Title: Recollections of MKD

Author: Owen Marshall

In: Sport 13 Spring 1994

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, October 1994

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Prose Literature

Conditions of use



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Sport 13 Spring 1994

Owen Marshall — Recollections of MKD

page 5

Owen Marshall

Recollections of MKD

Trevor Laystall (b 1939), for over fifteen years a sub-editor with the Christchurch Press, was an exact contemporary of MKD Ash at Te Tarehi High School and kept in sporadic touch with the author until five or six years before the latter’s death. Laystall saw this year’s three-part television programme of Ash’s life and works (Phoenix from the Ashes), and considered it so little representative of the man he had known that he approached Ash’s official biographer, Professor Forbes Kendaell, who recorded this interview for Simulacre.

The interview took place at Mr Laystall’s home in Spreydon, suburb of Christchurch, on the evening of July 19th, 1994 and the transcript which appears here is a version modified slightly by subsequent correspondence.

FK In utter predictability, which I will not pledge to maintain, I would like
to begin by asking you when you first became aware of MKD.
TL We came from different primary schools, but on our very first third
form day at Te Tarehi High we juniors had to stay behind in Hall after
assembly to be sorted into classes. Old Bubber Greene, who was Head
of Science, always used to do it. Anyway this day was wet, a typical
drizzle from the sea, and Bubber couldn’t do it outside. There was only
one absolutely hopeless new teacher to help Bubber, who was losing his
rag in the confusion and noise. Anyway, this tall, calm boy, almost
beautiful, went into the wrong line—
FK And this was MKD?
TL No. Ash was the small, ratty kid who got under Bubber’s feet when he
charged forward to pull the tall boy out of line. That boy was Simon
Oakes, the best winger the School ever produced. Should have been an
All Black.
TL Bubber grabbed him and asked him his name and Ash said, ‘Mulvey
Kannaith Desmond Ash,’ in that highfalutin voice he had and Bubber
mockingly repeated it several times and shook him till the tears came.
Everyone gave Ash hell after that.
FK So he was an extremely sensitive boy?page 6
TL Never happy with his peers certainly.
FK In the course of my research for the biography—MKD: A Nation’s
—I went into the schooldays. There was MKD’s own
memoir of course, Fallow Education, the generally acknowledged
autobiographical elements in the earlier novels, particularly No New
and the eponymous short fiction of the collection Marcel
Proust And I
. I didn’t know then of your own friendship, but I talked
with other MKD acquaintances of school days, including Dr Errol
Williams and your fellow journalist Jye Lee. I met Mr Norman
Johnson who had taught English there and retained very vivid and
lively recollections of MKD. The picture that emerged in fact was that
of something of an achiever. MKD himself in Fallow Education says
that in his final year he would have been proxime accessit except that he
refused to do any work in Biology dissection on creatures killed for that
TL It’s difficult to comment without appearing churlish, well, more
disparaging perhaps. Snoz Johnson never even taught Ash and yet from
that television programme you’d think that he had started it all, but was
too modest to say. Errol Williams and Jye Lee were two of his chess club
and photography club cobbers—anything to get out of sport. They
were what the Americans now would call nerds.
FK What then drew you to MKD initially? How was it that the two of you
became friends? Were you a ‘nerds’?
TL With due respect, I think you show just there that tendency to give Ash
a retrospective significance: assuming that I was drawn to him rather
FK I’m sorry.
TL I realise that since those early days—
FK Point taken, but what then did you find admirable in him as a boy. You
were more than just classmates and you kept in touch for many years
afterwards. Why was that?
TL As to what I liked about him at first I’m rather hazy. I think more than
anything else his willingness to entertain, his interest in your life
because his own was so boring. He used to carry my first fifteen gear
down to the lower ground and do his Goon Show impersonations as
we went. About keeping in touch, I suppose because we were at the
same university Hall and he used to come along to my room and
slaughter all the flies with a rolled up Time magazine. He kept asking page 7 me when my sisters were coming to visit: he’d caught a glimpse of
Rebecca at a school prizegiving. I think he was very lonely at the Hall
and he knew there were often people in my room. I established an
informal society called ‘Quaffers’.
FK Do you know if he was writing at this time?
TL At school, or university?
FK Both.
TL He always did have a knack with dirty limericks, I remember that. At
Te Tarehi he wrote them on the wall of the Fives Court; at varsity he
supplied the capping magazine. I don’t recall anything else then. One
of his best was about the young lady from Calcutta.
FK I’m interested, surprised, that you didn’t see any writing. His nickname
was Dickens wasn’t it: that’s well established. Surely there must have
been some awareness that he was enthusiastic about literature; an
aspiring author?
TL That was a sort of sarcastic pun, you see. An undergraduate joke. Ash
wasn’t very well endowed and Dickens had an element of the diminu-
as well. Simon Oakes gave him the name I think in the Hall and
so of course it stuck.
FK If we move on somewhat. There’s the famous moral and intellectual
crisis—the nether vortex, he calls it in Macrocarpa Bondsman—which
always recalls for me Shelley’s line, ‘a hell of death o’er the white water’.
And MKD was totally unable to take his Finals even though there was
a general expectation that he’d get a First. There’s his tremendously
powerful description of waking in a cirrus mid-afternoon to the
realisation that the Restoration Drama exam is going on and he lies
there cognisant of the vomit on the sheet and he sees on the wardrobe
door the ivy league shirt that his mother bought him but could ill afford
and from some other room he hears that Roy Orbison song.
TL I don’t think I know it.
FK It’s on the tip of my tongue.
TL No, I mean I haven’t read about his breakdown. I knew of course—
FK Oh God, an epiphany of self-loathing. I read it in Vancouver where I
was doing my PhD. I wrote on the fly-leaf of the book—this has called
me home!
TL I don’t remember his lead-up marks being that good actually. He could
yap about anything, but I don’t remember his grades being wonderful.
He failed Philosophy II for example.page 8
FK A good many people recall him being very penetrative academically
when he set his mind to it, though he could be dismissive about a
proscribed course of study, about exams—in the way Housman was for
instance. One of the Sociology lecturers told me that MKD would
quote Schopenhauer and Spengler.
TL That sounds like him. You think that he really did have some sort of
emotional crisis?
FK Absolutely pivotal. Certainly he saw it that way: a final confrontation
with the expections that his father in particular had for him—
Iapetus, MKD always called him, one of the Titans, but not to his face
of course. He fought it out within himself when barely twenty-two, the
age-old dilemma for the artist between vision and a securely conven-
life, between his own imperatives and the family expectations,
yet something more deeply and innately contradictory in his case. It
liberated him to go on to be the greatest of our writers although at an
immense psychic cost to MKD personally. We lost one more graduate;
we gained The Toby Jug World, Cyclops’ Second Eye, Journals of the
New Te Rauparaha
TL At the time I thought he’d gone to pieces because of that involvement
with the Rawleigh’s woman. Ash came round to my flat a few times and
lay on the verandah sacks telling me about his sex life with this forty-
-year-old woman. She’d been going round door to door. Insatia-
he said. She had three children and drew blood with her bite. He
was finding it impossible to get any work done. I think it was his first
experience and he’d talk and talk about it. Not a pretty story and an
unlikable trait to go on about it. I recognised a good deal of it again in
that book he wrote about the guy working in a bank.
FK Cheque Me Out.
TL Right.
FK There is this whole issue of the MKD libido, isn’t there, and it’s been
addressed best perhaps in John Cecil’s articles in Landfall and Sport.
The rather strange essays on Zilpah for example. Did you feel that it was
important to MKD? Do you feel so now?
TL Not as important as he would have liked it to be. I remember him as
essentially parasitic in regard to getting to know women.
FK Parasitic?
TL Dickens—Ash—always depended on other people to give him the
opportunities to meet women. He always had his ear open for a party, page 9 was always interested if a couple was breaking up, but he usually just
made an ass of himself. When Simon Oakes had a party before going
to Oxford to take up his Rhodes Scholarship, Ash accosted his
(Oakes’s) girlfriend and got his face slapped. He spent the rest of the
night drinking in the broom cupboard in case Simon had been told
about it.
FK You kept in touch after both of you had left the university?
TL Susan and I married when I got a job at Hatherleys, which was a firm
of printers down by the station. This would be 1963, or 1964 I suppose.
We had a very small flat in Armargh Street; the whole building’s a
Women’s Refuge Centre now. We have some laughs about that.
FK Yes.
TL We were very poor of course. Susan was still finishing her degree; I had
no real idea what I wanted to do.
FK And MKD was a friend to you in those somewhat difficult years?
TL He was living in somebody’s garage by Wilding Park; within walking
distance unfortunately. He had this habit of coming in just before tea-
on a Friday after he’d been to the pub. He cottoned on to the fact
that I got paid on Thursdays and that we ate rather better on Fridays
than most of the week. Sometimes we tried to sit him out, a few times
I threw him out, but Susan felt sorry for him initially.
FK I imagine that for him these would have been the difficult years in
which he was wrestling with No New Bethlehem and No Room Between
Sea and Sky
. Beckett’s praise of what he termed the deanthropo-
of the artist, comes to mind [laughs].
TL He certainly wasn’t wrestling with any paying job. A few times though,
he brought a simple bunch of flowers, daffs, or—
FK The considerate aspect of his nature so often overlooked.
TL We thought it a nice touch, until our neighbour, Mrs Posswillow, burst
in to complain that he’d stolen them from her garden on the way past.
Ash pretended to be drunk of course, and was still not sufficiently
shamed to leave. We were having beef for the first time that month: he
had a nose for such things.
FK Did you see him in other circumstances during this period—an
apprentice one for both of you perhaps? Did the two, or three, of you
do things together?
TL Once or twice we walked into the park. Ash always took a collection of
stones and he would pelt the ducks. He kept saying they were nature’s page 10 bounty. And he would go on about his own wretched life: I don’t recall
him once asking about my job with Hatherleys. Later, when I was first
with the Press he became very interested, but it was only because he
hoped I could get his stuff into the paper somehow. When he realised
I wasn’t able to do that he lost interest.
FK Yes, I want to talk about those years too, but your comment about him
going on about his life, extemporising from what must have been in
many ways a painful experience. Did he talk about his work?
TL Yes. He would still quote his smutty limericks from Te Tarehi and
later, but he often talked about what he called his ‘freefall novel’ which
he said would be the great Irish novel of New Zealand literature.
FK Hence the line many years later put into the mouth of Murphy
Upshott—‘Amanuensis I to the almost totally blind.’ His exegetes were
slow to recognise the debt that he acknowledged there so simply.
TL I was writing myself at the time—quite well received pieces about
provincial rugby—and Simon Oakes was sending some poetry back
from Oxford. Ash rarely made the pretence of interest, or attention. He
had a very personal line of questioning which my wife found rather
FK Unpleasant?
TL I’d rather not go into it in detail.
FK You mean MKD intruded into your lives in search of material?
TL Well, one instance I remember clearly. In the height of summer and
Ash had bludged a meal and then wandered out of the kitchen in case
a tea-towel was thrust at him. I went through for something and found
him standing in our bedroom. I remember the sun slanting across the
room from the old sash windows on to his face and how his eyes were
closed. When I asked him what the hell he was doing, he said he needed
the smell of a married bedroom.
FK There’s that remarkable scene in No New Bethlehem, isn’t there, in
which Lowell Knowell has returned from the maternity annex know-
both wife and child are lost and he stands in the bedroom with sun
stippling the unmade bed and he makes the first prayer of his life, yet
aware during it of the residual physicality of the place. ‘Marmalade,
musk, mildew, moth dust and Maya.’ Yes, an almost Orwellian
concern with the olfactory.
TL He had a bit of pong about him himself.
FK Did you have any inkling then, when you were both young men and page 11 trying to find a place in the world to stand, that MKD would go on to
become the greatest of all antipodean writers—one, as Bungeyjump
declared in a cover story, of the key figures perhaps this century?
TL I can’t say I did.
FK When did that perception occur to you?
TL When I read about it in Bungeyjump [laughs]. No, I suppose in the mid-
when there was the publicity when Bully For Me came under
such critical attack and Dickens started popping up on radio and
television. That was when I could see that his writing was popular with
the gurus.
FK Were you still in contact with him at this time?
TL Not so much. In about 1969, or maybe 1970, he shifted away to
FK April 1971, I believe.
TL Could well be. It’s fair to say that we didn’t part on the best of terms.
FK Would you like to talk about that?
TL Simon Oakes had just been killed in England.
FK The former companion of MKD and yourself?
TL My friend. Simon considered Ash very much a second-rate mind and
inconsequential as an athlete as well. Did I mention that it was Simon
who gave Ash the nick-name Dickens? Ash hated him for that.
FK I think so.
TL Simon died only a few weeks after receiving his PhD—
FK His DPhil. You did say Oxford.
TL What? Anyway, Simon was killed by the village of Dodder-Down
when he was leading the Federation Invitation Marathon. The well
known theatrical agent Hilton Folwlds had a heart attack and his
Morgan V8 went out of control. Simon had no family here and his
College sent all his papers to me. There were several boxes of his
writing—a great deal of prose which surprised me, for Simon had only
ever shown me his poetry. Susan and I couldn’t face reading it so soon
after his death. We left the boxes virtually undisturbed and then on the
Labour weekend when we had gone to Susan’s parents and left Ash in
the flat because his garage had been flooded, all of Simon’s papers were
stolen. Ash must have left the flat unlocked at some time, though you’d
wonder who would bother to steal typescripts. They did take my Dave
Brubeck records as well.
FK This was the cause of your rupture with MKD?page 12
TL I was very angry with him; furious, and so angry with myself for letting
Simon down. None of that stuff ever turned up. Ash kept away and
then I heard that he’d gone to Wellington, owing rent even on his
FK You did re-establish your friendship with him later, I understand, on
his return from the Capital. How did that come about?
TL Actually, I did have a brief correspondence with him during his time
in Wellington. He wrote asking if I would become a subscriber to a
literary journal he was to start up there. He wanted me to find other
subscribers in Canterbury as well—even sent me a list of people he
considered possibilities.
FK Have you kept the list? It might shed interesting light on who MKD
considered were people of literary sensibility at the time.
TL I didn’t I’m sorry. He also said that subscribers would receive what he
termed ‘positive editorial inclination’, but although I sent three
articles, none of them was published. Mind you the whole thing didn’t
last long did it?
FK Mopsus had just the three issues, but is considered to have been
prophetic of New Zealand literature as befits its title.
TL For years afterwards it kept sending out subscription forms. Ash must
have found that a useful income.
FK We have passed over two questions that I would like to return to now,
if that’s all right. The more recent concerns the picking up of your
friendship with MKD after he returned here.
TL Well, we’re talking the late seventies now, aren’t we. Susan and I were
living in Sumner. I’d left Hatherleys and after a stint in the Social
Welfare department and then as a taxi driver, when I was writing a good
deal, I got a job on the Press. Susan was teaching at Avonside Girls’ I
think—no, Papanui High School still, yes.
TL He had been taken up by the unmarried Devinne sisters who still lived
in the family home in Merivale. They’d both known Charles Brasch
quite well. Ash had convinced them his genius was worthy of support.
They were almost gaga of course. He would flirt and flatter to their faces
and slander them at other times. He called them Gorgon and Gorgon-
FK Did you ever meet Celia and Malisse Devinne?
TL Yes.page 13
FK What were the circumstances?
TL There was a sleep-out by the shrubbery which was Ash’s, but it wasn’t
big enough for his parties, so he persuaded the old dears to have a soirée
in the big house from time to time. Gorgon and Gorgonzola were left
tinkling at the piano while Ash and his friends boozed in the other
rooms. It was quite sad really: he demeaned their friendship and
mocked their infirmity. There were even things stolen from the house.
I stopped going.
FK The suggestion is that MKD stole from his benefactors?
TL I never saw him take anything, but I saw others remove ornaments—
there was a Devinne jade collection that suffered. Finally there was a
legal intervention by members of the wider family and the sisters were
taken into care and Ash ordered to vacate his sleep-out. I think in the
end the whole place was bought by the Anglican Church and became
a Diocesan Retreat.
FK Was it MKD’s practice to read work at these soirées?
TL Oh yes. He’d read on and on from what he termed ‘work in progress’
until he got too drunk and all his sycophantic friends would drink,
chatter and applaud. By that time he had a sort of arty entourage of
women with short black skirts and blue eyeliner, and guys with pony
FK The other question I wanted to come back to was that relating to the
approaches that you say were made by MKD when he knew you were
working for the Press. You mentioned that your impression was that he
cultivated you because he hoped for some advantage from that connec-
TL He was very interested in who decided on where books went for review,
who did profile features, things like that. Bill Zimmerman did all that
at the Press at that time. I introduced them shortly after Ash came back
from Wellington. Bill told me later that the very next day Ash called at
his office, saying that I was one of his closest friends and that he had
been Simon Oakes’s mentor in the year or so before his death. I had
asked Bill to do a feature on Simon, but Ash persuaded him to
concentrate on a living writer instead—Ash himself of course. I tackled
Dickens about that and I remember him saying, ‘Let the dead bury the
dead, Jinky old son. The inheritance is what matters.’
FK You had, by this time, known him for nearly thirty years. You were
familiar with his work.page 14
TL Certainly I’d read No New Bethlehem, Marcel Proust and I and The Toby
Jug World
FK How did the consciousness you encountered there equate with the
MKD you knew from day-to-day life? Could you hear Racine’s wolves
from the page?
TL I’ve always been impressed by the intensity, by the absolute candidness,
but it’s just all his own life isn’t it—or rather experience and observa-
manipulated so that he has become the centre of it. It’s a sort of
regurgitation, but with his own bile become dominant. In Bully For Me
I think it is, he has seventeen pages about using the lavatory in the
Lyttelton Domain.
FK ‘Sphincter Sphinx in crapt Crypt seated is the eye of I: retention is the
name of the game, the pit and the sun’s pendulum through the creak
crack of the swings outside and the follicles of the salt gulls’ cry.’
TL It all goes on rather, for me.
FK I have the impression that in the eighties when MKD was increasingly
gaining national attention, you and he were drifting apart. Would that
be an accurate summation?
TL Yes.
FK In fact after the mid-eighties you lost contact? You didn’t see him at all
in the last years of his life?
TL Susan and I had a sense that he couldn’t be bothered with us once his
prospects improved and to be honest I may have been somewhat
envious of his success. The very week that The Toby Jug World won the
big Commonwealth prize, I heard from Zeon Press that they had
rejected the collection of my articles. But basically I feel that Ash
wanted to kick off his earlier acquaintances; anyone who’d known him
before he was important. That way he could create himself over again.
The way he afterwards wrote about Te Tarehi High in Fallow Educa-
for example, and the accounts of his early years which became all
excitement and bizarre experience and angst. I remember when he was
in the garage behind Wilding Park he would spend hours catching
blowflies with an old vacuum cleaner and he would stand in his duffle
coat outside the window of Meehan’s Electrical watching television for
most of an evening.
FK When was the very last time you saw MKD?
TL I remember that it was the year of the big Canterbury floods; must have
been 85, or 86. Bill and Heather Zimmerman were with Susan and me page 15 at the Bush Inn and Ash and his crowd came all dressed up from some
mayoral thing; made a big entrance with their loud, affected voices.
Dickens had been a small, ratty guy and I remember thinking that he’d
become a small, puffy guy, like the old Sinatra. They came past us as
they were leaving and Susan said hello to him. He stopped and stared
for a few seconds then said, ‘Bugger the proles,’ and laughed and went
on out. I never saw him again. When he died, the editor asked me to
attend the funeral on the paper’s behalf and write an article, but I
couldn’t bring myself to do either. No one wanted to hear the truth
about the man.
FK I did a small piece for the overseas papers, I recall. MKD had insisted
on having a Brubeck number in the Cathedral and a march past of the
Ferrymead Fusiliers Dancing Team outside. Irony was everything to
him. A tropism to be found throughout his mature work.
TL Will his stuff last, do you think? Will people know Journals of the New
Te Rauparaha
and The Toby Jug World in fifty years?
FK Absolutely.
TL He wasn’t likeable you know. He used people, but all that’s being
changed now.
FK How is it at the end of Gab’s drowning in Bully For Me?—‘The
evolution of the strongest lies is always towards truth.’