Sport 3: Spring 1989
Tunes For Bears To Dance To
It's a truism that we structure our past by processes of deliberate or unwitting selection, and the brief we have begins the distortion. To talk of my beginnings as a writer brings one aspect of myself to the fore. I'm a writer by temperament and inclination rather than reputation or occupation. The bulk of my time and energy has been spent of necessity on other things, and the writer in me has until quite recently known his place.
Even now, at forty-seven, I'm uneasy with what I feel a compulsion to do: like the sensible alcoholic I play down the enduring link with an incurable disease. It's not shame, or modesty. Increasingly I speak on authorship, or read my work; I belong to local writers' organisations and to PEN. Yet living my life in provincial towns I am always aware that in these communities there is no accepted or accustomed role for the writer of fiction. 'How's the writing going?' uncertainly asks the amiable countenance of society, and accepts my brief glibness thankfully.
Reading is different. I have felt secure within a wide fraternity of readers. As a boy and young man I was a great reader, though more recently my reading has been sacrificed to writing. Books were a feature of my home. My father, a Methodist minister, is largely self-educated and has a reverence for scholarship and literature which is often the mark of those who have come late to learning, and despite obstacles. My father is a man of reason; a calm, self-sufficient man who doesn't express emotion easily. Our means of making contact was usually a mutual appreciation of books.
For my father the great writers were the natural nobility of the world, and in our house the value of books was so unquestioned that it shook me to realise things were different in the households and minds of other people. My father's study held many hundreds of books, almost all bought second-hand, which was perhaps one reason for his tastes being somewhat old fashioned even then. As well as theology page 58his library included much fiction and poetry, and more history. He cared more for Gladstone and Disraeli than he cared for the politics of New Zealand in the 1950s. He loved the Lake Poets, and the work of Hardy, Dickens, Scott, Galsworthy and Kipling. As my stepmother hurried about the house to get her work done, he would follow, mellifluously reciting from Lamb's essays, or a quip from Boswell's life of Johnson.
There was a lighter side to his reading. He enjoyed stories of colonial adventure, the Boer War seemed to figure strongly, and especially loved Sherlock Holmes. He would read Conan Doyle to us as a family. I have mentioned elsewhere that the personal context of books can powerfully influence our response to them whatever their intrinsic merit. Just a title, 'The Speckled Band' or 'The Dancing Men', will I bring his voice back to me; bring back also the very shape and feel of the furniture in the kitchen of the Blenheim parsonage, and a host of less tangible associations. He had a tone of particular delight whenever the redoubtable brother Mycroft featured in the story.
I was twelve when we shifted to Timaru, and I recall walking down in the evenings from the parsonage in North Street to the old library by the Post Office. Towards the end of my time at Timaru Boys' High I had the habit of reading everything on the shelves by an author who took my fancy, before starting another. Most I have forgotten, but not Aldous Huxley and J.B. Priestley, whom I read in this way and enjoyed despite the risk of literary indigestion. I also read rubbish of course. At school we used to swap paperbacks called Carter Browns; the Ian Flemings of the time perhaps. Few books made me laugh, but Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim was one that did. At that slapstick age I loved it, but was disappointed in everything else he wrote.
M.A. Bull was the Rector of Timaru Boys' High in my time there. He was a man of formidable presence. During my seventh form year he thought me under-employed and generously decided that he would personally teach me Greek and in the process learn it himself. It was not to be the beginning of a startling career in classics for me. Bull was so busy that he had no time to complete the exercises: I had more time, but less inclination. Our tutorials were agreeable, but largely unproductive and gradually tailed off. Until recently I could at least recite the Greek alphabet. Bull was a mathematician and once told me he had calculated how much of his life was wasted in shaving his face, and that the figure astounded him. In later life I too came to resent that chore.page 59
Only one English teacher at the school struck me as being a true book man. He was Alan Miles, a very able, unhappy man who allowed me glimpses of his literary enthusiasm, but also read in class interminable passages from Masefield's Sard Harker. Even with the limited critical faculty I had then I was convinced that Masefield was no novelist.
I have no tales of precocious authorship, no aunts to wheel on who fortold great things for me. My juvenilia were scant and worthless. My university friends were not writers; they didn't admit to any such ambition, or even talk much about writing. I was the same. I led a simple, predictable, pleasant life as a student at Canterbury in the early 60s, flatting with the same close friends for several years. I was a conventional student, although naively I imagined otherwise. My flatmates and I purchased a hookah, and we scandalised the neighbours my smoking it together in full view, though its large, white bowl held nothing more exotic than cheap tobacco. I spent a good deal of time playing sport, going to the movies and meeting girls. I had several writhen pipes and talked of death.
Yet my other life went on; my life with books, and I was sometimes taken aback by the extent to which I was moved by what I read, and disconcerted by an awareness that there was another world beneath the directly observable one. A world of emotional configuration. I became aware of the fallibility of the real: aware that the splendidly detailed objective world of sound and colours, shapes and textures, was essentially opaque and that beneath it could be glimpsed the shimmer of things of great horror and ineffable joy. I began to see that fiction at its best was a way of communicating truths that are often too difficult to talk about face to face. I saw it most clearly at this time in the works of T.F. Powys and H.E. Bates; some years later Janet Frame was to affect me in the same way.
Powys was unduly neglected; Bates has received the acclaim and popularity he deserved. Both are especially successful in their different treatment of the countryside and rural people. Powys's work is suffused with mysticism and delineated allegorically, but there is a hard edge of violence and almost pagan fatalism. How I marvelled at his novel Mr Weston's Good Wine, and stories as fine as 'Lie Thee Down, Oddity'. In Powys I was aware also of an almost majestic contempt for any attempt by an author to ingratiate himself with a readership, or follow literary fads. His characters never completely fade, but stand as ironic spectators in the wings of consciousness. Lord Bullman and page 60clergyman Hayhoe; Mrs Moggs walking to the beautiful sea. Wold Jar the tinker, in all his guises.
In Bates I always felt warmth, sympathy, a determination to enjoy the hour at hand despite his knowledge of the fragility of things. My Bates was not so much the Bates of the Larkin tales, but more the author of Fair Stood The Wind For France, The Purple Plain and the stories, some written during the war as Flying Officer X, which displayed unsurpassed powers of natural description, such compassionate humour, such original characterisation.
I sat reading in long evenings, with a kerosene heater which I had to keep the Christchurch winter at bay. The mist curled from the nearby Avon, and my duffle coat was perpetually damp on its hook behind the door.
I enjoyed my years at university, yet was mildly disappointed. Disappointed because as usual my expectation based on reading did not agree with experience. I anticipated toasted muffins with a tutor perhaps, intellectual euphoria, wit lightly tossed like salads, crises of conscience. Our universities were different it seemed. The staff ratios hampered close acquaintance with lecturers, as did the reserve and stolidness of the New Zealand character I suspect. Certainly I had those qualities. I appreciated the physical environment of the old Cantebury campus; its towers and cloisters accorded in some miniature way with my impression of what a university should look like, and I coped with the work without trauma, although I took a unit of Geology one year hoping to learn of Jurassic monsters and spent the time instead noting the arcane shell markings of brachiopods and trilobites.
For the first time in many years I have thought carefully about the English lectures which I attended. In honesty the only author in whom I can remember becoming interested through formal studies is Virginia Woolf. I chose History to carry on with, not because of any disillusion with English, but because there was I think some language prerequisite for the English honours course. In the labyrinthine recesses of the History wing I enjoyed listening to Mr Saunders. He had a detached, sonorous voice like vast waves breaking at a distance, and his sweeping images reduced the centuries with ease. Professor Pocock impressed me as an intellect. His lectures were spun out like spiders' silk in the sun, but later without his presence they were sadly collapsed jottings on my pad. Mr Gardner was the page 61kindest of them. He drew me aside before the exams of my final year to tell me it was unlikely anyone would be awarded first class honours in the subject. Most of the lecturers were ordinary enough. They seemed to have perpetual colds; all those stone staircases and antiquated heaters perhaps.
My time at Canterbury was complicated by National Service as a twenty-year-old, and together with other students who drew short straws in that peculiar birthday lottery, I had two stints at Waiouru. I certainly did no writing there, but it was a juxtaposition of lifestyle and values that gave me food for thought. Army life could hardly have been further from my habits as a student, yet each brought the other into relief and sometimes into question. Not for the only time I was confronted with the antithesis of individual integrity and the values of group loyalty and support. I have never reconciled them completely. What was new during my months in camp was to be mixing with an appreciable number of Maoris. Many North Islanders don't realise how little the Polynesian dimension of national life affects many communities in the south. I also became really fit for the first time, experiencing occasionally because of it a strange sense which approached exhilaration.
I have passed through several phases during my life in respect to the priorities of my admiration. I first held physical skill and beauty as the most important things (as most adolescents do), then there was a period of intellectualism during which I thought that the worst thing in all the world was to be stupid. In middle age I have moved on to regard character as more important in the assessment of my fellows. What will be next I wonder — spirituality as an indication of worth perhaps, or a neat return to the physical?
During my four years at university I was on a secondary teaching studentship; a luxury long since abandoned by the authorities. Thus after finishing my degree I had a year at Teachers' College, and during it I felt the first real urge to write. In my Ranfurly Street flat overlooking the Blind Foundation, an ironic situation perhaps, I wrote the opening few pages for a novel, having no idea how it was to go on. 'Hell is no furnace and prongs agony, he thought. It's a railway system; an aimless complex of shuntings, sidings, dilapidated water towers, small forgotten stations bulging with unwanted bags of barley, and disillusioned demons in decaying black waistcoats, forcing lone travellers to alight before the passive gaze of erstwhile fellow travellers page 62to find no one awaiting them.' It has the world weary languor of youth. It has besides a complexity of syntax which I have never dared attempt again.
After a few pages of it I grew discouraged with my inability to express myself adequately, and because of an intuitive realisation that I hadn't the experience of people and events to sustain it. I placed it aside and went on with my life, and my reading which was a life too. I have always been horrified by the banality of my own work.
In 1965 I went to teach at Waitaki Boys' High School in Oamaru: Janet Frame's Kingdom by the Sea. I stayed there for over twenty years. Waitaki was in gradual, autumnal decline from the great days of Frank Milner, but it was still a special place. In Frame's work the town of Oamaru is the strong childhood presence; as an adult I found the wider North Otago landscape equally influential. The dry downs, with grey limestone outcrops and ridged caves; the pink country roads of crushed Ngapara gravel, and the single cabbage trees on the slopes. The heavy, Oamaru stone gateposts marked many of the older farms, and the broad Waitaki river marked the way to the lake high country. It was a quiet land, often drowsy under a heavy sun: Peebles, Kakanui, Papakaio, Livingstone, Hampden, Kurow, Kia Ora, Otekaieke, Tokarahi, Herbert, Duntroon, Moeraki. I went duck-shooting over that land, mushrooming, visiting, strolling, picnicking with my family in the small streams such as the Waianakarua past the old mill.
My reading continued as much as time allowed, as haphazard yet satisfying as always, enlivened by many discussions with my colleagues. And the urge to write wouldn't die. Sometimes in the evenings on duty as I walked across the quad to the prep rooms, or arced out into the back field to nab a smoker or two, I would turn over ideas in my mind. I liked to walk the foreshore too; the same clay cliffed foreshore with its stunted pines and gorse giving way before the sea that Charles Brasch wrote of in his poems as a schoolboy.
In my experience however, teaching is not a fortunate choice of occupation for someone who wishes to write. Not only does it draw from the same intellectual and emotional springs as one's writing, but it is an exceedingly busy job. In nearly twenty-five years of teaching I have never found the chance to spend any school time on my writing. In the memoirs of other writers I'm struck by the many comments concerning their opportunity in a variety of employment to sit for hours, even days, at a time and write; the time available either because page 63they had nothing to do, or because what they had to do could be so easily avoided. School teaching is not that sort of occupation. Why should it be, indeed! At least there were the vacations.
Youth has at least one thing which need not be learned, and that is energy. I made time outside my teaching, my family, my sport, my friends, my idleness, to practice writing. Some evenings, some Sunday afternoons, increasingly the long vacation; the struggle to write went on. I began a comic novel. On the closely typed original which I still have the title page is missing, and I had forgotten the name — at one time I would have thought that impossible — but find in a 1969 rejection from Reeds that I called it Higher Education. The rejection was in the form of a kind and lengthy letter from Arnold Wall, suggesting improvements, encouraging strengths he claimed to see, inviting me to visit him in Wellington. I never did; just kept on trying. In my limited experience people in publishing are caring in the main. I know other writers have found differently.
Sometime in the early 70s there was a competition for unpublished novels. It was connected with the Auckland Centenary I think, and I used the contest as a spur to write a second novel; longer, more serious, and better than the first. I can remember getting up at six o'clock some mornings to work on it before going to school. I can also remember deciding on many occasions not to get up at six o'clock to work on it. In that novel for the first time I began to explore the moral duality of rural life in New Zealand, and to approach some mastery of essential techniques. Interest has been shown recently in the novel, but I have decided it will never be published. I had high hopes of it at the time of course, but it didn't win. From one publisher I sent it to afterwards it came back by return post. I was working in my garden when my wife brought the package out to me. The spade continued to cut through the chickweed and the good earth, but an internal voice ridiculed me for ever imagining that I could write something people might wish to read.
In the bleak clarity of that disappointment I reassessed my writing. I was in my early thirties, and had still published nothing. I was aware of an episodic quality in my work; aware that what vision I possessed suited the compression of the tableau rather than narrative drive and plot. I was conscious that my most intense reading experiences were largely from the short story genre, that its poetic affinities attracted me, and I was not prepared to risk again the investment of time that a novel means for a part-time writer. I decided page 64to write short stories, and to follow my own inclination and judgement in their language and theme. Through the mid 70s I stuck to my last, sending pieces to such publications as Landfall, the Listener and Argosy. I bolstered myself by setting a limit of so many years in which to succeed, or then quit, but I knew in my heart that there would always be an extension. In the end writing becomes part of you, and can't be cut away without causing a sort of death. And there is also the daunting feeling that you are too heavily committed to turn back.
It was a dour struggle at times: I couldn't succeed, and I couldn't give up. The greatest difference I notice between my own extended apprenticeship and that of most other writers is the isolation. I had no one to share the intensity of my interest. My wife was supportive, creative in her own right as a stoneware potter, but not of a literary disposition. In part this isolation was an aspect of living in Oamaru, a rural town. I imagine a provincial writer such as Ronald Morrieson had much the same experience. Another cause however I suspect to be my own nature. I found it difficult to announce myself a writer, and so perhaps discover others like myself. When I did begin publishing, I used my christian names to maintain anonymity. I have always valued the fulfilment of being a writer, rather than that of being seen a writer.
Others talk of close literary friendships at the time they were developing as writers: of mentors, rivals, convivial pub sessions in the cities, regional cliques, salons even. I had none of those, but a writer's isolation though sharply felt is thankfully incomplete for the books themselves are there. The finest writers are with us — not distance, temperament, not death itself can stand in the way of that. One of the few returns from writing at this stage of my life was the way in which it enhanced my appreciation of those who could do it superbly well. The disappointment with my own efforts was partly assuaged by the joy I had from reading Coppard, Salinger, Chekhov, Saroyan, Pritchett, Faulkner, O'Connor, Maupassant, Babel, Austen, Cheever, Hemingway, Woolf, Bowen, Powys and Bates. I was reading our own writers too, poets as well. Davin, Mansfield, Duggan, Middleton, Shadbolt, Cowley, Ihimaera among prose writers, though Sargeson and Frame made the most impact on me. Sargeson by his compassion, and astute creation of a configuration for New Zealand character and environment: Frame by her unerring personal sensitivity and symbolic view of the world which constitute the closest thing to genius that we have experienced in this country's writing.page 65
This was all the personal life still; not hidden, but by its nature and my situation, little shared. Other things went on, generally far more successfully than in my writing. I was more likely to be on the tennis court in my own time in the 70s than at my desk. Hundreds of hours I spent, mainly on the lovely grass courts in the Oamaru gardens, and I went happily with the team to play Southland, South Canterbury or the like. I don't consider the time wasted. I have gained from all the sports to which I've given time; gained knowledge of myself and others, gained friendships from a wider cross-section of adults than just my occupation offered.
The first story of mine published was called 'Descent From The Flugelhorn': a story set firmly in North Otago and in the New Zealand vernacular. It was accepted in 1977 by Tony Reid at the Listener. It was the beginning of continued support and encouragement from the Listener, particularly by Andrew Mason after he was appointed Literary Editor. First success has its own fierce joy. I destroy the manuscripts of my stories as a rule, but I've kept 'Descent From The Flugelhorn', written in green biro as it chanced. Soon after that I had work accepted in Islands, then Landfall and other magazines. Morepork and Pilgrims accepted work, although I'm not sure if it appeared before these publications succumbed.
The individual publication of stories was progress and a source of satisfaction, but I thought it a long road before I would be able to interest a publisher in a collection, for short stories are not popular in the market place. So I approached Pegasus Press of Christchurch and paid for the publication in 1979 of a collection called Supper Waltz Wilson. To take that course I needed a trust in my own work and an understanding wife, for I knew the money would not be recouped. It was the only work I paid to have published but I haven't regretted the decision. My relationship with Pegasus was straightforward; the book was well produced and drew good reviews.
In 1981 I had the good fortune to be the Literary Fellow at the University of Canterbury, at Ilam though, not my old haunts. For the first time in my life I had a substantial block of time to devote to my writing. It marked a turning point: a decision to work harder at my writing, even if it meant in the end drawing back from further advancement in my teaching career. Some weeks went well at Canterbury; there were other long periods when the empty page mocked me. I was learning the lesson that writing is not only a matter of having time available for its completion. There was always stimulus page 66and good company though; Michael Harlow, Pat Evans, Peter Simpson. I remember having lunch with M.K. Joseph not so long before his sudden death.
During 1981 I contacted several publishers in the hope of a second collection. One leading firm told me that they were no longer publishing stories, another said that short stories were at the 'difficult marketing end of New Zealand fiction.' Sadly true. Brian Turner, Editor at John Mclndoe Ltd, wrote saying he liked my work, and invited me to send a group of stories down. Towards the end of the year he rang, and in his typically diffident voice, which disguises perception and puckish sensitivity, told me that Mclndoe would like to publish my collection.
This is the place to finish an account of my progress to authorship I suppose. More than any other external factor the support of Brian Turner, and Barbara Larson his successor as Editor, has allowed me to be a writer, and I welcome the opportunity to acknowledge my debt. My second collection, The Master Of Big Jingles, was published in 1982; The Day Hemingway Died, The Lynx Hunter and The Divided World have followed.
I try to be realistic in my view of the part writing plays in my life. The demands and compromises could be seen as having been greater than the rewards, certainly observable success has all been in recent years, but how does one calculate the value of intangibles; and how express them. The only authentic scrutiny of a writer is through his work. The nature of the short story genre, and the very small New Zealand market, make it unlikely that I can be a full-time writer, and there is no burgeoning overseas interest. But I'm not discontented in allegiance to the short story form. I delight in its challenges and constraints, its traditions and possibilities, in its accomplished practitioners amongst my fellow writers.
The struggle now is not so much to write, as to write well. The work tends to twist in the hand, always less in the end than the hopes for it. 'Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when all the time we are longing to move the stars to pity.' (Flaubert.) My Kiwi fear of any pretension won't allow me to express myself so romantically — more's the pity perhaps.