When I was about fourteen, sometime between the Springbok Tour and the election of the fourth Labour Government—in the very last days, in fact, of the old New Zealand—my father gave me three pieces of advice. I don’t remember the occasion, but Dad’s rules for life have stayed with me.
The first piece of advice— “always reverse into a park” was hypothetical. I wasn’t yet old enough to drive a car, however I regularly hear his voice in my ear over the 30 or so subsequent years I’ve been driving.
The second was related to the first: never sit with your back to the door. My father had grown up in a tough north London street after the war, in a terrace house at the back of the Arsenal football ground. He didn’t talk much about his childhood and I had a confused view of it pieced together from occasional anecdotes: torn squares of newspaper spiked on a nail in the grim outhouse, that served three families; the pea-souper fogs that blackened your nostrils; the tin bath on the kitchen floor on a Sunday night. The cockroach that crawled out of his school bag on his first day at grammar school.
My brother and I had grown up, by contrast, middle class and trans-national, in the world that briefly opened up for bright working-class children like my dad—and their eventual offspring—in Britain after the Education Act of 1944. A gateway to a world that has narrowed considerably since then. Dad looked at me levelly when I asked him why you should never sit with your back to the door. “In case trouble comes through it”.
The third piece of advice was more specific, and more puzzling. “Watch out,” said Dad, “for men wearing polo necks.” I raised my eyebrows expectantly. He dropped his voice. “Untrustworthy.”
To that point, I had limited experience of men wearing polo necks. My father, of course, never did, and I don’t think I even saw him in a collar and tie until I was a teenager. Instead he wore T-shirts, and if it was cold, crew neck jumpers in green or brown from Marks and Spencers, or rugged knitted jackets with horn buttons he’d brought back from Canada while on a year’s sabbatical. I remember one particularly fine cashmere jumper which must have been a present from my mother. Even now I can summon up its comforting feel against my cheek and the familiar scent of it, the smell of the 1970s: Lux soap flakes and Old Holborn tobacco.
One day I noticed something strange on the front of Dad’s cashmere jersey. I tried to flick it off with my finger. It clung stubbornly to the knit. “Oh! I thought it was jellimeat,” I said. My mother gave a peal of laughter. “Oh dear!” she said. “I tried to mend it. Dad burned a hole in it with his pipe. I didn’t quite have the right coloured wool.” Eventually the cashmere jumper ended up lining our cats’ basket.
And then we moved to New Zealand, where at my intermediate school, everyone wore polo necks.
Skivvies, a new word for my British family, were part of the winter uniform. Golden yellow stretch cotton, with an itchy V neck bottle-green wool jumper: to this day I can’t wear either colour. My mother suggested that she ask my grandmother to knit me a jersey for school: cheaper and much nicer and more personal, she said. I thought it better that Grandma didn’t, though it was hard to explain why. (It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that I came across Australian artist Tracey Moffat’s famous photo of the forlorn child wearing a hand-knitted rugby jersey. I still empathise.)
But compulsory school uniform wasn’t what Dad had in mind. He directed his opprobrium at the sort of man who would choose to wear a polo neck. One winter, when I was in my early 20s, my then-boyfriend bought a grey lambswool jersey with a polo neck, which he wore with stovepipe jeans and a seaman’s jacket. He looked great in it, but I always felt slightly ill-at-ease when he wore the jumper, in case Dad saw, and developed a point of view.
Recently I asked Dad if he’d changed his mind about men wearing polo necks; I have noticed that he has become increasingly tolerant over the years.
“Really?” I asked. ”No exceptions at all?”
He thought hard, and then grudgingly mentioned his long-term badminton partner Frank, who was otherwise quite exemplary.
I played my trump card. “What,” I said knowingly, “about Steve McQueen in Bullit?”
“What?” said Dad. “Are you sure? Well, if Steve McQueen wore a polo neck, he should have known better. He should have just said “no, I’m wearing a black T-shirt.”
“What do you have against them?” I said.
“I’ve always been bothered by men who have their necks covered. I’m not keen on shirts and ties, as you know. Open necked is better, there’s nothing to hide. It’s all out in the open.”
I thought for a moment. “What’s your position on scarves?”
“Problematic,” said Dad.
All images come from the collection of vintage knitting patterns belonging to Cassandra Shields
Lara Strongman is an art curator, writer, and regular reviewer and critic of TV and film on Radio New Zealand (RNZ). Lara is based in Christchurch, New Zealand, as is her father Ken Strongman, a former pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Canterbury