Steve Braunias escorts two of New Zealand's most distinguished authors, CK Stead and Kevin Ireland, to a strange, narrow bach in Takapuna to revisit their youth at the home of their literary mentor – Frank Sargeson.
There was the old armchair by the fire where Frank Sargeson sat of an evening listening to the wireless or playing chess with visitors to his narrow, low-ceilinged bach made of sheets of fibrolite in Takapuna. There was his little single bed. There was the hot water cupboard where he made yoghurt – "curds", as Janet Frame called it, in her celebrated autobiography An Angel At My Table. She lived out the back in an army hut Sargeson bought from a photographer in Mairangi Bay. It was demolished a long time ago. Sargeson died in 1982. Any other bach as weird and impractical, and taking up space on valuable real estate, would also have been torn down, but it's remained intact as a literary shrine, a museum piece, an astonishing little box of culture and history. New Zealand writing made its way here. Sargeson drove it. And on a recent Tuesday morning in winter two ghosts from the past came to visit.
CK [Karl] Stead and Kevin Ireland are 86. Kevin said, "Karl, you're going to be 87 in – October, I think?"
"If I get there," said Stead.
Kevin said, "Well, it's always a bit doubtful now, isn't it? When I get a bottle of good wine and people say are you going to put it aside ... well. Imagine dying and having a bottle of good Coleraine in your cupboard."
They are two of New Zealand's most distinguished authors but neither had published not much more than a scrap before they turned up as young men at Sargeson's door at 14 Esmonde Rd. They wanted to write. Nobody wrote in the colony, or nobody conspicuously, apart from that solitary eccentric on Auckland's North Shore who didn't drive, didn't have a job, didn't have a wife or children – nobody knew his real name was Norris Davey, that he'd changed it after the scandal of his arrest in 1929 for indecent assault, the indecent term for having sex with a man. He took his new identity to Takapuna, and stayed the rest of his life in the family bach.
He didn't keep his homosexuality a secret to his visitors. He talked about anything and everything, high culture and low gossip, all of it dazzling to Stead, who began visiting in the summer of 1955, and to Ireland, who more or less took up the literary vacancy as soon as Stead left to take up a job in Sydney. Strange that they were so entwined with the same crucial figure, who changed both their lives, but missed each other by nearly 30 years. Ireland moved to England. Even after he returned to Auckland, neither of them moved in the same circles. They were simply very different men – Ireland, hirsute and affable, a teller of tales, bluff, funny, wise, capable of making a beautiful kind of music as a poet who has published 24 collections of poetry; Stead, hairless and astute, faithful to the principles of intellectual honesty and as such quite disliked here and there, self-conscious, funny, analytical, besotted with the possibilities of language as the author of fiction, memoir, poetry, reviews, essays and lectures.
Both met Harry, Sargeson's itinerant lover of nearly 30 years. He'd come and go, wander the Earth, a small, quiet man, to all appearances a Kiwi joker.
"He looked like an old jockey," said Stead. "Frank was totally enamoured of him. But Harry behaved as though it was a matter of indifference to him. He traded off it when it suited him. Frank wanted everyone to think they were mates, but he loved to get Harry into the shower – he always called it the showerbox – and wash him, and look after him. 'The lovely thing about Harry,' he said, 'was there are certain people who are physically in a state of grace.' They never smell of stale sweat. He said that Harry was that kind of person."
Ireland said, "Frank was intensely curious about sex. I said to him one day, 'Frank, you keep on asking me all these questions, but did you ever try a woman?' And he said 'Yes, when I was in England.' He said, 'I had enough money and she was very cheap, and I went in with her off the street,' and he said, 'I found it so gross and frightful. I've never wanted to even think about it. Just the horror of it all,' he said."
Sargeson had numerous lovers or at least men who he loved after Harry died. Michael King's biography details a sad, rather forlorn and quite hopeless love that Sargeson had for a Kaipara farmer only referred to as M.
Ireland said, "Wasn't his name Meredith?"
"If it was Meredith," said Stead, "he was fairly rapidly replaced in Frank's affections by Clarry. But in between came Murdy."
"Murdy! That's right. Murdoch."
"I was looking up old letters for my memoir," said Stead, "and I found one where I wrote to Janet [Frame] that Frank had moved on from Murdy to Clarry, but he said he caught sight of Murdy and there was a lurch in his heart, because he realised he still really loved Murdy as well as Clarry."
Ireland roared with laughter, and then he said, "I don't know why I think that's funny."
"Well, it is funny," said Stead. "I think it's hilarious."
"Other people's love lives are always funny," said Ireland.
Stead said, "He got to know Murdy because Murdy cut up timber and he'd bring it around, and deliver wood to Frank, and Frank would buy more and more wood."
They both laughed. Ireland was sitting on the corner of Sargeson's bed, and Stead had taken the armchair by the fireplace. "This was his main form of heating in the evenings," he said. "He was a typical Kiwi in that most of the day you don't have any heating, and then light a fire in the evening. Although in his later years he did resort to this."
He pointed to a small electric heater. It was rusted and old, not even the sort of thing you might see in a junk shop, and it was of a piece with all the other objects in the bach – a scythe, an axe, an Atlas oven, two kitchen stools, the cold single beds. The place felt a bit like a tomb.
Ireland and Stead are tall men, neither gone to fat, their eyes still alert, engaged, watchful. Stead has a bad heart. Ireland cracked a rib this year because he wore a pair of longjohns so thick that he couldn't raise his foot very high and tripped over on the pavement. In his memoir South-West of Eden, Stead writes of the pleasures and intoxications of a golden summer of 1955 as a newlywed at a flat on Takapuna beach, with a glassed-in veranda; he and Kay would often visit Sargeson for dinner, and laugh into the night with Janet Frame. Ireland stayed in the army hut after Frame sailed for England, and took the same course in literary discipline as laid down by Sargeson – write every morning, read widely and well – before he took his own departure, ending up marrying in Bulgaria, "hypnotised", as he wrote in a volume of his two wonderfully told memoirs, "by sex".
He lived and worked in England for 25 years. He said, "I don't remember being there. I don't think I was ever cerebrally occupied by the place. I may have lived there but I was never actually present. I always felt an irritation to get back and knew I would. I just took my time about it because of women." Their visit to 14 Esmonde Rd was another kind of return. Stead said, "It's a long while since I've been in here. I don't know – time passes so quickly these days. It might be 10 years, it might be five. Anyway, it's quite some years, and it strikes me absolutely that it's still Frank's place, even though it's tidier, and the pictures are consciously arranged."
He got up and walked to the kitchen. "What I remember was that he had a photo of [historian] Keith Sinclair just here."
Ireland remained on the bed, and asked, "Is it still there?"
"No, it's gone. He thought Keith was so handsome. Keith was actually horrible about him. He got sick of him. Frank could be very irritating, and Keith had a fairly short patience, and stopped visiting Frank, and wrote quite nasty things about him."
He turned and looked at the toilet, which sat very low to the floor. He laughed, and said, "This loo! Frank had some notion that you had to squat because that was what ancient man did and it was healthier. So he had the loo set lower."
Ireland had got up, and the two men looked in at the old toilet. He said, "The book that started it off was by a chap called Hornibrook. He wrote a book called The Culture of the Abdomen, and it took Auckland by storm. There were lots of people who had these especially lowered toilets."
Stead said, "But when you get old, it's a nightmare! I bet as Frank got on in years he regretted it deeply."
He walked back to the kitchen and leaned against the counter. Ireland stood facing him. This is where they ate meals with Sargeson, perched on the stools; in An Angel At My Table, Frame describes Sargeson serving scrambled eggs, honey on rye wafers, and paella, talking of Proust, Yeats, Tolstoy: "Tolstoy inhabited Number Fourteen Esmonde Road, Takapuna, Auckland - both the bach and the dilapidated army hut. The characters lived there – in the room with the corner bed with its sagging mattress and threadbare blankets ... the fireplace with the manuka logs, stacked tidily for the evening fire ... the unpainted counter where we ate our meals, with the cupboards and the sink and the hot-water cupboard."
His generosity and encouragement saved her life. Her chapters on staying with Sargeson are roseate, loving, tranquil. Michael King's biography of Frank Sargeson goes along with her "luminous account". But in a small booklet published by the University of Waikato, in 2005, Ireland wrote, "The suppressed details in the published accounts of the time Frank and Janet lived together will eventually need to be looked at ... There is a richer, darker story."
"I think so," Ireland said, in Sargeson's kitchen. "Because of Frank's near breakdown, and Janet's insanity." He repeated a story in the booklet about walking along Lake Rd in Takapuna one night with Sargeson, and Sargeson's voice shaking, saying that he couldn't cope with Frame's mental illness. "Once or twice he nearly just about went over the edge. Janet had a darker and manipulative side. She was mad as a snake, but wonderfully. She was genius mad. She could cope; she wasn't a schizophrenic in the sense she couldn't cope. She just was a strangely disarranged woman."
Stead talked about the second volume of his memoir, which he's just finished writing. He's included a conversation with Frame's psychiatrist in England. "We met and the first thing he said was, 'Do you think Janet is mad?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'Well, we regard her here as our most interesting patient, and the medical fraternity in this hospital are 50/50 divided between those who think she is technically classifiable schizophrenic, and those like myself who don't.' He said that she's essentially an artist who if she is left alone and treated kindly, will do no harm to anyone or herself, either. And that's really the official view of Janet, that she was not insane."
Ireland said, "At the same time she was very wacky. She'd have three days out there not talking to anyone. She was quite ill."
Stead said, "The pressure on Frank was terrible. He said at times she would talk about nothing but death, and her conversation was so dark and so insistent about bad dreams, that it would really play on him, and in the end, he was just desperate to get her out of the house."
Sargeson, in More Than Enough, the second volume of his memoirs, writes only briefly of the 16 months Frame stayed in the hut and wrote her most famous novel, Owls Do Cry. "It is for Janet Frame to tell the story of her days in my hut if she chooses, and tell it with surpassing dignity and grace I do not doubt."
One essential Sargesonian item was fruitily, juicily conspicuous by its absence: food. Food features in every account of his life and times in the bach. He had a huge vegetable garden out the back and planted every kind of fruit tree. He harvested tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, peas, beans, pumpkin, lettuce, sweet corn, kumara (he stored them in sand during winter), rock melon, peaches, pears: "All my dug ground, a kind of volcanic chocolate," Sargeson wrote, "became tinged with every kind of green." Stead imagines Sargeson making a salad in the very first page of his novel set in the summer of 1955, All Visitors Ashore. Ireland's poetry has Sargeson in the kitchen, where "he would hack peppers, wrench/lettuce apart, put tomatoes/to the knife".
"The whole place was a garden," Ireland said. "Intensive cultivation, Chinese-peasant style."
"His work was writing, and gardening," Stead said.
For more than 20 years Sargeson had to fill 100 buckets of water from the tap every day to water the garden in summer: he couldn't afford a hose. Ireland said, "I was with [painter] Mike Illingworth one day, and said, 'Poor bloody Frank, carrying all those buckets of water.' We were driving in Remuera, and Mike said, 'I just saw a hose.' I said, 'You can't take that.' And he said, 'Bloody oath I can. It's for Frank.' We went to Frank's house and connected it up, and he was absolutely delighted. He asked where it came from and Mike said, 'Somebody gave it to us'."
A memory had come to Stead. "He would make you tea," he said, "and he always made it with tea leaves. There'd be some floating in the cup and my image of him is bringing you your cup of tea and flicking the floating tea leaves off the top."
Ireland said, "And he was the first person I knew who cooked with olive oil. He bought it from the chemist because it was used for people with earache."
A lovely patch of sunlight fell into the kitchen. The conversation turned to health and old age. Ireland said he was fine as far as he knew. "It might be all rotten below the decks, who knows. But the boat is still going on."
"That's like me," said Stead. "If they hadn't told me I was at death's door, I never would have known."
"If somebody wants to tell you, just refuse to listen. Are you still swimming?"
"I was, but I stopped. It got too cold. I was swimming out every day to the yellow buoy." He lives near water in Parnell and swims on the high tide. "But it's true, if my doctors hadn't told me – well, it's my fault. I got angina walking up a hill and went for tests."
They are just about the last writers still standing from the amazing years when Sargeson opened his home and created the best writing school in New Zealand letters. There's Maurice Gee, who visited Sargeson from his home in Henderson, and is still kicking, in Nelson; Ireland said Gee moved into a retirement village, hated it, and managed to buy his house back.
"I hope to be carried out of my place in a box," he said.
Stead bought his home in 1963. "Kay and I intend to die there," he said.
And then Ireland said, in a sudden burst of affection, "You know, I'd like to say I like Karl, and I do very much like talking to him here. I think liking somebody is an enormous quality for a lot of old people. You get older and you hate people more. But Karl has got to like people better, and I've got to like people better. I think we needed to lead a long life in order to like people."
"I think that's true," said Stead. "I always thought that Kevin was a good guy." In fact, he'd written a poem for him, after attending the launch of Ireland's latest collection of poetry in December, and just happened to have a copy in his jacket pocket. He read it out loud. Ireland loved it, was plainly moved.
Their interrogation at 14 Esmonde Rd had kept them in the brittle little bach for two hours. They stood on the doorstep and were asked if they had any parting remarks about their absent host, Frank Sargeson.
"It was a huge piece of luck in my life to run into Frank at the age I did," said Stead. "It was just an enormous piece of luck."
"Absolutely marvellous," said Ireland. He took a last look around – the narrow beds, the golden strip of sunlight resting in the kitchen, the bookcases – and said, "Well, Frank, thanks for having me."
A Kevinish Poem for Kevin
by CK Stead
A cup of rice and two of water
bring to the boil and simmer
while you slice the big red onions
to fry in oil with bacon, sliced small or diced.
When the rice is right mix all in the big pan
adding mussels and oysters
(the small ones in tins are fine)
and stir, with pepper of course. And no, Kevin
bugger the Lemora – no need
to be slavish. It's time the sons of Sargeson
taught him about wines – we'll have
the chardonnay. Now taste, and Hey Presto!
aren't we back at Esmonde Road
talking books and writers, hearing our Puck
holding forth, holding out against
this word-poor witless f**k of a world?