Obituary – Raymond Frank Grover (1931-2019)

Raymond Frank Grover (1931-2019)

Brad Patterson

Born in Matamata in 1931, the eldest son of a transient school-teaching family, Ray Grover’s early years were in small rural settlements at the Bay of Islands and on the Wanganui River. After secondary education as a boarder, Ray enrolled at Victoria University College in 1950, graduating with a BA in political science three years later. The next six years he spent overseas, picking grapes near Bordeaux, serving in London bars and restaurants, labouring on a hydro-electric scheme in the Scottish Highlands. Returning to New Zealand in 1959, he supported himself with casual jobs as he worked on his first novel, and it was perhaps his involvement with the contemporary Wellington literary set which led to his first serious career choice.

Employed at the Alexander Turnbull Library in 1959, then studying for the New Zealand Library School diploma, Ray rose to be Assistant Chief Librarian in 1968, a position he held for a decade, before serving briefly as Chief Librarian at the Auckland College of Education. Elected a Fellow of the New Zealand Library Association in 1981, the culmination of his librarianship career came with the publication by ABC-Clio of his bibliography of New Zealand, recognised by the Association’s John Harris Award in 1982.  

The apotheosis of Ray’s professional career came with his 1981 appointment as Director of National Archives of New Zealand, later combined with the position of Chief Archivist. Over the next decade, Ray was to be the single most important influence in raising the status of the National Archives from a stunted Internal Affairs sub-branch to an emerging, respected professional institution with its first appropriate and visible home. Ray provided a sound platform for his successor, at least until a new mid-1990s neo-liberal regime at Internal Affairs sought to once more exert stronger departmental control over professional decision-making. Incensed, he strongly supported stakeholder initiatives challenging the so-called reforms in the High Court and Court of Appeal, rejoicing when a change of government in 1999 led to National Archives becoming Archives New Zealand, a separate department of state.

Understandably, he was both frustrated and angry when in 2010 Archives New Zealand was reintegrated into Internal Affairs, at a lower administrative level than previously. He kept up the fight, writing to newspapers, lobbying existing and prospective Ministers of the Crown. When last year a ministerial inquiry into the future administrative placement of Archives New Zealand and the National Library was announced, Ray produced an outstanding submission on the role of a national archives, and the need for it to be removed from the possibility of bureaucratic meddling.

Ray was arguably one of New Zealand’s foremost writers of “documented historical fiction” (he disliked the label “faction”). His preference for the genre arose from his belief that readers related better to first-person views of history. Overall, his oeuvre of major works is not large: only four titles in 50 years. But all dealt with important topics, ranging from the morality of capital punishment in Another Man’s Role (1967), through colonial race relations in Cork of War (1982), to the impacts of war on ordinary people in March to the Sound of the Guns (2008) and Province of Danger (2018). There are several reasons why Ray was not more prolific. One was that, until he retired, there was little time for sustained writing. As importantly, Ray was a meticulous researcher, indeed an object lesson to many professional historians. And while for Ray writing was addictive, it was never easy. His manuscripts were worked and reworked. Rightly, what have been termed his war books have received considerable acclaim. In the view of one reviewer, they may be regarded as “a tour de force and, overwhelmingly, a success”.

Nor should Ray’s other services to literature, and scholarship generally, be overlooked. His professional articles and numerous book reviews were prepared with characteristic care. He served as president of PEN and was a member of many judging and advisory panels. The list of his other public services includes membership of the National Library Trustees, the Ministry of Culture and Heritage’s History Group Advisory Committee, the Kippenberger Museum and Library Trust and the Rongotai College Trustees.

A devoted father and grandfather, Ray was, however, a man of many parts. Having worked with his hands as well as his mind, his friendships extended across the social spectrum. The political junkie with distinctly liberal views, the collector of books and art, the jazz aficionado, was also a keen sports fan and a lover of the outdoors. Vincent O’Sullivan spoke for many when he wrote: “Ray was as decent a man as I knew – good at what he did, modest, generous to others, a better writer than he was given credit for, and a man who didn’t in the least compromise his values … I’m very glad I had the chance to know him.” 

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