My attention has been drawn to C K Stead’s review (June issue) of Denis Glover: His Life and to Mark Pirie’s letter of the following issue (August) in which he notes Stead’s lapse over Louis Johnson’s “Magpie and Pines”. I don’t mind Stead enumerating “errors or confusions of fact” in my biography provided they are mistakes and do matter. However, several in his list seem to be Stead’s mix-ups not mine.
Here are some further samples. Despite Stead’s denial, it is Robin Dudding himself, in a letter to Glover (Turnbull archives GP418/67, 27/6/72), who makes the connection between the naming of Islands and “Sings Harry”. Also, I don’t describe Keith Sinclair and Kevin Ireland as Wellington poets but “helping to form a vibrant new literary community” while they lived in Wellington during the 1950s. William Plomer, according to the biography by Peter Alexander, was indeed responsible for bringing Ted Hughes to public attention even though Hughes was first published by Faber. And my notes taken during a telephone conversation with Stead about his contemporaries clearly name Maurice Duggan rather than Maurice Gee; but, of course, that could have been the result of a bad line! Communication between Christchurch and Auckland has never been that hot.
The Duggan and “Whim Wham” glitches were in sources I used which, admittedly, I should have double-checked. The “confusions” concerning Lehmann, Baysting and Noonan are chronological rather than factual, the result (in each case) of my trying to cram too much biographical background into one sentence. These shortcomings are by any measurement nitpickingly trivial and peripheral. In a huge and detailed text they do nothing to invalidate my central account of Glover’s highly complex life and career, an account which has so far received no criticism. For Stead to imply that they introduce a doubt about the whole book is absurd.
More weird still is Stead’s verdict that the Glover biography is weakest in its “literary analysis or judgement”. This is like blaming an orange for not being a banana. The book’s introduction clearly states that it is “primarily a biography, not a work of literary criticism”, and that “contemporary and recent evaluations of Glover’s work” were used whenever I needed to make such judgements. To this end I used the (not always flattering) opinions of William Broughton, Alistair Campbell, Allen Curnow, Lauris Edmond, Patrick Evans, Ian Gordon, Kevin Ireland, Lawrence Jones, Fiona Kidman, Dennis McEldowney, Harvey McQueen, Bill Manhire, Vincent O’Sullivan, Alan Roddick, Maurice Shadbolt, J E P Thomson, Denys Trussell, Brian Turner and about 30 other writers and critics. These include several now unable to explain themselves, such as Baxter, Bertram, Brasch, Dowling, Fairburn, Holcroft, Johnson, Joseph, Mason, Milner, Rhodes and Schroder. Four of the first group checked and approved my final brief evaluation of Glover as a writer.
I’m sure all these good folk would be as chuffed as I was to discover the book’s literary comments characterised by Stead as “more hopeful than authoritative”.
Although to date I have not commented publicly on Gordon Ogilvie’s superb biography of my father, I cannot let the polemic by C K Stead pass without a response from me.
Mr Stead’s mean-spirited attack on the life and character of a man he clearly did not know well is a sad comment not so much upon Glover as upon Stead himself. My father’s faults were well-known. They are not aggravated by Stead’s enumeration of them. His qualities were also well-known to his many friends. They are not diminished by Stead’s failure to acknowledge them. And not content with heaping scorn on Glover’s life and talents, Stead has also felt it necessary to shoot the messenger.
Perhaps the last word is best left to my father. From beyond the grave he can still say to Stead:
Addressing the dead is a sad poet’s trick,
Throwing a last brick.
C K Stead’s response:
I could argue about some of Gordon Ogilvie’s points but it’s probably better to acknowledge that this listing of the few things that are wrong, or seem wrong to the reviewer, must always seem unfair to the biographer or historian who has spent so much time getting so many thousands of things right. I did, however, describe the Glover biography as “well-documented … readable and interesting … generous and tolerant.”
Rupert Glover’s letter is more of a puzzle. No one should be surprised by family solidarity, nor want to do anything but applaud it; but I simply don’t recognise my own review in his description of it as “a mean-spirited attack” on Denis Glover, and I doubt that anyone else will.