When he was sober, which wasn't that often, the National President-In-Waiting had some chilling news for me. We were hunched over the bar at Wellington airport, waiting for our flight north.
'Old Baldy would like to take out Young Baldy. Or to put it another way: Stead wants you dead,' he said.
|Emeritus Professor C.K. Stead. Assassin in waiting?|
'Assonance,' he replied.
He was a poet, I was a fiction writer. He knew about these things.
'Strangulation, suffocation, electrification. I don't think he's bothered.'
'The French have a term for that. Rime couee.'
'Yes. Very good. End rhyme. God knows why Stead came clean on this. The aggressor professor became a confessor,' he said.
Why an eminent professor of literature at Auckland University, and internationally lauded poet would want me maimed or dead was puzzling. I had just published my first book, a collection of short stories. I was something of a literary nobody, who had just been elected Chair of the Auckland branch of PEN aka The Society of Authors.
'And Alistair Paterson wants to kill me,' Kevin Ireland went on lugubriously.
'Lieutenant-Commander Alistair Paterson, Royal New Zealand Navy? The man who turned up to our meeting the other night in full ceremonial dress to recite his poetry. With a sword?' I asked.
He nodded. 'Yes. Have you seen the photo on his first poetry collection? He's holding an antique firearm. I'm taking the threat very seriously.'
'Why do these people want us dead?' I asked.
Kevin Ireland shook his head. 'Because we're changing things. It's the Autumn of the Patriarchs. They don't have long to live, and they can see it.'
We had just finished a harrowing four hour meeting of the writers' national executive (PEN) in the bowels of the National Library in Wellington, which Kevin likened to a meeting of the Central Presidium of the Soviet Union. In the chair was another rogue academic, a Professor of Russian Literature oddly enough, who had ruled the meeting with a bull-whip, and given us all thoughts of the Gulag.
|Lnt-Commander Paterson (rtd). Poet & pugilist.|
I pondered that one.
'But Alistair isn't an academic. He was in the Royal NZ Navy.'
'Another total institution,' said Ireland. 'Into which light rarely penetrates.'
'Yes,' I said. 'Those nematode worms that live in caves underground. They don't develop eyes of course. They're stuck there for life, so they get about by rubbing against things. They have a great sense of smell, however. Outside the caves they would be completely lost. But they're amazingly effective in their niche.'
Ireland nodded again. 'That's it. Niche-dwellers. The sooner we can get them out of our organisation the better.'
As it happened, left to his own devices, the Emeritus Professor got himself out of the organisation with amazing speed. That summer, operating under clandestine instructions from the Minister of Culture, and without telling any other writers on the national executive, Professor C.K. Stead flew to London and purchased a very expensive flat in Bloomsbury, in which he briefly installed himself, before advising New Zealand authors of his triumphal act.
|Kevin Ireland. President. Extreme poet. Bibulant.|
Stead, in short, had zero credit rating with his peers. Actually, his credit rating was lower than a nematode's tummy.
The result, from Wellington, was instantaneous. How dare the eminent professor make this purchase at the seat of Empire without consultation? How dare he ignore the many pohutukawa-ringed inlets on our own fair coastline that would make far more suitable retreats? This was cultural cringe of the most abject kind!!
Marshaling their impressive media resources, the Wellington matriarchs issued a stinging press release, dissociated themselves from this reckless act of colonial obeisance, and causing the Minister to have to answer some very tricky questions in Cabinet. The Minister, Michael Basset, was appalled, decided in the quiet of his own heart to exact long-term revenge on writers for his humiliation, and promptly sold the flat. The nation's journalists, always a little envious of their literary siblings, covered the debacle lavishly, and with smirking schadenfreude.
|Michael King: Pacifier. Giant.|
He sat at one end of the room, ringed by the giants of the literary scene - Michael King, Maurice Shadbolt, Kevin Ireland, Dick Scott. Even journalist Sandra Coney, scourge of the patriarchs, was hovering in one corner, her notepad at the ready.
It was like Mount Rushmore made flesh. Granitic profiles abounded. Also present, so far as I could discern it, were the ghosts of Bloomsbury-dwelling Katherine Mansfield, Frank Sargeson, and John A. Lee. The court went into session.
'Um. Welcome, Karl,' I said. 'Now that Pandora's Box in Wellington is open, and the demons have been released, I wonder whether you would like to say anything?'
'Could we discuss this matter without resorting to dire literary cliche?' he said, fixing me with his ireful brows.
'Ok,' I said. 'I'll keep it simple. You've fucked things up. It's hard to imagine a more stupid act. You've infuriated the Minister of Arts and Culture, who will undoubtedly exact a terrible revenge on literature funding for decades to come. And through one act of hubris, you've created a lurid media carnival that has touched every writer in the country. I also understand from our President, that you have threatened to maim or kill me. Are there any other plans you'd care to share with us?' (Actually I only said one or two of those things.)
|Mount Rushmore. Noble, granitic faces.|
Michael King coughed, in the tactful way that only he could. The country's pre-eminent historian spoke: 'I do think you have some explaining to do Karl,' he said. Michael's gentle, reedy, voice on that fateful evening still haunts me to this day. He had the capacity to settle any gathering of writers with his soulful, conciliatory manner. A couple of years later he was killed in a fiery car crash with his wife on the road from Coromandel, ending the dream of writer unity forever.
I could see Karl looking at Alistair Paterson in the corner, splendid once again in full naval dress regalia, complete with ceremonial sword. I could see Stead's eye alight on the weapon.
I thought to myself, 'Hari-kari, or murder?'
Sensing Stead's interest, Paterson quickly moved his hand to the hilt of the sword, securing it in its scabbard.
|Dick Scott. Defender of the Chair.|
Stead began his defense. 'Only the churlish would decline this opportunity,' he said, polishing his glasses furiously. 'How often does a Government offer writers a flat in a world centre of literature? We've chewed the hand of the Minister and shot ourselves spectacularly in the foot.'
'Mixed metaphor,' I shouted, and Stead visibly winced. This talk of fire-arms caused me to glance at the Lieutenant-Commander again. Dick Scott was hovering at his elbow.
The National President-In-Waiting got to his feet. Kevin Ireland was a tall man, with a deliberate, statesmanlike manner. Again, amazingly, he was sober.
'Baldy,' he said. 'Your pukeko have come home to roost. If you hadn't shafted Lauris and Fiona so often in the pages of the nation's review journals, you callous and calculating old c*** ...'
|Lauris Edmond. Poet. Spear-carrier of the Matriarchs.|
'Sub-case of consonance,' corrected Ireland, turning to me. 'Alliteration.'
He went on: 'If you hadn't riled every second writer in the land with your heartless, sulfuric reviews, you might have got away with it. As it is, by proceeding with this mad undercover scheme you have turned everyone against this organisation.'
The heads on Mount Rushmore all nodded sagely. It was like a mountain range springing to life. Stead looked around him desperately for allies. Paterson's jaw was jutting. Would the Navy intervene?
'Look Karl,' said the Lieutenant-Commander, his eyes smouldering orbs behind his tinted spectacles, 'Why didn't you take the time to get some dirt on Lauris and Fiona - extra-marital affairs, illicit bond-trading, off-shore accounts? You would have been in a safer position. To rile them in this way without leverage, without having something over them was, frankly ... ' the Lieutenant-Commander shook his head, sorrowfully, 'Negligent.'
I looked around the gathering. There was tacit consent. To enrage other writers so blatantly, without having some means of keeping them silent - blackmail - legal leverage - shockingly personal kompromat, as the Soviets called it ... was the height of foolishness. How could Stead, who was renowned for his cunning, wily ways, have made such a miscalculation? It was truly baffling.
Historian Dick Scott was holding his station: standing so close to the Lieutenant-Commander that I began to relax. Scott was a veteran of numerous bitter trade union struggles. It was unlikely the ceremonial sword, commandeered by an infuriated author would be used to assassinate the Branch Chair (me) or the National President (Kevin Ireland) despite the flurry of violent threats that was wracking the literary community that month.
I cleared my throat. I felt a little giddy. I stood up and spread my arms, feeling briefly like the statue of the Redeemer Christ overlooking the city of Rio de Janeiro.
'Perhaps this is an opportunity to heal some wounds,' I said.
I extended a hand to journalist Geoff Chapple on my left (he was about to conjure up a national pathway Te Araroa out of nothing and knew a thing or two about bringing a nation together) and to the tiny piano virtuoso and poet Denys Trussell on my right. Denys had a huge white beard and always wore a panama hat.
I faced Mount Rushmore. I bowed respectfully, avoiding Stead's eye.
'I would like us all to sing Kumbaya,' I said, and in a sudden moment of inspiration, 'But in Maori.'
I saw Michael King perk up. As a champion of the mana whenua, this bi-cultural gambit was right up his alley. And then I realised, with a sickening feeling, that he and I were the only two people in the room of forty-odd writers, who knew any Maori. (I had learned the tongue during three tumultuous years living in the head-quarters of Nga Tamatoa, the Maori Black Panther movement.)
But it was too late to pull back. As Branch Chair I had made my gambit, and to retreat now would signal a major loss of authority.
I struck out on the first few lines, in what I hoped would be a rich baritone voice, but which went soprano with apprehension. I was hanging onto Chapple on my left and Trussell on my right with a grim, claw-like grip. I saw them both wince with pain. Michael King came in behind me, in a deep, husky bass. The other writers in the room, taken by surprise, gripped the hands of those next to them, their eyes clouded with panic, their mono-linguality horribly revealed to themselves and to the others present.
Stead took this opportunity to bolt for the door.
I still remember him cannoning into the frame, so desperate to escape from the onslaught of a Stone Age Language Without a Written Literary Tradition. He put both hands to his ears, trying to block out the sound of the song, as Michael King and I began to ramp up our volume to compensate for our mute colleagues. With his hands to his ears, he couldn't open the door and fell against it repeatedly, in the end, collapsing in a heap.
'For God's sake someone let him out,' cried Kevin Ireland, and stumbled over to the door, which gave onto Stead's home patch, the English Department at Auckland University.
At the end of this grotesque recitation, there was sporadic applause. Sweat was running down Michael King's face. Dick Scott looked like a man frozen in time, still hovering by Paterson's sword. Maurice Shadbolt had disappeared in a cloud of fine blue smoke from his pipe, utterly baffled by proceedings. One of only a handful of women in the room, Sandra Coney was hunched in the corner, trying to stay away from this effluorescence of testosterone. Trussell held his panama hat against his chest, like a man at a funeral.
'Autumn of the Patriarchs.' Our President-In-Waiting's fateful words came to mind, the words that had been uttered with such prescience so many months before in the bar at Wellington airport as, refugees from the Professor of Russian Literature and alleged KGB admirer, we waited to fly north. I looked at the tweed jackets, the naval dress uniforms, the florid, avuncular faces and redolent pipes. The half-drunk glasses of horrific cabernet sauvignon. Only Shadbolt's shoes were visible now, such was the incredible volume of blue smoke surrounding him.
How had it come to this? An era was coming to an end; an era of jackets with leather elbow patches; elegant volumes of verse printed on embossed cartridge paper; web off-set presses and fanatical literary duels. I felt torn. In a way, I had helped bring it about: "The crisis consists of the fact that the old order is dying and the new order is not yet born. In the interregnum, a variety of morbid symptoms occurs." Antonio Gramsci's famous quote from his Prison Notebooks pounded in my ears.
Although they had not yet disappeared, I felt an intense nostalgia for the craggy monumentalism of these titans; their sheer Mount Rushmore-ness. It was my very respect, which they sensed, that had helped propel me to leadership. They had put their trust in me, as a young upstart with only a couple of books of fiction to my name. And then I had betrayed them, by helping usher in the new feminised world order. Within a decade, these Olympians were in wheelchairs, their pipes and tweed jackets hocked off to Opportunity Shops for Breast Cancer Fundraising, their slim volumes of arcane verse and dusty novels of men anguishing alone in the bush, relegated to the Deep Stack in libraries, below ground water level.
Michael King and I looked at each other, squinting through the atmospheric blue haze of Shadbolt's effluvium. We knew we were the Trojan Horses in the room ... 'A variety of morbid symptoms ... '
Men can read each other. We know who our enemy is. A hundred thousand years of evolution has trained us to identify our foe.
The room was in consternation. A schism had opened up. I glanced across at Sandra Coney. She looked down at her notebook, and then up at me. There was a glint of triumph in her eye. She knew which way the tide was running. She had seen the future of literature in this country, and indeed across the Western World. The colossi were being toppled. The Monstrous Regiment of Women was on the march and a thousand novels of unshackled domesticity, of omnipotent oestrogen beckoned. The future was fecundity.
Testosterone, at least in its Steadian manifestation, was toast.
Author's note: This is an extract from an upcoming novel, Palsy of the Patriarchs