomes in time a fact like any other, but there was none, nor was there a mystery to be uncovered. He loved her and would not speak about her.

The opening of Aitken’s Memoir suggests, also by an absence, a related circle of experiences. His departure from Dunedin railway station on 30 July 1923, more awkward than painful, is disposed of in a few sentences.

On the station, at that early hour, were, besides W[inifred] and her mother, Dr Benham, Prof. J.D. Adams and a High School boy, Murray McGeorge. As I said goodbye and entered the carriage, J.D.A. handed to me a present, a slender book, Housman’s Last Poems. The platform receded. Pelichet Bay and Logan’s Point were soon passed. With a pang, more than a pang, I saw Dunedin vanish behind me, for how many years?

We sense his relief as he plunges into a description of the journey. It may go unnoticed that William, his father, was not present at the station, nor his vivid, doomed brother Harry, brilliant like Aitken and bursting with hero-worship, nor indeed any of his brothers and sisters.

Not only Alec but the whole family was rent by Elizabeth’s death in 1910. Pearl, the older of the two daughters, took over the running of the household – she was not fourteen when her mother died – but after William’s remarriage to Minnie Thomson in 1916, she left, at Minnie’s insistence, for Auckland. There was not room enough for two housekeepers under one roof, Minnie said. It was a painful parting and words were spoken that were not soon to be taken back.2 Again the family’s emotional centre was withdrawn but this time it was considered blameworthy by the children and they blamed Minnie. In a parody of a fairy tale the good will they had mustered to welcome her turned to rancour. William was careworn and powerless to resolve his divided loyalties. ‘Civil war’ was how Aitken described it.3 Yet for all her heavy-handedness with the children, Minnie worked tirelessly to ease William’s lot. Even Harry, for whom Minnie was an ogre, recognized the affection they shared.4 In marrying him she had shouldered a burden the weight of which she could scarcely have imagined. When a doctor was in the house to see Harry and Alec (they had influenza), he observed incidentally that Minnie had glandular fever, was ‘completely run down and must have three months rest’,5 which naturally she did not get.

These tensions were played out against the background of hopeless endeavour that was William’s grocery shop. Soft-hearted and generous, William was unfitted for business. Wherever it is proverbially said to begin, charity was alive and well at his shop, and income ebbed away in credit notes to indigent customers. With the creeping failure of William’s business, a strain of penury entered the already claustrophobic family relationships. Harry wrote to Pearl:

Minnie says she doesn’t take money from Dad so that he can keep it for the business. I reckon that we might as well have it as let Dad give it to his customers or lend it to someone for a period of eternity at 0% interest. Les thinks that Dad is going to make him drive the cart, and he talks wildly about running away. Win flees with the hare and hunts with the hounds as usual. I suppose it’s the only thing she can do as no one can live comfortably in a house when they’re at daggers drawn with the mistress of it.6

A petty disagreement over a sewing machine flared into a heated exchange, from which it emerged that Minnie had intercepted mail from Pearl. Pearl had written that she hated her father and Win that she wished Minnie were dead. ‘All these things have been found out and treasured up,’ Aitken wrote to Pearl.

Now all this ill feeling and subterfuge has come through Dad’s circumstances. Imagine how much different it would all have been if we had had enough to live comfortably, to pay for doctors and dentists when necessary, to have a piano to make home a place of music and happiness after the day’s work, to have light for the boys to work at their study without hurting their eyes by candle-flicker. ... Dad will have to be helped out somehow. I wish to Heaven I knew how much he is down. He looked suicidal this morning with everything. Pearl, can’t we straighten things up and be outright with it? Is it possible to let bygones be bygones, and make a fresh start?7

That William allowed Minnie to stand between himself and the children was felt by them as a kind of abandonment, but he was oblivious of their predicament. He rarely spoke of his feelings, and Aitken’s plea for things to be outright reflects the subterranean level at which emotions had come to be expressed in the family.8 It had not always been so. A church organ heard one Sunday transported Bill to a lost Eden:

It reminded me of the time when we used to live in Albany Street when Cis Morton wasn’t there. How we used to sit in the front room in the winter evenings before the fire reading a book instead of doing our lessons and Alex runting away at the violin. Do you know Sonsie, I seem to look back often to those days and wish we could go back to them again so that we all could be at home together once more. We didn’t think much of them then no doubt but they always come back to me now.9

Minnie might have recalled her uncluttered spinsterhood with equal nostalgia.

Meanwhile Alec’s friendship with Winifred Betts was flourishing. They had met as undergraduates and she, a brilliant student, was now on the lecturing staff of the University, teaching botany.10 Winifred spent long hours on botanical fieldwork but was not outdoorsy; as a child in Nelson she preferred to stay at home reading when the family went to the beach. She was serious and strong-willed, with a deep capacity for loyalty. She anchored Aitken as a hand holds a kite. They had written to each other when Alec was at the war,11 perhaps the crucial period of their relationship. Having passed through the trauma of it, they had implicitly, it may be unwittingly, tied themselves to each other.

Miss Grindley, Winifred’s aunt in Dunedin, had reservations about Alec’s suitability, but these had dissipated, and when Alec entered Miss Grindley’s parlour in March 1920, for the second time in seven years, he reflected that Winifred had ‘squared the old bird’ and he was now considered ‘highly, oh, highly eligible’. Winifred’s lot among the Aitkens was less happy, for, according to Harry, Minnie took a set against her. When Alec was ill and confined to bed, and Winifred came to the house to see him, Minnie refused to let her in. She was obliged to sit on the verandah and speak to him through an open window. In time she was accepted however, and her involvement with the family’s travails grew into a deeply felt sympathy and affection, especially for Pearl; they began a correspondence that was important to them both and lasted the rest of their lives.

William’s financial position grew desperate in the second half of 1920 and the family moved to a new address, ‘sans washhouse, sans drainage, but with a slope of gorse’.12 Sans Alec too – he took the chance to move to a flat in Royal Terrace – and Win, who left to board with a neighbour. William’s shop, ‘that nightmare’ as Aitken called it, was sold. William stayed on as an assistant and with a regular wage coming in the despair of the preceding months lifted. Alec felt his responsibilities lighten and his contact with the family diminished. (He wrote to Pearl in September that he had not been to the new house or told them his address.) Bill was working on a farm at Hakataramea, and Les had found a job as a reporter and was itching to pack up and go. Too young to leave, Harry found relief in racy invective.

I think step-mothers should be prohibited by law, although dad likes them well enough.13

Alan, the youngest, was, like Bill, not a scholar and from this distance drifts into wordlessness, lost among the others.

But Harry stands out. Relatives said, perhaps with an eye to the romance of tragic unfulfilment, that he showed even more promise than Alec, and their impressions are not without foundation. Harry was first in the entrance exam at Otago Boys High School, and in the Scholarship exam in his last year was placed eighth in New Zealand, two places higher than Alec had been eleven years earlier. Like Alec Harry saw himself as not merely academic.

[Alec] seems a trifle shirty about me being second in the Latin term exam but what can he expect when I didn’t sit for the exam? [He had been ill.] I was beaten by the weediest of weeds, a minister’s son named Irwin, as weak as a chicken who doesn’t go in for any games but swots all afternoon. I wouldn’t be in his shoes for quids. One of the masters was telling Alec that he came first in three subjects. “Yes,” he said, “but he’s a weed.”14

Spirit aside, he was not strong. ‘The boys are getting big now,’ William noted when Harry was nearly sixteen, ‘even Harry is getting quite sturdy’. Alec took him under his wing at the High School and supplied him with pocket money – ‘Alec is a stunner master, inclined to be a bit lenient I think, but seeing that he gives me 2/6 nearly every week I am quite satisfied with him’.15 This protectiveness, occasionally mixed with exasperation, continued until Harry’s death in 1934.

There was a dark side to this affinity between Harry and Alec. Shortly after Elizabeth’s death Harry was upended by older boys at Lake Logan and held with his head above an octopus that had been trapped in a pool. His distress was so acute that the symptoms were initially mistaken for meningitis. This is the first evidence of mental instability that dogged him all his life and twice, in 1925 and 1933, overwhelmed him. He grew up with an intimate knowledge of personal fragility, of inner failure and breakdown. His half-sister recalled incidents in which he lay depleted on the floor, and his letters to Pearl are sprinkled with references to ‘blue devils’. Though he found school work easy enough, the anxiety of study and exams unsettled him, and stretched what he referred to as his ‘nerves’.

My exams finish in about a month and I am looking forward to the holidays pretty eagerly as my nerves are not too good.16

Holidays with his brother Bill at Hakataramea were oases of contentment, full of exhausting activity and uncomplicated relationships. He dreaded coming home. A day after returning from one such holiday, he wrote:

I felt horribly lonely, Les was at work – Alan had gone to school and I was in the bedroom. I kept thinking of Haka but tried to forget it in reading a book. When I read 20 pages I felt tired and the print began to jump about so I went to sleep and dreamed about Haka. When I woke up I felt funny. I was nervous and my knees shivered and I thought I was going to be ill. I went out and sat in the kitchen meaning to tell Minnie I felt ill but I thought better of it and went back to our room, had another sleep and then felt alright. 17

From Roxburgh, a town in Central Otago, where from the summer of 1922/23 he spent part of each long vacation fruit-picking, he wrote: ‘I am not particularly keen to go home. I have blue devils frequently at home, but rarely away from it.’18

He acquired disguises and learned the art of discretionary retreat. The easy empathies and flamboyant manner of his adult life, the exuberance that leaps from his letters, conceal a determination to withdraw from any encounter the emotional cost of which might threaten his stability.

One notices distinctions too between Harry and Alec. Harry’s insouciance has no counterpart in Alec, and while Alec reacted to personal distress with earnestness or irony, Harry might fend it off with verbal play.

Breakfast in this house has long ceased to be a meal. It has become a sort of Zulu repast. The table is partly covered by a piece of frayed white cloth. The only plates on the table are for the porridge; you spread your piece of bread on the cloth and, strange to relate, there is one knife only. This communal method is interesting but not pleasant. Of course the dishes to be washed are reduced to a minimum. This is apparently the method employed in the Thompson household but it is a beastly farce. We will soon be eating our breakfast out of the porridge pot direct.19

Harry went on to explore areas of literature and contemporary thought into which Alec refused to venture. He attended movies and dances, experimented with photography and fencing, took up with fast women and wayward friends.20 Alec distrusted this side of Harry, perhaps mistaking it for lack of seriousness. Referring to Harry some years later, he wrote:

I do so wish that all along he had gone in for quiet study in his own line, neglecting all side-issues!21

For Aitken, and by association, given their similar vulnerabilities, for his brother also, to abandon oneself to people or ideas or experiences was to dance on the edge of an abyss.

1  Memoir, 96.
2  ‘I have kept all your letters and just now I looked through them all, and I find only one allusion to Dad, referring to the fact that you had written to him and had, not unexpectedly, received no answer.’ A.C. Aitken to Pearl, 20 June 1920.
3  A.C.A to Pearl, 20 June 1920.
4  ‘I think that step-mothers should be prohibited by law, although Dad likes them well enough.’ Harry to Pearl, 19 May 1920.
5  Harry to Pearl, 19 May 1920.
6  29 March 1920.
7  20 June 1920.
8  A.C.A. to Pearl, 20 June 1920. ‘Can’t you write a kind word to him, mentioning my letter, to avoid awkwardness in beginning. People can’t help if nature has made them unable to show their feeling, and poor Dad broke down under it all this morning.’
9  To Pearl, 29 January, 1920. Win Kayes, Pearl's daughter, who transcribed this part of the letter, wrote: ‘Cis Morton née Aitken was the “Aunt Mary”, their father's younger sister, who was sent by Grandma Aitken to help when their mother died. I think she was 21 at the time. Sonsie was Bill's nickname for my mother.’
10  ‘From 1919 to 1923, botany at Otago was taught by Miss Mary Winifred Betts, primarily to provide a service for first year students intending medical, dental and home science degrees. Miss Betts did the ground work for establishment of a degree programme in Botany, and the Department was formed in 1924 to support it.’ Botany Department website, University of Otago 2011.
11  ‘Three weeks before Mother died – and neither we nor she knew she was going to die suddenly – she asked John [Mott] to burn a pile of old letters in the garden; which he did. I know that they were, largely, the letters Father wrote to her during the 1st War. Afterwards I thought that right.’ MM to me, 22 Oct 1995.
12  A.C.A. to Pearl, 3 September 1920.
13  19 May 1920.
14  19 May 1920.
15  Harry to Pearl, 13 March 1921.
16  Harry to Pearl, 16 Oct. 1924.
17  Harry to Pearl, 4 Feb. 1921.
18  Harry to Pearl, 18 Jan. 1925.
19  Harry to Pearl, 23 Mar. 1923.
20  For example, Kenneth Grinling, whom Alec despised (and even Mabel McIndoe, for whom personal idiosyncrasy was almost an ideological commitment, described as ‘rather ambivalent’). Grinling’s widow wrote: ‘The Economic depression was still very serious when Kenneth arrived full of illusions in U.K. It must have been rough for him and his mate Harry from N.Z. [...] After some years with a repertory Theatre in Tunbridge Wells, my husband went to France for mountain climbing, doing translations for a professor of Geneva University. During the war he escaped from the German soldiers to Swizerland. The NZ Alpine Journal vol. XI, No 33 of June 1946 holds a quite fascinating account of the excursion. Mastering French, he quite soon found work in Geneva, and we were married and sent by WHO to Serbia, Geneva and finally Africa [...] He was a kind and handsome man.’ Margrit Grinling to the author, 10 Sept. 2000.
21  ACA to Mabel McIndoe, 9 Nov. 1933.

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