THE YEAR THAT
C.K. Stead remembers the year he married his wife and met ‘mad Janet’ Frame
It was1955, my MA year. I was 22 and had got married at the start of the year. I was a student and my wife, Kay, was working in the library. We got a little flat, which was essentially a glassed-in veranda, on Takapuna Beach. It was fairly unusual to be married at that age then but not totally. I had limited resources. I had some kind of teaching fellowship but very little, and Kay was the primary money-earner for that year.
Allen Curnow was one of my principal lecturers. He was writing new poems and began to show them to me and ask what I thought, which was a slightly overwhelming honour. I’d had contact with Frank [Sargeson] beforehand, but when I found myself living down the road in Takapuna, I called up to see how he would react to visits — and he was very welcoming. We got to know him very well that year, also the year Janet Frame came to live in his army hut. That was pretty much our year: me doing my MA, and my literary life being between the two people who became my mentors — Sargeson and Curnow — with Janet Frame in the picture as well.
Frame was also very shy and retiring and hiding in the shadows, but very quickly became familiar with us and we got to know her well. We made a strange foursome: gay Sargeson and “mad Janet”, as he would describe her; and two very young, rather innocent, persons. But we got on extraordinarily well and went about together and did what you do when you live in a beach suburb. It was a very literary relationship. Frame had already established her identity as a short story writer and we talked endlessly about literature and played literary games. It was a very rich year.
Clearly the connection with Curnow was more formal than the relationship with Sargeson, but it was, to me, more significant, because he was writing these extraordinary poems and kept showing them to me. They were poems he wrote as his affair with Jenny Tole developed and, although they weren’t autobiographical, they clearly emerged out of the excitement of that episode.
I had arrived at university at 18, having already decided Curnow was the most important New Zealand poet, which wasn’t quite the fashionable view at that time. I remember seeing him and recognising him because I’d seen his photo in the Listener, so it was a very exciting moment.
I had intended to be a postman, but I got a lectureship offer in Australia, then went on to do a PhD at the University of New England in New South Wales.
That year was absolutely defining, because it left me with an ideal of what it was to be a New Zealand writer. Sargeson and Curnow were my mentors, and all the time I was away I was hell-bent on the idea that I had to come back and become a New Zealand writer. This was rather naive, but it was a governing idea.
As told to Paul Little
THE NECESSARY ANGEL, BY C.K. STEAD (ALLEN & UNWIN, $37), IS OUT NOW.