Meet the letter writers: Frank Bailey

DENISE IRVINE
Last updated 15:12 16/01/2014
Frank Bailey
Frank Bailey's first letter to the editor was published in 1965.

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Our regular letter writers are familiar names to readers.

In recognition of their dogged commitment to writing letters and the contribution they make to social and political debate in our Hamilton Denise Irvine spoke to some of them. 

You feel kind of uplifted walking away from Frank Bailey's house. It's hard to explain, maybe it's his wide-ranging interests - birds, flags, books, family photographs, crosswords, languages, antiques and collectables - evident in every corner of his sitting room. Maybe it's his exuberance, his observations, his storytelling.

In the end, it has to be his optimism that does it. It is comforting to spend time with such a positive man, someone who has much to look forward to each day.

Waikato Times readers will know him as a a regular, prolific, writer of letters to the editor. His ideas neatly expressed, always to the point.

In recent months, Bailey's written on subjects as diverse as water meters, uncomfortable seats at Founders Theatre, the vagaries of the postal system, the old boys' network, the kindness of strangers, Syria, and the vagaries of the English language. To name but a handful. He's not hectoring or unpleasant in tone. More robust, observational, and some wry humour.

Bailey is a socialist, a longtime Labour supporter, he writes on political issues too, takes a few pings at the Government of the day. He's a fluoride supporter, but is tired of the debate. "It goes on and on and on." He doesn't think the Times should have reopened the topic for letter writers.

"It's one of those things you're either for, or against. People won't change their minds. It's like me being a socialist, nothing would induce me to vote National."

We're here to talk about his letter-writing today, to find out more about his penchant to fingers to the keyboard. But we keep getting sidetracked on his other interests.

Bailey, 81, is a tall, spare character, originally from Hastings, Sussex, on the south coast of England, famous for being the place where the Norman Conquest started (1066, Battle of Hastings). Bailey's Hamilton home is named Senlac after Senlac Hill, where the battle was fought.

There was no spare money in Bailey's family when he was a lad. His father was too unwell to work, his mother was largely the breadwinner, and he was an only child. All they could afford. He clearly acquitted himself well academically, winning a scholarship to the local fee-paying Hastings Grammar School.

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He's lived the greater part of his life in New Zealand. He can still turn on a Sussex accent, but Hamilton is his place. He loves this country, and the city where he settled. "It's been so good to me and the family."

He likes the lower population of New Zealand, the beaches, the friendliness, the way strangers still say hello to each other. The other day at the supermarket a checkout operator reckoned he only looked to be 42. He's still chuckling about this.

In Britain, he says, you could sit opposite the same guy in the train forever and you wouldn't speak to him. That's what happens in heavily populated places.

He arrived with his wife Eileen and two young daughters in 1964, having seen, by chance, a piece in the Daily Telegraph that New Zealand needed civil engineering draughtsmen. That was him, he came to a job at the Ministry of Works in Hamilton, stayed five years, and then moved to work at Waikato University.

Eileen, who trained as an Anglican priest in New Zealand, died almost three years ago, and the couple had the sadness of losing one of their daughters when she was aged 38. There are six grandchildren, some in New Zealand and some in the UK, and he's looking forward to attending the wedding of a grand-daughter in Malta. Recently Bailey has struck up a good friendship with Pamela, a woman who, like him, has an English background. He's enjoying her company.

There are many other things to enjoy, and we canvass some of these. Bailey speaks French and Spanish, adds "sort of"' on the latter, and teaches English to newcomers through the Waikato Migrant Centre (largely to people from Colombia).

He is a member of the Waikato branch of the Ornithological Society of New Zealand; birds are a huge interest and he owns 186 books on birds. A quick glance at his book shelves gives a good indication of the importance of birds. There are many more books, on an abundance of topics, in his garage, which doubles as a library. "Books have been my life."

He volunteers in the Presbyterian charity shop in Liverpool St, is the rare book adviser for the Red Cross, Lions and Rotary book fairs, and some others, does garage sales every Saturday, setting out at 6am. He enjoys antiques, particularly Japanese ceramics, and picked up a Japanese Imari vase the other day at a garage sale for $5.

He's a vexillologist, a student of flags, and has long campaigned to change New Zealand's flag to one he believes to be more appropriate. He's done his own design, a silver fern bisecting a background that is red above, blue below, with a kiwi on the righthand side.

Bailey's has been a television Master Mind contestant, with flags as his specialist subject. He quotes one of his daughters, who said afterwards: "At least Dad you didn't make a fool of yourself.

In his spare time, Bailey's writing his life story, and he's up to Volume Four. On this, he mentions an historical family gem. His great-grandfather was one of a team of Italian master marble masons brought to England to build the marble face on the Big Ben clock, at the north end of London's Palace of Westminster. His great- grandfather stayed in England and married. Bailey calculates he's about one-eighth Italian.

When Bailey switched countries, the egalitarian society of New Zealand was a great attraction for him, the notion that Jack was as good as his master. Now he's seen that eroded, seen the growing gap between rich and poor, the egalitarian society destroyed by the "dollar worshippers". He views the erosion with great sadness, it's happening in many other countries too.

He's tackled such issues in letters to the Times, he can't remember any of his work being rejected. He estimates he may have penned about 35 letters a year, although fewer than this when he was still working fulltime.

If you add this up, that may be well over 1000 since the first one in 1965, which he wrote to then Times columnist Phil West about some wayward cows breaking into his garden in Silverdale, and eating all his cabbages.

As Bailey does the sums on his letter output, he says: "Goodness, that can't be right." He's kept copies of letters from the past five years, and the Times digital files only go back to 1990, so it's hard to be entirely accurate.

Sometimes he gets feedback in the newspaper from other letter-writers. And he recalls "an angry young lady" phoning to tell him he was sexist. He can't remember the letter that offended her but he was surprised by the call, that she could have thought that of him. "Women have had the shitty end of the stick for so long."

Bailey says his confidence grew over time, he reckons at first he could hardly put one word in front of another. He likes the forum of the letters' column: "It is nice to get ideas out there, disseminate ideas, and see what others think." While many people nowadays express their ideas on social media, Bailey has not got into this world. He believes a letters' page remains a valuable forum.

He writes when he gets inspiration; he might read something and think, "what a lot of rubbish that is, it could be on anything". Rainy Sunday afternoons are often the time for him to tap away on his computer. His tip to potential letter writers is, "if your heart leaps at something, get it down immediately while you're still angry, or in agreement. Do it as the spirit moves you."

Bailey's spirit is still happily moving him in many different directions.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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