Celebrating the Burns fellowship

The statue of Robbie Burns in The Octagon. Photo: ODT files
The statue of Robbie Burns in The Octagon. Photo: ODT files

One of the people behind the founding of the Robert Burns Fellowship, Charles Brasch, once wrote ‘‘... for it is only through imaginative thinking that society grows, materially and ntellectually ...’’ 

There has now been 60 years of imaginative thinking as a result, which is being celebrated with events starting this week. Here, former Burns fellows remember their time.

This year, 2018, is the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the Robert Burns Fellowship at the University of Otago. It is the oldest and most prestigious literary art award in New Zealand.

There has always been some mystery surrounding the people who helped set it up, but Dunedin's own Charles Brasch certainly had a hand in it.

The purpose of the fellowship was to commemorate the anniversary of the birth of the Scottish poet, Robert Burns (1759), and to acknowledge the Burns family's involvement in the early settlement of Otago by the Scottish diaspora.

Roger Hall
Roger Hall

The fellowship fosters both nascent and established New Zealand writing talent. There is no expectation of output. It is hosted by the University of Otago's Department of English and Linguistics, where an office and a stipend is provided.

The city of Dunedin, with its statue of Robert Burns in the Octagon, is part of the personality of the fellowship. The university, Dunedin's tradition of education and literature, the "Scottishness'', the weather, landscape, and people have all uniquely contributed to the experience of each fellow.

The exhibition, "Auld Acquaintances: Celebrating the Robert Burns Fellowship'', features every Robert Burns Fellow. Here in their own words, is how the fellowship impacted the lives of some of them.

ROGER HALL 1977 AND 1978

"I was, I think, only the second playwright to get the Burns. At the time (and for many years) the University of Otago was the only university to offer arts fellowships. A privilege. The time enabled me to complete Middle Age Spread (which I'd been struggling with at home part-time); write my first panto, Cinderella ('A waste of Burns fellows' time,' one academic muttered). I got the fellowship for a second year and wrote State of the Play.

"The Burns (and, later, generous support from the English department) enabled me to become a full-time writer, for which I've always been grateful. And Dunedin took the fellows to their hearts: dinner - and other - invitations poured in. In the end, we stayed 17 years.''

Rawiri Paratene
Rawiri Paratene


Among other things, Rawiri Paratene wrote a draft of his drama, Erua ; worked on the teleplay, Dead Certs; performed his poems in venues around Dunedin; and completed a series of lectures called "Constantly in Pursuit of Joy''. He enjoyed having an office where he would work at all hours of the day and night. He even named it, "Zong''. Paratene describes his time as Burns fellow:

"I confess that, at the time of writing, my application was probably the best thing I'd written at that stage. It was certainly imaginative, claiming I had completed a radio play tackling the dilemma of conservation, called Save Us a Place to Live: I hadn't. So when I got a response that I was on the short list and that they were interested in the radio script ... I quickly (overnight) drafted the play ... [it] wasn't bad. I completed the script in my tenure ... The fellowship was a fruitful and important part of my development as a dramatist.''




Owen Marshall
Owen Marshall

"Holding the Burns Fellowship in 1992 was a privilege and a pleasure. The assured income, amenities and support gave me the opportunity to complete my first published novel, A Many Coated Man, which was subsequently short-listed for the Montana Book Awards.

"Important as the financial assistance is, the validation of one's craft is more significant and lasting. As well as assisting my writing, my tenure brought with it the benefit of being within the fraternity of Otago writers and artists, many of whom are friends. Whenever I now visit Dunedin and the university, I recall my good fortune to have been a Burns fellow.''




Elspeth Sandys
Elspeth Sandys

For Elspeth Sandys, her Burns year meant a return to her hometown. She relished visiting old haunts, and Friday morning teas in the English department. Accommodation was Roger Hall's York Pl house and she became fit traipsing back and forth up the hill, and back to her office in the university.

In her own words:

"Enemy Territory, the novel I worked on while I was the fellow, was published in 1997. It marked a high point for me as a novelist. There would be a long gap before I published another novel.

"My husband, Maurice Shadbolt, came with me to Dunedin but sadly didn't find it as compatible as I did so left halfway through.

This was a personal blow, which I now see was a sign of where things were headed in the future. One of the long term consequences of that year has been my decision to write a memoir - What Lies Beneath - of growing up in Dunedin.''


Bernadette Hall
Bernadette Hall


"In 1996, my family drove me down from Christchurch to Dunedin to deliver me for the year's Burns fellowship ... in a 'bread van'; a converted campervan called 'Martha'. My mother, who had died on Christmas Eve, her 85th birthday, was there too, her ashes in a green cardboard box. Our first task on entering the city was to lay my mother's ashes to rest in the Anderson's Bay cemetery, in the grave of my father, Jim.

"I was solitary a lot of the time in 1996, in mourning, and yet also breaking into new freedoms. Still Talking, published in 1997, was the result. Anthony Ritchie turned one of the 'Tomahawk Sonnets' into a song.''






Emma Neale
Emma Neale

Poet, novelist, and current editor of the literary and art magazine, Landfall, Emma Neale remembers her tenure:

"My year as a Burns fellow helped me to intensify my concentration, pull together a book of poems, realise that one novel idea I had was in fact better played out as a short story; and it enabled me to write three-quarters of the first draft of a novel.

"Attending poetry seminars and guest lectures changed the course of several of the pieces I was working on - so having close contact with academics, critics, and graduate students who were writing new poetry themselves all helped to add intellectual and creative nutrients to the work I was doing. It was immeasurably enriching and helpful.''

The novel, Billy Bird was one of the publications to come out of the year, as well as the poetry collection, Tender Machines and the short story, The Fylgja.



David Howard
David Howard

"I had permission to move through the formerly unresolved moments of my fantasy life, uniting them in two long dramatic poems: The Peony Pavilion and The Speak House.

"This was possible because I could close an office door and listen, without distraction, to the silence of the page; only then could I break that silence with lines that surprised even me.''

Three publications came out of the poet's year: The Speak House (2014), A Place To Go On From: The Collected Poems of Iain Lonie [ed.] (2015), and The Ones Who Keep Quiet.

The celebrations

• "Auld Acquaintances: Celebrating the Robert Burns Fellowship’’, de Beer Gallery, Special Collections, University of Otago, from Friday.

• Other Robert Burns Fellowship 60th anniversary celebrations include a reading on Friday in the University of Otago Link by former fellows.

• The full programme is at www.otago.ac.nz.Young Writers Festival

• The New Zealand Young Writers Festival has events running from September 7-9.


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