Barry Crump was one of New Zealand’s most popular writers. In total, his novels sold more than a million copies domestically, equating to one book sold for every four New Zealanders. He was also a high-profile media personality who worked in radio and television, and appeared in memorable advertisements.
Born on 16 May 1935 in Papatoetoe, Auckland, John Barrie Crump was the second of six children of a share-milking couple, Walter William Crump and his wife, Lily Valley Hendery. By his own account, he had a tough rural upbringing, marred by his father’s recurrent violence towards all members of the family.
Barry, as he was known, went to several schools in South Auckland. He later claimed that he was not interested in school, preferring to let his imagination run free. As a child, Crump especially enjoyed listening to radio serials such as Talking drums and Moon over Africa. He read adventure classics such as Jack London’s Call of the wild (1903), Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) and R. M. Ballantyne’s Coral Island (1857).
At the age of 15, Barry Crump left Ōtāhuhu College to begin his working life. In the 1950s, he worked as an itinerant farm hand and bushworker in areas as diverse as the Kaimanawa forest and South Westland. From 1952 he served as a government deer culler in the Urewera region.
On 28 June 1957, at the age of 22, Crump married Martina (Tina) Beatrice Anso in Auckland. The couple had two sons but the marriage was dissolved in December 1960. Before the end of his marriage to Tina, Crump began a liaison with student Jean Watson (who later became known as a writer).
Then at a party he attended with fellow writer Jack Lasenby, Crump met poet Fleur Adcock. They married in Dunedin on 9 February 1962. Adcock had a son from her marriage to poet Alistair Campbell. Adcock and Crump’s marriage was short-lived and violent; they divorced after five months. Adcock later wrote of her ‘year of confusion and melodrama’1 living with Crump. As a result of his violence, she suffered black eyes, bruises and chipped teeth.
Crump was restless and travelled widely, especially in Australia where, from late 1962, he spent two years in the north with Jean Watson, crocodile hunting in the Gulf of Carpentaria and sailing off the North Queensland coast. After returning to New Zealand, Crump left Jean, now pregnant with Crump’s third son, in Wellington. There was to be another son of the relationship.
Crump had liaisons with a number of women before he met his third wife, Vanda Hill, in Auckland in 1968. Vanda became pregnant to another man, but she and Crump left Auckland for Lake Rotomā. They eventually married in Whakatāne on 6 February 1969.
With a fellow hunter, George Johnston, Crump had started running bush camps for boys. At one of these, in August 1969, five teenagers drowned in Lake Matahina after a vehicle accident. Both Crump and Johnston were charged with manslaughter, and although the charges were eventually dropped, Crump, especially, became the focus of public disapproval.
After a trip to England and Europe in 1973, during which Crump rode a motorcycle to India via Turkey and Afghanistan, he and Vanda separated. They had one son together. They eventually divorced in June 1979.
On 21 July 1979 Crump married Robin Lesley Hughes in Invercargill after meeting her at a Baha’i gathering for her 21st birthday. After 12 years with Crump, Hughes left him, eventually writing a book, In salting the gravy, about her experiences of domestic abuse while living with him.
Crump met his last wife, Margaret (Maggie) Louise Nicholson, in Auckland in 1993. After dating for a short time, they married in Alexandra on 9 July 1993. In addition to his marriages, Crump had other relationships. He had a son with photographer Ans Westra, and may have fathered other children.
Crump asserted that he never stayed anywhere for longer than three months. Whether or not this is literally true, he certainly had a tendency to ‘shoot through’. When there was trouble, particularly of a romantic kind, Crump was inclined to leave rather than try to resolve it.
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.
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’.2 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.
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.’3 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.’4 (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.
While travelling in India in 1973, Crump stayed in Kashmir with a local family. He credited this time as being revelatory to the development of his spiritual life. The journey reinforced his anti-materialist views and led him to question the wastefulness of the New Zealand lifestyle.
Spirituality became increasingly important to Crump in his later years, particularly the Baha’i faith, which he officially joined in 1982. His 1992 autobiography, The life and times of a good keen man, charts a shift from being a keen hunter to being much more sensitive about the value of all life forms: ‘I do notice that the hand that once drove the harpoon into the neck of a saltwater crocodile, now reaches down to pluck aside a worm before I ram my posthole.’5
Crump appeared in Toyota advertisements for four-wheel-drive vehicles in the 1980s, along with his nervous sidekick ‘Scotty’ (Lloyd Scott). These advertisements introduced him to a new generation and Crump's song, ‘Side by side’, featuring Scotty, was used as the theme song for Team New Zealand in the America's Cup challenge in 1992.
In the 1980s Crump also began an Auckland-based talkback radio programme called Bush telegraph with his then wife, Robin. He also wrote a few works about places he had visited or lived in briefly: Shorty (1980), Puha Road (1982) and Bullock Creek (1989).
Crump played the role of the bushman convincingly, complete with a weathered face, bushman’s clobber and a supporting cast of animals. A seemingly endless succession of female companions further enhanced his image as a ‘lovable rogue.’ In this way, Crump physically embodied the legendary ‘man alone’ stereotype that he repeatedly invoked in his writing. This came to be a trademark style that he never varied, becoming increasingly ironic in his later life. Crump followed his 1992 autobiography with another, Forty yarns and a song (1994).
Crump was awarded an MBE in 1994 for services to literature, joking that it would be ‘hardcase’ pinned to his Swanndri bush shirt. This kind of bathetic humour was typical of Crump, who liked to juxtapose high and low culture for comic effect. Full of contradictions, Crump performed a kind of public persona that was mirrored by the characters in his books. Simultaneously mythologised as a media personality and considered an ‘ordinary’ bloke, Crump embodies a kind of ‘New Zealandness’ which is anachronistic, yet still appealing to a wide audience, precisely for this reason.
Barry Crump died on 3 July 1996 at the age of 61, surrounded by family at Tauranga hospital after suffering a heart attack. Tribute to Crumpy (1997) came out the year after his death with a selection of his poems and prose along with reflections by his friends and family.