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The Spike Golden Jubilee Number May 1949

Literary Society Notes

Literary Society Notes

With a feeling of failure, I commenced writing this record of the activities of the Victoria University College Literary Societies over the last twenty-five years. It appeared that if the College had not failed, then at least we as students had done so, in an important aspect of student cultural life. Dramatic Societies seemed almost always to be flourishing and Debating Societies were even more so. Various political societies came and vanished, as the Anti-War Movement of 1934, The Society for the Discussion of Peace, War and Civil Liberties in 1941, and so on. But only at long intervals did a new Literary Society burst upon the College air, soon to die away in rocket-like diminishment.

But upon further reflection I found that I was not so conscious of a paramount feeling of failure. Great apathy has to be overcome in literary matters, it is true. But it is overcome and Literary Societies are formed, again and yet again. It does not matter that all too soon they die again. They arise spontaneously when the need is greatest and in their short span they serve to aid the literary interests and expression of at least those students who most require their aid. When the material is lacking, they refuse to be forced into a continued existence and fade again into the past. I think that this is as it should be. Each Literary Society at Victoria College has been above all a student movement. That is the most important thing about it.

Commencing at the Silver Jubilee, we find that it was not until 1931 that there was again consti-stuted a Literary Society as such, although this is not to say that there was not, as always, informal discussion among literary-minded students. Professor G. W. von Zedlitz was President and he, with Miss Eileen Duggan and Mr Pat Lawlor, judged a short-story competition sponsored by the new society. Literary magazines were supplied to the College Library and the future was anticipated so confidently that the Committee proposed building up a library of modern literature. By 1932 ambition had soared to the extent of contemplating the production of a periodical, inspired by Auckland's success with Phœnix. At this time emphasis was still upon active participation by members in reading papers, as well as upon visits by speakers from outside the University. Unfortunately, by 1934 the urge to self-expression seemed to have run its full course and the club was once again approaching a recurrent nadir.

Typically, in 1937 came the resurgence, expressed now by the Phoenix Club which, rising from the ashes of the defunct Literary Society, spread wider and more ambitious wings. Not confined to literary ideas alone, cultural interests were encouraged by musical and artistic activities also. Visiting speakers included Professors Gordon, Shelley and von Zedlitz and Dr J. C. Beaglehole, but the Club's strength once again lay in the very real enthusiasm of its leading foundation members, who read many papers to attentive audiences and who organised a wide range of undertakings. Regular musical recitals were sponsored by the Club and gained a ready hearing, but literature was by no means neglected.

Some continuity of officers augured well for the second year of the Phoenix Club which was now called upon to serve in some part in place of the Free Discussions Club, at that period no longer functioning. However, despite further worthwhile activity by outside speakers, club members seemed to contribute little themselves, relying too much upon a willing committee, as so often has been the case. Nevertheless, competitions for original page 87 material were held, gramophone recitals continued, and although the activities were primarily the prerogative of a few, those few did cover a wide range of live and diversified interests. By 1939 those enthusiastic spirits could not prevail, how-ever, against a general lethargy that was once more setting in. Up to this time all discussions had with remarkable unanimity hinged upon social and political issues in large part, but this trend was now no longer so noticeable. The newly formed Gramophone Committee had taken over the musical recitals formerly held by the Club.

In 1940 voices were heard crying in the wilderness, a lost cause was proclaimed as a rallying point, but despite the presence of many of the old guard all was in vain and the battle was obviously lost once more, although determined and often successful skirmishes were maintained. As Salient flourished and perhaps absorbed all the attention of the talent available, so the Phoenix Club declined. Politics seemed then necessary to literature and art. It was hoped that the war would not immediately crush all cultural manifestations, but although The Spike and Salient continued to flourish mightily, overcoming censor-ship and other obstacles to a large degree, the Phoenix Club was doomed. The call of the Armed Services was also already becoming noticeable in the field of the arts. A brief and half-hearted attempt at recrudescence appeared in 1942, only to flicker out once again.

Most hopeful feature of the whole history of V.U.C. Literary Societies has been the irrepressible spontaneous flowering of activity in recurring cycles, however irregular. Four years seems to be the greatest period through which the effort can be sustained, however inadequately, and the interval between resurrections is variable. For the rest of the war years and after, the creative fires still burned low, but in 1947 they flared out in greater vigour than ever before. Inspired by a few ardent writers, a powerful society speedily arose to encourage and stimulate literary activity and interests within the College. Three astonishingly successful public meetings were held, when Professor Gordon, Mr James Bertram and Mr Dorian Saker respectively addressed record attendances of some fifty or more. Moreover, almost all members themselves took an active part in one or more of the three discussion groups, concerning themselves with New Zealand Poetry, William Blake and Elizabethan Drama. The periodical projected fifteen years previously became a reality in the first mimeographed numbers of Broadsheet. While it was hoped that in the following year the Society might continue to fill so obvious a need in the cultural life of the College, the danger was foreseen that instead of widening its appeal, the Literary Society might concentrate its activities within the limits of an enthusiastic clique.

Although there was again some continuity of officers, what had been feared did in fact occur and the Literary Society degenerated into an organ serving the needs of the few rather than one carrying any richer influence into Varsity life as a whole. A periodical library had been formed, it is true, but of somewhat esoteric character that apparently was in the nature of caviare to the general reader. Public meetings were joylessly abandoned due to the difficulty of securing outside speakers, but the informal study groups continued with small but really attentive circles of members and did much good work. The New Zealand Poetry Group was improved by being widened to become the N.Z. Literature Group, and the Elizabethan Drama Group, after a late start, was so successful as to be merged with the Dramatic Club in 1949.

Broadsheet, after a flamboyant 1949 debut as The First Placard of the Armadillan Absolutists, settled down to a useful existence, even if its appearance was not as frequent as had been hoped. However, its success was sufficient to warrant the organisation in 1949 of a large-scale printed literary periodical to appear three times in the year. It is fitting that in the Jubilee Year of Victoria University College there should be born a Literary Society journal distinct from the annual review and the College newspaper. It is to be hoped that the interest of the few chiefly responsible will be reflected in 1949 in an increased activity in the affairs of the Society as a whole, playing a larger part in student life. Judging by the past, it is a little soon to expect another phoenix at this stage, but let us hope that in this respect the past will prove to be no accurate guide to the future. The College must always be grateful to the handsful of students who so often bring about a revival of the V.U.C. Literary Society.

A. St. C. Murray-Oliver