Making 'em laugh

GAVIN RILEY: “Have you heard the one about the branch secretary who was made a life member of the Contractors’ Federation? Well, there was this very funny guy called Derek Wigzell…”

Wigzell.jpgWhen one talks to Derek Wigzell, one imagines a man with no enemies; such is his light-hearted, courteous and engaging manner.

For a decade now, ably aided by his wife Jean, he has organised and orchestrated Auckland contractors’ two-monthly dinner meetings in his role as secretary, seasoning each occasion with his unassuming bonhomie. Unfailingly, the evening’s proceedings are propelled along with laughter-to-the-rafters samples from the steadily expanding Wigzell book of jokes.

But the real Derek Wigzell, according to the man himself, is quite unlike his public persona. 

“I’m the world’s worst pessimist,” he says candidly. “One of my problems is I always feel a responsibility to prepare for the worst scenario and to have a plan B if things go wrong.

“So I’m always looking for the worst-case scenario, whereas Jean, bless her heart, is the complete opposite – and opposites make the best match.”

But why forever be the optimist in public? “Because “I don’t want to make other people gloomy. By being cheerful and joking it not only raises other people’s spirits, it raises my own.”

In his 72 years Wigzell has been a man of many parts – husband, father of two (Duncan and Melinda), quantity surveyor, consultant, folk singer-guitarist, music-hall performer and scriptwriter, author and broadcaster of funny or quirky looks at life (for the Listener and National Radio), collector and teller of jokes, cartoonist (for Contractor), and of course professional secretary.

For those secretarial services, and almost certainly for the infectiously good-natured way he has carried them out, Wigzell was awarded life membership of the Contractors’ Federation at its recent annual conference.

He is still a trifle bewildered by that. “I was very honoured but I didn’t think I deserved it. I was being paid for what I did and I’d only done it for 10 years.”

Wigzell has had a lively life, with a thread of humour running through it like a stream. 

He was born in 1935 – “in a London slum which would make Coronation Street look like Park Lane in Mayfair”. When he was four the war and the blitz began, so he and his two brothers were evacuated to a Devon village where Wigzell went to live with a widow and her daughter while his brothers were looked after by the local squire.

Though he sometimes saw his brothers being chauffeur-driven in an open tourer car as he walked through the village, Wigzell has no doubt who had the better billet. The two women with whom he stayed were teachers “so I virtually had a private education for the next five years. It was fantastic. It changed me completely between four and nine, which are formative years”.

He returned to London and his family, which he believes was made dysfunctional by the evacuation (two daughters had been added to the family but a son had been lost to pneumonia). Two years later he gained sufficiently high marks in the 11-plus exam to be enrolled at the prestigious Emanuel School, noted in those days for its many plutocratic students.

The young Wigzell would leave his Putney home each morning speaking broad cockney and arrive at school with an accent posh enough to win speech competitions – which he did. He could also speak with a convincing Devon brogue and eventually became fluent in French and German and “not bad” in Italian. 

His hopes of going to art school were dashed when his father died and his family needed a more reliable income than an artist could provide. So he joined a small Putney company as a cadet quantity surveyor and worked on projects in and around London. One day he phoned head office from Harlow in Essex – and the receptionist’s voice on the other end was Jean’s.

They married in 1961. But first Wigzell joined Costain Middle East Ltd and was sent to that region for a couple of years, working in Tehran, then down through Persia to Kuwait, Dubai and Oman.

The projects included Dubai’s first airstrip, made from compacted sand, with a Land-Rover and two-way radio for a control tower; and a main road in Dubai that was a dusty unsealed track. The only building more than one storey high was the British Resident’s house, and a common form of transport was by donkey – a bit different from today.

Wigzell returned home, married Jean, and moved to Tarmac Ltd, which was involved in civil engineering as well as road surfacing and had an overseas section. The couple went to Beirut (peaceful), Libya (pre-Gaddafi), and on to Jordan where Tarmac was building a big hospital. But post-Six Day War conflict flared, involving displaced Palestinians, Jordan and Israel, and the Wigzells were hastily evacuated in 1970 by the Royal Air Force along with eight-month-old Duncan (a photo of mother and baby appearing on the front page of Britain’s mass-circulation Daily Express).

The family then went to Bahrain where Tarmac was building an airstrip and where the Wigzells teamed up with some RAF lads to form a folk group – a pastime they continued to enjoy till a couple of years ago. Next stop was Qatar to help upgrade a cement works and join in the nearby Shell company’s social life, which led to Wigzell learning to play golf – “enthusiastically but inefficiently”.

After returning to the UK the family was sent to Nigeria, but later got caught up in a coup and again had to be evacuated. With their son now seven, the Wigzells decided it was time to settle down – in an English-speaking country with a warm climate.

They had liked the New Zealanders they met overseas, and before going to Nigeria Wigzell had spoken to Wilkins & Davies chief executive Des Mataga during a Mataga recruitment visit to Britain and had kept in touch. As a result the family arrived in New Zealand in 1976 and was directed by Wilkins & Davies to Hastings, where Wigzell worked on the reconstruction of the Tomoana freezing works. He and Jean became involved in old-time music hall, which they had first enjoyed in Nigeria – and continue to enjoy today with their own semi-professional troupe.

“It was a happy start to life in New Zealand,” Wigzell recalls fondly.

In 1981 the family was transferred to Whangarei, where Wilkins & Davies was helping construct the Marsden Pt oil-refinery extension, before settling in Auckland where Wigzell worked in the company’s head office.

“In ’89 Wilkins & Davies was one of the last dominoes to fall over after the ’87 sharemarket crash,” he says.

“It had invested heavily in marinas and, with the market for boats and berths suddenly drying up, keeping the banks happy proved problematical.

“I was in my mid-50s and someone told me, ‘If you’ve got grey hair nobody will want to take you on as an employee, and if you haven’t got grey hair nobody will want you as a consultant’. So I became a consultant quantity surveyor and got plenty of work, largely through guys who had worked for Wilkins & Davies.”

Annual reunions of former Wilkins & Davies staff went on for many years, and quite a number of Wigzell’s ex-colleagues are still around – engineers Peter White, Bernard Hough, Ken Tanner, Neill Forgie, Dick Salter, Alan Ladlow and Dick Moore, and quantity surveyor Chris Lapish.

Wigzell might have continued as a consultant for many years, but for a crafty conspiracy hatched by old colleague White and Brian Harris, whom Wigzell knew through Howick Lions Club. The devious duo decided Wigzell was just the man to replace Harris, who was retiring after 33 years as secretary of the Auckland branch of the Contractors’ Federation, which White at that time chaired. But instead of approaching him they asked his better half, Jean, to try to persuade him.

Later, Wigzell also accepted a request by the Equipment Suppliers’ Association to be its secretary. 

Ten years on from the White-Harris ambush, the Contractors’ Federation’s latest life member acknowledges it’s a decade he’s enjoyed.

“I’m very lucky I got myself into the contracting industry – it’s made up of very nice people,” he says.

“I’m a pen pusher and bean counter. Engineers have to deal with labour and machinery problems, ground and weather conditions, tight programmes, difficult clients – and still make a profit. Yet somehow they keep smiling.”

As for his Girl Friday, “Jean is invaluable, taking on much of the secretarial donkey work. She also brightens up the proceedings at each branch meeting, greeting people as they come in the door. There’s lots of laughter”.

Wigzell says he loves being secretary,  and would like it to go on forever – it’s occupational therapy, and the federation is a wonderful way of keeping in touch with people.

When the time comes for him to leave the stage, his many contractor friends can be sure he will exit left with the panache of the practised performer. And he’ll remember to leave them laughing as he goes. 

Contractor Vol.32  No.9  October 2008
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