Sport 36: Winter 2008
Robin Dudding 1935–2008
Robin Dudding 1935–2008
Robin Dudding died on 21 April 2008, as this issue was going to print, and just two days before he was to be awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Auckland.
When we started Sport in 1988 ('we' being me as editor, Nigel Cox, Elizabeth Knox and Damien Wilkins as contributors and assistant editors, and Bill Manhire as contributor and wise counsel) (and please tell me it isn't really 20 years) our model was Islands. Islands, edited and published by Robin Dudding from 1972 to 1987, was a classic little magazine, the best New Zealand has seen, and there were rumours (unconfirmed, denied) that the November 1987 issue, no. 38, would turn out to have been the last. With Landfall in the doldrums someone needed to do something. And—let's be honest—perhaps we saw an opportunity.
There was a delicate manoeuvre to perform. I wanted one of the cornerstones of Sport 1 to be Elizabeth's autobiographical essay 'Origins, Authority and Imaginary Games', but she had sent it to Islands late in 1987. There had been no reply, so, on 3 July, Elizabeth and I wrote separately to Robin. I asked for his 'blessing and advice', telling him unconvincingly that 'this venture is complementary rather than in competition', and Elizabeth asked for her essay back. I don't think I deserved a reply, and if I got one it's gone from both memory and archive. In his reply to Elizabeth, Robin gently mocked the style of her essay:
Dear Elizabeth Knox,
Robin. First Person. Peculative.
Or perhaps petulant. I am sorry to let this go, but it is my own fault for being slow…
Timeline for Islands. Third Person. Pretty Tense.
Or perhaps Terse.
August 1988. Islands 39
November 1988. Islands 40.
In the years when there was so little serious publishing here that with a few exceptions literary writers had to send their books to London or privately subsidise a local boutique publisher, Islands was where the conversation of New Zealand literature took place. It never pretended to be the mouthpiece of the final word. The first issue set a dizzying standard: Allen Curnow's return to poetry after 10 years alongside James K. Baxter on living with junkies. In other words, deeply in the tradition and completely up to date. And Islands was vital up to the end. The second to last issue, for instance, opened with stories by Anne Kennedy and Bill Manhire; Jenny Bornholdt's poems were alongside C.K. Stead's. Throughout, there are the names that define those 15 years, but there are also names that have scarcely been heard of again. And there are the loyal mistakes! We admire those; any editor who doesn't make their share of mistakes is playing it too safe.
When interviewed by Iain Sharp for In the Same Room, Bill Manhire said of Robin's editing: 'I think it was partly that he had time to shape an issue. He wouldn't lumber it with a great thematic idea; he just let it slip into place as an arrangement of parts with somehow its own shape and logic, which wasn't an obvious logic… But you do need a lot of time for that to happen.' Therein lies the rub: in one of his infrequent editorial notes Robin lamented that another 1000 subscribers would mean he could afford to make Islands the full-time occupation it effectively was, but in a country the size of New Zealand?
Elizabeth and I visited Robin and Lois in Torbay in August 1988. We talked and talked, so much that we failed to notice the bus go past as we stood talking at the Torbay bus stop, and Robin generously drove us back into town. I don't remember much talk about literary magazines. I didn't know much, and I guess Robin wasn't giving much away. What I remember most is the warmth of his enthusiasm for writers and books. He had recently discovered 'New Zealand's greatest story teller'—Margaret Mahy. He was so excited by the human insight and political engagement in Nigel Cox's Dirty Work he thought Nigel should immediately be given money to write another novel… Robin will be sorely missed, but the tangible results of his passionate enthusiasm will always be with us.