By Trevor Agnew
Are there really man-eating sharks in Lake Waikaremoana. Or is it just a bush camp yarn? Trevor Agnew spoke to that champion bush-camp yarn-spinner, Jack Lasenby.
Jack Lasenby has done for Waharoa (population 531) what Jane Austen did for Bath. Because of his books, the tiny Waikato town of his birth will always be associated with a golden childhood of summer holidays, boiled lollies, orchard raids, and Uncle Trev’s tall tales of yodelling eels, the Waharoa Women’s Institute Cavalry, bathtub tomato sauce, the dog-scoffing boar pig and the travelling asparagus bed. Many of Lasenby’s stories including The Seddon Street Gang trilogy and Mr Bluenose are set there and his latest novel, The Tears of Harry Wakatipu, begins with the five-year old hero fleeing Waharoa to become a deer-culler.
“I spend a lot of time in my memory there,” says Jack Lasenby. “I’ve always enjoyed trying to push my memory back as far as possible. I find the past fascinating.”
So do others. Recently the Minister of Culture claimed that Jack kissed her mother, former Governor-General Cath Tizard, behind the plantation at Waharoa. Lasenby denies it, “No, Cath’s made it up. What Mum used to make me do was walk Catherine home from our place of a Sunday evening, if she’d come over for tea. Mum never lost an opportunity to teach us manners.” On the other hand, Lasenby knows the value of a good yarn, “Oh God, let’s say I kissed Catherine behind the plantation.” He laughs. “In fact I suspect we were a bit too close, brother and sister virtually, growing up and going through school together. It makes a good yarn though and that’s all that matters, eh?”
A good yarn is Jack Lasenby’s specialty. It is twenty years since he wrote his first novel, The Lake, and took the calculated risk of resigning from his senior lecturer’s position at the Wellington College of Education. While his more serious novels have won acclaim and prizes, it is the knockabout fun of Uncle Trev, Aunt Effie and Harry Wakitipu that children of all ages relish.
Harry Wakatipu, the larcenous packhorse, began “just by being a lazy, greedy slob,” a comic foil for the deer-cullers working in what Lasenby (a former deer-culler himself) insists upon calling the Grim Inscrutable Ureweras. Aware that the kids who began reading about him in the first book, Harry Wakatipu (1993), are growing older, Lasenby has also made Harry older and a little more sinister. Now Harry doesn’t just steal condensed milk; he ferments alcohol from it.
Pitted against Harry (although sometimes singing and dancing with him) is the Grey Ghost, who can walk on water and fires his .303 from the hip. He is based on Ted Rye, the Senior Field Officer, who Lasenby reveres as a master story teller. “He was a very important figure to us in the bush. Barry Crump reckoned he was the father-figure we were all looking for, and I think there was a certain amount of truth in that.”
“Most important, he was a terrific story-teller. And that set the pattern for both Crump and myself, and maybe a number of others too.” No less than six of their group of deer-cullers became published writers.
Lasenby credits his bush story-telling experiences for much of his success. “For years and years, while the old body would take it, I used to go back to the bush each summer, carry a fly-rod, and tramp over all those old tracks and revisit our old camps, most of them disappeared now, of course. And I’d live back there in the time. I’d swear I could hear the voices of those jokers and myself talking to each other. It was like bringing back the past, and I suppose that’s underlayed the writing of the Harry Wakatipu books. It’s not trying to live in the past but to recapture it.”
Note: This interview article by Trevor Agnew was first published on 15th July 2006 in the Press, Christchurch, New Zealand to mark the publication of Jack Lasenby's latest Harry Wakatipu novel.
The Tears of Harry Wakatipu Jack Lasenby, Longacre Press, 2006, 203 pages, paperback, $18.99. ISBN 1-877361-43-7