Our premier literary editor? – the enigma of Robin Dudding

A book about Robin Dudding, My Father’s Island, a memoir, by his son Adam has recently been published by VUP. Robin is remembered as editor of Landfall from the end of 1966, after its founder, Charles Brasch, retired, to 1972; and then as founder and sole editor of Islands. He was a talented editor, more open, less conservative than Brasch, but a slow and sometimes disorganised one. As a subscriber to Islands (I always kept a second subscription running as a donation) one had to watch it gradually fall out of sync with its due date, seem to die, then revive, and die again – finally. It began full of hope in Spring 1972 and continued to No. 30 (October 1980). Number 31-32 (June 1981) was a double number, a catch-up. There was then a gap of three years until No. 33 (July 1984) the first of Islands, New Series, which continued to no. 38, December 1987, the last.

So there was a period of 20 years in which Robin Dudding edited – since Islands replaced Landfall in importance – our most important literary magazine. This was pre-internet, and when our commercial publishing industry was only beginning to get started, so ‘small magazines’ (as they were called) were essential in creating a literary community. Landfall’s, and then Islands’, most important readers were the writers themselves. Often there was no other outlet for their work, and a well-respected periodical gave them confidence that in fact their identity as ‘a writer’ was real, not imaginary. Landfall had been modelled on the Cyril Connolly’s U.K. periodical, Horizon, and Islands continued that tradition and model.

The son’s book does not alter my view of the father as editor, but it adds a dimension to his life and work I had no inkling of. The book, I think one can say, is motivated by love and respect; but also by such honesty and frankness about Robin that the love borders at times on its opposite, and the respect is radically qualified.

Adam represents my own view of his father on page 120-121:

Stead, who also wrote a very nice letter [in support of the award of an honorary degree to Robin] tells me that his admiration was often mixed with exasperation. He found it hard to watch as the notorious Dudding slowness morphed into something more pathological, as submissions disappeared into a black hole for months or years and the arrival of the latest Islands slipped further out of sync with the date printed on the spine.

‘I was always sympathetic to the fact that he was short of money all the time and struggling along, so in that sense I saw it as heroic. But you can’t go on being heroic in slow motion. Eventually the heroism aspect dies, and what you’re watching is something running out of steam.’

Let me go back to the early 1960s. I still have the letters in which Brasch offered, and I declined, the editorship of Landfall; and I know I was one of a number who suggested Robin, already editing a little magazine called Mate, might be a good choice. Robin got the job, which put him on a secure footing at last, backed by Brasch, and with an editorial position in the Caxton Press. He moved with his growing family to Christchurch, keeping their two-bedroom house in Torbay, but buying with the help of a mortgage, a larger one, Woodspring Cottage in Barnes Road. He was soon chafing at the ‘job’ aspect of the job. He wanted to be editor of Landfall in his own time at his own pace. That he had also to put up with working as a general editor at Caxton was treated almost as if he felt it to be an invasion of his space, a denial of his rights.

Robin was easy to deal with, full of good humour and with an accurate eye for good writing. Correspondence between us in the late 1960s and early ‘70s is all, or mostly, sweetness and light. If I occasionally grew impatient with his slowness and complaining, it was because I too was having to do work I would rather not have been doing, constantly balancing the demands of timetables and lectures, essay- and exam-marking, against the inner compulsion to get on with new fiction and poetry. In that, our situations, his and mine, were not as different as I’m sure he thought they were. I suppose I thought if I could organise around these obstacles and make the best of it, so should he.

When Robin fell out with Caxton and was sacked and decided to start his own magazine, Islands, in opposition to Landfall, I (like most of the literary community, including Brasch) supported him, contributing poems, reviews, fiction as and when I had anything to offer and he wanted it. Letters between us reveal continuing good relations – some thanking me (‘Tremendously pleased with your Mitchell review...’ ‘Your story has earned more plaudits...’); and some apologising (‘It doesn’t seem I’ll ever catch up with this backlog...’) In one not untypical letter to Robin I write, ‘Yes, sure, now that I know you want “Under the sun” [a sequence of poems] I want you to have it. After all, I offered it to you in the first place [...] I didn’t “withdraw” it. I just thought that when you had made up your mind to accept the thing then you might have earned the right to chastise me for offering it to Radio NZ – but you hadn’t decided, even then.’ The letter ends, ‘Another good issue. Congratulations again – and lots of warm good wishes from the North.’

When Charles Brasch died in 1973 Robin lost a strong literary and financial supporter; but Brasch had backed the mortgage on the house in Christchurch, and his will wrote off the debt and left a bequest for Islands, so Robin was able to sell that house, return to the Sealy Road property in Torbay, build on to it, and cruise for a while as an editor.

Since 1968 I had been Professor of English at the University of Auckland and my support for him (along with Mac Jackson’s), when he applied for the University’s first Literary Fellowship in 1979 was crucial, because Robin was not a writer and we had to make a convincing case for how essential he was, how needy, and how the writing community benefitted from his work. Adam Dudding mentions a fellowship only once in passing and gives no account of what it was and what it was worth. In fact it gave Robin an office in the English Department and a Senior Lecturer’s salary for a year, and cemented his connection with Dennis McEldowney at Auckland University Press who, then and later, was able to give him copy editing work. I seem to remember he trimmed his beard somewhat for this appointment and appeared daily wearing walk shorts.

In 1979 (Islands 25) Robin featured my long poem, ‘Scoria’, liking it especially, no doubt, because of its chooks (he always kept bantams); and in the same number, my long essay about John Mulgan which aroused, in succeeding issues, such interesting ire among Mulgan’s contemporaries at home and abroad because it suggested that no great harm had been done (in fact it might have been no more than justice) when Mulgan was not awarded a Rhodes Scholarship in 1932. Robin commissioned Peter Siddell to do a cover for the issue, taking its Mt Eden theme from the ‘Scoria’ poem (and also from the Mulgan piece – Mulgan and I, though 20 years apart, had both attended Maungawhau School), and then generously gave me the original which I framed and kept. Two issues later he ran my address to the 1979 Writers’ Conference in Wellington, ‘From Wystan to Carlos, Modern and Modernism in recent New Zeal and poetry.’

Cover of Islands 25, illustration by Peter Siddell.

On the other hand there was, during his fellowship year, a dispute between us. I was trying the experiment of being my own poetry publisher with an imprint I called The Shed, and I told him he could have a story he wanted, ‘A New Zealand Elegy’, which had appeared in the Literary Review then published in Edinburgh, if he would undertake to review my new book of poems, Walking Westward. This, which seemed to me a reasonable request, seemed to him outrageous – though I was not asking for a favourable review, just that the book should be noticed; and after all he did want the story.

Robin told me that if I ‘went on like this’ I would have ‘no future in New Zealand writing’. I replied that I thought Islands needed me more than I needed Islands – and so far as I can recall, that was how the matter ended; but it is perhaps a reflection of what was yet to come in Robin’s life – a tendency to editorial grandiosity (had he begun to think he was our Il Capo, who could choose to endorse, or to end, a writer’s career?) combined with an increasing sense of being wronged by the world. What emerges in his son’s book, with almost brutal frankness, is how disastrously these tendencies grew over the years and affected, and even for a considerable period, blighted, the life of his family.

I’m not sure how far interest in Adam Dudding’s book will extend beyond the literary community; but it is an absorbing sad account of one’s man’s decline into depression (that is how Adam explains it) and unreason. The five daughters and one son, and worst of all the wife, Lois, had to endure angry silences that lasted for days and weeks, with intermittent rages, and a completely irrational refusal to tolerate any domestic arrangement, however minor, that was not his own. So holes in the floor and in the roof were not to be repaired, because it was always Robin’s intention to repair them himself. When the family went on holiday and a broken lock had still not been repaired, the only way to secure the house against burglary was to nail it shut. Piles of books, dirty underwear, boots, anything at all, had to remain where he had put them; and this madness was enforced by the constant threat of anger and abuse. One reads this book appalled, watching the somewhat prickly but essentially affable Robin one thought one knew quite well, grow into a large-scale household tyrant.

Lois, it seems, suffered worst. Every move she made towards separateness and independence was thwarted by what the son calls Robin’s ‘startlingly vicious campaign to fuck her up’. When she tried to go back to using her maiden name the letters that came for her were thrown away. When she tried to make space for the work she was doing to qualify as a teacher of ESL, the little table she had arranged for herself was upended, her books and papers thrown to the floor, and the table taken away for tomato seedlings. When she tried to get a night of silence at her daughter’s house in preparation for an exam the next day, she was summoned home by phone and told if she did not come she should not return at all. (She failed that exam.) When at the age of 58 she finally graduated all the children rallied to see the degree conferred, but Robin was not there.

It is an appalling story of gross psychological abuse. Lois was told that the house in which she had brought up the six children was not theirs, but his (an assertion which the law would not have upheld – but did she know that?) When the children wrote a letter to Robin complaining of his treatment of their mother they got no response and the silences and rages continued, while he still managed to be charming to young protégés like Beth Nannestad who came to the house and walked with him along the beach, encouraged in their work and delighted by their editor-mentor’s kindness. Meanwhile the house at Sealy Road achieved what Adam calls ‘pathological levels of disorder’.

I knew none of this (apart from the evident and extreme disorder in which the family lived), and my encounters with Robin were few over the last two decades of his life. So when he died, and after I attended his funeral, which happened without any sort of chapel pre-amble but at the graveside, I published a poem in the Listener which reflected my feelings about him and his family – a poem I doubt I would have been able to write if I had known what I know now. It seems, in the light (or shadow) of the son’s book altogether too bland – sentimental, or in some way false; but ‘the reality prior to the poem’ was accurate enough. The scene is the Michael King Writers’ Centre at Devonport, looking out over the Harbour on the evening after the funeral, and the people are myself and Kay, with poets Chris Price, Greg O’Brien and Jenny Borholdt, all of whom had been at the burial.

Waving Goodbye

to Robin

The working port is a sheet of noisy light
across the harbour. Greg thinks he hears men's voices
shouted above their fork-lifts, drifting
over the autumn water. Floodlit on the hill
the Museum stands to attention. Eastward
light and shadow scout's-pace the Waterfront Drive.

Kay and I and Chris, Greg and Jenny –
today we watched good editor Dudding let down,
fruit and flowers on his plain-wood coffin,
while we sang to trees and sky those arcane ballads
he liked to croon – 'Clementine', 'Yellow Bird',
'Cockles and Mussels' – a life remembered, rich
in songs and daughters, books and chooks and friends,
fruit, vegies, flowers, never quite in tune.

Some shadowy tug or fishing boat chugs by
discreetly, puttering over the silky water.
Summer is always ending. Five good friends
on one veranda now, we're looking across
to the brilliant city as if that were our past
and we at the rail, sailing out, waving goodbye.

- C.K. Stead