about Rex Fairburn
R.A.K. Mason on Rex Fairburn
Transcript of a talk
g by R.A,K. Mason to the Literary Club at Auckland University College, 8 April
1957. The tape
and an earlier transcript
are held at AU Library. The tape has been transcribed for on-line presentation
by Annie McKillop and Michele Leggott, with the permission of the Hocken
Librarian (for Masonís estate) and Dinah Holman (for Fairburnís estate).
Some audio excerpts from the talk can be downloaded <here>.
Mr Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, this isnít a panegyric nor a lamentation, an historical study nor a critical evaluation. Itís just a few facts, reflections and illustrative anecdotes, most of them referring back 25 years or more. Many of the people are dead or far from here, and even the places, some of them, are unrecognisable.
The talk arose this way. I was asked by the Broadcasting authorities to contribute to a programme, my part to be five minutes. I said that was just too short to deal with such a man as Rex Fairburn. I suggested that something else could be dropped out and even volunteered for a small fee to prepare a report on what could be well deleted from New Zealand programmes [laughter]. A soft answer on their part did not turn away any wrath of mine and I went on to say that I could suggest right away what could be well chopped out, namely the whole damn lot except the time signal. Their reply at that point was to invoke the sacred name of the holy city, Wellington. I accordingly realised the folly of trying to lead a one-man crusade. In fact, confidentially, my private opinion is that the best hope for the reform of New Zealand broadcasting would lie in the advent in Wellington of a really brisk and business-like branch of the Irish Republican Army [laughter]. Finally I agreed to speak but, immediately, while my anger was still nice and hot, rang Mr Chapman to ask him to make an offer of an extended talk to you. Dr Pearson happened to be there and they agreed to convey the offer and if it were adopted, make the necessary arrangements with you. So you will understand that the substance, that even perhaps some of the words, of the forthcoming radio talk form the basis of this talk this evening. I understand that that talk is to be given from 1YC at 7.30 this week. Youíll appreciate also that purely routine difficulties led to my not approaching the student body directly.
Now when a great man dies Ė and taken all around Rex was a great man Ė two false and contrary myths quicken. One is born of social respectability, the other of respectabilityís little bastard brother, malignity. One makes the deceased a plaster saint, the other hints darkly at wild bohemianism supposed by the Ďuncoí guidí to flourish among artists but actually existing mainly in their own fervid imaginations. The classic case of these two myths rioting along vigorously side by side unreconciled through the centuries is perhaps Robert Burns. Iíve even struck examples of this sort of myth-making regarding myself, even before my death. Contrary to all the canons of the church. I understand, some measure of sanctification appears to have set in. I have once or twice tried to chip a bit of plaster off my own saintly statue, only to be warned off by some vigilant and conscientious custodian. It does seem to me a bit hard that a man canít even debunk his own myth. In a case I struck fairly recently, Dr Ė I wonít mention his name Ė asked me why I had for long given up writing poetry. I answered ĎI suppose I find it so hard to make a living that at the end of it I have no energy left. For instance today Iíve been cutting back someoneís enormous 12 foot tecoma hedge for firewood. Iím just tired out.í He said, ĎIsnít it a fact that you became a Marxist and found that Marxism canít be reconciled with poetry?í I said, ĎNo. I certainly found that a problem and at one time I had it down for the count, I think, if it hadnít been for the tecoma hedges.í He scowled and said, ĎWhy donít you tell the truth?í And moved away with a look that was darkly significant. Unfortunately I still donít know what it was significant of. I presume that he didnít doubt my word regarding tecoma hedges. I presume also that if I had been able to follow up the sinister tip, perhaps I could now be waving a magazine with my feature article, entitled ĎI was a Prisoner in Stalinís Cultural Siberiaí and even on the point of collecting $2000 from the Readerís Digest [laughter]. My life has been full of such missed opportunities. Now, seriously, I agree that I am an impoverished and infirm old working man, isolated, at war with the world, but I still do feel that I might sometimes be allowed to proffer at least my haípíorth of opinion about matters closely concerning myself. Thatís by the way.
Now of the two contrary motives I mentioned a few moments ago, malignity can be left to rot in its native darkness, but I warn you that if anyone sets up a flat, floodlit statue either of Rex Fairburn or myself while I am still alive there is liable to be a pot shot from the outer rim of light and a vagabond scuttling away into the obscurity. Thatís the way I want it. Thatís the way Fairburn would want it. For all our differences, we were heretics and rebels. He didnít recant and I hope I donít. By the way, thereís one point Iím sure youíll respect. If what I may say were reported partially, it could perhaps cause pain to some person or persons nearer to him even than his oldest friends. I know I have only to mention that matter to you.
Now if I appear to be fairly sure on some of these points, I must remind you that we were friends for 38 years. Even now I can hardly believe heís dead. We were such old friends and he was such a symbol of vitality.
At the beginning of 1919 we were both shuffled into the same fifth form at the Auckland Grammar School. The far-famed J.W Tibbs was the headmaster. Mr James Drummond was the master in French and Latin, Mr H.J.D. Mahon in English. And very good teachers they were too. I had previously been aware of a tall good-looking lad with the curly hair and prominent nose. I still remember he often used to associate with two tall and fine-looking members of leading Auckland Jewish families. In fact, for long, one way and another, I thought Rex was also a Jew. I remembered that, years later when one afternoon during the Second World War I was struck by the picture of him that still sticks in my memory, talking with that noble old Jewish refugee poet, Karl Wolfskehl. I remember it was on a lawn under trees and Wolfskehl also was a giant with a great mass of curly hair and a leonine head. To return to the First World War, and Form VA at the Grammar School,. I was a skinny (this was some time ago Mr Chairman) I repeat, skinny, lonely, ill-fitting little wretch and I well remember my pride and joy when this friendly giant took me under his wing. From our first association we had seemed to sense a community of interests, even though we were still silly schoolboys. After meeting, we used to sit together and waste each otherís time particularly in the mathematics class. It was a matriculation form but at the end of the year, of course, both of us failed. Rex left and took a clerical job with the New Zealand Insurance Company. I went on at school for another three years. Before the end of that time I was able to stagger Ken Dellow when, during an examination, I turned an ode of Horace into a proper English sonnet, but I still didnít get matric. Rex was five and a half years with the insurance company. He didnít make much advancement. It wasnít that he failed to take an interest in the company. Indeed, his interest was phenomenal. But it was all on the very highest levels. Matters of annual balance sheets, distribution of profits, questions of reserves, inter-locking directorates and so on. The company was known not only for its vast insurance activities but also for being a sort of clearance house for the Kelly gang. With his many friends, Rex soon became a sort of walking encyclopaedia on the whole cityís financial ramifications. But the companyís management never seemed really to appreciate the broad and high interests of their new junior clerk. It wasnít that anyone felt that he was really aiming high to get their job. I donít know what they did think, I think probably he had them completely baffled. At any rate when he left I never heard that it broke the companyís heart.
With the staff it was different. At first they tended to treat this most unorthodox arrival as a bit of a butt. Little did they realise what a risk they ran. Only once did I ever know Rex to hit a man and he was one who had given provocation and received warnings for a very, very long time. He also spent a very long time lying on the ground and also a long time after that spitting blood and teeth. However, Rex was very patient with his insurance colleagues and ultimately got on very well with them. He almost always got on well with people of every kind. As often happens, the man who did most to sort of sponsor him into that little society, sensing Rexís nature, was the man apparently most insensitive, a cheerful drunkard who kept his job only through family influence.
Mr Chairman, could I have the right time please. Iím trying to keep a check.
About 1923 (I hope Iím not wrong in my time Mr Chairman), about 1923 I had left school, at long last. I tried several jobs and was established in town as a tutor in languages and economics at a private school. Rex and I had kept contact and now we met regularly at the end of Exchange Lane at lunchtime or after work. We also often continued conversation at weekends or on holidays. I think about the middle of 1925 (Iím not certain about some of these dates, I have to check up on them later; thatís one reason why, contrary to my custom, I have written my talk), I think about the middle of 1925 Rex left the insurance job with which he had long been fed up. It wasnít much of a time to pick, as the sharp post-war slump was still making its effects felt. He didnít find another job waiting. Now, neither of us were exactly financial geniuses. But we both knew generally that somehow, somewhere, there was a money stream at the bottom of the ravine. Once or twice in my own life I even managed to scramble painfully down and get a few drops in my billy, but I always spilt it clambering back up the cliff. With Rex it was a bit different. If he did allow himself to be lured down to the stream he would become fascinated by its beauty, philosophise over its nature, spot fish and do everything except dip down with his billy. If that were urged on him, he would proceed to think out innumerable arguments of a most convincing and practical appearance why he should not do so. Twice I tried to help him solve financial difficulties in a practical way. The first time was around 1925, the time of which I have been speaking. We were to invest in a few hundred onion plants, put them in, keep them weeded, harvest and sell them. The next year, well, you know, we could really contemplate being professional onion-growers in a big way and so on and so on until, well, we were set. Well, I did succeed in getting Rex to put up his share of the purchase price (Iíve forgotten if it was two bob or half a dollar) and actually help with the planting, but when it came to weeding he frankly went on strike and when I got annoyed he proceeded to regard me as a sort of tropical overseer of exploited native labour [laughter]. I well remember my mother who was quite keen on the original idea being reduced to tears of helpless laughter as she stood on the verandah and Rex stood in the garden demonstrating with gestures and actions that onion weeding could best be conducted by short, stumpy men [laughter]. As for men of over six feet, to bend away down to the earth and separate the weeds from the poor little plants was just a plain, plum, practical impossibility.
As a postscript to this story, in 1926 I received a letter from him in Norfolk Island during which he formally renounced all title not only to any proceeds from the crop, but even to his original investment. I might as well anticipate and tell you now of a second occasion when we set out to found the Fairburn fortune. This time it was about 1930. Having lectured Rex loftily on the folly of leaving a secure job during times of financial insecurity, lectured him I may say, so priggishly that even he for once became infuriated, I had proceeded to do the same thing myself but much more disastrously. It was just on the eve of the Great Depression that I left my teaching job. The economic axe fell heavily and my promised lectureship in Classics was cancelled. So I turned from the hopeless city (this was 1930 or thereabouts) and went back for a while to a tiny and then most isolated settlement in the southern Waikato, where an aunt lived and where Iíd gone to school from 1912 to 1915. There in 1930 I proceeded to make hay both literally and metaphorically. Though times were tough, in four months of harvesting I knocked up over forty pounds and that would be worth more than a hundred pounds today. Now Rex was at this time undergoing another financial crisis, or it may have been the same old one in a different form. Iíve forgotten. Anyway I invited him to come down and participate in my labours at the then fabulous rate of one shilling and sixpence per hour. He agreed and arrived.
I had the two basic problems of transport and accommodation already solved. Transport was the loan of a horse, a very good horse too. Rex had had little experience in that line and certainly no training but he and the horse got on marvellously together. Rex would stand on the wrong side of it, both noble animals, grasp the reins, wonder whether the bit was in properly, put one leg over and proceed to gaily canter off on a course, the main direction of which was decided by Rex but all details by the horse. Rex got on marvellously too with his host, George. I canít remember his other name but he was always talking about another George, George Brott. Now, George not Brott [laughter] was a lean aquiline nosed, sun-baked man with spare iron-grey hair. He worked, ate and I suspect slept, in a pair of black trousers and a thick but attenuated grey woollen bushmanís singlet. He once surprised me by producing a reproduction of a Roman coin that bore Julius Caesarís head in profile, passing it to me and waiting, expectant of comment. I had none. At last he asked, Doesnít it look like anyone you know? I had to say, No. Who? He said, Me [laughter]. And to my amazement it was a perfect likeness. George had done many things, mainly slaughtering, and his left hand had been nearly hacked off. Now he was a rabbiter, but helped with such things as harvesting. He drove the most decrepit of old, old Model T Fords and was, as he had to be, a first-rate mechanic. He had a wealth of philosophy, anecdotes, and such strange expressions as ĎLame under the hatí. Heíd studied the Bulletin in its palmy days. His favourite drawing, which I remember through sheer repetition, was by Bill Male. It showed a bullock driver with his great timber wagon stuck in the mud. The driver, having obviously exhausted both himself and his vocabulary on his team, stands with his hat on his breast and says, ĎI takes my hat off to you gentlemen and I asks you, please pullí [laughter].
Once too, George flummoxed Rex with a literary quotation. He shook his head and said solemnly, ĎAh well, a manís a man for aí that; and aí that and aí thatí [laughter]. Such was the new host. Now for the new home. This little settlement hadnít long before been a thriving centre. Then it had had a stone store which now stood abandoned. The walls were okay, there was still a roof of sorts but all the partitions were gone and the floor had in parts caved into the cellar. It was a resort for passing swagmen but George had installed himself semi-permanently in one corner. I introduced Rex to all this with some misgivings. I neednít have worried. The city-bred descendant of missionaries and the casual country worker got along splendidly. Rex installed himself in the place cleared for him, hung up his haversack and was at home. Next night, I called back. All was fine. Though it was midsummer, George, bushman-fashion, had a huge fire on the open hearth, the tea was bubbling, plates and tins showed the meal had been good. I can see it now: something like a gypsy encampment, bombed out gypsies at that. In the far recesses, splinters of roof and floorboard, oil drums and such-like junk dating back perhaps to the original store days. Then the empire George had carved out for himself with neat piles of rabbit traps, skins, guns, bridles, bits of fencing wire and other parts of the old Model T. Then, the domestic arrangements, mostly tinware, and a couple of sacking beds filled with straw on the floor. And there were the three of us, yarning on the boxes round the fire (George almost in it), and George pulling the floppy ears of his dog, one of those doormat affairs, black and full of fleas. Rex had had a good day although it was pretty hard work, and more good days were to follow.
Then I missed visiting for a few days as I was working long hours in the opposite direction. Rex didnít call on me as for once he had met a woman whom even his ease could not melt -- my rigid mid-Victorian aunt. Then I called round. Rex was sick. We went for a stroll and he told me he could stick it no longer. He really had tried hard, but his whole face was simply streaming. I was worried but he confessed that it was hay fever. I pointed out that he should have calculated earlier that proneness to hay fever was some deterrent to harvesting, but apparently he was a bit sensitive on the subject and had just decided to do or die, and he damn near died.
Well, I havenít seen George for 25 years; heíd be nearly 80 if he were alive today, which I doubt. Rex never forgot him. Even in England, when immersed in all sorts of problems, he always remembered to include in a note, ĎDonít forget to remember me to old Georgeí.
Now that digression, properly digested, may provide you with quite a lot about Rex Fairburn. To go back to our onions and the year 1925. The next year Rex was so entangled in problems, mainly as usual with both of us, financial, that he decided to go to Norfolk Island. He got up the money together somehow and went. He was probably influenced in his choice by his friendship with a very pleasant young member of a Norfolk Island family resident in Auckland. Anyway it was a good choice. He and the islanders, most of them, got on famously. He stayed with a landlady called (of course) Mrs Christian, who was as glad to gossip with him in his spare moments as he with her. Inside a week he knew everybody and everything. Here is a letter written on the 26 November 1926, Rex then being twenty-two years of age and just on a week down there. I propose to quote at length to illustrate the variety of his interests.
And now Mr Chairman, I must ask you something. What is your wish and the wish of the students? That I should barbarise these letters completely or that I should read them fairly fully? [Answers of ĎFairly fullyí.] Is that your general wish? Is that the general wish? Good.
Norfolk Island, 26 November 1926.
Then he has a few coarse words to say, oh Iíd fogotten about that bit [laughter]. Itís all a long time ago.
Weíll skip that bit.
Now for the subsequent years I havenít yet been able to piece out a chronology. But in 1930 I think Rex went to England and returned in 1932. Here are a few extracts chosen rather at random from letters that he wrote over the years. First is Auckland the 15th, I think it is of November, 1924.
The Editor, Auckland Star.
Then he goes on to make practical proposals for the reform of the Art Gallery. This was a project which was dear to him all his life. This letter is five pages long, you can imagine how much chance he had of getting it in the Star, I presume that is how I came to inherit it and I might point out from internal evidence when he said Mr Fisher may be a trifle sweeping in his assertion I distinctly think that that wasnít Rexís own opinion but rather a young manís attempt to get a letter in a newspaper.
Well, somethingís gone wrong with my careful paging . . . no it hasnít . . . Hereís a letter. Weíve already had a letter from 1926 (that was the one from Norfolk Island) so here is one from 1928. Auckland 18th of January 1928. I think I would probably have been down-country. This is the letter or a portion of it.
This was much more open country in those days
He then proceeds to describe his symptoms. [Mason laughs]. Now here is the 9th of January 1930. I was apparently harvesting and Rex remembered that my birthday was the next day.
New Lynn, Thors Day, 9th of the 1st of í30.
Now this goes into something else that I canít explain in full. But:
Hereís another on the 12th of that February 1930. Yes, this is the one. I might explain, Firth means a very old and close mutual friend of ours Ė of Rexís and mine. Monro means Harold Monro the English writer and anthologist who had recently produced a book, 20th Century Poetry, in which I had been represented. I propose to give you this as the one sample of a full letter, I think I can. New Lynn 13 of the second I think it is, of í30.
This is Fairburnís quotation from Firthís letter. Firth at that time happened I think to be down at Taupo with an American film company and Alexander Markyís crowd. This is the quotation:
That closes the quote.
I might comment that I didnít read his remarks concerning my own stuff as my own point of view but to show you that he was always very generous in those matters. Always kindly and friendly in his criticisms, always helpful in such matters.
Now I told you in 1930 he went to England. And did he become a tireless correspondent there! Heíd write long letters. Heíd asked to have them circulated among his friends at that, abusing me for writing so infrequently and asking me to stir all sorts of people up to write to him. Now clearly, he was little at home in England. He loved New Zealand. He loved Auckland, and I quote:
The climate. Iíve cursed this weather often enough -
This is from Clench Common, Marlborough, Wiltshire, England 31st of the seventh of í32. It happens to be a rather later letter but it is quite typical. Heís giving his reasons for returning to New Zealand. He was at that time making up his mind whether to or not; I personally advised him not to do so because we had 70,000 registered unemployed and that didnít include women and those who couldnít be bothered registering because it wasnít worthwhile. However he pointed out the position was pretty much the same back there and he might as well come, which he subsequently did not long after this letter was written. Among the reasons he gives for leaving England are the climate.
Iíll finish this page.
Thatís Clifton Firth. Now Iím not sure here. Somewhere else I have a letter pointing out that while he didnít like England very much, it was Auckland that he thought of. And he pointed out that he had not long before been as far as Wellington and had had a good time there and had been received by many good friends but he had felt himself more alien in Wellington even than he did in England. A sympathy with which to some extent Iím afraid I agree. But even in England he longed to (I shouldnít have said even in England) -- in England he longed to be back in New Zealand many a time. Here for instance is London the 11th of November 1930 starting off, ĎArmistice Day in the eveningí. He goes on to say how he rambled around the countryside (that was a favourite amusement in any part). The climate in England of course to some extent debarred that, and that was one reason why he wanted to be home.
Iíd forgotten that I had that letter with me about Wellington. Well, Iíve told you how well Rex got on with New Zealand and Norfolk Island, and itís funny that democratic though he was he couldnít get on even with the English villagers. One letter starts off, ĎNever let anybody sentimentalise to you about the English peasantryí. Thatís in 1932, and he then proceeds to go into some details. He did like the countryside but not the actual villagers, as he showed many times for instance in a letter of July 1931, mainly dealing as usual with old friends in New Zealand. Iíll read a few extracts from it, besides the ones that Iíve specified.
Some personal matters:
Some very caustic comments on some leading literary personalities of the town at the time. Then, this is what I was really chasing:
He was sympathetic with the misfortunes of the villagers but he never seemed to get in friendly with them as he did the first time when he went out of New Zealand to Norfolk Island.
A friend of mine has a saying, a Maori friend of mine, that if any of us have been in the country or our families have been in the country for over a century then regardless of our ancestry weíre part Maoris. And I think regardless of Rexís and my ancestry it possibly does, did apply to a certain extent. Rex in particular; I may have suggested he was impractical, he was a highly practical man. Even on theoretical problems, even on matters of business his advice was excellent but he himself was frankly not, well, he was too busy living to have time to make a living half the time. Be a bit Irish. And sometimes we used to discuss it. I took a slightly more realistic line I think, slightly more, sometimes we even got a bit heated as it was a subject that we did quarrel about. I used to lecture him, he used to get annoyed and I must admit that a lot of what he said seems to be in later life very sound. For instance when all else failed he would point to some of the appalling results of human effort round the city or round the country and ask me if he seriously was intended to take part in such pursuits which would undoubtedly result only in the pollution of the sea, the air and the land. Now that is by the way; he was one of the most energetic men I ever knew, he was very, very practical and in this forthcoming issue of The Listener you will see an article by Denis Glover, a very old friend of both of us, in which he mentions how well Rex used tools. That certainly was so but he was practical and on considerably higher levels than that, as I say he just wasnít very interested. And personally I think, am more and more inclined to think that he was right.
While he was in England Rex married and started a family. That was all to the good but he also fell under a strange spell. He seems to have passed through a period of absolute nihilism. Most unlike him. Unlike even his occasional or ordinary fits of depression. Rex was often impressionable. But this was something different. He wasnít addicted to blind practical enthusiasms, but in this case he fell for something. Now sometimes an irreligious man falls for gross superstition; so he, a man generally uncommitted, fell of all things for Douglasí Social Credit. He was hardly off the boat on his return when he announced that New Zealandís hope of escape from the Depression lay in inviting Major Douglas out here as an advisor. Now this was no great message to bring from abroad [laughter]. The county was deluged with Douglasite outpourings, infested with its devotees. You couldnít get down the street for them, one explaining that Douglasism was a form of Communism, the other that it was a form of the very strictest anti-Communism, one explaining that Douglas would soon be called into conference in Moscow, the other explaining that Moscow was the iniquitous centre which must be wiped out. At every lamppost someone would pin you down while he popped imaginary cheques into mythical banks, then ducked round the back to espy the banker creating credit [laughter]. And you had to go with him all the way. It wasnít any use asking silly questions like, ĎWhat happens if the cheque bounces?í, the Douglasite would just tell you.
Not only did I (and I speak frankly) regard Rexís new doctrine as a commonplace, I even regarded it as a form of betrayal. Later I modified this view. Looking back I saw that he had not perhaps really ever subscribed to the basic philosophies of the Labour movement as I had done and Firth had done, pretty wholeheartedly. So I absolved him of deliberate betrayal. But if it wasnít a betrayal I still thought it was damn nonsense and I still do. We became very good friends again but it was never quite the same. And good friends we remained until I saw him for the last time nine days before he died.
Here is a poem that he sent to me in 1932 when he was still wrestling with these Ďnew economicsí as they were called. I look back on it today and I thought, well I feel that with all diffidence (I say this without unkindness to him or without any credit to myself, purely realistically), I think it was a sort of partial acknowledgement that I was going the right way and he the wrong way; that it represented something of a parting of the ways in a way for him. Itís called
Well, when I began to write this talk, I felt that Iíd have too little to fill it out and I expanded the first part. Too late, I find I had enough material not for a talk but for a series, so now I must say a few things in haste briefly and in confusion. First, Iíd have loved to have described the background. What a tumultuous and uproarious life this city has led, just recently say, within the lives of the oldest men living. Since the days when the troops, as Iíve been told, were dragged from the grog shops and the whore shops and lashed down the road to Drury to fight a war they knew to be iniquitous. One of the first things I remember was Masseyís Cossacks riding into town, much to my approval at the time, I was a great Massey man at that time, Iíve changed a little since. Then the strikers used to file into the Trades Hall at night and pile up their weapons before they lay down on their palliasses round the walls. The gunboat lay at the wharf with the guns turned on the town. Then the Great War, the exaltation when the expeditionary force went off to Samoa and the first men went overseas. And the casualty lists of the men coming through. These were men (Iím just speaking for myself) often whom I had been to school with, often just a little ahead of me. Then the sort of dogged persistence in the war; from exaltation then subsequently that incredible post-war disillusionment. But before that things had been stirred up particularly by the Irish Rebellion and the Russian Revolution. Some of those things were very close to us. I remember quite recently a friend of mine (might have been any one of us) saying how well she remembered (just an ordinary Aucklander) how well she remembered getting a letter from Home with a photograph of her cousin and the news that a mob of drunken Black and Tans had been turned loose in the town and had shot her cousin down as the child stood on the doorstep. Then there was the little Slump and the Samoan trouble and the shooting of Tamasesei in that most rotten of all evil things that ever happened regarding this country. And of course there was the Depression, the Queen Street route strewn with smashed windows and trails of loot hanging out like ends of sausages. I didnít myself see that done but I did get the wheeze that Karangahape Road was going to be done over the next night and I was fortunate enough to be up there [laughter] and stayed there thoroughly enjoying myself, I must admit, until I noticed that the line of marines was clearing the street with fixed bayonets and I donít know anything of what happened after that.
Iím just jumping now in conclusion, just jumping briefly from point to point. Well, what did Rex and I find to talk about? And later on, Clifton Firth because we formed a very close friendship. Well, we argued endlessly, we talked night and we talked day. As I remember it we mostly walked and talked. We walked partly for the pleasure of it and partly because we usually didnít have the fares to do anything else. I remember one occasion (and this was just before Rex left for England) we had a few drinks, I mean a few drinks with Clifton Firth and his wife, and then we decided about 11 oíclock -- I think Firth got sick of us and heaved us out. And we decided that weíd walk home to Ellerslie to my place. When we got there (it would be about 1 oíclock in the morning) we decided it was a lovely night and we hadnít finished talking and we probably wouldnít see each other again ever, or perhaps for years, so weíd go on and have a yarn for a little while further. And so we walked up to the top of Mt Smart, it was then a sort of mountain, itís since been mostly pulled down, and we sat there and we went on talking and we talked until the moon went down over the Manukau and the sun started to come up over the Waitemata. And we went home still talking and we had breakfast and then Rex went to work. I well remember that night. I think we both had a sort of feeling, ĎWell thatís the end of a sort of epoch for usí, and so it was to some extent. And, well, we talked of the things that Iíve mentioned and in the fire of their, what shall I say, tumult, yes thatís all we can say, I can say, we talked of everything under the sun. We questioned all assumptions and we questioned all authority. Weíd both been brought up, both Rex and I had been brought up in strict Anglican and conservative traditions. They were good ones too. We were both descendants of pioneers so we had as it were much in common regarding our starting place but we departed for places unknown in the intellectual world. And I think that goes very largely for Clifton Firth.
Some arguments used to go on for quite a while. For instance, I should think about the year 1926 Clifton and Rex started an argument regarding Classicism and Romanticism. Clifton was the Classicist, Rex was the Romanticist, it seems to work out alliteratively. That argument was very interesting for the first ten years [laughter]. First of all, I couldnít get in the running because, well they were both too engrossed. Then I was allowed to come in but each side insisted that I should be his champion. After about twenty years it became something like those old dynastic wars of the Middle Ages, you know, where they started to squabble about Schwabia or something or other and after it had been going a really decent time everyone had forgotten what it had started with because it had accumulated so much growth. However, I understand (I wasnít present, dropped out after several decades) that the argument was continued to the very last, very happily on both sides, I may state. Iím sorry I canít summarise it but when youíve had a thing carefully explained to you for 25 years you just donít know what itís all about [laughter].
I should have liked too, to speak more about our friends, about other writers around at that time. For instance I donít know if any of you know of him, or have even heard of him, the far-famed (or once far-famed) Geoffrey Wladislas Vaile Potocki Count de Montalk, rightful heir to the throne of Poland. Geoffrey stayed at my place on his way through to claim his throne. He fought with me, he fought with Rex, he fought with the porters down at the railway station, he fought with the tramway men, he fought with everybody under the sun, and everybody liked him very much, detested his opinions, waved him goodbye to England and one of the last things I heard of him was when Hitler and Stalin Ė well, a pact was made between the Soviets and the Germans regarding Poland and delineating the frontiers between the two, upon which poor old Geoffrey turned up in the picture and pointed out that neither of them had the slightest right to any say in the matter whatsoever, considering that Geoffrey Wladislas Vaile Potocki de Montalk was the one and only rightful heir to the throne of Poland. Rex used to see him in England.
Then there were the women writers. Iím afraid that I havenít given women much of a hearing this evening. Itís been rather brief. There was poor, tragic Robin Hyde, Gloria Rawlinson, grand old Jane Mander, for a few. Now how are we for time Mr Chairman?
Well now, still leaping from point to point. Iíd like to tell you a couple of anecdotes. The first was an occasion when I impressed upon Rex very seriously that I wanted to start a Socialist Club. I think it was actually in the University; at any rate it was in connection with university students. And I explained that for that I wanted an eminent personage and Rex was to be the eminent personage, all of which he blandly agreed to. I was to be the organiser, sponsor, and convener and general dogís body, and I was to introduce Rex (who wasnít a university student at that time), I think as the really -- somebody who was to affect profoundly . .. and that we were going to form a little socialist club and be very, you know, discreet in our proceedings and gradually extend and extend and I think by the time Iíd finished the Commonwealth was going to be sovietised. But unfortunately, the whole thing blew up because, as I was explaining to the crowd, of probably about three men and a dog, just who was the eminent personage in the chair, I was faced with a roar of laughter. I am standing up there you see, as it were, I hastily tried to see what I had done and I couldnít find anything that I had done or clothing in disarray of anything of that nature, particularly, and I finally decided that it must be due to the eminent personage and I turned and found that said eminent personage had produced from his capacious tweed jacket pockets, and was loudly and ostentatiously blowing his nose upon, an enormous and incredible beflaring scarlet pair of womenís bloomers [laughter]. I was very proud of my aspirations in regard to this little club. Iíd read widely on the subject and carefully worked out the strategy and tactics, and I subsequently took Rex aside and pointed out to him with some asperity that I didnít like that sort of thing from my one and only eminent personage [laughter], it was sort of ruining things from the start. However, when Rex saw that I really felt very, very strongly on the subject, he solemnly promised repentance and of course would have done exactly the same next minute if heíd had another opportunity. But I never gave him another opportunity. And when I came to think of it, I realised that perhaps I was lucky to get off as lightly as I did. I remember Rexís imitation of Queen Victoria, for instance. It consisted of a very simple thing, like most of his things, it consisted of puffing his cheeks out and putting a handkerchief on, sitting there looking exactly like a most gigantic statue of Queen Victoria. Another one, and even worse, was to swing from anything, anything at all about eight feet high around the room or outside or the eaves of the house or anything like that and scratch your left arm under your elbow and hang on like this, and that was being a monkey [laughter]. And a very good monkey too.
Well perhaps I shouldnít tell too many stories against him (well Iím not telling them against him at all) without telling one or two about myself. I used to get into a little bit of trouble occasionally too. I do remember particularly when there was a visiting evangelist called Gipsy Pat Smith and for some reason or other he got on my nerves. First of all he was pretending to be another evangelist, Gipsy Smith, and he wasnít. Secondly his balance sheet was very much subject to criticism [laughter], at least it wasnít subject to criticism from me as I subsequently discovered so I talked it over with Rex and somebody else and we went along to the Town Hall and I got jammed in the middle of the gallery with two gigantic people, one on each side of me, and at a particular moment I got up and when heíd finished his oration I got up and waved a copy of the newspaper containing the balance sheet and said, ĎMr Smith Ė Ď and thatís all I ever did really manage to get said because at that moment down pounced about 500 Muscular Christians, Gipsy Pat Smith waved the band up, and they started to expostulate with me. However, I wasnít to be shifted. They hung on to me, my friends hung on to me, Rex and the other chap, one on each side, and I, well then one of the Christians found a way to do it. He got behind me and proceeded to garrotte me. At that point, at the top of my voice, I did succeed in giving him the one really effective and telling remark of the whole evening: ĎThese Christians are strangling meí [laughter]. And then I was bounced out of the Town Hall. Rex and I stood on the pavement. At that time there was an old character called Horseís Head; his real name was Charlie Mageon but he was called Horseís Head because he looked like one [laughter]. He was a real town character. And poor old Charlie had a very grave habit of getting mixed up with any really public and official demonstration that was going. It was usually regarded as fairly harmless but unfortunately I had found only the one supporter in the Hall and that was poor old Charlie who apparently had got up and he was promptly heaved out to sit next door to us. However, he and I and Rex we all became very firm friends ever after that. He had two residences. I remember old Charlie, he was an old soldier. He had two residences, a summer one and a winter one. The winter one was well-known when he went into retreat, and well-known to everybody because it was in the newspapers: ĎCharles Mageonís 150th offenceíí. The summer one had me puzzled a little bit because I asked him once, I said, ĎWhere are you living now Charlie?í And he said, ĎEr Ė er Ė erí, and I said, ĎWhere?í And he said, ĎEr Ė Hobsoní, which I found out was Governor Hobson. I then tried to work out where the summer residence could be. I thought perhaps heíd got a, you know, hotel or something like that, that somebody had helped him in. However, he just roared his head off when I volunteered this suggestion because at that time Governor Hobsonís grave lay neglected in Grafton Gully, neglected that is to say by everybody except poor old Charlie who camped there all summer.
Well we all became very close pals. I remember Charlie had a great gift. Well suppose there was some public ceremony such as the opening of a monument (and Iíve seen this happen). Everything would be waiting, with vans drawn up and the soldiers waiting in a line, the crowds waiting for the Governor General and hoping to heavens that thereíd be some diversion. Well there would be. The order of procedure to lay the foundation stone would perhaps be first of all a couple of mounted cavalry men, a couple of cavalrymen, and then the Vice Regal carriage and then various other dignitaries. But just before the crowd had been fulfilled of its expectation in seeing the Governor General arrive, thereíd be a sort of little break in the ranks of the police watching by and the final order of appearance would be first of all of course a little dog, secondly Mr Mageon marching like an old soldier at the salute amid the uproarious applause of the crowd, and very poor third would be the Governor General. It would then be the job of the officials to chase poor old Charlie around the square and pretend that he wasnít there, not kick his shins or anything because the crowd wouldnít stand for it, and carefully shepherd him away to the back. He always seemed to get stuck on the other side because just as the Governor General would be getting going magnificently with the trowel or the speech, and the bandsmen were ready to blare forth Charlie would spot me and heíd shout out in an enormous voice right across everything over the square, ĎGIPSY PAT SMITHí [laughter].
Well amidst all this, I should have mentioned that Rex and I did some writing. I published my first book in 1924 and Rex in 1930. However, all thatís in the history books I understand; the text books or something or other, and I have confined myself mainly to the earlier days and particularly to the relationship between us two, things of which I know. Later, about 1936, as some of you probably know, we started to join in the magnificent work of the Caxton Press which Denis Glover was launching.
Now never at any time did Rex and I try to found a school. We did have some effect on each other. We didnít work for it or anything. The sort of thing that I mean it this. It may interest some of your students. I understand you have the misfortune to study some of these things. One evening we were having a yarn about laughter and I more or less said idly, ĎWell it doesnít matter what you do as long as you have a sense of humourí. And Rex immediately took me up on it and pointed out that that might just be to conceal ignorance or weakness or even betrayal.. Betrayal was the thought that you had to strike in the Labour Movement particularly about that time, it was about Ramsay MacDonaldís day. And I went home and I was much struck with this and I wrote, sat down and thought about betrayal and of course naturally I thought about the great betrayal of all times, the betrayal by Judas Iscariot, and so I sat down and wrote a little thing that some of you, and, er, I understand, had to sit the test some years ago, called ĎJudas Iscariotí. That was the type of thing I mean, it was very indirect, just a sort of stimulation rather than an influence on either side.
I find on looking through my letters that Rex has even preserved an old poem of mine. He has taken the trouble to type it out and send it back to me in case I still didnít have a copy. And I certainly didnít have a copy. However, it was quite interesting this evening to read it myself. I donít know why I didnít publish it, I didnít. But particularly in Rexís case, writing was only part of his great lifeís work of living. He was always doing something or other: painting, playing round or playing the piano or walking or playing golf, one thing or another. And talking, talking endlessly.
And now Mr Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, I must say how glad I am that I have been to speak this evening to students. I have spoken here before, I have had some connection with this literary club.
© RAK Mason