My Father’s Island: A Memoir
Victoria University Press, $35.00
When Edmund Gosse pioneered a new category of personal, interrogating biography, with Father and Son (1907), he framed painful questions and set down intimate dilemmas that won praise for frankness and criticism for making family tensions so public. It is one of the hazards faced by all biographers and memoirists in the Gosse tradition, when they write forthrightly about themselves and their parents: how far is their version a true and fair documentary record, and how much is it a personal and therefore possibly intrusive or distorted interpretation?
Gosse’s account is an investigation into lives, relationships and the codes and beliefs of an age. It sets standards of truth-seeking and provides details and an overview that give it relevance and a confident ring of psychological integrity. Adam Dudding’s unflinching exploration of the life and times of his father, Bob ‒ Robin, the editorial meteor from Hastings – offers an updated example of Gosse’s method. It is an insightful, uplifting, sometimes humorous, often disconcerting, occasionally distressing and entirely hypnotic account of a man who bumbled his way from sleeping rough in Grafton Gully, to the sports desk of the Auckland Star, then on to a bookish existence as the most important literary editor in New Zealand at the time. He helped encourage and shape our writing, from the unlikely setting of the suburban households, or “islands”, that he set up in Auckland, then Christchurch, then once again in Auckland; his influence over a couple of generations of writers was unrivalled, even by his immensely important and never-failing mentor and supporter, Charles Brasch.
Dudding pieces together memories, interviews, speculations, scraps of biography and self-scrutiny, archival material and family perceptions, to present a patchwork portrait mostly about his father, but also including striking background sketches of his mother, five sisters and himself – all shadowed by an assortment of compelling and occasionally appalling disclosures. Some readers may feel that by not following a chronological pattern he has made the construction fussier than it needed to be, but the narrative follows a personal, intuitive sense of direction as the revelations pile up to disclose a private disorder that precisely reflects the non-linear telling.
And this is the central point: we are deflected from a possibly attractive examination of how Bob Dudding (I could never learn consistently to call him Robin) transformed himself from country boy and cub reporter into a position of eminence in our literature, towards the curious and desperate problems of how, after the golden years of his editorships of Landfall and Islands, everything fell apart for him: he lost his enormous influence and he endured a catastrophic fall into a depression, the most dreadful aspects of which he and his immediate family contrived successfully to conceal even from close friends.
It was a shock to discover that Bob was privately so destructively irascible, for he also did his bit to conceal it socially under a camouflage of mere prickliness, boosted by a mordant sense of humour. Friends simply did not pick the obvious clues from his many surly and absurd grievances and from the bizarre memory that spurred him to wait decades to settle imaginary scores. As I devoured these pages, I recalled a “comic” episode of Bob and Tony Stones fancying themselves as long-distance runners immediately after the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, where the Soviet athlete Vladimir Kuts had starred by gambling on burning off Britain’s Gordon Pirie with a sprint near the end of the 10,000 metres. They excitedly arranged a race of a roughly similar distance around Glenfield and Birkdale, in Auckland. I asked if I could run and they allowed me to, after a lot of ribbing.
I guessed that they would ignore me while they watched each other for a break, then they’d aim for a fast finish, so I reversed the Kuts plan and sprinted at the start. They let me get away, until I was so far ahead that they had no chance of catching up. I could hear them yelling and cursing as I staggered to the finishing line on John Graham’s Birkdale porch. Tony laughed, but Bob was furious, and challenged me persistently over the next couple of years to a re-match that he promised to organise at Western Springs, with tapes, a measured distance and officials with stopwatches. I told him I was retiring at the top.
There is a sequel to the tale. In 1986, exactly 30 years later, I was challenged by Bob to a friendly doubles game of ping-pong on the eccentric Dudding table, which had a tricky downhill droop at the corner of one end. Bob’s pair opened from uphill. His familiarity with the table’s tilt was a huge bonus and they won the first set easily, then we changed ends and the advantage stayed uphill. In the third set, Bob had the benefit of the slope again, and he sealed the game with practised smashes that bounced freakishly off kilter. There were three other players, but he pointed at me triumphantly and shouted: “That’s pay-backs for cheating me out of that race in 1956.”
Most of our writers were blessed that this obsessive, almost lunatic kink found creative expression in his tireless, meticulous and generous editing. His respect for an older generation of authors, including an almost miraculously revived Allen Curnow, his support for his contemporaries, such as Peter Bland, Fleur Adcock, Karl Stead, Maurice Gee, Vincent O’Sullivan and myself, and his championing of a wave of young writers, such as Ian Wedde, Bill Manhire and a refreshing group of women, encouraged a swift broadening of our writing and criticism.
Brasch had set a foundation of excellence with Landfall, and it was just about every writer’s ambition, when he was its editor, to be found good enough one day to pass his pernickety tests and be accepted for publication, but Brasch’s fastidious success meant that Bob could enjoy the potency of feeling free to throw open the doors, let the experimental in and to offer authors an opportunity to decide where they needed to go. He certainly had favourites and he was well aware (in conversation) of blind spots when selecting contributors to his three magazines, but he claimed to be open to persuasion, if the argument was compelling enough and if he was in the mood to listen – which wasn’t always.
Bob learnt a lucky, early lesson in taking responsibility for making his own mind up while he was establishing a reputation as an enthusiastic, perceptive, novice literary editor at mate magazine. His policy was to publish creative work only (poems and fairly brief short stories) in the limited space available, and to leave reviews to Landfall, the Listener and newspaper book pages. His single lapse was a vitriolic review by Ian Hamilton of Maurice Shadbolt’s first book of stories, The New Zealanders. When I spoke to Bob some years later about why he had published the attack, he said that he had been trapped: he had walked into a set-up on a visit to Frank Sargeson’s Takapuna cottage, where Frank and Ian had bullied him, against his principles, into using it. He explained that he hadn’t yet learned how to stand up to “the old bulls” and trust his own decisions absolutely. He never allowed this to happen again and, I think, it was an important marking-point on his long journey into a steady and discerning self-reliance that eventually became twisted into a proud, leonine aloofness, then into a total and devastating isolation even from his own family.
Bob’s disintegration from pre-eminent editor into bitter house-grouch in his Torbay hideaway is traced by his son, Adam, with a relentless, Gosse-like insistence on stabbing at personal truths even when they hurt. It is one of the measures of Bob’s lasting influence over his writers and old friends that so many still stayed loyal. Tom McWilliams, one of the subsequent editors of mate, managed to rescue Bob from his self-imposed seclusion to become a sub-editor on the Listener. It helped ease those last years, though there seemed no cure for a deep and private malaise of the spirit. It was a thoughtful act and typical of the commitment of those who knew the man: even after absorbing the bombshells of this superb, unshrinking and troubling memoir, Bob remains one of the most outstanding, brilliant, munificent, devoted, yet burdened and contradictory people I have ever known.
Kevin Ireland’s latest collection, Feeding the Birds, was reviewed in our winter 2015 issue, available in our online archive: nzbooks.org.nz/archive/.