Page 2: Writing
Farmhand, bush worker, deer culler, writer, character
This biography, written by Brigid Magner, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2011, and updated in November, 2012.
A good keen man
Crump collected his experiences of working as a deer culler in his first novel, A good keen man (1960). This novel, which summed up numerous cherished national stereotypes of masculinity and went through many reprints, became one of the most popular in New Zealand history. Crump’s popular success continued with Hang on a minute mate (1961), One of us (1962) and There and back (1963).
These three novels featured the anti-hero Sam Cash, a jack-of-all-trades, living by his wits, who denigrates his wife and loathes the bondage of domesticity. Describing his peripatetic life as a ‘disease’, Cash frees himself from domestic responsibilities, but he is also bereft of meaningful connections to his fellow human beings. Crump’s Sam Cash books string together yarns the writer has picked up and embroidered.
Crump’s experiences in Australia during the early 1960s were a turning point in his literary production, providing new material for his fourth novel, Gulf (1964), and other short fiction. Crump was deeply influenced by his travels, particularly by the eccentric figures of the outback he encountered, yet the idiosyncratic style of humour displayed in his books has deep roots in New Zealand culture.
In 1965 Crump was accused by a reader of appropriating a short story from the Australian writer Dal Stivens for his yarn ‘The wonderful west coast sand mullet’, originally broadcast on national radio in July 1965 and published a month later in the New Zealand Listener. This might be seen as evidence of Crump’s tendency to recycle other people’s narratives, although he also reused his own material and approaches. A good keen girl (1970), Bastards I have met (1971) and others capitalised on the appeal of his colourful characters and idiomatic writing style.
Fact and fiction
A recurrent theme in Crump’s life and career is the shifting border between fiction and autobiography and the blurred outlines of his persona and those of his characters. Being the accomplished oral storyteller that he was, Crump tended to work to a basic formula with his narratives, but continued to explore variations on them. As he said in 1988: ‘you know, there’s only one story. Everybody’s only got one yarn really but you can put so many slants and angles on it’.1 The professional way he set about producing over 30 books shows that he was dedicated to exploring all the angles of the same story. This formulaic approach involved the interweaving of narratives drawn from his life and those of people he encountered during his career.
Writing for the ordinary bloke
While Crump always preferred to be called a ‘bushman’ rather than a writer, the success of his books was a source of pride. He directed his prose towards the ‘ordinary’ New Zealander, characterising himself as a man of the people: ‘I care. I really care about the people. When I write a book, I’m writing it to my best mate, someone I really love.’2 He prided himself on the speed with which he wrote his books and the ease of delivery. His simple maxim was: ‘if it’s hard to write, it’s hard to read.’3 (The readability of his books was also due in some degree to the attention of his canny editor at Reed’s, Ray Richards.)
Aside from the accessibility of his writing, Crump’s popularity partially lay in his ability to remind New Zealanders of their humble rural origins and evoke nostalgia for a male back-country world that was beginning to disappear at the time he was recording it.