Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A book launch from the past (1962) - a wonderful account by the late John Griffin

RAK Mason launch  (by John Griffin)

One of the stimulating things about the years at the UBS was the lively humanity of almost all of the working relationships.
Jim McLean and Bill Thompson, the UBS auditors, were interesting and likeable men whom I admired. I enjoyed working with them. One day in 1963 they called me into my own office. They had taken it over to do the annual audit. "What have you got to say about this?" McLean asked me sternly. It was a sizeable bill from Meenans the liquor merchants, dated some months earlier. With relief I said "That one’s quite OK. It was for grog we needed when we launched Ron Mason’s book." "I don’t think you get the point," said McLean. "Why weren’t Bill and I invited?" It was a fair question. A hell of a lot of people had come to the Mason launch, including many less deserving than our auditors. In fact I can’t remember now, forty-odd years later, whether we invited anyone much. Perhaps most of them just came.

Ron Mason (right) was the Burns Fellow at Otago University that year. He was 57 years old, a poet admired by everyone, but his reputation had been earned thirty years earlier. Then he ran dry. The Fellowship, everyone (especially Mason) hoped, would stimulate a creative rebirth. Month after month Dunedin people were like clucky hens waiting for a blessed event that would do honour to the city and the university. It was in this climate of expectation and anxiety that Mason’s "Collected Poems" appeared.It struck me that this was a time when the book shop could do something that was friendly, interesting and popular - perhaps even profitable. I rang The Pegasus Press. Albion Wright readily agreed to launch at the UBS. He would come and so, if I paid the fare, would Denis Glover, an old comrade of Masons who had worked with Albion on the book. Denis had grown up in Dunedin.

Wright and Glover were not teetotallers and their behaviour was neither predictable nor controllable, but I knew they would do their best for their friend Mason and I hoped their efforts would take as conventional a form as possible. I wasn’t entirely reassured by a letter from Glover in Paekakariki. "My dear Griffiths," he wrote, then lost control of his runaway pen: "Dunedin, ah Dunedin, does that spire still swim heavenward, or will it appear foreshortened? Built, I understand, on the town section generously given by my great grandparents , who then retired to their Mornington estate. God, if I had it now there’d be no First Church and no oil company building either. A great big beer house cum brothel, that’s what Dunedin wants. Down with Chapman’s monument, away with the peasant boy [Burns]with his bathrobe at the top, hock the Hocken [Library], up with Princes Street, down with the Rattray Street wharf" ! Subsequently, when I was trying to persuade him to board the homebound plane I did wonder if he had seen First Church or anything else of his old city except the Captain Cook Hotel and the sites of the two parties.

By some miracle Wright and Glover did arrive in time for the launch - with time to spare in fact. They spent it at the Captain Cook Hotel and turned up noisily at the shop, which by that time contained the biggest crowd the UBS had ever hosted. They greeted Mason with loud and cheerful eloquence. He was beaming. We had the makings of a pleasing occasion.
Alan Horsman, head of the English Department where Mason was based for the year, set the ball rolling with some thoughtful and generous remarks, persisting manfully in spite of some loud and irrelevant asides from Glover. Then Glover, first addressing himself pompously to "My Lord Mayor" and other dignitaries present only in his imagination, pulled out a copy of "Squire Speaks", Mason’s verse play, and read it from end to end. Mason spoke modestly, his face wreathed in smiles. That was that, apart from another loud contribution from Glover, warning all light-fingered booklovers present that certain of the books had been mined to explode if disturbed.

The party went on and on, with mounting exuberance. Half-full glasses were perched perilously on the bookshelves, in front of the books. Lots of people became unsteady on their feet. I gathered our principal guests and set off for home in Maryhill followed by a fair number of others. Bob Stables, with one or two of the staff, generously stayed behind to clear up the mess and shoo off the last of the guests. When Bob at last turned up at Maryhill he was as bandy as anyone I had ever seen, swaying slowly from side to side and smiling in a simple-minded way. He told me he had finished off a few of the glasses as he tidied up, including, he said, a tumbler nearly full, which tasted strange and very strong. It was the glass full of gin that Glover had left behind when I took him away.

I am most grateful to John's London-based publisher (recently retired) daughter Kate for forwarding this to me.
I hope you all enjoy reading it as much as I did. It brought back many happy memories for me of John and his huge sense of humour and fun.

John's funeral will be held at St Matthew-in-the-City, cnr of Wellesley St and Hobson St at 1pm this Thursday, 1st November.
Kate will not be at the funeral but she tells me that she will be " having a little wake for his London friends, including Phil Thwaites and Patrick Wright."
John would approve of that, Thwaites and Wright were both close book-trade friends of his.

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