John Yelash is dead, one of the last great relics of an age of bohemia and public bars, of Baxter and Crump, of literature made by men at the expense of women, born in Swanson, West Auckland in 1935, dying last week in Glendene, West Auckland, of a heart attack. He was the author of a book with the most incredible title in New Zealand letters. It was his only work of fiction; a lasting shame, because he had something, he could have been someone. He had to settle these past few years for being regarded as a living legend.

I profiled him a few years ago in the Herald. “He said you made it all up,” reported Sir Bob Harvey, a friend of Yelash. “Claims he never said half of it. Very him, true to form. My feeling is he loved it.” My feeling is he hated it. A woman who knew him came up to me in the meat aisles at a supermarket in Henderson a few months after the profile was published and gave me a terrible scolding. She said it just wasn’t right for me to write that I didn’t like Yelash. I said that I wrote more than just that, but she got angry, and I fled from the pork chops and took refuge in the biscuit aisle. I felt bad about the story, that it upset the woman and may have hurt Yelash. I wrote him up as a bullshit artist, a fantasist, a fabulist – he told shocking lies, not least that a manuscript he wrote called An Unkeen Man got into the hands of Barry Crump, who promptly ripped it off and published it as his own book, A Good Keen Man, then and for many, many years the biggest-selling book in New Zealand publishing.

“Well, here I am,” he said, when I visited him at his Glendene shack. There was a lot of him. He couldn’t get up from the sofa. There were piles of pills close at hand. “The fickle finger of fate has stuck itself right up my arse.” The voice was beautiful, a deep, thrilling instrument; the face was handsome, white-whiskered, a fascinating, lived-in, tragic face, with a wonderful smile.  He was 84.

In 1957, with Crump, Kevin Ireland, and Robin Dudding, Yelash helped found the seminal literary journal Mate, over drinks at the Queen’s Ferry in Vulcan Lane. In that same golden year he published a book of his own stories: Forty Thousand Beers Ago.

There are 10 stories, nothing longer than about 600 words. They’re yarns told at the bar, or appear to be – knockabout stuff, a man’s country, life on the road or in the boozer. Everything appears monosyllabic and artless but it’s a guise. It was evidence of an artist at work, crafting careful little documents of extraordinary incidents in ordinary New Zealand life, much unsaid, with a sad, haunting poetry running through everything.

Kevin Ireland died recently. I interviewed him for the Yelash profile. He said of Forty Thousand Beers Ago, “It’s not bad at all. Bob Lowry published it, and printed it; that took some doing to get Bob to do these things. It was a big commitment for Bob. He was a terrible drunk himself. He finally topped himself, poor bastard. His home was extraordinary; it was designed like the letter Z.  His wife ended up leaving him and the place just fell into rack and ruin. There were parties there all the time. One day I think it just all fell on top of Bob and he…But anyway, he brought that book out, and it’s actually  a very, very promising book, and hugely better than a lot of people said. I think it was  a remarkably good book.

“See, he got alongside a fellow called Paddy Sincock, who was the snooker champion of New Zealand. He was a marvellous fellow, Paddy. A real old-fashioned rarity  in New Zealand now. A man who loved women, who loved booze, who loved betting. He just couldn’t combine all three of those things at once.

“And Paddy told Yelash most of the stories in the book. And so people stupidly said, ‘You’ve just written down what Paddy said.’ Well, it’s not like that at all, I’m afraid. He listened to the stories and he wrote them down in his own way. The stories are little crackers, and Yelash did them inimitably. It’s a terrifically promising first book. It showed real literary talent. Real literary talent. I was very sorry when he just turned away from it.”

I asked Yelash what happened to his literary ambitions. He breathed heavily as his great weight descended on the old couch at his Glendene home. “I had 10 years of people buying me drinks and saying, ‘Yelash is a great writer but they won’t publish his work.’ And I went along with it. And I was sitting at home in a dirty little bedsitting room in Wellington one day and it suddenly occurred to me, of course they hadn’t published anything because I haven’t written anything…”

He is in all the literary memoirs of the 50s. There he is in Rachel Barrowman’s biography of Maurice Gee, out one night stealing food and a kettle; there he is in the collected letters of James K Baxter, described by the poet as “ a big bullocky Dalmatian…Women  fall for him with a thump: he is not at all inhibited, except in the expression of affection, and has undoubtedly the largest genital weapon between North Cape and the Bluff.”                                        

He was found guilty of manslaughter in Napier, in 1979. A woman died after drinking a mixture of alcohol and an over the counter drug called The Governor. The crown prosecutor argued that Yelash had provided her with the fatal dose. He was sentenced to three and a half years in prison.

“He’s like Rasputin,” Bob Harvey said, admiringly. He told a long story about the time Yelash sued Helen Clark for libel, in 2000, and won. He put on voices (deeper for Clark than Yelash), grand gestures (wider for Yelash than Clark), and set part of it in WestCity mall, in Henderson, where he came across Yelash and they sat down for coffee when Labour’s Minister of Māori Affairs, Dover Samuels, walked by.

In Harvey’s version, Yelash pointed at him, and said: “62. 49.” Samuels smiled, pointed back, and said: “61. 41.” The two men left it at that, and Samuels went on his way. Harvey asked what the devil that all meant, and Yelash claimed the two were in jail together, at Mt Eden prison – the first number was the year of imprisonment, the second their cell number, which no prisoner ever forgets.

“I go, ‘Holy shit! Dover’s been in the slammer!’ So I tell Helen. She goes, ‘Oh of course not.’ I check his Labour Party application, and there’s nothing about a police record. She goes, ‘I told you so.’ I said, ‘I’m sure Yelash is right.’ Then I think, ‘Dallow’s never forgotten anything.’”

He meant former detective Ross Dallow, the father of TV newsreader Simon Dallow.

“So I ask, ‘Ross, did you ever arrest Dover Samuels?’ 

“He said, ‘Yes. He burgled the butcher shop in Missions Bay. I grabbed his nuts, and said, ‘I’ve got you, you little cunt!’

“I go back to Helen and tell her. But she still doesn’t believe Yelash, and says her line about not taking the word of a murderer, to [Labour MP] Chris Carter, who leaves it on Yelash’s answerphone, who rings up [criminal lawyer] Peter Williams, who says, ‘That’s outrageous. You were convicted for manslaughter, not murder. Let’s sue.’ And that was enough to earn him $50,000.”

Yelash, an ex-con who was made of stories; Yelash, an ex-author, who left behind one astonishing book. My Herald profile attracted the attention of Duncan McLean, a Scottish author living in the Orkney Islands, and who has become a great authority on the works of Frank Sargeson. He tracked down a copy of Forty Thousand Beers Ago and loved it. He wanted to republish it. I put him onto Bob Harvey, who asked Yelash, who said that was alright with him. McLean offered Yelash a hundred quid, and said he would send him 20 complimentary copies. It was all going well, and everyone was delighted at this little renaissance of one of the strangest figures in New Zealand literature – but then Yelash made it difficult, demanded this, demanded that, and was a total drag. McLean didn’t need the grief. He stepped away. No one was surprised it ended like that; Yelash was his own worst enemy, a man at war with himself, always wanting to cause trouble. That wasn’t all he was. He was an expert on opera: “I am an authority on Verdi and Puccini right down to every sigh and whisper.” For all his bluster, his bullshit, he was a man of considerable talent, and sensitivity. Forty Thousand Beers Ago is available in stacks at Auckland library.

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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