Simon Plumb is a journalist for the Herald on Sunday

Poet Fleur Adcock attacks her ex-husband Barry Crump in verse

NZ Poet, Fleur Adcock at her Sandringham home. Photo / Peter Meecham
NZ Poet, Fleur Adcock at her Sandringham home. Photo / Peter Meecham

Fleur Adcock has taken aim at ex-husband Barry Crump in a scathing poem - The sleeping-bag - where she likens his parenting to "hooliganism" and says his negligence was to blame for the death of five boys at a tragic 1969 camp run by the Kiwi bushman.

Decorated poet Adcock, 82, married humorous novelist Crump in 1962 but they divorced the following year.

Adcock, who was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 2006, has been among a number of figures, including other ex-wives of Crump, to candidly reveal what life with him was like - a man who married five times, had six sons and a well-documented drinking habit.

Adcock's latest, powerful account, written last year before a two-month trip back to New Zealand, comes 20 years after Crump's death and reveals how her thoughts towards him have not softened - and neither has the memory of when she thought her young son, Andrew, had suffocated in one of Crump's larrikin moments gone wrong.

Recounting how Crump had Andrew - Adcock's son from her first marriage to Kiwi poet and playwright Alistair Campbell - wrapped inside a sleeping bag and was carrying him over his shoulder "like a sack of coal", Adcock panicked when she thought her child had lost consciousness and had to shake him awake.

"Swaddled in impermeable down. Just hooliganism, really; a joke. It may have taken seconds, not long minutes, to shake him and shake him ... " Adcock's poem reads, before lancing Crump with her pen a second time.

Crump had been running camps with fellow bushman George Johnson and in August 1969, five teenagers lost their lives after drowning in a car accident at Lake Matahina, 30km from Whakatane.

Crump and Johnson were both charged with manslaughter - charges which were eventually dropped, though clearly Adcock still lays the blame directly at him.

"He was to kill five boys in his time: by negligence, by booze, by his gracious fault. They drowned, all five of them together, trapped in a vehicle, unsupervised," Adcock writes.

Barry Crump. Photo / NZH
Barry Crump. Photo / NZH

Speaking to the Weekend Herald from her London home, Adcock said the poem's meaning doesn't need to be "psycho-analysed".

"Barry, just larking around, picked up Andrew out of the back of a Land Rover and carted him up all these miles of steps, you know what Wellington houses are like.

"When we got there he was curled up and didn't wake up for a few seconds or a few minutes, I don't know, it just seemed an awful, awful long time.

"Years later, long after I'd left New Zealand, he was in charge of this camp with one of his mates and several boys got the keys to the Land Rover and drove themselves off into the lake and couldn't get out. He got off, he was not prosecuted."

Barry's son, broadcaster Martin Crump, was not aware of the poem until contacted by the Weekend Herald.

"I think it sounds bitter," he said. "I'm happy to leave her with that bitterness."

Martin said he and Barry were never "father and son but became good friends" before he died in 1996. He also said that while there was negligence in the 1969 camp incident, it was unfair to pin blame on his father.

"I was at the camp where those five boys drowned. There was negligence, absolutely. But Barry never set the camp up, he was the face of it. It was set up by business people and there was negligence on many parts.

"It affected him deeply and greatly, I know that because I spoke to him about it."

Another of Crump's ex-wives, Robin Lee-Robinson, recently claimed she is to credit for the basis of a book which Kiwi movie Hunt for the Wilderpeople was based upon.

The sleeping-bag

But when we rolled him out he didn't move:

curled up like a bud. He'd fallen asleep

snuggled in the back of the Land Rover,

and Barry thought it would be amusing

to tote him up all those endless steps

to wherever we were visiting

like a sack of coal, over his shoulders,

swaddled in impermeable down.

Just hooliganism, really; a joke.

It may have taken seconds, not long minutes,

to shake him and shake him ...

Light of my life

(child of my first marriage - nothing to Barry).

I have some friends who lost a son that way,

smothered in an airless den of feathers;

which, if I'd known ... But not my son, praise God.

Barry could get away with most things.

Kids thought he was magic They came flocking.

He was to kill five boys in his time:

by negligence, by booze, by his gracious fault.

They drowned, all five of them together, trapped

in a vehicle, unsupervised.

But my boy wasn't one of them.

(Let me not gloat, Lord. Let me not gloat.)

We'd moved on by then, I and my boy.

- NZ Herald

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