Monday, October 17, 2016

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“MY FATHER’S ISLAND – A Memoir” by Adam Dudding (Victoria University Press, $35)

            About a third of the way into My Father’s Island, Adam Dudding sums up the adult life of his father Robin Dudding thus:
The young man gets married, goes into publishing, has kids, smokes too much, carves out a big reputation in the small world of New Zealand letters, loses his mojo, alienates people, gets older, dies.” (p.71)
If an adult life could be covered in one sentence, then that would just about do the business.
Robin Dudding married Lois Miller in the 1950s and the two of them set up house at Torbay on Auckland’s North Shore. They had a larger-than-average family, six children: their five daughters being followed by their only son, Adam. Robin Dudding first became widely known for editing the literary magazine Mate when it was turned over to him by Kevin Ireland. He moved with the family to Christchurch, where he edited Landfall for six years (1966-72) until he had a major dispute with the controller of Caxton Press and was fired. Returning to Auckland, he started and edited his own literary periodical Islands, with the support of some of the old guard from Landfall, who did not like the way Landfall was developing. Robin Dudding and his periodical were greatly esteemed, but Robin Dudding (whose earnings were basically hand-to-mouth) had great difficulty both supporting his family and keeping up his editorship. Gaps between the appearance of each issue of Islands became longer and longer until the publication finally folded. In his last decades, Robin Dudding quarrelled with people (family and others). He had black moods and bouts of depression. Throughout his life, he smoked like a chimney. He died in 2008, of emphysema.
So Adam Dudding’s one-sentence summary of his dad’s life has much truth to it. But such simple reductionism is not what Adam Dudding is on about. My Father’s Island clearly subtitles itself a “memoir”. It is a work of memory – not a formal biography – and it is as much about the author’s childhood and his relationship with both parents as it is about Robin Dudding.
It is also a work with a complex viewpoint. Adam Dudding is aware of the fallibility of his own memory. In one of the opening chapters he tells an anecdote, referring in part to a short story his father published, which neatly skewers the gap between his father’s professed sympathy for feminist ideas, and his real domineering attitude to his much-put-upon wife Lois. In one of the closing chapters, Adam Dudding revisits the same anecdote and discovers that his memory has played him false. Research has shown him that he misremembered the details of the published short story he quoted, and he had placed his anecdote at the wrong time in his father’s life. He still believes there was a gap between his father’s expressed ideals and his practice, but the story that epitomised this for him proves not to be objectively true.
An accomplished journalist by profession, Adam Dudding is frequently self-deprecating about his own ability to write. He remarks:
The truth remains… that I don’t really know how to write this book. In my day job I’ve written hundreds of newspaper features, a task which generally consists of agonising over the introductory paragraph then racing against a deadline to write down everything you know about a subject of which you were entirely ignorant two days earlier. But these stories have seldom exceeded 3000 words. I’m not sure I know how to keep things coherent across the longer span of a book, with chapters and everything.” (p.70)
He is equally self-deprecating about his own life experience, remarking of the time he spent overseas as a younger adult:
I spent three years… being one of those mid-20s antipodean moochers on their OE who feels like they’re vaguely counter-cultural and forging their own unique history, but is actually selecting from a standardised menu of procrastinatory options.” (pp.95-96)
Adam Dudding makes many such remarks in My Father’s Island and there is clearly an underlying reason for doing so. Each time he jocularly puts himself down, he is reminding himself of his own flaws and implicitly reining himself in from being too hard about his father’s flaws, many though they were. There’s a strong element of forgiveness here. The forgiveness is found as well in the chapter where the son considers his father’s father – Ernest Dudding, a strong-minded and rather disciplinarian chap against whom Robin rebelled. Adam is aware that his father’s depression increased after old Ernest died, perhaps because Robin no longer had Ernest’s straight-laced notions to push against. And in writing this, Adam Dudding can’t help being aware of how perilous it is for a son to judge a father too harshly anyway. (Judgemental old Ernest did keep bohemian Robin afloat with cash when things got really tough.)
Adam Dudding also knows that his best research can be flawed. The task of trawling through his father’s papers at the Turnbull library clearly defeats him (Chapter 3) and he abandons the idea of a formal, academic-type biography. One of his chief interviewees is his widowed mother, but he says:
My mother is an unusually difficult interview subject. Even when she isn’t evading a question, the neurological scrambling from her stroke can turn any conversation into a semantic adventure.” (p.91)
Then there is his wariness about the nice things many people say about his father’s public achievements. Adam Dudding seeks out literati to give their views on his father’s abilities as an editor (Chapter 9). They range from Bill Manhire to Maurice Gee, Witi Ihimaera to Patrick Evans, Kevin Ireland to C.K.Stead. All have positive things to say about Robin Dudding’s ability to foster the work of younger writers, offer intelligent advice on texts submitted to him, and edit diligently. But Adam Dudding is realistic enough to preface their remarks with a statement of his awareness that they may be merely tactful when speaking to Robin’s son. And besides, he knows of the informal “omerta” which makes some Kiwi writers avoid forthright public statements about the frequent literary feuds and bitcheries that occur in the shallow pool of NZ Lit.
Through research and through interviews, Adam Dudding pieces together a portrait of his father, but this is above all a work of memory and of shared family anecdote. Parts of the Dudding offspring’s childhood were idyllic. Robin could be a devoted father, good at games and explorations and general holiday fun. Says Adam:
If you’d asked me before I was 10 what I thought of my Dad I’d have said he was the best dad around. He was a bit like how you might imagine God: strong, potentially scary when wrathful but usually kind and gentle, there when you needed him, patient, wise, omniscient, big beard. I guess a lot of boys think much the same before they’re 10.” (pp.169-170)
But there was always the worry of money. The too-small house at Torbay with the too-large family was a place where piles of books threatened to topple off the makeshift bookshelves, maintenance was never done, things were shabby, the dunny was outside and down a set of slippery steps, chickens wandered the small lawn waiting to be slaughtered for dinner, and the little shed, in which Islands was edited, leaked and threatened to fall down.
Robin himself was apparently quite satisfied with the bohemianism of all this, but it did lead to family tensions.
Robin had the habit of verbally belittling visitors, even his children’s schoolmates. Neither he nor Lois seemed to notice that little Adam’s uncut long blonde hair led to him suffering some bullying at school for being too girly. Robin lost his temper if other capable people (such as his daughters’ boyfriends) ventured to do some of the repair work that he himself never got around to. And he deliberately made it hard for his wife to undertake the study she needed to do, when she wanted to earn the family some real income for the family by qualifying as a teacher. Says Adam of his research for this book:
I already know first-hand about the anxieties of the 1980s, but what I’m surprised to discover is that even when his career and family life and his physical and mental health were at their peak, Dad was always running hard to stand still, always on the brink of calamity. There was never enough time or money or energy. He was always behind with the gardening, with his bills, with house repairs, with the latest magazine deadline. The surprising thing isn’t that he eventually ran out of puff; it’s that he didn’t do so much earlier.” (p.43)
Perhaps Adam’s sharpest remarks about the way the family lived are the ones suggesting a sort of reverse snobbery that infects some “alternative” people. He writes:
We all knew our family was a bit unusual, and that no one else had an outdoor toilet or a parents’ double bed in the living room. We knew other people didn’t have holes in their floors and ceilings, or a shower that worked only if you bunged up the bath tap with a whittled-down wine-bottle cork then retightened the loop of baling twine that kept the shower pipe firmly attached to the taps, because if you didn’t you were liable to be scalded by horizontal jets of hot water shooting out at knee-level.
Yet although we felt duly embarrassed by those things, by some quirk of confidence we also knew these things made us superior. From our tumbledown shack behind a mad bamboo hedge we sat in judgement of the rest of the world and found it slightly wanting. Looking back, I suspect this misplaced confidence, this feeling that other people were not quite up to snuff, was something we’d learnt from Dad.” (pp.190-191)
I hope this review has made it clear that My Father’s Island is a varied and extremely well-written book, informed by its author’s sharp eye for physical detail and interesting way with anecdotes, as well as by his self-awareness. He nerves himself to probe the matter of whether his father had extra-marital affairs, as some in the literary world had gossiped he had. His researches suggest his dad might have had one affair in his Christchurch days, but he seems mainly to have been a “serial non-adulterer” (p.179), often flattered to be pursued by earnest young literary women who took his attentions for something else.
I’ll close this notice with two particularly good pieces of self-criticism on Adam Dudding’s part. In the first he notes how a valid criticism can grow into an habitual and unreasonable grudge:
Your teenage years are when you’re meant to notice parents aren’t the godlike figures you’d once imagined – it’s your evolutionary programming telling you it’s time to leave the nest – individuate, grow up – isn’t it? Somehow, though, at the same time I was figuring out the precise composition and dimensions of my father’s flaws, I grew over-fond of the feeling of righteous indignation that went with it. I found myself almost incapable of talking to him except to criticise him, and over time we settled into twin ruts – querulous complaint on my part, mute wounded dignity on his – and we never quite climbed back out of them.” (p.220)
And in the second, very near the end, he fears that he may have poured on the misery too much in chronicling the Dudding household:
I’m worried… that I might have exaggerated my memories; that I’m trying to squeeze Angela’s Ashes out of a situation that was really more Cider with Rosie.” (p.232)
I don’t think there’s any reasonable fear of an intelligent reader taking My Father’s Island that way. This is an account of a flawed, fallible father and his family written by a self-confessedly flawed, fallible son. It’s as much sunshine as rain and it presents that particular problem of the creative person who just can’t balance his creative needs with the needs of his family.

First (irreverent) footnote: Ten years ago (16 September 2006, to be precise), I reviewed for the NZ Listener Professor Tim Beaglehole’s biography of his father Professor J.C.Beaglehole. In that book, the younger Beaglehole, like the younger Dudding, had to deal delicately with his father’s infidelity. Last year (31 October 2015 to be precise) I reviewed for the Listener Martin Edmond’s The Dreaming Land, about his first eighteen years as the son of Trevor and Lauris Edmond. Martin Edmond had earlier written an account of his parents disintegrating marriage Autobiography of my Father. Children writing about their parents is nothing new – especially sons writing about their fathers. But as I read Adam Dudding’s take on Robin Dudding, I couldn’t help thinking how all literary figures should try to live exemplary lives if they are raising articulate children. Especially New Zealand ones.
Second (admiring) footnote: As a youngster, Adam Dudding was a little embarrassed by a photo of his bare- and ample-breasted mother breast-feeding when he was newborn. His father had the photo framed and hung on the wall. It is reproduced in the photo section of My Father’s Island and it is quite beautiful.

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