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Peter Bland's life in verse

Peter Bland talks about settling the tussle between acting and poetry, dealing with loss, and why he’s back in New Zealand for good.

Peter Bland/photo David White

Peter Bland sailed from England to New Zealand in 1954 with the firm intention of being a poet. He was 20 and had written the “usual crappy sing-songy stuff”. Most of it, he says, was “a sort of cross between Walter de la Mare and Tennyson on speed”.

Expecting a “South Pacific island full of hula girls and palm trees”, he found Wellington a grey, conformist place of substandard state houses and legions of officials sporting short back and sides. “The 50s were very repressive. People don’t realise. People used to put brown paper covers on poetry books so they weren’t seen reading poetry on the bloody tram. The number of times I was told in the street to get a haircut …”

In 1969, Bland left Pukerua Bay for Putney, now with family in tow, only to return from London several times. It would take him 55 years to finally come home. Along the way, he did become a poet and a respected actor in the West End, if not also something of a permanent migrant. His life, truly a journey, is captured strikingly in 250 or so pieces of verse in Collected Poems 1956-2011, published this month.

Bland had arrived on the SS Captain Cook, TS Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations in his luggage. The lad from Yorkshire, schooled in Staffordshire, cleaned up in the hardship stakes: he lost both parents, his mother at 13 (nobody bothered to tell him) and his much-absent father (a chancer who’d send back “Tarzan-like photos” from Nigeria) at 16. One of his older brothers, Billy, was lost at sea in 1943. After serving in the army, Bland saw an ad in the Evening Standard for migrants. His fellow passengers south were a sign of the New Zealanders to come – in search of a quiet, better life, but many with chips on their shoulders.

Luckily, he became friendly with James K “Jim” Baxter, Louis Johnson and Alistair Campbell, all a decade older, and Vincent O’Sullivan. They saw themselves as outsiders, “and I was just another outsider”.

Poets have to live, of course, and Bland worked for the Government – “brain-damaging stuff”. When he wasn’t at his social security job, he drank at the Seven Seasons. Even though it would play host to the Beatles in 1964, it had the “panache of a public urinal”.

Bland believes we are playthings of the gods, although half the time they don’t know what they’re doing. After a few mostly unrequited obsessions, he met Beryl, a child of English immigrants who wore shoes made at the factory he had first worked in back home. She soon fell pregnant with Karen, followed later by Joanna and son Carl. After a registry office wedding came a party of sorts, but with Beryl expecting and an unpromising wedding night, Bland writes that these were “bleak, even barren beginnings”.

He stuck it out, scribbling away. He had fallen in love with the New Zealand vernacular, our ordinary, classless way of speaking. Establishment and empire was built into the English back home: Kipling, Tennyson “and all that shit”. New Zealand English had a richness of little twists and easy changes, a sly, dry humour. Our famous dourness is there, he accepts, but there’s also a surrealist side, an offbeat quality he reflects particularly in early poems.

Bland’s poetry also captures the grimness of his impoverished early years in New Zealand. There was no professional theatre and the literary journals “had inbuilt censorship”. When he used a government car to take Beryl to give birth, he was reported by at least two people. At the hospital, he found unmarried mothers cleaning the wards. But as clamped down as the country was, things could be done here that would be much harder in England: Bland helped set up Downstage theatre in 1964 and wrote a couple of plays.

He moved to the national radio broadcaster, working on spoken programmes. He was recruited to the Listener, spending much of his time perfecting poems on a typewriter. Around this time, he came across Robin Hyde’s “The Beaches” series of poems, which reminded him that the “dramas, discoveries, moral choices and aesthetic adventures” of a poet’s life are the real subject of their work.

Following his aesthetic adventures led the young Bland into trouble. In his pacy 2004 memoir, Sorry, I’m a Stranger Here Myself, he is harsh on his failings as a husband.

He still works much the same way as at the Listener. He writes in his thick black notebook, then types on his 1970s Olivetti typewriter, for which he now has to get ribbons from the UK. Poems sometimes go through 20 drafts. He uses Google on his old computer, but email is a mystery. He likes the “antique activity” of writing and receiving letters.

When Bland the actor came back in 1984, to star as conman Wesley Pennington in Came a Hot Friday alongside Billy T James, the country had changed. Every country has a civil war or great event, he says, and ours was the 1981 Springbok tour. “It freed the whole country up.” Six o’clock closing had gone and our “backlog of conformity and narrowness of thinking” had shrunk.

He bought the old computer for Beryl, who died in 2009 of kidney cancer after four years of being ill. The collection Loss is dedicated to her. Its 29 poems – aching, forensic in examining pain and absence – are the expression of “sheer grief” over a 10-month period. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2004 and given two years to live. The chemo and radiotherapy went on for seven weeks, which halted his liver. He’s now “in regression”. Remission, I suggest? “Both, actually,” he says and gives one of his big laughs. But another $17,000-a-year drug he had to take was free on the NHS, so back they went again.

It’s hard to keep up. They went back to the UK from 1990-93, then 1993-96 in New Zealand, then 1996-2000 in the UK, then 2000-2004 in New Zealand, then 2004-2010 in the UK. It was “absolutely mad”, he admits. Each time, it wasn’t just packing a bag. “The whole household went with me.” He was chasing work, he says. Were it not for Beryl’s illness, they would have returned earlier. “It’s a very privileged place to live.”

Bland, now 78, has never felt more at home. Winning the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement last year made him realise his work has a place among an ancestry of poets he knew in the 1950s. Even though he has been published by Carcanet Press, home of Les Murray and John Ashbery, won awards and been printed in the London Review of Books and the Spectator, he never felt part of that literary firmament.

English poets “lacked real feeling”. He liked Eliot, of course, late WB Yeats, early WH Auden, Louis MacNeice, but his real influences were such American poets as Robert Lowell, William Carlos Williams and Elizabeth Bishop. He is trying to read more New Zealand poetry. He likes Bill Manhire and Jenny Bornholdt, Kevin Ireland and O’Sullivan. I fail to get him to mention anyone younger.

New readers will find in Bland’s collection accessible plain-English poems, tickled with humour, mostly in free verse, and which finish while still accelerating. They are rooted in the real, such as bringing up a young family in a state house, a mother-in-law coming to stay, a daughter’s response to the death of a dog. “I write from the inside out. It’s the only way to write poetry, because the impulse is not self; the impulse is to share your wishful thinking with other people.”

Prominent are the immigrant experience, oceans, travel, love and dreams. And art. Paintings blanket the walls of his house, a compact Spanish-style home a boulder’s throw from Auckland’s Mt Eden. Those by well-known painters and his children, two of whom are artists. Art books cramp his study. His friend and contemporary Ireland calls him the most painterly of our poets. “His poems are full of shape, shadow and viewpoint, both literally and metaphorically. When you read a Bland poem, you can’t help visualising it.” He almost became a painter, but the words took him away. “Both poems and painting are marks on paper, aren’t they?”
Collected Poems
Theatre took Bland away, too. His deep actor’s voice is still full of cadence and charm, soft northern vowels and that laugh. They are two sides of the same coin, he suspects, the extrovert and introvert, a love of characters, voices, dramatic monologues. The battle between acting and poetry has finally been won. The muse doesn’t like competition. When he was in the West End, his actor’s brain would get a message at three o’clock: “Me now, got a show to do today.” With his family, it was like a ménage à trois, he says. Since giving up acting – although his recording of Margaret Mahy’s children’s novel The Dark Blue 100-Ride Bus Ticket played on RNZ National last autumn – he’s experienced total freedom. “I feel as though there’s still a lot to do, and a lot I can do.”

COLLECTED POEMS 1956-2011, by Peter Bland (Steele Roberts, $44.99).