Harry Wakatipu – an explanation

A few days ago I referred to Smitty’s alias – Harry Wakatipu. Perhaps I should explain.

Two years ago when Colin and I were holidaying in one of New Zealand’s most beautiful places, Tokerau Beach in Doubtless Bay, each morning we listened to National Radio’s reading by Stuart Devenie of “Harry Wakatipu”, a most humorous book by New Zealand writer Jack Lasenby. When we came home I tried to purchase the recordings from National Radio but owing to copyright issues, they were not able to sell them. Needless to say, they’d had much positive feedback and requests for the recordings.

Jack Lasenby, born in 1931, is one of New Zealand’s hidden treasures, despite winning the Esther Glen fiction award, the Aim New Zealand Children’s Book Award, and the NZ Post Children’s Book Award. He was a deer culler and possum trapper in the Urewera country in the 1950s, and held the Sargeson Fellowship in 1991, the Writer’s Fellowship at Victoria University of Wellington in 1993, and the Writer in Residence at the Dunedin College of Education in 1995. He’s written a large number of novels, but despite all this, he seems to be ignored by the literati arty-farty in favour of those who struggle to write fiction but who have famous writer fathers. Chic lit, it seems, is the flavour of the month. Books by real men, who know how to throw a horse and shoot a gun, are not so nice.

“The Lies of Harry Wakatipu” (published by Longacre Press in 2000, ISBN 1 877135 41 0) is fiction for children of all ages. That includes me.  H. Wakatipu is a pack-horse, or rather he is meant to be, but “he refused to pack anything. He wouldn’t chop firewood. He couldn’t light a fire. He didn’t know how to make a billy of tea. All he was good for was lying around the Hopuruahine hut, swigging condensed milk, and answering back…He’s mean, he pongs, and he tells lies,” writes Lasenby, and “I don’t blame you for despising Harry Wakatipu.”

Actually, you can’t help loving Mr Wakatipu.

I don’t know if this book is still in print – I found a second-hand copy at Quilter’s Bookshop in Wellington, and it’s the best $10 I’ve spent for a while. This is droll humour, very politically incorrect, and I suspect kids with good imaginations would love it. Harry Wakatipu is so complicated – he’s scared of the dark, he wets his sleeping bag when he won’t get up in the night and go to the “dunny”. He steals the narrator’s mail from his Mum, and the first chapter is entitled “How my mother stopped the Hopuruahine River”:

“Shoes ringing on the shingle, neighing ‘Ha! Ha!’ he cantered across and snatched up the bottles. As he pulled out both corks with his teeth I recognised my mother’s writing on the labels and dived down the back of a sandbank. The explosion shook the valley for a couple of hours. The Hopuruahine River disappeared. So did Harry Wakatipu.”

But like a bad penny, he comes back, and the book is filled to pussy’s bow with impossibly far-fetched tales about living with Harry Wakatipu, an erudite boar called Biff Piddington, Wiki, a dog who is “the best story-teller the Ureweras ever heard”. It really is the most delightful book – well, it appeals to my sense of humour and love of animals.

And why is Smitty now referred to, sometimes, as Harry Wakatipu? Because he is getting so naughty in his dotage. I’ve spent hours planting scores of calex – New Zealand tussock grasses – out the front of the house, and Smitty, who long-since realised the white tape pegged around the garden is not really electric, sneaks in and pulls the grasses out with his teeth then tosses them all around the place. He can’t eat them; he just wants to see me do more work. Then I caught him out the back, using his teeth to try and unhook the orange-plastic covered metal link that connects the tape to his stall, so he could get into the vege garden and eat the rocket. He scratches his bum on the stakes and pushes them over. He lurks round behind the winery waiting for the builder to leave the tape down so he can get close to the house. He’s sneaky and he lies, but at least he doesn’t pong, and he doesn’t piddle in his sleeping bag.

Anyway, he’s out in the big paddock now and I felt bad because when the farrier had gone, and I let Smitty go, he usually takes off around the 110 acres, glad to be free of the confines of 11.5 hectacres of vine rows. But this time he walked up and down the fence-line whinnying, wanting to come back. I went over and told him to find the cows, talk to them, he could come back when the grape leaves are bigger. He looked at me with those big brown eyes, “you betrayed me”, he said, and turned and walked away. Never mind, soon he’ll have the lovely Lily, a big bay mare, to keep him warm and cuddled at night.

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