CK Stead on his younger friend

The last time I wrote about Kevin Ireland, eight years ago, I talked about his public persona, the amiable public man, good talker, healthy drinker, popular dispenser of bonhomie, who was there indeed in the Selected Poems I was reviewing, but my mind had taken me back to a Kevin I had encountered decades earlier, in the late 1950s in Maurice Shadbolt’s London flat, which had made such a clear impression on me at the time that it had crept into my poem of reminiscences, “Walking Westward”, written possibly 15 years later, where I had described him as a “lost child… sadly sketching”. The point of bringing that image to mind then, and returning to it now, was to suggest I had seen a Kevin almost no one sees now, but still there in the poems; and even that this Kevin might be, I suggested, their ‘soul’, preventing them from ever becoming all show and surface.  The Kevin I had seen in that vivid and remembered moment was the one I now knew from his autobiographies, as the person wounded in childhood by the desertion of his mother, who had gone away not into alcohol and failure, which might have been, though sad, at least comprehensible, but to make a success of her life without him and his siblings.  There was, in other words, a dark substratum under the bonhomie, something necessary if the Ireland project (which is what the Jowsey project became after a change of name) was to be, as it has been, more than just another case (verse this time rather than prose) of the Good Keen Man.

To make this point I have leapt about in time from the present to the 1950s, then forward (“Walking Westward”) to the 1970s or ‘80s, and this mobility is not out of keeping with his new memoir A Month at the Back of my Mind which is in part about memory and how it works and makes its own rules, indifferent to date. Kevin’s method for this book has been each morning to make his mind go blank and then see what crowds in to fill the space, and allow it to insist on itself, crowding out all else.  So he has shifted about in time, as I have done and as people of our advanced years are likely to do. 

Kevin and I were born in Auckland less than a year apart (1932 and ’33), so with childhood memories of World War II when our fathers were both air-raid wardens patrolling our respective streets in steel helmet carrying a gas-mask and checking that the black-out was being observed.  We were both to be Grammar boys, he Takapuna, I Mount Albert, and to enrol at Auckland University College (as it was then) in 1951 – a year for both of us of enlightenment and of the Waterfront Dispute with its grim lessons about New Zealand political realities. I remained at AUC and he did not, but a few years on we were, first one then the other, to be powerfully influenced by Frank Sargeson, not to write in the Sargeson style (which was in any case radically changing in the 1950s), but taking on board while still young what a commitment to ‘the literary life’ meant, the ideals it promoted, the pleasures it offered, the devotion and the cost.  I don’t think it’s too much to say that Sargeson’s example has lived on in us both.  We were not Sons of Sargeson.  That description is usually reserved for writers a decade or two our senior – John Reece Cole, A.P. Gaskell, G.R. Gilbert, Roderick Finlayson, Phillip Wilson (whose daughter Janet is now Kevin’s wife).  We were perhaps his grandsons, influenced for life, as Janet Frame was, by the example he set of daily application to the business of writing, and to never-ending book talk, in his little Fibro house and garden at 14 Esmond Road, Takapuna, where a plaque records that “here a true New Zealand literature had its beginnings”.

What made the difference in our lives was that, though I travelled a lot, and even spent whole years abroad, Auckland was always my base, while Kevin, having got to England in 1959, made Europe his home for the next 25 years, married there (twice) and, though he kept up old friendships at a distance, and though Robin Dudding, as editor of Landfall and then of Islands, kept us aware of Kevin the poet, he was not for that period the presence he has since become.  He reflects on this in Day 18 of this 30-day experiment. The years spent in England, he says, now strike him “as accidental rather than purposeful”.  Important things were happening “but I never felt totally and locally engaged in them.  I did not put down roots into the place, but always saw myself as a visitor, a guest, an outsider and an onlooker. […]  I clearly understood my existence to be apart and displaced – and at times it felt almost as if I had been condemned to live in exile.”

Correspondingly, there is the joy of the Wanderer’s return: “I basked in boundless relief when at last I decided to get out [of England] in the mid-1980s. […]  When I returned home to New Zealand I was actually shaken by the tangible physical awareness of an acceptance and a rapport, and a current of exploration and discovery that coursed through every day.”

“A lost child…sadly sketching”

On page 60 Kevin prints the title poem of his most recent collection, “Just Like That”.  It’s addressed to me, and in my soon-to-be published collection, Say I Do This, I reply with a poem of the same title. In mine there are the lines “You’re a luncher, Kevin, as I’m a dinner man / but we meet whenever and wherever chance /and choice conjoin.” Kevin’s favoured lunches are celebrated on Day 4 where he laments the closing of the Mai Thai restaurant in Victoria Street West, where the meetings, initiated as a kind of sub-committee of the Society of Authors, included some of his closest literary friends – Peter Bland, Stephen Stratford, Bernard Brown, Graeme Lay and others. Though I could like, and sometimes admire, them one at a time I always thought of them collectively as a claque of Good Old Boys, and best avoided.  But Kevin’s celebration is typical – Ireland at his best – generous, loving, unequivocal: “Great days of brilliant anecdotes, enormous pleasure, good food, great jokes, total trust and the best of company.”

He is generous about everyone in our literary community, with the single exception of Maurice Shadbolt whom he represents as an audacious liar, a sleight of hand man: “…of all the pipe-dreaming, twisted, romantic fantasists I’ve had dealings with, it was a sincerely self-enthralled and dedicated ‘fibber’ who next rose to my mind […] the writer Maurice Shadbolt, who used to describe his profession as something he was tickled to call a ‘fictioneer’.”

Yeats has a poem, “Men improve with the years”, in which he congratulates himself (ambiguously? Ironically at least) for having become “A weather-worn marble triton”. Kevin thinks I have “improved with the years”; that I have left behind the “occasional needless irritability and prickliness” of my past in favour of the “geniality” of What You Made of It, my third volume of autobiography, and the “huge warmth, stoical humanity, sustained…” (and so on – blah blah blah) of my recent poetry. I think he’s wrong of course; that if he’d known me as well twenty or thirty years ago as he knows me now, he would have found me just as “genial”.  Or, on the other hand if there has been change, it has probably not been a Yeatsian “improvement”.  What might have diminished or been lost is discrimination, the sharp and unforgiving eye.  If it is indeed gone, I’m sorry.

Kevin explains that at the end of his last year at school he had wanted to enrol at Elam School of Art where, we can now reflect, he would have encountered Pat Hanly as an exact contemporary and might in time have been taught by Colin McCahon.  His father’s “very brutal” (to which he adds “and I mean it”) refusal denied him this ambition, and he enrolled for an Arts degree at AUC never to be completed.  Late in life Kevin returned to painting in oils, and one of the results is the self-portrait that provides the cover of A Month at the Back of my Brain. It’s a caricature, though recognisably Kevin – loud, colourful, assertively stylish, unabashed.  I would love to own it and give it a home among our Hanlys and McCahons, Hendersons and Hotere, where it would not look out of place. So the “lost child… sadly sketching” of my long ago poem was in fact doubly, almost mystically, perceptive, as if I had recognised in that moment in a London basement, not only the child his mother had abandoned, but the painter his father had forbidden. 

I had written my opening paragraph of this review before I reached the book’s latter pages, and I now find, on Day 29 and Day 30, a return to that pain which I’d suggested might be the hidden ‘soul’ of Kevin’s work as a writer.  On day 29 he has a memory of his recently deceased brother: “Then in an instant we were children again and back in bed together.  He was eight and I was ten, and we had our arms around each other and were quietly singing and crying ourselves to sleep, sharing the misery of our mother’s desertion, which was something we never talked about to anyone but each other.”  And on Day 30, the last of the sequence, his experiment takes him back before the bad time: “As I opened my eyes there stood my mother.  I would have been just about seven […] my brain had gone back to a time when there was never so much as a hint of the divorce to come.  We lived as in a nest.  We were a family.  My mother is tucking me into the bed that also serves as a sofa in the sunporch.  I love her with an absolutely secure unawareness, because I have never thought to question it. […] Suddenly I feel a little breathless, for my brain next tells me that, like the list of notices and photographs often in the newspapers as the Second World War gets going, my mother has gone ‘missing in action’.”

He goes on: “I hadn’t meant my book to end like this. […] My mother’s visit has thrown me, so I sit at my desk and keep still.  I certainly don’t try to summon another image.  I now recognise that the experiment is over.  I have reached the limits of what should be attempted.” The book ends, in other words, where the life of the mind began, in love and in loss. 

A near 90-year old’s brain is neither entirely orderly nor consistently lucid, but while it holds itself together, as Kevin’s does, it is endlessly interesting.  Here’s a tribute I wrote some years ago celebrating his marriage to Janet Wilson:


So many are dying

it’s good to see Kevin’s

bronze face and white moustache

presenting a picture

of rude elderly health

marrying our Janet

under a flame tree in

the grounds of Government House

on a day in summer.

I wouldn’t care to be

his liver but who knows

it must be up to the task.

Get ready then to hear

a cracker speech, with poem

and reminiscences –

no shortage of words, all

even the ordinary

inflected, inflated

and given (for god’s sake)

life! So yes, celebrate

the bastard. Salute him!

A Month At the Back of My Brain: A Third Memoir by Kevin Ireland (Quentin Wilson Publishing, $40) is available in bookstores nationwide. CK Stead’s review concludes our week-long coverage of one of the best books of the year.

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