Great Sporting Moments — Introduction

Introduction to Great Sporting Moments: The Best of Sport Magazine 1988-2004 — Damien Wilkins
Is there a less suggestive way of saying this? Sport was born in the back of my yellow Ford Escort as we were rounding the Basin Reserve some time in mid-1988. I was driving. Fergus Barrowman and Elizabeth Knox were in the back seat. This was a period in which on important occasions I was—rather oddly it now seems—their chauffeur. Several months later I was to drive Fergus and Elizabeth home in the same vehicle after their wedding. Neither could drive; it gave them great power.

‘I think we should do the magazine,’ said Fergus, ‘and I think it should be called Sport.’
‘Sport,’ I said. ‘Mmn.’ Well, has anyone loved the name on first hearing it? (In his only editorial for the magazine—please see Sport 3—Fergus ponders gloomily the notion that the gender imbalance in that issue might be connected to the name, with its ‘blokeish self-satisfaction’. ‘This,’ says FJB, ‘is certainly not intended.’)
Elizabeth spoke from the back of the car. ‘He’s going to do it too.’
‘It’s not settled,’ said Fergus.
‘It is,’ said Elizabeth. She leaned forward. ‘He’s doing it.’
‘Good,’ I said.

The reconstruction is naturally imperfect. It’s also disingenuous on my part. I sound rather cool about the whole thing. I was probably in that moment dreaming wild dreams of paradigm shifts—and thinking with deep pleasure that I could now get some of my own stories published. We’d been talking up the idea of a literary magazine for a while. These conversations, like many we had around literature, were satisfyingly high-flown, full of pitiless assessments of others’ failings, and wonderfully free of resolution. Nothing was any good—and that was enough for us. Landfall seemed less and less interested in stories and poems. Robin Dudding’s excellent Islands appeared to be lost. The inspiring guerilla raid of Rambling Jack was complete. It’s hard now to say why the decisive moment for action came in the car. Fergus had the name—and maybe that was sufficient.

The written record of the time—supplied chiefly by us—doesn’t entirely support my picture of bruising confidence. We sound assertively mild in public. We speak of ‘good writing’ and avoiding the ‘unproductively prescriptive’ oppositions of ‘simplicity or artifice, postmodernism or not’. (The terms sound quaint; they were becoming so even at the time.) There is mention of ‘fun’. Fergus sees Sport in the ‘entirely appropriate image of a traditional literary magazine.’

Our third issue had not just FJB’s note but another editorial, from ‘EFK’. Elizabeth’s version upgrades her husband’s sober ambition: ‘In producing our magazine we could fancy ourselves as Baptists, making strait the way.’ I recall something of this fervour attaching itself to our near-daily visits to Unity Books where another member of the editorial team, Nigel Cox, standing behind the counter, would urge us on with wise, insightful, frequently libelous statements about the book trade. Now, Nigel pressed, is the hour. It was also around this time that Barbara Anderson, when visiting VUP, used to tell friends, ‘I’m just off to see the baby-faced killers.’ I remember Janet Paul, the artist, visiting the office to talk about the use of one of her paintings on the cover of Barbara’s first book. Another visitor was there at the same time, and he was wearing a bright shirt. Janet said, ‘It’s so wonderful to see men wearing colourful clothes!’ Then she turned sadly to look at Fergus and me, dressed in our dull, dark shirts. But here I’m reminded of that character in Anthony Powell’s novel Temporary Kings who blacks out at a party in which he’s come across people and stories from his past. When he revives he considers the likelihood that he’s literally dying of nostalgia.

Of course a literary magazine usually needs more than hostility to what’s around it to keep going. Fortunately we had some writing.

I’d recently joined Victoria University Press as Fergus’s assistant. We were publishing Jenny Bornholdt’s first book, Anne Kennedy’s first book. Barbara Anderson had begun to win short story competitions. Dinah Hawken had won a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for her first book the year before. Forbes Williams was a recent graduate of Bill Manhire’s creative writing course. (The course crucially fed both VUP and the magazine; Fergus has been an external examiner for more than twenty years.) Bill himself was publishing short fiction for the first time. Nigel had published his second novel the previous year, which was also the year of Elizabeth Knox’s debut. Alan Brunton was back in the country after a decade away. Vincent O’Sullivan had just been given a chair at Victoria. Ian Wedde was working on his next big novel. Things were happening. Nor is it only in retrospect that all this activity seemed important. The great rolling weight of excellence pushed at our backs. Many of these writers were in regular contact with Fergus through VUP. The first issue—an all-fiction affair—more or less picked itself.

Fergus was the editor and publisher and designer. This was still the time of slicing and waxing galleys, where a good part of our day was used up pleasantly bent over the lightbox, fixing the typesetting in place. Fergus would sometimes greet an author at the door of our prefab office with a scalpel in his hand. The first three issues were done in this manner, literally cut and paste. Fergus also drew the cover image, after Picasso. And he hit on interested parties for the start-up funds. Andrew Mason, then literary editor at the Listener, gave money, as did Alan Preston, owner of Unity Books. Bill Manhire and Nigel Cox also helped. A couple of these loans to this day remain outstanding, giving a nice sense perhaps of the way obligations of this sort sometimes never quite disappear. As in most businesses, the creation of stationery and the taking of a private box were highlights—for me, even end-points. I remember the shock of reading the copy on the back cover when the first issue came back from the printer’s, which stated—in an alarming present tense—that the magazine ‘is published twice-yearly, in October and April’. It was October. I was ready to retire.

A quick study of the newspaper photo of that moment reveals our foolish, unchecked joy. Perhaps only Fergus held back—was everything in place? was the spine straight? was the binding solid? had we spelled everyone’s name correctly?—but only then for a few moments. We’d each flicked to our own pieces. ‘I think it looks pretty convincing, don’t you?’ he said. In the photo we look capable of eating the thing. Indeed a version had been consumed a few weeks before when Nigel, together with Marion McLeod, had organised a cake for Fergus and Elizabeth’s engagement party. The cover appeared in lurid green icing with the message ‘Give Marriage a Sporting Chance’.

In some ways the first issue is strangely misshapen, a memorial to abandoned projects and interrupted careers. The lead-off piece comes from Forbes Williams, who did publish a book of stories and from whom the odd brilliant noise issues, but who hasn’t, as they say, ‘gone on’. Nigel’s chapter comes from a novel which never appeared, and he wouldn’t publish another book for thirteen years. Miro Bilbrough’s prose poem sequence was never finished and she’s now a filmmaker based in Sydney. Keri Hulme’s contribution finally ended up in a book sixteen years later. Wendy Pond’s rather beautiful story ‘High Line’, which narrowly missed selection here, appears to have been her last. Poets Bill Manhire and Jenny Bornholdt get in with prose—Jenny has not yet found a place in her seven books for ‘The China Theory of Life’—and novelist Elizabeth Knox is represented by an essay she originally wrote for an English Honours paper, also as yet uncollected.

An odd bunch of things then; less emphatic perhaps than my nostalgic sense of the period had allowed—and yet, totally in line with the usual parameters of a literary magazine. (Here Fergus was proved right.) There are the classics—‘from Motel View’, is one of these. There’s also work of absolute accomplishment which is not followed up on—a category of peculiar poignancy. Then there are major writers in a minor mode perhaps, minor writers writing up, off-cuts, dead-ends, surprises, jokes—oh, and failures. The literary magazine always has space for these.

The second issue has always belonged in my mind to a single author, the Australian Gerald Murnane, whose 20-page story ‘When the Mice Failed to Arrive’ should be here except for an irregular selection policy with regard to overseas writers. (Paul Durcan makes it but James Fenton’s deserving ‘Here Come the Drum Majorettes!’ doesn’t. Something to do with New Zealand references, relative availability of said work and other mumbled excuses.) Most of the ‘foreigners’ were guests of the International Arts Festival; publication in the magazine being seen as useful exposure ahead of in-person appearances. Murnane was not in this group. He believes that flying is ‘an insult to the earth’. Fergus and I thought he was simply the most exciting fiction writer around and we wrote a begging letter. We commissioned Catherine Bagnall to draw the cover based on the Murnane piece. I’m surprised—and delighted—to see that this issue’s centrepiece is, in fact, J.H. Macdonald’s 45-page debut, a novella which was to grow into his novel The Free World. We also secured a chunk of that Wedde novel, which promptly disappeared for another sixteen years and counting. Is there a relationship, pace J.H. Macdonald and R. Carl Shuker, between excerpting a novel-in-progress and said novel’s demise? For pedants, the bits we got from Maurice Shadbolt’s Monday’s Warriors (Sport 3) and Maurice Gee’s The Burning Boy (Sport 5) don’t affect the result since both were completed at the time of magazine publication. Shadbolt’s piece appeared—at the author’s specific request—with a © attached; sign perhaps that our credibility had not been fully established.

Poetry also broke through in this issue, with classic Bornholdt and Hawken and Les Murray. I’m sure there was an attempt originally to keep poetry out of Sport. What were we thinking? I believe we were thinking Granta. The quarantine broke easily once we saw how little we had in prose reserves, and how strong the poetry was. We also said no reviews, and only relented when the occasion looked momentous. If Douglas Standring, in the third issue, seemed to be hedging in his piece on some short story collections (‘They are homogenous in their diversity.’), Stephen Stratford, reviewing the Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Short Stories in the next issue, gave his feelings away in the title: ‘Is Your Book Really Necessary?’ Much later, Andrew Johnston also had things to say about Mark Pirie’s New Zealand Writing: The NeXt Wave: ‘a self-contradicting, ill-informed and ill-conceived production that misreads and misrepresents recent writing by young New Zealanders’—a few subscriptions might have been lost that day, and perhaps a few gained. (For the record, the subscription base hit its level almost immediately—at around 250—and has stayed near there ever since. Sport has always relied on bookshop sales more than subscribers.) When Alan Brunton was commissioned to review the Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Poetry, he turned in fourteen pages mainly of quotations from the anthology and other sources, including a ‘want list’ found in a library book.

Survey pieces and critical commentary appeared from time to time: the UK critic Michael Hulse looked at some recent NZ poetry. (‘[Gregory] O’Brien, for a start, doesn’t seem to have been to God’s funeral.’) Vincent O’Sullivan wrote about Owen Marshall. Gregory O’Brien fired in an appreciation of the Australian poet Ken Bolton in Sport 16. (‘If the amount of annoyance Bolton’s poems have caused is any indication then he’s a very effective poet indeed.’) A sizeable section of Sport 23 was given over to pieces about the sale by Victoria University of Colin McCahon’s painting ‘Storm Warning’ and O’Brien again wrote the memorably fierce lead essay: ‘Colin McCahon’s belief in art as ³a means of conquering spiritual death² must sound like mumbo-jumbo to the post-humanists and those sainted individuals bold enough to describe themselves as ³skilled in reading the visual². How could they cope with McCahon’s stated objective ³to make a painting beat like, and with, a human heart²?’

The personal essay or memoir quickly became an important part of the magazine’s appeal. In addition to the terrific pieces here—many of which have yet to be collected in book form—there were notable contributions through the years from Iain Sharp (‘Green Viva’ 21), Murray Bail (‘Killing an Elephant’ 4), James Meffan (‘Lie of the Land’ 14), Elizabeth Knox (‘On Being Picked Up’ 24), Nigel Cox (‘On the Way to the Jewish Museum Berlin’ 28 and ‘Eva from the Tyre Factory’ 29), Laura Kroetsch (‘Moby Dick on Darwin Harbour’ 29), Tim Corballis (‘Taking Root’ 29), and Elizabeth Smither (‘Head or Hat’ 9). Bill Manhire’s account of his trip to Kuala Lumpur in ‘Wings of Gold: A Week Among Poets’ (6) is the greatest of these and can be readily located in his essay collection, Doubtful Sounds.

As if announcing a new initiative, there are two interviews in Sport 5—with visiting poet James Fenton, and with Maurice Gee—and despite good intentions, this form wasn’t revisited until fourteen years later when I interviewed Geoff Cochrane (Sport 31). More reliably, the magazine has featured substantial photographic work by Peter Black (twice), Bruce Connew, Bill Culbert, Mary Macpherson, Bruce Foster, Alan Knowles and Andrew Ross.

There’s also probably an essay to be written on Sport covers, which have featured commissioned work by artists such as Julian Dashper, Nigel Brown, Ruth Watson, Ronnie van Hout and Brendan O’Brien, as well as forgiveable appearances by Jack, the editor’s son, as a baby, and by his sister-in-law as a figure in a worrying re-enactment of a violent scene from a Caravaggio painting. When Jack Barrowman was five, he illustrated the cover of Sport 21 with a drawing of ‘Mummy and Daddy’ as horned devils with tridents and tails. Daddy has cloven feet and a large belly button; Mummy on the whole looks happier. This image was made into a teeshirt as part of the 21st celebrations, which were also marked by Sport’s first subscriber giveaway, a limited edition book by Dinah Hawken called ‘The Little Book of Bitching’, one of the harshest, most invigorating birthday presents ever dispensed.

My own direct involvement in the magazine ended when I went overseas in 1990. And though Sport has remained Fergus’s baby, several others have helped out—even saved the baby on occasions. James Brown has been vital to the magazine from number 11 onwards. For more than a decade Sport has largely worked up its contents list from decent on-going arguments between James and Fergus. James also gave this anthology its title. The other principal influence on the shape of the magazine has been Bill Manhire, most obviously in the number of writers who came to the magazine via his creative writing class; less publicly in the twenty-year conversation Bill and Fergus have carried on around literature. A week at VUP when I worked there was somehow incomplete if Bill didn’t drop in for a chat. I’ve no reason to think anything’s changed.

Greg O’Brien also deserves credit in this story since the Peter Black issues, as well as the aforementioned ‘Storm Warning’ feature, were driven by him. Andrew Johnston was another important ally and member of the editorial team for several years, while Kate Camp, Catherine Chidgey and Sara Knox have acted as guest editors. Jenny Bornholdt instigated and oversaw the Bill Culbert issue. Like all survivors, Fergus has never surrendered, but he’s always been available for capture.

In reading through thirty-two issues I was struck by how much I’d missed first time around. I’m not sure whether my ignorance simply suggests a personal laziness—well, of course it does—or whether it speaks of any writer’s self-regard, the small fortress one erects around one’s work. To my shame, I paid little attention to Annora Gollop, Emma Lew, Chris Pigott, Adam Shelton, Alex Scobie. Had I properly read Dennis McEldowney’s autobiographical pieces? I seemed to have passed over Cilla McQueen’s ‘Map’, Frankie McMillan’s ‘Marshmallow’, Rhian Gallagher’s ‘First Sailing’. This job has been as much about discovery as recovery.

It’s not a defence but over the years I’ve tended to read Sport erratically, temperamentally, unfairly. And while it would be stupid to consecrate this as ‘the writer’s way of reading’, I do think writers tend to respond to things which seem to have ‘relevance’; that is, things which connect with what they themselves are currently engaged in. Is this any different from the woman thinking of leaving her husband, or the man thinking of exploring China by motorbike, seeking out those books which feature such figures and scenarios? Not really. Except there’s an expectation that writers, since they’re in the business, might read each other, might keep up. They don’t. I know writers who won’t read novels in the first person, or which feature angels. Poets who won’t read poems in which pets appear, or the moon. There’s a writer, represented here, who burned a copy of one of my novels because it didn’t furnish him with ‘a sufficient sense of redemption’. Though some of us, as Elizabeth suggested in her editorial, may be Baptists, we are none of us saints.

To push further into the mire, is there something about a literary magazine that is less than compelling, a sort of limited, compromised essence? The literary magazine has a documentary function as well as a literary one. It stops time—excitingly for a moment, a week, a month—before time moves on. A writer friend once commented that he always shudders when he sees on anyone’s shelf a line of old Landfalls. The reaction seems reasonable to me. Old issues of London Magazine have a similar effect, of Paris Review, of Meanjin and Scripsi. The sense that one is looking at a lost world can be unpleasant. Who were all these poets and short story writers? All these bios which run, ‘He spent three years at university but it did him no good’?

To anthologise such a venture might seem then a dubious undertaking. A literary magazine lives in the currents of its time, swept along by the culture which makes it and which it tries to make, victim finally of the mailbox and of the commissioning energies of the editor. In a way, Great Sporting Moments runs counter to this movement. It aims, I suppose, to make a good book, to do the Best Of. It has trouble with what Ian Wedde, writing about the ‘profoundly humbling’ experience of editing the Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, calls ‘the immense emotional force of the collective minor’. I hope not to confuse Sport’s little life with that of a national literature; nevertheless the collective minor, if it lives anywhere, it’s within the pages of just such a journal. Scholars of that bent will need to go further than the present volume to find out whether what appeared individual to those writing it was in fact part of something happening not just to them but to us as well.

When we showed the contents list to James Brown, an editor more familiar with the material than I am, he commented that an alternate selection could probably be made that would look just as convincing. That’s true. But right now, I like this stuff the most. (The selection criterion was no more sophisticated than that.) It’s about ten per cent of everything that appeared in the magazine. There are many more great sporting moments out there. And nearly all of the magazine will in due course be readable in cyberspace as one of the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre’s on-going ventures.

Heading into the project I feared two things: that I’d reject the past, and that I’d reject the present. Acts of apostasy and of humbuggery are equally tempting here. To say I gave in to neither might suggest I reached some cosy and accepting middle-ground, where everything looked persuasive. I did not—and it did not. Discussions with Fergus—and I must thank him and acknowledge his guidance—were punctuated with statements such as, ‘Why on earth did you publish that?’ Being a literary publisher—in my book, the best—he was rather used to, and even fond of, such attacks. ‘Ah, yes,’ he’d say, rubbing his face.

There are more than five thousand pages of Sport in the world, over four hundred writers represented. What I haven’t asked its publisher is how he feels, looking back over this bulk. If I were him, adding up the fine writers who have been allowed to use the magazine to grow under his editorship, I would feel deep satisfaction; I might even feel vindicated—though that seems a small emotion for the largeness of the achievement. This sampling from the five thousand can only hint at what’s been done over seventeen years. And of course there is the next issue to think about. Fergus has been saying for years that this one will be the last. We’ve all stopped believing him—because of course it’s in our interest to do so.

Despite the seminal drive in the Ford Escort, where something was decided, and the first few issues, I know I’ve had little to do with all this extraordinary writing. The task of choosing the best has nevertheless filled me with a strange pride. I feel a bit like the billionaire owner of a great soccer club—somehow in a position to take whomever I like and put them on my side, have them perform their wonders, and make me look good. What can I say? Here’s the team then. Look at them run onto the field. Play, you devils, play!