Above all, delight

by Tom McWilliams / 17 May, 2008
Robin Dudding was a shy man. He could seem fierce, cantankerous, his silences threatening, his questions disconcerting. He was also the kindest of men, a nurturer - of tomatoes, chooks and writers - and one of the great New Zealand editors.

Just two days before he was to be recognised with an honorary doctorate from the University of Auckland, Robin Nelson Dudding died.

It was the kind of grim twist of fate he would have laughed at, saying he didn't know if he wanted to attend anyway, but that it was important for the family. He had six children - five daughters and a son - and 15 grandchildren.

Dudding, 72, never was one for the limelight, but achieved greatness. He made his mark not as an academic or writer but as a publisher/editor with idealistic goals. He did write, of course, and well, but rarely at length. Typically, his prose was concise, clear and - deceptive.

For Best New Zealand Poems 2003, which he edited, he supplied this biographical note: "Robin Dudding edited Landfall, 1966-72 (nos 81-101) and published and edited Mate, 1958-66 (nos 2-14) and Islands, 1972-87 (nos 1-38). At the same and other times he worked as a journalist on the Hawke's Bay Herald Tribune and the Auckland Star, taught at primary schools, edited and published books and, most recently, wrote the Bookmarks column for the New Zealand Listener."

That's the bones of his achievement, all right, the reason for his doctorate. All you need to know, really. But, for those in the know, that terse description has a sharp tang. The words only hint at the story behind the numbers.

Landfall leads the list of literary magazines because it is the best known and the one he was paid to edit.

Mate and Islands were quite different. Mate was a "little magazine". Many of these popped up in New Zealand, but few lasted long. Whereas Landfall was part of Caxton Press, with secure funding under Charles Brasch, Mate was made possible by its subscription list and small grants from the Government literary fund. There was no capital. That lovely phrase "At the same and other times he worked" is a way of saying that, for all the Mate and Islands years, he struggled to support a family.

For both magazines, he was, in effect, a one-man, part-time publisher, who not only edited each journal but also designed it, dealt with printers, sold advertising and managed subscriptions, distribution and accounts. Yes, Dave Walsh co-edited Mate 2, and for issues three to 14 Anthony Stones was assistant editor, but Dudding was Mate and Islands. There was never any money in it. On the contrary, it cost him. And through it all, Lois, his beloved and courageous wife, was with him, reading and discussing the endless stream of poetry and prose he assessed.

Dudding's editor's gift was intuitive - he knew what was good. He couldn't always explain why, though he thought long and hard about his selections. Original writing is, by definition, unique and risky. He fostered new talent with insight, kindness and patience. He edited to the highest standard, obsessing over typefaces, quality of paper, width of margins, the look and feel of pages.

When Brasch stepped down from editing Landfall, he selected Dudding as his successor. That feather in his cap meant a salaried job at Caxton Press in Christ?church. But, as well as being Landfall editor, he was "general editor" for the publisher. Dudding was always his own man and eventually conflicts led to his dismissal.

The family returned to Auckland, the house in Sealy Rd, Torbay, the beach and garden. Like Frank Sargeson's, his garden was needed to put food on the table, but he proudly revelled in it, too.

In badminton, table tennis and snooker, and even in breeding chooks, he competed fiercely. One of those "other times", when he worked as a Listener subeditor, he had an ongoing snooker battle with production manager Roger Spragg, playing for pints of Guinness, "double or quits" each game. The loser once owed 2600 pints and the contest was no less for the running joke.

Dudding was great fun. Deadpan seriousness masked sly manipulation. He crafted his Bookmarks columns as a poet would, but also played little games, like each time including a word to cause his mother to reach for the dictionary. One Listener colleague, Natasha Hay, calls him a "dear, funny and ferociously intelligent friend" who, "despite the fact he always seemed the most curmudgeonly of souls, was always so very kind and generous. When I started reviewing theatre, he sent such constructive, encouraging emails, and it was always great to discuss films and theatre with him, especially when we didn't agree!"

Islands was an advance on Mate, a serious challenge to Landfall, handsomely produced. The first issue ends with "Tailfeather", in which R.N.D states its aim of meeting New Zealand's need for "an independent journal able and willing to publish regularly the best work of her writers and artists". Contributors to that issue included Allen Curnow, Vincent O'Sullivan, James K Baxter, Russell Haley, Bill Manhire, Ian Wedde, Charles Brasch, Denis Glover, Ralph Hotere, CK Stead and James Bertram. The galaxy of later contributors included Janet Frame, Maurice Shadbolt, Joy Cowley, David Ballantyne, Michele Leggott, Kevin Ireland, Dennis McEldowney, Lauris Edmond, Gregory O'Brien and Jenny Bornholdt.

Islands 21 was "In Celebration, for Frank Sargeson at 75", a rich and brilliantly orchestrated tribute. In a note, R.N.D confesses his ambition to be a writer, quotes from a school magazine story he wrote, trumps it with a Sargeson quote and concludes: "And perhaps no point in my bothering; or, if I were to bother, no need to look any further for a guide."

So, not a writer's life, then, but an editor's, requiring similar gifts of sensitivity, intuition, appreciation of form and command of language. For what reward? In a 1980 collection of writers reflecting on their beginnings, Dudding wrote: "In introducing a volume that stands so squarely on its own feet, I have wanted to indicate something of the delight I have gained from Beginnings, from talented people looking with art and care at their early careers, and with understanding at 'what makes me tick'. In passing I have tried to acknowledge the importance of Charles Brasch's editorship of Landfall and his association with New Zealand writing over two decades."

The key word there is delight. This ideal reader delighted in literature. It did not bring him fortune or fame, but wonderful friendships, the respect of artists and writers, and, in his reading and editing, joy. In Beginnings, he also wrote that "the strongest thread linking these essays is spun from perseverance". His own perseverance through "vicissitudes of discouragement, poverty, rejection, ill-health, philistinism" was heroic. However, as well as in literature, he knew delight in his family, his garden, swimming, art. His life was governed by delight; and in himself and his superb work he brought delight to others.

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