In the baby-boom years following the Second World War, the state education system struggled to meet the needs of a rocketing young population. Trained teachers were in desperately short supply, and locally relevant reading material even more so. So the publication in 1960 of a collection of stories about the day-to-day adventures of three young Kiwi boys was a welcome addition to the limited range of quality children's literature.
The stories describe the joys, dangers and discoveries of three friends, Timi and Peter, who are Maori, and John, a Pakeha. They attend the same school in the coastal North Island community of Puhawai, and spend their free time on its beaches, in the bush and in each other's houses. So far, so predictable. But The boys of Puhawai has several features which would make it unusual even today.
The author's name was given only as 'Kim', and the stories presented a clear and unromanticised view of the place of Maori in post-war New Zealand. Timi's father works as a farmhand for the descendants of settlers who acquired his own ancestors' land. A summer visitor to the local holiday camp calls Timi a 'dirty little Maori nigger'.
Yet these unfortunate realities emerge casually and believably in the course of the three boys' rural escapades – discovering valuable flotsam on the beach, encountering some stroppy bulls in a paddock, confronting a runaway criminal trying to steal their horse. The boys are loyal to each other and frequently a menace to the rest of the neighborhood. They argue, speculate and scrounge for food in entertaining and convincing fashion, and in language ('by crikey dick!') that sounds real.
Kim was actually Alastair Airey. He was teaching junior classes at Taupo District High School when he began writing stories to encourage his pupils to read. The 23-year-old immersed himself in the mainly Maori community around the Taupo township and regularly visited its local marae, Nukuhau. He based his central characters on three of his pupils, George Blake, Paki Blake (no relation) and Henry Dixon. Their real-life activities were transplanted to the imaginary community of Puhawai, loosely based on Auckland's west coast beaches, where Airey's family spent holidays, and on coastal areas of the Coromandel, where he now lives.
The pioneering New Zealand publisher Blackwood Paul was a family friend. Paul had developed his father's Hamilton business, Paul's Book Arcade, into one of the country's finest bookshops. From 1945 he and his wife, Janet, began publishing books which, as she explained in 1995, 'could lay the groundwork for a better understanding of New Zealand by the people who lived here'. The Pauls produced The boys of Puhawai in a substantial hardback edition, with superb line drawings by Dennis Turner and, unusually, black-and-white photographs by the author.
Alastair Airey chose to conceal his identity as author because his father, Willis (Bill) Airey, an Auckland University history professor and former Rhodes Scholar, was widely known for his radical views. In the Cold War atmosphere of early-60s New Zealand, such a stigma could sink a first-time author's reputation from the outset. The nom de plume Kim was taken from the character in Rudyard Kipling's novel of that name, because, according to Airey, 'he was white but culturally the same as the Indians he lived among'.
Paki Blake, portrayed in Airey's book as 'Peter Neroy', remembers being a schoolboy in Taupo: 'you weren't proud to be a Maori back then. In those days te reo and tikanga weren't part of the curriculum'. He recalls that his former teacher was 'the only one who pushed us in that direction'. From Taupo, Paki went on to study at St Stephen's Maori boys' boarding school. Today he is a senior teacher at Te Kura Kaupapa o Waitaha in Christchurch: 'Without him [Airey], I wouldn't have got anywhere, I don't think.'
Alastair Airey is still a writer and inspiring educator. Now 75, he works regularly at Coromandel School, teaching remedial reading or, as he prefers to call it, reading partnerships. He has not published a book since The boys of Puhawai, but still writes ‘heaps of stories for the kids'.
By Mark Derby