Writer and historian George Griffiths pays tribute to writer A P Gaskell, whose commemorative plaque joined others’ in Dunedin’s Octagon earlier this year.
I’m delighted that my old teacher A P Gaskell – Alec Pickard, in real life – is joining the plaques honouring notable local writers. Some may wonder about his credentials, because he’s remembered for only one story, “The Big Game”, and a rugby story at that. Yet his writing is of real significance to Dunedin’s history.
Vic Cavanagh, who coached Otago’s Ranfurly Shield victories in the 1950s, is well known. It’s less well remembered that his father, Vic Cavanagh senior, had enjoyed an even greater reputation. As Otago University coach, he invented techniques still used today, and many of his student footballers, like Pickard, became secondary-school teachers and spread those techniques throughout New Zealand.
The two Cavanaghs not only had the best rugby minds in Dunedin, but were the fiercest rivals. University represented middle-class North Dunedin; Vic junior’s Southern club, the railway workshops and the Flat. Whenever the clubs met, thousands of partisan supporters packed the Carisbrook ground.
Although the University-Southern match of 1936 provided the background to Pickard’s story, the narrative ends as the two sides are about to kick off. What makes “The Big Game” a minor masterpiece is not the rugby, nor the skill with which Pickard sketched Dunedin’s male culture of the 1930s. It’s about how all of us, nervously facing important challenges, re-examine and prepare ourselves.
Alec Pickard was unusually complex. Many sportsmen have artistic tendencies, but Pickard would have surprised you. He was tall and big-boned, with a high-domed bald head and a lock-forward’s cauliflower ears. His manner was lugubrious and laconic. I wonder what he would have said about this plaque … . But he missed it by four months, dying in Hamilton late last year at the age of 93.
His railwayman father, who worked all over southern New Zealand, was stationmaster at Kurow when Alec was born in 1913. He attended eight different schools before settling in at Southland Boys’ High in 1928, aged 15, and went on to be captain of the first XV, head prefect, an outstanding cricketer, boxing champion and proxime accessit. He then went to Otago University on a National Scholarship, took his MA in history in 1936 and a Dip Ed; won his football blue and played cricket for Southland as a medium-fast bowler.
After university, Alec taught first in Southland; then in the King Country, 1939-40; at Little Akaloa, for three years; and from 1943 – apart from a year in England – on the Southland Boys’ High staff until 1959. He settled down to family life in Hamilton with Judy and their three children, retiring in 1974.
Alec first tried writing in the 1930s, but it was his discovery of Sargeson’s work in 1940 that provided a model to which he immediately related. Sargeson, in turn, noticed the A P Gaskell stories appearing in literary periodicals, initiated a correspondence and included some of his work in the 1945 anthology Speaking for Ourselves. Pickard’s own book, The Big Game and Other Stories, came out from Caxton Press in 1948. Few lock-forwards and boxing champions have written serious short stories to critical acclaim. Alec, moreover, also became a skilled water-colourist.
He was not only laconic, but droll and a little quirky. When social studies was a subject new to the syllabus, he sent us home with ridiculously low marks, explaining that “It’s impossible for you wet-behind-the-ear youngsters to know everything, so I’m marking you out of 50.” A different memory is of Alec taking much trouble to introduce an English lit class to the complexities of T S Eliot’s “Gerontion”.
A colleague, who had played in one of the unbeaten fifth-grade rugby sides that Pickard coached at our school in the 1940s, recalled that Alec had the Cavanagh ethic drummed into him and tolerated no nonsense during serious practice. If anyone played the fool, Alec wasted no time. “Bugger off,” he’d growl. “Come back tomorrow.”
A one-dimensional plaque hardly captures Alec Pickard’s complex attributes. Perhaps when strangers walk by, some spirit will give them the power to imagine the three-dimensional truth of the boxer, artist, academic, cricketer, writer, lock-forward and family man it honours.
This is an edited version of a speech given at the A P Gaskell plaque’s unveiling in March 2007.