A tribute to writer Russell Haley by Ian Wedde.
For Jean and Ian Haley
Russell Haley died in the morning on July 4. It may seem inappropriate to follow this by saying that he was the funniest man I’ve ever met, but it feels right. You can’t be as funny as Russell was without being clever; but you can’t be as clever and funny as he was if there isn’t darkness somewhere in or under the humour. Early in Russell’s last published novel, The Spaces Between, his male protagonist Jervis Kraik notes (in the third person), “He detested jokes of any type.” I think Russell did, too. There had to be more to humour than an easy gag. The world’s a funny old place, a terrible funny old place.
I met Jean and Russell in Auckland in 1967. They’d moved to Auckland from Australia with their kids Ian and Kathy a year earlier, having gone to Australia with Ian in 1961 as ten quid migrants from the north of England. They laughed together a lot and pulled each other’s legs, often adopting Yorkshire accents, and Jean would say, “You daft bugger!” Off the page, Jean and Russell were a great double act. On the page, Russell’s nimble wit always has the character of social yarn-spinning. The yarns are those of migrants from tough times.
I remember a routine Russell improvised at the massive wedding party for Alan Brunton and Sally Rodwell at their place in Tinakori Road, Wellington, in June 1975. Russell transformed himself into a gliding, obsequious salesman whose obscure wares were, without doubt, rubbish. He’d manifested an oozy oil gland on his shoulder into which he dipped lips that had become a kind of beak with which he preened his chest inbetween purring his salespitch. His adlib patter, as he toured the room with an entourage of weeping-with-laughter followers, lasted a good half-hour. I remember, too, a minibus trip from Auckland to Wellington in 1969 which was dubbed Za’oud Over the Mountains and included Russell’s play The Adoration of Za’oud. On the way back it was Russell’s turn to drive when the van was enveloped in fog on a ridgeback road with precipices on both sides. Russell jammed on the brakes in the middle of the road. He was laughing his head off, but we had to unclench his hands from the steering wheel. At Cabaret Paris Spleen in Wellington in 1975, Russell beat clouds of talcum powder out of his hair and wore a toppling boutonnière of arum lilies. He had them in fits.
Earlier this year, a performance of Turtle Time, Jack Body’s setting of a poem by Russell, was advertised by Auckland University Music School’s Karlheinz Company. Dismayed that Russell hadn’t been invited (he and Jean had just moved from Mangawhai to Whangarei) I arranged to go up, spend a night with them, and drive back with Russell in time for the performance. Russell’s recent emails had been odd, with occasional keystroke mistakes and even wrong words, but it was a shock to find he was having trouble matching perfectly clear thoughts to the right word. He was laughing about it, and typically was also enjoying and laughing at the subversive oddness of the thought-to-word process. In the morning we drove down to Auckland talking the whole way. Clearly Russell was anxious to find out what was wrong, but that evening at the performance of Turtle Time he received a round of applause and talked to a number of people. At 82 he was in very good physical shape, lean and agile, in fact matching Moira’s description of Jervis Kraik in his novel The Spaces Between: “Jarvis’s skin was smooth and tanned. He was in remarkably good nick for his age. Probably an exercise freak.” He caught the bus back to Whangarei the next morning.
A month later Donna and I went up to spend the weekend in a bach out by Whangarei Heads, visit a newish grandson at Parua Bay, and see the Haleys. Russell had been diagnosed with cancer and they were planning a week of treatments at Auckland Central Hospital. We had lunch. Russell was thinner and was having more difficulty with his speech, but he and Jean were both optimistic and determined.
But later in June, Jean phoned to tell us Russell was having more difficulty. I went up on June 28 to lend a hand for a few days, expecting to come back the following Friday. Murray Edmond said he’d take over at the weekend. Russell’s speech was worse, and his balance was affected. He needed help to stand up and walk. On Friday we went for a meeting with Russell’s oncologist at Whangarei hospital. Russell learned that his brain cancer was terminal but that he could win some time with a course of radiotherapy. He and Jean committed to doing this. They both seemed buoyed by the decision and by the impetus of doing something.
In the afternoon, an old delight-in-laughter friend, David Kisler, came to visit. Russell’s good cheer seemed to dissipate after David left, as if a flow of social energy had stopped. He went to bed and, early on Saturday morning, had become unable to move or speak. The hospice nurse came and fitted him with an analgesic drip. Russell and his and Jean’s border collie Pip exchanged a long look across the bed. Then he lost consciousness—whatever that means. Ian Haley and Russell and Jean’s grandson Kei arrived, and so did his sister Caryl. On Sunday, Murray Edmond came up. We took turns reading Russell’s favourite Beckett novel, Murphy, to him; Ian and Murray were also reading him his story “Fog”, from the 1984 book of stories Real Illusions. None of us doubted that, despite appearances, Russell was aware of the words being read aloud.
Russell died on Monday morning. Jean knew what he wanted to happen: no undertaker, no embalming, no religion; she never wavered. A Haleyesque sequence of events began, at once sad and funny. Ian and I drove out to the crematorium and met Dennis, who had a packet of smokes in his shirt pocket and emerged from behind the furnace. He gave us a wad of forms to fill in and we made a booking for 10.30 am the next day. Donna arrived from Auckland and helped Jean fill out the forms. I located a coffin-maker north of Whangarei at Hikurangi. His name was Iain. And so Ian and Ian Haley drove up there to meet Iain, whose signage on the road front read, “Quotes for trespassers free and so’s the first bullet”, or words to that effect. Russell’s last wishes began to resemble a conflation of two writers he loved, Samuel Beckett and Ronald Hugh Morrieson.
Back at the house, we moved Russell into the coffin in the front room. Jean and Russell’s old German friends Hubert and Ria arrived, as well as some neighbours from next door, and we all raised glasses to Russell Haley—and to Harry Lurber, Commissioner Gerder, Simon Fesk, Harry Rejekt and Jervis Kraik, among other persona of the man we loved. We wrote messages on the coffin. On Tuesday morning, Jean and Russell’s old mate Barry Read arrived with his ute, Hubert and Ria came back, and we loaded Russell into the ute and drove very slowly in a small convoy to where Dennis was waiting at the crematorium. We said goodbye to Russell in his richly inscribed coffin. Then we went back to Jean and Russell’s place and drank a Laphroaig or two. Ian Haley remembered a favourite final paragraph from Russell’s story “Looping the Loop”:
We are all composed of such tenuous substance. Mother and father call to you through blood and genes but time stretches us in every way until we are a thin vibrating membrane. And how delicately then the mind is poised like a spider skimming over an elastic skin of water. How easy to collapse inwards with the pressure of an event or touch against others in affinity and merge.
The following Saturday there was a party at Jean and Russell’s place. A lot of people came, including David and Mary Kisler, Greer and Dee Twiss, and many others. A great many very good stories were told.
The first paragraph of Moonshine Eggs (not yet published), the last novel Russell finished (or perhaps the last one was Inside the Black Clock?) and which I recently read in manuscript, begins like this: “Harry Rejekt listened to his friend but he found it hard to pay proper attention to Joseph. Somehow he couldn’t get a clear focus on what Bartleby was saying.”
Knowing Russell, the name “Bartleby” almost certainly gestures towards Bartleby the Scrivener, Herman Melville’s ambiguous allegory of a copy-editor who, having been driven out of a job at the Dead Letter Office in New York City, ends his days staring at a blank wall from the office of a Wall Street lawyer and, finally, dying beside another blank wall at the Tombs, the municipal jail in Lower Manhatten. The droll Beckettian quality of this plot synopsis is probably not coincidental. Beckett was perhaps Russell’s favourite writer. Jean tells me he read Melville’s Bartleby many times (“He couldn’t get enough of it”), and, says Jean, “almost drove me crackers by using Bartleby’s answer, ‘I would prefer not to,’ for days afterwards”.
One inevitable effect of reading Russell’s work is the sense that the most factual and even banal components of it, such as the names of people and places, are stretched thinly over layers of alternative reality and identity, forming a kind of subversive, deadpan, comedic surrealism. I first encountered this in his often very funny poems in The Walled Garden, published by the aptly named Mandrake Root in 1972 (I quote one here in full):
the balloon factory
Before we presented him with his coronory
the Boss had a few last requests to make:
Keep the cyanide machine working:
Don’t lean on the two new boys,
Jesus and Mohammed in the basement:
no more tricks with small-bore washers
or pressured air-hoses up the anus:
and fix me a statue
in the roofgarden,
something vulgar to remember me by.
Mahan, the foreman, made the dies,
Koenig, a onetime Doctor of Thanatology,
pumped up and blew
the extrusion machine.
Dedo, the finger, hauled the thing up
in the threeway lift,
and in amongst the beetlegrass,
the frangipani and the
between the eggplant and the artichoke,
we put it up
we put it up:
Seven plastic cowboys
and a statue of new England.
(Please to notice the lower-case ‘n’ on ‘new England’.)
Russell’s comedies were darkly serious as well as funny, and after his and Jean’s daughter Kathy died in an accident in March 1986 the comedy went away for a long time, or retreated into deep, hidden places.
His book of stories after Kathy’s death, The Transfer Station (1989), is one of the most extraordinary reflections on grief that I’ve read, though not announced as such. Russell wrote it in France while he and Jean were in Menton; Russell had the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship there in 1987. Within it, consciously I believe, is a reflection on the kind of person one might be before and after grief, how they might be separate, how they might be reconciled. The stories circulate in one way or another around the facility known as the Transfer Station. It’s where the city’s rubbish is ground up and pumped out to sea, where it poisons the fish. Sometimes people jump into it. The first-person protagonist in the story grieves for his wife Helen, and for the native forests that have been replaced by pine. It was Helen who made gardens and knew about trees.
In real life it’s Jean Haley who knows a lot about trees and other plants, and who has always made gardens. Russell loved trees, especially natives, and had an encyclopedic knowledge of their Maori names, and Jean and he planted a great many of them; but I think it was Jean who taught him their botanical, Latin names. Ian describes his mother as “an unsung horticultural genius”. Russell also loved birds, and there are many in his stories. They both loved dogs and had lots of them. Back at their place in Whangarei, there’s now a montage of photographs of Russell, often with Jean and the kids and with friends in different parts of the world—Russell is often playing with a dog. In the story “Dogmaster”, the protagonist pawns his dog Zero every day. Then, one day, he liberates Zero from “the broker” early. The story ends like this:
You sleep with the prospect of a dream of waking to another world where such facility will be granted that even Zero will hold conversations with the light.
I can see that dream in the half-open moving eye of the black dog.
And the broker will play his evening flute from his blockhouse at the farthest end of the narrow bridge. Not one of us will be inclined to respond except Zero with his dark note of derision.
I remember the long look that passed between Russell and their border collie Pip the day before Russell died. On the morning he died, Pip came into the bedroom and rested her chin on the bed near Russell’s head. Then she made a sound like a growl and left the room. He’d gone, and Pip’s “dark note of derision” said it was time to go for a walk among trees and birds.
Ian Wedde, August 25, 2016
A note from the Spinoff Review of Books: Russell Haley – “probably the best Yorkshire surrealist writing in New Zealand”, as CK Stead famously joked – was the author of short fiction including The Sauna Bath Mysteries and Other Stories (Mandrake Root, 1978), Real Illusions: A Selection of Family Lies and Biographical Fictions in Which the Ancestral Dead Also Play Their Part (Victoria University Press, 1984), and novels such as All Done With Mirrors (Hazard, 1999). He was also editor of the final issue of maybe the liveliest literary journal in New Zealand letters, like, ever, Freed (1972).