Eccentrics are the spice of a community. As the Hone Ma Heke mess degenerates to a jail term, let's salute a few of Nelson's "characters", present and past.
The Green Man. Died three weeks ago. Always dressed in green, had a green bicycle, and Moreland's Fabrics owner Ben Moreland made him a Santa suit in, um, green. Why the emerald bent? "Because I'm Irish," the Green Man would reply.
He had been made redundant from the old Ministry of Works and was a 30-year regular at the Wakatu Hotel, says co-owner Francis Monopoli. The Green Man would sweep the pub yard in return for a pint of Guinness. He was cremated, his ashes put in a green box and placed on the bar at the Wakatu for a wake. Francis put a Guinness on the top, and when a patron drank it to toast The Green Man, a fresh Guinness took its place.
The Chicken Lady. According to a source, now in her 60s or 70s and sometimes seen hitch-hiking on the roads around Hope, Motueka and lately Nelson. In the past she regularly carried a cage containing bantams. Also spotted lugging bags of books or a few suitcases.
The Hotshot. Smartly turned out "businessman" with a penchant for power-dressing braces. Strides around jabbering into his cellphone, often chewing out his "clients" or staff. A witness reports that in the midst of one such tirade, the phone rang. Has not been sighted for some time so may be a visiting character.
Rewind a few decades, and Archie Gascoigne would wander into music stores and auction rooms, sit down and play the piano – very well. On special occasions, he toured the streets on the back of a truck "tickling the ivories". Much loved by the populace.
Archie was a mechanic by trade, cutting his teeth on Model Ts. He was not a tall man – so vertically challenged, in fact, that the wags reckoned he could walk under the vehicle without bending. He would often push a large barrow around town, oddly dressed and sporting a huge stetson cowboy hat.
He loaded the barrow high with scrap wood from the Baigents joinery plant, and needed the help of local kids to push it home to The Wood. One of his favourite haunts was the dairy on the Bridge-Collingwood St intersection. He would sit on the doorstep licking an icecream.
Archie planted out his property in lettuces for sale.
Ollie (or Olly) Strange habitually carried a large carpetbag to the Church Steps, sat down and pulled out her knitting. A ball of wool would occasionally bobble down the steps and across the road to Trafalgar St.
She had an "incredible gait, striding along like Phar Lap", says a longtime Nelsonian. Ollie bent the ear of anyone brave enough to listen, and had an unsavoury habit of spitting on the pavement.
One of her regular companions on the Steps was Happy Lyford, an "alternative" who otherwise spent all his time working on an old launch moored at the Maitai River mouth. The boat never went to sea – although neither do most of the swank craft moored at the marina, so we pass no judgment.
Tonkie (Ted Tonkin) wheeled a bicycle around town with a large bag aboard. It contained grass cut from road berms to feed to his racehorse. The nag was stabled out in the country, and Tonkie supposedly clocked up prodigious miles to care for it. We don't know whether it repaid him in winnings.
Tonkie's bike was often so laden with baggage of various descriptions that riding it was impossible. "Voice like a foghorn," a source adds.
Perrine Moncrieff, leading conservationist before it was fashionable, and bequeather of Haulashore Island to the city (now spinning in her grave over the sculpture proposal). "Wildly eccentric in that upper-class, nutty British way," says a local. "Delightful," crows another.
She would cycle around Wakefield Quay heading for town, "with a great big fluffy head of hair that stuck out in all directions", and topped by a straw hat. (Incidentally, the Moncrieff home and 23 acres overlooking The Cut were bought by a couple of local businessmen in 1970 for $101,000, says the Nelson Photo News – but surely they meant 2.3 acres?)
Reuben Stephens, a Nelson legend. Farmed at Delaware Bay for 40 years and then moved to The Wood. "The biggest liar unhung," a former neighbour decrees – with a smile in her voice.
Another local dubbed him the stereotypical cheeky Maori, quick-witted and always getting one across the gullible Pakeha. Literally "gull-ible". His most notorious jape involved walking into the old Central Hotel with a wrapped bundle under his arm and announcing a chook raffle. When all 20 tickets had been sold at a shilling apiece, Reuben gave the parcel to the winner, who unwrapped it to find a seagull.
Naturally, the man protested. A "surprised" Reuben apologised and quipped: "I'll give you your shilling back."
A pub regular, he was once drinking "after hours" (6 o'clock closing days) when the police raided the bar. Reuben legged it. "Stop," cried the pursuing boys in blue. "You stop," he yelled back, "no-one's chasing you."
At age 67, he told the Photo News: "I don't know any man I couldn't call a friend. How many of us can say that?"
Touche. If you have your own yarns about this lot, or recall other Nelson identities, I'd love to hear about them (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Many thanks to Arch Barclay, Barbara Lane, Rex Westley, Bill Moore, George McKenzie and Rosanna Martin.
PS: Last time I walked through town, two shops had chalked large advertisements on the pavement. Will the council be prosecuting them for graffiti vandalism?