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