Through the unknown, remembered gate, Murray Bramwell

South-West of Eden: A Memoir 1932-1956
C K Stead
Auckland University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 9781869404543

It was T S Eliot in “East Coker” who wrote: “In my beginning is my end.” In a quite different, earlier poem, he produced the variant line, “our beginnings never know our ends”, adding the notion of intention to that of destination in the word “end”. In South-West of Eden, C K Stead’s richly textured meditation on the first 23, of his now almost 78  years, there is a sense of exploration and discovery in the return to origins and first principles, a sense (to paraphrase Eliot’s Four Quartets one last time) of arriving where he started and knowing the place for the first time:

Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning …
(“Little Gidding”)

 

Memory has its complications for Stead, as he notes in his foreword:

I said many times I would not write autobiography – partly because it might signal … a “signing off” as a writer; and partly because I did not want to mark off areas that were fact in my life from those that might yet be invented. Fiction likes to move, disguised and without a passport, back and forth across the border and prefers it should be unmarked and without checkpoints.

 

Such cloak and dagger activities have had their controversies for Stead over his career, and the problems they caused for him in a story by Janet Frame are partly canvassed late in this book, without resolution. Suffice to say that his decision to tell the truth, and the whole truth (to the best of his recollection), has produced a remarkable book and one which vividly achieves his stated intention:

it was conceived right from the beginning as a self-contained narrative that would begin at birth, or as soon afterwards as memory set in … I wanted to do it this way because I felt that whatever has followed, whether in the way of achievement or misdemeanour, was inherent in what I had been, and had done, in those first 23 years.

 

The unknown, remembered gateway for Stead is Auckland. As he locates himself, the emergent Christian Karlson Stead, in the family home at 63 Kensington Avenue, he can see One Tree Hill to the south-east, Mt Eden to the north-east and Mt Albert to the west. This is the topography of his young life and earliest recollections from the 1930s to the early 1950s. The title of the memoir refers to Eden, expressed in his accounts of a child’s idyll on a Kaiwaka farm but, as the narrative progresses, Mt Eden is more apt, as shades of the prison-house begin to close upon the growing Karl.

What is intriguing about Stead’s memoir is that it is, particularly for readers of a certain age, both generally familiar (of New Zealand, socially and politically, in the 1930s and the postwar years) and strikingly particular. For instance, his maternal grandfather, for whom he is, uncomfortably, named, is a powerful presence in the Stead household: “Christian Karlson was dead before I was born but the house was full of photographs of tall ships, of sailors high in the rigging or out on the bowsprit …”

Relics of the Swedish patriarch decorate the mantelpiece – a photo, a boat in a bottle, an opium pipe and a Japanese fan. He plied the South Seas, opening up the phosphate industry from Nauru before dying of malaria in Vanuatu. He is something out of the R L Stevenson novels the young C K read, and had read to him. After the captain’s death, his  widow, the grandmother, lived the rest of her life in her daughter, Stead’s mother’s suburban Auckland house. SW of Eden perhaps also punningly refers to Sweden.

The author depicts his parents in lively detail. His devoted mother, Olive, is musically talented, successfully teaching many children the piano – but not, alas, her only son. Stead smarts at his inability to master the keyboard fingering, and the unstated doubts his mother had in his abilities generally. He candidly and revealingly describes, now as a university graduate, labouring over a Mozart piece to show his mother, one last time, that he had at least conquered the basics.

His father, Jim, disabled in his teens by a near-fatal shotgun injury to his arm, is an accountant in the Central Post Office and a stalwart Catholic Labour man, self-educated, a keen reader of history and the New Statesman, with aspirations to be a candidate. In a chapter called “A short history of things that didn’t happen”, Stead describes his father’s repeated and unsuccessful attempts to enter politics and the long shadow of disappointment which fell across the household as a result.

Stead’s account is a discursive, reflective one. It is often as if he is circling his subject, as we do in summoning memories, long submerged and indistinct. He seems to be carefully weighing the evidence, and rigorously re-thinking.  “I don’t believe, that before I embarked on this memoir,“ the son reflects, “I have ever given my father and his life quite the focused thought I am giving it now.” He recalls with pride his father’s political commitment, his abundant Victory garden, his startling dexterity in tying his shoelaces with one hand, and the sacrifices he made as breadwinner to a household with three generations of women (Stead had two sisters).

The representation of his family, especially, seems to trigger a sense of scruple. “Autobiography does not permit invention … ,” he declares:

The truth of fiction is exemplary, not literal; the truth of autobiography comes of the effort to make a record that will stand against the facts.

So I look at photographs at this moment, first I think to reassure myself that the people I write of, so many of them now dead, so many gone from my life and from easily accessible record, did indeed exist; also as a reminder that one amongst those that have vanished in the smoke of memory is the boy I suppose myself to have been.

 

These uncertainties are re-anchored in particulars – street photos, those family portraits dolled up for Queen Street and taken on the run, the details of a domestic garden, Black Orpington chooks and Cox’s Orange apples, the descriptions of working and playing at his relatives’ Kaiwaka farm, haymaking and eeling. This is Stead’s locus, his Fern Hill. He cites James K Baxter’s observation that there is a place from childhood where poetry has its origin. “For me it is where I am leading you now,” remarks Stead, breaking into his narrative, then deftly, thriftily, describing a spring pool in the rural Eden at Kaiwaka.

Much of the memoir is about the larger world, of course. Against the anxious background of a fierce and faraway world war, Stead describes schooldays at Maungawhau Primary School, the newly established Balmoral Intermediate, and high school years at Mount Albert Grammar. Some teachers are not remembered – a “Miss Someone” is referred to. Others are remembered all too well, and named and, if not shamed, keenly rebuked for grievances of a kind many of us who were educated before the mid-1960s still recall – especially the prevalence and indiscriminate nature of corporal punishment: strapping and, later, the cane, meted out for trivial offences and, even worse, for misunderstandings in learning.

There are also teachers recalled for their glimpses of kindness and their enthusiasm for their subject. The memoir is filled with literary epiphanies – scraps of poetry quoted and read aloud, some of it mundane, some of it by new, unheard-of New Zealand poets, but all of it tantalising the “ear” of a boy who – whether as the “Tusitala to Standard Two” or the high school boy, fashioning verses for the school magazine – has found a vocation as a writer.

Stead’s account of his education, the experiences and reading that shaped him and awakened understanding, is extraordinarily precise – in his foreword he says he has no reason not to trust his memory, and he is not wrong. What he often relates is his readiness to compete: “but as important, more important, than the competition with others was the competition with myself.” In that comment he is referring to sports, but it covers many aspects of his young life (his intellectual and creative ambitions, with women and rivals) and they continue in his successful career to come. He explains it himself in terms of his uncertainty about his own abilities, compounded by his parents’ wariness; of being a member of a family who were doubtful of, and certainly, unaccustomed to, realising their most cherished hopes.

For Stead, destiny was something slowly unfolding. He wryly repeats the comment “It’s important not to peak too soon”, and his unsystematic progress in high school and, even more so, the delay in graduation for his BA because of a fail in French are given careful explanation. His memoir shows how his deference and shyness at times inhibited him, at times impelled him to push ahead and conquer them.

And conquer them he did. As the latter part of the book describes, his progress as a writer and the key (and contrasting) influences of Allen Curnow and Frank Sargeson, all reveal the unfurling of an able intellect and assiduous talent. But there is no complacent inevitability here. Rather, there is a persistent inclination to question and wonder at what has been – and how it has played out. This makes South-West of Eden a singular memoir, and a memorable one.

 

Murray Bramwell studied at Massey University before leaving for Adelaide in 1972. He teaches Drama at Flinders University and is a theatre reviewer for The Australian

 

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