Literature and the Spiny Lizard
Have you ever stepped into a lift in a seemingly empty building and then had immediate regrets in case the thing got stuck between floors?
My wife and I have recently spent eight weeks in a UNESCO City of Literature on the other side of the world. I like to think that if we could take a lift from London down through the world’s crust, right through its core, and out again we would emerge in Dunedin, New Zealand, where two of our daughters live with their families. The alignment is not quite a neat as that but the pretence has some validity.
And Dunedin, this Victorian and Scottish city so far away, was the eighth city in the world to be given the UNESCO designation. The first was Edinburgh, where Dunedin has historic roots. Among other claims to this title, Dunedin is the site of the Otago University Press, which publishes New Zealand’s longest, established literary journal. The lift I actually stepped into, with immediate second thoughts about my safety, was the one that took me upstairs to their offices.
Nothing about the entrance did justice to the prestige of this institution. I had walked up and down the street looking vainly for the entrance before discovering it to the side of a drab modern building on the edge of a car park. The sign saying Otago University Press was inconspicuous; there were no posters or displays of their publications, no reassuring nameplates inside the lift and no one about. I emerged, however, on a deserted corridor and immediately found my way into the publisher’s reception area. Here, at last, was the reassurance needed: shelves displaying their publications, a table laden with publicity material and a bell. I rang it.
It was evidently a quiet afternoon at the OUP. One deadline was comfortably behind them and the next had yet to arrive. The administrator whom I had hoped to meet had popped out. The editor of their literary journal was working at home. But a tall guy, who could have been in the Highlanders rugby squad but who was, in fact, a poet and their marketing and publicity man, came out of his room and welcomed me: Victor Billot. We chatted about London, Dunedin, their literary journal (Landfall), the new poetry collection I am slowly working on and his own books.
Victor Billot has written many poems about his city. Many are regretful or critical – you can sense the underlying ambition he has for his home town – but one poem (Dunedin) begins “Everything is spun from clean lonely air” and concludes:
... look north from Mount Cargill
to the vibrating song of the coast
and feel your heart grow like a swelling fruit.
The journal that his office publishes has just celebrated its 70th anniversary. It was nearly called Tuatara after a spiny lizard but thankfully the final choice was Landfall. This seems eminently appropriate. New Zealand was colonised twice. The first time was by the Maori: waves of Pacific Islanders in formidable sea-going canoes that were really small ships; later by the Pakeha or Europeans. The founder of the journal, Charles Brasch, was returning to his home country after the second world war – yet another landfall. Maybe there was also a feeling in the air that it was time for literature and the arts to make their own distinctive entry into these islands.
Charles Brasch was a prominent poet in New Zealand but he was equally interested in art and when he died he bequeathed 400 paintings and drawings to the Hocken Collection in Dunedin. Brasch had a vision which would be understood in any ex-colony. He wanted New Zealand to develop its own poetry and literature, and therefore ruled out suggestions that early editions of Landfall should feature prominent British writers like Edith Sitwell; he also encouraged the Hocken Collection to collect contemporary paintings by national artists.
We could see the success of this policy. There’s an exhibition in the Hocken Collection at present which shows the collaboration in the 1940s and ‘50s between writers and artists in New Zealand, encouraged and supported by Brasch. There are cabinets displaying documents and photographs from the early days of Landfall and its founders. And on the walls, art works incorporating poems.
Literature is not usually very evident to the eyes. As you move around Dunedin you might assume that it would be chosen by UNESCO for art: many large-scale murals have been painted on blank elevations of city centre blocks, and bus shelters out into the surrounding hills have been painted with scenes of local life. One of the few visual reminders of literature is the statue of Robert Burns in the central public space, the Octagon.
I discovered another however at the airport, and it was one I particularly liked.
In the departure lounge, a poem has been printed and framed. This is Saddle Hill by David Eggleton who is not only one of the foremost poets in New Zealand at present but also the current editor of Landfall. Saddle Hill is a local landmark – as his poem puts it:
Hill telescoped and named by James Cook,
sailing in the eighteenth century,
for a horse saddle.
Times change however and, as David Eggleton goes on to observe, this is today:
Hill clambering now a slumped dome,
dug-away, quarried megaphone
over which jets hurtle
north for the big smoke
The poem is displayed close to a small exhibition on the geology and wildlife of the Otago region and on the history of its settlers, both Maori and Pakeha. The poem feels exactly right just where it is placed.
Not many city airports would give poetry such a place of prominence. It was refreshing to see Saddle Hill on our way out of this UNESCO city and back home to Britain.
Incidentally, that journey required 26 hours of flying time. Pity there’s no lift!