R. A. K. Mason: a uniquely distinguished son of the city

1905 - 1971

I knew that the tōtara planted hard against the library edge was planted for R. A. K. Mason but the plaque has weathered in this exposed comer of Rutland and Lorne Streets. When I saw the photograph by John Daley of the new building the decision to plant a memorial here made sense. This is a resonant corner with a new modern library and a wow factor. I researched the back story in the library's own New Zealand Card Index, now digitised for convenient access.

The two articles indexed from the New Zealand Herald give a sense of the difficult road to achieving Mason's memorial which the simple plaque text gives no indication of. They are also an insight into the value of this remarkable index.

R. A. K. Mason died on 13 July 1971 and by the end of that year there was talk of an appropriate memorial for the 'first among New Zealand poets'.

His friend Colin McCahon suggested a memorial tree behind the new library whereas Allen Curnow put forward “a simple stone pedestal with a bronze plaque, in Albert Park, where the poet walked many times over the years, between the university and Kitchener St, where he saw some of his best work through the press.”

By October 1971 the headline reads:

Council Cool To Tree As Memorial 

The proposal was rejected by the Auckland City Council “unless there is evidence of substantial public support for the suggestion.” Objections to a tree memorial include the usual anxiety about maintenance and long term concern about siting (New Zealand Herald 18/9/71).

It took the power of the pen in the form of a letter to the editor to make something happen:

Memorial to poet must stand out

Dr Allen Curnow, associate professor of English at the University of Auckland writes:

“R. A. K. Mason stands first among New Zealand poets: first in time to display a unique gift, and first too, by a formidable consensus of opinion, here and overseas, for the fineness of his best lyrics.

Is it necessary to repeat this? Apparently so since the city council can do no better than to ‘recommend that his name be noted’ for commem­oration at some unspecified date, if and when the council sets aside an area for memor­ials to ‘New Zealanders... outstanding in cultural fields.’

It takes very little imag­ination to visualise such a local cultural necropolis or the arguments about who is, or is not, outstanding.’ If the word means anything, it must mean just that.

This man indeed stands out. Let any memorial to him, however modest, do likewise in some frequented public place, where the passer-by or visitor may note it, and re­flect that Auckland is a city where such men are honoured and pride is taken in them.

If Mr McCahon’s ideal of a memorial tree behind the new library finds more fav­our, I would not think of pressing my own.

I feel sure city councillors will think again about their suggestion.” says Dr Curnow "It can only have resulted from uncertainty on their part, and its immediate effect is an offence, rather than an honour, to the memory of a uniquely distinguished son of the city (New Zealand Herald 11/1/72).”

This meant that a few years later it came to pass that in 1974, instead of a stone or bronze memorial a tōtara was planted outside the new city library. Special thanks are due to Allen Curnow, Joe O’Neil (Technical Services and Acquisitions Librarian) and Colin McCahon for pursuing the project. The tōtara was planted alongside the simple plaque.

The tōtara has not thrived. The gum tree in front overshadows the corner and the concourse is currently more of a corridor/wind tunnel with construction in front. Timespanner made similar observations on the struggling tree and the plaque in 2011.

This may change when the St James restoration is complete and the library's next stage of refurbishment is achieved. It is noteworthy that Curnow referred to the back of the library as the entrance location, something that may be addressed in further refurbishment.

It seems appropriate to have a living memorial as Mason was a plantsman. At one stage he had a business, Mount Eden Gardens on his property. When he visited China in 1957 he travelled with almost 100 native plants for the Botanical Institute. His proposed biography of Rewi Alley didn't eventuate but the trip energised him and his writing. 

For an insight into this native son’s life I recommend Rachel Barrowman’s exhaustive biography published by VUP in 2003.

Mason started early as a poet. He published his first book, The Beggar in 1924 and became a legend in the NZ literary canon for throwing most of these slim volumes off Queen’s Wharf. He attended Auckland Grammar School and enjoyed the friendship of fellow poet A. R. D. Fairburn. At that stage he lived at 451 Great South Road in a villa later to become part of Penrose High School. He was immersed in the Auckland literary scene as editor of Phoenix at the University of Auckland and later the trade union scene including co-editor of the Peoples Voice in the more diverse university of the people. He was a great walker and talker. Not so good an actor but he appeared in many plays as well as writing them. Most of his life was spent in Auckland but as Burns Fellow in 1962 he connected with the South when based at the University of Otago, Dunedin where he celebrated his Celtic ancestry and wrote the play, 'Strait is the Gate'. He also spent some significant months in Samoa in 1931. When living in Takapuna in the 1960's he felt isolated, "I never cease to curse the people who built that Bridge without a footway.” His friend Frank Sargeson on the Esmonde Road motorway on ramp agreed.

The Barrowman biography uses resources from the Hocken and the Alexander Turnbull libraries primarily for unpublished content. Mason’s links with twentieth century NZ writing and culture mean that he is present in diverse research collections.

Mason’s mother Jessie (Jessie Forbes Kells) worked at the original Auckland Public Library from 1892-1898, in what is now the art gallery. In 1892 Sir George Grey presented her with a copy of his biography. The Library was an important site in their family landscape.

Footnote to John ii.4

Don't throw your arms around me in that way:
    I know what you tell me is the truth—
    yes I suppose I loved you in my youth
    as boys do love their mothers, so they say,
    but all that's gone from me this many a day:
    I am a merciless cactus an uncouth
    wild goat a jagged old spear the grim tooth
    of a lone crag . . . Woman I cannot stay.
Each one of us must do his work of doom
    and I shall do it even in despite
    of her who brought me in pain from her womb,
    whose blood made me, who used to bring the light
    and sit on the bed up in my little room
    and tell me stories and tuck me up at night

Inside the library we have the Anthony Stones bust of Mason which was presented by library staff on the occasion of the new library building opening on 25 November 1971. Library staff past and present collected to fund the bronze to mark the library milestone. The bust is now in the reading room on the second floor. Mason himself had confidence that libraries would survive and commented:

"It is some consolation to know that in some thousands of years from now a piece of dust that is stung by old empires and years for its kindred may find a congenial resting-place in an old neglected Masonic book in some quiet slumbering library (Barrowman p.59).”

We will ensure that his 'Masonic' books are not neglected.

Portrait of Mason, 1947, by his friend and political ally Clifton Firth.

Let Mason have the last word reading aloud ‘Be Swift O Sun’.

Author: Jane Wild, Manager Heritage Collections