Week in Review
Dick Scott, RIP: a daughter’s raw and complex portrait
We conclude our week-long series on the great New Zealand author Dick Scott, who died on New Year's Day, with an extraordinary memoir by his daughter Jacqueline Haydn.
Dick the Prick was how he referred to himself in latter years. We called him Dick from childhood, not Daddy, Pa or Dad. Or I did. As his third daughter, and a bawler with three-month colic, harmony between us was slow coming. He showed a deficit of affection for the duration of my dependent life. So why a happy childhood?
Our family – Dick, my mother Elsie du Fresne, and my sisters Joanna and Judy - moved from Wellington in 1952 to Auckland. Dick was to be an undercover agent for the Communist Party he had joined in his late teens (and was about to disown). We lived in a strange old villa — three-storeyed on two sides, two on another, on the corner of St Lukes Rd. It’s now the Mt Albert library and St Lukes mall.
It was an unkempt quarter acre bounded by scoria freestone walls with a willow tree as its towering centrepiece, and it gave some reign to Dick's strong need for country, a hiding place. He went further with the almost immediate acquisition of a weekend refuge out on the west coast. While this was to profit all of us, my mother was too overworked to follow needs peculiar to herself. With a husband who worked at home on the kitchen table, she was assigned as his full-time typist and consultant, as well as doing every bit of domestic work for three young children. Mark was born when she was 40. Funds ran out in 1953 so she got a job as receptionist with a dentist friend. I roamed the neighbourhood while supposedly in Dick's care; it was when he worked on his book, The Parihaka Story.
They had met in Wellington, when Dick was 20 and Elsie was 27. He was an only child, socially impoverished due to his mother's neuroses, kicked off a prosperous farm after fisticuffs with his father, and brutalised a bit from a go at backblocks share milking. Elsie was the last child and belle of Abraham and Anna du Fresne's family of six boys and two girls. Her parents were forced to walk off the Levin farm in the Depression. We never knew our Danish maternal grandparents (in Abraham's case of Huguenot origin) but their offspring were warm, musical, cultured, earthy, resourceful, humorous, not much commercially minded.
Dick's rellies were non-existent as far as he and we were concerned. His mother was one of 14 "seedless raisins", as she called them, born to an immigrant from Wales, Robert Price Edwards. Dick kept quiet about his blue-blood ancestors, who can be traced back to the first husband of Catrin o Berain (the “Mother of Wales”) and King Henry VII.
Edwards had the largest brickworks in New Zealand and many other concerns. He amassed a fortune. "He is a good provider," Elsie would repeat over the years in a bid to reconcile us to Dick's scant fatherliness.
His pa was Irish, last of eight born to mystery man Ned Scott (did he fight in the American civil war?) and Rebecca Kyle, the young wife he brought from County Tyrone. Dick Senior had trouble with his idealistic leftist son kept too tight by his wife but he was Granddad to us, warm and real. Too warm and real for Rosabel: she had banished him to a chaste cell at the other end of the large Great South Rd house in Newmarket.
Both had good turns of phrase and humour on the shady side. Dick said Grandma had never read a book.
While Granddad trimmed power poles and kept an extraordinarily bountiful garden, Grandma remained inside, cake tins full, every surface gleaming, a loud rubber swat ready for any intrepid airborne creature that should breach the fly screened door. She'd had Granddad fit each door within with several snib locks. But at night, just for good measure, she rolled a ball under her grand gold-satin coverleted bed. If it came out the other side no one could be under. Her not speaking to a favourite sister living just up the road — for 30-odd years — was to do with something else. Another I was told to beware of: "She has nothing down below".
Most weekends year-round we perched in the cute and under-sprung Bradford and drove 24 miles to the savagery of Piha. It was a redeeming grace from suburban blandness as well as the drudgery of producing The Sandringham Star. Stacks of yellow newsprinted copies filled the very small kitchen and beyond; we had to fold them until our hands wore out.
Heading out west to Piha on Friday nights, jouncing up and down on hard bucket seats, Jo and Judy on narrow back ones, myself on the tool box, we sang refrains — proselytising ones figured most:
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
My daddy was a miner
And I'm a miner's son
And I'll stick to the Union
Till every battle's won.
We careered around hairpin corners Dick behind the wheel as reckless as he was when his wit over strayed boundaries into cruelty. He’d sing, "When the goons get in the way we're gonna roll right over them, we're gonna roll right over them” all along that endless spine-jarring gravel road. When car sickness dictated, we'd be let out to run alongside. Our place in Piha was a one-roomed bach with one cold tap over a plastic basin where Elsie cooked on two primuses. Apart from two weeks in summer when bach owners and holidaymakers arrived, the bush and beach were ours, ours. God was commanded often to send one of the huge rocks on the hill across the road to block our return.
Throughout his life, Dick led expeditions with whoever risked to join. One time, heading to an unknown beach west of Karekare (now a bird sanctuary), we followed a halting track for miles until it gave out. A steep descent through bush and scrub was bashed through until scratched and weary we hit unimpeded ground and beheld the fabled land — an entirely beautiful wetlands and beach.
But not entirely deserted. Dick drew our attention to a distant sound. A cry, a voice that seemed to echo across the expanses, a singular mournful note carried in diminishing waves. Someone needed rescue from quicksand, he insisted; we had to help before they sank without trace, he kept on, not relieving our distressed querying to admit it was a lost cow. Past sundown, only the faint gleaming light off the crashing incoming tide allowed us to clamber up and around the rocks.
On an earlier expedition, he disappeared sheerly seaward over the face of Lion Rock and was away too long for a lone five-year-old. He failed to tell me he was inside a cave looking for Maori artefacts. A stentorian shout curbed my pattering laterally across the vast forbidden slipface on the way to get help. He said he had saved me from certain death.
In Sandringham the focal point of coming of ageness was the milk-bar. Along with Elvis, it was seen by my sisters as a step too far. I kept my vision as a Widgie, wide belt, flouncy skirt, and milk shakes, to myself. All this was perhaps fortunately halted by our move to cultural intensely community minded Titirangi, to a house mainly designed by my parents with jutting deck over native bush parkland, Puketutu Island on the Manukau beyond. There were Muscovy ducks, bantams, a Griffon puppy Dick named Minnie Dean after the first woman murderer hanged in New Zealand.
While in our studiously decorous, beautifully-kept, light-filled house there was music, industry, laughter, processions of acquaintances and friends, at the same time Dick and I were often not even on speaking terms. One jag lasted over six months. Elsie would work on me to take the initiative to end them. "You have to be big, he's not capable. You have to be the grown up."
I removed myself and my record player from the bedroom I shared with my sisters to the unlined printery. The press, a small version of the gargantuan one that shook 84 St Lukes Rd almost off its foundations, was hidden behind a screen. But he wasn't to use it. He worked on books and The Wine Review at one end of the kitchen table, a flagon of dry red at his elbow.
Meanwhile my parents' marriage had tipped over. Dick's unstoppable affair with the wife of a visiting psychology lecturer was the first and only one bared in naked disfiguring light to us kids. Elsie got hepatitis. In the sitting room, rivals for La Rue Storm, bespectacled, long-in-jaw, pummelling each other, thud thud of fearsome sensuous jazz; Dick flying off the Piha road in the Skoda; two very drunken men bent over a simmering concoction in the kitchen; we three hiding in the wardrobe when then or on another occasion Brian Bell drunkenly made his way onto my half-asleep form, being the first bed through the door. Dick followed spryly considering advanced inebriation and took charge.
Trollope's assertion that "a man who is a gentleman in his cups may be trusted to be a gentleman at all times" was pretty much the case with Dick. Pretty much, that is, if a gentleman can be permitted a too rapier wit, be a tit for tatter, not able to back down and be the tightest arse this side of the black stump (giving away his $250,000 painting by Don Binney to help victims of the Christchurch earthquake was an attempt to atone: wrong recipients but).
Though he scared many, Dick was a gentleman beneath. Here's cousin Paul du Fresne's take: "He was a revelation – an adult with an impish and often devastating sense of humour together with a totally irreverent attitude towards figures of authority, at the same time possessing a formidable intellectual fearlessness – I shouldn’t think he’d ever back away from a scrap.”
Paul also recalls, "Dick took me into an inner city, after-hours bar one Friday. I was an 18-year-old from Waipukurau, no stranger to hotel bars, but this had my eyes out on stalks. Dimly lit, full of boho characters, risque scenarios unfolding and Dick having me in stitches with a running commentary. He of course was entirely at ease and on first name terms with many of the patrons. A night burned into my brain, a rite of passage even.”
And on the subject of booze, not long after the introduction of Mr Whippy, Dick came up with a similar concept whereby vans would drive through suburbia - only the merchandise would be alcohol for housewives with suburban neurosis. The van would be known as Mr Tipple.
A man's inner life, the core of his personality cannot be comprehended without some knowledge of his attitude to the basic emotion of love; so wrote Freud's friend and biographer Ernest Jones. My ma loved Dick well and in his fashion he her. But their passions did not unite.
He swiped her away from a close family, seemed to suggest to her that she was not as intelligent as he, and forgot (or did not see, due to the disaster of her family's losses) that the Dux of her school had to be a typist from 16 and give up her cello and beautiful singing voice. Forgot, too, that he had composed poems to her vivacity and the blue eyes that had attracted lasting love from many good men before him.
After Elsie died in 1991, Dick and I had a renaissance (it continued until 2006). I turned to him when I found our mother's room, where she lay embalmed, unrecognisable: it had been turned into a draped, brightly-coloured, artificial-flowered parlour. In his skilful gentlemanly way Dick dealt with it, and her familiar, simple Scandinavian room returned.
But I remember his exhibition of what approximated tenderness when I was 16. I had spent time with his journalist friend Con O'Leary in town and missed the last bus home. I arrived in the morning pale and silent. He surmised, quite wrongly, in fact out by some future years, that I had lost something to his hard drinking Irish friend. Without a word of inquiry he ran a bath and sort of hovered looking 'understanding' and stricken.
A few years later, when Jo and Judy were overseas, I was summoned to my parents' bed to be gently told they were splitting up. My reaction caused a spasm of anguish that filled his face.
This was in sharp contrast to his scraping nail polish off my 13-year-old fingernails with his car key. I was afraid but stood up to his authoritarian dictates and especially his insensitivity towards Mother.
Dick had a keen logical instinct, was highly intuitive, and possessed a capacious intellect that drove his thirst for history and, grandly, the truth about the world — though he probably didn't see it like that. Self-engaged he was, but modest about his achievements, and his children's. He'd had better bonds with my siblings Rosie and Mark, "labourers in the field", as a book dedication had it. Very perceptive about others to the point of cruelty and more than a bit tormented about realising himself, he gave me Richard Ellmann's biography Oscar Wilde with inscription: "To Jacky — Not too old to start understanding men like Oscar & me. Love, Dick."
He had an always growing and vigorous mind, and was as open and honest as his circuitous, somewhat tortured heart allowed. But when the Soviet Union (which had translated The Parihaka Story into Russian) wrote to him in 1974 to ask permission for his daughter to be married to a Russian Jewish writer, he didn't bat an eye or show any interest in what surrounded me.
Mercifully, we found a closeness in his final years that brought genuine sweetness, almost love to us.
By October last year I knew he would not last much longer. He was away from his beloved second wife and their small house that he'd crammed gracefully - his visual sense was superb. When I saw him, my father was slumped with a napkin around his neck, and more than just drowsing. I quietly awakened him, he gazed at my face, and fumbled for his dentures. He gazed long.
I wanted to tell him what I had just discovered: I had just turned 69 on the 17th, he would be 96 on the next 17th. We could never have had that before or again, such a juxtaposition. He wanted to grasp it. I wrote it down and he got it with delight.
So why was our childhood so very good? It wasn't only because of a matchless motherly mother who made up every lack. Dick needed his family. I only recognised properly how much so when we were no longer one. We hadn't liked his appraisal of his daughters in a far from fatherly way. Lined up along the mantelpiece were three black and white photo portraits of us taken by a photographer friend, and he asked the assembled present guys, “Which one would you choose for a one-off date?”
No one else could engage and enthrall — or alienate and appall — as Dick could when he chose. He was adventurous, open-minded, intellectually honest, imaginative, dashing, witty, and that heft word: charismatic.
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