ARTicle Magazine

This reading life: Bill Manhire

26 March 2017

By his books we will know the poet and founding father of New Zealand creative-writing teaching.

Bill Manhire

Image: Grant Maiden

Some Things to Place in a Coffin by Bill Manhire (Victoria University Press); Tell Me My Name, featuring riddles by Bill Manhire, music by Norman Meehan, singing by Hannah Griffin and photographs by Peter Peryer (Victoria University Press book with CD).

The first book to capture my imagination was ... Before I could read: Grimm’s fairy tales, as told to me by my mother; also Winnie-the-Pooh and her own invented stories of Betsy Balloon and Johnny Johnson; the LP record of Orson Welles reading Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince. But once I could read “chapter books”, it would be Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree.

Oor Wullie

The books and/or other writing (eg comics, magazines) that saw me through childhood were ... Almost anything at all that was beyond my real life, including all of Enid Blyton, the Just William books, Billy Bunter, Biggles. I don’t recall any New Zealand books, not even the School Journal, which we’re all supposed to have met at school. Plus of course the usual comics – Superman, Batman, the Phantom, Mandrake the Magician. Oor Wullie (pictured above). Plasticman. Also books about how to do magic tricks.

Robin Hood

Errol Flynn in the 1938 movie The Adventures of Robin Hood.

The character in a book I most wanted to be as a child was ... Robin Hood.


The book I studied at school that has stayed with me most is ... Seems odd, but it was probably CA Cotton’s Geomorphology of New Zealand. There was something amazing about the drawings (sometimes they made the world look like a great lumpy mattress); plus the magic of words like moraine, erratics, crevasse, tributary valleys, aggraded plains. Perhaps the book’s power for me (not that I noticed this at the time) was that it was local, unlike most of the stuff we studied in English and History.

Berlin Noir

The author I am most likely to binge-read is ... Recently, Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels.

The Grand Babylon Hotel

The book I am most likely to press on a friend is ... Arnold Bennett’s The Grand Babylon Hotel. It’s just a wonderful entertainment, first written as a newspaper serial. I’m not sure it’s currently in print, but the text is available around the internet.

The book I most wish someone would write is ... A novel set in the late 1950s in New Zealand’s South Island. The young Elizabeth Windsor is in hiding there (possibly in the general vicinity of Mossburn and the Southern Lakes), while her sister Margaret has seized the throne in a bloody insurrection in which kilted Scottish warriors have done all the damage. Her military commander, known as the Galloglach, is now headquartered in Larnach’s Castle on the Otago Peninsula, leading the hunt for Elizabeth aka Lisbet Highness. I wrote the first few chapters of this about 20 years ago and would be pleased if someone would get to work and finish it for me.

Anna Karenina

The book I keep meaning to get around to reading but somehow never do is ... (gulp) Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

Bookmark, scrap of paper or turning down the corner of the page? Scrap of paper.

The first 50 pages or bust? Or always to the bitter end? Used to be to the bitter end, but now the first 20 pages decide it for me.

Camille Flammarion

The book I am always on the lookout for in secondhand shops is ... Translations of work by astronomer and all-round weirdo Camille Flammarion.

My favourite cinematic adaptation of a book is ... Walt Disney’s Peter Pan.

Philip Marlowe

Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe, with Lauren Bacall, in the 1946 movie of The Big Sleep.

The character in a book I'd most like to meet is ... Philip Marlowe.

Kubla Khan

A line of writing I can recite from memory is ... Lots of bits of rhyming poetry, including most of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. But this, by John Betjeman, has just popped into my head:

Oh! the fighting down of passion!

Oh! the century-seeming pain –

Parting in this off-hand fashion

in Dungarvan in the rain.


My favourite 19th-century book is ... George Eliot’s Middlemarch.


My favourite 20th-century book is ... Maurice Gee’s Meg.

Human Voices

My favourite contemporary novelists are ... Today’s answer: Penelope Fitzgerald and Muriel Spark. Check back for different answers on other days of the week.

Notes on My Dunce Cap

The books currently by the side of my bed are ... The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova; Chloe Stopa-Hunt’s White Hills; Jesse Ball’s Notes on My Dunce Cap; Mary Ruefle’s My Private Property; Scarlett Thomas’s The End of Mr Y; Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies; and Stephen Burt’s The Poem is You.

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