Photo: LazingBee/Getty
Photo: LazingBee/Getty

BooksSeptember 29, 2019

Dear Jack, we love you

Photo: LazingBee/Getty
Photo: LazingBee/Getty

Jack Lasenby died on Friday afternoon. Here, collected stories about a great writer, mentor and friend.

Jane Arthur, formerly of Gecko Press, co-founder of The Sapling:

I met Jack when I helped publish Uncle Trev and the Whistling Bull at Gecko Press. He made a big impression on me. I have never been so delighted to receive a reply to an email – he applied the lost art of letter-writing to every correspondence. Where someone else would’ve put “sounds good, ta”, he crafted perfect, paragraphed insights featuring literary quotes, classical mythology, OTT diatribes against social media, and fantastic gardening tips (terracotta pots suck the moisture from the soil, so are best avoided). I declared that someone (okay, me) absolutely must compile and publish The Collected Letters of Jack Lasenby, because they were so entertaining and enriching. Just like his stories. 

I thought he might be formal and gruff in person, but no – warm, sparkly eyed and humble. It’s so cool we got to have him and his yarns and brains at all, and so lucky we have his books to read forever. Go well, Jack. Good-oh.

Bernard Beckett, young joker

The thing I most remember of Jack is the generosity of his mind, offered, as with all things Jack, on his own terms.

When I was starting out as a writer and we shared a publisher, he kindly spoke at the launch of my second book, and it was clear he’d read it carefully, taken it more seriously than it deserved. I’d visit him in his home on Aro St, call in unannounced with my twin boys in tow, doubtless interrupting his reading or writing, and the welcome was always warm and genuine. He took proper interest in us, and in all his questions and observations you could sense that whirring fascination with people, our functions and dysfunctions both.

His stubbornness was famous, but faux too, in many ways. He just loved ideas, loved inhabiting them, driving them headlong into others for the joy of the collision somehow. I loved that it wasn’t about status or career with Jack. He seemed honestly chuffed when his work was noticed, it delighted him in the manner of a surprise. He was a real writer, struggling to say something, rather than straining just to be noticed. I remember turning up one day and he opened with, “You know, I’ve been thinking about the scholastics this afternoon.” You don’t get enough of that.

Or the handwritten letter he once sent me, that included the delightful: “I thought I was only the person left interested in the pre-Socratics.” There was a nostalgia in him, a determined fixation on that imaginary place in the past where the deepest of ideas were available to any who cared to wade on in. So yeah, a good old bugger, was Jack.

Joy Cowley

Many people will talk about Jack’s writing. I want to pay a tribute to Jack my friend.

Bon Voyage, dear Jack. Some of us are close behind you. We suspect you won’t journey too far. Quantum theory reminds us that the Universe retains its energy. When something disappears in one place, it will reappear somewhere else. You, Jack, will always be around. If our literature becomes inflated with grandeur, you’ll be there with your verbal chainsaw, and when we indulge in depressing therapy writing, you will punctuate with a few jolly expletives.

You have always been real, Jack, and you will continue to be real.

My last time with you, was when we had poems installed on the Wellington wharf.  I was sitting on a stage next to you, while the Governor General made his speech. In a quiet moment you said loudly, “I  can’t hear a bloody thing and I want to go to the toilet.”

Dear Jack, we love you. Continue to keep us all real.

Jack Lasenby and his first novel, The Lake, published in 1988. Photo of Jack: Random House NZ Ltd.

Maureen Crisp convenor of The Wellington Children’s Book Association, who are proud to have Jack Lasenby as their patron:

I’ve started to write my thoughts of Jack three times and deleted everything. Jack would be the first to say, “I don’t want a fuss. Just lift a glass to me now and then.” So I’ve fortified myself with Jack’s favourite tipple: whiskey, and am thinking of all the tall tales he loved to tell. Jack loved the tales of Baron Munchausen and said that he got his education in tall tale telling in the Urewera bush as a deer culler with Barry Crump. There were quite a group of them then, and most of them went on to become published. Jack told me that there was an informal competition amongst them all for the most entertaining tale.

I grew up not far from where the Urewera deer culler exploits were legendary. Jack and I knew the same people. I’m sure that I have been looked at sideways, like Jack, for stories of a time and place that is almost forgotten in New Zealand’s history. They were all true. Even as fiction writers, Jack and I knew that some real life incidents from the bush would never be believed. It was easier to say they were tall tales from around the camp fire, told by the hard men of the bush. When you have billy tea made with a whole tin of condensed milk, over a manuka scrub fire, by a running stream, the setting is just right for stories. Billy tea puts hairs on your chest. I always checked that I didn’t have a hairy chest. I was an eight year old girl but I knew that those tales were true.

So it was true that Jack was asked to accept a major honour in recognition of his contribution to the canon of great literature for New Zealand’s children and he turned it down. He couldn’t turn down the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in 2014 because he wasn’t given the chance.

It was true that Jack always had another story he was working on when everyone thought that surely he had published his last novel. He was 88 years young and still able to take himself back to being a scrubby eight-year-old boy from Waharoa, playing hooky and getting into mischief.

It is true that Jack will be missed from the children’s writing community. The twinkle in his eye and the way he said “marvellous” when you told a story or a joke or just came around to chew the fat. I can see him now with his glass, talking to his great friend Margaret Mahy, the two irrepressible grandparents of New Zealand children’s literature, telling tall tales, trying to outdo each other. So I’m raising my glass to you, Jack, as all the children’s writers in New Zealand who knew you will be doing. You are off on the next great adventure. What a marvellous tale your life has been.

Chris Else, author and agent:

I first met Jack in the late 60s when we were fellow drinkers at The Kiwi, the university pub on the corner of Wellesley and Symonds Street in Auckland. He was always great company, telling endless anecdotes in his rich, deep, measured voice. He was a genial character but he also had a volcanic temper and it didn’t do to get on the wrong side of him. He never bore grudges, though. The explosions were a test of the relationship. If he liked you, they were quickly forgotten.

Many years later Jack fell out with his publisher over some matter of deeply important principle, I don’t remember what now. He came to me and asked me if I would represent him through my literary agency. I was happy to take him on. However, when I looked around I quickly decided that the best publisher for him was the one he had just fallen out with. Would he be amenable to my talking to them? Yes, he would be. Would they be amenable to taking him back? Yes, actually, now the atmosphere had cooled and if Jack was willing, maybe they would. He stayed with them for another five years or more.

He fell out with me and fired me, too, in the end but we stayed friends nonetheless. I miss him.

Isobel Ewing, journalist, fan:

I rang Jack out of the blue a few years ago when I lived in Wellington to see if he wanted to have a cup of tea. He was delighted at the cold call from a young journo raving about the impact his writing had on her childhood but, for some reason that I can’t recall, we never managed to arrange the cup of tea. I am kicking myself now.

I read Dead Man’s Head, The Waterfall and The Battle of Pook Island over and over religiously as a child. I remember the first time driving through Waharua (Jack’s Waharoa) as an adult and trying to reconcile the reality with my imagined version of the town – the dairy factory, the oak trees where the kids gathered acorns for their shanghais, the railway tracks. I looked up at Wairere Falls which I’m sure is “The Waterfall” and thought about Uncle Ted’s place and the adventures Polly, Denny, Pete, Joe and Bob had up “behind the waterfall”.

I was a real bush kid – building huts in my parents’ gully in the Waikato, making damper, cooking potatoes in tinfoil, trying to catch eels and weaving flax clothing. I felt such a strong connection to Jack’s characters, I guess it was their adventures and resourcefulness but also the way Jack didn’t shy away from the grit – it wasn’t a rosy, idealistic Famous Five scenario and although these kids lived in a different era and experienced hardship I never had, I still could relate to them. 

The Waterfall: Wairere Falls. Photo by Steve Clancy Photography, via Getty.

And Jack described the New Zealand bush in a way no one else has. He captured its darkness and menace but also imbued it with a sort of magic realism. It was simultaneously familiar and fantastical. The Ureweras felt like a mythical, infinite place. When I finally went there at age 14 on a school camp in green stubbies from the Fieldays and two long thick braids, I won the prize for most resourceful student. I like to think strong young woman characters like Polly and Ruth played a part in shaping that girl.

I really enjoyed Because We Were The Travellers and Taur, but the concept of this arid, post apocalyptic New Zealand where people are forced to be nomadic at once terrified and captivated me.

My brother and I are currently cycling across Central Asia, and our camping treat has been tea with a generous dollop of condensed milk. What we call “Harry Wakatipu tea”. 

I’m really sad I never met Jack, I think his books really did mould the person I am now and I regret not being able to thank him. He was right about kids being smarter than adults assume – there are few books I’ve read as an adult that imprinted as vividly on my psyche as his did when I was a 10-year-old!

Jack will always be in dingy tramping huts, in the swampy smell of gully mud, when I pick up a hard acorn, on wild backcountry ridges and in the shadowy bushline above Lake Waikaremoana.

Paula Green, poet; champion of poets:

Jack was one of my favourite lecturers at Wellington Teachers College in the 1970s – he was warm, funny, yarn-rich and was a strong advocate for New Zealand children’s books. 

He was open to what children’s stories could do and be, and I have never forgotten that; or the way children’s books make such a difference to the lives of children in both homes and classrooms. It felt like a time when teachers became fluent in New Zealand’s emerging children’s literature as well as that from overseas. 

I remember going out to his idyllic place on the harbour at Paremata with other students a few times, and being wonder-struck at the sight of his wall-to-wall bookshelves. I couldn’t imagine having such a richness of reading experience inside me – and now, decades later, whenever I look at our wall-to-wall bookshelves and get to reflect back on the books that have shaped my life, I think of Jack.

Earlier this year I was awake in the night, switched on Radio NZ and found myself in one of Jack’s Harry Wakatipu stories. It felt like an electric shot the writing was so good and funny and enduring. I decided then I wanted to have a Jack Lasenby season. Fingers crossed graduate teachers are fluent in Jack’s backlist. His children’s novels are goldmines.

Mandy Hager, writer, president of the New Zealand Society of Authors:

I met Jack during the very first week of my three-year teacher’s training in Wellington in 1980. I was a shy 20-year-old, thrust together with my year-group at an introductory camp in Elsdon, Porirua. He came across me engrossed in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, stood watching me for a moment and said: “You’re not really reading that, are you”’ To my affirmative reply his eyebrow rose. “Oh, very good,” he said and walked on. Little did I know then what a huge influence he’d have on me.

It turned out Jack was my English lecturer for the next two years. The first of two pivotal moments in my dawning as a writer came when he’d read to us aloud in his marvellous voice, sharing tales from antiquity, both Māori and classical, explaining that we needed to know the origins of story and how such stories shaped our understanding of ourselves and our world. It’s a lesson that has always stayed with me and still informs my writing: the universality and importance of story to the human species.

The second pivotal moment came when he set us our first writing assignment. I wrote an anecdote from my childhood that involved a possum and heavy breathing, and the following week, when he handed it back to me, he said: “Well, you know how to tell a good story.” Those words were magic to me, reawakening the writer I’d always been, but which had gone into hibernation during my late teens. Those nine little words gave me the confidence to keep trying, keep reading the best of the literature of the day and from the past, and to trust that I could do it if I really tried. 

Later, when Jack took to full time writing himself, watching how he turned his beautifully written, hugely entertaining stories into books was also very inspiring. And when my book The Crossing won the YA category in the 2010 book awards, he wrote me a warm letter of congratulation, which touched me deeply. I never think of him without a smile on my face and a huge upswelling of gratitude in my heart. Thank you, Jack, for the many gifts you gave to us all.

Photo: LazingBee, Getty

Dame Fiona Kidman:

There is so much to remember about Jack. For a while he was on the PEN committee – as it was then – now the NZ Society of Authors. After a meeting we would all retire to the Abel Tasman and talk for hours. There would be Lauris Edmond, myself, Harry Orsman, Vincent O’Sullivan , Alistair Campbell, Beeb ( Dr Beeby), Bill Manhire. Were we all there at the same time? I can’t be sure about that now, the lines get a bit blurred after 40-odd years, but that’s how I remember it, our lives weaving and intersecting through the 1970s.

Jack was one of the great raconteurs of those long afternoons, telling stories about life in the bush and rascals he had known. He had an easy laugh and at times a caustic tongue; he didn’t suffer foolish talk easily. But friendship with Jack was lasting, his warmth immediate even when, later on, there were lengthy gaps between our meetings.

The thing that strikes me about Jack was that he succeeded as a writer for children and young people because he really liked them. He understood what it was like to be a kid and when he was with them there was never anything artificial or ‘writerly’ about his interaction. He awarded one of my grandsons a prize for writing once, and when he came to his school for the awards, you could see the rapport and the magic he created with all the students. He gave my grandson the prize because, he said, the story had made him laugh out loud. And that was his own gift, to make others laugh and draw them into his orbit, and then to reveal a much wider vision of the world. I am sad I cannot join the farewell for him on Friday, but I will be there in spirit.

Raymond Jones

I wrote this seeing him in my mind’s eye laughing at it all as fuss and nonsense. Nevertheless, I owe the man a tribute.

Bugger! Knowing Jack for the years I trained as a teacher was one of life’s privileges. I did nothing to earn it. His mentorship, tutorage, warmth, and friendship was freely given to those who cared for and about life, writing, poetry, and the human journey. I will always remember how his beard would part, his mouth break open into a broad smile as he removed his pipe, his eyes would sparkle; a face full of humor and mischief. He was always my role model for Tom Bombadil except that by his reckoning he couldn’t act unless it was a stone (he could act, and did, being cajoled to by Ralph McAllister. The father in “Long Days Journey Into Night” being an example).

He woke my interest in poetry, re-established my childhood love and passion for myth and folklore. Before it was fashionable he gave me the strength to come out and admit as an adult I loved to read children’s books. He was a teller of tales, not just on the printed page but as in pre-literate times holding one by the power and rhythm of his distinctive voice as I imagine a bard would. He would also listen to any tale or story each of us had to tell no matter how small in the scheme of things. A deer culler, a backwoods man. A man of the bush, not the sort one would consider to be a man of sensitivity and compassion such as he was.

A particular gift I credit him for giving to me was the encouragement to always trust and strengthen my skepticism as something to treasure.There are many of us I believe who could add to or at the very least nod in agreement to all I’ve written. The mark of a man (or woman) are the memories he leaves behind. Each one of us Jack touched at some time or other will all stoop in homage and each place an obol in Jack’s mouth as a tribute, and to ensure, impress upon Charon, to ferry this man in the style he deserves. 

Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night: perhaps an overly used poem but damn the hairs on the back of my neck tell me it could have been written for the bastard.

Barbara Larson, former publisher at Longacre Press:

Dear old Jack Lasenby: he occupied a huge vibrant space, not only in my working life, but as a treasured old friend. I first heard Jack read at the inaugural New Zealand Writers Festival held at the University of Otago; a festival Roger Hall organised. This must have been over 30 years ago. Jack told a heartrending story about a young couple; she with long beautiful hair, and he, from memory, had a gold watch. These were their most valuable possessions. As Christmas approached, she decided to sell her hair to buy him a gold chain for his watch, and he sold his gold watch to buy a comb for her hair. Jack’s raspy delivery stilled the room. And I wasted no time climbing over chairs to reach him before he left the auditorium.

His manuscripts arrived more quickly than we, first at McIndoe, then at Longacre, could manage. His output was prodigious: the marvellous Seddon Street gang stories, the dear old nag Harry Wakatipu stories (Jack’s alter ego), Ish and the Travellers, Aunt Effie and the rest. One of the best things we did for Jack, aside from publishing his work, was to ask David Elliot to illustrate the covers of his books; the first being Dead Man’s Head. Magic happened.

Jack and I had some fierce arguments; about The Listener Women’s Book Festival (he thought it bigoted), about abstract art, about the power between men and women, about how long we as publishers took to read a manuscript. He could pick holes in everything. One could never get away with being flippant or offhand; he’d strike like a snake. Jack was a challenge to edit right up to his last book.

Over the years, we became far too familiar as writer and publisher, something that caused a few ructions within our professional relationship; two divorces if I remember correctly, and one proposal – during a speech at one of his book launches, Jack told the attendees that seeing he and I had published so many books together, we’d decided to get married. The comment was received as intended; everyone laughed heartily. (I interpreted it as a thank-you.)

Jack was a wonderful letter writer back in the day when we did such things; he and I shared a spirited correspondence over many years. (In one of our divorce settlements, I stipulated a requirement that his letters to his publisher/editors could be no longer than 3 pages. How quaint that seems now.) Emails overtook us all and Jack took to them with vigour. He wrote about his Aro Street garden, his sensuous climbing roses and rambling beans and ‘drunken woman’ lettuces, about his time in the ‘Great Untrodden Ureweras’, about what he was reading and re-reading, about his old mates, ‘the Crock’ and others, about Christmas humbug, and more – and most of his emails were graced with warmth, humour, an incisive wit, and an artful, razor-sharp intelligence.

Thank you Jack.

Photo: Melissa De Vries, EyeEm, Getty.

Graeme Lay:

Jack was a hugely talented and immensely likeable man. I first met him through his tenure of the Sargeson Fellowship in the early 1990s, when I was secretary of the Sargeson Trust. He shared the fellowship with Alan Duff, in about 1992, and launched one of his books at Unity during his tenure.

After I was publicly accused of homophobia by Peter Wells, later in the 90s, Jack strongly refuted this falsehood at a literary festival in Christchurch. I deeply appreciated the gesture. In 2009, I edited a collection of writers’ childhood stories, (Way Back Then, Before We Were Ten). I invited Jack to contribute to the anthology. He did and it was a moving little essay. But when I asked him for a photo of himself as a child, to go with it, he told me he didn’t have one. His family, living in a tiny settlement on the Hauraki Plains, was too poor to own a camera. Instead he sent me a Standard Four class photo, from his primary school days, and that sufficed.

He was a wonderful man, with a unique literary talent, and unusually erudite with it.

Julia Marshall, Gecko Press:

I first met Jack over Uncle Trev and the Whistling Bull. He came to the office and stayed for a few hours, and since then I have sometimes had the pleasure of those emails that are being mentioned. One suggested that if I said no to a book he would make a voodoo doll of me and put pins in it. I wrote back to say that no one had done that before and that I was tempted by it. The emails were about vegetables, politicians, the weather, the forest, deer cullers, ears, growing old, travel, spring, venison, farming, fires and books. He was fun to write to and sometimes he would reply with a storm force. To me he was a reader’s writer, and a really great reader.

Roger Robinson, emeritus Professor, author, literary scholar, runner:

Jack was the 1993 Victoria University Writing Fellow, in days when the Fellow had a room in the English Department, and the option of mingling daily with mainstream students and academic staff. He welcomed the mingling option, in his natural, unpretentious way, never looking for celebrity treatment, always ready in the tea room or corridor for conversation, stories, and ideas, which he dealt with as directly and astutely as he would have dealt with daily life in the bush. He enjoyed showing up for research seminars and visiting speakers, and could be a strong presence – probing, genial, or occasionally acerbic – at question time. His resistance to bullshit was refreshing in the theory-obsessed early ‘nineties, but he was too appreciative of the opportunity of an income and a room to reveal what he thought of us. Like almost all VU Writing Fellows, he was productive that year, writing primarily Dead Man’s Head.
When I compiled Writing Wellington in 1999, an anthology of work by the first twenty Writing Fellows, Jack was one of the best to deal with – professional in the sense of supplying a perfectly judged and perfectly presented manuscript before the deadline without fuss or vanity. His story for that book, “This strange, cold town,” is about the sudden destructive horror that can be encountered in the city; but it ends with an unobtrusive affirmation of kinship with Katherine Mansfield, “a girl who lived just up the road from us,” that hints at a side of Jack’s literary identity that he didn’t parade. The award of the Fellowship to him could now be seen as the first step towards the commitment to children’s literature that has since become important in literary scholarship at VUW.
My last meeting with Jack was not long ago at his Aro Street home, when he uncomplainingly and even amiably signed copies of his books for my granddaughters, a detail that I include only because it is so typical.

Ashleigh Young:

I only met Jack once, but I wrote to him for a few years as a kid. The first time, I couldn’t believe he’d written back. I imagined that famous authors had a haunted room where all of the fan letters went, streaming in through some sort of pneumatic tube, and the writer never dared go in there. I still remember the school principal bounding through the playground towards me, one lunchtime, to say, ‘Jack Lasenby replied to your letter!’ I think he was a bit starstruck as well. Jack’s letter was kind and funny and a little bit cranky and he gently informed me that, despite my pleading, there would be no sequel to The Lake, my favourite book (and the first he wrote, aged 55).

In one letter I told Jack that I was writing a story about a hang-gliding hedgehog and that the story was very sad. Jack advised me not to make a point of writing overly sad stories. ‘You’re liable to cry all over your keyboard and electrocute yourself.’ Sound advice for us all.

Years later, he wrote to say he was pleased to see that I was still writing, and he liked my poem about my mum going for a swim. And a few years after that we met and had some biscuits and cups of tea.

Jack was somehow both a giant in New Zealand literature and also someone who took the trouble to reply to aspiring writers whose letters were probably quite annoying. To them he dispensed his vast knowledge and wisdom freely, and reminded them that writers were just people struggling along with everyone else. And he remembered people. He remembered me; he remembered children who had written many decades earlier. That kindness will always be inspiring to me. He was a true gentleman.

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