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SRB: Long Yarns, Short Stories

The Gorse Blooms Pale: Dan Davin’s Southland Stories
Edited By Janet Wilson
Reviewed By BRIAN POTIKI for the Scoop Review of Books
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Dan Davin was eleven when James Joyce’s Dubliners was published. In the last of these short stories “The Dead” we are told of its restless protagonist Gabriel Conroy:
The books he received for review were almost more welcome than the paltry cheque.
He loved to feel the covers and turn over the pages of newly-printed books.
Later, at his office in Oxford, busy in his career as editor, I imagine Davin taking similar, sensual pleasure from the books he helped publish and the books he reviewed. During his holidays he would disappear to write the stories in this book, recapturing his Irish-Catholic boyhood in Invercargill and the returning adult uneasy about family and places he has outgrown. Through Mick Connolly Davin recreates Invercargill of the 1920’s and his life that centered around home, garden, gorse hedges and paddocks.

In 1948 when he made the first of several return visits Davin was a married man and war veteran. In “First Flight” the narrator, Martin, has become a wary observor:
The realest part [of life] is the time when you were young...I’d learnt enough to prefer long yarns about the early days to the average conversation about books which had once been my idea of how an intelligent chap should pass the time...I had been warned by books that you can never go back.
In“Bluff Retrospect”, a family arriving late at a community picnic and, attempting to spread their blanket at the edge of the park, they’re confronted by a kuia, a revenant with moko kauae on her chin, who shoos them angrily away:
Martin had felt guilty and terribly embarrassed. He hated his mother and his aunt for not getting away quickly...Now, coming back to it, he still found himself blushing.
Davin’s empathy with the old lady is similar to that of other Pakeha writers such as James Baxter who, ignoring the racism of the day, befriended Maori and gained valuable insight into the culture of the tangata whenua. (In an earlier book Wilson edited, “Intimate Stranger”, there’s an account by the late Hugh Kawharu of visits made to the Davin’s home in Oxford and his young daughter Merata touchingly addressing Dan as “uncle Davin”). Like Katherine Mansfield in her “Urewera Notebook” Davin has a soft spot for Maori who he likens to his Irish warrior forbears.
The book’s title is taken from one of his best poems:

“God blazed in every gorse bush when I was a child,
Forbidden fruits were orchards and flowers grew wild.
God is a shadow now,
The Gorse blooms pale.”


The writer of these stories, in exile from the underdog Irish Catholic minority of his childhood and fraught years at the University of Otago, rekindles his past with a mixture of affection and regret.

***************************************

Brian Potiki is a Rotorua poet and playwright. He met Dan Davin in Oxford in 1976 and has since written the play Motupohue, in which Davin is the central character.

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