Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Nigel Cox on C.K. Stead: the prologue

I do like books that have me in the index: I have as many entries in the index to Bill Manhire’s Doubtful Sounds as do Beryl Bainbridge and Pablo Picasso, and twice as many as Witi Ihimaera and Barry Humphries. I know it’s wanky to care but still, as Abba put it: I do, I do, I do, I do, I do.

In C.K. Stead’s Book Self I am indexed because of references to my April 1990 article in Metro “Blaspheming Against the Pieties: why the literati hate C.K. Stead”. Stead says on p369 that he doesn’t have a copy of it and can’t remember the content, but he clearly assumes it was negative. I don’t have a copy (who keeps their ancient clippings?) and can’t remember the content either, but I do remember that it was essentially positive. Metro was very much on his side in the cultural debates of the time.

However, Stead does concede that my December 1990 cover story about political correctness (the cover pic showed Jennifer Ward-Lealand in a Greenpeace T-shirt wagging her finger sternly at the viewer: phwoar, frankly, and maybe this is why he still has a copy of this issue):
defended me against “politically correct liberals” whom [Stratford] describes as “the New Conservatives” and who had decided, he says, that I was “an incorrigible reactionary”.
He quotes a bit more of me in support of him, and then writes:
In fact if the earlier Stratford article was bad from my point of view (and I can’t be sure that it was) there was one that was much worse in a magazine he edited in the early 1990s. This was by Nigel Cox in Quote Unquote (both – author and magazine – now deceased) in which Cox more or less wrote my literary obituary, suggesting that since leaving the university my poetry had dried up, my novels were “forgettable”, and that, apart from causing upset by continuing to voice illiberal opinions, there was nothing left for me as a writer but “the dying of the light”.
This article by Nigel Cox is “Leading with his Chin” which I published in Quote Unquote the magazine in July 1994 when Nigel was 43 and Karl was 62 (see below). Obviously Nigel’s article was much less pro-Stead than my Metro article, and I didn’t really agree with his assessment, but it would have been a boring magazine if I had imposed my views on every contributor. The magazine folded in 1997, and Nigel died of cancer in 2006.

Fast-forward to 2010:
The 77-year-old CK Stead, New Zealand’s finest living writer, has won The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award.
Good for him, and we must all rejoice when a New Zealand writer wins an international prize, especially one worth ₤25,000. However, the story is about a younger writer who publishes an article hurtfully critical of an older writer. Some years later, the younger writer gets cancer and dies, while the older writer thrives. And then there is some funny business between the older writer and the widow.

There is an Italian proverb to the effect that revenge is a dish best eaten cold. This is extremely cold. Kelvin cold.

Well, see for yourselves. Nigel’s piece is reprinted below; Karl’s story is on the Times website here.


Robert Smith (the other one) said...

'New Zealand’s finest living writer'?


Unknown said...

Yep, now that Barry Crump is no longer with us the title (Greatest Living Writer, Literary God, and National Living Treasure) surely does belong to the Karlster.

Stephen Stratford said...

Robert: whom would you nominate then? Not arguing at all, just curious.

Stephen Stratford said...

Denis: I'm not sure that Karl would be flattered by inheriting the mantle from Crump.

And if you are the Denis who contributed so much to this blog's dead-tree predecessor, I would have thought, given your Oirish ancestry, that you would nominate not a swede but a spud - an O'Sullivan, O'Farrell, O'Ireland, O'Marshall or O'Lay. Have you thought this through?

Robert Smith (the other one) said...

'Robert: whom would you nominate then?'

Well for finest living NZ writer you've got Lloyd Jones, Elizabeth Knox, Maurice Gee, Vincent O'Sullivan, Owen Marshall and Jenny Bornholdt, just off the top of my head.

Stead may have been a good critic in his day but he is absurdly over-rated as a poet. His novels are patchy, to say the least. And that short story that won the award is average at best. It's nowhere near as good, for example, as the recent collections by his daughter Charlotte Grimshaw. She can really write.

Melior Farbro said...

I don't know anything about Nigel Cox but that story 'Last season's man' wouldn't win a prize in New Zealand - it's crap. The other entries must have been really bad.

Helena Handcart said...

What Melior Farbro said. That is a really weak story. It's professional writing as you'd expect but it's unconvincing. And when you piece together the background, it just seems nasty.

Unknown said...

It's a bit tangential but I happen to have a soft spot for Swedes, ever since the great moment when Sweden's soccer team beat England 2 - 0. This created one of the great headlines of our age, appearing in of course, The Sun. 'Swedes 2 Turnips 0'. I am not sure there is much of a connection to the Karlster, because I happen to believe he wasn't in the team, but I am working on it.

Stephen Stratford said...

Yes, Melior and Helena, it isn't one of Stead's best. I am a fan of his short stories generally, from "Five for the Symbol" to "The Blind Blonde with Candles in Her Hair", but this one is, leaving aside what NZ readers bring to it as background knowledge, thin stuff. The whole affair is very puzzling: why he would write and want to publish something so savage towards a woman who has never done him any harm - it's not Nigel Cox who has been hurt by this, it is his widow - and why the English judges thought it worthy of a prize. He really can do better than this.

Stephen Stratford said...

Denis, I share your admiration for the headline-writers at the Sun, if not for the contents of the newspaper itself. Please do let us know if your researches identify CK as a footballer.

Similarly tangential, not many people know that Samuel Beckett played first-class cricket, for Trinity College I believe. Only two games, but still. "A left-hand opening batsman, possessing what he himself called a gritty defence, and a useful left-arm medium-pace bowler, he never lost his affection for, and interest in, cricket" it says at

Chad Taylor said...

S - Beckett was a sporting all rounder. Tennis, golf and rugby although faded in the last quarter of the latter, apparently ("flopped among the daisies" as his French colleagues put it).

Stephen Stratford said...

Beckett was not the only literary sportsman. I believe that Amis jr is handy at tennis, as is another one of that crowd - Julian Barnes? There must be others.

In NZ we have Brian Turner in poetry, hockey and cycling. I believe that Owen Marshall is a keen tennis player. Alan Duff is a golfer. I'm not sure about the current VUP crowd, but I do know that Sarah Sandley, who is publisher of the Listener and has a PhD in NZ lit, is also a table-tennis international. She played in an international tournament last weekend and came fifth. As Cactus Kate would say, quite hot for a chick her age.

Big Dawg said...

Wasn't the afore-mentioned Nigel Cox a tennis player?

Anonymous said...

First Charlotte Grimshaw's 'Terrorism'. Now this.

Thank heavens I'm not a prominent New Zealand writer. Who will they turn on next?

Stephen Stratford said...

Yes, Big Dawg, Nigel was indeed a tennis player. We used to play at the Chelsea sugar factory tennis courts in Northcote/Birkenhead. The match would start with our friend Grant shaking lethal cocktails, which was his way of cheating: Nigel's then co-manager of Unity Books Jo wore a very tight and low frock to distract the heterosexual males when she bent down to pick up the ball, which was her way of cheating; and Nigel was really good, which I still regard as another way of cheating.

Stephen Stratford said...

"First Charlotte Grimshaw's 'Terrorism'. Now this."

I don't follow, Louie. I have just now re-read the story in "Opportunity" and it doesn't seem obviously based on real-life incidents or people, or written with revenge in mind. But judging by your blog you must know whereof you speak. Can you - tactfully - clarify?

Anonymous said...

Sorry Stephen, I don't have inside information - just a strong hunch. I enjoy reading the SST and I noticed some striking similarities between Grimshaw's story and a real life story that unfolded within the pages of the publication in 2006/07.

I really enjoyed Stead's winning story and I'm a big fan of Grimshaw's work as well. But have a look at this if you get the chance:

It made me think twice about the title 'Last Season's Man'.