12 May 2008


Robin Dudding

Editor, gardener, poultry breeder; born Hastings 7 December 1935, died Auckland 21 April 2008.

Watching Robin Dudding examine a new book was like witnessing a master of wine savour the first sip of a rare vintage. It was work – and it was pleasure.

There was a ritual to it. He would put down his 2B pencil and take the book in both hands. The front cover design would slowly be perused, then the back, without comment. He would open it up at random, but properly: wide and flat, seeing whether it stayed open. If the binding resisted, the book wouldn’t be easy to read; if it let out a crack, it would soon fall apart.

His eyes would scan over the double-page spread, checking the typeface, the leading – the spacing between lines – and the white space that surrounded the words. This was crucial: not enough, and he would murmur, “Shame about the mean margins.”

Dudding was a perfectionist, and not just with words, type and paper. He bred champion chooks, pruned fruit trees like a craftsman, fed his family with a bounteous vegetable garden (the peppers came from cuttings given to him by Frank Sargeson), and was a wicked table-tennis player.

For almost 30 years, Robin Dudding was also New Zealand’s most gifted and significant literary editor. He was Charles Brasch’s hand-picked successor at Landfall and went on to found his own literary journal, Islands. This became the leading outlet for creative writing and essays in the 1970s and 80s; at Landfall or Islands Dudding gave many New Zealand writers their first prominent outlet, among them Bill Manhire, Ian Wedde, Lauris Edmond and Jenny Bornholdt.

The man Brasch chose was 31, a part-time primary teacher and part-time editor of Mate, a small-but-perfectly-formed literary journal. Founded in 1957, the magazine had evolved from sessions at the Queen’s Ferry in Vulcan Lane, Auckland.

Kevin Ireland co-edited the first issue with John Yelash, and for young contenders they punched above their weight. James K Baxter, Frank Sargeson and RAK Mason were in the first issue, which was printed by the fabled Bob Lowry. But Mate’s purpose was to champion new writers: also in that debut was Janet Frame, and the magazine’s most successful discovery was Barry Crump.

By issue three, Dudding was the sole editor; he was 22 and working as a journalist at the Auckland Star. Compulsory military training had brought him north from Hastings, where he had worked on the Herald-Tribune. He “seagulled” on the Auckland wharves before becoming a reporter at the Star. The feisty underdog of Auckland’s two dailies, the Star featured venerated bylines such as Noel Holmes, Robert Gilmore and Pat Booth. Gary Wilson, a young reporter with Dudding, remembers everyone in the same room, “typewriters clacking, phones going, teleprinter chattering ... the big boys holding forth with their mix of important and bullshit discussions, all in a haze of cigarette smoke.” It was a tough environment, recalled Dudding, whose beat varied from rugby league to theatre: the arts editor’s desk was nicknamed “queer’s corner”.

Dudding shifted to Christchurch in 1966 to edit Landfall, accompanied by his wife Lois and their young family. Another of his tasks was to edit the Caxton Press’s general books; after five years there was a parting of the ways, allegedly because of the late delivery of a publication.

This is believable: Dudding was interested more in high standards than hasty mistakes. The family – now with six children – headed back to Auckland, and in 1972 he founded Islands. The name and format suggested a sequel to Landfall, and it’s significant that Brasch himself contributed (as he did to Mate). Brasch’s philanthropic offer to financially underwrite Islands was only prevented by his untimely death.

Islands lasted for 15 years and 38 issues, sustained by Dudding’s gritty determination, occasional relief teaching and copy editing, plus the support and sacrifice of his family. A rundown hut in the back garden of their North Shore home became the nerve centre of New Zealand literature.

“Woodspring Cottage may not qualify for the attentions of an Historic Places Trust,” Dudding once wrote, but its “icy interior” had produced eight issues of Mate and 20 issues of Islands. Moving inside to a warmer spot, the cottage “reverted to its original use as a tool shed.”

Dudding took risks as an editor: Islands’ poetry, short fiction, literary and arts criticism could be edgy and challenging. In 1976 he took the bold step of publishing Ian Wedde’s debut novella Dick Seddon’s Great Dive as a complete issue. Despite the title, Dick Seddon portrayed the hazy 1960s with an almost nostalgic tone and experimental style. It won the 1977 book award for fiction.

When Islands was the Mecca of new writing, Dudding would receive “in a good week” about 10 stories and 300 poems. He would reject 97 percent, but read them all from beginning to end. In 1984 he explained why to Metro’s Robert Mannion: “You’ll get a handwritten manuscript on a piece of torn paper, written on both sides – all of which you say you don’t want – you want material typed and written on one side only. Every second word on the manuscript is misspelt and it is barely legible.

“But then you notice it comes from Wi Tako or a psychiatric hospital or something like that. That’s someone who’s sitting in a cell, who for therapeutic reasons, or whatever reasons, is trying to do something with pen and paper. You’ve got to give it some sort of response. You can’t give it that without reading it right through. It’s most unlikely, in fact it hasn’t happened in 20 years, but there may be a jewel in there.”

At its peak, Islands had a subscriber base of 2000; it suspended publication twice in its 15-year run. If every contributor had also taken out a subscription, the magazine could have sustained itself, but Dudding would never make that a pre-requisite for publication.

Instead, he took on freelance editing tasks for Auckland University Press, where he had a long association and friendship with Dennis McEldowney, the managing-editor. Among the major books he edited for AUP were James Belich’s The New Zealand Wars, and he also contributed the “Bookmarks” column to the Listener with a wry, informed eye.

Although Dudding wrote very little – the pithy “Tailfeather” column that dealt with Islands housekeeping matters was his only written contribution to the journal – such was his standing that he became the University of Auckland’s first literary fellow in 1979. When McEldowney went on a long-delayed OE, Dudding stood in to manage AUP. “The job was all that I hoped it would be,” he said later. “But Dennis wanted it back.”

McEldowney, a gentleman and scholar if ever one existed, wrote in his diary of Dudding, “I suspect he is a more rigorous editor than I am ... [he came in] with the typescript he has been editing, in which he has slaughtered a thousand howevers, moreovers, therefores and thuses.”

Dudding could seem formidable, but not for long. His eyes could be piercing, because he was listening, concentrating. He was a backroom literary legend, but not to himself; he didn’t suffer fools but he loved company of all kinds, especially children. In the 1990s, for post-work Friday sessions at the London Bar he would draw together a wide variety of workers and age-groups, with rarely a writer present. His style of humour was the gentle tease: he liked to encourage people to do their best at whatever they attempted. He subsumed his ego to let others flourish.

New Zealand literature’s gratitude to Dudding was finally acknowledged last month when the University of Auckland conferred an honorary doctorate upon him. Sadly, after a long battle with emphysema, he died on April 21, two days before the ceremony. His family accepted the scarlet doctoral robe on his behalf, and the occasion became a moving celebration of a life lived with generosity and courage.

The cover designers are:
Ralph Hotere (Landfall 84, Islands 1 and Islands 16: Dick Seddon's Great Dive), Tony Stones (Mate 9), Michael Smither (Landfall 82), Peter Buckley (Islands 26), and Dick Frizzell (Islands 27). This obituary originally appeared in the Sunday Star-Times on 11 May 2008.


Unknown said...


For the reader I suggest the signal characteristic of a successful obituary is that it creates the desire to have met the subject in those that did not know him or her. This post did just that. What a lovely honour to Robin.

Anonymous said...

Dear Chris,

I couldn't agree more with Andrew's comments about your beautiful tribute to Robin. Lovely stuff Chris, thank you.