Talk at the Dan Davin Centenary, Invercargill, 1 September 2013

Dan DavinIt is wonderful to think of the centenary of Dan Davins’ birth being celebrated in his own home town of Invercargill, and I am honoured that you have invited me to say a few words on this occasion.

Here in Oxford from where I am writing this and where I knew Dan and Winnie Davin for over a decade, from the late 1970s to the end of the 80s when I returned to NZ, Dan is now an almost completely forgotten presence.

Since his death in 1990, and Winnie’s in 1995, there are virtually no reminders of his life here. The pubs remain around Walton Street, his favourite haunts – the Gardeners Arms, the Victoria Arms, The Horse and Jockey—but drinking circles with Dan as presiding raconteur, Winnie at the fruit machine, and visiting or recently arrived New Zealanders gathered round the table, are only memories now to those who knew him. 103 Southmoor Rd, where the Davins lived for decades, has been sold and so has their weekend cottage in Dorchester. Dan is recalled now for his remains: his correspondence, and memoirs, and of course his stories and novels.

The irony of this celebration of his birth, a century later, would not have escaped Dan Davin. He would have been wryly amused to be so little remembered in the place where he lived and worked for over fifty years, and so fondly remembered in the place he left definitively in 1936, on a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, and which he described as ‘The world’s worst small town, which strangles the heart and yet gives it intimations of a world beyond, escape and freedom, I owe much to it …’.

These words, a heart-felt verdict on his early life, written in 1948, after his first return visit from England, contain more than a grain of truth. The substantial encounter of his adult years, especially as he wrote more novels and drew on an ever-dwindling store of memories, was in renegotiating his relationship with his Invercargill beginnings; this included his Irish heritage, and the family from Tonygurrane in Galway who settled in the region, beginning with his aunt Norah Davin who sent back the £5 for his father’s passage from Ireland to New Zealand in the 1890s.

Dan was an enigmatic, many sided character – complex and contradictory – and it would not do justice to his outstanding scholarly talents, convivial disposition and great achievements as soldier, publisher, and writer, to speak of a straightforward relationship with the place that he came from. At best his memories were mixed. Indeed, even shafted with anger at Invercargill’s special brand of Puritanism, and the injustices he suffered at school as a clever boy from a poor family. In one of his little known stories ‘Failed Exorcism’, he recalls the vow of one of his Marist Brother teachers, Father Tarcisius, to expel the devil in him – and his delight in escaping that fate because he won a scholarship that took him away from the school.

Dan had no illusion that the disciplinary measures of the Marist Brothers would not succeed in taming him. But other stories show other illusions – partly inherited from his Catholic upbringing, partly from his child’s trust – being dispelled: God does not exist despite what the nuns said, prayers will not be answered, and manhood, as imaged by his father, involves killing and brutality. This loss of innocence, evolving into a more sceptical view of life, is voiced in his poem ‘The Gorse Blooms Pale’ (later renamed as ‘Perspective’) where even his heroic father diminishes in stature as he, the boy, grows up.

My father was a hero once
Now he is a man.
The world shrinks from infinity
To my fingers’ span.

By contrast are the compelling moments of wonderment at the beauty and intricacy of the natural world as well as its transience – as in ‘Growing Up’. ‘It was late afternoon but the heat had not gone out of the day, Gorse pods still burst occasionally and their abrupt snap seemed to split the moments in two like the halves which went on twisting, the inner sides black and shiny and the outer silky and as furred as a bee, even after their seeds had whirled out in an invisible arc to the future’ (103).

Invercargill was where Dan discovered himself, as a boy and young man growing into adulthood, and his talents for a story-telling and writing. In one of his stories, ‘The Vigil’, he, as a young boy, reads in the Tablet the Catholic condemnation of James Joyce’s Ulysses, a novel that brought ‘disgrace to the glorious tradition of Ireland’. Joyce in exile is Davin’s precursor and he vows in the story that when he grows up he will ‘know all about everything, even about this writer’. The town is where he produces new images and fantasies of himself, inspired by Tom Mix movies and the Deadwood Dick dime novels and monthly magazines like Chums, and the Boys’ Own Paper, that he voraciously devoured. On his milk round (‘Milk Round’) he sees himself as a being in a Western, as a mail-coach driver delivering precious cargo (like Buffalo Bill and Hopalong Cassidy) with the dog, Jack, his outrider scouting for bushrangers; in ‘The Vigil’ he imagines himself as romantically dead, spoken of as a noble-looking boy, his body stretched out on a bier, his faithful dog at his side.

Invercargill was also the place where his enormous promise was first noticed and, to do justice to the Marist Brothers, it was Brother Egbert, head of the Marist Brothers Secondary School who, after his outstanding examination results, persuaded Sacred Heart College in Auckland to interview him and offer him a scholarship. This put him on the path to further academic successes at Otago University, then after winning the Rhodes Scholarship, at Balliol College Oxford. No wonder his second novel, set in Invercargill, was called Roads From Home. In that title is summed up the trajectory of his life, for as he would have acknowledged, Invercargill was his first home, from which he travelled many pathways – to Oxford, Greece, Crete, Italy, in the war, then London, Ireland, Oxford again – and it was followed by other homes, most notably at 103 Southmoor Road, in Oxford where he and Winnie lived from the 1940s till the end of their lives. In his imagination it was the place he most often returned to.

There is a paradox, then, that Davin who pronounced – ‘stages in one’ s life should break off with a snap instead of dribbling to their conclusion’ – should on infrequent returns to New Zealand, and visits to Dunedin and Invercargill, have searched for information in order to sharpen his memories about that time of his life. Although he was criticized by some for this, I see it as an act of re-engagement, of attempted continuity, to access a feeling of interconnectedness that he could not find anywhere else.

The discoveries he made in Invercargill which become integrated into his adult understanding are captured in many of his stories. I am thinking here of ‘Gardens of Exile’, his final story and possibly his best. This story is about how communication happens despite differences in language and culture – where people usually don’t understand each other. The events he narrates are layered through his memories. As a boy returning with his brothers from a long ferreting trip across country, he spots his father outside the houses of the Chinese market gardeners on the outskirts of town, eavesdropping on their conversation. He realises that his father, although unable to understand what the Chinese were saying, was nevertheless engaged with the sounds of speech and voices of this exiled community. As an old man writing this, and looking back he remembers how he too as a young boy sat outside the living room door after lunch at his parents’ home, overhearing the conversation in Gaelic – a language he did not know – as his father talked to the young Irishmen fresh off the boat from Galway. And he records that the feeling, after the conversation is over and his father looks ‘a bit downcast and faraway’ and his mother gave the men ‘tea and big slabs of fruit cake’, was like coming out of the pictures, from a Tom Mix film, and of being in two worlds ‘and the one you’d come out of was somehow more suitable for you’. This story takes Davin back to his Irish heritage and the language of his father which he never knew (as his father did) and forward to his future life in in England where he too would be an exile, and where New Zealand, and the small town of Invercargill would become a memory. And his summary that his father ‘understood the inside of what the Chinese were saying, even if he didn’t know a word of it’ sums up his feeling about the distances of time (his age now) and space (living on the other side of the world), that communication can -and does – happen, even if you don’t know the words and the language.

Invercargill gave Dan Davin his crucial bearings in life, which came from his parents and early education, including his Catholicism, his great love of adventure and learning; it unexpectedly led to his pride in being a New Zealander, the fellow feeling which he discovered when he first joined the Div, the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force in 1940, and found himself fighting alongside ‘road makers from Southland and west coast miners’ (some became the subjects of his war stories) in the words of Geoffrey Cox, of ‘volunteers, alert, hard bitten, sardonic […] men hardened and shaped by the rigours of the Great Slump of the 30s [….] men who matched the hour’. It was also where he formed his deepest hates: of unfairness, small mindedness and mediocrity.

Dan Davin lives on in Invercargill in spirit through his stories and novels which, whether written from the perspective of a boy finding out about the world, or from that of a platoon commander of New Zealand forces fighting in Greece or Crete, capture vividly the feel of the Southland region in the 1920s and 30s, giving it a place in history. It is a tribute to the work of the Dan Davin Trust that his memory is kept alive here through events such as the short story competition, the annual Dan Davin Award Event and the Dan Davin lecture (that Dr Rory Sweetman is giving today). The competition and other acts of memorialisation give Davin an enduring place in Invercargill as its most celebrated fiction writer, phrase maker and recording eye, and make this centenary celebration here, of his birth on 1st September 1913, the obvious and perfect place to remember him.