Jack Lasenby was a long-standing member of the New Zealand Society of Authors (PEN NZ) Te Puni Kaituhi o Aotearoa, he joined in 1973. He was well loved, generous to other writers, a champion of children’s literature and a lively character. He will be sadly missed. Below are some literary world tributes to Jack published first in The SPIN OFF.
Dear Jack, we love you
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.
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.
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 M?ori 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
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.
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.
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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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