Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Jack Lasenby remembered

Jack Lasenby
Transcript of interview, Tue 23 May 2006, by Trevor Agnew

 [Arranged by Longacre Press, at time of publication of The Tears of Harry Wakatipu]

Jack Lasenby: JL

Trevor Agnew: TA

Phone call, 11 am 23-5-2006:

JL: Jack Lasenby.

TA: Hello, it’s Trevor Agnew here, in Christchurch, Jack.

JL: Oh, How are you Trevor?

TA: Thank you very much for agreeing to let me talk to you on the phone

The Author as seen by Bob Kerr
JL: Oh, that’s okay. Thanks for being interested in doing anything.

TA: Oh, no, I’m fascinated by your books. We’re hoping to do 500 words in The Press, and there may, or may not, be other things I want to do out of it, so can I ask you all sorts of questions?

JL: Yes, of course, anything you like.

TA: We’re kicking off the fourth volume of Harry Wakatipu, but there’s lots of other things I want to ask you about. I don’t know where to start. Can we start in Waharoa?
With your birth in Waharoa?

JL: Yeah.

TA: I’m fascinated that it’s a place you’ve made into a literary, um, I don’t know, it’s become a place like Jane Austen’s Bath.

JL: Well, I never intended it, Trevor. It’s just like Topsy, it’s sort of grown that way.

TA: Oh yes.

JL: I don’t know if it’s a consequence of that or the other way round, I spend a lot of time in my memory there. But then I suppose I do that anyway, with places where I’ve spent time. I seem to revisit them a lot. In fact, I love…I’ve always enjoyed trying to push my memory back as far as possible, and bring back those past events. Partly out of sheer cussedness, because people tend to say you mustn’t bother about the past and all the rest of it. But I find the past fascinating.

TA: I think you’re the one who has written the best children’s books about the past and the future of New Zealand. You don’t write about the present much?

JL: No, no, and that was a bit of a surprise to me. A few years ago I thought that and I thought that I should be writing about things in the present as well, and then I thought, no, why the hell should I? There are plenty of people doing that. Then I tried to rationalise it and I decided most of the best books are not written about the immediate present. I’m not just thinking of kids’ book but most books are written with a sort of retrospective idea. Dickens, for example. So much of what was appalling in his novels wasn’t happening in his time. He used the distance to advantage, it seems to me.

Bob Kerr's cover for Harry Wakatipu
I know there’s lots of present and futuristic writing as well. But as I said, that’s probably my way of rationalising it. Also I’m just so busy on what I’ve got, and I have been for the past umpteen years.

TA: Yeah, I can’t believe how much you’ve written. I’ve been working, putting some of it on to a database in Australia [The Source] and it’s huge

JL: Yeah, I’m a bit surprised myself. It just keeps coming out. Although I’m getting pretty long in the tooth now – I’m seventy-five - I’ve still got umpteen books under way at various stages, finished and waiting and so on.

TA: I’m pleased to hear that.  In 1986, I was at Wellington Teachers’ College and you spoke to Gwen Gawith’s Trained Teacher-Librarians Group.

JL: Oh, were you on that?

TA: I was in that first group, yes.

JL: Was that the one that Margaret Mahy was at as well?

TA: Margaret Mahy came and spoke to us, yes.

JL: Aaah. Funny, somebody else, another librarian, was just talking about that. Goodness, that was years ago.

TA: You came and spoke to us. You had written The Lake at that stage and it hadn’t yet been published. It was obviously a key moment in your life.

JL: It was, very much. It was because of that book [The Lake, 1987] that I took the decision to give up College and write fulltime. And I did so. It was a crazy thing to do. I gave up a Senior Lectureship and a good salary at the College and just crossed my fingers and hoped that Muldoon’s superannuation would be there when I got to it, and it was, luckily.

TA: That book reads very well. It hasn’t aged.

JL: Goodness, I haven’t looked at it for years and years. I don’t know if I’ve looked at it since that time. It comes to mind every now and again when somebody mentions it. You know, the odd letter from a kid. They still write occasionally and say when are you going to write a sequel to The Lake?  I think, God, there isn’t time for sequels.

I did think of two or three sequels, the plots for them but I was busy with other stuff.

But it was important to me, very important in getting me going, and also in settling a few bits.  The girl, Ruth, the protagonist in the book itself partly arose from my direct experience back in my teaching days, and of course my direct experience of the bush. So it all came together

TA: I was impressed by a minor aspect of The Lake – I was impressed by the major aspects as well - but the minor one I thought was fascinating was the New Zealandness of it. For Ruth, it is Maui who steals the secret of fire, not Prometheus. She’s got the Maori myths and she’s got her father’s copy of The Plants of New Zealand, and she whispers the secret names of the plants in the bush.

JL: You bring it back now. The naming was very important it seemed to me - for her.  The thing was that a dear old friend in Auckland, Minna Wolfgram, had given me a copy of Lang and Blackwell [The Plants of New Zealand] and I carried it in the bush myself, in the way that Ruth did, to teach myself the names of the trees.  In that way, I found myself much more comfortable once I could put names to them. A very common phenomenon, of course. I love that book. In fact, I’ve still got a copy of it on hand, on my desk where I write, just to check things and verify.  A beautiful book. Long outdated of course. It’s still got a particular quality to it.

TA: I would agree.

JL: But the New Zealandness, I don’t know.  I didn’t ever write consciously o
f New Zealand; still don’t. I’m just writing out of experience, of course, and New Zealand is what I am and where I am, so it’s there.

TA: Good.

JL: And I just read one of Vince O’Sullivan’s short stories, he gave me the other day, his new volume of short stories. And there’s a reference to a woman with a spectacular bust. And she did the Allen Curnow poetry-writing course at Auckland University, it says in this story - I don’t know whether Curnow actually ran such a course - where she was called “spectacular bosom.” A throw-off at Curnow’s marvellous “spectacular blossom” poem, of course. I’ve mentioned it to several people in the last couple of days and they all say, oh, that’s a bit arcane, that’s a bit…  

Arcane – that’s the word one person used. Only a few people will pick that up. I said, but God, Joyce described the “pieways and byways of Dublin” And yet he’s been read by thousands in New Zealand. Why shouldn’t we take things for granted the same way: New Zealand things?

TA: Yes, I’m reading The Tears of Harry Wakatipu and I came across this part where the narrator goes up to Galatea Station so early that “there was no movement at the station”. I don’t know if your New Zealand readers are going to pick that up but the Australians are.

JL: That’s directly from whatsisname’s poem, of course, “for the word had passed around that the colt from Old Regret had got away.” [Banjo Paterson, The Man from Snowy River] I love that sort of thing.

TA: I know your books are full of it, both overt and concealed.

JL: Well, I enjoy dropping allusions in. I don’t strive to make them but from that very first book, The Lake... In fact I remember arguing with Anne French at the Oxford University Press about one or two of my too obvious allusions.  But she didn’t notice things, such as towards the end of it – not The Lake but The Mangrove Summer -there’s a bit from Yeats’s The Second Coming “some rough beast slouching across the river” – the wind – and Anne didn’t pick it up and I was pleased and I sort of hugged it to myself because I am a big reader and an avid reader and, I hope, a very good reader. And all that past literature is enormously important to me.  And I don’t think most writers-teachers-parents do the job well enough of passing it on – that cultural thing.

TA: That’s almost the theme of your trilogy [quartet] Because We are the Travellers and The Shaman and the Droll and so on – saving the books? 

JL: Yes, very much so.

TA: Actually it’s rather nice there because you find chunks of books and you’re not told what they are, and you have to work out that they’re Great Expectations or Kim or whatever.

JL: That’s right. Great Expectations is another of those books that I re-read every year and it just has been a powerful influence on me. Ever since I first saw it, actually as a film, that old black and white BBC film. And I used to read it - when I became a teacher - I used to read the whole thing to my kids at school and then get a local cinema to put the film on and take them to see it.

TA: Magwitch.

JL: Yeah, wonderful Magwitch and Miss Havisham. And Oh, all the characters

Brilliant stuff. One of the great kid’s books, it seems to me.

TA: John Mills and the young Alec Guiness

JL: Yes, that’s the one. It seems to me wrong to see such books as adult books only. Theyr’e very much children’s books, in a certain sense too.

TA: I was looking at The Mangrove Summer and I found something that turned up, that also occurred in one of The Seddon Street Gang trilogy, where somebody dies and the children don’t sort of know how to take it in.

JL: That’s right. Jimmy.

TA: Yes.  It was sort of tragic in The Mangrove Summer and it’s sort of slightly minor, almost, in… I can’t remember which of the Seddon Street Gang books it is.

[A hopelessly confused muddle here, with both of us deaf and not connecting.

TA was thinking of the boy who died of polio in The Waterfall.

JL was thinking of Jimmy dying in The Mangrove Summer, and of Denny’s father dying in Dead Man’s Head. ]

JL: It was the boy’s – oh, what was his name now?

TA: Yes, the boy got polio and died.

JL: His father died

TA: Oh yes, the father died. That’s right, I remember the father dying. I was thinking of the wee boy who died of polio and they forgot him by the next summer.

JL: Sorry what was that, Trevor?

TA: There’s a wee boy dies of polio and they forget him by the next summer

JL: In the Mangrove Summer. Yes, Jimmy the little boy died, he was drowned in the mangroves

TA: That death in the Seddon Street ones is well done.

JL: Yes.

TA: Actually, I was very struck…It’s totally irrelevant, but I think you’ve got the only decent description of a really good hiding going on, in children’s literature in New Zealand

JL Of a really good what, sorry?

TA: Of a good hiding, a good belting.

JL: Yes, well, I was interested… I think Paula edited it, that series, Paula Bock… great editor. Just as she’s a good writer, she’s a wonderful editor. She made me take out one hiding that one of the kids got, that Bob - the sort-of leader boy - got when they got home after the Battle of Pook Island. She said, oh look, you can’t have Bob get a hiding; he’s just led a whole successful battle, and suddenly he’s reduced by it.

And I took it out - it was only a sentence or two, but I thought I was being consistent to the times, that’s all, and I gave in to Paula’s emotion.

But that hiding in the first one of that trilogy, Dead Man’s Head, yes, that was very significant. It happened in my own life. A dear, dearly-loved aunt gave me an unfair hiding. And there it popped itself up in a book, years later.

TA: Well, it’s very powerful and of course it doesn’t occur in most children’s literature. It’s interesting, because looking back in my own life and in all of New Zealand’s history, it’s been a great tradition, I guess.

JL: I think we’ve become too self-conscious about that sort of thing; politically correct rather than self-conscious.  Today’s kids, we don’t think we should scare them with it. It happened; therefore we have to refer to it, however obliquely or directly.

TA: Yes, indeed.

JL: The same thing, Jimmy’s death - I suppose I can admit it now - is in a sense the death of a brother, who died before the rest of us were born.  Not in that way at all. But I realise now, perhaps I was working something out about his death in The Mangrove Summer that I wasn’t aware of at the time.

TA: Right, it’s got the mood of it, you know.

JL: And most of such events in the books come from either direct or observed experience at some level, but I find a tremendous lot of it is directly experienced stuff and, well, you know the process, that sort of transmogrification of it on to a fictional character

TA: Indeed and beautifully done.

JL: And often, often there’s an unconscious level. You realise later just what it is you’ve been up to.

TA: I’m in awe of something which doesn’t get mentioned a lot, which is your Uncle Trev stories.  I had to summarise them all for the Australians [The Source]. I think there’s 116 or something. They’re fabulous.

JL: Good. Delighted to hear it.

TA: The thing that puzzled me, in my summary, is that I remembered somewhere that you’d written that the narrator is a girl. I think somewhere she is asking her mother about inheriting her jewels or something. And so in all my summaries I wrote that she was a girl. And I thought, later on, now I have been looking at the pictures in the School Journal and it’s a boy. So I’m not quite sure where I am.

JL: That’s right. It was done without my approval in the School Journal. In fact I was very annoyed but I hadn’t stipulated it as a condition of publication. In my bloody egotism I didn’t think of it.

JL: The thing was I didn’t want to identify it as either girl or boy.

TA: That’s true. It’s very neutral.

JL: At that time there were the beginnings of that thing that ‘girls can do anything and we must ignore the boys’, a stupid precept that many teachers and parents followed. I think it actually underlies one of the minor reasons for the increased youth suicide rate. A lot of boys simply got ignored by everybody. I’d say a minor factor but it’s still something I feel partly responsible for, having been at teachers’ college and a teacher, and going around schools. I found myself tending to overlook the boys wanting to ask questions, and nodding to a girl instead. And I thought this is absolutely wrong. So, when I wrote the Uncle Trev stories, I tried not to identify the boy or girl things, not to identify the protagonist sexually. I didn’t see any need for it

TA: The trap is when you’re summarising; you’ve got to write ‘he’ or ‘she’. I wrote ‘she’ all the way through.

JL: That’s right. I’ve done that several times, or else suppressed the sex of the child.

In a recent book, Mr Bluenose, I actually had a girl in mind but Paula launched that book and she described the protagonist as a boy. In fact she gave him the name Jack because the girl is never named. I thought I made it fairly clear towards the end that it was a girl. But several people have said to me oh no I read it as a boy. I’ve said that’s pure assumption on your part; the author’s a man, so therefore it must be a boy.

TA: I’m pretty sure I read it as a girl.

JL: You did.

TA: Again, my grandchildren have taken off with my copy…

JL: I’m delighted to hear that somebody is reading it as a girl. Because towards the end of it she’s sitting on the handlebar of her father’s bike, getting a double home and she asks him about when he’s going to give her her mother’s amber beads to wear. And he tells her, well, they’re handed down from mother to daughter at the age of 18.

In fact her mother, in my mind - in the sort of background to a book that the audience, the reader, doesn’t need to know about - her mother has died fairly recently. And in fact she’s still very disturbed by it, and this is why that group of men are keeping an eye on her, for her welfare

TA: That’s good. I didn’t pick that up. I can see it, now that you say it.

JL: There’s no need for the reader to know all that. That’s the author’s. I presume that’s something of why we write the books that we do, Trevor. I don’t know.

TA: I can see what you’re saying and that’s good. In fact, there’s an Uncle Trev story the same way, isn’t there? Where the boy - I always think of it as a girl – finds Uncle Trev working on her father’s grave, cutting the grass or something.

JL: That’s right. Like most of these things that you’ve picked up on, they’re almost all of them directly autobiographical.

TA: Oh yes.

Dick Frizzell's illustration for an Uncle Trev story
JL: That’s just a description of the three of us – although I didn’t describe three of us – going down to the cemetery at Waharoa, to our father’s grave with Mum, going down there to put fresh flowers on the grave, pull out the weeds, and that sort of thing.

Going back to The Mangrove Summer again, that’s where Jimmy, my brother, was buried next to Dad’s grave.

That particular story was drawn almost from life. I can remember walking, the dust squishing up between my toes, down Seddon Road, the metal road to the cemetery, and that sort of thing. It’s one of those stories that came fairly easily.

I’d forgotten about that one.

TA: Yes, it’s there and very good too. How do you feel, as a writer, about your work being used in school? I was talking to my granddaughter last night. She’s eleven and her class is [working on Dead Man’s Head, using passages to examine ways of writing, style and how the writer creates mood, effects he’s aiming for, etc.] I just wondered how you felt now that your work’s come to the stage where it’s being used in schools.

JL: About them being used like that in school?

TA: Yes.

JL: Trevor, I am extremely suspicious of that sort of device. I’m a bit puritanical about it because it seems to me to…and I’m trying to think of my own teaching and how I used books. I was always reluctant to do anything other than read a book to kids. I read a lot to my classes of whatever age - mainly Intermediates. [11 and 12 yr olds]

I didn’t even bother with discussion unless the kids brought it up, wanted particularly to discuss something, and then I would let them have their heads. But it seemed to me the value of reading a book at school was just in the reading itself, and you didn’t need lengthy post-mortems. Otherwise they lead to filling-in exercises, in which you go through and underline all the adjectives or something like that. And that seemed to me far from good teaching.

Yet I know that some teachers can take a story and get art-work out of it, for example, and things like that. It just wasn’t my way, that’s all.

TA: I think she is gaining a very good idea of how you put the life into the story

JL: Yeah, well, if that, then it’s obviously worthwhile. As I say, I’m probably a bit narrow about that. I wouldn’t discourage anybody from doing it. As always, if it works, well, why the hell not, you know.

TA: Fair enough.

I’m pretty utilitarian when it comes to that sort of thing. What works for one teacher doesn’t necessarily work for another, you know.

TA: She said to tell you that she does like the way that some of your books talk about some of the others. I think she was reading Aunt Effie’s Ark, and they looked down and saw all the hunters, including your young self with Barry Crump, Rex Newton, the Grey Ghost and Harry.

JL: Tell her I enjoyed writing that bit, that idea of looking back at myself, back in time because all those others I named were real men, almost all of them dead now.

But I just liked the idea of re-creating them in that sense, and myself amongst them.

Because for years and years, while the old body would take it, I used to go back to the bush each summer, leave my car with some friends at Ruatahuna, and I’d tramp and fish for trout, 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 more of that, trying not to live in the past but to recapture it.

TA: Yes, that’s fair enough. I like that.

JL: And old Ted Rye…

TA: Yes, the Grey Ghost.

JL: The Grey Ghost. 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.

TA: And that’s a theme you’ve developed in this book, isn’t it?

JL: Yes. 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. Because quite a few jokers from that decade of government shooters, deer-cullers, have written books themselves

TA: I think you worked out once that there were six of them had published.

JL: Yes.

TA: Which is amazing.

JL: Surprising, from such a small number. Not all fiction, of course. Just the fact, that so many have written. But then that’s a bit of a reflection of New Zealand. Every second person’s got a book published haven’t they?

TA: Yes, but not necessarily a good one. I had to summarise all the New Zealand children’s books and there’s some mighty awful ones.

JL: Yeah, that’s something that worries me, rather. Again, that’s a reason for leaving the present alone largely. I started to write stuff for today’s teenagers; I feel increasingly ill-at-ease with that term young adults; it’s got all unfortunate connotations for me. But I looked at what’s being written and, while there’s some marvellous stuff that I admire, I found too much of it propagandistic, directed by the authors, too much of it merely reflecting the experiences of kids, instead of being the sort of fiction that would enable them to…well, for catharsis to occur, I suppose, is the best way of putting it. And I think that helped me turned back to writing about the past rather than the present.

TA: Do you think the propaganda aspect is conscious or unconscious?

JL: Look, I’m worried about the dwelling on the extreme of experience that occurs in a lot of kids’ books, teenage books, young adult books. And yet, when I think of it, Paula’s [Bock] Dare, Truth or Promise, is doing exactly that. And Kate’s  wonderful book on the mother who came back from Aussie and…

TA: Closed Something. [Closed Stranger]

JL: Yes. Very extreme subjects but in that case they’re so well handled that they work extremely well.

TA: Yes, they’re very real.

JL: Young adult literature has become almost a parade of such extremities, that I hope somebody will just write a very successful book about an ordinary kid having ordinary experiences. It worries me, because to dwell on the extremes seems to me a form of exploitation in a way.

TA: Yes, fair enough.

JL I suppose the best comparison is old Trollope starting to write the Barsetshire novels, and I think it’s in the introduction to The Warden, - either in the Warden or Barchester Towers, I think the first - where he refers to Dickens as Mr Popular Sentiment, and said if he were to write a book like The Warden, he would call it The Alms-House. And he was really having a dig at Dickens. And an unfair one. But I see Trollope’s point-of-view. He didn’t believe in keeping anything from the reader whatsoever so he would so often lay out the plot of the book in the first few chapters, so nothing was hidden. Whereas, Dickens wanted to produce the shock-horror reaction often, of course.

TA: But you still love Obidiah Slope, don’t you?

JL: Yes. I guess, coming back to my feelings, it’s really: does it work well or not? That’s all one can measure it by.

TA: You were starting in almost a new direction when you produced Because We Were the Travellers, that first of the – actually I’ve been calling it a trilogy, but it’s actually four isn’t it? [Because We Were the Travellers, Taur, The Shaman and the Droll, Kalik]

JL: Most people describe it as a trilogy. I don’t know why. It just is. I don’t know. They were a hard series. I enjoyed writing them but I found them increasingly… disturbing, I suppose.

TA: A lot of the mythology that was coming through in the text; it carries its own disturbing things. They were about real things like life and death, and it can get pretty nasty.

JL: Well, I’ve always read, especially, the Greek and the Northern European mythologies. And the Maori and the Christian, as well.

TA: I felt there was a very Old Testament element there too, I felt.

JL: Yes, there’s all that and I don’t know, perhaps I overdid it, all that referring back.   It was enormously satisfying to me, to work all that stuff into it. I just think we grow out of not just our own mythologies but also that of anybody else we are lucky enough to come across. I certainly feel very close to the Greeks and the European experience, I suppose, because of being – as far as I know – of European descent. But I don’t go along with all this humbug about genealogy. I don’t think we know who our grandmothers slept with, despite all the humbug that’s talked about it.

I don’t think it’s even any of our business, to tell you the truth. Yeah, I’m a bit worried about it; it’s a bit like palmistry and hand-reading, much of what I hear of that stuff.

TA: Yes, fair enough.

JL: On the other hand to possess the mythology of another society is to be a member of that society, in a way, it seems to me.

TA: Yes, I notice in The Lake that you only get in twelve pages and the teacher is telling them the story of Death and the appointment in Samarra.  You have these wonderful fables and legends and stories.

JL: Isn’t that a beautiful story? God it’s great.

TA: I was fascinated by that, and I also enjoyed the idea of Ish in Because We Were the Travellers, because he was cast out by his tribe, he was very much an Ishmael.

JL: Years ago [Barry] Crump and I sat down, once up in Auckland when we were out of the bush, and we went through all the books we knew and tried to find the best first sentence. We found there were brilliant first sentences, of course. That is an interesting academic exercise. In the end, I decided, and I can’t remember whether Barry agreed, but It’s Moby Dick. Call me…

TA: …Ishmael

JL: Shit, what an opening sentence!

And from that Ish and old Hagar came, and there’s the story of Hagar and her bearing Ish - Ishmael and being driven out into the desert so, as Bronowski said of it, that the bloodline could be kept pure. And that interesting fact that Sarah conceived to Abraham after Ishmael was born – the wife then conceived having sent her handmaiden to her husband so the bloodline would continue – she then conceives.

And I’ve known that occur in life so often. Fertility is a three-cornered thing, sometimes. It’s a strange one. That gave an impetus to those books – just that story alone
TA: Nice echoes. I have read some of your stuff about it and it’s fascinating.  I also like Aunt Effie and her total scorn for reality.

[JL laughs]

TA: You see, I was going to ask you a big serious question about how there’s an awful lot of technical things going on in your stories. The kids [in Aunt Effie], they build ships and they sail them; they build kauri dams… I could go on for a long time.  Then I came across Aunt Effie saying, “I never understand half of what I read and it’s never done me any harm.”

JL: Yes, that’s right. Exactly. I’m using my own experience there, of course.  When I came to writing that [Aunt Effie], for once, there was a bit of didacticism there.  I thought of my childhood, much of which was spent not just in Waharoa but at my mother’s birthpace at Mercury Bay, up the Coromandel, Whitianga.  

My mother was born in the mid-1890s so she inherited the days of the gold and kauri exporting. Her father, who was into every sort of business, had a bakery and brought out about forty what he called ‘Austrians’ - Dallies, gumdiggers - and he ran a store and all sorts of things. He used to bring home the skippers of these big four-masted barquentines coming in to the bay to load with kauri, and Mum used to sit and listen to them. So I heard about all that and I’ve always been entranced by the story of the scows on the New Zealand coast, especially up around the North.

I thought, well, there’s a generation of kids, who - because of political correctness – don’t know how you would go about chopping down a big kauri tree. But it’s in our history. I thought I’m going to chop down a kauri and I’m going cut it into lengths and put it on bogies, and run it down a bush tramway and then drive it down the Bay River and build a scow out of it and take the logs up to the breaking-down mills up in Auckland. So I worked the whole thing in there.  

And I thought, what a bloody, old, finger-wagging shit of a teacher you are, Jack Lasenby. But I enjoyed doing it.

TA: And I noticed that little schizophrenic touch where your Daisy, I think, is your didactic part. She writes what I think is the funniest part of the book sometimes, the glossary at the back. When Daisy starts defining things it’s very funny.

JL: Yes, Daisy is an interesting character. She’s based upon on Aunt Daisy of mine, my mother’s elder sister. In fact, the names of the kids from Daisy downwards are the names of my family on my mother’s side, including three cousins who were the same age as the three of us. Their mother was dead and our father died about the same time, so we used to spend that time at Mercury Bay together in the care of an aunt and my mother.  So Aunt Effie grew out of that and the naming of them in that way. I don’t know if any of the family have ever read it or found out about it. Most of them are dead of course.

TA: That was going to be my next question, actually. I was going to ask about them.

JL: I’m sure they would all enjoy it, except possibly Daisy.

TA: Now I was at Margaret Mahy’s Gala 70th Birthday in Auckland recently. The Minister for Culture [Hon. Judith Tizard] got up and said that Jack Lasenby had kissed a former Governor-General behind the plantation. There was general applause and acclaim and it was felt to be a really good thing. The former Governor-General [Dame Cath Tizard, Judith’s mother] was present and seemed to be confirming this. It was good fun. That was Judith Tizard having fun there.

JL: Judith repeated that - I’m getting so bloody deaf I didn’t pick it up properly - Judith repeated that at Parliament the other day at the Kids’ Book Awards. I heard her say something about the plantation and laughter.  

JL: Barbara Larson later told me what she had said, and asked ‘Is that true about you and Cath Tizard?’ - Cath McLean as she was - and I said ‘No, it’s all bullshit that Cath’s made up’. What Mum used to make me do was make me walk Catherine home from our place of a Sunday evening, if she’d come over for tea and sitting around talking. Mum never lost an opportunity to teach us manners. I’d have to walk Catherine home through the plantation either side of the railway lines at Waharoa.

TA: That’s heart-breaking. You’ve ruined everything.

JL: Oh God, let’s say I kissed Catherine behind the plantation. [Laughs] In fact I suspect we were a bit too close, brother and sister virtually, the relationship, growing up and going through school together. It makes a good yarn and that’s all that matters, eh?

TA: Oh yes, indeed.  I enjoyed that. I believe your Uncle Trev is based on your Uncle Chris, who brought you messages from the bull on the farm.

JL: That sort of vague connection, from which things start. Uncle Chris had a huge farm out the back of home and he was a bachelor. And none of that query of his bachelorhood existed in those days. Was he a queer? I’ve got no idea. He didn’t seem to be. Maybe he was just, sort of, neutral. He was an abundant storyteller.

Today, because of our over-concern with homosexuality, it seems to me, he’d be under suspicion because – since he was such a traffic storyteller -  kids flocked around him. Not just our family but every kid in Waharoa would come to listen to his stories.

He was a great exaggerator and I think Trev grew fairly naturally out of him.

TA: That makes sense, and that brings us to the terrible Harry. I’ve become more and more worried about Harry as we go along. This tendency of his to have hands, and…

JL: Well he began just by being a lazy greedy slob. He has become more sinister because I had in mind probably, in The Tears of [Harry Wakatipu], this recent one of him, he’s grown a bit older.

I suppose I’ve got in mind, partly, that the kids who began reading him in the first book years ago [Harry Wakatipu (1993)] are growing older. So, there’s the hints of homosexuality come into this one.

TA: I didn’t know if they were intended or not, when they were all dancing and kissing each other.

JL Yes, Harry’s become a slyer, darker figure in certain ways too.

TA: I think he has but I think this is because you’re looking at the question of the father figure and the Grey Ghost and the awareness of feet of clay

JL: That came through very strongly. I once started off to write a book about old Ted Rye and my relationship with him, and it never got anywhere. I put it aside for kids’ books I realised didn’t really want to put my effort into an adult book but he’s bobbed up again whether I like it or not

JL: I think his stories are marvellous too; all those throwaway lines like your firing the rifle so much that it got shorter. That absolutely killed me.

TA: I have enjoyed writing them very much indeed. In fact I’ve got another Harry Wakatipu virtually written somewhere on the hard drive, that I’ll have to look at some day.

JL Yes, please. For some time I was a passenger in a car driving my grandchildren to school and we found that the stories about Uncle Trev and the chapters of Harry Wakatipu more or less worked out to one car trip. What interested me was that I had at the time a five, an eight and an eleven year old and they were all laughing at jokes in the stories, but as Sybil Fawlty said, not always at the same time.

JL: There are two things in that, that delight me.  One, I’ve increasingly tried to match the length of the stories or chapters to what a teacher might read comfortably to a class or a parent to a kid for a bed-time story, or just what you described, driving the kids to school.

TA: A comfortable read. I was a passenger, not the driver, don’t forget.

JL It seemed to me many chapters are either too short or too long. You can get a story into a chapter of about – in fact – I’ve tried lengths of about 1400 to 1600 words, in several of my later books just to try and pick up if that’s working. Without asking questions or drawing attention to it. You’re the first person who’s commented on that.

The other factor that’s very important to me is to break down the categorising of books. First of all there’s children’s books or adult books. With Harry Wakatipu, I found lots of my old deer-culler mates were reading him, and delighting in him. And I thought, Christ, they couldn’t be but I’d forgotten that they were highly intelligent men who – just like anything – why shouldn’t they read fiction about what they remember of their own lives?

So I love to break down that categorising between children’s and adults but then I love to try to break it down between the various ages of children. Ideally you should be able to read a story or a book to a whole family of kids rather than just one age level, it seems to me.

TA: I can testify that it certainly works

JL: Well great, I am delighted. It’s not a prime concern but it’s still very satisfying to hear that.

TA: The whole thing of writing children’s literature has changed from being un-noticed to becoming quite heavily studied and analysed. You’re an old training college lecturer yourself; you know what I mean. Now there are whole courses in children’s literature.

JL: Which in one sense I think is marvellous. In another, I’m horrified by it. There are  obvious advantages to it. But I know from my own experience of being a student and then of lecturing at College, of how far you can get away from the book itself, into those sterile exercises. I guess you just have to take one with another.

TA: Yes.

F.R. I look back at old F.R. Leavis and those famous lectures and books of his. How influential he was through that period of his active life and how most people have absolutely forgotten him now. Yet for years he was virtually the god of English Literature was he incorrect in much of what was taken for granted? He did seem to me to get a fair way away from the books, involved in his theorising about them. And that is always the danger with the academic.

TA: I think you’re right; there’s only [Tom] Sharpe remembers him, I think.

JL: You take part of the Christchurch course don’t you?

TA: No.

JL: I thought for some reason that you gave a course within that.

TA: No, I’m an ex-teacher. My hearing packed up and I work quietly at reviewing books for Magpies and putting things on The Source database. John McKenzie runs that [Children’s Literature] course at the Christchurch College of Education.

JL: I knew you’d been a teacher. So you’ve had trouble with your hearing as well.

TA: Oh, yes. I think most of us abused our hearing in our youth and suffered later.

JL: It’s a bugger, isn’t it? But, again, it’s just a part of life and you have to get on with it.

TA: Well, I’ve got these beautiful hearing aids now and I can actually hear again, which is fabulous.

JL: Yes. Doesn’t it help?

TA: It wrecked the classroom. If you can’t hear a kid, you can’t talk back to them.

JL I gave up working in schools, going and telling stories and talking to kids, because I simply couldn’t hear so many of those high voices. That worried me and people kept on at me until I felt bloody guilty about it.

[Tape turn-over. JL discussed spotting teachers in the classroom often not listening to kids. Are they deaf or inattentive?]

Side B:

JL: …switching off while they’ve got somebody else to occupy the kids, or is there widespread deafness amongst many teachers?

TA: It’s a worrying thought with loud music and tapes.

JL: And I wondered if that explained why so many teachers seemed to me to ignore kids, in all the time that I was visiting schools professionally, you know, with students and so on.

TA: That’s a whole theory to take up isn’t it?

JL: Yes, yes. I don’t like thinking of it too much but there are many teachers, I’ve noticed, who seem to me to be inattentive to the children kids themselves. It might be a part explanation, I don’t know.

TA: I always feel that teaching is the most important role. I know I’m biased.

JL: Hugely important

TA: As a former history teacher I’m enjoying your stuff because I always enjoy the little historical jokes about the Auckland Weekly and such like that are popped in.

JL: I agree with you entirely. I think teaching is just so hugely important and largely underestimated too.  I don’t know how to draw to its importance without having it become too much of a good thing. So that then deters the public from giving them [teachers] the recognition they need.

TA: I think they’re doing a good job of dismantling the ‘good’ aspects of the education system before our very eyes. They’ll find out.

JL: I’m horrified by a lot of it.

TA: A lot of box-ticking goes on.

JL Yes. By 1987 I could see the oncome of Monetarism and the negative aspects of the whole Maori thing and of Feminism, two movements that I have tried to assist, as far as I could see. But things seemed to me to be going cockeyed. My main motive for resigning early was simply to write, but those were factors in it. And I’m afraid much of what I saw going on at the College, when I used to go back and speak there, just corroborated some of my worst fears.

TA: Ah.

JL: For example, when I taught at the College here [Wellington Teachers’ College, now Wellington College of Education] we taught – a great deal of our work was done through the arts themselves. And that seemed to me to be practically dismantled after that time. A number of contemporaries of mine left during that period, or a few years after, and the courses in painting, in music, in writing and literature and so forth, they just dwindled away to almost nothing. And it seems to have been the experience, not just through New Zealand, but overseas too.

My sister was a lecturer at a teachers’ college in London and then became an inspector of pre-schools, and she corroborated my experience over there. Much the same sort of thing concerned her.

TA: So you think it’s world-wide.

JL: Yes

TA: Oh dear. I was hoping it wouldn’t happen. I actually felt a chord when I heard you talking on the radio talking about Ted Rye. You or somebody had asked him why he left Forestry and he said, ‘Oh, they tried to send me on a man-management course.’

JL: That’s right

TA: And I thought, wow! That has got just the very feel of what I think about this.

JL: There was a lot more than that to it, but that sums up how they treated him. Those younger men with university qualifications, foresters, trying to get rid of this embarrassing older man who was their intellectual superior, but who had no qualifications and to them was cutting corners and, worst of all, was being a damned sight more efficient than they were. He was the first example to me of the way that happens so cruelly in life. He gave up that job and came in with me, possum-trapping.

I’d left the deer-culling myself. So we made a hell of a lot more money out of the possums but his heart was still with the deer and the problem of them. He knew his methods were superior of course but what triumphed in the end was simply technology.  The choppers came and that just altered it and control of the deer came with it.

TA: You were telling us a story in 1987, which I still remember. You were reading Edgar Allen Poe and you had a younger group with you. I think we’re talking deer culling, I’m not sure.

JL: That was in 1955.

TA: The Cask of Amontillado

JL: Yes, that’s right, The Cask of Amontillado. I had a track-cutting party across the lake. I’d only had one season’s experience myself but Ted put me in charge of that party. I was sort of appointed like a junior field officer; we were called Sub-Area Supervisors.

TA: I can’t believe it

JL: Yes, extraordinary, the bureaucratic language - of a bunch of something as elemental as deer cullers. Anyway, I was put in charge of this party. First of all Crump and Roy King and myself went across and started cutting a track the far end of Waikaremoana. Then they took off and I was given a bunch of new jokers and took them across and we cut a track up from Marau Hut to, it was to go to Whakataka up on the Huiaraus. [Huiarau Range] It was a dreadful winter and I suppose, in today’s language, the morale of the camp, the party, was low. One of them asked me why I didn’t read them a story, one of the stories I read each night and I read them The Cask of Amontillado. There was a big southerly blowing, we were camped up on the ridge, in the bush, in the full blast of the southerly and we were out of meat. I hadn’t been able to get a deer for several days and things weren’t too good at all.

I read them that and things changed virtually overnight. They all got up the next day and we cut the track and I managed to shoot a couple of stags down in the valley below us on the way back to camp. I cut round that way. We had meat that night, which was very important in their diet of course

They were all sitting up in their sleeping, bags wanting another story, by the time I got around to clambering into my own bag. I read them another story I think it was probably The Masque of the Red Death and that scared the shit out of them. And it just went on like that; they wanted another story every night

And that’s where I learned how storytelling improves those relationships between the people who share it. So I carried that information into my teaching when I went teaching years later.

TA: That’s a great phrase

JL: That was the best preparation I made for teaching, was to make sure I took a book along to read to kids on the first day. Despite all the attempts at a scientific approach to the training of teachers today, that would still be my advice to them, just because it worked so well for me

TA: What would be your advice for people considering taking up writing?

JL: I suppose simply the old one of read.

TA: Aha.

JL: But also, I think, begin with storytelling. If you’ve got kids, well, if you’re in your fortunate circumstance, you’ve got all that background, haven’t you? Of teaching and interest in reading, and you’ve got kids and grandchildren and it seems to me that if you’ve got that direct connection, that seems to give us an impetus to storytelling.

I was trying to think around for somebody in the same light and it is Dickens telling his stories, giving those animated readings, and writing them at the same time and Stevenson, writing Treasure Island for that child whom he dedicated it to. And it seems to me if you’ve got that, you’re halfway there; you build on that experience. But then there are other writers, I’m sure, who never saw a kid in their lives and still wrote great books for them.

But I think reading, knowing the literature, not necessarily just the English, of course, but knowing any literature or mythology is the first step. But how you develop the consciousness for language that makes the difference just between the blunderer and the successful practitioner, I’m damned if I know.

I really think writers are born rather than made. I’m very suspicious of the writers’ courses, Trevor.

TA: Yes?

JL: And yet I know that Bill Manhire has huge success here, and others throughout the country. But I also know that most of the successes are people who are already well on their way to being writers.

TA: I’ve heard Owen Marshall and some others talking about these courses and they say that you can’t really impose on the people who take their courses because they are always very firm in their minds already. He’s always surprised at that.

JL: Yes

TA: And that all you can do is tell them about the mechanics, which are important – you know, don’t write in green ink on both sides of the page. And show exemplars, he said, was the other thing. Which is interesting, because it seemed to me that isn’t quite what we think of. We always think of them, sort of turning out mass-produced writers, but it sounds as if all they’re doing is guiding the force in one direction or another. He said a lot of them arrived with very fixed ideas about how they were going to do it and… [TA is talking too fast.]

JL Sorry what was that last bit?

TA: A lot of these people who are hoping to write, who come to the courses, Owen Marshall was saying, arrive with very fixed ideas on how they want to write, what they want to write and he didn’t feel courses had much influence that way. But he thought that by putting the exemplars in front of them, it was a good thing they could do.

JL: I think those are two useful things the mechanics of writing and approaching publishers and so on, yes, going back to the basic mechanics. Shaping the sentence. Avoiding the adjectives and avoiding  –ly adverbs – Those are simple things that you can pass on, and perhaps it saves people finding them out for themselves. I think part of one’s growth, though, is finding these things out for yourself

And the studying of your exemplars, yes, I think that’s an excellent idea. I remember Stevenson, when I was a kid, I must have been about 11 or 12, and I read him somewhere saying he practised writing in the style of this author and that author, and he found it a very useful thing. And that stuck in my head because I’d always, as far back as I can think back, virtually, I’d always had the idea of wanting to write.

TA: Really?

JL: My unease with that is partly the simple fashionablity of it. There are writers workshops and courses in schools, in colleges, and in universities. It has become a bit of a middle class fashion, it seems to me. And I’ve always worried about the dead hand of the middle class. I’m squarely in the middle of it myself, of course.

TA: Would children today find the chance to get their writing published, the way you did? I noticed you were nine, when you were first paid for a story - in a women’s magazine, I think.   

JL: Well, that was just a little paragraph really, a tiny story that I pinched off my mother and copied down and sent off to the [NZ] Women’s Weekly and it was published there on their Over the Teacups page. That’s all it was but it was published.

TA: I remember that page. And you got half a crown?

JL Yeah, I got about a half-a-crown, or one and six, or something, a postal note for that amount, how they paid you in those days. And that must have been enormously encouraging to me.

I can’t say that I can actually describe its effect. But nevertheless I think it must have had a shaping effect on me. Now, I don’t know whether kids can get publication like that these days. I had a friend ring last night and ask had we an equivalent to that American magazine for kids’ writing, Stone Soup, and if so I don’t know of it.

But in the end, I don’t know if it’s necessary either because… Well, look at the young Margaret Mahy who began telling stories to her classmates, on the way to and from school and at playtime and so on. I think that’s probably the best beginning, still, is the telling of stories. If you can get any poor bugger to sit long enough to listen to you, of course.

TA: I’ll grant you that’s a fair comment. I was just wondering about one other aspect: the role of the editor. You have mentioned several editors as we’ve been going along and I was thinking, you were also editing at the School Journal weren’t you?

JL: I was what, sorry?

TA: You were editing at the School Journal at one time.

JL: Yes, yes.

TA: I feel that must have been influential. You must have been publishing Margaret Mahy when she was first writing?  I know Alistair Campbell and others were involved.

JL: Yes, Margaret Mahy and a number of other good writers. Yes, it was hugely influential because I polished up a lot of those mechanical sides of my knowledge of prose at that time. Through having to look at the work of other people and examine it. Why does this story work and that one doesn’t? And so on.   I didn’t ever make any profound suggestions to anybody, I think.) And selecting what was worth publishing. And there wasn’t a huge supply of first-rate material, in those days.

TA: Yes. My old School Journals, when I look back at them, have quite a lot of English material in them.

JL: And I think that was a hugely influential and good thing. And I think that increasing nationalism – though it’s not seen as that by most people -  led to the including of a lot of material that’s in them these days because it’s about a grandmother who (well, to quote Margaret [Mahy]) rides a motorbike and therefore the story must be good. Or it’s about young Hemi Tawa and, therefore, because he’s a Maori, that must be good.

In other words I think there’s too much material in the School Journal that is politically correct rather than of sufficient literary quality. And there I am talking my head off without having read a recent Journal in years.

TA: I know the kind of thing you’re thinking of and I can see what you’re getting at. I think you’re probably right.

JL: You see, part of Monetarism was that they stopped supplying the Journals free of charge to anybody who was a contributor, whether you had anything in that Journal or not. And you could call in at School Pubs [School Publications, now Learning Media] in the time I was there and you could carry away an armload of them. We were happy to give them away, in that sense.

People going overseas would come in and ask if they could take a few examples. We’d even mail them to them overseas. With the advent of Monetarism, that was seen as irresponsible, not accountable, all that sort of thing. I think that’s something that’s been lost.

TA: I’m sure you’re right

JL So I’ve got out of touch with the Journal. If they’d continued to send them to me, I would have continued to contribute to them and to simply to keep up to date with them. But I’m out of touch altogether. And it worries me.

I don’t know that there is so much political correctness at Learning Media but I’ve got a fairly good guess at it from comments from one or two people who have worked there that there is some reason to be a bit concerned about it, on those grounds.

TA: Oh yes, and you see it also in quite a number of …if you’re poking through a book shop and get into the children’s picture books and things like that. Books that have no reason to be published other than that they’re…

JL: On the other hand, Trevor, I take consolation in the fact that time is the great winner and it simply stops a lot of the meretricious in its tracks

TA: Yes, I know what you mean. You see some of these books, they’re in perfect condition in the school libraries and they’re in perfect condition because nobody’s been reading them.

JL: Exactly, yes.

TA: You look for Alan Duff, and he’s not there because he’s been stolen. As I say, I was going around my bookshelves gathering my Jack Lasenbys, and quite a few of them are over at other people’s houses, being read. I’m sorry about that.

JL: (laughs)

TA: But look I’ve actually trapped you for an hour and I’m feeling guilty.  Especially since all I can promise is five hundred words in The Press.

JL: Sorry, I didn’t get that.

TA: I’m just saying that I’m feeling guilty about having stolen your time for an hour.

J: No, no, not at all. God, is it that long?

TA: I feel guilty, because I’ve always felt that writers and what they do, is not taken seriously and their time is not regarded as important. It’s just a guilty feeling I have.

JL: You don’t need to feel guilty for the purposes of what you’re doing. And also I’ve seen your work for years and admired it, so there’s no need for you to feel that, at all. 

TA: Oh, thank you

JL: Thank you for going to the bother of doing it. The article, that’s very good of you.

TA: It’s purely pleasure. Look, thank you very much, Jack.

JL: Okay Trevor, if you’ve got any other just give us a buzz, or have you got my e-mail?

[Gives e-mail address]
TA: Thank you very much. I might just, but I think I’ve got ample and I’m very pleased with what you’ve been saying. I’d love to go on for another hour or two but it’s not fair to you. Thank you.

JL: Anything else, don’t hesitate, Trev.

TA: And you just keep knocking out the next book, please.

JL: Ta.

TA: Thank you. Bye.



E-mail: Wed 24 May 2006, 12.09 pm

From: Trevor Agnew

To: Jack Lasenby

[Attachment: Continuum entry for Jack Lasenby. See below]

Dear Jack,

Thank you for a marvellous interview. You made so many interesting points that I am almost overwhelmed by the verbal riches.

I am grateful that you were willing to spare me so much time.

As a small (and inadequate) return, I am attaching for your amusement a very brief entry I wrote about you in 2003 for an American reference book, The Continuum Encyclopedia of Young Adult Literature. [I can think of several reasons why that title will irritate you.] It was one of the first writing commissions I had after leaving teaching, and I was fascinated to find that the editors had sorted the 'Young Adult authors' around the world into 3 categories.

C authors would have entries of up to 250 words, and the writer of the entry would be paid US$5.

B authors were 250 to 500 words ($15)

A authors got 750 to 1000 words ($25).

You will be delighted to know that the Continuum people regard you as an A author. I benefited by $25.  Allowing for inflation, I would guess that it matches the half-crown you got from the NZWW for the Over the Teacups paragraph.

I was eyeing the entry nervously as we talked but I don't think there are too many errors. There's not much perception either. I must say that your answers have been a great help in putting your books into their historic and literary context. My apologies for any bungles.

It was great listening to you this morning. You spin a splendid yarn, and I will always be grateful.

Trevor Agnew


E-mail: Wed 24 May 2006, 10.59am

From Jack Lasenby

To: Trevor Agnew

Dear Trevor,

Thanks, I enjoyed talking to you.

Thanks, too, for the encyclopaedia entry. I’m flattered by reaching the A category, but $25 for your work! It’s one of the best such articles I’ve read, more exhaustive and accurate than most. And I’m delighted by your response to my writing, Trevor. You understand what I’m trying to do. It’s not often an author feels that.

Something you mentioned yesterday: reading stories to your kids – and each person getting their own particular enjoyment. It’s a marvellous scene that reminds me of a photo of a man somewhere in Africa telling a story to a tribal group of children and adults – all of them intent, eyes fixed on his gesture and face. Without sentimentalising pre-literate societies, I regret that we’ve separated, categorised different ages, sexes, interest groups. Storytelling used well still has the power to bring us together while retaining our individuality – but television separates us while destroying that individualism.

The opening scene of the film of The Go-Between hangs in my mind: the words of Hartley’s great first sentence about the past being another country, and the scene: a man reading a novel to a Victorian group, mainly adults, taking tea on the lawn of a great house. There’s something about that, in my memory, of reading Poe to my young deer cullers years ago.

Jack Lasenby


E-mail: Wed 24 May 2006, 12.09 pm

From: Trevor Agnew

To: Jack Lasenby

Dear Jack,

Thanks for that.

My granddaughter, Petra (11) wants to know what the snotty-gobble tree is.

All strength to your writing arm.




E-mail: Wed 24 May 2006, 8.17pm

From Jack Lasenby

To: Trevor Agnew

Dear Trevor,

Please tell Petra I’ve been waiting for someone to ask what is a snotty-gobble tree. It’s what used to be the Nothopanax – arboreum or Colensoi, and is now known as Pseudopanax arboreus or Colensoi: the five-finger. The usual Maori name is puahou.

Deer scoop off strips of the soft bark of five-finger upwards; possums turn their heads and chew it sideways. You get to recognise the signs of feeding. Both animals love snotty-gobble: it’s one of the trees that are called palatables – good for them to eat. Where the animals have injured the bark, a thick, viscous, whitish sap oozes. And from that comes the bushman’s name: snotty-gobble. Disgusting, isn’t it! I tried eating it, but it wasn’t one of my preferred palatables.

When I began shooting in the early Fifties, there were the remains of a great belt of old snotty-gobbles, many of them twenty to thirty feet high and eighteen to twenty inches through, under the red and silver beech trees around Lake Waikareiti, above Lake Waikaremoana. The belt spread from there across to the Mokau River. Almost all of them were dead, killed by the deer and possums barking them for tucker. The possums also shinned up the trees and ate the petioles and growing tips of the leaves. A few years passed, and the dead trees fell and rotted under the tall crown fern, so that there was little evidence of their disappearance. Perhaps they’re growing again, now there aren’t so many deer and possums, but I was always conscious of the disappearing layer of bush, and it used to worry me that newcomers would accept it as the way things always were.

There was a big snotty-gobble behind the Hopuruahine Hut, and a big fuchsia – konini or kotukutuku. Last time I had a look at the site – the vandalistic National Park rangers destroyed the historic hut years ago – the two trees were still there. We used to hang our legs of venison on the branches and swing our tail lines from them. And there were times I felt like hanging Harry Wakatipu from them, too.

According to Laing and Blackwell’s Plants of New Zealand, Nothopanax meant the spurious or false universal remedy. The Chinese ginseng belongs to the same family, and many people still use it as a herbal remedy. I was talking to a Chinese friend just this morning, and she mentioned that she takes 1-3 ginseng tablets daily for her circulation. I told her she’d do more good if she got off her behind and did a bit more walking. Some of the bushmen used to boil up snotty-gobble bark and drink the result. I tried it, but couldn’t observe any improvement in my health, and I tried putting it on cuts, again without observable results

That’s much more than Petra will want to know, but her question got me remembering.


P.S. One other thing: snotty-gobble’s one of the good fire-lighting trees. If you get a dry bit of dead wood and shave it like petals with your knife, it lights readily and burns with a fatty flame.  In that wet beech country, I often carried a dry bit in my pack,  J.


7. Jack LASENBY final
7:  Jack Lasenby:     750 words:

The Continuum Encyclopedia of Young Adult Literature (New York, 2005)
ISBN 0-8264-1710-8


Author, b. 9 March 1931, Waharoa, eastern Waikato, New Zealand.

Jack Lasenby is the honoured bard of past and future in New Zealand teenage literature. Although he attended Matamata District High School and Auckland University, Lasenby feels the most important part of his education was in the wilderness of the Urewera mountains.  He was in a group of trainee deer-cullers, who listened at night to the brilliant storyteller Ted Rye; six of these young men later became published authors.

For most of his life, Lasenby has worked with men who told stories: on the wharves, in freezing works and bush camps. Later he was a teacher, then an editor of the NZ School Journal (an important training ground for many NZ writers, such as Margaret MAHY), before lecturing at Wellington Teachers’ College.

Lasenby was nine when he was paid half-a-crown (25 cents) for an anecdote in a women’s magazine. Poetry and children’s books, like Charlie the Cheeky Kea (1974), followed but Lasenby did not become a full-time writer until after the publication of The Lake in 1987.

The Lake, a watershed in New Zealand books for young adults, is a dramatic story of a young woman’s survival in the bush (introducing females into New Zealand’s literary tradition of ‘man alone’), as well as the first young person’s novel to discuss the issue of sexual abuse within a family.

Although most of Lasenby’s childhood reading came from overseas, his own writing is a  recognition of the New Zealand spirit. For twelve year old Ruth, in The Lake, it is Maui, not Prometheus, who steals the secret of fire. Maori myths are told around the campfire. She uses her dead father’s copy of Plants of New Zealand to whisper their secret names to the plants in the bush. Finally, Ruth’s hard-earned sense of self-confidence gives her the ability to return to her family to demand answers.
Lasenby claims no special insight into modern teenagers and suggests he has overcome this problem by setting stories in the past or the future.  L.’s memories of summer holidays on the Coromandel Peninsula are recreated in The Mangrove Summer (1988), with the chilling addition of wartime fears of Japanese invasion. Jill takes the children to hide in scrub country where they survive but Jill’s experience of power over others also has tragic consequences. As in all Lasenby’s work there are references to classic children’s stories.

The Seddon Street Gang trilogy is an affectionate account of life in rural Waharua (a fictionalised Waharoa). Denny and his ‘gang’ of four friends hunt eels, fire shanghais (catapults), endure school, help their mates and fight elaborate wars with a rival gang. Denny’s Uncle Ted is a precursor of Uncle Trev. Serious aspects of life in the 1930s, such as violence, death and racial attitudes are noted, but the trilogy is loved for the way it evokes the spirit of small town life.

The Conjuror (1992) is a remarkable novel about the importance of knowledge. A future slave-based society imposes a strict hierarchy based on the colour of people’s eyes.  The sinister rulers, The Sisters, hold power through fear and ignorance. Books are banned. Only the forbidden knowledge – including reading and ancient myths - passed on to Johnny can save him from the cruelty and violence. 

Lasenby’s belief in the power of mythology, the value of skills and the importance of passing them on are important aspects of his fiction.

Lasenby struck out in a new direction with Because We Were the Travellers, (1997) the first volume of a quartet, in which a handful of survivors try to cope in a future New Zealand almost destroyed by climatic disasters.  Ish, cast out from his nomadic tribe, saves an old woman, Hagar, who proves to be a repository of knowledge. They try to build a better life, in the midst of savagery. The series is rich in literary and mythical connotations: Ish is an outcast like Ishmael in Genesis, while Hagar echoes the wise crone of Innuit/Eskimo mythology. Subtle references to myths and literary works, from Kim to Great Expectations, add extra depth, as Ish battles enemies and the elements to keep alive such features of civilisation as reading and healing.

Lasenby’s fabulist Uncle Chris, who regularly brought him messages from the bull on his farm, is now immortalised in Uncle Trev (1991) and its sequels.  Uncle Trev tells amazing yarns to cheer up his convalescent niece, and outrage her mother. Yodelling eels, a travelling asparagus bed, the Waharoa Women’s Institute Cavalry, bathtub tomato sauce, vanishing stockyards and a dog-scoffing boar pig are typical.

With her scorn for reality and habit of swigging Old Puckeroo Horse Liniment until smoke comes out her ears, Aunt Effie is another narrative delight. In Aunt Effie (2002),  tales of her wild youth carry her twenty-six nieces and nephews off her giant bed into a world of pirates, cannibalism, bigamy and giant trees.  As with Mary Poppins, the children are swept from safety to peril and back, gaining vividly funny experiences of life, and some new skills, along the way.


1989: Esther Glen Award: Winner: The Mangrove Summer.

1990: AIM Children’s Book Awards: Shortlist: The Mangrove Summer.

1991: Frank Sargeson Fellowship.

1993: AIM Children’s Book Awards: Honour Award: The Conjuror.

1993: Writing Fellowship: Victoria University of Wellington.

1995: AIM Children’s Book Awards: Shortlist: Dead Man’s Head.

1996: AIM Children’s Book Awards: Winner: The Waterfall.

1997: Esther Glen award: Shortlist: The Battle of Pook Island.

1997: NZ Post Children’s Book Awards: Winner: The Battle of Pook Island.

1998: Esther Glen Award: Shortlist: Because We Were the Travellers.

1998: NZ Post Children’s Book Awards: Honour Book: Because We Were the Travellers.

1999: NZ Post Children’s Book Awards: Winner: Taur.

2000: NZ Post Childrens Book Awards, Shortlist: The Shaman and the Droll.

2001: NZ Post Children’s Book Awards: Honour Award: The Lies of Harry Wakatipu.

2002: NZ Post Childrens Book Awards: Shortlist: Kalik.

2003: Margaret Mahy Lecture Award


[Books in blue mentioned in text of biography.]

Rewi the Red Deer, 1976.

The Lake, 1987.

The Mangrove Summer, 1988.

Uncle Trev, 1991.

Uncle Trev and the Great South Island Plan, 1991.

Uncle Trev and the Treaty of Waitangi, 1992.

The Conjuror, 1992.

Harry Wakatipu, 1993.

Seddon St Gang trilogy: Dead Man’s Head, 1994. The Waterfall, 1995. The Battle of Pook Island, 1996. 

Travellers Quartet: Because We Were the Travellers, 1997. Taur, 1998. The Shaman and the Droll, 1999.  Kalik, 2001.

Uncle Trev’s Teeth, 1997.

The Lies of Harry Wakatipu, 2000.

Aunt Effie, 2002.

Harry Wakatipu Comes the Mong, 2003.


Darnell, Doreen. “An Interview with award-winning New Zealand writer Jack Lasenby.” Talespinner 3 (May 1997): 22-27.

Darnell, Doreen. “Looking Back, Looking Forward – Jack Lasenby’s contribution to New Zealand children’s Literature.” Talespinner 3 (May 1997): 18-21.

Huber, Raymond. “Know the Author: Jack Lasenby.” Magpies NZ Supplement 15:4 (Sep 2000): 4-6.

McNaughton, Iona. “Outlook NZ Writers 1: Jack Lasenby.” The Dominion 9 Feb. 1993: 6.

Fitzgibbon, Tom and Spiers, Barbara. Beneath Southern Skies: New Zealand Children’s Book Authors & Illustrators. Auckland: Ashton Scholastic, 1993. 103-4.

Holloway, Judith. “Jack Lasenby: Fabulist.” Listener (NZ) 27 Jan. 1992: 48-9.

Lasenby, Jack. “Biographical notes.” School Journal Catalogue 1978-1993. Wellington, NZ: Learning Media, 1994. 140.

Neale, Pauline. “Lasenby, Jack.” The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature. Ed. Roger Robinson and Nelson Wattie. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1998. 300.


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