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Abroad 2009

By C K Stead (Re-published with the kind permission of the author and the New Zealand Book Council’s Booknotes)

C K Stead (right) and Vincent O’Sullivan on their honeymoon © Mary Gaudin
C K Stead (right) and Vincent O’Sullivan on their honeymoon © Mary Gaudin

I was in the UK in May of this year, mainly to launch the Carcanet edition of my Collected Poems 1951–2006. A mini-tour had been organised by the publisher, the first reading to the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere. I had not been in the Lake District for almost half a century, and it revived fond memories of my time as a post-graduate student in the UK . I read with a young South African poet, Katharine Kilalea, in the church where Wordsworth and his wife are buried, the reading followed by the usual interchange with an audience and then a dinner at the hotel. In the new, beautifully designed (grey stone, merging into the landscape) Research Library, books annotated by Wordsworth and Coleridge had been brought out for me. The hotel was lovely, the landscape wet and redolent of Romantic literature, and Dove Cottage just as I remembered it, with even the ‘port’ (small suitcase) on display, inside the lid of which Wordsworth had written his name, not leaving space for the final letter, which he had added above with a caret-mark.

I went on to Edinburgh by train and read at the Scottish Poetry Library, the first half my own poems, the second a choice of my favourites by others (Donne, Marvell, Hopkins, Yeats, Mason, Curnow), a choice I discussed with Robyn Marsack, New Zealand-born director of the Library, and then with the audience. There was time for a look at the new and architecturally astonishing Scottish Parliament, and then it was the train again, this time to Manchester where I recorded poems and an interview for Carcanet’s website, before giving a lunchtime reading in the public library followed by questions, book signings, and lunch with Michael Schmidt, director of Carcanet. Also while in Manchester, I found time to see a production of Shaw’s Widowers’ Houses, revived, it was suggested, as an appropriate accompaniment to the current economic meltdown. Back in London, I was interviewed at some length about my Collected and read three poems for the BBC literary programme The Verb. Later, the book was officially launched in the Penthouse of New Zealand House in Haymarket. The high commissioner made a speech of welcome, Michael Schmidt spoke for Carcanet and I gave a brief reading, after which there was a party. Sir Graeme Davies (old-boy, as I am, of Mount Albert Grammar), vice-chancellor of London University, came, representing the New Zealand Studies Centre. Michael Schmidt described it as ‘a wonderful party’, and promised ‘to look after the growing British readership of your poems’.

I was back in the UK a few months later, this time for the Edinburgh Festival, where I read with Peter Porter and Hugo Williams. I have known Peter for many years, and have read with him at festivals in Sydney and at King’s Lynn. Hugo Williams was previously just a name to me, poet, and author of a fortnightly column I always read in the Times Literary Supplement. In the column he subsequently described his fellow poets on this occasion as ‘heavyweights’, by which I suspect he meant to hint, not that he was a lightweight (like Peter he has won a number of the UK ’s major poetry prizes, including the T S Eliot and the Forward), but that we were a good deal older. The famous Spiegeltent was full and the audience appreciative. Peter, who recently turned 80, had been many weeks in hospital before the reading, and had to return there soon afterwards; but he was in good strong voice and good appetite before and after, though denied alcohol by his doctors. Australian-born, and still in some ways a typically no-nonsense Aussie, Peter is, nonetheless, among contemporary poets, the most ‘intellectual’, the one who draws deepest on the whole Western culture of literature, art and music. Hugo Williams is a complete contrast, chatty, posh, Eton old-boy, self-deprecating, handsome, actorly and son of a famous actor.

In the month that followed, Kay and I were at Gaiole in Chianti enjoying the Seresin Landfall Residency, which I used to give a final polish to a memoir of my early years, called South-West of Eden, to be published by Auckland University Press next May. I kept a journal of that period, which I understand may appear in Landfall, or on the University of Otago’s website.

Then it was to Menton for the week celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship, overseen by the Winn-Manson Menton Trust, and now known as the New Zealand Post Mansfield Prize, which I held in 1972 when the stipend was $1750 – now (thanks to New Zealand Post’s sponsorship) $100 000. The week had been organised by the New Zealand embassy in Paris and the Menton town authorities, and included speeches, lunches, dinners, a visit to a school and a one-day seminar of academic papers organised by the recently established Katherine Mansfield Society. It was the best time of year, the town less crowded than at the height of summer and the sea still warm for swimming. Our New Zealand ambassador, Sarah Dennis, was splendidly accomplished, charming, fluent in French, as was her assistant and chief organiser Bridget Gee. My fellow former holders of the award were Vincent O’Sullivan, Fiona Farrell and Stuart Hoar; and the current holder Jenny Pattrick. Jenny and I read in one beautiful garden, Vincent and Fiona in another. Jenny and I did the school visit; Vincent, Jenny and Fiona helped students in a translation exercise; Fiona and I met with the public and did our best (hers more fluent than mine) in French; Vincent, Kirsty Gunn and I were keynote speakers at the Katherine Mansfield Society’s seminar. Some members of the Winn-Manson Menton Trust were there for the week and resolved it should happen again in 10 years’ time. It was an entirely successful celebration, which I think would have pleased the sponsors and should seal the future of a fellowship which has been so significant over these 40 years.

Final anecdote: In Menton the official photographer asked C K S and V O’ S (known to be not always the best of literary chums) to stand together on the terrace of the beautiful Villa Maria Serena with the Med in the background. As she lined us up, I said to Vince, ‘If this is shown in New Zealand it will create a sensation.’ He said, ‘I think we should say we’ve eloped.’

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C K Stead’s visit to Edinburgh was supported by the Book Council Creative New Zealand International Writers’ Programme.