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Reliving the past in words and paintings - Don McAra's "Hold Very tight Please! The Cable Cars of New Zealand"

Dorothy - 10/03/2010

Reliving the past is one of the privileges of growing older and I have especially savoured that experience since discovering Don McAra's book. With his remarkable ability to create pictures with words and with paint McAra is ideally qualified to draw us back into the 1930s and 40s.

I spent the first ten years of my life living in Roslyn, Dunedin, in the 1930s. My mother did not drive and trips on the cable car were a regular feature of my life over those years. Once I was big enough to walk down the hill we used the cable car only for the return journey. We used to sit in the cabin as it was safer for a small child.

McAra's ability to depict scenes in detail gives them particular power to evoke memories, and a fine example of his skill is the painting of St Joseph's Catholic Cathedral opposite the frontispiece. The passing cable car looks tiny by comparison and makes me recall how impressed I was by the towering height of the church as we passed.

St Joseph's Catholic Cathedral
St Joseph's Catholic Cathedral
Don McAra's painting opposite the frontispiece
Click here to view a larger version

The detailed painting of the scene with passengers boarding the tram at the city end of the Roslyn run awakes a familiar memory of the fashions, the buildings and the electric tram heading south along Princes Street.

Don McAra's painting  Page 14
Don McAra's painting Page 14
Click here to view a larger version

The painter's caption reads:
"As a tram loads at the city terminus at the Rattray/Princes Street intersection a coal delivery truck waits at the lights for a Takapuna electric tram to cross into the Stock Exchange area, formerly Dunedin's transport hub. Note the carefully wrapped hockey stick carried by the high school girl. The abandoned track to the right was where a coal tram was once loaded."

When I was five years old I started at Arthur Street School, walking down the hill and catching the cable car home at lunch hour and after school. Looking back I assume that the small number of cars on the road at that time gave way to children walking out from the war memorial corner to catch the tram. I don't remember a traffic monitor or special safety coaching on this issue.

I usually left the tram at the Highgate corner near MacKay's store. I was regularly taken there for walks to do the shopping when I was a pre-schooler. The tramlines in the front of the painting show the crossover where the Highgate Only cars changed to the downhill lines a vivid reminder to me of the time when I stayed on past the usual stop to be carried the extra distance to the top of the hill, but forgot to "hold very tight" and fell off.

The view from above MacKay's store
The view from above MacKay's store
Don McAra's painting Page 24
Click here to view a larger version

The view over Fraser's Gully which we used to look at from the veranda of our Belgrave Crescent home is recalled by the painting of the cable car descending to the valley beyond the top of the hill.

Cable car and view of Fraser's Gully
Cable car and view of Fraser's Gully
Don McAra's painting Page 27
Click here to view a larger version

The text of the book must hold gripping interest for many readers as it covers the mechanics of the cars, the systems developed to pull them, and the history of the cable car era on the Roslyn, Kaikorai, Mornington, Maryhill and Elgin Road routes in Dunedin and the Kelburn route in Wellington.

Kelburn cable tram arrives towards the summit in 1950s
Kelburn cable tram arrives towards the summit in 1950s
Don McAra's painting Page 80
Click here to view a larger version

It was a surprise to me to learn from the book that the Roslyn route in Dunedin originally ran along Belgrave Crescent and down Falcon Street. The Falcon Street section was considered too risky and the route was changed. I remember walking up and down the Falcon Street steps and finding the gradient very steep, so this change is understandable.

Reading about the gripmen and their role makes me recall what cheerful and friendly people they were. One called Don was well-known for his cheerful whistling. Especially in off-peak times he would choose tunes to suit passengers as they got aboard. A frequent visitor to our house was Ella, a rather reserved, immaculately groomed 'blue-rinse' woman in her thirties. We would walk to the tram stop to see her off. She usually wore a blue tailored costume with a blue hat, bag and gloves. Don would start to whistle "Beautiful Lady in Blue" or "Alice Blue Gown" both popular tunes of the day and Ella would get aboard blushing, but smiling.

Readers who grew up in New Zealand must know of other New Zealand books which helped them relive the past. I would appreciate it if you would send me comment on this.

Dorothy Hunt
Editor NZine
Email: click here

Dunedin cable car enthusiasts have set up a website dedicated to Don McAra's book.

Plans to restore a cable car operation in Dunedin are outlined here.

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