The Burns bash, Bill Sewell

Burns Fellowship 40th anniversary reunion, 22 May 1998

You couldn’t call it a “class” or a “school” reunion, because we were never really a class or a school. Some of us had never even met, in each particular year we had enrolled only singly, or at the most, in pairs. And none of us would ever have donned anything so levelling as a uniform.

Nevertheless, the gathering had that institutional feel, the slight artificiality, the sense of time having moved on (even the youngest of us had become somewhat grizzled), and the attempt to recapture how things had been. There was also the assembly in the august Otago University Clock Tower Building; readings by prizewinners; the group photograph on the front steps of the Clock Tower Building.

If you wanted, you could push the analogy further, by trying to pick out the Head Girl (little contest there) and Head Boy (more competition for that) and select the cricket teams. It would be a wickedly interesting exercise, for example, to speculate on who amongst us might be the stolid opening bat for the First XI, who the “demon” bowler, who the nimble wicket-keeper, and so on.

But we were writers, not school chums or team-mates – more precisely, holders of the Robert Burns Fellowship at the University of Otago from its founding in 1958 to the present. Including the incumbent, Michael King, there have been 38 of us, of whom five – Maurice Duggan, RAK Mason, James K Baxter, Noel Hilliard, and Robert Lord – are dead, while another five were unable to attend. That left almost 30 former fellows to gather in Dunedin on and around 22 May and “be made a fuss of”, as Professor Jocelyn Harris (who together with Heather Murray had skilfully managed the event) put it.

And make a fuss of us, they did. Those of us from out of town were flown in (indeed, Michael Noonan claimed that he had come all the way from Brussels: I still don’t know whether to believe him) and put up at the University’s Executive Residence – a superior sort of hostel with room service, two minutes’ walk away from the campus. We were all treated to a Mayoral reception, morning tea, lunch, a University reception with oysters and a very respectable Australian shiraz, entertainment from the phoenix-like Sextet (all make-up and falsetto), and a superb buffet dinner. We were also told how wonderful we were, how much we had contributed to the University and the nation by keeping the academy in touch with a living art and by holding up a not always very pleasing mirror to society (or words to that effect).

Who could fail to be flattered by that? In return, we were asked to do very little. Eight former Fellows (Ian Cross, Ruth Dallas, Maurice Gee, Keri Hulme, Witi Ihimaera, Owen Marshall, Elspeth Sandys and David Eggleton) were given the honour (or the ordeal) of having to read at the formal welcome in the Council Chamber, with large portraits of the deceased Fellows at their backs to keep them honest (the one of Baxter seemed almost to be amused by the whole business). As each reader approached the podium, the microphone was pinned on their lapel like some kind of medal – only to be removed as they stepped down after their reading. The other Fellows were disposed at each side of the chamber, sitting on chairs that faced inwards – so that others in the audience could get a good look at us – while Janet Frame sat in the front row, identifiable by her shock of grey curls.

The highlight for me was listening to perhaps our greatest living stylist, Owen Marshall, read two contrasting descriptive passages from his novel, A Many Coated Man – the one about an assault, brutal and deliberate, the other about some intractable farming country, reflective and poetic. He topped it off with a witty poem that reinforced every South Island prejudice against Auckland. But I was also pleased to hear Ruth Dallas read her well-loved sequence, “The Turning Wheel”, as well as Maurice Gee and Witi Ihimaera give a sample from their new novels Live Bodies and The Dream-Swimmer. People said at the time that never has such a line-up of distinguished New Zealand writers assembled in one place, and the eight readers amply backed up that claim.

A lunch hosted by the English Department gave us the chance to renew acquaintance with its members and listen to anecdotes about the antics of various Burns Fellows: Ian Cross, the very first Fellow, and his habit of nailing plans of his novels to the wall, Witi Ihimaera and his love of opera, Sam Hunt and his dog, Baxter and his love of conversation – with or without interlocutors. Then, in the afternoon, some of us were asked to help with student workshops, the one in drama, the other in poetry. I, along with Cilla McQueen and Ian Wedde, was detailed to take part in John Dolan’s poetry workshop.

Perhaps because Michael King is the incumbent, the theme of the gathering – insofar as there was a theme – was biography. Michael delivered a lecture in honour of the Burns Fellowship entitled “Biography and Compassionate Truth”, in the peculiar position – as he observed – of having the subject of his next biography, Janet Frame, sitting in front of him. He belongs to the school that is solicitous of its subjects – and of their relatives and descendants – agreeing with David Marr (biographer of Patrick White) that the biographer may look into the bedroom but not into the bed.

He did, however, tell one personal anecdote that makes him feel uncomfortable to this day – of how he and some friends, attending a students’ arts festival in Dunedin in the 1960s, had roused Charles Brasch from his bed at his home in Heriot Row, thinking that he might be pleased to see them and perhaps offer them hospitality from what they thought was his extensive cellar. They were mistaken, although he did apparently offer them a small – a very small – sherry before dismissing them politely.

Charles Brasch has more or less been unmasked as the benefactor behind the Burns Fellowship endowment, and is now himself being biographised by Sarah Quigley. One wonders what dark secrets she will unearth about that generous, scholarly, shy, and I suspect fastidious man, who did so much for New Zealand art and letters. Not too many, I hope, and even if she does, how important can they be in the context of his lasting achievements, amongst which must be counted Landfall (now into its 50th year), his poems, and of course the establishment of the Fellowship itself?

In his Landfall editorial of March 1959, Brasch wrote that the Fellowship “reminds us that part of a university’s proper business is to act as a nurse to the arts”, which might be achieved by marrying the “anarchic spirit of Burns” with “that best part of the Scottish inheritance – education”. The reunion supplied powerful evidence that the Fellowship has achieved just that – in discovering, nurturing, providing a temporary haven to many of New Zealand’s best writers.

Whatever has become of each Fellow in the years following their tenure, those of us who assembled in Dunedin on 22 May have much to thank Charles Brasch, as well as the University of Otago, for. It was a privilege to hold the Fellowship and a privilege to be present at the reunion.

But I have to add that because of the success of this, the 40th anniversary reunion, a 50th anniversary one has now become a necessity.

Bill Sewell is co-editor of New Zealand Books and was Burns Fellow in 1981 and 1982.

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