Steve Braunias profiles John Yelash – legendary without ever being famous, an ex-con, ex-author, ex-actor, waiting to exit.
Someone was singing opera at an incredible volume in a shack at the back of a jungle of vines and apple trees in Glendene, that doleful, paint-peeling suburb up on a ridge in west Auckland. I approached with caution. Eccentric behaviour can be exhausting, a performance I almost never want to witness, much preferring those of mild temperament and stable conduct. But I couldn't resist the chance to visit and meet a legendary figure in New Zealand life, a ratbag among the bohemians, an ex-con who a jury found guilty of killing a woman, an ex-author who wrote one amazing book, on his last legs with a bad heart and a head fuming with stories – the point of John Yelash, 84, is his stories. He may well be the last of the great bulls*** artists.
They don't make them like John Yelash anymore and that's no bad thing. He doesn't belong to these times. An enormous man, so large and unwell he can barely move from his couch, the mustard-coloured carpet worn to threads beneath his feet, Yelash is a creature from the black lagoons of a New Zealand past when men were men and drank the black lagoons dry. He was an alcoholic. He hasn't had a drink in many years. He estimates he spent 11 years in prison. He hasn't been in trouble for many years and the last time he caused trouble, in public at least, was in 2001, when he sued Prime Minister Helen Clark. She called him a murderer. Yelash was convicted of manslaughter; verily, he was defamed, and pocketed $50,000 for the gross injury to his reputation.
"Well, here I am," he said, when we shook hands. He couldn't get up. There were piles of pills close at hand. "The fickle finger of fate has stuck itself right up my arse." The voice was beautiful, a deep, thrilling instrument, delighting in curling itself around a good word, seizing on a perfect sentence. The face was handsome, white-whiskered, a fascinating, lived-in, tragic face, with a wonderful smile. His fingers strayed to his forehead a lot. The gesture expressed pain and also concentration. He said, "The artery that goes from the heart to the lungs is ceasing to function and I was supposed to die some 15 months ago. They wanted me to go to a hospice. I thought I was coming home to die within a fortnight. I have no energy at all and sometimes I can't talk. And I can't remember certain things. Like I'll sit on the edge of the bed and think, 'I have to stand up now', but I forget how to. I have to concentrate."
And then he proceeded to tell stories. Worse, he also proceeded to tell jokes. I have no great patience for either form of expression and Yelash's natural instinct is to spin yarns at length. It was exhausting. I was there for three hours and the last hour I was on my feet, dying to leave. But there was a seriousness of intent to his long stories, his endless jokes. Yes, he was a creature from the past, in particular the 1950s, the working man in the public bar holding forth and just warming up, no one in any hurry to leave because what else was there to do in New Zealand except drink and talk – but he approached the task like an artist. There was a time when Yelash was a rising star in New Zealand letters, part of a hard-drinking literary crowd alongside James K Baxter and Barry Crump. He said, "If you wanted a history of the social content of New Zealand, put together the best six jokes of each year told in pubs and parties. You'd have a far better understanding of the history of the country and the feelings around the place."
I think there's some truth in that, maybe even a lot. A jokebook based on the various assorted hilarities of New Zealand conversation after dark and under the influence – the things we say, the way we actually talk, off the cuff and off the record – would likely give a very accurate portrait of who we are. The problem is that I didn't find any of Yelash's jokes remotely funny. As for his stories, the best of them were concise, like his beautifully crafted memoir of the time he went to jail for fraud. He'd run away with the daughter of the director of the Reserve Bank and was busted for cashing the father's cheques. Yelash said, "I came into contact with her as a gauche young man with not much idea of what I was doing. I was invited to a party at the house of Labour MP Eddie Isbey. His wife was away for the weekend. Eddie was a playboy, and had this young woman with him. Suddenly a taxi pulled up outside. The wife had came back. Eddie said to me, 'For Christ's sake, say this woman is with you.' So I took her by the arm and danced her around and I ended up in jail."
Brilliant, a kind of male fantasy, all heading to a superb punchline. But the story kept going. There was too much of it. I'd really only sat down and was already regarding the hallway as a means of escape. Still, it was a good story. There was exquisite detail: "She was a year older than me. She was going to go to the Commonwealth Games as a foil fencer." There was travel and romance: "We hitch-hiked from Auckland to Hastings with a pup tent and I became a tomato and sweetcorn picker which I brought home and boiled in a billy for our dinner. She was pregnant." There was a cameo from the sentencing judge: "So I went to court and the villainous old magistrate said, 'Yelash, you have proven yourself to a plausible rogue, a sponger, and a bludger on society. You will go to prison for 12 months.' Bastard."
The length of it was the central problem but beneath it all was another, harder problem. How much of his story was true?
Yelash St in Massey is named after his family, who were part of west Auckland's industrious Dalmatian community. He went to Swanson primary school. "He was so beautiful when he was young, you wouldn't believe it," remembered Kay Stead, who rode with Yelash on the school bus. "Very, very handsome. He had a sort of oval face. Dark-eyed, dark hair. Beautiful skin." He boxed, was good at athletics. He went to Avondale College with Maurice Gee and Maurice Shadbolt, who became two of New Zealand's most celebrated novelists. Yelash, too, had literary ambitions, and was also intent on becoming a great actor. He was a conspicuous figure in Auckland's 1950s bohemian scene of poets and folk-singers and rebels with and without causes: "He was a tall, curly headed fellow with terrific physical presence," remembered Kevin Ireland, who was himself described back then, by Shadbolt, as "a gangling young freshman with a cadaverous face".
Yelash got work as an actor in touring productions of Shakespeare, and began honing that beautiful voice. Mostly, he honed it in liquid amber, drinking up large with poet Jim Baxter. They made a striking pair. "Baxter had a very big head," Kay Stead remembered; "Hunched shoulders, and quite solidly built," remembered her husband Karl, the author CK Stead. Ireland said, "Baxter was very fond of anybody who you might call louche. He always found these people entrancing. For him, they broke the order of things, and they had a special fragrance of lawlessness for Jimmy, who really was tormented by thoughts of sin and wrong and suffering. For him to see people who were liberated from sin - it was just magic to him."
Yelash's own memory of Baxter: "He had a peculiar walk, a slight bending forward of the head, with his bum stuck out. He was very physically awkward." And of himself: "I had a lot of girlfriends. I was a very handsome, good-looking young man, and stupid. Gauche."
Yelash is in all the literary memoirs of the time. There he is in Rachel Barrowman's biography of Maurice Gee, out one night stealing food and a kettle; there he is in the newly published edition of Baxter's letters, described by the poet as "a big bullocky Dalmatian…Women fall for him with a thump: he is not at all inhibited, except in the expression of affection, and has undoubtedly the largest genital weapon between North Cape and the Bluff."
In 1957, with Ireland, Crump and Robin Dudding, Yelash helped found the seminal literary journal Mate , over drinks at the Queen's Ferry in Vulcan Lane. In that same golden year he published a book of his own stories with perhaps the most incredible title in all of New Zealand literature, Forty Thousand Beers Ago .
It's an astonishing book. There are 10 stories, or vignettes, nothing longer than about 600 words. They're yarns told at the bar, or appear to be – knockabout stuff, a man's country, life on the road or in the boozer. "When you knock around a lot you meet some funny types. The strangest joker I ever met was a Maori." And: "Some jokers are born full of fancy ideas that they can never get fixed up, the sort of jokers who think their cars run on water and make gold out of tin." Also: "We all know there's plenty of work in New Zealand for everyone, but it doesn't suit us all."
Everything appears monosyllabic and artless but it's a guise. Forty Thousand Beers Ago – what a pleasure it is to type those words – is evidence of an artist at work, crafting careful little documents of extraordinary incidents in ordinary New Zealand life, much unsaid, with a sad, haunting poetry running through everything. Possibly it owes something to the work of Frank Sargeson, the celebrated Devonport author who set about creating an authentic New Zealand language for fiction. Possibly, too, Barry Crump's classic knockabout book A Good Keen Man , published three years later, owes something to – here we go again – Forty Thousand Beers Ago .
But Yelash took that possibility of Crump's debt too far when he launched into another of his long stories. It was distinguished by being the most improbable of all the stories he told during my visit, which is to say it was almost certainly complete bullshit. In essence, he claimed he wrote a manuscript called An Unkeen Man ; Crump borrowed it, and plagiarised it when he wrote A Good Keen Man .
"Rubbish," said Ireland. "That is absolutely not true. I'll tell how it happened. I said to Crump one evening when he was only 18, 'You should write these bloody stories down. They're straight out of Mark Twain.'
"He said, 'Well, how do you write?' Crump borrowed every book in my library. He took them to his hut in the Waitakeres and didn't see anyone for months on end. He stayed up there, and he read. I said, 'You can't write unless you read.' He read and read and read, and he came down and we started to work.
"We sat down at Ruby Anso's typewriter out in New Lynn. Crump married her daughter Tina. Her father was a crazy man for digging holes. He was a phenomenal physical specimen, an Estonian, who wore tiny little shorts. The biggest chest I'd ever seen, on quite a small man. And so Crump started writing A Good Ken Man out there, and I witnessed it. I was there at the germination of the book."
I reported other claims Yelash had made. That he introduced Ireland to Sargeson: "No, he didn't. I went around there the first time with Maurice Shadbolt." That Yelash lived out the back of Sargeson's house in the sleep-out made famous by his tenant Janet Frame: "No, he didn't. I can tell you that because I lived opposite." That the last time he had anything to do with Ireland was when he phoned him up, but the poet hung up on him without speaking: "I'd never do that. I'd be interested to hear what he had to say. That's just not me. You know – John was a very attractive person. He lived outside the normal rules, and for many people, this was a bohemian life, and attractive. Everybody liked him. But in the end, I didn't feel like I knew him."
Who really was John Yelash? Could someone that bold and voluble also be someone unknowable? James K Baxter's letter about Yelash ("big bullocky Dalmatian", etc), sent to a Hamilton woman in 1960, advised her to approach Yelash to publish her short stories in Mate . He added, "He is a showman & an actor, but behind it a black confused smoky void."
Yelash mentioned in passing, "I am an authority on Verdi and Puccini right down to every sigh and whisper." I could believe it, and not merely because of the aria that I heard him singing as I approached his front door; he lived in a mess, but it was a mess of culture, as Yelash sat on the throne of his couch surrounded by CDs, books, magazines. He holds court to many visitors. I could imagine every visit as a kind of royal performance - the stories, a great vocalist exercising that deep, theatrical voice. Sir Bob Harvey pops in about once a month for long sessions; he said, "I guess I fell under his spell".
I said, "What was the spell?"
He said, "The spell of his voice. Yeah."
Sir Robert has always had a thing about worship. The least of it is that he was once routinely known as His Worship, as the former Mayor of Waitakere; he's attracted to gurus and charismatics, or anyone with a resemblance – he was president of the Labour Party when Helen Clark was leader. He said of Yelash, admiringly, "He's like Rasputin". Harvey watched, fascinated and appalled, as Clark and Yelash fell into battle, in 2000. He told it as a long story, with voices (deeper for Clark than Yelash), grand gestures (wider for Yelash than Clark), and set part of it in West City mall, in Henderson, when he came across Yelash and they sat down for coffee. Next thing you know, Labour's Minister of Maori Affairs, Dover Samuels, walked by.
In Harvey's version, Yelash pointed at him, and said: "62. 49." Samuels smiled, pointed back, and said: "61. 41." The two men left it at that, and Samuels went on his way. Harvey asked what the devil that all meant, and Yelash claimed the two were in jail together, at Mt Eden prison – the first number was the year of imprisonment, the second their cell number, which no prisoner ever forgets.
"I go, 'Holy shit! Dover's been in the slammer!' So I tell Helen. She goes, 'Oh of course not.' I check his Labour Party application, and there's nothing about a police record. She goes, 'I told you so.' I said, 'I'm sure Yelash is right.' Then I think, 'Dallow's never forgotten anything.'"
He meant former detective Ross Dallow, the father of TV1 newsreader Simon Dallow.
"So I ask, 'Ross, did you ever arrest Dover Samuels?' He said, 'Yes. He burgled the butcher shop in Mission Bay. I grabbed his nuts, and said, 'I've got you, you little ***!'"
"I go back to Helen and tell her. But she still doesn't believe Yelash, and says her line about not taking the word of a murderer, to [Labour MP] Chris Carter, who leaves it on Yelash's answerphone, who rings up [criminal lawyer] Peter Williams, who says, 'That's outrageous. Let's sue.' And that was enough to earn him $50,000."
Good story. But it's bound to have holes in it, various inconsistencies, and will inevitably differ from the accounts of others – this is the nature of memory, and of telling. Yelash, though, takes it further than most. I asked him about his conviction for the 1979 manslaughter in Napier; a woman who died after drinking a mixture of alcohol and an over the counter drug called The Governor. The crown prosecutor argued that Yelash had provided her with the fatal dose. He was sentenced to three and a half years in prison.
Yelash disputes to this day that he was responsible. To me, he told long conspiracy theories – in one version, his false arrest was all the work of Prime Minister Rob Muldoon, in another version it was all the work of the SIS. "He told me was innocent, too," said Sir Robert, "but the story he said was, 'We were sitting around sucking the rag'. They had the drug, The Governor, which I thought was called Spanish Fly back then, a stimulant, and put it in on the end of a stick. It was a stimulant. Well, they went off to the pub and she stayed and took too much of it and when they came back she was dead."
It was a more realistic telling than the wild claims about Muldoon and the SIS. I asked Sir Robert, "What's the appeal of being a bullshit artist? Why do it?"
He said, "Captive audience. To have a story".
Nigel Cook, a 90-year-old architect in Wellington, used to run with Yelash, Baxter, Crump, the whole bohemian gang. He features in all the literary biographies, too, and is currently telling his own life to Maurice Gee's biographer Rachel Barrowman; she comes around, he talks, she records, and sends him back the transcript, for his family to read when he's gone. I think the chances are high it will have a high, bitchy tone.
When I phoned to talk about Yelash, the first thing he said was, "I don't like him, Stephen." Karl Stead's name came up a little later. "I don't like him," said Cook. And then I mentioned the poet Fleur Adcock, who Cook knew when she was married to Crump: "I don't like her."
His casually expressed dislikes made me side with Yelash. I started to think of him as a lifelong misfit, an outsider, his own man, right or wrong, loved or damned, true or false. Kay Stead had said, "He was an erratic boy who became an erratic chap. In the back of one's mind one always had the idea that John Yelash was..." She searched for the right term, and eventually finished her sentence: "A gorgeous wannabe."
"This may be unfair and cruel," he said about Yelash, and sounding like a man who was not in the slightest about to regret that what he had to say might be unfair and cruel, "but my feeling is of a man almost begging for attention... Bohemia, if you want to call it that, is full of people passing through. They come, and they're accepted, for a while, and then they kind of subside, almost like quicksand, and you never hear of them again. That's what John Yelash was like."
It was true that after the publication of the book with the title I can't wait to type again, Forty Thousand Beers Ago , Yelash seemed to cease all literary activity. He went to prison. He moved to Australia. He worked in a pottery shop. He travelled in touring productions of Shakespeare. But no more books. Cook mentioned Yelash's 1957 book, and said, "I don't know who thinks it's good. No one I knew back then thought it was outstanding. Kevin might have, but without insulting Kevin, I'm not certain he's a particularly good critic."
He meant Kevin Ireland, who I imagine would regard Cook's insult as water of a duck's back. He really liked Forty Thousand Beers Ago . It was as though he invaded the book's spirit when he talked about it. He said, "It's not bad at all. Bob Lowry published it, and printed it; that took some doing to get Bob to do these things. It was a big commitment for Bob. He was a terrible drunk himself. He finally topped himself, poor bastard. His home was extraordinary; it was designed like the letter Z. His wife ended up leaving him and the place just fell into rack and ruin. There were parties there all the time. One day I think it just all fell on top of Bob and he... But anyway, he brought that book out, and it's actually a very, very promising book, and hugely better than a lot of people said. I think it was a remarkably good book.
"See, he got alongside a fellow called Paddy Sincock, who was the snooker champion of New Zealand. He was a marvellous fellow, Paddy. A real old-fashioned rarity in New Zealand now. A man who loved women, who loved booze, who loved betting. He just couldn't combine all three of those things at once.
"And Paddy told Yelash most of the stories in the book. And so people stupidly said, 'You've just written down what Paddy said.' Well, it's not like that at all, I'm afraid. He listened to the stories and he wrote them down in his own way. The stories are little crackers, and Yelash did them inimitably. It's a terrifically promising first book. It showed real literary talent. Real literary talent. I was very sorry when he just turned away from it."
Yelash breathed heavily as his great weight descended on the old couch at his Glendene home. He was an object to marvel at and wonder. He said, "I had 10 years of people buying me drinks and saying, 'Yelash is a great writer but they won't publish his work.' And I went along with it. And I was sitting at home in a dirty little bedsitting room in Wellington one day and it suddenly occurred to me, of course they hadn't published anything because I haven't written anything..."
When I left, I wondered whether I'd hear him burst into song. But the house was silent.
John Yelash, 84
Actor, playright and writer
• 1950s: Was in a relationship with Diana Fussell, the daughter of the governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, and forged cheques in her name. He was charged on two counts of forgery and sentenced to a year in prison.
• 1957: Published book of his stories, Forty Thousand Beers Ago .
Co-founded Mate , a literary magazine, with Robin Dudding, Kevin Ireland and Barry Crump.
• 1979: Shirley Pedersen died after drinking sherry and an over-the-counter drug called The Governor.
• 1980: Yelash is convicted over her death and sentenced to 3 1/2 years for manslaughter.
• 2000: Prime Minister Helen Clark calls Yelash a murderer during a row over sacked Maori Affairs Minister Dover Samuels.
Wrote and starred in play Jail Song at Auckland's Silo Theatre, based on his experiences of imprisonment.
• 2001: Yelash awarded $50,000 after suing Helen Clark.
• 2002: Released Jail Song , a book on his life based on his play.