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Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays

James K. Baxter: A Personal Memory

James K. Baxter: A Personal Memory

This piece was first published in Islands 3, March 1973.

There were three of us with choices of conscience to face who left a training college picnic at Brighton beach south of Dunedin in 1941 to make a call of homage to Archibald Baxter in the township. The Baxter family had one son in military defaulter's camp and accepted philosophically that they'lived in a state of partial siege. Archie heartened us; Mrs Baxter talked proudly of 'Jum' who came in from school before we left. I recall the sharp, sensitive profile, the soft pale complexion and an odd impression of a boy snug in his parent's affection but at a distance from it and from all of us.

He had not remembered that visit when we met again in 1948, students at Canterbury; eventually he was literary editor and I editor of Canta. He gave up his studies and I have forgotten how many jobs he had: proof-reading at the Press, stoking a hospital furnace, living on milk and invitations out when he was not working. We saw a lot of each other for that year; we were fond of each other and confided freely. If I had been in such a forcing house of outward conformity as the army while he had grown in the freedom of a Quaker household and sown a reputation at Otago University as a wild man with women and alcohol, we shared not only a taste for beer but a dismay that the times which in our memory had seen Stalin's purges, world war, Guernica, Belsen and Hiroshima offered page 167 neither peace nor likelihood of accommodating the idealist hopes we thought we had lost. He had (he said it like an older man forgiving the errors of his youth) believed in the natural virtue of the working man and I had thought communism could eliminate injustice and war. We remembered Darkness at Noon, and read Graham Greene, talking in terms no longer in vogue of natural man and original sin and of eros and agape and caritas and the sin of sloth or despair to which he felt especially prone and called by its medieval name accidie. The truths that we were finding out were old ones, and humbling: that the seeds of oppression and violence lay in the nature that we had in common with other men, and a recognition of the supreme value of compassionate love—truths that explain the compassion Baxter could feel not only for the victims of authority but for its agents. We were drawn to the security and conviction that religious orthodoxy offered, envying the Middle Ages their simplicity of belief. I was attracted sentimentally to Catholicism but Jim who read C.S. Lewis was happier with Anglicanism. He was received into the Church of England, but it did not surprise me later (though by then I had less faith in the religious solution) that he turned Catholic. It was a logical step and if I could have believed in it I would have taken it myself.

We often put in time in pubs, frequently on a Saturday night in one of the several Christchurch bars that would serve you after hours if you rang three times and kept your voice low. If it was day I might find Jim at the bar reading Deaths and Entrances which lived, with the notebook in which he wrote in tall sloping print-script like stands of bamboo the first fair copies of his poems, in one of the deep pockets of a long gray overcoat that he wore rain or shine buttoned to the neck and with his pale face made him look like someone just out of hospital; or perhaps explaining to a bookie he had got talking to what it was to be a poet. I was impressed that he could sustain such a conversation and hold the bookie's respect. It was a privilege I imagine hundreds have shared to be the first to see a new poem. 'To my Father' and 'By the Sumner Clock Tower' I first read in bars in that thick little notebook with hard glossy black covers. He read the manuscript of everything I wrote then and I can understand the attraction he has had for young writers because he could take your new work in all its gaucheness and see the grace of the impulse in which it was conceived. From his own adolescent practice he remembered what it was to write badly. When I tried to write verse he told me I didn't harden my heart enough. I valued his sympathy and insight, his tolerance and common sense, his heavy oblique humour and his endless image-spinning talk.

There were aspects that puzzled me. He had moods of depression he did not talk about. I did not understand why he should feel guilty when he saw a policeman or why at his age he was so concerned at the thought of death. I was embarrassed when a barman at the Shades turned us out because he had violated the after-hours protocol and climbed a high gate page 168 rather than go through the ritual of knocking to be readmitted from the urinal which was down a back alley; or again when in broad sunlight he turned to a suburban hedge to piss. Even his flow ran dry when a rock-faced matron stepped off her bicycle behind him.

In the late forties there was in Christchurch a group of writers and artists that included Denis Glover, Allen Curnow and Colin McCahon, with Charles Brasch as a quarterly visitor and Fairburn and Mason coming from Auckland. (It was in Christchurch in 1948 that Baxter first met Mason, not in the sixties in Dunedin as he said in his memoir of Mason in Landfall.) Jim with the achievement of one book of verse behind him and another in press had a wide round of acquaintance with whom he was welcome, likely to turn up at any hour, a bottle hauling on one of his pockets. Pale, coughing and hung over he knocked up Lawrence Baigent at six one Sunday morning, asked for a bottle of milk and sat down to write, without need for revision, a piece on Frank Sargeson that was overdue for Canta.

When I first knew him he was recuperating from a broken love affair with a Dunedin medical student; he was badly hurt. A little later in the year Jacquie Sturm who had been a friend in Dunedin came to Canterbury College. She wrote verse over the initials J.C. and sometimes appeared in the same issue. When they married at the end of the year they went to Wellington where they found a good friend in James Bertram. I remember Jim writing to me that love was suffering and so many of New Zealand's unrecognised tragedies were in the Flats Wanted column. They rented a bach or cottage at Belmont above the Hutt river and I stayed with them the following Easter.

I went to England and we corresponded for several years; but the Korean War had returned my thoughts to a political direction and I had less sympathy with Jim's later phases. In later years if I met him with a group it seemed that his talk was directed to a sounding board and that he deflected attempts to re-establish the old relationship. But it was easy to talk to him if he was alone or with Jacquie and his family; it was like that at Messines Road and Karori in the mid-fifties when he was teaching; at Westshore on holiday in 1963 (he and Jacquie liked an essay I had written in Landfall on the current position of Maoris, and I am grateful for the disinterested good sense of the advice he gave me on a personal problem I put to him); and at Dunedin in 1966 when the news came of his appointment to a second year of the Burns Fellowship. At Dunedin I thought him as settled and content as I had seen him and didn't recognise the 'money dungeon' that had been stifling him and he had broken from, as he told me, barefoot in May and wearing dungarees like tents, when we sat down together in the Kiwi Hotel three years later and talked with the old directness and intimacy and on an impulse he gave me his advance copy of The Rock Woman. I only saw him once again and then he was in a mood to taunt me, unjustly, with having backslid on my old leftism.