Remembering Dan Davin

Celebration of Dan Davin’s Centenary at the Leviathan Hotel, Dunedin, 1 September 2013

Let me say that this celebration is one of which Dan himself would have approved — wholeheartedly. He would have wanted be here too, at this pub in Dunedin, the town where he spent his university years, and to join in with you, old friends and new, who have come together today to share memories of him, to recapture something of his life, 100 years after his birth and almost twenty- three years after his death on 28th September 1990.

It is not an oversimplification to talk about pubs and Davin in the same breath; to do so is to embrace the man, his love of company, and his predilection for routine, and to know that hotels were the favoured meeting places in those decades before wine bars existed. Unsurprisingly for Davin, a ‘man’s man’, as Maurice Shadbolt said of him, pubs demanded a visit twice daily in his later years. The suggestion of dedication, even of a calling to this ‘bar’ would have amused him, although he would not have bothered to deny it. They became central to his sense of purpose, especially in retirement, by which time he was already becoming known as the legendary writer, soldier, and publisher that Keith Ovenden writes of in his biography. Pubs, their bars, entertainments (Winnie always played the pokies), and even their bartenders (sometimes irascible) provided the myriad settings for his and Winnie’s social life, and his working or writing life– since these were always intertwined.

A pub gathering offered company, gossip, anecdotal exchange, and also the occasion for conversation to become an art form, often dangerously so. The consumption of quantities of draught beer through an evening (or optionally towards the end of an evening something stronger), after the preliminaries of greetings and gossip, could lead to the type of exchange that might explode into laughter, but equally, divide into sudden, sharp disagreement. For Davin, first working for Oxford University Press in the mid-1940s, the pub was where he conducted his dealings with writers — as the celebrated memoirs in Closing Times tell — especially in those famed gatherings in the BBC haunts of Fitzrovia — the Wheatsheaf and the Fitzroy– when after the war he hung out with the likes of Louise MacNeice, Julian McLaren Ross and Dylan Thomas. But it was also where he found material for his own stories, novels and memoirs. In North Oxford over the decades, in what I think of as Davinovia (his Oxford version of Fitzrovia) pubs like the Victoria Arms in Walton Street, the Gardeners Arms in Plantation Road, the Horse and Jockey in the Woodstock Road, and the Chequers in Dorchester, where he and Winnie had a weekend cottage, Dan Davin presided over his own circle.

The Davin coterie in Oxford possessed a special sense of purpose, if not identity. It was a home away from home — just five minutes by bike from Southmoor Road for Dan and Winnie — in those hours between opening (at 6.00 p.m.) and closing times (at 10.00 p.m.). For their regular drinking companions like Peter Sutcliffe and David Mitchell of Oxford University Press, and the Lienhardt brothers, the anthropologists, Godfrey and Peter—it was a welcome escape from the office or University college. For newcomers to Oxford like myself, first a PhD student and then an intermittent visitor through a decade, the Davin circle was an introduction to a kaleidoscopic cast of characters: local Oxford identities like the sculptor Michael Black, or Iris Murdoch (on rare occasions), American academics visiting in the summer vacation like Harriet Hawkins from Vassar College (who met her husband, the OUP publisher, Eric Buckley, in the Gardeners Arms and migrated to Oxford), a host of New Zealand writers and academics, either visiting the Davins briefly or in Oxford for research (such as Bill Pearson, James McNeish, Keith Sinclair, Vincent O’Sullivan, Mike King, who incidentally has a wonderful anecdote in my book of reminiscences Intimate Stranger, about how the sleeve of his jacket caught fire in the Gardeners Arms, and on at least one occasion Jamie Belich) or members of the local expatriate community, friends like Tony Stones, Bruce Purchase, and Caroline Lewis. Inevitably with these regulars the conversation would turn to New Zealand and memories of the past, the territory of Dan’s strongest feelings and of his fiction.

Visitors to the table included Dan and Winnie’s daughters, Delia, Anna and Brigid, who often arrived on weekends with their families, making the mood inevitably more mellow. The legendary Davin hospitality then knew no bounds, and I would always be invited back to Southmoor Road for Sunday lunch. There were those who came with a mission: to talk about writing, or the writers that Dan had met, or other writers such as those from the Salamander Oasis Trust, (dedicated to publishing the work of service-men in the North African Campaigns, and of which Dan was chairman from 1980-83). Then there were people like Dave Arthur, who on discovering the legend of the man, came simply to find out more about the famed Dan Davin — Dan-fans as we called them. They were always welcomed with hospitality and cordial attention—though sternly scrutinised by Godfrey and Peter Lienhard who had a habit of demoralizing and demolishing newcomers by raising the intellectual stakes, usually by introducing a point of minor dispute.

Dan’s pub sojourning, in that decade of the 1980s when I was around, had an unpredictable element. Anyone could drop in, so one never knew who would be there. Casual visitors and relative unknowns would sit around the table (often nervously), sizing up the rest of the company alongside habituees who knew the protocol of seating and the drill of ordering, and the more illustrious guests who sometimes made an appearance. There would always be scurrilous gossip, sharp tongued, malicious anecdotes, or stories laced with erudition (often from Winnie); sometimes Dan would pull a notebook out of his jacket pocket and jot down a phrase or idea. As host and presiding deity, he could be gloomy and desirous of entertainment and distraction at first, but usually after a few pints would come into his own and as the evening progressed, like a stage manager or skilled legal adjudicator, would manoeuvre the conversation if it began to get out of hand, away from dangerous terrain that might lead to personality clashes or disagreement, towards topics that could be enlightened by some flash of coruscating wit — either his own or someone else’s. If the mood darkened it was never for long and at closing time, the exodus as we trooped out into the night was usually lighthearted and exuberant.

Vivid and memorable though they were there is for me now—in retrospect– something haunting about those occasions, as though time had a different momentum then, was being forced to stand still. As if reality were being distilled into legend. Perhaps it was the other regulars in those early 80s, the card players who occupied the rear of the room of the Gardeners Arms, four men, the light glinting off their shining heads, bent over their table talking inaudibly against the often deafening cacophony of voices from the company at the front table, The symbolism of card playing did not escape me. There were my own unpredictable reactions and intuitions as well. In flurries of dreams during those first months in Oxford, Davin often appeared, offering bearings to a world which was then utterly unfamiliar to me. A single moment stands out because it corresponded at the time to an image in a dream from which I had woken that morning: as I tied my bike to the railings outside the Gardeners Arms on arrival at around 6.00 p.m. one night, I saw through the window, a skull in effigy, a yellowed head. It was Dan in his special high backed chair, in profile, no doubt reading the TLS. His waxen, skeletal appearance stopped me in my tracks, for it struck me as a symbol, but of what, I could not fathom — I later found out that he had in fact just returned from hospital where he had had a laminectomy and was still in considerable pain. Perhaps it was a premonition of the difficulties that he would continue to suffer in retirement, the frustrations of writer’s block , physical ailments like the bad back, depression and alcohol itself, symptoms of what Ovenden calls the ‘fighting withdrawal’. It may have been something more. Yet during that last decade of his life, these conditions made the pub something of a haven for him, a place where he could meditate on his own, yet be confident that someone would turn up with a question or view on life, and take him out of himself, engage him in verbal repartee, bring to the surface his inventive, mordant black humour. Most of all for Davin, company — of friends and strangers — introduced that sense of occasion that comes with an audience, with the sharing of anecdotes, the exchange of gossip and ideas, the display of wit that could dazzle, the invention of memorable phrases.

The pleasure of company and the rewards (and foibles) of conversation were more than the staples of Dan Davin’s life, they were what he treasured and took to his grave. And so by way of conclusion, can I say again that it is more than fitting that you should be celebrating his birthday in this way in the Leviathan Hotel, now.


Also see: Time to honour Davin by Tony Eyre