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

your own wit
the Celtic kind, oblique,
leaving its object

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

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