Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Frank Sargeson and Paul and me
Seven years ago, Paul was inhaling the classics and short stories and NZ lit at the rate of a book and a half a week - some of them massive tomes by the likes of Dickens and Dostoevsky. He had more time for this than most because, for various reasons, he was doing his schooling at home that year. He'd just discovered Sargeson's short stories and so a visit to Auckland cried out for a trip to the writer's famous fibrolite bach [interior photo above].
One afternoon - sunny, I remember - we abandoned the rest of the family and caught a cab to the Takapuna Library where we understood we could pick up the key. I wandered all over the library until I found someone who could help me. She handed the key over as if we were popping in to the feed the cat. Then off we went in the taxi to 14 Esmonde Road. where one of NZ's foremost writers had lived and worked from 1931 - 1982.
The cab pulled up by the hedge. The travel guide wasn't lying, it was truly unprepossessing. We told the driver to pick us up in an hour, and we went gingerly in through the gate and up to the front door. The key slid into the lock and we stepped into - if I remember rightly, I can't put my hand on the notes I took back then - a porch with a daybed where Sargeson slept. The air was the air of a bach left closed for the winter, and at the same time it felt as if we were walking into a home which was still being lived in, as if we should call out, 'don't worry, it's just us!'
There were hats on the coat hooks and books left on tables and shelves. The shelves were groaning with books, in fact. We could hear them.
And there was the kitchen bench where Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame had lunch every day when she was living and writing in a shed out the back [no longer there.] I'm pretty sure it was usually soup made from the vegetables Sargeson grew, and they'd talk about what they'd written that morning and the book they were both reading at the time. Sargeson was - to use a modern phrase - 'mentoring' Frame. So, and again this is from memory, they read the same book and discussed it to encourage her writing.
In the morning, Sargeson would tap on the door of the shed and ask how she was going, and if she wasn't writing, Frame would tap madly on the typewriter 'The quick brown fox..' so he thought she was busy and would go away. Of course I could have that wrong but the story has stuck with me.
We admired the kitchen bench and the books and the relaxed clutter and disarray. Then feeling like Goldilocks, we sat in the chairs - the exact ones in the photograph above. And we sat. And we talked about Sargeson and talked about Frame and talked about their books. And the dust we'd disturbed drifted in the watery sunlight. And we talked some more.We had an hour, remember.
I had no camera to take photographs but I remember it so clearly. It was one of those perfect times when everything coheres - when the stuff of us and what we've done and are doing, and who we are and where we are, and all those dusty ghosts thronging the windows, come together and say in a ridiculously loud whisper: 'this.' This.
For this is us - my son, Paul, and I. It's books and talking and thinking and writing. And music, too, and, recently, films and philosophy. He taught me as much that year as I taught him I think.About a host of classics I'd never read and those I had. About the joys of rediscovering writers I hadn't read for years. About how reading is simply in some people's DNA. How making time for reading and writing can be as natural as drinking water - you just have to claim a place - the whole length of the couch, a desk with a chair - and do that thing you were meant to do.
How well Paul fitted into Frank's chair, and into that cosy little room with all the books. We didn't want to leave. We talked about how astonishing it was that we could just let ourselves into a national treasure like that - how New Zealand it was. And so we sat and talked until the taxi came.
In seven years, we've never been back. Well not back back. We still do it, all that talking and reading and writing and sitting in chairs and disturbing dust. And soup. We both love soup.