Adam Dudding's memoir takes a warts-and-all look and his unconventional parents

by Stephen Stratford / 24 November, 2016
An affectionate portrait: Adam as a small boy.

It begins at the end: Robin Dudding in his coffin, April 2008. Next scene: a month before, he is out for a 50th wedding anniversary dinner, “taking anxious little sipping breaths” from his oxygen tank.

Next: while writing this book, Robin’s son Adam looks through the photos he took that evening. Next: young Adam is reluctant to bring school friends home because the house has no toilet and the marital bed is in the living room – when it isn’t in the garden. Next: 2008 again and the ambulance arrives to take Robin to hospital. His death is told with unflinching clarity.

The narrative circles around Dudding senior – a former Listener columnist and subeditor – looking at him from all angles: as father, husband, domestic tyrant, poultry breeder, depressive, gardener, editor of our best-ever literary magazine, Islands. This is so much more effective – and affecting – than a linear narrative would have been.

The Dudding family in 1959.

This could have been dispiriting – no one likes to learn that their hero has feet of clay – but it isn’t, because the portrait of family life (apart from the “decade of cold war” in the 80s) is so affectionate and the stories are so funny. There are walk-on parts for the poets James K Baxter, Jenny Bornholdt, Kevin Ireland, Bill Manhire, CK Stead (“reliably disputatious”) and Ian Wedde. The latter four talk great sense in a chapter devoted to figuring out what went wrong with Robin and Islands in the 80s. They offer different answers, but all are generous.

It seems that Robin’s decline was set off by the death of his father, Ernest, whose “strictness and bullying” had caused great clashes between the two: “After decades of surviving on anxiety and cigarettes, of turning a blind eye to financial realities, of setting himself impossible deadlines and missing them, of castigating himself for working when he should have been with his family and for being with his family when he should have been working, of fretting about unmown lawns and the leaking roof, Dad was at last derailed by the death of his father.”

Being breastfed in 1971.

And then Robin turned into a version of Ernest. There are shocking stories of his treatment of his wife, Lois: not physical violence but shouting, silence, controlling, all the available forms of cruelty. In 1992, Lois completed the degree she’d begun decades earlier. On graduation day, her children and mother “went to watch her getting capped and to take her to lunch in the city. Dad had something else he needed to do that day.”

Adam is supportive of his mother (Robin was unusual, he says, but “it’s actually Mum who was the more unconventional of the pair”), but mildly criticises her for putting up with so much tyranny for so long. He argues with Robin about it (“Why are you such a prick to Mum?” is a recurring theme), then admits “I grew over-fond of the feeling of righteous indignation”. He tells an appalling – his word; mine, too – story about himself: I trust a memoirist who is as hard on himself as on everyone else.

One poet says of Robin as editor that “it didn’t matter that he wasn’t a writer” – but when he did write, he wrote beautifully. His son writes well, too: at the graveside there is a basket of produce from the garden and the mourners “all hiff something onto the cardboard eco-coffin before we leave”. I loved that “hiff”. Very New Zealandy.

MY FATHER’S ISLAND: A MEMOIR, by Adam Dudding (Victoria University Press, $35), available from November 10

This article was first published in the November 12, 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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