A fellowship of the pen

By Graeme Lay

Aspiring, novelists, poets and playwrights were paid to write by the Sargeson Fellowship, a scheme now at risk, writes Graeme Lay

Author Graeme Lay in Frank Sargeson House, in Takapuna. Photo / Kellie Blizard
Author Graeme Lay in Frank Sargeson House, in Takapuna. Photo / Kellie Blizard

Poet Kevin Ireland, who lived there in 1987, called it "Le Petit Chateau". The nickname is fitting. The two-storeyed brick building which houses the Frank Sargeson Centre sits high on the eastern edge of Albert Park, in central Auckland.

In Victorian times the building held stables for the horses of the merchant princes whose mansions lined Princes St. But by the mid-20th century, The Stables was virtually derelict.

In 1986 the heritage building was renovated and converted to an art gallery and writer's studio flat at cost by Fletcher Building. The late writer and historian Michael King was the driving force behind this conversion.

After speaking with Sir James Fletcher at the funeral of their mutual friend, George Fraser, who was Fletchers' art adviser, it was agreed that the downstairs space in The Stables should be made into a gallery displaying avant-garde art and named the George Fraser Gallery.

A small flat on the building's renovated upper floor would accommodate artists visiting Auckland and the larger upstairs space would be the home of a selected New Zealand writer for up to 10 months of the year.

The Sargeson Trust had been established in 1983 by Christine Cole Catley, a close friend of legendary New Zealand writer Frank Sargeson (1903-1982), and his literary executor.

The trust's main aim was to help selected New Zealand writers.

Sargeson himself was renowned for the literary assistance he gave to aspiring writers.

Continuing this spirit, from 1987 until 1996 the Sargeson Trust supported 14 writers by providing them with free accommodation in the Sargeson Centre and a small stipend.

The inaugural Sargeson Fellows were Janet Frame and Kevin Ireland. Other recipients included Alan Duff, Jack Lasenby, Marilyn Duckworth and Judith White.

The sale of land behind Frank Sargeson's long-time home, a humble cottage at 14 Esmonde Rd, Takapuna, created some capital to assist the trust's work. However, by 1996, with funds running low, it was becoming clear that the trust lacked the money to sustain the Sargeson Fellowship for much longer. Fundraising was attempted, with little success.

What we needed was a sponsor, but how could we find one?

Then, serendipity. At a book launch in 1996 at Unity Books in High St, just a manuscript's toss from the Sargeson Centre, I met a young lawyer from the national law firm, Buddle Findlay.

We chatted and the subject of sponsorship came up. I wondered if perhaps her firm would be interested in sponsoring writers; she raised the matter with the Buddle Findlay board.

From then on, things moved swiftly. Buddle Findlay's partners then included several avid readers who were aware of Sargeson's seminal influence on New Zealand literature.

There was another connection: before becoming a writer, Sargeson had qualified as a solicitor. The trustees of the Sargeson Trust, who by this time included librarian Helen Woodhouse and treasurer Martin Bailey along with Cole Catley, King and Ireland, and writers Gordon McLauchlan, Bernard Brown, Denis McEldowney, Stephen Stratford and myself.

We met with Buddle Findlay's marketing people. Naming rights were awarded to the firm and a logo was designed, featuring a red pepper, a favourite Sargeson garden crop grown at 14 Esmonde Rd.

Later in 1996, the inaugural Buddle Findlay Sargeson Literary Fellowship was advertised.

It was now able to provide, along with furnished accommodation in the studio flat at the Sargeson Centre, a stipend of $20,000, so the writers could work for a period free of financial and accommodation worries.

For the trust, this new partnership was ideal. No longer did we have to scrimp and scrape to get the stipend together, no longer did we have to organise advertising for the fellowship or issue press releases. Thanks to Buddle Findlay, the rough-hewn track the Sargeson Trust formerly stumbled along had become a literary super-highway.

The first Buddle Findlay Sargeson Fellowship, held in 1997, was shared between poet Diane Brown and novelist Shonagh Koea. In subsequent years the fellowship was either awarded to one writer for 10 months or two writers for five months each.

News of the fellowship's benefits spread quickly through New Zealand's literary community. Every year we received more and more applications. This partnership between literature and the law grew in stature and prestige. From 1997 to 2012, 31 writers - novelists, poets and playwrights - held the Buddle Findlay Sargeson Fellowship. They included literary luminaries such as Sarah Quigley, Tina Shaw, Kapka Kassabova, Charlotte Grimshaw, Vivienne Plumb, Chad Taylor, Riemke Ensing, Toa Fraser, Fiona Samuels, Emily Perkins, James George, Paula Morris, Sarah Laing, Sue Orr and Anna Taylor. The DNA of all these gifted writers was bequeathed to the Sargeson Centre flat.

The writers loved the seclusion and serenity the flat offered, what Perkins termed its "magical solitude". For a New Zealand writer to be able to work in such circumstances was a rare privilege.

Yet there was also a public side to the fellowship, and Buddle Findlay received a great deal of goodwill in return for its sponsorship. Several times the announcement of the latest fellows was made by the current Governor-General at glittering functions at Government House in Wellington or Auckland.

As the late Dame Christine Cole Catley always said: "Buddle Findlay put on a damned fine party."

Knowing that their time in the flat was limited gave the writers impetus. As Samuel Johnson observed of someone condemned to death, that knowledge concentrates the mind of the person concerned wonderfully. Thus while they occupied the flat and received the stipend, the writers put their heads down and got on with the job. Novels, stories, poems and plays poured from their pens.

Over the years the Buddle Findlay brand became closely associated with local literature, so much so that in 2007 the law firm won the National Business Review's award of New Zealand Arts Sponsor of the Year. This was the crowning point of a fruitful partnership between literature and the law.

In the same year Buddle Findlay doubled the stipend to $40,000 - largesse for a struggling writer.

It has to be said that the fellowship's assistance didn't always produce results.

Sometimes we took a gamble on a writer that didn't pay off. A few writers promised much in their applications yet delivered little. A couple vanished afterwards and were never heard from again.

One recipient absconded from the flat (but later published a novel in which he publicly thanked the Buddle Findlay Sargeson Fellowship for its help). One fellow's publication was confined to a short story about a man masturbating into the fountain outside the Sargeson Centre.

A prominent journalist intended to write a novel, but it didn't come to anything. However, his columns about his tenure of the fellowship and life in the flat, published in the Sunday Star-Times, made amusing reading.

Then there were the stars - the writers who, already well established when they received the fellowship, went on to even greater things. Grimshaw, Perkins and Morris all won New Zealand's highest award for their novels.

The fiction of Quigley, Julian Novitz, Laing and Orr has been critically acclaimed. Fraser is now a movie director of international stature. I believe that Buddle Findlay and the Sargeson Trust can justifiably claim some of the credit for these successes.

The person who first pointed out that "all good things must come to an end" was stating the most unwelcome of truths.

By 2011 things were changing. The indomitable Cole Catley - who we all thought immortal - died after a short illness, aged 89. She had anointed her niece, Elizabeth Aitken-Rose, as her successor. The sun was also setting on the fellowship.

A new generation of partners at Buddle Findlay had less interest in its aims; the firm was reassessing its priorities. There were no more glittering functions at Government House.

Late in 2012, the firm announced that after 17 years the partnership with the Sargeson Trust would end. But with characteristic consideration, Buddle Findlay gave the trust a year to find a replacement sponsor.

The last Buddle Findlay Sargeson Fellows, novelists Hamish Clayton (Wulf) and Tanya Moir (La Rochelle's Road), will share the fellowship during 2013.

Then it will be finished, and the Sargeson Trust's challenge to find a sponsor will start all over again.

But the firm's contribution to New Zealand literature has been immeasurable.

Wanted: one supporter of New Zealand literature. Must love books and writers. All offers considered.

Novelist and short story writer Graeme Lay was secretary of the Frank Sargeson Trust for 24 years. His latest novel, The Secret Life Of James Cook, will be published by HarperCollins next month.

- NZ Herald

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