It was a shock this week hearing of the death of Russell Haley; he seemed, if not ageless, then exceptionally durable. I remember the last time I saw him – at the launch of the Alan Brunton selected poems, Beyond the Ohlala Mountains, in Auckland in March, 2014 – he said : I’m eighty! With that reliable yet somehow elfin twinkle in his eye. It must have been on that occasion too that we talked about the relative merits of poetry and prose and he confessed that, where Alan was concerned, he’d always felt an obscure sense of shame at his choice to abandon the one in favour of the other. As if it were some kind of betrayal. Of a shared enterprise I mean. But that Alan had forgiven him – if that’s the word – and their friendship survived. They were very close in the old days. Alan had various sobriquets for Russell: Harry Leeds, Harry the Wank, Harry Lurber, just plain Lurber. The one I like best was Commissioner Haley. It gestures towards Russell’s obsessive interest in military matters and his brilliant re- and de-constructions of post-human, semi-android, mind and body states in the kind of future we are living in now. Which he had somehow foreseen in the poems he wrote and published in the 1970s. I’m thinking of works like ‘Anatomical Models’ in On The Fault Line or ‘Spanish City’ from The Walled Garden. They really shifted our heads around when they first came out, probably in Freed or perhaps one or other of Stephen Chan’s magazines of that time. I was a young acolyte of the Freed poets, so-called, in Auckland in the early 1970s. I wanted – oh how I wanted – to be a poet too. And Russell, in a characteristic act of generosity, did in fact publish my first poem in the last Freed. Called, appropriately enough, Freed At Last. He needn’t have; the poem isn’t up to much; and I suppose I should regret it now – but I don’t. Russell gave me to understand that the fact that I had submitted it was good enough, in his terms, to warrant publication. And it had taken me an enormous effort to pluck up the courage to do so. So the validation that publication gave to my callow ambitions was somehow more important than the work itself; and I have always been grateful for that. Kindness and generosity of the sort Russell consistently showed to younger writers wasn’t especially common back then and probably isn’t that common now either. But it wasn’t unthinking encouragement either. A few years later, in Wellington, 1977 I believe, I had, with a couple of others (Simon Wilson was one of them) edited that year’s Students’ Association Literary Yearbook. A magazine called, pretentiously, Hasard. I remember being hauled over the coals by Roger Robinson, then Head of the English Department at Victoria, for including work by poets not associated with the universities. It was the first time I heard the phrase Town and Gown. There was too much Town in Hasard, Roger said. But there was something much more important. At some kind of gathering in Willis Street one night, full of poets of various descriptions, Russell took me aside for a quiet chat. It was about the poem of my own that we had included in Hasard. It was, he said, flagrantly imitative of Alan’s work (it is); furthermore, if I kept on in that vein, I would find myself in deep shit. Alan’s myth is the West, he said. He’s a gunslinger. If you go up against him, he will shoot you down. There are two things here: I wasn’t really aware that I was imitating Alan and, if Russell hadn’t pointed it out, it might have taken me a lot longer to realise that I was. The second thing is, I didn’t understand the kinds of risks I was taking. Not so much the risk of being gunned down – in fact I ended up working closely with Alan for many years and, although he was never exactly easy on me, he did give me invaluable guidance on the way towards becoming the sort of writer I am. The point is, rather, that without Russell’s warning, none of that would have been possible. It was a crucial re-orientation for me and I still consider it the best piece of writing advice I ever received. So much more apposite, say, than that old chestnut: you must find your own voice. What’s more, he didn’t have to give it. Many would not have done so: because it’s hard to do something like that, it’s hard to tell the truth to a deluded youngster, and it’s hard too to know what the consequences of such truth-telling might be. At that launch in Auckland in 2014, I told Russell how important that conversation had been to me, and I thanked him, somewhat belatedly, for it. (I had been too over-awed to say much at the time.) He laughed. Did I really say that? he said. I don’t remember. Russell had an elegant, lucid mind as well as a kind and generous soul; his spirit was clear and bright, like the transparency you see in the midst of a flame. He was always good company, there was always laughter around when he was there. He could somehow look askance and at the heart of the matter, simultaneously. In the old days, he liked to take off his shirt when he was reading his poems; it was a party trick too; you’d wait for the moment when it happened. People would applaud and Russell would beam as if he’d just done something wonderful. Just the other day a box of slides surfaced in amongst a friend’s things in Bendigo. They were of a Red Mole show in Wellington in 1975: Cabaret Paris Spleen. Russell is in a few of them. That night Commissioner Haley took the stage with the stems of half a dozen arum lilies tucked into the waistband of his trousers. I remember the white flowers with their golden tongues swaying and bowing behind him as he read. It was quite mad but it was also very beautiful. It’s good to have the photos of course; and the poems, the stories, the novels and the excellent book about Pat Hanly that he wrote; but I would much rather we still had the man.
Alan Brunton, Russell Haley, Ian Wedde