A little bit of culture

A short story by Bob Collins (Stumpy)

‘Culture’ is a word with a meaning, which seems to elude most of us in this valley. ‘Maori’ culture, ‘European’ culture, they seem to go for it in big way up there in the ‘smoke’, but we have little understanding of it at all.

Take ‘Maori’ culture for instance. Up in the ‘smoke’ they take people to a marae with its neatly trimmed lawns of European grass and asphalt paving, and meeting house painted with ‘Trust British Paints, sure can’ (sold by an Australian) to put down a hangi. The stones (sometimes fire bricks) are heated with radiata pine offcuts. The food will be potatoes, pumpkin, cabbage, mutton, chickens, and a bag of spiced stuffing. It will be cooked in a wire netting basket covered with a galvanized iron steamer or wet chaff, sacks, and then dished up on paper plates. The visitor is told that this is ‘Maori’ culture. It may be tasty but what is Maori about it? Here in the valley hangis are put down every day but we don’t call that ‘culture’, to us it is just living.

Then, take European ‘culture’, which came to this valley first when television penetrated the mountains. We then saw from the comfort of our own armchairs this ritual called ‘ballet’. We were not very impressed either. A bunch of poofy-looking roosters, wearing outfits that look suspiciously like ‘long John’ underpants two sizes too small, so their credentials stick out like bunches of grapes before them, chasing, all on tippytoe, around the stage, a bunch of snobby looking lulus wearing dresses called tutus which don’t cover their fufus. When the ‘long johns’ finally catch up to the tutus they grab them and hoist them over their heads to show the audience how strong they are.

Now we would like to see one of the poofy looking roosters try out his strength on our old eighteen stone Una down the street see if he could grab her by her arse and her elbow and hoist over his head without breaking his sparrow legs. That would really be worth watching especially if Una was wearing a tutu at the time. Well, if ‘long John’ did succeed, which we doubt, he would have to be pretty nippy when he put her down again, because a backhander from old Una can break a man in two , and if was she really angry she would probably practice her ‘culture’ by stomping all over his face in her big boots too.

No, it seems we don’t understand much about ’culture’. Well, the time came to pass when an arty mob decided it was time to educate the ignorant rural rustics with a little bit of culture, so they jacked up a dramatics troupe to do two or three plays on ‘one night stands’, bludged backing off some mystery outfit called QE2, and set forth like missionaries bringing Christianity to the heathen, to bring culture to the uncouth.

They finally arrived in our valley on a winter Thursday and set up shop in the huge iron Quonset hut type village hall which was already well equipped with toilets, seating of long wooden forms and a stage. Most of us locals are not much interested in ’Dramatics’ but live winter entertainment is fairly rare in the valley so most went along for a look see.

The visitors were a pretty insipid looking hunch, as old Tat said ‘I can’t see any of those blokes lifting a rear sprocket on to a Lull gear drive of a D8 tractor single handed!. And he was right. The ladies of the troupe were pretty enough , but a bit too straight up and down for our taste. We prefer women to have a few lumps and humps in the right places so we can easily identify which is the back side and which is the flip side.

Well, they were here to entertain us so we had better give them a fair go. Talk about a class system! The locals sorted themselves out, without any direction at all. Sitting up front on the first row of forms were the educated idiots the five school teachers and the valley intellectuals, both of them. They sat there in their best clothes looking smug and wise and superior, speaking as though they had plums in their mouths (an accent put on for the occasion) pretending they knew all about ’culture’ even if the common herd behind them did not.

Behind the front row, in the main body of the hall sat the majority of the community, the mums and dads with the kids, all-hopeful of a pleasant evening – but not too expectant. The ’boys’ took up the rear two rows of seats. They came in at the last moment, still in their sweaty working clothes, mud on boots, sawdust in hair, and they came directly from the bar. They smuggled in with them, when they came, a couple of bottles of whiskey. These two bottles immediately began to journey up and down the rear two rows hand to hand, each of the ’boys’ in turn taking a squiff of the raw liquor straight from the bottle neck.

The stage was set for a very entertaining evening. In the centre of the group of ’boys’ sat Shorty, squat and thick and solid, hence his name, he was also vocal, crafty and cunning. A very likable rogue would be a good description of Shorty. His natural beauty was not enhanced by the fact that he had lost all his front teeth during a social engagement some six weeks earlier so that when he spoke or smiled he now displayed a vast area of gaping gum bordered by his two eye teeth (the only teeth visibly which hung over his lower lip rather like the fangs of Dracula)

Well, the first play of the evening went off not too bad at all. It was a comedy, we could follow the story, catch the jokes, it was better than that ballerina mob on TV! The second play wasn’t too bad either, perhaps there is something in this culture lark after all. The third and last play for the evening did not go off so well, besides the whiskey bottles were now empty.

It was a real drama, and in the story things were not going too well for the leading lady who was-getting a pretty rough time from her wicked husband. He, in sequence, had ravished her, torn her best dress in a most provocative way, beaten her up, starved her, stock whipped her, and finally deserted her when he took off to parts unknown with the baby – and the au pair girl, whatever she is. It was just not the leading lady’s day, and the future did not look too bright either.

At this stage of the play she was centre stage, alone, with spot light on her, kneeling with arms and eyes raised to the steel rafters, calling with a voice dripping with agony, ‘What will I do? What will I do?’

Shorty in the back row, full of chivalry (and whiskey) never hesitated, leapt to his feet, gave the lady on the stage his widest gummy smile and bellowed out in reply, ’Marry me!’

It is not clear whether the lady on stage was overcome by Shorty’s generous and honorable (except that he was already very much married) offer, or that her uplifted eyes had just sighted the colony of wetas that had established themselves in the rafters above her head, but she dropped her arms, put her face in her hands, forgot her lines, and burst into a deluge of tears.

Shorty had never achieved such a reaction from a woman before, had never had such a round of applause before, everybody clapped him (except the front row) so he stayed standing wallowing in his acclaim, bellowing out at ten second intervals, his offer – ’Marry me! Marry me! Marry me!’ He sounded like a freighter lost in the fog on the Dogger bank.

Well, the story on stage had a happy ending, because the wicked husband forgot his au pair girl and rushed back to comfort his distressed wife. Thinking him a better bet than Shorty she met him half way and proceeded to bawl her eyes out on his chest (such as it was) whiles he put his arms around her, and patted her shoulder in comfort,.

If all this was playacting they put on one hell of a good performance With husband and wife reunited, we can only assume that they lived happily ever after because at that time the final curtain came down. They should be very grateful to cupid Shorty. The troupe never returned to this valley, perhaps old QE2 ran out of dough, or perhaps we have had our little bit of culture – whatever that is.