new zealand electronic poetry centre


Alan Brunton



A brief history of derangement and enterprise:

Alan Brunton. Writer. Performer. 1946-2002  

New Zealand Listener (3 August 2002), 56-57 

I leave to you these things, this
And this, this everything

                              - Alan Brunton, ‘Grooves of Glory’  

At home there’s a box of photographs labelled ‘treasures’. One of the most treasured photographs in the box opens up a huge portal of memory. It is a black and white photograph of three young men standing with a German shepherd dog on the front porch of an Auckland villa. The man on the left is a scrawny big-boned guy with a humorous, bellicose grin on his face. He is wearing a battered straw hat and his trousers have a makeshift repair made to the fly. The slightly older man in the middle looks like a George Harrison impersonator. His hair is brushed forward in a bang, and he has a large sign reading ‘Man’ stuck to the front of his striped shirt. On the right is a soft looking boy wearing dark glasses. He is caressing the dog. It is Auckland 1969, on the eve of a theatre and poetry tour to Wellington. 

The fuzzy boy in dark glasses is me. The music hall George Harrison is Russell Haley. We are both alive, and we met up recently together with Russell’s wife Jean and talked, laughed and wept for a long time about the scrawny ghost whose trousers are coming apart, who is Alan Brunton, and who is now dead. 

The photograph is now filled with terrible grief and dismay because Alan died when his wonderful hale voice and the fabulous imagination that spoke with it should have gone on rattling the cage of language for years more. But the photograph is also a treasure because it reminds us that our lives and those of many others were changed because they met Alan. I am going to write about some of those meetings as a way of remembering our old friend, knowing that not everything happened to us and that others knew Alan longer and more intensely, especially his wife and workmate Sally and his daughter Ruby. 

In 1969 a small gang of us travelled to Wellington. We took a play by Russell Haley – The Adoration of Za’oud – and we read poems. Alan’s contribution was to demand an event driven by the exhilaration of completely incautious imagination, and direct engagement with the audience. Riding shotgun on this stampede was another Alan, an intuitive impresario. This combination of derangement and enterprise was my first lesson from him, and it did wonders for my life thereafter. If I thank him for this at the outset, the rest just follows. 

In 1971 Alan turned up at our place in London. He was yellow and skinny after months in India, but at once entered the city with an irrepressible homing instinct for its resources. Alan loved big cities, especially New York and Amsterdam, and among his survival skills was fearless gregariousness. 

Back in New Zealand a few years later we scraped a survival together around the early activities of Red Mole Theatre and its sidekick White Rabbit Puppet Theatre. Touring with Alan, you got to see several things. One was his uncompromising belief in a gleeful life of the imagination, at once improvisatory and shrewd. Another was his belief that the esoteric was not the preserve of clerics, but enriched the stories, beliefs and symbols of all lives. Another was his engagement, ferocious and sentimental by turns, with all kinds of audiences, from small-town kids through to  quasi-professional theatre crowds. Entering a small town, Alan would engage locals in bantering conversation, glean items of local lore and scandal, and spike the shows with them. He had a canny ability to scandalise and charm at the same time, to make mundane gossip about the local bigwig the surprise twist in some fabulous yarn. 

During those years we also produced a tabloid newspaper, Spleen. It came to an end after eight issues when, drumming up advertising revenue, I found myself following the smooth wake of Peter Webb, who was launching Art New Zealand, a more compelling enhancer of brand values. Alan let Spleen go without looking back. Lesson: when it’s over, it’s over. 

The Moles went on to New York, New Mexico and Amsterdam, and I lost contact, except when I stayed at Alan and Sally’s place on Avenue C and 9th in New York City for some weeks in 1983. The Lower East Side had not yet been gentrified, and a vast, anarchic, diverse underground washed in and out of the black and Latino boho. This was Alan’s natural habitat, and in it he also discovered another natural milieu, community activism at street-level. Back in New Zealand 10 years later, he made a bloody nuisance of himself over Erskine College in Island Bay, delaying the sale of the historic building by several years – during which he and Sally used the space for rehearsal. He contributed his bloody-mindedness to the Island Bay Surf Club – which they also used for rehearsal and performance. 

Shortly before the Moles went off to New York again in 1981, Alan and I organised State of the Nation, a ramshackle touring show with a pickup band consisting of Bruno Lawrence on drums, alto sax, and calming vibes, Bill Gruar on bass, and a maniacal Wilton Rodger on guitar and anything else we couldn’t stop him getting hold of. The poets were David Mitchell, Alan and myself. We referred to it as a merciful last rites for the male-dominated ‘young New Zealand poets’ of the 60s and 70s. 

We were a decade on from Za’oud, some of us had kids, Alan’s support for Sally’s work was uncompromising, devoted and full of pride, and he would become an extraordinary parent. He never patronised kids, he knew that the best thing they had going for them was esoteric imaginative play, and on his daughter Ruby’s account he made a bloody nuisance of himself once again over city council attempts to ‘rationalise’ library services. 

I was involved in a Playmarket workshop weekend in Nelson where Alan was running masterclasses, moving ideas into production. I sat in on a class and watched a patient, respectful mentor work with inexpert optimists, without condescension or sarcasm. The Alan I knew, enjoyed and understood best often turned courtliness into mockery, and served up most of his judgments with an acerbic twist of irony. He was one of the funniest men I ever met when he wasn’t performing, and one of the best comedians when he was. He was a great debunker. Despite this, I heard a lot about his work as mentor with younger musicians and performers. One of these has been his and Sally’s daughter, Ruby, herself a gifted playwright. 

My last contact with Alan was vicariously with this generous mentor. I went to the Wellington High School Shakespeare Club’s 2002 production of Love’s Labour’s Lost. It was directed by Ruby Brunton and the production notes thanked Alan ‘for his help’. There were possible signs of this help in the choreography, the stagecraft (hat and cane routines) and the full-on sexual burlesque. But it was in the voice coaching of the young actors that I last met my dear friend. What they had learnt, from Ruby through Alan, was that they were speaking poetry. You could hear the measure and timing of it, the elegant swivel of wit around a line-ending, the economical tread of the monosyllabic language, the entire play of language raised above the banality of mere meaning. The word was freed at Wellington High School in June 2002. 

I wish I’d seen Sally and Alan’s last performance, Grooves of Glory, at The Space in Newtown – I hear they were great. I wish I’d seen more of Alan over the past few years – we were both ‘too busy’. I wish I’d bought several copies of all the Bumper Books he published in one of his last enterprises. I wish I’d said goodbye before they went off on his last tour to Europe. 

What I’m sure of is that Alan’s work as a poet, his long collaboration with Sally, and the Moles’ diverse theatre work, will shortly become revalued, and we will acknowledge that Alan Brunton was one of New Zealand’s greatest and most free-spirited poets and performers. I acknowledge here that he taught me more than I could ever admit at the time, but thank him for now. Dear belligerent, generous, laughing ghost, rest in peace.

Ian Wedde 


Last updated 01 December, 2002