Saturday, 3 December 2011

We all have our mentor - Jim Williamson was one of mine

I first met James (Jim) Williamson in 1964. We were teenagers, Jim a year or two older than me. We were both young athletes who our coaches and the media considered had a lot of potential. That was in the age when NZ produced Olympic gold medallists like Norman Reed, Peter Snell, Murray Halberg and other world-class runners like Bill Bailly, Barry Magee and John Davies. Athletics had a huge following.

Jim Williamson left, taken when he was a sailing instructor in Spain.

I will never forget one night after the New Zealand junior athletic championships in Dunedin. I had set a new Otago 880 yards junior record and Jim had won the open event over the same distance. Later that night, bored with the party and feeling extremely pleased with ourselves, we decided to drive out to St. Kilda beach and, in our underwear, competed against each other in a beach decathlon. We used driftwood for the high jump, rocks for the shot put, a tree branch for a javelin, drew lines in the sand for the long jump and triple jump take off and sprinted and ran against each other for hours. Simple fun on a beach. Jim was 19 and I, 16 going 17 then. We swam naked in the surf and laughed like children. It was one of those defining moments that don’t seem to have special significance at the time, but that in retrospect are seen encapsulate something of the essence of being. We were similar souls but I felt we would never be travellers on the same path. We were strong-headed people who would take different roads into the unknown but inviting future.

I don't want to give the impression that we were earnest, priggish individuals interested only in athletics and carving out a career. Quite the opposite: it would be some years before we started to take vocational questions seriously, and like all young males in our society we spent more time trying to "make it" with girls than anything else. Jim seemed to have a little more charm than I.

Jim Williamson and I got our share of headlines through our high school days as promising future athletes. Bob McKerrow collection.

We participated in an athletic training camp at Karitane in 1965 where we got close to Warrington Taylor, whose son Brian was running the camp, as indicated in a separate blog article. Warrington Taylor's photo below:

Jim, the son of a milkman, and I the son of a metal worker, felt the world was our oyster and in a country where social mobility was at the core, I knew we would soon go overseas on our individual voyages of discovery.
I remember sharing a quote I found with him , “ If you are young and able, smuggle your talents away and hawk them on livelier markets.
At 19 I left for South America, and when I got back Jim had left for Australia, South-East Asia and finally Europe.

A year later I spent 13 months in Antarctica, and on the last flight before the long autumn and winter sent in, I got a letter from Jim in which he somehow made me examine my life and realise that maybe I had the potential to make a difference , to work for the betterment of the world, and that I should look for the opportunity to do so when I returned from Antarctica. It was a long, philosophical letter that I cherished and read many times during the ten months that I spent with three others at 21 years of age. Jim had become a mentor. We lost contact in late 1971 when I returned from Antarctica and Jim was already on his travels. 40 years later we reconnected. We immediately felt that the old bonds were still strong, and have updated each other on what we are doing and what we think about life, the universe and everything.

Left: My first passport with a photo taken at 19 years of age when I set of to try to scale 13 unclimbed Peruvian mountains with a group of young NZ mountaineers.

Two days ago I got an e-mail from Jim in response to a story on nuclear disarmament I shared with him. He has had a chequered career as a university teacher, antique restorer, owner of a bar in Spain, owner of a successful English academy, sailing instructor and now translator specialising in the field of green energy generation. He is also a member of Translators without Borders. His reply is brilliant and thought-provoking.

Hola Bob,

Great to hear from you, even through LinkedIn. In this case the medium is most definitely not the message. Thanks for the photos. You're still one of the ugliest buggers I've come across.

Nice article about Warrington Taylor. Funny thing about nuclear weapons is that - horrifying as their existence is - they are no longer perceived as a serious threat by most people today. What seems to have happened is that once the cold war was defused the associated paranoia disappeared, and the prospect that the US and USSR would get involved in a nuclear holocaust bringing what we (with increasing irony) call the civilised world to an end was packed away into the souvenir box of history to be studied by uncomprehending school kids. Warrington would possibly have thought that that is where it belongs. The bombs are still there, but don’t seem to do much harm. There are other, cheaper ways of continuing the great tradition of Man’s inhumanity to Man (and to all other creatures if you think about it... as Humans, we are a decided failure. As Sapiens, I’d go even further and say we really never got started)

                             Jim with his two daughters, Sandra on the left, Betty on the right.

Since the 60’s we have seen so many non-nuclear horrors committed by men against their fellow creatures, from Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia, the Congo, Liberia, Rianda, Bosnia-Serbia-Kosovo, Chechnya, Sudan... you know more about them than I do, many of them at first hand. The depressing thing is not that we can invent nuclear arms and the means to deliver them worldwide (a multi-billion dollar enterprise), but that all we need is a Kalashnikov and a few anti-personnel mines costing a few rupees on the black market to perpetrate the most horrific and wilful mass cruelty. So strong is the beast that lurks beneath the thin veneer of the rule of law that the presence of nuclear stockpiles fades into insignificance beside the prospect of half a million Hutus armed with home-made machetes. The space-arms race was a kind of temporary madness cured as soon as the soviets blinked. It’s no accident that the only manned mission to our satellite was in 1969 and has never been emulated. Today Dr Strangelove is just a funny man with a silly arm, incomprehensible to anyone under 30. However, the world sees daily media exposure of deliberate famine, rape, torture, genocide and the most horrifying array of hands-on face-to-face spit-on-your grave violence that it’s no wonder the bomb is the forgotten ghost in the attic of the 21st century consciousness.

As you can see I have a jaundiced view of my race. Philosophers have often thought that humanity is essentially good and would act in a civilised manner if certain prerequisites were met: if everyone had enough to eat and drink, a safe clean place to keep the family and good prospects for the kids. But that’s not the way it is. If that unlikely situation ever happens, in a single generation we will be back under the thumb of the power merchants and the warlords, who will in turn be controlled by those little pricks that have raked together the most property in the meantime while everybody else was busy looking after the kids. We are an acquisitive, greedy, power-loving and venial species – you choose the epithet – but the worst of these is acquisitive. All the man-made humanitarian disasters from Korea to Somalia have been permitted and even orchestrated by groups that have the power to stop them but the will to keep them happening, with the sole objective of manipulating commodity prices. The real rulers of the world are only interested in controlling the global financial-economic network that owns the politicians and finances their institutions and whose only moral guide is the balance sheet. You know who they are. Their lackeys toss you some funds from time to time for public relations reasons: we must be seen to be doing something! One of their top lieutenants, by the way, was Henry Kissinger, the very model of a modern corporation man. He almost single-handedly orchestrated the Yom Kippur war from the Israeli side to bolster American domestic petroleum prices and disrupt supplies from the Middle East to weaken the rising threat to US economic dominance represented by the emerging - but petroleumless - EEC. The oil crises of the 70’s were his greatest work and set back the the European economy by a decade, provoking runaway inflation and the worst slump since the 1930s. Even then the stupid Swedes gave him the Nobel for sweeping the mess under the carpet afterwards. And what can we say about Iran/Iraq? Kissinger left his successors well drilled. Now the target is shifting from petroleum, which has a limited future, to agricultural land in vast quantities. The major agro-biz, chemical and pharmaceutical corporations and their financial backers are taking up positions in Africa, Asia and S. America and the next 10-15 years will see millions of small subsistence farmers and their families pushed off the land to make room for the mechanised, genetically-engineered mega-crops we will need to feed 8 billion people by 2050. The Amazon is already in a critical state, but then, its all part of a great business opportunity, not to be missed. Strategic management and all that. The fact that it will cause widespread famine in 2 thirds of the world to maintain the other third in the style to which it is accustomed shouldn’t surprise us. After all, it has happened so many times before.

So, atomic bombs? Nah... break too much property. Messy. The insurance claims would be excruciating. Can’t trust those North Koreans though. Stir crazy. But somebody will put up the dough to buy them.

Oh well, got that off my chest. I couldn’t sleep and decided to write you a cheery note about this and that, wife & kids etc. but the reminder that the formerly dreaded A bombs are still around got me started on an unforgivable diatribe that will surely bore you like an oyster, as they say here (if you’re asking why, just think of the exciting social life of your average oyster, his trips to exotic resorts and general social mobility). Well, for better or for worse, no delete key tonight. You have to take it as you find it. An incurable insomniac, I read an atrocious diet of books on palaeontology and astrophysics. The evolution of the various hominoid species and the beginning, development and possible end of the universe as postulated by the general theory of relativity are two obsessions that have occupied my mind over the last few years. I’ve become a crashing bore at party’s coz I want to talk about space-time curvature and black holes, or discuss whether Homo Habilis had language capacity. When I talk about Lucy, friends think I’ve got a lover. Basically I suppose I’m looking for clues at the scene of the crime. Where do Homo sapiens come from? Why is the explosion of cave art 30,000 years ago important today and what’s the relation with the murder rate in Washington? Because there must be a relation, otherwise nothing makes sense. OK, I hear you say, nothing does make sense. Who said it had to? Well, Einstein for one said God doesn’t play dice with the universe. But I’m beginning to think he was wrong.


Gollum said...


I love that newspaper cutting with the athletics results.

My mother used to keep a scrap book full of old Timaru Herald reports on cricket, rugby, school prizegivings and the like. Also had school photos and exam results. My kids found it at my brother's place and saw some of my old exam results. They have never let me forget the D and E grades.

Have a good Christmas break. I, sadly, will be working through to about mid-year 2012 before I get a chance to get away.



Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Kia Ora Gollum

Pleased you liked the newspaper cuttings. I have drawers filled with them back in NZ. So you got D and E grades.

Sorry you won't be back for Christmas. I will head of on 19 Dec and will be back 3 weeks later. Will be going to Tekapo, cromwell and wanaka to see friends.

Let's try and meet up next year for something like this.

Have a joyous festive season. I will be going to timaru and staying a few nights at my daughter's place in Otipua.

Cheers mate.


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