Monday, January 26, 2009

Andrew Mason

The 1980s was probably the Listener’s last golden age. At
the end of that decade it shrank to its present size, and
then it was sold to Wilson & Horton and ceased to be a
subsidiary of state broadcasting; now it’s just one of many
horses in Tony O’Reilly’s global media stable and, given
the current state of his finances, it’ll probably be flicked on
to a new owner soon. But the 80s… the magazine lost its
monopoly on advance TV program information in 1982
and inexorably the circulation, which had averaged a
freakish 380,000 for a while, began to slide. Even so, for
most of the rest of the 80s it was around 250,000; and
what you can’t get over, looking back at old copies, is how
big the magazine was—A3 size, no less. Everything in it was
literally writ large; photos and cartoons seem enormous by
today's standards. There’s a prodigality about it that
probably reflects only too well the big-spending ethos of the
era. Trace Hodgson’s stunning political cartoons splatter
the pages like graffiti daubed on the nation’s wall.

There was a great flowering of feature-writing too, with
writers like Murray McLaughlin, Sue McTagget, Bruce
Ansley, Helen Paske and Gordon Campbell given seemingly
unlimited room to move. But the true glory of the magazine
then was the Books section, which under, first, Vincent
O’Sullivan and then Andrew Mason attained an authority
unmatched before or since. In the late 80s, as the front of
the magazine began to lose shape, the Books pages kept
theirs—and that was entirely due to Andrew, whose literary
judgment and exquisite editing eye gave the book reviews
unimpeachable integrity. They were never showy or flashy;
the layouts were models of restraint. The sole merit of the
reviews lay in their content, which Andrew had supervised
down to the last comma. I remember his precisely
pencilled subediting marks on the copy that went to the
printer (no screens then). They showed absolute attention
to every line of every review—the editing often so deftly
done that the writer didn’t even realise how much had been
scalpelled out. Sick copy was healed in Andrew’s hands.

He was a man in whom reticence spoke volumes. He edited,
severely, his own emotions. Yet he was no pale aesthete; I
remember him coming back to the office from the Thorndon
Pool at lunchtimes, sleek as a seal, togs and towel rolled up
under his arm. I remember his fostering of Maori literature
and history, and the way he supported Bub Bridger’s poetry
and gave her her chance in the Listener. I remember hearing
in later years how he had bought Bub a house to live in on
the West Coast. I’ve been remembering these things, as
others will have been, because of Andrew's death two weeks
ago. He was only 58. About 150 of us gathered at Turnbull
House in Wellington last Friday to celebrate his life. I heard
there what I hadn’t known, that he’d supported other
writers too, out of his own pocket; and that he left money to
set up a fund for young writers. Typically, he insisted it be
named after his father, but his brother Tim has quite rightly
overridden that. Andrew was so self-effacing that he didn’t
want any kind of occasion after his death, but I’m glad that
wish was overridden as well.

Andrew’s the finest editor I’ve ever known. After leaving the
Listener he edited many books, most notably, perhaps,
Judith Binney’s Redemption Songs and Michael King’s
Penguin History
of New Zealand, but it's his time on the
that naturally stays with me. He was a troubled
soul then; what a joy it was to see his happiness flower over
the past 10 or 11 years, ever since he met Lukacs, the man
who was to become his partner till death did them part.
Such was the love between these two that it's hard to
believe that Andrew's life has come to a full stop; I prefer to
think the story of it will go on being written in the hearts of
those who knew him.With, of course, judicious placement
of the semi-colon.


Philip Matthews said...

I never met Andrew but this is a lovely tribute. You really should write the history of the NZ Listener. I'm sure it's occurred to you.

Lindsay said...

I agree with Philip, it is a lovely tribute, mate, and the Listener history idea is a good one. Who better to write it than you?

Could you flick me an email. My old computer died and I lost your address.

Simon Wilson said...

The finest editor. That is so well said, Denis. I was at the Listener during Andrew’s time there, sitting just a couple of desks away from where he tucked himself into the corner, learning and benefitting every day from all that he gave us. Andrew’s carefully marked copy set the subbing standard. His personal grace, even when you knew he was roiling inside, prevented the place many times from erupting. He kept poets in business, inasmuch as that is ever possible, he published benchmark reviews on a weekly basis, and his support for Maori writing, as Denis notes, was unequalled. Also, he was a very funny guy. Quietly, with mirthful irony wielded like those definitively well-placed semis, and often. This is such a loss.

Rachael King said...

Denis, I had no idea that Andrew had died - something to do with being resident in Christchurch probably, and away from my usual networks. I am extremely saddened by this news. I only met Andrew a couple of years ago, at the launch of Bub Bridger's collected poems. It was after my father had died, and we had a long conversation. Andrew was such a sympathetic listener that I found myself pouring out sadness and frustration that I wouldn't normally to a stranger. This is very sad. I would like to send my sympathy to his family and friends somehow.

Saul Sayz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dale Williams said...

Thanks, Denis.
Andrew and his togs, that's how we'll choose to remember him too.

On one of his holidays with us, he and my husband John decided to renovate the bathroom ceiling in our vintage Foxton beach house. Zeal and gusto were applied where delicacy might have been more prudent. Down it came with a crash, and down with it came 60 years of rats' nests, birds' nests, woodlice and sandy filth. The room was totalled in an unholy mess, leaving us nowhere to wash. The two giggling culprits, black as miners, stood out on the lawn in their togs while I hosed them both down. Laughter for days.

Thank God the sea was handy.

Forget semicolons; I taught Andrew all he knew about puttying windows.

My sincere sympathy to his nearest and dearest.

David Cohen said...

Lovely piece, Denis. We've added a few thoughts over in our corner of the online woods.

David Cohen said...

And my apologies for being the fourth person here to use the word 'lovely.'(How about 'lyrical'?) Where's a decent lit'ry ed when you need him?

Andrew Campbell said...

I have only just come across this sad news. I got to know Andrew in my Godwit days, when he edited three issues of Vital Writing for us, giving a new press a helping hand. He was a thorough professional and a pleasure to work with. I enjoyed his dry wit and was secretly impressed that this dapper intellectual had a day job as a bus driver at that time! I hope Andrew’s contribution to New Zealand letters will become more widely known in years to come.

Wingate said...

Andrew Mason 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 or Saul Steinberg'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.