Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Frank Sargeson and Paul and me

It was Open Day at Frank Sargeson's bach in Takapuna at the weekend, and it was my eldest son's 21st birthday. A nice collision of events.

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.


Michaela said...

I love this post Mary, thanks for sharing this story. it makes me want to get writing.. and makes me wish i had a vegetable patch, and a bach... and tables groaning with books. working hard on the last one at least!

TK Roxborogh said...

Mary, your post is, I feel, one of those precious pieces of writing. Wonderfully written. Words fail me. Make sure you save that somewhere else because more people should read it. Thank you. Heading to Auckland on Wed and now feel inspired to go visit (the whole 20 years I lived on the North Shore and many times went past his home but never went in).

maggie@at-the-bay.com said...

What a very novel version of the 21st key to the door and what a lovely bond to share with your boy.

Rachel Fenton said...

Beautiful post, Mary - it all comes down to love, really. What a breathtaking snapshot you've given us!

And, I live just down the road from the bach!

PC said...

Thanks Mary, a lovely evocation of your relationship with your son - lucky for both of you! - as well as of the heyday of that special Takapuna bach which acted as a hothouse for so many Kiwi authors.

I think the main benefit for Janet Frame in the 15 months she boarded with Frank, was that it was the first time that her desire to be a professional writer was taken seriously and even encouraged. Imagine how marvellous and lifesaving that must have been for her, when previously her literary ambition was treated as a delusion! So she was able to knuckle down and write her first novel there. Frank's 'mentor' role was about developing a literary lifestyle, and socialising with other writers. But I'd like to clarify that his 'mentor' role did not at all relate to her intellectual development. There has long been a myth emanating from the North Shore that Frank "taught" Frame to write, and that she was the literary equivalent of a "primitive" painter, but that couldn't be further from the truth. In fact as Michael King reports, she didn't let Frank interfere with her writing, and she was already highly educated and well-read in the classics, and in the latest NZ and world writing, before coming to Takapuna. And of course she had already won the Hubert Church award for her book of stories before she met Frank. (She'd already written those amazing stories published in the New Yorker last year, too.)

It must have been an exciting time for the both of them - he was also delighted to find an intellectual equal he could spar and discuss with. His own career was in the doldrums at the time, so what a marvellous experience it all must have been, and I agree the echoes of it still seem to be there when one visits the house.

I was lucky enough to know all those people when I was a child and spent many hours at Frank's listening in to the conversations! There are still untold stories...

And the writing schools and blogs and groups of friends of today are no doubt making their own legends and myths! :-)

Harvey Molloy said...

Love the post, Mary. A blog classic.

Mary McCallum said...

Thank you all for the comments. The more personal the blog post the more I worry about how it fends for itself out there, so I am pleased and touched it has made some friends. Such a nice group of friends, too. The sort of people I would happily share a bowl of soup with.

And I hadn't thought of it as a 'key to the door' story, Maggie. Your mind never ceases to amaze me with its agility. Thank you, too, for the clarifications re. Janet Frame, PC, I was hoping you would, and I apologise for the inaccuracies.

The Paradoxical Cat said...

Thanks Mary - I was pretty sure you were dropping hints for me to add my bit ;-) please don't apologise for anything - you really have evoked the reflective atmosphere of that place so beautifully. It was - and is - dedicated to reading and talking and writing. It was an oasis of art and friendship and all those who were nourished by it never forgot to be grateful. Oh but there was a dark side to Frank - like many a raconteur he was a terrible gossip and he didn't let the truth get in the way of a good anecdote, so it pays to take any of the stories from that time with a grain of salt. (He was afflicted with envy, and he was a misogynist, so the stories about the successful women in his circle can be particularly demeaning.)

Mary McCallum said...

Hi PC - I made a minor change to the blog post to make it closer to the truth - I've said now that Sargeson and Frame read the same book and discussed it 'to encourage her writing' - it's still not spot on but it's more accurate than 'encourage her reading' - cheers M