Tickled and moved, Peter Vere-Jones

Under the Bridge & Over the Moon
Kevin Ireland
Vintage, $29.95,
ISBN 1 86941 363 6

bums on seats: The Backstage Story
Roger Hall
Penguin, $44.95,
ISBN 0 670 88366 2

What makes a writer?  As requested, I read these two autobiographies together, hoping that there might be some common, causal, event in the lives of these two very different authors, one a playwright the other a poet,  which might answer this most vexed of questions. At first glance there seemed little connection between them, but then, towards the end of the second volume, Ireland mentions an event which had its exact counterpart in Hall’s bums.

As young men, one in England, the other in New Zealand, both discover the hitherto undreamed of, licentious, and apparently universal, delights that could be found in the typing pool. Kevin Ireland in New Zealand: “the typing pool, a room of stunning, nubile women, all on the lookout for husbands.” Compare the similarity of that with Roger Hall’s English experience: “the typing pool, a smorgasbord of fantasy. Beautiful young women … One even appeared in a pin-up mag: stockings and suspenders, bare breasted.”

Roger Hall went on to make much of the typing pool in Glide Time and its various theatrical spawnings, and I am led to suspect that all the childhood deprivations usually deemed essential for serious art are as nothing compared to the emotional shock the delicate sensibilities of impressionable and virginal young men can suffer when confronted by a room full of young working women.

That the two authors recognised their common inspiration, and must obviously have had many secret dealings together thereafter, is clearly demonstrated by the aping of each others’ titles. (I discovered this in much the same way that Shakespearnics discover wondrous coded secrets about their author, cunningly hidden within the plays.) By inverting the words of Kevin Ireland’s title to “Over the Bridge and Under the Moon”, we have a sort of slangy translation of bums on seats. Given, that is, that a seat is a bridge of sorts.

No, I fear I am to disappoint my publishers, for even though the typing pool episodes might display a certain wide-eyed naiveté in both young men, and possibly of attitudes long past, there the similarity must end. And the titles in fact betray the differences and not the similarities between these two important books. bums on seats (a curious title combining Hall’s undoubted success with his sensitivity over accusations of shallowness) is an amusing and mostly good-hearted collection of theatrical anecdotes, whereas Kevin Ireland’s book is a very personal revelation of a difficult and troubled childhood. That is his whole book. The title refers to a late episode of personal encouragement shortly before Ireland departed overseas to begin his big OE.

Roger Hall does devote some time to his childhood years and parental conflict, but mostly regales us with the lot of the professional dramatist in places and circumstances with which we are mostly familiar, and populated by a huge cast of names known to anyone remotely concerned with the performing arts in New Zealand. The comfortable prose tumbles from Hall’s pen as easily and appropriately as the dialogue from the mouths of his well-loved characters.  Kevin Ireland doesn’t make quite such an easy task of it. The writing occasionally has a sort of backwoodsy whimsy about it, reminiscent of the good old days of New Zealand radio when it presented such items as “Open Country”.

New Zealand to the core, Ireland was born in a poor district of Auckland into an awkward and unsettled socialist family in 1933, six years ahead of Roger Hall’s emergence into the world in suburban Pinner, just out of London. With difficult parents and a bunch of mad rellies that would grace the pages of some American saga, Ireland battled his way through childhood to become a gentle and extraordinarily forgiving adult. Sensitive and observant, he spins his family history with guts and gusto, and offers a truth and realism which has its own charm and leaves one very fond of the man.

Fond, but somewhat bemused how Ireland the poet, writing such elegant lines as, for example, these in “Common Knowledge”,

you won’t tell anyone? she asked
hoping perhaps to keep love hidden

he opened the door – birds in the trees
were tapping for the first editions

could cobble together such clumsy prose as (and I choose almost at random) “Bowel-consciousness was one of the great obsessions of the first half of the twentieth century and was far more widespread and more vigorously practised than is now generally acknowledged.”  Can you practise bowel-consciousness? (Do we have another link here to bums on seats?)

Or again:

It would be absurd to claim that separation, isolation and loneliness in childhood are necessary determining factors in the making of a writer, but so many of those who have ended up as writers have described how some profound experience of solitariness or apartness when young has encouraged the development of a literary turn of mind, that it seems to be curiously influential.

(And here Ireland has unknowingly hit on a link with Roger Hall, a solitary child, who had the same desperate hunger to devour all and every scrap of written word on which hands could be laid and eyes feasted.)

The conjecture may be fine but I would have loved it expressed in the same clean simplicity of some of Ireland’s  wonderful verse:

on our last night together we talked
time-struck into the fire – the flames ticking
at the logs …
(“A College Holiday”)

Perhaps it’s cussed of me, for the book has so much to offer, and is so open, that at times one yearns to plunge in a hand and help the boy out of his accumulating family crises. A background as far removed from the ultra-conservative, middle-class upbringing of Roger Hall as one could imagine.

As there is little of the ornate in his verse, so plainness was the everyday of his home life. Plainness bordering on deprivation. Moving early in his childhood to Takapuna on Auckland’s North Shore, that repository and nurturing place of many New Zealand writers, Ireland vividly describes the struggle of growing up in a rapidly expanding family:

Husband and wife only had to look at each other and another new life would be kicking at the lining of her womb … She felt as if she was condemned to a state of perpetual pregnancies and reproductive ailments … Sex was a nightmare.

He re-awakens many memories of the rather happy-go-lucky times of barefoot boys, contrasted against a background of disciplinarian teachers, anti-intellectualism, playground bullying and parental violence which characterised so much of home and school life in the second and third quarters of the century: “I grew up in a country which was conditioned by a code of deliberate, systematic and bloody-minded violence, and that violence was visited with depraved enthusiasm on the children.”

Ireland carefully reminds us how conveniently defective our memory is over such matters, but doesn’t say, as perhaps he might have, that we are still living with the legacy of this less than happy period of New Zealand society. He has inherited from his father strong leanings towards socialism, and vents his greatest rage on trendy liberalism and the disengagement of so many politicians and “intellectuals” from simple humanity.

The book ends with Ireland growing up, rejecting university life but nurtured by that clique of poets snuggled under Frank Sargeson’s tender wing, and finally embarking overseas to begin his career. It was from England that Ireland wrote so much of his haunting and reflective early verse on life and love in his New Zealand homeland.

Reversing this equation, Roger Hall arrived in New Zealand in the 1950s to begin his own career as a writer. After a hugely useful time of awakening at Training College and University, where he became embroiled in the theatre, writing and performing revues, Hall, like Ireland, concentrated mostly on the New Zealand ethos. But where Ireland has searched within for meaning and relevance in his poems, Roger Hall has cocked his ear outwards, picking up the commonplace and the banal, and turning these to effect in a series of highly popular plays. Plays which, I think, gently mock New Zealand society, while still allowing us to laugh delightedly at ourselves. I have mentioned elsewhere the similarity of process with Oscar Wilde, and it must have been as exciting to Hall to have a theatre full of public servants laughing uproariously at Glide Time, as it was for Wilde to listen to the ringing guffaws of the upper middle class in Britain, entranced by their own inanities and foibles.

Unlike Ireland, Roger Hall is not all that forgiving to his characters or his critics. In this extremely readable and charming autobiography, Hall frequently snaps at the critics for daring to presume that he might be a trifle lightweight, concerned only with getting bums on seats. Often enough for me to suspect that it might be a concern he somewhere shares, for there have not been many plays that have revealed much of the inner Roger Hall. I hope they are still to come. What the critics have for the most part missed in the plays is the essential tragedy in the lives of most of Hall’s characters. Characters who fail to relate properly to each other, who are unable to seriously consider much but the trivial in life, and, in the public service at least, to regard the employer as fair game for idleness and petty thievery. Because of the wit and some universal truth, we laugh.

Although bums on seats has only come part of the way towards allowing us to view the inner Roger Hall, remaining for the most part a vastly entertaining series of anecdotes, the book has performed a rare service in providing an extremely useful history of a vital and critical period of New Zealand theatre. As well, it gives us some background to the plays themselves, which have preserved many acutely observed traits of New Zealand life. It also reminds us that Roger Hall has for years been the answer to so many local theatres’ prayers: a writer who can guarantee to fill the theatre with happy patrons enjoying plays about themselves. A skill for which he has been well rewarded both in New Zealand and abroad.

Tickled by Hall and moved by Ireland, bums on seats and Under the Bridge & Over the Moon are both important autobiographies, adding to the rapidly expanding collection of insights we are getting into the lives, loves and leanings of New Zealand writers in the latter half of the century.

Peter Vere-Jones is a Wellington actor and writer.

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Posted in Autobiography, Non-fiction, Review
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