An unruly spirit, by Dennis Hamley

I read Kathleen Jones’s post earlier this month with mingled envy and anticipation. There she was in New Zealand, where we shall be for two months starting in January, in contemplative solitude, surrounded by beauty of a strangely specific nature in two isolated islands which have a different sense of time from the rest of us. Aotearoa is an ancient land. Its essential wildness is tempered by a slow moving peace where the imperatives of Darwinism never quite seemed to work. After all, there were no predators before the humans came, so creatures could evolve in their own time with little threat to which they need adapt. Sadly, they have still not cottoned on to the fact that they must. As a result, birds which never needed to fly are close to extinction and animals who found slow and stately movement perfectly adequate and stress-free are finding too late that it is often wise to run. A new imported animal kingdom of possums, stoats and weasels is making short work of them all.
jImage result for New Zealand bush


But this is not a blog about the huge efforts to protect endangered species. Nor, except incidentally, is it a song of praise to New Zealand’s vast areas of untouched bush. For the second time since I started blogging here in 2012, I’m inspired by a film. The first was Dean Spanley, starring Sam Neill. The new one is Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which – completely coincidentally –  also stars Sam Neill.

If you haven’t seen this extraordinary film yet, I suggest you should repair the omission because I think you’ll love it and that, when you come out of the cinema, you’ll have a good feeling. You’ll have seen a bureaucratic establishment receive a good kicking and been enthused by a  vision of humanity which, by conviction, ingenuity and sheer resolve, can still have unlikely triumphs. You will also have a really, really good laugh – and possibly a few lumps in the throat as well. You’ll also know more about the sheer bloody-mindedness of the Kiwi soul. Which leads me to what this blog is mainly about.

New Zealand has a strong literary culture. Janet Frame, Margaret Mahy, Keri Hulme (The Bone People, Booker winner 1984), Eleanor Catton (The Luminaries, Man Booker winner 2013) and Witi Ihimaera (The Whale Rider) come to mind. To that list of authors, I would add Barry Crump.

Image result for Barry Crump

The literary bushman himself

First of all though, here's a health warning. Barry Crump's books are definitely male-centred. You may think it odd that I’m singing the praises of a possessor of some rather objectionable male qualities. His five marriages, including an unlikely and unsurprisingly short-lived coupling with the poet Fleur Adcock, were all stormy affairs. There’s a distinct note of misogyny here, as well as some violence. But these were tempered by some surprising anomalies. Just as we in Britain have ‘professional Yorkshiremen’, so New Zealand has ‘professional Kiwis’ and Barry Crump was certainly one of them. But he had a right to be. However, most  'professional Kiwis' don’t spend two years in India with a Kashmiri family. Barry Crump did (motor-cycling there from London via Iran and Afghanistan) and it had an extraordinary effect on him – he started a long search for some sort of spirituality which, in 1982, saw him accept the Baha’i faith, with its unity in diversity, its stoicism and its belief in collective evolution, not necessarily qualities he might have been associated with.

He could be dismissed as a 'would-be bushman', of whom there are many, were it not that he really was a bushman and knew from experience exactly what he was talking about. He could be dismissed as pandering to male values, except that there is a clear-sighted concept of fairness and balance in his writing which radiates sardonic amusement at the effects of their manifestations. When he said, ‘When I write a book I’m writing it to my best mate,’ he could have added, but didn’t, ‘to show him what a twerp he really is.’

I can’t do better than quote from the first book of his that I read. I apologise in advance for the startling title, though as it is what it is I don't have much alternative. It's called Bastards I Have Met, a series of sketches of no less than twenty-six types of bastard, one for each letter of the alphabet (including X). Strangely, most of them seem quite pleasant people, though with some unfortunate tendencies. They all share, however, a basically decent humanity. He wrote it after reasoning that there were fifteen thousand bastards for every one hero in the world, which seems to me to have possibly been a tad optimistic. The book is illustrated by Garth Tapper, Kay’s second cousin, a familial connection which may or may not be something to be proud of.

Here’s an example of his writing and almost Pinteresque capture of pointed speech which is typical and, I think, clever.

The author is waiting to be interviewed at the Department of Labour and Employment and he overhears a conversation between another job applicant and his interviewer. Or rather, half of it, because though he couldn't hear the interviewer, ‘the other character’s voice was as loud as his personality was. I couldn’t not hear him.’

     'G’day. I . . .er. . . was lookin’ around for a job and they  reckon you blokes are the caper so I just dropped in to see if you could put me on to something.'
       '- - - - - - ?'
     'Charlie. Charlie Roberts, but me mates usually call me Wrecker because of something that happened once.'
        ' - - - - - -?'
       'Eighteen next month, but I can pass for twenty-two or three easy enough.'
        '- - - - - -?'
       'Ah . . . well I haven't been working just lately, as a matter of fact. Been on holiday, sort of.'
        '- - - - - -?'
        'Bridge job. Over in the King Country. I was only there a couple of months. Didn't hit it off too well with the foreman.'
         ' - - - - - -?'
        'No, nothin' like that. . .'
         ' - - - - - -?'

I’m omitting the next lines because they illustrate perfectly the problem of this kind of writing. They are, trust me on this, beautifully written, perfectly judged in illustrating the fecklessness of the applicant and further establish the convention in which it is written. As writing per se, it’s very accomplished. However, for meaning it depends on innuendo, an implication which is just not acceptable in 2016, though he could get away with it in 1971. It’s funny, it’s not overt but only implied and it could pass muster forty-five years ago through its jokeyness and its belief that ‘boys will be boys’.

Not so now. It’s dangerously close to Trumpism. Though freedom of speech and expression are priceless rights, like all rights they depend on a corresponding responsibility. It was true in 1971 and it’s trebly true today.

But now we’re on safer ground. 
      'No, I didn't get round to asking about writing a reference. Never go in for 'em myself. Anyone can write a reference out for himself if he wants one. I mean, if a bloke's going to give a man a reference, he either gives a good one or you don't bother askin' for it. No one's going to flash a crook reference around if he wants a job, now is he?'

And so it goes on, with the enormity of the interviewee’s crimes increasing exponentially until, the last awful but relatively harmless revelation. This concerned a truck which he drove into a ditch. No, he wasn’t allowed to drive it but it didn’t matter because he had fully intended to get a license the very next day. Despite all this evidence against him, he is suddenly offered a job by an interviewer who can only have been impressed by his cheek and resource.

         ‘ - - - - - -.’
        ‘Okay then, I’ll be seein’ you. Ta.’
     And with that, our friend slouched out of the Department of Labour and Employment, slamming the door behind him.
         How’s that for a Clever Bastard (bastardus smartfartus)?

As befits a sort of national icon, Barry Crump's output was tremendous. His first book, A Good Keen Man (1960), was set in his spiritual home, the bush. A young man gets a job culling deer. Not a very attractive subject but Crump's laconic, observational, mimimalist style was established from the start. Then came a series of novels, including the very Crumpian title Hang on a Minute, Mate, about the itinerant Sam Cash, who wandered the land taking odd jobs in order to escape from the cares of modern life. There was quite a lot of semi-autobiography here. More novels and short stories followed. His total sale in New Zealand was a million, which means, mathematically at least, that one in four New Zealanders owns a copy of a Crump book. This isn't surprising. New Zealanders were a pioneering people and Barry Crump's books express an old ideal which many still yearn for deep down and often manage in some way to sample.  There cannot be many countries whose citizens value the outdoors and their land more than those of Aotearoa. 

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is based on his novel Wild Pork and Watercress (1986), a novel which many regard as his masterpiece.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople: Wild Pork and Watercress by [Crump, Barry] 

It tells the story of Ricky Baker, a twelve year-old quarter-Maori boy, son of totally dysfunctional parents. It's a first-person narrative with a personal idiom superbly maintained, a quality I value in fiction almost above all else. Here is Ricky's opening sentence

I was born in 1974, years later and a lot darker-skinned than my brother and sister, and don't let anyone tell you that doesn't make a difference.

At school, Ricky can read long before anyone else in the class and has an almost photographic memory as well but was no good at anything else, so:

They shifted me round from class to class, trying to work out where fat Maori boys who can't play rugby or learn simple stuff fitted in. I knew they had me all wrong, but there wasn't much they could do about it.

And so it continues, quirky, idiosyncratic, able to handle a range of emotions, with something memorable on almost every page.  Close your eyes, select a page at random, put your finger blind on the page, open your eyes - and if you haven't uncovered something slightly odd, slightly individual, slightly quirky, I'll be very surprised. 

His father leaves and his mother abandons him, he is taken into care but is completely unmanageable. So he is packed off to be fostered by his auntie Bella, in a near-derelict farm on the edge of the bush. Auntie Bella is a magnificently drawn character with a forbidding grouch of a husband, Uncle Hec (Sam Neill in the film). But Bella dies, suddenly and, for Ricky and Hec, disastrously. Ricky is to be taken back into care – and worse. But he and an unwilling Uncle Hec disappear into the bush and now begins an epic tale of danger from nature and from the forces hunting them and their resource in dealing with them: a tale of a relationship which starts with suspicion and resentment but develops into something rich and many-layered; a tale which has a ring of truth and experience. Barry Crump shows his reputation as a genuine bushman is deserved and the story, which is deadly serious but also very, very funny, a terrific combination, could only be written by someone steeped in the experience it offers as well as an instinctive understanding of human motivation.

The film has an explosive conclusion which ends in hope for the future. The book’s ending is more ambitious and subtle but also ambiguous and far less conclusive. But - and this is not a spoiler alert - there’s just a tiny hint of ‘Oh, say it’s not so’ at the very end.

Also, there is, embedded in this ending, something which brings me right back to the start of this blog and a realisation that its subject all the time was the New Zealand Bush and the fight to conserve its heritage, so this is  a good place to finish it.

Whatever can this something be?

Illustration of two birds on a tree branch

This is a clue

Anyway, read the book and see the film - and even if you hate both, I guarantee you'll never forget them!


Yan Tan Tethera: five stories and a very short novel
Bright Sea, Dark Graves 2: The Nightmares of Invasion
Dora's Story (by Dora Ganeva)

will all be available as ebooks and in paperback before Christmas.


glitter noir said…
Lovely, Dennis. And now I've got a couple of exciting additions to my viewing/reading lists. So sorry my writing has fallen off yours. But I'll continue to go my own rogue way.
Wendy H. Jones said…
Great post Dennis and you've left me wanting more
Umberto Tosi said…
A fine read, Dennis! I enjoyed the Kiwi tour and meeting writer Crump. I'll be sure to catch the picture and check out his opus, though not necessarily in that order. Thanks.
Bill Kirton said…
You're a gifted salesperson, Dennis. What a lovely, elegant encouragement to enter (for me, at least), new reading territory. I've always admired New Zealanders - their sport, politics, and culture - but have (so far) not read beyond the obvious names. Without your enthusiasm about BC's books I might have stayed that way. He'll definitely be added to my pile now. Thank you.
Jan Needle said…
My pile too, Dennis. Fascinating stuff, beautifully put. Oh, BTW, happy birthday as well, you lovely old bastard! xx
Kathleen Jones said…
Wow, Dennis! Titles don't come better than 'Wild Pork and Watercress'!
Dennis Hamley said…
Aw, thanks everybody. Bill, it's lovely to be called a gifted salesperson, but it doesn't seem to work so well for me! Jan: 'old' - sadly yes, 'lovely' - what? 'bastard' - well, if you say so. Kathleen - yes you're right. They should have used it for the film as well, though I can't actually remember any watercress in it.

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