Martin Crump: real-life Kiwi yarner

Martin Crump

Martin Crump pictured at the great New Zealand Quiz Night, one of the celebrations for New Zealand Book Month. View more photos on flickr.

Martin Crump is a broadcaster, writer and yarn-spinner who is the son of one of New Zealand’s most celebrated yarn-spinners, Barry Crump.

2010 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of A Good Keen Man, the book which shot Barry into Kiwi folklore. A commemorative edition is to be published, and Martin Crump has been touring the country to spread the word.

He says the book was the best first book a writer could hope for.

“Barry managed to capture an atmosphere on a page. Barry told us about us – and we must have been ready for it, because 350,000 copies sold.

“It’s quite extraordinary to think that it was so popular. Most families would have had a copy in their home, and I would imagine at the time it would have been quite risqué, some of the stuff he was writing about.”

People Martin meets on the tour have been sharing memories of the book and of the “puzzle” that was Barry, he says.

“Barry’s been gone since '96 now, so people want to cling on to some of that, somehow. If there’s a familiar face, like myself as the son of, they can at least share a story – and they do.

“Barry travelled up those side-roads and got to meet the real Kiwi, so they’ve got some part of the puzzle that they fill in. It’s actually good for me too. We had to share him, from when we were born, and throughout his life, and people with genuine interest, ask a question or share some information. For me it’s great.”

Crump senior was always a bit of a nomad, Martin says.

“He was moved quite a lot as a child – moved by his father. Barry had something like 34 or 35 schools – and he only went till he was 13 or 14 years of age. He was always moved around then and he never stopped. A year in one place was a pretty good record.”

coverReal life and fiction

Partially inspired by a Canadian book about deer culling that Barry Crump thought he could do better than, A Good Keen Man was rejected by four publishers before A. H. & A. W. Reed took it on. It features characters that are not all that good, and not all that keen – except for one - Harry.

Harry out-shot Barry, and so impressed was the senior Crump that one of Martin’s brothers was named after him. In a twist straight out of a movie script, Martin met Harry for the first time at Barry’s funeral.

Later in life, Martin Crump spent a year with his father, which he said led to some special memories.

“There are some personal moments for me. My brother got married in the far north in an old church with corrugated iron flapping around in the windows. It was a wonderful time.

“On the night of that wedding Barry camped in his VW van in a quarry along Puha Road, next to my brother’s place, and I had my station wagon. I’m sitting on a log listening to him tell these wonderful stories and he had me spellbound. He really was a magical storyteller.

“I was cold, but I didn’t break the spell of those stories and go and get a jersey out of the car – again, he had me in the spell. In that quarry, he started writing – and he often wrote longhand in exercise books – he started writing the book Puha Road.

“The story I love. It’s not a classic, it won’t go down in New Zealand history but it’s a lovely story, and for me it’s a special one.”

Many of the stories Barry Crump wrote exaggerated real events – never letting the truth get in the way of a good story, Martin says.

“Because he spent so many months in the bush, and very remote it was, when he came to town to build up on supplies and get a new dog or whatever he had to do, he spent three weeks in the pub propping up a bar. And while he’s in there of course he’s meeting these characters and hearing these stories. The majority of stories in his books were usually somebody else’s. He’d add a little bit of his story to someone else’s story, but the people he met could not be written in such vivid form without there being some strand of truth to it. And there always was.

“Whenever he got stuck writing, he always went back to truth. That’s how his autobiography happened. He got stuck on the pages, so he went back to truth. I remember phone calls coming in at home. He’d ring up mum and go ‘what happened this time’ and ‘what year was this’ …”

Movie adaptation 'exciting'

The stories continue on, and the Crump legacy shows no sign of abating. Taika Waititi is lined up to create a film version of the “fabulous” Wild Pork and Watercress. Written in 1986, it is the tale of a relationship between a young Māori boy and an older Pakeha, Uncle Hec, who go into the bush together to escape authorities and their various troubles.

“I met Barry at the same time he was with the boy. It’s got a lot of truth to it – it’s a magical story. Out of all the books, some of them were to put petrol in the car; some of them were to capture something on the page, and they were wonderful books. It’s a very exciting project.”

CoverThe joys of stories

Crump confesses to “not being much of a reader”, but says his children are all avid library users – reading “the fattest books” and even as teenagers, enjoying being told stories.

“I’ve told them stories all their lives. We had a power cut a month, six weeks ago. Children had it immediately; they’ve got the candles going, they’ve got a blanket and a pillow and they’re on the couch: 'Dad! Storytime!'.

“I was really surprised, and pleased too, to think that they wanted stories at their age. They loved it. I told them stories for hours.

“There’s nothing like Mum and Dad telling them about them. Tell the children about themselves and they love it. If you can expand on it a little bit and make it fun, it can work.”

Celebrating Kiwi 'a wonderful thing'

Crump grew up in a home that was “a bit of a headquarters” for writers, he says.

“Before Barry came along my mum was in the literary circle. So Kevin Ireland was a family friend; Frank Sargeson was one of my grandmother’s best buddies.

“He wrote a lovely story about my grandfather called The hole that Jack dug. My grandfather was quite eccentric … whenever we had a bed, or anything to get rid it wouldn’t go to the tip, he’d dig a hole. He wouldn’t break the bed down, he’d bury the whole bed.

“He dug this hole one day and got stuck – he’d dug himself so far in he couldn’t get out. So Frank Sargeson’s piece on that did mean something to me.

“I’m mad keen on adventure stories, and I do go back to my father’s books. Because they’re simple. They tell us about us, they’re simple. Where we had a Kiwi cringe factor in this country, where we didn’t like anything Kiwi, we’re celebrating it and loving it – that’s a wonderful thing.”

27 October 2009

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