Sam Hunt: the beloved poet re­mem­bers his fa­ther, Percy Hunt

To mark Fa­ther’s Day, beloved New Zealand poet Sam Hunt shares with Ni­cola Rus­sell his mem­o­ries of his fa­ther, Per­ci­val Hunt, a sharply dressed, quick-wit­ted bar­ris­ter who passed on to his son more than just his pock­et­less waist­coats.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS - AWW

Poet Sam Hunt is on the phone from his home in Kaipara. It’s a morn­ing in­ter­view, but al­ready he is fab­u­lous – gra­cious, funny and raw. He has re­cently de­vel­oped ver­tigo, he ex­plains, but he quite likes it – the feel­ing of float­ing through the day. “Who needs drugs?” he says.

The pur­pose of the call is to talk about his dad for Fa­ther’s Day. Some of his most fa­mous po­ems are about his fa­ther, Per­ci­val Robert Hunt, or Percy as he was more com­monly known – Birth of a Son, My Fa­ther Scyth­ing and My Fa­ther To­day.

His most re­cent writ­ten about his dad is My Fa­ther’s Waist­coats from his lat­est col­lec­tion, Salt River Songs, re­leased to co­in­cide with Sam’s 70th birth­day. The book is al­ready, to the poet’s de­light, a best­seller. My fa­ther’s waist­coats never had pock­ets. It was years later some­one ex­plained a good lawyer in court didn’t need notes… I never went with the law like my fa­ther would have liked. But I got to swing ju­ries – like he said – swing­ing the lead. I never rode into town like I’d like to have done. But I carry a gun in my head.

Sam was wear­ing one of those waist­coats (with jeans and heavy boots) when Percy’s friend, for­mer Labour MP Martyn Fin­lay, vis­ited him at his Bot­tle Creek boat­shed home, north of Welling­ton, in the 1970s.

“He said, ‘I see you are wear­ing one of Percy’s old waist­coats,’ and I said, ‘How do you know that?’ and he said, ‘No pock­ets.’”

He went on to ex­plain to Sam that the top bar­ris­ters don’t need notes.

Top poets don’t ei­ther. “A sign of a good con­cert is one when you come off stage at the end of it and you haven’t re­ferred to your notes,” Sam agrees, voice grav­elly, syl­la­bles long. “You haven’t even looked at them or thought of them, it has all been hap­pen­ing out there in a sort of divine trance; some­times it is a bit like that!”

He does write down the po­ems’ ti­tles, in case he goes blank – but he needn’t worry. Some­how, de­spite his well-doc­u­mented ex­cesses, at 70 Sam Hunt is as sharp as a tack, reel­ing off po­ems with lit­tle pause – bal­lads his fa­ther used to tell him when he was 10, W.B. Yeats’ po­ems his mother shared with him when he was small.

He recog­nises his sim­i­lar­i­ties with Percy Hunt – it was from him that Sam in­her­ited the abil­ity to com­mand a room and an au­di­ence.

“Yes, I say in that poem, ‘I never got into the law as my fa­ther would have liked’ be­cause I was quite at­tracted to it. I would go out there in the court, and my old Dad would be there with

his wig on bam­boo­zling the jury, and so I see a lot of par­al­lels.”

It is this strength of pres­ence (as well as his fa­ther’s six-foot-two height) that led Sam to de­scribe Percy in My Fa­ther To­day as a ‘heavy load’ and his weight in Birth of a Son as a ‘bloody ton’. That and the con­ve­nience. “I used ‘heavy load’ in My Fa­ther To­day be­cause it rhymed with road,” he says of the 1977 poem about his fa­ther’s death. They buried him to­day up Sch­nap­per Rock Road, my fa­ther in cold clay. A heavy south wind towed the drape of light away. Friends, men met on the road, stood round in that dumb way men stand when lost for words. There was noth­ing to say. I heard the bitchy chords of mag­pies in an old-man pine... ‘My old man, he’s worlds away - call it Heaven - no men so el­e­gantly dressed. His last after­noon, star­ing out to sea, he nods off in his chair. He won­ders what the yelling’s all about up there. They just about ex­plode! And now, these mag­pies here up Sch­nap­per Rock Road...’ They buried him in clay. He was a heavy load, my dead fa­ther to­day.

Percy was 60 years old when Sam was born; a re­al­ity which Sam ad­mits came with some dif­fi­cul­ties. “He was an older fa­ther. When I was 10, he was 70. That’s the age I am now and the thought of hav­ing a 10-year-old would be quite hard work, but Dad coped with it quite well. But when I was in my 20s and 30s, he was in his 80s and 90s and that was the time he was los­ing it.”

It is that sense of ab­sence he de­scribes in Birth of a Son. My fa­ther died nine months before My first son, Tom, was born: Those nine months when my woman bore Our child in her womb, my dad Kept me awake un­til the dawn He did not like it dead. Those dreams of him his cry­ing ‘Please let me out love let me go!’ And then again of his dy­ing… I am a man who lives each breath Un­til the next: not much I know Of life or death; life-after-death: Ex­cept to say, that when this son Was born into my arms, his weight Was my old man’s, a bloody ton: A mo­ment there – it could not stay – I held them both, then worth the wait, Con­tent long last, my fa­ther moved away

In My Fa­ther Scyth­ing Sam has ex­pressed that loss once again in the line “he wasn’t around when I wanted him most”.

“He was quite hurt by that poem,” Sam says. “I don’t know re­ally what I meant by that line, but I think I was re­ally ex­press­ing the wish that we had had more com­mu­ni­ca­tion over those last 10 years [of his life].”

Sam’s mother Joan was 30 years younger than Percy. “They were quite an un­usual cou­ple – the age dif­fer­ence for a start. They both had a great love of words, com­ing from dif­fer­ent back­grounds – my mother from a more literary back­ground, and my fa­ther from a more mu­si­cal back­ground. His fa­ther and brother were pro­fes­sional mu­si­cians.”

And while it was his mother’s choice in po­etry that at­tracted Sam most, he loved the bal­lads his fa­ther told him.

“Like Lord Ullin’s Daugh­ter – great stuff,” he says, reel­ing off the bal­lad flaw­lessly.

“Those are the sort of po­ems I got from my Dad. My mother’s taste in po­etry was prob­a­bly more aes­thetic I guess, more lyri­cal, and that in­cludes poets like W. B. Yeats, and I in turn in­tro­duced her to a lot of po­ems, and so there were a lot of po­ems be­ing told.”

But he is quick to clar­ify: “It was po­ems, not po­etry with a cap­i­tal P that you study in school and have to an­swer ques­tions about – it was sheer plea­sure in the po­ems.”

While Percy sup­ported Sam’s po­etry, he was con­cerned his son didn’t have a fall-back, and would rou­tinely send him five-pound notes in the mail. To al­lay his con­cerns, Sam went to teacher’s train­ing col­lege. He com­pleted the course, but by the time he had fin­ished, he was al­ready mak­ing money from his po­etry.

Percy died at the ripe old age of 90, a fact Sam links to his habit of swim­ming daily in the sea. “In his younger years he de­vel­oped sci­at­ica. He had a manser­vant, his name was Cas­sels, who did a lot of the things that a PA would do now. Cas­sels was a fitness freak and he had a reg­i­men for Dad so that he could keep the sci­at­ica at bay, which in­cluded swim­ming in the sea ev­ery day.

“When Dad was a young lawyer he was liv­ing in a stone house in the quite smart city sub­urb of Par­nell and he lit­er­ally swapped it for this big ram­bling prop­erty on Mil­ford Beach, which is where I grew up. A cou­ple of times, at least, on the short­est day of the year they had a pho­to­graph in the Auck­land morn­ing pa­per of Auck­land bar­ris­ter Percy Hunt emerg­ing from the waves, like Venus – well, not quite like Venus… I wish I had those pho­tos.”

Sam shares his fa­ther’s love of the water, and has con­tin­ued to re­side near it in his adult years. He re­mem­bers par­tic­u­larly well one trip home on the ferry from Auck­land to Cas­tor Bay with his smartly dressed and proud fa­ther.

“It was before they had the Auck­land Har­bour Bridge, so I would have been five. Dad used to like to jump off the ferry as he came onto the wharf so he could get the best seat on the bus. On this oc­ca­sion Dad did this

and missed his foot­ing and he went straight down into the water. The crew on the ferry got him out of the water so quickly he was barely even wet, and as we walked to­ward the bus he said, ‘I didn’t fall in the water did I?’ And I said, ‘No, you didn’t fall in the water.’ Be­cause Percy Hunt wouldn’t do that, no.”

His fa­ther’s Auck­land cham­bers were in the Town Hall and Sam re­calls the joy of at­tend­ing con­certs down­stairs to­gether.

“In fact, from my fa­ther’s of­fice you could go through these cat­a­combs with great piles of le­gal notes and old law books go­ing up to the ceil­ing and make your way through to the back­stage of the Auck­land Town Hall. Once we were go­ing to a bloody mar­vel­lous con­cert by the French cel­list Pierre Fournier, who that evening was play­ing the Dvo­rak cello con­certo with the then Na­tional

When I was 10, he was 70. But Dad coped with it quite well.”

Or­ches­tra, and I came up out through the cup­board and old Pierre Fournier was prac­tis­ing in his back­stage room.

“I said, ‘I wasn’t try­ing to get in for noth­ing, we’ve got tick­ets, I am just wait­ing for my fa­ther. He’ll be down by eight o’clock,’ and he said, ‘That’s fine; I hope you en­joy the show.’ It was lovely. I went back to my fa­ther and said, ‘I have just met Pierre Fournier’ – he said, “What?!” Sam re­calls, laugh­ing heartily. “He was quite im­pressed.”

Once Sam started tour­ing his po­ems, his dad was in an old folks’ home and, when in Auck­land, Sam would visit him. One visit in par­tic­u­lar stands out.

“I did a tour in 1975 with three other poets – Hone Tuwhare, De­nis Glover and Alan Brunton. It was good, a very suc­cess­ful tour – the fi­nal night was in what was called the Mer­cury The­atre. In the morn­ing there was a big front-page photo of me on stage at the Mer­cury.

“I went to see Dad the next day and a nurse had pinned it up be­side his bed. He was very fee­ble at that stage, very ab­sent, and I got per­mis­sion to take him out in my old am­bu­lance; I had a mat­tress in the back so he could sit up and we drove it to Mil­ford Beach and parked up and drank a bot­tle of whisky. We had a great time.”

Sam’s fa­ther, Percy Hunt, had a love of words and would re­cite bal­lads to his son .

We have five copies of Salt River Songs, by Sam Hunt to give away. To enter the draw, email awwed­i­tor@ bauer­me­ by Septem­ber 7, 2016, sub­ject: ‘Sam Hunt’.

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