Sue Wells – The New Canterbury Tales

March 27, 2011

A funeral, a birthday, and a deluge of dunnies. #eqnz

Filed under: Uncategorized — Sue Wells @ 8:22 pm

We farewelled Mike Anstiss yesterday.

His sendoff was in the Christian Cullen Lounge at Addington Raceway; his morning tea in the Twiggers Room (mine was the first 21st there and we never broke a glass.)

Mike was 56.

A lovely, funny, compassionate, empathic man, an expert listener, who liked things just so. A creature of habit, of rituals, and so many of them. He loved laughing and fun and rugby, racing and beer. He loved his wife, his nieces and nephews, his Mum and Dad, his extended family. He loved my cousin Helen Hayward. They’d known each other almost all their lives – the in joke being he slept with her sister. (It’s true – but it was in the nursing home they were born in during1954).

Mike and my cousin Helen weren’t just friends – they went on to work together in one of New Zealand’s legendary business, Pyne Gould & Guinness.

In calling the firm that, I have to confess a fair degree of personal bias here. PGG (or Pyne Gould & Antiss as it was referred to in certain circles) has been part of our family long before I arrived.

Dad started working there as a young man of 18. He spent 40 years there. Started as the office junior, ended up the South Island manager of the insurance division. Dad loved that company almost as much as he loves Mum and me. It’s a firm that’s about and of the land, the cockies, the fields, the waters, the stock, the hardship and the golden times. It is an integral part of the South Island’s community network – perhaps it’s a little different today, business changing over time, but I’m not too sure about that.

Dad hired Mike Anstiss as a 17 year old lad “with potential”. Dad spotted something in a young man who I suspect was a fair bit like him. Mike did 39 years with PGG. Started as the office junior. Died last weekend in his home, or he’d be doing the rounds next year with his 40 years service just like I did with Dad when he finished in the late 80s.

Over 600 people turned up to Mike’s funeral. There weren’t enough service sheets. I don’t think the family had any idea how many hearts this humble man touched or lives he improved just by being himself. When a man is sent off by Griz Wylie, Tane Norton, George Gould, John Wells and over 600 other people – that’s a man I’ve been lucky to have in my life since I was a little kid.

There aren’t many people you’ll find have a service which includes Fred Dagg’s “Flea Race”. There aren’t many people who to deserve to be remembered by Dave Dobbyn’s “Loyal”. Mike Anstiss was a true Cantabrian, a man who loved this land. There’s no more fitting tribute to him than that. In theory his death was from natural causes. I’m tempted to pin it on the earthquake. For a man who is methodical, a creature of routine and of habit, the terrible destruction and disruption of the last month must have been one long rolling heartbreak. His 91 year old father put it so well when he spoke of “the aftershock of losing Michael”.

That’s the first funeral Mum and Dad and I have been to together. We sat with their dear friends Bob and Bernice Dewar. Bernice grew up in Washdyke, near Timaru. Across the road is Seadown where Phar Lap was born. It’s the place where Richard Pearse beat the Wright Brothers to flight. I think there’s something in the water there. It turns out special people.

It being a funny old small world this village that is Canterbury, Bernice grew up with Vince Peterson. He went on to become among other things my birth father.

It being an even stranger old world, after Mike’s funeral the boys and the dog and I headed south, our first night out of town. It was Vince’s 70th birthday party last night. We wouldn’t have missed it for all the tea in China.

I’m the prototype daughter. Vince went on to sire Aynsley, then Adam and Craig. We older three were able to be there for Vince’s party yesterday, Aynsley’s daughters and my sons the next-gen shape of things to come. Adam’s girls were back in Christchurch – Peterson soirees do tend to have a flavour which is not entirely suitable for the preschool set.

To fully understand a Peterson, you need to understand this. Henry and Elizabeth Peterson departed the Shetland Islands in 1910. They came out here with 6 children, creating a 7th a couple of years after they arrived. According to one of many cousins whom I met for the first time yesterday, there remain numerous Peterson on the Shetlands. They don’t drink. Henry did. Bless the lovely man, the apples haven’t fallen far from the tree. I don’t know quite how much Glenfiddich had been consumed when Vince and Robin phoned me on Thursday and advised me I had been promoted to guest speaker. My instructions were explicit. “You shall mention the earthquake at the beginning of your speech. You shall say there has been one. And then you shall not mention it further.”

It was also made clear that at least part of the rationale for me speaking was so that the collective Peterson hive could give me a through once over. We haven’t been back together as long as I have with my birth-mum’s side, so there’s a whole lot of aunty and uncling and cousinship yet to be had. Finding new family is like unwrapping the best birthday present ever. You look in a face and you see your eyes, your wit comes back at you, you compare wrist bones and funny little toes – you are connected in some way so simple and old that it doesn’t matter when you start in the family, you know you’ve finished there. You feel complete. You feel understood. I’m a very lucky woman. I have a lot of homes.

It was a slow drive down. Ashburton was frantic when we drove through, pausing for our traditional McStop. It appears to be a dormitory suburb now; 50 minutes brisk drive down the road and Lake Hood there too for the rowing fraternity. It will be interesting to see whether that becomes a permanent thing.

We arrived at g&t o’clock. Got changed. Waxed Vince’s hair into a darned fine mohawk. It rather nicely complemented his neon yellow shirt, gold Hugh Hefner jacket, fisherman’s boxers and black tights. Not to be outdone, Robin’s Madonna tribute cone boobs were impeccably positioned. Amazing what can be achieved with a stapler. Brother Adam was quite the lad in a swish straitjacket and bondage attire (“three dollars fifty at the two dollar shop. False advertising I reckon!”).

There were school girls and hippies and a bagpipe wielding poet. “You look far too conservative,” said one of the family. “You don’t know what I’m wearing underneath,” I replied. My contribution to the theme of “Off the Rails” was a little Mainland sticker over my flu jab spot. “Butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth”.

It was Earth Hour. There were candles. Those of us from Christchurch mused that we were already in credit for Earth Hour and we thought Kyoto owed us something too. The Chchians found each other throughout the night – earthquake stories don’t stop just because you’re at a party. We’re all telling our tales, and we all find things in common. We laughed a whole lot too.

I think it’s hard for people not living here. I got a sense of “what do I say?” I got another of “I feel helpless”. Grief at the loss of the civic fabric of the South Island’s unofficial capital city. Christchurch is the hub of the heartland. Acland House boarders came from all over Canterbury. Christchurch’s grief is Timaru’s, and Ashburton’s, and Washdyke’s, and Oxford’s, and Mayfield’s, and all around the country, all around the world.

It was a very special night. To have the chance to speak at Vince’s 70th, to have that recognition, that acceptance, meant the world to me. The fact that the cake didn’t set fire to the golf club was an added bonus and a damned near thing. Chris and Rachel and Nick missed that bit I think – they were outside developing a new combat sport called “Midnight Glowstick Golf, with cat.” I don’t think I want to know the entirety of it.

We hied home around 2. Whiskys followed, as night follows day. The sleeping hours were far too short but they were full of relaxation. Porridge o’clock rolled around as it is wont to do, and the morning was an absolute stunner.

It’s been one of those perfect early autumn days where the air is still and mild, there’s a haze in the air and the tang of woodsmoke and bonfire leaves. Chris and Rachel and I took Pepper and Ned down to the Gleniti Domain for a big walk. The dogs were in heaven.

Is there anything in the world more uplifting than a blissed-out border collie? She jumped, she danced, she wagged from front to back. She flirted with Ned, chased him in circles, drove him into the pond (bad ducks they shouldn’t have been there in the first place) and ran herself into the ground. Ned puffed his chest when another dog approached her – his Pepper, thank you very much. She’s family now too. (Vince will send me a chiding comment for anthropomorphising the dogs – I don’t care. It’s my story. I’m sticking to it. That little white flag on the tip of her tail makes my heart soar. How did we do without her?)

Back to a barbeque lunch with a variety of Peterson type topics; how to get rid of telemarketers; the earthquake and how we would get through; why great shoes matter and why changing to suit your mood is not restricted to little girls. It was a lovely, lovely day. We didn’t want to leave. It felt very special.

We arrived home to find we are now the proud owners of a chemical toilet. (We’re not to use our inside loo any more. The sewer is not well and the rain has arrived.) Chris has assembled it in our little outside room which has never had a clearly identified purpose. It does now. It is the outhouse. When I think that we also have a long drop and a portaloo out front, I feel almost Merivalean. Last month we had only one loo. Now we have one each. Luxury. Bleeding luxury.

We were talking as we drove down Wilsons Road how the boys will be able to tell their grandchildren some day that “when I was a boy I had to walk three miles to catch a bus to go to school and if it came it was a miracle and by the time I got there it was time to go home – but when I did there’d been another earthquake and home was fifty yards further down the street – LUXURY!”

Yet it really feels like it is luxury. After such a glorious nor’west day, unsurprisingly it is now blowing a sou’west gale fit  to beat the band. The rain is bashing on the windows, pelting on the roof. Our fire is lit, we had soup and bread for tea. We are warm, weathertight, waiting for EQC – and we are together as a family. All that and three outside loos? You really couldn’t ask for anything better than that.



  1. Dear Sue,

    I read your blog posts every day- you make me laugh, you make me cry and you say what I want to say so much better than I could ever say it. You are my earthquake voice. Kia kaha.

    Comment by Ali — March 28, 2011 @ 5:55 pm | Reply

    • I can’t begin to explain what it does to me when someone says something like that. Thank you Ali. Thank you, thank you. xxx

      Comment by Sue Wells — March 30, 2011 @ 12:48 pm | Reply

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