Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Janet Wilson on Frank Sargeson

Another reminiscence of Frank Sargeson from the November 1995 issue of Quote Unquote. This one is by Janet Wilson, organiser of the Katherine Mansfield Centenary Conference in London in October 2008.
Visits And Visitors
Frank Sargeson’s had been a name uttered in our household with reverence ever since I could remember, because my father Phillip was both a friend of his and an admirer of his work; he modelled his first published story, “Charlie”, on the example that Sargeson had set and received encouragement and support from him during the early days of his literary endeavours. As a little girl I gazed at the books in my father’s bookcase and remained fascinated by the title of one novel: I Saw In My Dream. What visions did one see in a dream, I wondered, important enough to write about?

On one of our rare trips to Auckland, the family accompanied my father to meet him. Our shyness and awe in his presence of this man was quickly overcome when he gave us a two-shilling piece each, unheard of riches for us. But when we all went outside to inspect the garden at the back of the house, my little sister Katie, then three, lost hers among the cabbages, and after our frantic scrabblings among the earth and leaves failed to find it, started sobbing into my mother’s skirt.

Sargeson, noticing a family drama going on in whispers behind him, stopped his conversation with my father, and led us back into the house, where, lo and behold, another two-shilling piece was produced, and the tears instantly ceased. Despite it being the obvious solution to the calamity this gesture struck me, at the age of eight, as an extraordinarily generous one; and even now I would see it as a sign of the concern that Sargeson so often displayed for those in any kind of distress.

I met him again, perhaps 20 years later, when I returned to Auckland to live and would sometimes drop my father off at the house in Esmonde Road on a Sunday afternoon, usually stopping to come in for a brief exchange and a glass of Lemora straight from the flagon.

But my most vivid memory of Frank came from our visit to the antiquarian and scholar, Ralph Bodle, who lived at Kaukapakapa. The trip was planned several weeks ahead with infinite care, my contribution being to provide the transport (I drove an old blue Morris in those days) and act as chauffeur.

My father and I arrived at Takapuna early on the appointed day, a November morning, bright and clear after showers. Frank emerged prepared for the journey with a thermos of tea, but also laden with several mysterious parcels wrapped in newspaper. He immediately gave me a $5 note to cover the cost of the petrol, waving aside my protestations, which I finally ceased after a warning nod from my father.

Wisely, as he had not driven with me before, he insisted on sitting in the back seat, and as the blue Morris bounced along the country roads past grassy paddocks and bush-covered slopes, my delight at visiting this unfamiliar hinterland of Auckland was fuelled by hearing my passengers’ reminiscences of earlier days. Before we reached our destination at Oyster Point Road, Frank asked me to pull in along a side road which led to a large farm extending back into the hills. We stopped by the gate, and here the meaning of the parcels became clear as he explained that they contained bones to be left at the gate for the farmer’s dogs, which we could hear barking in the distance.

As Sargeson walked towards the gatepost, the parcels clutched under his arm, a small stooped figure with hat aslant his head, and coat loosely hanging, I saw him for the first time in the midst of the raw environment about which he had written so powerfully: sinister-looking macrocarpa-clad hills, rugged outcrops, austerely sweeping contours of land, and the house set back from the road, partly obscured by trees. Here, I thought, is the true New Zealand farm, set on sprawling and untamed countryside, and with that my mind turned to thoughts of the Depression, the bleakness of life in this country in the 1930s, and its puritan repressiveness.

But the sobering recognition which this setting inspired, of how the man and his works had encompassed the darker side of New Zealand life, was quickly dispelled by Sargeson himself as he proceeded to entertain us with stories of the ageing farmer. He had recently taken a new wife, a mere 20-year-old, who amused herself in the mornings by bouncing on the newly acquired marital bed, up and down said Frank, until she exhausted herself, or woke her husband, or fell out on to the floor.

The North Auckland landscape soon yielded a kinder, more accessible aspect, for Bodle’s cottage, barely five miles further along the road, tucked into the hillside, surrounded by a profusion of flowers, was tranquil and welcoming. Our arrival was punctuated by the appearance of the ther¬mos flask, and we washed off the dust of the journey with some tea.

I paused to admire the banana passionfruit vine which was lovingly entwined with the hedge, but soon followed the others over to the rain tank where a family of frogs sat, barely perceptible at first against the moss and green slime, clinging to the moss-covered edges. We marvelled at their glowing jewel-green skins and softly palpitating throats until, suddenly alert to our presence, they dived in, then emerged unblinking, their long legs shooting out behind them like tails as they hovered around the sides of the tank.

One, sitting on the green vine in the middle of the tank, stared at us fearlessly, looking just like the frog prince, before suddenly disappearing; and Frank was moved to comment on how many people had misinterpreted the sequence in Memoirs Of A Peon of the tiny webbed frog’s hand grasping the broken edge of the leaf in the lily pool as it came up out of the water, as a gesture of survival.

But it was our meeting with the goat which really set the seal on our tour, and crystallised the day’s events for me. Tethered to a stake (she would otherwise eat everything in sight, Ralph explained), she came prancing forward to meet us, butting our legs with her horns. We stood in a semi-circle looking at her and discussing the intelligence of goats and their cleverness; but none of us was prepared for the sudden display of agility and energy to which she treated us.

By encouraging her to leap up, and by laughing at her eagerness, Frank must have inspired a burst of adrenalin, released her high spirits, or maybe she saw her chance to impress her circle of admirers, for then she was leaping and bounding through the air, hardly restrained by her lead, her long legs tucked under, then flying out in all directions. Over and over she jumped, twisted and turned, her feet hardly touching the ground. And for a few moments the day took on a heightened glow, sun and grass seemed to blend in to one dazzling picture of the huge white goat jumping endlessly and joyously, leaping through the air, just like the farmer’s youthful wife bouncing upon her bed, and our spirits, sharing in her abandon, soared and flew with her.

There were so many sides to a person and writer as gifted as Sargeson that it is impossible to convey the impression of a personal acquaintance, especially one as modest as mine was; but suddenly visible on that sunny day was the infinite presence of the man and the writer rolled into one, at one with his surroundings, and bringing to them a new sense of life.

So finally, this is how I remember Sargeson best; not just for his stories, but for the way he cherished the moment, and perceived something extraordinary in the simplest, most familiar features of the world, and how in so doing, he gave that world of nature – the green frogs, the white goat – the chance to revel in its own existence.


David Hillier said...

These are great, Stephen. Are you going to put up more from the magazine's archives?

Stephen Stratford said...

Thanks, David. Yes I hope to. The idea is to put up content from the mag that may be useful, relevant or just interesting at this distance. As my mate Rob from NZBC says, now that Google is everyone's sole research tool, "If it isn't on the web, it doesn't exist." So pieces like these Sargeson memoirs really should be digitised. I'll post more as and when I can, and where the writers, if I can trace them, agree to it.