A Life in Loose Strides: the story of Barry Crump
Hodder Moa Beckett, $34.95,
For 40 years his name has been identified with the quintessential Kiwi male: resilient, adventurous, self-sufficient, laconic, handy with rifle and chainsaw, a good bloke to have around when the going gets tough. Barry Crump was a legend in his own lifetime and it became impossible to separate the man from the myth.
His first novel was perfectly timed. It appeared before Christmas, and before the television invasion corrupted the reading public; a time when New Zealanders were starting to think nostalgically about the vanishing past. The cherished Kiwi values – pioneering, rural self-sufficiency – were being replaced by the desire for a suburban pavlova paradise, made safe and secure by “our brave soldiers winning the war”. The soldiers’ camaraderie and the spirit of the gold prospectors, bush pioneers, explorers and swaggers would soon be gone for good. It was time to romanticise it. After being rejected by three publishers, including Whitcombe & Tombs, A Good Keen Man was published by Reed in 1960, with sensational success.
New Zealanders have always been extremely sensitive about any criticism of Godzone, but A Good Keen Man, while slinging off about lazy hunters, useless dogs, bad weather and inefficient bureaucracy, somehow appeared to reinforce – even celebrate – real Kiwi values and identity. Crump’s hero was a cheerful “do-it-yourselfer”, with scant respect for authority, a love of freedom and egalitarianism – hankering after the simple life in the bush. The stories appeared fresh, authentic and harmless, appealed directly to both men and women, and captured the imagination and speech patterns of ordinary people. In that era sexism, chauvinism, racism were just words for highbrows, and killing wild animals – deer, goats and pigs – was a sport and part of New Zealand life, before helicopter shooting made it mass slaughter and political correctness took over.
Barry John Crump was born in Papatoetoe in 1935 and endured a tough and brutal childhood. Partly this was because of the hard times suffered by his parents, who had too many children and too little money in the aftermath of the Depression. Biographer Colin Hogg shows the Crump kids working long hours on the farm, which along with the constant moves from one district to the next, were detrimental to their schooling. Hogg makes it clear, however, that the main reasons for the sufferings of the Crump family were the parents’ personality flaws. Lily Crump was kind but ineffectual and took refuge in religion; Wally Crump was unpredictable and violent to all who crossed him: he meted out abuse physically with his boots and mentally by calling his kids “dopey” or “bitch”.
At 16, Barry left home, having gained little education at a dozen different schools, though one of his essays – about rabbits – received high praise from the teacher and gave him much needed confidence. He knew a bit about dairy farming, hunting and fishing, but nothing about morality or loyalty or duty or love or generosity, let alone happy family life.
When motivated, Crump was a fast – but selective – learner and, blessed with a strong constitution, soon picked up the work skills for fencing, deer culling, and possum trapping. He also took in some car mechanics, how to play chess and a few chords on the guitar. When the going got tough, his only and best defence was to hit the road and shoot through; a pattern he followed throughout the rest of his life.
This period, the 1950s, was in many ways a paradise for a young healthy male with or without qualifications. The biographer could have placed more emphasis here and elsewhere on the socio-economic background. A manually intensive, rural economy with a guaranteed market for its primary produce, made buoyant by the Korean war, meant full employment: there was always another job. Many jobs were physically hard and unpleasant – especially scrub cutting in bad weather or working on the chain in the freezing works – but the pay was as good as, better even, than that earned by fully qualified teachers or young graduates with four years’ tertiary education.
It was while deer-culling for the Wildlife Service, a great lurk for a fit young bloke, that Crump formulated the lifestyle which became his trademark. He worked hard for a while, living in a tent or bush hut, with his boots, rifle and dogs, and now and again met other blokes to yarn with around the campfire. He spent nothing and saved the money, then took off to the nearest town and, in one wild week, blew the lot in the pub. Wherever he was, Barry kept an ear cocked for a good yarn, which he absorbed and with his gift of the gab retold and made his own. Soon he couldn’t tell where the truth began and ended. He became a “bullshit artist” and rip-off merchant: any forest worker who followed Barry Crump into a bush hut found the supply cupboard burgled and bare.
New Zealand’s egalitarian society was not a total myth. Barry may have lacked the posh accent and “good” school background but he mixed with all sorts of bush and drinking cobbers, including two who became significant writers. Kevin Ireland and Jack Lasenby introduced Barry into a more literate and arty-crafty set of young people in the big smoke of Auckland. There Crump provided his own brand of entertainment, learned to dance and discovered that he was attractive to women (rough-as-guts sex appeal with a “little boyish” quality).
The era saw the beginning of “mixed flatting” and “shacking up”, when even “nice” girls were prepared to “do it”, though it was risky, before the widespread availability of the pill. In those days when a bloke lucked out, he either got married in front of the proverbial loaded shotgun, or shot through to Australia before a paternity suit was slapped on him. Barry met and married – at 22 – the first of his several wives, but soon tired of both marriage and fatherhood and hit the road, leaving her pregnant and barefoot.
Meanwhile some of his “arty” friends start up a literary journal – Mate. Kevin Ireland persuades Crump to have a go at writing a story for it, using the material from his best yarns. With suitable coaching and editing, Crump’s short story “A Good Keen Man” appears in the November 1958 issue. Praise for this first effort spurs him on to writing more. Then in the wake of his failed first marriage, Crump gets together with another woman, this time a writer. Jean Watson, in her generous and gentle way, further nurtures Barry’s literary education, encouraging him to read widely and with discernment works like Dickens’ novels and Mulgan’s Man Alone. Along the way he bashes out his first full-length book, the expanded version of the short story, with the same subject material and title.
Hogg’s account of the arrival at Reed’s of this “scruffy, single-spaced typewritten and rather short manuscript” and its eventual publication provides a fascinating glimpse into a period of New Zealand literary history. Reed’s had been highly successful with such works as Frank Anthony’s “Me and Gus” tales, Mary Scott’s “Barbara on the Farm” stories and hunters’ and fishermen’s yarns. Ray Richards at Reed’s duly sends the dog-eared Crump masterpiece to Alex Fry for serious “editorial attention”. To do him credit, Crump not only submits to this extensive editing process and learns much about grammar and punctuation, but also absorbs the craft of writing, pace and structure. The book is an immediate success and within months goes into several reprints.
The 20 or more Crump works, and in particular the first two, A Good Keen Man and Hang On A Minute Mate, set the pattern for the Crump genre. Short (a little over 150 pages on average), they had humorous illustrations, were undemanding in a literary sense, and the main characters, such as Sam Cash, were easy to identify with, though clearly versions of Crump himself: lovable rogue (with slasher, rifle or chainsaw), rough diamond, king of the road, the “don’t fence me in” bad guy with a heart of gold. The prose was direct and the language colourful but not obscene; anything but highbrow, it captured the essence of the Kiwi male vernacular. A reliable gift for hubby or Dad.
Hogg details the phenomenal sales figures, and quotes liberal chunks from the books, but could have provided more analytical review material from the critics. He does mention, however, Alex Fry’s surprise that the deer culler yarns should be interesting when hardly anyone lived that life any more. Not quite accurate. The Wildlife Service and the Forest Service went on employing deer shooters and rangers well into the 1960s. At the same time it was partly because that way of life was nearing its end that Crump’s stories, with their hint of nostalgia, a vanishing world, had such appeal.
No man is a hero to his biographer, and Hogg, though admiring the good qualities and making allowances, nevertheless reveals Crump as faithless, lazy, slovenly, disloyal, unreliable and a misogynist. With success came new conquests. Crump meets and marries clever, classy, sexy Fleur Adcock: this most unholy alliance is over in a matter of weeks. But there’s always another woman ready to jump into Crump’s sleeping bag and take to the hills, or on a crocodile hunt in Queensland.
Crump took little interest in, let alone responsibility, for any of his half a dozen children by five different women, or for the “accident” which left five boys drowned at an outdoor camp for which he was a front man. And his writing – especially the Sam Cash books – followed this theme of avoiding domestic ties. Women are out to trap a man and marriage is death to the soul. Nevertheless, Crump did have reasonably steady work habits.
In a way, as Hogg shows, Crump was a victim of his own success. His novels, in particular the first two best-sellers, brought in an erratic but substantial income, such that had he saved and managed it properly, Crump could have lived on it for years. But he spent the money wastefully, on idle pursuits and broken-down assets. Even so, provided he could bring himself to write yet another book, the publishers would keep sending him money.
It took guts to go on being Barry Crump in a fast-changing world. Hogg shows clearly how Crump developed and polished his image: the poor, simple, hard-working bloke, projecting charisma and those craggy features from the TV screen in Town and Around and car advertisements. The image – “life’s a bloody fairy tale” – was a sham, but it had the magic which sold books and cars.
Hogg’s biography is a very readable, present tense narrative, rich in anecdote and detail, well illustrated, but perplexingly inadequate when it comes to sources, endnotes and bibliography. One of the few places where I felt the biographer did not sufficiently explore Crump’s personality was in the period of his big OE in Europe. The end is also rather sudden. I could have done with more on the last days, the funeral and the aftermath – the continuing legend, the literary assessment. These quibbles aside, Crump has been well served.
While for middle-aged and older generations the name Barry Crump will evoke lost horizons, bush-clad hills and yarning over smoked billy tea by the camp fire, for the under-40s, he is most likely to be remembered – if at all – as the bloke in the Toyota television commercial.
Crumpy – Kiwi icon, good keen man, man alone, original Crocodile Dundee – made it possible for those who followed: Wal, Fred Dagg, and Billy T James. By the 1990s he was becoming a bore, had run out of mates to drink with and his body couldn’t take any more. He had nowhere to shoot through to except one. He was tucked up in his last wooden bunk at age 61.
Julia Millen has published a biography of Ronald Hugh Morrieson.