Who’s to blame?

I first met Bob Ross at the Commercial Travellers’ Club in Remuera in the latter half of 1970. We were introduced by Brian Unwin, one of the more memorable characters in my life. Brian and I were working for Holt, Rinhehart and Winston, the U.S. educational publisher. He was the schools rep. I had the more senior job of manager and tertiary rep. This was a curious arrangement, given that I was twelve years younger than he was and vastly less experienced in the book trade.

When I had applied to join the company in April, both jobs were open. I fancied myself for the tertiary position because it involved travelling round universities. Instead, I was offered the schools job, which I accepted although I knew, at least subconsciously, that I wouldn’t stick it for long. The more senior role went to a man called Charles Strange. I barely got to know Charles because within weeks he had resigned. I never understood why exactly although I did hear later that he had decided that he could not take on all the travelling because he needed to keep an eye on his wife. What she was up to, I don’t know. Suddenly, though, I was promoted to the job I’d wanted all along. I was earning the huge sum of $5,000 a year and was my own boss, running a business with a turnover of close to a million dollars a year – all at the ripe old age of 28.

This was my first job in the book trade. Up until that point, for the previous 18 months, I had been a disgruntled primary school teacher, frustrated, underpaid and, towards the end of the period, depressed. The job at Holt had been suggested by Phil Thwaites from the University Book Shop. A year or so earlier, Phil had come up from Dunedin with Michael Noonan to start up UBS on the successful Otago model and I knew him because Anne, my wife, was an old school mate of Michael’s wife, Rosslyn, now our Human Rights Commissioner but then a student activist.

I can trace the chain back even earlier, though – to May 1963, for example, to a gathering called the Little Congress, organised by students at Auckland University. This was an intellectual and political talk fest built on the model of the annual, national Congress held at Curious Cove in the Marlborough Sounds – a precursor to the political activism that bloomed in such a spectacular fashion in the later 60s. It was here, one evening, that I met a first-year called Anne Matthews. I was drinking brandy and ginger ale for some reason and spouting about Camus and possibly McGonagall. Whether or not I made sense, I have no idea, but I must have done enough for an impressionable young fresher because Anne and I started going out together. Two years later we were married.

Why Camus and McGonagall? The connection, curiously, comes through SCM – the Student Christian Movement.

I come from a god-fearing family and when I was in my teens most of my socialising centred round the local church and its bible class. This led me, during my last years at school and my first at university, to SCM, where I met a couple of my oldest friends, John Crawford and Malcolm Fraser. We shared a certain intellectualism – call it pretension, if you like – coupled with a sense of the absurd. One of our creations was the Friends of McGongall, a literary appreciation society dedicated to the great poet and tragedian, which drew around thirty adherents including several budding academics and one future member of the Fijian cabinet.

Malcolm’s girl-friend, Frances Mullinder, had been a pupil at Epsom Girls Grammar School where she was best mates with Vanya Lowry, daughter of printer and typographer, Bob Lowry. Through Vanya I was introduced to the Lowry’s circle, my first experience of a literary and intellectual milieu, where people the age of my mother cared about books and ideas. Vanya’s sister Judy was engaged to an architecture student called David Mitchell and it was at the Lowry’s dining table one day that Dave started talking about Albert Camus. I don’t remember what he said but his enthusiasm lit a spark in me. I became fascinated by Camus’s brand of existentialism, an interest I have never quite shaken off in the many years since.

This causal chain, with one or two significant side-loops, pretty much defines my life between the ages of 18 and 30. I went from a nerdish Christian student to an atheistic publisher’s rep with literary ambitions, a taste for horse racing and alcohol and a couple of mates who thoroughly encouraged at least two of these vices.

The past is a web of circumstances through which we trace our stories, looking perhaps for reasons where there aren’t any. If I had to say what was responsible for Bob Ross and I getting together, I could nominate many causes from God to Camus or McGongall or whatever it was that Charles Strange’s wife was up to. When I was younger I sometimes felt a sense of destiny, as if my life had an inevitable shape that I wasn’t fully conscious of. I think now that one of the great pleasures of life is that it doesn’t really make any sense at all.

Rain. Welcome after the parching wind of the last few days

3 Responses to “Who’s to blame?”

  1. Darryl Coleman Says:


    I’m just getting started with my new blog. Would you want to exchange links on our blog-rolls?

    BTW – I’m up to about 100 visitors per day.

  2. Darryl Coleman Says:

    Nice writing style. I look forward to reading more in the future.

  3. Chris Says:

    Don’t have a blogroll as yet Darryl but I’ll bear you in mind.

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