Posts for ‘1961 – 1972’

Murray

I have been thinking about my friend Murray recently – not the Murray I knew in my early days in Yorkshire but the one I met when I was at secondary school. He was a good-looking guy, just under six foot tall,  with broad shoulders and black, curly hair,  a deep rich voice which made him seem older than he really was – twenty-two or three say instead of eighteen.

He lived down the road from us in Mt Wellington and I met him not through school but through the youth group at the local church. This offered table tennis and darts and desultory conversation to anyone who turned up on a Tuesday night. Its main attraction was the girls that went along,  although I have to admit, in my case at least, the reality of their company never matched the anticipation. I was too tongue-tied in their presence to engage in the kind of conversation that might have got their attention. They were good kiwi kids, out for a fun time but also sensible and pragmatic with their lives laid down on well-worn tracks. Several of them knew me from bible class where I was prone to ask awkward questions that sometimes involved reference to eighteenth century philosophers. I somehow knew that this habit was not endearing but the realisation was never enough to stop me.

Murray turned out to be a kindred spirit. We got into the habit of walking home together deep in conversations that would go on as we stood on the footpath opposite his house. It must have been summer for my memory of the talk comes with an image of the gloaming slipping gently into darkness. I don’t remember exactly what we talked about only the intensity of a shared interest in ideas and philosophical problems.

There was a dark side to Murray and a self-detachment that I found disturbing. He told me that several members of his family had committed suicide and, on another occasion, he described how he had ‘pashed’ a girl in the back seat of a car after a bible class dance, an account that seemed as little appreciative of his own feelings, whatever they were, as of the girl’s. It seemed that he had embarked on the adventure almost as an intellectual exercise or a scientific experiment to see what it was like and he talked about it with a curious combination of excitement and an analytical detachment that was shot through with cynicism. Somehow he succeeded in objectifying himself.

We lost touch after that summer. We both went on to university but we began in different subjects – he in arts and I in science. We hooked up again briefly in our second year and talked philosophy, which he was then studying. He lent me his copy of The Moral Law, H J Paton’s translation of Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals. He also confessed, with a touch  of pride, that he had just passed his second year English exams without opening a single text. All he had read was the critics. He did this, I’m sure, to prove it could be done. I liked the irony but I felt it was a futile, nihilistic exercise.

After this we lost touch again. Later someone told me he had killed himself. I was very upset by the news but, when I thought abut it, not entirely surprised.

I still have the book, scrupulously annotated in his small, neat handwriting and I wonder sometimes what he thought of Kant’s argument against suicide.

People are ends in themselves, Kant said. They should never be used as means to an end. To kill your self is to use yourself for some end or purpose even if that purpose is merely to take away the pain of your despair.  I am not sure Murray would have been convinced by that. He is more likely to have done the deed out of intellectual curiosity, to see what it was like.

Absurdity

For my twenty-first birthday I received five gifts from my parents: a signet ring, a wristwatch, a red tartan travel rug and two books.  One book was the then most recent collection of Allan Curnow’s poetry A Small Room with Large Windows and the other Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus.  Both contain identical inscriptions in my mother’s hand-writing. 

Congratulations and Best Wishes for your
21st Birthday Christopher
from
Harry and Mum
 x x x

An oddly formal message, it seems now.  My mother never called me Christopher in real life and the ‘Best Wishes’ seems unduly restrained.  I think, too, that this is the first and only time she used ‘Harry and Mum’ rather than ‘Mum and Harry’.  I suppose the tone marked the solemnity of the occasion or, perhaps, there was some tension in the family that I don’t now remember (was the travel rug a subtle hint that I’d lived at home long enough?).

I can only think that I chose the books myself.  I doubt that anyone else involved had heard of either author and if Harry, my stepfather, had known what the Camus was about he might well have burnt it rather than risk anyone reading it.  He was a kind and generous man but his years as a psychiatric nurse had left him with a deep distrust of airy-fairy theory. 

I first heard of Camus a year or so before my 21st when I was going out with Vanya Lowry.  I have a strong image of a group of us sitting round the table in the Lowrys’ kichen with the sun streaming through the windows.  I am not sure if we were eating but we very likely drinking – something out of a flagon, maybe.  Vanya and I were on one side and Vanya’s sister Judy and her boyfriend David Mitchell on the other.  Bob and Irene Lowry were at either end.  It was David who started talking about Camus.  I don’t remember what he said, only his enthusiasm and the fact that his words struck a chord with me.  I knew immediately that this was a writer who was saying things I needed to hear.  I bought a copy of The Outsider soon after and, over the next couple of years, I read everything by Camus that I could lay my hands on, even the plays, which I don’t think are much good. 

The Myth of Sisyphus is an essay of about a hundred pages written in occupied France in 1940, when Fascism and Nazism had conquered most of Europe.  It asks if life has any meaning and if it doesn’t, whether or not a rational person should therefore commit suicide.  Camus answers this question not by appealing to God or to some set of abstract values but by an existential argument, which is in one sense a piece of intellectual trickery but in another, perhaps, a beguiling insight into what it is to be a human being.  Life, he says, is absurd and, because of this, its absurdity is the only truth we know.  The only way to preserve the truth is to preserve the consciousness that apprehends it.  Suicide is not a logical outcome of this situation.  On the contrary, it is an irrational act.

I think Camus sits at a midpoint in twentieth-century literature between the gloom and the nostalgia of the modernists and the exuberant irony of postmodernism, between a temper that takes ultimate questions seriously and one that finds them slightly ridiculous.  This balance appeals to me and I still think Camus’s conclusion is right although these days I’d want to argue it differently.

I’ve always felt that the experience of absurdity has two faces, the comic and the tragic, and that one way to understand it is as a sometimes sudden and often inexplicable change in point of view accompanied by a dislocation of value.  You are playing golf or making love or painting the ceiling and you suddenly realise how ridiculous you look.  You feel a surge of surprise.  You want to laugh.  Perhaps you are overcome by a fit of giggles that disconcerts the people you are with.  You have to stop and readjust, try to absorb yourself again in the seriousness of the activity.  This is the comic face and it results in delight and a sense of irony.  The tragic face can have a more negative and profound effect.  You suffer some trauma or maybe you just wake up one morning and you realise that the career or the relationship or the political cause you have devoted your life to means nothing to you anymore.  It is as if you have been walking on solid ground and it suddenly gives way beneath your feet and you are sucked into a void.  Such a moment can be deeply disruptive – a sudden loss of meaning or significance that seems to threaten your identity.  Thoughts of suicide might not be far away.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the philosopher Thomas Nagel suggests that to be conscious, to be fully alive in the human sense, is no more and no less than having a point of view.  The essence of a point of view, however, is that it can change.  To be a human being then is to be capable of seeing things in different ways from one moment to the next.  It is to be capable of enjoying or suffering the absurd.  This, I think, is Camus’s point. 

People like my stepfather – sane, sensible people – suppress their experience of the absurd before it can take a hold.  They rely for their direction on religion or common sense or sound reasoning, all of which help to maintain a sense of stability and purpose.  I’m not like that.  Stability and purpose have always seemed hopelessly beyond my reach, despite all my best attempts to achieve them.  I seem to have always lived on the frontiers of meaning where there is a constant risk of falling into the void.  I am not sure why this is so although I think that while some are born with a sense of the absurd and others achieve it, some just have it thrust upon them.

Gladwin Road

I met Vanya Lowry some time in 1961. She had been to Epsom Girls Grammar School with Frances Mullinder who was going out with my friend Malcolm Fraser. Vanya’s father was printer and typographer Bob Lowry who, together with her mother, Irene, was embedded in the Auckland literati – a brave new world for me. I realised that the intellectual freedom I had begun to experience among my friends was not just youthful disaffection and rebellion but was shared by a whole stratum of adult society, albeit one that felt embattled and disaffected in its own right.

The Lowrys lived at the end of Gladwin Road on the edge of Cornwall Park. The house was overgrown with bush on two sides so that the front path from the road felt like the approach to some wild and unruly place. Out the back was a well-tended vegetable garden. The life of the house seemed to centre round the big dining area off the kitchen. People sat at a long wooden table and talked and drank – red wine, as I recall, or maybe it was beer in a flagon in good Kiwi fashion.

Next to the dining area, down a couple of steps was a big, square livingroom, where the furniture was always along the walls as if to leave the centre of floor clear for spontaneous dancing. Now and again there were parties, loud affairs that crammed this space and the kitchen, too. I still lived at home, as did all my friends and the party culture was something new and strange – packed rooms seething with talk and, lubricated with alcohol, an undercurrent of licentiousness. I didn’t understand this ambience until I found myself being chatted up by women the same age as my mother. I was bemused and intrigued and terrified in equal measure.

I remember one occasion I was visiting Vanya when the poet Michael Jackson arrived with a woman, who it seemed had just run away from her husband. They danced around the living room with exuberant elegance (maybe the elegance was mostly on her part) and ignored us completely. Vanya told me later that she was Fleur Adcock, whose name was one I was already bandying about although I had never read her poetry. The husband she was running away from was Barry Crump.

Connections like this began to change my attitude to my own writing. Maybe it didn’t just belong in my private world. Maybe there was a place for it out in public, too. Eventually, I overcame my diffidence, bundled up a bunch of poems and sent them off to Charles Brasch at Landfall. He answered with a nice note saying that he found the work interesting and that although he didn’t want to publish these he would like to see anything else I wrote. I was too naive to take this  encouragement at face value (I know now that no editor asks to see more work unless they really mean it). I just thought he hated me. Oddly, though, I wasn’t discouraged either. If Brasch didn’t like what I was writing, then so much the worse for Brasch. It wasn’t that I had an especially high opinion of myself – I was riddled with self-doubt about my writing and much else in my life. I guess I just felt that, in some way, I had to do what I had to do. Whatever journey I was on should not or perhaps even could not be deflected by other people. Part of me still feels that way, although another part looks back and winces at my youthful arrogance.

A Misspent Youth

I went to university in 1961 as one of the country’s top science students. Two years later, I was an arts student on the verge of dropping out altogether. I am not quite sure now how this happened. It would be easy to put it down to the temper of the times and claim that I was part of the vanguard that led to all those hippie dropouts of the late sixties. There is a speck of truth in this. The people I became friends with were all questioning the establishment and several of them, like me, made dramatic changes of direction. None of them took such a cavalier attitude to their education as I did, though.

I think I was confounded by my own nature and by the particular circumstances of my life. I was in the science stream at school because I loved mathematics and if you wanted to do maths, you had to take on the rest of the science package – physics and chemistry in particular. Outside of school my intellectual interests ranged over English philosophy and foreign novels as well as history, politics and the problem of religion. These things energised me whereas the school curriculum, apart from the maths, was something in which I was only mildly interested. I went through the motions and did what I had to do. From the outside, I was something of a model pupil. In my last year I won a prize for being just this and my school testimonial described me as ‘a sterling youth’. In fact I was a fraud and university exposed me as a reckless creature without objectives.

The first trap was the student common room, a gloomy space under one of the old buildings, with low tables and big armchairs covered in red vinyl. It was a male preserve (perhaps it was even designated the Men’s Common Room, I don’t remember now) and was occupied between lectures by bridge players. I had never played bridge but I was fond of five hundred and I knew that bridge was supposed to be a superior variant. Pretty soon I was an addict, spending hours and, sometimes days on end at the card table, cutting lectures and tutorials in my new enthusiasm. The hours of practice honed my skills. I joined the University Bridge Club and became a member of a fours team that reached the final of the Auckland Provincial Championship. I dropped the game after that, though. I knew I could never have become a really good player. My mind was too unsystematic to keep track of the cards with the necessary precision. I played on intuition rather than observation and, in consequence, made disastrous mistakes at awkward moments. If you were to generalize that judgement, I couldn’t possibly comment.

It is often suggested that people fail at university because they lack the discipline for independent study. That wasn’t quite the case with me. The bridge aside, I did plenty of independent study – into modern French novels and existential philosophy, for example. It just wasn’t that relevant to stage one physics and chemistry. My problem was and still is that I have an addictive personality. I become fixed on things – some of them important and some trivial – and once fixed I tend to pursue them exclusively. Over the years I have learned to curb this tendency. Back then I was lost.

How its done

I first came upon McGonagall at an SCM retreat in 1961 when my friend John Crawford read Saving a Train to the assembled gathering.  The poem recounts the true story of Carl Springel, a crippled lad who gave his life in order to fulfil the action of the title.  McGonagall was always moved to his best by such tragic and heroic material.  Carl sets out in a storm…

From the handsome little hut in which he dwelt,
With some food to his father, for whom he greatly felt,
Who was watching at the railway bridge,
Which was built upon a perpendicular rocky ridge.

The bridge was composed of iron and wooden blocks,
And crossed o’er the Devil’s Gulch, an immense cleft of rocks,
Two hundred feet wide and one hundred and fifty feet deep,
And enough to make one’s flesh to creep.

How should we respond to work like this?  We could find only one answer. We had to take it seriously.  We had to follow Coleridge’s dictum and willingly suspend our disbelief. 

In the subsequent weeks a number of us acquired copies of McGonagall’s Poetic Gems and warmed to such classics as Death of Lord and Lady Dalhousie, Grace Darling or the Wreck of ‘The Forfarshire’ and The Tay Bridge Disaster.  Our enthusiasm gradually hardened into a sense of purpose. We began to feel that this fine poet ought to be brought before a wider audience. Thus it was that the formation of the Friends of McGonagall was announced to the expectant campus of Auckland University.

We were not the only people rushing to this cause.  A McGonagallian revival seemed to be springing up all over the world.  Gerald Hoffnung produced a recording in which Edith Evans read The Famous Tay Whale to a suitable orchestral accompaniment.  George Duckworth & Co published the entire oeuvres in a series of smart, tartan clad volumes.  Even the New Zealand Listener weighed in with a full page piece entitled ‘The Flatulent Muse’ (November 24, 1961), which was devoted largely to McGonagall’s work.  John took the occasion of this last as an opportunity to promote our hero to the rest of the country.  In a letter to the Listener (22 December, 1961) he wrote:

‘I hope you will permit me to bring to the notice of your readers the existence at the University of Auckland of a group known as “The Friends of McGonagall”.  It was formed a few months ago and already has an enthusiastic membership of close on thirty.  Its aims are to promote the recent revival of interest in William McGonagall, to ensure a just appreciation of his poetic achievement, to encourage research into the life of the Scottish poet and tragedian and scholarly criticism of his poetry, and to urge aspiring poets of today to adhere to the eternal values and insights of English poetry which McGonagall embodies in his work with such fidelity and beauty.’

It is perhaps worth noting that the editorial on the same page as this letter dealt with the threat of nuclear war and that two of the other four letters were concerned with the same subject.  I suspect that the popularity of the Goons as well as the McGonagall revival had something to do with the temper of the times.

Two meetings of the Friends were held in 1962.  They included impassioned readings of the poems and scholarly papers, one of which, delivered by Rob Jackson, later of the Department of English at the University of Sydney, offered convincing evidence that McGonagall had actually written the works of Shakespeare and that the secret of the Bard’s tomb, with its inscription ‘Cursed be He that moves my Bones’, is that it conceals the entrance to a tunnel from Stratford-upon-Avon to Dundee.  The second of these meetings, held in September 1962 to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the poet’s death was called the Inaugural Meeting.  Ironically and, perhaps, fittingly it was the last.

Prior to this Inaugural Meeting John and I were at pains to find a patron for the society.  We wrote to a number of people we felt worthy of the honour including the Duke of Edinburgh, Jackie Kennedy, Dame Edith Evans and Peter Sellers.  We received replies to all these requests.  Mrs Kennedy (through her Social Secretary, Letitia Baldridge) was ‘most appreciative of [our] thoughtfulness’ but declined with regret.  The reply from the Duke came from the Official Secretary at Government House and contained no words of appreciation or regret – just a very bald No.  The most sympathetic reply, though, was from Peter Sellers.  It consisted of a McGonagallian poem of some seventeen lines, which began:

Dear Mr. John Crawford, B.A., of 31 Wright Road, Auckland
Which as everybody knows is a long way to the west of Falkland
I deem it a great honour to have received your letter,
And, it is my only regret that I cannot answer it any better.

 Clearly, we had struck a chord with a kindred soul.  There was more to come, however.  In July, at around the time we had originally planned our Inaugural Meeting, we received an unsolicited telegram from Great Yarmouth.

‘From Goons to Goons across the Sea, we extend and (sic) old rheumatic knee.  Long live McGoonigal.
Seecombe Sellars and Milligan’

This, I suppose, was about as much closure as one can expect in an absurd world.