Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Who Would a Would-Be Be? A Memoir of Literary Encounters

Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Who Would a Would-Be Be? A Memoir of Literary Encounters

Article excerpt

...this my personal as well as my LITERARY LIFE...

Coleridge, Biographia Literaria1

The feeling of being a fake cries out for a noun (there must be one in German); it haunts my reality. The idea that you could just make yourself up would have scandalised my mother and been incomprehensible to my father. There must be more to reality than this! So, their outrage and incomprehension, which I inherited, lingers within me in relation to my own roles in life. A poet? I love what the character Kutisar in Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis's The Guru of Chai says about poets: 'They have dirty, filthy thoughts and out of their mouths come pomegranates and figs'.2 And so, it was with a desire to seek out the company of those whose disgusting imaginings could be transformed into gorgeous indulgences that I went looking for those who were real-real poets, real writers, real artists, and not just fabrications of their own fancy. 'The Fancy', in Coleridge's coinage, lacked that transformational capacity to convert those dirty, filthy thoughts, and so remained 'a mode of Memory' which 'must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association'.3 This exercise I am undertaking here is guilty of being exactly that, and thus a child of 'The Fancy', yet I shall try to see if I cannot transform it by the end. This is the story of the beginnings of my literary encounters-which have continued ever since-and which, in those beginnings, felt like a revelatory series of meetings with the wise and the mighty and the blessed.

Francis Warener Blackburn was the first real writer I met. Under the pen-name James Garford he published two novels with Faber and Faber, Camphor (1959) and Seventeen Come Sunday (1961). Seventeen Come Sunday is a bildungsroman of post-World War Two England and Camphor has scenes set in Hong Kong, where Blackburn had been prior to his moving to New Zealand and taking up a post teaching at Hamilton Boys' High School. He taught me there for two terms in 1964 before departing for St Paul's Collegiate, the private Anglican boys' school in Hamilton. His classroom presence was a terrifying one, to the extent that when a boy with a cold coughed in his class, he commented, 'If you want to die, go out in the corridor and die'. Alan Brunton, who was taught by Blackburn at a senior level in the school, reports that he said to his class, '"When I read King Lear, I cry", and he did'.4 However, his presence was transformed when he opened his own home at 1 Riro Street, Hamilton, for Litsoc (Literary Society) meetings. Here I heard Waiting for Godot played on long-playing records on the gramophone. Here Dr Blackburn (PhD degree from Aberdeen University) read to us one evening from his own novels. Here I read a poem out loud for the first time in semi-public (it was T. S. Eliot's 'Journey of the Magi'-why, I ask myself, when I didn't even know how to pronounce the word 'Magi'?) Those boys who professed a passion for literature were treated as welcome guests in his house. It was for me the beginning of a feeling that one could become a member of such a gathering; it was the feeling that accompanies initiation, the hope combined with the nagging question, 'How long?' before one would fully belong. Francis Blackburn was an eccentric. After he had staged Shakespeare's Julius Caesar at St Paul's and located its drama in a factory, he moved the welded metal sculptures that had decorated the set to his Riro Street home and placed them on the roof. He did not cut his hedge (a real sin in Hamilton) and so the house was like Cinderella's waiting for the charming prince to come and hack it back to a normal colonial trim. Yet he was also a serious Roman Catholic and an organist who used to go up the hill from his home to St Andrew's Presbyterian Church (our family church) to play Bach on the pipe organ there. And, he assured us, his wife was much cleverer than he. The fact that his last act at Hamilton Boys' High School was to cane every boy who had not returned his English class set book pales for me beside the encouraging comment he wrote on my end-of-second-term report: 'Has considerable gifts'. …

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