Writer sees world through mind's eye

Ted Middleton at home. Photo by Gregor Richardson.
Ted Middleton at home. Photo by Gregor Richardson.
An extraordinary collection of short stories will be launched in Dunedin today. Beyond The Breakwater - Stories 1948-1998 represents a lifetime's work by O. E. Middleton. Nigel Benson meets a writer who sees more than most.

"When you write, you have to be your own toughest critic," Ted Middleton muses.

I'm talking to the man who made me want to be a writer.

The first story that ever got under my skin as a young boy was published by Middleton in 1967.

Killers is about a travelling family that deliberately runs over a hawk while it's feeding on road kill; the senseless slaughter of a creature faithfully performing its natural function.

It made such an impression on me that I have avoided killing anything since.

Except fish, of course, but that's different.

Such is the power and endurance of Middleton's words and imagination.

A retrospective collection of his short stories, Beyond The Breakwater - Stories 1948-1998, is being released today.

The book spans half a century and weaves together 26 of his best short stories, selected from the 63 short stories he wrote between 1948 and 1998.

"This book is the 10th collection of my stories. It's a retrospective selection of my short fiction," Middleton says in the lounge of his Pine Hill home.

The book cover is illustrated with long-time friend Ralph Hotere's The Harbour Bar - Westport.

Hotere also contributes a portrait of his old mate as the frontispiece.

"I'm pleased to have it beautifully produced with the fifth cover Ralph Hotere has done for me," Middleton says.

Behind him, a huge Hotere work reaches from the floor to the ceiling.

It seems almost incidental that Middleton is blind.

"I've been writing in Braille for 25 years now. nThis is my workhorse," he says, patting what looks like an Enigma encryption machine.

A five-centimetre-high stack of Braille pages sits beside the machine.

"All my writing is based on how my text will sound read aloud. Literature began as an oral thing and I reasoned that if you wrote something that sounded well aloud it would be more successful," he says.

"I have always been able to hear the sound of what I write in my head and that's sharpened when I read it off Braille on to tape. That side of language is very important to me.

"So my writing may appear superficially simple but, if it's read aloud, certain things will come out, and you don't necessarily get all I put into it if you just look at it on the page."

The collection will be launched at the University of Otago staff club at 11am today by Emeritus Professor Lawrence Jones, who also wrote the foreword for the book.

Prof Jones believes Middleton's blindness has added a unique dimension to his writing.

"He gets things like the feel of scales on a fish, or putting one's hand in the fish's gills after you've caught it. I can't think of another New Zealand writer who does that sort of thing the way he does. He sees the world his way and he uses language his way."

Blindness has been a hindrance, rather than a handicap for Middleton.

"It's like Beethoven losing his hearing, for a writer. The limitations of blindness are very severe. It is a very limiting thing in many ways," he says.

"When I'm writing I'm totally reliant on the vocabulary I carry with me all the time. It's not always adequate. If I want to look up something in the dictionary I either have to ask Cynthia [his partner] or ring a friend."

Middleton believes he would have been a more prolific writer had he been sighted.

"It would have been a lot easier and I would have produced a lot more," he says.

"But, the founder of Western literature, Homer, was himself blind."