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Bland, Peter

BLAND, Peter


Nationality: British and New Zealander. Born: Scarborough, Yorkshire, 12 May 1934. Education: Alleyne's Grammar School, Stone, Staffordshire; Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand, 1955–59. Military Service: Royal Army Education Corps, 1952–54. Family: Married Beryl Matilda Connolly in 1956; two daughters and one son. Career: Editor, "Poetry" program, New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, 1960–64; co-founder and artistic director, Down-stage Theatre Company, Wellington, 1964–68; freelance writer and actor in London. Regular contributor, London Magazine, 1964–90. Awards: University of New Zealand McMillan-Brown prize, 1958; Melbourne Arts Festival Literary award, 1960; New Zealand Arts Council fellowship, 1968; Cholmondeley award, 1977; Arvon Foundation award, 1980, 1990; GOFTA Best Film Actor award, 1986, for Came a Hot Friday. Address: 125 Kenilworth Court, Lower Richmond Road, Putney, London SW 15, England.

Publications

Poetry

Three Poets, with John Boyd and Victor O'Leary. Wellington, Capricorn Press, 1958.

My Side of the Story; Poems 1960–64. Auckland, Mate, 1964.

Domestic Interiors. Wellington, Wai-Te-Ata Press, 1964.

The Man with the Carpet-Bag. Christchurch, Caxton Press, 1972.

Mr. Maui. London, London Magazine Editions, 1976.

Primitives. Wellington, Wai-Te-Ata Press, 1979.

Stone Tents. London, London Magazine Editions, 1981.

The Crusoe Factor. London, London Magazine Editions, 1985.

Selected Poems. Dunedin, McIndoe, 1987.

Paper Boats. Dunedin, McIndoe, 1990.

Selected Poems. Manchester, Carcanet, 1998.

Plays

Father's Day (produced Wellington, 1967).

George the Mad Ad Man (produced Wellington, 1967; Coventry, 1969).

*

Manuscript Collection: Turnbull Library, Wellington.

Critical Study: "Poets in Second Grade Heaven: Social Criticism in New Zealand Poetry, 1964–1966" by Murray Bramwell, in Poetry of the Pacific Region, edited by Paul Sharrad, Adelaide, Centre for Research in the New Literature in England, 1984.

Theatrical Activities: Actor: Plays —Prahda, Singh in Conduct Unbecoming by Barry England, London, 1969; Inspector Ruff in Don't Just Lie There, Say Something! London, 1971, and in A Bit between the Teeth, London, 1974, both by Michael Pertwee; Sheik Marami in Shut Your Eyes and Think of England by Anthony Marriott and John Chapman, London, 1977; Starkey in Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, London, 1982. FilmsCame a Hot Friday, n.d. TelevisionThe Bob Hope Show; The Victoria Wood Show; The Dawson Show; Cribb; The Old Curiosity Shop; Lazarus and Dingwall; Terry and June; Adventurers; The Dave Allen Show; Murder Most Horrid; Heart of the High Country; Savage Play.

Peter Bland comments:

The main theme of my poetry is one of exile, immigration, or displacement, using invented "voices" or surrealist invention to explore the relationship between person and place.

*  *  *

Peter Bland's 1998 Selected Poems provides the best access to his forty years of productive writing. It also adds a new dimension to his reputation as a poet of social realism and of displacement. In new work mainly grouped under the heading "Embarkations," his longstanding concern with the tension between roots and nomadism, between belonging and freedom, moves to a deeper enquiry:

   … but 'belonging' isn't just roots put in,
   it's fences falling, fields with no edge,
   a looking up that lifts the heart into vagrancy
   and leaves it breathless with nomadic bliss.

Belonging and nomadism merge in this later vision. Displacement is now freedom. (Here Bland quotes his friend Louis Johnson in the valedictory poem, with which he won an Arvon award). The later poems reject the obligation to belong to one place, "'digging in' & that old Kiwi regressive thing/disguised as growing roots," in favor of writing "poems adrift/like paper boats or messages in bottles,/careless of landfall, happy to be themselves."

It was for earthbound realism, for suburban social criticism, that Bland first became known. In the 1960s he worked with Johnson in New Zealand to establish a local social realism that ironically or even indignantly contrasted the country's utopian aspirations with the reductive actuality of suburbia. Instead of the conventional romanticism of awe-inspiring landscape, Bland picked out the suburban trivia of "tin butterflies and plaster gnomes &/The cat's paws delicate in new-laid concrete &"

Bland and Johnson obliged New Zealand poetry to engage with domestic realities, the pathos of ordinary lives, and the rhythms and diction of the country's elusive vernacular. Bland carried from England an acute ear for dialect and idiolect and a high skill in mimicry. It is no coincidence that by profession he is a successful comic actor. His poetry is distinguished by fine timing, a sometimes complex counterpoint of tones, and an ability to imply but not overstate personal feeling beneath the vigor of the spoken voice.

Bland's ear for the changing accents of everyday life has been further sharpened by his personal shuttlings between England and New Zealand. (He has twice migrated "permanently" to New Zealand but now lives in Sussex.) The robust rhythms and resonant vowels of his native Yorkshire have never left the implied voice of his poetry. They brought a special vigor, sometimes a vehemence, to his early New Zealand work, and they migrated back to England with him to add a contrapuntal duality to such poems as "Mr Maui," the satiric Polynesian impersonation through which he articulated his response to changes in both New Zealand and England in the 1970s:

   I'm changing things. My yellow cranes
   Dangle office blocks or smash chained suns
   On to your rotting wood.

With an increasing tendency to reflect on scenes from memory, Bland has examined his early life in an England extending from the late years of the Depression through World War II to postwar rationing. In "Two Family Snaps," "Northern Funerals 1942," "Lament for a Lost Generation," or the excellent "home front" poem "Recollections of a Ministry of Munition Housing Estate—1944," he movingly reinterprets history from the viewpoint of its forgotten "extras":

   We were the make-do-and-menders,
 
 
   utility-grey men, the last of a line.
   You can tell us a mile off even now;
   there's a touch of austerity
   under the eyes; a hint of carbolic
 
 
   in our after-shave; a lasting doubt
   about the next good time.

Bland's poetic and dramatic skills later focused on migration and displacement, a major twentieth-century subject on whose perplexities he has continued to write with insight and energy. In The Crusoe Factor he devolves his own feelings as a returning native into subtly semicomic impersonations of Crusoe, Mrs. Crusoe, and Friday. Several later poems, including "A Last Note from Menton" and "Homage to Van Der Velden," are in the form of letters to his New Zealand friends. He has also projected his own experience into imagined monologues by early New Zealand settlers ("Letters Home—New Zealand 1885," "New Baptized," "Beginnings") and into poems in which migratory movements are intercut with the processes of time and aging ("Let's Meet"). His tone has become more conversational and his rhythms more flexible than in the sometimes overinsistent early work.

Bland's realism has always been subverted by his aphoristic wit and his penchant for the oblique or quirky viewpoint. His imagery hankers habitually after the sea and the possibilities of departure. (He was born in Scarborough, on Yorkshire's east coast). He now often celebrates

   what richness arrives when
   one's feet aren't 'firmly planted' but
   spread out like a well-darned net to catch
   whatever the breeze brings in.

Yet he never floats off into introversion, self-delusion, or pretension. The conventions of self-referential language play, so fashionable currently in New Zealand poetry, are satirized in the witty "A Potential Poem for More Than Passing Strangers," in which he remarks, "I miss some sense of a living body/that someone, somewhere, has known and loved."

Bland has continued to develop his mastery of the poetry of the living in virtuoso monologue performances as Gauguin, the New Zealand environmentalist Guthrie-Smith, an amorous middle-aged husband, and an old codger of an aged Dracula. He makes these monologues work dramatically, vocally, visually, and comically. At the same time he does not limit their ability as poems to go beyond, to go again into that extra timeless dimension, "the other silences that go on and on/like the sky through this open window/for ever" ("Bear Dance"), to where "memory trembles with sad occasions,/with crowded wharfs and wayside stations/where the numberless dead wander/lost between trains." Like a great actor, Bland is most moving when he suddenly stops acting.

The late poem "Swimming off Worthing Beach," which is not included in Selected Poems, catches the polarities of this confident but still developing poet. It is about floating away from the "beached world" in drifting search for "something to do with space." It keeps a sharp and watchful eye on the changing shoreline clutter of the everyday, while it evokes being adrift, placeless, and timeless, with "gravity taken care of." The swimmer splashes back to the "sharp pebbles," but Bland the poet continues to float poised with an eye on both the pebbles and the void.

—Roger Robinson

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