James K Baxter and Sam Hunt are among New Zealand’s best known poets. While she was studying journalism many years ago Bridget Wilson learned of the special bond between the two men.
The year, 1971, when I went to journalism school, was a very special year in many ways. I lost my virginity, had my first story published, and got my first pair of Levi’s.
I’d been wearing jeans for a while by this stage but they were the uncool brand, Lee’s. There wasn’t a great range available in New Zealand in those days and my mum bought them for me to wear while I was riding my trusty steed, Paladin, a big, grey Arab horse who I loved. I was 18 and I’d left home in South Canterbury for the first time and went to live in Wellington.
I studied journalism at Wellington Polytechnic under the careful tutelage of the esteemed Christine Cole-Catley (or simply Chris Cole as she was known then); Michael King, who went on to have an illustrious career as an historian and wasn’t much older than most of us, we learned later; Keith Gunn who’d been the chief sub-editor on the Evening Post for 25 years; Doug McGilvray; and Jim Hartley.
My friend Terence Keane had bought the Levi’s in Hawaii a couple of years earlier (he was so mature, was Terence, and slightly older than I was) and the jeans were already well-worn in. One day we decided to swap jeans to experiment with the fit. Turned out my Lee’s fitted Terence to a T and likewise me with his Levi’s.
So I became the proud owner of my first pair of Levi’s and Terence kept my Lee’s. You could only buy Levi’s if you went offshore, and I was yet to venture overseas. So there was a certain status attached to a pair of Levi’s. They weren’t just jeans; they signified a whole lot more.
The next day I walked with a slight swagger in to tech, proudly wearing my Levi’s which had a slight flair at the ankle. I bumped into one of our class’s cool surfer types, Graeme Moody.
‘Turn around, Bridget?’ he said. Grinning broadly, I turned around so he could see the all-important leather branded patch on my right hip. I suppose my expectation was that I now I had the cool jeans, they were my entrée to the cool kids. So I was a bit gutted when he said, ‘How did you get those?’
What I took from this was the implication that I was not cool enough to wear a pair of Levi’s. I never really forgave Moods for that slight; I, who so desperately needed to be accepted. I already felt like a square peg in a round hole, being from the South Island. Graeme went on to have a distinguished career in radio news and tragically died one day while he was out surfing when he was in his 50s.
I’m not sure if I was wearing Terence’s Levi’s when I visited Jerusalem up the Wanganui River (there was no H in those days) over the Easter break of that memorable year, but probably. Our tutors had directed us to find a news story and write it up.
My fellow classmate Derek McCullough’s parents lived in Wanganui and told him that the local council’s health inspector was holding a hearing about Jerusalem.
The commune had been set up a couple of years earlier by New Zealand’s pre-eminent poet James K. Baxter who had already been working with drug addicts in his house in Grafton, Auckland. Baxter, being a member of Alcoholics Anonymous knew all about addiction himself.
Baxter’s commune nestled within the small Māori community of Hiruharama, the Māori transliteration of Jerusalem. The little community was bordered by a convent run by the Sisters of Compassion and we’d heard that they ministered to the dying, such as providing palliative care by giving their patients food containing cannabis.
Knowing that instilled in me a new view of compassion. God knows what the nuns thought of Baxter’s motley crew of dope-smoking hippies. The nuns pretty much kept to themselves, and the commune’s residents kept to theirs.
There seemed to be no barriers between the commune itself and the nuns’ property, but clearly some boundaries did exist.
I hadn’t been to Wanganui before so it was new territory for me and I was looking forward to getting the story like a good little reporter.
Apparently, some of the sanitary conditions were not up to scratch at Jerusalem and the good old local council wanted to close the place down.
We took a bus up to Wanganui, and stayed a night with Derek’s parents who kindly lent us their EH Holden the next day. We found the council building and in some dusty old chamber sat down to hear what the health inspector had to say about the so-called unsanitary conditions at Jerusalem.
Baxter was there, instantly recognisable with his long, whispy grey hair and scraggly beard; the ends of his baggy, ill-fitting trousers rolled up leaving his slightly grubby ankles and bare feet exposed. He was tiny, only about my height (165cm or 5ft 5in) and wearing an old grey jacket which looked the worse for wear – or was it an oilskin parka? much like mine.
The oilskin was definitely the jacket of choice for some of us Kiwis in those days. I wore mine for about 20 years until it became very tatty and I left it in a bar somewhere, some time in the 80s.
After the hearing, the details of which elude me now, nearly 50 years later, we asked Baxter if he would do an interview. He was pretty adamant that we ‘come up and see for yourselves’, letting us know in no uncertain terms that an interview wouldn’t cut it.
We piled into the Holden for the drive up to the fabled commune with the man himself, Hemi, in the navigator’s seat. The place was tucked away and I wondered if we’d have been able to find it without Baxter’s guidance. The three of us walked up a narrow track through long grass and eventually found ourselves at the rag-tag collection of fairly rickety buildings that made up Baxter’s Jerusalem.
The main problem from the health inspector’s point of view seemed to be the long drop. This was a type of lavatory that most Kiwis of the day were almost certainly acquainted with.
My dad used to dig a long drop every summer holidays when we went camping beside a river on a farm in South Canterbury. It got pretty stinky on a hot day but we tolerated it as being part of a long, hot summer and at the end of the holidays filled it in again.
The long drop at Jerusalem was similar and I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. We wandered around and, some time later, Derek decided to go back to Wanganui and then to Wellington. I decided to stay on. I suppose, in a way, I went AWOL.
After being there a day or two, the main problem with the place, as far as I was concerned, seemed to be the food situation. At one stage, the kai ran out and we decided to catch eels which lurked under the banks of the Wanganui River, which flowed nearby.
They were great eating. We wrapped them in leaves and cooked them over an open fire. Another day someone shot a pig and it tasted pretty darn good as well. The sleeping arrangements were all quite loose. People slept in bunks in one of the houses and no-one seemed to have ownership over any particular space.
One of the best places to sleep was the Hobbit Hole. This was basically a bunch of mattresses spread over the bare earth underneath the branches of a tree that drooped all the way down to the ground. It was like a cave and it was truly communal sleeping. Hemi, as everyone called him, slept there too sometimes.
We were invited to the Easter Sunday church service in the beautiful little white church that was part of the convent. Baxter gave a moving sermon. It was my first time in a Catholic church and I was impressed. So much so that I swore I’d follow up with more investigation when I got back to Wellington.
The family I boarded with in Wellington were Catholics and I was curious about the different belief systems. Baxter’s sermon made a lot of sense to my emerging idea of spirituality, something I pursued off an on for several decades before settling on the idea of a higher power of my own about 12 years ago when I sobered up.
A couple of years after graduating from journalism school, I embarked on a half-hearted attempt at a BA and decided, stupidly, to major in English at Victoria University. Dr Frank McKay was my English tutor and became a huge influence on my tiny mind. In the 90s when his biography about Baxter came out, I devoured it and remembered the wise old Catholic priest fondly.
One morning after a night’s sleep in the Hobbit Hole, I woke up and in the early light of day I could see though the branches that a mist was draping itself over everything. It was so beautiful, shrouding the surrounding hills, swirling around the little white church, and muting all the greenery.
The only sounds I could hear were some birds, starting up their morning sing-song. As I was taking this in, thinking how idyllic it all was and did I really have to leave and go back to Wellington and journalism school, I heard a stirring among the sleepers.
I somehow knew it was Hemi and a young woman starting the sounds of early lovemaking. I snuggled back into my sleeping bag and – I’m not sure quite why I said it, but it probably had something to do with feeling uncomfortable about being in such close proximity to sexual activity; I myself was a virgin and unaccustomed to the etiquette of communal fucking – blurted out: ‘Hemi! Say us a poem.’ At which stage the noises stopped and Baxter’s mellifluous voice started to intone ‘Letter to Sam Hunt’.
The elder poet reflecting in his inimitable way to the young up-and-coming one. Unfortunately I was unable to get permission to publish the last verse of this now famous poem, but it’s available in several books. It talks about a wily tomcat being a metaphor and that ‘he resembled us, Who may write poems well, with luck, About the dolls we do not fuck’. Baxter wrote the poem in 1968 but it wasn’t published until 1973, posthumously.
I turned my head back to the view through the branches and drank it all in, the surreal mist, the famous poet’s glorious voice, reciting a poem, proof of his bond with Hunt.
It was not unusual for various inhabitants of the commune to ask Baxter for a poem. But the timing on my side was pretty cheeky. Afterwards, Hemi explained that Hunt had later replied to the poem with his own poem, A Letter to Jerusalem. Just two poets communicating with each other the best way they knew how. In verse.
Life at Jerusalem continued in its haphazard way. I have no idea how long I was there, but clearly long enough for my absence to be noted back at journalism school in Wellington and for my parents to be informed. God knows how they did it but word eventually arrived.
There was no phone at Jerusalem that I knew of. I remember clearly how it happened. I was walking, on my own, from A to B somewhere along a little track through the long grass, when Hemi appeared around a corner, coming towards me. I was chuffed that he remembered my name.
‘Bridget, your parents are worried about you and you’ve got to get back to Wellington.’
I shed a tear or two and muttered something about having no money. The sweet man reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a crumpled five dollar note and gave it to me. Five bucks in 1971 was a substantial sum of money. He said he was going in to ‘town’ soon and that he’d hitch in with me. I gathered my few possessions and we set out together on the track out to the road into Wanganui.
It wasn’t long before a big truck stopped and we both got in to the cabin. By this stage we’d become quite matey and to me he was just a little, kind man whose wonderful voice I would remember forever.
The driver dropped us in Wanganui and Hemi gave me a final hug before I set out on my own for the last leg back to Wellington. For all my rebelliousness, I still knew when to do as I was told or suffer the consequences. My parents never did tell me how they managed to get hold of me. And I never asked.
Some months later back in the capital, it was lovely to see Hemi when he arrived one day on campus to speak to us. Afterwards he found me and gave me a big hug. I loved that scruffy little man who smelled of tobacco and BO and whose voice was so calm and gentle. A heart attack killed him the following year when he was only 46.
Another literary type who spoke to us in Wellington that year was Sam Hunt.
The above is a black-and-white picture of him as he addressed us in our little pre-fab building tucked away on the Wellington Polytechnic campus. Like everyone, it seems, he did so while smoking a cigarette.
He gesticulated wildly. I don’t remember the topic of his address, but I do remember the passion of the man. Tall, and wearing and those tight, narrow jeans that he never seemed to change over the years. Then, some time later, a few of us from that class of ’71 visited him at his place, Bottle Creek, near Paremata out of Wellington, and hung out with him for a few hours. I’m not sure how or why this happened, but I’m sure that our much-loved tutor Michael King had something to do with it. Strings must’ve been pulled.
Why on earth would anyone want to host a bunch of rowdy students who probably asked stupid questions and just got in the way? I have very little memory of this day, except that it gave me an entrée when I met Hunt again some time in the late ‘90s.
A bunch of us were in a pub in Greymouth on the West Coast of the South Island, drinking with Hunt who’d just won some big literary prize and was shouting all the drinks. He was drunk and getting louche, as was his wont.
A drunk Hunt was garrulous to a degree that bordered on the boring. I blurted out – and I’m not exactly sure why I did it, except the alternative seemed to be that he would keep raving on – ‘Sam! Say us a poem!’ And without hardly missing a beat, except to clear his throat, Sam, in his lilting, gravelly voice gave us a moving rendition of ‘A Letter to Jerusalem’.
On the skyline of the Kaiwhara hills,
Gill, a mother to the kids on pills
Keeps open house, sends you her love.
Johnney too, who may forget to leave
For work some mornings in the woolstore
Sits drinking in the sun outside the door
Tall buildings no bigger than the blocks on the floor,
Wellington afloat on the harbour haze . . .
You think of how most men spend their days
In offices as cramped as elevators –
Their wish, to be heading Heavenwards,
“Up in the world” to use their words!
The law they all ignore, of gravity,
My friends at Kaiwhara and I
Observe in this old house against the sky . . .
The Fall. Whatever. The sun on the sea.
Too much of this good life, I’ll go dry!
Summer coming, Sylvia and I will sleep
Together often in the sun, — and slip
A long way off, a long way from the beat
And hurt of words. And wake, carnal with heat.
I got round to thinking I’d better reply,
I owe you a letter, Old Father Sky,
Tell you what I’m up to. I hitch-hiked out
This afternoon to Bottle Creek,
Could easily have made it with the chick
Who picked me up: I’ve little doubt
She’d very much fancy a denim lout –
A little rougher than her easy-action
Husband who fails to bring her on.
She went out of her way, drove me right home.
I didn’t try. Instead, told her this poem
I’m writing down.
Did I want to travel?
She asked, and nearly slid on the gravel
When I told her my only ambition
Was to make a perfect act of contrition,
And when I grew up, to be a moonshiner
Whiskey-mad and bare-back in the hills,
And to fart as loud as an ocean-liner.
But the world, old cock, is hard on my heels.
The truth is, Jim, the Education Board
Is gunning me down with a 3-year bond
To teach young kids a cursive script
As tidy as a row of angels’ holes,
To teach the kids that if they have to shit
To clean up afterwards and keep clean souls.
It’s hard, but there we are! I think by now
You’ll have the message strong. I don’t know how,
But very soon I’m off outside to join
Johnney for a beer . . . and toss a coin
Late on some summer afternoon.
Whichever way it falls, I’ll see you soon.
(A Letter to Jerusalem is published with the kind permission of the author.)
Bridget Wilson is a former journalist and sub-editor who now works as an addiction therapist.
She can be contacted at www.solutionsauckland.com.