Sunday, October 15, 2023

Slightly Foxed (b.o.f.)

John Fenton. Slightly Foxed b.o.f. [= but otherwise fine]. Auckland: John Denny, 1997.

I once belonged to a secret society.

It wasn’t especially secret – just a group of book enthusiasts who met once every month at the Kinder House in Auckland to jaw about their latest finds. It was called “Slightly Foxed.”

I first found out about it during a last-minute Christmas shopping spree. I’d just located a facsimile edition of Shackleton’s Terra Australis journal to give to my father, when I got to chatting to the salesman behind the desk.

He was quite a young guy, but very eager to talk – some relief from the surging crowds in Whitcoull’s basement, I suppose. When I admitted I was a bit sorry to give away such a prize rather than keeping it for myself, he urged to buy another copy. “Go on, you know you want to.”

Then we started skiting about how many books we respectively owned. Then onto this strange little club he apparently belonged to, and the respective tastes of its various members. One, I recall, was an enthusiast for the works of John Cowper Powys, but (as my new friend remarked) his own attitude to that author was “why use one word when ten will do?”

Having been a card-carrying Powysian since my teens, I vigorously demurred, and so it went on. It took me quite some time to extricate myself from there, but I have to say that the whole exchange remains quite vivid in my mind.

I never saw him again.

When I mentioned this “Slightly Foxed” group to a friend of mine, Murray Beasley, back at Auckland University, where we were both teaching at the time, he said that he had once attended a meeting of theirs, had a good time, but never been invited back. “It wasn’t really clear what the set-up was. Did one have to be shoulder-tapped? Were they judging the cut of my jib? Or should I simply have … turned up?”

A few years later, back in Auckland from a sojourn abroad, another friend, Kate Stone, asked me along to a meeting. She, it seemed, was a regular attendee, and knew all the regulars.

It was odd. From my long-ago conversation with the chap in the bookshop, I’d imagined something terribly high-powered: erudite discussions of colophons and signatures; all that bibliographical panoply I’d so eagerly tried to master in my years away at the University of Edinburgh.

Not so. The first time I attended the talk was (I think) entitled “Books on Waiheke,” and featured an old cloth bag containing various random finds obtained from the stalls and bookshops on the island, with desultory discussion of how much (or little) they’d cost. Hobbyist rather than serious collector talk.

The Kinder House (Parnell, Auckland)

But I was lonely, and it was a chance to get out and about, and the Kinder House was quite an atmospheric place to sit on a dark winter evening, with books on the table and mulled wine in one’s glass. So even when Kate stopped attending regularly, I kept on going along. I’d got on the mailing list somehow, so I suppose I had been shoulder-tapped, if such rituals ever actually took place. The whole thing was so informal, really, that it seemed impossible to imagine that there could have been that many obstacles to another person filling a chair.

The members were certainly both various and interesting. The oldest and most eminent was undoubtedly Ron Holloway, famous for printing so many New Zealand classics at his Griffin Press in the 1930s and 40s. He was pretty deaf, and seldom (if ever) took part in the discussions.

Then there was John Denny, a far younger, far more onto-it artisanal printer. He remains a friend. But the heart and soul of the group, so far as I was concerned, was John Fenton. A generous and clubbable man, interested in all aspects of the bookish game, especially Beat poetry and Jazz. It was he who wrote the society's history, pictured above - and, yes, that club logo on the cover was contributed by the great Ronald Searle!

Who else? Let's see - there was David Greeney, who'd had a career working in the publishing trade, and who knew it inside out as a result; there were Jan & Peter Riddick, a canny pair of local environmentalists; then there was the printer Ken Wood, who had a passion for collecting the same number from each numbered, limited edition he encountered. He must have had a magnificent collection even then!

  • 1997 - (24 September) “The Thousand and One Nights.”
  • 1998 - (18 March) “Kendrick Smithyman.”
  • 1998 - (10 June) “Maxim Gorky” [with Bruce Grenville]
  • 1999 - (1 September) “Mikhail Lermontov” [with Bruce Grenville]
  • 2000 - (19 July) “Henry James.”
  • 2001 - (21 March) “Antarctica.”
  • 2001 - (19 September) “Edgar Allan Poe.”
  • 2002 - (24 April) “Shakespeare.”

Probably the most successful of these - from the point of view of the other members, at any rate - were the ones where fellow-member Bruce Grenville, the (self-styled) Sultan of Occussi-Ambeno, showed a film from his massive collection of old celluloid – much of it inherited from the defunct stores of the Soviet embassy – while I talked about the life and works of the author concerned.

It was Bruce who contributed indirectly to my exit from the society, in fact. At one of the last of these talks – I think probably the one on Edgar Allan Poe – he got into an argument with the club’s president, and the two of them almost came to blows.

“If this continues, I’m out of here.” I proclaimed. There was no pleasure to be found in sitting at a table with these two gentlemen sniping at each other, and I think I came back just once after that, to give one last talk on Shakespeare.

I still run into old “Slightly Foxed” alumni, though, some twenty years on. I met up with John Fenton again recently, and he tells me that the society has, in fact, folded - but then he would say that, wouldn't he? Perhaps it still continues in some clandestine form.

To be honest, more of my energies were directed into writing groups by then: first the (so-called) “Bookshop Poets,” who met at Lee Dowrick’s house in Devonport; and subsequently the “Eye Street Poets,” who gathered at Raewyn Alexander’s place in Western Springs. I rather miss those convivial gatherings, too.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Memories of Don Smith

D. I. B. Smith (1934-2023)
[photograph courtesy of Caitlin Smith]

i. m. Emeritus Professor Donal Ian Brice Smith
(4/2/1934 - 27/9/2023)

I don't think I ever had a conversation with Don Smith which didn't end in some interesting book recommendation - or else a new insight into a long-beloved classic. He was the first Academic I ever met who seemed to be driven solely by a love for books and reading in general. "Great stuff!" he would intone, as he leafed through another shabby-looking prize from the second-hand bookshops downtown.

I was somewhat in awe of him to start with - and for quite a long time after that. I had, for some unaccountable reason, decided in the early 1980s that it was up to me to reclaim from oblivion the long-neglected novels of British Poet Laureate John Masefield by composing a Master's thesis about them.

Constance Babington Smith: John Masefield: A Life (1978)

"How many novels did he actually write?" asked one of the prospective supervisors I approached. "Twenty-three," I replied. "And how many of them have you read?" "Twenty-three." [1] Strangely enough, that particular prospect discovered he had urgent duties elsewhere and could not accept a new research student at that time ...

Don - or 'Professor Smith', as I continued to address him till long after I had ceased to be his student - actually was far too busy to take me on. He was, after all, Head of Department at the time. But when I went to see him about it, he said that he would do it - but only if nobody else was able to.

Which left me with the somewhat invidious task of visiting each and every one of the Academics in the of the University of Auckland English Department who might conceivably be interested in such a project. It was certainly very educational to sample the variety of excuses they came up with - from the straight 'no' to the 'maybe some other time' to the 'perhaps if you changed it to ... [something quite unrelated].'

But no, I was - no doubt foolishly - quite determined, so I eventually made my way back to Don's door, and to his somewhat reluctant oversight ...

How did he approach it? He sat there and talked, while I took notes. His talk ranged over many subjects, some relevant and others perhaps not quite so relevant. At the time I recall he was reading the work of Anglo-Irish writer Shane Leslie - who was pretty obscure even by my standards - as well as working on some of the lesser known novels of Ezra Pound's early mentor (and Joseph Conrad's collaborator) Ford Madox Ford.

Was any of this relevant to Masefield? Well, in a curious way, as it turned out, yes. The interface between the 'commercial' and the 'literary' faces of Edwardian literature fitted rather nicely into studying the work of a poet, Masefield, who was publishing at the same time as Eliot and Pound, but inhabited a world almost literally invisible to their admirers. Ford was a good example of the same phenomenon, though in a rather different way.

Andrew Marvell: The Rehearsal Transpros'd, ed. D. I. B. Smith (1971)

Don's original field of specialisation had been seventeenth century literature. He'd published an edition of Andrew Marvell's satirical prose work The Rehearsal Transpros'd in the Oxford English Texts series. When I asked him about this, he said, "Well, it got me this job." What he seemed to like most, though, was exploring the more offbeat byways of Anglo-Irish literature - not to mention New Zealand writers such as Robin Hyde: far less well-known then than she is now.

Robin Hyde: Passport to Hell, ed. D. I. B. Smith (1986)

The more I heard from him, the more I liked it. I'd been trained in my undergraduate career to admire such extreme Modernists as Eliot and Joyce, and this (still) makes perfect sense to me. On the other hand, there was a rich penumbra of weirdos such as Chesterton and de la Mare, whom I liked just as much, but whom I'd been encouraged to dismiss as dead ends in the grand obstacle race of literary innovation.

Don wasn't interested in any of that survival-of-the-fittest nonsense. Is it enjoyable? was his central criterion for a book. Yes, he was certainly interested in the finesse and skill behind particular pieces of writing, but he still seemed to steer instinctively towards the anecdotal and - above all - towards enthusiasm in his approach to what he read.

I resolved to do likewise, and so, much later, when I in my turn became an English Academic with my own graduate students, I tried to give them as much as possible of the same formula: Read the book, not - till much later - the secondary literature about it. If you don't like it, acknowledge the fact - but then try and work out why.

It is, I suppose, an approach designed to produce readers, not students or teachers of literature. But then, if you don't actually get a kick out of the stuff you read, you probably shouldn't be teaching the subject in the first place.

That was the first - and probably the most important - of my many, many debts to Don.

Most prominent among the others would have to be the innumerable letters of recommendation he wrote for me while I was undertaking my long and arduous quest for an actual job in the fields of Academia. Once again, I've tried to follow his good example when asked to do the same thing for my ex-students.

But then I could never have got that far in the first place if I hadn't got a scholarship to study overseas, and I doubt very much that that would have happened without his powerful advocacy.

Roger Elwood, ed.: The Many Worlds of Andre Norton (1974)

What else? Well, after he retired, I visited him a few times at his wonderful house in Mission Bay, and admired the cupboard where he kept his very extensive collection of Sci-fi and Fantasy literature. That was another subject on which we saw eye to eye (for the most part). He had what seemed to me an inexplicable enthusiasm for Andre Norton, whereas I was more attuned to Philip K. Dick and Samuel R. Delany, but there was generally some new fantasy epic he'd been reading which I ended up making a mental note to get hold of as soon as I could.

He made all them sound like so much fun - though he did stray into heresy on one occasion, I recall, by claiming to prefer Tad Williams to J. R. R. Tolkien as a writer of epic fantasy. This was, as I solemnly informed him, a little like preferring some latter-day SF luminary to Arthur C. Clarke - if they're able to see further, it's because they're standing on giant shoulders ...

Kendrick Smithyman: Campana to Montale, ed. Jack Ross (2004)

He knew I was passionate about the poetry of our Auckland University colleague Kendrick Smithyman, and since Don and I could both read Italian, he lent me the typescript of some versions the monolingual Smithyman had concocted of certain modern Italian poets through the medium of other people's translations.

That, too, was a precious gift. I ended up editing and publishing the entire collection, which still seems to me - like Pound's Cathay - to prove that the end result of a process of translation counts for far more than the way that a writer actually gets there. Kendrick's versions from Italian have a supple ease and charm which far better linguists than he have tried in vain to achieve - and, in the process, he found in the poet Salvatore Quasimodo a virtual alter ego.

Kendrick Smithyman: Campana to Montale, ed. Jack Ross & Marco Sonzogni (2010)

I was also presumptuous enough to ask Don to launch my first novel, Nights with Giordano Bruno, which he did with great style and panache. I remember he compared it to Mario Praz's famous critical book The Romantic Agony, which is, I'm sure, far more credit than it deserved. It was characteristic of his ready wit as well as his charity, though.

Another of my favourite memories of him is the time he hunted me down at my student lodgings in Edinburgh and took me out to dinner at a local tratteria called Pinocchio's. It was wonderful to see him en famille, with his wife Jill and daughter Caitlin, and - as I recall - a great deal of red wine was drunk and pasta eaten in the course of the evening!

As Stephen King's writer hero says of his friend in the movie Stand by Me: "I'll miss him forever." That's certainly true. I'd love to have another of those wonderful, unexpected conversations where Don Smith turned all my prejudices and presuppositions on their heads. But in another, realer sense he's not dead - he'll never be dead.

I can hear him now saying "Great stuff" and reading out another passage from his latest essay, where he juxtaposes a quote from Ford Madox Ford about his latest drivelly historical romance The Young Lovell with another precisely contemporary set of Fordian instructions on how to be absolutely modern to his errant young protégé Ezra Pound ... [2]


2. Arthur Rimbaud, "Il faut être absolument moderne." Une Saison en enfer (1873). Pound said of Ford Madox Ford in his 1939 obituary:
[H]e felt the errors of contemporary style to the point of rolling (physically, and if you look at it as mere snob, ridiculously) on the floor of his temporary quarters in Giessen when my third volume displayed me trapped, fly-papered, gummed and strapped down in a jejune provincial effort to learn ... the stilted language that then passed for 'good English' ...
And that roll saved me two years, perhaps more. It sent me back to my own proper effort, namely, toward using the living tongue ... though none of us has found a more natural language than Ford did.

Don, Caitlin, & Jill Smith
[photograph courtesy of Caitlin Smith]

Saturday, September 30, 2023

Mike Johnson Triple Booklaunch (5/10/23)

Mike Johnson: Selected Poems, ed. Jack Ross (2023)

Mike Johnson & Leila Lees: Sketches (2023)

Mike Johnson: Afterworld (2023)

Mike Johnson:
Afterworld / Sketches / Selected Poems

Celebrated New Zealand novelist and poet Mike Johnson is having a triple booklaunch on Waiheke Island, where he lives, on Thursday next week. This biblioblitz of material includes a new novella, a new book of poems, and a substantial Selected Poems (edited by yours truly), sampling from his work in that medium over the last four decades.

Unfortunately I'm unable to be there, but I'm sure it will be a riproaring event - Murray Edmond will be launching the novella, and there will be discussion and readings from Mike and his collaborator Leila Lees, as well.

The details are as follows:

Afterworld, a novella, will be launched on Oct 5th, 6.30 – 7.30 pm, Waiheke Library, 133/131 Ocean View Road, Oneroa, part of our triple book launch which also includes Sketches, with Leila Lees, and Selected Poems edited by Jack Ross.

Afterworld is a novella length work of magical realism with a whodunit element. The plot follows a ghost who ends up in a hut on a New Zealand mountain. As the ghost seeks to understand their life and death, fragments of their past are remembered. Contending identities, times and events emerge.

Sketches contains lines caught on the fly. Poems which capture and celebrate the momentary, provisional nature of existence. Here we find the natural world, and matters of the heart, caught as they happen in language both natural and precise. They are beautifully complemented by the drawing and sketches of Leila Lees.

‘The immense complexity of human relationships, social, sexual and everyday are at the heart of much of Mike’s best poetry. However, there’s an almost equal pull towards the empyrean: the cosmic mysteries of nature and the visible world.' - Jack Ross, editor of Mike Johnson's Selected Poems (1983-2023).

Where: Waiheke Library, 133/131 Ocean View Road, Oneroa

When: Thursday 5 October, 6.30 to 7:30 pm

Mike Johnson: Three Books (21/8/23)

Mike himself comments:
I'm excited to have three new books to launch. These projects came together at the same time.

Sketches – Facebook readers might remember the Wednesday Poems that ran from June 2019 to June 2021, accompanied by Leila Lees' illustrations.

Afterworld – A novella which was also posted on Facebook, over 21 posts and finishing on Oct 19th 2022. Here it is thoroughly revised.

Selected Poems – Edited by Jack Ross, a selection of my poems since 1983, including Sketches.

NB: For further information, please go here

Katy Soljak: Mike Johnson (27/9/23)