Recollections 2017

Spirited Generosity

24 July 2017

Who knows about the UK-based Arvon Foundation Writing workshops?

Who now remembers that Michael King was one of the key facilitators of a series of a similar residential Writing Workshops held here, in rural Albany NZ, from 1986 to 1993?

Here is the story behind my getting to meet up with the famous Dr Michael King.

What I already knew was that throughout his stellar career as a researcher, historian, editor, journalist, author, and teacher Michael was recognised as a man of spirited generosity. He was a man of letters who did not choose to spend all his working life within the reliable comfort of academia. Instead he became renowned for his very personal concern and practical support for the many other writers who sought to make sense of the world around them throughout Aotearoa.

A man of similar interests was Robin Dudding - then editor and sole financial supporter of the national literary magazine “Islands”. He too liked to ferret out and support literary talent wherever he found it. As a young country GP’s wife locked in the small-town wilds of rural Canterbury. Far from libraries and bookshops. I had been an ardent subscriber to “Islands”. Years later, in the 1980’s with my family, we made a major move to the rural fringes of Albany to grow kiwifruit. Between pruning and training the youthful vines, I became an apprentice reporter for a local paper called the “Albany News”. In this role, I researched and then wrote the story of an “Educational Arts Centre” that had recently been established in the area by members of the Auckland Philharmonia. Having interviewed the owners and been shown around the complex, I decided this would be the perfect place to hold the kind of residential writing workshops I’d gathered information about on a recent visit to the UK. But I knew that setting up something similar here would never happen unless I could enlist the help of respected key figures in the NZ literary world. I decided to run the idea past Robin Dudding who I discovered lived close-by, in Torbay. To my delight, Robin was as excited as I was about the potential for a NZ-based Arvon Foundation-style series of writing workshops. He encouraged me to persist with the idea and advised me to pay a visit to Michael King, then living nearby in Browns Bay.

All it took was one visit! Michael King was equally enthusiastic. I discovered he was a close friend of respected author and NZ publisher Christine Cole Catley. Christine (who was living in Picton) had established and now chaired the Frank Sargeson Trust whose members at the time were David Ballantyne, Nigel Cook, C.K. Stead and Michael King. (Broader and more onerous secretarial duties were soon after taken over by Graeme Lay.)

Michael won Christine’s instant support for my residential workshops proposal. She even talked of this proposal as planting the seeds for the later establishment of a national Writers Centre.

Meantime it was agreed Christine’s Sargeson Trust would to be responsible for approving the chosen workshop programmes each year. Amazingly, this avid reader but completely unknown, journo-cum-kiwifruit grower (Wensley Willcox) was formally appointed as unpaid (but fully financially liable) administrator of the Sargeson Writing Workshops. The series of workshops as planned (and approved) were held in Albany Auckland from 1986 until 1993 and in Wellington in 1986 and 1988 with Patricia Grace (for young Maori writers). Overall, the Auckland workshops alone contributed to the writing lives of over 200 people.

After Michael’s sudden and tragic death in 2004 Christine was determined the concept of a national Writers' Centre would be the appropriate memorial for Michael, especially (with the right resources) if it were to encourage ”local” literature by including not only annually selected individual writer residencies but also annual programmes of workshops for both professionals and for school-age young people. I know that Dame Christine was immensely delighted that she lived long enough to see all this come to fruition and we all remain so very grateful to herand to the memory of her dear friend Michael. It has been such a privilege to have worked (for over a decade) with such an enthusiastic bunch of fellow trustees of the Michael King Writers' Centre alongside such visionary and generous spirits.

Wensley Wilcox