The father from hell, Julia Millen

In Endless Fear: a true story
Colin Crump
Penguin, $34.99,
ISBN 014301823X

The Crump legend again. This time, a bit of a yarn from Barry’s younger brother Colin, about growing up with the father from hell. Wally Crump should never have married, let alone had six kids. The man was a violent brute: a pirate without the Treasure Island romance and glamour. Old man Crump should have been issued a one-way ticket to the Foreign Legion, sent to Antarctica with Scott’s last expedition, marooned on Elephant Island, fired off in a rocket to the moon – or anywhere.

Good times for the Crump family were when Dad was off on work trips for a few days: “It was great while he was away, hell when he was at home.” Like his older brothers, Bill and Barry, Colin came in for his share of abuse. Fear induced chronic bed-wetting, which was duly punished. Besides physical violence, Wally Crump had other ways of brutalising his family: a crafty blend of mental torment, intermittent psychological terror and depersonalising his victims. He called his wife and daughters “thing”, “bitch” or “dopey”; he tortured farm animals and shot his son’s dog. When Mum did her best to protect the family, he almost killed her in front of the kids.

To put the Crumps’ home life in context, at that time, the 1940s and 50s, corporal punishment was condoned by New Zealand society. Children were smacked, belted or thrashed at home; both sexes were strapped at primary school while older boys got the cane. If Dad heard that his son had been caned at school, he was quite likely to give him another thrashing. At Otahuhu Technical College, Colin Crump was always in trouble:

Six cuts per day was my regular punishment, and if you’ve never had six whacks across the backside with a machine belt from Mr Craig the Woodworking teacher then you don’t know what a stinging bum is. Still, these bend-over whacks were minor compared to the vicious floggings we were used to receiving from the old man.

 

New Zealand’s welfare state should have protected Mum and the kids: the schools, health department, child welfare and the police all had the power. The Crumps at one stage got a State house to live in and Lily presumably received the family benefit, but otherwise the system failed. As did the church. All seem to have been taken in by or afraid of Wally Crump. Only the presence of neighbours and relatives, when they were close enough, had some effect in modifying Wally’s brutality. Even his bosses feared him.

The picture of Crump family life that emerges from Colin’s story has a certain grim fascination, and the language is colourful, if a bit quaint at times: “I’ve talked to magpies and made friends with fantails.” And though the book is not exactly entertaining – the violence and the fear are unrelenting – pace, action and tension make for a quick read. However, repetition becomes irritating – words like “unbelievable” and certain phrases: weeks “slipped by”; months “tick by”; years “flick by”.

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Colin’s “true story” provides another perspective on Barry and confirms the background depicted in Colin Hogg’s recent biography, though some details differ. According to Colin, Barry’s writing first came to notice at school. The essay title was written on the blackboard: “Whip Behind”. Barry set his story in the colonial era, and all the teachers read it. In the biography, Barry’s first story was about rabbits.

Colin – rightly – vilifies his “old man” and sees him as the model for Barry’s feckless ways: the endless striving to be the centre of attention, the Mr Nice Guy boosting his ego by trying to curry favour with strangers, while neglecting and abusing his family at home. But he does not attempt to explain his Dad’s behaviour – although Wally gambled on the horses, apparently he did not drink alcohol. Lily believed he had the Devil in him. Nor did Colin endeavour to find out the views of other people – neighbours and relatives. Were they really taken in by Wally’s attempts to be friendly, or were they also afraid of him?

Life wasn’t all bad. Colin had some “fabulous adventures” with Barry, hunting possums and rabbits, catching a brown trout or freshwater cray or eels with home-made spears: “I wouldn’t have swapped my sledge made from two matching ponga trunks and laced together at each end with a couple of pieces of number 8 wire, for anything.” Interesting to speculate about the origins of Barry’s narrative gifts and humour. While the old man was a bullshit artist and raconteur, it was Mum who was good with a pen and read to the boys – Coral Island and Kidnapped – and it was their grandmother “Gugger” who had a talent for making up stories.

The early years of his life take up 90 per cent of Colin’s book, which ends with a brief résumé of the siblings’ ultimate destiny. It is as if, having escaped their evil home, the Crump children were too broken and psychologically crushed to live fully as adults. Even Barry – the one who turned misfortune into success – was scarred for life. Lily Crump was the classic “battered woman”, but would she have gone to a women’s refuge today? She never stopped praying for Wally and put her trust in God. Colin was also a believer: “He certainly saved me from quite a few floggings.”  But in the end God failed the Crump family.

One could cynically suggest that Penguin was cashing in on the Crump legend with this book. But Colin has a right to tell his own story, and he takes the opportunity to be generous towards Mum and his siblings. Although memories are selective, nobody would doubt Colin’s veracity  – so why add “a true story” to the title?

The worry is that in re-telling “the one about the Crumps”, Colin may have also immortalised his Dad, and made him an anti-hero, a cult figure. It would be satisfying to know that Wally had to pay for his cruelty, one way or another. But it seems not. Wally outlived his wife (by several years) and son Barry (by two weeks), and to the end showed no sign of remorse: “Well, it didn’t do you any harm – did it?” At least he didn’t have the last word. Nor have we – I suspect – heard the last of the Crumps.

 

Julia Millen is a Wellington writer.