Richard Griffin talks about his time in politics and journalism

by Clare de Lore / 02 July, 2016

Richard Griffin.

Born into a world of literature, RNZ board chairman Richard Griffin isn’t averse to bringing his book club up to date with a little Lee Child.

Prime Ministers, wives, colleagues and friends – Richard Griffin has known more than his share of each and has outlasted many in his 70-odd years. The silver-haired journalist turned political operative has led a rich and colourful life, from a “magical” childhood in Wellington to the quiet life he now enjoys in Ruby Bay, near Nelson, with long-time partner Jan Neil and a dog named Jack.

Griffin hasn’t entirely turned his back on Wellington – he is chairman of the Radio New Zealand board and belongs to a book club that meets in the capital each month. Some of Griffin’s favourite times are spent walking with Jack, but he says a book is never far from his side.

Both your father and grandfather were in the publishing and book businesses. It’s fair to say, isn’t it, that there’s ink in your blood?

I suppose so. My paternal grandfather, David, had the Penguin bookshop on Willis St, pretty much where Unity Books is now. At that time, my father was running Caxton Publishing and Angus & Robertson, but he spent a lot of time at his father’s bookshop; that’s actually where my parents met. My mother was a voracious reader. She came from Marlborough to Wellington and was going places in her career in the public service, until she met Dad. She had worked in defence, but as soon as she took up with my father, she paid the price for his politics and lost that job. The bookshop was an erstwhile Republican centre; commerce went by the board when Grandad’s mates came in to talk about Irish home rule.

And at home, every little part of our house creaked with bookshelves. We were overburdened with books, the radio was always on and every Saturday night was spent at the pictures. Dad religiously took us every Saturday. There was a bookshop on virtually every corner and a glittering array of picture theatres right throughout the city – more than you could ever imagine these days. My memory of childhood is of magic times. I was sick for quite a long time with polio, so we had everything to keep me entertained.

Griffin’s father, Dick, and his father, David, on Willis St, mid-1930s. Photo/Richard Griffin collection

Griffin’s father, Dick, and his father, David, on Willis St, mid-1930s. Photo/Richard Griffin collection

You worked in the book industry yourself when you were younger. How did that come about?

I ended up with George Allen & Unwin in Museum St in London, opposite the British Museum. Those early days in Wellington came in handy – I knew the book business – but Stanley Unwin’s uncle was farming in Timaru, so that New Zealand connection also probably helped. Sir Stanley was totally charming, like something out of an Edwardian novel, and was the maestro of British publishing at the time. I fell into publishing despite the fact I wasn’t really trained for it when I ran away from New Zealand.

Why did you run away?

It is a long and convoluted story, and, as usual, pivots around women. There you go. Enough said.

What was your job at George Allen & Unwin?

I started off reviewing manuscripts, costing them, making recommendations and liaising with the authors. We had an extraordinary range of authors – George Allen & Unwin was essentially the go-to publisher for quality books. Under Sir Stanley, it was the ultimate boutique publishing company. Every day there were extraordinarily well-known people, like Thor Heyerdahl, Bertrand Russell, Roald Dahl, rolling through the door – in Bertrand Russell’s case, usually on a bicycle. We worked, not in a literary sense, with the authors, explaining what we were going to do with their books. That included Tolkien, and one of my first jobs was to go up to Oxford and bring Tolkien back down to London.

Janice Neil and Griffin in Wellington in 2010. Photo/Richard Griffin

Janice Neil and Griffin in Wellington in 2010. Photo/Richard Griffin

They were towering figures, Bertrand Russell especially so for me. He was an old man then, but what a huge thrill to cross paths with these people. Heyerdahl was something else too, a Scandinavian giant.

My background had always involved books because of Dad and my grandfather. Dad had also been associated in Wellington with Colin Scrimgeour, who was a political activist and broadcaster. He and my father set up the first private, unlicensed (and therefore illegal) radio station, independent of the government. They were decades ahead of themselves. I know they were hounded out of that largely by the state and Peter Fraser. Fraser was friendly with them initially, but it all turned very sour, based on political positioning, social consciences and the like.

What are your thoughts on the state of the book business?

I think it has a wonderful future; it will continue to flourish. Delivery – for example, by Amazon – may be evolving, but books continue to be the most personally satisfying vehicles for stories that capture the essence of humanity.

The reason book publishing in New Zealand didn’t flourish until the 1960s was because of import licensing restrictions: books were more about financial control than literature. In those early days, virtually all the books in this country came from Australia or the UK, and all the books were Anglophile – the only book I ever read as a child about Maori in this country was a little book called The Book of Wiremu. I found it again the other day at the back of our bookcase. Everything else was British-oriented: H Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, Enid Blyton. You never saw any New Zealand books at all, apart from the School Journal. We were ambushed by the literature that was made available to us.

I lived for Friday afternoon when we used to go and get the [boys’ story papers] the Champion and the Hotspur from the dairy, but your whole life was basically being a little Englishman 12,000 miles from England. My father was horrified.

As Radio New Zealand’s political editor in the early 1990s. Photo/Supplied

As Radio New Zealand’s political editor in the early 1990s. Photo/Supplied

Given your father’s strong politics, was it hard to leave that at the door when you became a journalist?

No, I think I’d had too much politics by the time I entered the Press Gallery to take any political party as gospel. My father also showed me that extreme positions were a recipe for disaster. On three separate occasions, he was charged with sedition, for publishing material opposing Britain’s rule in Ireland, and he was put away for some months at Mt Crawford Prison before getting the whole prison out on hunger strike. His views on the British and world government meant extremism was well gone from my world by my late teens.

Tell me about your book club …

It’s held in the Wellington Club once a month, after food and drink and general falling about. We have a book inflicted on us by a member, often about economics, the sorts of books smart people read. Inevitably I do read them, but I have attempted to bring them up to date with some trivial books. One time I chose a Lee Child book; Stephen Franks never forgave me and the rest have looked at me sideways ever since. They think I have barbaric tastes, but I have a library with a wide range of books. I like biographies but also esoteric books such as those by Graham Hancock – The Sign and the Seal, Fingerprints of the Gods, The Message of the Sphinx – and Alan Alford – Gods of the New Millennium, The Phoenix Solution, When the Gods Came Down.

JD Salinger is one of my two favourite authors. His books were strangely moving and changed my perceptions of relationships and American attitudes to the rest of the world. My other favourite author is William Boyd; I’ve now read all of his books. Some are very good but he has never matched the accomplishment of Any Human Heart. The magic of being able to disappear into a well-written book is something I never get over. It’s such an adventure.

How’s life with Jack?

Jack enhances my life in much the same way that books, broadcasting and movies do. I’m astounded that a dog that had such a rough life – he was living in the mountains when I got him and local farmers had been trying to shoot him for a long time – is so hugely good-natured. It’s a wonderful experience sitting on a rock looking out to sea. Then having the dog come up alongside and put his head on my shoulder is quite a moving experience. Jack is great company for me and I think he thinks I’m pretty good too. We have a good life.

This article was first published in the July 2, 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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