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You Have a Lot to Lose: A memoir 1956-1986 by CK Stead

Part Two of CK Stead’s memoirs begins when the 23-year-old Karl leaves New Zealand with his wife Kay to take up a teaching position at the University of New England in Armidale, rural NSW. Over the next three decades he would spend a considerable time overseas which included completing his PhD at Bristol University and spending a year in Menton on a Katherine Mansfield Fellowship. He successfully combined his academic and writing life but yearned to be able to write full time. In 1986 he took an early retirement from his position as a Professor of English at the University of Auckland so he could concentrate on his own work.

He paints evocative pictures of the different places they lived and of happy memories of family holidays around Europe. London became his second home. But he remained “a loyal pakeha New Zealander with a deep and abiding attachment to Tamaki-makau-rau.”

It was an era when emails and the Internet were not yet available. This ensured that he had a rich repository of letters from friends and colleagues, as well as articles in literary publications, to draw on for this memoir.

CK Stead was well known for being outspoken and could be harshly critical of the literary merits of the works of other writers. He records how his lifelong friend Frank Sargeson once wrote to him:

“You terrify me with the way you use a scalpel which you have learnt to handle. I can’t imagine a worse fate than to be reviewed by you.”

The Steads friendship circle reads like a veritable Who’s Who of fellow New Zealand writers and included Allen Curnow, Frank Sargeson, James K Baxter, Keith Sinclair, Maurice Duggan, Kendrick Smithyman and Janet Frame. There are many great anecdotes about times spent with them, of lively conversations and some falling outs. His relationship with Janet Frame was particularly thorny for a couple of years after a thinly disguised and rather nasty version of the Steads appeared in one of her short stories. Apologies were offered, the friendship was renewed but the wound left a scar.

And then there was Barry Humphries, the Australian of whom CK Stead writes: “Sometimes in Barry’s company I felt like Dame Edna’s kiwi bridesmaid."

When he was a 40-year-old professor, married with three children, he had a lengthy affair with Jenny North, a 20-year-old student. He insists it was between two adults equally smitten, either oblivious to or refusing to acknowledge the power difference. Despite the hurt this caused his marriage survived. From his own accounts his family life was happy and settled although recently his daughter, and writer Charlotte Grimshaw has painted a more chaotic picture of her childhood.

Politics played a large part in his life at this time. I was one of the many students at Auckland University who were also heavily involved in the Vietnam war and later on in the Springbok tour protests. Politics was a consuming passion (as Global Warming is for this generation of students). So, it was these parts of his memoir which especially resonated with me.

CK Stead was 88 years old when Part Two of his memoir was published. Most of his literary contemporaries are dead, a shame as I am sure it would have elicited a flurry of lively feedback from them!

At 400 pages it is a long read but anyone who is interested in the history of New Zealand literature will find this memoir by this illustrious writer, poet, and critic both engaging and rewarding.

Reviewer: Lyn Potter

You have a Lot to Lose, a memoir 1956-1986. Author: CK Stead. Publisher: Auckland University Press. RRP $49.99.


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