"Cheese has always been good to me."
Jim Friteuse

Thursday, August 16, 2012


The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term one-horse town as a small town with few and poor facilities. Inhabitants of this kind of town use the term to emphasise that the place where they have spent their entire lives is not terribly interesting – a reason, perhaps, why teenagers who live there try and escape as soon as possible. 

A typical one horse town

Examples of these not terribly interesting one-horse towns can be found all over the world – Tub Town in Kansas USA, Broken Hill in the far west outback of New South Wales in Australia, Carmona in the Spanish province of Seville and Milton Keynes in the English county of Oxfordshire.

Residents of Milton Keynes meet up before the start of the 1980 annual 'Find The Horse' competition

Wongawonga, situated on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, where Claire Bracegirdle spent her childhood, was literally a one-horse town, and the horse in question – Trigger – was owned by her parents. In September of each year they would organise the Annual Wongawonga Dressage Competition, into which Trigger would be entered with Claire as his rider. Inevitably Claire and Trigger would win the competition as entry was restricted to horses and riders from Wongawonga. 

Poster for the 1976 Annual Wongawonga Dressage Competition

As the gruelling competition drew to a close, Claire would be presented with the winner’s rosette (made from scraps of crepe paper and bits of old wire) by the judges (her parents) and she would ride around the arena in triumph until she got bored.

Claire, however, was not always Claire. She was actually born a boy and christened in the Wongawonga Baptist Chapel as Craig, but at the age of seven and a half months she spontaneously changed sex and woke up as a girl.

Claire's local doctor.

The local doctor was baffled by this mysterious event and called in a team of paediatric specialists from Wellington, who all donned white coats before examining Craig/Claire, as if somehow the sheer whiteness of the garments would endow them with superior medical knowledge in order to diagnose the patient with greater accuracy. 

They poked and prodded the child and consulted their training manuals for an entire week but it was all to no avail – they too were bamboozled by the phenomenon, finally declaring that Craig/Claire was a miracle of modern medical science.

Official Training Manual for New Zealand doctors circa 1969
Her father had a much simpler (albeit bizarre) explanation for this strange turn of events. He was North Island’s foremost breeder of the Common Reed Frog (hyperolius viridiflavus) and he bred these colourful amphibians to sell exclusively to the Japanese Whaling Fleet that passed by the shores of Wongawonga on a regular basis, on route to the colder waters of the Arctic Circle. 

Common Reed Frog

They regarded the little creatures as something of a gastronomic speciality, not realising that there was something rather special about them. When the population of these frogs was more female than male the female genitalia would spontaneously dissolve and they would become males. 

The reason, Claire’s father suggested to the team of specialists, that Craig became Claire was due to the fact that she spent each day crawling amongst the little creatures and some of their DNA must have rubbed off on him/her.

And there was also the fact that her mother always wanted a girl.

A few months later, at the end of a long medical seminar held in Wellington and presided over by Sir Archibald Leach (dressed as usual in unusual clothes) to discuss this most curious of medical mysteries, the head paediatric specialist in charge of the operation, Sir Maurice Micklewhite, jokingly announced that “at best we can be thankful of two things – they’re not cane toads and we are not Australians.”

Upon hearing Sir Maurice’s rather pointless attempt at zoological and geographical stand-up comedy, the entire audience of seven medical professionals laughed heartily. Not one of them had actually understood the joke as humour, along with T-shirts, was something that members of the medical profession in New Zealand did not at that time possess.

During her schooldays Claire was regarded as something of a troublemaker, as the following letter sent to her parents by the headmaster of the Wongawonga School for Underachieving Girls testifies:

Claire is a very odd child and not like the other pupils in her class, or indeed the rest of the school. She shows a genuine interest in all her subjects and also hands in her homework on time and completed. This kind of behaviour only serves to alienate her from her classmates and make all the staff, including the dinner ladies, suspicious of her.

Her best subject appears to be history, which is generally acknowledged by New Zealand’s scholars of history to have ended abruptly in 1953.
This morning she asked Mrs Proudfoot, our very capable history teacher, who the Vikings and the Romans were. Mrs Proudfoot is a fine teacher and her knowledge of our great nation’s history is beyond question, but when she is confronted with a question like, “Excuse me miss, but who were the Vikings and the Romans?” she quite obviously became confused and disorientated. How was she to know who the Vikings and Romans were? They were not part of New Zealand’s rich history, if indeed they existed at all. In fact Mrs Proudfoot thought Claire was making it all up in order to make her (Mrs Proudfoot) look stupid. Eventually I had to send Mrs Proudfoot home for a long lie down in a darkened room for the rest of the day as she was on the brink of nervous collapse.

If Claire’s behaviour, standard of homework and general attitude to academic studies does not start to deteriorate and fall to at least the level of the rest of the school I shall have no choice but to recommend she be sent to one of those ‘special’ schools where students talk about subjects that are way beyond the comprehension of the staff of this school.
Claire was sent to a ‘special’ school a week later.

As she grew older Claire’s interest in history deepened and by the time she was sixteen she already knew that she wanted to study to be a history teacher. There were two reasons for this decision, she later told a reporter from Cheese Monthly:

The first was my absolute love of the subject and my desire to reach out and allow other young minds to understand our country’s beginnings. The second reason was obvious really – the history of New Zealand is easy because there is so little of it.

A typical cover of Cheese Monthly

The ‘special’ school she was sent to turned out to be her saving grace and she left there with a scholarship to study history at the prestigious university of Nikkinakkinori.

She got herself settled in the halls of residence and on her first day off went shopping for food.

When she walked into the small grocery store, the bell above the door dinged merrily, announcing her arrival to all in there. As she looked around the store she noticed the most handsome boy she had ever seen in her life. He was wearing an apron with a name tag on it that revealed that his name was Jim and he was serving a customer from behind the cheese counter. Their eyes met over the Gorgonzola, Cheddar and Australian Bitey and she thought, Holy crap, he’s the most handsome boy I have ever seen in my life!


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