And tells by tolling
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
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.
There’s a lot to be said for/
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