Back then

Dunedin, Charles Brasch, James K, Baxter, Janet Frame, Ruth Dallas, Iain Lonie, Alan Roddick, et al, in the 1960s, and Karl Miller later.

Early in 1966 Kevin Cunningham writing for the Otago University Students’ Association, invited me to Dunedin. I was to be there for a weekend. On the Friday night there would be a lecture by James K. Baxter and a poetry reading in which he and I would take part, with (I think) two others, Brasch, and my old friend from Armidale days, Iain Lonie (see my first Laureate blog, dated August 31, 2015). On the Saturday evening I would give the lecture and this would be followed by more poetry reading and a panel discussion – all of which happened, with more or less the same quite large student and staff audience, causing me surprise at their appetite and stamina. Baxter’s paper was one he subsequently published (‘The Virgin and the Tempter’ in The Man on the Horse, 1967) – an account of the writing of his poem ‘Henley Pub’, step by step, almost matching in its detail, and its claims of deliberateness and calculation, Edgar Allen Poe’s famous account of the writing of ‘The Raven’ – and a match too in being, I thought, less than entirely believable.

Baxter was impressive as always – that shaggy presence, the oversized head and hunched shoulders, the peculiarly resonant voice, the seriousness and weight of utterance, the sense of ancient, and even divine, authority invoked: it was all to my eye and ear more than faintly absurd – even ridiculous, while at the same time I yielded to it as to a natural force, a phenomenon, the Poet with a capital P talking about Poetry and how he had put one of his Poems together. It was theatre and I loved every minute of it, but considered it, intellectually suspect – the Catholic new boy (he was a recent convert) demonstrating a sophisticated grasp of sin and redemption, with a twisty Graham Greene-ish unorthodoxy, and a ‘liberal’ ability to shock the old dears of the Church, male and female, laity and clergy alike – and yet all of this in a fervently Marian, golden wrapping. The poem he dissected moved between extremes, from ‘Hail holy Queen!’ and the ‘glory and the doom/ Of Israel’ to

I thought, shoving my muscle through black hair,
‘What is a man, this glittering dung-fed fly
Who burrows in foul earth?’
                                                          And that is all;
All; Jehovah’s sky
And earth like millstones grind us small.

Was the penis a muscle? I didn’t think so. Did it matter? Not entirely, but somewhat, yes.

I don’t any longer have a copy of my own paper of the following night, but its central argument was reproduced, with the title ‘Poetry and the Criticism of poetry’, in the Critical Quarterly (Vol 8, No 4, Winter 1966). It was not, I think, an anti-Leavis argument, certainly not opposed to critical rigour, but a plea for critical flexibility and tolerance:

Am I saying the critic should never condemn? I hope not. But... a weed-killer is not a fertilizer, and at the moment it is weed-killers our universities seem bent on promoting.

From there it went on to a rather fancy (interesting but I think over-elaborate) ‘close reading’ of a passage from Four Quartets.

What I do still have is a poem which concluded the lecture, and which suggests the two papers must have been as sharply contrasting as the two poets who delivered them. Baxter’s was all about deliberateness: everything in the poem he discussed meant something else, something more, and was meant to – a raid not on the inarticulate but on the myth kitty; symbolism sentenced to hard labour; the meaning of meanings gone mad with the weight of their own significance. My paper was about subtleties and nuances; and the poem I finished with (altogether less weighty and consequential than his) was a sort of ironic shrug, giving poems the priority over what was said about them, while acknowledging that I was trapped for the moment inside the academic profession:

A free and flexible action
As of the voice in his head
The professor heard
When counting syllables
That sang the syllables as words
The words as sentences
The sentences as a poem.

Miraculous! he cried
And might have thrown his gown away
But for the salary.

He swears it never happened.

That night and the one before Charles had cooked dinner which we ate alone together. All I remember is that it ended with chocolate fish for dessert, and coffee; and that both nights after the University event we sat over his gas fire and toasted crumpets having, not so much a man-to-man as a heart-to-heart. Crumpets – how Oxford! Charles was very serious and very kind. I need to acknowledge that, because I’m sure I was in his debt, and felt that I was; but he was also super-fastidious, I would probably have said prissy, in a way that made me nervous with him, treading warily, worrying I might reveal what a clodhopper I was. He seemed to me, not mysterious, entirely comprehensible, but alien.

Apart from all that, I thought he was almost certainly gay, but probably not happy about it, and not active. There was none of the easy openness that could prevail with Sargeson. So I was not at ease with Charles, and I remember little of our talk – only its discomfort, and that I tried very hard to make it go well, and not to displease or disappoint him.

On the Sunday morning we drove to his crib at Broad Bay with Janet Frame and Ruth Dallas. Janet was skittish in this company. I’d had a warm letter from her in London the previous November, and it seemed we were to be friends again after previous problems which I’ve described elsewhere (see p.341-2 South-West of Eden). Ruth took a photo of three of us, which has appeared in a number of places since, including the frontispiece of the Brasch-Frame correspondence, Dear Charles, Dear Janet published by the Holloway Press.

C.K. Stead, Charles Brasch and Janet Frame, taken by Ruth Dallas at Charles’s crib at Broad Bay.

But it was Baxter who made the strongest impression on that visit. I wrote a poem about him but didn’t publish it until long afterwards:


(Remembering James K.Baxter, 1966)

Evening where Taieri moved
between dark McCahon hills

fog threatened. You were back
in your aquarium town

wearing your flesh and blood
as if it belonged to you.

Would I get out? Would
it close on Momona?

In the womb we were all
fish. Once was enough.

Any bad-coloured sky
I’d have risked climbing,

scaled any barnacled chain –
yet there you went, at home,

submariner for God
telling the squid and the skate

‘Open your gills, my brothers.
Enjoy the life of the Deep.’

This was a time when Baxter’s new Catholicism became especially vocal, and especially silly when he wrote lengthy, convoluted, self-contradictory defences of the church’s rulings on birth control. ‘Your correspondent,’ he wrote in one such, ‘has astonished me by the claim that artificial birth control “rests with every woman’s individual choice”’; and he went on to invoke ‘Christ’s injunction to His followers to remember their bodies were the temples of the Holy Spirit.’ Baxter’s own temple of the Holy Spirit was known to be fairly widely available, and quite frequently sought by young women with an appetite for Poetry-in-the-flesh. At about this time the Catholic paper, The Tablet, had caused concern to the Church by questioning the Pope’s teaching on these matters, and the laity were warned to avoid it. Baxter was involved in a correspondence in the Listener about this, to which I contributed:

Catholics in Auckland are not only required to renounce the Pill. They are not allowed to take the Tablet either. Would James K. Baxter please write another of his very long letters justifying this?

I wrote to Charles thanking him for having me and saying the cold I’d had was ‘diminishing, though I am still coughing impressively.’ I thanked him for 20 years of Landfall – and it was true that over those years New Zealand writers had needed a periodical they could respect, admire and aspire to, in the same way that actors needed a theatre. I sent good wishes to Janet and Ruth, Jim and Iain, and suggested Charles might think about Robin Dudding as Landfall’s new editor. He replied that he’d been worried about me: ‘Even in Ruth’s photos you look a little less than yourself.’ The house was being painted – ‘bathroom and passage are now a gorgeous red with white ceilings and woodwork.’ And yes, he had ‘thought about Robin Dudding, and he won’t be forgotten.’

I had been on leave in London in 1965 and before leaving I had sent him a group of poems which he’d accepted for Landfall, including ‘A small registry of births and deaths’, which begins with the birth of our son Oliver, but expands outward and becomes a poem about Vietnam; but now Charles had to hold the group over for publication until June. As soon as they appeared I offered the ‘Small registry’ poem to Karl Miller for the New Statesman and he accepted it. ‘Can I take it Landfall won’t mind?’ he asked. I thought Landfall would be delighted. I was wrong – Landfall was not. When the poem appeared in that very public place Charles was, he said, ‘dismayed’ and wrote me a long reproachful letter about it. In law, he conceded, the copyright was mine; but the convention was that I should have asked his permission, and Landfall’s priority should have been acknowledged by the New Statesman.

I decided Charles was being unrealistic and even pettishly possessive, and replied impenitently: ‘I’m sorry you feel “dismayed” that my poem appeared in the NS. I’m not sorry it appeared there. I care about its subject and I’m glad to have it circulated widely.’

Karl Miller, with typically clever editorial opportunism, had put the poem into an issue which featured a Centrepiece about the boring, and even morally dubious, matter of being a father, bringing children into an overcrowded world; and now he asked me to follow the poem up with a piece on ‘New Zealand culture’ in a series he was running called ‘Out of London’. The piece I wrote for this was a metafiction (with references to, and influenced by, Jorge Luis Borges whose work I had recently discovered in the John Calder paperback of 1962) about a party in Auckland in honour of a distinguished visiting German Jewish professor, Hans Mayer, and a chance meeting with him a day later at the Northland beach reserve of Wenderholm (reprinted in Answering to the Language, 254-7). This piece appeared a few years later in a translation by Gerhardt Trabing in the German literary journal, Akzente. Later again I got to know Trabing and he was to be ‘the man with Hitler’s nose’ whose visit to Auckland would cure the writer Laszlo Winter of his ‘writer’s block’ in my novel The Secret History of Modernism.

Alan Roddick, a recent father, was moved by the ‘Small registry’ poem, and wrote about it at length, including

I must confess... it has nudged me quite off balance in my opinion about Vietnam – which you’ll remember was rather opposed to yours. Balance had been increasingly harder to maintain; your poem may have toppled me entirely.

But the topple was not entire and the conversion did not last. Alan and I were soon at serious loggerheads again on that (as it was) central moral/political issue of the 1960s.

Alan in recent years has had a wonderful return to poetry, and his UOP collection, Getting it Right, contains a poem which catches the elusive quality of Brasch’s character. Brasch made Alan his literary executor, so clearly they were close, and the Kevin in the poem is Kevin Cunningham who, all those years ago, was the student who invited me to Dunedin. Kevin died after a long engagement with multiple sclerosis. Charlotte Paul, to whom the poem is dedicated, was his wife.

Kevin, still talking

For Charlotte

I saw you last night, Kevin.
                                                 You don’t say.
I do. It was a dull grey morning,
on Royal Terrace crossing Cobden Street
where Charles Brasch met the Lady Engine...
Is that a fact?
                                Yes, it was a dream.
You strode by, a Giacometti man
showing his mettle...
                                             We were younger then.
Thirty years, and again I hear you
What was Brasch like, Alan?
                                                               You ask me?
Surely, Kevin, in that shadowless
no-where now you see him, not far off,
solitary, severe, considering?
Take heart, step up and speak to him –
you’ll find his practised flinch relaxes
into a smile incongruously sweet,
your welcome as a fellow writer.
Almost, I envy you.
                                                    You don’t say.

At the time I was having these exchanges with Karl Miller I had not met him. A decade later, in 1977 when I was going on Sabbatical leave, Miller had left literary journalism and was now Professor of English at University College London. He invited me to come as Visiting Fellow at UCL, where I gave some lectures in his Modernist course and sat in on his seminars. A.S. Byatt was also teaching parts of that course, and my friendship with her began then and has continued.

It was around this time, when the TLS was in long term abeyance because of a protracted strike, that Karl started up the London Review of Books and invited me to write for it, which I did over the years of his editorship, and even after he left and it was taken over by Mary Kay Wilmers. When Miller died in September 2014 the Guardian described him as ‘ringmaster to the most distinguished stable of writers in Britain.’ I have many memories of him and of some of the people who wrote for him, or worked at the LRB. A small book of reminiscences and poems about Karl, DUX, REDUX, was put together last year by his son, the artist Daniel Miller. Contributors included Seamus Heaney, Tom Paulin, Thom Gunn, Blake Morrison, Kate McEwen, Fiona Pitt-Kethley, Emma Tennant, Hugo Williams, Frederick Seidel, Andrew McNeillie. My own contribution was a poem I had written for Karl’s 70th birthday in August 2001. It’s in 14-syllable tercets (or triplets), and the two women, who used to sit on either side of him in the LRB office, were Mary Kay Wilmers, who would in the end replace him as editor, and Susannah Clapp, the one in green shoes. ‘Gazza’ was the nick-name for the troubled and brilliant England international, Paul Gascoigne, and Karl, a keen footballer, wrote about him in the LRB. The dream described would make sense to Karl because his memoir of the first 25 years of his life was called Rebecca’s Vest, and signified his keen teenage interest in the character of Jewish Rebecca in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, a fascination he connects with a youthful preoccupation with Jews and Jewishness. Karl quotes Scott’s description of Rebecca’s dress: ‘of the golden and pearl-studded clasps which closed her vest from the throat to the waist, the three uppermost were unfastened on account of the heat, which something enlarged the prospect…’ Karl sums up this ‘prospect’ as a ‘movie-star cleavage’. The woman he married, Jane (to become in time Professor Jane) Miller, was Jewish, the sister of the wife of now-famous theatre producer (and doctor) Jonathan Miller – so Karl and his brother-in-law were both Millers, though related only by marriage, a verbal trick of fate I should have worked into the poem. From Rebecca’s Vest it’s a short step (for the ear) to Rebecca West who had a famous affair with H.G. Wells. These are verbal confusions of dreaming and the sort of linguistic play Karl enjoyed. Downing was of course F.R. Leavis’s college at Cambridge, and Karl enrolled there as a scholarship boy from Edinburgh in 1951 after his two years’ conscripted military service. In Cambridge, he writes in Rebecca’s Vest, ‘nearly everybody was called Simon or darling’. His attitude to Leavis, and mine, were the same – respect for the power, intelligence and density of his critical language, and growing distaste for his dogmatism and inflexibility, and his seeming need for acolytes.

Here is Karl’s poem for Karl:

To Karl Miller at 70

I see you
flanked by two women
one smiling, in green shoes

the other, head down,
devising (was she?)
your displacement.

Admonitory (unfair)
you once reproached
my curling lip

Admonitory (unfair)
you once reproached
my curling lip

uncertain whether
the nip he’d felt was wound
or caress.

Scholarship Scot
among the Simons at Downing
you took

bookish London
by the back door
making space for yourself

who could construe
ahead of time
Heaney’s invisible

mending no less than
the magic of Gazza’s
dancing steps.

Last week I dreamed
you’d married Rebecca
West and lived at

a confusion you at least
will comprehend.

in those dingy precincts
of U.C.L. as in the

airy offices
of Bedford Square
you made me welcome

‘for which much thanks’
and to my namesake
these birthday greetings.

My own memoir of early years, South-West of Eden, went up to the age of 23 when I first left New Zealand, and I thought of using as epigraph a quotation from Rebecca’s Vest about how it felt growing up in Edinburgh:

I don’t believe that I can ever have imagined that I was living in a backwater, and I wasn’t. I believed that my friends were gifted and interesting, and so they were.

That contained a kind of truth for me about Auckland; but I wondered whether you could say you hadn’t ever thought you were living in a backwater if the thought that you might be hadn’t occurred to you, even if only to be dismissed; and Karl was writing of Edinburgh, which, especially then, in pre-cheap air travel and pre-internet times, was not remote from the great centres of European and American culture to the degree that Auckland was. So having put the epigraph in, I took it out again.

One of the contributors to DUX, REDUX is the Scot, Andrew O’Hagan, who when I first knew him was a sort of office-boy at the LRB (though Karl quickly recognized the literary talent there, and promoted it), from whom when I was giving up I used to ‘borrow’, cigarettes. In his reminiscence he records Karl, still in his prime, saying ‘I’m quite ill. I’ll probably die soon. Then you can all have a party and say I was no good.’

This sort of half serious gloom was, Andrew soon learned, ‘pure Karl’. It was. In (once again) my novel The Secret History of Modernism the literary editor, Marx McLaren, was largely modelled on Karl, and there’s a distinct flavour of what he was like when the young Australian, Samantha Conlon, goes for a job interview. Marx keeps her waiting, sitting opposite him at his desk for a very long time while he completes copy editing a typescript. She puzzles over why he should do this, and can’t decide. Then he screws his fountain pen shut and looks up:

    For a few moments he stared at her, saying nothing. It was what she called a ‘fact-gathering stare’ – nothing sexual about it, nothing improper. ‘You’re from Australia,’ he said.

    She said she was. He remarked that it was a long way to have come. ‘I’m from Scotland,’ he said.

    Samantha nodded and said, ‘I’ve heard.’

    ‘What have you heard?’ he asked, suspicious.

    ‘That you’re from Scotland.’

    ‘That’s right. I am.’ He looked truculent now. Defiant. Once again she was puzzled. He shuffled his papers together. ‘So... Is there anything you want to ask?’

   There wasn’t and the job was hers.

It was probably because of this novel that Karl told Barry Humphries, ‘I think he dislikes me.’ But I didn’t and I’m sure he knew that I didn’t, and that the portrait was on the whole an affectionate one. That was another of those gloomy Karl-isms – like telling Andrew that he would soon die and ‘you can all have a party and say I was no good’.

– C.K. Stead

Our premier literary editor? – the enigma of Robin Dudding

A book about Robin Dudding, My Father’s Island, a memoir, by his son Adam has recently been published by VUP. Robin is remembered as editor of Landfall from the end of 1966, after its founder, Charles Brasch, retired, to 1972; and then as founder and sole editor of Islands. He was a talented editor, more open, less conservative than Brasch, but a slow and sometimes disorganised one. As a subscriber to Islands (I always kept a second subscription running as a donation) one had to watch it gradually fall out of sync with its due date, seem to die, then revive, and die again – finally. It began full of hope in Spring 1972 and continued to No. 30 (October 1980). Number 31-32 (June 1981) was a double number, a catch-up. There was then a gap of three years until No. 33 (July 1984) the first of Islands, New Series, which continued to no. 38, December 1987, the last.

So there was a period of 20 years in which Robin Dudding edited – since Islands replaced Landfall in importance – our most important literary magazine. This was pre-internet, and when our commercial publishing industry was only beginning to get started, so ‘small magazines’ (as they were called) were essential in creating a literary community. Landfall’s, and then Islands’, most important readers were the writers themselves. Often there was no other outlet for their work, and a well-respected periodical gave them confidence that in fact their identity as ‘a writer’ was real, not imaginary. Landfall had been modelled on the Cyril Connolly’s U.K. periodical, Horizon, and Islands continued that tradition and model.

The son’s book does not alter my view of the father as editor, but it adds a dimension to his life and work I had no inkling of. The book, I think one can say, is motivated by love and respect; but also by such honesty and frankness about Robin that the love borders at times on its opposite, and the respect is radically qualified.

Adam represents my own view of his father on page 120-121:

Stead, who also wrote a very nice letter [in support of the award of an honorary degree to Robin] tells me that his admiration was often mixed with exasperation. He found it hard to watch as the notorious Dudding slowness morphed into something more pathological, as submissions disappeared into a black hole for months or years and the arrival of the latest Islands slipped further out of sync with the date printed on the spine.

‘I was always sympathetic to the fact that he was short of money all the time and struggling along, so in that sense I saw it as heroic. But you can’t go on being heroic in slow motion. Eventually the heroism aspect dies, and what you’re watching is something running out of steam.’

Let me go back to the early 1960s. I still have the letters in which Brasch offered, and I declined, the editorship of Landfall; and I know I was one of a number who suggested Robin, already editing a little magazine called Mate, might be a good choice. Robin got the job, which put him on a secure footing at last, backed by Brasch, and with an editorial position in the Caxton Press. He moved with his growing family to Christchurch, keeping their two-bedroom house in Torbay, but buying with the help of a mortgage, a larger one, Woodspring Cottage in Barnes Road. He was soon chafing at the ‘job’ aspect of the job. He wanted to be editor of Landfall in his own time at his own pace. That he had also to put up with working as a general editor at Caxton was treated almost as if he felt it to be an invasion of his space, a denial of his rights.

Robin was easy to deal with, full of good humour and with an accurate eye for good writing. Correspondence between us in the late 1960s and early ‘70s is all, or mostly, sweetness and light. If I occasionally grew impatient with his slowness and complaining, it was because I too was having to do work I would rather not have been doing, constantly balancing the demands of timetables and lectures, essay- and exam-marking, against the inner compulsion to get on with new fiction and poetry. In that, our situations, his and mine, were not as different as I’m sure he thought they were. I suppose I thought if I could organise around these obstacles and make the best of it, so should he.

When Robin fell out with Caxton and was sacked and decided to start his own magazine, Islands, in opposition to Landfall, I (like most of the literary community, including Brasch) supported him, contributing poems, reviews, fiction as and when I had anything to offer and he wanted it. Letters between us reveal continuing good relations – some thanking me (‘Tremendously pleased with your Mitchell review...’ ‘Your story has earned more plaudits...’); and some apologising (‘It doesn’t seem I’ll ever catch up with this backlog...’) In one not untypical letter to Robin I write, ‘Yes, sure, now that I know you want “Under the sun” [a sequence of poems] I want you to have it. After all, I offered it to you in the first place [...] I didn’t “withdraw” it. I just thought that when you had made up your mind to accept the thing then you might have earned the right to chastise me for offering it to Radio NZ – but you hadn’t decided, even then.’ The letter ends, ‘Another good issue. Congratulations again – and lots of warm good wishes from the North.’

When Charles Brasch died in 1973 Robin lost a strong literary and financial supporter; but Brasch had backed the mortgage on the house in Christchurch, and his will wrote off the debt and left a bequest for Islands, so Robin was able to sell that house, return to the Sealy Road property in Torbay, build on to it, and cruise for a while as an editor.

Since 1968 I had been Professor of English at the University of Auckland and my support for him (along with Mac Jackson’s), when he applied for the University’s first Literary Fellowship in 1979 was crucial, because Robin was not a writer and we had to make a convincing case for how essential he was, how needy, and how the writing community benefitted from his work. Adam Dudding mentions a fellowship only once in passing and gives no account of what it was and what it was worth. In fact it gave Robin an office in the English Department and a Senior Lecturer’s salary for a year, and cemented his connection with Dennis McEldowney at Auckland University Press who, then and later, was able to give him copy editing work. I seem to remember he trimmed his beard somewhat for this appointment and appeared daily wearing walk shorts.

In 1979 (Islands 25) Robin featured my long poem, ‘Scoria’, liking it especially, no doubt, because of its chooks (he always kept bantams); and in the same number, my long essay about John Mulgan which aroused, in succeeding issues, such interesting ire among Mulgan’s contemporaries at home and abroad because it suggested that no great harm had been done (in fact it might have been no more than justice) when Mulgan was not awarded a Rhodes Scholarship in 1932. Robin commissioned Peter Siddell to do a cover for the issue, taking its Mt Eden theme from the ‘Scoria’ poem (and also from the Mulgan piece – Mulgan and I, though 20 years apart, had both attended Maungawhau School), and then generously gave me the original which I framed and kept. Two issues later he ran my address to the 1979 Writers’ Conference in Wellington, ‘From Wystan to Carlos, Modern and Modernism in recent New Zeal and poetry.’

Cover of Islands 25, illustration by Peter Siddell.

On the other hand there was, during his fellowship year, a dispute between us. I was trying the experiment of being my own poetry publisher with an imprint I called The Shed, and I told him he could have a story he wanted, ‘A New Zealand Elegy’, which had appeared in the Literary Review then published in Edinburgh, if he would undertake to review my new book of poems, Walking Westward. This, which seemed to me a reasonable request, seemed to him outrageous – though I was not asking for a favourable review, just that the book should be noticed; and after all he did want the story.

Robin told me that if I ‘went on like this’ I would have ‘no future in New Zealand writing’. I replied that I thought Islands needed me more than I needed Islands – and so far as I can recall, that was how the matter ended; but it is perhaps a reflection of what was yet to come in Robin’s life – a tendency to editorial grandiosity (had he begun to think he was our Il Capo, who could choose to endorse, or to end, a writer’s career?) combined with an increasing sense of being wronged by the world. What emerges in his son’s book, with almost brutal frankness, is how disastrously these tendencies grew over the years and affected, and even for a considerable period, blighted, the life of his family.

I’m not sure how far interest in Adam Dudding’s book will extend beyond the literary community; but it is an absorbing sad account of one’s man’s decline into depression (that is how Adam explains it) and unreason. The five daughters and one son, and worst of all the wife, Lois, had to endure angry silences that lasted for days and weeks, with intermittent rages, and a completely irrational refusal to tolerate any domestic arrangement, however minor, that was not his own. So holes in the floor and in the roof were not to be repaired, because it was always Robin’s intention to repair them himself. When the family went on holiday and a broken lock had still not been repaired, the only way to secure the house against burglary was to nail it shut. Piles of books, dirty underwear, boots, anything at all, had to remain where he had put them; and this madness was enforced by the constant threat of anger and abuse. One reads this book appalled, watching the somewhat prickly but essentially affable Robin one thought one knew quite well, grow into a large-scale household tyrant.

Lois, it seems, suffered worst. Every move she made towards separateness and independence was thwarted by what the son calls Robin’s ‘startlingly vicious campaign to fuck her up’. When she tried to go back to using her maiden name the letters that came for her were thrown away. When she tried to make space for the work she was doing to qualify as a teacher of ESL, the little table she had arranged for herself was upended, her books and papers thrown to the floor, and the table taken away for tomato seedlings. When she tried to get a night of silence at her daughter’s house in preparation for an exam the next day, she was summoned home by phone and told if she did not come she should not return at all. (She failed that exam.) When at the age of 58 she finally graduated all the children rallied to see the degree conferred, but Robin was not there.

It is an appalling story of gross psychological abuse. Lois was told that the house in which she had brought up the six children was not theirs, but his (an assertion which the law would not have upheld – but did she know that?) When the children wrote a letter to Robin complaining of his treatment of their mother they got no response and the silences and rages continued, while he still managed to be charming to young protégés like Beth Nannestad who came to the house and walked with him along the beach, encouraged in their work and delighted by their editor-mentor’s kindness. Meanwhile the house at Sealy Road achieved what Adam calls ‘pathological levels of disorder’.

I knew none of this (apart from the evident and extreme disorder in which the family lived), and my encounters with Robin were few over the last two decades of his life. So when he died, and after I attended his funeral, which happened without any sort of chapel pre-amble but at the graveside, I published a poem in the Listener which reflected my feelings about him and his family – a poem I doubt I would have been able to write if I had known what I know now. It seems, in the light (or shadow) of the son’s book altogether too bland – sentimental, or in some way false; but ‘the reality prior to the poem’ was accurate enough. The scene is the Michael King Writers’ Centre at Devonport, looking out over the Harbour on the evening after the funeral, and the people are myself and Kay, with poets Chris Price, Greg O’Brien and Jenny Borholdt, all of whom had been at the burial.

Waving Goodbye

to Robin

The working port is a sheet of noisy light
across the harbour. Greg thinks he hears men's voices
shouted above their fork-lifts, drifting
over the autumn water. Floodlit on the hill
the Museum stands to attention. Eastward
light and shadow scout's-pace the Waterfront Drive.

Kay and I and Chris, Greg and Jenny –
today we watched good editor Dudding let down,
fruit and flowers on his plain-wood coffin,
while we sang to trees and sky those arcane ballads
he liked to croon – 'Clementine', 'Yellow Bird',
'Cockles and Mussels' – a life remembered, rich
in songs and daughters, books and chooks and friends,
fruit, vegies, flowers, never quite in tune.

Some shadowy tug or fishing boat chugs by
discreetly, puttering over the silky water.
Summer is always ending. Five good friends
on one veranda now, we're looking across
to the brilliant city as if that were our past
and we at the rail, sailing out, waving goodbye.

- C.K. Stead

Marti, the formidable foto-person

I concluded my last blog with a recent photograph of myself with Marti Friedlander who died 14 November, and said that I would return to the subject in my next. Here are a few paragraphs from a memoir I’m in the process of writing, when Marti first makes an appearance in 1960 or ’61:

A colleague in the University Philosophy Department, Edward Kharmara, was boarding in Herne Bay and brought Marti and her husband Gerrard to visit us in Mason’s Avenue. Marti and her sister, of Russian Jewish parents, had grown up in a Jewish orphanage in London. Marti had trained in London as a photographer, where she met and married Gerrard on his OE from New Zealand. Gerrard, son of a Jewish father and Aryan mother, had been born in Germany, and with his parents and siblings had escaped the Nazis to Palestine, and then onward to New Zealand. Gerrard had grown up in Henderson and Kay had known him as a schoolboy, and had know his family.

Marti and Gerrard were to figure in our lives one way and another from that time on. Through the 1960s and ‘70s Marti, whose attitude to New Zealand was full of contradictions and ambiguities, developed a reputation for the rich and vivid record her photographs created especially of aspects of New Zealand no one else thought memorable or worth recording – back streets, dairies, crummy commercial precincts, commonplace suburban houses and the people who lived in them, shearing sheds and wool stores, old Maori women wearing the original 19th century moko; but also protest demonstrations, and the faces of New Zealand’s artists and intellectuals. She became for us a family recorder, and for me a sort of unofficial photographer when publicity pics were needed. As our children grew up Marti and Gerrard would become part of the family.

They were a strangely matching pair, Gerrard (whose looks clearly came from his mother’s side) the perfect Wehrmacht officer-type, handsome and Aryan; Marti the prototype Jewish brunette, attractive, sexy, animated. Her mind was quick and lively. Where he was hesitant, she was shrewd and fluent, especially in talking about and explaining her own work. As a portrait photographer she could be bossy, which sometimes made me more than ever self-conscious, but at others could jolt me into ‘projecting’ – acting, I suppose. Her famous photo of Walter Nash, on the jacket of Keith Sinclair’s Nash biography, she achieved simply by telling the great man to go back and come again through the door he’d just emerged from. He was so amused by this he did it, and with a jaunty wave of the hand. In disagreement Marti was often sharp and impatient. She and I had that in common, and we could at times be sharp and impatient with one another; but I loved Marti and felt (more often than not) loved by her.

There are so many ways I could write about Marti – she has been such a presence in my life and in the life of my family; but it occurs to me the best way to deal with the fact of her death is to let her speak for herself, as she always did, through her photographs. So what follows are a few examples of her work ‘on’ or about me and my family (and herself). They are samples from a set of photographs put together for a talk I gave at the University of Auckland’s Gus Fisher Gallery in November 2009 about ‘being a subject of Marti’.

The first come from the little two-storeyed house (formally a manse) Kay and I rented in the early 1960s in Maunsell Road, Parnell, and which we passed on to Allen and Jeny Curnow when we moved to Tohunga Crescent.

A young C.K. Stead with a cigarette.

Kay and C.K. Stead.

Next are from the middle to late 1960s at Tohunga Crescent as our children were born.

Young Oliver with a camera.

Now from the late 1960s when Keith Sinclair stood for Labour in the Eden electorate and the Peace Power and Politics Conference took place in Wellington.

C.K. Stead with Wolf Rosenberg at the Peace Power and Politics Conference.

C.K. Stead with Keith Sinclair.

Marti and Gerrard lived for a time in London and helped us through with our three children, aged 8, 5 and 2, when we arrived by sea and went on by train to the Mansfield Menton fellowship in the South of France. A few months later Marti followed us there and stayed with us, and she and I photographed one another in the Memorial room where the fellow worked.

C.K. Stead in the Fellow's room at Menton

Margaret at Menton.

Marti Friedlander in the Fellow's room at Menton.

Back in London after her Menton visit Marti wrote

It has been a wonderful week, and being one of the family more enjoyable than you can perhaps imagine. “Menton” already has a permanent place in my memory. There are times when one knows with certainty that “this occasion I will never forget” – and you gave me one of them. Will it surprise you that I am already missing you?

Almost ten years later Marti and I were both in London and she took publicity pics for a forthcoming book.

Some time in the early 1990s Marti took shots of Charlotte and Margaret, Charlotte with her first child, Conrad; and around the same time caught me and Janet Frame at a festival in Wellington.

Charlotte, Margaret, and Conrad.

C.K. Stead with Janet Frame.

She took shots for the jacket of my (A.U.P.) Collected Poems; and there’s one from the early 2000s of me with Gerrard at breakfast at the Friedlanders’ house up the road from ours in Parnell.

Gerrard Friedlander and C.K. Stead.

Marti was there for this talk and sent me a message afterwards:

Dear Karl,

I was so moved by your talk on Saturday, getting it altogether must have been quite a task-but it was just wonderful to see all those images of you and the Family over the years-it is quite a story of friendship and love, and I thank you so much for talking as you did with such affection and humour too. Just wish Gerrard could have been there, I know he would have been delighted.


Again, thank you so much. Being part of your Family over the years gave us such joy. Gerrard is recovering reasonably well, but with his zest for life I know he will be fine.

Wish I could have taken that photo of you walking with Charlotte yesterday-I was on my way to see Gerrard.


Marti and I could be fierce with one another at times, especially on the subject of Israel and the Palestinians, though the old affection always surfaced again afterwards. But we both wrote about this bone of contention, and Marti, in an angry moment, is quoted as saying ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with Karl.’ What was wrong with Karl was his capacity for righteous indignation and (at alcohol fuelled parties) anger and ferocity on behalf of those he saw as victims, which on this subject made him sometimes forget, or ignore in the heat of the moment, what a sensitive subject it was for the East-End orphan Jew, who in youth had invested such high romantic hopes for, and faith in, the state of Israel – whose legitimacy was to be the world’s small, inadequate, but genuine attempt at recompense for the immeasurable wrong of the Holocaust.

No need for more detail or analysis of this question. My point of view had been especially confirmed from having got to know the Palestinian writers Raja Shehada and Ghada Karmi at the Eaglereach Retreat in New South Wales (and Ghada later in London where we became friends); and having read their eloquent and tragic books which will explain my position to anyone interested. But there has been enough said about this, and no defence needed. I acknowledge what I now see as my fault, and I am grateful for the fact that it always seemed, afterwards, that Marti forgave me.

During Marti’s last illness the University of Auckland awarded her an honorary doctorate. I knew she was dying but pretended not to know, and she and I exchanged messages acknowledging that she was ‘very ill’ but full of hopes for recovery. Kay handled this sad situation much better. She e-mailed:

Dear Marti

Congratulations on your Hon. Doc, an honour well deserved. I am so sorry you are ill. You are in the thoughts of all of us. So many memories, since our first meeting in the little flat in Mason’s Avenue with Edward Kamara. How exotic and what a Londoner you were. Do you remember Menton? And the time you and I went to Hamilton to see Olwen, and we missed the bus at Huntly and had to hitch a ride with the Evangelicals? And Tirimoana Rd Henderson, next door to the house where I had spent so much of my childhood. And later, all your photographing of the children – such wonderful photographs. You have enriched our lives, dear Marti. Much love to you, and to Gerard (whom I remember even further back as a Grammar boy).


Now just a few days from her death, Marti replied:

Thank you so much Dear Kay, Your lovely words have cheered me no end! Love

Marti x

At Marti’s funeral a message was read from her sister in London, remembering her as a very tiny, frequently ill child, sitting up in bed in the Orphanage Hospital and saying, ‘When I grow up, I’m going to travel the world!’ It seemed to catch perfectly the spirit of optimism that characterized Marti, the way she presented herself and lived her life.

Here is a final pic, I’m not sure by whom but with Marti’s camera because it ended up among her files, of Marti and me at the Auckland’s Going West Literary Festival, which used to include a trip from Henderson into the city (or the other way about) by the old steam train:

Marti and C.K. Stead at Going West.

- C.K. Stead

Deaths and entrances


Kowhai knows
And tells by tolling
Yellow bells.


Last night my collection of stories, The Name on the Door is not Mine: stories new and selected, was launched at Paper Plus bookshop in Newmarket, with a speech by Kevin Ireland. As we were going in just before 6 p.m. the late stages of the American election were making everyone nervous – the omens of an inconceivable Trump triumph clearly emerging. Two hours later, as the launch ended, the outcome was so close to being over it was over: Trump had won. I suppose it’s not surprising that everyone at a book launch should be appalled. This election was the revolt of the largely uneducated against ‘the system’, ‘the political establishment’, the Washington elite (‘drain the swamp’), of the blue against the white collar, the non-college-educated against the know-it-all-ocracy (us). That it is hardly likely to result in any, or many, favours for those who were in revolt is irrelevant. The damage is done; the White House is big Donald’s. Many of those who elected him were not regular voters at all, but had come out persuaded that Trump would stand up for them, find jobs for them, get industry going again where it had been damaged by trade deals, and stem the flow of alien folk who he said were taking their jobs and threatening their security. It’s hard to believe he will do much, or any of this – any more than he will build the wall, or ‘make America great again’. He may on the other hand do long-term damage to liberal causes by his appointments to the Supreme Court. We are living in interesting times.

The new book, is a selection of old and new from fifty years, and the oldest (‘Marriage Americano’) is the ‘newest’ in the sense that it has never been published even in a periodical. I found it among my papers, dating from my first visit to America in 1963. I had evidently written it and forgotten it, so my memory even of writing it is dim. On the other hand the story ‘A Fitting Tribute’ (now dedicated to Barry Humphries who partly inspired it), almost equally old (first published in the Kenyon Review in 1965) has reappeared in a number of NZ anthologies, including my own Oxford New Zealand Short Stories (second series) of 1966, but I felt had to be there in a representative selection. Some of the stories have been revised, and one, now called ‘And still the sun shines’, has been completely re-written. Among the new stories is ‘Last Season’s Man’ which won the Sunday Times/E.F.G. Private Bank prize (the big one) in 2010.

I made the point in my few words about the book that Kevin Ireland, who was going to launch it, had, some time in the past five or so years, married Janet Wilson, a New Zealander working as an academic in the U.K., and daughter of the writer the late Philip Wilson, one of a group who had emerged in the 1940s and were known as ‘the sons of Sargeson’ – which made Janet a kind of ‘granddaughter’ of Sargeson, while Kevin had been Sargeson’s newspaper delivery boy. (Incidentally the son of another of the ‘sons of Sargeson’, Martin Cole, son of John Reece Cole and the publisher Chris Cole Catley, was also present – a very N.Z. Lit occasion!) The point of this was, however, that since their marriage Kevin and Janet have kept up a punishing schedule of commuting between Auckland and Oxford, and that Kevin had arrived back in Auckland only two days before the launch to receive the book he was to set on its way. Here, slightly abridged, is Kevin’s launch speech which, delivered with his usual passion and panache, really engaged the audience.

A couple of weeks ago I heard for the first time a London interview, recorded in 1962, with the three remaining daughters of the Wellington banker, Harold Beauchamp – sisters of Kathleen, the writer who came to be known as Katherine Mansfield. These three elderly woman gave fluent and superbly self-assured, inflated and dissembling, accounts of their early lives – and Kathleen’s – but what made me sit up was the interviewer Owen Leeming’s introductory claim that one of his three main objectives was that he expected to learn from these three fossilized, Establishment stalwarts how much of Katherine Mansfield’s stories was based on ‘real life’ – and what he, a little later in the interview, called no less than ‘the truth content of her writings’. If that was what he was after, he didn’t stand the ghost of a chance in the socially triumphant company of the Beauchamp sisters. They locked their shields and he was on an interviewer’s Mission Impossible.

But Leeming’s quest conveniently leads me on to this question [for I have a hunch that it is going to be raised by reviewers]: how much of Karl Stead’s wonderfully elegant, un-put-down-able and always hugely entertaining new collection of short fictions – some revised [right up to title, dedication and the names of characters] plus some recent ones – is based on ‘real life’, and what exactly is the ‘truth content’ of his writing?

There are several stories with delicious enticements offered by Karl, possibly for fun, possibly just to muddy the waters a bit, or just possibly to dangle out a kind bait – for some of these stories could appear to suggest to the biographically minded that they may be laying a deliberate trail towards the great abstracts of ‘truth’ and ‘real life’.

For instance, in a revised story now called ‘And Still the Sun Shines’, there is a New Zealand academic called Clifton Scarf, whose initials happen to be C S, and in this new version his wife has had her initials now altered to K S. Scarf is on a year’s fellowship to a town near Menton, in the South of France, and they have three small children. Eventually, we learn, this academic becomes a professor. It is impossible to miss the minor yet pointed similarities to circumstances that have occurred in the career of a writer known to us all as C K Stead. Like all the narrators in these stories, this one is alert, clever, confident yet at the same time a little in the dark and uneasy. It’s all part of a vague sense of dizziness in Karl’s narrative constructions, or possibly a flaw or instability, and it gives each tale an extra edge that seems at times to be about to provide a platform for vertigo.

I have a hunch that some may take this story to be an example of ‘oblique memoir’ although this is in no way reliable. We can say that there is, indeed, a careful scattering of a few biographical parallels – or ‘truths’, as Leeming called them – but they are structural details on which the story neither depends nor from which it hangs... Guess away – in the absence of proof we can only guarantee that they are devices that help contribute spice to the flavour of the writing, the shadow of personality to characterization, and a kind of authorial ‘fingerprint’. Read more into them at your peril.

I could pick my way through a couple more of the stories in this manner, but I’d rather now turn to a few remarks of a more general nature. So, let me conclude by assuring all readers of several matters that I do regard as certainties, though I wouldn’t describe them as signposts to the discovery of a holy grail of literary truth.

Readers can be promised these undeniable features: one is that Karl’s satiric sting is just as sharp and lethal as it ever was; another is that his gifts for high comedy and for deflating complacency are as razor-edged as they ever were; and every story is packed with dazzling craftsmanship, delicious turns-of-phrase, sharp and wily counterpointed conversation, sparkling observations – and always there is energy, concision and wit to shape the storytelling. And talking of wit, I’m delighted to see that ‘A fitting tribute’ has been included. The tale of Julian Harp’s great upside-down, controlled but engineless flight over Auckland is a unique and brilliant fantasy narrated in a kind of breathless yet deadpan realism – a contrast that helps make it fabulous in the true meaning of the word.

The characters and their goals and their inner workings and their capacity for plain error, grand delusion, gratification, rashness, lust, love and mischief-making make them all memorable, sometimes archly and purposefully, but mostly in ways they are incapable of comprehending even in ‘truth’, ‘real life’ or whatever it was that the Beauchamp sisters failed to deliver. And finally the sheer skill of the writing is among the best there is. Karl has always been at the top of his craft – and he’s still there. This is a book to be treasured – and it gives me the greatest pleasure to help launch it.

- Kevin Ireland

6 a.m. Oriental Bay

Wellington windless
lacking the whip and the lash
can be lovely.

Back to the wall
feet in the flood
asleep on it elbows
it waits to be woken.

My next public occasion was the East/West Poetry Conference organised by Bill Sutton for poets from the central North Island, held at Palmerston North 12-13 November. I gave an opening talk there on the Saturday morning and stayed on for the early sessions – would have stayed the whole weekend but for Shingles. (Health Warning: if you’re middle aged and beyond and had chickenpox as a child you’re in line for this, a resurgence of the old virus which remains somewhere in the spine. There’s a vaccine available and you should have it. Shingles could be added to water-boarding as a tool in the U.S. torture armoury, especially now Trump is coming and has said he ‘loves water boarding’ and wants more of that kind of thing to help deal with America’s Muslim problem.)

In my introductory remarks to the Conference I recalled chairing a session with the German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger at the Wellington literary festival some years back, when Enzensberger remarked that poetry was a very peculiar industry in that the number of producers exceeded by far the number of consumers. I suggested this was poetry’s strength: it could never be commercialized; there was no money in it, and it was in that sense uncorrupted and incorruptible.

Poetry, I suggested, is irrepressible; it pops up everywhere because it is a manifestation of our recognition that language is what distinguishes us, humankind, on our planet, and that poetry is language at its subtlest and best. Nothing quite equals the satisfaction of feeling one has written a poem that really ‘works’; and we, each of us alone, solo, must be the one who makes the judgement. If someone out there, among friends and associates, or in the larger public world, affirms that it’s good, so much the better; but that, if it happens, is only a bonus. If you are a true poet you don’t live for public acclaim; in your poet mode you live to write (and read) poems.

I also quoted W.B. Yeats looking around his poet-friends at the Cheshire Cheese where they used to meet in the 1890s, and saying ‘None of us knows which of us is writing work that will live; all we know for certain is that we are too many!’ My comment was that, yes, there was a sense in which this was true: only a few ever write poems that live on to be read generations and centuries later. But why ‘too many’? Poetry should not be written with an eye on, and an ambition for, the future. ‘Judge Time’ (as Martin Amis says) will sort these matters out. They should not be our concern.

I also spoke about poetry as ‘hard work’ and poetry as ‘inspiration’. Keats, with the casual confidence of youth (and no doubt reflecting on what the experience of writing poetry thus far had been for him) said ‘if poetry come not as naturally as the leaves to the tree, it might as well not come at all.’ Yeats was without doubt a hard work poet. There’s ample evidence in his papers of the idea for a poem beginning as a prose draft, then being whittled down and sorted into lines, then into stanza form with rhymes: hard labour – yet the outcome often does sound as if it came effortlessly. He has a poem, ‘Adam’s Curse’, in which he says

A line of verse will take us hours maybe,
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought
Our stitching an unstitching has been nought.

On the other hand there is that sonnet I discussed in an earlier blog which acknowledges ‘that reed-throated whisperer / Who comes at need although not now as once / A clear articulation in the air / But inwardly...’ The ‘reed-throated whisperer’ is surely the Muse, the Inspiration, which when he was young seemed a voice outside himself, and still comes ‘at need… but inwardly.’

On this subject of work and inspiration I would have loved to include the great opium dream poem, Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ but there was not time. In general one can only say, Work at it, and hope for a helping hand now and then from the Muse.

I was struck by the high standard of poetry at this conference and the serious level of discussion, assisted no doubt by the presence of some mature post-graduate students from Massey University’s School of Creative Writing, whose advanced work requires both creative and critical writing. Not that I am an advocate of the current predominance of such courses in English Departments. I still believe one learns more by reading the great writers of the past, and learning the history of literature, than by what often amounts to therapy sessions and ego massage – though I acknowledge there is practical and professional assistance as well. (I think I’m well-known to be radical politically and conservative in matters of education – an apparent contradiction that has often got me into trouble.) But these mature students, along with secondary school teachers who include creative writing in their syllabus, added a degree of (I would say) consciousness to the discussion which might otherwise have been, not absent, but less acute.

Among the Massey group was Tim Upperton who has won the Caselberg Poetry Prize (twice I think) and who gave a lunch-time talk dramatically entitled ‘Poetry and the Price of your Soul’ in which some nods were made (though I did not feel sure of what kind, what degree of distance or acceptance) towards ‘post-modern’ theory. For the Modernists, Tim said, the principle was Pound’s ‘Make it new’, but they still held to basic truths – not to the same truths, but there was a truth of one kind or another for each of them, even if it was no more than the fact of the singular, stable, knowable self. For the ‘post modern’, Tim argued, there were no absolutes. The post-modern is ironic and won’t be pinned down. It permits you to say what is not, without saying what is, the case.

His injunction to us all was Beckett’s: ‘Fail! Fail better!’

Among the poets who recently published new books were Jeremy Roberts (Cards on the Table, Interactive Press, Queensland), Arthur Bennett (Elusive: the craft of poetry, Copy Press, Nelson) and Mark Pirie whose collection was published in Queensland but I left without getting my hands on a copy. There were many others, of course, and these mentions are random. But I have to say a word also for the less sophisticated poets who have no particular terms or street talk for what they do. Some do it well, some not so well. Here is an example of one, by Dorothy Wharehoka, which, read by the old ‘girl’ herself, had, I thought, what Tim Upperton demanded of us all – ‘authenticity’:


I’m a Taranaki girl
A volcanic ash
Black iron sand
And Moturoa girl.

I’m a South Pacific girl
A Southern Cross
Te Ika a Maui girl.

I’m a universal girl
A star dust child
And much recycled girl.


I congratulate Bill Sutton on bringing this conference about. He is a significant poet in his own right and a first rate organiser on poetry’s behalf.

In England

There’s a lot to be said for/
heard from
summer rain
in a green foxy wood
drumming on a roof of leaves.

Devonport Public Library is able to call in an extraordinarily lively and attentive group of readers for literary occasions and I spoke to them on 15 November about the new Allen & Unwin collection of my stories, and also my A.U.P. collection, Shelf Life: reviews, replies & reminiscences, published last May. I began by reading short extracts and talking about each of the books, and then for the second half of the hour I answered questions from Roger Hall, a cheerful and encouraging chairman, and questions from the audience.

This was also ‘Courage Day for Imprisoned Writers’ observed, around the world by PEN International, and here by the N.Z. Society of Authors, so there was a chair left empty, as is the custom, representing the writers silenced by imprisonment for political reasons, and a collection was taken which will go to the cause.

Jim McNeish (Sir James, as he chose to be known) died on 11 November. He had been working, it seems, right up to the time of his death, and had just delivered a new book to his publisher. He and I were students together in what was then a small university (Auckland University College as it was when all our universities were colleges of the University of New Zealand); so though we were not taking the same courses at the same time, and he was a year ahead of me, we were, and have been ever since, ‘well- acquainted’ – familiar presences. I didn’t read everything he wrote, and always thought of him as a journalist rather than a ‘literary’ writer; but his play The Rocking Cave (1973) seemed to work remarkably well in the theatre at a time when few New Zealand plays did; and I thought his later work on a generation of expatriate New Zealanders – John Mulgan, Geoffrey Cox, Dan Davin, Ian Milner, Paddy Costello, Jim Bertram (the only one who returned home) – was his best. His The Sixth Man (a life of the Leftist academic Paddy Costello) and his Dance of the Peacocks (subtitled ‘New Zealanders in exile in the time of Hitler and Mao Tse-Tung’) are important contributions to our intellectual, political and literary history, and how (importantly) the three aspects relate. The tendency to hero-worship and to romanticize his subjects may mean that pinches of salt are required at times; but these are commendably readable books and there’s much to be learned from them about the nature of New Zealand in the 20th century.

I know less about McNeish’s fiction – not enough to want to defend my own doubts about its quality. His novel Lovelock is always described as ‘nominated for the Booker Prize’, which means no more than that his publisher entered it – i.e. nothing at all; but the book is an interesting approach to a mystery surrounding the death of one of our national heroes.

As a young man McNeish was adventurous and unconventional. He took on things, and went places, few of us in those days (I include myself of course) would have dared. He worked his way to England as a deckhand on a Norwegian freighter. He found himself in Sicily working for the anti-Mafia hero Danilo Dolce, and stayed for three years to write a book about him – Fire under the Ashes (1965). Over the years he worked for the BBC, and in Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in London.

Returning to New Zealand he lived in Te Maika near Kawhia for a number of years and wrote a journal from there for the Listener, which merged later into books of autobiography. After the Te Maika years he moved to Wellington with his (I think) Hungarian wife, Helen, and they made their home there – though they continued to travel whenever a new project beckoned.

I know next to nothing about McNeish’s antecedents; but he said he had been left the place at Te Maika by his ‘Maori aunt’; and there was certainly a strong Maori aspect to his bony-hawky (and very striking) appearance.

The last time I heard from him was within the past year when he rang asking how he could get access to my London publisher, Christopher MacLehose, who he thought might be interested in his book Seelenbinder: the Olympian who defied Hitler. I made the connection for him but don’t know whether anything came of it.

There was something posh about Jim, and ‘Sir James’ suited the way he presented himself, and spoke with fully rounded vowels and ‘proper’ articulation. This did not seem fake or inauthentic; it was just Jim. He was ‘a nice chap’, as people our age would say, and as a writer a thorough-going professional. I admired him and I’m glad he lived to a good age and continued writing well, right to the last.

One person Jim collaborated with was Marti Friedlander. He wrote the text for a book of her photographs, Larks in a Paradise. Marti died a few days after Jim, and I will have to write about her separately because she was a good friend, our ‘family photographer’ for more than half a century. That will be my next blog, perhaps. Meanwhile here is a recent picture of us together. There had been a photo of me accompanying a new publication and, as usual when that happened and it was not her shot, she called to say ‘Who took that of you, darling? It was awful. Time I brought you up to date.’

So I was summoned to an alley in Parnell she rather liked for its glossy brick surfaces where she took some very good shots. And then she thrust her camera, primed and ready, into the hands of a passer-by and, in her usual bossy way, instructed him to take one of the two of us together. He took what seems to me ‘a Marti shot’ – so like her work it’s hard for me to believe she didn’t step out of herself and take it.


Further thoughts on the Trump phenomenon. My daughter Charlotte thinks Hillary Clinton lost because of misogyny. I don’t agree because I think any who voted simply to keep a woman out of the White House were at least matched (probably exceeded) by those who voted solely to get a woman in there. I think the lessons of that election are not being learned. Michael Moore, the documentary maker (often dismissed as a careless and inaccurate Leftist radical), traced a path by which Trump could win the White House even without Florida, by winning the normally Democrat-voting ‘rust belt’ states, where jobs, and whole industries, have gone overseas, and where fear and resentment of immigrants was high. This is what happened – and Trump won Florida as well.

Is there a lesson for us in New Zealand? If the Government’s superficial and half-hearted motions towards alleviating social distress continue to have little effect, and the growing imbalance between rich and poor goes on widening, a combination of Labour, the Greens and NZ First could win a slender majority. That would put Winston Peters in the position of King-maker, free to form a government with either side – in which case he would want the top job. That would be too large a frog for John Key and the Nats to swallow; but a coalition of Labour, the Greens and NZ First is not impossible, with Winston as Prime Minister – our very own Donald Trump.

- C.K. Stead

The nicer Muldoon

Back in May I was called in to the Auckland Writers Festival to replace Bill Manhire who was ill and had to pull out at the last moment. My job was to be ‘in conversation with’ Paul Muldoon, a fairly easy task I thought, at least in the sense that Muldoon is a fine poet, and a man of natural charm which audiences always respond to, with a soft voice and attractive Northern Irish accent. In addition to that, I had met him before and knew his poetry well; but I knew the poetry in a particular way. I had never studied it or approached it systematically, conscientiously as an academic. For me he has been one of those poets you go to when you’re struggling to find a way to write a new poem and you need a jolt, a shock, a surprise. I might go to his fellow-Northern Irishman, Seamus Heaney, for the ‘well-made poem’ – for a piece of near-perfect craftsmanship. With Muldoon you get, rather, surprises, sometimes quirkiness, sometimes obscurity, often mystery, and almost always originality. Some of this I said in introducing him and he seemed to like it – especially the image of the electric shock. That, he said, was what poetry was all about.

Paul Muldoon. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan.

Muldoon’s career as a poet appears from the outside to have been a succession of public triumphs. The prizes he has won include the T.S. Eliot in Britain, the Pulitzer in the U.S., and the Griffin International in Canada – probably the three most prestigious awards for poetry in the English language. He went as a young man to Queen’s University Belfast, married a fellow student (that marriage lasted only four years) and for the difficult years from 1973 to 1987 was a producer for the BBC in that city. During that time he became known as one of the Belfast group who were writing, not necessarily about, but out of, what is referred to as ‘the Troubles’, beginning with the clamour by Catholics there during the late 1960s for civil rights and equality. In Northern Ireland at that time Government and police were totally dominated by the Protestant majority, while Catholics suffered discrimination in housing, income levels and employment.

This protest quickly shaded into the old demands on the Catholic side for a united Ireland and on the other, Protestant-Loyalist reassertions of Britishness. When protest and counter-protest got out of hand, the British Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, sent in troops to restore order. The intention was also (or was said to be) to enforce some semblance of fairness between Catholic and Protestant; but the troops soon became a target for Irish Republican rage. What right, they wanted to know, had the Brits to be there at all? There were beatings and bombings, knee-cappings and many murders. Many died over these years, including numbers of British soldiers. The IRA bombings included some in England, most famously an attack on the Brighton hotel where Maggie Thatcher’s Conservatives were holding their annual conference, and the murder of the British Tory Cabinet Minister Airey Neave, and of the Queen’s cousin, Lord Mountbatten.

Muldoon was from a Catholic nationalist family who looked forward to the possibility of a united Ireland, but did not approve of attempts to achieve it by violence – so his mother had always kept him, as a child, away from I.R.A. influences which were strong in the part of County Armagh where he grew up. His poetry has never seemed to commit itself clearly to, nor to involve itself directly in, either side of the argument – yet for a period ‘the Troubles’ were always and unavoidably, if only obliquely, there in his work; and they brought the poetry of Northern Ireland more attention than it would otherwise have achieved. So though Muldoon might have felt reluctant to be labelled politically, or identified in sectarian terms, these were issues that interested the popular press more than poetry as poetry, and so, without meaning to, he inevitably profited in terms of public attention.

At Queen’s University Seamus Heaney had been a mentor, and had helped to get his first book published by Faber, after which Muldoon never looked back. Like Heaney he was both Catholic and Ulsterman; but whereas Heaney soon removed himself to Dublin as if to his spiritual home, Muldoon stayed on in Belfast. When finally he did leave it was to a teaching position in the U.K. (University of East Anglia) and then to become an American citizen, with a professorship at Princeton and more recently also poetry editor of the New Yorker. Like Heaney again, he did a five year stint (1999-2004) as Professor of Poetry at Oxford. Internationally he was well established, but with his regional identity, which stays with him in his accent, a continuing signifier.

In preparation for my conversation with him I went to an earlier Festival session in which he was on a panel, with Noelle McCarthy and John Boyne, to discuss the Easter Rising of 100 years ago. Boyne seemed less interested in the particular historical topic than in the chance to report again that for a gay person like himself, Ireland had been ‘a terrible place to grow up’ and that the Catholic Church had made his childhood miserable. Noelle remembered weeping when she first learned, as a child, that the Irish rebels of 1916 had been executed by the British; and subsequently being surprised as a history student to discover that even from a Catholic and nationalist point of view, the wisdom of the famous Easter rebellion had been questionable. Muldoon tended rather to mock the rebellion and to say the British had made heroes out of failures by shooting the 16 ring-leaders. All three panellists seemed to avoid, to skirt around, the subject of Yeats’s famous poem, ‘Easter 1916’ (which I've written about here previously), in which he says the comedy of daily life in Dublin had been elevated by the Easter rising into tragedy: ‘a terrible beauty is born’. So even with a panel of three Irish Catholics one was in the midst of contradiction and ambiguity.

I had no time to prepare for my ‘conversation’ with Muldoon, except about 20 or 30 minutes immediately before, when he shut the door on our appointed dressing room and unwrapped two enormous salad-filled baps which he offered to share with me. I tried to suggest we might have some kind of plan but he showed little interest in that idea and wanted just to chat about our lives and recent doings and whether being poet laureate involved me in writing semi-official public poems. So we went in to the very large auditorium with little idea of where the conversation might lead us. I had been reading his most recent collection, One thousand things worth knowing, and had managed to ask before we went in whether the otters in the poem ‘Cuthbert and the otters’ were, as they appeared to be, pall-bearers at the funeral of Seamus Heaney. He said they were, and then corrected himself: that was what the poem seemed to be saying. I said it was what he seemed to be saying – and that was as far as we went with that.

I knew he was the person the crowd were there to hear, and so tried to stand clear and give him only prompts for what I hoped would be largely a monologue. Very early I got on to the subject of the title poem of his 1980 collection, Why Brownlee left, by reading a few sentences of a novel (it was my own, Risk, p.54, but I didn’t say so) in which a group in Oxford are asking one another whether ‘What’s became of Waring’ is a poem by Browning or a novel by Anthony Powell (they decide it’s both) and whether it does or doesn’t have anything to do with a poem by Paul Muldoon called ‘Why Brownlee left’. These, the Browning and the Muldoon, are both poems about a disappearance – hence the question in the novel. Brownlee, Muldoon’s poem tells us, ‘should have been content’. He had ‘two acres of barley,/ One of potatoes, four bullocks, / A milker, a slated farmhouse’ – ‘slated’ rather than thatched, a sign of relative affluence. He had been out ploughing ‘On a March morning, bright and early’, and the horses were found still standing in their harness.

                  like a man and his wife
Shifting their weight from foot to
Foot, and gazing into the future.

This seemed a good place to start the session: a short poem full of menace, as I saw it, of a kind typical of ‘the Troubles’. I asked him to read it, and hoped the audience would hear especially that distinctive Northern Irish ‘now’ at the end of the second line which would give it its regional colour. I suggested that anyone reading about this mysterious disappearance at the time the poem first appeared would want to know was Brownlee Catholic or Protestant? And then was he ‘on side’ with his own side, or ‘off side’ with it? Would the IRA or the UDF have been interested in him – or even the ‘B-Specials’? And finally there was the possibility that the disappearance had no political element at all.

I was surprised that Muldoon seemed not to want to affirm a political/sectarian reading of the poem. He didn’t say it was ‘wrong’. How could he? But he was much more inclined to emphasize the hints of a domestic explanation: those horses ‘like a man and his wife’ for him were possibly symbolic answers to the mystery. They were harnessed together and restless, ‘gazing into the future’.

I couldn’t decide (nor discuss, of course) whether this was merely a sign of how the poem had begun for him, what had been in his mind at that time (had he, for example, simply walked out on that first marriage?); or whether, on the other hand, he was merely revealing a resistance to readings of his poems that pushed them right back into the political turmoil out of which they may, nonetheless, have been an escape.

There is a sense in which those early poems, though full of seeming mystery, are much clearer than the more recent work. There is an early 5-line poem called ‘Ireland’:

The Volkswagen parked in the gap,
But gently ticking over.
You wonder if it’s lovers
And not the men hurrying back
Across two fields and a river.

We didn’t discuss this one, but it seems to me it has to be either full of the political menace of its time, or meaningless. You hope there are lovers in the parked car with its engine running, but think these hurrying men may be returning to it to make a getaway from something terrible they’ve just done – planted a bomb perhaps, or shot a sectarian enemy or an informer. Why else is it called ‘Ireland’ which the poem defines as a place of uncertainty and anxiety. Why else was the wider public, normally indifferent to poetry, so interested in the Northern Irish poets when Muldoon was young? It would not, however, be difficult to understand a wish on Muldoon’s part to move away from an identity which seemed in retrospect constricting.

Lacking a plan it was difficult to know where to go next, what question to ask, so I went to the familiar territory of the 1916 rebellion. Yeats, author of the famous poem ‘Easter 1916’, had referred to the execution of the rebels in another poem, ‘The Man and the Echo’, and asked himself, ‘Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?’ The play was Cathleen ni Houlihan, set against the background of an earlier Irish rebellion against British rule. Muldoon had seemed to deride this idea that Yeats’s play might have inspired the rebels; but the derision is not in his own voice. In a poem called ‘7, Middagh Street’ he has W.H. Auden say of Yeats

As for his crass rhetorical

posturing: ‘Did that play of mine
send out certain men (certain men?)

the English shot…?’
the answer is ‘Certainly not.’

If Yeats had saved his pencil lead
would certain men have stayed in bed?

So I quoted this, hoping it might lead Muldoon into further elaboration. Instead, he explained that the poem the lines appear in was (as its title suggested) about 7, Middagh Stree in New York, and the weird and wonderful assortment of people who lived or visited there, including Auden, who is imagined giving this dismissive response to Yeats’s boasting of having helped to bring about the 1916 revolt. Once again I felt Muldoon himself had evaded capture.

My memory of the session is somewhat hazy. There is first the fact which few in these audiences recognize, that those on the platform are blinded by the lights. You know there are people out there but you don’t know how many and can’t see their faces until the end when the house lights come up. I felt it was a good sized crowd, that they were enjoying Muldoon’s voice and charm, and that the exchanges and jokes between us were being well-received. I had spoken of my admiration for his work, and he had praised mine – or rather, my first critical book, The New Poetic, which had influenced him as a young poet. There had been gemütlickheit between us which extended to and from the audience; but I began to be anxious that we might be becoming insubstantial, directionless.

I suggested we might move on to his most recent book, and he read a couple of poems from it, and talked (not for the first time) about how poets ‘dis-improve’ as they get older. He referred to reviews which had given the impression that his poetry was becoming more difficult. There was the sense of a hovering anxiety, and I thought I recognized in it what I think of as the ‘middle phase’, in which poets who have had a stellar beginning, and have got used to praise as if it is always their due, begin to encounter a certain resistance among readers who are no longer astonished by their freshness, and are more judicious about what they like and dislike. I didn’t say any of this; but I thought there were plenty of examples, not least Yeats himself, and Pound of The Pisan Cantos, even Shakespeare, of poets whose later work is far from a dis-improvement, and that Muldoon need have no anxiety – in the long run he would be one of those.

From the new book, One thousand things worth knowing, he read one about camels, which seemed to say (among much else) that a Muldoon uncle fought at Gallipoli; and then a poem called ‘Saffron’ which moved back and forth between the ancient past (Cleopatra and Alexander), and 1987 at the University of East Anglia where ‘Ezekial’ had introduced him to ‘the art of the lament’. This might have been the Indian poet, Nissim Ezekial, or another – I couldn’t be sure. And from the poem he wandered conversationally into the subject of saffron itself, the colour, the cooking ingredient, the cloth of the robe of the Hare Krishna ‘late at night […] stranded at a bus stop / on the outskirts of Norwich’ with which the poem ends. I think he saw this, ‘saffron’, as a random subject through which subjects of any scale at all, the world itself, ‘reality’, might be approached.

Question time followed, and an eager, earnest young man with an Irish accent who described himself as ‘queer’ struggled to explain (if I understood him) that he didn’t want saffron and evasion, he wanted ‘the big subjects’ directly confronted. I thought it might be my role to make sure he didn’t go on too long with his question, but Muldoon leaned forward listening attentively and encouraging.

There was another question which I’ve forgotten; and then a woman asked about books for children – what would Muldoon recommend that would lead a child into the world of literature? He spoke of Treasure Island at some length. It was a book he re-read every year; and he praised especially its characters, with reflective pauses which suggested they were becoming real to him as he spoke. It was my first book too, read to me before I could read, and often thereafter, but I was thinking this questioner would be aware there were no significant female characters. Perhaps that crossed Muldoon’s mind too, because he mentioned the mother (a negligible character) but did not move on to other books for children.

So, strangely, the session ended with fulsome praise by a Northern Irish Catholic for those quintessentially English characters Jim Hawkins, Squire Trelawney, Long John Silver, Dr Livesey and the rest, found in a book by an itinerant Scotsman. Literature can take you on strange journeys.

In the dressing room again, where we had shared that immense bap, we hugged a farewell and I handed him over to the person who would take him to the signing table. Out in the foyer a group of friends were beaming and congratulatory – satisfied customers: the session had gone well. Someone called out to me, ‘Thank you for that.’ I encountered Noelle McCarthy and was embraced. The session, she said, had had ‘a quicksilver vibe’.

I remained puzzled and uncertain, as I still am, except that I suspect there is something mysteriously wise and humane about Muldoon’s poems, even when they don’t make perfect sense; and something Irishly magical about his charm – part blarney, but more than that.

– C.K. Stead

Christchurch WORD, World War One, and other matters

Since returning to New Zealand I have been at the Christchurch WORD Festival where my own ‘hour with’ session on Poetry Day (interviewed by Paul Millar) passed amiably, and a few hours later the same day I read with Bill Manhire, Selina Tusitala Marsh and Fiona Kidman. For me the event that especially grabbed my imagination was the interview with Peter Simpson about (and the launch of) his book Bloomsbury South about the extraordinary flowering of the Arts in Christchurch in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, with Colin McCahon and James J. Baxter gravitating there from Dunedin, Douglas Lilburn from Wellington, and locals Rita Angus, Leo Bensemann, Toss Wollastan, Louise Henderson, Evelyn Page, Bill Sutton, Olivia Spencer Bower (painters), Ngaio Marsh (theatre), Frederick Page (music), Allen Curnow, Charles Spear, Ursula Bethel and Denis Glover (poetry, and Glover printing), working co-operatively there, interchanging ideas, interacting with one another. Charles Brasch came and went, editing Landfall from Dunedin, but publishing it with Glover and Bensemann’s Caxton Press, which for a long time was focal point for New Zealand poetry publishing and fine printing. These talented people’s letters, along with the works themselves, have left a record of those great decades in New Zealand’s artistic history, and Simpson’s book, with ample illustration (subsidised by a grant from the Gerrard and Marti Friedlander Foundation and published by Auckland University Press) , draws on them and tells the story.

I remember during a universities winter tournament in Christchurch in 1952 or ‘53 seeing Ngaio Marsh, tweedy, baritone, commanding, striding about and holding forth as the assessor /adjudicator, giving her judgement of competing student productions – warm, encouraging, expert and firmly critical. I knew her as a crime writer but had not known there was this other aspect of her professional life, from which Christchurch benefited during those marvellous years. She had been at hand to assist with John Pocock’s production of Allen Curnow’s verse play The Axe in 1948, which was produced again by Sidney Musgrove in Auckland in 1953. In this production Curnow himself, in a sort of Pasifika toga, and grasping a spear as if determined to keep his biceps visibly flexed, played one of the choruses.

By the 1950s the group was already breaking up. Curnow had come to Auckland; so had Louise Henderson and Colin McCahon. Glover, Baxter (for a time), Fred and Evelyn Page, and Douglas Lilburn had moved, or would move soon, to Wellington. Simpson’s book charts this flowering and its ending. The Arts in Christchurch would go on, but would not again have such dominance and centrality.

Calling his book Bloomsbury South, Simpson emphasizes the nature of the group relationships, their high quality and collective seriousness, and at the same time their orientation to Britain for inspiration, models, and measure of artistic success.

Because I was suffering jet lag in Christchurch I was often awake in the middle of the night, and filled the time drafting a sequence of small poems that caught my impressions of the city which I had last visited before the earthquakes of 2010-11. Here they are:


3 a.m.

From the 9th floor
of the Hotel Rendezvous
I watch a taxi
dawdle down a wide wet street
between two wastelands.

A wind drags at a flag:
the flag resists
the wind persists...

Cold out there!


Seeing I’m here

Four opposing mirrors
in the otherwise empty
hotel lift
show me myself
in unwelcome detail,
a very old man.

I had no idea!

I want to apologise and say
it’s not for long.



Here are the buildings
cordoned off/
                          boarded up
that have a were
and perhaps a will be
but no is, no are.


The Cathedral

I come around a corner
and there it is –
the broken heart of a city.

Glover thou shouldst be living at this hour –
Christchurch hath need of thee.



Shops and houses
even the debris
a whole suburb
swept away
done and dusted
leaving streets and grass and trees
and the river winding by
as if to say nothing
is what happened –
as if to say
nothing, it was



The beautiful Pasifika giant
sniffed and said
‘What’s that you’re wearing?’
and then

So there we were
sniffing –
the old poet-man
and the cool-cat rapper
with hair like black fire.


Bloomsbury South

                              (Peter Simpson's)

The dreamtime
in all its lovely colours –
writing letters
falling in love
painting one another
                    and landscapes
making music/theatre –
Angus and Bensemann
Marsh and McCahon
Lilburn, Baxter and Brasch
                    that time when
‘gods walked the earth’...

too good to be true?
But here are the traces!



And then rain stopped
sky cleared
sun came out
and the sensitive nor-west afternoon
that collapsed in Curnow
was revived in Stead.


The other Poet

In the dark
of the 15th floor
Bill Manhire woke
thinking the building
had turned over in sleep
and groaned
          or ground its teeth.

A little boat of a moon
was sailing west
over the flat landscape
guided by a single star.


Good morning

And now looking east
from the 9th floor
I see the sun truly is
that boring old
          ball of bullshit fire
in all its gold glory.


So on a...

So on a day
of clear air
there’s still one way
the Port Hills in sun
the other the snow shine
the blinding sheen
of mountains reminding
who you are
what brought you here.

Since returning to New Zealand I have encountered every kind of spring weather from extremes of wet ‘n wild to the kind of lovely days that traditionally set lyricists like Thomas Nashe (‘Spring, spring, is the year’s pleasant king’) to work. Yesterday, walking from Kohimarama along to St Heliers, I was struck by ‘the New Zealand light’ so many (or Hamish Keith, who can seem ‘so many’ on his own) have written about, and how beautiful everything seemed, how blue the sea, how dark green Rangitoto, how pale-blue-and-white the sky and cloudscapes.

Today (13 September) our plum tree is in full white blossom, and for the second day a monarch butterfly (a creature I had thought of as belonging to the ‘they toil not and neither do they spin’ variety – i.e. decorative but not useful) has been diligently going from flower to flower, which will surely help pollination at a time when the garden seems rather short of busy bees. There were flies too, slightly larger than house flies and smaller than blow flies, which I thought might be doing the same service. Let’s hope so.

Enough already, but it’s nice to be home.

In the current issue of PN Review (Carcanet, Manchester) I have five poems one of which I will copy here because it is my tribute to the Auckland poet, the late Sarah Broom, whose funeral it records:


(Sarah Broom, 1972-2013)

How could the oarswoman, tennis player
scholarship girl, the poet of such delicacy and finesse
proprietor of that generous smile
mother of three small children lighting now
each one, a candle in her honour and to
                                                                      her memory
how could the lover of this tearful husband
who reads the poem in a strong voice in which she is
                                           his schmetterling, his butterfly
how could the daughter of these noble parents
he addressing us all, she talking to her grandchildren in our
                                           presence but as if we were not here
how could this lovely, surely unquenchable fire
                                                                                           burn out so soon
and the name of God yet be spoken
as if there were reasons, justice, divine and eternal love?

The thrush sings in the thorn-bush,
the day, and the days, go on
nothing understood or able to be explained
except that loss is random, and pain unjust.

One of the plays I saw performed at the National Theatre in London during this recent visit was a revival of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea first performed in 1952 – one of the plays that established Rattigan as a commercial success of the mid century, but also as a technically conservative playwright at a time of experimentation, when Osborne’s kitchen-sink realism on the one hand, and Brecht’s theatre of alienation on the other – not to mention the surrealist challenges of Beckett and Ionesco – were together rendering his plays somewhat ‘old hat’.

The play did give me a feeling of déjà vu. Perhaps I had even seen it all those years ago; I’d certainly seen a number of plays just like it. This version was well produced and acted, but there was for me a lightly fusty, dated feel about it, all the more so in a week when I also saw a really vigorous production of Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera.

The Deep Blue Sea was based on, or extracted from, Rattigan’s affair with a young actor, Kenneth Morgan, who left him for another. When this new lover in turn left him, Morgan killed himself. It’s said that when the news was brought to Rattigan he sat silent for a while and then (ever the pro) said, ‘The play will open with the body lying in front of the gas fire.’

That is how The Deep Blue Sea opens, but the body is that of a woman, and she recovers. Rattigan could not, at that time, represent his homosexual affair, and so the story became one of heterosexual marriage, love and infidelity.

Suicide by gas was very common in the immediate post-war years, and it was of course how Sylvia Plath killed herself. In the case of the Rattigan play, the shilling in the gas metre runs out – which was also very common, and so the character lives on and the story develops with much looking back.

Now the playwright Mike Poulton, who wrote the stage versions of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, has retold the story as Rattigan would no doubt have preferred to tell it, as a narrative of homosexual love and loss. Its title is Kenny Morgan, and it’s currently (or was recently) showing at the Arcola Theatre in Hackney.

Ann Thwaite, who figured in our Norfolk punting adventure in a recent blog, reports that the movie about Christopher Robin, based on her biography of A.A. Milne, seems to be moving along at a good pace. She was recently to meet the child actor who will be the young Christopher, and to visit the original Pooh Sticks bridge in the Ashdown Forest. And she’s to have a walk-on part, for which she was about to be measured for the costume.

She and Anthony had attended the funeral of the poet Geoffrey Hill in Cambridge and were shocked that Anthony seemed to be the only poet present.

Je me suis enfin détaché
De toutes choses naturelles
Je peux mourir mais non pécher
Et ce qu’on n’a jamais touché
Je l’ai touché je l’ai palpé
Et j’ai scruté tout ce que nul
Ne peut en rien imaginer
Et j’ai soupesé maintes fois
Même la vie impondérable
Je peux mourir en souriant.

This is the strange inscription on the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire’s grave in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. It is in fact from two 5-line stanzas of a long poem of his, ‘Les Collines’ (‘The Hills’). The English version that follows is as near as I can get to a translation that makes English sense. Apollinaire was wounded in World War I, trepanned, and then died of the wound made worse by the influenza which killed so many at that time.

At last I have removed myself
From every natural thing
And can die, but not as a sinner.
Having touched and felt
What none can even imagine,
And tried so often the weight
Of the imponderable life,
I can die with a smile.

And while we’re on the subject of First World War commemorations, this link will take you to a sequence of poems I wrote in response to a request from a section of the Department of Internal Affairs tasked with looking after commemorations of the centenary of New Zealand’s participation in that war. I read them on NZ Poetry Day at the Christchurch WORD festival. You will see that I ended the sequence by commemorating the death of my great uncle (my grandmother’s brother) Owen Vincent Freeman. I will attach here an image of the brass plaque sent to my grandmother, naming him (the engraved name should be visible inside the marked oblong) and saying HE DIED FOR FREEDOM AND HONOUR – which I record with all the irony due after the passage of these one hundred years.

Final gripe or whinge: New Zealand speech –

Every decade that passes the a vowel fades further in New Zealand speech, and has almost vanished into variations of the e vowel. So younger speakers (and especially the less sophisticated, less well educated) are unable to distinguish between share and sheer, air and ear, mayor and mere. Our national carrier has become Ear New Zealand.

We laugh at the extremes of Australian speech without understanding that they laugh back, each failing to hear its own peculiarities. If you ask an Australian and a New Zealander to say ‘Her Majesty the Queen’ the Australian will say ‘Her Majesty the Coin’ and the New Zealander will say ‘Her Mejesty the Queen.’ Listen to the Australian a vowel – they have one, we’ve lost ours.

I know that experts, academic linguists, tell us that such vowel shifts are unstoppable; but I am for a campaign to save New Zealand’s a. It should start in schools – which would mean that teachers themselves would need to have a bit of corrective training at the tertiary level. I’m not asking for fake English accents or that people should ‘speak posh’. I have an unmistakable New Zealand accent, and would not want it otherwise. But there are certain distinctions in the words themselves which should be made clear in the way they are spoken. No more Southern Elps; no more Mount Elbert; no more Kethryn Ryan. Let’s give the a vowel it’s due!

The other place where some degree of precision and clarity should be required, and good examples set, is in broadcasting. It seems to me absurd that RNZ is more and more requiring its announcers and newsreaders to use Maori as often as possible, and to pronounce it correctly, while showing apparently complete indifference to the damage these people are doing to spoken English.

Oh and one more thing: why do the All Blacks blacken their teeth – and worse, sometimes not all the teeth but just some, so they look as if some have been knocked out? (And has anyone noticed that the team seems faster without Richie?)

- C.K. Stead