At age 21, he had the highest tally of any West Coast deer culler, with 525 tails in a six-month season. The year was 1939, and he was mad for deer, but he watched his companions just as closely, capturing with pen and wash in his diaries the day-to-day life of the cullers. Through all of it, the youth who started out as Neville Spooner from Carterton watched himself grow tall in the hills, and became Stag. This handsome book is, in essence, a box of pictorial memorabilia, knit together by Chris Maclean’s introductory text in two distinct sections: Stag’s graphic diary of 1938-39, and the whimsical decorated envelopes sent home by Stag and his two brothers, Tory and Bryan, from the desert campaigns of World War II.
The Spooner brothers and their envelopes crowd the end of the book, but it’s Stag’s 81-page diary that is enshrined here as a classic. Stag ruled off every page into four frames. He drew himself into most scenes, and wrote a caption below each, recording track cutting in the Tararuas, then professional shooting in the South Island’s Whitcombe River Valley.
Long before Barry Crump mythologised the deer cullers with A Good Keen Man (1960), Stag recorded the fixing of broken-down huts, the fording of rivers, the frustration of being bluffed, the thrill of the hunt, the misery of being clagged in, the joy of sunshine, and the mateship. All of this is set against the great sleeping hills of the Tararuas, or the jagged immensity of the Southern Alps. In the same decade that Frank Sargeson won praise for bringing the New Zealand vernacular into literature, Stag was doing the same thing, unselfconscious, unsung. Eighty years on, his pictures and captions have a supernal glow.
The wild men recorded here pull the udders of a newly shot nanny for hot milk, or ride a wounded deer down a hill, then slit its throat, but the diary is sensitive, too. Some of its best moments are when the wilderness, never far from a New Zealand city, rolls one of its denizens down the main street. Six months of rampant hair and curly beard. Six months of whittling in the long hours after sunset to surmount the walking stick with some carved and horned beast. Women turn, jaws drop.
A famous essay written in 1978 by Australian poet Les Murray captures the eternal attraction of this kind of art, and an eternal division. Murray proposed a split in Western culture that began in the 6th century BC between urban Athens, the main city of Greece’s Attica region, and the smallholdings of agricultural Boeotia to the northwest. Sophisticated Athens, with its theatre, critics and cognoscenti, portrayed agricultural Boeotia as rude, boorish, mist-enclosed, preoccupied with sport and hunting and producing only primitive art. Murray’s essay defended the purity of the Boeotian style, alert to natural cycles, rooted in the autochthon, and just plain honest. As with Boeotia then, so to Carterton now, for which three cheers.
The story has a disturbing finish. Within a year of returning from the war, the eldest brother, Tory, was dead at 32 of a heart attack on a Tararuas track. Three weeks later, Stag hired the Te Anau launch to take him to the top of the lake’s remote North Arm, to return in a month. Stag waded ashore alone to set up camp and hunt for deer royalty – wapiti. Within a few days of his arrival, his written diary noted increasing weakness before he succumbed to pneumonia. He was 28.
STAG SPOONER: WILD MAN FROM THE BUSH, by Chris Maclean (Craig Potton, $49.99).
Geoff Chapple’s last book was A Walking Guide to New Zealand’s Long Trail – Te Araroa.