One evening in 1990, when I was working as a janitor in a small town under the Forth bridges, I went to see An Angel at My Table, Jane Campion’s film about her fellow New Zealander, the writer Janet Frame. In the film we see Frame, played by Kerry Fox, recently released from a long spell in a mental hospital, given shelter and support by a white-goateed older writer called Frank Sargeson, played by Martyn Sanderson. She lives and types in his garden shed, finishes a novel, and sends it off to a publisher he has recommended. The novel is accepted and Sargeson waves at the garden gate as Frame leaves for Europe on a literary scholarship.
The full text of this diary is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 40 No. 13 · 5 July 2018
Hera Lindsay Bird must be pulling Duncan McLean’s leg (LRB, 7 June). Young as she is, she must know of New Zealand’s old Labour Day custom of digging a hole in one’s back garden. That’s clearly the origin of Frank Sargeson’s story ‘The Hole that Jack Dug’, and of the poem about her aunt.
McLean’s use of the term ‘gentrification’ to describe the development of Takapuna in Sargeson’s time is misleading. The suburb that grew up around Sargeson’s bach was mainly bungalows built on quarter-acre sections. There was nothing bohemian about Sargeson’s garden. Most of these bungalows would have had large vegetable gardens: that’s what you did with a quarter-acre section.
Sargeson went to the same secondary school as I did. Hamilton Boys’ High School, as it had become by the 1960s (it was co-ed in Sargeson’s day), was proud of the All Blacks it produced but never acknowledged its distinguished literary old boy. Hera Lindsay Bird is not the first to have ignored him.
Vol. 40 No. 15 · 2 August 2018
Rod Edmond suggests Hera Lindsay Bird is pulling my leg when she claims not to know of ‘New Zealand’s old Labour Day custom of digging a hole in one’s back garden’ (Letters, 5 July). I reckon it’s Edmond who’s doing the leg-pulling. I’ve never seen mention of such a custom in any literary or historical context, and none of the New Zealand writers with whom I have discussed ‘The Hole that Jack Dug’ has heard of it either.
Jack was based on a friend of Sargeson’s called Bill Anso. ‘Anso used to dig holes everywhere,’ the poet Kevin Ireland wrote to me. ‘He would see a spade and he’d grab it and dig. If all men shared Anso’s compulsion, the planet would be like gruyère cheese.’ Anso’s obsession was briefly normalised in the early years of the Second World War, when fears of a Japanese attack drove many New Zealanders to dig bomb shelters in their gardens.
Another ‘Son of Sargeson’, Maurice Duggan, wrote vividly about Labour Day on the North Shore in the postwar era:
Up and down this crumbly hill the lawnmowers are whirring, the radios are chanting comments, winners, prices, from the ‘tots’; the glare strikes up, the dust blows: the air is rich with the smell of all those roast dinners eaten at high noon; “dad” is undoubtedly off somewhere, sleeping with the newspaper over his face: the pubs, like any football scrum, one knows, are packed tight.
So no hole-digging.
Contrary to Edmond’s further suggestion, Sargeson’s garden was far from the norm. Quarter-acres in up and coming suburbs like Takapuna were typically laid out to lawns, with only limited flower and vegetable beds. Sargeson was extremely unusual in cultivating every square inch for food production. His garden literally kept him alive at many points. So desperate was he to wring every ounce of goodness from the land that he even treated the council-owned berm between the front of his section and the roadway as an opportunity to grow long grass for scything and composting. This was yet another irritation to his tidy-minded neighbours, who felt that New Zealand’s greatest writer was lowering the tone of Takapuna.