I first met Arthur in Auckland in 1972. I was dropping out of university ‘to become a poet’, and one of my lecturers, Denis Taylor probably, in despair at my insouciance but with a generous eye towards my future, sent me round to see him at his flat at 2 Ayr Street, upstairs in the old Kinder House in Parnell. This because Arthur was editing a collection of writing about Auckland to which Denis thought I might be able to contribute. I was a confused young man of 20; Arthur was five years older; kindly if circumspect. I don’t think he knew why I was there either.
The flat was full of stuffed birds on pedestals on loan from the Auckland Museum because Arthur’s wife, Jean Clarkson, was using them as models in her art-making. She was drawing bird-headed people. I never wrote anything and I don’t think the book appeared either. This was Arthur in an earlier incarnation, as poet and man of letters; his anthology, The Young New Zealand Poets, would be published by Collins in 1973; it’s a fine selection of work and still a valuable resource from those years.
The next time our paths crossed was in Wellington: when the first Red Mole cabaret, Cabaret Paris Spleen, opened at the Performer’s Theatre in Courtenay Place in 1975. Arthur wasn’t in that show; but Jean made the poster for it and also did artwork for Spleen: a useful organ, which started the same year. Arthur was a regular contributor to the magazine, writing long, multi or mixed media articles about Split Enz and the Red Hot Peppers; a Sci-Fi Country and Western fantasy; an educative piece about the perils of embracing nuclear energy.
He had come down to the capital because I had script writing work with Dave Gibson. Not many people remember that he was co-writer, with Ian Mune, of the Roger Donaldson film Sleeping Dogs, starring Sam Neill. He made his debut as a performer with Red Mole in 1976, at the second cabaret, Cabaret Pekin 1949, at Unity Theatre at the bottom of Courtenay Place. When I asked him what he remembered about that show he said Jean made a huge winking cardboard sun to a Brian Eno soundtrack. The song was ‘Taking Tiger Mountain’ from Eno’s 1974 solo LP Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy).
I also asked him where Neville Purvis came from? The character, he said—but not the name—came during Holyoake’s Children when Jean dressed me as a Bodgie and I spontaneously broke into song. Holyoake’s Children—the allusion is to Robert Patrick’s 1973 play Kennedy’s Children—was sketched by Alan Brunton for Cabaret Pekin 1949 and revived in The Sixties Show during the delirious seven month long season of Cabaret Capital Strut at Carmen’s Balcony in 1977. Item 3 on the one page scenario for the first of those cabarets, in March of that year, reads: Arthur Baysting, Emcee + continuity.
This was the first appearance of Arthur’s much loved and much abused alter ego Neville Purvis. Neville Purvis, at your service, he would say. That’s Neville on the level to you. Neville was a spiv. He wore white shoes, white trousers, white shirt, white waistcoat, white embroidered jacket, white hat, a black grease paint pencil-line moustache, dark sunglasses, and carried a white cane. He was from Naenae in the Hutt Valley and he lived with his Mum. He drove a Mark II Ford Zephyr and his milieu was one of petty crims who hung around billiard saloons and boarding houses, pubs and burger bars. He wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed: I thought fast and, when that didn’t work, I thought slow, which is me normal pace.
Arthur spoke Neville in his own voice: flat, nasal, a bit monotonous. His mode was a mix of the laconic, the satiric and the naïve. In his fiction he wasn’t part of Red Mole: after he’d got out of Mt Crawford Finishing School—jail—they’d asked him to come and lend them a hand. He positioned himself as an outsider and might refer to the acts he introduced as something a bit beyond his ken. He liked to bait the audience and the audience liked to heckle him. He had a few standard rejoinders: You just keeping taking the tablets, darlin’, was one. Are you the berk from Birkenhead? was another. His excuse for bad behaviour was always the same: a saga on the lager.
He told shaggy dog stories and jokes that were funny in a bathetic, low-key kind of way. Once he imagined himslef being asked what the Hutt Valley was like before the Pākehā came? Miles and miles of empty State Houses, he dead-panned. Neville was not, not ever, politically correct. In another routine he evoked the famous New Zealand painter Genghis McCahon. Murray Edmond recalls a third—the tale of the fate of the winner of the annual Silver Plough contest:
As the winner drove home, up the Foxton Straight, in his Zephyr, ‘his mind must still have been on ploughing that straight furrow’—and here Neville inserted the only movement in his stand-up comic talk—his right hand went forward to grasp the imagined steering wheel while he turned his left arm, shoulder and his head to look behind him at the disappearing road, in his mind, the straight furrow. The head-on collision did not have to be mimed or named to be imagined by the audience: ‘He had ploughed his last furrow.’
Neville was intrinsic to the cabaret; he strung things together, night after night; his thin white thread ran through the outlandish exotica of the rest of the acts. He was already beginning to give up poetry and write lyrics for songs. There was one he sang himself, as Neville, with backing from The Country Flyers, during Red Mole’s Slaughter on Cockroach Avenue at Phil Warren’s Ace of Clubs above the old Cook Street markets in Auckland. ‘Money’, we called it, and included in it was the line I can’t get enough / pictures of the Queen. I hadn’t heard bank notes called that before.
Arthur also wrote the lyrics for a beautiful reggae tune, music by Neil Hannan, bass player in The Flyers, which Midge Marsden sang; with backing vocals by Beaver and Jean McAllister, sometimes called The Purvettes: O Rangitoto / Sitting in the harbour / Rangitoto / Sitting in the bay. Midge performed that song for the next forty years. It’s now a taonga of Ngāti Whatua. Both of these tunes were recorded: ‘It Takes Money’ b/w ‘Disco on my Radio’ was released as a single. I don’t know how it charted.
I missed Neville’s solo career because I was away overseas with Red Mole. I saw Arthur next in Sydney, where he had come after being banned from the airwaves for being the first person to say ‘Fuck’ on New Zealand television. At least we never said ‘Fuck’ was the last line of the last of the Neville Purvis Family Shows. I remember asking him if he thought of himself as an exile? Nah, he said, that’s too romantic for me. Down to earth, as always.
In Sydney Arthur organised and introduced the annual Kiwi Nights, which debuted at the Astra Hotel in Bondi in 1980 and 1981; riotous evenings of music, comedy, drag and who knows what else. The Astra had seen better days: Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by Ray Lawler, with Ernest Borgnine, John Mills, Angela Lansbury and Anne Baxter was filmed there in 1959. By the early 1980s it was seedy and run down; but still a good place to hear bands.
In those days Jean and Arthur were caretakers of a decaying mansion called Canonbury out on the end of Darling Point. It was a large, rambling, gothic-style brick and cement render place with a slate roof that had been built early in the twentieth century by Harry Rickards, a vaudeville actor and producer. After World War One it was bought by the Australian Jockey Club, who used it as a convalescent hospital for returned men. Then it became an annex to the Crown Street Women’s Hospital in Darlinghurst.
I don’t know how they got the gig but it was a good one. I went to a party there once where there was more cocaine than I’ve ever seen in my life, before or since: mountains of white powder on horizontal mirrors in the old hospital bathroom. Drugs and alcohol were not really Arthur’s thing however; though he was broad-minded about them. This lot came from budding record producer, renegade lawyer and ex-swimming champ Ken the Cocaine King. He went back to Auckland and became a property developer. Arthur, too, returned to New Zealand and dedicated himself to music; anti-smoking causes; and advocacy for the creativity of children.
The last time I saw him was at Café One2One on Ponsonby Road; it was a Sunday afternoon gig by Sam Ford and Trudi Green. I was over looking into the Brunton / Rodwell archive in Special Collections at Auckland University. Arthur was with Bill Lake, one of his song-writing partners; Bill, with his band The Right Mistake, was doing a gig on the North Shore later that evening, promoting their CD As Is Where Is. Arthur contributed to half of the tracks on that excellent album. As usual, he was business-like. Have you got anything in your book about Red Mole’s work with kids? he said. If you haven’t, you should.