At a time when communities are being fragmented, human relationships increasingly commodified and people alienated from the political system, signs of resistance are springing up, often in unexpected places. In Dunedin, and particularly in North East Valley, close to where I live, community gardens and self-help groups are burgeoning.
And so is the morning tea movement. Eleven ago, however, when a friend and I started walking up the Bullock Track and along Highgate to a café in Roslyn, we never suspected that we might be a part of something bigger. In danger of burning out from a high-stress job, my friend took the sensible first step of shaving two days off his working week. The next “step” was the walking cure – a brisk uphill trek ending in a caffeinated reward.
Gradually, other friends – all male, as it happened – joined us, a few on foot, others making their own way to our weekly rendezvous. So the Tuesday morning Rhubarb men’s coffee group was born. It’s taken its own shape through a kind of centripetal attraction. Most of us are (or have been) involved in writing, academia or the arts and are leftish in our politics – although we are sufficiently diverse to avoid becoming a bunch of mutual backslappers.
We are mostly retired, or semi-retired, giving us the choice to be there at all, and, of course, we are all chaps. This in turn gives us the freedom to be entirely ourselves – in the same way that all-female groups work well for women.
The benefits of our association are legion. By meeting regularly, we have the opportunity to get to know one another in depth. We laugh, we joke, we tell stories which might not always be suitable for mixed company. One of our older members, a distinguished writer with an extensive background in literary and academic circles, regularly entertains us with his deliciously indiscreet anecdotes. The remains of many a tattered reputation are swept up with the fallen crumbs at the end of the day.
We rail against Trumpism, corporate capitalism and the trashing of the environment, and wish Jacinda well. (I’ve never detected a trace of misogyny in our band of brothers.) We’ve learned that the maximum number of people who can comfortably enjoy a single conversation is four. When the group is larger – as it usually is – three or four conversations can be volleying across the table, challenging even those of us with good hearing. Speaking of tables, we’ve been going so long now that the proprietor reserves us the biggest table in the café – a mighty board worthy of the Camelot gang.
Although we’ve never exactly kept our existence secret, four years ago we thought we’d been well and truly outed when we learned that Roger Hall had written a play about a coffee group for literary blokes that met on Tuesday mornings in a suburban café. We realised our mistake when advance publicity for Book Ends described the group as a bunch of miserable old curmudgeons.
Over the years, folk have drifted in and out of the group – it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Occasionally, people invite visitors along. As few years ago, I brought along an old friend from Whanganui, who became an instant convert. He started up a similar group as soon as he got home.
Of course, with deepening trust and friendship comes support. When one of our older members was faced with packing up his house and library, along with a lifetime’s collection of art works, we offered to help. Luckily, he had two handy sons to do the heavy lifting, but our understanding and support will always be there. We know he appreciates our sessions, because he’s never been known to miss a Tuesday. I’ve watched other men blossom here, especially in the wake of a major life event such as the death of a spouse.
The best thing about the Rhubarb Tuesday group is that it runs itself. There are no leaders and no fixed membership. All you need is a time and a place, and a couple of mates who feel like strolling up the hill together.