Monday, December 6, 2010

Akaroa Mail

I asked poet/novelist Fiona Farrell who lives on Banks Peninsula to present a copy of my latest book to the Akaroa Library. As part of the occasion Fiona interviewed by phone for a piece for the 'Akaroa Mail' the local newspaper. Here’s her piece from the interview. It was published last week.

‘Harvey McQueen has the Peninsula in his bones. Ancestors include a sailor who wisely jumped ship and settled to farming the Peninsula hills. His grandfather managed Kinloch Estate. His father died after a fall from a horse in Pigeon Bay and lies buried in the cemetery in Little River in the company of numerous relations. His four grandparents are also buried there.

Harvey was raised on a farm at the top of Okuti valley where he was a pupil at the local primary school before transferring for three years of secondary education at Akaroa High School. His memories are of climbing to the top of the farm to gaze down on the long harbour of Akaroa below, swimming, playing tennis and going with his mates to the crayfish factory by Daly’s Wharf where they could have as many crayfish bodies as they wanted as an afterschool snack.

So when it came time to choose an image for the cover of his most recent and final anthology, it was no surprise that he chose a photograph of Onawe stretching its arm out into blue water.

This anthology, 'These I Have Loved', is Harvey says, his ‘swansong’, a book in which he says goodbye to the poems, people and places he has loved over a long and productive career.

It’s an idea he has carried with him for decades, ever since his English teacher at Akaroa High School handed him a copy of General Wavell’s 'Other Men’s Flowers'. The famous military commander in old age published a collection of the poems that had meant most to him. The teacher, Miss Greenwood, loved poetry and shared her enthusiasm with her students. Harvey was already intrigued by verse: his grandmother had recited nursery rhymes to him, and at Okuti school, Mrs Bulman had her classes memorize poems.

‘It was all highwaymen and daffodils,’ says Harvey, until the momentous day when Miss Greenwood added to the mix by writing some New Zealand poems on the blackboard. For the young boy from Okuti it was a revelation: poems didn’t have to be about England, and their writers didn’t have to be dead. In fact, one of the poems on the board, 'The Old Place', about a farmer leaving the farm he has built up over fifteen years, was actually by the woman he frequently saw riding her creaking bike round Akaroa: Blanche Baughan.

Poetry has remained central to Harvey’s existence ever since.

He became a teacher, working in high schools in the Waikato, where one day he himself introduced a class of difficult lads to Ruth Dallas’s poem, 'Milking Before Dawn'.

'In the drifting rain the cows in the yard are as black
And wet and shiny as rocks in an ebbing tide…."

The boys were, many of them, from dairy farms. They knew the monotonous ‘heat and hiss’ of early morning milking.
‘It wowed them,’ said Harvey. Such breakthrough moments are rare in a teacher’s career and deeply treasured. It persuaded him that all New Zealand kids deserved to read New Zealand poems.

As a teacher and later as a school inspector, he became a passionate advocate for New Zealand poetry. In 1985, in collaboration with Iain Wedde he compiled 'The Penguin Anthology of New Zealand Verse', an immediate best-seller. He has published other anthologies, including a very popular collection of New Zealand poems about gardening, 'The Earth’s Deep Breathing', as well as seven collections of his own verse.

And now he has written this anthology, a rich collection of familiar and unfamiliar poems, linked by passages of autobiography. They are not necessarily famous poems, or great poems. They are simply the ones he has loved best, a collection of poems by someone who reads very widely and has an excellent ear for good verse. It’s the last collection of an expert. He knows it is his last, because he suffers from a degenerative muscular disorder which will make the time consuming business of creating major anthologies impossible. Instead he lives quietly in Wellington with his wife, historian, Anne Else.

But in this collection he makes a final farewell, saying goodbye to Okuti Valley, Little River, Akaroa amongst other places: places he loves most on his homeland, the Peninsula. He can no longer travel here himself. Even attending his mother’s funeral last year was beyond him.

So the book has come south in his stead.

‘Could you take a copy,’ he said, ‘to the Akaroa Library? I’d like to present one to the collection.’

If you go into the library, you’ll find it there. On a shelf, not far from the place where Miss Greenwood wrote a poem of Blanche Baughan’s on the blackboard, and helped spark a lifetime of reading and taking deep pleasure in poetry.’

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