Sir Vincent O’Sullivan’s speech – Twentieth Anniversary Celebrations in 2022

Tēnā koe, bonjour, hello everyone,

How lovely to get together to celebrate a house, the atmosphere of that house’s one hundred and fifty-odd years, and especially to celebrate its last twenty years as the Randell Writers Cottage. And might one say, the long benefit of Susan Price’s sharp hearing, when visiting the dilapidated house in 1975, she overheard a developer say that a bulldozer could move this wreck in a morning and no one would object.

Fortunately for us, her parents Hugh Price and Beverley Price decided to step in and save the home Beverley’s bricklayer great-grandfather had built in 1873, and where he raised his ten children. Over the years, they restored the cottage to near-perfect condition, meticulously in keeping as close as possible to its original detail. And it was there the story of the cottage intersected another.

A small group of Wellingtonians had been fired by the suggestion that after Lauris Edmond’s death, her house in Grass Street should become a writer’s residency, which Lauris herself had talked of with Fiona Kidman. But the problems outran our ability to solve them, the finances were one leap too far, so we sadly waved the idea away. The Prices however had heard of the failed hopes, although our small group had no notion of that. What I remember next was a master class in understatement – Hugh and Beverley saying, they would like to give a house, if we were interested? Offering it as quietly, as casually, as if they were offering a plate of scones.

In what now seems scarcely time to draw breath, the poet Bill Sewell was the first chair of the Randell Cottage Writers Trust. After his early death, there was what you might call the minor apostolic succession of the poet Gillian Campbell, David Underwood, that loveliest and most considerate of men, Sarah Dennis, for whom I once said that New Zealand should have, as the Japanese do, a human Honourable National Treasure category, and now Christine Hurley, to keep all in shape.

What so set the Randell Cottage apart from the very beginning, as unique and irreplaceable, has been its connection with the French Embassy, and each year, a writer from France living here for six months. As a recent resident put it, “How lucky I was to be in this little house that was so helpful to me: a creative and life-giving place, a crossroads and a meeting place”.

The back story to the French connection is again one of persistence and goodwill, and the invaluable support of several French ambassadors. And how often the Trust and Randell supporters have received the Gallic hospitality of Hobson Street. I love to think that surely an unwitting patron before the event, so to speak, was the great French writer Blaise Cendrars, with his New Zealand memory of clapping his wooden arm against the wooden leg of a Kiwi soldier, both survivors of the same war. And among our Trustees, there is none who has done so much for both New Zealand and French writers as Gordon Stewart, who has been on board since the beginning, a man who at various times is even reported to be in both countries at once, seen yesterday in his favoured Monte Carlo, and spotted today, a denizen of Tinakori Road.

So many others, both French and New Zealand, have helped make the cottage a truly international literary exchange. And I like to imagine that there is a kind of Mansfieldian spirit hovering not too far off. In fact, when the weather plays its part, it is easy enough, sitting in the garden of the cottage, almost to see as she did, as she looked up from the street below: ‘Behind there are hills. The houses are built of light-painted wood. They have iron rooves painted red. There are big dark plumy trees massed together, giving depth to those light shades’. There is just a touch of the feeling, when you are alone in the house that you are catching up with the past rather than the past with you. The novelist Pierre Furlan once said to me, after meeting in town, that he was ‘going home to the Victorians’.

Unveiling this handsome plaque, then, has so many lives, so many written pages, behind it – all that harnessed commitment, all its imaginative works. And think, for a moment, of what it means for a writer to spend time here. Take it as read, so to speak, that at least until the book is finished, they are more desperate for money than they are for fame. Every writer knows exactly what Wallace Stevens, the American businessman and poet meant when he said, “Remember, money too is a kind of poetry”.  Even more to the point, money is time, and time is what any artist craves.

New Zealand is not the easiest place to be a writer. It is a place for strange rejoicing when a novelist receives from Creative New Zealand a grant that may be the equivalent to six months on the minimum wage. Residencies are the equivalent to manna falling in the desert. Even better. You get provided with a kitchen to heat it up. I could name a dozen writers from the list of those who have lived here in the cottage, who have said they would never have got their work carried through to publication, had it not been for the time they spent here. I believe something the same would likely be said by the writers I don’t know, and who may think for the rest of their lives, “Ah, the Randell Cottage, that exquisite retreat, where such and such a book was written.” In fact, forty writers in chorus, over the past twenty years since the Prices gave two countries a gift that two Governments still so generously assist, as do the many who have helped the Trustees to ensure that gift keeps giving.

So to the plaque, firmly enough set, Beverley and Susan, that even a bricklayer from a century and a half ago would have to admit looks likely to last.

Vincent O’Sullivan
30 October 2022