Many of our teachers served in the Second World War, which had ended less than ten years before I started at Carruth House (the hostel attached to Whangarei Boys High School). One of those teachers was Humphrey Dyer, who we knew as “Hump” (behind his back). As it turns out, Hump had quite an effect on my life at the school and at the hostel. But, before I tell you about that, you need to know a little bit about his wartime background.
Lieutenant Colonel Humphrey Dyer was a pakeha who commanded the Maori Battalion (it was normal to have a pakeha commander at that stage of the war). He was a strict disciplinarian, but was also very loyal to his troops and they admired him greatly (his nickname was “blood-and-guts Dyer”). He had been brought up in a Maori community and knew the culture well.
However, his command of the battalion ended in controversy. The issue was that, when his troops captured weapons from the enemy, they kept them and used them in future battles (against the same enemy they’d captured them from). This was traditional Maori practice during warfare (and, indeed, the Germans did the same thing in their North Africa campaign).
However, Dyer’s (English) superiors thought this practice was “bad form” and ordered that it stop. Hump, knowing how his men felt, refused to obey the order and resigned instead.
Here’s an account of the story (you’ll find Dyer’s name first mentioned about half way down the article):
Those bloody Maori are using our Spandaus on us
The first time I met Hump was in 1953, when I was eleven. A friend and I were in the gymnasium trying to do a “knee mount” on the horizontal bar, but without much success. We were real beginners and didn’t really know what we were doing.
Then I noticed a teacher over by the door, watching with a wry smile on his face. He came over and offered to show us how. I thought that there was no way he’d be able to do it; he looked very old (I now know he was 55) and he looked pretty overweight to me.
Well, Hump hooked one knee over and, hey presto, next moment he had swung around and was sitting up on top of the bar. Then it was our turn and (with his help and advice) we soon had the manoeuvre off pat. It was so easy, once you knew how!!!
So, I learnt two lessons that day: 1) Skill beats brawn and 2) Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Here’s a little example of how kind Hump was (despite his wartime reputation as a strict disciplinarian).
A master would come around the dormitories every morning and wake the sleeping boys. He would barge in, turn on the harsh overhead lights, and tell everyone to get up straight away. If you were a bit sleepy and slow you’d get a right telling off.
But not Hump. He would come in (very quietly), switch the light on and say “wakey, wakey, time to get up boys”. Then he’d switch the light off again to give us a few more moments, then repeat the process until we were all up and moving. He was a very kind and gentle man.
Later in my time at Carruth House, an incident occurred that really upset Hump and had serious repercussions for me. It was all a silly misunderstanding, really, but it turns out that Hump very much disapproved of homosexuality and he mistakenly thought that I might be gay. (What he didn’t know was that I had a girlfriend I used to regularly sneak out of the hostel to meet!!!)
What happened was this. My friend, Bill Killen, was a talented musician, and I said gosh how difficult it must be to play the piano. He said that it wasn’t that hard and he’d give me a demo. So, to do this, he sat on the piano stool and I sat on his knees (both facing the piano) and Bill played the piano with my hands on top of his. We were just skylarking, of course, but it did give me a sense of what playing the piano was like (and I still thought it was bloody difficult)!!!
However, Hump happened to walk in while this was going on and he wrongly decided that we were cuddling each other. Well, this normally kind and gentle man just about exploded!!! Hump reported the “incident” to the head master of the hostel, my parents were brought into it, and there were lots of Serious Discussions behind the scenes. In the end they realised that, actually, nothing had happened, and the whole matter was dropped.
I don’t blame Hump for his mistake. His attitudes were pretty “normal” for those days, with most people thinking that homosexuality was very wrong (it was actually a crime you could go to jail for). I also wonder whether Hump’s involvement with the Maori Battalion lead him to think that Bill and my friendship was wrong because Bill was a Maori (pakeha were officers in the Battalion and wouldn’t have socialised with their Maori troops).
Anyway, I still think very fondly of Lieutenant Colonel Humphrey Dyer. He was an admirable and very kind man.
POSTSCRIPT #1: Many years later, the famous New Zealand author C K Stead wrote a novel titled “Talking about O’Dwyer”. Although the book is fiction, it’s based very much on Hump Dyer’s life. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and, through Stead, learning more about the man I’d known at school.
POSTSCRIPT #2: As an adult, Bill Killen and his wife and family lived near Auckland. We didn’t see that much of each other over the years (the tyranny of distance), but we remained friends until he died at age 60. Here’s a photo taken in 1984 when Bill and my children David and Anna happened to be visiting at the same time. Bill was in town with a travelling circus, employed as their piano player!!!