It’s time author and publisher Dan Davin was honoured in The Dunedin Writers’ Walk in the Octagon, writes Tony Eyre, a Dunedin writer in the Otago Daily Times, 6 September, 2013
For any Dunedin local or visitor with a literary interest, the 22 metal plaques set into the tiled pavement around the upper Octagon give a cursory insight into the connections that some of New Zealand’s most notable writers have had with the city.
Some writers, such as James K. Baxter, Christine Johnston and Brian Turner, are Dunedin born. Ruth Dallas (one of a number of Burns Fellows featured) lived here for many years and others such as Robin Hyde and Frank Sargeson paid fleeting visits to the southern city. What the plaques have in common are endearing quotes from each of the writers about the charms of Dunedin or its citizens.
On a recent dawdle around this Writers’ Walk, I was rather surprised to discover that Southland-born writer and publisher Dan Davin, with strong links to Dunedin, has not been recognised in our literary walk of fame.
Dan Davin was born 100 years ago this month to an Irish Catholic working-class family in Invercargill. He completed a first-class honours degree in English at the University of Otago in 1934 and was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, which he took up at Balliol College, in Oxford. His student girlfriend Winnie Gonley, from Otautau, whom he met at Otago University, joined him in Europe and they married in 1939.
With the outbreak of war, Davin joined the army and eventually saw action in Greece, including Crete, where he was wounded. Following convalescence in Egypt, he served in the North African campaign before being assigned to a military intelligence role under Lieutenant-general Freyberg at Cassino.
When the war ended, Davin joined the Oxford University Press, where he built a distinguished career over more than 30 years as a pre-eminent figure in academic publishing for the Clarendon Press. His own literary output included six novels, collections of short stories and the highly acclaimed official New Zealand war history on the Battle of Crete.
Dunedin has certainly featured in Dan Davin’s fictional writings. His first novel, Cliffs of Fall, published in 1945, is a Dostoyevskian tale of murder and self-destruction that persuades you not to linger in the Town Belt after dark. And for an insight into student life at the University of Otago during the Depression years of the 1930s, Davin’s novel Not Here, Not Now is infused with Dunedin place names and local landmarks and set at a time when the landlady and ”digs” long preceded mixed flatting.
Despite living in Oxford for all his working life, the expatriate Davin did return to Dunedin on a few occasions, the most notable being in 1984, when he received an honorary doctorate of literature from the University of Otago.
On an earlier visit to the city in 1948, when he was working on the Crete history, he recorded in his diary that ”Dunedin had stood up best to time”. He noted that ”the streets were the same length as they used to be, my friends here were the least changed, the blue of the hills and the Scotch mist were more beautiful than I had remembered them. I shall regret not having come here sooner and stayed longer.”
Davin was also here in 1969 for the university’s centennial celebrations. At a party thrown by Burns Fellow poet Hone Tuwhare, the muttonbirds (a childhood favourite delicacy of Dan’s) were flowing freely. With early morning engagements the next day, beginning with an Otago Daily Times interview, it was with regret that Davin had to leave the party behind just as Charles Brasch and others were arriving with another keg of beer – his desire for the camaraderie of old friends thwarted by his sense of obligation.
But it was back in Oxford that Dan Davin acquired his legendary status as mentor, friend and cultural ambassador for countless young New Zealand writers who, as part of their rite of passage, called on the Davins when visiting the UK. In Oxford pubs such as the Victoria Arms, Gardeners Arms and the Horse and Jockey, Dan and Winnie Davin regularly presided over gatherings of friends, admirers and visitors.
To celebrate 100 years since his birth in 1913, Dan Davin has been especially remembered this September in a series of events in the South. As part of its birthday celebrations, Invercargill’s Dan Davin Literary Foundation hosted short-story competitions and one-act plays based on Davin’s own short stories. Dunedin friends and admirers of Davin chose the genial pub setting of the Leviathan Hotel to share their reminiscences of the man and National Radio hosted readings of his semi autobiographical short stories from The Gorse Blooms Pale and other collections.
The Dunedin Writers’ Walk in the Octagon is a fitting tribute to our city’s rich literary heritage and on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dan Davin, it seems an opportune time to install a new octagonal plaque in the walk to honour his academic and literary connections to the city.