Monday, March 30, 2009

Kevin Ireland on Frank Sargeson

To mark the publication of Michael King’s biography of Frank Sargeson, who died 27 years ago in March 1982, the magazine Quote Unquote published in its November 1995 issue four reminiscences of Sargeson. This one is by Kevin Ireland.

How Far Is Friendship?
The streets of Takapuna are like ribs running out from the spine of Lake Road towards the beach in one direction and the mudflats in the other. Until the harbour bridge made this divide socially irrelevant, it served as a useful distinction for those who cared about such things. You either lived on the mudflat side or the beach side.

Frank was the first person who pointed this out to me, and it added in a small way to the subversive pleasure I felt when I visited him (at least once a week) in the mid-1950s, walking over from my family’s Rewhiti Avenue house to Frank’s little cottage halfway to the mudflats.

Frank was extraordinarily generous to all young people (and absolutely never exploitative or sexually predatory), and he was especially extravagant to me with limitless time, talk, food and books. After Janet Frame left for England he invited me to take over the army shed at the end of his section to do my first stint of fulltime writing.

So, some years later in London, it was a pleasure to feel that I was making a return for all that attention when I found myself part of a chain of coincidences that helped revive his career as a novelist. Through my New Zealand friend Neil Perrett, I met Martin Green, who was instrumental in getting Memoirs Of A Peon published, and Neil and I used to meet up with him in now-vanished Soho dives to fortify his resolve and feed his enthusiasm, and even have a drink or two.

In 1974 I was back in Auckland and one of my priorities was to drop in on Frank. Luckily, I was warned off by Tony Stones and Bob Dudding. Frank, they said, now had a telephone and he liked to be rung before a visit, even by old friends. He was also anxious, they added darkly, that since I had become a cosmopolitan I might come on a bit heavy and overpowering.

I rang, only for Frank to ask me exactly how long I would be in Takapuna, then to tell me that he wasn’t quite up to a visit, but he would get in touch when he felt he could manage it.

Days, then weeks, went by. Tony and Bob gave me updates on Frank’s health and disposition, and said I’d receive a summons shortly, but still no invitation.

Then, only a few days before I was to leave, Frank rang to tell me to call the following afternoon. I couldn’t have been more mystified – only to find, when he opened the door, that nothing had changed. Frank was as brilliant, perky and mischievous as ever. He opened a bottle of Lemora citrus wine, which he said he had gone to some trouble to find, and we passed hours in non-stop chat. It was exactly like the old days, except that every now and again he would drop in some reference to my having become a cosmopolitan. It was that word again.

Eventually, I objected by telling him appalling anecdotes against myself to prove that although I now lived far away, I was still an incorrigible Kiwi hick. Though I also contrarily pointed out that cosmopolitanism was one of the worst heresies against Stalinism, so where was the fault?

It was the single irritation in a marvellous afternoon. We were back on an old wavelength, so who cared about a mild touch of crankiness? Then, just as I was going, Frank said he believed my family had shifted – where had they gone?

Still in Takapuna, but further up the bay, I replied.

Still on the beach side? he asked.

Yes, Earnoch Avenue, I said.

That also puts them further up the social scale, he observed.

So far you’d call them bloody cosmopolitans? I asked.

He looked at me in surprise for a moment, then burst out laughing. That memory of Frank laughing is my last. The next time I was in town he was genuinely unwell and I took advice not to disturb him. I wish I’d been more cosmopolitan about it. I suspect my dear old friend could have done with a brandy.

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