Sunday, July 29, 2018

Digging a hole

This letter from the latest issue of the London Review of Books ticks every box for me: it is from the Orkneys; it is about a vegetable garden in Takapuna; it cites Hera Lindsay Bird and Frank Sargeson; and it quotes Maurice Duggan and Kevin Ireland. The Rod Edmond who provoked this is Lauris Edmond’s nephew.

What to Do with a Quarter-Acre
Rod Edmond suggests Hera Lindsay Bird is pulling my leg when she claims not to know of ‘New Zealand’s old Labour Day custom of digging a hole in one’s back garden’ (Letters, 5 July). I reckon it’s Edmond who’s doing the leg-pulling. I’ve never seen mention of such a custom in any literary or historical context, and none of the New Zealand writers with whom I have discussed ‘The Hole that Jack Dug’ has heard of it either.
Jack was based on a friend of Sargeson’s called Bill Anso. ‘Anso used to dig holes everywhere,’ the poet Kevin Ireland wrote to me. ‘He would see a spade and he’d grab it and dig. If all men shared Anso’s compulsion, the planet would be like gruyère cheese.’ Anso’s obsession was briefly normalised in the early years of the Second World War, when fears of a Japanese attack drove many New Zealanders to dig bomb shelters in their gardens.
Another ‘Son of Sargeson’, Maurice Duggan, wrote vividly about Labour Day on the North Shore in the postwar era:
Up and down this crumbly hill the lawnmowers are whirring, the radios are chanting comments, winners, prices, from the ‘tots’; the glare strikes up, the dust blows: the air is rich with the smell of all those roast dinners eaten at high noon; “dad” is undoubtedly off somewhere, sleeping with the newspaper over his face: the pubs, like any football scrum, one knows, are packed tight.
So no hole-digging.
Contrary to Edmond’s further suggestion, Sargeson’s garden was far from the norm. Quarter-acres in up and coming suburbs like Takapuna were typically laid out to lawns, with only limited flower and vegetable beds. Sargeson was extremely unusual in cultivating every square inch for food production. His garden literally kept him alive at many points. So desperate was he to wring every ounce of goodness from the land that he even treated the council-owned berm between the front of his section and the roadway as an opportunity to grow long grass for scything and composting. This was yet another irritation to his tidy-minded neighbours, who felt that New Zealand’s greatest writer was lowering the tone of Takapuna.
Duncan McLean
Stenness, Orkney

For some years I grew capsicums that were descended from Sargesons plants, as Kevin Ireland had collected and saved the seeds. I have lost them and their descendants now, but it was nice while it lasted.