The house that Norm built: The influence of Norman Kirkby John Summers
Norman Kirk’s squat, cinder-block home still stands in Kaiapoi, a testament to backbreaking DIY and a key theme of his political career – housing. Fifty years on, Jacinda Ardern quotes Kirk as her Labour government grapples with another Kiwi housing crisis. John Summers follows the threads.
But not me. I was born nine years later and my first encounter with the man was through a book – just the spine, to be exact. Margaret Hayward’s Diary of the Kirk Years sat on a shelf near my father’s dining table, and during meals the bold white lettering of the title with its koru-like serifs on those two ks was a tractor-beam to my eye. It was a disappointment, each time I found myself looking at it, to remember it was about politics. And yet, seeing that book prominent among the novels and gardening guides for all those years meant I always carried the idea that Kirk was important. I’d listen if his name came up, just as you do at any mention of someone you know, however faintly. A copy of that book sits on my own shelves now.
There’s a picture of Kirk in which he’s unrecognisable, just a tiny figure clinging to the top of a dairy factory smokestack. He was painting it apparently, a job he did for extra cash while he worked at the factory as a boiler operator. His had been a Depression-era childhood in Christchurch: grim. The family once ate onions for days on end, because it was all they could successfully grow.
He’d left school at 13 for a series of tough and grimy jobs, mixing roof paint out of boiling pitch and asbestos, cleaning locomotives by rubbing them down with grit and animal fat, and shovelling coal on the Devonport ferry. He was 21 when he got to Katikati, married to Ruth, his first girlfriend, with a son and another child on the way. They lived in a hut provided by the dairy company and Kirk spent his evenings fighting off the rats that nibbled the softboard walls.
“It was a problem and we dealt with it,” he later told TV interviewer David Frost, speaking with a curious whistle in his exhale and declining to say much more. The rats had already become part of the Kirk mythology by then, made famous by a biography rushed out for his election campaign, which described him barging into a directors’ meeting and throwing a ripe, dead rat on the table, demanding they do something about it. They replaced the lining of the hut with rat-proof hardboard.
Watch Norman Kirk talk to David Frost (Video courtesy of NZonScreen)
Even so, the Kirks moved on to look for a more permanent home – heading south to Kaiapoi in 1948, just north of Christchurch. Cheap property was the appeal. Kirk bought a section and, unable to afford a builder, he took on the job himself. He biked to the site between shifts at Christchurch’s Firestone tyre factory, balancing timber on his handlebars, and built a concrete-clad rectangle: a single-storey home with a flat roof that leaked a little.
I’ve always found this house fascinating; our version of the old American myth of log cabin to White House. Not hand-hewn but rough-cast, a bit leaky and cold – an unremarkable chunk of post-war architecture. I was especially taken by a single sentence I’d come across: “He cast the cinder blocks himself.” I haven’t been able to find this sentence again, but that’s how I remembered it. And I loved it as something that felt particular to New Zealand: aiming for big things, the almost biblical cadence of cast, only to fall flat on that most prosaic of building materials, the cinder block.
Kirk had made those blocks from concrete mixed to his own recipe: a combination of cement, sand and coke grease he’d scavenged from Firestone. But you need water for concrete, too, and so the first thing he did was sink a well, driving a steel pipe 70 feet into the ground. He and his father made a mould and into this they poured the concrete, producing more than 1000 blocks, which he laid around a native timber frame. The whole thing was then topped with a flat roof of Malthoid, a tar-soaked felt that was cheaper than iron and would need regular patching to keep the rain out.
With the help of my partner’s grandparents, who live in Kaiapoi, I found this house – a solid, single-storey home on a flat street of solid, single-storey homes, remarkable only for its plainness. There’s nothing to tell you it was ever Kirk’s, no plaque or sign. A burly, cheery Englishman named Philip Dobb lives there with his partner and their three cats. We chatted in a lounge out the back, sitting on his leather sofa, a packet of tobacco and all the fixings by his side. “He couldn’t use a tape measure,” Dobb said. There was a 30-40mm difference between the top of the door and bottom. “All the floor joists were just sort of thrown in place.” He was scathing, too, of Kirk’s blocks – you could poke a screwdriver right through them – but did concede that the timber frame was more than strong enough.
Dobb, an electrical engineer, had bought the house off a mate – they’d shaken on the deal at the pub – after helping insulate and rewire it; he’d since put in a heat pump and double glazing. “It would have been freezing back in the day,” he said. He’d also installed a rotating solar panel for hot water, and built a new kitchen. It seemed mid-DIY when I turned up.
Years before that, someone had replaced the Malthoid with a hipped iron roof, and in the 70s they’d added the room that Dobb and I sat in. He’d had a couple of letters from the Historic Places Trust, saying the house “is still a heritage whatever”, but he reckoned it’s near the bottom of their list.
The house that Norm built was in there somewhere, but you needed to squint to see it.
His success led Labour to shoulder-tap him to run for Lyttelton in the 1957 election, a swing seat he turned red, and from there he raced through the ranks, becoming party president in 1964 and leader in 65. He was young (Walter Nash had recently retired as Labour leader at the age of 80), hard-working, and he could be ruthless. Ad man Bob Harvey recalled a meeting where Kirk told him he’d “stomp on any bastard” that got in his way. In 1972, he went up against Jack Marshall, the charisma-lite National leader who had become prime minister when the immensely popular Keith Holyoake stepped down. The election was a landslide. Kirk became prime minister at age 49.
After all Kirk went through to find a home for his family, it’s no great surprise housing was a theme of his political life, from the mayoralty onwards. His government expanded state housing and introduced policies for accessible loans, a crackdown on property speculation, rent caps as well as a scheme to rent out land cheaply for hippy communes (it was the 70s, after all).
In this, there’s a case for Kirk’s current relevance, with home ownership again becoming elusive and a generational debate raging on the topic. Baby boomers are accused of squeezing the young out of the property market, while millennials are accused of not working hard enough, or frittering away what might otherwise be their house deposit. Kirk had heard the same complaint – that the young expected too much. “So they should,” he said. “I started where my father left off; he started where his father left off. And my children ought to start at a better point than I did. That’s what we believe in if we believe in progress.”
Kaiapoi hadn’t been the first place Kirk looked to build his house. He’d considered cheap, quarter-acre sections to be had in the Christchurch suburb of Hornby, but was put off the area by the chemical works nearby. I smiled when I came across this, because my grandparents had one of those Hornby sections, with a long, lush garden and the garage my grandfather built. Like Kirk, he’d left school at 13 and laboured, in his case, on farms and wharves, before learning a trade. This part of Kirk’s story was familiar to me. It’s probably what got me into the car, driving out to Kaiapoi.
Even though I’m (only just) a millennial myself, those generation debates have never really interested me. The system is broken, I agree, but I’m sure the wealth many of those baby boomers are amassing from property will eventually make its way to their millennial children. And there are boomers left out as well – they feature among the renters and the poor buggers sleeping in cars.
In our eagerness to lay fault, it feels like we’ve forgotten that class is still at play, that people are losing for reasons other than their birthdate. It’s something we don’t talk about anymore, maybe not since Kirk’s day. Excepting Mike Moore, who left school at 14 to be a labourer, Kirk was our last working-class prime minister. His house was concrete proof of this status – not a villa or the sort of place that becomes charming or quaint with time but a simple three-bedroom box, just as my grandparents’ home was.
I’m told they liked Kirk, even though they were generally uninterested in politics and distrustful of politicians as being “all jaw”. The reason, I’m sure, was that Kirk had been through similar things and lived a life they could recognise before taking office – then telling the French to back off, pulling us out of Vietnam, and giving pensioners a Christmas bonus. Like Ed Hillary, the beekeeper who built schools in the Himalayas, Kirk’s background told a story about the way we like to think of ourselves, the way I like to think of my grandparents – citizens of a country where a particular sort of decency could be innate.
Although he once wrote her a reference – typing two-fingered on an ancient typewriter – it was Ruth Kirk she knew best and Hayward was surprised to get a job offer from him when he became Labour leader. Wary of sycophants, he was keen to keep someone close from those old days.
She became his private secretary, following him till his death. Her book is based on her notes from those years, a collection of fascinating, candid detail: Prince Philip having a tantrum, Kirk rejecting a prepared speech for being no better than a “decapitated turd”. A plot of sorts comes via its diary structure, an ominous countdown, each day closer to what we know is coming, what Kirk knew was coming. “I won’t make old bones,” he told her once, oddly careless of his health, guzzling Coca-Cola and reluctant to see doctors. Finally, she shows the very real numbness of the event itself:
About 9pm the phone rang. It was Gray Nelson. He said, “Margaret, I have some sad news. The Prime Minister has just passed away.”
I said, “Thank you, Gray, for letting me know so promptly.”
He said, “You realise what I’ve said?”
I said, “Yes, the Prime Minister is dead.”
It’s said David Lange baulked at commemorating Kirk’s death in the 80s. By then, Kirk was already faintly fogeyish, carrying the taint of import licences and government ownership. And in John Key, we’ve since had another prime minister who overcame hardship; the former National leader was raised in a Christchurch state house.
In his case, though, those beginnings were always spoken of in contrast to his later success, as proof of how far he’d come – the state house a springboard for the man we saw: the millionaire, the businessman, the prime minister. The signs of Key’s common touch (the dad jokes, necking Steinlager at a barbecue) were the same classless japes you’d expect from a blokey chief executive or an accountant on holiday. He had transcended the state house, so much so that his government would have no qualms about selling it. Their focus was on business and the economy, and the rest of us were expected to jump aboard, to better ourselves as he had.
It’s now that we have a prime minister who, like me, was born after Kirk’s death, that Norm is being invoked again. Jacinda Ardern has a picture on her wall of him meeting her grandmother, and in the run-up to her prime ministership she spoke approvingly of his empathy, quoting his line that people don’t ask for much, just “someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for”. It’s been repeated a lot; Ardern herself gave it a thrashing on the campaign trail. But if you can hear past that, it remains a remarkable statement, humble in its vision and deeply rooted in Kirk’s own past, his need to house his family, his childhood poverty, and the loneliness that shadowed his life.
Hayward writes of him believing he was unloved, overlooked by his parents. His vision of government was one that made sure others didn’t experience the same. And now, as full-time jobs are shattered into contracts – or, most euphemistically, “gigs” – and land banking is common practice in the midst of a housing shortage, it is important to hear a politician acknowledge those basic needs again, even if it is with borrowed words. Kirk’s words, ones even he never lived up to: that resistance to homosexual law reform hardly fits with “someone to love”. But myths aren’t blueprints or maps. He’s been described as one of the biggest “what ifs” of New Zealand politics, a way of saying he never finished what he’d started, that he would have changed this country. Except I heard it differently, and perhaps Ardern does too, imagining he’d posed us a question, asking us to think about how our politics could be. What if governments never forgot the way the poorest of us lived, worked to make sure we all had those basic needs, held our values even as more powerful countries forgot theirs?
For all its faults, Kirk’s house didn’t do too badly in the Canterbury earthquakes. It was only a few hundred metres away from a red zone where almost a thousand homes were destroyed, but came through with only a few cracks. Philip Dobb told me he was able to fix them himself. Like most, he was unimpressed with EQC. The local paper came by to write a story on its survival, and the New Zealand Herald ran a short piece. Today, the house still stands. There are a few years left in those cinder blocks.
This article was first published in the July 2018 issue of North & South.
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