Editorial: Centennial Dan Davin

Last updated 05:00 03/09/2013

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OPINION: It was surely fitting that the centennial birthday celebrations of Invercargill's great expatriate writer Dan Davin coincided with Father's Day.

The Irish Catholic lad raised in this mostly Protestant town in the 1920s was simultaneously empowered and provoked by a Marist Brothers' education, then left as quickly as he could and found adventure and fame.

Having fled so emphatically, what did he write about? His childhood here, mostly. And his dad looms large, not only in his short stories but also that poem about having vivid past and a pale present.

It includes the lines: "My father was a hero once/Now he is a man/ The world shrinks from infinity/To my fingers' span/ Where has the mystery gone/Where is the spell? / I live sadly now/ Once I lived well."

Much of the childhood Davin described in his writing was one of robust boyish adventure coming up against loss of innocence.

Plenty of fine writers have tackled that, but when the past is so evocatively set in Invercargill it's all the more compelling for those of us who live here now.

It's entirely understandable that people tend to remember some of the nastier things Davin wrote about Invercargill in his often unkind, but not necessarily unloving, way.

We do keep repeating one particularly breathless description - because, come on, it's just so stroppy.

Here it comes again: "Jealous, strong, narrow, small, censorious, ignorant, intolerant, prosperous, conceited, generous and hospitable, mean and complacent. The world's worst small town . . . It is a town which strangles the heart and yet gives it intimations of a world beyond, escape and freedom."

He was an insightful kid, and adult. Not scrupulously fair, by any means, but the fact surely remains that Invercargill will be a happier place when it fully outgrows some of the truths Davin latched on to.

No less important, surely, is that we recognise and value the good things about which he wrote; and there were plenty of them. His was, in many ways, a childhood lived well.

There's a case to be put that Davin was an ingrate, particularly since one of the teachers about whom he wrote so harshly, Brother Egbert, did a great deal to ensure his talents were nurtured by arranging scholarship support for further education in Auckland.

That said, when he put down his pen Davin's own generosities were considerable, not only from his career as a publisher in England, but also his famously convivial Oxford pub-based hospitality and support of travelling New Zealand writers.

The Dan Davin Foundation nurtures southern writers in ways that the man himself would surely approve.

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It is itself an organisation richly deserving of community support, not only through its comparatively modest financial needs but also through involvement in the annual writing competitions it holds.

These represent an opportunity for children, teens and adults not simply to win an award, but to add to the ever-growing store of captivating southern writing.

Let's hope we have the wisdom to appreciate this writing as it happens.

Not merely in hindsight.

- The Southland Times

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