Monday, September 23, 2019

Obituary: Alister Taylor

(The Dominion Post asked me to write this obituary. It was published on September 21.)

Born Blenheim September 21 1943
Died Russell September 9 2019

Writer and historian Tony Simpson used to joke that when Alister Taylor died, he would have him stuffed and mounted in his living room as a conversation piece.

He never got his wish. Taylor was cremated this week after dying at his home in the Bay of Islands, aged 75. But the radical publisher’s tumultuous life assured him of conversation-piece status regardless. When book people from a certain era get together, says Simpson, “we swap Alister Taylor anecdotes.”

Charming and generous but notoriously casual about paying his debts, Taylor was far-sighted and a risk-taker at a time when the publishing business was timid and conservative. He gave several prominent writers their first break and they remained grateful, even though some never saw any money.

His books ranged from the flippant (The Muldoon Annual Joke Book) to volumes of poetry by Sam Hunt and Alistair Campbell and lavishly illustrated works showcasing the paintings of C F Goldie and Dame Robin White and the photographs of Marti Friedlander and Robin Morrison.

Taylor was working for the venerable New Zealand publishing house of A H & A W Reed in 1971 when he tried to interest his employers in an English translation of The Little Red Book for School Pupils, better known simply as The Little Red Schoolbook, a subversive work by two Danish teachers whose frank advice for school children ranged across such taboo subjects as sex and drugs.

When the devoutly Christian publishers not surprisingly declined, as they also did when Taylor urged them to publish the then radical student leader Tim Shadbolt’s Bullshit and Jellybeans, Taylor published the books himself.

The two books captured the spirit of the emerging counter-culture and served as a test of the liberality of New Zealand’s censorship laws. They also installed Taylor as the enfant terrible of the publishing business and launched him on a career in which he managed to earn respect as a publisher of serious, quality books and a patron of emerging writers while simultaneously leaving a trail of bad debts and despairing creditors.

He was bankrupted twice over the course of a turbulent career in which his propensity for spending money was matched by his disregard for financial obligations. Wellington lawyer Hugh Rennie QC, who knew Taylor from university days and acted for some of his unpaid authors, says that “Alister existed in a parallel universe where financial compliance was irrelevant to his objectives”.

The son of a travelling salesman, Taylor grew up in Blenheim and Palmerston North. Writer and former ACT MP Deborah Coddington, who had three children with him during their 25 years together, says he had a happy upbringing, though not a privileged one, with three sisters and an older brother.

At Victoria University in the mid-1960s, he was part of a lively circle of student leaders who would go on to make their marks in the media, the arts, the law and politics. A stylish dresser, instantly recogniseable with his thick, shaggy dark hair and glasses, Taylor was a combative figure in student politics. Even then, he was caught up in controversy over irregularities in Students’ Association finances.

He was also, at that time, a rising young star in the National Party. Simpson remembers him attending a university seminar with his then girlfriend Helen Sutch, daughter of the high-profile economist and public servant Bill Sutch, and constantly heckling left-wing speakers. But Taylor parted company with National over New Zealand’s participation in the Vietnam War. Coddington says he was physically manhandled from the stage at a party conference when he tried to give a speech opposing the war.

A Stuff story about his death said he once chained himself to a lamppost during an anti-Vietnam protest, but Coddington says that wasn't quite right. He was handcuffed to the pole by the police while they rounded up his fellow offenders.

Exhibiting the vision, boundless self-confidence and entrepreneurial flair that would mark his publishing career, Taylor went on to organise the Peace, Power and Politics in Asia conference, a landmark event of 1968. The speakers included such international luminaries as the Irish writer and politician Conor Cruise O’Brien and the Indian diplomat and former defence minister, V K Krishna Menon.

By then Taylor was working for the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation as a producer of the radio current affairs programme Checkpoint. The NZBC, which was kept under tight government control, took a dim view of his political activities and fired him.

Broadcasting’s loss was publishing’s gain. The publication three years later of The Little Red Schoolbook and Shadbolt’s Bullshit and Jellybeans (the latter a combination of autobiography and political manifesto) was emblematic of a period when post-war establishment values were coming under siege from the baby boomer generation.

Simpson’s The Sugarbag Years, an acclaimed oral history of New Zealanders’ experiences in the Great Depression, was another success story. Simpson had known Taylor in their university days and turned to him when he couldn’t interest mainstream publishers in the project.

“He snapped up the idea straight away. That was the thing about Alister: he had a creative and an imaginative mind.” Published in 1974, The Sugarbag Years became a best-seller and effectively kick-started Simpson’s career.

Taylor also launched the career of historian Michael King, publishing King’s first book, Moko: Tattooing in the 20th Century, in 1972. Simpson recalls King phoning him and plaintively inquiring whether he had been paid any royalties for The Sugarbag Years, because King hadn’t received any for his book.

Even then, Taylor had a reputation as an unreliable payer. “Like a lot of creative and imaginative people, he was a flawed personality in a lot of ways. He regarded other people’s money as his money.”

Taylor published another of Simpson’s books, Te Riri Pakeha, about the alienation of Maori land, in 1990. The author ended up taking Taylor to court for unpaid royalties and won the case. When he still didn’t get his money, he had Taylor declared bankrupt.

In the course of those legal proceedings, Simpson obtained a list of Taylor’s creditors, which he describes as one of the world’s most astonishing documents. It included every wine merchant within a 160km radius. “He lived extremely well and he did it all on credit.

“He and I didn’t see one another for many years after that, but I’ve always been very grateful to him because in a very real way I think I owe him my writing career. And I’m not the only one – there was Michael King too.

“Alister was very much of that era, and at the centre of what was going on.”

An idealist on one level, but without a conscience when it came to financial affairs? “Oh yes, he was a total rogue. But a genial rogue who did some great things.”

In the 1970s, Taylor moved from Wellington, where he owned the historic Rita Angus Cottage in Thorndon, to Martinborough, where he planted a vineyard on an 80-hectare property originally owned by the Martin family who founded the town.

Coddington, who joined him there in 1978 with her young daughter Briar, says it was an example of his remarkable prescience – his ability to foresee trends and get in ahead of them. No one else was growing grapes in Martinborough at the time; that would come several years later. But he bought the property on instinct because the climate reminded him of Marlborough, then in the midst of a winemaking boom.

Taylor also saw potential in Waiura, the old Martin family homestead on the property, which was virtually derelict and used to store hay. “He had the foresight to see the value in preserving old buildings,” says Coddington. “Now everyone runs around doing it.”

The couple’s three children – Rupert, Valentine and Imogen – were born during the Martinborough years. It was a time when Waiura became synonymous with extravagant hospitality, which Taylor sometimes used to placate angry creditors.

“Alister was a wonderful cook and a fantastic host,” Coddington recalls. “Authors would come over from Wellington saying ‘This time I’m going to get my royalties’, and Alister would get out a bottle of Chateau Mouton Rothschild or whatever and whip up a quiche and a persimmon steamed pudding with whipped cream and they would leave wined and dined and still with no money.”

But the vineyard was an expensive failure, sucking up all the money Taylor had made from his publishing ventures. Rabbits and possums destroyed his vines and Taylor ended up in a messy dispute with Shadbolt, then a concrete contractor, over the $100,000 wine cellar Shadbolt had built for him.

In 1983, the property was knocked down in a mortgagee sale (it subsequently became Te Kairanga Vineyard, which is now thriving under American ownership) and Taylor and Coddington moved to the Bay of Islands.

In Russell, they ran a café. Taylor did the cooking and Coddington waited on tables. Coddington later acquired The Gables restaurant on the Russell waterfront but by 1990 the couple had moved to Auckland, where Coddington got a job writing for North & South.

Taylor remained active in the books business, publishing – among other things – the New Zealand Who’s Who Aotearoa, in competition with a long-established book published by Reeds. It still rankles with retired journalist Max Lambert, who edited the Reeds version, that Taylor’s book masqueraded as the “official” Who’s Who, trading on its rival’s reputation.

“In my book he was a shyster,” Lambert says of Taylor. “He did some pretty underhand things, which is a pity because he had some good ideas. He did a brilliant book on horses.”

Three books on horses, in fact, starting in 1980 with Notable New Zealand Thoroughbreds, by Waikanae writer and lifelong racing fan Mary Mountier.  Did she end up out of pocket? “Oh God yes, everyone did,” she says.

Yet Mountier has no regrets. The limited-edition book was printed to exacting standards in Japan and Taylor spared no expense, sending her to Japan to supervise production and later to Australia and Britain to research similar books there.  “That was part of the problem. He was very generous, but he kept on spending even when the cheques started to bounce.”

Mountier says Taylor had a knack for finding writers who had a passion for particular subjects and who were willing to put in inordinate amounts of time and effort. But she’s proud of the books and grateful for the experience of having met people at the top echelons of the international racing scene. And she’s especially proud that all three are in the Queen’s library.

Taylor and Coddington parted in 2003, the year after Coddington was elected to Parliament. Even then Taylor was embroiled in legal problems – this time in New South Wales, where the Commissioner for Fair Trading took action against him over the alleged late and non-delivery of books.

Despite the split, Coddington retained “a huge amount of affection” for him and says his children loved him too.

She told Stuff the day before the funeral: “The kids were asking me what he was like when I met him. He was the man. He was the man.”

An essential trait of his personality, she said, was that he was anti-authority – “an anarchist”. He never seemed troubled by the mayhem he left in his wake and threats of legal action would just “wash over him”.

Now married to lawyer Colin Carruthers QC and living in Martinborough again, Coddington was co-owner of some of Taylor’s companies and admits a measure of responsibility for his bad behaviour toward people to whom he owed money. “Of course I do – guilt and responsibility, but I can’t turn back the clock.”

What Taylor did to people was reprehensible, she says – “all those poor people who signed contracts that were never honoured.

“I know of people, authors, who went to their letterboxes having been told there was a cheque in the mail, and there was never a cheque in the mail. You can’t do that to people.”

In his last years, Taylor lived on his own in Russell. He was found dead at home after a suspected heart attack.


Hilary Taylor said...

Read in the Sat Press & well done Karl. Obits need not to obscure the less-admirable and you write a good'un...after all it's those human frailties that are the most interesting.

David said...

It was a good honest obit Karl. I met Alastair several times when I worked in the same office as Deborah Coddington. I was then staggered to read a Metro article by Carole du Chateau about their book publishing. Alastair seemed larger than life. I hope I am wrong but I had heard he was in poverty in sad circumstances in his later years.

Vaughan said...

I treasure my copies of "South Island of New Zealand from the Road" with its artistic and quirky photos by Robin Morrison--and "Robin White Painter" with its excellent plates of her great paintings.

I don't think I have ever gone back to a book of photos more than Robin Morrison's, nor to a book of paintings more than the one about Robin White. In the latter, there is an excellent interview of the artist by Alister, one that will be part of New Zealand artistic history forever.

By the legacy of those books alone, Alister contributed greatly to the culture of New Zealand.

I wish I hadn't lost my copy of "Bullshit and Jellybeans", a publication that spoke of the times so well.

May he be happy in the great library of heaven.