Desperate Dan, W H Oliver

Intimate Stranger: reminiscences of Dan Davin
ed Janet Wilson
Steele Roberts, $29.95,
ISBN 1877228249

Before I start on the book, I will allow myself a grumble about the cover. This shows in the foreground a highlighted profile of Dan, characteristically caught in full flow and, if you look closely, a dimly lit female face peering out of the background. Certainly that image does not accord with my memories of Winnie – for example, playing the pokies at the Gardeners’ Arms. I doubt if the relative standing this image suggests will survive the publication of her writings and letters; for that matter, it is contradicted by most of the things said about her in this book.

The key word in the subtitle, “reminiscences”, identifies the book’s most accessible characteristic – it is a work of affectionate and admiring remembrance of its subject and a celebration of his virtues and talents. Some 40 pieces, mostly written for this publication, are filled out and held together by helpful editorial linking passages and numerous end-notes. The contributors are drawn from as wide a spectrum as one could readily imagine: Southland family members, Otago and Oxford students, wartime companions, Oxford family friends, New Zealand visitors (two “waves” of these), publishing associates – and, to put it not quite accurately, men who admired him and women who fell in love with him.

Their recollections pay an eloquent (for the most part) tribute to a man who was widely admired, loved, courted and looked up to. It should be added, in the light of some less than reverent remarks to follow, that this reviewer experienced Dan Davin in much the same way and – as I suspect was the case with many of these remembrancers – felt a little flattered at the attention he received from him.

2

But if a loving admiration is the dominant note, it is not the only, nor the most interesting, one. There is also a persistent subtext; many of the essays sound a note of failure, frustration and unfulfilment. Keith Ovenden sounds the same note in the title of his 1996 biography A Fighting Withdrawal – a phrase Davin applied to himself as early as 1976. Janet Wilson opens her book with the phrases “diminishing capital” and “the complexity of his character which he himself was unwilling to explore”. She concludes with the suggestion that his life exemplifies “colonisation and its discontents” and “the dislocations of exile”. Under the celebratory surface, this book does not tell a happy tale; that, of course, reflects Davin’s own view of himself, especially in his later years.

Why, it has to be asked, is Dan Davin so often represented as a tragic and unfulfilled figure? Surely he had plenty of satisfactions and achievements – wife, family, friends, lovers, books, work, reputation, houses, pubs, journeyings – which, if they did not satisfy him (as they clearly did not), might well have inclined others to wonder why they did not. Only the more enquiring and less reverent contributors to this book deal with this problem, for the most part only by implication.

When I first met Dan and Winnie Davin, in Oxford in the early 1950s, the impression I gained was not of an unfulfilled man. He was the doyen of the Kiwi Club (could it really have been called that? – in Cambridge the equivalent, according to Hugh Kawharu, was the Hei Tiki Club) and in his rather lordly way genially hospitable to New Zealand students. But, more than that, he had a high position in a great scholarly publishing house; he was the intimate of Dylan Thomas and Louis MacNeice, poets some of us revered, and the author of novels and stories some of us had read with respect. Not, in any way, a failure and nor did he behave like one. Here, more spectacularly than the other expatriates, was the colonial boy who had made it big in the metropolis.

The last time we met was despondently different. This was during his 1984-5 visit to receive an honorary doctorate from Otago University. I remember him chiefly for his weariness and his need to have the services of a shorthand typist to enable him to keep up with his letters. Luckily, I was able to lend him my secretary, Jenny Barrett. The time before that, in Oxford in 1981, was chiefly notable for his distress at being “persecuted by poetry”; especially at night he compulsively composed what he called “doggerel”. “Afflicted by verse” is the phrase used by a contributor here and another tells of his distress at spending sleepless nights composing stories.

A little before that meeting, Dan had been at his splendid best, even though obviously unwell, as the main speaker at the launch of the Oxford History of New Zealand in London. But, to add a story to those in the book, my brightest memory of that occasion was provided by Winnie. There were then two reception floors in New Zealand House. The launch was in the top one; the floor below was being used by a society whose members paid a large fee to hire celebrities so that later they could say to their friends “As I said to [name any one] last night”. This time it was Barbara Cartland; going up in the lift I had to crouch under her enormous cartwheel hat. But Winnie got out at the wrong floor and, according to Dan, was having such a wonderful time that he despaired of getting her out, especially after she had locked herself in the wrong loo.

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Dan’s plight, both the compulsive scribbling and the conviction that he had failed, may be more than a mere symptom of decline; perhaps it can be understood in the light of his early resolve to be a writer and also to aim for the very top not only in writing but in everything else that lay to hand. He never seems to have contemplated renouncing a career (and the standing, the salary and the stability it brought) and devoting all his energies to writing. Was the compulsive doggerel the revenge of the muse? For he had persisted in worshipping at her shrine with only half his attention, probably much less than half. He knew this too well for his comfort: “I’ve never written anything as good as I meant it to be … I never had enough commitment and time.” Perhaps commitment would have demanded time? Many contributors refer to Closing Times as his best book; I agree, but it is a sad comment on a novelist.

Some of Janet Wilson’s words about failure have been quoted already; she also comments that (in the 1950s and 60s) “his inner life was increasingly chaotic, often out of step with his external world” and that this damaged his writing. Elspeth Sandys, who transcribed some of the compulsive night stories, comments that it was “as if the writer inside Dan, the man he had always wanted to be … had decided to take over.” Perhaps the women in his life saw things more clearly than the (too?) admiring men? Certainly the best exploration of the subtext comes from Nuala O’Faolain, a young Irishwoman who was close to Davin in his 50s and was also a family friend.

She saw Dan and Winnie as “not a cosy couple, [but] as lonely people” lacking a firm location, not English, not Irish, not even exiles but New Zealanders without a New Zealand. She describes Dan as “less of a scholar and writer than many people around him” – perhaps a polite way of saying “out of his depth”? More, “[h]is writing suffered from his lack of self-knowledge” – cf Janet Wilson. “Something,” she says, “had happened to him to make him need and desire to write, but that prevented him from being much of a writer.” She guesses that it might have been the “huge glamour of the war”; cf Davin’s reply to Gabrielle Day’s question about the best years of his life: “Oh the war of course.” She is sure that “his writing suffered from his lack of self-knowledge”. If this seems too sharp, remember Janet Wilson’s remark about his unwillingness to explore his own character.

These reductionist remarks, which come close to Davin’s own assessment of his achievement, are paralleled by the more enquiring of the comments made about his publishing career. In the best essay on Davin as publisher, and one as affectionate as any in the book, David Mitchell tells the sad story of Davin’s initial hostility to the reforms needed to bring to an end the extraordinary chaos of the Oxford publishing empire, a lack of direction in policy, structure and management which threatened to become terminal. This chaos, he does not quite say, Dan had found wholly acceptable for his entire working life as an administrator. At the end of the book, Janet Wilson quotes Jeremy Lewis to the effect that he was less a publisher than an editor. These recurrent indications of failure much more general than a simple writing block oblige us to enquire, still with the affection shown by all these witnesses, what, if it was not his works, could have made such a person so attractive to so many?

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My only answer to that puzzle can be vaguely indicated by terms like presence, power and personality. To say that in company he dominated is not to say that he was anything but affectionate, careful, solicitous, loyal, supportive – adjectives which are sprinkled throughout the book. But it is to recall the tremendous air of self-sufficiency and innate authority he projected; further, in Nuala O’Faolain’s phrase, “he never asked for much back”. I found him like that; I also found him a bit scary – no-one in the book says anything like it, but (even in his declining years) I always experienced a faint undertone of menace in his presence. I recall him saying that he, like Louis MacNeice, was one of the “black Irish”.

O’Faolain remarks that she did not find “his Churchillian looks or his measured self-presentation particularly attractive” (there was much else that she did). Again, it is a sharpish phrase, “measured self-presentation”; it seems to me an accurate one. James McNeish quotes from Davin’s assessment in 1941 of Lovelock: “his fame and himself are a deliberate creation, wrought with extraordinary skill and patience … And now … he is suffering from the effort, making the time payment in lassitude and strain.” That McNeish saw Davin in this light, or that Dan so saw himself, is not suggested, but it strikes me as eerily predictive. Dan’s novels were for much the greater part autobiographical, but none came close to his “measured self-presentation” and to what I would call his “presence”. That, to venture an affectionate guess, was his own best work of fiction, and one which concealed and protected the “character … he … was unwilling to fully explore.”

 

W H Oliver is a New Zealand historian and poet.

 

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