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A Book in the Hand: Essays on the History of the Book in New Zealand

Twelve: The Byron of Burnside and the Nag's Head Press

page 188

Twelve: The Byron of Burnside and the Nag's Head Press

It was Denis Glover who dubbed Bob Gormack the 'Byron of Burnside' after rereading his narrative poem Swagger Jack , enthusing 'Your neo-sonnet 10-line form is, apart from often brilliant expression, artfully and beautifully turned to theme'.1 Robin Dudding, too, praised Gormack's efforts, concluding: 'I've felt for years that Bob, bless him, is our leading humorist. Barnego Flat is as funny as a fight and ten times as sophisticated'.2 After reviewing Swagger Jack in Landfall , James Bertram proffered a prediction: 'Some day an enterprising research student in literature or psychology ("a seagull pecking at a stranded whale") will write a history of New Zealand humour' and will conclude 'that New Zealand humour, like New Zealand sport, must be taken seriously'.3

Although it had never been my intention to dissect the 'stranded whale' of New Zealand humour, it was a pleasant surprise to discover, in Bob Gormack's endeavours, an author and publisher committed to a native literature, but infused with a genuinely comic spirit. For it would seem that flocks of students of New Zealand literature have never doubted that their particular subject was to be taken seriously, both because of the solemnity of what was published and the way in which it was published. Gormack, by contrast, chooses to good-humouredly flout these conventions, and although he happily occupies the role of literary outsider because of it, his form and durability would suggest that his achievements are due further recognition.

page 189

Gormack's Nag's Head Press fits well into the broad category of private press, where, Roderick Cave admits 'waywardness and eccentricity are in the traditions of the material'.4 Evidence for his inclusion within this tradition can easily be found in his publication list in the form of his own Bookie series, John Summers's novellas written entirely in Lowland Scots dialect, and historic documents such as Pioneers in protest: No gains without drains, being letters, mainly of complaint, culled from the archives of the Christchurch City Council. However, also included in the 116 books he has published to date are many reproductions of historic documents, ranging from cricket matches to records of Māori grievances, as well as works of authors such as Denis Glover, Allen Curnow, R. A. K. Mason, A. R. D. Fairburn, Basil Dowling, John Caselberg, Dora Somerville and Helen Shaw, and more recently Bill Direen and Jennifer Barrer. Such diversity demonstrates an inclusive approach to literature that was not always shared by his more well-known publishing contemporaries.

For Gormack's career began in Christchurch at about the same time as, and in some ways in response to, the emergence of the Caxton Press as the premier publisher of New Zealand literature. As Caxton prepared a limited edition of Milton's Areopagitica in symbolic protest against wartime censorship, Gormack was learning the basics of his trade printing illegal anti-conscription pamphlets for the No More War movement. While Caxton's efforts could be disregarded by state authorities as a mere printing exercise — the reproduction of an historic document — those of the pacifist movement were considered more of a direct threat which, ultimately, led to the confiscation of their printing press. Nevertheless, this temporary setback to Gormack's distinctly unofficial apprenticeship was to have a happy outcome. For, by a fortuitous and circuitous route befitting the author of what Denis Glover described as ten 'interminable, and interminably funny' volumes of The centennial history of Barnego Flat, he was reunited with this very same press in 1964 and it became the workhorse for his own revivified Nag's Head Press.5

However, the first incarnation of this press took place some 20 years earlier, when, in 1944, Gormack enjoyed a brief rivalry with the Caxton Press. His more conventionally titled Raven Press derived the bulk of its income from the production of graph papers and gummed labels. Betting slips, Gormack was at pains to point out, were 'never printed in any shape or form'.6 Reluctantly, he had page 190 to sell this press in 1948, but as something of a carefree final fling, he not only published a miscellany of his own creative writing, but created a fictitious cast of literary characters who were supposed to have written it, and an equally fictitious Nag's Head Press.

Bookie: A new miscellany appeared in March 1948 and, despite its title, was not an early Best bets, but more of a poetic punter's guide, bearing as it did more than a passing resemblance to the Caxton Press's own, recently ceased miscellany, Book. The good-natured satire was directed at what Gormack perceived to be 'the cultural hegemony of the Caxton Press'. He explained further: 'The Caxtonians, though deservedly in receipt of all the publishing kudos going at the time, had, at least in the view of an outsider, become a little schoolish, monopolistic, and even intellectually overbearing, i.e. disparaging of the nation's rugby, racing and beer image'.7 Aside from the obvious comic aspect, the racing theme was doubly useful: the popularity of the sport was an antithesis to the elitism of high literary culture, and yet there still existed amongst racing spectators the social distinction between the 'inside' and 'outside', similar to that existing within and without the Caxton circle of writers.

This idea of a Caxton clique was exploited in an extended parody in Bookie entitled 'Specimen days in New Zealand: A continuous extract from the unpublished journals of James Flaxbush'.8 These were the journals of a young writer of promise, who suffered from 'mal de New Zealand', torn as he was between the dour Caxtonians and their more convivial — and race-going — literary rivals, the Nag's Headers. The satire was directed most pointedly at Monte Holcroft's essays, particularly The deepening stream , and Allen Curnow's A book of New Zealand verse 1923-45 , which were continuously cited by his fellow Nag's Headers as having a deleterious effect on the aspiring James Flaxbush.9 At one point, Flaxbush comes across an artist friend by the banks of the Avon, who, when questioned, informs the young writer that he is 'making a practical study of the slow deepening of this particular stream . . . The Christchurch Avon . . . The stream that doesn't deepen', and then concludes, '[s]ymbolically, it's a fraud'.10

Writers and essayists were not the only subject of Gormack's entertaining satire. Typography — inextricable as it was from the 'Caxton poets' — also came in for similar treatment.11 In the introduction to Bookie entitled 'Speaking for ourselves' after the Caxton-published collection of short stories edited by Frank page 191 Sargeson, this intention was made clear: 'Typographically, too, we intend to turn topsy-turvy many pretentious topical technical tendencies'.12 This ranged from a page of fictional display types to 'Some type faces at a glance',13 which parodied the page of the same name that appeared in Book — as well as a mock advertisement for a limited edition pamphlet from the Nag's Head Press, entitled 'A vindication of the Chamber of Commerce against what has been objected to it by "Singing Harry", "Whim Wham", and divers others by a self-made merchant'.14 Furthermore, a Māori lament, one of the lines of which was 'New Zealand! Why do the pakeha poets reject you?',15 concluded not only with a translator's note, but with one from the editor, typographical adviser, linotype operator, proofreader, compositor and, finally, the printer, who wrote:

As I worked on this job I could not help thinking, with some pride, of the humble contribution I was making to New Zealand literature. Such things are worth-while! I am a representative of the working class and I can say so without, I hope, any trace of sentimentality. There can be no comparison between doing work of this kind and ordinary, commercial printing jobs. Work of this nature makes one feel an individual, a craftsman. One becomes conscious of one's soul.16

In further mockery, Bookie itself was stated as having been 'limited to 200 numbered copies', when in actual fact there were something more like 500 copies — unnumbered.17

Bookie also provided an opportunity for Gormack (through his fictional personae) to mount something of a rearguard action in support of the much-maligned 'Georgian' poets. In the introductory remarks, 'The ballad of Kaka Thompson' was cited as an example of 19th-century ballad-making that provided 'a most satisfactory answer to the many contemporary New Zealand writers — particularly those of the modern Caxton Press school — who still maintain, either directly or by provocative innuendo, that their native land has no poetical and literary traditions worth following or worth investigating'.18

Gormack himself admitted to enjoying the Georgian poets and, when interviewed in 1992, he still had on hand an anthology of their verse, New paths on Helicon edited by Henry Newbolt, which he recalled as being particularly popular at the time. Ironically, this collection included both Pound and Eliot, whom page 192
'Display types', Bookie: A new miscellany. Christchurch: Nag's Head Press, 1948, p.49.

'Display types', Bookie: A new miscellany. Christchurch: Nag's Head Press, 1948, p.49.

Gormack remembered as being the source of this criticism of Georgianism, and so his aim had been to place the 'Caxtonians amongst these intellectual verse writers ... in that satirical way . . . of giving my allegiance to the Georgians'.19 This good-natured reminder to over-zealous 'Caxtonites' would seem to suggest that the literary vacuum that existed prior to the emergence of the so-called 'Phoenix generation' in the early 1930s was not quite as pronounced as they would have liked to make out.20 What had changed during this period was the dissemination of literature: the local publishing house was now both incubator and gatekeeper for new literary movements.
The sale of Gormack Graph Papers in 1955 to the Caxton Press raised enough money for a trip to England, where Gormack followed in something of Glover's footsteps some ten years previously. He visited the St Bride's Typographical Library and, page 193
'Display types', Book 7. Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1948,

'Display types', Book 7. Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1948,

armed with a letter of introduction from the local Christchurch Monotype agent, met with the great typographer Beatrice Warde. He also met with Dr John Johnson of the Oxford University Press, who 'affectionately remembered' Glover from his war visit.21 Unfortunately, unlike Glover, Gormack did not have a Royal Navy commission to support his travels. To compound his difficulties, Gormack had neither formal apprentice training nor a union card, which made it especially difficult for him to obtain work. He nevertheless utilised this opportunity to continue with his literary endeavours, and sent Albion Wright a manuscript for Bookie No. 4, which he described to Glover in the following terms:

It is only part of a bigger scheme ... With your taste for clear, incisive prose, it is hard to ask you to be patient with my long-winded stuff, but how else can one indulge one's love for Joyce and Rabelais? . . .

page 194
'Some typefaces at a glance', Bookie: A new miscellany Christchurch: Nag's Head Press , 1948, P.86

'Some typefaces at a glance', Bookie: A new miscellany Christchurch: Nag's Head Press , 1948, P.86

The general idea was to take my Nag's Head Club members back among their lusty New Zealand pioneers — satire on the ridiculous in modern pioneer-worship. There should be good fun in it for those that can penetrate the wordage.22

Although this fourth number never eventuated, the description is a virtual blueprint for the long-running Barnego Flat series that Gormack began in 1964.

The actual acquisition of a press on which to print the Barnego Flat series occurred in the mixture of chance and coincidence that seemed to be a feature of many Christchurch publishing arrangements. Gormack was offered a dismantled Harrild treadle press that had lain unused in a woman's garage for over 20 years. This turned out to be the same press on which he had learnt his trade, sheet-feeding anti-conscription notices at the beginning of the war! After two key brackets had been made up to replace the ones page 195
'Some typefaces at a glance' Book 7 Christchurch: Caxton Press , 1948, P.32

'Some typefaces at a glance' Book 7 Christchurch: Caxton Press , 1948, P.32

presumably removed by the police, the press was duly installed in a shed at the back of his Burnside property, and type was chosen. As his basic text type Gormack settled on Monotype Caslon, which had been used at Pegasus Press on their fine limited edition books, and which had also been Glover's initial type of choice at Caxton. These essentials remain virtually unchanged to the present day, and with them Gormack has managed to produce, in his spare time, an impressive array of 116 hand-printed books in just over 36 years.

The first book to appear from the now permanently located Nag's Head Press was part one of The progressive piecemeal printing of the centennial history of Barnego Flat. 23 As with most Nag's Head productions, it was entirely hand-set and then laboriously printed off one page at a time. The historical setting of 'Barnego Flat' owed a great deal to Gormack's time at Pegasus Press as well as to the general publishing environment of Christchurch during this page 196 period. Gormack explained: 'New Zealand's centennial in 1940, Otago's in 1948 and Canterbury's in 1950 had spawned a great many publications, district histories among them. The idea of centennials was in the air all through the 1950s and beyond'.24

It is not particularly surprising, then, that, as both Caxton and Pegasus were sought after by historical groups for the quality of their presentation, as well as the prestige value that attached to their imprints, Gormack should find this a potentially fertile subject for satire.

Comprising ten parts to date, the rambling fictional narrative of Barnego Flat traces events in the lives of the pioneer ancestors of the Nag's Head subscribers and, like its title, utilises a style familiar to readers of Bookie, that Denis Glover summed up in his inimitable way: 'Your muse is a rambler, a Peregrine Pickle, a discursive Rabelais-Cervantes'.25 Although a representative example is difficult to isolate because of this discursive quality, the following excerpt is fairly typical:

The wholly original and delightful spirit in which the Flat was altogether pioneered; the warm, glowing, richly human light which, almost without exception, irradiates and suffuses the recorded events of the district's history; above all, the stalwart, rambunctious, enterprising, forthright, courageous, dedicated, resolute, rorty, forward-looking, bold, formidable, vociferous, uproarious, powerfully operative, incorrigible, unflinching, somewhat Rabelaisian and Falstaffian nature of the first settlers on Barnego.26

In fact (or fiction in this case), the entire cast derived from the original Nag's Head subscribers of the first issue of Bookie, and was extended to include the Barnego Flat Balladeers' Club and Horse-followers' Guild, as well as the First Four Bullock Wagons. As these titles suggest, the strong parochial strain that is particularly evident in Canterbury was treated with a spirit of comic irreverence. However, the attention to detail and characterisation, and accuracy of representation would suggest that Barnego Flat is more than a parodying pastiche. It could equally be taken as a tribute to a comic spirit as necessary to the pioneer as their wagons and ploughs, but which is often overlooked by over-earnest researchers and amateur historians.

The 'editor' Dadds's description of Barnego Flat as '[a] true-to-type district history'27 would certainly seem to be accurate, but page 197
'A vindication of the Chamber of Commerce', Bookie: A new miscellany Christchurch: Nag's Head Press , 1948, P.58.

'A vindication of the Chamber of Commerce', Bookie: A new miscellany Christchurch: Nag's Head Press , 1948, P.58.

it was also compositionally 'true-to-type', in a sense other than that usually associated with that description — that is, most of it was 'written' straight onto the composing stick. This unusual method of authorship rarely involved drafts and the results tended to belie the seemingly capricious nature of such a process. In fact, because hand-setting type is such a deliberate and time-consuming business, and to a certain extent irrevocable, much care and attention goes into composing it, both editorially and typographically. Although he admitted that the first part was 'a little undergraduate', Gormack affirmed that, far from being carelessly thrown together, Barnego Flat was 'worked at as prose'.28 Thus, for Gormack, the type case represented a panoply of descriptive possibilities, as many of which were to be utilised as possible, especially for humorous ends.
The result of the piecemeal printing of Barnego Flat was a collection of stories worthy of a West Coast publican, but with a considerably broader and more appreciative audience. Such was page 198
Title page, Bookie: A new miscellany Christchurch: Nag's Head Press , 1948.

Title page, Bookie: A new miscellany Christchurch: Nag's Head Press , 1948.

the meticulous detail with which the stories were catalogued and described (complete with footnotes, cross-referencing and mock-scholarly comment) that parts were even reproduced in scientific journals for humorous effect. Also, despite the predominantly local nature of the subject matter, Nag's Head books still attracted the interest of the wider international private press community, particularly across the Tasman. Geoffrey Farmer, who wrote a regular column for bibliophiles in the Australian book review, devoted an entire article in praise of the work of the Nag's Head Press and, in particular, the Barnego Flat series.29 Ironically, such was its 'authenticity' that he appeared to take it at face value, accepting it as a legitimate, if somewhat unusual, piece of New Zealand local history.

With his retirement from Whitcoulls, a large publisher and book retailer, Gormack was able to devote more time to his press

page 199
Bob Gormack working at his Harrild treadle platen, the workhorse of the Nag's Head Press, in Christchurch, 1999. Peter Low

Bob Gormack working at his Harrild treadle platen, the workhorse of the Nag's Head Press, in Christchurch, 1999. Peter Low

in the 1980s. The fact that the number of books printed or published each year did not greatly increase was perhaps more an indication of Gormack's extraordinary effort while holding down a full-time editing job. With the aid of his son, Nick, he introduced some more contemporary poets to the Nag's Head list, and continued to revisit his own youth in the form of his student diaries. More than a record of turbulent times, these provided a kind of rare literary record of an aspiring litterateur, someone who wrote candidly of his influences and ambitions, and who thereby provided a most interesting contrast with the figure of 'The New Zealand Author', as promulgated by the Caxton school. With a mixture of youthful vanity and honesty, the young Bob Gormack revealed his own literary heritage in which the Romantic and Georgian traditions played an important and active part, as well as figures like Lawrence, Joyce and Proust.

page 200

Gormack's achievement as a publisher is perhaps best summarised by Roderick Cave: 'he is content to remain the printer as craftsman, producing modest books at modest prices; books to be read and enjoyed rather than admired. The private press world could do with more printers of this kind.'30

Certainly, in terms of continuity and consistency of output, Gormack has no peers in New Zealand, where private, or even small press printing is characterised only by being consistently transient. Even by comparison with considerably larger publishing operations, the Nag's Head form — in terms of overseas sales, production of local literature and success in a niche market — is impressive.

Despite this, Gormack's literary endeavours tend to have been dismissed, the absence of seriousness in effect confused with intent. True, his material derives from the comedy of language and life, and his writing style is discursive, more in the nature of a sophisticated pub yarn, yet it contains sufficient elements of satire and literary allusion, particularly French, to lift it above simple comedy. It is something of an axiom that the ability to laugh at oneself is a sign of maturity, and when one considers the seriousness with which a young New Zealand literature was taken in the 1930s and 1940s, it can, in retrospect, appear to be somewhat over-earnest. It is not difficult to imagine Gormack reacting against such a formative literary climate of high seriousness, but it is an even healthier sign for literature when it can recognise and accept such reactions.

Bob Gormack provides a unique example of someone actively participating in the literary process, whose work was not judged to be 'successful' by the standards of the day, but who, thereby, provides a unique insight into just how those standards operated. It could certainly be argued that Gormack's Entwhistle has as much claim to representation of the 'Kiwi joker' as Mulgan's Johnson, Sargeson's Jack, or even Keri Hulme's Kerewin.31' In more ways than one, Gormack's example serves as a timely reminder of the importance of re-examining our past, in order to understand the power of those controlling the dissemination of information, and also to be wary of attaching too great — or too serious — a significance to what are essentially reinterpreted events. Even more than this, he reveals the potential for achievement in the dedicated individual, whether it be widely recognised or not.

1 Denis Glover, letter to Bob Gormack, 23 November 1973 (Denis Glover Papers, MS. 418, folder 65, Alexander Turnbull Library, NLNZ; hereafter cited as Glover Papers).

2 Robin Dudding, letter to Denis Glover, 9 October 1970 (Glover Papers, folder 67). At the time of this letter Dudding was the editor of the literary journal Landfall. He held this position until 1972 before going on to found the rival journal Islands.

3 James Bertram, review of Swagger Jack: A station tale, Landfall , 20 (1951), 315-6.

4 Roderick Cave, The private press , 2nd ed. (New York: R. R. Bowker, 1983), p.xv.

5 Glover, letter to Albion Wright, 27 November 1973 (Glover Papers, folder 62).

6 R. S. Gormack, The Nag's Head Press: An outline history and descriptive checklist of publications to June 1992 (Christchurch: Nag's Head Press, 1992), p.20.

7 Ibid., p.23.

8 [R. S. Gormack], Bookie: A new miscellany (Christchurch: Nag's Head Press, 1948), pp.51-97.

9 M. H. Holcroft wrote three influential essays on the state of New Zealand literature: The deepening stream (1940), The waiting hills (1943) and Encircling seas (1946). A book of New Zealand verse 1925-45, edited by Allen Curnow, was a significant critical milestone in the publication of New Zealand poets.

10 [R. S. Gormack], 'Specimen days in New Zealand', Bookie: A new miscellany , p.62.

11 Denis Glover and Leo Bensemann at the Caxton Press brought a new standard to typography in New Zealand and went to great lengths to import a range of typefaces and establish an infrastructure for quality printing in Christchurch.

12 J. A. K. Hay [R. S. Gormack], Bookie: A new miscellany , p.8.

13 Ibid., p.86.

14 Ibid., p.58.

15 Jack Tuawhaiki III [R. S. Gormack], '"New Zealand": A Maori lament', Bookie: A new miscellany , pp.44-8.

16 Ibid., p.48.

17 Ibid., p.4.

18 Ibid., p. 18.

19 R. S. Gormack, interview with Noel Waite, 1 February 1993.

20 The literary journal Phoenix , published by the Literary Society of Auckland University College, appeared for four issues between 1932 and 1933.

21 Gormack, letter to Glover, 14 March 1956 (Glover Papers, folder 65).

22 Ibid.

23 23. Hereafter, this series of books is referred to as Barnego Flat.

24 R. S. Gormack, The Nag's Head Press, p.45.

25 Glover, letter to Gormack, 23 November 1973 (Glover Papers, folder 65).

26 E. Dadds [R. S. Gormack], The centennial history of Barnego Flat: Part 1, Christchurch: Nag's Head Press, 1964, p.21.

27 Ibid., p.19.

28 R. S. Gormack, interview with Noel Waite, 1 February 1993.

29 Geoffrey Farmer, 'Bibliophily: High jinks at Barnego Flat', Australian book review (September 1970), 316.

30 Roderick Cave, 'Nag's Head: A New Zealand private press', Matrix: A review for printers and bibliophiles , 5 (1985), 139-42 (p. 142).

31 Johnson was 'man alone' in John Mulgan's book of that name. 'The hole that jack dug' was a celebrated story by Frank Sargeson, while Kerewin was the central protagonist in Keri Hulme's the bone people