There were four things about New Zealand that upset me when we first arrived in March 1956: the paucity of the butterfly population, the primitive nature of the railway system, the lack of television and the fact that I had to go back to wearing short pants to school. Other than that, the place seemed pretty cool, although that was not a word I would have used back then. ‘Hot’ was the fashionable idiom and more appropriate, too, after England’s tepid summers. I remember our first walk down Queen Street – the hard, bright light of the roadway, the dark shade under the verandas. It all felt strange but I was used to adapting to new places and too young to judge the place. I just took note of the compensations like the huge golden queen peach tree in the back garden of the house were we were staying. I can only remember having eaten one peach before and here they were in such profusion they were rotting on the ground. Then I found my first weta. I had no idea what it was but it impressed me. Any country with fauna like this must have something going for it.

I quickly got used to the short pants and the lack of television. I abandoned my enthusiasm for trainspotting and I swapped my love of butterflies for a comparable interest in ants.

The land at the back of our house was flat and rough, covered in gorse and blackberry, which burned down every summer or so in a spectacular display of dark orange flame and roiling grey smoke, leaving behind a thick layer of apricot coloured ash. Beneath this layer the rocks were riddled with volcanic pipes that opened up here and there into low, dome like caves. Some of these you could crawl into – a dangerous practice I think now because the land belonged to a quarry, which did some blasting from time to time with accompanying jolts like little earthquakes. The roofs of the caves were unstable looking – cracked like crazy paving – and above ground there were concavities were some of them had collapsed.

We didn’t spend much time in the caves, though. They were too cramped. It was more fun wandering around in the open air, looking for wildlife – insects mostly, although there were a lot of skinks, too.

There were several species of ant. Some were big, slow, primitive creatures, maybe 15mm long, that lived in colonies with only a few dozen members but there were also big colonies of red ants with seething populations. These nests were everywhere. Sometimes they were only a few metres apart. It struck me as interesting that I never saw any of them in the house where some species of black ant (formica fusca, I decided they were) was a nuisance, requiring saucers of poison in the pantry cupboards. I decided that the two species couldn’t occupy the same territory – there were ants of the field and ants of the house. This thought (it might have been a rationalisation) encouraged me in an experiment

I had a copy of the classic Victorian text on the hymenoptera, Ants, Bees and Wasps by Sir John Lubbock in which he described a method for keeping ants nests so that they could be observed easily. This involved two sheets of glass separated by thin strips of wood around the edges with a few gaps  to form exits and entrances (rows of matchsticks did the job perfectly). The space between the sheets was filled with damp earth and the whole covered by a sheet of wood or cardboard to keep out the light. This arrangement was then supported by four legs standing in bowls of water, which formed little moats over which the ants couldn’t pass. All you had to do was dig up a nest and put it on top of the wood. As the dirt dried and crumbled the ants were supposed to abandon their old home and tunnel into the space between the sheets of glass to form a new one.

My only problem was where to try this experiment. The only place I could think of was the bottom of my wardrobe.

It all worked perfectly. Within a few days, my colony of several hundred ants and a couple of queens had moved in between the glass plates and built a beautiful set of inter connected chambers, the interiors of which were all clearly visible when I cleaned off the dirt of the old nest and lifted the cardboard cover.

I don’t remember now what I fed them on but they seemed to thrive. The queens laid eggs. The larvae grew. The pupae hatched into new workers. Of course, I forgot to renew the water in the saucers but this didn’t seem to matter. The ants came and went, quite happy with no thought of abandoning their new home. They didn’t infest my bedroom and, more importantly, they didn’t find their way into the kitchen either. After a while I stopped feeding them and they seemed quite capable of fending for themselves, going off into the outside world through some crack in wardrobe wall or floor.

This story ought to finish with my mother opening up my wardrobe and reacting in disgust or horror at what she found. It didn’t turn out that way. I don’t think anyone ever found out the ants were there. I could have shared the secret with my little sister but I don’t think so. I’m not sure I could have trusted her that far. My mother was too busy to care beyond a cursory glance round my room, which was usually pretty tidy. She probably felt my wardrobe was best left unexamined. Goodness knows what I might have had in there. Copies of Playboy or something.

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.

The Facts of the Matter

For those of you who do not know, William McGonagall was born in Edinburgh in 1830.  He was the son of a handloom weaver and pursued his father’s trade until the mechanisation of the weaving industry made life hard for him.  In June 1877 he experienced a life-changing visitation from the muse

‘I was sitting in my back room in Paton’s Lane, Dundee, lamenting to myself because I couldn’t get to the Highlands on holiday to see the beautiful scenery, when all of a sudden my body got inflamed, and instantly I was seized with a strong desire to write poetry, so strong, in fact, that in imagination I thought I heard a voice crying in my ears-


I wondered what could be the matter with me, and I began to walk backwards and forwards in a great fit of excitement, saying to myself– “I know nothing about poetry.” But still the voice kept ringing in my ears – “Write, write,” until at last, being overcome with a desire to write poetry, I found paper, pen, and ink, and in a state of frenzy, sat me down to think what would be my first subject for a poem.’

There could hardly be a more powerful experience of poetic inspiration than this.  If the burning desire to create was any guarantee of the quality of the creation, this should indeed produce a work of genius and, in a sense, so it did.  Here are the opening lines of ‘Burial of the Rev. George Gilfillan’, the first poem written by the man who was destined to become The Great McGonagall:

On the Gilfillan burial day,
In the Hill o’Balgay,
It was a solemn sight to see,
Not fewer than thirty thousand people assembled in Dundee,
All watching the funeral procession of Gilfillan that day,
That death had suddenly taken away,
And was going to be buried on the Hill o’Balgay.

McGonagall points up a paradox central to artistic creation – the lack of any necessary correlation between the experience of making the work, with its powerful feelings of engagement and self-authentication, and the quality of the work itself. Every artist who is subject to even the most rudimentary self-doubt (and what artist isn’t?) feels the tooth of this paradox. The problem is made worse by the fact that if you are really doing something new and interesting your own critical faculties might not be able to recognise it. As so often with a paradox, there are two points of view here: one for the maker, engaged in the work, the other for the critic, judging it dispassionately. The flip-flop between these two is a peculiar mental torture, one that renders the process of creation ultimately absurd.

McGonagall was famous for his lack of self-criticism. Some time in the 1880s he fell victim to a bunch of clever fellows who feted him to his face and laughed at him behind his back. They paid for him to come to London where they showered him with phoney honours including a knighthood in the Order of the White Elephant of Burma. He took all this as his due and from then on called himself Sir William Topaz McGonagall.

Recently, I read a suggestion that he knew very well what was going on but he was a poor man with a large family to bring up and no talent other than his utterly redundant skill as a handloom weaver. Poetry had become his livelihood and if he could make good money out of pretending to be the unwitting victim of this mockery then it was fine by him.

I like the layers of irony here.

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.

                Song of the Ninny

Ninny ninny noo.
Just what you can do.
Count your toes
And blow your nose
And see how this new morning goes.

Ninny ninny nee.
Just what you can be
Count the pence
And jump the fence
And catch yourself  out making sense.

Ninny ninny na.
This is what you are.
Count the spots
And join the dots.
See how you’ve tied yourself in knots.

Ninny ninny num.
Look how far you’ve come.
Count the days.
Divide the ways.
See if you now deserve the praise.