Monday, November 1, 2010

A glimpse of Frank Sargeson

The 23rd in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the March 1996 issue. The intro read:
After reading the memoirs of Frank Sargeson in the November issue, and then Michael King’s biography, DAVID MACKENZIE was prompted to pass on his own memories.
A year or so after the end of World War II, Canterbury College held an Open Week in a Christchurch winter, when I attended an address by ARD Fairburn given at a church in the area, on the Romantic Movement in poetry as I recall; details of it escape me after this gap but his presence was impressive. Tall, dark, sun-tanned with strong features and well modulated delivery, he dressed casually in sports coat and grey flannel, a plain shirt and subdued tie. Into the pockets of the large checked tweed he thrust his hands deeply, gesturing with a big hooked pipe from time to time for emphasis.
At question time a few had their queries urbanely handled and then came Ron Scarlett, one of those who seem to be a student forever, who loved to argue the toss at any chance. He challenged the speaker on his main thesis, putting his points with much vigour and the ensuing debate took all of half an hour, both obviously enjoying the cut and thrust. Scarlett subsided at last without giving way, though I feel Fairburn had the better of it in a good-natured way and, as a practitioner of romantic poetry himself, a memorable figure. Much later Scarlett worked on the Pyramid Valley excavations of the giant eagle for Canterbury Museum, and became an authority on New Zealand fossil homes.
Johannes Andersen, head of the Turnbull library, wrote on Maori mythology and nature notes of the most engaging kind for the Christchurch Press. George Bernard Shaw said that his most outstanding experience in New Zealand was Andersen whistling the native birdsongs to him in the study at the Turnbull, so transporting him to the heart of the bush.
This remarkable man was diminutive, his fine features brown and delicately wrinkled, his brow high, above it a mane of silver wire hair beautifully brushed and the man impeccably attired. He began by saying that his subject, “The Literature of the Maori”, was a contradiction since Maori wasn’t a written language, but that he hoped to prove that this speech deserved to be regarded as literary by its poetic nature.
As a young man of 17 he became an interpreter for the Maori Land Court and told of a time in Gisborne where an elder giving evidence recited his genealogy back to the canoes, taking two days to do so. That evening the Judge said, “Andersen, that man is inventing, so tomorrow you are to tell him you’ve lost your notes.” When asked how to explain this, he replied, “Oh, invent anything – they were accidentally burnt, maybe.” Next day the old man’s face fell as he was told he’d have to repeat his recitation, yet he did so and when the two records were compared, they were near enough to identical.
Feats of memory such as this were not unusual, but Andersen’s point was that they were expressed in poetic ways, indeed the everyday Maori giving directions or explanations, such as describing the plants in his district that were safe to use, did so in graceful literary terms. So he argued his case with examples, some of these the old folk tales.
At the end of the spellbinding session a man stood to thank him. He was dressed in a trench coat, navy blue suit with wide chalk stripes and cuffs on the trousers, had square-cut features, basin cropped hair, not sun-tanned. He was Frank Sargeson.
He spoke eloquently in a Kiwi voice, flat vowels and a somewhat metallic note, saying that he’d been privileged to hear such a wonderful lecture and that he felt certain he spoke for us all when he assured Johannes that he had persuaded us that Maori deserved to be regarded as literature – and that the account of Rona in the Moon came across so well it made him think he must use the story somehow in the future.
So it was, 50 years ago three of my heroes from the printed page were made manifest.

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