Scoop Review of Books

Looking Back

Book Review
Portholes to the Past: Reflections on the early 20th Century
by Lloyd Geering (Steele Roberts Aotearoa, $25)
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

portholes-coverWriting a memoir that appeals to a broad readership is a difficult undertaking. As an experienced communicator, Lloyd Geering keeps the reader’s interest alive through ten chapters (or portholes) giving views of different aspects of his life in 20th-century New Zealand.

Now in his 99th year, Geering is able to look back clearly, and remind us of how much has changed over his lifetime. Although only a modest volume, it is an excellent illustration of the adage, “Less is more”. Carefully crafted, it covers a wide range of experiences, and is often thought provoking.

Born in 1918, Geering was the ‘autumn leaf’ in his family of three brothers, who progressively left home while he was still at primary school. The first 15 years of his life were unsettled as his father regularly moved while seeking work. He attended six different primary schools and two secondary schools, although this did not seem to affect his subsequent outstanding academic career at Otago Boys’ High School and Otago University. For most of his teenage years, the Geering family lived on an isolated farm outside Mosgiel. As a farm boy, his daily routine included getting the coal range going and cooking the breakfast for his parents, who were doing the milking, before leaving at 7.45am to walk for 30 minutes to the station to catch the train. Arriving home about 5pm, he then had to round up the cows for the evening milking before settling down to homework by the light of a kerosene lamp.

Of the many changes over the last century, the spread of electronic communication has been one of the most striking. One personal example: when Lloyd Geering’s elder brother died of TB, a messenger was sent from Dunedin hospital as the Geering family was not on the phone. Then young Lloyd was sent back to Dunedin to advise another brother.

Geering has thought deeply about the changes he has seen in his lifetime, and concluded that for most people the world today is a better place than when he was growing up, especially for women, ethnic minorities and those who do not fit in the older norms of a nuclear family. He notes that there are more demanding standards for high school and university students today, that education is freely available, and that the quality of public health has improved. Although life was simpler in the1920s and 1930s, Geering does not look backwards nostalgically to the ‘good old days’.

Above all, Lloyd Geering is a leading theologian, and his final chapter is titled ‘The final Christian century’. His examples of the changes he has seen come mainly from New Zealand, but he notes that they are typical of trends in the worldwide Christian community. With a long involvement in the ecumenical movement, especially through the Student Christian Movement (SCM), he had great hopes of a merging of Protestant churches in New Zealand along the lines of the United Church of Canada, but sadly has seen this fade away. In the Epilogue, he tries to find a positive message:

“It may not be too much to hope that from the fragments of dismantled Christendom we may rediscover and reinvigorate the moral values of justice, truth and environmental guardianship”.