Many talented creative writers have graced the university with their presence. Acclaimed fiction writers who studied at Otago have published in a wide variety of genres: crime novelist Vanda Symon, popular fantasy writer Juliet Marillier, master of the short story A.P. Gaskell, literary novelist Fiona Farrell, and of course the incomparable Janet Frame. Many of New Zealand’s greatest writers have also spent time at Otago, not as students, but as holders of the Burns Fellowship (a few, like Farrell and Frame, have done both). And let’s not forget the staff: did you know that the talented Liam McIlvanney, Professor of Scottish Studies, moonlights as a crime writer, or that Rogelio Guedea, senior lecturer in the Spanish programme, is a best-selling novelist in Mexico?
Despite all this creative power, the university has seldom featured as a setting for fiction; ‘campus fiction’ has not, it seems, been a popular genre in this country. That makes the 1970 novel of Dan Davin, Not here, not now, all the more interesting. The book is closely based on the experiences of Davin and his wife Winnie Gonley as Otago students of the 1930s. It centres on Martin Cody, a brilliant young working class Catholic boy from Southland. Cody is an arts student who drinks, dances, plays rugby, falls in love (more than once), writes, questions his religion, and eventually wins a Rhodes Scholarship (after failing to make it in his first attempt thanks to a rumour which, if true, would reflect badly on his moral character). Many other still familiar institutions of Otago student life are vividly portrayed in the novel: disputes within the students’ association, controversies over what should appear in Critic, slaving late at night over books, and finding kindred spirits at a religious group (the Catholic Students’ Club – now CathSoc). Of course some commonplace aspects of 1930s life have long gone, including the once ubiquitous figure of the landlady, who featured large in the lives of the many students living in private board.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of student life; as reviewer Michael Beveridge commented in Landfall, “as a novelist Davin has been a first-rate historian”. Davin is probably best known for his novels and short stories about the Southland Irish Catholic community and for his war history and novels, but Not here, not now is also well worth a read. An earlier Davin novel, Cliffs of fall, is also partly set at the University of Otago (and is still on my growing ‘waiting to be read’ list). Davin himself studied classics at Otago, went to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, served with distinction in World War II, and had a long career in publishing with Oxford University Press.
A poor scholar by C.R. Allen, published in 1936, is another novel about a working class boy who gains a Rhodes Scholarship. It charts the progress of the hero, Ponto, from his kindergarten days to Oxford, with a couple of brief chapters devoted to his time at the University of Otago: lectures, football, capping and dances all feature. The novel is set in the 1900s and 1910s, and brilliantly evokes the streets and landscapes of north Dunedin prior to World War I. Though Allen had been blind since the 1910s, he knew this environment well: he lived with his family at Arana – later to become a university residential college – and studied for the Anglican priesthood at Selwyn College. Unsurprisingly, All Saints Church also looms large in the book.
Another intriguing 1930s novel is The wind and the rain, by Otago medical graduate Merton Hodge. This was adapted by Hodge from his hit play of the same name, which had an impressive three-year run on the London stage. Film versions came out in 1938 and 1959, the latter starring Alan Bates. It is a story of a group of medical students sharing lodgings and, though the setting is Edinburgh, Hodge’s colourful characters were, according to a 1930s newspaper, “moulded on personalities he met while at Otago University, one of them being a well-known doctor at present practising in the South.” If you know who that might be, I’d love to hear from you!
Can you identify any more of the students in the photograph? Do you know of any other novels with University of Otago settings which I can add to my reading pile? If so, please get in touch. Then there are the poems and films …. I’ll save those for future posts!