Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Andrew Mason

Speaking of old-fashioned quality-control, Andrew Mason, one of our finest magazine sub-editors and book editors, died two weeks ago, aged 58. This tribute by Denis Welch rightly records Andrew’s high standards and quiet, intensely practical support for literature. The magazine this blog takes its name from was one of the grateful beneficiaries of his generosity, of time and attention as much as of money.

My second favourite memory of him is of one day in the Listener’s Wellington office in 1979 when the subbery, a place of cathedral-like silence, was invaded by Tony Simpson and Brian Edwards talking in Very Loud Look-At-Me voices. Andrew turned to me and said loudly in his most withering tone, “Who are these people?” The look on their faces was priceless.

My very favourite memory is of lunch a decade or so ago when he told me that he now had a partner, Lukacs. He was almost radiant with joy. Denis describes exactly the difference this made to our old friend.

But Andrew was a more interesting person than Denis’s tribute perhaps conveys. He could be spiky, even vitriolic. This was amusing if you were on his side but very much not if not. (I’ve been on both.) As a literary editor he had the virtue of catholicism and got, among others, Shonagh Koea started as a published writer but he also inaugurated what became the least attractive of the Listener’s traditions, the deliberate hatchet job, i.e. commissioning a review from an author’s known enemy. He was a bus driver for a while, coming in to work from Mahina Bay every day on the Eastbourne bus. He had and used a rifle. (As far as I know he confined his shooting to the possums that kept him awake, but he must have been tempted by the odd poet.) As Denis says, “he was no pale aesthete”: at one after-work party a fight started. Andrew waded in and broke it up. For all these and other reasons I admired him enormously.

He was brave professionally too, and would take on any person or institution. Here he is in Quote Unquote in October 1996 having a go at Creative New Zealand. Anyone who knew him will recognise his voice:
The most dangerous thing for a government body is to lose sight of the needs of the people it has been set up to serve. Current feeling in the arts world about the new Arts Council – or Creative New Zealand, as it is now styled – is almost entirely negative, with widespread complaints that it is isolated, bureaucratic, impervious and ideologically driven. The angry recent literature “forum” in Auckland provides a graphic example. . .
There were two remarkable things here. One was the unanimity of opinion – I have never seen writers and publishers so united. The other was the fire with which their opinion was expressed. If a subconscious wish not to bite the hand that feeds had inhibited people up till now, Creative New Zealand’s patronising attitude removed any remaining restraints. . .
Was there no one inside Creative New Zealand with the nous to see that dumping the Literature Committee without warning would sooner or later cause an explosion, especially when the replacement structure would inevitably be exposed as ramshackle? If Creative New Zealand didn’t know, it was badly advised. If it did know, its actions were cynical. . .
Finally, there is the abuse of the English language by members of Creative New Zealand. They were dealing with writers and, if at times they detected a grim mirth, the cause was such expressions as “operationalising”, “growing the arts”, “sector interaction and interface”, and the priceless “visioning” – presumably derived, as writer Tony Simpson remarked, from the verb “to vision”.
Behind the mirth, though, was the realisation that this was not just professional jargon, but an attempt to obfuscate and confuse. It is the language of power: if you set the terms, others have to grapple with them in order to achieve their own aims. Surely funding to foster creativity should work the other way round.


Wingate said...

Andrew introduced me to the New Yorker magazine when I was only 9 at their holiday home in Fish Bay in the Sounds at the top of the South Island.
At that age I enjoyed the magazine for its flashy American cars, new cameras and Bernard Schoenbaum's wacky cartoons.
I was from Rotorua where my world till that date was fed by school yard fights and the local haka.
So spending time in Fish Bay hearing and learning new things were seeds for better things outside my small life. Andrew and his dad, Uncle Malcolm, would slowly read through each and every article often passing back and forth comments at an intellectual level way about me.
But they sounded clever so it made me listen. It was only later, long after Uncle Malcolm died in 1985 did I realise the literary bond Malcolm and Andrew had, and that what I had seen as a child was just a sample of that.
Each time I see a copy of the New Yorker my mind flashes back to rainy days overlooking Fish Bay and of the voices of great people sadly missed. RIP Andrew and Uncle Malcolm, I hope wherever you are The New Yorker is not far away.

Stephen Stratford said...

Thanks Wingate, nice to hear another's memories of Andrew. I never met Malcolm but remember how awkward it was for Andrew at the Listener when Malcolm sued the mag for libel. He was an author too - I've seen a memoir of his war years. And I still miss Andrew.