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What You Made Of It by CK Stead

CK Stead’s third and final memoir “What You Made Of It,” starts when he leaves the University of Auckland in 1987 to become a fulltime writer and finishes in 2020.

During these years he built an international reputation as a novelist, poet and critic and was a popular speaker at overseas conferences and literary events.

Here at home, he was a more controversial figure, a critic with a razor-sharp tongue, and a writer with strong views on politics and society who got offside with feminists and Maori activists in the 1980’s and 90’s. But he was also our New Zealand poet laureate.

For this literary memoir, he chose a loosely chronological format, which allowed him to move forwards and backwards in time and gave him ample room to reminisce. Each chapter centres on a theme.

For what he says were reasons of space his family are kept largely in the background. An exception is a chapter which features his sister Norma who battled bravely with multiple sclerosis from her thirties onwards. It is a heartfelt tribute from a younger brother.

I wondered how 89-year-old CK Stead would look back on his younger self. Would he have mellowed? Would there be some regrets? There are just a few.

His tone is largely reasonable and conversational but, being CK Stead, he generally feels he was right and still cannot resist hurling the occasional brickbat.

When Mansfield and My Name Was Judas (each a best-seller in New Zealand and popular overseas) were shortlisted for the Montana Book Awards two years apart but did not win it was yet another ‘ritual humiliation’. He swore he would never again attend one of those ghastly events which were ‘more about commerce and hype than literary quality.’ He does admit that to many writers this would have seemed (and probably was) ungrateful and arrogant.

His views on our Maori-Pakeha relations take up a considerable part of this memoir. Although his views have changed somewhat over time his tone is defensive. And he still shows himself capable of making a grossly insensitive comment about how he views the haka:

“I have never been able to get past the idea that sticking your tongue out far from representing noble and fearsome defiance, was how an otherwise helpless child expressed dislike and anger.”

CK Stead had the opportunity to travel widely and has many stories to tell about writers, publishers, and intellectuals he encountered overseas. But I found the chapters devoted to what was happening here at home the most interesting. Not that I would consider myself insular, but these were about people and events which I had some knowledge of so could readily relate to. And some were covered in greater depth, so were more thought provoking.

One chapter I particularly enjoyed was about Allen Curnow who had been his lecturer at university and with whom he had an enduring friendship. This was one relationship in which he always remained careful, sensitive and discreet as he did not want to spoil their rapport.

There was much to like about this memoir, especially the insights into his writing process and the beautiful poems which are scattered throughout the book. At his age, as one might expect, there are some touching farewells to old friends. I liked “Waving Goodbye to Robin,” a homely eulogy to editor Robin Dudding which includes:

‘A life remembered, rich in songs and daughters, books and chooks and friends, fruit, vegies, flowers, never quite in tune.”

Although I found myself sometimes strongly disagreeing with him, when all is said and done CK Stead is a great storyteller, and I found his third memoir a stimulating read.

Reviewer: Lyn Potter

Auckland University Press, RRP: 49.99


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