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First Things: A Memoir
by Harry Ricketts

'Resilience and honesty lift from every page' of this coming-of-age memoir.

By June 7, 2024June 8th, 2024No Comments

Affectionately regarded by many New Zealand writers and readers, Harry Ricketts is an academic, poet and biographer. For much of his working life he was a professor in the English Programme at Te Herenga Waka (Victoria University, Wellington). Aside from his many volumes of poetry, he is perhaps best known for his biography The Unforgiving Minute: A Life of Rudyard Kipling (1999).

It wasn’t until 1981 that Ricketts came to live in New Zealand. First Things, the first of two intended volumes of memoir, ends three years before that, with the birth of his son Max. The central conceit of the memoir is the exploration of first experiences – first memory, first film, first love and many other firsts.

The account begins conservatively enough with his earliest memories and a little family history. There was a great grand-uncle, Charles Hosken, who published Katherine Mansfield’s first short story collection In a German Pension but unfortunately ‘absconded to Tangiers with the funds’, which might be why he seems absent from the KM record. Ricketts’ father was more upstanding, a military man who was decorated for service during World War II. ‘It was typical of both of us,’ Ricketts remarks, ‘that I neither knew of nor read the citation during my father’s lifetime.’  This lack of information was a common experience for the sons of servicemen, war heroes or not.  Many were reluctant to revisit their war stories, partly because the advice at the time was to try to forget it and partly because of the broad cultural desire to avoid boasting, or side, as it was called then.

After the war, Ricketts’ father served in Malaya and then Hong Kong. On the book’s cover is an appealing photograph of the author as a three year-old in Ipoh in Perak, Malaysia. He is a dear little chap, fair haired and with a broad grin. Only five years later his mother would take him to Britain to board at a public (i.e. private) prep school, as did many British ex-patriot children. In later years, when Ricketts came to write his biography of Kipling, he would have experienced a strong empathy with his subject, who was sent away at the tender age of six. Kipling was boarded with an abusive family that scarred him for life.

Rickett’s experience was not so negative. Yardley Court, the school, was the standard Church of England offering of the time. Single sex, with an emphasis on faith and cricket, it was staffed by masters who introduced their pupils to the British literary canon. Ricketts records the types of lollies available from the tuck shop – ‘banana splits, aniseed balls, bars of chocolate, gobstoppers’ – and fondly remembers the regularity of blue aerogrammes received from his mother. The boys were instructed to write home twice a week and not to include anything that would make parents unhappy. The letters were censored, so that when Ricketts informed them that he didn’t like school or the food, he was encouraged to rewrite it.

Modern methods of education and parenting could not be more different. Of his mother, who must have been heartbroken at leaving her little boy in England, he writes that she ‘adored me but was prone to deflating, disillusioning comments.’ This too must have created a certain resilience. When he was issued with spectacles as a teenager, which he hated wearing, his mother told him, ‘Darling, you’ll just have to get used to not being good-looking.’ The few photographs included in the book actually contradict this – the teenager and young man is handsome, with thick wavy hair and pleasant, even features.

The influences of Yardley Court continued at Wellington College, another public school. Endless cricket, literature and Anglicanism maintained their holds. At eleven years of age, Ricketts set himself the task of reading the entire Bible, which took him a full year. The adult Ricketts confesses he has lost his faith, except for sneaky recitals of the Lord’s Prayer. He quotes Julian Barnes’s famous ‘I don’t believe in God but I miss him’, a much loved aphorism among the lapsed. By contrast, Ricketts’ love of cricket developed almost to an obsession. Through these years he kept a diary and faithfully transcribes into his memoir results of games he played and observed from the stands, both professional and amateur. To my taste there is rather too much of this in the book, but then I am not a cricket aficionado. The mania for cricket may also have its roots in his relationship with his father. After his parents returned permanently to Britain in 1960, father and son would spend many a happy hour playing in the garden with the dog as fielder.

Ricketts writes refreshingly and honestly about sex. At school, the boys were given rudimentary sex education. He recalls a master instructing them that ‘it wasn’t all holding hands and kissing. For instance, if you and your girlfriend were playing tennis, you should be sure to let her win the occasional game.’ Real sex was ‘rubbing up’, a form of relief the boys participated in, usually in the toilets and always in secret. Rickett’s first experience of this was with a boy named Kay and at his own initiation. There is no guilt or regret – this was a normal sexual initiation in an all-male environment. To dob another boy in about this activity or to ‘sneak’ was an ‘unthinkable crime’.

This slang – sneaking, rubbing up – places the author’s youth firmly in place and time. Swanking meant showing off and it was frowned upon. Swipes was the word for food; Holy Swipes was Holy Communion. A hard-working boy was toily, ponce juice was aftershave, and fagging – a word that travelled also to the far reaches of the colonies – meant being a virtual slave of an older boy, including not only making him coffee but warming the toilet seat.

It is in Rickett’s recollection of his first acquaintance with great writers that First Things really shines. English teachers at Yardley and Wellington introduced him not only to Shakespeare but C.S. Lewis, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, Emily Brontë and E.M. Forster, among many others. He recalls how reading King Lear reduced him to tears and still does, and how he wept over Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Rickett’s own poems appear now and again throughout the volume, illuminating either his reading or real-life experiences.

From Wellington College, Ricketts set off for Trinity College, Oxford. He is well aware of this trajectory of privilege and grateful for it. Trinity must have seemed at first glance not so different from the other institutions. At that time it only admitted men. It was a ‘friendly enough college, but very public school and rather philistine.’  There were different arcane rules, such as sconcing. Students were not allowed to talk at dinner on forbidden topics, which included ‘politics, religion, women and one’s work’. If you were caught out the punishment was downing ‘a very large drink of choice’. If you could swallow it in one hit then the sconcer – the accuser – had to pay for it.

Ricketts did well at Oxford. He studied hard and also had the requisite first experiences with women and drugs. He enjoyed the music of the period, bands of the sixties such as Iron Butterfly, Jefferson Airplane, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. Dylan became a vital touchstone. Fellow students’ bookshelves and record collections were scoured to check on shared passions. John Fowles’ The Magus, a book it later became fashionable to scorn, was a hot favourite. The all-male list of Philip Roth, Günter Grass, Saul Bellow, Jorge Luis Borges, Herman Hesse and Thomas Pynchon were treasured and respected, just as they were a couple of decades later when I went to university.

During these years, Ricketts had not yet started to write poetry. With a friend he wrote songs, heavily influenced by the Moody Blues. Regret tinges this lack of development, particularly when he talks about Andrew Motion, later Poet Laureate. Motion, writes Ricketts, seems ‘always to have known not only that Oxford was a game, but also the point of it: to get positively noticed … Even before I met Motion, or read any of his work, I had heard him talked of as a coming poet. For them, the Oxford effect was probably crucial in crystallising promise.’

It wasn’t until his return to Hong Kong, as a lecturer at the university, that Ricketts participated in his first poetry reading. This event, at the Goethe Institute Hong Kong in February 1977, was written up in the local paper as having atmosphere of ‘morbid mutual respect’. This splendid description could possibly be applied to most poetry readings anywhere in the world. Obviously, given Rickett’s standing as a poet in our country, this experience was not enough to put him off.

The years in Hong Kong were not particularly happy. Dylan’s ‘Tangled up in Blue’ came to the rescue: ‘Even more than the poets and novelists I read, he seemed to speak to my own sense of being stuck inside of Hong Kong with the Oxford blues again.’ At start of his third year Hong Kong ‘seemed like a dummy run at life, even an avoidance….my peripatetic army childhood and boarding school had established behavioural patterns, programming me to move, then temporarily adapt, then move again. I was stuck.’

The final chapters detail Rickett’s return to Britain and ill-fated first marriage, which also blessed him with two stepchildren. It was at this point in his life that he attempted to write the ‘Great Hong Kong Novel’. It had a title: The White Mansion. But he discovered that ‘whatever imagination I had, it was not a novel-writing one.’  This appealing honesty had him return to academia and a job at the University of Leicester.

In essence, a memoir is a demonstration of personal myth. First Things brings us Harry Ricketts’ myth, set solidly in middle-class mid-twentieth century Britain and Hong Kong, and by and large it is a happy one. Resilience and honesty lift from every page. When the author remarks that his exile to boarding school ‘stunted my capacity for joy’ many readers are likely to demur. His delight in his recall of cricket matches, first loves and first reads is tangible. There is also admirable wisdom in his pronouncement: ‘An inability to alter your personal myth in the face of incontrovertible evidence (not even your dog enjoys your singing) is likely a recipe for a life of unhappiness.’

First Things: A Memoir

by Harry Ricketts

Te Herenga Waka University Press

ISBN: 9781776921386

Published: May 2024

Format: Paperback, 240 pages

Stephanie Johnson

Stephanie Johnson’s most recent books are the novel Kind (Vintage 2023) and the biography/social history West Island: Five Twentieth Century New Zealanders in Australia (Otago University Press 2019).