Jack Lasenby: 1931–2019
It’s sad when our old people leave us. Losing the charming, astute, irascible, ferociously uncompromising, funny and gifted children’s writer Jack Lasenby makes this especially so.
Jack Millen Lasenby was born in the small Waikato town of Waharoa in 1931. He attended school in Matamata, worked in various jobs – as varied as postman, gardener, clerk on the waterfront, possum-trapper and deer-culler. In the 1950s, he went to university and qualified as a primary school teacher. In 1969, he became an editor of the School Journal and later a lecturer in English at Wellington Teachers’ College. At age 55, after raising his family, he decided to become a full-time writer.
It was the Depression years of Lasenby’s childhood and those spent in the bush (10 years in all; working in what he affectionately referred to as “The Great Untrodden Ureweras”) that backgrounded many of his stories. Set in the 1930s, the somewhat anarchic children of The Seddon Street Gang series, freely roam the orchards and ditches, the plantations and paddocks of their township, while getting up to mischief and having the time of their lives. (Dead Man’s Head, the first in this series, includes a recipe for the steam pudding of the title, a glossary with explanations for words such as “Dippers”, “dunny”, and “sly grogger”, as well as a map showing the Rotorua Express running through the middle of Waharoa.) Other titles in this series include The Waterfall and The Battle Of Pook Island. The Seddon Street Gang stories are considered by many to be New Zealand classics: “Of all writers working in New Zealand, Lasenby has the most essentially New Zealand voice” (Margaret Mahy).
Lasenby’s first young adult novel, The Lake (1987), traverses a darker territory; one where Ruth flees the attentions of her stepfather and escapes to the bush; a story of survival and self-reliance, a theme that surfaces often in his novels for older readers. The Lake was followed by The Mangrove Summer and, in 1992, The Conjurer, was published to much acclaim – an unflinching, dystopian story. A quotation from The Conjurer is a feature of the Wellington Writers Walk: “I want to live among people who believe in truth and freedom … I want to discuss ideas … I want books.”
Lasenby went on to write the Travellers series, four dystopian young adult titles: Because We Were The Travellers, Taur, The Shaman And The Droll and Kalik. The first in the series features a startling extract on the title page: “From the Traveller who looks back, the Gods take one eye; from the Traveller who never looks back, they take both.” Lasenby embodied a belief that to hide pain and darkness from the young was dishonest; a belief that most likely reached back to his own childhood.
There were also the many tall tales; stories of characters who were much loved by his readers, both young and old. These include the Uncle Trev stories – five titles in all, including Uncle Trev’s Teeth And Other Stories; the loveable old horse Harry Wakatipu, “who was a lazy, bad-tempered pack-horse and the biggest liar in the history of the Vast Untrodden Ureweras”; also the wonderful and “outrageous” Aunt Effie who could never remember the names of her 26 resourceful nieces and nephews and so she called them all by all their names. Wacky, inventive stories complete with Lasenby’s trademark embellishments throughout and laugh-out-loud humour. As well, there were the poignant Grandad stories, and those of mums and horses, of Mr Bluenose and Old Drumble.
Lasenby wrote nearly 40 books in all; marvellous stories of imaginative power. Over the course of his long and distinguished career, he won many awards, fellowships, residencies and accolades. To mention a few: the Margaret Mahy Medal for fiction in 2003, the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in 2014, the Esther Glenn Medal, and many New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards for both junior and young adult fiction. The Jack Lasenby Award was established in his name by the Wellington Children’s Book Association in 2002.
I once asked Lasenby if he’d ever considered writing a memoir. “Definitely not,” he said. For him it was “about the writing not the writer”. That was Jack.