We continue our week-long Music Series as the Front Lawn legend looks back on his childhood

One of the fondest memories I have from my childhood is being down at the bach in Coromandel, back in those days when people could afford baches in Coromandel. The whole family – me, my three brothers and mum and dad – would sit around reading for long periods, silently involved in our own stories. The tide came in. The tide went out. We kept reading, while my father’s fish-head soup bubbled away promisingly. Or perhaps I could smell the mulberry pie my mother had in the oven, full of berries we had picked from the huge tree on an island off the coast.

Books were very important to my father Keith Sinclair. Like something sacred. For him they were the answer to every problem. If my father was annoyed with us because we were too noisy, he would yell, “Get yourself a book!” For a bookish man he was very loud.

When we weren’t at the bach, we lived in Takapuna. I think my parents chose that suburb because it was regarded as the place writers lived, before the harbour bridge anyway. Frank Sargeson was just down the road. I grew up surrounded by writers like Maurice Duggan, Kendrick Smithyman, Mary Stanley and the painter Una Platts, and there were many drunken literary parties at our place keeping me awake way past my bedtime.

Una Platts was happy to look through art books with me for hours, explaining the different periods, admiring the paintings. I wanted to be a painter too in those days. I had the intuition that it would be wise to steer away from anything my father was interested in.

Our house was full of bookcases, and I remember often staring at them, thinking that every book represented a new world to explore. One day I found an ancient guide to sex called Ideal Marriage: Its physiology and technique, which terrified me.

Books and sex were very connected for my father. Mary, my mother, told me matter-of-factly that each book of poetry he published represented another affair with another woman. He was very romantic, and about as unfaithful as a husband can be.

Poet and historian Sir Keith Sinclair. Photo by Marti Friedlander, courtesy of Harry Sinclair

Somehow the marriage kept going year after year, until my mother either got fed up with it, or perhaps just decided to get into the swing of things (it was the 70s after all), and began a relationship with dad’s best friend George Hayden. Dad didn’t take it well. I remember sitting on the sofa at the McLaren’s, at a party to which dad and George had both been invited, and it came to blows. I just sat there with a blank look on my face.

I remember feeling sorry for George’s wife Molly Macalister. She was a marvelous sculptor, a big inspiration to me, and I spent many hours grinding off the rough edges of bronze shapes destined for one of her bigger pieces. She died young, not long after my parents split up.

After the smoke cleared, George and my mother were happily together for the next 30 years.

My most important influence in those early days was my brother Stephen. Three years older than me, he was charming and outgoing while I tended towards introversion. He loved words and took me under his wing and introduced me to a poetic sensibility and a poetic relationship with the world around us.

The two of us would go walking around the rocky bays of Coromandel, and Stephen would bring the anthology of poetry and I would bring the screwdriver. He would read poems aloud while I opened rock oysters. It was a beautiful childhood.

I studied Māori at university because Stephen, a fluent speaker, told me it was the only way to understand our country, to understand the bush, to understand the place where we live.

I loved books so much that when I was 18 I bought a printing press, so I could start making my own. It was a magnificent cast iron platen press, pedal operated. A fiendishly heavy thing to get into the garage. I called myself The Cabbage Press and laboriously went about printing two books of poetry.

My father, and two of my brothers, Stephen and Cameron, were all writing poetry when I was a kid (meanwhile my eldest brother Mark, on his way to becoming a child psychologist, was studying the inner lives of pigeons). So in my family writing poetry felt like the most normal thing in the world to spend your time doing. I’ve never written any however – it always felt beyond my grasp.

Songs on the other hand – now that was something I could get a handle on. A bit like poetry but somehow not so intimidating. So when Don McGlashan and I write songs for our animated kids show, Kiri and Lou, I feel I’m still on that path, still connected to the world of my childhood.

And now there’s Kiri and Lou books as well. For the first time since The Cabbage Press, back in 1978, I’m making books again.

The animated show Kiri & Lou, written and directed by Harry Sinclair, with music by Don McGlashan and the voices of Jermaine Clement, Olivia Tennet, Rima Te Wiata, Jaquie Brown, Josh Thomson and Mark Wright, is hand-crafted in stop motion with creatures made of clay in a forest of cut-out paper. The series has secured a 12-book deal; the first picture book in the series, Kiri & Lou: What do they like? by Harry Sinclair (Scholastic, $15) is available in bookstores nationwide. 

Harry Sinclair has had a long career in film, tv and theatre, including the music and comedy duo The Front Lawn with Don McGlashan, and writing and directing films such as Topless Women Talk About Their...

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