Counter Intelligence :
Remembering Frank Sargeson
Frank Sargeson lived in a bach – a small, hut-like building, usually a holiday residence but in Sargeson’s case his home from 1931 until his death in 1982 – in Takapuna on the north shore of Waitemāta, the gulf that forms Auckland’s harbour.
Sargeson protected his writing time fiercely, but he also welcomed novelists, poets, artists, thinkers and characters of all kinds into his home. He would feed them with produce from his garden, pour them glasses of Lemora – a cheap but potent fortified citrus wine – and above all encourage them to discuss, to argue, to read aloud, and to swap stories and literary opinions. For some it was an entertainment, for others it was an education. For all, it was a memorable part of their time with Frank Sargeson.
To mark the publication of All to Blazes, we have attempted to capture the atmosphere of those lively conversations across Frank’s kitchen counter, by asking a guest list of distinguished New Zealand writers to reflect on Frank Sargeson and his work. It’s not quite as good as having them swap stories at the bach, glass of Lemora in hand, but it’s the next best thing.
Some of our guests were close friends of Frank, some met him only through his work. All were significantly influenced by him, and responded enthusiastically to our request to join in this conversation. After the first piece, a scene-setting poem by Kevin Ireland, other contributors appear alphabetically.
Kevin Ireland grew up locally and got to know Frank well. In the late 1950s he stayed in a small ex-army hut behind the bach – as Janet Frame had before him – while taking his earliest steps as a writer. A notable career as a poet, novelist and essayist followed. This poem, and another, ‘Ash Tuesday’, about the scattering of Sargeson’s ashes in the bach’s garden, form a touching tribute.
A new alphabet
for Frank Sargeson
Giving pleasure to friends
with food, brilliant talk, and praise,
tributes from the garden,
glass of citrus wine upraised,
he would be generous, open, kind,
then suddenly go for the jugular,
bristling with gossip and mischief.
Standing behind the wooden bar
that marked the kitchen’s frontier
and served as table, workbench,
secular pulpit, refuge,
he would hack peppers, wrench
lettuces apart, put tomatoes
to the knife, and feed the multitude.
A lectern where books were read from,
the place where tea was brewed,
a trading post for counter-
intelligence, puns, wit, bile,
literary gas, good fun, outrage,
news from the street, guile,
interpretations of trifles,
wisdom. Everyone took
something of immeasurable value
away. But today, when I look
through the house, shadows are all
that are left of those times.
A dark inarticulate alphabet
of hooked shapes climbs
over the shelves, cupboards,
and bed, and coils in the remote
caverns behind the doors.
A scythe, cups, plates, and a note
skewered on a nail, cast a scribble
of shade in a likeness of words.
An inkling of letters. Smudges.
A cipher of something unheard.
Steve Braunias is a prolific journalist, columnist and non-fiction writer, based in Auckland. He edits New Zealand’s most exciting and diverse literary website, The Reading Room. A recent interview with Kevin Ireland, whose poem we’ve just read (and another friend of Sargeson’s, CK Stead, who we’ll meet later) set Steve off down a small but fascinating alleyway in pursuit of Frank…and Len.
Frank Sargeson lives in my house, in my hallway to be exact. A small, strange, sad part of him exists in a painting which I bought last year for $30: it's by Len Hollobon, a commercial artist, who enjoyed a brief erotic encounter with Sargeson which had terrible consequences – and helped to change the course of New Zealand literature.
My interest in Hollobon began when I interviewed two of Sargeson's greatest protégés, CK Stead and Kevin Ireland, at the famous shack in Takapuna in 2019. They talked with a deep fondness and affection for the man who gave them inspiration and encouragement when they were young writers. At one point they talked of Sargeson's love life, such as it was; Sargeson was openly gay, and liked talking about sex, but was furtive and secretive about his own liaisons. It wasn't until after Sargeson had died, and Michael King wrote his biography, that they knew he'd been arrested in 1929 when police caught him engaged in a homosexual act with a man called Len Hollobon.
Hollobon was sentenced to five years jail. Sargeson, then known by his birth name of Norris Davey, avoided jail, but was forced to give up his job with a law firm. He laid low on his uncle's farm for several years. When he re-emerged, it was with his new name of Frank Sargeson, and an ambition to write fiction. A new and profound development in New Zealand literature was put in place, as Sargeson looked for an authentic vernacular in his writing, and took a generation of writers into his care and his confidence, including Stead, Ireland, and, most famously, Janet Frame.
Well, good for them. But what about Hollobon? I looked into his story, and found that King had got quite a few details wrong. Hollobon had not been caught with Sargeson. There was no dramatic bust. Hollobon volunteered the information, after he went to police to try and sort out a case of blackmail against him. It didn't really work in his favour. He was sentenced to five years hard labour.
After his release, he continued to make art for the commercial market. He painted seashells. He painted drums. He painted canvasses, too. And it seems he only ever painted the same scene: a lonely boat with a white sail. That's in the painting in my hallway. Hollobon's signature is at the bottom right of the picture, along with the date when something bad happened, and Norris Davey was put aside in favour of Frank Sargeson: 1929.
Bernard Brown grew up in Suffolk, emigrated as a young man, and taught law at Auckland University for 50 years. He has been a prolific if unassuming poet, and behind the scenes a dedicated supporter of literature, including serving on the board of the Sargeson Trust. His contribution, which he titles ‘Coming Out’ is valuable from a historical point of view, as the standard biography of Sargeson insists he refrained from revealing his homosexuality publicly until the late-1970s. Bernard’s piece witnesses Frank speaking up at least 15 years earlier.
BB: To me, a rural English lad, ‘coming out’ was what the Squire’s daughter did at the King’s house at the end of Pall Mall. By the early 1970s a few spunky New Zealand males were ‘outing’ themselves as homosexuals, initially in The Listener.
Ten years earlier I, a refugee from Lee Kuan Yew’s ire, had retreated from my law teaching job in Singapore and found similar work in Auckland. Crime was my specialty and within a few weeks I had been dragooned into giving a public talk on criminology. It was a wet night at the Labour Party’s room in lower Queen Street. A full house.
Arriving late and bedraggled was a bearded elfin man accompanied by art historian Dr Eric McCormick. Eric had already sought me out because he’d heard I, as a boy, had painted in Suffolk with Frances Hodgkins. Following my fairly dour Queen Street address, questions were invited.
Suddenly the meeting was electrified by the elfin-man who put short, sharp inquiries (four or five in rapid order) about the progress in Britain of the Wolfenden Report on Male Homosexual Offending. This was done in the voice of one who had a distinct, personal interest in the subject. Although there was passion in the voice, it was also quiet, insistent, dignified. Everyone present seemed to know Frank Sargeson or who he was. We were there for more than another hour. No other subject was discussed.
Eric McCormick took me for a cup of coffee afterwards and told me about Frank. In his ultra discreet way Eric hinted that the flurry of questions signalled a kind of ‘coming out’ for Frank in that he had had not announced his sexuality publicly until that night. Well, to be Frank (as it were), Frank hadn’t explicitly done so, but it was as close as made no difference. Eric, a covert homosexual man, was pleased – chiefly for the young folk present – and we agreed that Frank Sargeson, who Eric indicated had long been ‘invigilated’ by the constabulary, had been brave.
I subsequently met Frank half a dozen times at PEN (NZ) meetings. I was the Auckland branch secretary/treasurer ($37.50 in the kitty!) Frank turned up sporadically and always put $5 in the hat. That was like an English ‘fiver’ in the ‘60s. He had time for members like Eric, Keith Sinclair, Karl Stead, Roderick Finlayson, Una Platts and Graeme Lay, but was not keen on a small, bullish element headed by John A. Lee, a noisy, far-left socialist.
Poignantly, I introduced Frank to a lively young (as yet-unpublished) playwright, Denis Edwards, who in his alter ego role of ambulance driver, was called to 14 Esmonde Road in early 1984 and conveyed Frank to his final hospitalisation.
PEN held its meeting at the University of Auckland for 30 years. It was fitting that the university who had enabled Frank to qualify as a solicitor conferred upon him an honorary doctorate of literature, two years before his death.
Looking back on that 1962 Queen Street meeting, I regret that I did not pump as much reformatory zeal into it as Frank Sargeson did. Ironically a very overweight law student, David Lange, who drove me to the meeting – in a jalopy we had to push half the way there – became the Prime Minister who facilitated the 1985 private members bill (twenty years after Westminster acted), that in New Zealand removed the penal sanctions from consensual homosexual relations.
Patrick Evans wrote a brilliantly entertaining novel called Gifted, in which he imagined the eventful co-habitation of Sargeson and Janet Frame in Takapuna. Evans has also written perceptively and wittily about cultural nationalism and post-colonial literature in The Long Forgetting. He recently retired as Emeritus Professor from the University of Canterbury, Christchurch.
PE: Frank Sargeson stays in the ears of anyone of my generation who read him and then set about the business of trying to write alone, only to hear his tread ahead of them as they went. One of my lecturers, Ray Copland, recalled being a young New Zealander in the wartime RAF picking up one of the early stories of a then-barely-known writer and suddenly catching a whiff of macrocarpa, seeing the bright yellow and green of gorse, hearing the breeze off the Pacific Ocean – the very essence of his tiny, distant home country caught as he’d never experienced it before on a page.
A generation later, that voice was there for me on exactly the same terms amidst a traditional university education ‘from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf’: a first twang of the local in a late colonial syllabus whose aim was to obliterate the ‘thisness’ of what surrounded us and validate the ‘thatness’ of The British Empah which had taken over. These were the days when candidates for teacher training were still required to take something called ‘speech therapy’ to remove the ‘nasal Kiwi whine’ from their voices, when local-born lads my age said they were ‘proud to be British’ and were thrilled when (after elocution lessons) they were mistaken for Poms (as certain sorts of English persons are sometimes called, alas, in Australasia).
Well, reading Frank put paid to that and placed that nasal whine back where it was supposed to be, in the ear and on the page. A trick, some complained, spotting the themes Sargeson smuggled into the pockets of his working men’s clothes: the violence of frontier New Zealand, the mistrust of matronly women, the love that dare not speak its name (though Sargeson came surprisingly close to doing so at times, for example in his long story ‘That Summer,’ a masterpiece of restrained emotion).
But that was the point, in the end: to find a voice for all the things that were bottled up by a deeply repressed, conservative, narrow-minded society still caught in the tricky business of white colonization – bottled up, but still determining who we were and how we behaved. Not a trick after all, then, but the only way to get the business done. Which is why we are still reading him, and writing about his work like this.
Patricia Grace has created a body of work unparalleled for its deep involvement in the Māori culture she was born into. In language at once powerful, musical and subversive, she has explored every aspect of life as a Māori woman in novels and stories for both adults and young readers.
PG: The only books put in front of us while at school were books written by male authors from a faraway country. What's more those writers were long dead in that faraway country. It was a country in the time of cobblestone streets, poor houses, chimney sweeps, castles, and, as now, of kings and queens and snow at Christmas time.
I left school to do teacher training. It was at Teachers College that I was introduced to the work of Frank Sargeson. A Man and his Wife was a set book. For the first time ever, I 'heard' the New Zealand vernacular in a work of literature, the kiwi voice. I was amazed that the ordinary lives, in present time, of ordinary New Zealanders could be made into stories that people would read and find relevance in. I came to understand that that was what real writing was - writers, of any time or place, writing about what was familiar to them, writing about what they knew.
Roger Hall was born in Essex and settled in New Zealand aged 19. He started writing for television in the late sixties and established himself as New Zealand’s most popular and respected playwright, recipient of many awards and honours. His play Middle Age Spread was a hit in the west end of London and was subsequently filmed. Roger lives in Takapuna, between the beach and the bach.
RH: In the late 1950s, when I first came to egalitarian New Zealand from class-ridden Britain, I couldn’t help noticing that the country’s main aspiration was that everyone should keep down with the Joneses, and that the nicest thing one could say about a millionaire was that you’d never know he was a millionaire.
These attitudes are found throughout much of Sargeson’s writing. How could one not pick the story, ‘The Making of a New Zealander’ with its opening sentence: ‘When I called at that farm they promised me a job for two months, so I took it on, but it turned out to be tough going’? It epitomises Sargeson’s laconic style, a lot conveyed in the simplest of words and with a working class narrator. But the simple language deals with complex issues: the main one being whether two ‘Dallies’ (Dalmatians) working the land can call themselves New Zealanders.
Sargeson’s characters are never bosses, nearly always occupy the bottom rungs of society but generally without resentment and with escape from conditions found not through politics but alcohol.
I slightly resented Sargeson that he, along with poets Brasch, Curnow, and Baxter, turned their hands to writing plays and were dismayed that these were unsuccessful. Baxter apart, they didn’t have a clue, and New Zealand drama had to wait until Bruce Mason came along.
But Sargeson found his own voice and in the process helped the rest of us to find ours.
Witi Ihimaera is generally considered the first Māori writer to publish a novel, and a book of stories. His important early impact has been followed by a long, varied and productive writing career. All his work comes from within the Māori world, and Māori English, and shows the depth and resilience of that culture despite the depredations of colonialism. In 2017 he edited, with Tina Makereti, an important anthology of Oceanic writing called Black Marks on the White Page. Imagined as a talanoa, a conversation of stories, it brings together contemporary indigenous writing from around and across the Pacific.
WI: New Zealanders are akin to the Scots in releasing the flames of our kraken tongues and burning away the habitations of English literature. Frank Sargeson was a forerunner in creating the New Zealand idiom and I follow in his footsteps, along with many others, to establish the fire-cleansing Māori mother tongue just as the Scots have done with Gàidhlig. Release the taniwha.
Graeme Lay’s first novel, The Mentor, included an eccentric but impressive older writer, who might seem to owe something to Graeme’s friend and, well, mentor, Frank Sargeson. Over the subsequent 40 years he has published many novels and travel books, edited short story anthologies and much more. He has a particular interest in the indigenous cultures of the South Pacific. The following piece is called ‘Frank goes to see Larry’, and is an extract from The Tour, a forthcoming novel, based on the 1948 tour of Australasia by the Royal Shakespeare Company, led by superstars Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.
GL: On the other side of town, on Auckland’s North Shore, a middle-aged man put on a clean shirt and a tie, and his best suit. His only suit. It was ten years old, but still in quite good nick. He pulled on his boots, also old but still comfortable, then brushed his sparse hair while looking in the small mirror above the hand-basin in the bathroom. The Esmonde Road cottage still had the smell of newness about it – the scent of Pinex, putty and the linseed oil with which he had treated the bare rimu floorboards. He had been reluctant to have the house built, but the army hut on the big section that had been his home for nearly twenty years had become so rotten that it was virtually uninhabitable. His builder friend George Hadyn urged him to have a replacement built, and finally he’d relented and agreed. George did so at cost, meaning that he could just afford it. And now he had to admit the change had been for the good.
The building had been designed by George in the shape of a cube, just two rooms, one for writing, the other a living room with large windows. During the three months he’d been here he’d never had such space or comfort. Luxury you might say, compared to the rotting army hut. A proper shower and toilet – the pan close to the floor for the health of his bowels – and a desk fixed to the wall in the anteroom, where he could write. In one end of the living room, a bare wooden counter, a small stove and a sink with a plain wooden bench. Yes, George had been right, at the age of 45, this was just what he needed.
He went back into the main room of the house and sat down in its one armchair, next to the fireplace. On the desk beside it was the copy of Richard III that he’d read again last night. The Oxford Press edition. It wasn’t his favourite Shakespearean play, he preferred Henry V, had seen the film that starred Olivier and Renée Asherson four years ago. A brilliant performance. But he’d make do with Richard III, since it featured the great Olivier. He flicked through his copy of the play, pausing over Act 1, Scene IV, in which the two murderers confront George, Duke of Clarence. Again he admired the power of Shakespeare’s rhetorical phrasing. How darkly, and how deadly dost thou speak! Your eyes do menace me; why look you pale? Who sent you hither? Wherefore do you come?
To be able to write like that ... He was attempting to write a play himself, but reading Shakespeare made him feel so inadequate. Still, one must try.
Setting the book aside, he looked at his watch. The bus to the ferry would be at his local stop in another twenty minutes. Then, fifteen minutes down Lake Road to the Devonport ferry terminal. On to the 5.15 ferry sailing across the harbour to town. Time for a beer in the public bar of the Grand before it closed at six, and a quick feed at the Peking Restaurant in Wellesley Street. Then a walk over to Queen Street, to the St James for the 8pm performance.
He checked that he had the five shilling theatre ticket he had bought a week earlier (an extravagance, yes, but this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity), put on his gabardine overcoat and felt hat, wrapped his woollen scarf around his neck, slung his small backpack on, and without locking the back door of his new house, Frank Sargeson, writer, walked out into the late winter afternoon.
Tracey Slaughter’s story collection Deleted Scenes for Lovers leapt off the shelf at me as I browsed a large Auckland bookshop looking – with little success – for fiction narrated in a New Zealand voice. Everyone was speaking one or other variety of NZ English, but no one seemed to be writing in it. Well, Tracey was, in her fiction and in her poetry, collected in Conventional Weapons.
TS: Sarge was always treading the hard boards in my working class house of language. I can’t think of any other writer who taught me how to listen to language with my gut – except for poet Hone Tuwhare, whose tongue coasts from church to pub with equal ease. From the moment I met the sweaty tan on that glittering bastard Jack, or the mangy soap an old girl holds out in her palm as stub of a yellowed life, I knew I’d found a writer who saw us and spoke us, who sent language down with a thud into the dirt of the real raw ways we live, bet and lose, straight into the dugout of the heart. Use the blunt tool of voice to tell our bloody stories and don’t look away from the holes we dig for ourselves: it’s a no-bullshit legacy that lives on and keeps me listening for the grit in my characters’ throats, the rags in their hands, the shadows in their yards.
CK Stead is arguably the most significant individual talent in New Zealand literature of the past fifty years. Uniquely, he has been a major figure in poetry, fiction and criticism. Karl and Kay Stead were frequent visitors to Frank’s bach from the mid-fifties onwards. That time is reflected in yet another novel with a Frank-inspired character, All Visitors Ashore. It’s funny, heartfelt and clever, as is everything Stead has published – in varying proportions. His poem evoking happy memories of visits to the bach, and Sargeson, ageing but indefatigable, is a fine way to close this circle of conversation.
CKS: Frank Sargeson was a mentor to me and an inspiration to New Zealand writers as a man who dedicated his life to writing and ‘made a go of it’ (as one of his working class characters might have said). His early work wrested our fiction from the language of British middle class conventions and did what Mark Twain did for America, and Henry Lawson did for Australia, gave us fiction in (to use Wordsworth’s famous phrase) ‘the real language of men’. But Frank didn’t rest there. In his later work he developed what he called his ‘mandarin style’, which was better suited to the reality of his inner life as a gay man. This is an aspect of Sargeson’s work that must still have international resonances.
A Warm Wind from the East
Our friend the novelist seventy-
eight next week and he says he’s
written his last book can’t
think any more can’t write
connected sentences can’t recall
the plots of his favourite Dickens
he used to rehearse scene after scene
not even sometimes the names
of his own novels can’t answer
letters put down among cups pills
other letters where forgotten one
moment means the next draws
a total blank in a room full of
books piled up to be knocked
at a giddy turn across his
unswept floor. But cats are
fed there’s cheese in the fridge
tea in the caddy he cooks
himself vegetables and fish a
corner of the garden’s good for
tomatoes the best anecdotes
still surface and whatever
the losses they don’t include a
wicked eye nor a good loud laugh.
Tonight the wind’s in the east
the warm wet edge of a tropical
cyclone driving waves and seaweed up
on Takapuna Beach and I walked
there remembering the same wind
twenty-five years ago when his
garden was the other side of those
green pages he wrote on and if
you went for a walk over the
rocks to Thorne’s Bay you might
come back to lettuce peppers fruit
in a bursting bag even a pumpkin
just inside your door and a note
saying come for a meal. Well that’s
over and everything like a novel
has a beginning and a middle and an
end except that novels like
life go on repeating themselves
long after the garden’s gone back
to wilderness the house to ruin
the old man to dust and his last
green sheet has flown off into
the sagging hedge on the broad back
of a wind that blows from the east.
DM: All to Blazes is testament to the ‘international resonances’ that Sargeson’s work sets ringing, all the way from Takapuna to Scotland, nearly 120 years after his birth, 40 after his death.
Many other writers and readers in New Zealand could have contributed valuable insights to this conversation, and one or two in Scotland. There may be opportunities for that to happen in future, but for now the counter has been wiped clean, the Lemora is finished, and the bach is echoing with the farewells of the guests.
Goodbye Frank, thanks for everything. Take care now. Good night Frank, thank you, good night. ●