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James K. Baxter Complete Prose Volume 4

The Wellington Years — 1949-65

The Wellington Years

1949 In January they live for a time with Jacquie’s married sister in Wellington. About March they move into a cottage in Park Road, Belmont, in the Hutt Valley. JKB finds work at the Ngauranga abattoir. On 27 May he talks to the university literary society on ‘Why Writers Stop Writing’. The chief reason he advances is lack of religion. Wellington academics and the literary set welcome him. Hilary Anne Baxter, their first child, is born on 18 June.
1950The Baxters move to an old house with shared facilities at 105 Messines Road in Karori. Ian Gordon, professor of English, supports the young couple, as does Harold Miller, the university librarian, and his wife Edith. The Millers, who are Anglican, also support them in their spiritual lives. Their son John becomes a particularly close friend of JKB’s. Enrolling at university JKB studies Greek History, Art and Literature part-time and associates with a group of university poets including Bill Oliver, John Thomson, Alistair Campbell, Louis Johnson and Pat Wilson. JKB leaves the abattoir and on 6 March becomes a postman. His first Listener book review appears this year.
1951On 17 January JKB loses his job as a postman when he is found drunk and asleep in the Karori post office. He is accepted as a student at Teachers’ College and begins his course on 1 February. The vice-principal W.J. Scott and a lecturer named Anton Vogt are especially stimulating in JKB’s life, as is Louis Johnson, who becomes his best friend. Everybody, it seems, is drinking too much, but JKB is drinking more than any of them. This does not prevent him from page 162giving a brilliant talk at the New Zealand Writers’ Conference held in Christchurch in May. It is entitled Recent Trends in New Zealand Poetry and is published in the same year by the Caxton Press.
1952John McColl Baxter, JKB’s and Jacquie’s second child, is born on 29 October. JKB’s teacher-training course finishes this year. Poems Unpleasant is a collaboration with Louis Johnson and Anton Vogt.
1953The Fallen House, JKB’s third major poetry collection, is published. He is now a fulltime university undergraduate on a salary paid by the Teachers’ College.
1954JKB begins teaching at Epuni School, Lower Hutt. In June he delivers the Macmillan Brown Lectures at Victoria University. They are patchy because there are gaps in his knowledge and he writes much of them while fiendishly drunk. But parts are very good. Late in the year the family moves to more spacious quarters at 166 Wilton Road. JKB becomes a co-editor of Numbers, a literary periodical set up, chiefly by Louis Johnson, as a counter-balance to the editorial policies of Curnow and Brasch. JKB studies part-time at the university. He passes Latin II but fails English III because he cannot handle the Old English component. His besetting sins are alcohol and sex. Late this year he joins Alcoholics Anonymous.
1955Receiving a substantial legacy from the estate of his great-aunt Hester Seager he gives an equal share to his parents and his brother Terry, and then spends the remainder on a house at 41 Collingwood St, Ngaio. This year he graduates BA from Victoria University.
1956At the end of Term One he resigns from Epuni School and joins the School Publications branch of the Department of Education as a sub-editor, responsible for producing bulletins for use in primary schools. He begins work on 16 May. He is especially interested in producing readers for Māori children and this puts him in touch with Rod Finlayson, whose short stories often have Māori settings. JKB’s short story ‘To Have and to Hold’ suggests that his marriage is under severe strain.
1957Publication of The Iron Breadboard, studies in New Zealand writing. These parodies cause resentment in some New Zealand writers. Also published is The Night Shift, poems on aspects of love (with Charles Doyle, Louis Johnson, and Kendrick Smithyman). With occasional exceptions, JKB’s drinking is now largely under control. In September he tells Finlayson that he is giving serious thought to becoming a Catholic. Later that month he agrees to undertake the course of instructions which is necessary before he can be conditionally baptised. Jacquie is deeply offended because the news comes out of the blue. In addition, she has been brought up to dislike Catholicspage 163 and she and the children are members of an Anglican parish. Her frustration and anger are so great that in October she orders him out of the house. He lives at the Boulcott Street flats for a time; then moves to 212 Sydney Street West, nearer his workplace and the railway station. (He goes by train to visit his children on weekends.) In December he prepares for his conversion by making a week’s retreat at the Cistercian Monastery, Kopua, Hawke’s Bay.
1958On 11 January he is received as a Catholic at the Church of St Mary of the Angels in Boulcott Street. In Fires of No Return is published, his first Oxford University Press poetry collection. The most recent poems in it are affected by his struggles against alcoholism and the influence of George Barker. They are less successful than his earlier poems. His radio play Jack Winter’s Dream is presented by the New Zealand Broadcasting Service. He is given a UNESCO Fellowship to attend a conference in Japan about school textbooks. Afterwards he will go to India to search for ideas which will allow Asian influences to permeate New Zealand educational resources. Chosen Poems, a pamphlet of poems, is published for him to give away. He leaves from Auckland on 16 September, having previously arranged for Jacquie and the children to join him in India. This is an attempt at reconciliation. After the conference ends JKB flies to India. During a stopover in Bangkok he has sex with a prostitute. Three weeks later Jacquie, Hilary and John arrive by ship at Mumbai. They take a train to New Delhi and stay in a house JKB has already leased. JKB travels reasonably widely, usually by train, and is exposed to the poverty, health and social problems of Indian society. These will affect him all his life. Jacquie and JKB feel closer to each other and a significant measure of reconciliation is achieved.
1959He returns to a fuss over the State Literary Fund’s financial support of Numbers, which carries a story by Richard Packer deemed to be obscene. On 29 May JKB resumes work at School Publications. His poems ‘Mr Baxter’s Evening Liturgy’ and ‘Spring Song of a Civil Servant’ reveal that he is sexually frustrated. His play The Wide Open Cage is produced in Wellington by Richard Campion. Capricorn Press publishes Two Plays: The Wide Open Cage and Jack Winter’s Dream.
1960The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse causes controversy because of Allen Curnow’s aesthetic of New Zealandism and restrictive editorial policy.
1961In early January JKB and John Weir become friends after beginning a correspondence that will last for the remainder of JKB’s life. Howrah Bridge and other poems is published by Oxford University Press. It contains a group of poems written in India. Richard Campion page 164 produces JKB’s play Three Women and the Sea. This year JKB is appointed a PEN representative on the advisory committee of the State Literary Fund.
1962On 9 February JKB tells John Weir that he has applied for a job as a watersider. He fails to get the job. He writes sketches for Horse, his autobiographical novel, and tells Weir on 8 October that he intends to ‘salt it away’ for a time in order not to scandalise potential readers.
1963He resigns from School Publications and on 11 March begins work as a postman. Between 17 and 23 July he takes an active role in the union’s campaign against management during a lockout occasioned by the posties’ refusal to deliver sample packets of soap powder. This year he is also engaged in a dispute between Louis Johnson, editor of New Zealand Poetry Yearbook, and the State Literary Fund Advisory Committee caused by the Committee’s refusal to give a grant to assist publication unless Johnson withdraws several poems, including two by JKB. JKB resigns from the Committee. On 22 August Jacquie’s mother dies in Jim and Jacquie’s home. JKB has helped nurse her during her last days. In September/October he writes ‘Pig Island Letters’, a poetry sequence dedicated to Maurice Shadbolt. Death of Bob Lowry in December.
1964A Selection of Poetry is published.
1965JKB becomes more involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement. ‘A Bucket of Blood for a Dollar’ and ‘The Gunners’ Lament’ are published as broadsheets. On 3 July Archie and Millicent Baxter are baptised as Catholics. JKB is present as a formal witness. On 15 August they are confirmed.

Return to Dunedin

1966JKB returns to Dunedin as Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago. He and his family live in a university house at 660 Cumberland Street. On 27 August he applies for an extension, claiming to have delivered six talks and written ninety poems (including the sequence ‘Words to Lay a Strong Ghost’) in the current year. Pig Island Letters is published. He gets to know Peter Olds this year.
1967His anti-war writings and activities continue. He writes articles for Catholic journal the Tablet. ‘A Small Ode on Mixed Flatting’, The Lion Skin, The Man on the Horse and Aspects of Poetry in New Zealand are published. Campion produces The Spots of the Leopard. Patric Carey produces The Band Rotunda (15 July), The Sore-footed Man (4 September), The Bureaucrat and The Devil and Mr Mulcahy (inpage 165 November). JKB decides to stay in Dunedin in 1968 and tells Weir in a letter dated 14 July that he will work for the Catholic Diocese of Dunedin after his tenure of the Fellowship ceases.
1968JKB works for the Catholic Education Office. He writes more Tablet articles and a virulent anti-war poem ‘A death song for Mr Mouldybroke’. In August he speaks to the annual assembly of the National Council of Churches. In November Mr O’Dwyer’s Dancing Party is performed at the Globe. During this year his daughter Hilary begins looking for independence. His son John wants to leave high school for art school – JKB and Colin McCahon talk him out of it. JKB feels burnt-out and a failure as a husband and parent. He begins visiting Peter Olds and his friends in their Dunedin flat; stays talking for hours; the ‘submerged teenager’ begins to come to the surface in JKB. In late March he has a powerful spiritual and emotional experience which he describes to John Weir in a letter, first remarking, ‘The Lord has gripped my heart in His fist and I am full of terror and joy.’ This experience causes him to feel called to go to Jerusalem (New Zealand) in the following year where he will live close to a Māori community and plan the development of a community home for homeless young people. He considers that his wife Jacquie might then be returned to him ‘on the Maori side of the fence’.