Dennis McEldowney (1926-2003)
In the 1991 edition of Who’s Who in New Zealand, Dennis listed two “recreations” – “gardening” and “looking about”. On Monday this week, a few hours before he died, Dennis was still “looking about”. Most of his face was hidden by the oxygen mask that was feeding his fading body, but Dennis wasn’t fazed: when he felt the need to say something or acknowledge a presence, he lifted the mask – and there was Dennis “looking about” and commenting on what he saw, with no loss of a lifetime of non-judgmental good humour and calmness.
Dennis McEldowney’s life and his life work were based on “looking about”. How else could he have become a diarist, that rarest of New Zealand literary birds? For most of his 77 years, Dennis was intent on recording the minutiae of a well-lived life and then sorting out sufficient quantities of it for publication in such volumes as Full of the Warm South (1983), Shaking the Bee Tree (1992) and Then and There: a 1970s diary (1995), along with other autobiographical and biographical writing that we are much richer for having. (I suppose it is no coincidence that he was a regular columnist for a journal called Outlook.)
Not that his whimsical eye and determination to keep the record didn’t mean a degree of embarrassment for those who crossed his path – that is, his victims. When I met Dennis in Dunedin in 1966, I had just been appointed to a job that Dennis rather fancied, and he had just been appointed to a job that took my eye. Dennis’ notes were published in Full of the Warm South in 1983: “Dudding is slim, rather long-faced, with a wide mouth which is slightly quirkish, nearly wry at the corners.” Perhaps Dennis had the sun in his eyes! Nor can I believe, as he claimed a little further on, that Dudding and James K Baxter held the floor while “the rest of us [that is, Charles Brasch, McEldowney and Iain Lonie] listened”. If photographs can lie, what about the keepers of journals?
In one way or another, Dennis’ life and mine have been pretty firmly linked ever since that meeting. In short order, I was working in Christchurch shepherding through the printing press books edited by Dennis in his new job in Auckland. When I returned to Auckland in 1973, Dennis helped keep our family in the manner to which it was accustomed by employing me as an occasional copy-editor and proofreader. Eventually he even gave me his job for a while so that I was stand-in editor at Auckland University Press (AUP), while Dennis and Zoe had their OE in Europe. That job was all that I hoped it would be – but Dennis wanted it back!
Dennis kept me occupied, and I returned the favour – commissioning articles, reviews and commentaries for the various magazines I edited. The hallmarks of Dennis’ contributions for more than 50 years were always the same – from a piece in 1954 in Here & Now to recent work in Landfall and Sport – generosity of spirit and meticulous and punctual presentation of his material. As far as I was concerned, Dennis never needed an editor – though I can hear him growling as I say it.
I had a message this week from Tom McWilliams of the Listener and, when thinking about Dennis’ published work, I can’t do better than quote his words: “There’s a kind of intelligence that represents goodness, a rising above pettiness, that celebrates life as a priceless gift. That’s how I think of Dennis – as a critic with no foolish ego blinding him to others’ merits, as a kind and generous spirit.”
There is such a range in the work. He might painstakingly research and put together illuminating essays – serious and generous assessments of work, often, by the way, by unfashionable writers whom he held in high regard: Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Ruth France, Margaret Escott, Eileen Duggan – and then effortlessly switch to a consideration of Shortland Street.
I am sure others will commemorate Dennis’s pioneering university press work. But I can tell you that the man who could delicately manoeuvre a committee of high-powered academics into making the publishing decisions that Dennis desired was also the man who could lose his umbrella or his favourite pen three times a day. Against that, he also hired secretaries, notably the two Normas, who not only conspired in any of Dennis’ devious designs, but also tracked down all missing items.
In this time, from 1966 to 1986, Dennis was a terrier in his promotion of New Zealand poets and historians, in his doggedness in getting their books published, in his devotion to reprinting forgotten New Zealand classics. It amazes me now that he achieved so much in 20 short years at AUP.
While all this is important, and must be remembered, what I shall miss most is Dennis as friend and as family friend. He and Zoe touched our lives in such a lot of ways: whether playing Big Boggle (Zoe’s favourite), uncomplainingly reading and praising creative efforts from my children and wanting to know always how they were getting on, or sharing birthday and Christmas feasts. Dennis was always there for advice, help and love.
I wonder if anyone can find the tape that this renaissance man made of himself singing “My Old Dutch”: “We’ve been together now for 40 years and it don’t seem a day too much …” He reprised it for one of the Normas and me at morning tea one day, after explaining the song’s provenance. It was marvellous – this shy-seeming, sometime austere-seeming, lovely man singing about breaking hearts.
And I must tell you that before he went into hospital Dennis made one last joke. Quite a jaunty voice on Dennis’ answerphone will still tell you: “Dennis McEldowney here. Or rather, not here, unfortunately. Please leave a message.”
This eulogy was delivered at Dennis McEldowney’s funeral service on 27 September, 2003 at St Luke’s Presbyterian Church, Remuera, Auckland.