Thursday, 11 April 2013

Literary Legacies and Longjohns

What I'm reading: Kate Atkinson, Life After Life; Anita Heiss, Am I Black Enough For You?; S.J. Watson, Before I Go To Sleep.

In a little less than three weeks I'll be on my way to Invercargill at the very bottom of the South Island. And, yes, I will be packing longjohns and a warm coat. I'm off down there to speak at the Book Lovers' Dinner, which is part of the Readers and Writers Alive! programme in association with the Southland Festival of the Arts. Readers and Writers Alive! has been running since 2008 and is organised and supported by the Dan Davin Literary Foundation and Invercargill City Libraries.

Postcard from Invercargill
Daniel Marcus Davin was an interesting man - the more I read about him the more intrigued I got. In fact, he's more or less hijacked this post. Born into a working-class Invercargill family in 1913 (his father was a labourer and a railwayman), he won scholarships to Sacred Heart College in Auckland, then to Otago University. There, he immersed himself in linguistic and literary studies and a distinctly bohemian lifestyle, met his future wife Winnie Gonley, and graduated with first-class MAs in English (1934) and Latin (1935). He then won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University and in 1936 entered Balliol College to read Greats (philosophy and classics). He also began his first novel, travelled around Europe with Winnie, and in June 1939 graduated, again with first-class honours. A month later he and Winnie married.

When war broke out he joined the British army, but attended an Officer Cadet Training Unit then transferred in July 1940 to the New Zealand Division as a 2nd lieutenant. He served in Greece, was wounded, and after recuperating was seconded as an intelligence officer to the Eighth Army HQ in cosmopolitan Cairo, where he found time to write short stories which became the basis of his collection The Gorse Blooms Pale (1947), and also begin a love affair with a woman by whom he had a daughter. The child was subsequently welcomed into Daniel and Winnie's family. In 1942 he took part in the campaigns at El Alamein, and, two years later, Monte Cassino.  For his service, he received an MBE (military division). Promoted to major, he served the last year of the war in London, where his first novel Cliffs of Fall (1945) was published, and became prominent in the literary, artistic and bohemian society of 'Fitzrovia', an area bounded by Soho, Marylebone, Regent's Park Estate and Bloomsbury.

Daniel Marcus Davin
At war's end he left the military and was invited to join  Oxford University Press where he remained until 1978, starting as an editor and rising to academic publisher. He continued to write novels and short stories, contributing prolifically to papers, magazines, journals and BBC radio programmes, as well as editing collections and reviewing for the Times Literary Supplement. Of his seven novels, For the Rest of Our Lives (1947) - a war story - and Roads From Home (1949) attracted the most favourable critical attention. His memoir Closing Times (1975) is perhaps considered his best book.

He also wrote the volume Crete (1953), which is part of the Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War series, an invaluable resource for historians and writers of historical novels - like me. As the years passed he spent more and more time and energy supporting the careers of other writers, particularly New Zealanders, and gained a reputation for his generosity, friendship and, in the publishing arena, his intellectual rigour.     

His plans to focus on writing after retiring in 1978 were derailed by ill health, and by his preference for spending time with friends. He made a number of visits home to New Zealand during the 1980s, was awarded an honorary doctorate from Otago University in 1984, and a CBE in the New Zealand list in 1987. He died at Oxford in September 1990, survived by his wife Winnie and their three daughters. The Dan Davin Literary Foundation continues the Davin tradition of supporting and promoting New Zealand writers and writing.

More information about Dan Davin can be found at the New Zealand Book Council and at the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.

My talk at the Book Lovers' Dinner won't be half as interesting as anything Dan Davin might have come up with, but we do have a few things in common - a love of history, writing and New Zealand perhaps being the most obvious. I'll be talking about how I started as a writer, how I research and actually write my novels, what it's really like being a professional author, and publishing options for writers today.

I'm also really looking forward to seeing a little of Invercargill - well, as much as my limited time there will allow. I haven't been down that way for literally decades. Not since - dearie me - the mid 1970s. I do remember the architecture being amazing, though it must have been in winter because it was quite nippy. I hope I get to meet Tim Shadbolt - 'I don't care where, as long as I'm mayor!' I bet he's sick of hearing that.      

The Book Lovers' Dinner is on the 1st of May, at 6 pm at the Kelvin Hotel, 6th Floor Function Room. Cost is $48, which includes a two course meal. For where to buy tickets, look here


  1. What a fascinating man Dan Davin was! Hope your talk goes well. Bit far for me to come and listen but will be thinking of you :)

    1. Thanks, Kez. Yes, it is a bit far. And, being Australian, you might die from hypothermia. They have fur seals and penguins down there.

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