Posts for February, 2010

Morning Prayer

‘Do you meditate every morning?’ Credo asked the sage.

‘No,’ said Master Tze. ‘I wake up and thank God I’m alive.’

‘But you say there is no God!’ Credo said.

‘That doesn’t stop me being glad,’ Master Tze answered

Turning Point

A short while after my novel Black Earth/White Bones was published, I got a message from a man called Peter Goddard, saying how much he liked the book. I don’t know how other writers feel about communications like this but, for me, they are the best kind of feedback, more satisfying than even the most laudatory review. Reviewers are paid to give their opinion. They serve as gatekeepers in the publishing process. Readers are the very reason for the book’s existence. When one of them takes the trouble to write and tell you that you have done a good job, you feel affirmed in a special way. In this case, though, the message was special for another, additional reason. I knew Peter Goddard, although I had not seen him for almost fifty years. He had once been my English teacher and form master at Auckland Grammar School.

Peter is one of two teachers I remember best. (The other is Freddy Orange, our Maths and Physics master). I picture him as a plumpish man, with short, straight dark hair, going a little thin at the temples; dark eyes and a rich, dark voice. Age? It’s hard to tell but I guess he must have been in his early thirties. He taught us literature in the old style: Henry V and Romeo and Juliet, Lycidas and The Ancient Mariner, Bleak House  and Tess of the D’Urbevilles. I was just at an age when I could start to appreciate the richness and the depth of these works, although Henry V was a bit of a stretch and I shared my classmates’ belief that the best thing about John Donne was the dirty bits in some of the Elegies. More important than these classics, though, were Peter’s attempts to introduce us to modern literature. In his class, I read my first New Zealand novel – I’ll Soldier No More by M. K. Joseph – along with Eliot’s poems and Christopher Fry’s A Phoenix Too Frequent. I have a feeling there was Dylan Thomas, too, although I may be wrong about that.

I can’t say I fully appreciated all of this stuff. I did not feel I was stepping into a room full of treasures that dazzled me with their evident beauty and value. It was more like sitting down in a restaurant that served rather odd food, full of complex and subtle tastes, which I wasn’t sure whether I liked or not. Thinking back on the experience makes me wonder about the modern pedagogical practice of trying to give students ‘things that interest them’, as if the immediate, explicit reaction to a work is the thing that matters most. Was I interested in Bleak House? Would I rather have read something else, something more ‘relevant’, more connected to my own experience? I really don’t know. If you had asked me at the time, I might well have said that I did not like it very much and yet, although I haven’t read the book again since, it is still one of my favourite Dickens novels. That first encounter has stayed with me for fifty years.

That said, however, there was one moment in Peter’s teaching that did make an immediate impact. Some time during 1960, he read us some beat poetry – Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlingheti or Corso, about as up to date as you could get at that time. He then got us to write things of our own, encouraging us to abandon the constraints of normal language. The experience was a liberation. For the first time I realised that poetry could connect with my world and my preoccupations in a way that I had not thought possible. It would be melodramatic to say that I became a writer at that moment but not too far off the mark.

I had already bought myself a Smith Corona portable and taught myself to touch-type and now I started to churn out poetry. Most of it was dreadful late-teenage angst but here and there was evidence of lighter touch and the first signs of some aesthetic distance. One such piece finished up in the school magazine for that year. It was about a hundred lines long and entitled Reflections on the Condition of the Modern World. After some standard denunciations of middle-class values, it developed into a eulogy for Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, launched by the Soviet Union in 1957…

see them there below
earthlubbers
while thy flight
            (little russian ballbearing)
takes thee streaking upward into neverventured strylight
look at the wonders circling slow
moonsilver spiraltwisting
starstreaks shyskywinking
sunblaze gyrating anglewise
and old mother earth slewing slowly
from time into timelessness
look at the moon
             (little electronic pea)
see her there
ah
bleaming greencheese muin
lookuponmenot
cleave notthy sky
let not the whorle thou wouldst make
supwallow this jussleff plantet
let it peaceful lie
while i
              (the product of a meteorlogical mind)
spin
longitudinalateraly on
parallegrammatically on
the suns small grandchild
dog in the moon

In his message, Peter said that he had never thought of me as a writer. He remembered me as one of the science boys, which, indeed, I was. I was in the science stream and English was not my best subject by any means, although I had won a couple of essay prizes. What he did not realise was that in the secret life I led in the privacy of my bedroom at home I was in avid pursuit of meanings that could not be expressed in mathematical equations. His lesson on the Beat Poets connected that world with the public world of school. I came out, in other words.

I can’t remember now whether I told Peter that his teaching had made a difference like that. I can’t even remember whether I replied to his note. I always try to and I certainly hope I did in this case. If not, though, this post should serve as my thanks.

Our Resident Philosopher

Flitz the Fly

Flitz the Fly

Walking the Walk

‘The mountain is to the sea as the theorem is to the biscuit,’ said Master Tze.

‘You talk nonsense,’ said Bardumon.

‘And I live it too,’ Master Tze said.

Fives

I was once an international sports star. You may scoff at this but if being an international sport star is the same as being the best in the world at an established sport, then the claim is, arguably, justified. The sport in question is AGS fives. If you now want to point out that fives isn’t exactly played world-wide, I can only say neither is baseball and yet the American’s claim they have a World Series.

Fives, according to Wikipedia, is a British game, played at Eton and Rugby and a few other old public schools. The article completely ignores the long tradition of fives at Auckland Grammar School. I don’t know how the poms play it but I’ve learnt enough about their version to believe that ours was a distinct game in its own right, as different as rugby is from rugby league.

Fives is played with a ball – a tennis ball in our case – that you hit with your hand. Our rules were similar to those of squash, except that the court had only three walls, not four. Each shot had to hit the back wall and had to be returned either on the volley or after a single bounce. I have a feeling that a side wall had to be struck too but I might be wrong about that.

There were a dozen or more courts ranged along a six metre high wall that marked the boundary between the school and Mount Eden Prison. The side walls of each court were stepped, about four metres high at the back and descending in two scoops to around three metres at the front, the open side of the court. Each side wall ended in a squarish pillar and there was trim along the top of the walls, too. These features provided little nooks and angles that the skilful player could exploit to achieve unexpected rebounds and ricochets. I believe that the original game in Olde Englande was first played in the spaces between the buttresses of gothic churches. These would have provided the opportunity for similarly cunning shots.  

For a while, in 1958, I was a skilful player, one of the best. I was not as good as Alan Winton but he is the only person I can remember beating me regularly. I achieved my eminence by the usual means – hard work. For three years, I played fives at morning and afternoon break and at lunch time too. I played before school when I could and, during my fifth form year, when I was allowed a little more autonomy, after school for an hour or two as well. At one point, I played with my leg in plaster after I’d broken it falling off my bike. I played so much that, at times, the palm of my right hand swelled up so that I couldn’t close my fist properly. When I was in hospital recently, a doctor asked me what the two lumps in my right hand were at the base of the third and fourth fingers. ‘Calluses’ I said. I didn’t add that they were from playing fives fifty years ago.

It was a strange obsession. None of my classmates, except Alan, were interested in the game. They were all too focussed on their studies or on proper sports like rugby, soccer or cricket. Fives had no future, no meaning outside the immediate context of the school. I don’t know whether I liked it despite its obscurity or because of it. It certainly meant more to me than most other things the school had to offer in those first three years. In the week or so before the School Certificate exams, we were let off classes so that we could study. Along with a few other ne’er-do-wells, I spent most of the time playing fives. My marks, in consequence, were way below expectations, except for Maths, which I didn’t need to study for.

A year later I moved into the sixth form. For the first time we were allowed to spend our breaks in our form room. A few of us invented a game of cricket played with a piece of broken desk, a ball made of screwed up paper and the gas heater as the wickets. Another useless game that I got quite good at. I don’t think I ever played played fives again.