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Gordon McLauchlan. Photo/David White/Listener

Gordon McLauchlan: 1931-2020

Author, columnist and broadcaster Gordon McLauchlan has died, aged 89, leaving a legacy of observations about what he thought it meant to be a New Zealander. 

Knowing his life would soon end, Gordon McLauchlan chose to continue doing what he had always done – writing. He had the satisfaction of holding his final book, Stop the Clock, due to be published in May, before he died. He had re-written the beginning and end after being diagnosed with the aggressive lymphoma that would take his life.

After a long career in journalism, writing and broadcasting, he once, at his curmudgeonly best, said the only joy he would get out of being given an honour would be being able to turn it down. However, when offered the chance to become an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit last year, he accepted.

Born in Dunedin, educated in Wellington and a long-time Auckland resident, McLauchlan wrote many books, most famously The Passionless People, published in 1976. If we were passionless back then, not much changed in the ensuing years, he seemed to think. New Zealanders, he told the Dominion Post in 2012, “don’t give a stuff about anything too much”.

McLauchlan did give a stuff. He lamented the decline of unions, thought a younger generation of women had sold out their feminist mothers’ ideals, reckoned Māori had also sold out by “being absorbed into the Pākehā ethos”, and thought too many contemporary writers were too middle class.

When reviewing his 2004 book A Life’s Sentences in the Listener, Paul Little wrote that it was hard to work out why McLauchlan still lived in New Zealand. “You’d think you might be able to discern somewhere in this combination of personal memoir, guide to journalism and apologia some reasons for his continued presence among us, apart from habit. His theme seems to be that things were bad back then, but are worse now.”

McLauchlan’s output was prodigious. “From his writing on our social and historical subjects, to his contributions in broadcasting, Gordon McLauchlan was respected for the valuable addition he made to the debate on so many aspects of what it was to be a New Zealander and where he thought New Zealand was heading,” Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi said on McLauchlan’s death.

Listener columnist Michele Hewitson, a friend for 20 years, describes McLauchlan as “a good and loyal mate”.

“He was the best storyteller I knew, and the funniest. If there was an annual competition for storytelling, he’d have won it every year. He was always – unless CK Stead was also present – the smartest person in the room, and I’m sure he knew it. But there was never any ego involved. He was too decent and self-aware to be an egoist. He was competitive about mostly everything, including some quite mad things. He and Stead competed about swimming all-year round, even on the coldest of winter’s days. He called Stead ‘Old Baldy’; Gordon retained his fine head of hair into old age. I suspect he was secretly rather proud of this.”

In the last months of his life, McLauchlan was too deaf to talk on the phone, Hewitson says. He sent her and other old friends a final email in which she notes he was competitive to the last. He wrote: “It is interesting that only three or four months ago I seemed as fit as any 88-year-old in the country. My blood pressure is still 130/70 and my heart rate still thunders along at 60 to the minute as my body crumbles around me.”

He was the least sentimental of men, Hewitson says, and in his last email said he would not be having a funeral because it would not achieve anything for his friends or family. “Anyway,” he wrote, “funerals seem so passé to me, as though they belong to another time when death was seen as a transition to some other place and the ceremony part of the process. Some people will forget me easily enough, others may hold me for a while in their memories and some few will hold me in their hearts.”

This article was first published in the February 8, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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