A sleepy lagoon, a tropical moon…

Absent-mindedly listening to ‘Radio NZ National’ some years ago, my attention was suddenly focused on the words of an elderly caller.

She was reminiscing with then afternoon host, Jim Mora, about her favourite music. Apparently, she’d grown-up in the King Country milling settlement, Rangataua, just south of Ohakune.

The woman remembered fondly a band that used to play the occasional Saturday night in the local hall in the late 30s. Two things stuck in her memory – the small woman who played the piano, and the large Maori man who played the drums. Apparently, the woman had a ‘great sense of rhythm’.

I was tempted to phone in. I knew that band, in a sense. It was Raetihi’s “legendary” ‘Bondi Diggers Band’.

My mother (Thelma) played the piano; my father (Jim) the mandolin and the mouth organ. They had a Maori drummer and a guitarist. It had to be them.

 A sleepy lagoon,

 a tropical moon

and two on an island.

A sleepy lagoon

and two hearts in tune

in some lullaby land.

The fireflies gleam, reflect in the stream, they sparkle and shimmer,

A star from on high falls out of the sky and slowly grows dimmer,

The memory of this moment of love will haunt me for ever.

A tropical moon, a sleepy lagoon and you!

(‘Sleepy Lagoon’, Lawrence/Coates)


How Thelma and Jim came to get together in a band, I have no idea. Was a love of the ‘popular music’ of the day the ‘connection’, that led to their 5-year courtship and ultimately, their marriage in 1941?

Thelma was born in Raetihi, one of 11 children. I suspect she learned the piano at an early age. Perhaps her ‘bossy’ older sister, Doris, taught her? Maybe Thelma played it in church?

Jim arrived there in 1935, having secured a legal position with a Raetihi law firm, ahead of many other law graduates, desperate to find work. The Great Depression was far from over.

He’d been a top law student; a member of the Victoria University College rugby team; and the intercollegiate hop, step and jump champion. Nothing is known of his musical talents while at school or university.

Jim had grown up in a devout Methodist family in Johnsonville. I may be doing the Methodists a disservice, but I doubt that the mandolin or the mouth organ formed any part of their service.

How Jim learnt to play these instruments, has intrigued me for many years. Perhaps he taught himself during his r+r times, in the modest Raetihi boarding-house he called ‘home’?

The ‘Bondi Diggers Band played at a number of towns and settlements – Ohakune, Rangataua, and of course, Raetihi. All had timber mills.

At that time, Raetihi was the most vibrant. Ohakune was very much a poor relation. How times have changed.

A particularly exotic venue was the grand Pipiriki Hotel, on the banks of the Whanganui River. Sadly, this magnificent wooden building was destroyed by fire in the late 50s.

Perhaps while there the band played to riverboat passengers who had travelled up from Whanganui? Or perhaps, more exotic still, the band serenaded the passengers, while they journeyed up-river together to Retarouke?!

     Honey dear, want you near,

     Just turn out the light and then come over here;

     Nestle close up to my side

     My heart’s afire with love’s desire

     (‘Oh! You Beautiful Doll’, Brown/Ayer (1911))

The height of the band’s popularity was when it was asked to play a full weekend gig at the Chateau Tongariro. That really was the ‘Jewel in the Crown’!

The advent of war led to the band’s demise. Jim moved back to Wellington to join military intelligence.

He returned to Raetihi in 1941 to marry Thelma. The wedding reception was held at the Waimarino Golf Course. Perhaps other band members performed?

In 1942, Jim joined the Royal NZ Air Force’s 18th Fighter Squadron. He was appointed its intelligence officer.

The mouthorgan and the mandolin accompanied him when the squadron was posted to what was then the New Hebrides, and subsequently, to the Solomons. I suspect both were much used and enjoyed.

My first memory of seeing the mandolin was discovering it, while exploring the storage room behind the ‘secret’ bar at our new family home in 1956 – 182 Fitzherbert Avenue, Palmerston North. I would have been seven at the time.

The mandolin was in a sorry state, with broken strings, together the ravages of tropical mould. Yet, dad had kept it, along with his Air Force cap.

One night a year during my childhood, the ‘Bondi Diggers Band’ seemed almost to reappear magically. That was the annual ‘Devil’s Own’ lawyers’ golf tournament, Sunday night party, at our home.

What a party it was. The house was packed with lawyers, judges and magistrates, some in an intoxicated state.

After Thelma’s beautiful food had been consumed, she got on the piano. Meanwhile the men stood around her and sang. I don’t remember a single woman lawyer being present.

Gosh, could the partygoers could sing. All they needed to do was to hum a few bars, and Thelma was away.

Occasionally she would consult her tattered sheet music. Most of the time she played from memory.

The guests loved it. They would have gone all night if they could.

Their affection for Thelma was touching to witness. She was very much ‘the belle of the ball’, so to speak.

Thelma was transformed from the normally proper, rather formal mother, she appeared to her kids, into a real ‘party animal’. Not that I ever saw her with any degree of intoxication. She was just having fun.

Decades later, when Thelma was approaching 90, I witnessed something while caring for her, that got me thinking again of the ‘Bondi Diggers Band’. By then she was really frail and infirm.

I’d gone into town on some errand. I’d left Thelma having her afternoon nap. On my return, I was greeted with the sound of piano being played. Who could it be?

There was Thelma, in her blue dressing gown, playing away merrily – no sheet music in sight. First, fragments of one tune, then another. I found myself imagining the merriment if her ‘Devil’s Own’ mates had been present!

The woman caller to Radio NZ National had it right – Thelma sure had a ‘great sense of rhythm’.

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Tim McBride

Human rights author and commentator