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Author Owen Marshall
Awarded Honorary LittD
by University of Canterbury
Article from the University of Canterbury's Chronicle - 07/06/02

Author committed to making world real

Denis Walker
Dr Denis Walker
Photo by Duncan Shaw-Brown, External Relations
On the afternoon of Friday, April 19, Dr Denis Walker (English) introduced Timaru writer Owen Marshall for his honorary LittD.

"Today the University honours a writer who has been described by one of his peers as 'not only our best living short story writer, but the best short story writer we have ever had' - this in the country that has given us Katherine Mansfield. Like Mansfield, and like all the writers whose writing stays in the mind long after we have read it, Owen Marshall Jones has created over the last 25 years a world that is distinctive, a world which, once we have become familiar with it, subtly changes the things we see and the way we see them. Through nine collections of short fiction and two novels, he has fashioned a dark, forbidding universe that withholds its purpose from his protagonists while never ceasing to tease them, and us, with hints of meaning and purpose, even if that purpose be sinister and malign, like the strange Aids-like disease that gives its name to his most recent and award-winning novel Harlequin Rex.

"Such a vision of reality is explained in part, perhaps, by Owen Jones's provenance in small-town New Zealand. For Owen is a secret North Islander - originally, he comes from Te Kuiti along with those other famous sons of that town, Jim Bolger and Colin Meads. Towns like Te Kuiti and Blenheim, to which Owen Jones's clergyman father removed his family when the writer was about six years old, and Timaru, where the family moved when Owen was 12, have been a seed-bed of many of our most distinctive writers - we think of Hawera and Ronald Hugh Morrieson, of Wanganui and Ian Cross, and of a Hicks Bay made unforgettable by David Ballantyne. But above all these, surely, must be the North Otago town of Oamaru, which has given us the extraordinary talents of Janet Frame and Fiona Farrell, Nick Guyan and Lindsay Murray, and where too Owen Marshall Jones began his career as a published writer. So many young writers have found their beginnings in this quiet southern town. All roads may lead to Rome, but it appears that Oamaru is where they start.

"Owen Jones began his association with the University of Canterbury in 1960, when he began his studies in the History Department. He graduated with a master's degree in history in 1964. In those days, we were still working on what we used to call the 'town site', where the Arts Centre is now, but hemmed in then by temporary wooden buildings whose subsequent removal has given the site a sense of openness that Owen would probably find jarring to his recollection. Although he has never been a literally autobiographical writer, some of his stories evoke things that many of us remember from that period - large, crammed, stuffy lectures, the rush to the bike stands afterwards in the rain and the wet-shinned bike-ride home to the flat or boarding-house for a meal with too much cabbage in it and a night of grinding study in front of a one-bar heater.

"The title story of his 1984 collection, The Day Hemingway Died, takes us back to 1961 and suggests one origin of his literary interests, what used to be called 'English II' - in that year 'Poetry and Prose from the Middle of the Sixteenth Century to the End of the Commonwealth.' 'The Faerie Queen was what we were doing in lectures', the narrator tells us as the story begins. 'The Faerie Queen is suitable for university study because people wouldn't read it otherwise. The lecture in the afternoon was on arachnid imagery in book two. The lecturer had the habit of lifting his head from his notes and glancing despairingly around the tiered seating as if he feared we were drawing closer to suffocate him.' The point of the story, or one of its points, is that living and literature aren't necessarily the same thing; the narrator, it seems, is one of our handful of graduates whom a study of English has encouraged to do something else, anything else; in this case, reading Hemingway rather than reading what's on the syllabus.

"For what comes through here, and in so many of the stories Owen tells, is a literature that is being made as we read it, a fitting of words on to things that makes the drab student world suddenly come to life as if a strong unforgiving light were thrown upon it. Suddenly, what matters is what is in front of us as we read and then what is around us when we have put the book down. For it is Owen Jones's achievement as Owen Marshall to have done what Janet Frame said 50 years ago the artist in the post-colonial world must do - name, and name, and name, till we know the place we are in. Which of us, having read 'The Rule of Jenny Pen', a story in his 1992 volume, can pass an old folks' home now without thinking of Crealy, the bullying geriatric? Which of us who have read his story 'Tomorrow We Save the Orphans' can see a dog now without thinking of Dubois, the character who wanders around at night in protective clothing systematically strangling Dobermann pinschers? Which of us familiar with this fictional world can see the road to Dunedin as they did before they read him? None of Owen Marshall's local readers can escape his imaginative possession of his region; none of them from overseas will need a travel brochure of the South Island.

"Owen Marshall's achievement has been widely praised and recognised. In 1981, he returned to Canterbury as the University's writer-in-residence. In 1992, he was honoured by the University of Otago as the Robert Burns Fellow and, in 1996, he was awarded the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship.

"And so, it is because of Owen Marshall's lifetime commitment to reimagining the world around us, to explaining it, to making it real, and to showing us how literature properly functions in a culturally advanced society, that we honour him today.

"Madam, I have the honour to present Owen Marshall Jones to receive the degree of Doctor of Letters (honoris causa)."

Marshall stands up for universities' scholastic enthusiasm

Owen Marshall
Owen Marshall
Photo by Duncan Shaw-Brown, External Relations
Owen Marshall, LittD (honoris causa), gave the graduation speech at the afternoon ceremony on Friday, April 19.

"Chancellor of the University, Vice-Chancellor, staff, fellow graduates, ladies and gentlemen. It's my privilege to make a brief address, and I'm delighted to do so. I promise, however, that I will not run over time, because I know there are a great many bottles of sparkling wine being readied in a great many Christchurch restaurants tonight. May it be a happy celebration for us all.

"First, my thanks to Dr Denis Walker of the English Department, who was orator for me this afternoon.

"When, a few months ago, I received a letter offering me an honorary degree, I pondered deeply for at least two seconds before deciding to accept. I was flattered of course, but, in my experience, life applies its own corrective to vanity, and in the same post that day was a letter from my sister enclosing my secondary school reports, which she had found amongst my late father's papers. My sixth form English teacher had this to say: 'His exam was a strange mixture of occasional intelligence and very bad spelling.' I'm further humbled to realise that I received my MA in 1964, and so it has taken me 38 years to complete my doctorate - a slow learner by any reckoning.

"But I want to spend the few minutes today not talking about myself, but attempting to say something on behalf of the hundreds of graduates receiving well-merited recognition in this ceremony. And what I wish to stress is gratitude - not a response that is much in fashion these days. We hear a great deal about accountability, and rights, and consumers, and delivery, and performance, in a mechanistic way, but not much about gratitude and not much about dedication.

"As graduates, we owe a great deal to our families and friends, and the presence of so many here today is an indication of that. Life is barren indeed if we do not have people who share and support the important concerns of our lives. The debt due to those closest to us is very great, but perhaps better expressed individually and privately, and so on this public occasion I wish to stress our gratitude to the University, the University of Canterbury.

"These are difficult times for all tertiary institutions and fundamental issues concerning the nature of universities are in the balance. Finance is one constant concern. It has been said that a university's characteristic state may best be summed up by the old lady who said: 'I have enough money to last me the rest of my life, unless I buy something.'

"Everyone seems to be an expert on education and there is a good deal of vehement, but ignorant, opinion about it, for always there are people who are eager to find fault in the performance of others, yet unwilling, or incapable, of taking responsibility themselves.

"Of course we need accountability, efficiency, relevance to modern youth and to a modern society. We also need to preserve and commend those values which are in the heart of the best universities - scrupulous scholarship, academic enthusiasm, intellectual curiosity, a fellowship of the heart and mind, and a desire to pass on knowledge. Benjamin Disraeli said a university should be a place of light, of liberty and of learning. And these values are made tangible through people, for people are the heart of a successful institution - not buildings, not high-flown mission statements or even traditions. People who are fascinated by their subject, whether it be the Japanese language, the intricacies of chemical engineering or the writings of Janet Frame. When I went to this University in the 1960s, there were many such people on the staff and, although my contacts are less close now, I know that is still the case.

"I recall some of my university teachers who had such qualities and other graduates, whether recent or not, will readily bring their own examples to mind. I remember the awesomely intellectual Professor Pocock, dressed in a tuxedo, giving an evening lecture on the philosophy of Hobbes before going on to a formal dinner. I remember the long expressive face of Professor Garrett, as enthusiasm for Romantic poetry took him well past the lecture hour. In history, I recall the sonorous and worldly generalisations of Mr Saunders and the kindness and professionalism of Mr Gardner. That generation of staff has moved on, but thankfully the present one has its own inspirational and dedicated teachers, administrators and researchers.

"Universities are always in a state of evolution and that's natural and healthy; all tradition begins as a novelty. I came to university having read too many memoirs from writers who had been at Oxford and Cambridge, and half-expected an undergraduate life of toasted muffins and intellectual flights in the smoky rooms of eccentric tutors. I found a more commonplace, New Zealand reality, but with the things that mattered still there. I found a healthy challenge to my rather conformist views, and friendship and fun as well.

"If the University as a whole ever loses that central love of knowledge for its own sake, that scholastic enthusiasm and tolerance, then the spark will be gone, and the University is likely to be a place of formal, empty pedantry, meal ticket mentality, or a debased, bums-on-seats democracy.

"So I return to the theme of gratitude. Our gratitude to the staff of this University who have persevered through the squalls of restructuring and the doldrums of educational policy; who maintain a vision of senior study which upholds opportunity based on talent, the value of knowledge and reason in life generally and openness to intellectual possibility.

"We thank the University of Canterbury for persistence in these ideals, we charge it to continue the struggle to preserve them and we are proud to be its graduates. Thank you."

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