Waving the flag, Heather Murray

Writing Wellington: Twenty Years of Victoria University Writing Fellows
ed Roger Robinson
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 0 86473 367 4

It is hard not to get political when reviewing this book, so political I’ll be (it is after all election year). In double-quick time after co-editing, with Nelson Wattie, the valuable and monumental Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature, Roger Robinson of the English Department at Victoria University edits this collection of writing to mark 20 years of mutually beneficial patronage between the Department and the writers of New Zealand. Patronage of writing and the arts exists now at all our universities and makes a contribution towards excellence impossible to quantify. I’ll wager that Robinson won’t make a penny out of his work. Providing encouragement and a congenial environment for the arts are simply part of the job for those employed in the Humanities.

For it is the Humanities departments which largely provide the friendly interface between university and the community. Not only do arts fellowships at the universities offer encouragement to those creating, often in isolation, but they provide venues for performance, places where the public may come to see and hear excellence in the arts. One has only to look at the programme for the New Zealand Festival 2000 to see the part to be played in its Arts and Minds section by the Humanities at Victoria University. Yet it is the Humanities of all the sections of the modern university which feel most sharply threatened by the current monetarist policies of the government. To the money boys crunching the numbers and asking the price of everything, the “use” of arts subjects is not always apparent, and Humanists often find themselves fighting a bemused rearguard action against the infidel.

There is no need for this. More and louder flag-waving of the sort provided by the book under review would be enough to persuade the taxpayer that the Humanities more than pull their weight within the university world, and, more importantly, in the community. At a university near me, a team of bright young PR people has been hired to put the university story forth to the community at home and abroad. They gloss; they provide positive “spin”; they blow the trumpets beyond the walls. We are relevant, we are excellent, we are the place to be, they shout.  Yes, it may be so. But what they now do for large sums of money, is the task that academics in the Humanities have been doing on behalf of the universities and the community as part of their daily job. Whatever good opinion the community at large, who may never enrol at a university, may have about the institution is provided in large part by the arts environment fostered and displayed by the Humanities. Without their work New Zealand’s pulse would be harder to measure. Roger Robinson here continues the Humanist tradition.

Looking elegant in a cover design by Margaret Cochran, Writing Wellington presents work written specially by the 20 fellows who have held the Victoria fellowship since 1979, to mark and pay tribute to the city itself, and the centenary of the university. It is hard to think of a New Zealand city that has drawn such fine responses from its writers. Photographs of fellows enliven the text with varying success, suggesting that many writers prefer their everlasting memorial to be the written and not the pictorial. Robert Cross has not managed to coax all his subjects out of their favourite camera poses: Musaphia and Johnson are cynical; O’Sullivan, Campbell, O’Brien, and Knox are barely tolerant, Ihimaera glowers; Edmond, Lasenby, Kidman, and Tolerton oblige on the command to smile. Others gaze to the distant horizon, absorbed in higher thought. As a group the photos do not reach the heights of Reg Graham’s recent collection of Burns Fellows.

Ninety-six pages of writing by 20 writers allow only three or four pages per fellow, and many might wish to forego the high quality art paper in exchange for more writing and a cheaper price. Maurice Gee impresses as always with a finely judged and subtle story of death and new life, evolved in response to the city itself.  Michael King, as historian, writes memorably about his youth and growing up – afternoon tea at Kirkcaldies: now there was an occasion.  Barbara Anderson offers a small tour de force about a civil servant pushing upwards, ever upwards to higher positions in diplomacy or government department. Perhaps he is one of the infidel mentioned above:

And he could certainly do Culture. Like any self-respecting thruster in Foreign Affairs, Manders collected New Zealand art. Or had. He read New Zealand literature, especially history, which was even more interesting nowadays. He had always been conversant with the customs and culture of its indigenous people. One or two of his friends were Maori.

One of the strangest pieces comes from Ian Wedde. He offers no new work, only a piece written during his tenure in 1984 and an enigmatic essay in which he reveals that his fellowship year, while producing much work, had unexpected and long-term consequences for his writing. He came to a crisis-point of scepticism from which he has yet to emerge.  He decided to step away from “the burbling storm-drain of narrative out of which books came by means of a process more like bucketing than thinking”. Co-editing the Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1985) during this year made Wedde aware of his own “snobbery” about writing, his “stylistic skiting”, and “fraudulence”. Hence the later silence of Wedde. With self-criticism such as this, Wedde has nothing to fear from other critics. Here’s hoping he gets over it soon.

Writing Wellington makes a splendid gift to the city that nourished it.

Heather Murray is a Dunedin writer and critic.

Photographs: Robert Cross.

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