I am reading a book out loud to the family. It’s a biography of a Scotsman, a surgeon who came to Rawene in 1914 with his bombastic personality and big ideas about how to practice medicine, and even more than that, how to go about the business of living. His name was G.M. Smith and he was a believer in socialized health care. He saw the inability of people in the Hokianga to pay for a doctor’s services and, believing deeply in the human right to healthcare, started the socialized health care system that is still in place in this small part of New Zealand.
He also happens to be the grandfather of Alexander McCall Smith, who you’ll know if you read the Ladies’ No. 1 Detective Agency books or any number of his other works.
No small part of the charm of this book and why it’s working to read it out loud to the whole family is the narrator’s wit and turns of phrase. The book is quite rare; it’s not on Google Books; I found a couple on sellers’ online sites from closed auctions. The author, to the best of my knowledge, is still living, and NZ copyright law protects the work until the end of the calendar year 50 years from the time of the author’s death. So the only way this delightful, extraordinary book will find you in the reasonably near future is if you read these excerpts I’m publishing under fair use as a means of reviewing the book.
Doctor Smith: Hokianga’s King of the North, by G. Kemble Welch.
Published by Blackwood and Janet Paul, Auckland and Hamilton, 1965. Printed in Great Britain by Latimer Trend and Co Ltd, Plymouth.
[Upon arrival in Rawene in September 1914, G.M. Smith and his wife moved into the medical superintendent’s house.] It was a standard New Zealand box in the style of the time—a gabled square with a veranda across the front and down one side. For water they had only rain from the roof stored in tanks; but for four months after they arrived none fell. The grass dried and bleached to white. Gaunt cattle stood in a countryside which was brittle and ready to burn at any spark.
They tried to turn the large rough section into an orchard, a vegetable garden and lawns with flower beds; but as, time after time, seeds failed to grow among the sprouting weeds, or seedling plants transplanted failed to thrive, they lost heart and gradually put less effort into it, until in any ordinary sense there was no garden. The front fence became a long mound of climbing roses, the once white picket gate opened on to a path kept almost clear of the honeysuckle which had taken over most of the ground, and steps rose to the front door under large loquat trees which shaded and almost hid the house.
But in 1915 things were different. On 9 January of that year Dr Smith began a diary in which the first entry says:
Owing to inability to get a suitable book this diary is a little late in being started.
At this date our household dependents consist of our two selves, the Lily, Flannigan (a half-bred setter and half a retriever, I think) Caesar (a chestnut gelding aged five years and sixteen and a half hands high) and Donald (a bay gelding about fifteen hands high and rising four years).
‘The Lily’ is a thin muse named Edward Beazley, now in our employment. He is called the Lily because of a wonderful yellow and black jersey which he affects and because he toils not, etc. I am giving him two pounds a week. So far he has been highly satisfactory. He lights the kitchen fires, does the fowls, the lamps, and feeds the horses, besides the garden, etc.
Today he put up a new garden gate. He has been wheeling up shells and soil from the site of an old Maori encampment down by the river, intending to put them on the garden. Just now in the garden we have little or nothing. The tomatoes are not ripe but they are a good crop. We have sown seeds in the new soil and also have lettuces, one marrow (which I think is ripe), turnips and radishes (getting rather passé).
Our own gardening efforts in New Zealand have produced some beautiful strawberries, tomatoes, and quite a few zucchinis (known here as courgette). I didn’t know what marrow was until now: summer squash. We buy a kind of marrow from the vegetable shop here called kamokamo.
By this time [January of 1915] he had adopted a style of dress which became the insignia, the uniform, of Rawene Smith. It consisted of an old grey felt hat with a sagging brim, a loose grey flannel jacket over an open-necked white cotton shirt and a pair of unironed flannel trousers, Roman sandals and no socks.
That suited the hot and humid climate, but as protection from the rain he wore over all an old oilskin coat, and, since in Hokianga if it is not raining it is likely to, he nearly always had that oilskin on. With most people, hats and coats and so on are sometimes new, but Dr Smith’s were always old and rather shabby. From under his hat-brim peered piercing or twinkling blue eyes around whose corners the years gathered quizzical creases, and beneath his big hooked nose he held in his down-curved mouth a down-curling pipe. The passage of time wore the hair from his crown and in compensation he let it grow longer as it got lower, until he used to feel insulted if he was compared to an Old Testament prophet; ‘because I’m used to being placed much higher in the hierarchy than that.’
And so we see the first hints of an iconoclastic, strong, and even despotic nature that would not always play well with others but proved useful in getting things done. His choice of dress is interesting because though he wore sandals, he kept the jacket even in the heat, as men did years ago. For comparison, 98 years later now in January of 2013, B left for the same hospital this morning to deliver a baby before his usual clinic patients. He wore a blue cotton button-down with khaki trousers. I know this because mid-morning, he called to ask if I could bring him a fresh pair of trousers, as his had been sprayed with umbilical cord blood and needed washing. Scrubs, I learned, are not a routine part of preparing to deliver a baby here. I have to wonder if G.M. wore that oilskin partly because it would have been easy to wash.