Obituary – John Mansfield Thomson

John Mansfield Thomson (1926-1999)

John Mansfield Thomson, founding editor of New Zealand Books, died in Wellington Hospital on September 11, 1999. From the very first issue he gave this journal its authority and character, bringing to it his great skills as editor and designer. He envisaged a journal which would have wide appeal, serious but not academic or elitist. It was largely through his network of contacts that the resources for the journal were found.

John was born in 1926 in his grandmother’s house in Blenheim. He was educated as a boarder at Nelson College, an experience which left him with a lifelong abhorrence for spinach and rugby. Towards the end of the Second World War, he went to Britain with the Fleet Air Arm, although he was too late for active service. After demobilisation, he worked as an assistant stage manager in a provincial repertory company, and for a time at the Gate Theatre with Michael MacLiammoir.

On his return to New Zealand, he completed a degree in History at Victoria University. With a number of friends, including Alistair Campbell and Bill Oliver, he founded a small literary journal, Hilltop, and edited the first two issues. In 1949, he returned to London, where he studied social anthropology at University College with Raymond Firth and typography at Camberwell School of Arts. During the 1950s he maintained something of an itinerant existence, including a period in Sydney, where he began research on his first major work, the biography of composer Alfred Hill, A Distant Music, published in 1980.

By 1961, John had returned to London where he lived for more than 20 years. This was the period of his greatest success. His work on Composer, and particularly as a music books editor at Barrie and Jenkins and later at Faber and Faber, built him a substantial reputation. He was very much part of the scene at Aldeburgh around Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears. With the New Zealand Music Society in London he did much to foster the cause of his country’s composers and performers in London, and he was founding chairman of the National Early Music Association of Great Britain.

Undoubtedly his career reached a peak as founder of the journal Early Music, which he edited for ten years. His skill as an editor, his ability to engage and encourage talented writers and his taste and knowledge of typography produced a most exquisite and scholarly journal. John was also a mentor for many young musicians. He relished the company of lively and talented young people, and helped many of them in their careers. A Guardian correspondent, Professor William Roff, has made a lovely comment on John’s help for young people:

More than 20 years ago my elder daughter, who much later became a German scholar, was introduced to the language by John discoursing on the extraordinary amount of information on the labels of German wine. He specialised in a thoughtful and much relished enrichment of the life of others, and left the young his own as a model.

John returned to New Zealand in 1982 to undergo heart surgery. And so in his late fifties, he began his career again when two years later he was appointed the first J D Stout Fellow in the newly established Stout Research Centre. He was, until his death, a valued contributor and friend of the Stout Centre. He served on the board for many years, organised conferences and seminars, and was founding editor of its journal, The Stout Centre Review (now New Zealand Studies), which he built into a handsome scholarly journal. He was the most meticulous editor. In one of the early issues the text on a couple of pages was printed slightly too high; John demanded that the entire issue be reprinted despite my protestations as director about the parlous state of the Centre’s coffers. He won, of course, which was only right. It was while at the Stout Centre that John did the major research for his Oxford History of New Zealand Music (1991). His work on behalf of New Zealand music also resulted in the Biographical Dictionary of New Zealand Composers (1990). He was awarded an honorary D Mus in the following year.

I first met John at the Darmstadt Festival of Contemporary Music in 1962. At the time, he had been at Bayreuth, and was fleeing from the heady world of the Wagners. It was then that I understood John’s great love of the whole world of music, of mixing with performers, composers, writers and editors, even when at times he didn’t much like the actual music. I never heard him express any great enthusiasm for the music of Michael Tippett; but when that composer visited New Zealand, John was the most congenial of hosts in the vineyards of his native Marlborough. His world was the Baroque and the Classical: Purcell, Rameau and especially his beloved Haydn.

Probably John’s greatest gift was for friendship. Even when his health was so precarious, he would stagger out on a foul Wellington night to a concert to support the performers or the composer. In his last few weeks he turned the Cardiac Care Unit of Wellington Hospital into a salon. The nursing staff had never seen anything like it and remarked that he must know everyone in Wellington. John was unique.

Jim Collinge

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