Hail and farewell! – & a postscript

A month from now the new Poet Laureate will be named and my two-year stint will conclude. I was more than pleased to be named Laureate, since poetry has been the centre of my writing life, the part of it I always returned to with most pleasure, that seemed the most demanding, and the most satisfying when it went well – and the award came at a time in life (I was 82) when an end to writing of any kind could not be too far away – so perhaps a rounding off, a kind of culmination, an honour I valued probably more than any other. Although I had a few direct requests for ‘a Laureate poem’, and responded to these, and of course more invitations than usual to appear at festivals and readings, there was nothing particularly demanding about the role unless you made it so; and since it’s my temperament to pursue what Yeats calls ‘the fascination of what’s difficult’, I have made a bit of a burden of the Laureate blog. I have not been, and still am not, ‘a blog person’. The literary blogs I had read seemed as often as not vehicles for malice and gossip, and I did not want to go down that path. I did them, rather, as literary exercises, thinking aloud about whatever poetry theme or bit of local literary history happened to be exercising my mind at that time. So they have become a collection of literary essays, loosely autobiographical, which I suppose at some point might be published as a book. There have been so few reactions to them that I have never been sure whether I have been talking to myself, or to a small roomful, or more; I’ve only been certain that the bigger world out there, the world of crowds and popular culture, was not listening. But if they are publishable together the effort has not been wasted. For those who have read and commented on them, my grateful thanks!
I should mention especially here the constant help I’ve had in the role from Peter Ireland of the Alexander Turnbull Library, and the support of its Chief Librarian, Chris Szekely; and also the help with technical (blog) matters from Reuben Schrader. The Matahiwi marae experience at Havelock North where I was accompanied by Kay and our family (including a daughter and two grandchildren who had come all the way from London), and by my three fellow poets, Chris Price, Greg O’Brien and Paula Green, the warmth of our reception there, and the lovely tokotoko carved by Jacob Scott, were all together high points of the Laureateship; and the supplies of wonderful wines by Te Mata Vineyards (thanks to John Buck and his son Toby) were a delightful bonus.
It has also been very rewarding to have occasional literary festival readings with what has come to be called ‘the circle of laureates’ – we are quite a gang, and such a rich assortment of talents and personalities.
My laureateship is to be rounded off with the publication of a small sample of the work I’ve done during the two years in the form of a beautifully printed and produced book from Brendan O’Brien’s press with illustrations by Douglas MacDiarmid. The title is In the mirror and dancing and we will launch it in Wellington on August 8th, and with a lunch hour reading on the 9th.

In my June blog I wrote about what I called ‘the Sinclair cohort’ which included Bob (R. McD) Chapman, Maurice Duggan and Kendrick Smithyman. I think anything of interest I have to say about Smithyman is in my essay on him in Kin of Place (A.U.P. 2002). There is an essay in that collection about Duggan as a writer, which veers over into observations about Duggan the man. Of the quartet I have had least to say about Bob, because he was the least successful as a writer and I saw less of him as a university colleague. But I was his student in the History Department in my second year, a member of a remarkable tutorial, and I have this to say about it in my memoir South-East of Eden (A.U.P. 2010):
...almost a prototype of what tutorials were supposed to be, was the one I attended in history, conducted by Bob (R. McD.) Chapman, later to be the university’s first professor of political studies and mentor of two Labour Prime Ministers, first David Lange, then Helen Clark. Chapman had a round, baby face, plump, pompous jowls, and the manner and voice of a Grand Old Man. He wanted to be counted among the poets, but only ever published a handful of rather clumsy poems; he aspired to academic leadership, yet was never to publish a significant book, nor even to finish his doctoral thesis. But if the word ‘intellectual’ means anything (and something that is not simply disparaging or dismissive) that is what Chapman was. He was remorselessly, and rather abstractly, a ‘thinker’ – one who wrestled with ideas valiantly and not always with complete success. If he had arrived on the scene half a century later, he might have made a top-rate literary theoretician, where the confident opacity of his thought, and his inability ever to make perfect sense, would have been seen as virtues.
The Chapman tutorial I was assigned to, in which Bernard Clark (who had beaten me for the Lissie Rathbone scholarship in History) and Barbara McKay (who claimed she had beaten us both, and only failed to collect the scholarship because her school had forgotten to enter her name) were also members, produced the most stimulating classroom interactions I would experience at least until I was an MA student in 1955. Chapman recognised our intelligence and engaged with us. No doubt there were others in that class, but I remember it as if there had been only three students and our tutor.
There was a brief period when I was first back in Auckland from my period as a post-graduate student in the UK when the Chapmans seemed to see Kay and me as part of a group of Bob’s younger acolytes – which included Jonathan Hunt (who would become a senior Labour Party Minister and then Speaker of the House), and Jim Holt and Mike Stenson, senior History students who would become significant in the Party but both to die relatively young.
Conversation with Bob was unrelenting. He was forever trying to persuade me of something and I seemed to be forever resisting. He had a big round face and orotund delivery. His features were youthful and yet his jowls shook as he made his points, always with heavy emphasis. He was especially prone to metaphor which often failed to clarify the point. Where Keith Sinclair’s discourse was brutally clipped and to the point, Bob’s was eloquent, tending to circumlocution and obscurity. Chapman parties and dinner parties went on into the night and the early hours. Whereas Kay and I, with no children in the first few years of the 1960s, could sleep till noon next day, Bob and Noeline had three small sons to deal with. Their stamina, Noeline’s in particular, was remarkable.
Like Keith, Bob was a New Zealand literary nationalist; and an academic nationalist too – we had not only our own literature to study and to write, but our own history to come to terms with, our own politics to practice and record. They were, like most New Zealand intellectuals of the time, deeply resistant to, even resentful of, the Royalist fervour that assailed the country whenever a Royal (or a Vice-Royal) approached, because this was a subservience which compromised our independence, our identity, ourselves. I was entirely in agreement with this, especially in feeling that the Royal fervour and the old designation of Britain as ‘Home’ were demeaning; but I think as Bob saw it, I was compromised by having loved every minute of my two years in Britain, and by showing signs of regretting having come home.
Some of my debates with Bob sprang from my story/novella, A Race Apart, which won the first Bank of New Zealand Katherine Mansfield Prize in 1961, and was described by Edna O’Brien, when it was published in the UK, as ‘subtle funny and dextrously written’. Bob felt this story in some degree compromised my New Zealand identity by seeming to denigrate its young Kiwi athlete hero at the expense of the wiser ‘Old World’. In retrospect our arguments don’t seem important except as part of my intellectual growing up. We might both have remembered Andrew Marvell’s advice: ‘for men may spare their pains where nature is at work, and the world will not go faster for our driving.’ New Zealand would grow out of its colonial sailor suit without our assistance; and we had (both, I imagine) to remember that although at times in a nation’s history heightened national consciousness could be productive of good things, it was more often than not the source at least of bad outcomes, and often of evil ones.
Bob and Noeline were one of two couples (the other was Allen and Jeny Curnow) to whom the novelist Bill Pearson (then a lecturer in the English Department) attached himself for comfort and protection. Bill’s recent biography by Paul Millar has revealed that he spent a long period of unhappiness, trying to unmake the gay man he was and remake himself as a good hetero Kiwi chap. It was in this period that he produced his one novel, Coal Flat, in which he represents the hero, Paul Rogers, with whom he clearly identifies, as the man he wanted to be rather than the man he was. This unhappiness, and the anxiety that went with it, made Bill a rather sad, paranoid and frightened figure; and these couples to whom he attached himself were sources of kindness and protection.
Bob had known and hugely admired Bill’s historically important essay, ‘Fretful Sleepers’, before they met, and had written his own notable essay, ‘Fiction and the Social Pattern’; and these two items are often cited as parallel advances in New Zealand national, social and literary consciousness in the 1950s. It was clear that Bob had pictured someone (like himself) large and personally impressive as the author of the Pearson essay; and I was there at their first meeting, when Bob was unable to conceal his momentary disbelief and disappointment. The introduction took place in the echoing circular foyer of the University.
‘Bill Pearson,’ Bob boomed. ‘Same name as the essayist.’
‘Same person,’ Bill said, in a shy sideways way he sometimes had of talking, as if out of one side of his face.
Bill was small in stature and unremarkable in appearance. Keith Sinclair described him as ‘the little jockey’. Bob stared at him. It took a moment for him to register that what had just been said meant that this was the man whose analysis of our Kiwi faults and failings had been (as he saw it) so acute, so devastating. I can’t reproduce exactly what followed except that it was very loud and embarrassing, revealing at first Bob’s disappointment, and then his joy to be meeting the author of ‘Fretful Sleepers’, a pleasure whose genuineness (and it was genuine) was somehow compromised because its noisy excess was a cover for that initial disappointment.
For no very clear reason there are two dinner parties with Bob which I remember particularly, both occurring a good deal later than those 1960s evenings. One was a time when we invited a group to dinner which included Bob and Noeline, and I decided it was wrong that Kay should always be the cook. I would do the main course – and what I chose was lamb knuckles. Because there were to be a number at the table I cooked most of them them in the lower oven and two in the upper. It had not occurred to me that these two ovens cooked at different temperatures and speeds; the lower lot emerged beautifully tender, the top two tough, but I did not recognize this until it was too late and the meal had been served. Bob got one of the tough ones, and sat to my left at the table, sawing away bravely, while others told me how well I had done. It seemed that even as a cook, with Bob I was destined to fail. Or perhaps I had subconsciously served up to him the culinary equivalent of those circumlocutions I’d had to chew on when he had been still one of my academic mentors.
The other was a dinner party at the Chapmans’ and Roger Douglas, Member of Parliament but thus far still in the Labour Opposition, was among the guests. Over the meal we argued, all for Labour (no dissenters at the Chapman table), but about how the Party should present itself and make its case. I was all for forthrightness and for less concern about whether what Labour wanted to do would be well-received. If we knew something was right we should say so boldly. In the end you had to sound as if you meant it. People were more impressed by the genuineness of the appeal than by its ‘rightness’, which mostly they were uncertain about. Bob, the psephologist and expert in ‘the art of the possible’, spoke in favour of going for the middle ground, the only place where Labour, or any party in New Zealand, could win – a lesson his later protégé and star pupil Helen Clark, though by nature a radical, would learn, partly from his teaching, and profit by.
Douglas was mostly silent, and when he did put forward his ideas they were unappealing and remote; but he affirmed the idea of conviction politics and the rare power of authenticity. It must have been around this time that he introduced a private member’s bill proposing a compulsory superannuation scheme which, if it had been enacted and retained, could have meant the current [2017] argument about how National Super can continue and be sustainable, and whether it should begin at 65 or 67, would have been unnecessary. Later, in the Kirk Government, such a scheme was initiated by Rowling and Douglas together, only to be scrapped by Muldoon in 1975.
Roger Douglas had an interesting family history. I remember as a child hearing his grandfather, Bill Anderton who, with A.S. Richards and John A. Lee, formed a trio of Auckland members of the first Labour Government, each of them a natural outdoor orator who, with neither notes nor amplifiers, could hold a crowd spellbound. (Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage was also from Auckland but had no such power of public oratory.) Roger’s father Norman was a Labour M.P. who sided with John A. Lee and went with him when he was sacked from the Party, but later returned to it and won Auckland Central when his father-in-law Bill Anderton retired from the seat. Another of Bill’s grandsons was Jim Anderton. I remember Jim first as a Parnell dairy-owner, a close friend of some of Bob Chapman’s protégés, particularly Jim Holt, and very active and bossy in the Party. In 1984 Jim won a Christchurch seat for Labour where he has remained ever since. Jim was to oppose his cousin Roger’s financial and economic reforms and to split from the Party forming first New Labour and then the Alliance; and finally to merge with it again under Helen Clark who made him her Deputy P.M.
By the time the Muldoon years were over and a Labour Government under David Lange was elected (1984), Douglas, their finance spokesman, and soon Minister of Finance, had shifted away from Labour’s traditional Keynesianism towards the Friedmanite economics of the Chicago school. For a few years I was dazzled by Lange’s wit and eloquence, and believed that whatever Labour was doing under his watch must be necessary and good, until (like Lange himself with his ‘time for a cup of tea’) I came to see it, not only as a betrayal of Labour traditions, but simply bad economics.
I remember that quiet man at the Chapman table, with his desert-dry crackling voice, like some dark figure in a Russian play. Everyone at that table opined and theorized, but it was Douglas who was to change our world – as it happened, I now think, for the worse. Will it ever be possible to return to a high-tax economy and a full Welfare State? I would like to think so, but it is nowhere in sight.
Douglas had an odd outside-Parliament life as purveyor of alternative medicines, remedies and ‘health supplements’, all of dubious curative effect; so it might be argued that the two sides of his life, though apparently so different, were not incompatible.

I have found the following note about Maurice Duggan, written it seems after he died in 1974.
I ought to be the ideal person to write about Maurice because my feelings about him were unequivocal. I liked him unreservedly, always enjoyed his company, never found him disagreeable or dull. He seemed to me of all the writers I had known the least egotistical, and the most generous – but not from an over-eagerness to oblige. He stood firm and independent, asked for no favours, was pleased if I liked something he had written, told me when he liked something of mine, and otherwise simply gave me to feel he enjoyed my company as much as I enjoyed his. When we were alone together we talked about books and writers and writing – almost never about ourselves. I see now, looking back, that for all the informality, a kind of (old-fashioned? professional?) decorum operated, which did not allow for personal feelings and confidences. So I am only apparently the ideal person to write about him. There was a whole inner life I could find evidence of in the stories, and hear about by way of gossip (and one knew by report about his affairs, and drinking, and that he could be ‘difficult’ at home) but which was never mentioned.
His last letter, dated just a few weeks before his death from cancer, begins in that rather formal way he so often had on paper: ‘I was reminded, when we touched on form in the novel...’ – and goes on to urge me not to hesitate, if something I am writing seems properly 80 pages, to stop at that length: ‘Don’t regret the murdered darlings in the 80 pages that lie closest to your appreciation.’
I go on in this note to remember Maurice in that always orderly house with its polished wood floors, its Keith Patterson painting over the fireplace, wooden deck and windows looking out on an equally orderly garden and trees. No doubt, I went on, this domestic interior represented them both, Barbara and Maurice.
All this seems on reflection rather odd – though the good feeling was genuine. Maurice was indeed orderly. His tradesman’s tools, screwdrivers, saws, hammers, drills, were always in their proper designated places; the floors were swept, the windows clean, the lawns mowed and the hedges clipped. His handwriting was neat and his manuscripts always in order. Nothing bohemian about that household. He must have deplored the Duddings’ bohemian ménage at Torbay. And yet when I wrote this about him I knew that as well as an orderly man he could also be a Lord of Misrule. I knew that he was at his best at a dinner table at a certain point in the evening when he would offer a story so funny, and so brilliantly told, he would have us all rocking with laughter; but that soon after he would sink into alcoholic gloom.
I still make a huge (critical) distinction between the rather conventional stories for which he is probably best known and admired, and which match that domestic scene, and the two, different from and superior to anything else he wrote – ‘Along Rideout Road that Summer’ and ‘Riley’s Handbook’ – which found a lucid and rich vehicle for the disorderly Maurice. The first of these I rate as the best New Zealand short story ever written (and yes, I include Mansfield in that); and the second as a novella that must rate in quality alongside (though so totally different in character and tone) Sargeson’s ‘That summer’.
Here, by way of postscript is another view of Duggan. It comes from an essay I wrote about Barry Humphries (another old friend) for the London Review of Books in 1992:
I took Barry once to visit the short story writer Maurice Duggan, without quite realizing how far each of them was down the road to alcoholism. Duggan, large, strong, physical, once summarised his life for a literary magazine, beginning each section “And the nurse said, ‘Drink this.’” His limp was noticeable and even picturesque, but the loss of a leg which had caused it was something Duggan was extremely sensitive about.
He was a great Irish-style talker, who also tended to peak with a brilliantly funny story that would have everyone sick with laugher, and then lapse into alcoholic despondency, and even sometimes anger and violence.
Barry listened while Duggan explained about toheroa — the season, the limit on the bag, how the fish was minced to make an incomparable soup; listened too, and looked, while Duggan, quietly proud, showed the books on his shelves, and how many of the modern fiction writers he owned in first editions.
Duggan must have been up on the plateau ready to go into his usual hilarious anecdote-and-plunge when Barry pre-empted the moment, launching into a characteristic Humphries monologue about his own collection of hardcover toe-he-rowers, and about how short the season was on books and how tight the limit on the bag, but the great soups that could be made by critics who put them through the mincer. I remember it now only in crude outline; but in detail - in performance so to speak - it seemed bewildering and clever. It was the only time I ever saw Duggan driven backwards into sobriety. Afterwards, if ever Humphries was mentioned, Maurice would dismiss him as “a clever magpie.”
— C.K. Stead

1 comment:

karl said...

As the author of this blog I'm adding a PS by way of a correction: when I say literary blogs seemed often vehicles for malice and gossip I should have made an exception for Graham Beattie's blog which I regard as an exceptionally useful source of information about NZ books and authors and publishing. c.k.s.