Auckland Branch Celebrates 50 Years

Auckland branch stalwart BERNARD BROWN was there in 1971 when the Auckland branch of the then 50 years old PEN International was established. Here he recalls some of the highlights of the branch over the half century since:


It’s 50 years since Keith Sinclair and Maurice Shadbolt decided to launch an Auckland branch of PEN NZ. They had an eye on the efforts of Ian Cross and John A. Lee to establish an authors’ fund to compensate the multiple lending by libraries of New Zealand books.

Lee had discovered that the Christchurch Public Library had lent its four copies of his Children of the Poor some thirty times in one month.

I was dragooned into the Auckland secretaryship from a law background and became chief dogsbody for decades. It was thought I might help with the legal ramifications of an authors’ fund. (But see footnote!)

The lending right became PEN NZ’s holy grail. Cross and Lee and Norm Kirk will forever be celebrated for it. Ironically, Sinclair was appalled that the initial chief beneficiaries were persons who didn’t need the extra money – one being his Auckland University nemesis who cashed in on a score of Baptist booklets.

A lot of the original 1971 committee had names beginning with S: Shadbolt, Sinclair, Stead, Sorensen, Smithyman, Margaret Southam. Maurice Gee was briefly treasurer. He moved to Nelson and handed me the job with 7 pounds 6 shillings in the ASB account.

David Ballantyne of the Auckland Star joined us, as did Dr Eric McCormick (a crusader for imprisoned authors), with his friend, local historian Una Platts. Dennis McEldowney of Auckland University Press tagged along.

Through the 1970s we were united in our trade union type efforts to keep established writers above the breadline. Literary celebrations were an afterthought. We pursued a fractious relationship with the PEN “Centre” – Wellington – chiefly over being “kept in the dark” over matters such as fellowships, residencies, awards and scholarships. Wellington replied that making toll calls to Auckland cost too much. It did.

Dick Scott, radical left-wing writer and publisher, chaired us after David Ballantyne’s sudden death. And our approach to Wellington became even more adversarial. It took a self-financed visit by Fiona Kidman to calm us down.

By then we put on very occasional literary events, notably featuring Thomas Keneally, visiting Australian Nobelist. For some years Aussie writers crossed the ditch to “civilise” us. Judith Wright (poet) helped as did Nicholas Hasluck (novelist); several did not but we did our bit for them.

Early ‘eighties and Alister Paterson, poet and retired naval officer, knocked us into shape administratively by qualifying everyone attending meetings as committee members. It worked pretty well though only a handful shared the fetching-and-carrying.

We, like Wellington, began to wonder if membership (especially financial membership) of PEN International, was wholly in our interest.

About then a group of writers in Bulls formed the Central Branch and in a few years Otago and Canterbury followed, then Northland, Top of the South and later Hamilton.

With this authorial rush of blood we all started to think of expanding membership beyond “published writers” with a minimum of three published works to others who were writing and keen to become “associate members” of PEN. The society’s coffers could do with fueling and that did occur.

I get ahead of myself – not a good idea at 88. Kevin Ireland returned to New Zealand, to Auckland, in the mid-’eighties, in a flurry (if that’s the word) of fine wine and good ideas. He became in turn Auckland chair and National President of a democratised organisation. Kevin was one of the first national presidents to tour the branches.

Not long after, in much lower key, I was relieved of the Auckland secretaryship by my pal Graeme Lay but remained Treasurer and Victualler (a welcome new office!) until 2019.

Auckland branch meetings became monthly drawcards with big attendances, circa 40 to 50, and always regaled by a guest speaker of note, and or, great interest. Meetings were lively (aided by the victuals) and at least one literary brawl occurred.

Among colourful attenders were Captain Edward Parsons, in his 90s, who had been Rudyard Kipling’s gardening boy, and Ronald Lockley, whose research on rabbits had informed Richard Adams’ Watership Down. His attendant relative remarked: “Ronald produced the bunnies and behaviours, Adams gave them fancy names.”

Quite angry arguments had centred on the Springbok tour, although some members considered it ultra vires our mission statement, and on the so-called Bloomsbury Flat affair which precipitated the resignation of C.K. Stead. Thankfully he accepted an olive branch 30 years later.

A number of strong women writers took over our governance in the late 1980s, early 90s, unforgettably Joan Rosier-Jones, who coolly preempted by voice tone a combustible moment between poets – and Tessa Duder who, after the valued Diane Brown’s and Wensley Willcox’s stints, brought in the TV and newspaper journalist Gordon McLauchlan as chair. Gordon was never keen on the associate-membership idea but “learned to live with it”.

The big 1990s issue was over independence from PEN International and Auckland, for its part, held a vigorous debate in which the Ireland/Shadbolt motion that PEN NZ should become the NZ Society of Authors in line with the national initiative was passed.

This was only after very elderly lady twins (who nobody knew) moved an amendment that we should stay as PEN but add Illustrators and Scriptwriters.

“And that would make us PENIS,” cried emeritus Professor Forrest Scott, an authority on Norse saga. To which the old ladies roared with laughter and disappeared.

In the late 1990s the University of Auckland, which had accommodated us, shut us out and we crossed the road to the AUT university. Holding meetings high above street level, a dozen floors up, took some getting used to but we adapted.

Occasionally members were trapped in lifts and, alas, one august poet was locked in a urinal over a long weekend. Meetings continued to attract large numbers but the average age ascended as the precious few Maori and Pacifica attendees were shaded numerically by Asian writers, even occasionally by those from the Middle East.

Maori and Pacifica guest speakers were welcomed and enjoyed our company, Witi Ihimaera more than once. Young members were few and far between. Two centenarians quite regularly attended.

In 2010 or thereabouts the dynamic Anita Arlov took over the catering, and also for the 2012 national NZSA annual general meeting in Auckland. She stamped her personality on the branch while, along with some more recruits, has conducted informal sub-branch activities with branch support.

On the suggestion of fourth generation Kiwi-Chinese author Sue Gee, Auckland journalist Adrian Blackburn inveigled Tom Lodge, veteran soldier and former Albania resident, into taking over from him the branch secretaryship.

Tom, who “wanted to write”, for the next decade handled our secretarial and victualling affairs, including necessary heavy lifting. In the interim he not only “wrote” but, under the name Thomas Ryan, penned a number of international bestseller thrillers.

Richard Webster, a former branch chair, who has sold about 13 million books, encouraged us from the wings and established a rich national writing prize. Longtime member and celebrated author Graeme Lay instituted and adjudicated an annual short story competition in his name.

Manna from the heavens, two younger women, Dr Weng Wai Chan and Libby Kirkby-McLeod, both working writers, enthusiastically took over our governance and continue to steer us through the vicissitudes of Covid 19.

We continue to eat and drink very well in our new premises in a congenial ground level coffee club slap bang in the middle of the city. Already we have attracted crowds of more than a hundred on two occasions.

Relations with “the Centre”, the national executive, remain excellent. Jenny Nagle and Claire Hill from Auckland-based head office, often attend our meetings. Our NZSA representative, the non-frivolous, to-the-point Susan Battye, is a first class conduit of ideas back and forth.

The branch’s financial situation has improved dramatically since Maurice Gee handed over to me, despite my proclivity for over-spending on the liquid refreshments, though the centenarians, who partook, made it past their Queen’s letters.

Aiding the coffers is the annual capitation grant, and as Auckland is by far the largest branch this is substantial. Our traditional Christmas auction, a fun end-of-year event, tops up what little else we make, for example the profit, after costs, of the short story competition.

The literary side of the writing endeavour, by self definition has to be cultivated, and is. Successful authors and their modi operandi make up about half of our speakers. The recently deceased Betty Gilderdale, (The Little Yellow Digger), and then in her mid 90s gave a sparkling address.

Among other guest speakers over the 50 years have been Ian McEwan, Robert Creeley (the Black Mountain poet who drew our largest ever gathering), Fay Weldon (whose Christchurch parents had sheltered our later President of Honour Christine Cole Catley when she was a young unwed mum), Ian Wedde, the prolific Nalini Singh, celebrated Hairy McLary author Lynley Dodd, C.K. Stead and Charlotte Grimshaw. The Alex Haley (Roots) visit was an eye-opener to many of us who had never tasted fame. Half the hall was taken up by international camera crews hungry for “incidents”.

A host of younger, and some not much younger, writers have contributed solo or on panels. Panels, assembled for all manner of purposes, including creative writing experiences, invariably bring in large participating audiences.

The branch’s historic championship over the past 20 years of the interests of established writers runs second to the practical business of how to get published and marketed. This is a product of our associate membership phase and it’s refreshing to note the number of middle-aged “starters” who have worked themselves into the trade and even won literary awards.

Eric McCormick, if he were still with us, as his spirit is, would be pleased with the society’s and our (via Julie Ryan) efforts on behalf of bullied, tortured and imprisoned authors. Local cases of censorship are few nowadays but they, as in the crudely treated Ted Dawes’ case, remind us not to relax.


(i) From the mid 1980s a handful of us (under the name “Portnoys”) dealt with complaints by members, usually against publishers, of lop-sided contracts, royalty and copyright malfeasance and, in some cases, naked exploitation. Special thanks to Kevin Ireland, Stephen Stratford, Graeme Lay and Gordon McLauchlan. David Lange P.M., a couple of judges and several Q.Cs gave of their time too. No fees were charged and neither PEN NZ nor the NZSA was asked to contribute.

(ii) Life membership was conferred on poet Riemke Ensing and poet, critic, novelist and short story writer Michael Morrissey – one of our regular attendees.


1. Too hard for me but I delegated the task of helping draft the regulations in Kirk’s “Cabinet Minute”, which established the Literary Fund, to a sharp-witted student David Vaver. He later became the Foundation Reuters Professor of Intellectual Property at Oxford.

2. The effervescent Margaret Lawlor Bartlett, daughter of PEN NZ’s founding force in the 1930s, Pat Lawlor, addressed us in her later years.