I didn’t know he was an author, nor that he was any sort of “real” bushman. I thought he was an actor, a guy from the TV, those ads. That’s how I first knew Barry Crump. That’s who he was to me. And my dad had a job selling Toyotas so he had met Barry Crump. They had attended functions where “Crumpy” as the whole of the country knew him – a Kiwi folk hero, from that era of Kiwi folk heroes – was also in attendance.
My folks went to the premier of The Quiet Earth (such a great film). It featured a Hi-Lux or something, so a bunch of motor vehicle dealers were invited along.
Another Crump-related shindig and my folks arrived home with one of his books. Turns out they’d got him along to the launch of a new Toyota – those trucks he was pimping hard in the mid-80s and it had doubled as the book-launch for his latest novel, Wild Pork and Watercress. This was the first I knew about Crumpy being a writer. It was the first book of his I read.
I loved it.
I was ten.
I took it to school – read it every day for weeks, a little bit at school (wet lunches) and then at home before bed. We had to do a reading in class. Stand up and read from a page of a book that we liked. I chose a passage from Wild Pork. I can remember a line about a guy standing there with a “big skinny Urewera pig” hanging off the end of his foot, something like that. I was fucking nervous. I do remember that. I couldn’t look at the class, the book was shaking, and I was trying to add a chuckle or two with certain lines. The teacher told me, in marking my effort, that I’d tried to inject humour or acknowledge the humour of the book – or something like that. But I’d failed. I was a nervous chump. I couldn’t read aloud. I could only read books by myself. I’d never be any sort of public speaker. I was convinced of that. It stayed that way for another half-decade or more. Then, once I found a voice I could use in public – and found a few forums – I was hard to stop.
Anyway, so while I was reading Wild Pork and Watercress I still thought of it as a one-off; a novelty as much as a novel, and from a guy that pretended to be a bushman on the TV. I found out that actually he was an author. This was his 15th or 16th book, something like that. He’d written all these others – going way back to long before I was born. And he had become a bit of a Kiwi celebrity, got into bit-part acting and ad-work and a bit of crooning-singing here and there and all sorts. And he was a bushman and a farmer and a work-the-land guy. And it was all real. The stories featured different names but they were based on his experiences as a deer-culler and fisherman and tramping guide and whathaveyou.
I loved that book so much I went to the school library for others. And then the town library for more. We bought a couple that we found on sale. And then I started adding to the collection, taking it over from my folks, buying up the books when I was at uni – his 1971 book, Bastards I Have Met, a tongue-in-cheek guide to the zeroes and heroes you meet at the six o’clock swill and such. The Good Bastard, The Sad Bastard, that sort of thing. Shit it was a laugh. Reading it 20 odd years on it was still pretty funny.
And then I read about The Adventures of Sam Cash and Bullock Creek and some of his poems and stories (Forty Yarns and a Song, Crumpy’s Campfire Companion). There was his autobiography – The Life and Times of a Good Keen Man and after that I went back to his debut novel, the one that – still – defines him: A Good Keen Man. Written in 1960 it’s a whole world away from where New Zealand was already at by the time I got to reading it. And yet you recognize that country on those pages. Those sort of blokes, though harder to find and scarce as fuck in the cities, well they’re still around you know. And chances are they might tell you a good yarn too. I met many of them over 10 years of playing gigs up and down the country in an Irish band. I knew a few already because you can’t always ditch your relatives.
Reading Barry Crump was always so easy – a hell of a lot easier than liking the real bloke. He sounded a right cunt. He admitted almost as much in his own book – and then there were docos and bios that told you just a little bit more.
But I love the simplicity in his books – the subtle way with a yarn. Plot. Plot. It’s all about getting there and the rooster that’s kinda taking you along for the ride. It’s all about the story. The yarn. Nothing flash – he wrote like the way he dressed. Get the job done.
Barry Crump was my first favourite New Zealand author. Before reading his books I knew a few of the wonderful authors that wrote – almost exclusively – for kids. Margaret Mahy, Joy Cowley, I wrestled with that fucking god-awful Alex book and its Alex In Winter or Alex Is Fucking Boring or whatever the rest of the series was called. I read a wee bit of Janet Frame and then later a lot more. But Barry Crump was the first Kiwi novelist I read. He did short stories and poems too. But mostly, before Crumpy, I only really read short stories and poems from New Zealand writers. Can’t even tell you why that is. It’s just what was happening.
So Barry Crump was important to me for that – for being the first writer from New Zealand that I started to read regularly. For being the first with so many books behind his name that I wanted to seek them out, to collect them, complete the set. I never made it all the way through his 20-odd books. But I’d like to think that one day I might. I got close enough anyway.
And I admire his way with the word. It was what was needed. He got it down. And he slugged it out, working hard. This isn’t an endorsement for him as a man. It doesn’t need to be. But I always thought it sad that a bit more attention wasn’t paid to his books later on – taught in schools, that sort of thing. He was our most successful writer at one point; his book was a giant seller, that great first novel. And then an ivory tower-mentality of fucktards wanted no part of that. Well, that seemed really sad to me. It takes all sorts, and you should like many different things.
I really like a lot of Barry Crumps books. Fond memories of them, of reading them. To this day.
Authors I Admire started life as a series of posts on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook page