Wine, wisdom and so on: Four founders look back at the beginnings of New Zealand Books

Retrospective

 

Shelagh Duckham Cox

We met first in Lauris Edmond’s house at 22 Grass St in the middle of 1990 and the six of us – Lauris, John Mansfield Thomson, Pat Hawthorne, Vincent O’Sullivan, Martin Bond and Shelagh Duckham Cox – lasted as a group for two years. John died in September 1999 and Lauris in January 2000. The rest of us, who have come together again to produce these four pieces, agree that the period of our friendships, hard work, sense of purpose, bursts of euphoria and considerable disagreements seems to have lasted much longer than the time from that first meeting to John Thomson’s resignation in June 1992. We drank to John and Lauris when we met in May to consider what we should say here. Wine always played a part in what we did.  As Vincent said at our surviving founders’ meeting, John would announce a new wine the way a minister announces a hymn.

John had a lot of publishing experience. Lauris’ total refusal to be daunted carried her across the breach into a different dispensation following his departure. Their joint application, organising powers, ability to enthuse other people, wide range of contacts and attitude were the foundation on which we built.

We had high ideals. We would work as a collective, we said. And, to begin with, that’s what we did. We were a diverse but tolerant group who made sure we covered a broad spectrum of views and people and had a good geographical spread of reviewers.

We were neither biased nor predictable and we didn’t follow any party line. But we missed a political opportunity. The country was changing, bewilderingly and fundamentally, in the early 1990s. Informed comment was often lacking in other publications, and we could have commissioned investigative essays from large-minded writers.  We did so once, and only once, with a controversial cover piece. It’s a pity we didn’t take this opposition in our stride and simply persevere.

Our neglect of big general issues arose as well from having so much else to do. Pressure of work also meant that it became more and more impractical to work as a collective and labour had to be divided. Separation in what we did was logistically useful but had consequences we regret; increasingly contributors were brought in and important decisions made without consultation among us all.

In the second part of 1992 we broke up and in this sense we failed. Yet the journal has grown and flourished. It’s become as much in the way of an established organ of New Zealand literary life as is possible in these uncertain times. In those early days, we had rows, we had fun and we felt we were doing something worthwhile. And we learned a lot about New Zealand wines.

 

Pat Hawthorne

My involvement began with a phone call from Lauris Edmond about a proposed new quarterly review journal that John Thomson would edit – would I like to be involved?  Her enthusiasm was infectious – I felt privileged to be part of it. We met regularly over a period of some months. There was much to be done, publishers to be contacted, reviewers to be approached, money to be found: to get us started Founders contributed $500 each, Friends were asked for donations and responded generously; subscriptions and advertising revenue made up the rest of our funds. All culminated in our first issue in April 1991.

The early issues were elegant, using a professional designer, with ample illustrations. Later, financial constraints meant less expensive paper, a simpler design. As we progressed, it was clear how fortunate we were to have the experience and expertise of John as (unpaid) editor. His 20 years experience in London publishing, ten as Editor of Early Music, was invaluable. Without John’s commitment it could not have happened.

We were idealistic: the business out of the way, the wine uncorked, our meetings often ended with long, passionate discussions. In addition to literary reviews, we saw the journal as a forum for addressing the political and social issues of the day. One such piece, Phillip Mann’s “The Poverty Trap” (vol.2, no.2, September 1992) was controversial and brought criticism from some quarters. Sadly, this “frightened” us from any further direct political comment and I believe we now regret our faint-heartedness. I am reminded of the following words of John Thomson’s in the editorial to the October 1991 issue: “We believe that the issue of what kind of society New Zealand will become in the next decades is central to our role and existence.”

I hoped for regular reviews of NZ film and theatre. Initially there were some: John Roberts reviewed the Ian Mune-directed film of The End of the Golden Weather, Phillip Mann reviewed Leon Narbey’s Chunuk Bair, but there were always more books to review than we had space for and they took priority. It was also important that we were, and were seen to be, truly national. John took copies of the first issue to the Dunedin Writers’ Festival (1991); another issue was launched in Auckland at Unity Books. Reviewers were commissioned nationally; Iain Sharp wrote a regular “Letter from Auckland”.

We all worked voluntarily; jobs were allocated according to our various skills. My role became an administrative one, keeping the books (without previous experience!), paying contributors, etc. No matter how bad our finances, we were adamant that contributors would be paid even though they got less than they deserved.

Perhaps inevitably, differences surfaced: issues such as editorial autonomy, problems with decision-making, the collective versus the individual. John’s resignation (his last issue was June 1992) was received with genuine regret. There were times when the journal could have folded; thankfully it did not. That it was difficult to keep going did not seem a valid reason to stop. By the end of 1992, only two of the original six founders remained. New Zealand Books survived, evolved; there was new blood, signalling new directions – this was all positive. Lauris remained staunch until the end, the sole remaining original founder. Against the odds, New Zealand Books has survived. May it continue for a further decade.

 

Martin Bond

When John Thomson told me of his and Lauris Edmond’s idea to start a review journal of New Zealand writing and asked me whether I would be interested in joining them, I couldn’t see how I would be able to help. This was not my world and it seemed to me that what would be needed were networking types with many contacts and a good knowledge of writers and writing. It was an exciting plan, though, and, as no such journal existed at the time, clearly one to be supported.

Meetings of the six of us in the original collective began usually in the early evenings or on Sunday mornings as we were leading disparate lives. John would be editor. Each of us agreed to put in some money as initial working capital. Decisions would be made collectively.

The first excitements and indulgences of planning were quickly overrun by the exigencies of achieving our aim of a journal in production, the responsibility for which lay largely on the shoulders of the editor. In fact, we never really operated as a true collective. There were several reasons for this. The net was cast increasingly widely for specialist help, resulting in the involvement of an ever-growing number of people; the decision-making process became devolved; and collective meetings increasingly became forums for debate and discussion and exchanging information about what decisions had been taken – elsewhere! I never felt myself to be particularly close to the decision-making process, which was perfectly appropriate. Unlike others, I didn’t have the specialist skills to contribute much. There was much humdrum work to be done, though, and, as I had the time, this was where I could provide some useful input.

The process started with the arrival of the books for review from the publishers. These were looked over at a collective meeting, reviewers decided (and generally agreed) upon, and the books dispatched accordingly. Then followed an interesting time when the reviews arrived in the mail. There wasn’t always agreement amongst us about the reviews received.

I then had very little to do with putting together each issue. When the journal was printed, I was responsible for dispatching it to bookshops on a sale-or-return basis.  At that stage, subscription management was handled separately by Annette Harvey.

In looking back at our period of involvement with New Zealand Books, we were all surprised at how short it had been – two and a half years maximum. It seemed much longer. As the complexities of keeping it all going increased, so too did the tensions and conflicts within the collective. Things reached a point where John found it necessary to relinquish his editorship as he felt he no longer had sufficient control over the day-to-day running of the journal. Increasingly, decisions were being made and acted upon beyond the collective, and then presented at meetings as faits accomplis. This might in part have been an inevitable consequence of the momentum of the thing. At any rate, the time came when it seemed clear to me that Lauris would have no trouble in getting the relatively small contribution that I was making covered, so I too resigned.

 

Vincent O’Sullivan

It’s something of a paradox that New Zealand Books came about, and so vigorously took off, because of two factors that were essential for its beginning, yet incompatible for long-term harmony. One was John Thomson’s flair and professional expertise in conceiving and editing high quality journals. The other was Lauris Edmond’s equally impressive energy and drive, and her certainty that it was more effective to lead than to follow.

John and Lauris were close friends before the enterprise began, and their closeness survived the differences that led to John’s resignation as editor after just two years.  One can’t imagine the journal ever having got off the ground had it not been for these two strong personalities working together, and what each brought to it at different times – John’s magisterial taste, his freedom from any doctrinal thrust, his meticulous editorial standards; Lauris’s capacity to throw herself into what enthused her, her drawing in young and ardent assistants, her conviction that this is how things were to be done. The other four of us were there from the beginning, willing to weigh in where we could, but to a large extent spurred on by the optimism and energy that these two sparked between them.

So much of the history of New Zealand “small magazines” is the story of intense enthusiasms, selfless editing, almost non-existent finance, and that diminishing arc as the rocket tilts into the realities of income and distribution. We were lucky that so many friends were willing to chance $500 to give the enterprise its starting boost. We were fortunate too that the initial group of six hit it off so well, pushed no editorial barrows other than to promote quality reviewing, and covered between us a range of contacts that allowed us from the start to trawl a broader net than most local journals manage to do. It is that catholicity that was set as the early hallmark of New Zealand Books, and opened its columns to so many perspectives. Yet there can be a downside even to that. My own view – and one that I think the four of us tend to share – is that early on the journal erected what one might almost call a barrier of good taste against robust political discussion. We were too careful not to provoke, not to give the impression that we were here for more than informed literary assessment, at a time when so much of what we valued was being undermined by right-wing intellectual vandalism. It was an important opportunity lost as well that we did not promote extensive, free-wheeling essays of the kind that have become the showpieces of so many Australian journals.

But the tradition of New Zealand Books – and 10 years entitles us surely to speak of a tradition? – at least offers, more extensively than any other publication, a continued and vigorous engagement with most of what is now written in this country. It remains mercifully free from any imposed editorial slant, from any approved theoretical “line”, and continues the cosmopolitan openness John laid down from the start. These may be modest enough things to have brought off.  In New Zealand terms, the modest may also be monumental.

 

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