Tuesday, August 28, 2018

In memoriam Warwick Roger

Portrait by Annelies van der Poel.

For family reasons I was unable to attend the funeral in Devonport last Friday of Warwick Roger, who died on 16 August. His death was not a surprise but knocked me sideways all the same. My plan had been to write a report of who was there and what was said in the eulogies, and write a bit about my experiences as an early contributor to Metro and later its deputy editor for seven years, because I thought the published obituaries (apart from this one after the event by Karl du Fresne) were rushed and didn’t do him justice. Fortunately Adrian Blackburn was there and posted this account on Facebook the next day, which does do Warwick justice. I reproduce it here with his kind permission.

A banner of Auckland bylines at Warwick Roger’s funeral on a bleak Devonport afternoon. Just in my short row near the back of the crowded rugby club: Geoff Chapple, Donna Chisholm, Louise Callan, Armin Lindenberg.
Hundreds more there, colleagues, rivals, friends, family and acquaintances, for the most satisfying such occasion I can recall, a well-structured, literate and bracingly honest tribute to a difficult, quirky, brave and meticulous man whose talents and drive changed New Zealand’s media landscape and, more importantly, the way Auckland sees itself.
Longtime friend Spiro Zavos, in loyalty and grief, over-egged the omelette of Warwick’s talents to the point where I suspect the man himself would have cringed. But from Nicola Legat, Rhys Harrison and Warwick’s daughters came a more balanced and thoughtful clarity about his complexities and qualities as a professional, a father and a friend.
Warwick Roger’s wildly successful Metro of the Eighties was not diminished in its impact by owing much to established American city magazines, especially New York magazine.
He built on that formula, making Metro an individual creation which another editor, without Warwick’s sense of being an outsider from the wrong side of the tracks and needing to prove himself, could not have achieved. It gave him that drive to see his city in the whole, to clearly assess its faults and glories, and with a big fingers to the establishment to tell other Aucklanders the uncompromised stories of its reality.
The timing was perfect. An expansive and excessive Auckland was feeling its oats. And Warwick was the journo for the job. His words as a feature writer always wanted more space than the 1500 to 2000-word limits dictated by newspaper features sections. In a swiftly bulging Metro he was able to give his talented writers — mainly women — room to roam on the toughest stories, then edit them with taste and precision.
Long before the supercity was formalised he gave the Rangitoto Yanks a sort of perverse licence to now welcome characterisation by those south of the Bombays as Just Another Fucking Aucklander.
I think he would have been pleased, and perhaps a little astonished, at the turnout yesterday. But journalism is a strange trade which, if you ply it long enough in a city, brings you into contact with thousands. Many have been touched by Metro’s stories, or have worked for it or rival publications. Acquaintances mainly, much more often than friends, though the work often brings you into a brief sort of intimacy with colleagues.
I got the impression yesterday that this was very much the case for Warwick. I only ever knew him as a fellow feature writer, though a few years back, when his Parkinsons was already quite advanced, I recall sitting beside him for quite a spell and chatting at an Auckland Star reunion.
We did share a passion for running. We both ran our first marathon, a lap of Lake Rotorua, on the same mid-Eighties day. In running terms Warwick was a gazelle, I a warthog. But I fancied he was likely to write a piece for the Star on his experience, so I raced to do my own for the Herald and have it published a week ahead of his. A spurious sort of victory, I guess, but satisfying at the time.
Warwick was intensely competitive. Parkinsons must have been doubly cruel, robbing him of that wonderful freedom running at peak fitness can give, and then of his capacity to write.
The terrible toll that prolonged decline, over more than 20 years, also took on the love and loyalty of his family — and particularly his wife Robyn Langwell — in keeping him at home until the end became clear yesterday.
I had come direct to the funeral from over an hour with a friend now facing a similar toll with a wife just diagnosed with terminal cancer. He was keen to have me share some of my own experience in a similar case. I said to him: “Life can be a bastard.”
I’m sure Warwick would have felt unfairly picked on by life. But I’m also sure that if yesterday something of him was hovering above that plain coffin, his outsider’s eye would have picked up on all sorts of detail he might have put into his notebook.
He would have approved the photo on the screen of him and one of his beloved cats, their shared expression. He would have noted who was there. But more importantly who was not. He would have seen poet and fellow Devonport resident Kevin Ireland and winced at the thought of the letter of apology he once sent to Kevin. (I urged Kevin later at drinks that he frame the letter and hang it above his honorary Doctorate of Literature: “That letter is much more rare than any doctorate.”)
He would also have winced at being described as “useless” at his much loved cricket but appreciated his former president’s-grade team mates carrying his coffin out to the hearse.
He would have grinned when the female hearse driver opened the vehicle’s side door to check the casket was secure, revealing she had her handbag stashed in the gap below the coffin’s platform.
His literary self would have appreciated the single clang of what looked like an old-fashioned school bell to attract the attention of the crowd before the hearse glided slowly away. “For whom does the bell toll? It tolls for thee.”
And then, as the rest of us made our way around the road to the cricket club nearby for the after-match, I imagined him, miraculously restored, running again, striding out freely, almost floating, away from us, over the winter grass of the park, destination unknown.


Unknown said...

Nice Stephen. Thanks.

Nick R.

Unknown said...

Nice reflections and memories of a great time to live through in Auckland

Blog 4B said...

Great read thanks for writing this