Charles Brasch: a man alone

Charles Brasch. Graphic by Hayden Smith from image REF 1/4-019117;F, Alexander Turnbull Library, John Reece Cole Collection.
Charles Brasch. Graphic by Hayden Smith from image REF 1/4-019117;F, Alexander Turnbull Library, John Reece Cole Collection.
Champion of culture Charles Brasch is the focus of this year's Dunedin Heritage Festival. Nigel Benson discovers a man who cared.

Few have contributed more to New Zealand arts and literature than Charles Brasch.

But, the Dunedin poet and philanthropist led a tortured life, according to his personal diaries, which are being transcribed for publication after a 30-year embargo.

Brasch insisted on the embargo, for 30 years after his death in 1973, for fear of embarrassing friends.

It was a mark of the man - cultured, loyal, learned.

Brasch still commands a fierce loyalty from friends. When researching this story, I asked Dunedin writer O. E. Middleton for his recollections of Brasch.

Middleton, who first met Brasch in 1951, said he was not prepared to talk to me about Brasch until I had read Enduring Legacy - Charles Brasch, Patron, Poet and Collector, edited by University of Otago special collections librarian Donald Kerr.

"Read the book and then you can quote me from that," Middleton said.

This is the quote I chose:"Much has been said and written about Charles Brasch, often by people with a particular agenda, sometimes by those who barely knew him," Middleton wrote.

"My own preference is for the testimony of someone who knew him well, his friend and fellow-poet Denis Glover: 'Charles Brasch was pure Damascus steel'."

Christchurch writer Margaret Scott has spent the past two years transcribing Brasch's journals for publication.

She hopes to have the work published by Otago University Press, which published Brasch's Landfall magazine.

"The extraordinary thing about the diaries is they reveal how profoundly unhappy he was. It's been very painful reading. It's awful, really, to read about it," she says.

"His mother died when he was very young. He was left with a father he couldn't relate to. Charles was not the son his father wanted."

Mrs Scott met Brasch in 1949 through her husband, psychologist and mountaineer Dr Harry Scott, who was a close friend of Brasch and who died on Mt Cook in 1960.

"I was 19 when I met Charles. He was very influential in my life. He was amazingly valuable. But, he was unusual intellectually. He hadn't a hope of being a happy man. He was just too sensitive," Mrs Scott says.