In this abridged extract from his new memoir, it is 1964 and writer James McNeish is back in New Zealand from the UK, travelling the country with his tape recorder on the suggestion of geographically confused BBC producer Jack Dillon, who has urged: “Find me some poets. Nobody knows a damn thing about Australian writing.”
At the time, I was almost as ignorant of New Zealand letters as Jack Dillon was. I had met and interviewed Frank Sargeson before going overseas. At university I had been tutored by the poets ARD Fairburn and MK Joseph. That was about it. I had never written an essay or a poem, belonged to a set or read a literary journal. I did not subscribe to Landfall. In London, asked about the New Zealand literary scene, I would say “cliqueridden”, though I knew nothing about it, never having wished nor been invited to belong. In my imagination and conceit I pictured groups of navel-gazing young poets and short-story writers earnestly striving in small magazines to create a New Zealand literature and a New Zealand identity as far removed from events on the other side of the world as possible.
Happily in Auckland an old friend, Jack Tresidder, had the sense to suggest I meet some real poets like Denis Glover. For some reason he did not mention Janet Frame, who had shot to prominence while I was away and recently returned from London, as I had. Her work was another gap in my education. And when Janet Frame herself walked into a bach I had taken on Waiheke and introduced herself, I had no idea who she was. “Janet who?” I said to the fresh-faced woman with a dimple who materialised on the doorstep. She stood in the sunlight, her hands clasped together at the waist, then half-turned to her companion. The latter, it transpired, was her sister. The sister said, “We were told that a bach round here was available for renting.” “Yes,” I laughed. “I’m renting it.” Janet smiled hesitantly. I invited them in and made a cup of tea.
Years later, when Janet’s fame had spread, I was asked to judge the non-fiction section of the national book awards and discovered among the entries the last volume of her autobiographical trilogy, The Envoy from Mirror City. Reading it, I was struck by a curious parallel in experience: a similar contrast of lives lived between London and the Mediterranean – Sicily in my case, Ibiza and Andorra in hers; a similar trajectory of mingled excitements and dread, exhilaration and despair, culminating in a downward spiral of anxiety and return to a dubious and insecure homeland. Even the chronology, our years of absence, matched. The difference was that on returning to New Zealand, however apprehensively in Janet’s case, she was determined to make a go of it, whereas I, infirm of purpose, was not. It is harder to stay than go away again.
In 1964 I knew nothing of her story. Perhaps, after she departed, I thought back and remembered the publication of Owls Do Cry. But I hadn’t read it, nor did she mention that she was a novelist. But for one exchange, so unremarkable was our meeting on Waiheke Island, I would not have guessed she was a writer at all. In conversation I happened to mention the word “lorry”, and she corrected me. “‘Truck’. It’s ‘truck’ here,” she said. “Oh. I’d forgotten.” Then, musing on the coloured roofs of the houses which struck me as 20 years younger than the inhabitants, I compared them to rows of boiled sweets. “‘Lollies’,” she said. “We say ‘lollies’ in New Zealand.”
I’m sure she took me for a Pom. It would be some years before I realised how English I sounded. I should have tumbled to that too, because when I encountered Denis Glover he accused me of having a BBC accent. By the time I met Denis Glover I had boned up on his verse and talked about him with Sargeson and others. I knew of Glover’s role in the renaissance of the 30s and 40s. But I had not known what to expect. Glover greeted me in a dressing gown. He had a whisky nose and a parade-ground manner, even in carpet slippers. “I’m new to this sort of thing,” he said, watching me unpack and take out the tape recorder. “Stay the night. Stay two nights. Glad to be back, are you?” he said. He added, “I’m not”, although he had been back in New Zealand almost 20 years. I had written ahead, saying I’d like to interview him and make his verse available to a wider audience when I returned to London. He was living outside Wellington at Paekakariki with Khura, his lover.
There was an underlying tension in their relationship. I didn’t know he was another near-expatriate who had returned from England after the war, a man divided. Nor realise that, having taken a tutoring job in Wellington, how much in his own eyes he had come down in the world. Glover’s wartime career in the navy had culminated in the award of the Distinguished Service Order for bravery in the D-Day landings at Normandy. Returning to the South Island, he had taken up a prestige job in publishing, only to throw it away, a wife and small son included, on drink and bad debts; ending up in Paekakariki with Khura on the rebound. I had been warned about Glover’s volatility, but not of the buxom Khura’s propensity for sabotage. Khura began drinking soon after we got up. Shortly after we started recording on the first day, she seized the microphone and tried to throw it through the window.
Denis relinquished his chair, saying, “I am not going to record for the bloody BBC!”, and stormed out of the house. Khura blinked, then poured herself another vodka and followed him. An hour later they returned. Denis said in a chastened voice: “Right. Shall we start again? Let’s do Fairburn.” “Denis will do anything for Rex Fairburn,” Khura said. For two days we recorded Fairburn to the exclusion of everything else. The tantrums were, I think, an act, but a necessary act. Theirs was a symbiotic relationship. Khura and Denis fed off each other. Without Khura, I realised later, no recordings would have been possible. Early mornings were best, before Khura got up. We recorded in the living room off a sun-porch overlooking sand dunes where Denis wrote. When Khura was there she sat in a corner, nodding to Denis and smiling at him, flushed with pride. She knew the poems by heart. “Swinging the chain, am I?” he said at one point. We were doing The Rakehelly Man. He stopped abruptly. “No, keep going,” Khura said. “Don’t listen to John.”
“Shut up, Khura. His name’s Jim, not John. Anyway,” Denis said, “John’s the BBC.” He sent Khura out of the room, drank a tumbler of water and began recording the ballad again. We recorded The Rakehelly Man four or five times before he was satisfied. It was only on the last day, at Khura’s insistence, that Denis consented to read from his own verse. I had been hoping to record The Magpies. Denis refused to read it. Khura tried to persuade him. We both tried. In vain. Denis said he wasn’t ready. He had written it in the 30s. The Magpies had been set to music by Douglas Lilburn, but its refrain (“Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle”), destined to become the most quoted line in New Zealand verse, was still unknown except to the cognoscenti. Probably I was miffed by Glover’s refusal. Now I honour his attitude (even if he did pinch the refrain, reportedly, from an Australian bird). His insistence on “getting it right”, a professional’s instinct for pitch and timing, was of an order that seemed quite rare.
I was reminded of the young Romanian pianist Dinu Lipatti who, recording Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring in London shortly before he died, insisted on more than a dozen takes before he would allow the recording to be released. And I began to ask myself where this New Zealand poet with the bewitching voice had been hiding, why he was quite unknown to radio listeners in his native land.
TOUCHSTONES: A MEMOIR, by James McNeish (Vintage, $29.99), released July 6.